On working to write during a lazy summer.

YO. When it’s this hot (with temperatures soaring past 90 degrees for consecutive days), I don’t want to do anything. I’ve been painting my living room, but the project has been extended because of the excessive heat. I break a sweat just lifting the remote to change the channel, which means I am in complete and total summer mode.

I should mention I do not have central air, but my father did help me install two window units. One is downstairs in my living room where I am painting and where the only television is (thank God!), and the other is in my bedroom so I can sleep. But I still have trouble sleeping, no matter how cold it is. UGH.

Anyhow, amidst all this complaining, I do want to pat my own back for working to revise my novel for (what I hope) is the final time. The plot is really coming to me and I’m excited to write, which is a good sign. I’m particularly proud of chapter six, which I am going to share with you below. Please, please, PLEASE let me know what you think if you read the entire chapter. I’ll be asking for beta readers as soon as I’m done revising. I plan to send it out to publishers, but if nothing comes of it, then I plan on releasing on Amazon. My friend recently did this, and through my Scribbler subscription, I learned of another woman who did the same and found major success. Her work was even submitted for awards and I think she’s able to write full-time, and really, that’s the ultimate goal.

So kick back, relax, and pour yourself something strong. Enjoy chapter six from Moody Blue by yours truly, Mandi Bean xoxo

The next morning when Melanie awoke and walked out to her car to drive to the coffee shop for her scheduled shift, she stopped dead in her tracks. The four tires of her beloved Jeep were slashed, every single one.

Melanie couldn’t believe it.

She walked around her car twice, dropping to her knees to closely inspect each tire. She ran her finger along one of the narrow slashes, not really knowing what she was doing or why, but knowing she had to do something. She sat on the rough concrete of the driveway and dug through her purse for her cell phone. She called Chris to let him know she wouldn’t be in. He offered to come over and sit with her until the cops came, but Melanie told him it was fine and that she would be fine. She promised to call him later and give him an update, and then she called the cops.

Some twenty minutes later, a patrol car slowly rolled to a stop perpendicular to the driveway. Melanie climbed to her feet and was greeted by a familiar face. “Well, hey there, Melanie,” Bobby said, grinning.

Melanie offered a nervous smile and said, “Hey, Bobby.” She told herself not to think about the bruises on Adam’s arms. 

“Office Bobby Gillis at your service,” he added, extending his hand.

Melanie took it, but was having trouble meeting Bobby’s gaze. “Thanks for coming out.”

Bobby shrugged it off. “It’s my job. You don’t have to thank me.” He leaned over to gaze past Melanie at her car. “So what seems to be the problem?”

“Someone slashed my tires,” Melanie groaned, leading the way over to her car. She felt vindicated when Bobby squatted down to inspect the tires the same way she had. “They were fine when I got home yesterday. I got up to go to work and found my car like this.”

“What time did you get home yesterday?”

“Around ten o’clock. Adam drove me back to the coffee shop after 9:30.”

Bobby slowed his movements and looked up at Melanie. “How was Adam when he left you?”

Melanie paled. “What do you mean? Is he okay?”

Bobby stood. “He’s fine, just fine. Just getting as much information as I can.”

Melanie shifted her weight from one foot to the other and crossed her arms over her chest. “Oh. He was great. We kissed goodnight, he told me he’d call me today, and that was it.”

Bobby paused to consider what Melanie said. “Is there anyone you can think of who would do this?” he asked.

Melanie shook her head slowly. “No, no way. I’ve never ever had anything like this happen to me.” Suddenly, her eyes opened wide and she reached out to touch Bobby’s arm. “The blue Hyundai!”

“What?” Bobby was alarmed and confused.

“Remember yesterday? When Adam and I first got to your house, Adam told you I thought a blue Hyundai was following me. Maybe the two are connected?” Melanie was breathless by the time she finished talking, rushing to get the information out.

Bobby didn’t move and he didn’t say anything. He just stared at Melanie. She started chewing on the inside of her bottom lip and dropped her gaze. Finally, he spoke. “Alright. I’m going to get an incident report for you to fill out from my car. While I do that, take pictures of all the damage from a couple of different angles on your phone so you can send those to me.”

Melanie nodded and set about following Bobby’s directions, taking pictures of the tires from the left and the right, zooming in to clearly show the sizes of the slashes. When Bobby walked back over, he asked a few more questions but had forgotten the report. “Isn’t there something you need me to fill out?”

Bobby shook his head. “I think this can be handled easily. But Melanie, I think it might be best if you don’t mention this to Adam.”

Melanie’s brow furrowed. “Why not?”

Bobby exhaled a deep breath as he rubbed the back of his neck and looked down at his shoes. “It’ll just upset him. There’s no reason to get him all worked up.”

“Oh.” Melanie inhaled sharply, thinking of the massive, purple bruises along Adam’s arms and his explanation, Bobby has to calm me down sometimes. “He’s alright, isn’t he?”

Without looking up, Bobby said, “Yeah. He’s fine.”

There were several beats of silence. Then Bobby finally looked up. “Alright then. I’ll call you when I get something, and you just go ahead and give me a call if you need something else,” Bobby said.

Melanie nodded. Bobby raised his hand in a quick wave, and Melanie watched Bobby take another walk and look around her Jeep before climbing back into his patrol car and driving off.

Melanie walked back inside her house, making a beeline for the kitchen. She gracelessly poured herself a large cup of coffee, still steaming, and added a generous helping of Bailey’s. Before she sat at the kitchen table, she rummaged through the junk drawer in the kitchen for an emergency pack of cigarettes she kept in the back of it. The pack was smashed and the cigarettes inside were likely stale, but Melanie lit one just the same and took a deep drag. One hand was curled around the mug and the other was curled around her iPhone, scrolling through the contacts. She’d scroll to Adam’s name and then past it, and then back again. The coffee in the mug grew cold and she smoked three cigarettes down to the filter. 

Melanie finally ended up using the cell phone to call Kim to confirm the catering job that night. She also had to ask for a ride. She missed a day at the coffee shop and needed to pay for four new tires somehow. Kim confirmed the job and consented to pick Melanie up, and she did so that afternoon with iced lattes in hand. Melanie’s latte even had a double shot of mocha in hers, and Melanie was incredibly grateful. Later, they were both behind the bar. The wedding guests were all seated for dinner and only a sporadic few were coming to the bar for a drink to go with dinner. Kim shoved two lime wedges into two bottles of Corona and sent the guests on their way. “That bad, huh?” Kim asked, turning to Melanie.

“What?”

“I’ve been with you for hours and you haven’t mentioned Adam once.”

Melanie’s face fell, smoothing the lines of initial, momentary confusion into a blank expression. “Oh,” was all she said.

“Well?”

Melanie turned away from Kim and wrapped her arms around herself. She chewed on an already gnawed thumbnail for a moment or two before she said, “It’s good.” Kim’s interested look faded into something like disappointment, so Melanie took a breath and started again. “It’s better than good, it’s great. Really, it’s been amazing. I’m just… I’m worried I’m going to mess it up.”

“Why?” Kim asked. “If you think like that, you will mess it up.”

“You’re right. I guess everything with Ben really killed my confidence.” The embarrassment and regret seemed so tangible that Melanie turned even further away so she had to speak to Kim from over her shoulder. “I should just relax and enjoy being happy.”

“Easier said than done,” Kim said. She moved closer and gently touched Melanie’s shoulder. “Don’t be too hard on yourself either.”

Melanie nodded. Kim let her hand fall. “I know it’s been tough for you since Ben. You haven’t heard from him, have you?”

“Not really, but since the universe sucks, I’ve bumped into him twice recently even though we do our best to avoid each other. And both times, Adam was with me, so of course he just had to see me get all weird.” Melanie pulled her hair back and let it fall with a heavy sigh.

“I’m sure it wasn’t as bad as you’re remembering. You’re always too hard on yourself,” Kim said. “And no one should be worrying about Ben. That guy was trouble. What a complete waste of your time.” Kim clapped Melanie on the shoulder, a subtle incentive to get her ass in gear as the after-dinner rush started to swarm the bar.

Melanie tried calling out at the coffee shop the next day, but Chris heard her reluctant tone and was kind enough to offer to give Melanie a ride to work. She wasn’t entirely surprised by the offer since she figured it was more advantageous for Chris to bring her in than to get through another day without her. The other employees were young and apathetic, whereas Melanie was dependable and reliable, and gave someone Christ could talk to. Chris had told her this multiple times, and while Melanie loved a compliment as much as the next person, she worried that slinging coffee was the only thing she was good at. She’d crashed and burned with Ben, she hadn’t been great with Adam so far, she hadn’t written anything worth reading in months, and she had no friends that she could call up and catch a movie with or kill a happy hour with. When Chris’s car rolled to a smooth stop behind the Dreaming Tree Café, Melanie stayed put.

“Melanie?” Chris called. “Everything okay?”

She looked to him, blinking back tears and swallowing the lump in her throat. “I’m just having a shit week, boss.” She released a shaky breath through pursed lips.

Chris climbed back inside the car. “What’s going on?” he asked.

Melanie talked in a rush, hurrying her words out in between deep, shuddery breaths to keep from crying. “Why would someone slash my tires? What did I ever do to anybody?” And -” For a moment, Melanie considered telling Chris everything, that Adam had a dead fiancee whom he firmly believed was murdered and that Adam was being abused by his sister’s boyfriend who was a cop, the same cop who refused to investigate Adam’s fiancee’s death as anything other than a suicide. But those details weren’t really hers to share, so she wrapped her arms around herself and said, “And I catered last night, so maybe I’m just tired.”

Chris gently squeezed her shoulder. “I’m sorry, Mel.” He shifted his eyes guiltily. “I shouldn’t have made you come in.”

“No, no, that’s okay,” Melanie insisted, twisting to face Chris. “I demanded to work while puking, remember?” Melanie laughed, wiping away the tears with her thumbs, being careful not to smudge her eyeliner or her mascara. “Besides, what was I gonna do, just sit around by myself and brood? And how else am I going to pay for new tires?”

“If there’s anything I can do,” Chris said, giving her shoulder another gentle squeeze.

Suddenly, Melanie threw her arms around him. “Thank you,” she said. It took a second for Chris to return the embrace, but once he did, Melanie said, “Just keep being nice to me, please.”

Chris laughed softly in her hair and pulled back to say something, but as he looked beyond Melanie through the car window, his lips thinned. All the joy and easy comfort fled in a rush. Concerned, Melanie asked, “What is it?”

“Blue Hyundai,” Chris said. His wide eyes flicked to Melanie. “It’s parked in the same spot.”

“Oh my God, where?” Melanie asked. She went to whip herself around in the seat and stare out the window, but Chris held her still.

“Wait, wait, calm down,” he said. “Don’t let them know we’ve seen them. Smile and nod, and then get out of the car and go inside. I’ll act like I have to get something out of the trunk and circle around the building. I’ll surprise them and find out what the hell is going on.”

Melanie nodded and, without thinking too much about it, gave Chris a quick kiss on the cheek. “This could be some nut, so be careful,” she said. Then she opened the door and tried to be as nonchalant as possible as she strolled into the coffee shop. Brooke was behind the counter.

“Melly Belly,” she cooed, “is everything alright?”

“Yeah, car trouble,” she said. Melanie slid into the far corner of the large picture window in the front of the shop. She tried to minimize her movements and only stretched her neck to peer from the edge of the window.

“What are you doing, you weirdo?” Brooke laughed.

“Chris is confronting the blue Hyundai,” she said from the side of her mouth.

“The one that’s been parked across the street and down a little?” Brooke asked.

Melanie nodded.

“Oh,” Brooke said, sounding confused. The change in tone forced Melanie to turn to Brooke. “I thought that was your car,” Brooke said. Her face flushed.

“What? Why?” Melanie asked.

“It’s only ever here when you are,” Brooke said.

Melanie’s mouth dropped open. She moved farther into the corner in response to a sudden urge to disappear.

“Are you okay? You look really freaked out,” Brooke said.

“Fine,” Melanie said. “Just need to get ready for my shift.” She bolted to the employee break room, maneuvering behind the counter and around Brooke. As she passed her, Melanie asked Brooke to let her know when Chris came back but she didn’t wait for an answer. She also didn’t feel like explaining anything to Brooke, who already knew more than Melanie wanted her to. As a matter of fact, Brooke had known more than Melanie. Melanie slid her apron and her name tag from her cubby and shoved her purse in. She pinned her name tag to the upper left side of her shirt, and tied her apron on, focusing on the minutiae of it all to keep her hands and mind busy. She didn’t want to overthink or spend any time at all envisioning worst case scenarios. She twisted her hair in a fast, sloppy bun and was trying to smooth some flyaway strands near her forehead when Brooke called her name.

Melanie scrambled to the counter just in time to catch Chris striding toward his office. “No one was there,” he said. “I waited a few minutes but still no one came. I’m calling the cops.”

“Why?” Melanie asked.

Chris raised an eyebrow. “Seriously?”

Melanie shook her head slowly. “I mean, what are you going to say?”

Chris thought for a moment with his hand on the handle of the door to his office. “That a suspicious car had been parked outside for the last few days and it’s starting to freak my employees out.”

“But is there really anything illegal going on?” Melanie asked.

“Maybe not, but at least a cop can come and check it out and make us all feel better.” He smiled at Melanie and entered his office, ending the discussion. Melanie’s stomach flipped over. She’d never called the cops in her life and now here she was, calling them two times in two days. Getting the cops involved made the whole debacle real, and that made it hard to ignore or argue against. She smoothed the front of her apron to stop her hands from shaking, and then she turned to Brooke who had been staring at Melanie, burning holes into the back of her and willing her to make eye contact.

“Well, now I’m freaked out,” she groaned.

Chris came out of his office a couple of minutes later to tell them the cops were on their way, and then a few more minutes after that, the cops were walking through the entrance of The Dreaming Tree Cafe. Bobby led the way, followed by an older, heavier officer. Melanie groaned and collapsed against the counter, watching Brooke smooth her lipstick with her pinky finger. “Hello officers,” she said, trying to employ a husky whisper in the style of Kathleen Turner. Melanie rolled her eyes.

“Ladies,” the older, portlier officer greeted, touching the top of a cap that wasn’t there. “Which of you called in the suspicious vehicle?”

“That’d be me,” Chris said as he emerged from his office. 

The officer seemed slightly crestfallen but nodded in a friendly enough way. He asked Chris to show him where the car was, and the pair walked out the door. Bobby came closer to the counter. “Melanie, I’d say we’ve got to start meeting under better circumstances,” he said.

Melanie offered a curt nod. “It’s the blue Hyundai Adam mentioned at dinner,” she said.

Bobby leaned back, turning left and right to scan his surroundings. “Adam’s not here, is he? Have you heard from him today?”

“No,” Melanie said. “Is he okay?”

Bobby’s easy, charming smile suddenly reappeared. “Oh yeah, he’s fine. But this is gonna shake him up. Do you think you could file it away with the slashed tires?”

“I don’t know if I’m comfortable with that, Bobby,” Melanie said. Beside her, Brooke was pretending to wipe down the counter. Melanie knew she was listening and didn’t want to say anything Brooke could spread around the coffee shop.

Bobby had the same intuition and after suspiciously eyeing Brooke, he asked, “Can we step into your manager’s office to talk about this?”

Nodding, Melanie began weaving her way through the back of the shop and told Bobby over her shoulder she’d let him in. Brooke cleared her throat and when Melanie stole a glance, Brooke shot her a pleading and disappointed look. Melanie ignored it and hurried to let Bobby inside the office. He closed the door behind him. “It’s awful crowded in here,” he said.

“It’s small,” Melanie admitted, “but Chris is mostly a slob.” She shuffled some papers on the desk and then sat in the clean space she’d created. “So why can’t I tell Adam about any of this?”

Bobby sighed and it was like his whole body was collapsing in on itself. It almost made Melanie jump back onto her feet and go running for a doctor. Bobby fell into the chair and rubbed his jaw. “I am so tired,” he said. Melanie didn’t know how to respond, or if she even should respond, so she waited for Bobby to continue. Eventually, he said, “Adam wanted to surprise you. He was gonna pick you up from work and take you to that book fair in Princeton.”

“Really?” Melanie asked. The skepticism in her tone made Bobby sit up straighter. “He wants to take me somewhere thoughtful and romantic even though I haven’t talked to him in two days?”

“I didn’t say you couldn’t talk to him,” Bobby said. I just didn’t want you to say anything about the tires. Don’t act like this is my fault.”

“It is -”

“Listen!” Bobby interrupted, getting to his feet. “Adam thinks you haven’t talked to him because of the dinner at our house. He’s all torn up about it and wants to make it up to you. Let him do it, okay? Let him make you happy because that will make him happy.”

“What do you care if Adam’s happy?” Melanie asked.

Bobby’s lips curled into a rueful, unpleasant grin. It made him ugly. Fiddling with his belt, he said, “I don’t know what Adam’s told you, but I love his sister and I love that little family. And even though Adam makes it hard as hell sometimes, I love him too.” When he looked at Melanie, she was shocked to see he was about to cry. “Help me help them. Please.”

Melanie covered her mouth with her hand, considering everything Bobby had said, and then she let it fall away. “Okay, Bobby.”

Bobby’s usual charming and effortless smile materialized out of nowhere. Melanie marveled at the way his entire body language shifted. He reached out to her but stopped before touching her arm. “When he calls later, act like you don’t know anything, okay?”

“Yeah, yeah, sure,” Melanie agreed. Bobby’s enthusiasm and relief was contagious.

“Great,” Bobby said, clapping his hands together. “Let me go see if your manager and Ken found anything.” When they left the office, Ken and Chris had returned.

“The car was gone,” Chris said. “I made a full report, though.” He shrugged. “I’m sorry, Mel.”

“Oh, it’s okay,” she said, smiling brightly like she hadn’t been crying and terrified just a little while before. It was no wonder Chris was looking at her strangely. “We did everything we could, right?” Chris and Brooke were staring.

“Well, we’ll be on our way,” Bobby said, nodding in the general direction of Chris and his employees. “Just call again if something comes up, and we’ll do the same on our end.” He winked at Melanie, and then he was gone.

Brooke groaned. “That Officer Bobby Gillis is something else.” She spun around and threw a towel at Melanie. “I am so jealous you got alone time with him in Chris’s office,” she winked.

“What?” Chris roared.

Melanie blushed. “Oh my God, it wasn’t like that.” Melanie glared at Brooke and whipped the towel back at her. “He talked to me about my car,” Melanie widened her eyes to try to send Chris a signal without Brooke noticing, “and he’s dating the sister of the guy I’m dating, so we kind of know each other.”

Chris nodded. Then he marched into his office without a word. The door shut hard behind him.

Brooke snorted. “What’s his problem?”

“Give him a break,” Melanie said. “It’s been a stressful morning.”

Later, on her 15-minute break, Melanie was seated on the stone steps to the back entrance of the coffee shop. She was mindlessly sipping on an iced coffee and idly scrolling through her social media accounts. When the phone started ringing, Melanie nearly dropped it. She swallowed a scream and gasped a breathless, “Hello?”

“Melanie, are you okay?” Adam asked with a sense of urgency.

“I just almost dropped my phone,” she laughed lamely. A knowing smile spread across her lips and his voice raised an octave seemingly of its own accord. “What are you up to?”

“Nothing,” Adam said. It was a clipped response; not the kind of response Melanie had been expecting.

“Oh,” she sighed. “Well, do you want to do something later?”

“Sure,” Adam said. It was a quick response, but it was also another clipped response.

“Is everything okay?” she asked, venturing hesitantly into a conversation she might not like.

“Everything’s fine,” Adam said. “I’ll call later. Want me to pick you up?”

Melanie said, “That’d be great.” She pressed her hand against her forehead and closed her eyes.

“From your place or work?”

“My place,” she answered. “I’ll wanna get changed.”

“Ok, goodbye,” Adam said and hung up. It seemed more likely that Adam was going to break up with her then “surprise” her with a spontaneous, romantic evening for the two of them. She rubbed the back of her neck and winced against the sharp pains of an oncoming headache. She slid her phone into her back pocket and finished her iced coffee before heading inside to finish her shift.

Chris offered to drive her home again, but Melanie didn’t feel comfortable abusing his kindness. She ordered an Uber, and she was home and showered before Adam called her.

Adam circled the cluttered and stylish streets of Princeton for nearly ten minutes to find a decent parking spot. None were to be had, so he parked several blocks away, explaining to Melanie with false optimism that “It’ll be easier to leave.” The streetlights glowed a warm yellow, but did next to nothing to illuminate the darkened, abandoned street where there was plenty of parking. At the far end, and in the direction they were headed, was a dive bar. The neon lights buzzed audibly in the quiet. Instinctively, Adam and Melanie slid their arms around each other and headed for the better lit, literary, and stylish main street in town where the book fair was being held. They approached a large, white tent and purchased tickets for the event. They were pleased to learn that the book fair included a chocolate walk. A bunch of the local businesses that lined the main street, where the book fair had been set up, had been “adopted” by a bakery or candy shop or legitimate chocolatier.

Long tables with cheap, plastic tablecloths were set up on the sidewalks and spilled into the streets, and they were piled with books. Some featured local authors were signing copies. Kids ran, screaming laughter, with glow sticks and sparklers while harried parents chased after them. Couples slipped their arms around one another while they sipped coffee or mulled wine from styrofoam cups. Business owners beamed proudly over the scene, crossing their arms with satisfied sighs and pleasant smiles. Melanie nuzzled closer to Adam and they began wandering aimlessly, eager to see and taste all that they could. A band was playing in the center of the street and small crowds kept forming and dispersing in regular intervals. The music was light, simple, and easy to listen to.

“I’m so glad we’re here,” Melanie said.

Adam kissed the top of her head. “It was a brilliant idea,” he said.

Melanie laughed. “Yeah, yeah, I know. Good call.”

“Nice modesty,” Adam replied. The use of sarcasm made Melanie stop and face him properly. 

“I was saying you made a good call,” Melanie said. “I was being sincere.”

“Which is sweet,” Adam admitted, “but coming here was your idea.”

“No, it wasn’t,” Melanie said. “You wanted to surprise me and take me here.”

“What?” Adam asked, letting loose a sharp bark of surprised laughter.

“Bobby told me when he came to my job today. He said -”

“Why was he at your job?” Adam interrupted.

“I’m so confused,” Melanie said. She needed to slow the conversation down to get her bearings and to keep herself from telling Adam what Bobby had told her not to. “You didn’t want to come here? You didn’t want to pick me up from work and surprise me?”

Blushing, Adam shoved his hands in his pockets. He said, “Not exactly, no. After that awful dinner at my house, I thought you’d never want to see me again. You weren’t texting or calling, and it made me really upset. But Bobby told me you wanted to see me and he told me that you were dying to come here. He said if I invited you, and you agreed, that everything would be fine.” Adam looked at Melanie. “He said you mentioned it a lot at dinner the other night. I didn’t remember, but sometimes,” Adam sighed, “sometimes I don’t remember everything. Or I don’t remember everything the way it happened.” He turned away from Melanie and she could almost hear him mumbling, but it was hard to tell over the murmuring crowd. She did see his hands ball into fists and he banged them against his thighs before shoving them into his pockets. When he turned back to Melanie, she nearly gasped. His shoulders sagged and he seemed to curl about himself, like he was on the verge of collapse. She grabbed his shoulders and tried to lift him up.

“It’s all okay, Adam,” Melanie said. Her smile was stretched to the point of snapping, and she was speaking in a high-pitched tone nearly unrecognizable to herself. “It’s weird that Bobby would lie, but we’re here now, and everything is fine.”

“You never mentioned anything to him?” he asked, his voice cracking.

Melanie shook her head. “I didn’t even know this was a thing,” she laughed, trying so hard to ease the building tension.

Suddenly, Adam turned and kicked a metal drum being used as a garbage can. The metallic clang echoed and a few people turned to stare. Melanie’s face burned red and she moved close to Adam. “He’s so fucking manipulative,” he yelled. “He wants me to think I’m crazy!”

Melanie grabbed his arms and pulled him along, shushing him. “Adam, calm down,” she said.

He broke free of her grip. “You sound like him. Are you two in this together?”

“What? No!” Melanie shouted, exasperated. “You don’t trust me?”

“I don’t trust Bobby,” he growled. “And you shouldn’t either.”

“Okay, okay,” Melanie said. She moved closer to him and held his shoulders again. Bobby may be untrustworthy, but Melanie thought he had been absolutely right about one thing: telling Adam about the blue Hyundai, especially now, would send him spiraling. She took a deep breath. “I really, really like you, Adam. And I’m really, really happy we’re here. Do you want to make the most of it?”

In response, Adam reached for Melanie’s hand. “I’m sorry. It’s just been so hard since -” Adam cut himself off. He shook his head. “You’re right. Since we’re here, let’s have a good time. Bobby’s bullshit can wait.”

Now that the pair of them had stopped shouting, people were going about their business and the scene was going back to its literary and stylish self. Melanie raised Adam’s hand to her mouth and kissed it. “Chocolate or books first?” she asked.

“How about a drink?” Adam suggested. He kissed Melanie’s laughing mouth and they fell back in step with one another. They strolled past the crowded shops, happy to peer in through the windows as there were too many jostling customers to comfortably browse. It was an adorably quaint main street with plenty of shopping options. There were two jewelers, clothing for men, clothing for women, a few bakeries, a restaurant every other storefront, specialty shops galore, and surprisingly, an art gallery combined with a tattoo parlor. Melanie wondered how drunk she and Adam could manage to get at an open air book fair and chocolate walk, and if it could ever be enough to get matching tattoos.

“Bingo,” Adam said and raised their joined hands to point at a white tent boasting beer and wine.

“And would you look at that,” Melanie said, changing the direction of their joined hands to point across the street. “There just so happens to be a bookstore right there.”

Adam eyed the crowd. “I’ll need a drink to deal with all that physical proximity.” He looked at Melanie with a soft smile. “Why don’t you run in when I get us drinks? We’ll probably have to wait the same amount of time.”

“Really? You don’t mind?” 

“Not at all,” Adam said, kissing her forehead. “Just tell me what you want.”

Melanie kissed Adam’s lips again and again. “Could you please get me a glass of  white wine?”

“Afraid to be seen sipping on a light beer at such a prestigious literary event?” he asked, teasing. Melanie kissed him again and reluctantly released his hand. She looked at him, looking so handsome and perfect in the violet light of early evening, until it was too dangerous to do so. She couldn’t be distracted and successfully squirm her way through the crowd gathered around the entrance of the bookstore. She slid through, with many mumbled apologies and finally, she was in the cutest little bookstore she had ever seen. 

It was small and cluttered, but it was cozy and charming. The hardwood floors were accented with expensive-looking rugs and all the lighting came from table lamps, all looking antique and distinguished. It felt more like the living room of a delightfully eccentric – and handsomely wealthy – literary professor. She pushed through the swirling crowd to the bargain paperback books in a far corner. She was letting her fingertips glide along the spines that were facing up, her eyes hungrily searching for familiar authors or interesting titles. Her mind was a million miles away, lost in the possibility of a great reading adventure. Her eyes were bright and flashing. When her fingers touched other fingers, it took her a second or two to notice. She gasped, startled, and drew her hand back. She was about to mumble an apology when her eyes met Ben Fields’s eyes.

“Melanie,” Ben said, sounding only slightly surprised. Ben never ever wanted to be out of control, so he always maintained a masterful level of control over his appearance, his physicality, over everything he possibly could control. Melanie suspected that was the main reason why everything between them had fallen apart so spectacularly. One of her greatest anxieties was losing control, so there was no real way she could ever relinquish it to Ben the way he needed her to.

“Hey Ben,” she said. For her part, Melanie did her best to keep her voice smooth and even. She’d hate for Ben to know he still knocked her on her ass whenever she saw him. He probably suspected as much, anyway. Ironically enough, Ben loved the way he sent Melanie spinning out of control, evident by his concentrated gaze and expectan grin. “Find anything good?” she inquired, shrugging. She was trying to maintain a casual friendliness.

“Actually,” he said as he reached behind him, “I just found this.” He showed her a battered copy of Jane Eyre and any hope Melanie had of conveying nonchalance vanished. She couldn’t help the wide, authentic smile or the dull, pulsing heat that started at her cheeks and seemed to radiate throughout the rest of her body; she could feel it moving within her, filling her the way water does a bucket, all sloppy splashing. They had read that novel together, usually between Ben’s silk sheets and clad only in underwear. In the one attempt Ben had made to win her back in the week that followed the break-up, he had penned a gorgeous letter to Melanie, complete with quotes from the novel embedded in with his romantic yearnings. The letter was folded up small and tucked away in her sock drawer. “How have you been?” Ben asked, pulling Melanie to the present. His eyes were shining in the lamplight and his voice was softer than she remembered.

“Good, really good,” Melanie said. “I’m just waiting for Adam to grab us some drinks.” It was an unnecessary detail, but Melanie couldn’t help being petty. It was her ugliest trait. “How are you?”

“I’m doing very well, actually,” Ben said. He pushed his glasses farther up on his nose. “The university awarded me with a sizable raise for an impressive paper I wrote.” He cleared his throat. “I moved into a larger place and there’s a respectable library.”

Joyfully, Melanie clapped her hands together with authentic happiness for Ben, forgetting herself for a moment. “Ben, that’s awesome! You’ve always wanted a place like that.” If she had forgotten herself for just a moment longer, she would have thrown her arms around him. The way Ben watched her, expectant and satisfied, helped remind her to be petty. “I should go, though. I don’t want to keep Adam waiting. Bye Ben,” she said, raising her hand and wiggling her fingers in a muted wave.

“The guy from the coffee shop?” Ben asked, surprising Melanie. “The guy you brought to the workshop you promptly left once you saw me?”

If Melanie didn’t know any better, she would have thought Ben was actually hurt. His face hand changed, and the proud happiness that illuminated his features just a moment ago was gone. “Yes, that guy,” she said through gritted teeth. She turned back to fully face him once more. “His name is Adam, and you know that, because I’ve used it twice just now.”

“Yes, to make sure I knew it,” Ben said.

Melanie sighed. “You know, Ben, every single fucking interaction we have doesn’t have to end with one of us storming off.” She jerked her head back and towards the exit. “Come and have a drink with us.”

“Do you honestly think that’s wise?” Ben asked. There was hesitation in his tone, and there was hesitation inherent in the question, but he stepped closer to Melanie all the same.

“I’m willing to try,” she said. “If you’re not, that’s fine. No hard feelings.” And she turned to leave. She was only a few steps from the exit, squeezing through the ever present crowd, when Ben spoke from beside her.

“I appreciate the invitation,” Ben said. “I won’t join you for a drink, but I do think it would be polite to say hello.”

“Baby steps,” Melanie smirked. And maybe her and Ben could really be friends now that she felt she was on steadier, even footing with Adam at her side. When they walked out of the bookstore, they met Adam in the middle of the street with drinks in hand, hyper-concentrated on not spilling a drop.

“Do I have timing or what?” Adam asked, proud of his performance as he handed Melanie her glass. His smile faded when he saw Ben and Melanie held her breath. “Who’s this?” he asked.

“This is Ben, my -” Melanie faltered, unsure of how to introduce Ben. No matter how accurate it was, “ex-boyfriend” just didn’t sound right.

“Former professor,” Ben said. He extended his hand and for just a moment, Melanie thought she might kiss him with gratitude.

“And ex-boyfriend,” Adam said. He shook Ben’s hand, but there was nothing friendly about it.

“Yes,” Ben said slowly, stretching out the vowel sound. “We just bumped into each other in the bookstore, and I thought I’d come and say hello,” Ben said. His eyes flicked from Adam to Melanie, but his mouth was set. “And now that I’ve done that, I’ll leave. Have a pleasant evening.” Ben gave a little bow and slipped away into the crowd.

“Wow,” Adam breathed. He turned to Melanie, deeply concerned. “Are you okay?”

Melanie laughed, assuming Adam was being dramatic in a sarcastic kind of way to break the tension following the awkward encounter. “Oh, come on. It wasn’t that bad,” she said.

Adam shook his head slowly, his concern proved genuine by its prolonged presence on his handsomely serious face. “When you’re ready, you’ll have to tell me all about the hell he put you through.” He ran his thumb along her cheek and thoughtfully drank his beer.

“What are you talking about?”

“It’s obvious some serious shit went down between the two of you,” Adam said. He licked his lips. “When you walked out to meet me with him, you looked like someone I didn’t know. Everything about you was different.” Melanie opened her mouth to protest, but Adam kept talking. “And the way he made you parade him out here to meet me, like you need his approval or something.” Adam’s eyes darkened. “Or like he wanted to make sure I know he’s still got his hooks in you.”

Melanie’s attempt to respond to Adam sputtered and stalled. She wanted to assure him that Ben had no hooks in her whatsoever and that Ben’s intentions weren’t so malicious, but the certainty with which Adam spoke made her unsure. Her silence must have convinced Adam he was right about everything because he tenderly kissed her lips and pulled her close. “We don’t have to talk about it until you’re ready.”

Again, Melanie wanted to argue and convince Adam that she was fine; more than fine really, because he was with her. But she didn’t want to ruin the evening and she became distracted once Adam dragged her into a boutique jewelry shop. There was plenty to look at: lots of interesting handmade pieces, like necklaces of chunky quartz wrapped in thin strings of dark, malleable metal in intricate designs and patterns, and rings of all difference colors and bands, and gaudy bracelets and loud, dangling earrings that were all big and eye catching. Melanie slowly moved from one display case to the next, only sometimes remembering to close her gaping mouth. Thus occupied, she didn’t see Adam sneak to the register to purchase a stunning oblong turquoise ring set in a sterling silver band. She only knew he did it once they were outside and he slipped it on the middle finger of her right hand. It didn’t exactly fit – it was a little too snug – as Adam had only guessed at the size to pull off the surprise. Melanie didn’t care; it really was the thought that counted and she’d wear it on a string around her neck if she had to. She kissed him more than a couple of times on the crowded street, laughing and completely filled with happiness.

They had a few more drinks and when they came across another acoustic band just gearing up for its set, Melanie couldn’t refuse when Adam set their drinks down and led her to the makeshift dance floor, which was really just an empty space in the middle of the street. Beneath the twinkling stars, swaying amongst perfect strangers, neatly buzzed and grinning from ear to ear, Melanie and Adam danced together until the music stopped and there was nothing left to do but go home.

Melanie was so in love with the evening that she totally forgot to check the rearview mirror for a blue Hyundai.

When they finally got to her house, Melanie wanted to invite Adam inside, but she didn’t want him to think she was only doing that because she’d had a little too much to drink or because she had seen Ben. And the more she thought about it, she started to think that Adam was right, that Ben had been a real asshole and that she needed to keep a greater distance because he was a manipulative prick who just wanted to hurt her and Adam. Adam had totally been right, and Melanie couldn’t believe she’d seen the situation any other way,  

On reviewing Peacock’s ‘Brave New World.’

I binged the entire first season of “Brave New World” on Peacock, the new streaming service from NBC. It’s free through my cable provider, Xfinity, which is great because had I paid to watch the show, I would have been enraged.

I freely admit that i am a purist when it comes to literary adaptations, meaning I believe it is more important to be true to the story than it is to make money or attract an audience. If the source material is handled with reverence and care, and a loving attention to detail, the audience will come. It is non-negotiable. I was so disappointed in the new adaptation of “Brave New World” because it strays so far from Aldous Huxley’s absolute masterpiece, so much so that his important and gorgeous themes are lost.

The series is beautiful. It is wonderful to look at, which is fitting as it is perfectly indicative of the hollow, superficial society Huxley warns against. It is a spectacle in its scope and ambition. Many reviewers have claimed it should be Peacock’s “crown jewel,” but those same reviewers highlight the some unforgivable flaws that anyone who has read and enjoyed the novel cannot ignore.

For starters, the series romanticizes, amplifies, and glorifies all the wrong narrative elements. In doing so, Huxley’s message is dumbed down. It is watered down to something superficial and salacious and not worth the viewer’s time. The adaptation creates conflict where there isn’t any, and exaggerates conflict where it does exist, for shock value and shock value alone. Maybe some changes were necessary because the medium changes from print to television, but other changes are unforgivable. For example, John’s worldview and morals and decisions are all heavily influenced by reading William Shakespeare (among others) but all that is erased. There are allusions to pop culture, via a stellar soundtrack, but all the nobility and dignity and romanticism has been removed. It’s devastating because that kind of callous ignorance is the prison Huxley tries so desperately to warn us against. The Savages John comes from do not even believe in their own communal values and there is infighting among them and taints John’s character and makes him what he would never be. It’s so frustraing, and leaves plot holes for the viewers. The showrunner, David Wiener, said he didn’t want it to feel like homework, but navigating the changes to understand the purpose of this wildly, liberal adaptation is exactly like homework. “The most dangerous thing a man can be is a romantic.”

To be fair, the society Huxley predicted in here, so it presents a unique problem for adaptors. However, dumbing it down and making it shiny to keep viewers numb and disengaged and indifferent is a crime. It would be one thing if they only added bells and whistles, but they have also fundamentally changed the narrative to influence and warp audience reactions and manipulate emotions to something other than the author’s purpose. There is no artistic integrity here, like the creators got to the word “orgy” and stopped reading. Kelly Lawler, writing for USA Today, gets it exactly right:

However, the incredibly loose adaptation of the seminal novel is mostly an excuse for Peacock to offer some R-rated content, because it is free of broadcast standards. With more orgies than comprehensible plot points, the sex and nudity in “Brave” doesn’t just cross the line of good taste, it leaps over it with a smirk and a chortle.”

Kelly Lawler, USA Today

I watched every episode because there enough glimpses of the truth of Huxley’s novel to keep me going. Also, I absolutely adored Alden Ehrenreich’s performance (he drew his own tattoos for the character!). This might be the perfect vehicle for him, even in spite of the generally negative consensus. They set it up for a second season (we’ll see what happens), but I’m not sure if I’ll watch. They robbed Huxley’s prescient masterpiece of its nobility and dignity and crucial message. I guess that’s why I care so much about the adaptation, even if no one else does.

After all, as John the Savage says with a smirk, “The most dangerous thing a man can be is a romantic.”

Alden Ehrenreich as John the Savage

On living in a BRAVE NEW WORLD.

On Monday, an article appeared in the New York Times called, “‘Brave New World’ Arrives in the Future It Predicted” by Alexis Soloski. The title completely intrigued me as I whole-heartedly believe that Brave New World by Aldous Huxley is one of the most important books of the 20th century. In my opinion, it should be required reading upon entering society and as the dumpster fire that has been 2020 rages on, the philosophical questions raised on the novel’s pages seem more pertinent and worthy of discussion than they ever have before. So the second part of the article title, that an adaptation has landed “in the Future It Predicted,” enticed me to read on.

But as I read on, I grew more and more disappointed by the article’s overall glib tone. Soloski has a Ph.D. in English and Comp Lit, so her knowledge and credibility are not in question. All reviews are matters of opinion anyway, and completely subjective, so what outraged me may not make the slightest bit of difference to someone else. That being said, I was infuriated by the tone of the article because it essentially ignored Huxley’s dire warnings about replacing complex introspection and meaningful, layered human connection with superficial, temporary pleasures, like drugs and meaningless sex and constant entertainment and stimulation. Soloski writes, “But ‘Brave New World,’ which most viewers will remember – vaguely if at all – from some high school or college syllabus, presents a more ambivalent prospect and particular challenges.” First of all, Soloski seems to insinuate the novel, which she laters calls “…a literary crystal ball so dead-on that many of its predictions have already come true,” is forgotten. Or maybe she’s implying that audience members are too dumb to remember or too numbe to care? Either way, to handle this classic and intelligent novel with anything but the utmost respect leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

Now I understand that Soloski is writing about the latest adaptation, but she seems perfectly okay with – again – the glib and hyper stylized and superficial approach taken in adapting Huxley’s novel for today’s audience. She doesn’t comment much on how “A collaboration between Universal Content PRoductions, which acquired the rights to the novel, and Amblin Entertainment, brought on for their world-building chops, ‘Brave New World’ began at Syfy, then moved to USA, before landing at Peacock, shedding story and concept and the occasional writer along the way.” SHEDDING STORY AND CONCEPT? I understand that adaptations of novels usually are scaled back and disappointing, so my outrage comes from coldy exhibiting that the creation of this particular adaptation has had too many cooks in the kitchen (and likely still does) and shakes off elements as integral to the narrative as story and concept. Is Aldous Huxley, creator and author, completely forgotten in all of this?

Simply answered: yes, he is. This adaptation seems to be dumbing down all the turmoil and hard-hitting questions that made the initial novel so wonderful. “The showrunner David Wiener (“Homecoming,” “Fear the Walking Dead”) apparently had the solution, situating the social theory within a love triangle.” It seems that the adaptation will not focus on the darker elements of social control but instead on a tawdry love triangle, which really isn’t a triangle at all if you’ve read the novel. And restricting it all to something so formulaic and overdone as a love triangle reduces the characters. For example, Soloski writes that the character Bernard Marx is just “an administrator with a thing for turtlenecks.” There is no mention of the accident that occurred during genetic engineering that keeps Bernard from meeting his “full potential” within the society. The importance of his surname is entirely glossed over. There’s not even a subtle hint at the extreme inner conflict that leads Bernard down a dark and twisted path.

The plot itself is changed to be more action-packed, it seems. “When the holiday goes wrong – the Savage Lands had a sedition issue – Bernard and Lenina escape with the help of a sweaty, stubbly John (Alden Ehrenreich) and his raspy, bottle-blond mom (Demi Moore). John returns with them to New London and he, Lenina and Bernard, each of them grasping for greater human connection, form the basic geometry.” In the novel, John does not help anyone escape. He’s brought back as an oddity, a point of interest. The fact that his mother travels with him is so much more important than Soloski lets on. John is considered a Savage because he believes in natural procreation and has a family and doesn’t take mood stabilizers; he is a Romantic. He doesn’t really fit in with the Savages either for reasons I won’t reveal because of spoilers, but all that is gone or minimized so that he becomes an action hero, some sweaty and muscular archetype to play against an intellectual in a love triangle which is so uninspired that it is unworthy of Huxley’s excellent novel.

As a matter of fact, the focus of the article and the adaptation itself seems to be on style and appearance more than substance. The article discusses at length the set design and filming locations and the use (or lack thereof) of CGI. This seems to be done intentionally. “The novel’s utopian vision, with its ugly flares of racism and misogyny, also required renovation. ‘The book’s hugely problematic,’ Wiener said. So the show pivoted toward equality, race-bending and gender-flipping several of the supporting characters.” BUT THAT’S THE POINT! The utopia presented in Huxley’s novel isn’t a utopia at all. It is, in fact, a dystopia where freedom of choice has been so eradicated that there is absolutely no individuality and people are genetically engineered to fit a specific social class. People are designed to be inferior in different ways so others can remain superior. No, that doesn’t preach equality, but it does reveal a darker truth about humanity that no one seems to want to grapple with because it’s messy and uncomfortable, but to paraphrase John the Savage’s great speech towards the end of the novel, it’s my right to be uncomfortable and messy and unhappy if I want to be, so give it all to me! Let me be exposed to elements of misogyny and racism in the story, and then decide for myself how to react. Removing the more difficult aspects of the prose limits the reader’s reaction and involvement and erodes the author’s purpose.

But no; this adaptation is limited to fluffy entertainment and does so to the point where the characters are reduced and less complex and less riveting. “The main characters have undergone some changes, too. Lenina, a cheerful sex bunny in the book, has been granted interiority. Pompous Bernard has softened. In the novel, John is prissy and deeply neurotic, anti-sex and anti-fun.” Lenina was not just “a cheerful sex bunny;” she was grappling with being monogamous when promiscuity was the norm and struggling with her feelings for John. She had interiority; it didn’t need to be added! And how could Bernard possibly be softened when he is the villain? But the worst crime of all is how Soloski calls John “prissy and deeply neurotic, anti-sex and anti-fun.” SERIOUSLY? John wanted nobility and dignity and was searching for a real sense of self. He wanted to feel it all and experience it all. The actor who plays John, Alden Ehrenreich, understands this (which makes me like him even more than I already do). Soloski writes, “So Ehrenreich’s John has loosened up and muscled up, though he remains extremely emo. Ehrenreich, best known as the titular swashbuckler in ‘Solo,’ prefers to describe John as romantic.” Soloski’s tone is disturbingly dismissive when discussing the hero of the novel. To label him as “emo” discredits him and his beliefs.

Huxley, through John the Savage and his interaction with the “new society,” critiques the superficial society that is so often praised and preferred. People choose to numb themselves and self-medicate to avoid the more difficult and disconcerting aspects of being a member of the human race.  People choose fleeting sexual pleasure because it “feels good” instead of working to build lasting relationships, which disintegrates family units, and the social control in the novel is fine with this because “united we stand, divided we fall.” Keeping citizens dumb and numb and disconnected keeps them easier to control and manipulate. John becomes a hero because he rejects that notion. He tells the powers that be in the “futuristic” society of the novel just that when he says, “But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.”

It seems that the new adaptation and, in part, Soloski’s article about it both miss the point of Aldous Huxley’s novel Brave New World. They’re dumbing down one of the most important stories of the 20th century so people will have something to binge, to mindlessly consume, “while the world burns” around them. The Universal Content president told Soloski multiple times that “the show shouldn’t feel like homework.” They don’t want people to think and come to their own conclusions and judgments. The creators of the adaptation are creating an entertainment trap to keep people caged in superficiality and consumer culture, which is supremely ironic because those are some of the very kinds of traps exposed by Huxley. We are living in “Brave New World,” but this adaptation doesn’t really want viewers to realize that, so they’ve made changes to soften and remove “problematic” elements. In doing so, they’ve removed the author and his purpose, compromised artistic integrity, and likely ruined an important, classic novel for a new generation. It’s a shame.

To be fair, I haven’t streamed an episode yet. But I will when they become available today (and you can check out the trailer here), and I will swallow my pride and admit it if I’m wrong. But the tone of Soloski’s write-up in the New York Times has me worried. I feel like John the Savage, throwing away the Soma so people will finally wake up and realize what is actually going on.

On FINALLY finishing the short story.

Sorry for the radio silence. I should have known that with the July 4th holiday I’d miss my self-imposed deadline, especially when I was out of state. I was in Tennessee, visiting my brother. I had a wonderful time and I saw family I hadn’t seen in nearly a decade, and even met some family for the very first time.

After being away from home for over a month, I’m finally back and ready to resume a routine and get my life into some semblance of order. With it being summer, this always proves difficult for me. I would much rather be lazy and do nothing, especially when it’s so hot and the slightest movement seems unnecessary. I’m teaching summer school this year – for the first time ever – and I’m hoping it will keep me honest and on a schedule.

So without further ado, I present the conclusion of my short story. I made some revisions to make the language clear and concise, which I think improved the fluidity of the narrative. That being said, I do think the ending is rushed because I just wanted to be done with it. I always feel incredibly guilty when I want to abandon a writing project, and I know that’s silly. Life is too short; I should follow what I’m passionate about and more often than not, that leads to a better story anway. I hope you enjoy it. And if you do read it all the way through, please let me know what you think in the comments. I want it all: the good, the bad, and the ugly. It’s only through constructive criticism (and continued practice!) that I can grow as a writer. So thank you in advance and again, I hope you enjoy the short story.

THE WORST BLIND DATE EVER

The TV was loud, loud enough that Madeleine felt sure it would only be a few more moments before the neighbor downstairs, the angry and entitled woman with the pixie cut gelled to perfection, would be banging on her ceiling, banging through to Madeleine’s floor. That night, Madeleine decided the bitch could bang all she wanted – the TV was going to stay loud because the Ghost Gurus were doing a live, nationally televised paranormal investigation of an abandoned lunatic asylum somewhere on the east coast and she wasn’t going to miss a single second of it. She’d been watching the Ghost Gurus for six years and more than just encourage her love of all things spooky and creepy and odd, it got her through the divorce, through the weight gain and loss, through the move into the shitty studio apartment she now called home; Ghost Gurus got her through the worst times in her life. And she was gonna make damn sure she was there for them on one of the biggest nights of their careers.

The can of light beer beside her reflected the soft blue light that emanated from her desktop. Madeleine chewed on the end of the ring on the inside of her bottom lip, an anxious habit. She was ready for the investigation to start, and she was also eagerly anticipating a response from Johnny99. On the official website for the Ghost Gurus, there was a live chat happening alongside the investigation and Madeleine, under the alias “Casperette44,” had logged on just to lurk. She’d never intended to send a message, but when someone wrote, “Any advice on the best digital recorder for EVP work,” she couldn’t help herself. She wrote a quick message back to recommend the Sony Digital Voice Recorder because it’s extremely easy to use and set up, and catches voices clearly. She advised against voice-activated recorders because the device could start in the middle of an occurrence, and as many EVPs are typically only a word or two, no one would want a device that could miss potential evidence. She went to light a cigarette and when she focused back on the screen, there was a private message waiting for her from Johnny99. He thanked her profusely for the suggestion and asked her if Zane, the lead investigator, could be any more melodramatic.

In her empty, lonely studio apartment, the message actually made her laugh out loud. She covered her mouth to muffle the noise, careful not to smear her heavily painted lips in dark crimson. She reread the message with a pleasant surprise of a smile. She agreed that yes, Zane was indeed over-the-top, but she loved him all the same and that his passion, along with fellow investigator Adam’s proclivity to stay in especially terrifying places all by himself, kept her coming back for more.

They talked until it was after three o’clock in the morning, after the investigation was over and she’d missed the whole thing, and after a lot of obvious flirting. They decided to meet the next weekend during a group investigation for beginners at the Reginald Davies Estate on the other side of town. It had been purchased by Dr. Reginald Davies in 1880 and became an instant curiosity. The estate was recognizable for its oversized features, gigantic upside-down corbelled chimneys, hooded “jerkin-head” dormers, and huge stick-like brackets on the porch. And the estate was apparently just as weird inside as it was on the outside. Dr. Davies was into the occult, and forced his wife and his spinster sister to partake in his macabre hobbies. There were many wild and horrifying claims about the estate, most of which were unsubstantiated but nevertheless grew into the stuff of urban legends. The most oversimplified explanation for the estate’s general ominous atmosphere is that Dr. Reginald Davies was trying to build a portal to Hell.

The town didn’t want to encourage the rumors, afraid the estate would attract satanists and witches and all different kinds of unsavory types. The town elders preferred the estate to be a well-known local family-friendly attraction steeped in culture and history that satisfied respectable, desirable tourists. Time changed as it always does, and unfortunately, that particular clientele did not visit the estate enough to pay the bills of maintaining the historic and unusual Victorian mansion, so the owners had to expand their horizons and eventually opened the estate to paranormal investigators. It ushered in a younger crowd and piqued the interest of locals who had been living near the place for years and years. Residents were buying tickets for tours to see if they could hear ghostly footsteps, disembodied voices, or even see the torso of a woman in Victorian garb rushing around the home. The profitable decision convinced the owners to open the doors to private groups of paranormal investigators, so long as waivers were signed and a sizable fee was paid.

Madeleine researched as much as she could so she could be authoritatively impressive in conversation with Johnny99, and the Wikipedia article detailing the history of the estate still glowed on her monitor at the end of the week while she stood before her full-length mirror, twisting this way and that to see her full reflection. Her hair was dyed black, courtesy of a box from a local drugstore, and her hair was straightened meticulously, to the point where the apartment was filled with the smell of slightly burning hair. Her dark eyes were outlined in even darker, thick liner. Her ripped jeans and faded band tee-shirt almost made her look ten years younger. She decided this was as good as it was going to get and sat to lace up her Doc Martens.

Nearly an hour later, her small blue Toyota Corolla rolled to a stop in a huge parking lot. The sound of crunching gravel announced her arrival, and Madeleine watched the already arrived group of paranormal investigators turn in unison to observe her. Wishing for a cigarette, she released shaky breaths as she climbed from the vehicle to stand in the brisk evening air. Johnny99, real name Bryan, said he’d be wearing a denim jacket with a smiley face pin. She scanned the crowd but couldn’t see anyone matching the description from the message. There was a tall, gaunt, pale fellow with lanky black hair; obviously, this wasn’t his first rodeo. There was a heavy-set couple with matching tee-shirts that must have been from somewhere in the midwest, judging by their misplaced enthusiasm and general cuteness. There was an older gentleman in a baseball cap and untucked flannel shirt with deep creases across his forehead. He didn’t smile or greet Melanie in any way once she made her way over, and she shivered.

“Well, hello!” boomed a jovial voice from the front porch, shattering the silence into unsettling shards. Everyone gasped and turned. “I’m your leader for this excursion into the beyond, and my name is Zander.” His chest swelled and he looked around at everyone with shining eyes. He paused, as if for applause, and then continued. “I’m a psychic medium and I’ve been featured several times on WINK News Channel 5,” he said, his eyes closing in self-satisfaction. Madeleine bit the inside of her cheek to keep from laughing. He did look familiar, but that did little to lessen the flamboyant hilarity of his presence. He seemed like more of someone’s idea of a psychic medium rather than an actual psychic medium. He was heavy and dressed in a long, dark-colored tunic and linen pants. He looked like some kind of yogi or guru, and he must have been freezing. He had beads all around his neck and bangles encircling both wrists that chimed and clanked softly whenever he moved. Madeleine chanced a glance at the group, and the only pair riveted in the way Zander probably expected were the completely vanilla couple. They were watching Zander’s every move and whispering excitedly to each other. Madeleine rolled her eyes back to the parking lot. No new cars had arrived and her face grew hot as she realized she’d likely been stood up.

Zander started talking about the electronics that were neatly displayed on and the folding table he was gesturing towards. Madeleine had only been partially paying attention, so when the group formed a line, she parked herself at the end. They were allowed to use as much of the offered equipment as they’d like. It was a smaller group than anyone anticipated, apparently, and Madeleine sighed with an aching disappointment before loading up with a flashlight, a digital recorder, and an EMF reader. She signed the required waiver and was about to follow the group inside when Zander grabbed her arm with an unexpected amount of strength. “Don’t go in,” he whispered. “Honey, trust me. If you go inside, you’ll never come out.”

Madeleine tried to pull her arm free. She searched his face and found his features were set. He wasn’t looking at her, but at something in the distance, like he was watching her demise in real time. The horror and shock that widened his eyes and mouth seemed completely genuine. It was a convincing performance and Madeleine swallowed a scream. When she finally tore her arm free from Zander’s clutches, she rubbed where his fingers had probably left bruises. “Fuck you,” she yelled. The group halted in its tracks. “This isn’t a haunted attraction, man! I paid my money, signed the waiver, and I have as much right as everyone else to go in! What’s your problem?”

The air was thick with anticipation, but Zander didn’t move. He didn’t speak. The group stayed frozen and Madeleine had a strange and sudden desire to run. But then Zander blinked and came back to himself. He smoothed the front of his shirt and cleared his throat. He looked at Madeleine and said, “I’m so sorry, sweetie. Did I offend? Did I say something untoward?”

Madeleine looked from Zander to the group and saw identical expressions of disbelief and apprehension. She slowly turned back to Zander. Through clenched teeth, she whispered, “You just told me if I go in the house, I’ll never come back out. You predicted my death.”

Zander’s face lost its shape and color. He looked just as appalled as everyone else. He recovered as gracefully as anyone would have been able to manage given the circumstances, and pulled Madeleine close. “Just setting the mood, dear. Trying to get the heart rate going.” He was laughing, but it was a hollow and empty sound. He talked too quickly and Madeleine knew he was lying. When he pulled back from Madeleine, he shot her a meaningful look that vanished as quickly as it had appeared. Zander turned from her then, and urged the group to continue on inside with the familiar joviality of before. Madeleine didn’t know what to do.

Stupidly, she stood on the front porch, trembling. The last member of the group in line, the old man in the flannel shirt, was just stepping through the threshold and Zander was watching Madeleine with squinting eyes when a sudden rush of footsteps caused everyone to gasp and spin around. A gorgeous, breathless young man was pulling his long hair back from his face. “Sorry I’m late,” he said. The glow of the recessed porch lights danced off the shiny surface of the smiley face pin on his denim jacket, and Madeleine breathed a sigh of relief. “I got lost like four times driving up here.”

“No problem, no problem at all,” Zander said, smiling radiantly. He curtly yelled for the others to hold on, and then ushered Bryan, aka Johnny99, to the folding table. Zander was excited for another paying investigator and there was a hurried conversation of excited whispers and the sound of pen against paper. Madeleine stood still, smiling and watching Bryan situate his equipment about his person. When he finally felt her eyes upon him, he looked up, and the smile that broke across his face was like the dawn. “You must be Madeleine.” He extended his hand.

“And you must be Bryan,” she purred as they shook hands.

“I’m so glad this is happening,” Bryan blushed. “If I’m being completely honest, I didn’t think you’d show.”

“I thought the same thing,” Madeleine gushed, nervously pushing her hair back and away from her face. “I thought that even before you were late.”

“Yeah, I know. I’m so sorry.” Bryan rubbed the back of his neck and slid his eyes away from Madeleine. “I got a little turned around on the way here.”

Madeleine thought that was odd. After all, Bryan had chosen the location and gave the impression he knew the area. Shrugging it off because he was good-looking, she said, “No problem. The important thing is that you made it. I mean, it would have been nicer if you got here earlier. Then maybe the fat weirdo at the door wouldn’t have given me a hard time.”

“What happened?”

Madeleine slowed her pace so the two would fall behind the group and be out of ear shot of any nosey investigators. “He told me to my face that if I walked in this house, I’d die.”

Bryan threw his head back and laughed. “What an asshole,” he mumbled as his laughter subsided. “He’s just trying to get you good and scared before we go in there. He needs an actress, you know what I’m saying? He’s priming you to get everyone else over-amped and more susceptible to seeing things that aren’t really there.”

Madeleine stopped in her tracks, but it took Bryan a few more paces before he realized. He looked back at the bemused expression on her face. “Weird,” she began and crossed her arms over her chest, “that’s almost exactly what he told me.”

Bryan walked towards her. “What? When a supposed psychic medium puts on a show for beginning paranormal investigators right before the investigation starts, it’s not hard to figure out what’s going on.” He winked and then tugged on her shirtsleeve. “Ready now? I won’t let anything bad happen to you, I promise.”

Madeleine shoved her misgivings aside for a second time and looped her arm through Bryan’s. Together, they crossed the threshold and joined the others. Zander was glaring at them, but whether it was because they were holding things up and spoiling his theatrics, or because Madeleine ignored his warning, was impossible to tell. But just as before, Zander was able to flawlessly come back to himself and retold the story of the occult origins of the home, and rehashed in gory detail the experiences witnesses claimed to have suffered while being inside. His fleshy, pink face was glistening with sweat and his eyes widened at just the right syllables to emphasize the buzzwords: apparition, demonic, physical touch. “Other investigators and historical tour guides have spoken of a dark, full-figured apparition rounding corners unexpectedly, a presence I most certainly believe to be demonic as its appearance is almost always followed by violent, physical touch.”

The tall, gaunt man pulled his lips tight in what was supposed to be a smile, but it only made Madeleine shiver and move closer to Bryan.

Zander smiled smugly and shoved his hands in his front pockets. “I thought we’d start in this room, the dining room, where it’s believed the patriarch routinely participated in ritual animal sacrifices, mainly goats. It’s said the smell became overpowering, forcing guests to inquire about what exactly was going on. And I guess Old Man Davies wasn’t seeing the kind of results he was hoping for either, so all sacrifice rituals were moved to the basement, which will be the last stop on this tour.” He winked. “Please, feel free to look around and conduct some EVPs. In about ten minutes, we’ll move on.”

The group spread out as much as it could in the small space. The huge circular table in the room’s center dominated all the space, so Madeleine was resigned to side-stepping to follow Bryan along the room. He squatted to examine the carpet for a few moments and then rose slightly so he was eye-level to the table. “What are you looking for?” Madeleine asked.

“Blood stains,” Bryan whispered back. “I don’t see the point of conducting EVPs in here. At least not until I find some real evidence of the occult.”

“Oh. Makes sense,” Madeleine said. She looked around the room like she knew what she was looking for, but she really just felt awkward and stupid. It was an unbearable couple of minutes, but eventually, Bryan shuffled back over to her.

“This room is too crowded, huh?” he asked, wiggling his eyebrows. “Let’s go to another room.

Madeleine hesitated. “Can we do that? I mean, Zander said -”

“Fuck that guy,” Bryan said. “Let’s go to the basement where the real activity is.”

Madeleine’s dark eyes scanned the room. No one seemed to be paying them any attention, despite their whispering in the otherwise silent room. For the third time that night, Madeleine ignored the sudden lump in her throat and outbreak of gooseflesh on her arms. Bryan was handsome and seemed confident and sure in everything he did. He even promised not to let anything bad happen to her. She gulped to steady her voice and said, “Okay, sure. Let’s go.”

Bryan took her hand and led her to the kitchen. The sure-footed way in which he traveled about the house surprised and almost alarmed her. It was like he had been there before, which made his earlier lack of direction troubling. She was trying to think and figure it all out, but Bryan tightened his grip and quickened his pace so that before Madeleine knew it, they were standing before a solid, white door. Bryan was breathless when he said, “I think this is it.” He released her hand and stepped back. “Ladies first,” he cooed with a mischievous grin.

Madeleine had absolutely no desire whatsoever to go first. If she was being honest, she was speeding toward being scared shitless. There was still a voice within, rational though small, that advised her to get it together and go first. The bravery might even impress Bryan, and after the investigation, they could have an absurdly early breakfast at an all-night diner. Looking at him, she nodded and squared her shoulders. She gripped the doorknob tight to keep her hand from shaking, turned it and found it was unlocked, and swung the door open.

She was just about to descend the first stair when pain exploded at the back of her skull. The world went gray and she fell down the stairs.

The next thing Madeleine heard was loud, panicked voices. Her lids were heavy and she could barely open them. What she saw was blurred and indecipherable anyway. But she heard Bryan say, “You nearly blew it, you fucking idiot! You scared her so bad she didn’t want to go inside.”

Zander’s voice, high-pitched and almost hysterical, “You were late! Everything has been amiss since then!”

“Shut up,” Bryan ordered and there was scuffling and deep silence. “Make sure she can’t get up.”

It was at that precise moment Madeleine tried to move and found herself securely fastened to the floor. Ropes tied to stakes kept her hands and feet immobile. Her back was slick with some kind of liquid that soaked her shirt. Whether it was sweat or blood she couldn’t tell, but she instinctively knew the liquid belonged to her, that it was pouring from her, and that her situation was becoming more and more dire. Feet shuffled about her and she tried to scream, but fear kept the sound lodged in her throat. She thought if she opened her mouth again she might vomit.

The last thing she heard was “Hail, Satan!”