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 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!”

On validation and the kind of truth that hurts.

seeing-the-signs-of-the-universe-696x398

Hello, readers. How are you?

About a week ago, I received an email from Tom Strelich (his website is here), author of Dog Logic (which can be purchased here) and one of the judges of the Summer 2018 Owl Canyon Press Hackathon writing contest. I didn’t win the contest (terrible for my ego) and as it took place over the summer, I had naturally forgotten all about it. The email was a surprise, but when I read it, it transformed into the best kind of surprise that leaves you breathless and dancing in your underwear through your empty house in absolute triumph. The email was filled with positive feedback and a remarkably kind offer to review my novel on Amazon and Goodreads, Her Beautiful Monster. He wrote:

You have a really good voice, and those are rare (I read amost 500 short stories for the Hackathon and trust me, good voices are rare!).  From the first few pages I knew I was in good hands. The characters were great and you pulled off one of the most difficult balancing acts for a writer, to make them recognizable and sympathetic yet unique.  You’re a really good writer and I strongly encourage you to keep writing — you owe it to your talent and the reading public (the fraction that doesn’t go for pulpy genre stuff anyway).

You also might consider growing your story into a larger work (e.g., chapbook whatever those are, novella whatever those are, a binge-worthy boxed set, or just a novel).  I ended up doing that with the short story I wrote for the original proto-hackathon —it became the first 3 chapters of Dog Logic, the novel I spun out of it which went on to win several awards and is usually in the Amazon top 10 or so in its category (well, maybe top 20 on some days), so miracles do happen. Or, just cook up a whole new novel from your mother wit, you’ve got the chops for it.

This award-winning author did not have to email me. The fact that he did restores my faith in humanity, which means more than my faith in my writing talent, but it restored that too! His criticism was completely valid. His notes said: “…really good voice but the story isn’t as strong as the voice, but worth an email.” I remember worrying I was rushing the story to fulfill the contest’s deadline, and I remember pouncing on the first idea that came to mind, so the story definitely was not as strong as it could have been, as it should have been as an entry for a contest.

But I thought I’d use this sign from the universe to love myself as a writer more than I have been lately, and to share the story with you.


“In the Pines”

No coverage, not even one bar, the battery was dead anyway. It was still daytime, but there was an overcast and the sky had a perfectly even dullness, so there was no way to tell what time of day it was, much less which direction was north or south or anything else for that matter. A two-lane blacktop road snaked up into the distance and disappeared into some trees, or a forest if you wanted to get technical about it. It also snaked down toward some lumpy hills and disappeared there as well. What sounded like a two-stroke chainsaw could be heard in the distance, but it was impossible to tell whether it was up in the forest or down in the lumpy hills. This had been happening more often lately. Two different ways to go, with a dead battery and no bars, and nobody left to blame.

Madeline turned back to survey the 1985 Cadillac El Dorado. There was nobody to blame, that was true, but if she had to blame anybody, it would be definitely be Steve. He was perched on the hood of the El Dorado, smoking a cigarette. His flannel shirt blew open in the breeze to reveal a dark green V-neck shirt. His jeans were fashionably stressed and if Madeline had been in a better mood, she supposed Steve could have been considered handsome. But they had been traveling together too long for Steve to be anything but a douche bag. He’d led them here, to the middle of nowhere in West Virginia from the comfort of their cozy shore town in New Jersey, with minimal forethought. It was infuriating.

Here Steve was, pulling over not to ask for directions like he should, but to smoke a cigarette. He never smoked inside the car as a rule because he was worried it might depreciate the value. How that could possibly matter now when the two of them were on their way to deliver it to a buyer was beyond Madeline. Steve’s ad on Craigslist had been abundantly clear; all sales were final and as the money was already in Steve’s bank account, all they had to do was drop off the car and then fly home.

But that was the problem with Steve. He was always focused on the wrong things, the most random details. He had this wild and romanticized idea that this trip would be something Jack Kerouac would be proud of, that he’d learn all the secrets about the universe and his identity. Steve had had a rough go of it lately. He was in between jobs with no prospects of a real career. He’d come out of college with $100,000 worth of debt and a B.A. in English. Steve refused to be a teacher, so where did that leave him? He didn’t know, and the older he became, the more he convinced himself there was nothing special about him. Over beers at the local watering hole that they had been going to since their senior year of high school with fake IDs, Steve confided in Madeline that he was positive this level of mediocrity he was experiencing was as good as it was ever going to get. The defeated way he had turned from her and drank to keep from talking had nearly broken Madeline’s heart. She knew it was mostly self-serving, melodramatic bullshit, but she didn’t want her oldest friend to feel so sad.

The next day, Madeline woke Steve with his favorite breakfast sandwich from the local convenience store. As she plopped down on his bed and tempted him with sausage and egg and cheese on a perfectly toasted bagel, Madeline told Steve this trip might be exactly what he needed to mix things up and get some perspective. She offered to tag along, citing that she could use the different locales for her photography.

But really, the main reason Madeline had agreed to accompanying Steve was because she was sure he’d end up dead without her. He had basically confirmed her fear when, at the last gas station they had stopped at to fill up on fuel, he had thrown out the directions he had printed off of MapQuest. It was a genuine accident – he had only wanted to clean up a bit and dispose of food wrappers, straw wrappers, candy wrappers and the like – but it seemed like a fatal one now that they had no GPS. There was no service on their phones and Steve did not own a standalone GPS, which irritated Madeline to no end considering all the traveling he claimed to do.

They hadn’t spoken since the revelation of the discarded directions, and Madeline would be damned before she would be the one to break the silence. She stood a few feet in front of the car, staring off into the distance, sizing up their options. She had seen the movie “Deliverance,” had even watched “Wrong Turn” through her fingers, and knew they were in trouble. Aside from inbred mutants, Madeline disliked the distant sound of chainsaws coupled with isolation. Though it was warm, she shivered and wrapped her arms around herself. Which would it be, the forest or the hills? As Madeline gazed into the distance, she considered grabbing her camera from the backseat and snapping a few shots. A landscape like that would make a badass album cover or, at the very least, a nice picture from some real housewife’s living room. A crow squawked in the distance and Madeline shivered again. Crows were harbingers of death, and Madeline thought that was a bad sign.

The engine roared to life behind her, and Madeline knew that was her nonverbal cue to climb back in the car as a dutiful but silent copilot. She wouldn’t argue with Steve about the destination, deciding to let him choose and deal with the consequences, deciding to be content with observation and silent judgment. Reaching to turn on the radio, Steve also seemed fine with not talking, with just driving. He twisted the radio knob to move the dial until he found something that wasn’t buried beneath irritating static.

Nirvana’s rendition of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” played through the speakers, and Steve turned it up. He had always loved Nirvana, partially evidenced by his penchant for flannel which had not ended in the 90s. A little too young to genuinely appreciate the artistry and bravery of the band, Madeline was still familiar with the song and its many variations. It had been a crucial element in her favorite murder mystery series on television; it had been the murderer’s favorite song and the clue that gave him away in the end. The reporter unknowingly hot on the trail of the murdered had ended up in his apartment, drinking wine and about to get cozy, when the murderer told her to wait just one second while he set the mood. The murderer went to a room in the rear of his apartment and started playing the song on his record player. It was the same song that had been found playing at all of the murder scenes and suddenly the reporter realized she was in real danger. Long story short, she killed him by plunging a pair of kitchen scissors in the murderer’s eyes.

That association, and the delightfully disturbing lyrics that were vague enough to be terrifying because they left so much to the imagination, aided Madeline in coming to the conclusion that the forest was not the way to go. She turned to tell Steve, but the music was loud, and he was singing along at the top of his lungs. My girl, my girl, don’t lie to me/ Tell me where did you sleep last night/ In the pines, in the pines/ Where the sun don’t ever shine/ I would shiver the whole night through. Steve must have felt Madeline’s eyes upon him because he turned and flashed a gorgeous smile, the kind of smile that could all together kill the tension between them. It was the kind of smile Steve used whenever he needed to end an argument and ensure his victory. When Madeline refused to smile, he lowered the radio and asked her what was wrong.

Madeline said that she thought it’d be best to veer towards the hills instead of the forest up ahead. She told him the sunshine wouldn’t be able to shine through the thick boughs of all the pine trees, and she knew that wasn’t the vibe he was going for.

Steve wasn’t buying Madeline’s offered rationale. For one thing, the day was overcast so Madeline was full of shit on at least one count. Steve pointed this out to Madeline, and furthermore, Steve wanted to know why Melanie was really so against taking the road that led into the forest.

Madeline simply stated it was a feeling she had and that more and more articles were writing about the science behind intuition so if Steve had no strong feelings about it one way or the other, then he should just listen to her. Madeline leaned back comfortably in her seat but shot furtive glances at the radio.

Steve knew Madeline very well, an advantage of being in someone’s life since grade school and asked her if the song was freaking her out. He had come close to the truth, too close for comfort, and her cheeks burned red. She insisted that had nothing to do with it, but then quickly wondered what difference it would make if it had. After all, Steve believed in signs and omens; he had chosen this particular buyer out in the middle of fucking nowhere because the letters in his name added up to nineteen if you could fucking believe it. What a weirdo.

Steve agreed that he did believe in signs and omens but argued that Madeline was misinterpreting this particular sign. What if the song came on the radio because they were supposed to be in the pines? Had she ever considered that?

Madeleine said that was easy for Steve to argue because he wouldn’t be the girl shivering in the pines. Steve only shrugged, offered no real response, so she fell silent and was happy imagining it was Steve’s head caught in the driving wheel that was mentioned in the lyrics. She wasn’t sure what a driving wheel was, and the context clues from the song led her to deduce only that it had something to do with a train.

The song ended and was replaced by some soft rock songs. Melanie was staring out the window, gazing at the landscape flying by. Steve was working his way through their most recent candy purchase. They drove on like that for a while, each silently stewing, as they traveled into the forest, into the pines.

At some point Madeline fell asleep, ironically wondering what it was about traveling by automobile that made passengers so sleepy, and she only woke up once she realized the car was no longer moving. She sat up straighter, momentarily concerned by the pain in her shoulders and back. She regretted not clearing off the backseat and stretching out to really get comfortable. Madeline was going to turn and yell at Steve for stopping and for keeping all of his shit on the backseat. Apparently, the nap hadn’t eased her crankiness.

But when she turned to look for Steve, the driver, to see what was going on, he was no longer inside the car. That explained why they were stopped. Steve was standing outside the car, his door still open, so that all Madeline could see was his waist and legs. She asked him what was going on. She wanted to know why they had stopped.

Steve lowered himself so he and Madeline could make eye contact. He looked annoyed, but only mildly so. He encouraged Madeline to climb from the car and to see for herself. He then stood and resumed staring, dead set on offering Madeline nothing. She resigned herself to taking his advice and climbed from the car. More than curiosity, Madeline was eager to stretch out and ease the throbbing pain.

There was a train stopped on the tracks before them, but there was no closed gate with flashing red lights and there were no dinging bells. There was no aluminum sign painted bright yellow. There were no warning signs at all, which was incredibly weird. There were also no signs as to why the train was stopped. Madeline asked Steve what was going on, and he was a little crestfallen to admit that he didn’t know. Steve asked her if she saw anything weird.

From her current vantage point, Madeline thought everything looked perfectly normal. So Madeline took a couple of steps forward and then let loose a blood-curdling scream, knocking herself on her own ass. She scrambled backwards until she hit the front bumper of the car, screaming for Steve.

Steve rushed over, asking her what was wrong and if she was okay. Madeline didn’t have words, couldn’t find them at the moment, so she raised a trembling finger and only pointed at the driving wheel located directly in front of them. Inside was a severed human head. Its eyes were wide with shock and horror, most likely both, and its mouth was open to reveal toothless gums. Its hair was shaggy and its beard was curled just beneath its chin. It was grotesque and horrible and Madeline wanted to turn her face away and bury it in Steve’s firm chest, but he was moving closer to the train. He wanted a better look. Madeline told him he was a lunatic, and she tried to tell him this was just like the song, almost exactly like the song, but he wasn’t listening to her rambling.

Steve kept telling her to calm down and he walked closer to the train’s driving wheel with the surprise inside. At first, he thought some kind of improbable and horrific accident had occurred. It was, after all, a railroad crossing with no warning signs of any kind. Essentially, that made the place a death trap. But Steve and Madeline were okay, and Steve kept telling Madeline that. He looked closer and he realized that the victim wasn’t decapitated by the train because there was no way the head would be so in-tact, so pristine. Aside from the bulging eyes, the head looked like it could be reattached no problem and the guy could go back to dancing in no time.

The laceration that had separated the head from the body was neat and even, like it had been made by someone with steady feet and solid ground, operating with deliberateness, the way a lumberjack might begin to cut down a tree. Steve considered telling Madeline all of this to calm her down, but he was too confused and concerned by the scene, and there was no way telling her the specifics of the grotesque scene before them would have worked to comfort her anyway. He called over his shoulder to tell Madeline to get back in the car, but he kept his eyes on the severed head. He was desperate to know how the head came to be where it was, and he wanted to know if someone put it there, and most importantly he wanted to know why this was happening. He had no one to discuss things with, because all Madeline could do was gibber and cry and hold her disbelieving head in her hands.

Suddenly, the sound of a working chainsaw was louder than everything else. It came from the other side of the train, from just a few feet away, and it was enough to send Steve running to Madeline’s side. She was screaming hysterically again, had not moved from the front of the car, and he didn’t bother to shush her. Moving with urgency, he helped her to her feet and told Madeline the plan was to get the hell out of there, to get back to where there was cell phone service and he could call the police. Madeline nodded, unless she was shaking so bad it only looked like she was. Steve was being as gentle as he could, but he wanted to move fast.

Clutching each other as they rose, turning to walk to the passenger side, they were stopped dead in their tracks by the presence of a patrol car. The lights were flashing but there was no sound, and it was parked perpendicular to the road so that the scene was blocked from view and so that Madeline and Steve could not make any kind of exit. The chainsaw had cut off and the only sound seemed to be the sounds of their own breathing. Madeline asked who it was in a trembling voice, but Steve only shrugged. He whispered to Madeline to stay quiet; he was too busy wondering when they patrol car had pulled up, and why the officer hadn’t said anything.

Then the driver’s door of the patrol car clicked open. Madeline gasped and clung tighter to Steve. An imposing-looking man in a khaki uniform with a tell-tale gold star winking in the sunlight climbed from the car. He was wearing reflective aviators, the kind that cops in horror movies set in rural towns always seemed to wear. His mouth was a straight line and with his eyes hidden behind mirrors, it was impossible to tell what the lawman was thinking. Steve didn’t like the uncertainty of it all; Madeline could tell by the way he held onto her. She couldn’t blame him as she didn’t like the way the lawman was behaving. It didn’t make sense.

Instead of running over to see if the kids who had just discovered the severed head were okay, the officer stayed standing on the far side of his car, allowing it to separate him from the terrified couple before him. He greeted them with a thin smile, said howdy, and then asked them what the trouble was. Hadn’t he heard them scream?

Madeline might have laughed if she wasn’t so scared. Steve spoke from beside her, saying they were lost and happened upon the railroad tracks. He gulped before he added that there seemed to be a severed head in one of the driving wheels.

The officer nodded and stepped back from his patrol car, firmly shutting the door. He walked over to them and while doing so, he told them he knew about the situation, that someone had called it in only ten minutes ago. Then why would he have asked what the trouble was? Madeline twisted her head from one side to the other, searching for a nearby residence. There was nothing, just pine trees as far as the eye could see with only the serpentine road running through them. Who could have possibly called it in? Madeline didn’t want to believe the uniformed officer was lying, but what choice did she have? She pulled Steve closer, stopped just shy of climbing inside his shirt.

Steve didn’t say anything, only listened. He knew something was off, but the officer took the silence as a cue to keep talking. The officer told them this was the second severed head reported in just as many months. He explained that as long as he had been on the force, there’d been whispers and rumors about the Butcher Brothers.

The Butcher Brothers were a pair of brothers in matching overalls that didn’t go for shirts or shoes but expected superior service. The one thing they hated more than anything else in the entire world was being wronged, cheated, scammed. Anyone trying to put one over on them was an enemy to be annihilated. The Butcher Brothers deemed any kind of trickery as an insult to their intelligence, which honestly didn’t amount to much but still seemed to count for something to the Butcher Brothers.

The word on the street, or the unpaved roads that served as thoroughfares to and from the dying nearby town, was that the most recent victim (present company excluded) was supposed to bring the Butcher Brothers a car, some kind of rarity, a real collector’s item. The officer explained the car was a lemon, and that the whole deal was nothing more than a sham. The officer had been the one to find the head just a mile or so from where they now stood, and the body was just a few yards farther than that.

Madeline could barely listen, let alone look. All she saw was dark green fabric, and all she smelled was Steve’s cologne and cigarettes. She heard what the officer said, but she didn’t want to process any of it or understand any of it. Madeline only wanted to climb back inside the El Dorado with Steve at the wheel and drive home. She had been short with him, but she would take it all back, especially if he could get them home.

The officer was looking at them curiously, the way a housecat watches a fly she’s been mercilessly toying with instead of outright killing it. He took a few steps closer, and Madeline could hear his bootheels thud against the pavement with a soft but satisfying crunch. He rested his hands on his hips and took in a deep breath like he was settling in and getting comfortable. He asked where the flatfoots were from anyway.

Steve laughed without any humor and gulped. He said they were taking a road trip and were trying to do it the old-fashioned way with maps and atlases, but they got lost and all turned around. Steve asked if the officer would be kind enough to point them back to town and they’d be out of his way. The officer turned from the couple to survey the El Dorado. He asked what year the El Dorado was. Steve was shocked by the question. He couldn’t understand what the year of the car had to do with anything. He lied and said he didn’t know.

The officer didn’t say anything. He stepped even closer and had taken a particular interest in Madeline. He asked if the little lady was alright. Madeline didn’t answer, so Steve spoke up and told the officer seeing the severed head in the driving wheel of the train had understandably shaken her up. Steve continued and said Madeline’s distressing demeanor was all the more reason for them to get the hell out of dodge. He tried another laugh and this one sounded more authentic. Steve asked again for directions back to town.

The officer looked Madeline up and down and then he nodded slowly. He told them that if they went back the way they came, and made the first left onto a gravel road, it would take them all the way back to town. He tipped the hat on his head and walked back to his car so he could move it. Steve gingerly walked Madeline to the passenger side of the El Dorado, whispering a mile a minute that they were going to be okay and that they were going to make it through this as long as they stuck together and stayed calm. Once they were in the El Dorado, and the police cruiser was off to the side, Steve accelerated backwards and made a K-turn.

Madeline was crying softly and Steve promised her it was almost over. Hunched over the wheel, Steve was searching frantically for the turn off. Madeline asked why this was happening to them. Steve had no answers. All he could do was reach over and take Madeline’s hand in his. He brought it to his mouth and roughly kissed the back of it, promising against it was all right and that it would be all right.

In about ten minutes, Steve saw gravel and breathed a sigh of relief. He turned left, going deeper into the pines. The sound of the tires rolling across the tiny stones was music to his ears. To comfort Madeline, he released her hand and squeezed her thigh softly while smiling bright. Steve told Madeline they were on their way, and they’d be home before she knew it. He told her he’d get her whatever she wanted, whatever she needed. Steve told Madeline he’d spend the rest of his life making it up to her if he had to. Madeline turned to him with something like hope etched on her face.

But Steve slammed on the brakes as a wild-looking man came ambling out of the pines. He stopped in the center of the gravel road, forcing Steve to stop right where he was. The man, clad in ripped and filthy overalls but lacking a shirt and shoes, turned to face the car. A crooked, insane smile was plastered across his face and when he turned, he also raised a chainsaw high above his head.

Madeline and Steve screamed until their breath ran out. Madeline was hitting and slapping Steve, demanding that he get them the fuck out of there. Steve told her he was going as fast as he could, and as he turned to reverse, the second Butcher Brother slammed his fists on the trunk of the car. Steve hit his brakes once more and Madeline was beside herself. She was pulling at her own hair, imploring that he keep driving and if he killed the fucking psychopath behind them, then so be it.

The Butcher Brother behind the car scrambled to Madeline’s side of the car. He wrenched the door open before Madeline even knew what was happening. He reached for her hair and meant to pull her from the car. Steve held onto Madeline with one hand and accelerated forward, pushing the pedal down as far as it would go. The Butcher Brother in front of them dove out of the way and the one assaulting Madeline fell by the wayside as they sped forward.

Steve didn’t slow up one bit, not even so Madeline could shut her door. He sped until gravel met pavement. He sent the tiny rocks spewing into the air and the tires squealed as he made a hard left onto the highway. Cars beeped and drivers cursed him, but Steve kept driving for another ten miles or so, until they left the small town the Butcher Brothers called home.

The pair pulled into a gas station and parked beside a pump. Steve turned to Madeline and stupidly asked her if she was alright. Her forehead was bloodied, and her face was a mess of smeared mascara and snot. She looked so pitiful that Steve felt his breath catch in his throat. He thought he might cry. He took her into his arms and he apologized, and he kissed the top of her head. All Madeline said was that she wanted to go home.

The pair walked into the store attached to the gas station and asked to use the phone. The confused cashier handed over his own phone and asked if everything was okay. Madeline started crying again. Steve wrapped an arm around her and told the cashier he was calling the police because they had been attacked. The cashier paled and said he’d be back in a moment with the manager. Steve nodded and told the voice on the other end that he needed a patrol car immediately. He couldn’t say where he was, but he could tell the operator where they’d come from and what happened.

Madeline stepped away from Steve and towards the glass windows that made up the entrance of the store. There was a crowd gathering outside, gawking at the El Dorado with the dent in the trunk and the front doors open and the out of state plates. The police would come but Madeline didn’t think the crowd would disperse. If anything, she feared the crowd would grow and swell and then Steve and Madeline might never be able to leave.

But the police were able to make the crowd scatter. They promised to file an incident report and took their contact information to keep the pair updated on any future developments. Steve and Madeline were free to go. Steve purchased a carton of cigarettes and an atlas. Madeline purchased some candy and before they left, she took Steve’s picture beside the El Dorado. It was a handsome portrait, better than an album cover or average landscape.

They made their way through the crowd, and back to the El Dorado. And as they approached it, a crow flew directly over their heads and landed on the hood and then looked at them. They stood some distance away and watched the crow watching them. Another crow flew directly overhead and landed beside it. The first crow squawked and then both flew away. They watched the crows disappear, looked at each other, and then got in the El Dorado. Only one way to go this time, with five bars and full battery.

On still insisting to see the ghosts.

Hello all! Welcome to another edition of Writers’ Wednesdays!

And boy, do I have a story for you. It’s quite the story; so much so that I have decided to forego the weekly writing prompt to share this story.

School started up a week ago, so I’ve been busy. Mostly, I feel overwhelmed and exhausted just trying to keep up with all the demands, but I also know this is partly because I’m hormonal and partly because I’m recovering from the extreme lethargy of summer break. It appears that more than my muscles entered a nearly lethal state of atrophy. To escape all of that ugliness, I was really looking forward to seeing “IT,” the new adaptation of the Stephen King novel of the same name. Well, for all of those reasons and because it would be a welcome return to familiar territory.

Even only an occasional reader of this blog knows that I’m something of a Stephen King fanatic. I think he’s absolutely brilliant. I’ve read most of his work – even the writing under his pseudonym of Richard Bachman – and I’ve seen all of the adaptations; the good, the bad, and the ugly. I’ve seen him at readings at least three times and have traveled out of state to do so. Next to F. Scott Fitzgerald, he’s my favorite author. And of all his works, IT has a special place in my heart and has affected me in a very profound way. I remember finishing the monster of a novel (pun very much intended) with a stunning clarity. I remember I was on the way to one of my twin sister’s many athletic competitions at our local high school, practically dragged kicking and screaming to help watch our little brother who is ten years our junior. I was sitting in the last seat of this monstrosity of a vehicle (last pun, I promise), this huge, black van that I absolutely despised. It was roomy, it was comfortable, it was a logical purchase, but it had a television. That’s not a bad thing, unless you were like me: a fifteen-year-old girl who considered herself rather literary and therefore superior. In a silent, pointless protest, I would bring books in the van to avoid the television, which often blared to entertain the other passengers.

I was the worst fifteen-year-old.

On a particularly dreary day, on my way back to the high school against my will, I was in the van and I was reading. I was going to finish IT, and I did so sobbing. The story is so beautiful, and I wept with a palpable, pulsating kind of ache because I wanted so desperately to be an integral part of a team on an important mission. I wanted so badly to have a shared purpose who loved me so much they would die for me, people who weren’t family so loving me would be a choice, more of a conscious decision. I wanted a Losers Club. I wanted to make and keep a promise to be a hero. I wanted to be an adult who was still a child. In short, I wanted everything that was in the novel. I needed it to be real.

Until September 8th of this year, the best I could was re-watch a badly outdated miniseries (that I still cherish, just to be clear).

I was so excited for the new adaptation, I made plans with a friend to purchase tickets early for a fancy theater with reclining leather seats, massive screens, and speakers that boomed so loud you can feel their vibrations inside your chest. I was going to travel to a movie theater in Howell that I’d never been to, that had only opened a few years ago. I posted about the adaptation and my plans on social media for months. I can’t remember the last time I was so excited for a movie (if I had to guess, it’d be the last “Harry Potter” movie).

And the film did not disappoint. At the time of this post, I’ve already seen it twice. If you haven’t seen the movie, do yourself a favor and make plans to go and see the movie. Whether or not you’ve read the massive novel, the story is brilliantly told with great care. That being said, the movie is also incredibly disturbing. It effortlessly gets underneath your skin and catches you at random moments throughout the day. It stays with you, changes you.

When I left the theater, my stomach hurt from the anxiety. My muscles were sore from cramping and my mind was reeling. All I wanted to do was talk about what I had seen, purge the myriad of my emotions onto my companions, relive the film’s best moments. But once we left the theater, we were told we could not enter the lobby and could not even go past the podium where tickets were ripped for admission. We saw a line of employees, a kind of human barricade. It was unsettling and unnerving, even more so because we stumbled , blinking into the lights of reality from a nightmare of a film. We weren’t told why we couldn’t leave, but rumor among the large number of people leaving theaters and filling the hallway was that something was going on in the parking. We nervously shifted for about ten minutes before deciding to go the bathroom. The females in my group pressed through the tense crowd, doing our best to politely make a path, and happened to pass a female police officer. She was busily making her way through the crowd and was being asked for information at every turn. We heard her say that we were safe inside the building, and that if we wanted to be extra safe, we would move further down the hallway and away from the glass windows.

I swallowed hard. I could tell the other women in my group were nervous and upset, so I did my best to stay calm and lighthearted. All the same, we moved down the hallway.

We were inside the theater for about forty minutes. People were making themselves comfortable, plugging phone chargers into available outfits, sitting on the floor and leaning against the wall. People were preparing for a long haul, and why shouldn’t they? There was lack of information and our phones were dying one by one. Finally, an intimidatingly muscular police office got the crowd’s attention and said we could leave as long as we stayed behind him, proceeded in an orderly fashion, and kept our voice down.

My stomach flipped over.

We did as instructed, my friends and I holding onto each other as we followed the officer. He led us to the far end of the hallway and through a rear exit out the side of the building. We left the doors, trampled over gravel along a chain link fence and ended up in an adjacent parking lot. We were not allowed to go to our cars; the parking lot was being searched and the police had established a perimeter. We waited for another twenty minutes in the chilly night air, rehashing everything that had happened so far and asking for any news. I called my father just before my phone died and asked him to pick us up; we weren’t sure when we’d be allowed back in the cars.

We saw cop cars go speeding by.

My dad arrived just as the police began to let people return to their cars and leave. I still went home with my dad, still seeking some familiar comfort and not wanting to be alone (I never really want to be alone). Saying goodbye to my friends, I smiled and agreed that we’d have a hell of a story to share.

But when I got in my dad’s truck, I cried. I cried really hard because I had been so scared. There was the movie and then there was the reality, and I was scared of both, and I was scared that they could never be distinguished between, and I was tired.

The employee who ripped our tickets, who guided us to the theater, who I bantered with for a few brief moments, was arrested because he had an inert hand grenade, two handguns – one of which was loaded – and hollow-point ammunition in his car. A fellow employee told the manager something was wrong, and the manager called the police. One of the theaters had an off-duty cop just trying to relax and catch a flick.

Thank God for the police, and thank God no one was hurt.

Leave it to Stephen King to scar me in unpredictable ways.

 

On dead bodies in trunks.

Despite the incredibly morbid and possibly pessimistic title of this post, I’m doing okay. Personal gains and disappointments amidst family drama and social networking have kept me from posting sooner, but here I am, better late than never, which is quickly becoming the best phrase to describe how I operate on this spinning globe.

I am happy to report that my Go Fund Me reached its goal and I am on my way to St. Augustine, Florida at the end of February! Not only is my trip paid for by generous and supportive friends and family and colleagues and former students, but I’ve been granted the time off from work. It feels like something might finally be coming together for me in a big way. I’ll be sure to keep you all updated, posting video blogs from my hotel room.

For now, enjoy the following writing prompt, which inspired the macabre title of the post.

WEEKLY WRITING PROMPT #2.2017: A young woman discovers a dead body in the trunk of her car. The body in question appears to be the president of the United States.

Laura hated running late and despite her best efforts, it seemed as if she was always just five minutes behind schedule, always just a little delayed. It was so frustrating to be so close to punctuality and yet so far. How could she make up just 300 seconds? What part of her morning routine could be eliminated so the she didn’t find herself breathless, sprinting across a filled parking lot and praying no supervisor would see her in such a state?

This morning, Laura was running later than usual, much later. She woke up with a dull, consistent throb at the base of her skull. Her normally wide eyes squinted against the pain in a futile effort to combat it, and as she lay against her pillows with the impatient buzzing of her alarm clock doing nothing to help her aching head, she rubbed her temples slowly, willing it all to just go away. Laura must have stayed in that position for longer than she realized, longer than she wanted, because when she slowly and reluctantly rolled over to face the angry-looking, red numbers of the alarm clock, she had wasted nearly half-an-hour.

Panicked now, she threw the blanket and sheet far from her, cursing constantly. She stripped as quickly as she could and hurried into the shower. She was cranky, angry she couldn’t just stand beneath the nearly scalding water cascading from the showerhead to try and soothe her aching head. Laura almost felt hungover, but that was impossible; she hadn’t had any alcohol since last Friday, which was a good three days ago. As a matter of fact, the last liquid she remembered swallowing was from a sealed water bottle her supervisor had tossed to her as she was leaving for the day yesterday. Laura had considered it a peace offering from the strong, intimidating man with the dark features and serious face. She had been called into his office earlier that day to be reprimanded for simply asking too many questions; that’s how Laura interpreted it, anyway.

On more than one occasion, she had asked about the whereabouts of President Holster, had asked to see him. She worked in DC as some sort of distant assistant to the White House press secretary, but had been fortunate enough to come to know and admire President Holster on a personal level. One night, they had talked at length about everything and anything from immigration reform to their favorite teams in the NFL to their extended relatives. President Holster had made his beliefs and opinions clear, and Laura’s eyes had shone with admiration when he confidently stated he didn’t care that those opinions and beliefs were unpopular among his colleagues, his cabinet, and congress. He had been elected by the good people of a great nation, and everyone would simply have to get on board or get out. It was a daring ultimatum, but one that spoke of bravery and even though Laura had not agreed with all of President Holster’s ideas for the nation, she had faith in his hoped and dreams and aspirations. She truly believed he wanted to make the nation a better place, a much better place.

After the conversation, President Holster had altogether disappeared from the White House. When he finally resurfaced, it was a televised interview from an undisclosed location, during which he went against everything he had told Laura and the good people of the great nation. He spoke of new policies and executive orders and scheduling meetings that pleased the majority of the politicians working in DC, but everything he said directly contradicted everything he had said just a week before. Such a reversal was troubling, and Laura wanted to ask President Holster about it.

So she started to ask for a meeting. Laura was stonewalled; she was told time and time again that he was busy and unavailable even though there was nothing on the Presidential agenda. Confused, Laura changed tactics and just asked where the president currently was, scheming to engineer a casual, surprise encounter. But no one could answer the question to her satisfaction. Things were decidedly weird, and she continued to ask her questions and began to vocalize her concerns. President Holster continued to make televised appearances from more undisclosed locations, but something was wrong. Laura found it harder and harder to believe that she was the only one who noticed the oddities stacking up. She asked colleagues, brought it up at happy hour, but everyone just turned away, stone-faced and quiet.

Her supervisor caught wind of her inquiry and roared her down, screaming with an alarming amount of intensity and rage that her job was to support the president and not question or challenge him. He told her she needed to fall in line or seriously think about the future of her career in politics because if he chose to, he could ruin her. It was threatening and scary, and she had been ashamed of the way she had wilted and scurried back to her desk with her tail between her legs. When she collapsed into her desk chair, the leather cracked and worn, she noticed she had a message. The tiny red light on her answering machine was blinking. She hit play and to her astonishment, President Holster came on the line.

“I hear you’ve been trying to get in touch with me, Laura,” the president began in his slow, Southern drawl. “I’m sorry I haven’t been able to talk to you. I’ve been mighty busy running a country,” he said lamely with a forced laugh. “I just wanted to assuage your fears and concerns. I am fine and doing everything I possibly can to make this great nation of ours even greater. I appreciate the concern and support, and hope you have a wonderful day.” That was it; that was the entire message. It was bizarre and controlled and suddenly, Laura felt like crying.

She hadn’t been able to focus on much for the rest of the work day, was decidedly useless, and she felt woefully defeated. Her shoulders felt heavy as she shut down her computer, turned off her desk lamp, and slipped her messenger bag over her head so that the strap rested across her body. She was walking – though it felt more like limping – to the elevator when her supervisor had called to her. She turned back with wide, scared eyes.

He apologized for being so aggressive, tried to call it being passionate, and claimed he understood Laura to be passionate too. He told her that was a good thing, a great thing even, but that she needed to channel her passion into being supportive rather than divisive. Laura nodded like she understood, but she didn’t really, and just wanted him and the whole day to go away. He tossed her a water bottle and told her to drive safe, and then he turned away. Laura slinked to the elevator, drove home, had dinner and went to bed.

Now here she was, scrambling out of the shower to get dressed and down some breakfast in fifteen minutes. It seemed a Herculean task and she wasn’t sure she was up for it. Her head still throbbed and the memory of yesterday’s events made her feel nauseous and anxious and just plain awful. The nausea coupled with the lump in her throat from the mounting anxiety reduced breakfast to buttered toast and coffee, and she only felt worse when she finally climbed behind the wheel of her jeep; the digital clock in the dashboard read 9:15am. She was going to be over an hour late. Nearly screaming and feeling like crying, Laura pulled out of her driveway and rode through residential streets behind impossibly slow drivers that seemed to conspire to make her as late as possible before making it to the highway.

After the on ramp, Laura was checking her side view mirror, eager to slide into the fast lane and gun it for as far she could, speed limit be damned, but a truly atrocious odor had filled her car. It was sickeningly sweet but unlike anything Laura had ever smelled before, what she imagined a piece of rotting meat doused in cheap perfume must smell like. Her already tumultuous stomach took a dangerous turn and she just didn’t think she could handle puking on herself, so Laura allowed her car to drift into the soft dirt beyond the shoulder. She parked and exited the car, gratefully taking in lungful after lungful of air.

What was that godawful smell? And where was it coming from? Laura walked around the outside of the car, sniffing cautiously for traces of the rank and pungent odor. Her nostrils flared in disgust near her trunk and Laura stopped there. Had she accidentally left a bag of groceries back there or something? Did she forget to remove and clean the cooler she had used when visiting her friends at the beach a couple of weeks ago? Laura could swear the cooler was sitting clean and empty in her garage. She decided the only way to figure things out was to open the trunk, and so she did.

And she screamed, and screamed, and screamed.

Gracelessly shoved into the trunk of Laura’s car was the dead and decaying body of President Holster. Laura collapsed to her knees.

spookywhitehouse

 

On new optimism.

“The future’s just a fucking concept meant to keep us from being alive today.”
– “Six Feet Under”

“New Year’s is so weird, the way it makes you think about time. I think that’s why people put so much pressure on themselves to have fun.”
– “Modern Family”

Two posts in the same week from me? It’s been a while; my apologies. I know multiple new posts from me are unheard of (despite my many resolutions); something great must be happening.

And I can assure you that it is.

But let’s be real and start from the very beginning of this year.

Suffice it to say that on December 31, 2016, I let myself hit rock bottom (which is somewhat appropriate, bottoming out on the very last day of the year). I was the fattest I’d ever been and was utterly alone aside from the cat, which does little if anything to make the situation better. It was the first New Year’s Eve I remember ever being alone, and as a result, I went to bed well before midnight and completely missed the dawn of the new year. I mean, I was struggling to keep my eyes open at 9 pm.

Which is completely unlike me; hence, it was – and still is – time for a change. I made a list of everything I hope to accomplish in 2017 (lose 40 pounds, market my new book, learn how to paint, learn how to play piano, learn how to ride a motorcycle, update this blog every Wednesday [while getting back on schedule this upcoming Wednesday … some habits are REALLY hard to break], attend writing conferences to jump start my creative career, create a book trailer for my upcoming release) and so far, I have followed my schedule accordingly.

But to what end?

My newly optimistic (like the throwback to the title of the post? I’m clever in 2017!) foundation was rocked severely when a tragedy struck my workplace just as we all welcomed the new year; a sixteen-year-old revolutionary, a young woman who was as brave and confident and smart as anyone I have ever had the privilege of meeting, passed away suddenly, unexpectedly. The death of someone so young is tragic for so many reasons; it feels like the death of hope, and it’s a stark reminder that the future’s never promised or guaranteed. And this young lady in particular is a most grievous loss because she personified promise and potential. She was never hesitant to give her opinion, which was most definitely a good thing, because she was fucking smart. She had purple hair, she was enrolled in the AP Language course as a junior, she participated in Drama Club in such a delightful, enthralling way, and she just really lived – she gave life a run for its money in her brief time on this spinning globe in a way most of us never will.

Now, the old me (sorry for the seemingly cheesy and inauthentic avalanche of bullshit you may be anticipating now that I’ve used that phrase; but PLEASE stay with me because I’ve never been more REAL in my ENTIRE life) would have eaten my feelings and grotesquely used personal tragedy as an excuse to stuff my face and not move. I would have stayed as I am because it’s easy to simplistically label the world a cruel place and want nothing more to do with anything of it. It’s a defense mechanism to disengage and not try, and my juvenile and unhealthy tendency to revert to dramatics when shocked or rattled has always enabled me to return to this defensive mindset.

Sure, shitty things happen; that’s life. But that’s not all there is, so I embraced the future. I reminded myself that life isn’t as simple as good or bad. A life can’t truly be measured until it’s over, so I planned on continuing to try new things and make changes because my life isn’t over.

So I applied to the St. Augustine Mentor-Author Workshop. It’s pretty exclusive; you have to apply before you can register, and it’s a small-group atmosphere with the specific intention of helping accepted authors get published by a commercial publishing houses. The cost to attend and participate is nearly $3,000 (which I certainly don’t have) but I thought I’d apply anyway so I could say I tried and, obviously, I didn’t think I’d be accepted.

But then I was; I fucking was!

The ONLY problem is the cost, so I became really ballsy and started a GoFundMe campaign. Now, I hate asking ANYONE for ANYTHING (especially money; people get weird about money) but I had WONDERFUL SUPPORT from so many friends, and I currently have 3,649 people who have “Liked” my Author page on Facebook – if each individual gave just $1.00, I’d more than make my goal. And I need to say I tried; if I fail, fine – but I have to try. So I made the GoFundMe page on January 5th, around 5 pm. Making the campaign was surprisingly quick and easy. I also e-mailed Michael Neff from the St. Augustine Author-Mentor Workshop to ask about the last day to register so I could develop a calendar, a timeline (the actual event is at the very end of February). I’m still waiting for a response, but I am ENTHRALLED to announce that my campaign TOOK OFF! Before I went to bed that night – THE FIRST NIGHT – I was nearly one-third of the way to my goal! Friends, family, former students, people I’ve lost touch with have ALL donated in amounts from $5.00 to $300.00! I am COMPLETELY OVERWHELMED by the generosity. love and support from so many different people. The love is UNREAL. I feel like George Bailey from “It’s A Wonderful Life.”

I’m really starting to believe this could be the beginning of something NEW and AMAZING and BETTER. I NEVER thought the GoFundMe idea would work as well as it has so far. At the time of this post, I currently have $1,870.00 of $3,000.00. And it’s all because I took a risk and asked the universe. And I’m thinking it’s also because of Mollie Belasco, the young lady who passed, and her inspiring, wondrous, and all too brief life.

So here’s the link to donate: https://www.gofundme.com/expanding-my-writing-career

And here’s a writing prompt for you sit back and enjoy – the first of the new year!

 WEEKLY WRITING PROMPT #1.2017: A company representative returns from a sales trip claiming to have met the devil.

 Frank Turner was already loosening his tie as he slowly trudged back to his desk after having been out of the office for five days on a business trip. He’d been out of the state as well, far out on the Western coast. He threw his briefcase thoughtlessly, almost recklessly, onto his desk, not giving a good shit about the papers or mug or the entire cornucopia of supplies that made up office living; no, office survival. Assorted supplies and a picture frame went tumbling to the carpeted floor, making enough of a commotion that most of the co-workers within ear shot turned and looked with shocked, anxious expressions.

“What’s the deal, Frank?” hissed Nicole through gritted teeth. She raised her eyebrows for emphasis, to impress upon Frank that a cool, calm and collected demeanor was highly valued in the work environment and currently, he was none of those things. She was going to continue scolding, but one look at Frank’s pale, contorted face was enough to shut her up.

“I’m sick,” Frank moaned. “I’m real sick. I think I might die.” His last words came out as a half-strangled sob. His emotions and all of the thoughts raging inside him overcame him, and Frank slumped into his chair and let his head fall to the desk cradled only by his thin, trembling arms. He was sobbing unabashedly, weeping like a woman.

Nicole was horrified.

“What do you mean, ‘dying’? Frank, what’s going on?”

He offered no reply, but cried and cried, big heaving sobs. The shocked, anxious faces of their coworkers were creeping closer now, crowding in around them like morbid looky loos at a car accident. Nicole felt the uncomfortable pressure of their presence and immediately resented it. She sprang into action and collected the garbage pail beside her desk before quickly moving to Frank’s side and dropping to one knee. She rubbed his lower back and said, “Frank, please, you’ve got to talk to me. Calm down and let me help you, if I can.”

“I’m beyond help. I’m a dead man,” Frank choked.

“What do you mean? What are you talking about?” Nicole was panicked by Frank’s desperation.

“I’m gonna be sick,” Frank bellowed. Abruptly, he fled from his chair and left it spinning as he hurried to the men’s room. Nicole rose to a standing position slowly, using most of her energy for thinking. With Frank’s physical presence removed, the uproar began to die down and the small space was soon filled with keyboard clicks, murmured conversations and ringing telephones. Nicole had been waiting for just such a return to normalcy and once it arrived, she discreetly strolled to the men’s room. She looked to her left and right to see if anyone was watching – no one was – and then ducked inside.

Frank’s ravaging sobs echoed loudly against the tiled walls and tiled floor. Nicole turned to lock the heavy pneumatic door to make sure no one intruded and then hesitantly called out, “Frank?”

There was a moment of stunned violence. Then Frank’s heavy, subdued voice said, “This is the men’s room, Nicole. You can’t be in here.”

Nicole smiled weakly but Frank didn’t see; he was locked in the farthest stall opposite the farthest urinal. She took two steps forward, emboldened by his rationality. “Frank, it’s okay. I’m just here to talk to you and check on you. What is going on, man? You’re acting…,” she paused, searching for the right word while trying to be delicate, but all she came up with was, “crazy. You’re acting crazy.”

“Maybe I am crazy,” Frank sighed. He offered no elaboration, and Nicole was growing impatient.

With a little bit of an edge, she said, “You have to let me know what’s going on, Frank. You can’t just barge into the office all hysterical and expect me not to want to know why, or expect to not try to help you.” Nicole took a breath and softened. “I’ve been sitting across from you for six years, Frank. You can talk to me.”

There was only silence and Nicole was afraid all was lost. She slapped her open palm on the wall of the stall nearest her and turned, ready to walk out and leave the little shit to figure out whatever was ailing him on his own. She stopped and turned back when she heard the click of shoes on tile. Rounding the corner of the line of stalls, Nicole saw Frank emerge from the last stall. He was sweaty and pale and entirely disheveled. He looked like he was in agony, in absolute misery, and Nicole’s heart hurt at the pitiful sight. His eyes were red-rimmed and his eyebrows were furrowed. The lines of his face were hard and sharp; whatever it was plaguing Frank Turner, he was in it. He looked to Nicole. “You’ll think I’m crazy.”

Nicole smiled in a small way, this time so Frank could see. She hoped it would diffuse some of the tension. “Try me,” she encouraged.

“I met the Devil.”

Nicole was shocked into laughter. Not wanting to be insensitive, she quickly recovered and covered her mouth. She leveled her gaze at Frank with a very serious expression. “You’re going to have to explain.”

Frank’s immediate response was to turn and retreat into the bathroom stall he had so recently exited. Nicole thought he was crazy, Nicole had laughed him, and so would everyone else. He had never felt more alone, and therefore more terrified, in his entire life. He collapsed onto the porcelain throne without an ounce of royalty about him, and then allowed his body to fall to the left, resting against the stall wall. He started crying again; what else was there to do?

Nicole knew she had fucked up, so she walked slowly but with purpose towards Frank’s stall. She paused just before the open door and only poked her head into the stall. “I’m sorry, Frank. Your response wasn’t anything I was expecting, that’s all. I didn’t know what else to do, so I laughed. I’m an asshole, I know.” Frank stared at her in complete agony and misery, and Nicole’s brain became fixated on the phrase “man on fire.” Frank looked like he was burning alive and in a grim way she would never admit aloud, Nicole thought that might be fitting given what he had just confessed to her. Frank only stared, he said nothing, so Nicole took a few more steps into the stall. She kneeled before Frank. “Please tell me what happened.”

Frank swallowed hard and then gasped for air. Was he burning or drowning? Did it matter? So long as there was pain, did the intensity of that pain validate or nullify its own existence? Frank didn’t want to think, so he decided to talk and to occupy himself with the explanation, the wondrous, fantastical explanation that was simultaneously horrifying and terrifying so that Nicole wouldn’t even believe him. But what else was there to do? Just cry? Frank closed his eyes, stayed slumped against the stall’s wall and said, “The first night there, after some bullshit ice-breaker workshop, they served a really nice dinner. I’m talking lobster and baked potatoes and hors d’oeuvres I can’t pronounce. I was looking to chow down, but I wasn’t really looking to make friends, so I claimed a table in a far corner and was perfectly content to be alone. It was an open bar, too. I was gonna stuff my face, drink until I was dizzy, and then stumble back to the room and call it a successful first night. I had a plan,” Frank insisted as his voice shook. He used his sleeve to wipe his eyes and nose. He sniffed loudly before continuing his story.

“But this guy, this fucking guy, comes and sits right next to me. I mean, goddam, he was practically on my lap. And he’s all smiley and greasy in a three-piece suit that was more than my monthly mortgage payment, and he was so good-looking. I know it’s weird that I noticed that, but think about how physically perfect this guy had to be for me to notice and to fucking be impressed.” He sobbed loudly. “I admit it, I was impressed. As creeped out as I was by his obvious lack of concern for personal space, I was so impressed. His teeth were white and straight, and his hair was elegantly and fashionably disheveled, like he used a fucking ruler to determine what strand fell where. Looking back, I realize how precise and calculated it all was, how awfully manipulative, but in the moment, it was all effortless and … and,” he struggled momentarily for just the right word but finally decided on “cool. He was just cool.”

Suddenly, Frank rocketed forward and let his forearms rest on his thighs. His posture was still all tight and jerky, and his expression was grotesque in its suffering. “I wanted to be him, you know? When he started talking, I wanted to just nod politely and blow him off, not encourage him in anyway. But within five minutes, I was fucking captivated, man. I was laughing and he was laughing, and then he was slapping me on the back and we just kept drinking and laughing and drinking and laughing.” He covered his face with his hands and cried. Nicole was wide-eyed and confused. Was Frank about to come out to her? He had a wife and kids, and Nicole wasn’t sure if she was worthy or responsible enough for the burden of such a weighty secret. She was about to just walk out and let fate take its course, whatever course that may be, but Frank inhaled sharply and kept talking.

“So the place is emptying out, like really clearing out, but him and I are still there, still yucking it up. I think I was even wiping my goddam eyes from crying from laughing so hard when he turns to me, serious as a heart attack, and asks, ‘What is it that you want from life, Frank?’

“I laughed and told him I was too drunk for introspection, but he persisted, he was insistent. So I told him I’d love to make a million bucks. I’d pay off the house and credit card bills, set Dennis and Jenny up for college at least a little bit, and take Michele somewhere really nice that she’d never been before, like Paris or Rome or something. He asked to see pictures of my family and like a goddam fool I handed them over without a second thought. He looked at them, and this was the first time I noticed something was off because he didn’t just look at them, but he really fucking studied them. He brought the pictures up real close to his face and tried to bore into their souls. I kind of snatched the picture back and was all determined to bid adieu when he tells me he can make it happen. He told me he could give me a million dollars, no questions asked.”

Nicole squinted her eyes skeptically. “You believed him?” She was starting to believe that Frank was in some real financial trouble now, maybe he got robbed blind in some kind of scheme, and she was in no position to help. She’d had Ramen noodles for dinner the past month.

“I was drunk!” Frank roared defensively. “I didn’t know what to think, so I entertained the idea and I kept talking. He said there was only one catch, that I only had to do one thing once I had the money.”

“What was that?” Nicole asked.

Frank swallowed hard again and finally met Nicole’s gaze. He was white as a ghost with a green tinge around his edges, like he could spew vomit any moment. “I’d have to kill someone I loved,” Frank said. His voice was cold and without tone or rhythm; it was mechanic and robotic, like he was saying something he’d rehearsed. “And if I didn’t, he would. He said he would kill someone I loved. Then he started laughing like a fucking lunatic and promised I could keep the money either way. All I had to do was shake his hand.” Frank broke down again and Nicole moved to rub his back. She tried to hush him, tried to soothe him, but it seemed futile. His wracking sobs caused his body to heave and Nicole thought he might just pass out from the effort.

“Frank, did you shake his hand?” Nicole asked tentatively, thinking some confession might help Frank, might be cathartic in some way.

“Yes!” Frank exploded. “Isn’t it fucking obvious that I did?” He screamed in desperation, in fear, just a guttural, animal noise. “When I looked into his eyes to see if he was for real, something happened to me, Nicole. So I tried to look somewhere else, and I did, but only for a second. There was this odd birthmark on his wrist that caught my attention. It was all red and lumpy but kind of small. It was circular but had lines inside it. It might have made sense and been decipherable but I felt like I had to look in his eyes. I looked back up and … I can’t explain it and you wouldn’t believe me even if I could explain it, but something happened to me. It was my body that shook his hand, but it wasn’t me. Does that make sense? How could I agree to something like that? It wasn’t me.” Frank was pleading his case, desperate for Nicole to believe him. He needed some kind of validation.

But Nicole was becomingly increasingly suspicious and terrified. Had Frank killed someone? Was that where the extreme emotional display was coming from, some sort of unimaginable guilt? The only thing keeping her in the stall was the very plausible possibility that Frank was confused or wrong. What in the hell kind of a story was he telling, anyway? She leaned away from him, but she asked, “So what happened next, Frank?”

He had collapsed his chest onto his thighs. “I shook his hand and he laughed but it was scary. I knew I had to leave so I high-tailed it back to my room and just collapsed into bed. I slept in my suit and everything.” He looked up at Nicole. “The next morning, when I was sober, I showered and dressed and drank about a gallon of strong coffee, and I found the guy responsible for registration. He had a whole list of names of everyone who was there from every firm. I told him the guy propositioned me to kill someone for him, that the guy was dangerous. He asked me the guy’s name, and I told him, and he checked his list. He checked his list over and over with me standing right there and there was no Lou Sever on the list. He even let me check. When I couldn’t find anything, he said it was probably someone just fucking around and went about his business like nothing was wrong.”

“Did you call the cops or anything?” Nicole asked, striving to be rational and logical.

“I couldn’t, Nicole; I wasn’t even sure if the guy existed,” Frank said with disgust. He was unsure at the moment if he was disgusted with himself or Nicole. He supposed it could have been both. “So I went to the workshops that day, every single one even if I wasn’t technically signed up, and I looked for this guy. I searched high and low, talked to people and asked questions. I hung around the hotel bar like some pathetic loser, just waiting and watching for him to reappear. But he never did, Nicole. I never saw him again.”

“Isn’t that a good thing?” she asked slowly, cautiously.

Frank laughed but without humor. “You would think so, especially when there was over a million dollars in my checking account. There were no recent transactions listed in my account summary and when I went to the bank, they all acted like I was insane, like the money had always been there. Michele called me and she was ecstatic. I tried to explain to her what kind of money this was, dangerous money with no sort of trail, but she was already on the way to spending it. And the worst part, the absolute worst part, is that she kept thanking me, like I had worked hard, or done something noble and righteous for this sudden windfall, but I didn’t, Nicole. I didn’t do anything good for that money.” His head fell into his hands.

“You didn’t do anything at all, Frank,” Nicole said. “You just shook some sick fuck’s hand while you were drunk. You tried to give the money back, or at least investigated, but everything was working in your favor.” Nicole grinned. “Maybe it’s a reward.”

“Not from a guy like that,” Frank protested with a deep pout pulling his lips down. “There’s no reward. For a few days, I thought like you, like maybe it was all gonna come up roses or something, I don’t know. I was almost happy flying home, and I let myself think about the future and how easy life would be. It was gonna be so nice,” Frank sobbed. He wiped at his eyes furiously. “But when I got home, Nicole, nothing was easy or nice. It was all completely fucked.”

“What’s wrong, Frank?”

“Michele took Dennis to the hospital because he was real sick. It was sudden and devastating and they’re saying he won’t make it. And he has a new fucking birthmark on his wrist,” Frank said, looking to Nicole with dead, empty eyes. “He has it, Jenny has it, Michele has it, I have it. We’re all going to die.”

Nicole jumped to her feet. She started to slowly back out of the stall. “Frank, I-“

Frank slowly stood. “I only came to work today to do the one thing to stop all of this. I have to kill someone I love.”

“Frank, be serious,” Nicole pleaded. Her voice quivered in its weakness and she kept backing up until her back slammed against the cool, tiled wall of the men’s room. “You just … we need-“

“I love you, Nicole,” Frank said and it was at that moment Nicole saw the blade in his hand as it just so happened to wink in the harsh fluorescent lights.

devil

On making things better … or worse.

About three weeks ago, I went on a date with some guy I met online. We met on the boardwalk, which I liked. He looked only a little bit like his picture, but I’m sure the same could be said for me – I’ve definitely gained weight since the pictures I posted were taken. None of the mattered, really, because he was INCREDIBLY smart – knew more than a little bit about nearly everything. The conversation was great – enthralling, interesting. We talked for four hours, until the restaurants closed. At one point, he was explaining the scientific reasoning behind why men tend to react with violence while women are more emotional and tend to react with malicious manipulation. He posed a hypothetical question, asking me what I would do if a woman I hated, like really hated, keyed my car. I told him I’d go to the police, and he had to alter the scenario and tell me that wasn’t an option. I think he wanted to prove that eventually I would become violent (although in retrospect, I don’t see how that helps his argument at all, so maybe I misunderstood because he was SO much smarter than me). That inspired the short story below.

But some more about the date: he said “you see” a lot and removed his glasses to pinch and massage the bridge of his nose and pushed air through his nose awkwardly, almost like snorting but not exactly. In hindsight, it seems pretentious and textbook intellectual, but in the moment, it wasn’t so bad. There were even a few moments where I nearly convinced myself he was handsome, sitting on a bench overlooking the beach, calmly explaining the cosmos to the young woman beside him as a chilly wind whipped the finer strands of hair about his face.

But I think it was just the moonlight and me endeavoring to force a fairy tale where there wasn’t one. I haven’t heard from him.

WEEKLY WRITING PROMPT #30: “Let’s just agree that we both hate her, okay?”

“Let’s just agree that we both hate her, okay?” Ashley pleaded. She was sitting in her Chrysler Sebring convertible with her best friend. The engine was running to keep the heat going; it was unseasonably cold, and tiny tremors assaulted Ashley’s body. The cloth top did little to keep the icy wind from seeping in and making the interior cold and uncomfortable. She watched her breath escape her lips in tiny, white puffs, disappearing as soon as they appeared. Despite the heat blasting from the vents, Ashley was shivering. For a moment, but only a moment, Ashley wondered how her best friend was faring, if she was as cold. But Ashley’s concern was fleeting. She wasn’t looking at Danielle, but stayed focus on the lone break in the curbing that served as both the entrance and exit of the parking lot. Neon lights and halogen bulbs lit up the night sky around them, and Ashley used the glare of the harsh and unflattering lights to peer into windshields and survey the colors of incoming cars. Oncoming headlights would blind her momentarily, but she would shut her eyes tight against them for a just a few seconds, all she could spare, and then she’d stare hard and long to make out the figures in the cars, to determine the exact shade of the paint of the exteriors of the cars. Ashley’s eyes shifted restlessly from side to side, scanning and searching for one driver in particular, one woman that was scheduled to meet a man in the diver bar that owned the parking lot. The man in question happened to be the love of Ashley’s life (at the very least, Ashley had convinced herself that was the case), and the woman in question was the current topic of conversation.

“I’m not going to do that,” Danielle refused. She crossed her arms over her chest and stared through the windshield. She forced her breath out of her lungs in short bursts, emphasizing her displeasure. Not unlike Ashley, Danielle wasn’t so eager to make eye contact. Everything had gone too far, much too far, and Danielle was having trouble comprehending that the woman gripping the steering wheel in tight, pulsating waves was the same woman she’d known for years and years, and had claimed as her best friend. Ashley was unrecognizable to Danielle. Sure, she looked the same, but the jealousy and ager that consumed Ashley and simmered somewhere just beneath the surface of her skin had caused her to mutate into something ugly, something horrible.

“Then why are you even here?” Ashley asked. She finally turned to face Danielle. Her tone was sharp so that the question was more of a piercing challenge. In her juvenile rage, Ashley wanted Danielle to leave so that Ashley could feel abandoned and awful, and thereby rationalize her unnerving desire to cause destruction and excuse her cowardly and dastardly behavior.

“To talk sense, Ashley; I need to convince you that this is really dumb, not to mention illegal. We need to leave before you do something stupid.”

There was a beat of silence. It was the calm before the storm; after just a moment more, Ashley slammed her palms against the dashboard and growled. It was a subdued scream that turned animalistic and cold and hard. Danielle felt uneasy but turned toward Ashley, willing to make eye contact and survey if Ashley was even present in the conversation, if she was even listening. “Go to hell,” Ashley sneered. “You don’t know what this feels like, okay? Save your self-righteous bullshit for your students.”

“If you weren’t acting like a child, I wouldn’t have to treat you like one, or talk to you like one,” Danielle retorted. “What is keying her car going to do, honestly?”

Ashley thought for a moment. “It’ll make me feel better.”

Danielle rolled her eyes. “Yeah, maybe, but then what? Will it make Russ suddenly realize he’s been a douche? How will it prove you were the right choice?”

Silence settled upon the pair. The truth was that Ashley couldn’t answer Danielle’s questions because Danielle was right. It was stupid, completely asinine, but for the moment, Ashley didn’t care. She wanted to feel satisfied and to feel justified – she wanted to feel better about the whole messed up situation between her and Russ and their feelings (or lack thereof). “Why can’t you just let me have this?” Ashley demanded of her best friend. Her voice cracked and allowed the tears to finally spring up.

“What kind of friend would I be if I let you be a stupid, awful, petty bitch?” Danielle asked. She extended her arm to rub Ashley’s back as she sat behind the wheel and cried. “You’re better than all of this, and you deserve better than Russ.” Danielle spoke in softened tone, doing her best to soothe Ashley and her broken heart. “Let’s get out of here, okay? We’ll get milkshakes and fries and talk shit.” Danielle laughed to show Ashley that she honestly believed there was a light at the end of the long, dark tunnel. Danielle needed Ashley to know that eventually, things did get better.

“Fine,” Ashley growled. She wanted to hold onto her anger because she wanted to be in control of something. She couldn’t change how Russ felt and she couldn’t deny Danielle’s logic, but she could decide how she felt, dammit, and she was going to be angry, downright furious. Without giving it much thought, Ashley abruptly changed gears and had every intention of peeling out of the parking lot and leaving the whole aborted revenge plot behind her – in more ways than one – and Ashley would have done just that.

Unfortunately, a young, beautiful woman with bouncy hair, tits that were a cause of envy, and a smile that belonged in toothpaste commercials, came walking up between Ashley’s car and the car beside it. The young, beautiful woman was not paying attention to anything other than her phone, busily composing a text message to let a popular man named Russ that she was walking into the bar, and that she had just parked. Her green Hyundai had pulled in just as Ashley had started crying, and were it not for the tears in her contemptuous eyes, Ashley might have seen the vehicle, recognized it, and done something else, anything else. As fate would have it, neither Ashley nor Danielle saw the young, beautiful woman’s car enter the parking lot, and so neither woman knew she was even there, where she was supposed to be, where they had anticipated and expected her to be. The young, beautiful woman walking between Ashley’s car and another was busy envisioning the entrance she would make and entertaining the endless romantic possibilities her rendezvous offered. She didn’t see Ashley’s car turning and accelerating fast enough to make the tires squeal, so hell bent was Ashley on making an exit the same way the young, beautiful woman was intent on making an entrance that would impress the entire bar. The young, beautiful woman never saw the impact coming.

The left headlight rammed against the young, beautiful woman’s shin, hard enough to break it and hard enough to knock her to the ground. The collision happened just outside of Danielle’s window, just outside of the front passenger door. She thought she saw bouncy hair pass by her field of vision on its way to the pavement, but she couldn’t be sure. It was dark and her attention was elsewhere. But Danielle and Ashley heard flesh and bone smash sickeningly against metal and plastic and rubber. They knew they’d hit something, but the enormity of the tragedy had not landed home yet. The front tires ran up and over the young woman’s body before Ashley could slam on the brakes and screech to a halt. “What the hell was that?” Ashley asked.

Danielle had a sinking, awful, terrible suspicion, but how could she say it aloud? How could she tell Ashley that in trying to avoid a misdemeanor, they had committed a felony? How could she explain that in trying to do the right thing, they had made everything worse, much worse? Pale and trembling, Danielle could only state the obvious. “You hit something,” she said.

“Yeah, but what?” Ashley asked. Danielle shrugged, was too shocked and too stupid to articulate anything meaningful or useful. Ashley threw the car in reverse, unknowingly rolling her tires over the young, beautiful woman a second time. The car jostled its occupants from side to side as it traversed speedily over the body. Ashley thought returning to the parking spot and surveying the scene from that vantage point was the best way to assess the damage and understand what had happened. It wasn’t until the sickening thud of the tires rolling over something soft and alive reached her ears a second time that Ashley understood that it was bad and wrong, all bad and all wrong. She put the car in park and battling nausea, Ashley threw her door open and climbed out of the car and onto legs that were wobbly and weak, and didn’t quite support her weight. Hobbling as if she were the victim instead of the perpetrator, Ashley stumbled to the front of the car, using the vehicle to support her weight. She crossed the front of the vehicle, placing palm over palm as she desperately tried to steady herself and walk, and when the body came into view, she promptly vomited.

pedestrian-accident

On films and blood and TV and Twitter.

I know I’ve said this so many times that it’s actually starting to lose meaning, but I promise that my focus is going to be on my writing career from this moment on. You won’t believe me, but that’s okay. I mean it this time, I swear.

And I have evidence to prove it … sort of. There’s an actor named Eric Balfour (see image below.)

He was in TV shows like “24,” “Six Feet Under,” and most recently, “Haven” (which I really freaking loved and highly recommend. It’s currently on Netflix, so you’re welcome). I binge watched “Haven” over the summer – because I was a teacher on summer vacation who was broke – and fell in love with his character and with his physicality as an actor; he’s like really tall and his movements should be awkward seeing as how he’s mostly composed of limbs, but his movements are deliberate and graceful. It’s almost fascinating to watch him do anything, especially interact with other actors.

If you haven’t noticed, when I like something, I really, really like something. I go all in, man. So now that I liked this actor named Eric Balfour, I started following him on Twitter. When I watched the series finale of “Haven,” I directed a Tweet to him about how I thought his character got a raw deal (no spoilers, I promise). He liked my tweet. He read my tweet, and then he liked it.

So when he asked for book recommendations that would make great television series that hadn’t been optioned yet, I tweeted the title of my book (Her Beautiful Monster). He liked that tweet, too. He read that tweet too, and then he liked it. He liked another tweet. This was insanity. I took it as a sign from the universe that this was a chance, one of those crazy moments that could be the opportunity of a lifetime, the beginning of a fairytale. It could also be nothing, but hey – you have to be in to win it, right?

Being so emboldened or empowered or what have you, I sent him a direct message through Twitter, telling this actor a little bit more about my book. He read the message. He read the message and he wrote back.

HE READ THE MESSAGE AND HE WROTE BACK.

This Hollywood actor who owes me absolutely nothing, who has no idea as to who I am or what my intentions are or anything like that, took the time to respond to my self-indulgent message to tell me he would look at my book and wished me luck in my career.

That’s something. Even if all this comes to nothing, it’s something. And I am forever grateful.

In other writing news, Martin Sisters Publishing is interested in publishing my second novel, Moody Blue. I’m just waiting on the contract and once that happens, prepare for a marketing blitz.

Because this is my focus now; writing. So, here’s a weekly writing prompt. Enjoy, and pleasepleasePLEASE let me know what you think.

WRITING PROMPT #28: “He makes films. I didn’t ask what kind.”

 

Amy spit blood onto the cold, concrete floor beneath her bare feet. She still had that tell-tale coppery taste in her mouth, so she knew that she was still bleeding even without the help of a mirror. Amy thought it made sense that she was still bleeding because she was still sore as hell. Her head was pounding at the very base of her skull – she assumed that had happened when he had shoved her in the van. As  a matter of fact, despite the ache in her skull that slowed her thinking, Amy was sure she’d slammed her head twice, slammed her head against the metal door after the brutal, hard shove inside the van, and then her skull crashed against the metal floor when she lost her footing completely and fell flat on her back. Megan had been tossed in next and had landed on Amy. The air rushed from Amy and it felt like insult had been added to injury. Amy turned to survey Megan now.

Megan was still out cold. She hadn’t been able to stop screaming. The hysteria and desperation seemed to be keeping her mouth open, her throat raw and lungs filled because Megan just kept screaming until the butt of the 9mm made contact with the right side of her face. Blood dripped from Megan’s wound like water from a tricky faucet, splashing on the floor in a rhythm so reliable it was almost comforting. Amy eyed Megan’s slumped position in the metal folding chair and knew there was no way she was comfortable. When Megan woke up, she’d be stiff, sore and essentially useless should the opportunity to escape present itself. Amy knew such thinking was a pipe dream as her eyes acknowledged the itchy rope used to tie Megan’s legs to the legs of the chair and to tie Megan’s wrists together behind her back. Amy was similarly secured, but still she twitched her shoulder and wrists with foolish optimism, like maybe the ropes would suddenly be loose. But Amy had no such luck – never did, really and never would seeing as how she’d likely die in the barren room with the concrete floor.

But Amy didn’t want to die alone. Amy wanted to have a fighting chance, and she wanted one for Megan, too.

“Megan,” Amy called in a harsh whisper. Megan didn’t move. “Megan,” Amy tried again, this time a little louder. Amy had to be careful – she wanted to be loud enough to wake Megan but quiet enough to keep from getting the attention of the sick fuck who abducted them. After calling Megan’s name a second time, Amy listened hard for running footsteps or creaky doors or any sure sign that someone was coming. Amy listened so hard she didn’t allow herself to breathe. When the only discernable sound was the steady drip of Megan’s blood, Amy started calling out to Megan again and again, louder each time until finally Megan’s eyes fluttered open and she groaned in discomfort.

“Fuck,” was all Megan had to offer.

“You’re telling me,” Amy said as she snorted humorless laughter through her nose.

There was a beat of silence. And then another. Then there were soft sniffles. Amy raised her splitting, throbbing head to eye Megan. She was crying quietly. “I’m sorry,” she said between gasps of air.

Amy swallowed hard. “It’s not your fault.”

“Yes it is!” Megan suddenly roared. Amy flinched, but stayed quiet. “It’s my fault because I know this guy.” She was openly sobbing now, being loud and sloppily confessing to an unknown betrayal. “He said he needed actresses at this house party we were both at, and I was drunk so I signed us up.”

“Actresses for what?” Amy asked. She was confused and her battered brain was refusing to cooperate, to make heads or tails of any of it.

“He makes films. I didn’t ask what kind,” Megan said, breaking and sobbing some more. Her cries were pitiful and awful and terrible and worse than the silence. For a grotesque moment, Amy wished the sick fuck would rush in and punch Megan right in the mouth so Amy would at least be spared the howls of desperation of her best friend as they inched closer to death. Was there ever a worse soundtrack for a death scene?

“Maybe you should have,” Amy said. She locked eyes with her best friend. Megan stopped crying, shocked into silence by Amy’s attitude. How could she be sarcastic at a time like this? How could Amy be anything but terrified? Anger was bubbling up to Megan’s surface until Amy offered her a smile. It was queasy and horrible, stained with blood and pain, but it was just so fucking Amy. Megan smiled in spite of herself, eternally glad that if the end was nigh, she’d face it with her best friend, with the realest girl she knew.

On new material.

Last week was seemingly the longest week of my life. I could list all the challenges, frustrations, and disappointments and create a self-serving litany of complaints, but what good would that honestly do anyone? What kind of energy is that to offer up to the Universe? Instead, here’s an excerpt from the novel I am currently working on. I hope you enjoy it! Please comment with any comments or suggestions you may have – everything is greatly appreciated! 🙂

 

James’ eyes were bloodshot, whether from lack of sleep or too much drink Charlotte couldn’t tell. His eyes were also wide and vacant as he stood beside the coffee maker, staring into some void that only he could see. James seemed mesmerized, entranced, and it was creepy, terribly unsettling the way he could be present and a million miles away all at the same time. Charlotte wanted to call out to him and break that awful concentration, but she was too sick, too tired. She just continued shuffling by, too exhausted to even pick her feet up off the ground. It could have been her oh-so-clever subconscious, discreetly forcing her to make noise to call James to attention, but Charlotte was too sick to think. And truth be told, Charlotte had never really been all that clever, certainly not clever enough to figure out her own subconscious. And so, she shuffled outside.

The sun was hot and bright, but Charlotte didn’t remove any of her excessive layers of clothing. She was too tired, simply too tired, and besides, maybe she’d sweat the fever out – wasn’t that how it worked? She couldn’t remember. She was too tired.

Charlotte breathed heavily through her mouth, as her nose was congested enough to be rendered useless. She stared across the quiet street, too exhausted to turn her head, and her squinting, bleary eyes fell upon one of the only kids inhabiting the whole apartment complex. The kids belonged to the wonderfully nice family who had moved in a month ago much to Charlotte’s delight. The young girl currently in Charlotte’s view was a little sister to a big brother, both under ten years old. The last time Charlotte had seen them, they were yelling with youthful abandon, chasing one another in twisting, ever-widening circles across the dry lawns of their adjacent neighbors. What a beautiful sight! What joyous noise! Charlotte had been absolutely thrilled to encounter signs of life – FINALLY – at her new home. Once poor Kelly left, the remaining inhabitants had all been so odd, frighteningly so, and they had all been dying, or so it seemed.

Charlotte could certainly understand that now.

And apparently so could the kids Charlotte had affectionately begun to think of as Jem and Scout. She was looking at Scout now, and Scout was sitting at the start of her squat driveway, crying. Huge, mournful-looking tears leaked from her eyes and rolled down her round cheeks as if they were trying to be discreet, trying to avoid a scene. Her soft whimpers cut the silence and they sounded so pitiful. Had it not been so tired, Charlotte was sure her heart would have simply shattered. The little girl sat cross-legged on the hot asphalt, just crying. What was wrong? Where was Jem? Despite her extreme exhaustion and growing concern that any kind of movement would kill her, Charlotte turned her head to the left and moved it slowly to the right, endeavoring to scan the landscape to find the brother.

Charlotte didn’t have to look far.

Jem was standing in the middle of his lawn, just a few diagonal paces forward from his sister, standing and sweating in the sun, and staring, staring at Charlotte.

Their eyes locked.

Charlotte gasped and stumbled back a pace or two, unnerved to recognize the look in the little boy’s eyes. James was somewhere behind her in the house, presumably still in the kitchen, with an identical expression. But Jem was much too young to be lost in his own thoughts in such an unsettling way. What ghosts could he possibly have to gawk at? What horrors from his past could he possibly have recalled to the surface to relive in some masochistic ploy? The stare remained intact, unbroken, as Charlotte lost herself in her questions, in imagined possibilities of Jem’s infant traumas, each one more horrible and devastating than the next.

So when James appeared beside her, Charlotte screamed and lost her balance, falling into one of the cheap patio chairs. The plastic was unforgiving and her teeth clacked together as she landed hard on her ass. She could taste blood in her mouth.

“Jesus Christ, Charlotte,” James growled, closing his eyes against her shrill tones. “Do you always have to be so goddamn loud? I told you I’ve been battlin’ a headache for days. Or do you not give a shit about no one but yourself?” He looked down at Charlotte. The vacant expression was gone. James was clearly present in the moment, and him and his eyes were all impatience and contempt.

“I’m s-sorry, James. I-I w-was -” Charlotte stuttered. She wanted to apologize, but she was just so fucking tired.

“I brought you out some coffee because all do is think about you,” James sneered. He thrust the mug at her. The kind and thoughtful gesture was anything but considering his hostile, impatient tone and the muted violence in his actions. Charlotte flinched, but took the mug. She mumbled gratitude, but either James didn’t hear or didn’t care. “I’m going to work even though I feel like shit because one of us should do something.” James roughly dragged his hands along the edges of his face. “I feel god awful,” he groaned. He was wallowing in his misery until he snapped his gaze back to Charlotte. “Ain’t you gonna drink that coffee? I went through the trouble of making it so you’d enjoy it, not let it sit there and cool!”

Charlotte nodded slowly and lowered her gaze like a shameful child. “I will, I promise.”

She was so tired.

James looked at her for just another moment before storming to his truck. Charlotte listened to his boots thud heavily against the grass and then crunch against the gravel, making his progress. She didn’t want to look at him – he was being so cruel. He was especially cruel in the mornings lately. But Charlotte didn’t hear the expected opening and slamming of the truck door, or the expected and familiar roar of the engine coming to life, so she looked to James, to see of everything was alright in the thick heat, in the muggy silence broken only by buzzing insects and the soft whimpers of the little girl. When Charlotte looked, James was staring at her. This time, there was something dangerously close to pure hatred in his eyes. He was glaring at her. “Drink the goddamn coffee, woman!” James barked the order.

Charlotte flinched again, but did as she was told. Once she started drinking from the mug, James got moving again. He climbed into his truck, started the engine, backed out of the driveway, and drove away. Only then did Charlotte stop drinking and pull the mug from her lips. It had been quite the gulp, a few gulps really, and so Charlotte went to lick her lips clean, first the bottom then the top.

As her tongue swept her top lip, Charlotte froze. Something was wrong, terribly wrong. There was a bitter and metallic taste, something that reminded Charlotte of the feel of aluminum foil. It was a bad taste, a yucky taste. Something was wrong with the coffee. Coffee should never ever taste like metal.

The mug fell from her hands. It shattered against the concrete, exploding into sharp shards at her bare feet. Later, Charlotte would discover tiny cuts on her feet and wonder how they got there, where they came from. But currently, Charlotte was experiencing one hell of a moment of clarity. For that moment, she didn’t feel sick or tired or sweaty or scared. She didn’t feel anything. The sudden knowledge was expansive and it filled her completely.

Charlotte knew the coffee was poisoned.

Charlotte knew James wanted her dead.

In the distance, Scout was still crying.

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Be sure to let me know what you thought! xoxo

On horrible realizations.

A new academic year has started, but I am mostly unsure as to how this makes me feel.  I’m excited for the return to normalcy and to see coworkers and students on a regular basis.  However, I am sure I will miss lounging and will soon loathe the stress the school year inevitably brings.  However, my friend is reading a book all about mind set, which emphasizes the axiom that life is 10% what happens to an individual, and 90% how the individual reacts to events and circumstances and whatnot.  I’ve been a notoriously awful “over-reactor.”  Perhaps a resolution for the academic year should be to stay positive and patient.

 

courtoom

WEEKLY WRITING PROMPT #18: “A lawyer discovers that his client is guilty of the horrible crime for which he was just found innocent.”

 

Eliot Edwards (there was always something inherently to be respected about a man with two first names) rose beside his client as the honorable judge had instructed, as both men prepared for the verdict.  Eliot was cool, calm, and collected; his breath did not hitch as it entered and exited the two air sacks called lungs.  His hands did not tremble as he loosely clasped them in front.  He looked poised and professional, just as he always did.  Remarkably, the same could be said of the man beside, the supposed delinquent known as Harvey Miller.  For just about a month, Eliot and Harvey had been seated behind an elongated wooden table, listening to eyewitness testimony, and the coroner’s findings, and statements from detectives that seemed to prove that Harvey had brutally raped and then murdered four-year-old Lindsey Morris.  The state would have a member of the jury believe that Harvey pulled alongside the little girl’s front yard in his work van, casually rolled down the window, and called out her.  Merrily, happily, the beautiful, innocent girl skipped over and politely listened as Harvey explained that he was lost, and that his poor, poor puppy in the back was sick and needed a doctor and special medicine.  In her opening statement, the prosecutor took care to meticulously describe the way the little girl’s face most likely trembled with concern for the puppy and was consumed with an overwhelming – and irresponsible – desire to help.  Willingly, with minimal coercing because Lindsey came from a nice neighborhood with respectable, hard-working families living and loving in modest ranch-style homes, she would have climbed inside.  Most likely, she jabbered somewhat incoherently to Harvey, asking about the puppy and what was wrong and where he was from and what kind of car she was in.  As a result, Lindsey would have been woefully unprepared when she was led into the woods, holding onto a hand for comfort and reassurance and safety, knocked down, stripped and violated.

It was an unspeakable crime, and thinking over the lurid details often turned Eliot’s stomach.  He would look at Harvey, try to bore into the other man’s soul, to evaluate whether or not he was truly guilty.  Eliot didn’t think any human being could be capable of such apathy, of such inhumanity, but these things happened.  Harvey wasn’t overly altruistic, but he wasn’t irrational or unkempt or anything like a madman.  He seemed normal and even-keeled.  Sure, he had some dark moments in his past – an aggressive and physical altercation with his high school principal, and questionable accusations from several ex-girlfriends – but nothing that would precede such monstrosity as the rape and murder of an innocent child.  Eliot would not invite Harvey out for drinks or into his home, but a slightly uneasy feeling did not make someone guilty of murder.

As Harvey and Eliot stood, awaiting Harvey’s fate, Eliot felt fairly confident the jury would agree.  Most of the evidence had been circumstantial and there was no DNA evidence to speak of.  Granted Harvey had not been able to provide an airtight alibi for afternoon and evening in question, but the defense readily admitted Harvey was no saint and liked to tip the bottle back more of than not.  As such, memory lapses were common.  The jury foreman began reading the verdict sheet and Eliot knew his mind should be in the present, willing the juror to say “not guilty,” but he was troubled by a fact which had troubled just about everyone else involved in the case, cop and victim and lawyer alike.  Despite a thorough canvas of the crime scene and sweep of Harvey’s van and essentially ransacking Lindsey’s home, no one had been able to find her beloved turtle pin.  Lindsey had received the pin from her oldest brother, and he had bought it especially for Lindsey from the zoo during a class trip.  Lindsey was never without the pin – even wore it to bed when her mother’s typically watchful eye missed it.  Everyone believed whoever had the pin now must be the murderer, keeping it as a sick memento.  The pin seemed to be the key to the case and –

“…find the defendant not guilty,” the foreman read.  Eliot snapped to attention as Harvey clapped him heartily on the shoulder.  Eliot smiled and turned to shake Harvey’s hand.  Those behind them, and on the other side of the courtroom, dissolved into weeping and wailing.  They were family members of Lindsey, devastated by the outcome because they had all been so sure of Harvey’s guilt.  Eliot felt for them and his eyes ran over their downturned faces, their red-rimmed eyes, and their expressions of misery.  Eliot’s smile diminished.  He released Harvey’s hand so he could turn to hug his mother, the only supporter of Harvey’s, present for every single day of testimony.  She threw her beefy arms around her boy and Harvey was nearly being pulled over the wooden, glossy barricade that separated the audience from the members of the judicial process.  Harvey was pulled onto his tippy toes and with his body elongated, and bent at a rather awkward angle, the pocket of his button-down Oxford shirt hung low so that the tiny metallic object that had been residing within clamored to the tile floor.

Eliot saw it fall out of the corner of his eye.  He did not know what it was, but bent to retrieve it.  As he did so, he noticed it was a pin in the shape of the turtle.

All the wind seemed to be knocked from him.  Eliot dropped to his knees, breathing deeply through his nose to keep from vomiting.  He could feel eyes upon him, knew instinctively the eyes belonged to Harvey, and was suddenly terrified.

Eliot Edwards had sent a depraved lunatic free.

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