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 writing a short story (part three).

I found living in self-isolation because of quarantine to be very, very difficult. As it’s seemingly coming to an end in the Garden State, I think I can finally articulate why: the lost time. Time continues to pass no matter the circumstances, so even though life was paused, time kept going and it’s lost forever. The more I think about it, the more upset I get and the more I focus on what I’ve been missing out on.

Fortunately, I’ve been able to use the last month to make up for lost time with my older sister, Missy. Our relationship was strained growing up, which is anything but unusual for sisters. The reasons why we treated each other with animosity while growing up are hard to discern. Three is always a bad number socially as someone is usually left out and growing up, that person was usually me. Despite being a twin, I have all the signs and symptoms of being a middle child. I felt left out and like I didn’t belong, especially when my twin and Missy seemed to be so close. Also, the 5-year age difference was just enough to keep us in different stages in life. She moved out of the family home when I was still in high school (and primarily self-involved) and in no time at all, she had a family of her own and moved out of the state.

But now, we’re closer than ever, and it makes me so happy.

And the proof is self-evident. The other night, we watched “Now and Then,” a favorite film of ours from our childhood. It’s kind of like “Sex and the City” for pre-teens. The four young female protagonists allow for audience members to relate to and identify with parts of each character. Sam, played by Gabby Hoffman as a kid and Demi Moore as an adult, is a brooding, emotionally damaged writer working to reconnect with others. She’s reminiscent of Carrie Bradshaw.

Tenny, played by Thora Birch as a kid and Melanie Griffith as an adult, is a neglect, imaginative, over-sexed kid who grows into a fabulous, gorgeous movie star. She’s reminiscent of Samantha Jones. Roberta, played by Christina Ricci as a kid and Rosie O’Donnell as an adult, is a tomboy denying her feminine side until her first love comes along (thank YOU, Devon Sawa) and grows into a nurturing, no-nonsense professional woman, obviously reminiscent of Miranda Hobbs. Finally there’s Chrissy, played by Ashleigh Aston Moore as a kid and Rita Wilson as an adult, who tries to be perfect and proper while dealing with being the “chubby one,” and grows to have a full live with a loving family, which is all she’s ever really wanted, and calls the childhood friends back together when she’s about to have her first child. She’s reminiscent of Charlotte York Goldenblatt.

The movie “Now and Then” was beloved by many girls growing up in the 1990s. Hell, I was so enamored with it, I wrote a play for me and my cousins to perform at my grandparents’ house that was essentially just a rip-off. And much like women did with “Sex and the City,” we all argued over which characters we were more like. I was told I was Chrissy because I was heavier and followed the rules, but I always felt more like Sam – a disconnected, disillusioned writer. The other night though, while watching “Now and Then” with my older sister some 25 years later, she told me I was Sam, and it was a beautiful moment, to be so well understood and simultaneously validated by a sister who I assumed didn’t care enough to try. Not only does she know me, but it turns out, she always has. I guess maybe I couldn’t see past my own bullshit for so long, but now I can in this super special season of growth.

So even though I didn’t work on my short story for this post, I did something even more important: reconnect with a loved one. And, for the record, I did decide to have the group kill Madeleine in a weird, satanic ritual. So there’s THAT to look forward to.

Cast of “Sex and the City”
Cast of “Now and Then”

On writing a short story (part two).

So I’m having trouble with this short story, as I often do with short stories. I really struggle conceiving a plot to fit the limited length. My pacing seems off; things happen to quickly or without any authentically developed context. And my characters seem wooden, without depth. I know there’s nothing wrong with lovingly crafting a story (I think John Irving takes years to finish his novels), but short stories serve a specific purpose: deliver powerful prose in a compact space. I should be flooding the market with my short stories the way aspiring musicians offer demos. I want to be quicker, but I’m finding the results to be unsatisfying if I rush through.

And, if I’m being honest (which I always strive to be), I’m in Florida with family and there are a million and one setbacks and interruptions and obligations to be met. It’s frustrating, but as I wrote last time, I need to celebrate the small victories. So though this draft does not advance the plot persay, it does contain enough revisions to develop and deepen the narrative. Changes are marked via underline and change in text color (I switched it from black to red; hopefully it shows up?).

The Story (needs a title…)

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 ICDUX560BLK Digital Voice Recorder 1’ Black 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 but 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, and 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, with Adam’s proclivity to stay in especially terrifying places by himself, made her keep 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, 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. She chanced a glance at the group, and the only pair riveted in the way Zander 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 and gesturing towards the electronics on the folding table beside him. 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 that 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. 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 fingerprints 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. “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. 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 inside, to continue on, 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.

Comments? Questions? Suggestions?

I’m not sure where to go from here. I know I want it to end in mayhem and tragedy and chaos, but in an unexpected and engaging way. Do I …

  • have Bryan turn out to be a satanist and kill Madeleine to open the portal to hell in the estate?
  • have Madeleine kill Bryan in self-defense, or because she becomes possessed by entities in the estate?
  • have Zander kill them both in a satanic ritual the group members are in on?

All of these seem melodramatic and uninspired, but what do you think? I’d love, love, LOVE to hear from you. Let me know in a comment!

On writing a short story (part one).

If there’s anything I pride myself on, it’s being authentic while being kind. To that end, I must admit that I did not finish writing my short story. I didn’t post by 5 PM as planned. This is because I’m quarantining in Florida with my three nephews (all under 12 years old) and my niece (under two years old) and a house full of family. It’s been amazing and entertaining, but I am so tired. I’m also trying to finish the school year strong and it’s this kind of juggling that leaves me tired and uninspired. I know it’s critical, non-negotiable even, to make time for writing. Even though I didn’t finish the short story, I need to be proud of myself for what I did complete, which was nearly 1,000 words. And this is a typical part of my writing process, honestly. I’ll stop when I feel like I have to force it. This is where I ended up today:

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, through to Madeleine’s floor. That night, 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 her lip 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. 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 ICDUX560BLK Digital Voice Recorder 1’ Black 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, you don’t want a device that could miss potential evidence. She went to light a cigarette but when she focused back on the screen, there was a private message waiting for her from Johnny 99. 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, and 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, with Adam’s proclivity to stay in especially terrifying places by himself, made her keep 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, after a lot of obvious flirting. They decided to meet the next weekend during a group investigation for beginners at an abandoned lunatic asylum on the other side of town. So in a week, 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 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, thicker 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 the anxious group of paranormal investigators moved closer together and turned in unison to observe her. She released shaky breaths as she climbed from the vehicle to stand in the brisk evening air. Johnny99, real name Bryan, was wearing a denim jacket with a smiley face pin. She scanned the crowd but couldn’t see anyone matching the description from the message. Zander, the self-proclaimed psychic medium leading the investigation, started talking and gesturing towards the electronics on the folding table beside him. Madeleine was only half-listening. She was scanning, always scanning, for Bryan. She didn’t see him and loaded up with a digital recorder and an EMF reader. She followed the group inside.

As the group moved through the first floor, 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 fluorescent 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.” Everyone nodded, offered a quick, sympathetic smile, and then went back about their business, which at the moment, was following Zander deeper and deeper inside the abandoned lunatic asylum. 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.” She extended her hand.

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

On planning a short story.

Now that I’ve finished a 21-day creativity challenge (courtesy of Grammarly), it’s time to keep the confidence and creativity going! I thought it’d be a good idea to walk you through how I write a short story step-by-step.

Step 1: Get inspired

For me, inspiration comes from my surroundings. I feel lucky that I’m able to pull from my daily environment and my day-to-day doings. For the past three weeks, I’ve been quarantining in Cape Coral, Florida with my sister, her husband, and FOUR kids (all under the age of 12). It’s been entertaining as hell and while I may be short on sleep, I am definitely not short on inspiration or love or laughter. Surrounded by palm trees, heat and humidity, and unpredictable and fast-moving storms, I had an idea to set a story in the Sunshine State. There’s been an idea I’ve been kicking around for a long time about a guy murdering his wife and getting rid of the body at an alligator farm, the kind where they give tourists airboat rides, and the local sheriff works with a beautiful but broken bartender from a honky tonk bar to solve the case. That feels like more of a novel, because it would absolutely take time and space unavailable in the short story format to explain everything concerning the plot, so I hunted for another idea.

My nephew Jonathan LOVES scary movies. It’s all he ever wants to watch and I know I’m mostly responsible. I’ve been forcing them on him since he was about four years old. The other night, he joined me in watching old episodes of “Ghost Adventures.” The episodes in question featured Mark and Debby Constantino, paranormal investigators and EVP experts who died tragically. After several incidents of domestic violence, Mark killed Debby and himself after a standoff with police. You can read more about the tragedy here.

Paranormal investigating, coupled with personal tragedy, makes for engrossing material. It’s been storming a lot here too, so an atmosphere formed in my mind before an actual story did, but everything I needed was there.

Step 2: Create a bare bones outline

Scenes don’t formulate for me until there’s a tangible kind of plan. I love making lists and outlines for this very purpose.

  • Two paranormal investigators meet online during a televised, live investigation
  • They bond over corny, melodramatic personality and technology used (looking at you, Zak Bagans … sorry)
  • They plan to meet in real life for a real ghost hunt
    • Stanley Hotel (and use my real life experience)?
    • Research abandoned lunatic asylums?
  • During the investigation: he kills her? she kills him? they find real ghosts? SO MANY POSSIBILITIES!

Step 3: Character sketches

I honestly believe the best stories are character-driven rather than plot-driven. It could be the most exciting series of events in the history of literature, but if the characters are flat and do not elicit some kind of visceral response, none of it matters.

My character sketches aren’t too detailed, which is frowned upon, but it works for me. My main character is named Madeleine. Madeleine chewed on the end of her lip ring on the inside of her bottom lip, an anxious habit —> heavily painted lips, a dark crimson; thick, black eyeliner; pitch black hair (dye from the box, drugstore); listening to Screamo(?), heavy metal(?); studio apartment, light beet can beside her at desktop computer?

The above sketch is very visual; I believe imagery is ESSENTIAL to storytelling. The reader NEEDS to have a picture painted in their minds in order to connect to the characters and the story. So as a picture forms, there are more questions to answer: should I set the story ten years earlier? twenty years? And as the picture becomes clearer, it brings me to step 4.

Step 4: Specific scenes

Again with my list-making: I make lists of specific scenes I want to include. So far, I have a scene with walkie talkies and EVPs (a demonic voice coming through, something neither investigator is prepared for), a scene referencing ITC and “white noise” (to build mood and atmosphere), and a Van der Graaff generator (featured on an episode of “Ghost Hunters,” but to be believable and specific, I need to do more research).

Step 5: Research

I’m going to be looking up any technical details I’m not familiar with to give my voice authenticity (an element emphasized in Chuck Palahniuk’s latest book, a brilliant memoir on writing). After that, I’ll write a rough draft and post it here.

On an unrelated note… in the past six or seventh months, I’ve become a better woman. I’ve been moving ever closer to the woman I always dreamed I’d be, and that is thanks in part to two very special women. I promised I’d write an entire blog post about them, but they’d be embarrassed and truth be told, I don’t think I’d ever be able to put into words how amazing these women are, at least not to my own satisfaction. So the short story will be dedicated to Casey and Kathleen.

On playing tiny violins.

New year, new me.

That’s what everyone says. Now me, I’m not quiet as ambitious, but I am pleased (more than pleased, actually) to share that I am making good progress with one resolution: to write every day. What I have to share with you for this blog post isn’t another self-pity party or a list of attributes I wish I possess or anything like that. It’s … a short story!

Without further ado, I present for your reading pleasure: “BARBARA AND HER VIOLIN.”

Wooden violin on a sheet music.

Barbara sighed deeply. She was seated on a low, plush stool on a similarly plush rug in the center of her small, sparse living room. Her violin case was resting quietly beside her. Its golden clasps shone magnificently against the hard, matte black covering. It was beautiful to behold, had been a birthday gift from the first and last man she had ever loved, but at the current moment, it was not beautiful enough to hold her attention. Instead, Barbara was focused on her hands.

Her worst fears had been confirmed earlier that morning during a routine visit to her doctor. Barbara hadn’t told him about the pain in the mornings and she kept quiet about the way her finger and wrist joints would scream after a few hours of playing. Her mother had taught her that ignoring a problem made it go away, so Barbara never spoke about what was going on with her hands. And she made no mental notes whatsoever about how often she rubbed them to soothe the throbbing aches in her fingers and wrists. No one had to know because nothing was happening. Nothing to see here, folks. Just move it along, Barbara thought with a rueful smile.

But then Dr. Gabbison handed her a clipboard with some routine paperwork to sign. “Oh, Barbara,” he moaned. “Why didn’t you tell me about your hands?”

Barbara looked up with wide eyes. She had been struggling to grip the pen, wincing as she struggled to curl her fingers. She couldn’t bear the pity in the doctor’s eyes, so she averted her gaze to the appendages in question, the very things she was trying so hard to ignore. There were bony knobs on all of her fingers, and the skin around each was red and inflamed. They were awful and hideous to behold. Their ugliness viciously betrayed their former grace and dignity. Those hands could make wonderful music and remind people that humans were capable of more than just eating and shitting and dying. Now, they were discolored and gnarled and she hated them. When she looked back to Dr. Gabbison, she thought she might cry.

She left his office an hour later. Barbara left with a prescription for some super strength pain reliever and an impending sense of doom. Dr. Gabbison scheduled Barbara for another appointment in a week and tried to be optimistic, but he mentioned steroid injections and splints and even surgery, all of which scared Barbara half to death. All of that meant getting better was not an option. Dr. Gabbison talked about life0changing measures, alterations to her beloved and comfortable daily routine. Dr. Gabbison talked about not playing the violin anymore. She could never – and would never – understand how anyone could demand that someone else stop creating, stop making beautiful things for this grotesque world and its morally disfigured inhabitants. Barbara did not know how she would cope with the daily disappointments without the violin. She didn’t know how to keep from crying herself to sleep when the other side of the bed had been so cold for so long without the violin. Barbara didn’t know what she was going to do.

Daunted by the enormity of the tragedy she was facing, Barbara simply sat on her low, plush stool situated in the center of the plush carpet in the middle of her nearly empty living room. The blinds were drawn. The air was stale. Dust mites apathetically floated in the narrow streams of light that slipped in. Barbara sat with her hands curled about themselves in her lap. They seemed like they were not part of her, like she holding a weak and dying thing that she would be happy to see go as it meant the suffering was over, but mostly because she was disgusted by its continued existence. The hands she had cared for and admired for so long were useless to her now, and so she despised them. And the worst of it was that they were still part of her, and she couldn’t just ignore them until they were better. She couldn’t act like it was all okay because the hands riddled with arthritis had betrayed her and sat now as useless stumps, daily reminders of what she once had been and could never be again. As if growing older wasn’t enough of a travesty. She’d have to continue on alone, without the only companion she had known for nearly two decades. The music was gone, red and inflamed and silent, and now Barbara had nothing to help her temporarily forget that all there was left to do now was die.

She wondered if she should make herself a drink.

Barbara slowly got to her feet, thinking now that every single joint in her body was seizing up on her. She grabbed her lower back with a grimace and shuffled slowly, hunched over, into her small but tidy kitchen. It was a good thing she didn’t pass a single mirror on the way. She was moving like a woman twenty years older. It would have depressed the hell out of Barbara to see herself so frail, so weak, so near the end.

Barbara opened up the cabinet with glass inserts to find just the right glass to toast her final defeat with. What it was filled with would be inconsequential; anything with alcohol would suffice. Her eyes scanned the shelves to the bottom of the cabinet, and there they widened and filled with tears. Her breath caught in her throat.

Barbara was looking at two glass tumblers with a date from long ago etched elegantly around their middles. Henry had surprised her with them on the last night of their second honeymoon, a trip booked once Henry’s cancer proved indestructible against radiation and surgery and prayers and pleas and oils and creams and everything else, dear Lord, they had tried everything and nothing had worked. Barbara had broken down immediately, burying her face in her hands and letting the sobs wrack her body, sending shudders from her shoulders to her guts. Henry took the news with the same quiet dignity he always had. He shook the doctor’s hand, thanked him for his efforts. He helped Barbara to her feet, kissed the top of her head, and practically carried her to the car. He drove them home (for Christ’s sake, Barbara thought, I wasn’t even able to drive him home) and locked himself in the guestroom for two days.

When Henry emerged, he acted like nothing had happened. He kissed Barbara hard enough to make her knees tremble, made them a huge breakfast, and talked excitedly about what he was calling “his farewell tour.” He wanted to taste the air of great cities he’d never been to. He wanted to make love to Barbara in distant lands and wake up beside her with different sunlight on their faces. He wanted to live the way people are meant to; fearlessly and joyfully. He wanted what little time he had left to be so fucking good (the only time Barbara had ever heard him use such language) that he’d miss being alive.

They sat side by side and planned the whole thing – reservations and itineraries and accommodations galore – on Barbara’s laptop.

They ended the trip in Paris, Barbara’s absolute favorite city. Henry’s condition was rapidly deteriorating. He was always tired and though he put on a brace face, Barbara could tell he was relieved when she cancelled the remaining sightseeing tours. They stayed in the hotel room, making love and gorging themselves on French cuisine via room service. Barbara would play the violin at night. Henry would smile, crying as he watched her play. He told her he loved her over and over again. He told her he would miss her over and over again. Barbara didn’t trust herself to speak, so she only held him and kissed him and loved him the best she could.

The last night, Barbara awoke alone in the extravagant bed. They had made love and afterwards, she had fallen asleep, wrapped in Henry’s arms. When she woken and discovered he had left, she began to panic. He was too weak to go anywhere without assistance and he couldn’t speak a word of French. Barbara threw the covers off and frantically began getting dressed, wondering where he could have gone and debating calling the authorities. She had one leg in her pants when the door opened.

“Henry!” Barbara cried. She ran to him, half-dressed, and threw her arms around him. “I was so worried! You didn’t leave a note or anything an your cell phone was on the nightstand, so I didn’t know what happened to you!”

Henry stopped Barbara’s mouth with his, holding her almost as tightly as she was holding him, with a strength he hadn’t had in months. He backed her up to the bed. “Don’t bother getting dressed,” he said, winking.

Barbara fell back onto the bed and got a good look at Henry. He looked good, looked like he had when the trip started. She also noticed he was holding a brown paper shopping bag. Henry noted Barbara’s quizzical expression and set the bag on the bed. From it, he pulled an expensive looking bottle and two equally expensive looking tumblers. He handed the glasses to Barbara. “Look at the inscription,” he said. Barbara did as she was told. It said: BARBARA AND HENRY, AN EVERLASTING LOVE THAT BEGAN 02/18/1973.

Barbara blinked back tears. “Henry,” she said. She let his name hang on her lips and hang in the air because it was so sweet and so precious, and she wanted to savor it.

Henry held Barbara’s face in his hands. “I love you, Barbara. I love you more than I have ever loved anyone. You are the only thing about this life I’ll miss.” He paused to take a deep, shuddering breath. “So when I’m gone, you need to keep going. Do you understand me?”

Barbara shook her head, tears steadily pouring down her cheeks. “I can’t have this conversation with you, Henry.” Barbara thought that ignoring a problem really did make it go away, that acknowledging the problem was that start of all the trouble, so she shut her eyes and tried to be somewhere else.

Henry released her face and grabbed Barbara by her shoulders, shaking her. “Don’t do that. Don’t refuse anything life gives you. This is hard and this seems terribly unfair, but this is it, Babs. This is the hand we’ve been dealt so we’ve gotta play it.” He kissed her lips. “I know you don’t think you’re strong. I know you believe yourself incapable of facing any kind of adversity. And I know a lot of that is my fault because I’ve never let you. I’ve always fixed whatever was broken and I’ve always handled whatever needed to be handled, and I’ve always spared you the gory details. Barbara, honey, that was a mistake. I’m worried I might have set you up for failure.”

Barbara emphatically shook her head “no.” “Henry, you never ever did anything wrong. I -”

Henry interrupted her. “Barbara, stop. Listen to me, okay? Don’t argue or anything, just listen to me. Life is going to happen to you after I’m gone and you’re going to have to keep living no matter what. If that means finding love with someone else, or if that means moving somewhere else, whatever that means, I need you to do it.”

Barbara threw her arms around Henry again. She was sobbing, smearing snot and mascara all over his shoulder. “I love you, Henry. I don’t want to do this without you.”

“You have to,” Henry said. His voice was thick and he swallowed all that emotion down before speaking again. “You have to and you will. You’ll be an old, beautiful woman with long, gray hair, captivating men and women of all ages and types with that violin of yours. The sky will be the limit without me holding you back,” he said. He laughed softly and kissed her again. “Promise me you’ll never stop.”

Barbara looked Henry in the eye. The only man she had ever loved, the man who would be dead and buried in less than a month. Henry had saved her from countless dangers, both real and imagined, both big and small. He’d always kissed it and made it better. He was her lover and cheerleader, her biggest fan. There was absolutely no conceivable way Barbara could go on without him. It wasn’t a promise she could make as it certainly wasn’t a promise she could keep. But Barbara also couldn’t deny a dying man his last wish. So she kissed him like she’d never be able to kiss him again, like this really was the very last goodbye, and then she said, “I promise.”

Henry kissed her open mouth. “I’ll drink to that,” he said, smiling though there were tears gathering in his dark eyes. He filled both glasses with the bourbon he liked, and they toasted to Barbara’s promise.

Now, over ten years later, Barbara stood in her small but neat kitchen, holding one of the glasses from that tragically perfect evening in a Paris hotel room with a gnarled, grotesque hand. Next to Henry, the violin was her only source of companionship. To lost it would be like losing Henry all over again, would be a fate worse than death. That violin had brought her to Henry. After she had played with a small orchestra at the local community college, Henry had been waiting for her outside. He told her that he just had to tell her she was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen or heard. He said it would be his life’s biggest regret if he didn’t ask her out. And so their courtship had begun.

Henry was at every single performance, even when his failing health didn’t really allow it.

At their wedding, Barbara played an original composition she had written for Henry.

When they had their first bad fight, Barbara played her violin until Henry finally started talking to her again. This same tactic was successfully employed time and time again over the years, as the music was a cue for Henry to come and have a conversation or, at the very least, to tell her to knock it off because he wasn’t angry anymore and just wanted some quiet. Barbara didn’t think she could abandon those memories or do such a disservice to the instrument that had helped her keep the promise she made to her dying husband.

Slowly, painfully, Barbara filled the glass with the bourbon Henry had loved. She drank it down quickly and then returned to the living room. Slowly, painfully, she removed the beautiful instrument from its elegant case, and she began to play.

In a couple of hours, she didn’t even feel the pain.

the-sad-violin

On fountains.

It’s sweltering in my house. I was dripping sweat earlier. I went outside earlier, to try and benefit from the meager breeze coming from the bay, and my outdoor furniture was wet from a storm that had passed by earlier but I didn’t even care. That’s how hot it is.

I’m not telling you this for sympathy. I think I’m building character.

My life is quiet and small and plain. Again, I’m not telling you this for sympathy or vague reassurance that my life is not the way I perceive it (that just makes someone feel crazy, doesn’t it?). I’m telling you this to illuminate my character, because this realization makes me restless. I always feel like I’m wasting my time and my youth, that I should be doing more, more, more. So I’m taking baby steps to do just that.

On Wednesday, I went to Princeton with one of my best friends. We strolled the campus like we belonged there, despite me being clad in clothes purchased from Old Navy and not J. Crew or Ann Taylor or anywhere else equally as impressive and expensive. Not only that, but an intrusive coffee stain that was too large to be ignored assaulted the lower-half of my shirt in a way that simply screamed I didn’t belong, that I was totally and completely faking it. But I didn’t let my general sloppiness ruin the trip – I’m not that dramatic.

I dragged my patient and impossibly too kind friend to the university to peruse the F. Scott Fitzgerald archives. I anticipated manuscripts and pictures kept under class in a far and quiet corner of the library. I assumed the public had free and easy access to the most personal belongings of a literary genius, but I was so wrong. We had to register, received photo identification cards to enter a restricted part of the library, wash our hands, lock away our belongings, and specifically select which aspects of Fitzgerald’s life we wanted to access. We did this without complaint (which is saying something considering the heat of the day was blistering and my dear, dear friend never intended to spend 150 minutes looking at the personal affects of some dead author), and were shown into a reading room. There, I made plans to visit Great Neck, Long Island for a long weekend (the setting that inspired The Great Gatsby) and to travel to Hackensack, New Jersey (specifically to see the Newman School, which Fitzgerald attended). My friend and I both flipped through a sort of combined scrapbook of Scott and Zelda, compiled by Matthew J. Bruccoli (the only Fitzgerald biographer that matters) and Scottie, Scott and Zelda’s daughter.

Scott’s drama teacher wrote, “Good God, save the soul of the man with the spark!” in reference to Fitzgerald. What a tragedy; what a shame.

We were presented with a facsimile of the manuscript of The Great Gatsby, complete with edits and revisions in Fitzgerald’s own handwriting, not to mention the entire manuscript was handwritten. I nearly cried.

We read letters from Zelda to Scott, which chronicled the beginnings of their relationship, as well as the more tumultuous aspects of the courtship and marriage. I compiled a list of Zelda’s best quotes.

  • … it’s so easy, and believing is much more intelligent
  • And still I’m so mighty happy — It’s just sort of a “thankful” feeling — that I’m alive and that people are glad I am
  • There’s nothing to say — you know everything about me, and that’s mostly what I think about. I seem always curiously interested in myself, and it’s so much fun to stand off and look at me …
  • … something always makes things the way they ought to be …
  • I love you sad tenderness — when I’ve hurt you — That’s one of the reasons I could never be sorry for our quarrels — and they bothered you so — Those dear, dear little fusses, when I always tried so hard to make you kiss and forget
  • … It seems as if there’s no new wisdom — and surely people haven’t stopped thinking — I guess morality has relinquished its claim on the intellect — and the thinkers think dollars and wars and politics — I don’t know whether it’s evolution or degeneration
  • To be afraid, a person has either to be a coward or very great and big
  • … free to sit in the sun and choose the things I like about people and not have to take the whole person
  • It is odd that the heart is one of the organs that does repair itself

I loved the eccentric, charming and dangerous and alarming details I learned about their love, like how Zelda consulted a Ouija board, and how she blamed Scott for her mental illness but firmly believed he could cure her.

We read Scott’s letters with a painstaking clarity, as we knew of the end he didn’t see coming. It was heartbreaking, really.

I decided the goal is to  write the last chapter of my next book in the Nassau Inn, to truly channel the passion and vibrancy and tragedy of F. Scott Fitzgerald.

I found some places I’d like to visit in France, places Fitzgerald went to and found some kind of inspiration, whether for writing or living large.

We wandered around campus for a while longer, sneaking into classrooms, disrupting tour groups, and feeling – even if for just a little while – that grand things were still possible for us.

We ventured into the cathedral on campus and a Starbucks and a book store to beat the heat.

We traveled to Asbury Park for some live music and great company. It was a great day, the kind summers are made of. I intend to have more like them.

I was inspired to write the following short story. Enjoy!

FOUNTAINS
by Mandi Bean

Carlos knew that the equator separated the globe into northern and southern hemispheres, and Carlos also knew that the farther south a person traveled, the hotter the weather became. However, Carlos could testify to the fact, and possibly even prove, that the farther west a person traveled, the same phenomenon occurred. He had lived on the eastern shore of New Jersey his entire life and could say without hesitation, could say with near absolute certainty, that the middle of the state was a burning, boiling wasteland in July – the most uncomfortable Summer month to begin with – and that it served no real purpose. Carlos had traveled west at the request of his fashionable, trendy girlfriend and now regretted it something fierce.

They were traipsing about the campus of Princeton University so that his girlfriend could admire the rich history and breathtaking architecture and blah, blah, blah. It was ninety-three degrees and Carlos was miserable. He felt damp and disgusting in places he didn’t even know could sweat. Still, he took it all in stride, trying to keep his girlfriend happy and blissfully unaware of his discomfort. He said nothing as they walked innumerable staircases to gawk at old buildings and open fields that meant something to someone somewhere, sure, but that person was not Carlos. His mood dangled precariously between “thoughtfully quiet” and “crankily homicidal,” and he offered his girlfriend only interested smiles as she prattled on and on about tradition and excellence and whatever.

Carlos only perked up as they neared the center of the sprawling campus. There was a pool, six inches deep at the most, with a fountain at its center, an impressive, enigmatic modern sort of structure spouting water. Carlos took his girlfriend’s hand and rushed towards it, the way someone might rush towards a miraculous pool while stranded in a desert. But this pool and fountain was no mirage; children splashed here and there, supervised by patient adults who smiled and nodded with a calculated, weary sort of encouragement. Carlos reached the pool’s edge, where wide, flat stone steps led down to the water. He was smiling wide, with a youthful exuberance, and he turned to his girlfriend. “I’m going in,” he stated and sat down to remove his shoes and socks.

His girlfriend offered a sweet smile, totally enchanted by Carlos’ juvenile need to cool and comfortable, by his childish ambitions. He was a beautiful young man with dark features that made him appear to be super intellectual, but in reality, he was nothing of the sort. But his girlfriend, equally as beautiful, was not disturbed by Carlos’ lack of desire for education and all things brainy. It kept her in check, kept a balance in the relationship. “Go right ahead,” she smiled. “I’ll wait here.”

Carlos paused and looked up at her. “You’re not coming in? This heat is brutal.”

She shook her head and seated herself beside Carlos. “It’s hot, but I’m okay. You go in, though. I can’t tell you’re dying to.” She leaned against him for a moment to kiss his cheek. That was all the permission Carlos needed, and he took off, splashing with reckless abandon to reach the fountain at the center. That spewing, falling water was the most efficient way to get cool. He passed the laughing, shrieking children and paused at the base of the fountain. The water fell on him in the most refreshing way and he was content to simply exist, it simply be in a world where water was free to fall where it may. What a time to be alive, what with fountains and pools to keep the intense summer heat at bay. He closed his eyes and attempted to wash away the sweat and sourness of the July sun.

After a few moments, he opened his eyes and leveled his gaze. He was surprised to find another adult, another wanderer about campus, engaging in the same activity. She was gorgeous, and Carlos also noted the way the woman had been equally as daring, had strode in the same way Carlos had, not caring for the onlookers or any kind of judgments. There was only the oppressive heat, and the refreshing relief of the water, roaring down from the fountain and tinkling as it reached the pool surface. They both appreciated the opportunity, had seized it, and now stood breathless, together in their choices and ideology, but separate in their strangeness to the other.

Carlos breathed a simple “hey.”

The woman nodded, and kicked water up at Carlos. That was her greeting; that was it. Aside from the playful smile, she had offered nothing, not even her name. But Carlos was game. He returned the splash. In a matter of moments, Carlos and the woman were doing their best to drown each other. Their raucous laughter and innocent challenges drowned out that of the children and even the most dutiful of supervising parent stole a glance at the two grown adults making complete asses of themselves in the fountain on the campus of Princeton University.

But, as do all things in life, the splashing lost its appeal and became old and tired. Carlos looked back to his girlfriend and found her reading (there was always a book in her over sized bag). He waved goodbye to the gorgeous, wild and free woman he had spent the last ten minutes with. Without really thinking about it, Carlos returned to the studious, safe and responsible woman waiting for him out of the water. He supposed that was the way it was supposed to be, that for every soul willing to get lost at sea, there had to be another anxiously waiting on shore.

As he came nearer, dripping wet and breathless and smiling, Carlos’ girlfriend looked up and barked a laugh. “Am I glad you drove,” she teased, “because you would never ever get into my car like that.”

Carlos bent to swiftly kiss her before she could protest or squirm away.

fountains

 

On boys on bicycles.

Hello all!

I present to you a short story I started writing while on vacation in Florida at the beginning of last month.  I am trying to work on being creepy in a subtle way.  Please comment to let me know what you think, and I hope you enjoy it!

bikes

BOYS ON BICYCLES

Mandi Bean

 

By all accounts, the vacation was desperately needed by the Smith family, so the uncooperative weather was especially frustrating and almost painfully disappointing.  Amber felt the sting of missed expectations most keenly as she had deemed the trek to the Sunshine State a necessity because she absolutely needed to feel the baking rays of a fat, sweltering sun fall heavily upon her as she squished cooled, clumped sand between her toes while standing at a meandering shoreline, watching breaking waves.  The sudden, nearly physical yearning for a sandy shore had surprised Amber, but in hindsight, it made perfect sense.  Amber and the rest of the Smith family hailed from the Great Garden State, which had recently been brutally ravaged by Hurricane Sandy.  With rollercoasters claimed by the Atlantic, enacted martial law, and missing pieces of the famous and beloved boardwalk, the Jersey Shore was no longer a place to escape to.  Indeed, many of its inhabitants were escaping from the coastal communities up and down the shore.  The Smiths were no exceptions and for reasons Amber could not explain, she needed a beach.

This inexplicable need did not grasp anyone else and Amber had difficulty rounding up family members to head to the beach.  In the end, only three others decided to pile in the Hyundai with Amber; her twin sister Susan, her young cousin Adam, and her aunt Kim, at whose home they were vacationing.  Adam was a restless kid looking to get out of the house and, being his godmother, Kim wanted to please Adam and her devotion compelled her to come along (Amber believed Kim’s unconditional love and devotion knew no bounds and that Kim would follow Adam to the ends of the earth were it ever asked of her).  Susan’s motivations were not as obvious, and Amber could only surmise that her twin simply wanted to drive.

With Susan at the wheel and with Kim as the co-pilot, Amber and Adam claimed the backseat of the car and thus began the fifteen minute drive east to the ocean.  There was superficial, intermittent chatter but starting, let alone maintaining, a conversation became more trouble than it was worth over the wind roaring in and out of the open windows.  Amber was happy to stick her arm out of the window and flatten her palm so that her hand rode the waves of air; it was worth the annoyance of having to squint against the powerful gales and to constantly and continuously tuck bothersome strands of hair behind ears to keep them from sticking in the corners of her lips and eyes.  It did not matter to her that it was cold (for Florida, anyway), nor did it seem to matter to anyone else.  The windows stayed down for the duration of the drive.

When the Hyundai came to a rest in a slanted parking space, Adam bounded from the car, excited for room to run in a way that only a child can be excited.  The adults hurried after him, up a flight of wooden stairs to a sparse boardwalk, and then down another flight of wooden stairs to the beach.  The beach was essentially deserted aside from a few other small groups of more obvious tourists and some die hard fitness fanatics reaping the cardiac benefits of running in the sand.  Amber, before making it all the way to the chilly sand, sat upon a wooden stair to roll her jeans over her calves and above her knees.  She also removed her flip flops and held them firmly in hand when she joined the others near the water.  Adam raced Kim along the shoreline as Amber and Susan chased the water back to the ocean and then promptly fled from the icy liquid as it traveled back over the sand.  Amber and Susan also wrote “New Jersey” in big, capital letters in the sand, using their feet and toes.  Then, for a change of pace, Adam raced Susan as Kim and Amber observed, occasionally interfering with either runner by playfully using physical restraint to impede progress.  Short of being tackled to the ground, the runners were breathless, laughing and spinning to a halt in the sand as their loved ones hung about their shoulders and waists.

Though everyone was having fun, it really was too chilly for the beach.  The four resolved to pack it in, call it a day, and head on home.  Amber paused at the top of the stairs leading from the beach to the boardwalk to take one – just one – longing backward glance at the sand and the rough waters of the Atlantic.  Sullenly, she unrolled the legs of her jeans and wiggled her feet and toes back into her flip flops.  There was only sea as far as she could see, and the landscape made her feel limitless and full of endless possibilities.  It was intoxicating and she offered up a silent prayer to Whomever Might Be Listening for warmer weather and longer trips to the beach.

But perhaps Amber wasn’t the only one longing for scenic escapes – no matter how brief – because once everyone was safely back inside the car, Kim made a suggestion.  “Turn right at the end of this street instead of left,” she instructed.  “I’ll show you guys where the really nice houses are.”  Susan dutifully obeyed and with all the windows down, the foursome traveled northwest along Ocean Drive.  There was nothing remarkable to be seen at first, but eventually the sprawling hotels and quaint seaside shops gave way to exotic looking vegetation that concealed starts of cobblestone driveways that led to grand mansions, which, at times, could not be seen from the road.  Those homes in view were certainly impressive.

There were stone staircases with wide steps leading up to double front doors from either side, and the doors were made of rich, sturdy mahogany.  There were balconies with thin, delicate-looking iron railings.  There were terracotta roof tiles covering wide, sloping roofs that turned houses into haciendas, complete with cement archways, an overabundances of hues of orange, and which betrayed the historical Spanish influence on the entire state.  The accompanying guest houses were all substantially larger than the Smith family home and truly dwarfed the house of the surrounding residential communities.

Susan was only barely rolling along, operating the vehicle at a snail’s pace.  Open-mouthed, she craned her neck from left to right and back again, incredulously observing the excess of wealth on either side.  Her scan was panoramic so that, at the very least, the driver was conscientious enough not to slam into anything.  That being said, Susan did neglect to look into her rearview mirror as she was so wholly taken by the new and exciting scenery.  As a matter of fact, it was not until Amber made an announcement from the backseat that Susan gave any kind of thought to the rear.

“There’s a car behind us,” Amber said, her neck twisted gracefully over her right shoulder.  She turned forward after a beat and added, “He looks pissed.”

“So what?” Susan grunted dismissively, clearly annoyed at having been interrupted.  She stuck her pale, toned arm out of the open window and waved the following car around, indicating the driver should pass the four-door filled with unabashed looky-loos.  He passed, after shooting Susan a murderous look, and everyone relaxed, as if a useless, creeping anxiety had been relieved.

But that was only because the rear faded from their minds and no one turned to see the bicycle following so closely that the rubber tread of the front wheel nearly grazed the bumper.  It would have been an unsettling sight indeed, especially when the rider’s face came into clear view.  His young face was not innocent as it should have been, but was instead so blank and vacant and devoid of emotion that irrational as it may seem, the boy seemed sinister and cold.  His youth and carefree activity did nothing to dispel the image of evil that lingered about his person, just beneath the surface.

Adam, upon being confined to the car, became restless once more and fidgeted in the seat.  He looked all around for excitement, even for some trouble, and was successful when he looked behind him and saw the young boy.  Adam knew the boy was about his age, but also knew instinctively that the boy was somehow much older.  There was experience and wisdom running through the odd lines of his face.  Adam believed the young boy knew things that young boys shouldn’t know, had seen things young boys shouldn’t see, and had done things no one should ever do, regardless of age and gender.  His tiny body shook uncontrollably and he scooted to the end of the seat so he could whisper in Kim’s ear, “There’s someone else behind us.”

“What?” Kim asked as a reflex, because she had clearly heard Adam and required no further explanation.  She turned around in her seat to look out the back window.  She saw what Adam had seen and then some, because her advanced age allowed her to comprehend and articulate the oddity of the scene.  Laughing without much humor to keep her own fears at bay and to assuage the unspoken ones belonging to Adam, Kim said to Susan, “Wave this kid around.  He’s tailgating you on a bike.”

Susan laughed with genuine humor.  “That’s ridiculous,” she smiled and once more sticking her pale, toned arm out of the window, she waved to the boy.  She quickly wondered if he would know what the provincial gesture meant, and she was about to yell out instructions in an annoyed tone when he sped past the car.  He was moving so quickly and so close to the window that Susan had to pull her hand in speedily, as if she had been dangling it before the open mouth of a hungry alligator.  “What the hell, man!” she roared.  Angry and in need of validation for her visceral, intense reaction, she turned to Kim.  “Did you see that?”

Kim shrugged, merely imitating a cool indifference.  Her voice betrayed her as it trembled ever so slightly.  “Kids can be just as rude or as creepy as anyone else.”  Though it had been chilly, the weather would have been described as downright frigid by Kim, the longtime Florida native, and she rolled up her window fast.  “Let’s just keep going.”

Amber laughed.  “You’re not afraid of an elementary school kid, are you?”  She shook her head slowly, still smiling.

“There’s more,” Adam whispered.  An intense silence filled the already cluttered interior of the car, and their eyes followed two more boys, older than the first, cycling by at an almost impossibly slow pace; it was as if they were not even moving.  The eyes of the boys were just as intently focused as those of the passengers in the car, each party staring the other down.  Kim, Amber, Adam and Susan observed with wide eyes, betraying their fearful emotion without much thought.  The boys on bikes gazed back with a curious detachment that hinted at a complete lack of empathy and as a result, also hinted at a complete ability to terrorize.  Adam started softly crying.  Amber unbuckled her seat belt, slid close to him and wrapped her arms around him.

“Let’s get out of here, Sue.  This place is weird.  I don’t like it.”

“Okay, okay,” Susan responded, slightly agitated by fear.  She made to increase the pressure her foot was placing on the gas pedal, but found that she could not because the three boys on the bicycles had parked themselves directly in front of the car, so close that the boy who appeared the oldest, trailed his fingers along the edge of the hood.

“Back up, back up,” Kim chanted.

Susan shifted the car into reverse and lifted her eyes to the rearview mirror and had to stifle a scream.  More boys on more bicycles were now barricading any possibility of escaping from the rear.  “Roll up your windows!  I’m locking the doors!” Susan commanded, her voice cracking as it reached a level of hysteria never before reached.  For a brief moment, she wondered if she was being silly; they were children on bicycles.  Where was the threat?  What reason was there for the sweat accumulating, or for the increased pace of her heart, or for the tears pricking at the back of her eyes?

Amber, still holding tightly to Adam, had locked the doors and was waiting for the window on her side to complete its infuriatingly slow progress upwards.  She stared through the windows for a pair of sympathetic eyes, for someone who looked as if they might care.  All she could see were these mini monsters, these children with stone faces who were intentionally scaring them.  It did not make any sense and for Amber, that was the worst part about it.  It had been chilly, yes, but it was still sunny.  They were on vacation in Florida, observing how the other half lived.  It was not dark and ominous and they were doing nothing illegal or harmful, nothing to justify such a turn of events.  Her eyes frantically and desperately scanned the surrounding lawns for adult eyes, aged eyes, eyes with wrinkles that belonged to someone who could rush over and demand the absurdity cease and desist in an authoritative tone.  Amber’s eyes only met statues that may have once been human, but could not possibly be human now.  They were adults on lawns, pushing mowers or chatting idly with neighbors, and they were observing the harassment and intimidation occurring before them, but there were no passing looks of disgust or pity.  Their faces were blank and their eyes were pointed in the right direction, but it did not seem as if they were really seeing.

Kim, Susan, Amber and Adam were helpless and all alone.

Only Adam’s soft and horrible moans penetrated the suffocating silence.  Agonizing minutes passed where the aggressors remained absolutely still and the victims only breathed in and out.

Then, suddenly, the boys on the bicycles descended.

On a good week.

dancecentral2

And so closes the first full week of the New Year. As part of one of my three resolutions, I am going to lose a substantial amount of weight by the time 2014 rolls around. To aid me in that endeavor, every week I am adopting a new strategy in addition to my regular routine of walking and counting calories. This week’s addition was incorporating a fun workout, something that is so enjoyable that I wouldn’t realize I was even working out. Such mental trickery has never worked for me, but I must admit that dancing really is an entertaining way to burn calories. The article that provided me with “52 ways to blast your blubber” from The L.A. Times suggested Zumba because it is wildly popular and usually, you can attend your first class for free. For me, I decided to keep it cheap and private, and used “Dance Central 2” for the Xbox Kinect in my own home. Three times this week, with the third time being today, I played this video game while burning calories with a smile on my face. The music was great and the game has a “fitness” option where I can choose for how long I work out, and at which kind of pace (interval, warm up, cool down, crazy-calorie-burning-not-for-the-faint-of-heart). There are other games in the series too (hence the “2”), so I can mix it up.

justdance2fitness

(I hope I look this cool – I know I don’t always feel this cool while dancing)

I must admit that I am having difficulty in getting radio stations to respond to my e-mail efforts. I am incredibly polite and professional in the message, and attach the press release with accompanying art, and a synopsis of the book. It’s only been a week of trying but so far, no go. This upcoming week, I am going to reach out by telephone first. When I called to follow up with one station and spoke with an incredibly helpful woman, she suggested calling producers and/or on-air personalities to begin networking. I figure since that information is beneficial and was obtained over the phone, I better start calling first. Makes sense, right? Wish me luck!

 

I am submitting short stories. I am hoping that now that I am published, there will be a greater interest. I want to dedicate more time to writing and get my priorities in order, especially since I want to be a writer full-time … eventually. I envision myself writing in the upper bedroom of a log cabin by a lake in some remote location preferably in the northeast of the country. Is that weird?

 

I am going to see more of people. I am not going to let work, exhaustion, or other frequently employed poor excuses keep me from living and not wasting one second.

 

I hope someone finds this inspiring.

 

“We will get by. We will survive.”

– “Touch of Grey,” Grateful Dead