Friday, December 31, 2010

Heroes Wanted (Part 7)

John sat atop his gray mare, one hand on the pommel, and stared down the ridge at the structure below. It wasn’t much of a house. From this distance, it looked like a square clapboard frame that held only one room, two at the most. Spiraling up from a rock chimney, a wisp of smoke trailed through the air and smelled of mesquite wood, and he wondered what Lois had been cooking. More important, however, he wondered what he would say when he finally faced her.

It had been a long time since he last saw the woman he once swore he would marry. It wasn’t so much that Lois had ever said anything; it was in the way she looked at him, with a wink and a smile, like it was only an issue of time that separated their souls and that time was growing shorter with each passing day. It was destiny.

His father didn’t much believe in ideas like that. Growing up, raised to help with the daily details of the so-called good work, John listened as his father proclaimed that fate and destiny were like two saloon whores who sang songs and promised much but always left a man alone to wallow in his beer of could-haves and might-have-beens. The only destiny a man could count on was that he was headed for one place or the other when he died and that was it. Still, Lois had been the dream John held on to, the one he never gave up in spite of the wood pounding and spittle his dad had to offer. She was his salvation, and John figured he would face even the gates of hell as long as he had Lois by his side.

At the time, he hadn’t wanted too much, really, just a small place out on the plains where he could raise cattle and have a family, sleep with the woman of his dreams and provide her warmth and comfort on those long winter nights when the wind howled through the roof timbers. But as it turned out, life never looked at John with favor. Everett Wilcox had changed all that. Everett with his reckless ways. Everett with such self-assurance that he could do anything he wanted and have anyone.

John grabbed the reins. With the heels of his boots, he tapped the mare’s sides lightly.

“All right, Sadie,” he said. “No better time than now, I guess.”

The horse responded with a nod of its head as it plodded ahead, slowly descending the hill.

As they approached the house, a woman stepped through the front entry and leaned against the doorpost. She wore her hair pulled back and tied up in a roll behind her head, and in spite of the heat she clutched a white shawl around her shoulders. The dress she wore was plain and simply made and held the color of a clear blue sky.

A few feet from the house, he stopped the mare.

Lois smiled and slowly shook her head.

“Well, well, if it isn’t John Colton,” she said. “Didn’t think I’d ever see you again.”

Her voice sounded as smooth and relaxed as remembered it--something he wished he felt at the moment. During the long ride over to Wilson, and then out to this place, he had thought of all the things he could say. He dreamed up each word, the rise and fall of each syllable, like a lyric of poetry. He wanted to express all of the things that had been left unsaid, let it gush out as a long soliloquy of pain and regret; but now, sitting on his horse, Lois standing in front of him, John found that none of those words came.

A long moment passed between them, both saying things with their eyes that their mouths couldn’t speak. Finally, Lois broke the silence.

“I heard rumor you had taken off with the cavalry. That you were fighting the Indians out there somewhere in the Arizona territory.”

John shook his head. “I got no issue with the Indians.”

She nodded. “I’d also heard that you’d headed south, crossed over into Mexico and was shot down by a couple of Rurales, something to do with a young señorita.”

“It appears that you’ve been listening to the wrong people.”

She smiled. “Well just last month, I heard that you were the sheriff over in Sundance. And by the looks of the star on your chest, I’m guessing at least that rumor turned out to be true.”

He didn’t say anything to that.

After a moment, she pointed toward the side of the house. “Well, why don’t you tie up your horse and come on inside? I’ll make you a cup of coffee.” She turned to go in the house, but stopped up short. “You look like you could use a drink of something strong.”

That one stopped him and at first he wasn’t sure how he should respond. Had she heard about his drinking? Did Everett share that with her? But then he saw the humor in her eyes and figured he must have looked terrible, which was most likely given he’d just spent the night in a jailhouse with a prisoner who wouldn’t shut his mouth.

He nodded. “I could use some coffee.”

As she stepped inside and he tied off the horse, John thought she hadn’t changed much at all over the years. Not one bit. In fact, it felt like the years were only a dream, and he was still looking at the same girl he’d loved only yesterday.

He walked around the side of the house and paused at the doorway. He stared out across the way. It would be so easy to ride back up that hill, he thought. Just move on, be the sheriff of a small dirt-water town and let Lois live her life. But then he remembered that night and why he came, and he figured there was no life worth living until, like Everett had suggested, he settled all debts.

And this was just one of them.

Friday, December 24, 2010

#FridayFlash - Heroes Wanted (Part 6)

In Wilson, it didn’t take long for John to find out more information. The General Store owner, a grey haired man with stubble for a beard, whose full name was William Henry Wadsworth Bishop, but who also liked to be called Hank, said, yes indeed, he’d heard of the new preacher man, a feller who lived with his young bride about a mile or so northwest of town. “Just follow the river,” he said, “and you’ll eventually run into ‘em.”

John thanked the store owner, making sure to call him Hank but not believing it to be that big of an issue one way or the other. After all, if the man wanted to be called Hank, why not just say so? Why go on about his birth name like it really mattered to a perfect stranger?

Heading north now, John felt a gust of air. He smelled the earthly scent of prairie dust and remembered how it smelled that same way fifteen years ago. In fact, there were many things he remembered about that night. How the moon, blazing like fire, rose up out of the east. And how in the west, lightning sparked and lit up the clouds that boiled into the sky. He remembered the clop-clop-clop of horse hooves as Everett and he rode out of town, Everett showing off the gun he’d stolen out of his daddy’s war chest. At one time, Everett’s father had been a sergeant in the Tenth Cavalry stationed in Fort Concho. Since his wife’s death, though, he’d been nothing more than a broken down cowpoke who spent most of his time, and his earnings, drinking whiskey in the local saloon--that is, when he wasn’t cussing Everett or accusing him of being the death of the best woman who ever lived.

John remembered Everett bragging about the gun.

“I done shot me a coyote with it once already.”

“Really,” John said, amazed at this new revelation. “When?”

“Other night. My daddy and me rode out after one that Mr. Dix said was attacking his herd.” Everett spun the gun around his finger. He grabbed the grip and raised it up, taking aim. “Shot him from over a hundred paces, probably two.”

John thought about that. “Wow,” he said. “How’d you get that close?”

They rode in silence for a moment until Everett said, “’Cause he was too busy eatin’ on one of Mr. Dix’s steers, John, what else?”

John shrugged. “I dunno. Strikes me as unusual, though.”

Everett turned and stared hard at John. “You sayin’ I’m a liar?”

John looked away. “I didn’t mean any by it, Everett, I was just asking a question."

Everett stuffed the pistol down inside his pants. “Yeah, well, don’t question me again.”

They cleared the Mill Creek Bridge and continued riding into the night. In the distance, John heard the lowing of cattle as they finally crossed into Mr. Dix’s ranch, a twelve hundred acre spread of grassland and spidery cholla cactus.

To change the subject, John said, “So how’s Lois?”

Everett turned and gave him another hard look. “She’s fine, John. Why’re you asking?”

“Just something to talk about, I guess.” He reached up and adjusted his hat. “I mean, how’re you two getting along, now that her daddy told you to leave her alone?”

Everett looked away. “Her daddy ain’t the final say.”

“Really.” John felt his curiosity rising up, but didn’t want to press it. Asking too many questions could lead Everett to asking a few of his own.

Everett pulled up on his reigns. “Whoa.”

John stopped his horse.

“What is it?” he asked.

“Over there.” Everett pointed. “You see it?”

John looked into the darkness. About a hundred feet away, he saw a dark shape flopping around on the ground.

“I don’t believe it,” Everett said.

“What? What is it?”

Everett smiled. “My coyote trap actually worked.”

“Your what?”

“A coyote trap. I done caught me one.”

John stared into the darkness.

“So what’re you gonna do?”

Everett pulled the pistol out. “What do you think I’m gonna do?” He fired off two rounds, each shot followed by a shrill scream as bullets struck hard rock. The dark form flopped around furiously.

“You got to get closer, Everett.”

Everett looked at him. “You think you can do better, huh?”

“That’s not what--”

“First I’m a liar and now you’re better than me?”

“No, Everett, I--”

“Well, here’s your chance, cowboy. Pull your rifle and you hit it.”

John shook his head.

Everett pointed the pistol at John. “You better pull that thing, you know what’s good for you.”

“Look, Everett, I got nothin’ to prove.”

Everett cocked the hammer. “But I do.”

John looked at the gun. “Don’t do this.”

Everett pulled the gun back. “You scared, John.”

John remained quiet for a moment. Finally, he said, “C’mon, Everett, this is dumb.”

Everett smiled. “Tell you what, I’ll even be a gentleman. I’ll put a wager on it.”


“Enough talk. Now’s the time to put up, though I don't think you can. Bet you money you can’t do it, John. Not from here, anyways.”

John stared into the distance at the dark figure. It had finally stopped thrashing around.

“One shot,” Everett added. “You hit it, and then I’ll know you’re a better man than me.”

John took a deep breath as he thought about it. This was the way it had always been between them, Everett flaring up and John taking a step back. And just for once, money or not, wouldn’t it be nice to stop taking those backward steps?

Riding through the plains, the hot sun burning at his face now, John watched himself pull the rifle from the scabbard. He heard the shot ring out in his mind, and he stopped his horse.

Leaning to the side, he threw up again and again until nothing else came out.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Circle of Friends

My good friend Paige has bestowed a nice gift upon me: The Circle of Friends award. Since she didn't know of any rules that applied to it, for the sake of convenience I'm going to apply the same criteria:

  1. Identify your friends, and
  2. Link back to the one who gave the award.

Here, then, are my circle of friends, writers who have given me great help in the past, both through first reads and insightful criticism, and to whom I owe so much:

  1. Greta Igl
  2. John Towler (No blog, but is now an editor over at Every Day Fiction)
  3. Linda Simoni-Wastila
  4. Jon Strother
  5. Jane Banning (No blog, but much of her poetry has been published by Long Story Short)

My hat is off to all of you. You have been great friends along the journey.

Until next time...

Friday, December 17, 2010

#Friday Flash - "Heroes Wanted" (Part 5)

The man Hayworth found inside wasn’t John Colton, the current and soon to be former sheriff of Sundance. Instead, he found a portly man with a bald head, a few strands of hair raked across the top. He was wearing a blue shirt and sat at the sheriff’s desk, and at the sound of the door crashing in, the sight of two guns pointed straight at him, the man’s face turned ashen. Hayworth wasn’t sure if he’d even breathed in the last ten seconds.

Hayworth glanced around the jailhouse. Off to the side, seated on a straw mattress with plate of something in his lap, Everett sat in the cell, smiling like he'd just heard a joke.

Turning back to the man at the desk, Hayworth said, “You’re Henry Clausen, the livery owner, right?”

The man’s eyes moved left to right as if he were looking for someone else to give him the answer. Sweat beaded up on his slick forehead; it stained the pits of his shirt. A mass of tobacco bulged beneath the skin of his left cheek and bobbed once as he swallowed. Finally, he nodded his head.

“Why are you here?”

“Th-th-the Sheriff asked me to sit in.”

“And where’s the Sheriff at now?”

Clausen shook his head. “Didn’t say. He just saddled his horse and rode out.”

Behind Clausen, a dog lowered its head, bared its teeth and growled. The hair along its spine rose up into a long cord.

In the cell, Everett threw his plate to the floor. He brushed his hands and said, “One thing about this town, while they ain’t so good on hospitality and manners, they at least know how to cook up a mighty fine meal.”

“It doesn’t look like they know how to let a man wear his own clothes, either,” Hayworth said.

Everett looked down at himself. “Yeah, that.” He snorted. “John’s way of being funny, I suppose.”


Everett shrugged. “I told you, we go back a ways.”

“Well, it don’t look so funny to me.”

“You ain’t looking at from his side.”

“And you are?”

Everett shook his head. “Nah.”

Hayworth turned back to Henry Clausen.

“You’re still here?”

Clausen looked confused and Everett laughed.

“You don’t seem to understand the situation, Henry. Don’t you have a family you love, a life you’d like to keep on living?”

Clausen nodded.

“Then I’d advise you to hightail it before my friend loses all patience. He’s already got the guns out, and I can tell you he doesn’t like to put ‘em away without shooting something.”

The man jumped up. He shuffled past Hayworth and then bolted through the door.

“Man was in too deep,” Hayworth said. “Didn’t seem to know it ‘til just now.”

“Which goes to prove what we always say,” Everett added. “Some people are just too stupid to live.” His face hardened then. “And what took you so long?”

Hayworth stepped toward the desk. The dog growled again. He glanced at it, stomped a boot on the floor, and the animal scurried under the desk. It barked a couple of times. Turning to Everett, he said, “When you didn’t return to the camp, I wasn’t sure what to think, so I decided to ride on in, ask around.”

“And you spent all morning asking questions?”

“No, I talked to Francine first.”

Everett slowly leaned back, laughing. “I can see it all now. How is she doing?”

“I imagine she don’t have much else to say.”

As Everett shook his head, Hayworth looked the cell over.

“How 'bout we get you out of there?”

Everett nodded. “And get my clothes back. And after that? I've got some business with the Sheriff.”

“You heard Clausen, he doesn’t know where the man went.”

Everett smiled.

“I do.”


John rode west, his back feeling the heat and weight of the mid-morning sun. He wasn’t sure what he would say to Lois when he found her, but he knew he had to find her just the same. It had been fifteen, maybe sixteen years since he last saw her--too long to live in the shadow of the past.

Have you settled all your debts?

That was the question Everett had asked. Like he knew all along how John felt about things, how he felt about Lois. From the moment he first saw the warmth in her smile, the twinkle in her eyes when she laughed, the delicate skin of her cheeks, John had felt an attraction like he never had before. And hearing her voice, calm like a slow moving stream, as she talked about literature and men whose names he didn’t recognize, John knew he would stop and listen to her all day if she wanted it. Forget about the chores--the floors that needed to be swept, pews that needed to be dusted; when Lois was around, the rest of it ceased to exist. Which was shocking in a way, come to think of it. But it wasn’t like he could have stopped to talk with his father about it, the man so pure and focused that John knew he would have sounded like a braying mule had he even tried to explain.

In the end, John found he couldn’t talk to anyone about his feelings. As it turned out, Everett had seen Lois too and made the first move. So, John stuffed everything away and locked it up tight.


Riding along, John heard that voice just as clear as he did on that night so long ago.

Bet you money you can’t do it, John. Not from here, anyways.

At the time, it was a bet worth taking. As he cleared the hill and looked down on the dusty town of Wilson, though, John once again felt the heaviness on his chest, the sick feeling in his gut.

How strange it was that life could turn things upside down.

Friday, December 10, 2010

#FridayFlash - "Heroes Wanted" (Part 4)

Beasley’s Hotel and Saloon, a two-story clapboard structure next door to the Livery, was the seat of attraction in Sundance. Angus Beasley, an Irishman who moved out west to put some space between him and those “cheap, thuggish bastards” in Boston, chose the spot with the future in mind. “Anyone who’s anyone in this town’ll be stoppin’ at the Livery,” he once said. “Men’ll be needin’ a drink while they’re waitin’. And whether they’re a waitin’ on a horse or just passin’ the wee hours with one of the ladies, it doesn’t matter. Everyone needs a drink now and then. I just want to be there at both times.”

John opened the front door and stepped into the lobby separating the hotel from the saloon. Across the room, above the swinging doors leading into the saloon, Beasley had mounted a wooden plaque, the name Beasley’s Cove carved in large block letters. John didn’t understand that one. There was no lake or pond within miles of Sundance. In fact, the only body of water nearby, outside of a muddy creek, was a trough out front for the animals.

“It don’t matter what I call it,” Beasley had said when asked. “I could call it Buffalo Corkers and nobody’d a say thing, long as they could still get a sip of whiskey or a glass of beer.”

Standing in the lobby, staring at the sign, John imagined Beasley was right. Outside of farming and ranching, the beer and whisky drove the wagon in this town. It drove many other things, too, as well he knew.

He stepped into the saloon and found Beasley behind the bar engaged in his daily routine of wiping the glasses down with a dish rag. Beasley looked up as John walked across the floor. He grinned.

“Top of the mornin’ to you, Sheriff. What brings you in so early? The sun’s not even up full yet.”

“I need to see if your cook can stir up some eggs, maybe a slice of bacon and a biscuit.”

Beasley nodded. He placed the freshly wiped glass on the back bar and said, “Would this be for you or your prisoner?”

John looked down. He rubbed the back of his neck.

“Yes, about that. I’m sorry if I caused you any trouble last night.”

Beasley shrugged. “What’s it to me? Mr. Wilcox had already filled his belly. I’d say you put more of a damper on his evenin’ than mine.”

“Mr. Wilcox, huh?” John shook head. “A man like that and you have to dignify him?”

“I keep fairly simple terms, Sheriff. As long as they drink without givin’ me any trouble, then what business do I have to bother them?”

“And if they decide to bring some trouble?”

Beasley reached under the counter. He produced a double-barrel shotgun and placed it on the bar.

“Then I’ll deal with it.”

John smirked. With a shotgun and a sly tongue, Beasley was indeed a man who could take care of himself and say what he needed. He glanced over his shoulder at the stairs leading to the second floor.

“How’s Francine?”

“I don’t know,” Beasley said. “Haven’t seen or heard her all mornin’. My guess is she’ll be sleeping it in today, along with everyone else.”

John nodded. Thinking about it now, he hated the way he had handled it--that had been the whiskey--but if he couldn’t uphold the law, then what good was he as a sheriff?

“Please extend my apologies to your guest,” John said.

He turned and walked away from the bar.

“Can you have your cook deliver the breakfast to the jail?”

“Sure,” Beasley said. “So, we’ll be settlin’ up later then?”

John stopped. He furrowed his brow. “What was that?”

“You may be the Sheriff,” Beasley said, “but I still got a business to run.”

John nodded, thinking about Beasley’s question. “Don’t worry, Angus. I’ll take care of it.”

Stepping through the lobby and out of the hotel, John turned and headed next door.


Hayworth quietly closed the door. He walked down the hall and took the outside stairs down to the street. The sun was up and by the looks of it half the morning had already passed away. After Francine told him all that had happened, he took a long look at her half naked body and decided to stay for a while. Sure Everett might be a little pissed, but what did it matter? It wasn’t like the man was going anywhere anytime soon.

He looked down the street and saw the jail house, a few people meandering around. Then, while he took a moment to put his hat on, Hayworth mapped out a plan in his mind. At the hitching post, he un-wrapped the reigns for his horse and walked down the street. It needed to be quick, he told himself. The Sheriff didn’t need an opportunity to think about what was coming. Give him that, and the idiot just might pull a gun. And he was dumb, no doubt about that. He had to be. Anyone who held the notion he could arrest Everett Wilcox without consequence was either extremely brave or out of his mind and Hayworth had never seen this sheriff show any spine.

He stopped in front of the jail and wrapped the horse reigns once around the post. For a jail, it wasn’t much, just a square adobe with bars for some windows, a single pane of glass in front.

On the wooden porch in front of the door, he drew both pistols and cocked the hammers. A young boy walking by stopped then, and Hayworth told him he’d better find his momma and find her right now. The boy ran away.

Lifting a leg to kick the door in, he thought, We gonna have some fun. Only when the door snapped open, he didn’t find what he expected.

Not at all.

Friday, December 3, 2010

#FridayFlash - "Heroes Wanted" (Part 3)

John tossed the empty bottle back into the drawer.

Everett smiled faintly. “The bottle may be empty, but you’re still a drunk. Always have been.”

John shook his head. “Not always.”

Everett laughed. “Oh yeah, that’s right. Back when your daddy was alive.”

“Leave him out of this.”

“Boy, he would have skinned you, he ever found you with booze.”

“That’s enough.”

“No telling how he’d react now, he knew how you turned out.”

John snatched the Remington from against the wall and pointed it toward the cell.

“I said that’s enough.”

Everett leaned forward, his forearms on both knees. “What’re gonna do, John, shoot me?”

John took a deep breath, let it out slowly. He closed his eyes. Once again, he’d let Everett take him across the line.

“No,” he said finally. He shook his head and laid the rifle across the desk. “I’m not like you.”

Everett pursed his lips. “No. You never have been. That was always the problem.”

“No, the problem was your willingness to kill a man with no thought otherwise. To you it was like riding a horse on a warm summer day. It didn’t matter who. Or that he didn’t do anything to you. All you needed was to listen to your cold heart.”

Everett’s smile widened.

“See, I knew there was something more than a new-found concern over a dead goat farmer.” He leaned back and sucked at his teeth. “You must think I’m dumb or something, but I noticed right away how you never answered my question.”

John didn’t say anything.

Everett said, “You still haven’t gotten over that night, have you? In fact, that night has probably haunted you every night since.”

John stared at the desk drawer. Why did he have to pour it all out? Boy, another drink would go down good right now.

He shook the thought off and reached into the drawer. Grabbing the bottle, he tossed it into the belly of the wood stove where glass popped against metal and shattered into pieces.

Everett chuckled. “Touched a sore spot there, huh?”

John turned in his chair and faced the window. Outside, the sky had finally turned the color of an old bruise.

“You can say all you want to, Everett. It don’t mean a thing.”

“I think it does,” Everett said. “So tell me. Have you settled all your debts?”

John sighed. “What’re you talking about now?”

“Aw, don’t play dumb. This is me you’re talking to, your old killin’ buddy.”

“We are not buddies. As I said, I’m not like you. I never was.”

“That’s right,” Everett said. "Even when it came to Lois, you were never half the man I was.”

“What’s she got to do with anything?”

At that, Everett’s smile was so big it showed a mouth full of crooked, yellow teeth. “The reason I asked had you settled up everything. Because if you haven’t, you still got time.”

John narrowed his eyes. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Everett’s face looked amused. “You really don’t know, do you?”

“Know what?”

“Lois. She’s back. Been back, actually, going on a month or two now. But I guess you been too busy drinking away your miseries and playing sheriff to notice something like that.”

John shook his head. “If Lois had come to Sundance, I would have noticed it.”

“Did I say she’d returned to Sundance? Nah, she’s over in Wilson. Apparently shacked up with some preacher man who likes to go around sharing the Gospel, trying to save people for Jesus. Tried to save me too, but I told I was having none of it. Heaven doesn’t have any place for a man like me. He told me it wasn’t true, and I said, ‘Save it for someone else, preacher, someone who might actually place a gold piece in the plate for ya.’” Everett snorted. “He didn’t think that was too funny. I certainly did though.” Everett raised his eyebrows. “Oh, and there’s something else you might like to know. In fact, I think you’ll appreciate the irony of it. Her husband, the feller who rides around preachin’ to anyone who’ll listen? Turns out, he also goes by the name of John. John Summerfield. Now, ain’t that a stitch?”

“Good for her,” John said, fighting against the emotions rising up within him. “I still don’t see your point. Lois has got nothing to do with your being in jail.”

“So you say.”

John stood. “And I’ve done all the talking I want to this morning.” He grabbed the Remington and walked toward the door.

Everett said, “Where you going?”

John looked out the window.

“The sun’s almost up, and you said you were hungry. I best get you something to eat.”

“Uh-huh.” Everett chuckled some more. “When you see her, tell Lois I said howdy, okay?”


She couldn’t believe how real the dream had been. Even now, slipping into consciousness, the hint of smoke and firewood tickled at her nose. She had been at her mother’s house, back in Abilene, her mother the wife of a general and what Francine would later learn also the part-time lover of a young corporal who liked to ride more than horses out on the prairie. She had been trying to tell her mother about the soiled clothes, crying because she knew there would be another beating involved, when the smell of smoke rose up around her. Fire licked at her flesh, boiling it into blisters. And, then she heard her mother’s voice; only it didn’t sound like her mother at all, but something dark and feral.



In the darkness of her room, the voice called out again and brought her fully awake.

“C’mon Francine, time to wake up.”

Though she couldn’t see him, she felt him and smelled him, and she knew that voice. Hayworth.

She heard the click of gun’s hammer, felt the cold steel against press against her temple.

“We need to talk.”

Friday, November 26, 2010

#FridayFlash - "Heroes Wanted" (Part 2)

“You have the sorriest jailhouse I ever laid eyes on.”

Everett had been in his custody only six hours now, the sky outside still as black as coal, and already John had started to entertain thoughts that his prisoner might not make it until Tuesday, the day Elroy Hardings, circuit judge for western Texas, would show up for his monthly visit to Sundance. The whiskey from last night had finally drifted away, promising a massive headache in its wake, and if John had to suffer through much more of Everett’s groaning, he might just dispense with the circuit judge and execute a little justice of his own, the rule of law be damned.

“And believe me,” Everett continued, “I’ve seen plenty of jails in my time.”

Which proves what? John thought. He didn’t say anything though; instead, he rubbed at the bridge of his nose.

He looked at the floor where Toby lay with his head between both front paws. He’d received Toby a couple of years back from the Florence widow. He didn’t want to take the dog at first -- given his record, John didn’t know how he would manage to be a good owner -- but Mrs. Florence insisted, saying that her husband Gerald had passed on. She didn’t see the need in staying around either, and she didn’t want to leave the dog stranded. Looking down now, John was glad he took the dog. Toby was about the best friend in the world any man could have.

“You may think you have me locked up for good,” Everett said, “but I promise you this won’t be the last jailhouse I’ll ever see.”

The dog glanced up with sad eyes and thumped its tail once.

John said, “I know how you feel, friend.”

Toby rolled over on his side with an exasperated huff of air.

“Hey,” Everett bellowed. As if John had been a hundred feet away and not ten.

John looked up.

“I’m hungry. So, how about you rustle me up something to eat? Or don’t you believe in feeding your prisoners?”

John swiveled in his chair and kicked Toby’s bowl toward the cell. It scuttled along the floor like a scorpion with its tail on fire. When it hit an uneven board, the bowl toppled over and a crusty chunk of refried beans that Toby had left uneaten fell out.

Everett looked at the floor. “You can’t be serious.”

John turned away to hide his smile. Sure it was silly, borderline childish, but it felt good just the same and he told himself not to feel sorry about it.

Everett stepped back and slumped onto the straw mattress in the corner of the cell. “What’ve you got against me, John? You want to be a hero, that it?”

John shook his head. “I’m no hero,” he said. “Besides, your problem ain’t with me, it’s with the law.”

Everett blew out a long trailing whistle. “Well, I’m glad we got that straight. Seriously, though, you haven’t liked me for years. Ever since we went to shoot that coyote.”

“It’s true,” John said. “I don’t like you. I don’t know what it is, maybe some people are just born bad, but you’ve been riding trail with the devil for years now and for a long time you’ve had it coming. And mostly I’ve had to sit by and watch, unable to do something because either I didn’t have the power or when I did I couldn’t prove anything. But now, you’ve made a mess of things. I have a body. I have your gun. And better yet, I have your admission of guilt.”

“Which is your word against mine.”

John nodded. “You have a point. But I’m willing to wager on it. How about you?”

Everett shook his head, smiling as he said, “Like you said, both you and the judge have it out for me.”

“Again, it was you that pulled the trigger on Mendoza.”

“And now, what, you finally have a conscience over some greasy farmer, that it?”

John stared at his desk for a moment. He sighed.

“As the duly elected sheriff, I’ve been entrusted with a responsibility to stand up for the rights of others. Even greasy farmers.”

“Ah, that’s just talk. You don’t believe a word of it.”

“That’s where you’re wrong, Everett, I do believe. And I intend to do the job, even if that means I have to face off with the likes of you.”

Everett chuckled. “You did your job all right. After you drank up enough of that courage you keep hidden in your desk.”

John snorted. He reached down, opened up a drawer, and lifted out his bottle of rye whiskey. He looked at it for a moment, contemplating the reasons why he should drain it or why he shouldn’t, but then pulled the cork and tilted the bottle toward the floor.

“Well, look at you,” Everett said, “finding some of that old-time religion.”

“Just deciding to cut all ties.” John looked at Everett. “To everything that has kept me down.”


Hayworth Dalton heard the pop and hiss of firewood and opened his eyes.

“Put another log on, will ya Everett?”

When no response came back, Hayworth looked around the makeshift camp. He found that he was still alone.

Everett had said he just going in to spend a little time with a woman, be back in a bit. Looking around the camp now, though, Hayworth saw that Everett never make it back. Which meant there had been some trouble.

“Ah nuts.” Hayworth reached for his guns. This was the way it had often been with his old friend -- ever since they’d joined up years back -- Everett finding himself in trouble and Hayworth always rescuing him. Truth be told, it was starting to wear like a bad saddle. And now, it seemed, he’d have to do it again, ride back into Sundance and figure out what mess needed to be cleaned up.

Friday, November 19, 2010

#FridayFlash - "Heroes Wanted" (Part 1)

John Colton chambered another round. In the room, a wisp of gun smoke hovered in the pale glow of lamplight.

He said, “I won’t say it again, Everett.”

Beside the bed, Everett Wilcox stared at the pillow where his head had been only a moment earlier. Before John barged into the room and shouted to get out of bed. John would later say seeing Everett like that was nearly the ugliest thing he’d seen all year, Everett wearing nothing but his underwear, a pair of grungy socks. What kind of man wore socks to bed anyway?

Everett said, “Okay, John,” his tone slightly irritated like a father might have toward a son. “I done what you asked. You mind telling me what this is about?”

In the corner of the room, Francine Love, Sundown’s well-used whore, clutched a bed sheet against her frumpy body. Her mouth hung open, her eyes on the brink of tears.

John cocked his head toward the door.

“I think it’s best you leave, Francine.” His words came out slow and lazy, the whiskey already taking over more control than he wanted; however, the time had finally come to do what he should have done long ago and he couldn’t have gone this far without drinking up a few shots of courage first.

Francine nodded, her eyes filling up with tears now, and she jumped through the doorway, clearly not concerned that he could see the clumpy skin on her backside. He would later Henry Clausen, the Livery owner, that Francine naked was indeed the ugliest thing he’d seen all year.

John turned and stared at the pillow, the blackened hole punched through by his bullet. When Everett didn’t fully comply but lifted up and demanded that John get out, John fired off a round just to let Everett know who was going to be in charge this time. Looking at the pillow now, though, he was surprised, practically shocked, that he’d actually done it. For one thing, he could have hit Everett, which would have required a good story for Judge Hardings, like how he thought Everett was drawing on him. And for another thing, as drunk as he was he could have hit Francine, for which there would have been no good excuse.

He glanced back at Everett, who stood by the bed, an expectant look on his face.

“I’m taking you in.”

Everett dropped his hands. His shoulders slumped.

“You’re drunk. Maybe you should go back to your little jailhouse and sleep it off, uh?”

“Maybe,” John said. “Before I do, though, I’m gonna walk you over with me, put you in the cell.” When Everett blinked, John added, “Oh, I’m serious. If you don’t think so, I’ll put the next bullet in your chest just to prove it. And in case you’re thinking it, I won’t care what God will have to say about it.”

After a moment, Everett said, “On what charge?”

“The murder of Roberto Mendoza.”

“Roberto?” Everett snorted. “Everybody knows I shot him in self-defense. I got witnesses.”

“Who’ll testify to what? How your bullet somehow circled the man and hit him in the back?”

Everett pursed his lips. “You not only accusing me of killing a man, you saying I’m a coward, too?”

“The body speaks for itself.”

“Don’t matter. He came looking for me, saying how he was going to kill me. People’ll testify to that.”

“What did you expect? You raped his sister.”

“That was just a woman who thought I was serious about her. When she found out otherwise, she made up a story. Surely you know how some people are, how they can misrepresent the facts.” He paused and smiled. “Or maybe that’s what this is all about.”

John shook his head. “This is about a dead man and your bullet in his back.”

“He had a pistol on him.”

“And you know what the funny thing is about that pistol? I remember seeing it another time, too. Only then, it was a younger Everett Wilcox, sneaking his daddy’s gun out, saying how he was going to shoot a coyote with it. I’ll even say how I remember you shooting it out there in the desert, and how afterwards you twirled it on your finger.”

Everett narrowed his eyes. “You try telling that to the judge, and I’ll have three witnesses standing in line to say how they saw Roberto purchase the gun. I’ll even have the general store owner tell how he sold it for five dollars.”

John nodded. “Bring your witnesses, and I’ll bring me. We’ll see who the judge believes.”

The room drew silent.

Finally Everett said, “He was just a lazy goat farmer. Nothing nobody else cared about.”

“I care,” John said. He jerked the rifle toward the door. “Now let’s go.”

“Can’t I even get dressed?”

John shook his head. “You take one step toward your clothes, the gun you most likely have with them, and it’ll be the last step you take. Just to be fair though…” He walked over to the chair where Everett had tossed his clothes. He kicked one boot, sent it across the floor where it stopped at Everett’s feet. He kicked the second one, and it went almost as far.

“There,” he said. “And if you don’t start moving, being seen in your shorts will be the least of your concerns.”

Everett looked down at his boots and then glared at John. “This ain’t gonna go well for you. I guarantee it.”

John nodded. “Maybe. You gonna put a bullet in my back, murder me like you did Mendoza?”

“If it comes to that.”

John smiled. “I may be a little drunk, Everett, but I’m not nearly as dumb as you just proved yourself to be.” He cocked his head toward the floor. “Now get those on before I decide justice ain’t worth waiting for.”

Everett looked at him for a moment, but then reached down and grabbed his boots.

Friday, November 5, 2010

#FridayFlash - "What She Left Behind"

She should have erased it. Gena knew better than to leave it there, let her anger burn like it did. But then, darn it, why did Jeff have to be such a pickle-headed goober? After all, weren’t they like best friends forever? Which meant he was always supposed to be on her side, and she on his, thick and thin, till the world exploded or was swallowed up by a worm hole, either one. They even pinkie-swore on it.

She raced across the Miller’s Creek covered bridge, her tennis shoes slapping against the cold hard wood. Ahead, through the open mouth at the end of the bridge, the mountains stood black in bas-relief against the pale glow of the rising moon.

“Oh… God,” she said, the words heaving out between each labored breath.
She cleared the end of the bridge and found the dark trail that led through the forest. Inside, her heart thumped against her chest. Her throat burned. Her lungs burned. Her legs burned. And right now, she wished she would burn and rise up like smoke, carried away by the winds.

“Please God, no.”

“Shut it, Gena.”

Behind her, Jeff’s footfalls thwocked! out of the black mouth of the covered bridge. There was no mistaking the anger in his voice as he finally cleared the entrance and took the path behind her. “Just get there before it’s too late.”

They took the trail into the forest.

Certainly, if anyone had a right to be angry, Jeff did. It had all started out as some harmless fun, just a game. Their own little secret. At first, they even laughed at it, thinking no way could it possibly be true. It was just another example that Grandma needed to take the big sleep in a rest home somewhere.

At the birthday party last week, Gena opened grandmother’s present to her and stared at it perplexed.

“A piece of chalk?”

“Not just any chalk,” Grandma had said, one finger in the air. “This is anything you can think of in your heart. Just put it down and… voilà!” Grandma’s wiry eyebrows jumped. Her hands pulled apart like a bomb had exploded between them. She stared a Gena for a moment, smiling like she was about to say something else, but didn’t. Instead, she shuffled away, cackling and repeating the same thing. “Voilà!”

To test it out, they decided on old man Winters, who was always yelling at the neighbors to keep their dogs out of his hibiscus. They sat down on the cement patio behind Gena’s house and drew Mr. Winter’s house, his garden, and twenty rabbits. The next morning, the whole block was talking about the swarm of cotton tails that had devoured Mr. Winter’s garden.

At first, Gena and Ted stared at each other, their mouths open, no words coming out. After that, they grabbed their sides and rolled along her front yard, laughing at the sky, the clouds, the sun, anything they could.

The next victim was Sheila McGlocken. They drew her face with a hundred white dots. Nobody counted the pimples the next day. They were all too grossed out.

In the cover of the forest now, Gena tripped and hit the dirt hard. A burst of wind cut through the trees, and a loud shriek filled the air.

“C’mon,” Jeff yelled. “Get up.”

Gena stood and ran as fast as she could.

They had been having fun, she thought, drawing this and that, waiting to see it all happen. But then earlier today the fun stopped.

“So,” Gena said as they walked away from the school. “I hear you have the hots for Denise Wilcox.”

“Where’d you hear that?”

“It doesn’t matter, does it?”

He looked over his shoulder toward the school where a group of girls stood talking.

“Besides,” she said, “I can see it on your face.”

“No you can’t, and whoever said it is a liar.” He turned and ran. “And you’re a stupid scag for believing it.”

She stopped, unsure that she heard him right. But then it all set in, and it made her angry.

“I’m a stupid scag, huh?”

She reached into her backpack, and knelt down to draw. Finished, she stood up and walked home, pleased with herself. It was a silly thing to do, of course. Still, it made her feel good just the same.

Later she couldn’t wait to tell Jeff what she did.

“You drew the devil coming after me?”

“Yeah,” she said, laughing. “And sticking his pitchfork up your butt.”

“Are you out of your flippin’ mind?”

“What’s the big deal?” she said, even more put out by the way he yelled at her. “It’s not like it’ll ever happen. You and I both know the devil doesn’t exist. He’s about as real as...”

A whiff of rotten eggs burned at her nose.

Jeff’s eyes bulged as he took a deep breath.

“Oh God,” he cried. “You gotta erase it before the moon comes up. After that, it’ll be too late.”

They cleared the woods and ran across a harvested corn field, the cut stalks poking through the hard dirt like the skeletal fingers of a thousand dead people. A gust of wind blew at her, and Gena thought she heard laughter in the distance.

They ran around the fence and across the playground, the gravel shick-shick-shicking! with each pounding footfall. They finally stopped at the spot where Gena had drawn her masterpiece; only, looking at it now the pictured appeared more like the scratching of an idiot. Gena felt like the idiot now.

“Quickly,” Jeff screamed, his eyes frantic as he looked around. The wind howled. “Erase it. Please.”

Gena dropped down and swept her hands wildly across the sidewalk, the chalked images swirling into a ghostly pool until it was all gone.

The air suddenly turned still.

“Okay,” she said, laughing now as she glanced across the playground. “It’s gone.”

She looked over her shoulder.


Friday, October 15, 2010

#FridayFlash - "Up in Smoke"

Owen lifted the bottle of Michelob to his mouth and took a long pull, the beer mixing with tobacco juice. He swallowed.

He said, “I gotta tell you something, Jack,” and then wiped his mouth with the back of a dusty hand. “These days, I can’t rightly figure out what’s wrong with some people.”

He kept his voice low, but it didn’t matter. Jack could hear well enough. On the porch beside him, Jack glanced up, but then quickly turned his attention toward the field. His muscles were tense, the hair along his spine stiff. His ears were ramrod straight.

To calm the dog down, Owen gently patted him on the head. “Easy there, amigo. We’ll get to it.”

Jack whined. His eyes looked slightly confused in the soft glow of the moon, but he sat down obediently.

“That’s a good boy,” Owen said, and meant it. As far as dogs went, Jack was the best he’d ever seen. In fact, he thought the old boy knew and respected more about this life than most humans ever would, and at times he wished his friend could somehow speak, carry on a conversation; however, all they had were a few simple commands, a wag of the tail, and a scratch behind the ears.

“You know, come to think of it,” Owen said, picking up his earlier thought, “it’s kind of like that boy back in the Valley, Ol’ what’s-his-name.”

Owen paused then as he heard the high pitch of mosquito wings and felt it land on the side of his neck. His eyes narrowed. He pushed the bottle of Michelob down between his legs, the coldness of it turning his jeans cool, and waited only a moment longer before he swatted his neck.

At the sound, Jack jumped up, looked at him. Another whine.

Owen pulled his hand away, feeling the warmth spread across his skin now, and looked at the darkened blob on his palm.

“Darn bugs.”

The ordeal over, Jack finally sat back down, his attention directed toward the field.

“Where was I?” Owen said. A few seconds later, he smiled. “Oh yeah.”

He wiped the smashed bug off on a pants leg.

“You see, there was this dumb farmer, got caught with his tractor plowing up rows in another man’s field, so to speak. Nineteen-eighty-eight, I think it was. Anyway, as it turned out, he and Mrs. McClary -- at least I can remember her name -- they were having themselves a good ol’ time, thinking nobody else was paying them any mind. And for awhile, it worked out just fine. That is, until a little old lady from the church discovered the snake in the grass and then found it in herself to have a talking-to with Mr. McClary. Like did he have any idea what his wife was doing, with who, and under his own roof even?”

Owen peered out into the darkness covering his field and frowned. He leaned forward and spat.

Jack stood up.

“Not yet,” Owen said, leaning back into the chair.

Jack whined again.

“The way I heard it?" Owen continued. "Mr. McClary paid that man a visit, told him to find himself another woman. Otherwise, he’d cut off the man’s business and feed it to the pigs.” Owen chuckled then, the laugh coming out wet and crackly. He cleared his throat, said “Which is kind of funny, you think about it, feeding sausage to a sausage factory.”

He laughed harder then and looked to Jack to see if the dog might give him one of those open-mouth grins. Jack apparently didn’t care one way or the other.

“Ah well,” Owen said, the smile fading. “I guess it’s not for everyone. The point is, I would have never thought to do anything like that. In fact, my dad ever heard I was messing around with another man’s woman? He’d of beat me to death himself. Like what was I thinking? Didn’t he raise me better than that?”

Jack’s ears twitched back and then shot forward. He groaned with anticipation.

“Not now, though. Folks today could care less what everyone else thinks or what they have. In fact, I’m willing to wager there’d be folks today who’d say it was Mr. McClary’s fault his woman ran around. If he couldn’t do right and take care of her, then he deserved it.”

Owen reached down, picked up the Michelob, and took another long draw before he set the bottle on the porch.

“No, Jack, folks today’re too consumed with themselves to stay out of another man’s field.”

He reached to his left and grabbed the rifle leaning against the porch post. Pulled up against his shoulder, Owen squinted and looked through the night scope he’d also bought right after the state gave him the license for his farm. The gun had been a perfectly legal purchase. The silencer on the end of it? Well, that was another matter.

In the scope, he saw green images, people standing at the far edge of his field.

“Like these two right here,” he said and held his breath as he gently squeezed the trigger.

Jack barked now, but Owen didn’t care.

“One down,” Owen said, peering through the scope. “And one more…”

He held his breath and squeezed off another round.

Jack barked furiously. His tail swept with excitement.


At the edge of the field, Owen stared at the two men. The first one had been a head shot, quick and clean. The second one lay there, bullet wound to the chest, crying and screaming, that sucking sound in his throat.

“All we wanted was a little weed to smoke, man.”

“Didn’t you see the signs? Private property. Trespassers will be shot.”

“Ain’t right,” the young man cried. “This is America.”

Owen shook his head. “No son, this is my field. And you’re stealing my crop.”

He raised the gun to his shoulder and held his breath one more time.

Friday, October 8, 2010

#FridayFlash - "A Justifiable Defense"

I’m such a snarxhüset. When it comes to pftzer-oozing juice cases, I can’t seem to turn anything down--even when I know that accepting the assignment will cause me a stinging pain in the lower pusher. I just hope Sensi, the love of my life and bearer of my chingos, will forgive me someday. Otherwise, it’ll be a long cold season this side of the sun; and quite honestly, I’d rather have a sharpie jabbed in my darkies, blinding me forever, than to live through that.

“This is your last chance, Krii!” With the scratches and zizzings pouring through my headsets, I barely made out Reginald’s words.

“Oh gee, I’m sorry to hear that,” I replied.

It wasn’t that I disliked Reginald. Well, okay, it was that I disliked him. In fact, most everyone in my brood felt the universe would spin better without him. Since he was in his own language “family”, though, I felt a small obligation to extend simple courtesies before I pulled the trigger and took him and his ship out of commission. Permanently.

Reggie corkscrewed left. Not bad. Clever even. But still not enough to escape my pursuit.

“My gamma beam will blow your snake heads into oblivion,” he screamed.

Chuckles grumbled up both of my throats. P3 Bi-pods were all the same: they demonized what they failed to understand. No appreciation for differences.

“No reason to be nasty, Reggie.” I pushed into a slight dive. “It’s not my fault your God made you with only half a brain.” I nosed up on the fighter, targeting my guns on the vulnerable heat shield of his underbelly. “Maybe you should have done a better job using what you do have, though.”

A split second before I pulled the trigger, he flanked right and pulled into a sharp downward dive. A typical Zizklak maneuver. If it had been done on his planet, the G-forces would have squeezed him into unconsciousness; out here, half a million miles from the farthest moon of Saturn, the dive most likely just tickled his chest like a small cough.

I twisted my right head and kept my eyes on Reggie as I pulled up through a 135-degree arc and flipped around, trailing right behind him.

“That was a nice trick,” I said, “but you’ve forgotten one thing.”


“I’m a better pilot than you’ll be in two lifetimes. And you’re still in my sights.”

I couldn’t control my laughter when a stream of obscenities cut through my earphones. The Bi-pod design again: big mouth, tiny brain.

“Why are we fighting each other, Krii?” I detected a note of panic in Reggie’s tone now.

“You made someone very angry.”

“I haven’t done anything.”

“Stealing an antimatter bomb and then attempting to sell it to terrorists?”

The radio fell silent a moment. Then: “I’m acting on behalf of my government.”

“It’s your government that paying my contract.”

More profanities.

“Reggie, is that anyway to talk to your cousin’s life mate?”

What Sensi’s uncle ever saw in a Reggie’s mother, I will never know. Listening to Sensi tell it, though, the whole brood took it as a personal affront that a Quertz would try to marry a Bi-bod. We don’t even belong in the same species, a Quertz with four arms, four legs, and two heads, each with four sets of eyes. By design, a Quertz is far superior to the simple creatures from the blue orb. That we can actually crossbreed had always been considered an unnatural act by most in their right minds. However, Sensi’s uncle was never one to stick to the confines of creation. Consequently, their consummation produced a total disaster: a Bi-pod with three eyes, one of which Reggie couldn’t even use. Sad.

Reggie spiraled down and attempted to cut back into me. Surprising.

I snapped left, jettisoned through a tight downward bank, and caught up with him at the bottom of the dive, my guns trained on the back quarter-panels of his spacecraft.

“Don’t act like you’re better than me,” he said. The bitterness returned to his tone. “You’ll probably just use the government’s money to buy more drugs.”

“I don’t use.”

“Tell that to Sensi.”

My fuel gauge told me that time was on short supply. My holographic readout also confirmed a lock on my target. “I’m done talking, Reggie.”

“Wait,” he cried. He pulled up into steep angle.

I jerked back on my controls and re-acquired the laser-lock.

“Do you still have Jules?” he said.

Jules? Two seconds away from termination and Reggie wanted to know about the family pet? How interesting. He gave us the thing, said it was a guinea pig. I told Sensi it looked more like a dust mop, or maybe dinner. She didn’t find the humor in it.

I didn’t answer him. Instead, I sent out an electro-magnetic pulse and scrambled his systems. Then, I flanked right, past his dead ship. I circled around, toggled another lever, and jettisoned a timed explosive device. A moment later, my read-outs confirmed a secure attachment to the floating coffin. In ten minutes, Reggie would be dead, and I would be clear by then, the universe a safer place. The P-3 government would probably be angry to lose their precious bomb. I didn’t care.

Using a communications monitor, I sent a transmission home.

Sensi’s luscious heads filled my screen. “Is he dead?”

“He will be soon.”

She nodded.

“I’m sorry,” I said. "Right or wrong, he was still brood.”

“Yes. But he could have caused a universal war.” She closed her eyes for a moment. “When will you get back?”

“I’m on my way now.” I fired up my after-burners. “It will take a couple hours, though.”

“What do you want for dinner?”

I thought about Reggie’s last question.

“Take Jules to my lab and X-ray him, will you? If he has an explosive device imbedded under his fur, send him to your uncle. If not, put him in the microwave.”

Friday, October 1, 2010

#FridayFlash - "Every Death Means Something"

Megan stared at the obituaries spread out on the basement floor. Her gift. And it was a gift, though not in the way her mother had looked at it. But then, mother was always full of crazy ideas that were usually wrong. She once said the moon held the lost souls of the dead, and Megan knew by the way she said it, the way her eyes flickered like candle light, the woman believed every bit of it.

Megan raked a hand through her oily black hair. She could still hear Mother’s voice after the gift paid its first visit. “You have something special,” Mother said. “Hold it close to your heart. Not everyone is so blessed.”

Megan closed her eyes against the obituaries. Six people. Six lives. At first it didn’t feel like a gift at all. More like a curse. She could have told at least two of them, the first being Mrs. Kowalksi. Number five. It was a Saturday afternoon. She turned the corner on the far aisle of the grocery store and almost crashed into the woman. She had opened her mouth to apologize, but the moment she caught Mrs. Kowalski’s gaze, Megan froze. It was the same look she’d seen a thousand times before, like she was a soiled rag to be avoided. And with that look came the memory: children, hands locked, circling and chanting. Megan Fitch, her mother’s a witch, who flew her broom into a ditch.

In the end, Megan couldn’t tell Mrs. Kowalski. Doing so would have only pegged her as another crazy Fitzgerald. Like mother, like daughter, right? And being called crazy was out of the question, a no-brainer. Besides, how would she have said it? Uh, you may think this a little strange--God knows I do--but tomorrow night… Well, tomorrow night you’re going to die.

She reached down now and picked up all that remained of Mrs. Kowalski: a photo and a synopsis of a life once lived. After a moment, Megan tossed it back to the floor with the others.

She once asked her mother how she could lose the so-called gift.

“What on earth for?” Mother had said.

Megan looked at her mother through the mirror, the woman preparing for another night of reading palms and dried-up bones.

“It bothers me,” Megan said. “I mean, why me? Why them?”

“As long as we can make money at it, I don’t care.”

Megan felt the anger rise up in her throat, a giant ball of it she would rather throw up than to swallow.

“It doesn’t work that way,” she finally said. “I can’t control it.”

The slap came so quick that Megan had no time to react. Mother’s razor-thin eyebrows almost touched. “What good’s a gift if we can’t use it? It wasn’t my idea for your father to abandon us, you know. No place to turn, no money to buy food.” She slipped on her headdress. “Now, get back to your room and find a way to make it work, or so help me I’ll beat you worse than your father ever did.”

It never worked the way mother originally thought it would though. At first, it came and went as it pleased, filling Megan’s mind with images she couldn’t control. It never bargained, never acquiesced. But then, just three days ago--

“Megan?” A voice from the stairwell. “You down there?”

Megan swept the obituaries together. “Yes, Aunt Nora, I’m here.”

“What’re you doing?”

“Just… stuff. I’ll be up in a few minutes.”

“We’re about to leave soon.” When Megan didn’t respond, her aunt asked, “Are you okay?”

Megan looked down at the obituaries. “Yes, I’m fine. I’ll be right there.”

The door at the top of the stairs closed, and Megan quickly tucked the scraps of paper into her backpack. She slipped her arm through the shoulder strap, the pack heavy against her shoulder, and stood up. At the base of the stairs, she stopped and took a deep breath. The curse had visited again a few days ago, only this time everything changed. At first, the image felt as clear as anything else she’d seen: her mother stopped, checking on a car at the side of the road, the passenger dead from a heart attack. Watching the image play out, the anger returned. This time it burned at her neck, her face. Why couldn’t it be mother on the side of the road instead? Only, not from a heart attack; that would be too good. No, wouldn’t it be better for her to face a drunken truck driver, to see the grill of the semi as it bore down? Oh yes, that and more. To hear the pop and screech of metal, to see the explosion of glass as the truck crushed the car and everything else inside, that would be a perfect way for mother to go.

Climbing the stairs now, about to step outside and slide into Aunt Nora’s car to make the six mile trip across town to her new home, her new life, Megan smiled. Three days ago, she finally understood her gift and how anger made it work. And yes, it was a gift after all. Mother--Number Six--proved that.

At the top of the stairs, she snickered, thinking, My-oh-my, what a wonderful way to stop all of those children cold. No longer would she have to hear Megan Fitch, her mother’s a witch.

At least not for long.

Friday, September 24, 2010

#Friday Flash - "The Talk"

“I think mom is a witch.”

Ted smiled. “What did you do this time?”

“No, dad, I’m serious. Either that or she’s some sort of psychic with special gifts.”

Ted paused, his spoon midway between the cereal bowl and his mouth. He eyed his daughter thoughtfully and saw that she really was serious about this one. Through the years he and his wife had wondered about Melody, how she always cried, thinking that other kids were making fun of her -- which was probably true -- and always concerned that so-and-so had held a grudge over something done days, if not months ago. Often as parents, he and his wife Sherri would look at each other, that knowing look in their eyes, and shake their heads. Their daughter was probably just too sensitive and hopefully would snap out of it by the time she reached the teenage years. But now this?

He returned the spoon to the bowl and leaned back in the chair. “What do you mean?”

Melody shrugged. “I don’t know. You’ll probably think I’m just being weird as always.”

“Honey, I don’t think you’re weird.”

“It just…” Melody stared up at the ceiling. Like she was trying to find the right words, Ted thought. “Well, it’s like the other day. I walked into your bedroom, and the next thing I know, there’s this clash of the hair dryer in the sink and mom’s yelling at me, saying how I scared her and why didn’t I knock.”

“Well, you can’t fault her for getting angry, honey. You know the rules.”

“I know, and I apologized, but…” There was the look again, Ted noted, not directly at him but away. “But before it crashed into the sink? I saw the hair dryer hovering in mid-air.”

Ted wrinkled his brow. “Honey, you couldn’t have seen something like that.”

“Dad, I swear to you, I’m not making this up. I saw the --”

He cut her off with a wave of his hand.

“Melody, I’m not saying that I don’t believe you. I believe you think you saw something. But, listen to yourself for a moment. Things like hair dryers don’t float in the air.”

Melody’s shoulders dropped. “See, I knew you’d think I was crazy.”

Ted touched her arm. “I don’t think that at all. If anything, I think you’re tired. Your mother and I have noticed how little you sleep lately. Is there a problem at school?”

She didn’t say anything.

Ted pressed the issue. “Has Bobby broken up with you again?”

Tears filled her eyes. “He won’t even look at me anymore. He says I’m suffocating him, but I know what it really is. He thinks I’m weird.”

Ted nodded, his heart feeling heavy. He wished he could make it all go away, but some lessons in life needed to be learned by experience. Boys like Bobby would never understand his little girl.

“It’ll be okay,” he said. “Bobby’s a loser, and he doesn’t deserve you.” He reached over and squeezed her hand. “I tell you what. How about after school you and I go down to the Dairy Queen and grab a couple of Blizzards.”

Melody reached up and brushed a tear from her cheek. “Can we?”

“You bet.” Ted smiled. “And I’ll tell you something more. You’re a special girl, and don’t you ever think differently.”

She smiled. “Thanks, dad.”

He looked at his watch and nodded toward the door. “Looks like we need to get you off to school. Give me a minute to get my keys, okay?”

She stood. “Nah, I’ll walk today.”

“Okay,” he said and smiled as she grabbed her backpack and stepped over toward the door.

She stopped, one hand on the knob, and said over her shoulder, “Don’t tell mom about the hair dryer thing, okay? I don’t want her going all motherly on me.”

Ted crossed his fingers. “Our secret.”

She giggled. "Good talk, dad."

And with that, she was gone.

A moment later, Sherri walked into the kitchen. “Hey, honey.”

“We need to talk,” he said.

She stepped over to the refrigerator, said “Sure thing” and opened the door.

With a wave of his hand, the door snapped closed.

Sherri blinked at him.

“We need to talk now.” His tone more firm this time.

“What’s this about?”

“About you and a hair dryer and our daughter.”

She looked toward the door and closed her eyes. An embarrassed smile crossed her lips, and Sherri shook her head. “I was afraid of that. I tried to cover it up, but I could see it in her eyes.”

He nodded. “It was going to happen sooner or later.” With a snap of his fingers, a chair slid out from the table. “I think it’s time to tell her everything.”

Sherri walked over and sat down. “Are you sure?”

“Not really, but we can’t continue to hide the truth from our daughter. Eventually, she’ll connect the dots, and I would rather we tell her than for her to hear it from someone else. Besides, she’s starting to think she’s the weird one, and I don’t want her self-image to fall off the charts.”

She took a deep breath. “You’re probably right. But do we have to tell her about everyone in the family?”

Ted smiled and gave her a wink. “No, some warlocks are better left in the closet.”

Monday, September 20, 2010

Holiday Story Exchange 2010

For those who have been with us before, it's that time again: The Holiday Story Exchange. So pop on over to the Writer's Digest Forums to sign up. The list is located in the "Take It Outside" threads. For those who are unfamiliar with HSE, here's how it works:

Each participating writer will fill out a brief questionnaire with a few personal facts. Then, like a Christmas gift exchange, those questionnaires will be shuffled and distributed so that one writer will have the fact sheet from another writer. Using those facts, then, the goal is to craft a story about your secret writer, which will then be given back as a gift. In December, all of the stories will be released using a secure website, thanks to my good friend Cindy (aka "Gooblink" in the Forums), so that only the participating writers will be able to read. The stories will be originally posted without writer by-lines so that it then becomes a guessing game as to who wrote a story for whom. Once everyone has the opportunity to read all of the stories, they can submit a list, trying to match up the writer with the story. The one who guesses the most correctly will have special honors.

The HSE has always been about having fun, as well as giving a personalized gift for the holidays. In the past, we've tried to collect all of the stories into one PDF document that is then distributed to everyone for their e-library. We'll attempt to do that again this year.

While the HSE has been about fun, it has also been the source of inspiration. Cindy recently announced that one of her HSE projects has become the seed for a novel in progress. As for me, with permission from Cindy (my subject), I submitted my 2008 HSE project "Don't Mess With The Moon Goddess" to Long Story Short, which was accepted and then selected as story of the month for March 2010. To see an example of what we try to do with HSE, you can read a copy of my story on the Long Story Short webzine.

As a timeline for the interested parties, we'll try to stick to the same deadlines. We'll keep the sign-up list open until October 15. During this time, once you've added your name, take the time to fill out the brief questionnaire (details to follow) and then submit your responses. On October 16, we'll distribute the collected facts, and then you can write your story. All stories should be submitted by November 30, 2010, after which they will be posted on the secure website. As to when we can collect them into a PDF document, those details will also be forthcoming; however, the plan will be to release the completed document prior to Christmas.

Okay, I think that's enough details for now. Feel free to post any questions you have, and don't forget to visit the Writer's Digest Forums for more information and to sign up.

Until next time...

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The Finest Details - Part II

Punctuation reveals the writer: haphazard commas, for example, reveal haphazard thinking…

Noah Lukeman, A Dash of Style

In the last post, I dealt with Point of View, noting the options available to an author and then discussing their limitations. The main point behind that post was to express how quickly an author can lose a critical audience by violating point of view. To be fair, readers are willing to overlook POV violations if they are limited, especially in novels. After all, writers are people too. Consistent violations of POV, however, are not minor oversights to be ignored. Instead, they become distractions and create an environment of distrust.

Throughout my years of studying the craft, I have also seen other areas (or pitfalls, if you will) where authors can lose their audience. Today’s post deals with the abuse of punctuation.

Though I’ve been writing stories for over six years, I can still remember a criticism I received early on while trying to develop my craft. The criticism concerned my excessive use of commas and came after I posted an excerpt on the WD Forums. Even now, I remember thinking: Who is this guy and what makes him so special? In a freak moment of clarity, instead of popping off with some extraordinarily witty remark, I decided to search the Internet. It was a good thing I did. As it turned out, the “guy” had previously written multiple novels and was then working as an editor who spent his days reading through slush piles. Clearly, I couldn’t ignore what he had to say on the issue, and since that time I have constantly reviewed my stories with his remarks in mind.

Looking at Noah Lukeman’s comment above, I only included the example (i.e., the comma) because it related to the criticism I received in the Forums. The first clause, however, is the key: Punctuation reveals the writer. It reveals the writer's skill of language, of poetry, and how well he can create a pleasurable experience for the reader.

As a conductor can influence the reading experience, so can punctuation influence the reading experience, bring out the best (or worst) in a text.

Noah Lukeman, A Dash of Style

While there are many uses of punctuation, some of them extremely powerful, there are also many pitfalls. As noted above the excessive use of commas acts like a series of speed bumps* that slows a reader down. The same can be true regarding a paragraph of short sentences, which feels more like something a reader would expect from a Dick-and-Jane book than from a novel of eighty thousand words. Still, in the hands of a crafted novelist, the comma can provide the necessary rhythm that makes a story as relaxing and hypnotic as listening to a cool mountain stream.

Beyond rhythm, the comma can be used as a tool to enhance meaning. For example, take notice on how Tess Gerritsen uses commas in this passage from The Surgeon.

I know how it will happen. I can picture, quite vividly, the sequence of events that will lead to the discovery. By nine o’clock, those snooty ladies at the Kendall and Lord Travel Agency will be sitting at their desks, their elegantly manicured fingers tapping at computer keyboards, booking a Mediterranean cruise for Mrs. Smith, a ski vacation at Klosters for Mr. Jones. And for Mr. and Mrs. Brown, something different this year, something exotic, perhaps Chiang Mai or Madagascar, but nothing too rugged; oh no, adventure must, above all, be comfortable.

What I find interesting in this passage is how easy the reader can see the sarcasm toward people who flow through life too absorbed in their own world. And did you notice that last clause? After setting the tone with a highly charged word like snooty, Gerritsen sandwiches the phrase “above all” between two slices of comma bread, as if to further emphasize the narrator’s disdain. While some writers would have italicized the words to give them emphasis and punch, by isolating the phrase with commas Gerritsen achieved the same effect.

The point emphasized by this example is that punctuation matters. A writer that tosses in commas and ellipses and exclamation points like seasonings on a salad, without considering how they will affect the outcome, may turn what could be a delightful dish into a mouthful of Yuck. And just like Mr. Lukeman’s comparison of punctuation to music, a writer should consider thoughtfully how his work will be read, even down to the placement and use of a comma.

At least that’s how I see it.

What about you?

(* In Chapter 2 of A Dash of Style, Lukeman refers to commas as The Speed Bump)

Other News:

My short story “A Leap of Faith” found a home with The Nautilus Engine, a quarterly webzine of speculative fiction. Feel free to give it a read and let me know what you think.

Still working on polishing up a couple more stories to send out before I resume the task of revising my novel.

Until next time…

Monday, July 26, 2010

The Finest Details

Sometimes it comes down to the finest details. For writers as readers—the most critical readers, I suppose—the success or failure of another artist’s work falls upon whether the small things act like door hinges that are well-oiled or they creak from age and rust. Today’s finest detail focuses on point of view. Before we do, however, let’s lay down a foundation.

Viewpoint is the place from which the reader views your story.

– Gary Provost, Beyond Style

As you are aware, before writing a book, a chapter, or even a scene, the writer has to make a choice on who will tell the story (and about whom). In making that choice, the writer may choose first-, second-, or third-person.

Imagine you are sitting at a table. There are two cups of coffee and an empty chair before you. If the story is told in the first-person point of view, then it will feel like your friend Sally is sitting down and telling you her story. “The other day I went down to pier,” she says, “and looking into the water, I saw the most freak-odd thing I’ve ever seen, I kid you not.” In this case Sally is telling you exactly what she saw and how it felt, using words (like “freak-odd”) that only she would use.

If the story is told in the second-person point of view, it might feel like a therapist is sitting down at the table, trying to make suggestions to your subconscious mind. “You are sitting at a bar,” he begins. “You like the music, the rhythm and pulse of it on your skin. You light a cigarette, not your normal brand, but the week has been long, the expenses high, and you had to settle for the Pall Malls instead of the Winstons.” And this may be why many readers don’t like the second-person point of view: they hate the feeling of being shrink-wrapped, told that they like red shoes with two inch heals when they really prefer a pair of sneakers, the laces untied.

If the story is told in the third-person point of view, then it might feel like Lois Lane is sitting down at the table, giving you the scoop on what her investigative reporting has uncovered. “Jonathan Rickards felt like it was the longest day of his life,” she tells you. “The boss said his work performance smelled so bad that it would take more than a can of Febreze to clear the air. And then Nicole, his wife, called to say that she’d had it. She was through and don’t bother coming home. She had changed the locks on the door to their house. Well her house, now.” Lois continues with the story, and how much you will eventually learn about Jonathan Rickards in this scene depends wholly upon what she has learned about him, and only about what he can see, hear or feel. We call this third-person limited.

In some cases, the narrator will have the details from everyone’s perspective, including how they think and feel, jumping from one person to the next in real time. In which case, it’s not Lois Lane sitting across the table and telling you a story, but rather someone with the ability to see all and know all. We call this third-person omniscient.

Sure this is a limited, not to mention a simplistic, discussion on point of view. Most writers devote whole chapters to the subject. I’m only working with a blog post, however, and don’t have the time or space to deal with it in detail.

In all cases, the choice made on the point of view is a big decision which comes with its own limitations.

The choice of narrative voice and point of view—who is speaking (and how) and through whose consciousness and emotional focus is the story understood?—will affect every other choice the writer makes in the story. In that sense, point of view is the writer’s most important technical choice.

– John Dufresne, The Lie That Tells a Truth

I believe there is a key component in the passage above: who is speaking (and how) and through whose consciousness and emotional focus is the story understood? Again, the choice of point of view narrows the scope of the story down to what any one character and thus the reader can possibly know, or in the case of the third-person narrator, what he or she can reasonably tell you as well. And this is where the work can fall short: a writer forgets that the narrator, or a character, can’t reasonably know this detail or that one. A first-person narrator, an Exxon executive sitting in his Houston, Texas office can’t possibly know that the Governor of Louisiana is right then in a secret meeting, discussing the short life of oil tycoons. Not unless he has the Governor’s mansion bugged. Or the lead character of a story told in third-person limited can’t possibly know what everyone else is thinking, not unless he’s clairvoyant.

As another example, here is something I read lately. The particular scene was told in third-person limited (i.e. our Lois Lane analogy) from the point of view of Johnny, a hit man for the mob. As the scene unfolded, the reader could only see what Johnny saw. Suddenly, there was a gun fight in the street. Everything was running smoothly until the writer typed down these words:

Johnny kicked [the gun] away quickly, stomped on Strazza’s fingers, breaking two of them…

At that point, I took a pause in the reading experience. Really? Two of them? How was it possible for Johnny to know for sure that he just broke two fingers. Did he have an x-ray machine? I don’t remember him having one. Maybe he’s not Johnny after all, but Superman, and has x-ray vision. If so, then why didn’t the writer tell me that from the beginning?

It’s a subtle thing, providing a detail that a character can't possibly know, and admittedly I’m being a bit snarky here, but I think it would have been better to write the following instead:

Johnny kicked it away quickly and stomped on a Strazza’s fingers. He heard a satisfying crack and smiled.

By writing it this way, the reader understands that something in Strazza’s hand just snapped. Whether it was one finger, two, or even three, it doesn’t matter. Strazza no longer has full functionality in that hand.

This is just one example. How about you? Are there cases where you've noticed a violation of POV? I would like to see them.

Other News:

It’s been a while since I last posted. Since then, my good friend Paige Von Lieber bestowed upon me the “Blog With Substance” award. Many thanks to her for that. Upon receiving this award, I’m supposed to share my blogging philosophy in 5 words: Writing Life from my Perspective. I hope that sums it up. I’m also supposed to give this award to 10 other bloggers. The problem with that, however, is I am not as dedicated to blogging as others these days. As such, I’ll give it out to other bloggers as I can think of them, a few usual suspects and two others I think you should consider for the edification they provide: Greta Igl’s blog, Linda Wastila's blog, Michael Larsen’s blog, Nathan Bransford’s blog, and Carol Benedict’sblog.

I finally finished the polishing job on “Simple”, a short crime story, which I’ve mailed off to one of the bigger print magazines. Fingers are crossed.

Currently working through the polishing of “Rule Number One”, another short story which has been on the shelf for a couple of years. Hopefully, I’ll have that one ready to go soon.

The plan at the moment is to have a small number of short stories out in submission while I start the actual revision of my novel.

Until next time…

Monday, July 5, 2010

What I Did This Summer...

(Blog Warning: Longer post than usual.)

Like your family, each summer brings an opportunity for our family to skip town and find a nice place to vacation for a week. Over the last ten years, that place has usually been somewhere in the mountains. We’ve traveled to New Mexico (towns like Cloud Croft, Ruidoso, or Red River) as well as Colorado (Sulphur Springs or Colorado Springs). I’ve enjoyed every bit of it.

Have you ever reached a place and suddenly felt like it was the home you’ve always wanted? Well, the mountains are that place for me. Especially during the summer. I love the smell of pine in the air, carried along by the cool breeze soughing through their boughs. It sounds like waves rolling ashore. I love the way the temperature drops in the night and how cool it feels in the morning—just the right thing to go with your wake-up cup of coffee.

I enjoy the wildlife. The way deer materialize in the morning mist, like ethereal spirits gliding through the valley. I love the way you can hear the hummingbirds flutter through the woods, the chirp of their wings sounding oddly like cricket songs in the night. And as strange as it may sound to you, I even enjoy watching bears lope up the mountainside, moving as fast as I would on a downward slope. The bears I enjoy watching from a distance though.

Personally, I would like to go to the mountains in the winter, too. I want to try my hand at skiing. I want to ride snowmobiles and buzz through the woods at break-neck speeds. I want to ice skate on a frozen pond, fall on my rear, and laugh with those laughing at me.

This year, however, my wife wanted to go to the beach. To give the kids something different, she said. Reluctantly, I agreed. So, we planned and mapped and did the math. (And no, my dear friends, I did not whip out a spreadsheet this time) We decided to visit South Padre and do it with a camping trailer.

As many of you know, when giving someone a critique on their story, it is customary to give the good before you give the bad. Yin, Yang, I-Ching and all that stuff. So, let’s lay out the good right now. If you’re into the beach scene, South Padre Island has much to offer, both for the adults and the kids. I enjoyed walking out along Pier 19, a seventy-yard boardwalk out into the Laguna Madre. I enjoyed smelling the air, which reminded me a little of what you’ll find walking into a Red Lobster or the seafood area of your local grocery store. I enjoyed the brilliant sunsets (as you can see above). I enjoyed spending an afternoon at the Schlitterbahn water park and riding on a tube in the lazy river. I enjoyed being on a boat out in the deep water, feeling the sudden lifts and drops of the bow as the waves rolled underneath. Though I’m not ready to sign up for "Deadliest Catch", I do like the feel of the ocean. I also enjoyed sitting under a canopy and reading a book while the wind blew in off the coast. Below is a picture of me safeguarding the canopy, the food, and the shade. Somebody had to do it.

There are things I didn’t particularly enjoy, though. First, the sand. Like a pet cat, it gets everywhere. And into everything. You want to enjoy a nice string of licorice? I hope you like a little grit to go with it. You want to go to bed? You had better take a shower first, or you’ll end up sleeping in what will probably feel like a box of kitty litter (thankfully, minus the clumps). You want to take a blanket to the beach to sit on? Count on this: the darn thing will feel like sandpaper against your skin before it’s all over.

I didn’t like the sound of screaming kids who totally ignored what Daddy had to say about leaving the jellyfish alone. Then, I didn’t like it when my wife had to tend to the kids, escorting them off the beach to treat the boo-boos with vinegar and meat tenderizer, which left me alone with the unpleasant task of carting all the stuff across a hundred yards of blistering sand.

I don’t like mosquitoes. Personally, I’m not sure why God created them. In fact, I’ve placed it on my list of things to ask. At elevations of eight- to ten-thousand feet, you don’t have to worry that much about the darn critters. It turns too cold for them. Along the coastal shores, however, where for every beach you’ll also find a marsh (or two), mosquitoes are a way of life. Sure, you can use bug spray, but then you’ll have to take a shower every night for that, too. After all, who wants to go to bed smelling like Raid on a Stick?

But the fishing, you say. Think of all the fishing. You can fish in the mountains, too, in case you didn't know it. They have wonderful little edibles called Trout, which you can fillet and fry up in corn meal and eat without worrying over the bones, which are as soft as the bones you might find in a can of Starkist. Out in the ocean, however, the critters are like prison wards, with bones like steel shanks, each one ready to make you bleed.

And finally (I have more, but I’ll wear you out) I didn’t like all the crazies. I don’t know what it is about the beach, but it sure brings out the loons. Like the old guy who decided to sit down on the shoreline with my wife, his wife in tow, to have a pleasant afternoon conversation. “Yeah,” he said. “We went to Hooters last night and had a real good time. And our waitress was something else. And if you don’t mind my saying, ma’am—” nodding at my wife “—you and her have something in common.”

Of course, I’m under the canopy minding my business and reading a book, oblivious to all of this. It is only when my wife comes back shaking her head and muttering something about “that dirty old man” that I finally realize the couple weren’t just two people being friendly. Well, he was. More friendly than most people really care for.

So, that was my vacation this year. We didn’t have a television in the trailer, nor did we listen to the radio. I had to come home to Lubbock (over 700 miles away) to find out that Hurricane Alex was whipping up an attitude out in the Gulf. It finally slammed ashore this last week, and the streets of South Padre Island are now under a foot or two of water. I can’t say I’m surprised. After all, it is only a sandbar off the Texas coast.

I can’t say it was all bad though. As a family, we had plenty of good memories. And I am thankful that we were able to take a vacation away from home; not everyone is afforded that opportunity. Besides, there was one additional point worth noting: in the process, I even came up with an interesting story idea complements of Mr. If-You-Don’t-Mind-My-Saying.

Next year, however, I’m arguing for a return to the mountains. Bring on the hot cocoa, the flannel blankets, and the s’mores.

Until next time…

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Story Behind Your Story

I have a friend at the office who admires fiction writers. She often says something like, "I find it fascinating to see where authors come up with their ideas." I honestly feel the same way. Since I never know exactly where a story will seed or how it will grow, I'm constantly amazed when a good idea finally takes root.

The Your Story Competition #26, which finally completed its process (and yes, I'm the winner), is a perfect example of not knowing where the next story idea will come from. About two years ago, I sat in my house contemplating people and religion, and how sometimes religion is perverted (or even subverted, if you will). At the time, I considered what the Scriptures had to say on the matter of prayer and prayer closets, and a small germ of an idea started to form. I played around with that idea for a while and eventually gave up on it, thinking it just didn't have the right feel.

The idea never gave up on me. Every now and then, I found myself turning back to the same concept, my mind leading the way. Let's take another look, it would say. Maybe we'll find the right answer this time. Still, the time never came. That is, it never came until the day I opened up May/June edition of Writer's Digest and found the following prompt for the Your Story contest:

You wake up to find a dead body on the floor -- and a bloody knife in your hands. You can't remember exactly what happened, so you piece together the clues.

I took a moment to think about that and suddenly my mind raced back to the idea of a prayer closet gone terribly wrong.

As many of you are writers, I'm sure you can relate to the strange, and almost always wonderful, process of writing a story, and how the story turns out completely different from where you originally thought it would go. Such was the case for my entry to the contest. As I sat down to shape and mold the story, a new idea came to me: What if the dead body was the MC's father? I took a moment to explore that idea and liked what I found. As I continued to write, more questions, and then ideas, flowed from that initial thought. At the end of the story I eventually made my way back to the corrupted prayer closet; however, the road I took led me across a better landscape than the one I had originally considered. While the closet remained a place of misguided religion, the backstory behind that ill-conceived notion became deeper, and richer, than I had ever expected it to be.

Over the years of writing, I came across a piece of advice. Only now does it make sense. And only now do I find myself wishing I could tell you where I read it. It goes something like this: For every story, throw out your first idea; it's probably not the best. In the case of "Yellowed Kodachrome", I can honestly say that was exactly the course I took, and I'm pleased with the results.

For those who don't read Writer's Digest magazine or know about its competitions and forum, my story will be published in the November/December issue later this year. I can hardly wait. When it hits the local bookstore, I may walk in and grab a dozen or so copies, just so I can keep them locked away in my special place.

Other News:

While I can't say for sure, the story I sent off to Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine might just have received the fastest denial I, and probably the editor, have ever seen. Less than a week after mailing the darn thing off, I received a nice little Doesn't-work-for-me letter in response. Considering that it takes at least three days for postal delivery (both ways), I gather the slush reader took a quick look and sent it right back out the door. So that's that. Nothing ventured and all that jazz. Just to pick up my spirits, though, I quickly searched Duotrope for another possible fit and sent the story right back out.

I'm still doing some research to gather my arrows together before launching into the re-write of my novel. A full quiver provides many more chances to hitting the mark. As part of that process, I'm currently reading through Hell's Angels, written by journalist Hunter Thompson back in the nineteen-sixties. Gauging from it's title, I have no doubts that you'll know the subject matter.

Until next time...

Wednesday, May 26, 2010


Years ago, I had one of those supervisors you tend to loathe. A real Type-A personality. And we all know what the A represents. Even so, there was one thing he said that has stuck with me ever since:

"Credibility is king."

Don't you just hate it when somebody you can hardly stand comes up with a real gem? Kind of gnaws at you, doesn't it?

What that supervisor said, though, applies to everything in life. Consider the politician who overstates his record and then is called on it. People who might have voted for him suddenly change their vote. Or consider the preacher who secretly had an inappropriate relationship and is now exposed. Sure, he can still preach if that is what he's called to do; just not in your church. The list can go on, I'm sure.

In his book Beyond Style: Mastering the Finer Points of Writing, author Gary Provost dedicates an entire chapter to the issue of credibility as it concerns writing, both fiction and non-fiction. In fiction, credibility comes into play when your character does something that is... well, out of character. In the book On Writing, Stephen King writes about how he noted that one of his characters said something that didn't quite fit. And it's not just them. While reading my own manuscript, I had to write this on the first page:

"Worrisome? Not worrisome, but a nag!"

Here's what had happened. Toward the end of the novel, a character had demonstrated her own personality, and everything I had previously thought about her had changed. So, when I came back to reading through the manuscript again, I already knew I needed a revision. Without the revision, the reader would have stopped and said, "Wait a minute. I thought she was the timid type." And just like the politician who loses the vote, or the preacher who loses the pulpit, a writer who presents uncredible characters loses the reader.

In his book, Gary Provost writes about a friend who states that he drafts a small biography for each character before writing any novel. That way, he can keep track of who is who and how each one will react. I don't know that I will go that far. Ever. For me, one of the joys of writing is discovering who the characters are along the way. Fixing the issues is what revisions are for.

By the way, if you've never read Beyond Style, I highly recommend it. It has good reminders for the experienced writer and some solid insights for all.

Other News:

Last week, I was excited to look at the Writer's Digest Your Story competition and see that the editors had selected my story as one of the final picks. Without giving you the title to my story, I only ask that you Forumites take time to read the stories and vote.

Last week, I also finally sent off a story to Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine. I'm slightly nervous about this one. For me, there's a real game change in the emotions every time I'm about to send a story off to one of the bigger names. I can't explain that. It should feel the same either way, right? Or maybe it shouldn't.

Maybe it's the credibility thing, only on a different level.

Until next time...