Tag: writing journey Page 1 of 5

Ohhh…So THIS is Where Dystopian Novels Come From

What a wild time to be alive.

The past three months have been, in a word, tumultuous. It seems that a year’s worth of joy, fear, anger, sadness, and love has been crammed into just a few months.

Over one weekend in the middle of March, my son’s senior year ended abruptly, my daughter got engaged, I signed with a fantastic agent, and COVID-19 shut down most of the country. Life as we know it changed, I believe, irrevocably and overnight. Then recent events brought the ugly truth of racial disparity and police brutality into the spotlight, adding to an already volatile situation.

With everything that’s happened, I should have written a library of dystopian novels by now!

To be honest—and I know I’m not alone in this—being isolated at home, uncertain of what the future holds, has made it hard to focus. I find myself avoiding the computer, unable to write anything new as it all seems so trivial. Some days I sleep too much, other days I can’t make myself go to bed. I should be preparing my youngest for his first year of school in another state, planning a wedding with my daughter, talking with my middle child about his final year of college and his future. But it’s hard to make plans when everything can change in the blink of an eye. So what can I do?

I can keep moving forward. I can embrace hope and I can share love.

With the help of my agent, Katie, I am working on chapter-by-chapter revisions of my novel. I have been given the opportunity to spend quality time with my youngest before he flies the nest to start his real life. My middle child has demonstrated strength and compassion by using his voice to try to make a difference in the world. Wedding plans are progressing with my daughter, despite the darkness in our world, and even if it doesn’t look exactly as she’d initially dreamed.

And we all have contingency plans for our contingency plans.

I’ve found that now, more than ever, it’s imperative to stretch your creativity and leave your comfort zone. We must adapt or we die, and right now we are being forced to challenge the status quo and find better solutions—what better way than through creating, writing, and thinking outside the box?

Without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible.”

-Frank Zappa

How are you keeping your head above water these days? Are you pushing yourself, using new creative outlets, or brushing up on ones you’d forgotten? Drop me a comment or send me an email!

Patience Is NOT My Virtue

Earlier this week, I decided to take a chance and submitted the romantic suspense novel I’ve been tweaking since 2017 to a handful of agents.

Finding a literary agent is terrifying and can make you question your talent as a writer and your value as a human. If you aren’t familiar with the process, querying involves an author boiling down their 74,000-word novel into a few sentences and wooing an agent to fall in love with their work. It’s an exhilarating and nerve-wracking experience and one that bears paraphrasing an acclaimed movie line:

I’m just an author, standing in front of an agent, asking them to love my story – and, by extension, me.

In theory, I know how this works. Agency websites explain up front that the process can take 6-8 weeks before the author should expect a response. Does that calm my nerves? Not in the slightest. I am an over-thinker. As my mom says, I “borrow trouble” and can’t help ruminating on the possibilities: What if they all say no? What if they all say yes?! Do I have any idea what I’m doing?

The number of times I’ve hit refresh on my email and checked my spam folder since querying is embarrassing.

When you submit your work for approval, it stirs up a crazy combination of emotions. On one hand, I’m exceptionally proud of myself for finishing this novel and working through several rounds of edits to get it where it is. Most days, I love the story and want everyone to read it immediately.

There are other days, though, where I can’t believe that I’d be so bold as to think I have any chance of getting published. I’m trying to detach myself from the querying process and not take criticism and rejection personally, but my brain just doesn’t work that way.

So here are some things I’ve done to distract myself:

  • Take the dogs to the park
  • Laundry
  • Clean the junk drawer
  • Taxes (someone put me out of my misery)

Of course, writing this post has been an exercise in pseudo-distraction. I’m not obsessively checking my email, but I am writing about obsessively checking my email. Doesn’t exactly work.

Have any of you gone through this stage? What advice do you have? Please feel free to distract me with funny stories, questions, or other comments – I’d love to hear from you!

Chasing the Enemy

When I start on one of these prompts, I write notes about where I see the story going. The funny thing is that it’s very rare for those ideas to make it into the story…For instance: one of the original ideas for this prompt was a man with a special parakeet that could identify demons. 🤔😈

I hope you enjoy this story – leave a comment or send me an email with your thoughts!

Title: Chasing the Enemy

Words: demon, bystander, escaped, parakeet, destiny, hammer, singing, ash, cathedral, heels


Cigarette smoke curled into the night air in the circle of light cast by the lone street light. Outside of that circle, however, the shadows writhed with everything dark and dangerous. The gloom concealed the thieves, the prostitutes, the murderers. At least until an unsuspecting bystander got caught in a snare and was swallowed by the night.

Damien was no stranger to these shadows. In fact, he often sought them out. He dropped the spent cigarette and crushed it with his toe, brushing the ash from his jacket lapels. How many nights had he held vigil on this corner? Two? Three? Rubbing his eyes, he yawned. Too many nights, that’s how many. But he’d been chasing leads and suspects long enough to know that sleep would only come once his quarry was caught and neutralized. Then he could safely trudge home and sleep in his own bed, under the same roof as the one he’d sworn to protect.

Shaking a new smoke out of the pack, he pulled it free with his lips before touching the bright flame of his lighter to the end. No spring chicken, Damien was gruff and scruffy, loud and bossy. He wasn’t bad to look at even though his jet-black hair was now streaked with a dirty gray and he couldn’t seem to keep his chin free of whiskers for more than an hour. It was the way he carried himself that had kept him alone for nearly a decade. He was aware of  his permanent scowl and his hunched shoulders and his angry tone of voice if anyone dared show him kindness.

He knew he didn’t deserve it.

Taking another long drag from his cigarette, he turned his eyes to the lighted windows of the cathedral across the street. His friends, when he’d had them, tried to get him to find peace in the church. Any church. After his wife had been murdered and the perpetrator escaped into obscurity, however, Damien felt that God was mocking him. He was being punished, his destiny twisted and mangled until he had lost all traces of humanity.

Their argument that day had been entirely his fault. Jeannie had been asking him for months to pick up his hammer and finish building the bookshelves he’d promised her when they bought the little craftsman-style house. He’d picked out the perfect oak and lovingly stained and treated it, carving intricate designs for accents. But for some unknown reason he was unable to assemble the pieces. Not physically unable, but some kind of mental block stopped him any time he thought about finishing them. His insecurities had convinced him that the one person he loved more than life wouldn’t need him anymore once those shelves were built.

She’d begged him that day, teasing, bribing him with a vacation or tickets to his favorite band. But he refused everything. Jeannie had tried to be kind and he’d been a complete ass. Yelling, calling her names and telling her to get off his back, he’d slammed out of the house and peeled away in his stupid Chevelle SS. An image in his rearview mirror, standing on the front porch looking heartbroken, was the last time he’d seen her alive.

If only he’d been there. If only he’d apologized and kissed her. If only he’d just built those damn bookshelves, she’d still be alive.

Damien didn’t remember anything from the moment he pulled onto his street, singing along to the radio and saw the police cars until everyone was gathered at his house after Jeannie’s funeral. When he came back to himself, all his neighbors and family patting him on the back and vomiting platitudes at him when he was drowning in self-loathing, he checked out. Without a word, he walked out the front door, climbed in his stupid muscle car and drove away. He had no idea what happened to his house or any of his other property – and he didn’t care.

He shifted his weight and stretched his back, lighting another cigarette with a scowl. Ten years. It had taken ten years of traveling, of taking odd jobs just so he could drink himself into oblivion, to bring him to Ellen. He exhaled with a small smile and a shake of his head. How they’d found each other was a mystery and why she stayed with him, well…that was simply a miracle. If it hadn’t been for her parakeet yellow raincoat he wouldn’t have paid any attention to her and she might have gotten away with it.

He had been stumbling down the sidewalk, using the buildings he passed to keep him mostly upright, when she materialized in front of him. At 15 years old and barely five feet tall, Ellen had popped up and caught his attention in that damn coat. When he stopped to stare at it, she offered to help him make his way home. It wasn’t until they were almost at the door of his motel room that he felt her hand in his pocket.

They’d been taking care of each other ever since.

Movement at the cathedral doors caught Damien’s attention and he melted back into the shadows, snuffing out his cigarette. The man exiting the church strolled down the steps and across the street, whistling a jaunty tune to the rhythm of his heels striking the pavement. Damien’s hands curled into fists: it was him.

Counting to twenty, Damien calmed his breathing and slid the knife from its sheath on his hip. He stepped off the curb, his gaze trained on his prey. With quick, silent steps, he drew closer to the demon who had destroyed his life, following him down the steps to the near-abandoned subway platform.

Damien tightened his grip on the handle of the blade and grinned with the knowledge that he’d sleep well that night.

short story, story prompts, fiction writing, #writingcommunity

Drama In and Out Of the Lab

This story prompt was a lot of fun for me and could potentially be drawn out to a novella or something. I’m intrigued by the characters that developed…

Standard disclaimer: This isn’t edited other than for spelling and punctuation so I apologize for any glaring errors.

I hope you have as much fun with it as I did!

Title: Drama In and Out of the Lab

Words: microbiologist, telephone, hidden, bystander, trench, inside, international, shoe, heights, persuade


“No, no, no!”

Carl threw his hands up in frustration. This was all wrong. Again. The samples had been contaminated, resulting in an outcome that would have been impossible if the experiment had been clean.

“Damn it, Isaac,” he murmured.

Slamming through the inner door to the decontamination chamber, Carl was having a hard time keeping his cool. His ‘partner’ Isaac was in the main part of the laboratory, oblivious to everything around him except for the ear-splitting metal screeching he was air drumming to.

“Isaac,” Carl said, once he was out of his clean suit. When the boy didn’t respond, he lost his temper and let loose a bellow to shake the rafters. “ISAAC!”

The boy spun around, eyes wide, slapping at the speaker to make it stop. “Yo, Carl, man, you can’t sneak up on a guy like that! What’re you yelling about anyway?”

Carl pinched the bridge of his nose and took a deep breath. “Isaac. Did you prep the samples the way I showed you?” When the boy nodded enthusiastically, Carl folded his arms. “Really? Are you sure? You did it all inside the sterile chamber, wearing all sterile gear, protective gear over your eyes?”

The way the color blanched from Isaac’s face told Carl all he needed to know and it was the last straw.

“You are impossible! I don’t know what else I can do to teach you how to work in the laboratory! There are standard operating procedures posted nearly everywhere, plenty of equipment and personal protective gear, and I have personally walked you through the procedures a dozen times.” Carl raked his hands through his hair and paced the small space, trying to control his anger. When he felt he was able to speak without shouting, he turned back to Isaac.

Isaac, who was now standing perfectly still, his head hanging and his shoulders slumped, his headphones hanging limp from his hand. Carl felt a pang of remorse for being so hard on the boy. He was just too damn frivolous and didn’t seem to realize that what they were doing was of the utmost importance and there was no room for careless mistakes.

Approaching the forlorn figure, Carl placed a hand on his shoulder. “Look, kid, I’m sorry for blowing up. But the validity of this research is imperative if we are going to make a difference. If we can isolate the bacterium that is wreaking havoc in China as we speak, we can save millions – maybe even billions – of lives.” Isaac looked up with red-rimmed eyes, his mouth turned down. “Perhaps it’s time for you to reevaluate your desire to become a microbiologist. There are many other worthy sciences that might be better suited for a young man such as yourself.”

With a shrug, Isaac started clearing the clutter he’d accumulated on the desk. “I know, Carl, and I’m sorry. Microbiology is my passion, I swear it! I think I just get too excited and have a hard time being patient enough to go through all the steps. Give me another chance – I’ll do better, I really will!”

“Fine.” Carl ran a hand down his face and shrugged out of his lab coat. “Let’s give it up for today. Go ahead and clean everything up and I’ll see you in the morning.”

In the locker room, Carl stared at his reflection. How did he get here? Mid-thirties, not quite balding but certainly thinning, with a little paunch and an overabundance of tweed in his closet, he had envisioned a much different life for himself. When he got into microbiology he dreamed of saving lives on a massive scale, like in the movies. Where was his opportunity to create and distribute a life-saving vaccine, secreting the vials across international borders, defying evil overlords and corrupt governments? No, instead, he was teaching inept children like Isaac the very basics of just working in a laboratory without even so much as a minor breakthrough.

Carl smoothed his hair back from his forehead and straightened his bow tie. If forced, he’d admit he was lonely, too. The last date he’d been on was with a beautiful divorcee with bangs and a turtleneck sweater who’d been too nervous to keep up any form of conversation. And the worst part was that most of his dates were like that. The women he met were generally timid, intellectual, and sweet – but where was the fire? Everything was so clinical and boring with them. Carl didn’t fancy himself any kind of a playboy or full of thrills, himself, but he yearned for some excitement. Not the emotional drama type, but at least something to get his blood racing. Was that too much to ask?

Tucking a newspaper under his arm, he ventured into the early afternoon sunshine to sit in the park for a little while before heading home. Alone. Again. At least sitting on a bench in the park, Carl could watch all the people and feel like he was part of something. It was a short-lived relief but it would have to do. He settled along the tree-lined path and opened the paper. He didn’t really care about reading any of the articles, it was a prop so he could watch people without being creepy about it. The role of innocuous bystander worked well for him and he imagined the lives of some of the characters who passed by.

There was a man in jeans and a polo shirt strolling with a younger man in khakis and a colorful button-down shirt. The way he kept straightening his collar and touching his hair told Carl that this was more than a friendly chat. The polo man was very interested in the younger man. Was this a first date? Looking at the younger guy with his pink cheeks and inability to make eye contact with his companion for long screamed yes. If not a date, a precursor. Carl smiled. Good for them.

Over the top of the newspaper, Carl scanned the people milling around and frowned. Pretty tame today, full of the same folks he saw frequently. Mothers pushing strollers with toddlers, men and women taking their dogs for walks, couples holding hands or smiling as they rode past on bikes. With a sigh, Carl thought about swinging by the store on the way home and grabbing a frozen pizza and a pint of ice cream. Hopefully tomorrow would be better.

Before he could fold up his paper, he saw her. Dark auburn curls, aviator sunglasses, wearing a trench coat as she stood under a tree across the path. She seemed to be watching him, but it was hard to tell from this distance. Lifting the paper a little higher, Carl took her in, hoping she couldn’t tell. The way she stood so still, her hands in the pockets of her coat, she definitely stood out from the activity buzzing around them. This woman was beautiful and intriguing and no one else seemed to notice her. As he watched, she slid her glasses down her nose, making a point of meeting his gaze, and smirked.

“Shit,” he muttered. He thought he’d been hidden enough to not be caught but she sniffed him out immediately. Peeking again, Carl was mortified to see that she was making a beeline for him, striding confidently across the park, oblivious to the traffic around her which stopped or simply flowed around her. Folding up the paper, he floundered. Was she going to yell at him? Call him a pervert for watching her? God, he hated confrontation. It was one thing when dealing with the drama in his lab – that was where he was comfortable, where he belonged – but out here in the real world? If there was a way to avoid drama out of the lab Carl was one to grab it with both hands and run.

He jumped up from his seat as she drew near but she grabbed his shoulders and swooped in to kiss both of his cheeks. “Don’t panic, darling,” she cooed in his ear. “Just sit back down and act natural. I don’t think I was followed.”

All Carl could think was how amazing she smelled, like summer rain and lavender, but he sat with her anyway. When she pulled off her glasses he tried not to gasp. She was exquisite: deep blue eyes, almost violet, perfect smile with a dimple in one cheek. Sliding under his arm and nestling next to him, she kept talking under her breath and Carl was far too stunned to do much else but go along with it.

“I wasn’t sure you’d show up. You weren’t answering your telephone and I got worried. There is no way for me to stress enough how important this mission is and the role you will play in it, yourself.” Snatching the paper from his hand, she pretended to read the articles, pointing to a story as though discussing it with Carl. “For today, you may call me Natasha but I am not at liberty to reveal my true identity. You will be Kraven for now. No,” she held up her hand when Carl opened his mouth. “You must not tell me anything about yourself. That way, if we get caught, we can’t reveal anything they can use, no matter what torture we might undergo.”

Carl stopped moving – almost stopped breathing – and tried to wrap his head around what she’d just said. “Torture?” His voice squeaked and he cleared his throat, repeating in a deeper tone, “Torture? What are you talking about?”

Glancing around furtively, she took his face in her hands, her eyes boring into his soul. “You know how dangerous The Shoe can be – many of our best agents have gone missing after following her trail of crime and corruption. But together, you and I can bring that vile woman down to meet justice.” She trailed her fingertips along his cheek, a smile trying to burst forth from her lips. “I must leave now, but you must find me again in an hour. Come to the rooftop restaurant at 27th and Elm. Bring a passport and a weapon. I’m worried that we may have already been compromised.” Natasha pressed her lips to Carl’s, drawing him into a deep and passionate kiss. After his initial shock at the contact, he melted into it, wrapping his arms around her, but she abruptly pulled away.

“Not now, darling. There will be plenty of time for that when the syndicate is stopped, once and for all.” Without another word, she rose from the bench with an elegance Carl had only read about, and she disappeared into the crowd.

Carl remained in place on the bench, gaping after her. She may have been a hallucination, something he’d dreamed up and created for himself. But what if she wasn’t? His mind was chasing itself to the point of complete inaction.

On the one hand, he had just been craving ‘excitement’ hadn’t he? This – Natasha – was nothing if not exciting. Women like her never noticed men like him. It wasn’t an intentional snub, it was just that he and others like him tended to blend into the background. Not only had she noticed him, she had called him ‘darling’ and kissed him in a way he’d only dreamed of. And she wanted to meet him again.

Was he seriously considering this? Sure, Natasha was gorgeous. But the word ‘torture’ had come out of her mouth in reference to a possibility in his future. That set off major warning bells and threw red flags all over the place. Not only was there the chance that he could be hurt or killed, but it was also probable that this beautiful woman was completely unhinged. Did he want to invite that into his neat little world?

Carl’s hand floated to his lips, the feel of her lips still lingering. In the lab he only had the drama of Isaac to deal with, predictably negligent Isaac, and the same failed experiments day after day. But here, outside of the lab? An adventure had fallen into his lap, an adventure named Natasha. Well, no, not really. That was only her code name.

Could he be ‘Kraven’, the persona she’d given him? Alluring and dangerous, ‘Kraven’ was a man who ate adventure for breakfast, washing it down with a glass of aged Scotch. ‘Carl’ was a man unironically wearing a bow tie and a tweed jacket, ready for a beautiful woman to persuade him to chase after his own potential death.

Glancing at his watch, Carl knew without a shadow of a doubt that he was going to meet Natasha. How long had he been sitting there? Did he have 45 minutes left? Only 30? He jumped from the bench and dashed home to collect his passport and – what did she say, a weapon? The only weapon he could think he possessed was a police baton he kept for protection and a handful of throwing stars from when he’d been obsessed with Bruce Lee movies. Yes, they would do. Small, compact, easily hidden.

Carl dressed the best he could to fit what he thought ‘Kraven’ might wear. All he owned was a gray turtleneck from his Carl Sagan days and a black leather jacket from…he had no idea where. With everything he needed tucked in pockets, he slicked back his hair and left his apartment, destiny leading him to the rooftop restaurant perched on the tallest building in the city.

Nevermind that he was afraid of heights.

The End Is In Sight! Maybe. Probably Not…

I haven’t given an editing update on my novel for nearly a year and boy, has a lot happened since then! The last time I checked in, I was still trying to cut thousands of words and put together a sample query letter for a writers’ conference I was attending in March.

That’s a story for another time. Let’s fast forward.

To July. Yep, it took me that much longer to get my novel to a point that made me comfortable. I whittled my story down to roughly 94,000 words and had decided to go a step further and hire an editor. She was suggested to me by someone I admire and was an excellent fit for me. In my naive, sometimes conceited mind, I expected to be told that my manuscript was ready and I should compile my list of agents to query. (Think Ralphie’s daydream about his Red Rider theme paper.) Seriously, I thought I could send the story to the editor in early July and be querying agents by the end of August.

Ha.

Every developmental suggestion from the editor made sense to the point that I was embarrassed I hadn’t seen the need for the changes myself. Her suggestions made the story stronger and more believable, but it took me another several months to get through the changes and rewrites. After shaving an additional 20,000 words, my novel is back in the same editor’s hands for another round of suggestions and probable rewrites.

And I’m perfectly all right with that.

This process is tedious and sometimes disheartening, but I know the end product will be the best version possible. Not only that, but I’m learning so much about my writing and how to improve on it that my next novel(s) can only benefit from the mistakes I’ve made. I love my adverbs and weak, passive verbs, but that’s what editing is for and I’m not afraid of it anymore.

Two more novels are waiting patiently for me to complete them so they can be edited with the same love. I also have a file of story ideas trying to woo me with their shiny new plots and characters. Acting as a critical beta reader for friends, challenging myself with writing prompts, attempting to make a dent in my massive To Be Read pile; all of these things add to my toolbox that will build me up as a writer and I love it.

What surprises you about the process of writing a book? Feel free to ask about anything I’ve shared here by commenting below or reaching out through my email – I’d love to chat with you!

 

A Family Mystery Uncovered

This is the second story prompt from the book I got for Christmas and it took me several versions to get something I didn’t hate. The title was given to me and the words that had to be included are underlined throughout the text. I haven’t edited this story, either, so I apologize for anything repetitive, misspelled, or just plain idiotic. 

Enjoy!

Title: A Family Mystery Uncovered

Words: Sunday, secret, wallpaper, swap, sister, curiosity, island, notebook, marathon, demand


I laid in my bed, the covers pulled up to my chin, and held very still. Even breathing seemed too loud and made my heart race at the thought that I’d be heard and the ghost would come for me.

Every night for as long as I could remember, there had been unexplainable sounds that woke me up and kept me paralyzed in fear until exhaustion simply won out. I was only fifteen but I didn’t know a time when I wasn’t living in terror. When I complained to my mother about the moans, taps, and scratching I heard throughout the night she shushed me, declaring it all a bad dream. She even took me to a psychiatrist who diagnosed me with ‘night terrors’ which was absurd. Did you have to sleep to have those?

My sister, who had the attic bedroom, never heard a thing – or so she claimed. She was two years older and so close to graduating and leaving home that we rarely even saw her. But every now and then she’d invite me to her room to hang out or for what she called a sleepover. We’d roll sleeping bags onto the floor and lie awake, gossiping and making up scary stories until we couldn’t keep our eyes open. Those were nights that I cherished and would miss when she was gone.

“Do you think mom will let me swap rooms with you when you leave for college?” We were sprawled on the couches one Sunday in the throes of a massive rom-com marathon. “I can’t sleep in that room at all and I’m worried that whatever is in there is going to finally come for me. It seems like your room doesn’t have the noises and stuff.”

Angie glanced at me quickly and popped a chip in her mouth. “Seems that way, huh? Did it ever occur to you that you just don’t notice it when we’re both in there?”

I paused the movie and sat up. “What are you talking about?”

“I’m talking about the fact that I hear the same shit you do, it’s just not as loud all the way up there.”

Gaping, I tried to wrap my mind around what she was telling me. “Wait – so you’ve been hearing the same stuff all this time? I was forced to doctors and psychiatrists who tried to convince me it was all in my head and you’ve heard it too?”

She wouldn’t meet my eyes and started picking at her fingernails. “Come on, Mel, what do you think would have happened if I’d said anything? The folks would demand that I get my head shrunk, too. You were already going: if it was determined that you were insane it could be surmised that I was, too, right?”

Just then, our mom walked into the kitchen, tossing her keys on the island and pulling bobby pins out of her hair, letting it hang loose around her shoulders. “You were what, Ang? What are you two lazy bones talking about?” She leaned against the doorframe and crossed her arms.

Angie and I exchanged a quick wide-eyed glance before answering.

“Oh, you know, Mel’s worried about getting accepted to college. I was just telling her that I was worried, too, but she doesn’t have to worry about it.” She tugged at my hair playfully. “She’s smarter than I am, anyway.”

Mom cocked her head and smiled at us with soft eyes. “Oh, you girls! It makes me all warm inside to see how close you are!” She dashed across the room and wormed her way to a seat right between us and reached for the bag of chips. “So what are we watching tonight? Are we on a romance or horror kick right now?”

*****

The noises were particularly upsetting and my hands were trembling as I clutched at my comforter. I couldn’t keep my eyes still; too afraid to move at all and possibly draw attention to myself, my gaze was constantly flitting from one shadowy corner of the room to the next, certain there was something crouching in the darkness.

Whatever was keeping me awake had moved on from taps and moans to bangs, thuds, and outright muffled screams. How was my mom not racing through the house right now, making sure we were safe? It sounded like someone was being murdered.

There was a creak outside my bedroom and my heart tried to jump out of my chest when the doorknob turned. I pulled the covers over my head and chanted in my head, Go away, just go away!

“Melissa?” my sister whispered from the doorway and I was so relieved I almost burst into tears.

“Angie!” I hissed back, lifting the edge of the covers so she could jump in and we could huddle together for at least the illusion of safety. “Do you hear it, too? It’s so much worse!”

“We have to do something, Mel,” she said. Her hand flashed out from under the blanket and clicked on the lamp next to my bed.

“What are you doing?” I tried to climb over her to douse the light but she held me back.

“Whatever is going on isn’t going on inside your room. Don’t you think if movement or light drew it to us that I would’ve been caught on my way down here?” She pulled a notebook out from under the sheets and placed her palm on the cover. “I’ve been writing down every event over the past year, documenting what I heard, what time, what day, and I think there’s a pattern.”

I couldn’t focus on what she was saying, my nerves were shot and adrenaline was at an all-time high. “A pattern? What does that mean?” I pulled my knees up to my chest and tried to slow my breathing and my racing brain. With my eyes I traced the floral pattern on my wallpaper as the vines and leaves wound around the room, over and under, through and across.

“I mean, there are thumps and bangs nearly every night but things get really crazy every three weeks or so.” She tapped her finger on her chin. “What is going on every three weeks to ramp activity up so much?”

Before I could formulate a hypothesis, something caught my eye. The wall above my desk was moving, almost breathing. I watched a spot bow out and back flat, out and back until I wasn’t sure if my eyes were playing tricks on me.

Angie was still thumbing through her notebook, trying to figure out what the pattern could mean so she didn’t notice when I climbed off the bed. My curiosity overwhelmed my fear and I advanced on the wall, walking on tiptoes until I could reach out and touch it. But I couldn’t bring myself to do it.

A hand settled on my shoulder and it immediately had a calming effect. I loved that my sister was right there, offering her support and letting me know I wasn’t in this alone. I straightened my spine and lifted my hand once more.

“I don’t know that you want to do that.” My mother’s voice sounded in my ear and I spun around to find her right behind me, a serene smile on her face.

Her blood-spattered face.

“Wha-what happened? Are you okay? Where’s Angie?”

I leaned around mom to see Angie lying across the bed, unmoving, her notebook flung to the floor. Mother waved a hand and said, “Oh, don’t you worry about her. Your sister will be just fine. I only gave her a small dose. She’ll wake up with a doozy of a headache, but nothing a little aspirin can’t sure.”

Pressing my back against the wall, I was horrified at the calm vision before me. My mom’s hair was pulled neatly back into a ponytail that swung against the shoulders of a red track suit. After closer inspection, it wasn’t meant to be red. Her hands and her clothes were drenched in red, carrying with them that distinct metallic smell of blood.

“What have you done?” I barely choked the words out, fear gripping my chest as I stared at this monster who looked like someone I loved.

She clucked her tongue and stroked my cheek, saying, “Oh darling, I hadn’t intended on revealing our little secret quite yet; it’s far sooner than I had hoped. I didn’t think you’d be ready for another couple of years, to be honest.”

My mouth hung open even as I tried to escape her gentle touch. “I don’t want to know your secret!”

“Oh, it’s not my secret,” she chuckled. “This is a tradition that has been handed down through the generations of our family, from mother to daughter, for centuries. Once you see it in motion, actually get to perform the rituals with your own hands, you’ll wonder how you ever lived without it.”

She reached for me as though to gather me in her arms but before I could slap her hands away, the wall behind me exploded outward, showering us all with plaster and dust.

“Save me!” a voice rasped out as a bony claw clamped onto my shoulder. I screamed and my mom’s eyes lit with a blood lust I never could have imagined in my worst nightmares. She calmly stepped forward and peeled the fingers off me, bending them back until they cracked and the voice in the wall emitted an inhuman screech of pain, before the hand and the voice disappeared in a series of muffled thuds.

I dashed to my sister’s side as she began to wake up, groaning, and I could think of nothing but trying to protect her. Mother smoothed her stained hands down the front of her suit and took a deep breath.

“You two stay put and I promise I’ll explain everything when I get back.” She leaned in to peck a kiss to my cheek and winked. “But right now I’ve got a man to catch.”

END

A Strange Request in a Piano Bar

My older son’s girlfriend gave me a writing prompt book for Christmas and I’ve decided to use one each week just for fun. Each prompt comes with a title and a list of words to use in the story. It was a bit of a challenge, it’s largely unedited, and I had to do a little research – but it was definitely fun!

Title: A Strange Request in a Piano Bar

Words: carnival, sprained, mask, oxidation, awkward, apple, juvenile, controversy, twirl, sassafras


Sitting in the corner, trying to hide in the shadows, I watched him. He was handsome, a little awkward as he sipped a cola and tapped his fingers in time to the music. But he’d do nicely.

This hotel piano bar was one of the best places to find what I needed. People were always coming in and out of town, rarely staying more than a couple of days. And on any given Sunday night, this watering hole was full of the lonely, desperate souls looking for any form of affection.

He glanced around, looking at every face, perhaps trying to determine who he might approach for a little anonymous fun. Poor dear. Smooth skin, fidgety, he couldn’t have been more than 21, if he was even that old. Recklessness emanated from him in waves, giving off the stench of a juvenile delinquent. I tapped a finger against my chin. Was it worth the trouble he would undoubtedly give me?

I leaned forward just enough for the light to hit my eyes and his head whipped around in my direction, his aura glowing as he offered me a shy smile. Oh yes, he would be worth every ounce of headache that came with him.

Melting into the dark, I waited. He’d come to me – they always did. These children who had no idea what they were getting themselves into, thinking their stones were bigger than any who had come before them. I loved being the one to teach them a lesson and make a little money along the way.

“Ahem.” The voice yanked me out of my thoughts and I was surprised to see the bartender standing in front of me, brandishing a tall glass full of dark liquid. “This is from the…gentleman…at the bar.”

I peered around him and the young man lifted his own glass in salute with a waggle of his eyebrows. Ugh. Disgusting. But I accepted the drink and raised it, winking as I took a sip.

“Jesus, what the hell is this?” I spluttered.

The bartender snorted. “That, dear lady, is a bona fide sassafras root beer.” He glanced over his shoulder and narrowed his eyes at me, wagging a finger. “Don’t be too rough with him. He’s young and stupid and naïve. Actually, you should just leave him alone.”

“Fat chance,” I murmured. Giving the bartender a glare, I waved him away, watching the young man approach. He rubbed his hands on his slacks, steps unsure as he drew closer. “Hello,” I called to him. “I’m Delphine – won’t you join me?”

The smile that lit up his face was darling and I had a moment’s pause about what I was about to do. My life has seen its fair share of controversy and many would call me a witch or a whore or just a criminal. Growing up, my entire family lived this way. Luring in unsuspecting men and women with a coy look and the hint of a promise of love – or sex, at the very least – just to enchant them into giving up anything we wanted. Sometimes it was cash or a vehicle, other times it was information and their deep, dark secrets. It was how we survived. We never devastated anyone, left him or her destitute or in danger. We weren’t monsters.

“I’m Jim,” he gushed, taking my hand and pressing his lips to the back of it. “I saw you over here and I swear on all that’s holy that I’ve never seen anything as wondrous. Do you believe in fate, Delphine?”

I raised an eyebrow. Very interesting. He was already enamored of me without a drop of magic being used. Perhaps this would be easier than I anticipated. As I fully took in his features – the blond curls, plush, soft lips, caramel colored eyes – I realized I would enjoy this much more than usual, at the very least.

“I do indeed believe in fate, Jim,” I cooed. “I see no other reason we would have both turned up at this dingy piano bar on this very night unless the stars were aligned in my favor. Thank you so much for the drink. It was quite unusual but very refreshing. Sassafras, it is?”

He scooted closer to me and picked up the glass, holding it to the light. “Oh, yes. Truly a magnificent plant, you know, and delicious to boot! Now, I know what you’re thinking,” he drawled. “Wasn’t this stuff banned in the 1979? It was, but don’t you worry a bit; you see, the safrole is the only thing that was potentially dangerous and this root beer contains a specific oxidation of the bark that is absolutely safrole-free. We are free to consume as much of the stuff as we want!”

“Aren’t we the lucky ones,” I replied. He handed the glass back to me and raised his own, clinking them against one another. Taking an enormous glug of his drink, he seemed surprised when I only sipped at mine.

“Oh, I’m sorry. Don’t you like it? I should have asked before sending it over.” Jim raked his hands through his hair and frowned. “I’m so stupid, always doing things like this. Not everyone likes this kind of drink. You’re so beautiful and sophisticated I should have ordered you something much classier, like a martini or a glass of champagne. I’m so terribly sorry.”

He looked so distraught I was afraid I’d lose him before I’d even had a chance to begin. Laying a hand on his knee, I tried to reassure him. “Oh that’s not it at all, I adore sassafras! See?” I choked down a big swig of the garbage but he still looked unsure I downed the rest of it in one swallow. It gurgled in my stomach but the brilliant light was back in his doe eyes so perhaps it was worth it.

“Oh, Delphine, I’m so glad you like it!” He looked down at my hand on his knee and his cheeks blazed pink, but he didn’t move my hand. Instead, he wriggled his chair even closer and threw his arm across the back of my seat and leaned in close. “Did you know that the sassafras plant has been used for centuries by many diverse cultures?”

His breath was warm on my cheek and although the topic of plant usage through time sounded boring enough to almost make me abandon this mark, I found myself being drawn toward him. “You don’t say? That sounds fascinating. How was it used?” What the hell? Did I actually say that?

Titling his head to the side, he narrowed his eyes as his smile grew broader. “You know, I think I’ll wait a little bit longer to share that information.” Glancing around he lowered his voice, asking in a deep, gravelly tone, “How’d you like to get out of here?”

Now he was talking my language. “What did you have in mind, Jim?”

He sat back and slapped his hands together. “Hoo, boy, have I got just the thing! Across the street, there’s a little traveling carnival that comes through here every few years.”

“A – a carnival?”

“Oh, yes. I’ve never been to one, my parents wouldn’t allow it when I was growing up. But I’ve always wanted to try it! The rides, the food, the games – it all looks like so much fun and I would like nothing more than to win you a prize, Miss Delphine.”

I frowned. What the hell was this nonsense? Throughout my life there had been many men that asked me to do many odd and degrading things, but a carnival? My initial assessment of this mark had been that he was adorable and young and taking him to bed to get what I wanted would be a distinct pleasure. Had I been wrong about him? I shook my head: I was never wrong.

“That sounds wonderful! Are there any games you think you’ll be particularly good at that you’d like to start with? Perhaps the milkcan toss or climbing the rope ladder? I was always a fan of the ones where you shoot water at a target to make you horse run faster than the others.”

Jim threw his head back and let out a guffaw loud enough to make all the other patrons shoot annoyed looks our way. “Gosh, no, Delphine! When I called it a carnival, that wasn’t really the right word. It’s more of a medieval fair than what you’d strictly consider a carnival. Oh no, these games are a bit different – and require a bit more skill than luck. There is one that I’m most excited to try out, if you’re up for it.”

A medieval fair? Well, shit. When I said I’d been doing this for a number of years, the number is much higher than one might expect. I look to be in my late twenties – early thirties at the very most. But the truth is that I remember the true medieval fairs of the world, the ones that involved true knights and deadly feats of strength and prowess. Those were also the days when many of her loved ones were lost to the fear and ignorance regarding witches. While there were those who had sold their souls and their bodies to satan, Delphine and her kind were more closely related to Wiccans. The difference was that they used their affinity for nature to punish the evil and stupid men and women who deserved a little retribution.

“Oh honey, I’m up for just about anything,” I told him. “You only have to ask.”

Now his cheeks started to burn a darker pink and he cleared his throat. “Okay, but it’s going to sound like a strange request…” He took a deep breath. “You’ve heard of William Tell, right? There’s a booth that lets you shoot an apple off your partner’s head with a bow and arrow and I’ve been dying to try it! I know I’d be good at it if I just had the chance! But so far, I haven’t been able to convince anyone to come with me. How about it, Delphine? Will you be my mark?”

Before I even truly registered what he’d said, I was nodding my head and laying my hand on his cheek. Wait – did he say mark? There was a pinprick of concern at the back of my mind but it was quickly overshadowed by something else, something lighter and joyful and accepting of anything he said.

“Oh Jim, I’d be delighted!” I threw my arms around his neck and pressed my cheek against his. Oh, he smelled so good. My fingers found their way into his curls and having him in my arms lit a fire in my belly that I hadn’t felt in…well, in centuries.

He stood, bringing my hand to his lips yet again as we made our way to the door. I was enthralled with the shift of his shoulders and the way the light played across his smooth skin and I couldn’t tear my eyes away. I had a vague understanding that we were going to do something dangerous but somehow I knew in my bones it would be okay if I was with Jim.

The lights of the carnival flashed and glowed as we approached hand in hand and I honestly felt giddy. He wasn’t lying about this being a medieval setting. There were wenches and knights, jesters, lords and ladies. A small group was gathered around a booth where they were throwing axes at a target. Badly. There were shops and stands selling everything from chainmail to swords to trinkets and the people milling about were eating it up.

“Oh, there!” I pulled Jim’s hand and tried to drag him to the line of archers I spotted on the edge of a lighted field to the right. The workers were dressed as you would expect Robin Hood’s merry men to be but the patrons were in shorts and sundresses, rubbing the skin on the inside of their arms as ugly purple bruises jumped to the surface from where the string landed in the wrong place.

Pulling me against his side, his warm arm wrapped around my shoulders, I felt rather than heard him chuckle as he steered me away. “No, no, sweet Delphine, that’s not for us. That attraction is for the weak and the childish. People like you and me are destined for excitement and deserve so much more.” Jim stepped back and raised his arm, leading me in a little twirl and bringing a giggle out of me.

Good lord, a giggle? I was nearly 400 years old and a powerful being; I was not supposed to giggle. Somehow, in the middle of the spin, I stumbled in a hole and painfully twisted my ankle. “Ow!”

Jim immediately stopped and scooped me into his arms. “Are you all right, Delphine?”

The lights around me began to waver and wobble and I thought to myself, That’s odd. There were wards and protections put on me to keep me from getting injured – or inebriated. But there I was, my ankle throbbing and swelling even as my head swam. “Do you think it’s broken?”

Pressing a kiss to my cheek Jim replied, “No, I doubt it. It may be sprained, but I think you’ll be just fine.”

“How am I supposed to be your mark if I can’t stand on it?” Were my words slurring?

Laughter rumbled up in his chest as we drew closer to a dark tent filled with flickering candlelight. “I wouldn’t worry about that, darling Delphine. You have been a delightful mark already tonight.”

Once the tent flap closed behind us, all other sounds ceased. It was almost like we were in a different plane of existence, separated from the real world by that relatively thin stretch of canvas. My head lolled back against Jim’s shoulder as he carried me to the center of the tent.

“Remember I was going to tell you more about the sassafras and how it was used throughout the centuries? I think now is a good time for that.” He set me down and with a gentle pressure leaned me against what I thought was a wall. I stumbled a little and gasped from the pain in my ankle. “Oh, of course,” Jim mumbled. Then he leaned down and wrapped his large palm around the wounded area. With a quick squeeze, there was a sharp pain then nothing. I rolled the joint around, testing it, and found that the swelling was gone. His lips were next to my ear and he whispered, “Better?” before kissing my cheek.

The daze I was in faded but, it appeared, just a bit too late. As my faculties returned and I was once again in control of myself, I realized that my wrist and ankles were secured to the wall, allowing zero movement. My hands were wrapped tightly in gauze so I couldn’t move my fingers. Well, that was inconvenient as I needed to move them to cast any spells.

“Sassafras was used widely to build ships and furniture, the twigs for oral hygiene, and the leaves have long been used in cuisine around the world. Did you know that you can cure meat and treat wounds with a certain concoction made with the leaves, too? Burning the bark has been known to protect and ward off evil and my family has used it this way for many, many years.”

I watched him back away, one side of his enticing mouth curled up. With surprise I noted that he no longer looked young and naïve, inexperienced and awkward. Those golden brown eyes had a wisdom deep in them that hadn’t been there earlier.

“Okay, that’s enough now, Jim. I agreed to come play your game with you but I’m not comfortable with being lashed to the wall. What kind of game is this, anyway?” I batted my lashes in an attempt to turn the tables back to my favor. “I know some other games involving bondage that we could play…privately.”

That made him pause, and I could see the idea taking root and starting to grow. I had no idea what he had planned, but I’d survived much kinkier and more dangerous incidents than this one. Before I could say anything else to encourage him to let me go, he shook his head and smirked, wagging a finger at me.

“Ah, you are very good, Delphine. I was warned about you but I had no idea just how enticing you could be.” He turned to me, tossing an apple in the air and catching it with one hand, a swath of fabric in the other. “My family used sassafras frequently, but most frequently it was used on and by the people of the villages we lived in. You see, it is a very potent ingredient in love charms and potions. While we were persecuted for being…magical…the same people who feared us also wanted to use us to their own ends. The recipe for the love potion was handed down through centuries and perfected through trial and error. You, my sweet witch Delphine, drank down a small dose earlier tonight, just enough to let your guard down so I could get you here. Alone.”

He stopped directly in front of me, his eyes searching my face with wonder before he leaned in and captured my lips in a searing kiss that left me breathless with my toes curling in my shoes. When he pulled back and I could see his face again, I gasped. No longer was I looking at the awkward young man with blond curls I had tried to pick up in the piano bar. Instead, I was staring into the violet eyes of an aged warlock, the aura I had spied much earlier blazing wildly around him.

“Shoot, has my mask fallen away?” He clucked his tongue and checked my binds. “I was never very adept at maintaining such a façade when my ire – or passion – has been riled up. And you, Delphine, have definitely tested my limits.”

My lips were on fire, tingling unpleasantly. That bastard! He’d had a potion on his lips when he kissed me, I knew it well. It rendered the recipient immobile and unable to speak. So I glared with all the hatred I could muster.

“We’ll have none of that, dear,” he grumbled. “This has been long coming, you must know that.”

I felt the apple as he perched it on my head and I willed my muscles to move and shake it off, but I had zero control over any part of my body. Jim – or whatever his real name was – turned away, no longer afraid to take his eyes off me and retreated to a table a good twenty feet away. With a grin, he knocked an arrow in the bow and took aim.

“Let the games begin.”

 

 

Return To Me: Part 6

The rest of the day was spent poring over the summoning book, looking for just the right words and symbols necessary for what she was about to attempt. Many variations of the incantation were written and discarded. Eventually, she ended up with a chant that she felt was powerful and to-the-point. She practiced drawing the sigil Justin had told her to use, finding it in the book. She drew it over and over until it was perfect. She cleared off the dining room table, placing a dark purple cloth at the head and smoothing the sigil drawing on top of it. She traced the shape on the paper with the powdered elderberry, her hands surprisingly steady. Settling the candle at the top of the cloth, she stood back and surveyed her work. Perfect.

Once the table was ready, Emma poured herself a glass of wine before turning off the lights throughout the house. She perched on the edge of Justin’s favorite armchair and gazed out the large bay window into the quiet night. All the trick-or-treaters had come and gone, leaving the street empty.

Next to the chair stood the end table that held the reframed photo of the two of them on their wedding day. Justin’s warm brown eyes smiled out at her, sparkling with mischief. She picked up the photo and gazed at her husband’s face. He looked so alive in this picture, so vibrant and warm it was disorienting. How could he be dead?  Justin had been larger than life and brought light into every room he entered. You could feel the kindness and joy radiating off him any time you were within ten feet. Emma wasn’t the only one who felt it. But she was sure she was the only one who experienced the absence of that sunshine so acutely. His recent nighttime visitations had only served to dig that emptiness bigger and deeper and more painful. It didn’t matter if they were real or merely wishful dreaming. Justin was still gone.

Trailing her finger along the shape of his cheek, she kissed the glass and set the frame back on the table. She finished her wine, rinsed the glass and took her place at the end of the table in front of the makeshift altar.

It was time.

Pulling a small folded piece of paper out of her pocket, Emma lit the candle. She smoothed the paper on the table, so she could read the words, and held her hands out, palms up, in front of her. She cleared her throat and closed her eyes, taking a bracing breath.

“You who lived yesterday, I call you from my mind to yours. Come back from the shadows into the light.” She glanced at the paper before cupping her hands and wafting the candle smoke over her face. “I feel the warmth of your body, the warmth of your spirit. This sigil of summoning calls you to me and I hold you in my arms, my heart, and my soul. I bid you return to me.”

She choked back a sob, overcome with the desperation she felt for this to work. “Please,” she whispered, dropping her hands, clenching and unclenching them at her sides. “Oh god, please return to me, Justin. Please.”

Repeating the incantation three times – for good measure – Emma let the candle burn and stood perfectly still. She closed her eyes and tried to relax her body and mind, listening to every creak and sigh the house made around her. How would she know if it had worked? Would the air in the room feel different? Would he appear in front of her, fully formed, flesh and bone, like in her dreams?

She stood quietly for what felt like an eternity, waiting. Hoping. One silent tear after another fell from her closed eyes. It was foolish of her to have believed this would work. The dreams were just that – dreams. Wishful thinking, a manifestation of her broken heart. Justin was dead. Period.

Tonight, All Hallows Eve with the house silent and dark, she understood how people believed in things like this. If they felt even a fraction of the pain Emma felt right now – had felt for the better part of the last year – they would be nothing short of desperate to believe their late loves were somehow still with them.

Swallowing the sob that bubbled up in her throat, Emma pictured Justin’s face in her mind, heard his laugh in the deep quiet of the room. Ten years. Ten short years of the purest happiness Emma had ever known. He had been her rock and her guiding light. Without that beacon of love in her life she had been floundering in the world and didn’t know if she’d ever find her way again. That’s why she’d been so lost without him. Why she’d let her dream self be convinced this absurdity could bring him back.

Disappointed tears now dry on her face, Emma let her shoulders slump in defeat. Nothing had happened. She didn’t know if she honestly thought something would, but if this nonsense was ever going to work then it would take the one night when the veil to the spirit world was thinnest to breathe it to life.

Opening her eyes and letting them adjust to the near-darkness in the house, she smoothed out the incantation on the table, over and over again. A passing car cast shadows that danced and bounced off the walls. It was silent and still and empty in the house, just as it had been every night since the end of her world. Justin was gone. That was the reality Emma had to live with now. Heaving a defeated sigh, Emma snuffed out the candle and trudged to her bedroom. Perhaps she would dream of him again. Perhaps not, now that she knew it had all been in her head.

Emma drifted in and out of a restless sleep. She was too hot, she was too cold, it was too quiet, she couldn’t get comfortable. She was beyond exhausted and she should have fallen into a deep sleep, but it eluded her, keeping her always just outside the circle of peacefulness. She even had taken 3 full sleeping pills, for good measure, but she still tossed and turned.

With a jolt, Emma sat straight up in bed, suddenly wide awake, any hint of fatigue long gone. Her breathing was ragged and shallow and she was covered with a sheen of sweat, as though she had been running. Sitting motionless, she tried to recall what had woken her. She glanced around the bedroom looking for an explanation, but nothing stood out to her.

The one thing clear in her mind was that she needed to go out to the dining room. She knew it as surely as she knew her own name. In the pit of her stomach she felt a knot, the pull of a thread drawing her out of her bed and toward the door.

Her feet hit the cold floor and she paused. Through the crack of the partially-opened door Emma saw only darkness. Something was calling to her. Nothing audible, nothing she could hear, but a call that she could feel in the middle of her chest. She rubbed her wet palms on the legs of her pajamas and licked her lips, trying to get the courage to move.

On shaky legs, she rose and took a few tentative steps across the room. Cloaked in a sensation of unreality, everything around her seemed to glow and pulsate. Was she dreaming again? This was nothing like the lucid dreams of Justin she had been experiencing. Instead, there was a menacing nightmare quality in the air. Only the rough boards beneath her feet and the manic pounding in her chest grounded her in the certainty of wakefulness.

She watched her hand tremble reaching for the door. The ominous squeaking of the hinges made goosebumps break out over every inch of her and she came close to turning back. The urge to slam the door and dive under her covers until the sun came up nearly overtook her and she hesitated in the open doorway. But the invisible thread drawing her out was stronger than her apprehension and she leaned into the hallway.

All the air in her lungs turned to sludge and she was unable to take a breath. Her eyes had to be playing tricks on her, the remnant of whatever nightmare had woken her so forcefully a moment ago. She blinked over and over, trying to clear her vision but nothing changed. Stepping fully into the hall, the hair on the back of her neck stood on end as the realization of what she was seeing fully formed.

A silhouette was visible at the dining room table, backlit by the street lights through the window.

Return To Me: Part 4

Fear clutched at her chest and froze her muscles in place. Slowly, carefully, she rose from the mattress. She had no idea what she might find but she wasn’t about to wait for it to come find her. She padded silently on bare feet to the bedroom door, straining to hear any further movement. There was no sound, so she ventured further into the hallway, inching along with her back pressed up against the wall.

When she reached the entrance to the living room she peeked around the corner in an attempt to assess the situation from a safe distance. She could only see a sliver of the room, and she couldn’t be sure it was empty. No shuffling or other signs of movement carried to her through the quiet. Cautiously, she stepped through the doorway.

No one was there. Nothing looked disturbed. The front door was still locked as was the sliding back door. So…what had made that noise? No windows were open. It was definitely inside the house and it hadn’t been the wind blowing something over. She passed her gaze over every part of the room; over Justin’s favorite armchair, the couch Emma slept on more often than not, the end tables, the coffee table, the fireplace and the mantle.

As she turned to search the kitchen, something caught her eye. She froze.

On the hearth, shattered and broken, was the 8×10 photo of Emma and Justin’s wedding day. Their faces smiled up at her with so much hope and joy that she would have crumpled to the ground if it hadn’t been for the fact that the photo had been, just a few minutes ago, sitting peacefully on the end table.

On the opposite side of the room.

She had spun around, making sure she wasn’t imagining things. Maybe this was a different photo that had simply fallen off the mantle. Emma had been a little singularly focused recently and it wouldn’t have been out of the question for her to have moved something and forgotten. But no, there were no empty spots above the fireplace. She knew where the photo had come from. How it got here, on the other hand…

“Justin,” she’d whispered again, this time in wonder. “Justin!” She called his name louder and stood still, holding her breath. Was it possible? Was he here? Her heart raced in anticipation. Eyes wide, searching the shadows in the corners of the room, she had expected to see him standing there with his arms open, his signature bright grin splitting his face. He had stopped her. He had saved her. He was still here, watching and protecting her.

That realization had washed over Emma with a tidal wave of tears. Justin wouldn’t have wanted this for her, she knew that now. No matter how much she missed him there was no way he would have condoned taking this kind of permanent action. He had always accused Emma of being too reactionary, of jumping to a major solution for a minor problem. While the despair that had taken over her life wasn’t necessarily minor to her, she realized her resolution wasn’t going to fix anything.

She had picked up the crumpled frame carefully and carried it to the kitchen. Removing the broken glass piece by piece, her eyes stayed locked on the picture, on the face she loved more than anything. Contradictory emotions flooded through her: she felt the joy and the promise of that day shining out of their faces, the anguish of being forever separated, the rage of him being taken from her. She stood in the kitchen, memorizing every line and curve of his face, letting the tears flow. When exhaustion finally overtook her, she left the photo on the counter and made her way to bed.

Walking into the bedroom, she started undressing but stopped dead in her tracks.

Lying forgotten on the floor, dull and cold, the gun suddenly filled Emma with dread. Her hands flew to cover her mouth, her eyes wide and terrified.

What had she been about to do?

Slowly coming out of her reverie, Emma found herself still in the kitchen, holding the finished casserole. She had no idea how long she’d been standing there, lost in her thoughts, but at least she’d had the presence of mind to put on the oven mitts first. With a sigh, she reluctantly continued preparations for her dinner guests.

“Sweetheart, everything was simply delicious!” Lois smoothed her daughter’s hair back from her face and kissed her warmly on the cheek. “I know it was hard, but you did a great job. And I know the Bakers were thankful to have this chance to talk about their son with others who knew and loved him.”

Emma squeezed her mother tight. “You’re right. It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. It’ll never be easy, but it was…oddly comforting.” The Bakers and the few neighbors who had been able to come had already left, leaving just Lois and David May with their daughter.

“Proud of you, kiddo,” David said. “You did great. Justin would have loved this.”

They were all silent for a moment, then Emma laughed. “You’re right. He loved telling his old stories and liked nothing better than to be the center of attention.” Her heart ached. “God, I miss him.”

Looking around, Lois started picking up glasses. “Let me help you clean all this up…”

Emma stopped her with a firm, “No. Mom, no. It’s okay. I like cleaning up. It lets me unwind from the stress of trying to be interesting all night. You guys go home. I’m fine.”

David raised an eyebrow at his daughter.

Kissing him on the cheek, Emma amended, “I’ll be fine.”

Once the door shut behind her parents, Emma set to the task of cleaning. She turned the radio on to fill the silence. After so much laughter and conversation, the house seemed empty all of a sudden. Singing along with the radio, Emma tried to keep her mind from wandering into the sadness that was left behind with the mess. A nice mindless activity like washing dishes coupled with the nonsense of current pop songs should do the trick.

When everything was washed and put away, she poured herself a glass of wine and leaned against the counter. Talking with everyone about Justin had brought him a little bit closer tonight. With only the light from the candles still burning on the table, Emma sat in what had been Justin’s favorite armchair.

“I miss you, baby,” she whispered. “You would have had a blast tonight. There was so much love in this room…and it was all for you.” Emma let out a deep sigh and leaned forward, her elbows resting on her knees. “I can’t believe it’s been a year. It sounds like such a long time when I say it out loud, but it feels like yesterday.”

Tucking her hair behind one ear, she sipped her wine and settled back into the chair. “Our neighbor Lisa was here – without James.” She quirked an eyebrow in the dark. “So much drama, babe. I have to say, I’m glad he’s gone. It was nice to see Lisa, though.”

She shot up out of the chair and started pacing the room, suddenly agitated. “Oh, I know, I know. I need to get out more, I need to be around people again. God, you sound like my mother.” Emma stopped and stared out the window. “You were the only way I tolerated people, you know that. Nothing is any fun without you, Justin.”

Draining the last of the wine in her glass, Emma set it in the sink and blew out the candles. She stood in the middle of the dark living room and smiled sadly as she wiped a tear from her cheek. “I will never not miss you.”

Emma got ready for bed and found herself looking through Justin’s jewelry box. She hadn’t touched it since his effects were given to her after the funeral.

She picked up the watch she had given to him for their last Christmas together. He had been a watch fiend, having a different one for every day of the week. But after Emma gave him this one, it was the only one he wore. It wasn’t fancy or expensive. It wasn’t even particularly attractive, to be honest. But on the back, Emma had added an engraving: You and me, forever. Love, E.

After sifting through his old chains and the pile of business cards he had somehow accumulated in the jewelry box, her fingers brushed against his wedding band. Shiny gray tungsten, it was still perfectly round and smooth as though she had just taken it out of the box. Emma was a little sad that the tungsten didn’t show any signs of wear. Made it seem like it hadn’t been worn in love for ten years. The little infinity symbol engraved on the inside was still pristine. And was as true that day as it had been the day she exchanged rings with him. Needing to feel close to Justin, she slipped the ring on her middle finger and pressed it to her lips. She returned all the other trinkets to the box and turned out the light. The emotional night had taken its toll on her, and Emma drifted off to sleep, clutching Justin’s ring tight.

That was the first night he visited her.

Join the ‘Christmas Book Flood’ with Indie Authors

In Iceland, there is a holiday tradition called Jolabokaflod (Christmas Book Flood) in which books are given as gifts on Christmas Eve and the family spends the evening reading and drinking hot chocolate or a non-alcoholic Christmas ale.

I love this idea!

Not only does it expand the reader’s horizons and support authors, but it also gives everyone a moment to just relax. The holiday season is so fast and wild, filled with shopping and parties and traveling that you need to allow your family – and yourself – time to just slow down and enjoy the moment.

In encouraging all of you to try this tradition on for size, I’d also like to make a few suggestions on books to gift. Through the local and online writing community, I have met some talented authors from all over the world: Australia, Central Iowa, Chicago, England, California, Florida, Pennsylvania. Their genres span everything from saucy romance to horror to dystopian sci-fi to women’s fiction to inspiration and more. And I’d love to share them with you.

Here is a list of some of my favorite indie authors:

Taylor Hohulin: “Your Best Apocalypse Now”

Sarah Latchaw: “Hydraulic Level 5”

Laura A. Barnes: “Rescued By The Captain”

Michael Stoneburner: “He Was A Boy Who Smiled, Book One: Phoenix Rising”

Jeanine Lunsford: “Remembering First Love”

Kelly Fumiko Weiss: “The Cube”

Rev. Rebecca Holland: “Through My Good Eye”

Jethro Weyman: “Two Halves of the Candle: Volume One”

Ben Monroe: “Dying of the Light: A Short Story of Survival Horror”

Adam Wing: “Matriarch”

Some of these authors have series, some write poetry and novels, some write more than one genre, so be sure to check out each author to see their other work. Keep in mind that by purchasing one or more of these books, you’re giving two gifts: one to the recipient and one to the independent author through supporting their dream.

What is a favorite book you received or gave as a gift? Leave a comment below or send me an email!

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