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Happy New year 2021 large greeting card illustration

2020 in Review: What the Heck Just Happened?!

So. That was fun, right?

There is no way anyone filled a BINGO card this year. If they did, I would look askance at them as potentially masterminding some of this nonsense. Reviewing the things that happened in 2020, I find it difficult to believe that was all in the past twelve months. If you’ve been on TikTok, you’ve undoubtedly seen one of the many videos of a misunderstanding between God and an angel regarding a decade of disasters in one year. Watch it here – some language near the end.

I’m not so sure that isn’t what happened.

Here’s a quick rundown of the 2020 events I can recall:

  • Australia caught on fire.
  • Tiger King was everywhere.
  • COVID-19 made its debut, and refuses to leave.
  • Murder hornets crashed the party in the U.S. and a plague of locusts devastated East Africa.
  • Racial injustice was given a much-needed global stage.
  • California, Oregon, and Washington caught on fire.
  • Iowa endured a rare ‘land hurricane’ and now everyone knows what a derecho is.
  • We lost a multitude of actors, musicians, authors, politicians, athletes, scientists, and cultural icons including Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Eddie Van Halen, Chadwick Bosemen, Kobe Bryant, Grant Imihara, John Lewis, and Alex Trebek.
  • Presidential Election. ‘Nuff said.

My family and I have been beyond fortunate, and we’ve even seen some shining lights in this year’s darkness. Our youngest moved to Chicago for college, our middle earned a prestigious academic opportunity, our oldest got engaged, and I signed with a literary agent. (Those last two events happened the same weekend in March, at the same time the world fell apart.) The summer was spent planning a small wedding and editing my first novel, and I can’t say there weren’t tears during both. In January, we’ll watch our daughter marry her best friend, then my novel will be sent into the world to find a publisher who will love it as much as I do.

Not such a boring start to the new year for the old Clark Clan.

Tomorrow is January 1, 2021. I hope against hope that the new year will be different. That it—and we—will be better. Perhaps all the trials we’ve been through were stepping stones or growing pains or lessons to be collectively learned. This year, I plan to take what the universe has to offer and make the best damn lemonade the world has ever seen.

My wish for you is that you’ll be able to take a deep breath, hold your loved ones close, and snuggle under a blanket of health, safety, and peace in 2021.

Happy New Year!

NaNoWriMo 2020 in the Face of Unfamiliar Territory

We’re heading into the last week of October of an insane year. Let’s take a look at just a few things we’re all dealing with: January tornadoes, earthquakes, civil unrest, a derecho, wildfires, hurricanes, 9 inches of October snow, COVID-19, and murder hornets.

It’s kind of a lot.

Everyone is having to learn a new reality and make adjustments. From finding creative ways to work, to teaching kids safely, to trying to salvage any form of live entertainment, we’ve had to spitball new procedures and change the way things are done – sometimes at the drop of a hat. It’s slow and tedious because not everyone is on the same page quite yet, but we will get there.

Growing pains, am I right?

October is one of my favorite months because of fall colors and cooler temperatures, Halloween, and my birthday. But this last week is leading into another favorite of mine:

National Novel Writing Month.

If you’re new to my website, you may not know that NaNoWriMo has changed my life and I will sing its virtues any chance I get. For the 30 days of November each year, anyone and everyone is challenged to write an original 50,000-word novel. It doesn’t have to be complete, beginning to end. Hell, it doesn’t even have to be good, as evidenced by a couple of my previous projects.

But we’re facing an unfamiliar landscape this year.

My NaNo experience has been colored by the wonderful people of the Central Iowa Authors group who welcomed me and encouraged me from day one. This year, due to COVID, we aren’t able to meet at our favorite restaurants and coffee shops to share our love of writing and – let’s be honest – brunch. I’m tearing up just writing this, thinking of all the things I’ll miss.

Then I take a deep breath and I get excited all over again.

No, NaNoWriMo 2020 isn’t going to look like anything we’ve seen before. But it’s still NaNo. And we live in a world where we can interact, face to face, in real time, from the safety and comfort of our own homes. Virtual hugs will have to do. We can still chat and share words of encouragement without having to brave frigid temps and slick roads. And I get to write, something that brings me so much joy.

So, what’s stopping you?

This whack-a-doo year is the perfect time to dip your toe in the NaNoWriMo pool! It’s a year of firsts – I mean, who the heck ever heard of a derecho?! – so why not write your first novel? Whether you hope to publish or just want to explore some wild ideas and see where they take you, NaNoWriMo is the perfect jumping-off point.

Drop a comment and ask anything you want to know about National Novel Writing Month! Check out the Website, take a look at the Virtual Write-in Calendar, visit Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, then come join me!

And if you like what you see, don’t forget to hit that subscribe button!

Within (Part 4)

I’ve been working on the same novel, making revisions, for such a long time that I needed a little break to stretch my writing ‘legs’, so to speak. There will be a total of 4 installments and I will release a new section each Wednesday. “Within” was a quick short that I thoroughly enjoyed writing – and that I hope you enjoy reading!

~~~~~

With a jolt, I’m back inside my own aching body, the cold of the cinder-block wall I’m propped against seeping into me.  My cheeks are wet, my head is throbbing with every heartbeat, and I feel excruciating pain in parts of my body I’d forgotten still existed. A musty, damp smell seeps into my nostrils, the soft whoosh from the vent the only sound. There’s very little light here, filtering through a grimy plate-glass window on the other side of the room. The walls are painted a dingy white, orange rust stains dripping down from the ceiling. What is this place? Where the hell am I?

I bet Kyle’s out there, on the other side of the glass, waiting for me to scream and cry and throw myself against the walls trying to escape. The energy has been sapped from my body, even moving my head is like trying to shift a boulder.

What the hell did he do to me? Every incident leaves me depleted and weak, but never like this. So, what’s different? He injected me with something. What the hell could do this to me, to Them? God knows I tried to tamp it down, hold the power at bay with anything and everything. Alcohol never worked. Not even ketamine. Whatever this is…I need more.

A creak catches my attention and my eyes focus just as Kyle steps into the room.

“Hello, Desiree.” He shuffles around the edges of the room. “How are you feeling?”

My mouth opens, but I can’t force out any sound. I can’t lift my hand, can’t speak, can’t wiggle a foot; and that knowledge seizes my heart in my chest. But that’s nothing compared to the chill that skitters down my spine at the cruel grin that slithers across his face.

“Very good. Excellent. You’ve been kept on a steady diet of succinylcholine and a lead derivative—my own little concoction—to keep you under control without killing you. It seems to be working very well, indeed. You can see me and hear me and register what’s happening to you, but powerless to do anything about it.” He closes the space between us and is suddenly kneeling in front of me. “Because there are plans for you, Des. Important plans.”

I cast my eyes around the room, anywhere but into his cold eyes, hoping to stave off the tears that are trying to spill out. Just kill me! I want to scream. I know he wants to, I know it as surely as I know I deserve it, and yet here we are. The tips of my fingers start to tingle, a shadow of feeling returning, and my breathing quickens. Kyle sneers.

“Yes, you should be afraid. You see, we don’t just need to know how you do what you do. No, you’re far more useful than that. We’re going to figure out how to harness your mutant power to use against our enemies. I can’t guarantee it won’t hurt…” He pauses to trail a finger along my cheek, then throws his head back and guffaws. “Who the fuck am I kidding? It’s going to hurt. A lot, Desiree. You are going to feel every ounce of pain you deserve and more. And I’m going to enjoy watching all of it.”

His laughter rings off the walls as the pale, violet glow seeps from my skin…

END

Within (Part 3)

I’ve been working on the same novel, making revisions, for such a long time that I needed a little break to stretch my writing ‘legs’, so to speak. There will be a total of 4 installments and I will release a new section each Wednesday. “Within” was a quick short that I thoroughly enjoyed writing – and that I hope you enjoy reading!

~~~~~

“Mama, mama, watch me!”

My heart lurches. Her eyes are bright and she’s smiling as she pumps her little legs to make the swing rise higher and higher. My Lily, my darling girl. I glance around at the park, the bright summer sun, the other families enjoying the playground. How is this happening? The bench I’m sitting on is solid and warm, my hair is even waving in the breeze. Am I dreaming? Or is this yet another way my ‘gift’ manifests?

“Lily, be careful! Don’t go so high!” I jump up from the bench, ready to scoop her off the swing and hug her tiny body in my arms. But a voice over my shoulder stops me cold.

“Just let her be a kid, Desiree. Jesus, you can’t control everything.” Kyle frowns at me as he sits with his hands folded in his lap. “And you can’t keep avoiding me. We have to talk about this and we have to talk now.”

A chill shoots through me from head to toe. I remember this day, and I don’t want to see it again. Please, please, God or whoever—whatever—is doing this to me, don’t make me live through this again. Maybe I’m in Hell. Maybe, by some miracle, I finally died and this is how my eternal torment is going to play out.

Turning to Kyle, I keep one eye on my little Lily-pad, wanting to absorb the details of her, to replace the memory that haunts every second of my existence. “She’s my daughter and you have no right to take her away from me.” The squeak of the rusted chains on the swing provide a sinister soundtrack to the conversation.

“I have every right.” He bares his teeth as he snarls at me. “You’re not well, Des. I don’t know if it’s drugs or schizophrenia or if you’re just fucking around because you hate me and want to torture me, but Lily is seven years old and shouldn’t have to deal with your lunatic ravings.”

Spying his new wife lurking on the edge of the park, a fire builds in my chest and I wrench my arm free. “I’m not crazy, you asshole. Something is happening to me, if you’d just listen—”

“Mommy, Daddy, look at me now! I’m touching the sky!”

“Wow! Look at you go!” Kyle beams the brightest, most charming smile at our daughter before he turns his attention back to me, his face twisting. How does he do that so quickly? I can feel the hatred wafting off him. “She deserves stability. She shouldn’t have to grow up scared of what you might do to her. Just let her go, for her own good. Jenna and I can give her everything she needs, and you know it.”

“Except her mother. She needs me, Kyle.”

He steps back and crosses his arms. “No, she doesn’t. Jenna will love her better and more than you are even capable of right now.” The smile that spreads over his handsome features chills me to the bone. “Besides, it’s already done. The judge signed the paperwork this morning, based on your own psychiatrist’s recommendations and my tear-filled testimony. That’s why I’m here. Lily is coming home with us, and your parental rights have been terminated, effective immediately.”

My hands start to tingle, then tremble, the vibrations running up my arms. “No…you can’t do this to me, Kyle, you can’t do this to Lily!” My breathing becomes erratic, blood rushing to my head as I struggle to remain in control.

No! Don’t do it! Stop it, fight it, don’t let this happen! I scream into the memory, but everything is unfolding exactly as it did that day. I’m as powerless now as I was then.

Pushing past me, Kyle calls to our daughter in a bright voice. “Hey, Lily-pad! It’s time to go! Jenna and I are going to take you home with us and we’ll order pizza for dinner and watch a movie. How does that sound?”

I snatch at his arm, trying to hold him back. “No. No, Kyle, please. I’ll do anything! Just don’t take her away from me!” My whole body is shuddering and Kyle knows it. He slaps my hand away and rounds on me with a sneer.

“Get a grip, Des, and keep your fucking theatrics to yourself. No one here is buying it.”

“Kyle, no, it’s real!” I shove my hands in my pockets to quell the electricity that’s building in them, the purple glow that’s pooling in my palms. I call them nightmares, but I’ve seen what I can do in my waking hours. “It’s not me. I have no control over Them, I swear on my life! You can’t take her, you just can’t!”

Clouds are swirling into view, obscuring the sun as a frigid wind picks up. I can’t hold Them back anymore and They tear through the thin material of my hoodie, writhing in the air. Kyle stumbles backwards, his upper lip curled back, his eyes wide and unblinking.

“Mama! Are you watching? Look how high I’m going!”

The purple tentacles burst out of my hands and straight toward Kyle, but he ducks, just in time. They shoot over his head and straight into Jenna’s mouth, her jaw dropped low.

“No!” Kyle rushes toward his young wife, heedless of the waving death as it retreats from her body, but we both know it’s too late. He rounds on me, a guttural scream ripping from his throat, and he charges.

I can’t move, take a step, get out of his path. He leaps at me, arm outstretched, and the first I see the blade is when it plunges into my shoulder, inches away from ending me. But no sooner does the weapon find purchase, then a massive shockwave emanates from me, catapulting Kyle a hundred yards away.

I block out the searing pain in my shoulder and cry a warning to Lily, screaming at her to run. The clouds chase each other in the darkening sky and I can feel the pressure building. I watch, helpless, as my Lily clutches at her throat, gasping for air, and tumbles off the swing to the mound of woodchips below.

I scream. Every fiber of my being is screaming for my daughter, begging for her to be spared, seconds before her fragile little body is torn to shreds.

Within (Part 2)

I’ve been working on the same novel, making revisions, for such a long time that I needed a little break to stretch my writing ‘legs’, so to speak. There will be a total of 4 installments and I will release a new section each Wednesday. “Within” was a quick short that I thoroughly enjoyed writing – and that I hope you enjoy reading!

~~~~~

Livid tears stream down my cheeks and I can no longer hold back. I open my other hand and the purple haze washes over me, pulsating like a heartbeat. The tendrils tear out of the man under the light, his empty meat sack dropping into an unnatural heap where he stood. They wind around me, lifting me from the ground and suspending me in the air, a helpless witness.

Kyle’s gone. He’s seen this episode before and his heartlessness allows him to disappear, leaving his underlings to face my wrath and a power they could never imagine in their worst nightmares. I hear the report of gunfire, see the muzzle flashes all around me, but none of their bullets touch me. Screaming through my tears, I beg them to stop, to run, to save themselves, even though it’s too late. It was too late the minute I turned onto this street and stepped into their ambush.

My head is forced backwards, the pressure emanating from inside me and bearing down on me at the same time, almost tearing me to shreds. God, if only that would happen—could happen! But there is no God. Only the force that’s woven itself into my DNA, part of me and wholly separate, simultaneously saving me and dooming me to walk this earth with no peace.

The sky rips open, all air sucked into the gaping hole it creates. Metal clatters to the ground as hands release weapons to grasp at throats, unable to breathe. There are no cries of fear or pain. The silence is bone-chilling and I force my eyes open to see if it’s over. Human bodies with absolutely no right to are being stretched, elongated, as the Black Hole’s gravity works on them. Mouths freeze open in silent shrieks while the bones of their skulls and their spines are pulled up and away from their shoes until they are torn apart and swallowed.

There is no stopping it: I’m not in control, I was never in control. All I can do is wail and scream and beg for it to end, to spare someone—anyone—from this destruction. The pressure is almost unbearable now, every cell in my body rioting. The tendrils wrap themselves tighter around me, the frenzied wind in my little bubble threatening to flay me alive. And then, with a crack like the world is splitting in two, it’s done.

I’m kneeling on the dark sidewalk and all around me is silent devastation, as though I’ve survived a nuclear detonation. Cars mangled and flipped, the lamp post impossibly twisted, the cement buckled and cracked. And not another soul in a half-mile radius.

My body is numb at first, wasted and weak. Fiery pinpricks burn across my skin. It’s not my time to die. Not today. Maybe not ever. Pain and fear and shame and loneliness are all I have to look forward to for eternity, death nothing more than a dream.

While I wait for enough strength to return to my legs to get them under me and to haul ass, I let the tears pour onto the cement. I’m exhausted. Each outburst leaves me wasted and heartbroken. Just in time for the highlight reel of the past four years’ torment to start.

One after another, I see the faces of all those this curse has touched. Their screams, their prayers and their bargaining play out inside my head, and then their gasping and the watery squelch as their bodies are overtaken. One voice always filters to the top and it’s enough to rip my heart out of my chest.

Wallowing in the vision of her face as it swims behind my closed eyes, approaching footsteps catch me off guard. My eyes fly open and I pop to my feet, fists at the ready, but a quick punch to my nose sends me staggering, stars filling my vision. I fall back on my ass, hard, and the shockwave travels through my bones, rattles my teeth. My arms are grabbed from all around me, several pairs of hands holding me in place. It’s starting again, I can feel the tingling build in my palms as They try to return.

Then his voice is in my ear, his warm breath causing the wisps of hair around my face to tickle my cheek.

“It didn’t have to be this way, Des.” He strokes my hair and my scalp crawls, right before I feel a sting and burning pressure behind my ear. “Shh…Don’t fight it. While I would love nothing more than to see you suffer, I’ve been ordered to make sure you arrive mostly unharmed.”

His poisonous voice is still ringing in my consciousness as I feel the effects of whatever he just fucking dosed me with. I can’t hold my head up, my sight narrows to a dark tunnel, and the tingling in my hands fades to nothing.

“What have you done?” I think the words came out of my mouth but my head is so stuffed with cotton that I can’t be sure.

My teeth clack together as Kyle clutches my hair and yanks my head back. “Shown you mercy, which is far more than you deserve, Des! I should slit your throat right here and now, consequences be damned.”

Then all is black.

Within (Part 1)

I’ve been working on the same novel, making revisions, for such a long time that I needed a little break to stretch my writing ‘legs’, so to speak. There will be a total of 4 installments and I will release a new section each Wednesday. “Within” was a quick short that I thoroughly enjoyed writing – and that I hope you enjoy reading!

~~~~~

A bus whips around the corner, the headlights washing over me, and I flinch back into the shadows. I pull my hood tighter around my face: That life is long behind me and recognition isn’t a risk I’m willing to take.

I pass through yellow pools of street light on my path to nowhere. The scar on my shoulder twinges painfully, as though it heard my thoughts. Yeah, yeah, I remember you. No need to be a dick about it.

There’s a man leaning against the lamp post on the corner, smoking a cigarette. He’s watching me, one foot propped up and his head cocked to the side. Even from a hundred yards, his greasy smile is repulsive.

I keep my head down and press a little closer to the buildings. Maybe if I can keep out of arms’ reach it’ll be more work then he wants. Come on, man, just look the other way and we can both see tomorrow.

“Hey, baby. Where you goin’ in such a hurry?” He tosses his smoke into the street and takes a step toward me. “A pretty thing like you shouldn’t be out here all alone.”

“Fuck off.” I speed up, keeping my head down. A few more strides and I’ll be flush with him, but I can tell by the change in his stance that I won’t get any farther. Shit.

“What’d you say to me?” He pulls up to his full height and blocks my path. My stomach twists into a knot: he’s easily six inches taller than I am, and he’s faster than he looks. Doesn’t matter. He’ll never move fast enough—none of them do.

My heart starts racing and I fight to keep my breathing even. I’ve been found. Again. Is he the only one here? Don’t be stupid, Des, they’d never send just one poor sap to round you up. They’ve learned that lesson.

“Come on, sweet thing, ain’t you gonna talk to me? Tell me your name at least? Don’t be mean.”

From the corner of my eye, there’s movement in the shadows across the street, that bus that passed me earlier. Parked on the next block, the windows dark—except for the red tracer lights trying to get a lock on me. Fuck.

“Look, man.” I keep shifting my weight from foot to foot, trying to make myself small and give the illusion that I’m scared of him. “I don’t want any trouble. I’m just trying to walk here, that’s all.”

A man steps out of a shadowy doorway to my right, and my heart sinks into my feet. “Give it up Des. You’re surrounded and we’re going to take you in one way or another. So, just don’t make this difficult.”

I shake the hood off and my hair gleams in the artificial light. “Don’t call me that, Kyle. You don’t get to call me that. And you aren’t taking me anywhere.”

Without taking my eyes off the creep in my way on the sidewalk, Kyle watches me, perfectly calm. Sandy-blond hair falling into his eyes, his lips pressed into a thin line, his hands resting loosely in his pants pockets. My own hand itches to smooth the hair off his forehead and see that smile he saved just for me once upon a time. But that was years ago and too much has happened since then for him to ever look at me with anything but pure loathing.

It would never match the loathing I feel for myself, not even a tiny bit.

My hatred for myself and for these monsters is making my skin crackle with energy. Taking a deep breath, I clench and release my fists, still in my pockets, hoping against hope to be able to hold it back, just this once. “Please, Kyle, let me go. Don’t make me do this.”

“Then come with me quietly, Des. We can help you.”

That name again. The tingling in my hands flares, then my head snaps up and I lock onto his sky-blue eyes. He has to see how futile this is—he has to! I plead silently with my eyes, but there is no compassion left in his.

He nods quickly and God damn it, I know it’s on. Why does he keep doing this to me? The man closest to me twitches in my direction and I jerk back, my hands low at my sides. He hesitates when he sees the pale violet glow leaking out between my clasped fingers.

“You moron,” Kyle bellows. “What are you waiting for? Get her. Now.”

Kyle’s lackey takes a step closer, but I open one hand and the tendrils fly free. As they travel over him, tasting his fear, his eyes are wide and his body is rigid. He opens his mouth to scream, but no sooner do his lips part than they are inside of him, gorging on more than the stench of his terror. I squeeze my eyes shut.

“Desiree!”

Kyle’s hands are clamped in fists and trembling at his sides, but he’s taken a step back, one foot inside the doorway he had emerged from earlier. Red laser dots, dark like blood, light up my chest, as the glow envelopes me.

“Don’t, Kyle!” I struggle to keep the sob out of my voice. “You know how this ends—please call them off, get them away from me!”

His eyes narrow and his chest puffs out as our eyes meet over the writhing body of his flunky and I know. I fucking know. With nothing else to live for, vengeance has made him cruel and nothing else matters to him but winning.

“You know I can’t. I won’t.”

“Do you think I don’t pay for what I did every second of every day?” My voice breaks. “There’s nothing you can do to me that’s worse than what I do to myself.”

“Well then.” His smile sends a chill down my spine. “You can call this mercy.”

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!

short story, story prompt, prompts, short stories

An Unexpected Union

Most of my recent short stories have fallen on the dark side. I’m not sure why that happens, and my friends like to tease me about it. So I was determined to write something sweeter, a cozy romance, perhaps. It was a little harder than I expected but I was ready for a writing challenge.

One of my favorite things about following prompts from this book, Write the Story, is that I can curb my fondness of going down writing rabbit holes. I tried to keep this romantic short story simple and I hope you like what I ended up with!

Title: An Unexpected Union

Words: brothers, potato, common, hands, boyfriend, alphabet, scribble, hydrangea, sandwich, tug-of-war


Julie Lillis wiped down the counter in the deli she’d worked at since high school. Kelly’s Deli was the go-to lunch spot in the small town of Pinto and most of the residents came through the doors for their famous roast beef sandwich or a bowl of vegetable alphabet soup any given day.

“I don’t understand what the big deal is.” A tall, lanky young man with waves of dark hair falling into his brown eyes leaned over Julie’s shoulder, making her jump.

She swatted at him with her towel and he poked her in the ribs. “Damn it, Shawn, what’s wrong with you? You’re gonna get an elbow to the nose one of these days.”

“Yeah, right,” he drawled with a smirk. “Anyway, I don’t get what’s so wrong with sticking around here one more year before you run away from home.”

Rolling her eyes, Julie tucked a blond curl behind her ear then put the chairs on the tables so Shawn could mop the floor. “Don’t be so dramatic. I’m not running away from home, I’m running toward my future. There is no way to get around the fact that my prospects are severely limited around here. It’s already been three years since graduation, I’ve got my associate’s degree from the community college, it’s just time for me follow my dreams.”

Shawn Flores leaned on the mop handle and stared at the floor while she talked.

“You know I won’t quit until I’m working for the Smithsonian Institution in some aspect. One of the museums in DC would be ideal, but I am not picky.” She blew her bangs out of her eyes, noticing Shawn’s forlorn expression.

They’d been like two peas in a pod since they were eight years old when Shawn moved into the house next door to Julie’s. It had been in the deepest heat of the summer, the kind of oppressive humidity that made daylight unfit for man or beast. At first, they wanted nothing to do with each other. His family had moved into the house that had been vacated by Julie’s first best friend, Annie, and her eight-year-old brain blamed him for making Annie leave.

First thing on summer mornings, Julie and her mom would work in the yard, pulling weeds from the small vegetable garden and watering the flowers. Julie’s favorites were the hydrangea bushes under her window. She’d picked out the first one when she was five and had gotten to buy a new one each year. The result was a collection of thriving blooms in blue, purple, and pink that mesmerized her every time she looked at them. One such morning, she’d been daydreaming over the flowers when Shawn’s mother came barreling over, dragging him behind her, to introduce herself. Julie glared at him. He stuck out his tongue. They maintained their crossed-arm standoff for nearly five minutes before she noticed his Power Rangers t-shirt.

“Hey! Do you like Power Rangers?”

Shawn had narrowed his eyes and answered, “Maybe. Why? Do you?”

Within another five minutes, Julie had dragged him to the shed where she kept her collection of morphers, swords, and laser blasters and the rest was history. Their bedroom windows faced each other and they spent the next ten years talking to each other through those windows after bedtime or taking the time to scribble a secret note before folding it into a paper airplane to shoot across the yard.

But looking at his mopey face in the middle of the darkened deli, Julie felt a pang in her chest. She talked a big game but she was nervous about leaving alone and not having him to talk to and lean on every day.

“Shawn?”

“Hmm?” he mumbled as he started swishing the mop back and forth on the black and white tiles.

“You could come with me, you know.” The way his head whipped up and his eyes locked on hers wasn’t the reaction she was expecting. He’d always refused to talk about going to college with a snort and a wave but this was very different.

“What do you mean?”

Hopping onto the counter behind her, Julie swung her legs and shrugged. “What do you mean, what do I mean? I mean you don’t have to stay here in this nowhere town and work at this old deli for the rest of your life. Let’s pick out a college together, one where I can get my history degree and museum curator’s license and you can take art and music classes.”

He frowned into the bucket of soapy water. “Don’t be dumb. First, how the hell am I going to afford college? After dad left, mom and I couldn’t even afford the community college here in town. Second, I can’t make a living with art or music. I’m better off staying here and managing the deli in another couple of years.”

Julie dragged her hands down her face and groaned. “Oh my god, Shawn. You know Joe isn’t going to retire. Like, ever. You will have to pry that set of manager keys from his cold, dead hand, and even then it’s not a guarantee. You are so talented, you could do anything you wanted! You deserve so much better than this.”

His smile was sad as he rolled the mop and bucket past into the back room. “You think so? Sometimes I wonder.”

“Hey,” she whispered, placing her hand on his arm. “Your dad’s an asshole and your folks were wrong to play tug-of-war with you during the divorce. They were both in so much pain they couldn’t see what they were doing to you and I’m so sorry.”

Without looking up, Shawn placed his hand on top of hers and sighed. “I want to believe you, Jules, I really do. And I try to. But there are only so many positive affirmations I can tell my mirror before the words mean nothing.”

Julie’s other hand slid into the longer shaggy locks at the back of his neck while she tried to think of what to say. When he was about twelve, his dad began an affair with a woman he met on the golf course and his attitude at home turned to shit. He was rude to Shawn’s mom if he acknowledged her at all, and he had zero kind words for Shawn when he realized that football and baseball weren’t in his future. Instead, singing and art were Shawn’s true and outstanding talents, but his dad never accepted that. He left a year later. She knew she shouldn’t, but Julie felt guilty that her parents were still married and happy together.

Leaning into her touch, Shawn started to relax. He turned to lay his forehead against her shoulder, wrapping his arms around her waist. It was a common pose for them, taking comfort in each other without words or judgments.

Shawn took a deep breath and pushed back from Julie’s embrace. “Thanks, Jules. You always know how to make me feel better. And you know what? I’ll think about it. There are worse things than running away with you.”

The way she gasped when he said that made his heart skip a beat. She knew he would do anything for her, so why would she look so shocked and confused?

Just then, there was a loud rapping on the front door. Julie’s face lit up as she jumped off the counter but Shawn’s whole posture deflated and he muttered, “Like spending any time with him, for instance.”

“Hush, you,” Julie laughed as she unlocked the door to let in her boyfriend and resident town stud, Troy Hawkins. After she set the lock behind him, he immediately crushed her against his chest, his hands roaming all over her. “Woah, hold up there, tiger – we’re not alone!”

Without letting go of Julie’s butt, Troy sneered at Shawn and flipped a bro nod his way. “S’up, man.”

Shawn hated him. He was one of a set of athletic, handsome, all-American brothers who were virtually worshipped in Pinto. Somehow, they were blessed with good looks, strength, and sports ability, but not one of them had a higher IQ than a potato.

From the time they were thirteen, Troy had decided that Shawn needed a shove into the lockers or a friendly trip in the cafeteria pretty much every day. Once they graduated, Shawn thought he’d finally gotten rid of that douchebag and was ready to live his life free from the Hawkins brothers’ bullying tactics.

But no.  Julie had crushed on Troy all through school and he’d never given her the time of day, instead dating the head cheerleader, Allison Bernhard. Then Allison left for college. After burning through the rest of the cheer squad, Troy had finally noticed Julie a couple of months back and Shawn was forced to play nice for her sake.

Yep. With the burning passion of a thousand suns, he despised Troy Hawkins.

“Not much, Troy. What are you up to tonight?”

Eliciting a squeal from Julie as he lifted her off the ground with one arm, Troy sauntered into the deli, tracking dirt behind him on the floor Shawn had just cleaned. “Gonna take my best girl here out on a date. You’ve had to wait long enough for me to have some free time, I thought I’d surprise you.”

She pressed a lingering kiss to Troy’s lips and Shawn tried not to barf.

“Give me just a minute to change out of my uniform and we can go. Where are we going?” She gazed up at Troy with shining eyes, then shook her head. “No, don’t tell me. It’s your surprise. I’ll let it be a surprise.” Then she dashed into the back room leaving Troy leaning against the counter while Shawn rolled the bucket back toward the door.

Neither of them acknowledged the other. With Julie out of the room, they didn’t need to pretend to be civil. In fact, Shawn was pretty sure that Troy had forgotten he was even in the room, which was fine with him. The last thing he wanted to do, short of gouging out his own eyes, was to make small talk with Troy freaking Hawkins. Thankfully, Troy’s phone rang just then and Shawn was saved.

Because he was a moron, Troy answered the phone on speaker and a female voice filled the room. “Babe, where’d you go? My bed is lonely.”

Shawn froze and tried to shrink into the shadows. What the hell was he hearing?

“Allie, I told you not to bug me about what I’m doing. I had something to take care of, and that’s all you need to know. I’ll come back when I feel like it.”

Allie? Was he talking to Allison?

She purred from the phone, “I miss you, that’s all. And here I am, all alone, lying in my bed without a stitch of clothing on me.”

From his vantage point, Shawn watched Troy rearrange his stance and grin. “Yeah? Send me pics to get me through until I can get back there. I gotta take my little cousin to a ball game then I’m all yours. Love you, Bernhard.” When he disconnected the call, he noticed Shawn was in the room. He frowned and his face darkened, fists clenching at his sides.

“What the hell, Flores? You spying on me? Do I need to put you in your place? Again?”

Fury pulsing through him, Shawn pushed the bucket out of the way and drew up to his full height. “Nope, not spying. But I sure heard enough to keep you from taking Julie anywhere tonight. Or any other night, for that matter.”

“Oh yeah? What do you think you heard, shithead? You didn’t hear dick.”

“Mmm, I beg to differ,” Shawn countered. “I heard, loud and clear, you lying to your old girlfriend Allison Bernhard, asking for nudes and promising to be back in her bed as soon as you were done with your ‘cousin’. All that while you’re waiting to take your current girlfriend on a date. Sound about right?”

Taking a couple quick steps toward Shawn, Troy brandished his fists and snarled, “You better keep your damn mouth shut or I’ll knock your teeth down your throat.”

Shawn laughed and shook his head. “Oh, Troy, you stupid, simple gorilla. I’ve let you push me around for half my life, let you threaten me and make a fool of me and it was no big deal. I could take it.” All humor drained from his face and his voice dropped to a deep, low tone that didn’t hide the menace behind his next words. “But Julie means everything to me. Everything. I have been in love with her since the day I met her. She deserves the sun and the moon and all the stars in the galaxy and the next and you are a speck of dust on the bottom of her shoe. And I won’t let you hurt her, ever.”

“Ha. What’re you gonna do, Flores? So what if I get a little piece of ass on the side, ain’t no big deal. Allison is a fantastic lay – you should take her for a ride sometime – and since Julie won’t give it up quite yet, I’ve got every right. What she doesn’t know won’t hurt her, anyway.” A growl emanated from deep in Shawn’s throat as he advanced one step at a time. Troy tried to hold his ground, but the flash of fear behind his eyes was unmistakable. “You gonna tattle on me? Who do you think she’s gonna believe? Her loser neighbor or her hot boyfriend?”

“Oh, definitely the hot boyfriend.” At the sound of Julie’s voice from the darkened doorway to the back room, both men jumped and stared at her. Then Troy smirked over his shoulder at Shawn and sauntered toward the pretty blonde. Shawn’s heart broke and he hung his head.

“I knew you would, baby,” he gloated, reaching for her.

But Julie avoided his touch.

“Yeah, when my boyfr- excuse me, I mean my ex-boyfriend, himself, says that he’s sleeping with someone else why wouldn’t I believe him?” She crossed her arms and glowered at Troy until he was forced to take a step backward. “I think it’s time for you to leave, Hawkins.”

The grin on Shawn’s face as Troy skulked from the deli was more pride in his best friend’s gumption than the fact that Troy Hawkins had finally gotten caught in his own lies. Although that was pretty sweet.

His face burning red, Troy stopped at the door and fumbled with the lock. “Yeah, well, you both are losers. Julie Lillis, you’re a prude and I am way out of your league. I was doing you a favor!” When Julie stepped up next to Shawn and rested her arm on his shoulder Troy nearly came unglued. “Whatever. You two deserve each other!” He finally yanked the door open and stormed out into the night.

The two friends didn’t move or speak for a moment. Shawn knew that couldn’t have been easy for Julie. One part of him wanted to whoop and laugh at the humiliation on Troy’s face but the other part could sense that his best friend was unusually quiet and still and was probably embarrassed, herself. He turned toward her and squeezed her hands.

“I’m so sorry Jules, you didn’t deserve that.” His whisper sounded far too loud in the silent restaurant. “And Troy didn’t deserve you. You know I’m glad he’s gone – I’ve never hidden how much I loathe him – but I’m so sorry that he hurt you like this.”

Julie kept her eyes trained on their joined hands, her eyebrows drawn together. Then suddenly her scowl eased and the corner of her mouth lifted. “Don’t worry, he didn’t hurt me. I knew what he was a long time ago and I say good riddance to bad rubbish.”

Shawn started to laugh but Julie’s head whipped up and she fixed him with an accusing glare, freezing him in place.

“But you, on the other hand, I am pissed at you right now!”

“Wait – what? Why? I didn’t trick him into outing himself, I didn’t start anything with him! I didn’t do anything!” He stumbled backwards as Julie jabbed him in the chest.

“That’s right, you didn’t do anything,” she yelled. “All this time, all these years – wasted – because you didn’t do anything!”

Shawn’s back hit the counter and he couldn’t retreat any further. With anger still written all over her face, Julie marched closer, pressing him back until their faces were only inches apart. Then, with an exasperated huff, she captured his lips in a passionate kiss.

At first, he didn’t understand what was happening, but then realization dawned and he wrapped his arms around Julie’s waist, pulling her closer and deepening the kiss. Every moment of his life had been leading up to this moment, every fiber of his being had yearned for this, and he wasn’t sure if he was dreaming. But he didn’t care.

When they separated, both of them panting and cheeks flushed, they stared at each other for a stunned moment. Then they laughed before holding each other tight.

“I heard what Troy said, Shawn, but I heard what you said, too,” Julie murmured against his cheek. “You’re an idiot. So am I.” She tangled her hands in his thick, dark hair and pulled back to gaze into his eyes. “All this time, you felt the same way I did and I never thought to tell you that I love you. That I’ve always loved you.”

The warmth and joy spreading through Shawn’s chest was something he’d never experienced before, a sense of pure joy and acceptance and love. Looking into his best friend’s crystal blue eyes he knew deep in his bones that he’d never be without that feeling again.

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.

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