31 Days of Art, Day 8: Eviscerate

The other night, I was sitting up late in my office, trying to finish up some work, when music started filtering through the open window. It was kind of a kicking beat, but the only lyrics I could make out were: Outta my truck,  outta my truck,  outta my truck,  get outta my truck. After a while, I started wondering if whoever it was would ever get out of the dang truck. A few years ago, a friend of mine posted about being someone who got very easily distracted by noise or any auditory stimuli, and how that made it hard to get work done with the windows open. And then somehow, all that mixed and mingled together with today’s prompt, “eviscerate,” and become this story. Enjoy!

Day 8: Eviscerate

“Two, four, six, eight, who do we eviscerate?”

The children had to be a few yards down, their voices ringing together in a ragged chorus. Mella looked up from her desk in annoyance. The window was open to catch the October breeze—one of the first nice days so far in a fall season that had been unusually hot, even for Fayetteville.

“One, three, five, seven, send her soul to search for heaven!”

That was a super creepy nursery rhyme. Not one she remembered from when she was a kid.

She grimaced. The neighborhood they’d moved into had seemed very specifically non-kid friendly. There was a school maybe a mile away, and sometimes late on Friday nights they’d hear the marching band at one of the interminable football rallies, but she and Liza were usually kicking back on the back porch with a cold drink at that point, not trying to merge client files in an Excel spreadsheet that was currently defying everything spreadsheets were supposed to do.

A bloodcurdling shriek, followed by maniacal laughter. Kids really were little sociopaths. Should she close the window? Whose yard was that, anyway? And how old were the kids?

They’d looked at houses on the other side of the neighborhood, ones with wide yards, flat driveways, that came with pre-standing playsets and jungle gyms. But none of those houses had caught their eye, and they’d been in the final stages of deciding that path wasn’t for them, anyway.

This side of the small pond that bisected the neighborhood, they had thought was quieter, the homes larger, the cars more expensive. People who lived here had grandchildren and dogs, not lawns full of screaming children playing weird games.

The giggling devolved into another shriek, and then some shouted back and forth, unintelligible. It sounded like the game had gone the wrong way for some of the players as the laughing and shouting died down, grew angrier, then faded away.

Mella rolled her eyes and whispered, “Thank you!” She pushed back from her desk, briefly wondering if she should go upstairs and make some fresh coffee, take a break, stretch her legs. Come back to the spreadsheet with fresh eyes.

“Two, four, six, eight, who do we EVISCERATE?”

She groaned and slumped forward, resting her elbows on her desk, her forehead in her hands.

“Ten, TWELVE, the Devil’s MATE, Fourteen, SIXTEEN, she’ll meet her FATE.”

Their voices chanted in unison, more together than the music group she and Liza met up with once a month to sing shanteys with. Guess they’d made up and started playing together again. It wasn’t a nice rhyme, whatever it was, but Mella had given up trying to understand kids once they’d passed on the opportunity. She couldn’t remember ever running with large packs of other kids her age even when she was younger, no reason to spend time trying to figure it out now. She hoped that there was at least one parent supervising.

Another scream sounded. This one seemed closer. Were the kids on the move? Now she really should get up and close the window. But even if they did go by the house, it was set up on a hill, back from the street. They wouldn’t even see her, let alone… what would they do if they did? Procrastination was giving her too much time to think about this. They were just kids playing.

She really should get a cup of coffee. As the thought crossed her mind, something thumped upstairs.

“Luna?” She sat up, alert now, and waited. Their cat was constantly jumping up on things and knocking knickknacks around. “You better not be on the table!”

A shuffling sound answered her.

“Liza? You home early?” There were at least four more hours to go on Liza’s shift at the urgent care clinic, but she’d been known to come home for a quick bite when she forgot her lunch. “Hon?”

The normal sounds of the empty house settled back in. Mella held her breath just a few moments more, but the kids’ screaming had vanished. Maybe they’d all gone back inside to watch TV or play video games or whatever. Maybe they’d been on a break from class, and now they were back in front of their computers.

She really did need a break of her own. Sighing, she jiggled her mouse to wake her computer back up. As the computer grudgingly came back to life, Mella looked out the window.

“Dammit!” Mella jumped up from her chair. The kids had gone too far, clustering at the bottom of the hill, gazing up at her. She opened the window wider and raised her voice, pitching it to carry to the street. “What are you kids doing?”

They looked up at her and smiled. She stepped back from the window. They crowded around, inches from the screen, peering at her, in the office, all smiles and teeth and jeans and T-shirts.

“Get back.” Mella stepped back and pointed behind them. “You all are trespassing. What house do you live in?”

And then they were crowded into the little office, pushing aside the files and binders, the books that had not yet been stacked on the shelves, reaching out with almost gentle tenderness, touching her clothes and hair and hands.

Two, four, six, eight, who do we—

* * *

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31 Days of Art, Days 6 & 7: Absorb, Regret

Yesterday, I had a massive push to finish up a client edit (which I did, at around two o’clock this morning), and my daily challenge fell to the wayside. I woke up this morning, ready to pick back up and regain momentum. After, it goes without saying, a whole metric fuck ton of coffee. In fact, I probably could go for another cup right about now…

Anyway, yesterday’s prompt was “absorb”, and today’s was “regret”, and the two of them started swirling around in my head until I started thinking about sin eaters and how once we act on what we think may be what we want, we may realize that we’ll regret it for the rest of our lives… or afterlives. While I originally meant to do one piece for each word, this story idea popped up, and so today’s challenge piece combines two in one.

Days 6 & 7: Absorb, Regret

The little creature squeak-slurped happily, tiny teeth chittering as it gnawed away at its meal. Between every bite, a pale pink tongue licked out, sweeping a few liquid drops from its chin, before diving back in. The black, matter fur glistened as its body trembled with delight.

A noise from the other room froze it in place. The creature waited, jaws half open, listening with its bell-shaped ears.

The moan sighed down the hallway, ecstatic agony that could not give itself full voice. The creature waited until the sound faded away, its small brain dimly wondering if it had been so smart to take advantage of a meal so bountiful. Another moan came, but no footsteps or approaching shadows followed, and the creature bent back to its feast, chittering faster. Something told it, it would not be wise to linger longer than it took to fill its belly.

***

It was everything he’d wanted, planned and executed to the letter, and yet now that he had it, he sat on the floor of his son’s room and cried huge, wrenching, gulping sobs. He’d only come in there to cracking the window a little more, smear a little blood on the frame, the last step of planting the trail that would lead the eventual investigators back out of the house and down the street to where the registered sex offender had moved in three weeks ago.

He’d thought through it many times, always coming up short on that final step. Who would come in to his son’s room, find him gone from his bed, search for him through the house, surprise him in his parents’ bed, his mother asleep—waking to the intruder, who must needs then take care of her before launching his attack, while his father, who’d been having trouble sleeping, it had been documented carefully by the family physician when she prescribed the pills, had lately been passing out on the downstairs couch to avoid being awoken by their son’s midnight trips to their bed. He’d told himself the same story over and over, shed real tears at the thought of it, of them ripped away—his whole world. But he didn’t have that final piece, didn’t know to which house to follow the intruder’s bloody path.

This night, though, this night he had told the story, creeping into his son’s room to place the blood under the window. He’d turned, meaning to go outside, see the path where further spoor could be found, to see where the heavy metal object in his gloved hand should be seen by patrolman on foot.

And yet, as he’d faced away from the colorful cartoon curtains, to look across at the dresser with all the stickers placed on it, the racecar toddler bed with its empty, mussed sheets, he’d sunk to the floor overwhelmed with grief.

And that is when it had crept up behind him, placing gentle claws on his hands, guiding them, whispering to him, the metal still warm on his skin.

“Who… who are you?” he asked in not more than a whimper. His voice sounded very far away to him, his hearing dampened.

The creature hefted itself up, and he felt another set of talons digging deep into the skin of his arms. Leathery wings caught his peripheral vision, and he squeezed his eyes shut “What are you doing here?”

“There isss ssssssin here,” shriveled lips whispered in his ear. “And where there isss ssssin, sssso there am I to abssssssorb it… to eat it…” Its tongue flashed out, licking his ear.

He shuddered, and yet… Regret turned to hope, a desperate flash in the deep, hidden pieces of himself. “Eating my sin?” He opened his eyes. His hands had fallen to his lap, limp, unmoving; the pallor under the skin, waxy and gray, swallowed the light from the hallway. “What does that mean? Will I be absolved? When I die, will I—”

In the darkness above, the shadow’s eyes, burning orange hot in the black against the black, the claws firmly piercing cold skin and shoulderbone.

“Abssssolution, no…” The voice trailed off into a breathy chuckle. “When you die, indeed. Can you not sssssseeeee…?”

No answer, only a dry sob. A child’s toy winked at them from across the room, a bear’s eyes, the glass catching the light.

“You are dead, sssssssinner, and this room shall be your absssolution, and you will be my feassssssst, forever…”

* * *

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31 Days of Art, Day 5: Corrosion

Today’s #31DaysofArt2020 challenge got a little philosophical, even though I, as a rule, am usually not (unless I’ve had a few beers and we’re hanging out around a firepit. I challenge anyone to remain un-philosophical in such a situation.) I started thinking about a theme/narrative I’ve seen pundits repeat multiple times in the past few years, the idea that our system and institutions have somehow “eroded.” And I’ve often thought that framing doesn’t quite hit the mark, so I got all poetical to explain why.

Day 5: Corrosion

Erosion was the word they used, and it was a good one—evocative, eternal, personifying the daily, deadly drip drip drip of the words and thoughts that reached out from the screen to wrap you up, muffle your head. It nagged, as you brewed another cup of coffee. The hot, dark bitterness would slice through the fog for a short while, long enough to get out another sentence, read two more emails.

But it didn’t last as long as it used to, and instead of alert energy, the end of the cup would leave you with granular detritus and the feeling that something could have been done much earlier and now every single action or motion was an uphill battle in a fight in which you were already standing in calf-deep mud on the low ground. Erosion. Like the rain that washed down the denuded hill, piling mud and roots and earth clots against you, burying you deeper and deeper.

Erosion was the beach sand, carted to the shore to make space at the hotel’s edge for those who gathered with bare faces and expensive drinks, not as watered down as they used to be, not as powerful as they could be. The waves would come in, bit by bit, day by day, year by year, eating way bite by sandy bite. Perhaps they would feast one night or two in a larger storm, washing everything away, leaving a narrow strip of dirt until the men came with trucks and loads and sanded over everything, maybe planting a futile strip of ice grass to prevent more erosion.

That’s not this. This is the creeping chemical combination that leaches into the once sturdy framework of the carnival wheel, the abiding onslaught of water and wind as it eats away at iron and steel, subverting the strength of the once indomitable bulwark.

Erosion is a granite rock, a mountain shelf, an encroaching root system, a thousand years of rain, and a final crack and split of a once-mighty boulder. The boulder doesn’t rage against the rain nor the root, nor does the mountain spare a regretful thought for its once-whole profile.

That is erosion.

These are acid pathways of bile that lace themselves through your feed, some of them fed and fractured in the words from one you once called friend. These are images and words ejaculated context-less into the void, landing with sharpened claws and nails into the soft frames, perfectly fertile ground for the grooves and trenches to form between each thread-thin connection. These are soft, stinging whips of hatred and insincere smiles, applied in an afterthought of malice. This is the collection and confusion of pity met with scorn.

Erosion is too soft a word.

* * *

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31 Days of Art, Day 4: Curious

For a word with such potential, “curious” had me wondering if today was the day that was going to break my streak. Maybe because there was too MUCH potential. Maybe because all I could think of was Alice in Wonderland, and while I love Alice, I didn’t have anything unique or interesting to say there. So, I gave myself permission to sit down and just start typing without really having any idea where to go… and this is what oozed out of my brain.

Day 3: Curious

It was a strange habit he had, this picking. Pick, pick, pick at skin, at imperfections, at acne, at the scabs that grew over the bone, pick, pick, pick.

The scratch-itch-scratch over half-formed scars until they parted, revealing the moist redness underneath, until they healed over thick white tissue.

So strange. So curious. So fragile.

When there came no injury to open the elastic skin, he scratch-scratch-scratched until the door opened under his nails, and he held the hole to his arm to lick, lick, lick it closed. Then the scab would form, and he would have his next tic, his next pick, his next trick.

So strange. So curious. So fragile.

For days, he would hold his hands hostage, clip the nails to the quick, flick the little toys that kept his fingers ever moving, ever lickety-spit-quick tap-tapping, and finally, slipping his digits into the mitts that should have kept him from picking. And yet, after a few days, he must needs remove his gloves, his nails grow long again, and he’s back at it—pick, pick, picket-pick.

So strange. So curious. So fragile these creatures who squirmed and cried and twisted and begged with their strange, soft tongues and their curious, delicate bodies.

Whatever would happen if he pick, pick, picked to stick, stick, stick those long, sharp nails just a little further beneath the surface…?

* * *

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31 Days of Art Day 3: Membrane

Today’s story came from an earworm and a dictionary search. When I saw that “membrane” was the prompt, I immediately couldn’t get “insane in the brain/ insane in the membrane” from cycling through my head on repeat. So I went ahead and looked up “membrane” in the dictionary to see if anything popped up. In Merriam-Webster, one of the example sentences referenced the use of an extracorporeal membrane oxygenation machine, which pumps and oxygenates blood by pumping it out of the patient’s body, through a membrane, and back in, bypassing the heart and lungs. It’s used to give them a rest when they have been overtaxed. That then led me down a rabbit hole and I ended up looking up hospital evacuation procedures and that led me to… well, this story. I even kept in a nod to the original earworm. Hope you enjoy it, and Happy Halloween 3rd!

Day 3: Membrane

The empty hospital was a horror movie cliché, but the sirens had sounded sixteen hours ago, and now the corridors resembled the paper-and-medical-debris strewn halls of Hollywood’s finest set design.

The evacuation plan sat in its pristine binder in the Director’s office. The pages, crisp and unwrinkled, hadn’t been disturbed since they slid smoothly off the printer, three-hole punched by a clerk, stuck in the binder with its distinctive “Cypress Heights General” stamped on the cover, and deposited to the shelf after the annual tabletop exercise.

From their vantage point under the Director’s large, solid-wood desk, Mel could see the white spine of the binder, lined up in a row with other spotless binders full of protocol and standard operating procedures.

Nothing in there had been remotely useful. Nobody had even tried to open them.

Mel was—had been—a week or so into a student nursing internship at Cypress Heights, barely long enough to learn where the good bathrooms were, and which residents to avoid.

They hadn’t been there last year when the hospital staff had earned high marks in the chosen scenario—a pre-evacuation in the face of peaceful protests turned into violent riots and looting. It didn’t matter than the staff had written its own test scenario, one that included an overwhelmed ER and blocked streets with emergency vehicles unable to navigate. The hospital doctors and nurses and internists and actors dressed in moulage all performed at the highest of levels, and the Director got a plaque and a binder of lessons learned that sat, collecting dust, on the shelf.

The desk was a good place to hide. A good place to stay. Mel swallowed back a cough and wiped their cheek with the back of their hand, the stubble on their jaw rough against their skin. They’d been under the desk longer than they thought. Long enough for the lights to flicker and fade, and the daylight to take their place. Long enough for the alarms to run out of battery and die, for their cell phone to lose signal, for the screams and the feet pounding in the corridors to fade into dead silence.

Mel had been assigned to the respiratory ward, with a resident who kept referring to them as “dude,” and who was supposed to show them the finer parts of working with a patient currently undergoing extracorporeal membrane oxygenation. They didn’t expect to ever work with ECMO patients; as the resident explained, it required a specially trained nurse to administer the anticoagulants and monitor for infections and correct sedation levels. But again, they were new, and the senior nurse did not have much time or patience for explaining things, so Mel had been told to observe, and they interpreted as: “Stay quiet and out of trouble until we find a good place for you.”

The first wave of evacuation had been everyone who could walk or run or hurry, led by a group of nurses who shepherded them through the halls and down the stairs. There were supposed to be more groups after that, orderly rows of triaged patients, but after the first wave, when the panic hit and people started shoving and pushing, everything had gotten muddled.

Mel had been left in the chaos, handed a chart and forgotten, sweating under their layers of mask and gloves and face shield and sterile clothing cover. That resident had stared at them, told them: “Keep an eye on the patient,” and left them there when the sirens went off and the announcements started blaring through the loudspeakers. The words had been completely indistinguishable, an unscripted emergency that no one could comprehend until the chaos was too complete.

In the hours that passed in the silence, Mel had waited. The waiting grew harder and harder. They’d stepped away from the patient only for a moment, to find a bathroom, in hallways that for once were full of people to watch which door they chose to use. The entire floor was quiet and empty, even when they came out.

Mel had tried the phone at the nurse’s station, but there was nothing on the other end when she picked it up, not even a busy signal. Their phone was in their locker on the ground floor, and they decided to go down quickly and come back up. No one was around to notice, and their patient was comatose.

They’d shuffled down a few floors, then stopped to look through the fireproof glass at one of the landings. Out in the hall of the oncology department, they’d finally spotted people. Or rather, bodies. Sprawled. In pieces. Painting the hall in macabre shadows.

There, in the middle of the hall, a figure. Short, thin, almost child-like, it stooped over a wheelchair, like a concerned child. At least that’s what Mel thought, until the figure straightened, and they saw the red smears, the matted hair, the way the arms of its victims flopped over the sides of the chair.

Mel had almost screamed. Instead, they pounded back up the stairs in their plain, white Asics and sprinted to their patient. They’d stood beside his bed in indecision, unsure, then had finally switched everything over to battery power, unhooking the various wires and tubes and rearranging them to prep the patient for transport.

They’d pushed the patient out of the room with it’s wide glass windows, meant for easy observation, the small ECMO device tucked into his side, beeping as it pumped blood from one side of the membrane to the other.

On this floor, the only room without those large windows was the Director’s office. It had a door with a small window, but she had papered it over. Mel had headed for it, pushing the patient bed in front of them, only to come up short against the doorjamb. There was no way they were going to fit the bed with its patient through the narrow entrance.

The silence had been deafening as Mel had stared at the conundrum. With the blood rushing in their ears, it seemed as if the empty halls echoed and clamored. It was only when an actual sound broke the silence that Mel realized how still it had become.

The sound was a thump somewhere, and Mel hadn’t stopped to see where it was coming from. They had abandoned their patient there in the hallway and, with a sob, thrown themselves into the room, closing the door and locking it behind them, then hunkering under the desk until their limbs cramped and numbed.

“Hello?” It came out as a croak, as Mel whispered around the saliva that had dried in their throat. They coughed and tried again. “Hello?”

They hadn’t been wrong. They had heard something, out in the hallway. Was it their patient? No. Their patient was… They had abandoned their patient, left him out there with that… thing.

Mel began to cry, deep, gulping, silent sobs. Shaking, they crawled forward, pulling themselves up, supporting themselves as they hunched over their desk, gritting their teeth against the pins and needles as blood flow returned to their lower limbs.

The thump came again. Not a knock, more like something stumbling against the door as it moved past.

Mel was a student nurse, on an internship. That wasn’t their patient out there. It was a patient. Probably a dead patient. Even the little ECMO couldn’t keep them going. The battery had to have run out. The anticoagulant failed. Something. He couldn’t be alive. They muttered that under their breath as they shuffled to the door, putting their ear to the heavy wood. Nothing. Wishing they had more fingernails, they pried at the paper covering the small window. They were still wearing their face shield, which now sat cockeyed on their head.

Finally, the paper, which was more like a thick sticker over the window, peeled away. Instead of giving them a view of the hallway, there was a film of red splatter that obscured their vision.

Was that another thump?

No. Just Mel once again hearing things in the silence.

They’d only seen one of those things. And it was small. Mel wasn’t that tall, but they could out-power a child, they thought. Or something the size of a child.

They placed their hand on the door handle, the other poised to flip the bolt.

From the other side of the door—only more silence.

* * *

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31 Days of Art Day 2: Winchester

So, as mentioned, I’m currently using Lynne Hansen’s #31DaysofArt2020 as a series of flash fiction writing prompts. Yesterday’s was a bit of a long piece of flash fiction. This was an image that came to me as I was falling asleep last night (albeit after binge-watching half of Season Four of Van Helsing.) It’s not as in depth as yesterday’s, but it was a fun chance to play around with words.

I can’t remember which writer I was reading, but they had posted a blog article about submitting to themed anthologies. One of the main takeaways was, let your first idea settle, and then put it aside and keep thinking. Chances are, the first thing you think about will be the same thing that everyone else reading the submission call is thinking about. That stuck with me, and when my brain was mulling over what “Winchester” meant as a prompt, I thought, of course, of Winchester house, and Mary Winchester, and Sam and Dean Winchester (oh yes, I thought quite a bit about them, and Charlie, and Sheriff Jody… Ahem! Where was I?)

Anyway, I thought a lot about all the Winchester references out there, and decided to go old school. Winchester is also a brand–of rifles, of really sturdy gun safes. How sturdy? Good question.

Day 2: Winchester

“Are they coming?”

Kayleigh and Mackenzie’s parents didn’t know they knew how to get into the gun safe. Kayleigh had cautioned her little sister against giving away the secret. They liked playing safecrackers, slowly turning the shiny metal spokes until the tumblers clicked, and the door with the embossed picture of the cowboy opened for them.

They were less concerned with the contents. There was Grandpa’s old rifle that no one ever used, the one with the fancy etching on the metal, and their mom had a pistol that was never loaded. At ten years old, Kayleigh knew you didn’t play with firearms, and she made sure her sister didn’t touch them. And she didn’t know how many times she’d cautioned her sister against even pretending to close the door while they were inside.

“Can you hear them?” Mackenzie whispered again, the tears on her cheeks wet on Kayleigh’s arm.

Kayleigh mutely shook her head. Her sister was only two years younger, but Kayleigh suddenly felt much older than her.

“Lee-lee?”

“No.” Kayleigh whispered the word harshly. Of course, Mackenzie couldn’t see her in the total dark. She softened her tone, still whispering. “No, Kenz. I can’t hear anything. Shh.”

Mackenzie whimpered and clung to Kayleigh, who felt a wet warmth soak the bottom of her shorts. The pungent smell of Kenz’s pee stunk up the inside of the safe.

“They’re coming, they’re coming, they’re coming,” Kenz whispered to herself.

Kayleigh clenched her teeth so hard her braces hurt. The door had locked behind them, at least she thought it did. She couldn’t open it from inside. She’d never been in darkness so complete.

“They’re coming, I know they’re coming.”

Her sister wasn’t getting louder. In fact, she whispered softer and softer, rocking back and forth, lowering her voice until Kayleigh could barely hear her.

Something in the room outside fell with the a thump and a smash. Kenz jumped and screamed, but it was only a half-choked squeal as she buried her face in Kayleigh’s shirt.

In. Out. In. Out. Kayleigh panted as if she’d been running the two-hundred-meter dash in P.E. with Mrs. Dodds. The Winchester gun safe was solidly built, and heavy, and she thought it would keep them safe.

But she’d seen those teeth and their claws and what they’d done to Mom and to Dad, and she closed her eyes tightly and hoped the wheel with its shiny metal spokes would not start to turn.

* * *

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31 Days of Art Day 1: Scar

So, I’ve decided to take on a 31 Day Art Challenge. Why? Well, because between releasing a new horror anthology, moving to a new house, trying to re-organize my writing space, taking a look at the work that I am doing to move towards my goals as an author and writing coach, and of course, finishing Winter Run so I can start a new project during NaNoWriMo, I just don’t have enough to fill my day! Ha… actually, I’m trying an experiment. Lynne Hansen, a terrific artist and cover designer, posted a #31DaysofArt2020 challenge, which basically lists a word a day as a prompt for either art, or design, or writing, whatever.

I’ve decided to go ahead and use it as a writing prompt. At the end of October, I may end up with 31 flash fiction stories. I may end up with some flash fiction and some scenes from Winter Run. I may end up giving up tomorrow. We’ll see. Anyway, I’m going to be posting what I come up with over here. I can’t promise it will be good (it’s a writing exercise more than publishing final projects) but if you’re doing the challenge feel free to follow along and share what you come up with!

October 1: Scars

The ground shook under my feet. Not a violent upheaval that threw me to the ground—more like the sensation of the packed-dirt-and-leaf debris sliding in opposite directions simultaneously. A harsh shiver rattled the branches around us, the last dry leaves and seedpods rattling an ominous death knell.

My aging mutt cowered behind me, wedging her graying body tight against the back of my calves. When I’d first adopted her, she’d been abused and displayed a similar stance every time one of our walks brought us within a few feet of a male passerby. She’d outgrown this behavior years ago, but now, she hid her face against me and shook uncontrollably.

An uncanny silence settled around us, broken only by my dog’s plaintive whining. She backed up, pulling against the leash. Distracted, I kept my gaze ahead on the woods, not noticing until she had slipped her collar and taken off back the way we came, her arthritic hips giving her a limp as she picked her slowly frantic way over the roots and rocks that littered the trail.

I didn’t worry—the few times she’d gotten away from the leash, I’d found her waiting for me at home, sometimes covered with muck and cuts from the brambles, but always panting at the back door, waiting to be let in.

A crashing sound from up ahead startled me. It sounded as if a tree had fallen and then just… kept falling. The crash stretched out and kept going, joined by another, then another. I looked over my shoulder. My dog was long gone. Briefly, I contemplated following her back.

On the other hand, whatever was going on ahead couldn’t have been planned or legal. Developers had been after this section of the trail for the longest time, attempting to clear and build right up to the edges of the national park property that barely protected the greenway. I had my phone—never hiked without it. I didn’t need to get too close. Just enough to snap photos of the construction equipment and bring it to the authorities. Maybe the Mayor and the town council. Some of them didn’t mind the fat gifts they got from time to time, but surely someone wouldn’t be able to ignore what was happening.

I held my phone out, camera screen at the ready, my thumb hovering over the screen so it wouldn’t automatically shut off at the wrong time and make me have to wait the couple of seconds for the camera to come back to life.

There was more light up ahead, filtering through the trees, than there should have been as I navigated down the short ravine and around the bend in the trail. Had they already started clear cutting? My hands behind to shake, sweat fogging up the phone screen. Some of these trees were over a century old, cleared by the original colonists in this area of north Jersey, then growing back steadily over the years of revolution, civil war, and then the desertion of agriculture for more lucrative industries in the area.

And then, the woods ended. What had been a dark tunnel of reaching tree branches across the trail yesterday afternoon was now an open clearing under a bright fall sky.

The first thing I saw was the large scar that ran the length of the clearing. It was about a half mile long, with about a third of that distance off to my right and the rest extending out to my left in a long, jagged hole. The edges were raw and bare and glinted with moisture that reminded me of blood. I lifted my cameraphone, scanning it back and forth, looking for the large construction equipment it would take to create this big of a trench in the middle of the woods.

A scratching sound came from the inside. Not a thin little scritch-scritch like a dog digging for fleas, but a massive, overlapping chorus of nails and teeth against dirt and roots and fur. I stood mere feet from the edge, the sound slicing at my nerves, my pulse a dull, heaving pounding through my nerveless fingers. Had it slipped through my grasp? No. I still clenched it, now raised it before me, stepping forward to peer into the chasm.

Sweat smeared the phone screen, but it had already gone blank and dead. I tucked it into my back pocket, safe. I did not know what I would find when I looked into the gash in the ground, but I knew it would not be anything so mundane as construction vehicles and men in hard hats.

A wave of vertigo hit me as I inched closer to the opening, and I slowly got down on my knees, crawling. When I reached the edge, I realized that it was not so deep, but the sight before more worsened the dizzy nausea that clawed at my stomach and my scalp.

Ten feet below, a pile of dirt and leaves. No. Now I could see it. Fur and dirt. But the glistening—that was blood. Claws. Eyes opened wide. Claw marks. Canines bared. The bottom of the trench was lined with animals, mostly raccoons and opposums and skunks, but the occasional rabbit and deer and large bear and snake interspersed broke up the gray monotony. They had been digging down, their front paws or hooves, whether designed for the task or not, breaking into the soil and throwing it up behind them.

The exertion had killed them all, dropping them in their tracks, paws splayed out for one, last scoop.

I couldn’t make any sense of it. The nausea overcame me as my vision struggled to take in the macabre corpseyard below, and I vomited everything I had until I could heave no more. I sat back on my heels, wiping my mouth with the shoulder of my T-shirt, when the ground began to move once more.

This time, I served as silent witness as the earth stretched, ripped, then parted in a similar long rip in the ground, parallel, just as long, if not as wide and deep. With the shaking came the sounds of feet and paws, more of the same small animals. At the same time, a curious compulsion gripped me.

I stood.

I followed the path of the flood of fur and teeth that led me to the new trench. Without stopping, I walked into it, losing my footing and landing on my knees beside the wildlife that teemed into the pit. As I reached out, sinking my hands into the dirt, ripping the soil as my fingers clawed and my nails tore from the task, I heard a sobbing.

A deep, heartfelt cry. It echoed through us and we shuddered with it as one.

Make it stop. Let me feel something again. Make it stop.

And I didn’t recognize the voice that filtered through the dirt, but I recognized the pain that broke through the numbness, as we clawed and scratched and cut at the scar on the skin of the earth.

Brandy, the inspiration for the beginning of the story. She’s smarter than my narrator…

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On the Shelf: A Misnomer

Or is it? This week, I am sad to report, I read exactly one-quarter of one book. This was not intentional–in fact I had plans. BIG plans. Lots of reading and writing plans.

What does God do when we make plans?

Yeah, I’m pretty sure that somewhere up there, the universal deity is having a good chuckle at my expense.

Anyway, the book I started reading is Autumn Bleeds Into Winter by Jeff Strand, with cover art by Lynne Hansen, who is one of my favorite artists around. When I fantasize of affording fine art illustrations for my books, she is the artist I dream of hiring. Usually, I know, I post a whole review thing, but since I’m only a short way in, I’ll hold off. I will say, the beginning hooked me, and I didn’t want to stop reading, but I’ve been having a hard time waking up with my alarm clock and so I’ve been trying to be very good about putting the electronics down and going to bed.

One of the reasons I’ve been having major insomnia is that we STILL ARE NOT SETTLED IN. Our stuff arrives tomorrow, and then I’ll be able to spend the weekend organizing and unpacking and organizing to my heart’s content, at which point, I will start to feel a little more normal. In the meantime though, there is unrest in my mind, fed by the incredible news that pops up in my news alerts and social media feeds.

And yeah, I know that doomscrolling is a thing, and that it’s not a good thing to just stay immersed in all the bad things happening … but on the other hand, how can you ignore this? The ICE whistleblower complaints, the climate change that has caused the extreme weather effects in the West and the Gulf, the reports of continued roadblocks thrown up in front of people trying to exercise their basing civic duty of voting… I do not want to, nor am I going to, ignore all of this. My Senator’s office got a phone call from me yesterday, and they will get a nice letter sometime this week when I finally sit down and write it.

In the meantime, I am waiting for my printer to arrive so I can make sure I am registered to vote at our new address. I am waiting to purchase a vehicle so I can have freedom of movement to do things like go to in-person drill or volunteer as a poll worker. And I am waiting until November to see if we are going to collectively come to our senses and address the root causes of the systemic issues we face. And yes, it’s “we.”

I’ve also decided to start an indoor garden in order to have access to fresh vegetables and medicinal herbs just in case civilization does take a tumble.

So yeah, I’ll get more reading done this coming week. And more writing down this weekend. Just need to find that place where my mind settles down and my inner organizer has a chance to put things where they belong.

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On the Shelf: Books to Read in the New House

It finally happened–I missed a week of posting On the Shelf. But at least I had a good excuse! Exactly one week ago, we moved out of our camper and into our new house. There were some back and forths with the closing, which meant that we had to re-schedule our household goods dropoff (and then couldn’t get our original date back when the shenanigans were resolved). So, we’ve been camping out in the house using the mattresses and dishes from the RV, making the best of it.

We did manage to get internet and utilities set up, and I’ve been able to make long strides on catching up all the things I should have been doing the past month or so. I also called the mosquito and pest control people because this property had been vacant for a while, and some of the local creepy crawlies were getting just a little too comfortable for this entomophobic writer. In fact, as we speak, I have a stack of horror novels on the bookcase (and two on my desk), and the thing that’s icking me out is the cockroach doing the kickin’ chicken as it slowly succumbs not two feet away from my desk.

Yes. I could put it outside. No, I’m not touching it while its icky little cockroach feet are all waving in the air and stuff.

A little classic horror–and the proof of our next anthology!

Anyway, now that I’ve gotten that out of my system, what have I been reading or looking forward to reading? Let’s talk TBR piles. When we left California, I put a stack of paperbacks and my Kindle into the RV. I read about half the paperbacks and a bunch off my Kindle, and still managed to forget a whole bunch of the paperbacks (we were storing them under one of the bunks, and out of sight, out of mind. So I’ve got a number of titles waiting for me.

I read a bunch of pro reading the past few weeks and am currently meandering my way through a book on writing business plans, but this past week of reading consisted of books for pleasure crammed in between setting up promotions for Stories We Tell After Midnight 2, and making progress on Winter Run. Slow progress. Very slow. Anyway, here are some of the books I enjoyed the past few days. As always, if you’ve read one, let me know what you think. And if you have any book suggestions, drop me a line!

Zombie Cosmetologist Novellas 1 & 2 by JD Blackrose
This two-novella series (which I’ve just listed as the series page because do yourself a favor and just pick up both at once, it will save time when you get to the end of the first one and need to go on to the next) has as its premise that a former Union Soldier gets turned into a zombie after he dies as the Battle of Shiloh, and then decides that the way to make money in the modern world is to turn to the world of makeup artistry. And not just makeup–hair, nails, special FX, anything that a modern celebrity might need. But, since he IS a zombie, he ends up getting wrapped up in some clandestine shenanigans involving shady research, zombie Marine experiments, and a whole host of other hijinks. I enjoyed the novellas–they were funny and fast-paced, without neglecting character development or avoiding hard character choices. I’m looking forward to the next book club where we talk about the books. There was one tiny nitpick, and if you are not military affiliated, you likely won’t even notice. And that was, there were some inconsistencies with the military characters that now and then pulled me out of the story. Not super terrible, just be prepared to roll your eyes and keep going, because the stories are awesome and funny, and Waylon Jenkins is a hoot.

Trail of Lightning (The Sixth World #1) by Rebecca Roanhorse
I picked this book up because it was (still is of today) on sale on Kindle for $1.99, and it was set in an apocalypse where climate change had terraformed most of the world, and magic and Gods had started to reappear. The main character, Maggie Hoskie, is a Navajo woman who has been apprenticed to a demigod, and who is nicknamed Monsterslayer. The demigod is the sort of guy who goes around killing monsters and then telling Maggie that there’s too much darkness within her before disappearing in the middle of the night. So of course, when the book opens, she’s a giant mess. Plus, it’s the apocalypse. There are things I loved about this book–the characters, the setting, the urban fantasy outside of the normal modern city setting. It reminded me a little of sharing Tony Hillerman books back and forth with my roommate on my second deployment who was Diné. While I was reading, and immersed in the world of the book, I really enjoyed it. I think I even posted on FB how much I did. But when I went back and started thinking about it, I’m not sure if I’m invested in reading the next one. For me, the fact that she has so internalized the whole “evil has tainted me” line that it leads her to do what she does in the first chapter (trying to avoid spoilers)… something about the character was irretrievably lost in that moment, and even the end couldn’t resolve it in a satisfying way for me. But, YMMV, and I know a bunch of people who love this book, so put it on the qualified recommend list.

Reach! Finding Strength, Spirit and Personal Power by Laila Ali
I picked up this book on Kindle right around the time I picked up the memoir by Donivan Blair. Like that book, this one had the distinct voice of an author who is coming to writing after accomplishing a number of other things. Written when she was 24, this memoir takes us from Ali’s earliest memories of growing up the daughter of Muhammad Ali and Veronica Porche to her adolescence, fights with her family and authority, even time spent in trouble with the authorities, to her decision to open her own business and go to school, and then to step into the boxing ring. All along the way, she muses on what it was like to grow up with her father’s fame always there, to see her mother, after she divorced Muhammad Ali, get trapped in an abusive relationship, to go through a similar situation herself, and still keep striving to the goals she set for herself and accept nothing less. I’m a fan of boxing fiction, and enjoy watching women’s boxing and MMA (men’s too, but I’d rather watch the former), and so I found this to be a fun, fast read. I would have really liked to see more of what it was like in the ring, what was going through her head, etc., but as a whole, I’d pick this up and read it.

Anyway, it looks like Charlie (yes, I’ve named him) is still kicking, and my kids are getting suspiciously silent, so I’m going to hope that I don’t have a bunch of typos, post this, and get back to today’s super long to-do list. Enjoy!

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On the Shelf: Reading For (More) Professional Development

When we headed out from California, I packed a stack of books and my Kindle. I brought probably too many for the small space we have, and even then, the selection I ended up with was a small portion of my physical TBR shelf. My thought process was, I would read the fiction I had on my Kindle (such a long list…), and I would read all the physical professional books I really needed to: books on publishing, books on editing, books on writing.

This mostly worked out. I’ve plowed through a good number of reference books on the crafts of writing, editing, and publishing. I’ve also devoured a number of fiction books. And I have, in the interest of full disclosure, bought a number of books from visits to the bookstore and by picking up $0.99 deals that I see on my FB or Twitter news feed and that look vaguely interesting.

One note about these deals–it turns out that if I pay a buck for a book (which I am very willing to do, in fact, it’s almost a reflex at this point) I am WAY more likely to read it than a book I picked up for free. Hm.

Anyway, the point of this is that while I have made some progress on my TBR pile, I think at this point, I’ve replenished each title as I’ve read it. Heh. So, this week, I’ve been tackling a number of professional titles. The material I’ve read has given me some good ideas for my plans for the next couple of anthologies, as well as the Rick Keller Project (more on that later.) There is also one title that was a total break in routine because OMG I NEEDED TO READ IT RIGHT NOW.

I’ve got a session with an editing client in a little bit, so before it gets TOO much later in the day, here is the round up of what was on my reading shelf this week.

Amazon Decoded: A Marketing Guide to the Amazon Store by David Gaughran

I forget how I got to this book. I think it was that John Hartness of Falstaff Books recommended Gaughran’s book on newsletters and then I signed up for Gaughran’s own newsletter, and then maybe this was the free book? Or he offered it for a 99-cent deal? I forget. Anyway. I think that if you can get a chance to pick this book up for a buck, then it would be worth it. But for the full price of it, you’re better off heading over to the 20Booksto50K Facebook group and reading through the information that they’ve organized and put together on indie publishing. It’s not that the information in the book isn’t helpful or important, it’s that I didn’t find much that was new. I did take some notes as I went through, and one of the helpful features is that Gaughran lists various resources (some of which, like Robert Ryan’s Amazon ad book, I did go and buy) for the indie publisher that may be of interest. It also organizes a bunch of info about Amazon and how their algorithms work, and that organization would be very helpful to a new publisher. Full disclosure: I am using this specific info tidbit, namely that the first five days of the launch are the time to make the most of the alg0rithm, to inform the next two anthology launches. So, we’ll see what happens. I do recommend that indie authors and publishers (and really any authors and publishers) go ahead and sign up for his newsletter. There’s a lot of good info there, and hey, you never know when you’re going to spot a sale.

Release Strategies: Plan Your Self-Publishing Schedule for Maximum Benefit by Craig Martelle

With one full-length and one mini anthology on the way, along with my own Rick Keller Project relaunch efforts, release strategies have been on my mind. There is some really good info in the aforementioned 20Books group. But if you’re looking for something that condenses it all and gives examples of how someone who is pretty successful at releasing books has put it (the information) together, then this is a pretty good resource. Martelle covers the various options available from releasing one or two books a year, to doing a full rapid release and all the attendant planning. It’s in KU, so if you have a chance to pick it up there, it’s definitely worth it. I think I picked this one up when it was another 99-cent deal, and it was worth the dollar AND worth the read. I’m realizing the moral of this week might be that it’s worth following various writers in their newsletters and social media so that you can take advantage of the inevitable deals they offer.

The Editor’s Companion: An Indispensable Guide to Editing Books, Magazines, Online Publications, and More by Steve Dunham

I’ve been working on a manuscript for a new client this week, and so thought it would be good timing to start reading this book. I picked it up about a week ago on a family trip to Barnes & Noble. This is a useful reference book, and I’ll be putting it on the shelf for a periodic reminder of things I can do to improve my editorial capabilities. On the other hand, I also tried to read it straight through, and it is really not a book that is a super easy cover-to-cover read. No matter. Some of the information is, I think, a little bit older. For example, the Words Into Type work that Dunham references multiple times appears to be out of print, and the references to typesetting vs. desktop publishing are less and less relevant as we progress through the 21st century. It was worth price, and as I mentioned, I’ll be putting it on my shelf next to Elements of Style and the other professional volumes I’ve collected.

Ballistic Kiss by Richard Kadrey

And here we are at the point where I devolve into a giant pile of fan-girl goo. I LOVE Sandman Slim. Like, have extreme fannish reactions to the books. I bought this, the next-to-last installment in the series, way back when it first came available for pre-order. This was a good idea, because then it downloaded onto my Kindle and I didn’t have to wait to read it. This was also a bad idea, because then I read the whole thing without coming up for air, and now I don’t know what I’m going to do with myself for another year or so while Kadrey writes the last book in the series. Probably re-read the entire series while listening Spotify playlists he puts together. I don’t care if it DOES make me seem like a teenybopper with a crush listening to a mixtape… Anyway, if you, like me, are crazy for urban fantasy meets LA noir meets gritty, dark prose that sucks you in from page one and doesn’t let go until you emerge two or three days later having re-read an entire series, blinking and wondering WTF just happened–yeah. You’re going to like this series. Go, quickly, and check it out. And then go read Kadrey’s The Grand Dark, because I love that book as well. I should re-read it soon. (I’m trying to avoid spoilers here, but if you want to talk, hit me up in the comments or drop me a line.)

Anyway, that’s the update for this week. This coming week I’ve got a bunch of great books lined up, but as always, if you have suggestions for the TBR pile, lay ’em on me!

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