Continuing my series of unpublished stories, focusing on Halloween-themed for the season. Here is a children's tale I wrote a few years ago called, "In a Whirlwind of Autumn Leaves."
IN A WHIRLWIND OF AUTUMN LEAVES
“Daddy, come on!”
Billy’s father stood on the sidewalk at the corner of Jefferies and Laurel, staring down at the cellphone in his hands. Billy tugged at the man’s jacket.
“Just a minute,” his father said without looking up from the small screen. “I’m in the middle of something.”
Billy groaned behind the rubber mask that turned him into green warty goblin. The brown poncho he wore to round out his costume was heavy, and despite the chill October wind that sent the crisp autumn leaves scurrying across the pavement, he was sweating.
Not that he minded. It was Halloween, and he’d endure any number of discomforts for the prospect of CANDY CANDY CANDY! It was the night of the year the he anticipated more than any other, with the exception of Christmas Eve. He’d picked out this costume mid-September, and he’d been dreaming of trick-or-treating ever since the first leaf had turned yellow-orange on the maple in the front yard.
Typically his mother took him out on Halloween night, but this year she was feeling a bit under the weather, so his father had volunteered. Which would have been fine if his father wasn’t constantly distracted by his phone.
They’d been out for half an hour and had only made it one block.
Billy watched in dismay as a host of short monsters paraded by. Ghosts, vampires, zombies, witches. All accompanied by adults who were smiling as they held their kids’ hands and led them from one house to another.
“Daaaaddyyyy!” Billy said, stomping his foot on the cement. “Everybody’s gonna be out of candy by the time we get there.”
With a sigh, Billy’s father tore his gaze from the phone long enough to glance down at his son. “Have a little patience, Billy boy! I’m having a bit of a work crisis, and I need to get some stuff taken care of.”
“But Daddy, it’s Halloween.”
“My bosses don’t care about Halloween. I’ll tell you what, you just run along and go to all the houses on this side of the street while I finish up this email.”
“By myself?” Billy said, feeling a shiver run up and down his spine. At 9 years old, he considered himself a Big Boy, but the prospect of wandering the neighborhood at night on his own frightened him.
“Just to the end of the block, about four houses. Once you reach the next intersection, you come on back here. I should be finished by then.”
Billy turned his head to stare down Jefferies street to where it intersected with Wilkinson. Just one city block, but it seemed to stretch on for miles. Yet the fear of being away from his father’s side in the dark was eclipsed by his desire for the candy he knew waited behind the doors of these houses. Besides, there were plenty of streetlamps and porch lights keeping the shadows at bay.
“Promise you’ll be right here?” he asked, only a slight quaver to his voice.
“Count on it, Billy boy,” his father said, his attention already returned to the phone.
Steeling himself with a deep breath, which filled the inside of the mask like a warm vapor, Billy left his father’s side and started slowly down the sidewalk to the first house. A gaggle of children were coming back down the walkway, giggling and peering into their bags and plastic jack-o’-lantern buckets at the candy they’d just scored.
Billy made his way to the porch alone. On the top step an animatronic crow turned its head, flashed red eyes at him, and let loose with a mechanical caw. A cellophane witch was plastered on the large front window next to the door. Billy rang the bell and waited, clutching his orange and black bag like a security blanket. He called out a tentative “Trick or treat” as the door opened.
An old lady with a billowy white could of hair and cats-eye glasses stood before him, oohing and aahing over his costume as she deposited several fun-sized candy bars into his sack. He saw a Mounds, which wasn’t his favorite, but also a Snickers and Milky Way which he loved.
Bolstered by the promise of more chocolatey goodness, he went to the next three houses with enthusiasm, no longer worried about being away from his father’s side. In fact, he ceased to think about his father at all, and never looked back to make sure the man was still waiting on the corner. He bounded from door to door, his “Trick or treat” becoming more enthusiastic and boisterous each time. At the end of the block, he finally glanced back down Jefferies. His father was spotlighted under a lamppost, still tapping away at the phone, not even looking in Billy’s direction.
Billy stood there for a moment, rocking back and forth on the balls of his feet. He had always been an obedient child, never getting up to any serious mischief, and he rarely defied his parents instructions.
But what harm could come from him crossing Wilkinson and continuing down the next block? It too was well lit, with plenty of other kids and their parents going house to house. If he waited on his father, it could take them fifteen minutes to get down the one block when Billy could do it in five on his own? He’d be careful, checking both ways before crossing the street, then at the end of the block he’d cross to the other side of Jefferies and make his way back. Immersed as his father was in his work email, he likely wouldn’t even notice Billy had strayed farther than he’d been told to go.
Deciding to break the rules for once, Billy checked for traffic then crossed the street. The wind gusted, sending a flurry of leaves into his path as if trying to stop him. He kicked through them, laughing and enjoying the scritch-scratch sound they made.
At the first house on this new block, he got a large bag of M&Ms and a box of cracker jacks. Walking back to the sidewalk, his head was down as he peered into his bag, looking at all his sugary loot. The wind rose again with a keening howl, sounding like something in pain, and the leaves were lifted up into a whirlwind that encircled him like the cyclone in The Wizard of Oz. The brittle leaves scratched at his poncho and scraped along the rubber mask, and they spun around him in such great numbers that they blocked out his vision with a blurring kalediscope of orange, red, and brown.
Billy, initially delighted by the sensation of being caught in the middle of this gaily painted whirlwind, began to feel frightened. He stumbled forward, flailing and kicking out at the leaves, then stumbled and fell down hard on the pavement. The impact caused him to bite his tongue, and pain flared even as the coppery taste of his own blood filled his mouth.
The cyclone of leaves had finally torn apart, the various pieces skittering away into the night like scurrying insects. Billy stood slowly, rubbing at his bruised tailbone. He bent to retrieve his dropped trick-or-treat sack then straightened his mask which had gotten knocked askew in the fall.
Only then did the boy register that the street had grown dimmer. Looking up at the streetlamps, he saw that several of them had gone out, and those that still glowed gave off only a sickly yellow light that served to accentuate the darkness instead of alleviating it. There were no longer any porch lights shining like beacons. The wind changed directly suddenly, and all those leaves that had skittered away before now came back his way, as if giving chase. Billy glanced down Jefferies Street, back the way he’d come, hoping to catch a glimpse of his father. All he saw that way was a wall of shadow that looked as solid as cement. He was afraid if he walked into the darkness, he would be swallowed whole and never seen again.
“Daddy?” he called out in a tiny voice that seemed not to carry any further than the tip of his nose. “Daddy, are you still there?”
There was no response. In fact, the night was utterly still and quiet except for the rustling leaves. All the other trick-or-treaters and their parents seemed to have fled. As much as the darkness scared him, being out here alone scared him even more. He started shuffling back toward Wilkinson. The houses looked different shrouded in shadow, more sinister and they seemed to lean at odd angles as if set on crooked foundations. The pavement as he crossed the intersection was cracked and broken where he remembered it being smooth before.
The sound of the leaves now resembled laughter, the mean-spirited tittering of a witch as she bakes small children in her oven. Billy picked up his pace, not quite running but definitely more than a walk. Maybe a trot.
He had nearly reached the end of this block and there was no sign of his father. He’d been waiting on the corner the last Billy had seen of him, but now the sidewalk was deserted. Billy stood there, eyes desperately scanning the area. He sensed movement at the house next to him, and he turned just in time to see what he had thought was an animatronic crow before flap its wings and take flight, buzzing past Billy’s face so closely that feathers beat against the mask.
“Daddy!” Billy shouted, feeling tears sliding down his cheeks. He crouched down on his haunches with his back to the splintering lamppost and gave in to a fit of sobbing like he hadn’t done since he was in diapers. Why would his father have left him? Was it like in that story his mother told him at bedtime a few weeks ago, Hansel and Gretel. The idea that parents would abandon their children had terrified him, and now he was living it.
“Are you okay?”
Billy looked up at the sound of the voice to see a group approaching him from down Laurel Street, a group comprised of three kids and two adults. A familiar enough tableau on Halloween night, but there was something about these people that seemed a bit off. It took Billy a moment to realize what it was.
The parents were in costume and the children were not.
Although as they came closer, stopping just in front of him, he realized that wasn’t true. The kids were in costume, but the adults’ costumes were so much more elaborate and horrific. The children were dressed as a baseball player, a mailman, and a cheerleader respectively. The father was done up as a werewolf, with a very convincing furry mask with yellow eyes and snarling teeth, hairy arms and legs jutting out of ripped clothes. The mother looked like a giant insect of some kind, covered in hard body armor with wiggling antennae and multiple arms. It was an impressive costume, and Billy couldn’t even begin to fathom how she’d gotten herself into it. The spectacle of the two adults’ costumes temporarily took his mind off his troubles.
“Why are you crying?” asked the little cheerleader, bringing Billy crashing back down to reality.
“I can’t find my Daddy.”
The insect lady said, her voice clipped and high-pitched, “Are you lost, little one?”
“No, I’m not lost. My Daddy is lost. He was right here and now he’s not, and I don’t know where to find him.”
The werewolf got down on one knee so he was at Billy’s eye level. This close-up the mask was even more impressive, and the breath that wafted from the snout had the slightly sour smell of meat on the verge of going bad. “Do you live around here?” he asked in a growly voice.
Billy looked around at his surroundings, feeling like he had stepped into a nightmare. He should know this neighborhood, he’d ridden his bike along the streets all last summer, and yet nothing looked familiar to him now. He couldn’t even find any of the landmarks that usually helped orient him. Where was the white-picket fence in front of the Haversham’s house, or the Stevens’ tacky lawn ornaments? The towering oak tree with the tire swing hanging from one of the lower branches should have been just across the street…except it wasn’t. He should know exactly where he was, but he may as well have been on another planet. This sense of disorientation only led to more tears.
“Oh dear,” said the insect lady, reaching out with one of her multi-jointed arms to pat him on the shoulder. “I’m sure your father will turn up soon. We’ll wait with you until he does.”
“But Mom,” whined the mailman, “I want more treats.”
The werewolf swatted the boy gently on the back of the head. “Show a little compassion. This boy is lost.”
“He can come with us,” the baseball player said.
The insect lady shook her head. “He should stay put in case his father returns.” Turning her wide black eyes back to Billy, she quickly added, “When! I mean when your father returns.”
“He can come with us,” said the cheerleader. “We’ll just go to the houses on the other side of the street. That’s still in the area.”
“I don’t know.”
Billy sniffled and said, “I wouldn’t mind.” He was still scared, but less so now that there were other adults present. Nothing too bad could happen with adults present. Besides, he still wanted to fill his sack.
The other three children cheered and clapped and the werewolf said, “Okay, fine, but just the houses across the street.”
The two adults let the four children across Jefferies street and up to the first house. Not only were the oak and tire swing gone, but Billy could have sworn this house used to be red brick instead of rough gray stone.
At the door, a big slab of wood twice as tall as a normal door, the werewolf lifted a heavy brass knocker shaped like a bat and let it fall against the wood with a hollow thud! Then the two adults stepped back and left the children to stand before the door with their sacks held out.
The door opened with a pronounced creak, and the tallest person Billy had ever seen stepped over the threshold. Draped in a brown robe, the hood of which completely concealed the face, skeletal hands sticking out of the sleeves, one of which gripped a scythe with a gleaming blade. An impressive Grim Reaper costume. Billy wondered if perhaps the person was on stilts under the robe, but the size of the door suggested otherwise.
“Trick or treat,” Billy called out in unison with the other three children, although it sounded oddly as if the baseball player, the mailman, and the cheerleader said, “Tricks are treats.”
The Reaper reached the free hand into one of the many folds in the robe and then started dropping items into each sack. The hand went so deep in each bag that Billy couldn’t see what kind of candies they were getting. Then the Reaper seemed to float back into the house, the door slamming shut in the children’s faces.
Going back down the walk, the other there were chattering excitedly as they glanced into their bags. Billy scanned the street again for his father then looked into his own bag, expecting to find peanut butter cups or marshmallow pumpkins or candy corns…
…but what he saw instead caused him to yelp like a kicked dog and drop his bag. Out spilled all the candy he’d collected so far tonight, as well as the fat slimy worms that the Reaper had apparently just given him.
“Eww,” said the cheerleader. “Who put that gross stuff in there along with the goodies?”
Billy pointed back at the house they’d just come from. “He had to have done it, I know these weren’t in my bag before. You guys didn’t get the same?”
They all peered back in their sacks and shook their heads.
“Why would anyone play such a vicious prank on a child?” the alien lady said.
“Maybe it’s because you’re not wearing a costume,” the cheerleader said to Billy.
The boy frowned inside his mask. “What are you talking about?”
“Well, it’s Halloween. You’re supposed to dress up, not just come out as you are.”
Billy bristled at this, assuming the girl was making fun of him. “Hey, that’s not very nice.”
“She’s got a point,” the mailman chimed in. “Couldn’t your folks afford to get you a costume?”
“This is my costume, you bunch of jokesters,” Billy said then reached up and pulled the rubber goblin mask off his head.
The three children screamed and started backpedaling away from him. At first he thought this was just more of their cruel mockery, but then he saw that the werewolf and alien lady were reacting the same. Surely adults wouldn’t be so mean.
The baseball player bumped into the mailman who in turn bumped into the cheerleader. Their bags fell open, spilling out tangled mounds of worms and snails and snakes and toads. All three children toppled to the ground like dominos, and that was when their faces fell off.
Not their real faces, but the masks they wore.
Under the baseball player mask was an alien head that was a smaller replica of his mother’s; the mailman façade fell away to reveal a furry werewolf head; the cheerleader’s real countenance was so misshapen and foreign and hideous that Billy’s mind could barely comprehend it.
Now it was Billy who screamed and backpedaled. He fell onto his bottom again, but this time he barely registered the pain. He scrambled to his feet and started running away from the nightmare children. He could hear them shouting behind him, but he didn’t glance over his shoulder to see if they were pursuing him. He fled across the street, not even checking for traffic, and at the far curb he stumbled over the broken pavement and fell face-first into a large pile of leaves.
He sank in for what felt like miles, totally submerged in the leaves. They were all around him, scratching at his face, blinding him. It was as if he were drowning in the dead leaves. He kicked and writhed…and then screamed again when he felt hands on his arms. He beat at whatever monster was trying to get hold of him.
“Billy, son, it’s me! Calm down!”
The familiar voice registered, and Billy opened his eyes to see his father kneeling next to the pile of leaves, his arms held out. Billy leapt into those arms, wrapping his own around his father’s neck.
“Billy boy, I’m so sorry,” his father was saying, returning the tight hug. “I only let you out of my sight for a minute, and when I looked up again, I couldn’t find you anywhere. Scared me to death. Please forgive me, I should never have been so neglectful.”
“It’s my fault, Daddy! I should never have wandered off.”
His father pulled back, examining Billy with look and touch to make sure he was okay. “What happened to your mask and your trick-or-treat bag?”
“I guess I lost them.”
“It doesn’t matter. I promise, my phone is away for good tonight. We’ll hit every house in town.”
Billy looked around, finding himself back on the Jefferies Street he’d always known. There was the Haversham’s fence, and the flamingos and gnomes in the Stevens’ yard. Just down the road a bit he could see the oak with the tire swing hanging from one of its lower branches. Still, even though everything was once again familiar and well-lit, he sensed a darkness underneath it all, and the sound as a gust of wind sent the leaves stampeding across the pavement gave him chills.
“Can we just go home, Daddy?”
His father frowned at him. “Are you sure? I know how much you’ve been looking forward to tonight.”
“I’m getting a little old for Halloween. Let’s just go home, and maybe you can read me a story. Nothing scary though.”
“Sure thing, Billy Boy,” his father said with a smile, then he lifted Billy into his arms in a way he hadn’t in years.
As he was carried home, Billy buried his face in his father’s neck and tried to block out the sound of the autumn leaves.
I love Halloween, and have published two collections of Halloween-themed short stories...but I still have several that have never seen print. So as we get closer to my favorite holiday, I'm going to use this series to highlight a few of those unpublished works, starting with this funny Halloween story.
THE HOUSE OF MUNDANE HORRORS
There were five of them crammed into the compact car. Frank was driving with Mimi by his side. Drake, Ralphie, and Al jostled for room in the backseat. One of them could have easily fit in the front, but Frank liked having Mimi all to himself. He smiled over at her, and he thought he sensed a smile in return, but it was hard to tell with dirty bandages covering her from head to toe. They clung to her svelte frame, accentuating all her feminine curves. He grunted as his libido rose in response to the fetching sight next to him.
“Watch the road,” Mimi said, amusement coloring her voice.
Ralphie stuck his furry face over the back of the seat. “How much further ‘til we get to the House of Horrors? If I stay cooped up in this car much longer, I’m gonna go nuts.”
“Yeah, and Ralphie’s getting fleas all over the upholstery,” Al said.
“I ain’t got no fleas, light-bulb head. I just had a dip yesterday.”
“Al’s breath stinks of garlic from that pizza he had earlier,” Drake complained. “It’s making me break out in hives. You know how bad I’m allergic.”
Frank glanced over at Mimi and smirked. “Well, you three whiny little bitches can stop all your griping, because we’re here.”
He turned the car onto a gravel drive that opened into an impromptu parking area. The place was still packed and it was almost midnight—Halloween was always the busiest night for the House of Horrors. Frank found a spot near the far end of the lot and swung the car between a jeep and a minivan. A larger vehicle wouldn’t have been able to squeeze in, but Frank’s little Mazda was a perfect fit.
They piled out of the car and gathered by the fender, staring up at the House of Horrors. They said nothing for a few moments then Drake shivered and pulled his cape tighter around himself.
“Scared, are you?” Ralphie said with a laugh.
“No, I ain’t scared. It’s just cold out here is all.”
“It ain’t that cold.”
“Easy for you to say; you got your own fur coat.”
“The place certainly is spooky,” Mimi said, huddling up next to Frank. She was shorter than he was, the top of her head reaching to about his Adam’s apple, so she was careful not to hit her head on one of his bolts.
“Don’t worry, babe, I’ll protect you from all the nasties that are out tonight.”
“What kind of nasties?” Al asked in a tremulous voice, his oversized, liquid-black eyes darting around the parking area as he wrapped his stalk-like arms around himself.
Drake came up behind him and slapped him in the back of his dome-shaped head. “Well, you’re pretty nasty there yourself, spaceman.”
Al turned and opened his mouth, but instead of shooting back a sharp retort he simply exhaled, his garlic-breath wafting over his caped friend. Drake gagged and welts began to appear on his face as he backed away, baring his teeth and hissing at Al.
“Will you two knocked it off!” Ralphie growled, stepping between them. “You guys are acting like a couple of kids.”
“And I ain’t in the mood to be no babysitter,” Frank said, taking a comb and smoothing his hair down over his flat cranium.
Mimi was watching the group that was gathering by the porch, awaiting their turn to go through the House of Horrors. A girl with a green face and hooked nose dressed in a cheerleading outfit was at the front, next to a boy with flippers and gills in an astronaut’s uniform, the bubble helmet full of water like a fishbowl. “Maybe we should have worn costumes,” she said to Frank. “Most everyone else is.”
“Babe, I think we’re a little too old for that kiddie crap.”
“But we’re not too old for spook houses?”
“You’re never too old to be scared,” he said, coming up from behind and wrapping his arms around her, careful not to squeeze too hard. Sometimes he didn’t know his own strength; it had gotten him into trouble on more than one occasion.
“We gonna do this thing or what?” Ralphie said. He was always the most impatient of the bunch, particularly at this time of the month.
“Keep your fur on,” Frank said. “What’s the hurry?”
“You know I got a curfew, man. If I ain’t home by sunup, my folks’ll have my hide.”
“Fine, let’s go.”
As a group, they headed toward the house and the waiting crowd, Frank and Mimi in the lead. Frank didn’t want to admit it to the guys—he didn’t want them thinking he was chickenshit—but the house really gave him the creeps. With its nicely manicured lawn, fresh paint job, and brightly lit windows, it was the very picture of terror. Colonial style with a wrap-around porch and an aboveground swimming pool in the side yard, Frank could only imagine what kind of vile creatures would reside in such a place.
But it’s all make-believe, he kept reminding himself. None of it is real.
Mimi reached out and took Frank’s hand, her dry wrappings crackling like the autumn leaves that scurried past on the night wind, and he forced his fear away. She was trembling, the vibrations carried through her hand into his own, and that made him feel somehow more manly, braver. She was counting on him to be her protector, after all.
They came up to the back of the line, behind a guy with a red face, horns erupting from the sides of his head, and a spiked tail trailing behind him. He was wearing a suit with a Prada label.
“Stan, my man,” Frank said with a smile despite the unpleasant stench of sulfur that stung his nostrils.
“Hey guys. Can you believe this line? Everybody and their Mummy must have showed up for the House of Horrors tonight.”
“Well, it is Halloween, the last night before they close up shop. Last chance for a little fear.”
Stan nodded then cast what he probably thought was a discreet glance at Mimi. Frank put an arm around her and pulled her close. He knew Stan had a crush on her—hell, everyone had a crush on her—but Frank was cool with that as long as Stan didn’t try to act on his feelings.
The door to the house opened with a decided lack of squeaky hinges, and a young ghoul dressed as a Girl Scout shuffled out. She took the next group, but Frank and the gang were too far back in line to make this tour. They were now close enough to the front, however, that they would definitely make the next one.
“So what’s with the suit?” Al asked Stan.
“It’s my costume.”
“What are you supposed to be?”
“I’m a lawyer.”
Mimi gave a squeal of fright and buried her head in Frank’s chest, and Frank could have kissed Stan on the mouth at that moment for bringing about this delightful turn of events.
Stan eyed Al, who was staring up at the sky, watching the stars twinkling like Christmas lights. “Homesick?”
“Not too bad,” Al said with an unconvincing shrug. “I was the one who signed up to be an exchange student so I could learn about other cultures.”
“And what do you think about our culture?” Drake asked, waving his hands about in that fey manner he had.
“I think you’re a bunch of freaks.”
“Hardy har har, spaceman. You’re one to talk.”
The door opened again, and this time a transparent figure with chains wrapped around his body floated out. He said something but the sound of his chains rattling buried it, then he retreated back into the house. The next group, Frank and his gang bringing up the rear, filed inside and the door closed behind them.
They found themselves in a large den with beige carpeting and floral-patterned wallpaper. The furniture was arranged in almost a semicircle with the television as the focal point of the room. On the sofa sat two young creatures, one male and one female, painfully normal in appearance, their eyes glazed as they stared at the flickering screen. Playing on the television was a bland show about unlikely misunderstandings and convenient coincidences, punctuated by canned laughter.
A collective gasp spread throughout the crowd, and several people cringed back as if to melt into the walls.
“It’s hideous,” Mimi whispered. “How long do you think they’ve been like that?”
“Hours,” moaned their ghost guide. “Watching one show after another with the same recycled plot.”
A young tentacled boy in the front began to cry, his mother taking him up in her many arms and trying to comfort him.
The guide floated through an archway and the group followed, grateful to be leaving the chilling tableau behind. Now they were in a dining room with a heavy oak table, a glass-fronted china cabinet, and a reproduction of The Last Supper hanging on the wall. Frank’s attention was focused on the hideous pattern of the dishes in the china cabinet, but when he heard several people scream and felt Mimi’s grip on his hand tighten, he turned his eyes to the thing that was sitting at the table.
It was middle-aged with graying hair, male, wearing a pair of wire-framed glasses. It was dressed in kakhi slacks and a white T-shirt gone slightly yellow. It did not look up at the group, even when the screams increased in pitch. It merely stared down at the newspaper in its hands, flipping the page and silently mouthing the words as it read along.
“Oh, gross,” Drake said, “what’s it doing?”
Al took a bold step forward then quickly backpedaled when the thing rattled the paper. “Man, I think it’s reading the Sports section.”
“I can’t look! I can’t look!” someone shouted.
The guide went through a swinging door—literally went right through it—and everyone hustled along in his wake, shoving open the door and hurrying through. Frank wasn’t in quite so much of a hurry. Although he was trying to keep it under wraps, he was nervous about what they would find in the next room. Still, he allowed himself to be caught up in the tide of the crowd and washed through the doorway.
Into a brightly lit kitchen. Cheery yellow wallpaper, gleaming white appliances and countertops, refrigerator magnets shaped like dancing vegetables. It was like walking onto the set of a horror movie. A hissing sound caught Frank’s attention and turned it toward the stove. A large pan was sitting atop the largest burner, several slabs of bloody red meat sizzling inside. A female creature wearing a simple blue dress, over which hung an apron with the words “QUEEN OF MY KITCHEN” emblazoned across the front, approached the stove with a gleaming silver spatula. With a practiced wrist motion, it flipped over all the burgers, exposing their disgusting brown undersides.
Several people in the crowd gagged and covered their noses and mouths as the stench of cooked meat hit them. Frank felt his own gorge rise but swallowed his revulsion. “Dude, that’s seriously nasty,” Stan said from behind him, followed by Ralphie saying, “They’re ruining some perfectly good flesh.”
The creature went to the counter and pulled began chopping up an onion on a cutting board. All the while it hummed a little tune and swayed slightly to its own music.
“Make it stop!” Mimi squealed, wrapped her arms around Frank’s necks as a shudder passed through her body.
“This way,” moaned the guide as he floated toward a narrow staircase leading up to the second floor. “Quickly, before she starts making…the salad!”
There was almost a stampede up the stairs, a few people in the front actually passing through the guide in their haste to be away from the living nightmare happening in the kitchen below. In the upstairs hallway, everyone paused, huddled together in the cramped space. There were several closed doors down the length of the hall, one opened door at the far end, revealing an unoccupied bathroom.
“Inside each of these rooms,” moaned the guide, “are sights that will make the blood freeze, the heart skip a beat, and the eyes ache for relief. Prepare yourselves before we enter the first chamber of horror.”
The first door on their left opened smoothly and quietly. A funeral hush fell over the crowd as everyone walked through the doorway. A bedroom awaited them, with an unmade single bed, a wooden dresser, posters for rock bands and action movies hanging from the walls. Model cars and a globe sat on a bedside table. In the far corner, next to the window, was a small, cluttered desk, at which sat a teenaged male creature, hunched over an open book while scribbling furiously into a spiral-bound notebook.
“He’s not doing what I think he’s doing, is he?” Al said, and Frank heard a quaver in his voice.
“Homework,” someone said in a tone usually reserved for informing someone that a relative had died. “He’s doing his homework.”
The tentacled boy began to cry again, and with an apology, the mother excused herself and left the room. Frank could hear her hurrying back down the stairs, and he doubted she was sorry to be cutting her tour short. Several others in the group looked ready to bolt as well.
As the creature at the desk began to chew on the end of his pencil, staring blankly out the window, the crowd left the room and moved down the hall to the next closed door. On the other side was another bedroom, this one decorated in pastel shades, a menagerie of stuffed animals gathered on the neatly made bed. Porcelain dolls stared intently from a display cabinet next to the closet. A female creature slightly younger than the one in the previous room was lying on the floor, sinking into the thick shag carpeting, a cordless telephone pressed to her ear as if it were growing directly out of the side of her head.
“Didjahear?” she was saying as the group gathered around her, but at a safe distance. “Helen told everyone in Psych class that Betty has a crush on Steve. Betty’s face turned so red I thought she was going to have a stroke. So to get back at Helen, Betty told Joe that Helen got drunk at Tom Yardley’s birthday party and made out with Greg. And you didn’t hear it from me, but at that same party, Veronica and J.D. went into Tom’s parent’s bedroom and didn’t come out again for forty-five minutes. I know, couldn’t you just die?”
“Gossip,” Ralphie said, sounding as if he were spitting the word out. “She’s gossiping!”
An old troll at the front of the crowd was shaking her head and pulling her greasy hair out by the roots. “It’s grotesque, absolutely grotesque!”
Frank was starting to feel rather queasy, like he might have to throw up. He turned his eyes to the dolls but found their combined gaze even more unnerving.
“Are you okay?” Mimi asked him, her voice low so no one else would hear.
“Me? I’m fine. Just trying not to laugh. This is real kid stuff, you know.”
Mimi tilted her head skeptically but said nothing more.
There was only one closed door left in the hallway. The guide led them to it then paused, leveling a grave stare on the group. “We come to the final chamber,” he moaned, his chains clinking together as he bobbed up and down on the air. “We have saved the most revolting for last. If anyone wishes to turn back, now is the time.”
Frank found his legs wanted to turn and march him right out of the house, but he resisted the urge. He was no baby, he shouldn’t be this unsettled by the House of Horrors. He would never get anywhere with Mimi if she knew what a ‘fraidy cat he was. He took a deep breath to steel himself and followed the crowd into the final room.
This was the brightest room yet, light blazing from several lamps. A Queen size bed with a thick quilt covering it sat against the far wall, and everywhere were pictures of smiling faces, laughing creatures embracing one another. They covered every surface. A squeaking caught Frank’s attention, and he thought his knees were going to buckle when he saw the final sight.
An old wooden rocker, a plump old female creature with white hair and a flowing house dress sitting and rocking, its eyes alight as its hands worked ceaselessly with two long needles and yarn, a pleasant smile curling its lips. A half-finished sweater lay across its lap, and the needles clinked and clanked together, giving birth to even more of the garment. It was an image right out of Frank’s worst nightmares, full of such warmth and goodwill that he thought he might pass out.
“It’s too much!” he suddenly roared, backing up, shoving his friends aside to get to the door. “I can’t take it, I just can’t take anymore.”
Then Frank was out the door, down the hallway, taking the stairs four at a time, and through the backdoor, which was the exit for the House of Horrors. He leaned against a tree and bent over, hands on his knees, taking deep gulping breaths. He closed his eyes, but he could see the creature knitting on the backs of his eyelids and he quickly opened them, trying to will himself to stop shaking.
“There you are,” Stan said, exiting the house with a superior smirk on his face. “Big bad Frank got scared, did he?”
Ralphie and Drake came out next, both laughing. “Oh man, you should have seen your face,” Ralphie said at the same time as Drake said, “I had no idea you could move that fast.”
Frank would have gone even paler if that were possible, and he knew he was going to have to endure much ribbing all the way home. Hell, probably for the next couple of months.
The rest of the group was filing out of the house now, some of them casting glances at Frank and snickering, others giving him commiserating smiles. Al and Mimi came out last. Al, who had known Frank the least amount of time, reached up and patted him on the shoulder in a silent show of support. Mimi hung back, her expression unreadable behind all the bandages.
“Better be careful,” Stan said. “That old lady creature just might come after you with those needles.”
Ralphie howled with laughter. “Yeah, maybe it’ll even knit you a scarf to go with that sweater.”
Frank straightened up, towering over all his friends. “I was just messing with you guys, screwing around. I wasn’t scared of that thing.”
“Oh, sure you weren’t,” said Drake with a roll of his eyes. “That’s why you high-tailed it out of there.”
“You guys leave him alone,” Al said. “We were all freaked out by the stuff we saw in there.”
Stan nodded, but the smirk never left his face. “We sure were, but only one of us ran away like a little ghoul.”
Frank felt his massive hands balling into fists at his side, and rage began to build up inside him, threatening to boil over. He knew it was only embarrassment making him feel this way, but he thought he could tear all his friends limb from limb at that moment.
Then Mimi was suddenly by his side, pressing close to him. She put her hand on his cheek, making him look down at her, and suddenly the rage dissipated like steam. “I think a man who can admit to his fear is sexy,” she said.
“In that case, I wasn’t just afraid; I was petrified!”
Frank leaned down and through the folds of her wrappings found Mimi’s lips, and she tasted of dust and centuries. He was gratified to find Stan looking on with a mixture of irritation and jealousy. His other three buddies were just smiling at him with a look that said, Way to go, big guy.
“So where to now?” Ralphie said. “I still have a few hours before the moon sets and I gotta get home.”
“Let’s go to that new restaurant, the Plasma Palace,” Drake said. “I’m thirsty.”
Al groaned. “Man, you think with your teeth.”
“Well, you got any better ideas?”
They all looked to Frank, his role as the gang’s leader reestablished. He glanced down at Mimi then said, “Let’s go back through the House of Horrors. I’m suddenly in the mood to be scared again.”
Laughing, they walked around to the front of the house and got back in line.
To continue my new series where I share stories of mine that never saw print, I'm offering up a piece called "Dear Friends and Bittersweet Partings." This one was written many years ago, long before I was ever published, and it's sort of a fantasy story that is really about a love of reading, and that feeling you get when you finish a great book.
DEAR FRIENDS AND BITTERSWEET PARTINGS
It was one hell of a battle. Apocalyptic, even. There were moments during the fight when I doubted my friends and I would succeed. One of the beasts had bitten a chunk out of Anjelika’s thigh; Henton had nearly been crushed by a falling stalactite dislodged by one of the winged creatures. In the end, however, the five of us stood triumphant, the beasts vanquished from the land. Henton, Anjelika, Maverick, Lilah, and myself—we had held our ground and won the emancipation of our people.
Maverick dropped to his knees next to Anjelika, who was propped against the cavern’s cold stone wall. Her right thigh was a mess, bloody and shredded. True to form, her face remained still and calm, evincing not the slightest hint of the pain I knew she must be feeling. Maverick, his love for Anjelika shining from his eyes with the brightness of an exploding sun, was ripping his shirt into makeshift bandages, tying them firmly over the wounds. Lilah and I, the two youngsters of the group, stood nearby, murmuring assurances that Anjelika would be fine.
Henton, our leader, stood at the mouth of the cavern, staring out at the distant horizon. The scorching light of dawn was beginning to bleed over the edges of the world, seeming somehow a metaphor for our unlikely victory over the beasts that had terrorized our land for so long.
“It is over,” Henton said softly, and I was struck by the odd mixture of emotions I heard in his voice. There was relief certainly, and joy, but also regret and melancholy. I guess when you’ve dedicated your entire life to a single goal, it is sometimes hard to imagine a future once that goal is accomplished.
I walked over to Henton, placing a hand on his shoulder. I could think of no words appropriate for the moment, but sometimes words are not needed. We stood mutely, side by side, watching the night give birth to the sun in an agony of light and heat. Behind us, Anjelika had regained her feet, supported on either side by Maverick and Lilah. The three joined us and we stepped out into the morning. The sky was a delicate shade of pink and the air warm as golden honey on our skin.
Henton turned to me, taking me by the shoulders, and looked down into my eyes. He was a full four inches taller than me, and I always felt like a child in his presence. “You have been a loyal and faithful friend, Neil Harlow,” he said. “You have stood true and proven yourself a courageous ally. On behalf of my entire people, I wish to thank you for your help and companionship.”
Absurdly, I felt tears prickling at the corners of my eyes. I looked around at my four best friends in the world and noted the same expression on each of their faces. One of sorrow, of pain, and of loss.
A gnawing unease had crept into my gut and was spreading a cold numbness throughout my extremities. “Guys,” I said with a nervous laugh, “cheer up. We won. Where others failed, we persevered. The battle is done. Why so glum?”
“Precisely because the battle is done,” Henton said with a cryptic smile. “Events have unfolded according to their predestined course. We have reached the end of our journey.”
“What do you mean? We have freed the people of this land; the journey is only beginning. Just because we have finally won the battle does not mean life is over.”
“No,” Lilah said, planting a soft kiss on my lips, “but our story is.”
A nameless fear sank its claws into me. “What are you saying?”
“We are saying goodbye,” Henton said solemnly. “Your time with us has reached its end. You cannot follow us beyond this point.”
“You’re deserting me?” I asked, tears flowing freely now. My mind was a kaleidoscopic jumble of confusion and betrayal. “You’re going to leave me?”
“We must,” Henton said, tears of his own sliding down his pale cheeks. “We have taken you as far as we can. Now it is time for you to turn back.”
“I don’t want to go back,” I shouted, surprised by the intensity of the rage I heard in my own voice. “It’s boring there; I’m nobody there. I like it here, where there is adventure and magic and camaraderie. You can’t expect me to give all this up.”
Unable to meet my eyes, Henton said, “This world is not yours. You have walked with us but are not one of us. The conclusion has been reached, and we can tarry no longer. Goodbye, my brave friend.”
Without further explanation, Henton turned and started walking toward the distant horizon. The morning had become unaccountably foggy, and he was soon lost in the mist. One by one, my friends turned their backs on me and followed Henton, disappearing into the fog. First Maverick, then a limping Anjelika, and finally Lilah, pausing to blow me a kiss before vanishing from sight.
I collapsed to the ground, an emptiness opening inside me that threatened to devour me whole. My anguish was so deep that it burned up my tears before they left my eyes, leaving me gasping and breathless. I stared at the spot where my friends had disappeared, my sense of loneliness closing over me like a shroud. I could not imagine facing another day without Henton and his gang in my life. I wanted to follow them, see what they did next, where they would go now, but I knew Henton had been right. I had reached the end, and it was time to turn back.
* * *
Neil Harlow looked up from the book in his lap. The dorm room was quiet except for the soft snoring of his roommate, and the desk lamp next to Neil’s bed provided the only illumination. Neil glanced at the clock. 3:20 a.m. Much too late to still be up, especially when he had an eight o’clock Statistics class in the morning. But he’d gotten caught up in the book and couldn’t stop reading until he’d reached the end. He glanced down and reread the last paragraph.
“‘It is over,’ Henton said softly, an odd mixture of emotions in his voice. There was relief certainly, and joy, but also regret and melancholy. When one has dedicated his entire life to a single goal, it is sometimes hard to imagine a future once that goal is accomplished.”
Neil closed the book, reluctantly placing it on the table next to his bed. He leaned against the headboard for a moment more, feeling a real sense of loss and loneliness, then feeling silly for feeling such a feeling. It was just a book, after all. Words on paper. Nothing more. No reason it should feel more real to him than his own life.
With a sigh, Neil turned off the lamp and burrowed under the covers. Soon he was asleep and dreaming of dear friends and bittersweet partings.
Hello guys and gals, I have a new short story collection recently released. THE DAYLIGHT WILL NOT SAVE YOU, from Unnerving Press, contains 27 pieces, 25 short stories and 2 narrative poems. I'm so excited about the book, and love the eye-catching cover.
As I like to do with all my collections, I thought I'd offer here some story notes for each of the stories in the collection.
"The Cursed Anthology" - This tale concerns a horror anthology where all the writers who contributed begin to die from various causes in the exact order in which they appear in the table of contents. It is a confessional story, meaning it involves just two characters talking, revealing the story. I like this one because I feel it has a nice creepy atmosphere and a bit of a twist at the end. Thought it would be a nice story to start out with.
"Out of Time" - Anyone who reads this story would probably be able to tell I was watching a lot of The Twilight Zone when I got the inspiration for this. I like to write stories that deal with time travel or time anomalies, and this one deals with time being experienced out of sequential order. This story was a particular blast to write, because the structure was very important and I had fun working it all out.
"Good Guys with Guns" - A topical story about what has unfortunately become one of America's favorite past times, the mass shooting. I feel we are a society of people who think they are modern-day cowboys, and if they had been in the middle of the event with a gun of their own, they would have known exactly what to do. That kind of misplaced ego I think could prove dangerous in its own right, and wanted to explore it in this story.
"Redman" - This is my tribute to the late great Jack Ketchum. After his passing, a publisher was putting together a tribute anthology and I wrote this story in answer to that call. That anthology never came to be, but I'm still very proud of this story. My favorite Ketchum novel is Red, and I used that as inspiration for this homage. I don't pretend it comes even close to capturing Ketchum's greatness, but it's an expression of love and appreciation for the work he left the world.
"What's Lost Can Never Be Found" - A non-horror piece, one of what I think of as my more "emotional" tales. This one deals with an old man going to the book-signing of a famous author, but he holds a secret to the author's past. However, sometimes there are certain doors that people don't want opened, and it asks the questions, can you reach a point where it's too late to make amends?
"If Wishes Were Horses" - A very odd story, and I never thought I'd write a tale about centaurs. However, this one called to me. It all started when I found out my friend Amy used to live in just such an apartment as described in the story, a converted hayloft in a working barn with horses right beneath her. I knew instantly I wanted to write a story about a character who lived in such an apartment, and the idea came to me almost full-blown.
"Dead Baby Blues" - Sometimes my husband likes to throw out odd phrases and say I should write a story with that as the title. He does this half-joking, but sometimes I take him up on it. The phrase "Dead Baby Blues" was very evocative, and I started to get an idea of what story could fit with such a title. Something dark, something that would speak to our attention-hungry society. I carried the idea around for a while before finally putting it to paper.
"Unfinished Business" - An emotional ghost story, this one began when I was thinking about the fact that I own so many books that I'll never possibly read them all before I die. Morbid thought, I know, but I was thinking that there will be a final book I read, and quite possibly one I'm in the middle of when I go. The idea of dying with a book unfinished seemed ripe for a story.
"I Molded a Man from Dirt and Clay" - The first poem of the collection. This one was rather spontaneous and stream-of-consciousness. I started with just the first couple of lines, and I let it flow from there, creating a alternate version of the origins of life, Adam and Eve, the Garden of Eden. A story about love and betrayal and bitterness.
"Mutation" - In college I wrote a story called "Survival of the Fittest," a post-apocalyptic tale that I envisioned as a series. Only I never wrote anymore. Eventually I published that story in my collection FLOWERS IN A DUMPSTER, and that reawakened my desire to make a series of stories in this world with those characters. So I wrote a second, "Evolution," and included it in my last collection BOOK HAVEN AND OTHER CURIOSITIES, and "Mutation" is the third in that series. Took 20 years, but I'm making good on my desire to dip back into this world time and again.
"Life/Story" - This one deals with loss and grief, and the imagination. The imagination is a gift, for sure, and it has gotten me through some hard times in life. But I was thinking there is also a flip side, that the imagination can be a way to avoid things that need to be faced, to refuse to accept unpleasant realities. That all sort of mingled together to create this tale.
"Idol" - Another non-horror piece, this was inspired by what I feel is the tasteless way some authors can publicly bash other best-selling authors. I made me think, what if the author being bashed is a fan of the author doing the bashing? How much must that hurt? It would be like Stephen King giving an interview and saying, "That Mark Gunnells writes utter trash!" So I used that as inspiration for a story, which I think may be the jumping-off point in the future for a novel.
"Red Wave" - This is a little post-apocalyptic tale that also serves as a commentary on the political scene in America these days. Nothing terribly overt, I hope, but it is more metaphorical. One thing I love about storytelling is how you can shine a light on issues that are important to you, and still tell a bang-up story!
"Second Time Around" - Another story that deals with time, and another story where I feel the hand of The Twilight Zone is evident. I return to my alma mater of Limestone College here, to tell a story of regret where a man revisits the college he went to in his youth and gets a second chance to do it all over again, but he isn't sure he wants to. What if he can't really change anything, and he only experiences the same disappointment and frustration again?
"Test of Faith" - This is the collection's other poem, and it is also a work done entirely in dialogue, which is something I like to experiment with from time to time. I wanted to explore the Biblical story of Abraham and his son Issac which I've always found very twisted. We're supposed to admire Abraham for being willing to kill his own son without asking any questions just because God told him to? Now that's horror for you, right there.
"Dead Boy" - I wrote this one with no clear plan, just started with the idea of a boy who feels dead on the inside, like he's a living corpse. I wrote it in one sitting, just seeing where the story itself lead me. I love that experience, when you recognize that you aren't in the driver's seat, you are just a passenger and the story itself is choosing the destination and the route to get there.
"Favored" - This story was born from my musing on how parents always say they don't have a favorite child, but I suspect that secretly they sometimes do. They can't admit it, but sometimes you can even tell which one it is. That led me to wonder what you would be willing to do for your favored child, what extremes you might be willing to go to in order to protect him or her.
"Like Mother, Like Son" - I watched an interview with Richard Christian Matheson in which he stated that when he was young, his school called his father (famed author Richard Matheson) in because they felt RCM had written a paper too good for someone his age and suspected his father had written it, which wasn't the case. But I instantly got the inspiration for this tale.
"Gone But Not Forgotten" - I get a lot of inspiration just from trips my husband and I take. We were at a State Park hiking a trail through the woods, and came across a very old decrepit cemetery where most of the people died in the 1800s. I noted one of the inscriptions on a tombstone read "Gone But Not Forgotten" and I thought how that was no longer true. There was no one left who remembered that person, and I started imagining a life for them. That experience became this story.
"Dream Lover" - This story is a follow-up to my novel Outcast, a story of witchcraft on a college campus. When I finished that novel, I thought the story was complete, but since then I've had inspiration to return in a couple of short stories. First was "I Never Promised You a Rose Garden," in my collection Curtain Call. With "Dream Lover" I wanted to dip back and explore a character from the novel named Jacoby. He was my favorite character to write in the novel, and I felt like he was the kind of person to sacrifice his own happiness to help someone else.
"Fern Seed" - I learned that some Wiccans believe that fern seeds have properties to aid in spells of invisibility. My understanding it isn't a literal invisibility, like when Harry Potter throws his cloak over his head, but simply making you less noticeable so that people don't pay much attention to you. I thought of a way to use this in a fictional sense, the story of a bullied boy wanting to escape his tormentors' notice, but with unforeseen and tragic consequences.
"Perversion Therapy" - This is a story I had in mind for many years before I ever wrote it. It's a twisted, sexual story of a sick therapist/patient relationship and an unorthodox (to say the least) version of aversion therapy. On occasion I like to write these tales that are very sexual in nature, and as a writer I always believe in going exactly where the inspiration takes me. Nothing is off limits.
"Hike and Seek" - I find stories of mysterious disappearances quite haunting and creepy. I watch a lot of videos on real life disappearances, and the ones that hit me the hardest are the ones where a group is out, and one minute the person is there, then they maybe turn a corner slightly ahead of everyone else, and when the rest turn that corner, the person is gone and never seen again. I used that in this story, telling the tale from two different perspectives and two different disappearances.
"Pink Applesauce" - We've all known people who are users and manipulators, who only will be your friend as long as they can keep getting what they want from you. They feel the world and everyone in it owes them, and they will do anything to get people to do for them so they don't have to do for themselves. I won't say who, but a specific person inspired this story, and I added in some fictional fantasy elements to drive my point home.
"Representational Magic" - We all know about voodoo dolls and the idea of using such objects as representations of actual people, so that whatever is done to the doll is done to the person the doll represents. I was thinking on this, and wondering if you could use another living person as the "doll."
"If You Can Read This" - Have you seen those bumper stickers written in tiny print that say things like, "If you can read this, you're too close" or "If you can read this, get off my ass"? I find those odd, because the whole point of a bumper sticker is to be read, and it's human nature to try to read them, so if there is one in tiny script, we all try to get a little closer to read it. Well, I decided to write a brief flash piece where the bumper sticker packs more of a punch than you'd expect.
"A Rain of Autumn Leaves" - I have a fondness for end-of-the-world stories, and it's always a challenge to find new and unique ways to end the world. Here I took something I love, autumn leaves spiraling down from above, and turned it into something sinister and dangerous.
And there you go, the story notes on each of the pieces that feature in my new collection. Please consider giving the book a try, and let me know what you think of the tales.
I'm the kind of reader that loves when an author includes story notes with a collection. I really enjoy getting that little glimpse behind the curtain. Therefore, if I release a collection without story notes, I usually try to put them here on my blog. These are the story notes for my most recent collection BOOK HAVEN AND OTHER CURIOSITIES.
"Book Haven" - I've spoken in a lot of interviews about how the title novella came about, so here I will talk about an aspect of writing this story that I had a lot of fun with. I set it in Greer, SC, where I currently live with my husband. Only the second published story I've set here, but I really enjoy using the places I know and frequent as the setting for my fiction. It gave me a thrill to scope out the town and figure out where I wanted to place certain scenes.
"Human Bones in a China Cabinet" - This story is the result of a contest. When my earlier collection FLOWERS IN A DUMPSTER came out, I held a little contest where anyone who bought the book could send me some kind of receipt and be entered into a drawing. The winner would be sent an extensive questionnaire about his or her life, and I would use that to craft a story, something wholly unique that couldn't exist without them. I've done that before, and I'm doing it again now, and I always love that challenge. In this case, a very unusual hobby served as my inspiration.
"Welcome Home" - This story is the third story in a series. The first two stories - "Welcome" and "Welcome Back" - appeared in FLOWERS IN A DUMPSTER. This trilogy was never planned as such. I wrote the first story thinking it was a standalone, until suddenly I had an idea for the second. Then again, I thought I was done, but then I came up with an idea of a way to conclude this little series.
"C U Soon" - I had the initial idea of someone so attached to their cell phone that they were buried with it. In this day and age where people are so attached to their devices, didn't seem a far stretch. I'm not letting myself off the hook either, if I forget my phone I feel adrift. Anyway, that initial idea led to another. What if someone started to receive text messages from the deceased from beyond the grave? I then came up with a twist for the ending that pleased me.
"End-of-the-World Benediction" - This is one of two poems in the collection, and this one was originally written for a weekly flash fiction challenge hosted by Shock Totem. I can't remember what the prompt was now, think it might have had to do with a man in a stadium addressing a crowd, but I decided to do something different and create a little narrative poem.
"Going to See a Man About a Dog" - I got this idea from my life. When I was very young, my father would leave sometimes and I'd be told, "He's going to see a man about a dog." I really thought he was considering getting the family a pet, and I was so ecstatic. When I got older, I realized that was simply what they said when he was going to buy drugs. That gave me the kernel that became this tale.
"The Sandbox" - This is what I consider one of my Twilight Zone-inspired tales. I can't remember where the initial germ of the idea came from, but I enjoyed doing something that I wanted to be evocative and surprising and maybe even a little moving.
"Wrong" - This is one of the older pieces in the collection. Funny story about the tale...it was lost and forgotten. I happened to be looking at my Facebook memories one day, and from 8 or 9 years ago I had made a post that I just finished a story called "Wrong." I didn't even recall that one, so I went to my short story file and could find no such story. I even checked an old laptop but nothing. So I turned to my friend Shane who reads all my work to see if he had a copy. He did and emailed it to me. Once I read it, I remembered it, but without the Facebook memory this story wouldn't be a part of the collection.
"Evolution" - Another story that is a follow-up to one that appeared in FLOWERS IN A DUMPSTER. In that collection, I included a couple of tales that dated back to my college years, one of which was a post-apocalyptic piece called "Survival of the Fittest." At the time I wrote it, I envisioned it being the first in a series of stories about the characters of Dru and Lowell...but then I never wrote anymore. Actually polishing it up and publishing it inspired me to go back to that world. Thus "Evolution" was born and a college dream came true.
"The Bracelet" - This story was born when my husband bought me a little bracelet. I'm always incredibly touched when he gives me these thoughtful gifts. However, one day shortly after receiving the bracelet, I accidentally destroyed it. I had placed it on a table where it had apparently fallen off onto the floor. When I went to vacuum, the bracelet got sucked up into the vacuum and broke. I felt horrible and apologized profusely to my husband, who assured me it was okay. I believe he said something along the lines of, "It's not like anyone died." My mind being the way it is, I turned that around for a while and came up with this story.
"Click Bait" - This is what I like to call micro-flash, a very brief story that is less than a page long. I'm always seeing people posting video links on social media that say things like, "THIS VIDEO WILL MAKE YOU LOSE YOUR MIND!" And I thought, okay, what if that was literal?
"A Day Like Every Other Day" - The other poem in the collection. When I first got this idea of a man whose life is so routine that he wonders if he keeps reliving the past, I thought it would be a story. Yet I couldn't make it work, and eventually I realized that was because it wanted to be a poem.
"The Man Who Watched the Ocean, or Twelve Steps Down into the Sea" - This story was inspired by a trip my husband and I took St. Simon's Island. We went up into the lighthouse and I started to get an inkling of what would become this piece, but what really kicked it into overdrive was when I realized I could link it to an earlier story, "The Girl Who Watched the Ocean" which was in my collection CURTAIN CALL. Both can be read on their own, the link isn't obvious, but I think they both have a great emotional core.
"The Desk" - This story seems to surprise people. They think it's going to go a certain way, and then it goes in a completely different direction. I won't lie, that was my hope. I had a lot of fun delving into this story, and it's one of my favorites.
"When Gas Was 52 Cents Per Gallon" - This story came from a challenge an old college friend put to me, to write a story set at an abandoned rest stop or gas station. I seriously doubt this was the kind of story he had in mind, but inspiration takes me where it takes me and I just follow along.
"The Little Boy Who Lived in the Library" - Another Twilight Zone-esque tale, this one was actually born from my desire to write something set in the library I grew up with in my hometown. I wrote a coming-of-age novel THE SUMMER OF WINTERS in which I revisited a lot of the places important to me as a child, but I didn't fit the library in. The library in that town has been expanded and remodeled since my childhood, so for this story which I set in the 80s I rebuilt the library as it stood in my childhood.
"Waiting for the Fall" - I've always loved autumn, it is by far my favorite season and I could just live in autumn forever if possible. That got me to thinking about dying in autumn. This little emotional piece took shape from that musing.
"Tanner" - A Facebook friend once posted a picture from inside a tanning bed. Down near his feet, the way the bed was made almost created the illusion of a face. So that gave me the bizarre idea of a haunted tanning bed.
"Go to Sleepy Little Baby" - The cracked lullaby in this story is one my mother used to actually sing to me. I shared that with my husband, who found it amusing that my mother would sing me something so creepy. Thinking back on it led to this story.
"The Farm" - I have my friend, fellow author, and sometimes collaborator Aaron Dries to thank for this one. A few years ago he traveled from his home in Australia to the States, during which he did a little tour of locations used in horror movies. I was envious of this, because I'm just the kind of fan would love to visit the places my favorite movies were filmed. That also helped me create this story.
"The Hidden Cemetery" - The closing story in the collection came from actually discovering this little cemetery in my hometown that I never knew existed. I mentioned it to my mother, and she was equally surprised. She's lived in that town her entire life and never realized it was there. She later found out my older brother and sister were aware of it and used to go there to smoke and make out. As with everything in my life, it became a story.
Next up in my Origin Stories series is my 2016 collection CURTAIN CALL AND OTHER DARK ENTERTAINMENTS.
This particular collection came about simply because I decided to take a chance. Cemetery Dance is a publisher with a great reputation, and deservedly so. The idea of having a collection with them was very enticing. Because my friend James Newman had a previous working relationship with CD, we were able to sell the novel we co-authored, DOG DAYS O' SUMMER, to them. That book had not yet come out, but because of that, I was in a position to make a pitch to them if I wanted.
So I did. I pitched the idea of a collection. I was nervous, but in my pitch I expressed my passion for the short form, my belief that there was still a strong and viable market for it, and my respect for what they do.
The answer I got was encouraging, but I was told that they have such a backlog of great work waiting to be published that I could be in for quite a wait. However, they did have a digital line that had a much shorter turnaround time, ran by Norman Prentiss. I had published a collection as a digital-only title before, with Bad Moon Books, so I was definitely okay with that.
Norman had me send him a manuscript, which I did. There were twelve stories total, and he was very enthusiastic about the collection with the exception of two tales which he felt weren't quite strong enough. We removed those to bring the collection of a nice rounded 10 stories, and Norman proved a great editor, giving me great notes and suggestions to make the tales stronger. Norman is even the one who came up with the title of the collection.
I love all my children of course, but I have a particular affection for this collection. I feel all ten stories are very strong, many of them with emotional through-lines that give them real weight. I love the cover Norman provided as well, I think it's evocative and eye-catching.
I can't say this collection has garnered quite as much attention as I'd hoped, but it's still out there and I am still hopeful people will discover it.
I want to return to my Origin Stories series, in which I talk about how my books came to be published. Next up is my collection FLOWERS IN A DUMPSTER.
This collection came about when I read on Facebook about a new publisher, Crystal Lake, that was looking for manuscripts. They had an open call for novels and short story collections. I was immediately interested in sending them a collection.
However, I was a little afraid because their process was different than I was used to. Instead of sending them a full manuscript, initially they didn't want to read any of my work. I had to send them a pitch, and sell them on my idea and on me as a writer. I had to describe my work, talk about how I went about promotion, that sort of thing. It scared me because I'm horrible at selling myself. I'm much more comfortable simply letting my work speak for itself.
To be quite honest, I was so afraid that I nearly didn't send a pitch. My husband and my fellow writing friend Harper Hull, however, kept encouraging and pushing me and simply wouldn't let me NOT send in a pitch. So it was at the last minute, right under the wire, but I did get one in.
At the time I was calling the proposed collection DO YOU WANT IT? AND OTHER STORIES, because I had planned to end the collection with a novella entitled "Do You Want It?" After some time passed, I heard back from Crystal Lake that they liked my pitch enough to want to see three stories that I planned to include in the collection.
I spent a lot of time mulling over which three to send. I wanted them to be exciting, entertaining, representative of me, but also different enough from each other to show my range. In the end I settled on "Past Lives," "The Support Group," and "The Bondaventure." Then I just waited.
The wait was excruciating, and at one point another friend of mine heard back that he didn't make it. I consider him infinitely more talented than I am so I figured there was no way I'd make it.
Yet I did. I got the email that I was one of the collection chosen and I was ecstatic. Then I had to put together the full manuscript. I wanted it to be a mix of newer stuff but also dipping back into some of my college material ("Survival of the Fittest," "Similar Interests," "Land of Plenty). However, the novella I planned to anchor the collection...once, I started trying to revise it I realized it was a very standard vampire story with nothing that really set it apart. I decided to drop it and replace it with "Kindred Spirit," a novelette that I co-wrote with my friend Shane Nelson.
Which meant I had to rename the collection. Months before, my husband had sent me a message when walking at a local cemetery. He sent a photo he took of a dumpster full of flowers and said, "Flowers in a Dumpster, wouldn't that make a good story title?" Yes...in fact, it was evocative enough to make a great collection title, so that became the name of the collection. FLOWERS IN A DUMPSTER.
Everything about the experience with a joy. Working with Crystal Lake was phenomenal. Great editorial attention, amazing promotion. The collection did well, the book cover had blurbs from Clive Barker and Ramsey Campbell, and it proved to me that when a publisher really gets behind a collection, it can do as well as a novel.
And to think...I almost didn't send in that pitch.
I have become very lax in updating this blog, and I'm going to try to do better. I've decided to start with, I'm starting a new feature called Unpublished Fiction, where I post some of the short fiction I have never published. I'm starting with a non-horror piece called "Selected Scenes from a Life" which I wrote 14 years ago. The backstory is that after college, work and life stress caused me to stop writing altogether, but then in 2005 I began to slowly work my way back into writing. "Selected Scenes from a Life" was one of the very first stories I wrote, basically detailing a relationship in a few isolated scenes from the couple's life together. I was proud of the story then, and I am still proud of it. And now offer it here:
SELECTED SCENES FROM A LIFE
Michael probably should have started his shopping earlier. Mother’s Day was less than a week away, after all, and he had to send the package from England to the United States. But procrastination was an art form for Michael, and four days in advance was actually pretty good for him. Of course, just because he began his shopping today didn’t mean he’d actually buy anything today.
His mother had a penchant for jewelry, the tacky stuff made out of glass and wooden beads. Michael was doing fairly well these days so he figured he’d help upgrade his mother’s taste in accessories. Trimmings was one of London’s poshest jewelry stores, catering not to the super rich but discouraging the riffraff element. Michael thought he should be able to find a suitable Mother’s Day gift here.
Glancing into a glass display case, he spotted a delightful pendant. Small, tear-shaped diamond in a silver casing. Not overly large or gaudy. Tasteful. Elegant.
Michael raised a hand to get the attention of the salesclerk. “Can I take a look at this one, please?”
The salesclerk unlocked the case and laid the pendant in Michael’s hand. The casing was attached to a thin, delicate chain. The overhead lights caught the diamond and made it sparkle.
“How much is this?” Michael asked.
“Twenty-five hundred pounds.”
“Hmm,” Michael said, thinking, Too much. I love you, Mom, but that’s much too much.
“It is an exquisite piece,” the salesclerk said. “The casing is pure silver.”
“Well, it is pretty, I’ll give you that,” Michael said, taking a moment as if he were actually considering it. “I’m gonna need to think on this one for a bit longer.”
“Of course, sir,” the salesclerk said with a knowing smirk, taking the pendant and replacing it in the case.
Michael scanned the case for something that looked more around the five hundred pound mark. Suddenly he felt that itchy, tingling sensation on the back of his neck that alerted him that he was being observed. He turned to find a young man, short and rather pudgy with a mop of curly brown hair, leaning on the counter a foot away, a strange smile twisting his lips.
“Yes?” Michael said.
“You’ve got a funny accent,” the man said in a thick English brogue.
Michael turned his attention back to the display case. “I’m American.”
“For an American, you’ve got a funny accent.”
Michael cut his eyes toward the man then away again. “I’m Southern.”
“Oh, how exotic.”
Michael couldn’t suppress a laugh. “I’ve heard South Carolina called a lot of things; ‘exotic’ is a new one to me.”
Michael turned and headed for a display of watches. The stranger followed behind him and asked, “Looking for a Mother’s Day gift for your Mum?”
“Mmm-hmm,” Michael said without making eye contact.
“I like your tattoo.”
Michael glanced down at the tattoo visible on his left forearm. An upside down pink triangle, a gay pride symbol he’d gotten immortalized onto his flesh in his younger days. “Ah,” he said, thinking he had this stranger’s motivations pegged.
“I’m not hitting on you,” the man said, correctly guessing at Michael’s assumption.
“No, I’m not gay.”
“Okaaay,” Michael said, drawing the word out. “So what exactly are you doing then? Because you’re starting to creep me out more than a little bit.”
“Well, my older brother is gay. Good bloke, but shy, you know.”
Michael rolled his eyes and told the salesclerk, who had been watching this exchange with discreet interest, “I’ll come back some other time,” and left the store.
The would-be cupid followed him out onto the street. “You’d like my brother. He’s funny, sweet as they come. Real salt of the earth.”
“Let me guess, he’s a Quasimodo?” Michael said without slowing his pace.
“Well, if he’s got his younger brother trolling jewelry stores for him, my guess would be that he’s not all that attractive.”
“I’ve got a picture of him, if you want to see,” the man said, digging his cell from his pocket and scrolling before holding the phone screen-first out to Michael.
“That’s really not necessary; I’m not interested. I’m sorry but … oh!”
Michael stopped in his tracks, eliciting angry stares and mumbled curses from those behind him, when he saw the picture. The man in the photo was tall, creamy skin, mischievous green eyes, thick wavy hair, and a smile that would charm the devil.
“This is your brother?” Michael said, taking the phone.
“Yes, that’s him.”
“Is this like a really old picture?”
“Taken just last week.”
Michael handed the phone back, trying not to seem as interested as he was. “And what makes you think your brother and I would be a good match?”
“You’re gay, aren’t you?”
Michael barked a laugh of disbelief. “You know, it may be hard for you to believe, but every gay man in the world is not necessarily a good match for every other gay man in the world. If that were the case, things would be much simpler—or much more confusing—but that’s not how it works.”
“Well, I know you’re good to your Mum. The baubles in Trimmings don’t come cheap.”
“Or maybe I send my mother expensive presents for Mother’s Day out of guilt for never calling or visiting.”
“Perfect, so I know you’re not a mamma’s boy.”
Michael couldn’t help but smile. If this man’s brother was half as charming as he was… “You don’t even know my name,” Michael said.
“True enough. What’s your name?”
“Nice to meet you, Michael. I’m Gerald. My brother is Ferguson.”
“Are you serious about this, Gerald?”
“Very much so.”
Michael stood for a moment, chewing on his bottom lip. “Let me see the picture again.” Gerald held up the phone and Michael looked over the photo once more. Still handsome. “Does your brother know you’re doing this?”
“And what makes you think he would be agreeable to going on a date with some stranger you picked up on the street?”
Gerald turned the phone around, tapped at the screen, then a click and a flash let Michael know his photo had just been taken.
“I’ll show him your picture,” Gerald said then held the phone back out. “Type in your number.”
“This is crazy,” Michael said, but he did as Gerald instructed.
“You won’t regret it,” Gerald said, taking the phone back from Michael. “Hopefully Ferguson will be calling you soon.”
“I’ll be waiting anxiously by the phone.”
Michael shook hands with Gerald and watched him walk away. The whole encounter left him feeling slightly dizzy, like he was on the verge of drunkenness. It was a strange feeling, but nice.
* * *
Ferguson glanced at the door every time someone entered the pub. His stomach was cramped and he was twisting his napkin in his lap. He feared he was about to embark on another colossal disaster.
When Gerald had told him what he’d done—accosted some strange American in a store and procured his phone number for his brother—Ferguson had been appalled and vowed that he would not call the fellow. But the picture Gerald had taken was intriguing. The American was fresh-faced, full lips and intense eyes, just Ferguson’s type. Finally Ferguson had decided what the hell and made the call.
The American, Michael, had seemed surprised that Ferguson had actually called, as surprised as Ferguson was to be making the call. To Ferguson’s relief, Michael seemed as bemused by this unorthodox situation as Ferguson himself. Ferguson had invited Michael for drinks, and Michael had accepted.
The door opened again, and Ferguson looked up to see the face from the photo. He raised his hand and Michael saw him, smiled, and headed over.
“Michael?” Ferguson said, rising.
“That’s me. You must be Ferguson.”
“Yes,” Ferguson said, shaking the man’s hand, not sure of the proper greeting in a situation like this.
The waiter took their drink orders, and the two sat in silence for a solid minute, glancing at each other then away, fidgeting with their silverware.
“So,” Michael said finally, breaking the stalemate, “does your brother act as your pimp often?”
Ferguson groaned and blushed. “I’m sorry about that; I’m terribly embarrassed. Gerald just worries about me, is all. He thinks I’ve been sad lately.”
“Have you? Been sad, I mean?”
“Somewhat, I suppose.”
“How come?” Michael asked then winced. “Anytime you want me to mind my own business, just tell me to.”
“It’s quite alright,” Ferguson assured. “Do you know what it’s like when you spend your entire life nurturing an ideal of what love should be? Part of you knows it’s overly romanticized and unrealistic, but you cling to it all the same. Then as you get older, you begin to see that the ideal is an impossible standard to meet, so you decide you need to settle. And you do, only that turns out to be a catastrophe as well. So you start to wonder, if you can’t have the ideal but you can’t even settle for less, what hope is there really?”
Ferguson looked across the table to find Michael staring at him with an unreadable expression, his beautiful lips parted slightly. “I’m sorry,” Ferguson said. “This is frightful first date etiquette, getting so maudlin right at the start.”
“I know what it’s like,” Michael said with a smile that made Ferguson warm all over. “So, is that what this is? A first date?”
Michael folded his hands on the table and leaned forward. “Well, in my country, drinks are like a prelude to the date, sort of an interview for the date. An opportunity for the two interested parties to get a feel for one another, to decide if a date is something they wish to pursue.”
“In that case, I guess I’m botching the interview.”
Michael favored Ferguson with that sunny smile again. “You’re not doing too shabby.”
Ferguson, suddenly flustered, fiddled with his shirt collar, stared into his water glass as if it held the secrets of the future, and tried desperately to think of something clever to say. All he could come up with was, “So, Michael, what do you do?”
He thought he saw Michael tense for a second before saying, “I’m a writer.”
“Television,” Michael said, rubbing the back of his neck and biting on his lower lip in the most deliciously unconscious way. “I’m a, uhm, I’m a staff writer for Quark’s Quirky Quest.”
“The children’s program?”
“That’s the one.”
“My nieces love that program.”
Michael nodded and trained his eyes on the tabletop, little roses of color blossoming on his cheeks.
“You seem embarrassed.”
“Well, you know, it doesn’t quite have the ring to it that ‘novelist’ does. What about you?”
“I’m an actor.”
“Really? Been in anything I might have seen?”
“I’ve mostly just done some local theater. Very local. Not much of anything, really.”
Michael was quiet for a few seconds then said sheepishly, “I could probably get you an audition for Quark’s Quirky Quest.”
The two men broke into laughter, all tension and nerves dissipating in the laughter like rain from asphalt on a hot day.
“So,” Ferguson said, emboldened by the shared moment of jocularity, “in your country, if the prelude to the date goes well, what happens next?”
“Usually dinner, possibly a movie.”
“And if that goes well?”
Michael scratched his chin, affecting the posture of deep thought. “I suppose one person might invite the other back to his apartment for yet more drinks.”
Ferguson nodded, decided to push it one step further. “And if that goes well?”
Michael turned on that heart-melting smile and said, “Breakfast.”
* * *
Gerald was running late. The dinner party being thrown by Ferguson and Michael started at eight, and it was already a quarter past. Gerald eased more pressure on the gas and weaved through traffic. The couple’s flat was just a few blocks away.
Gerald smiled as he thought the words again: The couple. Gerald was, after all, responsible for the pairing, and he took great pride in the fact. When he’d impulsively badgered Michael into giving him his number to give to Ferguson, even he’d never dream it would lead to two years of marital bliss. But they were happy together. In fact, Gerald had never seen his brother happier, and it made him feel good to know he’d had a hand in making it happen.
Gerald pulled to a stop in front of the building and hurried up the stairs. Ferguson answered the door with an expression of mixed annoyance and amusement. “Lose your way, little brother?”
“Fashionably late,” Gerald said, giving his brother a quick hug. “I’m nothing if not fashionable.”
“Everyone else is already here,” Ferguson said, taking his brother’s coat. “Dinner will be ready in about fifteen minutes. We’re all having drinks.”
“Then I haven’t missed much,” Gerald said, stepping into the parlor. He and Ferguson’s Mum was here, as was their sister Anne, her husband and their two daughters, and four or five of Ferguson and Michael’s friends.
“Gerald,” Michael said, handing him a glass of champagne and kissing him on the cheek. “Glad you could make it. Where is that lovely fiancée of yours?”
“Miranda is visiting her parents this weekend. She is sorry she has to miss this little celebration, but she sends her love and promises to be watching.”
“Well, have a seat, relax. Dinner will be served shortly. The television is set up in the dining room.”
Gerald sat down in a deep recliner, his nieces climbing onto his lap and digging through his pockets for change. Gerald was excited about tonight’s premier, almost as excited as Ferguson and Michael. Michael had finally left Quark’s Quirky Quest, developing his own program entitled The Adventures of Edmond Rex, sort of a spy thing with extra helpings of humor. Ferguson starred as the title character, a secret agent as bumbling as he was charming. Tonight was the airing of the first episode.
“Tell me, Michael,” Anne’s husband, Charles, was saying, “how did you come up with the idea for Edmond Rex?”
“It’s a little bit of James Bond mixed with a dash of Inspector Gadget with just a touch of Don Knotts.”
“With a description as clear as that,” Ferguson said, wrapping his arms around Michael’s waist, “I can’t imagine why you had such a hard time getting the program made.”
“Careful, dear,” Michael said, patting Ferguson on the cheek. “Your part can always be recast.”
“At home or on the show?”
Everyone laughed. Stephen, one of Ferguson’s mates from University, said, “Casting Fergie in the lead, that wasn’t nepotism, was it?”
“Absolutely, one hundred percent,” Michael said with a smile. “And I’m not ashamed to admit it. Can I help it if the love of my life just happens to also be the most talented actor in England?”
“If I’m that talented,” Ferguson said, “maybe I’m too big for the program. Perhaps I should be in motion pictures.”
“I was just being nice, honey. You’re okay, but Hugh Grant you’re not.”
More laughter. Ferguson kissed Michael, their love for one another evident to everyone in the room.
“A toast,” Gerald said, rising and holding his glass above his head. Everyone followed suit. “To The Adventures of Edmond Rex. May it be as enduring as Doctor Who.”
“To The Adventures of Edmond Rex,” everyone cheered and drank.
Gerald watched his brother and Michael embracing and smiled the smile of an artist admiring his greatest creation.
* * *
Michael opened one of the boxes in the living room and started pulling out books. The obsessive-compulsive part of him insisted he arrange the books alphabetically by author then title before placing them on the shelves. This took a bit longer, but it would save time when he or Ferguson were looking for a specific book.
After emptying the one box, Michael paused and looked around him. The living room was almost completely unpacked, just a few boxes left. Not much longer and the house would be all set up.
Michael still couldn’t believe he owned a house. Real estate. How very adult. Although his fortieth birthday approached, Michael still felt about fourteen years old most of the time. But here he was, an old married man with a thriving career and a new home.
The Adventures of Edmond Rex had been on the air now for four years, soon to begin filming its fifth. It was a smashing success, even airing in the States where Michael’s own family got to see it. During the breaks, Ferguson had made several movies, one of which—a romantic comedy called Love Fell on Me—Michael had written the screenplay for.
Michael opened another box full of photos. He smiled as he pulled out a frame which housed printed copies of both the picture of Ferguson that Gerald had shown Michael all those years ago and the picture of Michael that Gerald had taken to show Ferguson. The beginning of it all.
Six years, and Michael still loved Ferguson as much as ever. They had their ups and downs, certainly, their share of disagreements. There had been a dark period two and a half years ago when they had nearly split, but they always managed to work through their problems and come out stronger on the other side.
Michael started placing photos throughout the room. The unpacking would go faster if Ferguson were here to help, but he’d gone to meet Gerald for lunch and a movie. The two brothers didn’t see much of each other these days, Ferguson busy with his career and Gerald busy with his wife and the new baby. Michael was glad they were spending this time together.
The doorbell interrupted Michael’s thoughts, and he answered the door with a smile, always happy to have company these days so he could show off the new house. He was surprised to find Gerald standing on the stoop.
“Gerald, what are you doing here? Ferguson was supposed to meet you at the restaurant, wasn’t he? Did he get it mixed up?”
Gerald stood there in silence for a few seconds, his usually animated face drawn and pinched. “Michael, I … “
“Oh, never mind, come in,” Michael said, ushering his brother-in-law into the house. Michael went back to the boxes. “I’m in a frenzy of unpacking. I’m determined to finish today. I had no idea we had accumulated so much shit. Or shite, as you might say.”
Michael turned back to Gerald and his smile withered instantly. Seeing the expression on his brother-in-law’s face, Michael suddenly knew. He didn’t have to be told; he just knew. He didn’t want to know, but he knew.
“Michael, listen, … “
“Hey, look at these,” Michael said quickly, plastering a smile on his face like a mask. He reached into a box and pulled out two crystal cat figurines. “Your mother gave us these when Ferguson and I first moved in together. Remember?”
“I didn’t want to do this over the phone, but I have to tell you … “
“Oh, and look at these funky throw pillows. I don’t even know where they came from. Must be from Ferguson’s single days.”
“Michael, please,” Gerald said firmly, stepping toward his brother-in-law. “There was an accident and … “
“I don’t want to hear it!” Michael shouted, slinging a throw pillow across the room where it collided with some picture frames and sent them clattering to the floor. He leaned heavily on the back of the sofa, as if his legs didn’t have the strength to hold him up. Tears did not yet fall, but his eyes shimmered wetly. “Whatever you have to say, I don’t want to hear it. As long as I don’t hear it, it isn’t true.”
Gerald crossed the room quickly and let Michael collapse into his arms. The two men stood that way for some time, clinging to one another and weeping quietly.
* * *
Gerald was glad Michael had decided to come. When he’d found out Michael wasn’t going to the States to be with his mother for Christmas, he hadn’t been able to bear the thought of his spending the holiday alone in the barren flat he was currently renting. Gerald had insisted Michael spend Christmas Eve with him and his family. Michael had seemed reluctant, but he’d shown up nonetheless.
“More eggnog?” Gerald asked, slapping a hand on Michael’s shoulder.
“No thanks,” Michael said with a weak smile. “Gotta drive home.”
“Nonsense. Stay the night; you can watch the kids tear into their presents from St. Nick in the morning.”
“I don’t want to put you to any trouble.”
“No trouble. There’s plenty of room. Right, hon?”
“Absolutely,” Miranda said as she passed by with a tray of Christmas cookies, her and Gerald’s two children following at her heels, soon joined by Charles and Anne’s three youngsters.
“So how’s the show going?” Gerald asked. Michael had recently joined the staff of writers on the latest incarnation of Doctor Who. “Anything exciting coming up?”
“You know I can’t tell you anything about upcoming storylines.”
“Oh, come on now. Just a hint? I’ll give you one of my children. Hannah, I’ll trade you Hannah.”
Michael laughed, his first genuine laugh of the evening. Laughter hadn’t come easily to him since Ferguson’s death five years ago. “Thanks, but no. You’ll have to wait and watch like everyone else.”
Gerald sighed dramatically. “Okay, I suppose I have to respect that. Tell you what, you can have Hannah anyway, if you want.”
“I’m sure Miranda would be thrilled to hear that,” Michael said with a grin.
“Hell, she’d probably throw in Owen as well.”
“Family photo,” Fiona, Gerald’s Mum, called out. She was gathered on the sofa with Anne, Charles, their three children, Miranda, Hannah and Owen. “Come on,” she said to Gerald, waving him over. “We’re taking a photo with just the family.”
Gerald started over then turned to see Michael headed for the kitchen. “Hey, Michael,” he said, “aren’t you coming?”
Michael paused, looking at him uncertainly. “I thought this one was just for the family?”
“It is,” Fiona said, holding out her hand to Michael. “That includes you, dear.”
“Get your arse over here,” Gerald said. “Come stand next to me. You’ll look even more gorgeous by comparison.”
Michael stood there for a moment, a war of emotions playing over his face. A single tear escaped and fled down his cheek. Finally he walked over and stood next to Gerald behind the sofa, Gerald throwing an arm casually around Michael’s shoulders.
“Okay everyone,” said a distant cousin whose name Gerald couldn’t remember. “Smile.”
Another year has come to a close, so here is my obligatory blog post in which I recall my year as a writer. 2018 was another rewarding year for me.
Early in the year Cemetery Dance released the limited edition hardcover of DOG DAYS O' SUMMER, the werewolf novel I co-authored with my good friend James Newman. The book actually sold out through pre-orders and book club members before it was even officially released.
In March, Unnerving released the shared collection SPLISH SLASH TAKIN' A BLOODBATH, a tribute to slasher films that contained stories by myself, Eddie Generous, and Renee Miller. I had 7 stories in the collection, as well as one story the three of us wrote together.
Early August saw another Unnerving release. They put out the paperback and digital editions of DOG DAYS O' SUMMER, and it was great having the book available to a wider audience.
Finally, in September I self-published my novella collection DEVIATIONS FROM THE NORM. I had my friend Brian Knight help me professionally format it, had it proofed, paid for a professional cover. I was not able to find a publisher interested in the novellas, but I believed strongly in them and wanted the book available. I'm very proud of the result.
It has also been a productive writing year. For the first half of the year, I worked on a new novel entitled BEFORE HE WAKES, and the latter half of the year I've spent focusing on short stories. I am so passionate about the short form, but I hadn't really made it a priority in the past few years, and spending time working solely on short fiction was a revelation to me.
I didn't do as many events this year. Early in the year, I hosted a slasher movie trivia contest at Joe's Place in Greenville, and earlier this month I led a literary scavenger hunt for a book club at Joe's Place, and they donated money to the Greenville Literacy Association as payment. It was a great time.
Through it all, my husband and best friend Craig Metcalf has been by my side, making it all the more rewarding. I started a new job late in the fall, and I have big plans ahead for 2019.
And I thank all my readers who have taken this journey with me. See you next year.
When I first conceived of the concept of a novella collection, I was incredibly excited. Some stories are simply too big for shorts but too contained for novels, and the novella is the perfect length for these stories. At the time, I was going through a period where I was writing a lot of novellas, and I had three that took familiar genre tropes (namely the vampire, the time machine, and the deal with the devil) and gave them my own unique twist. I thought this would make for an entertaining collection, and I came up with the title DEVIATIONS FROM THE NORM.
The next step was finding a publisher for it. Not to sound cocky, I am aware that I’m a small fish in a big pond, but over the last several years I had been lucky enough to find homes for everything I wrote. Novels, novellas, short story collections…I had the immense fortune of working with some tremendous publishers. Therefore, I expected to be able to find a home for DEVIATIONS without too much trouble.
My first choice publisher passed simply because I submitted two manuscripts to them at the same time. DEVIATIONS as well as a haunted house novel. They only had one slot available in their roster, and since they already had a pending collection with me, they wanted to go with the novel. I was more than happy with that, but it did leave DEVIATIONS homeless.
I looked into many of the other publishers I had worked with more recently, and unfortunately most of them were closed for submissions. I did find a few other publishers that said they would be happy to read the manuscript and consider it.
Yet these all resulted in rejections. Disappointing, but it is all part of the publishing game. I will say, however, that something that really frustrated me was that these publishers never read more than the first few chapters of the first novella.
Let me take a moment to talk about the novella that opens the collection, “The Unholy Eucharist.” This is my take on the vampire mythos, creating my own original origin story for the creatures. I consider this piece to be one of the most ambitious I’ve ever undertaken, delving back into history in a way I rarely do. I did a lot of research for it, and I had a wonderful time crafting the tale. It ended up being a story of which I was remarkably proud. To me, it’s some of the best writing I’ve ever done…so I was rather surprised when this novella was the sticking point for publishers.
And yet I shouldn’t have been. My origin story dates back to Biblical times and incorporates Biblical figures into the narrative, including Jesus himself. I take great liberties with these figures and use them for my own means. Not because I was trying to make any type of statement on religion, but simply because that is where my imagination took me.
Some of the publishers felt that this would prove too controversial with readers, and that I would end up offending people. Interestingly enough, I got a comment from one publisher saying that as an atheist he was almost surprised that I had treated the Biblical characters with such reverence. (A digression, I sometimes see other atheists saying they can’t get into stories that treat Biblical figures as real. This to me is a baffling view, as we don’t have to believe vampires are real to enjoy stories about them, or werewolves, or zombies, etc.)
In any case, the publishers I sent the collection to all said they read only two or three chapters of “The Unholy Eucharist” before stopping because the religious aspects made it a hard sell for them. This truly did frustrate me. I put so much time and effort and passion into that story, it honestly made me a little mad that the publishers couldn’t even bother to read the entire thing before dismissing it. And while I understand the business aspect of publishing is paramount, it also left me a little disillusioned to think that there isn’t more risk-taking in the industry.
Also extremely frustrating was the fact that the other two novellas in the collection – “Kronoz” and “The Price of Success” – had never even been read by the publishers. I felt sorry for those stories, not even having the chance to be considered.
Yet I still believed very strongly in this collection. “Kronoz” and “The Price of Success” (the latter of which I wrote with my good friend Shane Nelson) I thought were highly entertaining and I wanted people to have a chance to read them.
And despite everything I was told, I believed strongly in the merits of “The Unholy Eucharist.” I felt like it was a rich and involving story with a nice twist at the end which could set up for even more stories in that universe. I really wanted to get it out there and give it a chance to live or die on its own.
So I started seriously considering self-publishing. I had experimented with that before, but only digital editions with crude cover art. This time I wanted to go all out. I contacted a friend of mine who has self-published a lot of his backlist, and he offered to use his Mac program that would automatically format the manuscript for print and digital. I got someone to do a thorough proofing of the book, and I hired a professional cover artist.
To me, that is one of the greatest things about this age where self-publishing is made so effortless. Yes, I know everyone complains that means the market can be flooded with substandard works, but it also means that works that are overlooked or considered too risky can still have a chance to find an audience.
I’m beyond ecstatic to be able to offer DEVIATIONS FROM THE NORM to readers. I do think it’s a collection that is strong and interesting, and I look forward to getting feedback from readers.