Category Archives: Writing

Toward a New Normal

To those who faithfully or even occasionally visit this page, thank you.

This is less a “Why I haven’t been posting” blog and more of an update on my personal life for those who value that sort of thing.

I’ve spent some time juggling and reevaluating where all my efforts are going, so I thought I should post an update to projects I’m involved in and commitments I am pursuing, as so much of my life is currently in flux. Most of these changes come from one primary cause:

In the next three months, I will retire from active duty in the United States Air Force after 24 years of service. 

All the chaos of the ever-changing flight schedule with my squadron won’t be a factor anymore. I’ll have a relative stability to my future planning that I haven’t known for a long time. My wife jokes that every appointment or get-together we plan has an asterisk next to it, with the caveat “unless the flight schedule changes.” That will be a thing of the past… and I don’t think I’ll miss that part at all.

We finally get to focus more on family matters. While I’ve had it pretty good as far as not having to deploy repeatedly for months or years, I’m excited to think I can be around more for the time and activities my wife and children desire.

Right now, I have a couple job opportunities that will enable me to continue supporting my military friends and squadron family in some capacity, which thrills me. I’ve seen our squadron crush a demanding and ever-changing mission even when we ramped up to more than double our usual workload. The number of operational sorties is never going to decrease, so any way that I can help keep some aspect of squadron life a little more together is exciting to me.

Meanwhile (and starting next week), I will be more involved in music ministry than I have been in the last ten years. While I love filling in and helping out at local church services or gatherings, I haven’t found a reliable, recurring need, until a month ago, when an opportunity dropped into my inbox out of the blue.

I’ll be performing every week as a contracted musician for the Contemporary Worship Service on Kadena, and while I’m excited and passionate about that, it comes with a learning curve as I learn to work with the Choir Director and look for ways to fulfill the chaplain’s vision for a service that is on a restricting schedule (sandwiched between Catholic masses).

I’m excited about this because having an upcoming worship service in mind on a regular basis usually keeps my attention and thoughts on grace and the Gospel more than the garbage and glitz that beckon from everywhere else in life.

Additionally, the band is full of amazing talents both on vocals and on their chosen instruments, so I’m eager to jam with old friends once more.

In the writing world, I have a number of friends who routinely ask me about Book Two of my fantasy novels, and I don’t want to keep letting them down. I also have a number of projects incubating in OneDrive files and Scrivener folders into which I would love to invest time and effort.

The local writing group has really become that critique group I always wanted, with a core group of four writers sharing chapters every other week.

NaNoWriMo 2018 is rapidly approaching, and that has been a fantastic experience for me every year I’ve done it. I will continue working as a Municipal Liaison for Japan – specifically Okinawa. While I don’t know how much of a chance I’ll have at cracking 50,000 words in the month of November, I will be able to facilitate and support regular meetings and ‘Come Write In’ events for those who can pour words onto the page.

Additionally, infrequent but recurring events like BlogBattle give me a chance to write something disconnected from bigger projects, so I’ll probably continue posting Grant & Teagan stories once a month at a minimum.

My experience with tabletop roleplaying games has shown me that it’s a wonderful opportunity to gather friends around a table for laughs, snacks, excitement, and fun. I’ve got a growing list of co-workers and friends who express interest in an ongoing campaign, but I have barely been able to keep the one group I’m running going.  On top of that, I have a few settings and two or three systems I really want to run. (BattleTech… D&D 5E Curse of Strahd… those 5E Lord of the Rings setting books…)

Once my schedule finds smooth air and level flight, I’m looking forward to arranging some gaming groups where I can commit to bringing my best to the table.

Maybe I can finally work out some opportunities to be a player as well. There’s nothing like being a Storyteller or Dungeon Master (or whatever your chosen system calls that role)… but it’s nice to be on the other side of the screen sometimes and react to the game without knowing what’s lurking beyond the next fork in the road.

In other words, all of this mess of conflicting interests and passions will still be simmering in the crock pot of my life, but the sliders for various activities and priorities are going to shift a lot in ways I don’t fully know just yet. All of this adds up to a lot of reasons to say, “No, sorry” to things I might otherwise enjoy or participate in, especially in the short-term.

I appreciate your thoughts, encouragement, friendship, prayers, and any other support you might offer during this period of instability.

Fangs and Fury

Here’s this month’s BlogBattle post, based on the term, “Blaze,” and once again centered around the misadventures of Grant and Teagan, my 1930s “Indiana Jones-meets-Supernatural” duo of explorers.

I took a stab at a sketch of them on a lengthy return flight from a recent mission. I’m not satisfied with this–it’s unfinished and not what I envisioned–but it was a fun effort nonetheless.

Last “episode,” after dealing with a werewolf, Grant fell unconscious from blood loss. Teagan succumbed to lycanthropy and used that unnatural strength to fight back against a double-agent who betrayed her. This time, we join Grant and Teagan two days later, after Grant has sought a cure for Teagan’s condition.

From The Adventures of Grant McSwain, Hunter of Horrors, Destroyer of the Defiled, and Terror of the Treacherous.

Accompanied as always by his hapless assistant, Teagan O’Daire, the Ginger of Galway.

Firelight danced around the ruined Army camp nestled in the mountains, and wisps of fragrant smoke twisted through the chilly air as Grant hunkered over Teagan’s quivering form. He turned away from the sweat-soaked bristling hair matted on her arms and torso. Grant almost laid a hand on the furry patch of her forehead–between the pointed canine ears that now sprouted from her misshapen body–then reconsidered the danger. He averted his eyes from her bloodied claws and that makeshift muzzle he’d tied around that maw full of jagged teeth. Teeth that could tear his throat open in an instant, or turn him into a monster like–

It’s still Teagan, he reassured himself. She drank Dah-rey’s vial of silver. She’s going to pull through… once the fever breaks. 

His feeble hopes withered at the sound of her ragged breathing, and he turned toward the aged man kneeling beside the fire. “How long will it take for those herbs to purge her body of…”

Striding Bison crushed more of the dried brown leaves with a mortar and pestle, then sprinkled them into the flames. Another aromatic plume rose on the breeze, far more smoke than a pinch of herbs should produce. Curling tendrils stretched toward Teagan’s afflicted body like the fingers of a mournful spirit. “A while,” he said with a shrug, cryptic as ever, his shaky hands moving with reverence and care. The shaman had helped them when past adventures had gone awry, but those had all been of the mundane snake-bite, gunshot-wound, dehydration in the desert variety.

Howls tore through the night, and Grant peered into the murky blackness on all sides. A wasted gesture–the firelight destroyed his night vision. Even so, instead of the call of another werewolf pack, he recognized the war-whoops of hunting parties from local tribes.

“The Chickasaw know what hunts under the full moon,” Striding Bison intoned. “They hate those the wolf spirits possess. Their braves will come with cleansing fire… not the kind for burning herbs, but bodies.”

Grant put his palm on Teagan’s head and grimaced at the heat radiating through her coat of fur.

“They will kill us too,” the shaman added. “They will consider us tainted by her presence. None of the tribes take lycanthropy lightly.”

If the thought bothered Striding Bison at all, he showed no sign. He poured steaming water from a kettle into a stone bowl, dipped a cloth, and laid it across Teagan’s head.

Helpless, Grant left Teagan to shiver under her blankets. He surveyed the wreckage, noting the makeshift defenses the soldiers had erected. The werewolves left no survivors but also had no interest in equipment or supplies. A broken crate of rifles caught Grant’s eye, their dark metal glinting in the firelight. He pulled one from the container and found another box filled with circular drum magazines. “Do what you can, where you are, with what you’ve got,” Grant mumbled, quoting the President he idolized. Teddy wouldn’t back down from the fight. 

Striding Bison smirked and ground more leaves into powder. “The Chickasaw won’t be impressed by Army guns. They’ll have gangster rifles too–and they can shoot from horseback.”

“I know,” Grant said, his shoulders sagging. “But I have to do something.”

The war-cries echoed louder, closer. Even though the mountains blocked some lines of sight, the light of the fire would be seen for miles from the right viewpoint.

“You are one man, McSwain. They are many. They are trained for war, whereas you…”

Fury flared within Grant’s chest, an explosion of rage at the futility of his situation. All his strength cried for action, something to throw, someone to punch, some means to resist the obvious fate looming over him. His fingers tightened on the grips of the Tommy guns in his hands and he glanced at his companion. A realization washed through him like a lit trail of blasting powder. If I have to die to protect Teagan from butchery, so be it. And if I’m going to die anyway… 

Grant dashed to Teagan’s side and set the Tommy guns in the dirt, then drew out his knife. “Bison, you have more of that coyotesbane?”

“Of course.”

“I’m loosening the bonds on her feet and doubling the ropes around her wrists. In a moment, I want you to lead her to safety while I distract the Chickasaw. She’ll be able to move, but she won’t be able to hurt you. Think you can manage?”

Striding Bison’s eyes narrowed as he scrutinized Grant’s actions. He said nothing, but his eyes moved to the knife.

“I just need to buy you both enough time for her to fight off the disease,” Grant said. He drew the knife along his forearm with a wince, and a line of crimson formed. “The Chickasaw don’t know who was afflicted.”

Grant untied the muzzle and held his arm above her elongated face. Though unconscious, Teagan shifted and jerked, emitting sharp sniffs and a low, hungry growl. In a flash, her teeth latched onto his arm, gnawing and lapping at the wound. He screamed but held still, muscles straining in anguish. When he could bear it no more, he tore his arm free then wrestled the muzzle back over Teagan’s maw.

Pain shot up his arm, throbbing and thrumming with his heartbeat. The moon grew brighter and his senses opened to the world around him with such clarity that he felt as if he’d been deaf and blind all his life. His thoughts wavered between lucid concern for Teagan and a sudden thrilling bond with all of nature.

Striding Bison looked on in horror, then came alongside Teagan and helped her to her feet, her bony arm stretched too far over his hunched shoulders.

Even as he watched the thick black hair sprout from every inch of exposed skin, Grant racked the slides on the submachine guns and turned toward the approaching war-cries. “Come face me,” he howled, his voice deep and guttural. “But be warned! This wolf has fangs!”

One More Round

BlogBattle is back, and so are Grant and Teagan, the fearless duo whose fortunes and foibles in the 1930s comprise most of my entries to the competition. 

There’s plenty of time left in August’s contest, with the theme word of “Moon.” Check the link above and pen your own tale of luna-cy. 

Note: I write these as if they’re disjointed episodes of some ’50s radio show because it’s silly and amuses me to do so. 

—-

After a long hiatus, we proudly return to The Adventures of Grant McSwain, Hunter of the Horrific, Vanquisher of the Vile, and Doer of Daring Deeds! (Accompanied as always by his hapless assistant, Teagan O’Daire, the Ginger of Galway)

In this episode, howl with delight as–armed with only one silver bullet–Grant faces down betrayal in… “The Werewolves of Wyoming.”

Mountain Moonset, by Jessie Eastland. From Wikimedia Commons, used under Creative Commons license.

Grant leaned against the broken stump of a felled tree, his arm propped on his knee, the dented flask in his hand reflecting the dancing firelight. His eyes glinted like gunmetal as he stared at the corpse on the other side of the fire. His other hand rested on the ground, bloodied but clutching his Magnum revolver. The normally spry man now looked like the mountains surrounding the camp—ancient, weathered, too weary to move.

Brushing back her locks of Irish red with a crimson hand, Teagan dug through the contents of her rucksack. He’s losing blood. So am I. There had to be something they could use…

She tried to ignore the fur-covered limbs and the torn waistcoat stretched across the creature’s frame. Blood soaked through the bleached shirt beneath its vest, the result of a single shot to the heart from Grant’s gun.

Unfortunately, it had taken five attempts to hit the mark. The bullets work. At least we know that. We just need more of them. 

The fire in Teagan’s calf blazed and waned with her heartbeat. A jagged hole in her trousers revealed several puncture wounds in a line. She focused on Grant and pushed her pain aside.

Grant shook the flask and the contents sloshed. “Enough for one more round, if you ladies want some Tennessee warmth.”

Teagan glared across the campfire’s radiance as Grant handed the flask to Da-Re, the meddlesome and far too fetching agent of the Empire of Japan. She brushed a hand through her raven hair and smiled. He handed it to her because she’s the closest, Teagan told herself, trying to quench the jealousy flaring in her chest. Why is she sitting so close? 

The wind picked up again, a mournful wail that tore through the pass. The next gust carried what sounded like answering voices in the dark. Thick clouds rolled low in the sky, as if the moon played peekaboo with the creatures of the night.

Da-Re took a swig and gave a hissing grimace at the alcohol’s burn. “Sorry you had to kill your friend, Mister McSwain.” She handed the flask back to Grant and pointedly avoided acknowledging Teagan’s existence.

Grant shook his head. “Roquefort was always more of a patron, wanting this or that recovered, some mystery answered.” His voice slurred, more from fatigue than the whiskey. “The wire demanding an urgent meeting to ‘renegotiate the contract’ should’ve tipped me off.”

The world lurched and Teagan’s vision spun, but she shook off the sensation and rifled through her supplies. Bandages were easy enough… she could make a number of fabric strips out of Grant’s tattered shirt from their first encounter with the beasts. If I can get my head to clear, at least… but we need something to fight off infection…

More howls reverberated through the mountains, each distinct. The pack sorting out their numbers, searching for their missing member, closing in on where they’d last heard his call.

Each voice stirred the depths of Teagan’s being, some primeval yearning for the open plains, the freedom of the wilderness, the thrill of the hunt. The ache of the wound on her calf throbbed with the resounding echoes.

Eyes closed and body drained of strength, Teagan felt her head loll forward as she fell to her hands and knees.

“They’ll be here soon,” Da-Re muttered, drawing Teagan’s attention. The slender Asian rose to her feet—with Grant’s Magnum in hand—then stooped over the furry corpse. She reached into her vest and drew forth a long metal syringe from between two vials filled with a glimmering metallic solution. Colloidal silver… a possible defense or antidote to lycanthropy?

Teagan looked at Grant, eyes blurry as if underwater. He lay on his side, unconscious but breathing. She could almost hear his heartbeat. “What did you do to him,” she asked, her voice a harsh growl.

Da-Re chuckled. “I waited. Nothing more.” She plunged the syringe into Roquefort’s corpse and pulled the slider. A line of dark red shone through the slot in the metal as the empty glass within filled with blood.

“What are you doing?”

“So many questions, Miss O’Daire.” Da-Re checked the vial, wrapped the syringe in fabric, and slid it back into her vest pocket. “The Emperor wants an army that is ready to withstand all opposition… and you’ve seen these creatures’ ferocity. If we can discover a way to harness that power without the unpleasant side effects…”

“Too dangerous,” Teagan rumbled. Talking felt so difficult. Staying lucid seemed impossible. Why was the moon so bright? “You’ve seen what it does to the victims… surely you won’t do that to your own people.”

Da-Re smirked. “We have plenty of test subjects in the lands we’ve conquered.” She tossed her pack over her shoulder. “Sayonara, Miss O’Daire. I trust I will not see you again.”

Teagan ignored the treacherous woman and crawled toward Grant. His shallow breaths sounded like rushing winds to her over-sensitive ears. He still lived. She could smell the tang of iron in his blood—far more bearable than the stink of those metallic vials Da-Re carried in her vest pouch.

“You should leave him be,” Da-Re said. “More peaceful this way. When the werewolves come, they’ll come for prey.”

Teagan’s muscles tensed, and sudden rage coursed through her. Her back arched, bones popped, and fabric tore as she turned her gaze to Da-Re. The woman looked like a silhouette with the moon—so blazingly bright and full—behind her in the sky.

Bhitseach,” Teagan growled, “they’re already here.”

She lunged across the fire, claws extended for the kill.

 

Tune in next time for Da-Re Versus O’Daire, and the Beast Within!

 

Tune Out

Another spoken word, emotional venting piece as I think about the accomplishments I’ve done and the things I should be proud of but I’m not.

People say nice things, and I assume they’re just being polite, or they don’t know the “real” me. When people express even the smallest hints of frustration or disappointment, part of me gets defensive like they’re calling my whole life into question, and part of me agrees with them that I’m the worst.

I know none of those voices are really true, nor do they capture all the complexities of interpersonal relationships, but it’s hard not to believe the stories that emotion and fear try to tell.

For example: Since the head librarian of the base library is a friend in the local writing group and a NaNoWriMo participant, she was happy to take a copy of each of my self-published novels to put on the shelf. I assumed they’d be lost in the back somewhere, but then a co-worker told me, “Hey, my wife saw your books on the shelf at the library today!” The staff put them with new releases on display near the front of the library.

Which SHOULD be “Oh wow, that’s cool.” Not everyone can say that… but instead, it feels like, “That’s nice, but give it a month, and then they will actually disappear into the back, just like I thought.”

A fellow writer and friend has also self-published, and we both talk about how it feels like something “less than a real writer,” like a video game achievement unlocked with an asterisk noting that you were cheating while playing.

People can find us on Amazon. How many people can say that? Surely that counts for something, doesn’t it? “But anyone can upload a pile of word-vomit onto Kindle Direct Publishing and have a so-called ‘book,’ so…”

I know I shouldn’t listen to those thoughts. But they’re my thoughts.

I might record this like I did with The Basement.  If you’d like that, let me know in a comment, and since I’m a sucker for external validation, I’ll probably do it.

Tune Out 

How do I tune out the voices when I’m the one speaking?
How do I push out these thoughts when I’m the one thinking?
How do I find the peace I say that I’m seeking
When I keep diving into the pit, now it feels like I’m sinking
Got a comf’table spot sitting pretty up under this shade
That I throw at myself, I don’t need you to pile on the hate
Got enough of my own, Poured a full glass of haterade
Gonna drink it on down, there’s a whole ‘nother pitcher I made

Got a couple books sitting up on the library shelf
That’s really tight oh right I just published myself
Got a check that they pay me to come to the chapel and play
Takin money to do a job I’d do for free any day
Just a sub, just a fill in, just doin’ a couple months’ stay
Doesn’t matter, I kill it ’til they come and take it away
Got a job where I got to the top of the intel op game
But it’s just an additional duty I do on the plane
Who I am and who big Air Force wants, well it isn’t the same
And I’m not gonna grind myself down ’til I end up insane
Any more than I already am, if you know what I mean
Which you do if you’re seein these words that I type on the screen
I’m not tryna pretend I belong to some emo rap scene
I’m just tryin’ to square up my feelings and intervene
‘Cause I know that nobody can change me or fix all my mess
And I say that I want to be changed when I pause to confess
All the garbage and failure and choices that causin’ me stress
Guess I’d think that if I didn’t like this, be doin’ it less
All the things that I do for which people may even applaud
Serve the highlight the ways that I feel like my life is a fraud
Like I’m not who they think, like I’m not what I try to portray
Heck, I’m not even living up to all the rules of the game
If I can’t even live out the truth of the words that I say
Then what have I got in the way of a valuable name?
Everything that I’m doing runs counter to what I proclaim

So how do I tune out the voices when I’m the one speaking?
How do I push out these thoughts when I’m the one thinking?
How do I find the peace I say that I’m seeking
When I keep diving into the pit, now it feels like I’m sinking
Got a comf’table spot sitting pretty up under this shade
That I throw at myself, I don’t need you to pile on the hate
Got enough of my own, Poured a full glass of haterade
Gonna drink it on down, there’s a whole ‘nother pitcher I made

All the things I wanna see
All the things I’ll never be
All the praise they say of me
Should be cause for revelry
But because I don’t believe
It’s a joy I don’t receive
It’s a faded memory
Like a haunting melody
Of an opportunity
That’s forever out of reach
And the voices whisperin’
Like a spreading malady
I don’t think I can be free
From the voice inside of me
From the weak and desperate plea
For a lifeline on this sea
Of shifting anxiety
Crippling fears and then worry
What if everyone could see
What I keep inside of me
What I never will release
All the truth I won’t repeat
All the doubts that never cease
All the foes I can’t defeat
No one knows this side of me
But it shows up when I sleep
Voices rising from the deep
All the secrets that I keep
All the darkness starts to creep
Up in my soul into a heap
Of regrets that make me weep
Choking out the air I breathe
Keeping out the Voice I need
While doubt plants another seed
Of depression over deeds
And mistakes that make me bleed
In a way you’ll never see
Pouring out internally
Over all the parts of me

Tell me
How do I tune out the voices when I’m the one speaking?
How do I push out these thoughts when I’m the one thinking?
How do I find the peace I say that I’m seeking
When I keep diving into the pit, now it feels like I’m sinking
Got a comf’table spot sitting pretty up under this shade
That I throw at myself, I don’t need you to pile on the hate
Got enough of my own, Poured a full glass of haterade
Gonna drink it on down, there’s a whole ‘nother pitcher I made

Headphones

Here’s another spoken word style poem I wrote over the last few days… thinking of the tape or the playlist that often goes on in the back of our minds, calling out our failures and playing off our doubts. This one has a decidedly Christian bent — while acknowledging the negative thoughts that sparked the idea for the poem, I didn’t want to wallow in them.

HEADPHONES

Shut all the voices out, I’m trying to tune in
Turn up the volume loud, the music is boomin’
Drownin’ the fear and doubt beneath all the rhythm
Bobbing my head unbowed by my inner schism
So long as I lock on the sound I don’t mind the prison
And the feeling of coming unbound like light in a prism
When the beat is starting to pound against the system
I feel like I can rebound –  I will not be a victim

 

 

 

 

 

 

Put the phones in, Try to home in
On the feelings and the voices that keep dronin’
All the echoing whispers condoning
Condemning thoughts I’m alone in
Awash in a well of emotion
Where I wade with the weight of the burden
And the heaviness hurts ‘til I’m groaning
But I keep it inside like I’m owning
All the pain that I hide when I’m hurtin’

So many voices, so many words
So many streams of empty air
Saying the same old things that I’ve heard
There ain’t nothin’ new out there
Under the sun, feel like I’m done
Broken down in disrepair
Thoughts that I shun come back and run
All through my head and leave me bare
Without a prayer,
Carry the care you wouldn’t dare reveal and share
All that you bear, ditch the despair
Don’t let ‘em see the wear and tear
Don’t let it scare the unaware
Wouldn’t be fair—not their nightmare

Just turn up the music and sway to the beat
Try to confuse all the voices that speak
Drown them in tunes that you put on repeat
Try to refuse to believe their deceit
All the abuse ‘cause they see you as weak
All the excuses you make for defeat
All the regrets leaving you incomplete
All of the fears from which you retreat

We’re all listenin’ to our own playlist
S’posed to listen more, try to say less,
But the voice in my head is a sadist
And the man in the mirror’s a menace
So I walk with my head down dejected
When my life goes to hell as expected
All the chances I dodged and deflected
And the burdens and shame that I’m left with
Tried to pass off the blame, got rejected
By the masses my game disrespected
And I’m groping for hope resurrected
But my options remain unaffected
‘Cause I’m leaving the efforts neglected
That would cure all my sickness—infected
By the ego that won’t be corrected
So I keep to myself, disconnected
While I’m tellin’ myself I’m protected
By the stories and lies I’ve collected
‘Cause the liar inside misdirected
And my purpose has been intercepted

Shut all the voices out, I’m trying to tune in
Turn up the volume loud, the music is boomin’
Drownin’ the fear and doubt beneath all the rhythm
Bobbing my head unbowed by my inner schism
So long as I lock on the sound I don’t mind the prison
And the feeling of coming unbound like light in a prism
When the beat is starting to pound against the system
I feel like I can rebound –  I will not be a victim

But the playlist just keeps on repeatin’
All the ways that my sin’s got me beaten
All the failures and falls got me bleedin’
All the hopes and the dreams are receding
‘Til the song and the voices I’m hearin’
With their mocking and laughing and jeering
They get lost in the sudden appearing
Of a radiant Champion clearing
All of the fog and the doubt and depression
Turning my eyes from my inward obsession
Toward the prize beyond any possession
That He purchased for us through redemption
Every sin every failure—you name it
It’s been stamped with His Name ‘cause He paid it
The whole list is now His, He forgave it
Powerless to condemn ‘cause He nailed it
To the cross where He bought our salvation
And I need to get this revelation
That the God who says “No condemnation”
Is rejoicing in celebration
Over us and our consecration
As He’s working toward sanctification
Now that we are His brand new creation
And the echoes that kept up their whisp’rin’
Kept on pickin’ on me and all my sin
Well He shut off those tunes and He put in
A playlist called “Fully forgiven”
His mercies – they’re new every sunrise
His love – you’re the apple of His eyes
His grace – it cannot be diminished
His work on the cross – it is finished
‘Cause along with the song that He’s singin’
There’s a message of hope that He’s bringin’

So shut all the voices out, I’m trying to tune in
Turn up the volume loud, the music is boomin’
Drownin’ the fear and doubt beneath all the rhythm
Bobbing my head unbowed by my inner schism
So long as I lock on the voice that freed me from prison
And the glory in which I rejoice like light in a prism
When Your mercy and grace overpower my limited vision
And Your Spirit alive in me shouts that this corpse is now risen
When the power of love You have shown has shattered the system
Through the favor and grace You bestowed
When You took my place and embraced the disgrace as a victim

So I take out the earbud a minute
And I think about what’s playin’ in it
And I know it’s not for me alone
That’s why I pick up this microphone

 

Writing for Non-Writers

Last week, I facilitated a discussion on Writing for Non-Writers as part of our base library’s summer reading program. Our librarian knew I had been published in a couple editions of Chicken Soup for the Soul and thought I might have a few lessons learned or tips for folks who would never call themselves writers, but might have interesting stories to tell. Thanks to a few eager participants, we enjoyed an energetic discussion and exercised our creative muscles.

Here’s the Cliff’s Notes version:

(Quote boxes are composed of inputs others offered as we discussed the topic.)

Intro: You may not feel like a writer, but chances are you’re a story-teller. Story is the vehicle for how we communicate our lives and share our experiences with one another. What if you put some of those stories in writing instead of merely sharing them in person?

Q: WHAT DO YOU LOVE ABOUT STORIES?

“Stories validate you and help you connect. Our stories can help others find their way or enjoy new experiences.”

Power of Story: We process random circumstance into narratives. We tell people stories about ourselves and create stories to explain life. It’s why conspiracy theories have so much strength.

“You wouldn’t believe what I saw the other day…”  Yeah? Tell me about it. “So there I was, minding my own business, nursing my cup of coffee, when this crazy guy comes in…”

“I have to tell you about my trip to the store, oh my gosh—UNBELIEVABLE!” But it’s totally believable, depending on the skill or the passion of the story-teller. We expect a hilarious and unexpected ride on the struggle bus… so we lean forward, smile, and wait for the laughs.

Q: WHAT MAKES A STORY BAD?

Not tragic / dark, but “turn off Netflix / put the book in the bin” bad?

“A story is bad when there’s too much or too little detail. If it’s too complex, with pages of description…  and on the other hand, if there’s not enough information, it’s hard to relate.”

Q: WHAT MAKES A STORY GOOD?

“When we can see it happen, when we feel the buildup and climax, when we can apply our story to the story or feel ourselves being IN the story.”

Does a good story mean having an interesting character? Often, WE are the characters; we can’t help if we’re interesting or not.

What about an interesting event? Not necessarily; a good story can be about a mundane event told in an interesting way.

How about a relatable event? At the very least, something that connects to the specific message or point, like an analogy.

Good stories often show how someone grew or changed as a result.

Interesting telling. No rambling, side jaunts, or rabbit trails. Stories usually have direction and purpose. Think of a testimony at church, or a blog post with a life lesson. These often have a three-part structure:

  1. How things were (I didn’t think of myself as creative, or worth listening to)
  2. What happened (I met some folks who showed me how to write well)
  3. How things changed (I ended up submitting to Chicken Soup and got published!)

Tell it with your voice. Write what you might speak. How would you tell a friend? Tell that same story to the paper or screen.

“You can always revise! It might be trash but it can become better.”

Q: HOW MUCH DETAIL IS TOO MUCH?

Have you ever asked a kid to tell you a scene in a movie?

“So the bad guy did this, but then the hero came in, but wait–so before that, there was this one guy, and he said to the lady–um, she is the friend of this other dude who shows up at the beginning of the movie but then the shark eats him–the shark is the one from the aquarium but it got out because the bad guy opened up the doors on the tank so that he could–wait, so there is this secret message…”

“What is relevant to the story? That’s all you need.” 

Concrete = convincing… to a point.

Which sounds better?

“A hot cup of coffee” or “a steaming cup of Sumatra dark roast”?

“A Dachshund the color of cinnamon,” or “a brown dog”?

Only the most important adjectives, not all possible descriptors. Convey the point, not the entire movie.

“Seventeen long-forgotten, cheap, thin, old, wet, dog-eared, ink-smudged, blue-and-white-speckled Composition-style notebooks…”

While it paints a clear picture, that might be too much–certainly far more than is necessary unless the story hinges on all those details.

Use all five senses. We focus on the eyes and ears like we’re describing the movie in our heads. We’re used to the cinema, but the world has smells, feelings, textures, tastes…

Someone might say, “Well, I’m not a writer.”

“I’m not going to make up stories and worlds and stuff like that.”

Great!

Q: HAS ANYONE TRIED JOURNALING?

A journal gives us a place for processing the junk in our lives… A chance to be “honest” in a way we may not in public. Pour out the words onto a page and tell it like it is. Keep it private so you can unload and release. If you want to go deeper, try exploring what comes up when you ask yourself a series of “why” questions like a three-year-old.

I feel like they took advantage of me. Why?
Because they didn’t say thank you and that bothers me. Why?
I want to know that what I do has value. Why?
I don’t want to waste my time on things that don’t matter. Why?
I feel like there are too many things I don’t have time for which matter to me, and if I’m wasting my time on people that don’t care about the effort I put in, then I don’t want to do those things…

“A journal is a perfect place for the ‘bad’ emotions – we can vent our hate or anger.”

Q: ANYONE HAVE PERSONAL / FAMILY MEMORIES THEY STRUGGLE TO RECALL?

What about keeping a family journal? How many times have we lost important memories? “Grandad had all these great stories, but I didn’t pay attention back then, and I don’t remember them now…”

We can write down important details to keep for ourselves or pass down to our kids.

Mom? How did you meet Dad?

What was it like before the Internet?

The day I got the good news about…

I remember where I was when…

Kadena AB, 2012
This was a story worth telling.

The day I got an F-15 incentive ride, I went home and wrote down all the details I could in order to capture the memory. I knew I would forget details over the years, even though it’s one of the most exciting and meaningful experiences in my life. (Full disclosure, I actually wrote things down later in the week. That detail doesn’t matter to the story so we can fudge it a bit without losing anything.)

What about hilarious conversations with kids? How about the silly things they say when they first start speaking?

We think we’ll have these moments forever in our minds, but the hard drives in our brains get corrupted and fragmented pretty easily, and time passes quick.

(I made an Avengers: Infinity War reference at the workshop, talking about our memories flaking into ash and fading away… and not one of the participants had seen the movie. What a wasted analogy!!!)

These ideas and writings may not lead to a book deal, but they may prove satisfying in a way we didn’t expect, meeting a need we didn’t realize we had.

EXERCISE

(I put on some soft instrumental music and read the following directions and questions.)

Close your eyes for a minute and think of a happy memory. Relive it for a moment. Pay attention to the details.

Where are you?

What’s happening?

What objects do you see?

Who is with you?

What does it sound like?

What does it smell like?

How do you feel in that moment?

Why is this glimpse so special?

The Basement

I’ve been listening to too much NF (lies! I love all his music) and the Mansion reference at the beginning of this is aimed at his first big album. All his albums and singles are great, and worth checking out.

I am also a fan of spoken-word style poetry with loose structure, soft rhymes, and rhythmic phrasing. I occasionally write such pieces as the lyrical equivalent of emotional venting on a given subject or feeling.

A couple weeks ago, I wrote a piece about the human condition and the “bad wolf” in the popular analogy about two wolves. Really, I wrote it to ensure I sent something in for our critique group, but it led to some conversation and deeper thoughts after the meeting.

We talked about whether there was something “more” in the proverbial basement, psychologically speaking. While I can’t claim any significant trauma or tragedy in my past, I do habitually shove my frustrations and emotions down to shut them up–partly because I try to pick battles worth fighting, and partly because I try too hard to avoid conflict.

All that stuff festers and builds up, if not checked or dealt with. Contemplating that led to this bit of “poetry.”

The Basement

To borrow from Mansion, maybe build an expansion

I’m considering action toward the house that I’m trapped in,

all these feelings I’ve wrapped in the lines that I’ve crapped in

to documents tapping the keys like I’m rapping

but I know I’m lacking—-Lotsa talk but no backing,

lotsa thoughts but still slacking, lotsa dreams but they’re stacking

like firewood packed in a shack getting racked up

for hacking to kindling I’m axing the questions

I’m tracking the lessons but passing up chances

amassing like cancer, outlasting the answer

by lapsing in trances and grasping at fancies

and fables and falsehoods in fashion

like all of the lies that I cash in

when I choose to live out excuses

and act satisfied when I know that I tried

with far less than the best of my passion

 

I know there’s something in the basement, but I thought I boarded that door,

Did I make a mistake in the placement, did I open a hole in the floor?

Don’t you think that’s some kind of statement, do you wanna know what came before?

Maybe this goes beyond entertainment, we ain’t creative writing no more

When the fear or the pain or the hatred rears its head through the holes that it tore

I don’t know if I can restrain it if I open up down to my core

If I can’t even start to explain it, how could I hope to win such a war

All these white-washed walls’ll be painted blood-red with emotional gore

some kind of lore, some kind of more that I’ve held back in store,

some kind of knowledge encountered before,

maybe I took a mental detour,

maybe I turned something painful I learned,

some experience earned,

some life lesson I spurned,

like a victim got burned,

a prisoner blamed and unnamed,

restrained and contained

 

Like a blur that you see for a minute

at the edge of peripheral vision

but when you turn your eye to look in it

what you thought was right there—now it isn’t

and the hairs on your neck start to raisin’

like there’s someone behind you appraising

all the weakness in you, like he’s gazing

at the prey that he’s planning on tasting

And those holes in the floor are his ceiling,

when he’s looking at them I start feeling

like he’s reaching up through it and stealing

all the joy and the possible healing

all the good things I say, he rewrites em,

all the good deeds I do, redefines em,

absolution? he keeps it behind him

in the dark where he knows I won’t find him,

and his voice echoes up from the stairwell

with a challenge he knows I won’t bear well,

“Wanna come down and play Show and Don’t Tell?”

‘cause he tells me confession won’t fare well

all the pain in my heart, I will hold it,

try to trap it, collapse it, enfold it

in a poem or song where I’ve told it,

in a part but never the full bit,

that would take recognizing the whole of role

of the beast that retreats to my soul pit

and I’d rather just give it the bullet,

got my hand on the trigger—can’t pull it,

so it stays in the place where I placed it,

I guess it’s the guest in the basement

Crawl Space Inside, by Newell Post. (Public Domain)

An Alpha Among Betas

Some days, writing is hard.

I’m not even talking about the deeply emotional, soul-searching stuff like the Hemingway quote about bleeding all over your typewriter. (If you’re doing that to your computer, get yourself checked by a doctor. Get your computer checked, too–they’re not waterproof, let alone blood-proof.)

I know, it’s supposed to be as easy as pouring words onto a page, knowing they’re garbage, so that you have something to sculpt or reshape into actual quality. It’s dumping sand into the sandbox so you can eventually build your little castle.

Like that kid in the sandbox, the castle of words I see in my mind is often quite different from what everyone else sees in the real world.

A little outside perspective is necessary.

Enter the beta reader!

Beta readers are the folks who get to see first (and second, and fifth) drafts of a novel. They’re the trusted friends and fellow writers who have the opportunity to give the vitally important reader perspective to a novelist. They can let a writer know what parts are working great and what parts need more work, long before the draft gets submitted to a publisher or to a self-publishing service.

If you’re working with a publishing house or agent, you’re probably paying for editing, or it’s part of some arrangement with your creative overlords. If you’re self-publishing, it can be liberating to avoid all the hurdles and onerous steps of the traditional process, but you’re also left in desperate need of that outsider perspective.

I’ve been blessed to have several beta readers along the way, each of whom helped make my efforts better. One of them, a friend named David, just came to Okinawa for a month-long, work-related trip, and we had the chance to bounce ideas back and forth as I look at my meager efforts on book 2.

David is a great example of how to be a beta reader. What does he do right?

  1. He gets into the setting and questions world-building.
    “If your magic system works this way, then how do you have an economy? It can’t be based on precious metals if people can simply conjure metals.”
    “It would be difficult to be a classical atheist or even agnostic in a world where people literally manifest symbols of power granted from the Divine, so have you thought about how that might change social interactions and expectations?”
    The messages in the pic above are another example, this time questioning the details of the magic system. While I had an answer, I also noted that I didn’t communicate the concept clearly enough in the story to prevent the question from being asked.
  2. He challenges the writing when it doesn’t fit the character. 
    “You made your main characters sound like middle school girls playing around and laughing when… I mean, the town might not still be on fire but several buildings are still smoldering, and Lyllithe just got kicked out of her religious order, not to mention the attack in the woods… that whole dialogue feels wrong.”
    A beta reader can also tell you which characters are hitting the mark and which feel forgettable.
    “You’ve got Lyl and Jo, and they’re great… and then there’s… uh… Blade Guy with the knives, and Mage Guy who casts spells, and the Other Guy who is scarred. I don’t know anything really about them, and so I don’t really care about them yet.”
  3. He offers tough but fair criticism that is genuinely constructive.
    Feedback like “You’re trying too hard” or “this is bad” is terrible, as it doesn’t offer any corrective option. Feedback like “I liked it” is so vague that it doesn’t identify any positive quality to capitalize upon. I suppose no feedback at all is the worst sort.
    Instead of any of that, I get moments like, “One thing to do in the future may be to pick a single metaphor or simile. There’s a lot of instances where you choose two, where one might have done. Like a child caught between two slices of cake, or pieces of candy.”
    Feedback on the actual writing is the first thing that comes to mind when discussing what makes a beta reader good, but I put it last for this reason:
    Writers need this kind of attention to the quality of their writing, but a grammatically correct manuscript might still be full of plot holes and flat characters.

David and I talked on the way to the airport yesterday, as he is headed back to the States. “It’s a unique experience,” he said of reading my book and peppering me with friendly, well-intentioned grief. “It’s not every book I read where I know the author and can message them with challenges or questions about their work. It’s not like I can email Stephen King and ask, ‘Hey, what were you thinking here?'”

Sometimes that’s exactly what we need to hear… preferably before we publish.

If you want to support a friend who is a writer, offer to be a beta reader for their work… then follow through. 

 

Letting Go (Short Story)

I slip in the back door, and a scented wave of cinnamon and sugar hits me, an intended welcoming warmth that I don’t feel. I head for the stairs, hoping to make it to my room before—

“You’re back!” Mom’s voice sounds strained, her cheerful tone forced. Like always. “How was the mall?”

I shrug. “Boring.”

She pulls a plate of snickerdoodles off the stovetop. “I made some treats for Sunday school, and thought you might like some of the extras. They’re fresh out of the oven.”

“I’m not that hungry, Mom. There’s half a dozen. Dinner’s in an hour.” I feel like she should be the one thinking about that. Still, I’m not about to turn the offer down, not entirely. I snatch one off the plate and let my teeth sink into the soft, sweet cookie.

She watches me with concern, that same disturbed look she’s been giving me every night for the last few years. “Well,” she says, “I thought… maybe Thomas would like some? They’re his favorite.”

I roll my eyes and set the plate on the counter. “I’m not dealing with this again today. I have homework.” Maybe Dad will eat the other ones, or I’ll just snack on them during school tomorrow.

School… yeah right. Sitting at the dining table with a couple workbooks and an iPad is “school” as much as the first aid kit in the bathroom makes it a hospital. Homeschooling is supposed to be close, intimate… but the way my parents run things, it’s about giving me busy work so they can avoid dealing with me. I’m fine with that—I try to avoid them, too.

“Don’t forget,” Mom yells down the hallway as I make my escape, “we have an appointment with Nick tomorrow.”

I whirl and let loose. “Can we stop pretending that calling Doctor Greene by his first name takes away the fact he’s a shrink you’re making me see because you think I’m crazy?”

Mom lets out that defeated sigh of hers, the one that means she will leave me alone. It’s a stalemate, but I’ll take it.

I walk past Thomas’s room—always empty, always immaculate—and slam my door before flopping onto my bed. Tomorrow’s a big day; I know that’s why they made the appointment. Five years ago, Thomas and I took off on our bikes, and only one of us came home.

* * * * *

“Hello! Good to see you,” Nick says, with a too-white smile and “Happy Holidays” disposition. I don’t mind calling him Nick, even though I’ll argue with my parents about it. To them, and to him, it probably seems cool, a way of relating to the kids he sees. Whatever. It’s all part of the show we’re putting on here. Thirty minutes of fun and entertainment, and the clock starts now.

He’s got two folding chairs in front of his desk, and a love seat in the corner where Mom and Dad could sit together, if Dad ever bothered to show up. I take the one on the left and sink into a slouch, arms crossed, hoodie shading my view.

“Mrs. Talbach,” Nick says in his overly chipper tone. He turns to me, glances at the empty seat, and says, “I’m really glad Thomas could be here today.”

I kick the extra chair aside with a huff. “It’s just me, Nick,” I hiss, “just like the last five times. What are we paying you for again?”

As soon as I say it, Mom’s emotional rubber band snaps—I can feel her burning glare on the back of my neck. “Mind your tone and watch your manners. You’re not paying him for anything—”

“Darci,” Nick says, cutting her off. His tone is solid and firm. “Maybe you’d like a mug of cocoa? Someone at the front desk can help you.”

He takes a seat beside his desk, his eyes on her. He watches in silence, removing any doubt about the directive nature of his suggestion.

I try not to smirk, and I keep my back to Mom until the door clicks shut.

“So,” Nick says, elbows on knees, chin resting on his laced fingers. “Still pushing your mother’s buttons?”

“As much as she pushes mine.”

“You realize your parents have been through a lot, too, don’t you? Today, especially. The memory of the accident hits them as hard as it does you.”

Of course I realize that… but they didn’t see what happened.

Nick glances at the empty chair. “You say that Thomas isn’t with you anymore, but I’m afraid you’re telling me what you think I want to hear. It’s easy to put on an act for the doctor every two weeks, and you’re a smart kid, no doubt about it. Smart enough to figure that out.”

I stare at him from beneath my hood. That’s most of what Dad pays for—Nick and me staring at each other in silence. Maybe that’s part of why he stopped coming.

“You can be honest with me,” Nick says. “No sign of Thomas at all?”

“I let him go. That’s what you’re supposed to do, right? Move on?”

“Yes, well, you’re a… complex case, in my experience,” Nick replies. His fingers stroke the thick file on the edge of the desk. “In any event, after a traumatic episode, you’re right, it’s important to keep moving forward in life. However, we all want to be sure the direction you’re moving in is healthy. That it leads somewhere better than where you were when we first met.”

Same old speech. “Who’s to say what’s better, Nick?”

“Great question. I think that’s when you benefit most from the perspectives of others—the people who love you, the people you love. Those, like me, who want what’s best for you.”

Out the window, I can see a dozen kids scrambling all over a school playground across the street. Climbing, swinging, chasing, laughing. I miss those days.

Nick leans over and twists the stick; the venetian blinds snap shut. “Tell me about Fairmont Junior High.”

“Sucked.”

“I imagine so, given some of these comics and stories you wrote.” He slides a couple yellowed sheets of paper out from the folder. On one of them, a pair of stick figures fight their way through a school infested with zombies. On another, there’s a list of names titled ‘People I Hope Die.’

I sigh and stare at Nick’s wall of degrees in glossy frames.

Nick points at the comic. “‘Timmy and Tommy Versus the Zombies,’ a tale of twin boys, taking on the mindless horde of cold adults and mean classmates that you had to deal with every day. That’s kind of funny. Maybe a little bit like life?”

When I don’t respond, Nick presses his point. “You drew this, what, a year after he passed away? Do you think maybe you were expressing some feelings you weren’t able to process otherwise?”

I shrug.

“Of course,” Nick continues, “Fairmont had a zero-tolerance policy for anything perceived as threats, so when your teacher found this list, you had to—”

“No! That’s not why we homeschool, okay?”

Nick sits back at the outburst, but gestures for me to elaborate. I’m surprised that came out, but I’m so sick of them worrying about problems and phantoms I’ve already outgrown.

“How do you think it felt,” I say, “being the only kid in middle school with an imaginary friend? Being the kid who freaked out if anyone sat next to him in the cafeteria… Teachers had to keep one desk empty rather than put up with me losing it in the middle of class…”

Nick nods, pretending he knows what it’s like. “That’s why I’m glad we’ve made progress,” he says gently, and gestures at the empty seat. “Some, at least.”

“Whatever. If we made so much progress, what the hell am I doing here?”

“Like I said, you’re complex. There’s still more going on, and I don’t know if you’re ready or willing to address it.”

I shake my head, and my lips curl in frustration. “I’m fine with how things are now. I’m finally fine. I’ve moved on. That’s all I wanted, all I needed. I just wish everybody else would back off and stop trying to tell me what’s best for me.”

“You say that, but—”

“Isn’t it time to go?” I grab the small digital clock he has on his desk—turned away from the patients, of course, but always visible from his chair—and check the time. Ten more minutes. Dammit.

“It’s a sign of progress that you no longer require the additional space and consideration you once expected from everyone,” Nick drones, flipping through records of previous visits. “That’s an important step, but as I review your history, I wonder if we are moving in a healthy direction. One significant concern when dealing with delusions related to trauma is that…”

I’m done with this. My mind shuts down and my eyes wander over the decorations around the room: the dream-catcher some kid made in art class, the framed newspaper story with Nick’s picture, the carved African trickster guy hunched over his flute whose name I can never remember.

“—unable to distinguish,” he continues, “between the real and the imaginary in other parts of life, affecting relationships, job performance—or, in your case, academics—and basic social integration.”

Nick leans forward and gives me his oh-so-caring face. I wonder how many times he practiced that in med school. “What I’m saying is, I can’t just ignore these other symptoms.”

“They’re not symptoms,” I growl. I’m so tired of him and everyone else not listening to what I’m saying about me. “Stop treating me like I have a problem. I had a problem. It’s gone now.”

“You have to want to get well before—”

I fly out of the seat and kick it down behind me. “I am well!”

I had a twin. We did everything together. He got into an accident and died, and that sucks, and nothing’s gonna fix that. I did what I could and let go.

Now I wish they would.

Before Nick can give me another one of his touchy-feely speeches, I storm out the door into the lobby, past Mom and her cup of Swiss Miss, past the secretary’s stupid bulging eyes, past some other waiting mom and her teenage daughter. I leave them all stunned and slam the outer door on my way to the parking lot, slipping my earbuds in. I just want to be alone with the fresh air and my music.

Moments later, Nick leads Mom out the door and checks what I’m doing before continuing his conversation with her. I pause the music on my phone so I can hear, and keep pacing around Mom’s car, eyes on the ground, the perfect image of a distracted teen.

“—following the right approach, Mrs. Talbach. There’s more pain deep inside that he doesn’t want to deal with just yet, and this is his way of coping—or rather, ignoring and suppressing that hurt. Keep on pressing him about why he let go of Thomas.”

“But he gets so angry,” Mom says, her voice quivering like she’s going to cry again. “And he just shuts down whenever I say his name.”

“This is important. It’s going to be a hard road; I won’t lie to you, it’s probably going to be almost as bad as…” He glances at me and leaves the rest unsaid.

The kids on the playground are still shrieking with delight, dashing to and fro. I remember recess with my brother, when we challenged each other to ever-higher climbs and ever-farther jumps off the swings. Always one-upping each other, never afraid of the risks. That, and pranking the teachers in grade school, who never could tell us apart.

“Talk to Jared,” Nick says, referring to Dad. “Please, encourage him to come next time. He’s burying his pain, too. Maybe helping his son will draw both of them out of their shells.”

Mom nods. “I’ll try.”

Can’t wait to see the train wreck tonight when she brings that up.

* * * * *

“I’m not going back, Darci,” Dad shouts. “I tried that psycho-babble bull. We’re throwin’ money at that guy every month, and for what?”

They always think their fights are some kind of secret, something I don’t notice because it happens after dark, behind closed doors. Even quiet voices carry through the vents; shouts come through loud and clear. The doors and walls aren’t nearly as soundproof as their minds.

“Honey,” Mom pleads, “there has to be some way to make things better.” I hear the crack in her voice as she adds, “I can’t lose him too.”

“Wasn’t it that quack’s idea to let the imaginary friend crap run its course in the first place? Then all of a sudden, we’re supposed to stop playing along. Where did that get us, huh?”

Like I’m some garbage video game they’re playing… Push A to expose pain; tap B to speed recovery; use right trigger to unlock closer relationship.

“Doctor Greene says we need to keep talking to Thomas,” Mom insists, her voice ragged. That tone—she’s barely holding together. It’s the threshold before the bubbling pot boils over.

“Darci, he keeps saying Thomas isn’t there anymore.” For once I have the tiny spark of hope that maybe someone believes me. “He’s not doing any of that imaginary crap like before. Maybe we’re only going to make things worse if we press the issue.”

“I can’t pretend that—I won’t accept that he—God, Jared, every time he acts like this, I feel like I’m grieving all over again.”

Dad says nothing. I get where Mom’s coming from, but she doesn’t know what Thomas went through, either.

“So… what do we do?” Mom sounds broken.

“Hell if I know.”

* * * * *

“Let’s talk about that day.” Nick isn’t even trying to go slow today.

“Fine. There’s not much to say. We rode our bikes up the steep hill on Hoffman Street, up to the train tracks. Nobody rides down that hill—it’s crazy. I told Thomas he didn’t have to do it, I told him he won the bet. I chickened out.”

“Is that right?”

“He said it wouldn’t be fair if he didn’t go through with it.”

Nick sits back, giving me a suspicious eye. “What did you say to that?”

I look around the room, trying to focus on anything else. Mom didn’t bother coming in this time. Dad called about some last-minute meeting at the office, so Mom stayed in the car fighting with him over the phone while I checked myself in for my appointment.

Against my will, the memories flash through my mind: my brother lurching forward and pedaling like mad, building up speed before the descent, my hand reaching out as if I could pluck him off the bike from ten feet away. “I didn’t have time to say anything.”

For an instant, I feel the onset of tears, the old hurt like a hand wrapped around my heart, squeezing into a fist. It was my fault. I goaded him into it. He lost control—I should’ve known that would happen—and went into traffic on Garfield Avenue at the bottom of the hill…

“Thomas,” Nick says, “it’s not healthy. All that guilt, all that blame, that crushing burden? You’ve been carrying it too long.”

My eyes drop to that folder on the desk, the name “Thomas Talbach” written in thick black Sharpie. Of course that fat secretary had me booked under the wrong name, the same one on Nick’s file. As he waits for me to answer, Nick taps his fingers on the folder almost like he’s pointing out the mistake everyone keeps making.

Just like how the hospital put the wrong name on the death certificate.

Just like the gravestone.

I don’t need any help. I don’t have any burden to put down. My only problem is I don’t know how to get everyone else to see that.

“My name,” I mutter, “is Timothy.”

Nick locks eyes with me, his face stern, his tone hard. “You need to let go, Thomas.”

“That’s the thing, Nick. I already did.”

 

Delusions and Adventures – Two Open Submission Opportunities

Writer friends and followers:

While there are a host of magazines and collections that often solicit submissions, two recent options caught my eye.

ApparitionLit runs a quarterly open solicitation for submissions of poetry and short fiction, with some appropriately thrilling or mysterious theme. This quarter is “delusion,” but unfortunately, the session is about to close (Feb 28th).

They’re accepting works with a theme of vision from May 15-31, and submission guidelines can be found here.

Find a quiet place, listen to the voices in your head, and write out all your inner pain… easy!

 

 

 

 

 

Since I’ve been focused on preparing my own submission, I failed as a blogger and provided those links far too late for anyone else to benefit. To make up for this heinous misdeed, here is another opportunity for short story submissions:

Rachel Ritchey is organizing a short story contest for adventure fantasy and sci-fi pieces as part of an anthology to raise money for charity. The inspiration for this piece is a cover picture provided with the submission details at the link above.

This contest just opened up today (Feb 26th) and runs until March 16th.

Now my guilty conscience is (somewhat) appeased, and I can get back to working on my own pieces.