Tag Archives: fiction

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!”

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.

I Feel Attacked

Saw this a while back, after having some conversations with a writer friend from my local group. “Dave,” he said, “one thing I noticed was consistency in spelling. Which things are capitalized and which are not. That sort of thing.”

Guess what’s #1 on Ellen Brock’s list?

D’oh!!

Seriously, though, if you’re self-publishing or working on a manuscript to submit to traditional publishing, here are a lot of pitfalls to avoid.

Putting NaNo to Bed

Another November passes, and another National Novel Writing Month comes to a close.

You win a self-inflicted nervous breakdown! Also your manuscript needs infinity revisions.

I’m proud to have put over 50,000 words into my project, but I’m most excited about connecting and re-connecting with writers in my area. Not only did all four regular members of our base writing group dive into the challenge this year, but a WriMo participant from a few years ago jumped in (and won!). On top of that, I met four writers I didn’t know prior to the NaNoWriMo events.

Not everything went perfectly.

I had the privilege once again of serving as a Municipal Liaison for Japan–specifically Okinawa.

We have three stellar individuals on the mainland who managed the bulk of the nation’s participants. On island, our group had a rough start that forced me to develop some guidelines and contingency plans for future NaNo events–stuff you hope you never have to enforce, but you realize should be in place “just in case.” Yay for opportunities to grow and practice interpersonal skills!

The librarian on Kadena is passionate about writing groups–participating and supporting–so we enjoyed an array of Keurig coffee cups and a constant influx of writing resources. (Anyone need a journal? Here’s a stack. Need a book about researching how bodies decompose? I know a great one we might even have here… Stuck in your manuscript? Try playing around with some poetry magnets or story dice.) Who said libraries aren’t cool?

Great participants and a supportive location made my job easy and enjoyable!

My writing felt like a mess more than usual.

In the past, I approached NaNo like a plotter, laying out the overall course of the story with key milestones I knew I needed to hit as well as rough scene ideas documenting who needed to say or do what and for what purpose. That usually works for me, like following a recipe of cake mix. I have a little bit of freedom to substitute ingredients, and I can change plans in the middle if I really want to do so. “I think I’ll turn this into cupcakes instead of using a standard 9 by 13 cake pan. I’ll switch out the oil with applesauce for a healthier option.”

Some people are “pantsers” who sit down with a blank document and go to town, allowing the muse and the characters they’ve created in their minds to develop on paper in whatever way the story unfolds. More power to all of you who can manage that.

This year, I think I fell in the middle of the two–what some NaNo types call “plantser.” I had much less to go on than my last three NaNo drafts. The rough bones of a story arc bounced around in my mind, and I jotted down certain key points at the bottom of my manuscript Word document, but I had nowhere near the detail or preparation of previous efforts. It showed, as I left myself a lot more notes with questions to follow-up on, gaps or plot holes I could see while writing, even basic details like “insert her mom’s name here.”

On the one hand, “plantsing” gave me enough freedom to do as I pleased, changing up the events in the story as I wrote, to fit new ideas and revelations. It also gave me enough signposts as reminders to keep me moving in my intended direction. “Not saying you have to take the left lane onto I-80, but Chicago is far down the interstate in this direction, so you do you.”

I kept distractions to a (relative) minimum.

My favorite author Brandon Sanderson released the next novel in his massive epic fantasy series, The Stormlight Archives. Those books are so good, my non-fantasy-reading wife even loves them. That has been sitting on my iPad for the last three weeks, taunting me, beckoning with one finger crooked. “Just one chapter… that’s all… won’t take long… come on…”

The Netflix Punisher series came out mid-November, and I am a sucker for Jon Bernthal’s amazing combination of brooding / unhinged. Dude is like the stacks of unstable dynamite from my favorite 80s post-apocalyptic games. Sure, you might gain something by searching this, but you probably ought to back out of the fallout shelter slowly and forget what you saw here. (Fans of Wasteland might know what I’m talking about. The rest of you can take pleasure knowing I suck at analogies.)

I watched one episode the night it came out, then forced myself to close the app.

Thor: Ragnarok was a must-see, so I used that as my reward for getting ahead of schedule early. Justice League was going to be a mid-month reward, but I started falling behind and never found a good time to see it. In 20/20 hindsight, given the reviews and images, maybe that wasn’t a bad thing.

My pained smile when someone asks how NaNoWriMo is coming this year. “Yeah… I’m writing words or something…”

The addiction to video games kept its hooks deep in my flesh-husk. While I pulled away from WoW, and only played a couple hours of the intro of Horizon: Zero Dawn – The Frozen Wilds (omg such a great game), the mindless entertainment bug bit hard about three weeks in. For inexplicable reasons, as I looked at the Blizzard launcher on my PC, I realized that I own Diablo III, and I never played through the fifth act expansion, nor have I tried the necromancer class they added long after the game’s release. Easy fix! A few minutes of monster-grinding and loot-grabbing wouldn’t affect my writing too much, right?

In the course of a week, I played through the whole story and raised my overpowered goddess of death to just shy of max level. “Just one more level… just one more quest… just need to kill this one boss…”

Really, with an army of skeletons fighting for me, it just seems unfair.

I’ve put 75,000 words on various projects this month.

I started this year with a goal of writing a thousand words a day. Like many New Year’s resolutions, that lost steam after the first month or two. By about April I recalculated my goal. (500 words wouldn’t be too bad, right?)

In September, I realized if I cracked down and wrote like NaNoWriMo every month until the end of the year, I would make it. That didn’t pan out, though I exceeded my 1K/day goal. After the last month of grinding, I’m sitting at about 320K, with a few different projects clamoring for my attention. (I’ll post about one of them soon, because it has been both fun and valuable to me.)

Not saying those words are great words… but they’re something I can edit, revise, or cut, which is better than a blank page on screen and a bunch of imagined plot lines in my head.

All of that to say, I’m sort of sorry I was gone for the last month (plus), I’m not too worried because I can see how many or how few views come through, but I’m grateful for those of you who care enough to read this and/or support me, even if it’s just asking, “How’s that writing coming?”

Cue the wild-eyed Superman pain-rictus. “Pretty good,” I say through clenched teeth, choking down my self-loathing. “Everything is fine.”

Plots and Plans

At our bi-weekly Okinawa Military Community Writers meeting, Kyle led off the discussion with an exercise in developing the main idea of a short story, novella, or book. He posted about this and covered the 5 Ws that can help a writer summarize the story they intend to write.

I hope to build on that here with some additional tools or techniques for devising a plot line. Your mileage may vary, but hopefully one of these options will prove useful.

So you want to write a book…

Anyone setting out to write hopes to create something new and interesting, a unique contribution to their genre–and that’s a noble aspiration, of course. That might make some of these formulaic approaches seem unpalatable.

The thing to remember about a formula is it exists because it works.

Readers expect certain elements in particular genres… and this is not bad. A reader should have a decent idea what to expect based on the cover, back copy, and the first few pages. The tale may be familiar in structure, but unique in the telling, which makes it a fun read.

Deviating from the standard plan can be creative. Deviating too much is detrimental unless you telegraph it from the beginning.
In one of his excellent lectures on writing, fantasy author Brandon Sanderson brings up the example of a fellow writer who got published around the same time as Sanderson’s first book, Elantris. Sanderson’s book sold well and launched his career. The other fellow’s book sold poorly. What started as one type of novel (fantasy coming of age) suddenly became an entirely different book (dark and gritty science fiction) about three-quarters of the way in. Obviously other factors could be at work in this example, but when a book doesn’t deliver on its promise, that turns readers away.

That’s where planning and plotting can help. If we understand the commitment we’re making and the steps we should take in order to fulfill that promise, it’s easy to give readers what they will like.

“But I write free and unrestrained,” one may protest. “An outline or plot is a straitjacket in a padded room, an orange jumpsuit in a prison cell. I won’t go willingly.”

Pantsers (those who write by the seat of the pants) can still find use in these tools and structures. However, instead of using one to start an outline, the pantser can use these to guide the first major revision. If we’ve done our job as writers, the rough first draft will have elements of story and theme and proper flow between events, leading from whatever kicks off the thrill ride to the explosive climax. Figuring out the main structure of a story–even a free-writing journey of creativity–can illuminate what works and what fits, or highlight what should be cut to make the end result leaner and tighter.

Get your writing on LOCK

James Scott Bell writes about the LOCK method in Plot and Structure, among other books. The elements are:

  • Lead – a compelling or interesting character we’re going to care about enough to read through an entire novel.
  • Objective – the important goal or need driving this character into action they might otherwise avoid
  • Confrontation – the opposing forces or agents keeping the Lead from a quick solution
  • Knockout – an unexpected yet exciting ending that wraps up the conflict while blowing the reader’s mind

The stakes in the conflict have to be high–usually involving death. That doesn’t mean the lead or some support character must literally be hanging from a cliff or targeted in a sniper’s scope. Death can be professional (disbarred as a lawyer, kicked out of the military, imprisoned for a crime, or simply shamed and humiliated), or personal (divorced by the spouse they love, abandoned or rejected by their child, trapped forever in regret and frustration at what might have been).

Varying the Variables

A technique I picked up from George Guthridge during a fantasy writing workshop involves sorting out the variables and reasons that sum up the conflict, almost like a math formula.

(Variable 1) (verb phrase) (variable 2) because (reason).

For example, “A hopeless loser gets his life mixed up with his wealthy twin because neither knew the other existed.” So we get all the variations on The Prince and the Pauper, such as Freaky Friday, the Parent Trap, and a number of plots for one-off episodes in cartoons and comedy shows.

The trick here is to ensure that most of the equation involves some new or interesting. One of the variables can be boring–the hopeless loser, for example–but the rest must be exciting for the equation to work.

For example, the hopeless modern-day loser is trained to use magic by an enigmatic centuries-old sorcerer because only together can they close the portal to Hell in the middle of Times Square.

Okay, that’s been done, but the point is only one part of that equation feels like it fits in the mundane everyday world.

Filling Out the Outline

Guthridge also taught a skeletal plot structure that lays out the protagonist’s character arc, around which all the rest of the story will build. Here are the pieces of that framework:

  1. The Protagonist (what’s interesting about him or her?)
  2. Has an emotional / inner problem (what’s the backstory that led to this personal issue?)
  3. But an outside problem arises (what happens that forces the protagonist to face their issue and backstory?)
  4. Protagonist tries a solution that not only fails, but makes things worse (how are the stakes raised as a result?)
  5. Repeat 4 with another failed solution that builds the conflict and deepens the crisis
  6. Repeat 4 if you have space for a third failed solution and the resulting increased tension
  7. Protagonist solves the outer problem (without help from God, luck, friends, family, deus ex machina stuff)…
  8. And in so doing also solves or overcomes their inner problem

This will establish the main thrust of your character’s journey. Plotters can use it to start an outline; pantsers can look for how what they’ve written conforms to this kind of arc and revise accordingly.

Characters Change… Maybe?

Some books and speakers insist that a story is a series of events where characters change. This isn’t always true.

While considering the path a character will take (or has taken in the first draft), it may be that he or she remained firm in their convictions, against all the odds and pressure to change. Some stories are about people whose unwavering beliefs carry them through seemingly insurmountable odds. The tension builds with the increasing temptation to give in, and readers wonder, “Will they break? Will they sell out?” We’re satisfied when they don’t. Think of Captain America in the Avengers movies, who states that sometimes when all the world pushes you to move, you have to stand your ground and say, “No, you move.”

Conversely, plenty of stories involve the transition from an old belief or worldview to a new take on reality. Most “apprentice” novels and coming-of-age stories involve an underdog who becomes a master of their craft while developing the internal confidence to stand up for themselves.

A character may stand firm or change views–then we can reveal if their decision will end well or poorly for them. Maybe it’s a mistake with dire consequences, a cautionary tale. The unwavering person might not be able to survive a changing world (alas, Ned Stark!), and the person shifting their beliefs might live to regret their decision. Either of these can be a satisfying (if not happy) resolution to a character’s arc.

Nothing New Under the Sun

None of these structures or techniques are first-seen, unheard of, unique experimental snowflake novels. They don’t have to be. Everything we do and create is derivative of something we’ve seen or experienced–that’s what makes it relatable. The familiarity of the structure puts readers in a comfortable place, but each writer’s individual twists or combinations of ideas build a fresh experience that keeps the writing from feeling like what we’ve seen before. On top of that, no one tells a story exactly the same way; the use of voice and style in writing puts the spice in the casserole of words that will satisfy a hungry reader.

I hope the tools above and the 5 Ws from Kyle’s post help spur some creative writing. Whether following a recipe is easier, or looking at a picture and winging it is preferred, let’s get cooking and serve up something delicious.

Finding Allies

Readers: This is a scene I wrote for a character in a tabletop roleplaying game, someone out to do good even if their powers are misunderstood and condemned by society at large.


Fleuris ducked down the alleyway between wooden shops and hawker’s stands near the Quay, weaving her way between the meandering peasants ogling things they could never afford. She shot a glance behind her and caught a glimpse of sunlight sparkling off two shields emblazoned with the six-point sun of Aulivar.

Soulforged—champions of Justice and unwavering bastions of virtue. They’d chased her across mountains and rivers, over leagues and tendays. She’d tried to ditch them in the dark corners of every town and city in the ‘Marches, but still they maintained their pursuit.

Even among their zealous order, few sins earned such relentless retribution as necromancy.

If only they could let me explain… if only they could understand.

Her friends would be waiting at the docks… Trenton strumming his lute and singing a sailor chanty, Galla sharpening her longswords, Hakri meditating and memorizing a fresh array of war-spells. But the three companions wouldn’t be enough by themselves to take on the pirate crew… so Fleuris intended to bring help.

It shouldn’t be far now, and the ritual wouldn’t take long—provided the Order lost the trail along the way. Her prize lay at the edge of Mirelenai’s sprawl of ramshackle buildings and flimsy shanties. The dread pirate Bloodhook the Brutal, Captain of the mighty Dire Shark, scourge of the Bay of Raentallas, lay wrapped in tight sheets in a shallow grave outside the town. After the mutiny, Bloodhook’s crew buried him on land to prevent his spirit from returning to the seas he loved and lorded over—one last spiteful jab at the savage master who had beaten them into submission.

Now the Dire Shark sailed the bay once more, tormenting seafaring merchants and plundering their ships’ holds. The Seamistress would pour out a chest full of gems and gold coins on anyone who sent the Dire Shark to the ocean’s floor.

“Seize that girl!” a voice shouted from much too close behind her. Another shouted, “The Ghostskin in purple,” and Fleuris gasped. She zipped down a narrow walkway that stank like an open sewer, trying not to consider the filth staining the hem of her burgundy skirt. The deep violet cloak wrapped around her wispy frame obscured her face from view, and her gloves of thick, black lace helped hide the tell-tale alabaster skin the Order sought.

She hustled through the dim-lit walkway, headed for the sunlight at the far end. A few paces from the street, she stumbled over an unseen obstacle like a tree root, and glanced down, squinting in the darkness. A body of some poverty-stricken peasant lay slumped against a wall, not yet dead a full tenday, judging by the rate of decay.

Fleuris probed the supernatural realm with her heightened senses and latched onto a glowing spark of life hanging in limbo. “I’m sorry,” she whispered to the soul, then again to the body on the ground. She yanked the life force from the ether and shoved it into the corpse, then watched the fruit of her labor.

The body clambered to its feet, loosing a swarm of flies and dropping chunks of flesh. Dead eyes stared at Fleuris, waiting.

She doffed her cloak, threw it over the corpse’s shoulders, and sent it a forceful command. Then she slipped into the crowds on the street, her step calm and sure despite the racing thrash of emotions and the rapid drumbeat in her chest.

After passing a few merchants, Fleuris paused at a tailor’s stand and reached for her coinpurse. “How much for the forest green cloak there,” she asked, “with the silver trim?”

While they exchanged offers and counter-offers, Fleuris caught the glimpse of her violet cloak near the walkway she’d passed through. The animated corpse shambled into the street and lumbered away from her, toward the busy docks at the heart of the town.

Fleuris threw the new garment over her shoulders and clasped the smooth material with a silver brooch under her chin. Then she froze in fear. Two dozen paces away, she spotted the pair of Soulforged from the Order, stomping their way through the crowd toward her.

“Undead!” Someone shouted in the distance, and another voice chimed in. “A walking corpse near the Ragged Sail! To arms!”

Other cries joined the throng, and the two Soulforged halted their approach. Then they dashed toward the commotion, swallowing whole the hook and bait she’d left them.

Fleuris turned her back to them and strode away with as casual a pace as she could muster. This road would curve toward the fields and foothills outside the town. A short walk by the bay in the afternoon breeze would lead to the grove which held Bloodhook’s remains.

Buried on a slope within earshot of the sea, but laid in a grave that faced away from the water… With cruel care, the Dire Shark’s crew had chosen the site of Bloodhook’s final resting place.

Not final, Fleuris corrected herself. He will rise again… I’ll see to that. Though he did nothing to atone for his crimes in life, he shall do much to repay them in death.

After all, Trenton and Galla had asked for allies on their quest. They didn’t specify living allies.

 


Note: This was written and inspired partly by discussions about whether a necromancer in D&D could possibly be considered “good.” My thoughts on the subject are found here, but I’d love to hear yours.

The Kinder Choice

Here’s a short story for Rachael Ritchey’s Blog Battle this week, where the word is restraint and the suggested genre is Historical Fiction, specifically Western. 

This is one of my current favorite characters, the gambler prophet whose dice give him insight into what’s to come. But this is a generation later, when the Gift has moved on to a new face – Annabelle Boudreaux, a troubled woman with a deck of cards that calls her to action. 

I really want to turn one of these into a NaNoWriMo book or similar project, but for now, they’ll pop up in short stories.

—-

The moon casts a bright silver light across the plains, and stars twinkle over the Falstaff Saloon. The street smells like manure and tabacca-spit despite the soft pitter-pat of rain, and cigar smoke rolls out the door like a fog. The music inside fills the breeze with a dancin’ tune, the fiddler better than this corrupt town deserves.

Mercado’s whole gang is inside. The man himself is upstairs—chasin’ sporting girls, countin’ blood money, maybe both.  The century may have turned, but men are pretty much the same as ever.

I feel the ache in my bones—joints that have seen a several dozen years complain at the thought of what’s to come. I put this life behind me twenty years ago, and I’m not keen on seeing it claw back out of the plot where I buried it.  

The young brunette next to me slides the last round into the chamber of her revolver. The Devil’s Sharpy, Annabelle Boudreaux has the Gift just like I once did—with a deck of cards instead of my old pair of dice. ‘Course she uses it pretty much the opposite of me.

“This is a mistake, Annabelle.”

“It was a mistake for him to snatch Aideen off the stage—one of many poor choices Mercado’s made over his lifetime.”

Aideen Brannaghan—Annabelle’s half-sister and partner-in-crime, a timid Irish lass who’s decent with a pistol, but deadlier with a pair of knives than anyone I know, once you spark her temper. We could really use her now… but then we wouldn’t need to be here in the first place.

“I meant us, alone, trying to take him down.”

“It’s what the cards said would come to pass.” She laughs, and the whiskey on her breath nearly gets me drunk. I wonder how she sees straight to shoot, but then I remember how the Gift worked in my day. It’d be hard to miss a target all glowed up like an electric lantern.

“Maybe something’s changed,” I venture, knowing how weak and futile the plea must sound.

Annabelle slides out a deck of gleaming cards and fans a dozen in her hand, every card a one-eyed Jack. The hearts catch my eye as important—something she never bothered to explain. I ain’t sussed out all of how she interprets what the Gift shows her.

“You of all people should know better, Mister ‘God’s Shooter’ himself.”

I spit on the ground. “A stupid nickname from a far-fetched story written by a fool.”

“Quite a few stories, or so I hear… the better part of ‘em true.”

“Not a lot of men you can trust. Pretty girl like you has to know that by now.”

“Men lie, but graves don’t. You ready?” She flashes me that smile of hers, then turns away before I can respond.

“You ain’t.” Like most women I’ve cared about, once she gets an idea in her head, there’s no dissuading her. My words are wasted before they’re out my mouth, but I say ‘em anyhow.

“Just try to keep up.”

With that, Annabelle dives through the swinging double doors of the saloon, and thunder booms from the pair of Colts in her slender fingers. The fiddler’s bow screeches to a halt and he dives behind the bar.

“Show some restraint,” I shout over the din, laying down some covering fire at the boys on the second floor. “You can’t just go in guns blazin’ like the Gift is some kind of magic shield.”

Annabelle shoots me a glare. “But that’s what you did for years.”

“An’ I got the scars to prove it.”

She plugs one of Mercado’s goons with a no-look over-the-shoulder shot. Makes me wonder if the Gift works different for her than it did for me. Then she gives me a raised eyebrow. “Pretty sure no one but Lucien ever landed a shot on you, Zack. You can’t lie to a natural born swindler.”

“I’m not talkin’ about my skin, girl. Some hurts, time don’t heal.”

“That much I already know. That’s why I’m here… to give back some of the hurt Mercado done to me and mine.” She fans the hammer and sweeps the room. Three more toughs drop to the hardwood floorboards. Quiet fills the main room downstairs, and there’s a muffled scream from the second floor.

“Aideen,” Annabelle shouts. She dashes up the steps, and I hobble after her quick as my age permits.

Before Annabelle reaches the double-doors of the master suite, gunfire tears through the polished wood. Annabelle shoulders through the doorway, guns at the ready, disappearing from my view.

Unexpected silence hangs over the saloon as I lurch toward the shattered doors. Once I reach the suite, I find Annabelle holding Aideen close, the younger girl half-dressed, her short splash of red hair tucked underneath Annabelle’s chin.

A wisp of smoke curls up from the pistol in Aideen’s shaking hand, and two bodies lay slumped in the corner with large crimson stains in their pretty white waistcoats. “Had to wait until I could get loose,” Aideen whispers. “But I almost—they were going to—“ She trails off, eyes squeezed shut.

Annabelle’s gaze remains fixed. Her hand doesn’t flinch at all, the barrel of her Colt trained on the bead of sweat runnin’ down the furrow between Mercado’s eyebrows. The man sits against the wall clutching the gunshot wound in his leg.

Annabelle’s finger tenses up on the trigger. Then she smirks. “Aideen, go get your knives.”

Aideen starts collecting her things and hands Annabelle one of the long steel blades.

“Let the law clean this up, girl. You done what you set out to do.”

“Oh no,” Annabelle says with a mirthless laugh. “He’s not buying his way off the gallows again. Getting Mercado was just the start. Now we can have some fun.” She turns a hungry grin his way, and he goes whiter than a playing card. “I’ve been waiting years for this, amigo.”

“Annabelle, don’t become the thing you hate. Trust me.”

“This man,” she says, waving the Colt in Mercado’s quivering face, “is a scourge on this whole Territory, a pus-filled boil of infection on the back of humankind.” Her face is red an’ steaming, her eyes like a locomotive furnace at full bore–and Mercado’s tied to the tracks up ahead-a that train. “The things he’s done deserve an eternity of all God’s wrath, and I think it’s fitting we get started in the here and now.”

“Think about what you’re doing, dammit.” I see the pistol flinch in her hand—gotta hope what I’m sayin’ might sink in. “You been given this foresight for a reason, a purpose, something bigger and greater than seekin’ your own self-interest.”

Annabelle swallows hard, and the barrel of the Colt dips toward the floor. “You’re right, Zack,” she says with a long sigh.

Then she blows Mercado’s brains across the wood-paneled wall.

“Christ have mercy, girl, what did I say? Show some restraint!”

Annabelle dumps the empty cartridges on the floor in the spreading pool of blood and hands the knife back to Aideen.

“I did,” she says, colder than a desert night. “You don’t know what all I had planned.”

Download on the Down-Low

Here’s my BlogBattle entry for this week, with the word “pirate” and the genre of crime/thriller, especially mystery.

This was an unexpected return to the setting of a recent piece starring Dom the Deadtective and his love interest, Innova, the Spirit of Innovation, prisoner of the cruel and powerful Oni. I’ll finish this story with next week’s Blog Battle. 

—–

Innova tiptoes through the alleyway, weaving between puddles of vomit and piles of Devil-Knows-What. Her nose turns up at the odor, or at least that’s the impression I get. Not sure spirits breathe at all, let alone smell anything. 
We’re a couple blocks down the road from the banks of the Styx, where the Ferryman drops off all the new arrivals–assuming they don’t find other ways into these parts. I can see the crowd of newcomers stumbling around, dumbfounded, maybe trying to make sense of their last moments, struggling to understand how they ended up here. 

High overhead, angels speed through the plumes of ash and swirling clouds, zipping to and fro on whatever errands Heaven deems important. Other spirits flicker through the sky over the crowd, curious and watchful, but keeping their distance. 

Some goblins are slumped against the wall of the alley, drunken to oblivion, surrounded by the wreckage of a keg and the stench of waste. I’m jealous of Innova, and wishing my nose could block out the stink. But being caught between life and death means just about everything works fine. 

Everything except hope.

“I can’t believe,” Innova says, looking around, “that you traded away your Intel on the Prince of Rage for this.”

Turned out ol’ Belial’s got a secret. Big fan of bootleg entertainment smuggled from the up-world… and I’m talking cartoons with ponies and unicorns, or movies where dolphins save the day. Haven’t seen anything so funny in all my years down here as a massive, black-horned Daemon Lord fighting back tears when the little girl and her dolphin finally reunite at the end of the film. 

The Oni didn’t believe me at first–I had to bring him proof. Hacked in and copied a video feed from the Prince’s lair. When the Oni watched it, he laughed so hard I thought he’d shatter his armor. 

The blackmail potential was worth a fortune. Got me a day with Innova, outside the Oni’s club. The tracker strapped around her ankle rattles a little with each step–a formality, really. Her radiant figure is pretty hard to miss strolling down the black tar streets of Hell. Plenty of petty thugs and beady-eyed hellspawn watching our every move. If I tried to escape with the Spirit of Innovation, one of these devils’ll rat me out to the Oni in a heartbeat. 

The thought barely crossed my mind, like, five or ten times. I know some back ways and hidden paths through the outskirts of the underworld. Could prob’ly give the Oni’s toughs a good chase–maybe even make it to some kind of freedom, such as there is to find down here.

But much as I love Innova’s company, I need her for something else right now. Everything’s brighter when she’s around. Clearer. Focused. Complicated things just start to make sense. It’s her effect on the people around her, boosting creativity, inspiring new ideas, new ways of seeing things. 

“Dom,” Innova says, “seriously. What are we doing here?”

“I’m hoping it’s just a quick stop before we find something better to do. I’ve got a bit of mystery to figure out.”

Turns out someone’s been cutting into the Oni’s unique business–I’m talking the bottled spirits, not the brokering of secrets. The numbers at the bar have been low lately, like people found another source. Only there ain’t another being with the power to capture and collect pure spiritual essence, so an upstart rival doesn’t make sense.

My lead pointed me this way, before he vanished. Then he turned up a husk, drained of whatever remnants of life he’d brought down here from his mortal days. Figure if someone goes to the trouble of killing a dead person to keep a secret, must be a good one.

Too good of one, in fact. I’ve scoured these streets a hundred times on my own, with nothing to show but worn-out soles. Not a scrap of a clue to go on… and today’s not looking any better.

“Let’s go on,” I say, taking Innova’s hand. But she doesn’t move. Head cocked, brow furrowed, she’s fixated on the main thoroughfare. 

“What is it, babe?”

She purses her lips. “Why are so many people moving the wrong direction, toward the ferry?”

I watch the shifting bodies and heads bobbing up and down, letting my eyes go a little unfocused, taking in the big picture. She’s right. Among all the clueless recently departed, there are a handful going against the stream like salmon in the rapids. I’ve been checking out the headstones, so to speak, forgetting that there’s a whole cemetery.

In fact, the only ones that move with any purpose are weaving the wrong way through the shambling masses and their vacant stares. I don’t remember ever feeling that way after I came down here. “Does everyone look sluggish to you?”
Innova nods. 

We head toward the ferry too, sticking to alleys and side streets–for whatever it’s worth since I’m walking beside a glowing vision of beauty. There’s a rusted ladder hanging from a fire escape on the next building–an amusing feature for the pit of hell. “Maybe we should get onto the rooftops,” I suggest. “Lots of eyes down here.”

Innova shrugs and starts climbing. The look in her eyes is still a mixture of love and confusion. “You have the weirdest ideas for dates,” she calls down as I climb up. Then something catches her eye and she disappears from view.

The ferry pulls up to the dock, full of passengers about to disembark into the wrong side of eternity. They all look just as lifeless as the crowd, no pun intended. I find myself mesmerized watching them lumbering off the boat and into their new home. 

“Look at the Ferryman,” Innova whispers. He’s working at the back of the vessel, hooking up fuel hoses or something, charging the ferry’s necrotic cells for another trip, perhaps.

Except when I look at the pulsing lights, it’s clear the energy is pumping the wrong way. Dockhands disconnect metal tanks and carry them off, one under each thick arm. Empty cylinders replace the first pairs, then another set.

Innova peers at the tanks and gasps. “Those are full of spirits… or spiritual essences of some kind. I can sense the emotions, the experiences–the contents of the tanks feel like they’ve been spliced or suctioned off the new arrivals on the ferry.”

Things finally click into place. “They’re burning bootleg copies of souls,” I say, “collecting passions… pirating the human spirit.”

“Is that even possible?”

“Maybe they’re not as high-quality as what the Oni offers, but probably good enough for a cheap fix.” I creep toward the edge of the rooftop. “We need to get on board that ship.”

“Uh, Dom?” Innova kicks up her smooth, long leg and wiggles her foot at me, jostling the tracker. “The Oni will unleash all hell after you if I step on that ferry. What are we supposed to do about this?”

I can’t help but grin. She’s so cute when she’s concerned. And like a flash of her bright smile, a moment of inspired genius flares in my mind. 

Innova grimaces. “Oh, I don’t like that look.”

“Why not?” I poke a playful finger her way. “”It’s your fault, after all. I’ve got an idea, one that solves all our problems at once…”

—–

(to be continued next week)