Why teach? (Encore)

There are a great many reasons why I teach, but I suspect the most important one is that it makes me feel good. I don’t know if that qualifies as weird or not, and frankly, I don’t care.

I don’t teach in the inner city; I’m not some middle-class, suburban saint with a penchant for helping the underprivileged or the disadvantaged. I teach grown-ups. Seniors, mostly, folks who’ve lived a lot, who’ve seen a lot, and who have an abundance of stories to share. Most of them, however, need some help to get those stories told–and told right. The amount of help they need varies a great deal. Some are on the verge of doing primo work. Others need more, and I expect those with whom I work to pitch in and help, too.

Unlike those instructors who labor in the traditional fields of public and private education, my students have chosen to spend their time in my classes. They’re there because they want to be there. That makes all the difference in the world. They show up because they want to improve their skills. There aren’t any grades. No gold stars. No report cards. Instead, there is camaraderie, and that’s an astonishingly powerful potion.

Imagine telling your story, or parts of it, while a cadre of interested listeners tune in closely to what you have to say. Their responses, typically positive and affirmative, have an almost narcotic effect. My role, pointing out areas needing a tweak or a pruning, doesn’t diminish the goodwill engendered by the class. If anything, it leads to questions and dialog–all of which add to the value of the experience for everyone. Me, included!

I don’t pretend to have all the answers. I don’t know anyone who does. But I’ve been fortunate to learn from a fair number of truly gifted wordsmiths, some famous, some still waiting to be discovered. And I’m pleased to pass along what they’ve shared. Best of all, the lessons come not from theory and certainly not from the supposed wisdom of some greybeard in academia. God spare us more of that! The lessons are based on real-world trial and error–what works, what sells.

We don’t diagram sentences or pretend to know what went on in the heads of the “literary greats.” I couldn’t care less what Proust or Faulkner or Steinbeck were thinking when they drafted their work. What matters, to me, is whether or not they told compelling tales. That’s it. And those are the kinds of stories I want my students to write.

So, the answer to the initial question is pretty simple, really. I teach because I can make a difference, and that’s a reward in and of itself.

–Josh

Posted in Historical writing, Memoir, novel writing, short fiction, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

It’s Thanksgiving. I think we all deserve a break.

So, I’Alabama Crimson Tide v Auburn Tigersm going to let my self-imposed deadline slide this time and concentrate on really important things like family, and turkey, and football. I may even consume an adult beverage or two.

Or three. Whatever.

My Auburn Tigers will be taking on the red elephants in Tuscaloosa. I have high hopes for the Tigers, mainly because I always have high hopes for them. I’m a fan. I’m just not a betting fan.

AubieSo, that’s it for this time. Go have fun. Be with your family or friends. If you don’t have any of either, then go find someone else in the same fix and buy him or her a sandwich — turkey would be good — and a cup of coffee. Who knows? It could be the start of a long and pleasant relationship. And if not, maybe you can get a story out of it.

Besides, what have you got to lose?Happy Thanksgiving

Until next time,

–Josh

Posted in Uncategorized | 8 Comments

You wanna know whut?

Genie and tubaWhat’s your book about? While that seems like an easy question, many authors have trouble coming up with a quick answer. What too often comes out is something like: “It’s about this guy who finds a magic tuba while digging through his great uncle’s attic. Of course, he doesn’t know it’s magic, so he’s not prepared when he blows on it and a genie comes out. Trouble is, it’s not a very nice genie. It’s been trapped in the tuba for ages, and now it’s out for revenge. Meanwhile, the guy’s mom is trying to get back home after escaping from prison for a crime she says she didn’t commit. Problem is, everyone thinks she’s a pathological liar, but that’s okay because….”

Is the book about a magic tuba? Or is it about the genie? Or maybe it’s about the poor shlub who finds them. Or his mother. Or maybe it’s about how the evil genie tries to seduce the girl next door. So maybe it’s a coming-of-age story. For the genie. Or maybe the girl next door. Who the hell knows? As the writer, you should certainly know. Alas, it simply ain’t so for way too many novices.

It used to be that only bad writers with money to burn would self-publish. Back then there was no “traditional” route to publication; there was only “the” route. Anyone wanting to see their stuff in print had to deal with agents or wrangle an appointment to chat with an editor at a writer’s conference or fan convention. Back then–and today for anyone still trying to sell a book to a Big Five subsidiary–the missing link was the “elevator pitch.” This amounted to a 30-second summary of the book packaged in such a way as to grab the attention of an editor or agent when trapped in an elevator at one of the aforementioned gatherings. Millions of such pitches have been cast in hotel bars, too, among other places.

Self-publishing has changed a lot of that, but there’s still a need for a pitch, even if you’re not trying to get a deal with a big publisher. [Don’t look at me like that. Just lemme explain.] Your elevator pitch might just make a dandy back cover blurb, and a well-executed book blurb is essential to a profitable sales campaign. It’s nearly as important as a great front cover.

If writing one seems like a daunting task, try using this formula for starters. You can revise it to suit your needs later, but for now, this should get you going. Just fill in the {blanks} as best you can.

When {identity} {character name} {does something}, {there’s a consequence}. Now, with {time limit/restrictions}, {character} must {do something heroic} to {reach a goal} or {lose something meaningful}.

So, f’rinstance:

When rookie FBI agent Filbert Feeney finds an ancient book of spells, he uses one to catch the top criminals on the agency’s Most Wanted List. But there’s a price to be paid for using the magic, and it will cost him his life–and his soul–unless he finds a way to reverse the spell without letting the criminals get away.

Here’s one based on the Leonardo DiCaprio film, “The Revenant,” released in 2015: When legendary frontiersman Hugh Glass is injured in a brutal bear attack while exploring an uncharted wilderness in 1823, he is left for dead by his best friend. Now, grief-stricken and fueled by vengeance against the confidant who abandoned him, Glass must survive the winter terrain to return home to his family.

Give it a tryWill it work for every story? Probably not. But it will help you shape your thinking about what needs to go in a blurb. More importantly, it might just give customers a solid reason for buying your book.

Your blurb, in various formats, will be needed to flesh out ads and other promotional material. And yes, you might even need to use it in an elevator when you meet some movie mogul on the lookout for a new blockbuster.

A good book blurb is the second most essential piece of your book marketing campaign. You won’t go far without it. In fact, if you lack a good blurb, your book and all the hard work you put into it, won’t go anywhere.

–Josh

Posted in marketing, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

What’s a tree? (Encore)

My niece, a medical receptionist, witnessed something inspiring not long ago in the waiting room at the doctor’s office where she works. There were a number of people waiting to see the doctor, and among them was a little girl about four years old. Bella XmasShe sat quietly beside her mother when she noticed a little boy in the waiting room. The girl asked her mother what was wrong with the boy, and her mother answered that he appeared to be blind.

The little girl didn’t understand what that meant and asked for an explanation which her mother quietly supplied.

At this point, my niece went back to her paperwork. But a short while later she heard the little girl talking again and looked up out of curiosity.

She saw the little blind boy smiling as he held hands with the little girl. She had closed her eyes tight and was doing her best to describe to the boy what a tree looked like.

When things like this happen, it restores my faith in mankind.

It also made me think about how difficult that little girl’s job would be. Can you imagine trying to describe a tree to someone who’d never been able to see anything? Where would you even start?

childs drawing of treeOne of the most powerful tools a writer can employ is sensory presentation–using all the senses to convey information, not just that which can be seen. This means expressing story detail that relies on touch, taste, texture, and aroma. How big is a tree? What does it feel like? Does it have a smell?

It’s possible to stretch the sensory issue even more. Most people have nine senses. In addition to the five listed above, and originally noted by Aristotle, there are also the senses of pain, balance, heat, and body awareness–we know where our body parts are without looking at them or touching something. Neurologists have suggested many others, like hunger, thirst, or the sense of danger, senses included in countless narratives.

I have to tip my hat to the little girl in that waiting room. If she managed to get her ideas across, she may have a brilliant future ahead of her as a storyteller.

For the rest of us, especially the writers? We’d be wise to learn from her. If for no other reason, some of our “readers” will be getting their information from audiobooks. Think hard on that.

Be well. And take some time to write!

–Josh

Posted in Memoir, novel writing, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

A Fairy Free Fairy Tale

It’s Halloween 2022; we’re supposed to post scary stuff, right? Well, this is about as close as I’m liable to get. Yes, I know it’s a bit long, but I think you’ll like it.

The Crown and the Crone (Encore)

“It’s time for a name change,” she said, smiling at herself in the mirror from behind long, raven tresses. “The old Magda is dead.”

She slipped into a lacy undergarment which somehow, free of magic, supported her bountiful cleavage; it would take some time to adjust to her new dimensions. The lingerie bordered on perfect needing only a pinch here, a pull there. Satisfied, she placed a graceful hand on her shapely hip and turned toward the window. Her smooth and freshly bleached flesh would benefit from a bit of sunlight.

“Perhaps I should become a Heather,” she mused then glanced at Filch, an associate from the old days. The feline gave no hint he’d even heard her question. She assumed he was an associate no more, thanks to her agreement with the warlock. Such is life, she thought, then turned her attention back to the question of a name change. “No,” she told herself, “Heather won’t do.” The name reminded her of the color green and ridding herself of that had cost too much.

“Fawn, perhaps?” She turned her head from side to side admiring the reflection of her now tiny nose, and the soft, mole-free contours of her formerly knobby chin. Her teeth were perfect, her tummy flat, her butt tucked, and her feet dainty. She was, unquestionably, the most desirable witch who ever lived. “But Fawn? No. Too dainty.” And beneath her new exterior she remained anything but dainty.

Still admiring her image in the full-length mirror, she relaxed. Names were silly things. She’d find the right one in good time, and if not, Magda would do.

“The old saying holds,” she said, quoting it, “Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned, nor hell a fury like a woman scorned.”

And she would prove it. “Look out, Prince Charming, you asshole. Magda’s coming!”

~*~

King Laurence had been ill for months, and turmoil threatened the land.

Everyone from Lord Evan, the High Chamberlain and the King’s closest advisor, to the lowest scullery maid assumed the great monarch was the last of his line. The once formidable presence had outlived every known heir. The search for a successor had been intense, but fruitless. The other lords of the realm petitioned the crown for permission to conduct their own search, one limited to the nobility which had served Laurence during his family’s long and peaceful reign.

Though it pained him, the king acquiesced. “So be it,” he whispered to his Chamberlain. “With any luck, I’ll be dead before those jackals choose my replacement.”

In the kingdom’s dark past, several of the families had battled ferociously to gain the throne. Laurence’s grandfather had found a way to subdue them all and established a bountiful peace which lasted for generations. That the land might be thrown back into bloody turmoil had everyone from lord to lackey fearing for the future.

Then, as if decreed by the gods themselves, a whisper of hope arrived in the guise of a young man who claimed to share King Laurence’s bloodline. The High Chamberlain agreed to judge the claim and summoned the youthful petitioner who marched straight through his quarters, ignoring the high ceiling, the massive windows, and the lavish furnishings.

Stopping before the official seated behind an expansive desk, the new arrival took a breath, summoned all his courage and focused on projecting the proper image. Anything less could spell his doom.

“I’ve heard your claim,” said the Chamberlain. “Why should I believe you? Why should anyone believe you, for that matter? You come unannounced, unaccompanied, and unknown. I don’t even know your name.”

“You may address me as Prince Harmon, milord. King Laurence is my father.”

The official regarded the young man with undisguised skepticism. “Your father?

“Indeed.”

“How odd he never mentioned you.”

“He and my mother spent very little time together.”

“Enough, evidently, to generate an heir.” The High Chamberlain drummed his fingers on the heavy desk. “Can you prove your lineage? Where is this woman with whom you claim the King dallied?”

“Alas, she’s no longer among the living,” Harmon said. “She succumbed to a swamp demon.”

“A what?” The High Chamberlain laughed out loud. “What would a noblewoman be doing anywhere near a swamp?”

“The best she could, milord; she did the best she could.”

“This is absurd!” The Chamberlain slapped his hand on the desk. “I should have you thrown in irons!”

The young man merely smiled and offered his hand for inspection. “Do you recognize this ring?”

The King’s premier bureaucrat stared at the ring with the gold-encrusted gem on the youngster’s middle finger. “How? Who? Where did you get that?”

“T’was a gift of gratitude from the King to my mother.”

“That ring has been missing since the reign of Laurence’s grandfather, King Stefan.”

“Missing?” The young man chuckled. “My mother and I have known its whereabouts all my life. I cannot speak for anyone else’s.”

“Remove the ring. I’ll take it to the King. If he acknowledges it, I’ll accept your claim as genuine. If not, well, you’ll find the accommodations in our dungeon to be less than pleasant.”

“Sadly, that’s not possible,” Harmon said. “My mother bade me swear to never take it off.”

“But—”

“You’ll simply have to take the ring, and me, to see the King.”

The Chamberlain’s growl spoke volumes about his displeasure at such an impertinent suggestion. “I could simply have your hand removed.” He scissored his fingers in the air.

“You could,” said Harmon with a shrug. “And if the King acknowledged the ring, he’d likely have something of yours removed. Your head would be my guess. Are you willing to take that chance?”

The official grumbled an acknowledgment of his defeat. “You leave me little choice. Just know that I can—and will—summon the royal executioner if you’ve bothered the king over nothing.”

“I’ll settle for that,” Harmon said suppressing a shudder. I had hoped to leave you no choice at all.

~*~

Despite the stunning image Magda knew she projected, approaching the castle grounds still gave her pause. So many things could go wrong. With the King ill, tempers among the nobles flared quickly. Fights had broken out everywhere, some between rivals who had lived peaceably for years. Keeping that peace, however, was no longer Magda’s job. It ceased to be her concern the day the swamp slut’s son stole her ring.

She had been a fool to think the youngster possessed an ounce of integrity, let alone a shred of honesty in his finely formed body. She’d watched him grow from toddler to teen and beyond. He had the looks and bearing of someone born to the upper classes, and in truth, his sire might have had a drop or two of lordly blood. But if any of it still coursed through his veins, the nobility had long since been diluted to nothing. His mother’s niche in the social hierarchy could not have been much lower. She would sleep with anyone, man or beast, who could afford to share a bed and a bowl of grog. It was through just such a union that she claimed a stake in the swamp‑side tavern where she birthed the brat.

The tavern had previously been run by a man of equally questionable caste, but Harmon’s mother somehow wormed her way into his trust. When he died, an event fraught with unanswered questions, she claimed an inheritance. Magda suspected that event had inspired the boy to seek even greater rewards for his own treachery.

She recalled the times the boy had been good to her, had earned her trust, and thereby induced her to lower her guard. She had no doubt he was the one who snuck into her room in the tavern’s shabby guest quarters and slipped King Stephan’s ring from her hand. Who else could have given her a sleeping potion? Who else had access to the cooking grease with which he oiled her finger? Why else would he have fled in the night?

With the thief gone, Magda’s wrath fell on his mother. She had raised the boy after all, and taught him how to cheat and lie, how to take advantage of others to advance himself. Magda killed the harlot quickly, much as she had those who previously threatened the peace of the kingdom, for that had been the arrangement she’d struck with the old King. He had given her his ring, the greatest single symbol of his reign. In exchange, she agreed to use her powers of enchantment to halt anyone’s efforts to upset the peaceful tenor of the realm. If someone attempted to stop her or interfere in her affairs, she had but to produce the ring and invoke the power of the throne. The bargain had been beneficial to all for the better part of a century. Best of all, she secured for herself a lifetime supply of gravas, the kingdom’s most valuable export. Gravas—the liquor of the gods.

But then, along came Harmon.

Blissfully unaware of the calamity he engineered, he forced Magda to take steps she would otherwise have never considered. The most egregious of these was the trade she struck with Rathbone, the grand warlock. She traded her entire store of magic power for a meager pair of skills: the ability to change her appearance and the power to disguise the appearance of others. There were side effects, of course, but she felt comfortable with them since they offered her no personal threat.

Finding the warlock, striking the deal, and perfecting her image had taken time, but she wasted no more in tracking down the monster who had ruined her life. She knew where he would go, and she was close to catching him.

The walls of the castle keep loomed ahead. Shifting the unaccustomed weight of her bosom to better display her cleavage, Magda approached the guardian of the gate with a smile and a wiggle of her hips. Such movements, once foreign, now felt entirely natural, and she liked the way men responded to them. Such simple creatures, they had no idea how easily they were manipulated. In her natural guise, men shunned her. Now, they groveled at her feet.

~*~

“Prince” Harmon sucked a grape from the bunch held above his mouth by an accommodating serving wench. He’d had his choice of the lovelies available in the King’s manse, which, if all went well, would soon be his, along with the rest of the kingdom. He laughed to himself at the memory of his one brief encounter with the ailing monarch. The High Chamberlain had crept into the royal sickroom with Harmon in tow, flanked by a pair of brawny guards, one of whom kept a sword tip nestled in Harmon’s back.

“Your Majesty,” the Chamberlain began, his posture a study in obeisance, “I’m loathe to disturb you, but I had no choice. It appears you may have a son.”

The aging king opened one eye and gradually focused on the Chamberlain who motioned Harmon forward, ring hand first.

Harmon’s heartbeat reached a crescendo but he somehow managed to keep his fear and excitement hidden.

The King’s eyes went wide when he saw the gaudy ring, and his sharp intake of breath launched a coughing fit. When it finally subsided, the Chamberlain continued. “This man,” he said, gesturing toward Harmon, “claims to be your son.”

The King, however, could not take his eyes off the gold-encrusted jewel on the supplicant’s hand. “My… My son—” he began, then collapsed back onto his pillow, unable to utter another syllable.

To Harmon, the King’s words sounded like a question rather than an acknowledgment, and he shifted his focus to gauge the Chamberlain’s reaction. That worthy, however, ignored the King’s words and instead raced from the room in search of a physician. The two guards ushered Harmon from the chamber and kept their weapons drawn while they waited for the Chamberlain and the doctor to arrive.

That had been nearly a fortnight earlier, and the King had yet to awake. Harmon dreaded that moment, and when he wasn’t busy bedding the younger members of the great noble’s female staff, he prayed the man never would wake up.

~*~

Magda’s efforts to reach the false prince had not gone well. It seemed everyone she met made it their business to delay her, if not rape or seduce her. In the process, however, she learned a valuable lesson about taking care of herself. More than one overly aggressive guard had found himself walking into a bedroom with a winsome wench only to discover she had turned into a hag of the lowest order. This unexpected conversion usually left them more than a bit stunned, and Magda was only too willing to put that hesitation to good use. Though she lacked the mystical powers with which she had once policed the kingdom, she had no trouble using her fists, her feet, and a measure of rage to disable any undesired paramours.

It’s not that she had little interest in casual liaisons; she merely preferred to focus such efforts on men of noble blood, even though her primary target had none. The side effects about which she’d been warned would make a perfect reward for that miscreant, provided she could get close enough to take him to bed.

~*~

To Harmon’s great relief, King Laurence never awoke and therefore never said anything beyond, “My… My son—” Fortunately, the two guards who had been in attendance were called upon to testify and both recited the late monarch’s exact words. Firmly backed into a corner, the High Chamberlain had to declare Harmon the one and only legitimate heir. As soon as Laurence was laid to rest, the lad would be crowned King.

The new king’s first order of business was an immense coronation ball. Every single female in the kingdom, regardless of social status, was summoned to the castle to stand for the Monarch’s Review. Those younger than sixteen or older than thirty were excused, as were any with health issues. According to the decree, the King would select a dozen ladies to form his coterie. Though not specifically stated, most believed the King would select one lucky member of the group as his Queen. Despite a short timeline, the competition promised to be fierce.

~*~

Magda heard the proclamation since the new King ordered it read throughout the realm. The whoreson had given her the perfect means to breach his defenses! With the powers she possessed, no one else stood a chance. And while her age was older than thirty by at least a century, no one would guess she was other than she appeared. She would soon own the little sod and make his life as miserable as he deserved. Her passion for revenge would be sated, and her place in the kingdom’s history would be assured. And, if there were truly any justice in the world, she’d once again be served all the gravas she desired.

~*~

Laurence’s funeral preceded the coronation ball by a matter of days, and the city’s population swelled in response to the King’s summons. Despite the limits the sovereign placed on his order, far too many of the women who answered the call failed to meet his restrictions. Guards were assigned to question the respondents and group them by height, weight, age, and hair color. King Harmon drew up additional limits for each category. Though fewer than one female in ten passed the screening, there were still more bodies available than ballroom space to accommodate them. Harmon opted to organize multiple affairs.

The nobility responded with outrage. Not only had the new king stepped outside traditional boundaries, he had trod them into oblivion. The High Chamberlain maintained order, but with a profound impact on the state treasury. King Harmon remained unconcerned and claimed the kingdom would never again run the risk of lacking heirs; something he vowed to take care of immediately. His logic seemed unassailable though his methods drove the nobles to the brink of rebellion. Only the history of what happened to those who sought to challenge any of the last three kings kept them in check. Those punishments, though absent lately, had been swift and gruesome, with the results typically displayed for all to see, though who performed the executions remained a mystery.

Magda would likely have been selected on the strength of her enhanced appearance, but she took no chances. She surveyed the field of beauties surrounding her and selected several she thought would draw the most attention. Moving casually but consistently, she approached each one and cast a minor spell to temporarily obscure their finest features. Harmon would never see those attributes. Hers, of course, would be spit-polished.

The results were exceptional. Magda not only made the first cut, she stood at the head of the entire cadre. When the final ball ended, King Harmon had assembled fifty potential queens, only one of whom claimed noble status. Magda felt a title would give her the additional edge she needed, especially since the Chamberlain was in a state of extraordinarily high dither over the hurt feelings of the nobility. Perfectly willing to be magnanimous, Magda promoted herself from mage to minor member of the aristocracy.

It made little difference as Harmon was so taken with the raven-haired beauty that he paid little attention to the rest of the contestants for the throne. And, after a single passionate evening spent with Magda, he dismissed the rest and married her.

~*~

Slipping silently toward her own quarters, Magda could not have been more pleased as she left the imposter king behind, sleeping. With a wave of her hand, she revealed the early effects of their union—a touch of green and a bit of mottling on Harmon’s face, a discoloration that would grow more profound over time. Even more pleasing, she’d never need to bed the bastard again.

Harmon, however, was anything but pleased. Magda heard his anguished cry from the adjoining room and reached the distraught ruler even before his servants. “What is it, milord?” she asked sweetly.

“My skin! Look at it.”

She pretended to examine him as carefully as a child might inspect a captured butterfly. “It’s definitely green,” she said, hiding her joy as best she could. “And a bit scaly.”

He leaned closer to the mirror and verified her observation. “By the gods!” he groaned. “What’s happening to me?”

“It’s but a taste of what you deserve,” Magda said. She gestured with two fingers, and the discoloration instantly went away.

“What do you—” Harmon went silent. “It’s gone. Look! The green is all gone.”

“For now,” Magda said.

Harmon’s brows dropped into a sharp V as he stared at her. “I don’t understand.”

“You will.”

A handful of retainers entered the room and interrupted their conversation.

“I’ll explain later,” Magda said.

Harmon gave her the evil eye. “Damned right you will.”

~*~

The court physician could find nothing wrong with his new sovereign, despite the latter’s claim that he was turning green. “No, my liege, I assure you; you’re mistaken. Your complexion is perfect. You have nothing to fear.”

Armed with this knowledge, Harmon hurried to the Queen’s chamber. “Ha!” he barked as he burst into the room. “If there’s any color on my cheeks, it’s merely the flush of youth. The Royal Physician says I’m in perfect health.”

“And you probably are,” Magda said, “except for your wretched hide.” Once again, she wiggled two fingers at him. “See for yourself. My mirror stands ready.”

Harmon pushed his face close to the reflecting surface and examined his features. In the bright light of the Queen’s chamber, he could easily see his skin had taken on a subtly darker shade—distinctly olive. “What witchery is this?” he cried.

Magda set aside the tall glass of gravas she’d been sipping and yawned. “It’s actually quite basic witchery. Nothing fancy at all.”

What?

“And nothing less than you deserve. But know this, the color will only grow darker. And you’ll soon begin to see a few other delightful features as well.”

“What are you saying? Have I been bespelled?”

“Of course, you have, you idiot. That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you.”

While he pondered her words, she allowed her appearance to shift from that of the stunning young woman he’d wed to that of the vile crone he’d robbed near the swamp. Magda quivered with joy at his horrified reaction.

“You!” he whispered, his voice thin and shaky. “I’ll have you cut to pieces and fed to the hogs! Such treachery—”

“Treachery?” Magda broke into a peal of laughter. “You dare speak to me of treachery?”

“Guards!” screamed the young king.

Magda casually consumed her beloved gravas. “Just remember, my dear king, I alone control the way you look. Kill me, and that control is gone; everyone will see your true colors evolve. They’ll watch you change, and in a matter of weeks, you’ll resemble a prodigious toad. How long do you think the nobles will let you occupy the throne looking like that?” She laughed at a new thought. “Imagine the names they’ll have for you: King Croaker! Monarch of the mud! Sovereign of the swamp!”

Harmon waved his guards back as they swarmed into the room. “Never mind!” he yelled. “Go away.”

“That’s better,” Magda said when they left. She restored his appearance with a flick of her fingers. “Y’know, I think I’d like you better in a shade of emerald.”

He ignored her. “I’m surprised the guards didn’t attack you when they saw me in the company of a witch.”

“They saw no such thing,” she said. “You’re the only one who sees my true self.”

He covered his eyes with his hands. “Must I see it all the time?”

“Oh, indeed you must. Especially when I enter your chamber at night. I want you to see exactly who you’re making love to.”

Harmon gagged. “That will never happen.”

“It already has, my sweet. That’s how you’ve come to look the way you do. Consider it my gift to you.”

He appeared on the verge of tears. “If I give you back the ring, will you go away and leave me alone?”

She shook her head and made pouty lips at him. “That’s no longer an option. I no longer need the ring. You can swallow it for all I care.”

As he scrambled to leave her room, Magda finished off the bottle of gravas she’d opened that morning. It would be a lovely day; she just knew it.

~*~

Several weeks passed, and the loathing Magda and Harmon felt for each continued to deepen. When forced to be in the same place, typically in some official capacity, their bickering quickly reached a boiling point, but the High Chamberlain always intervened before they hurt each other. One day, however, he summoned them for a meeting that had nothing to do with their positions as royals.

Seated in a room once reserved for councils of war, the two sovereigns and their chief functionary faced each other across a narrow table. It sported a pitcher of gravas and two goblets. As soon as they were seated, the royal couple each grabbed one. Magda took two swallows for each one of Harmon’s, but they eventually drained both glasses.

“That’s the last of the gravas, by the way,” the Chamberlain said. “It came from my own private stock.”

The look on Magda’s face registered shock. “It’s gone? All of it?”

He nodded. “By a crown decree. The King ordered the royal stock sold to replenish the treasury.”

Magda turned on Harmon. “Are you completely insane? What will we do without gravas?”

“I’ll be fine,” he said. “I’m not the one who can’t stop drinking it.”

“Swine!” Magda said with a snarl. “I’ll—”

“Please! This constant quarreling must stop,” the Chamberlain advised. “It’s wreaking havoc on the kingdom. For the good of the people, and for yourselves, you must find a way to end it.”

Harmon eyed the official with disdain then let his eyes wander the length of the room, taking in the pikes, swords, daggers, and other tools of war on display. “Kings listen to the advice of subordinates. We do not take orders from them.”

“Ordinarily, milord, I would wholeheartedly agree. But we face two grave threats to the peace and safety of the realm.”

“Only two?” Magda asked, her tone falsely innocent as she continued to stare daggers at the King. “What might they be?”

The official took a deep breath before responding. “Despite our sovereign’s heroic efforts at procreation, there’s not a single female on or near the castle grounds who’s with child.”

Magda’s wrath softened to a chuckle. “He has the need but lacks the seed.”

“Silence, woman!” Harmon growled, then in a softer voice addressed the Chamberlain. “What’s the other issue?”

“It’s a plague of some kind,” he said. “Thus far it has afflicted over half the noble families. The male heads of households all report the same symptoms.”

“Which are?”

Clasping his hands in helpless angst, the Chamberlain answered, “They’re turning green, milord. Green and scaly.”

Harmon turned on Magda in a fury. “You’ve done this!” he cried.

Magda ignored him and walked the Chamberlain to the door, closing it once he’d left the room. She turned and faced the King with a smile of satisfaction.

“Have you nothing to say for yourself?” he asked. “You stand accused of infidelity with proof aplenty, and yet you smile at me like a fool?”

“I’m not the only one guilty of infidelity. Or did you forget you’re my husband?”

“That’s different.”

“Is it? You’ve taken to bed nearly every female within walking distance of the castle! I’ve at least restricted myself to a higher class of lovers. And, if you must know, the worst of them was still far better than you.”

Harmon seethed and jumped to his feet, snarling, “Harlot!”

“Bastard!” Magda yelled back. She, too, stood upright, her face flushed with anger.

“Witch!”

“Fraud!” Magda emphasized the point by throwing her goblet at him.

He dodged the missile and threw one of his own.

In short order, the warring royals had cleared the table of projectiles and worked their way toward the weapons standing racked and ready around the room.

Though untutored in the art and tactics of combat, they knew enough to hurt each other and did so. Thrusts and parries were awkward and ill-timed, but occasionally effective. Pausing to catch their breath, the combatants quickly assessed the damage they’d sustained, then went back on the attack.

Magda drove a pike into Harmon’s belly eliciting a sharp, high-pitched wail, but the wound wasn’t immediately fatal. He countered with a downward stroke of a battle axe which split Magda’s skull in two. As she dropped silently at his feet, Harmon landed in a chair at the table and quickly bled out. He was dead before he slid from his chair and joined his dead queen on the hard, cold floor.

~*~

The High Chamberlain stood just outside the aptly named war room and waited until the sounds of battle from within subsided. It hadn’t taken nearly as long as he thought it might.

The potion he’d procured from Rathbone, the warlock, mixed easily with the gravas and worked as advertised. Anyone who drank it could be driven to a state of uncontrolled rage over the most innocent of remarks. Nonetheless, the Chamberlain made sure his remarks were anything but innocent, and the royal couple had responded with anticipated vigor.

Finally, the kingdom stood a chance of survival. The warlock had also provided a cure for the green plague, which the Chamberlain used as a bargaining chip to secure the support of the nobility when he soon declared himself King. In exchange, Rathbone accepted the role of Royal Enforcer and the lifetime supply of gravas that went with it. All in all, the arrangement bode well for the realm.

Harmon and Magda were buried side-by-side in a remote corner of the royal cemetery.

~End~

Posted in short fiction, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Wait! A theme song for a novel?

18 and oh so wiseMovies have theme songs, don’t they? So why wouldn’t something like that be appropriate for a novel? Perhaps in a story about a high school guy whose hobby is photography. And just maybe this guy takes most of the photos for his high school yearbook. And he meets a girl in the process who takes advantage of him and then breaks his heart….

Darned if that doesn’t exactly like the opening segment of my new novel! Except for the adorable little creature he discovers in the woods behind his house and which eventually saves his life. But other than that, who knew?

So, in honor of the “Official” launch of this book, here’s a link to the one song that perfectly captures the era and the storyline. It’s one I’m pretty sure everyone on Earth has heard–and enjoyed!

Here’s the link (sorry about the advertisement at the beginning; feel free to skip it after five seconds): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8rlDTK6QI-w

Zeke front coverOops! Almost forgot to add the cover (even if it is in the sidebar).

Here’s a little more good news! You can download a free ebook copy of this joyful tale (not so joyful for the bullies in it, however), by clicking on this link: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B0BB1634BR

Alas, this offer is only good for four days, beginning today (Oct. 23, 2022). So, don’t delay! Get your free copy now; read it as fast as you can, and then be a good sport and post a glowing review.

That’s not too much to ask, is it?

Enjoy!

–Josh

PS: Yeah. That’s a photo of me from a long time ago.

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Tackling Tough Topics (Encore edition)

Some stories are easier to tell than others, and I’m not referring to length or complexity. Sometimes the subject matter takes more of a toll on the writer than the reader. For me, this week’s offering is just such a story. I wrote the first draft twenty-some years ago. I have refined it several times in the interim, and I’m happy to share it again. Herewith:

“Daddy, no–please, don’t!” Allie twisted her fingers into a white-knuckled mass. “Not that one.”

Warner rolled a fist-sized seashell from one palm to the other blurring the shell’s broad bands of creamy white and rusty brown. “Actually,” he said, “it’ll do nicely.”

He placed the Chambered Nautilus gently on the floor.

Allie tensed as Warner raised his leg, his heel poised over the shell. She tried to hold her fingers steady, but the tremble only got worse. How could he be so cruel?

As if he’d read her thoughts, Warner lowered his leg. “You know the rules, Allison, and you know I’m not doing this out of spite. I’m trying to prepare you to be an adult.” He raised his leg once more.

“It’s not fair!”

He shook his head. “Life isn’t about what’s fair. You know that.”

“It’ll never happen again,” she said. “I promise.”

“I wish I could believe that.” The leg remained poised.

“You can!” Allie rushed to the display case, reached inside, and removed a double handful of shells. “Here, take any of these. I don’t care.”

“And what would you learn then? The painful lessons are the ones we remember.”

“But Mom gave me that one! Before she died, don’t you remember?”

“No, but I’ll take your word for it.” He stamped down hard, crushing the shell, then stepped into the hallway and stopped. “I want that cleaned up before you go to bed.”

Dumbstruck, Allie nodded.

“And don’t ever lock your door again. Understood?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good. See, Allison? You’re learning.”

~*~

Janie squealed as only an imaginative freshman in a crowded high school lunchroom can. “Australia! Really? When?”

“Next month,” Allie said, without emotion. “Over Christmas.” She dropped her empty milk carton on her tray.

“Aren’t you excited? Maybe you’ll see Hugh Jackman! Would that be awesome or what? But really, any hunky Australian would do. The way they talk totally makes me melt. So, what’ll you wear? How long’s the flight? Is–”

Allie sighed. “It’s no big deal.”

“Not for you maybe, but I never go anywhere.”

Allie looked sideways at her friend. “You went to that outdoor adventure thing, didn’t you? Doesn’t that count?”

“Two weeks in the woods without a shower isn’t exactly my idea of a vacation. I couldn’t even get text messages.” Janie extended her hands, palms up, lifting first one then the other as if she were a scale. “Survival training. Aussie hunk. Survival training. Aussie hunk. Wow. Tough choice.”

Allie warmed to the challenge. “Okay, so maybe that doesn’t count, but you went skiing last year.”

“Yeah, and we stayed with my aunt and uncle. Not only did I not get any new ski clothes, I had to spend the whole time skiing with my dorky cousin.”

“You said he was cute.”

“Burt?” Janie wrinkled her face. “I’d rather kiss a toad!”

Allie laughed. “That’s not what you said before you left.”

“Yuck! Can you imagine doing it with your cousin?

Allie sobered. “No.”

Janie laughed. “Do you have any cousins in Australia?”

“I don’t have any cousins anywhere.” She thought for a moment. I have an aunt–my mom’s sister, Maggie–but she doesn’t have any kids.

“Trust me, you aren’t missing anything.”

Allie shrugged. “My dad’s only taking us along to make sure I don’t have a good time while he’s away. He thinks I might have a boyfriend or something, but he already chased away the only guy who ever asked me out.”

Janie nodded sympathetically. “What a butthead.”

“Anyway, it’s just a stupid business trip. My sister and I’ll be locked up in a hotel somewhere.”

“Poor things, stuck in a fancy hotel, having to make do with room service, a pool, and dinner out every night–that’ll be awful.”

“It won’t be a fancy hotel.”

“You don’t know that,” Janie said.

“I know Warner.”

“Why do you always call him Warner?”

“Well–duh. That’s his name.”

“I could never call my dad ‘Fred.’ Besides, he’d kill me if I did.”

Allie rearranged the trash on her lunch tray. “It wasn’t my idea.”

“No?”

“He asked me to. It started after– after Mom died.” She rubbed her eyes.

“You okay?” Janie asked.

“Yeah, sure,” Allie said.

~*~

The gift-wrapped package was waiting for her, exactly where Allie knew it would be. So was her little sister, Suzie.

The six-year-old crossed her arms and pouted. “He never gives me anything.”

“That’s not true,” Allie said, “You’ve got lots of stuff: dolls, toys, a bike–”

“Not like you!” The corners of Suzie’s mouth dipped even lower. “You get presents all the time.”

“You don’t understand.” Allie bit her lip. How was she supposed to make sense of it to Suzie when she didn’t know how to deal with it herself? It wasn’t fair.

Suzie lowered her arms and began to cry. “I do so understand. He likes you best!”

Allie stepped closer and gave her a hug. “It’s not what you think, honest. Maybe when you’re older–”

“You always say that!” She pushed Allie’s arms apart, ran to the kitchen counter, and grabbed the package. “It’s prob’ly just another stupid shell.” She raised the box over her head.

Allie froze knowing how Warner would react if he thought she’d rejected his gift. “Please put it down.”

“How’d you like me to smash it? I could break it into a zillion pieces before you even open it. How’d you like that ‘Miss Smarty Pants?'”

“Do you want to get in trouble?”

“I don’t care!”

“Well, I do.”

“Then here, take it!” Suzie lofted the package toward Allie, then ran from the room.

Allie caught the box and put it back on the counter. She rubbed her temples; her eyes stung. There was no way she could explain to Suzie what the gifts really represented. She should have said something to someone the first time it happened, right after the night Warner came into her room. He said he was lonely, and he’d been crying.

That had been a strange, scary night. He talked to her for a long time, and as he talked, he touched her. That wasn’t unusual, he’d done it before. But that night, touching wasn’t enough. He rubbed her with perfume and something slippery from a tube. When she cried, he said he was sorry. He’d hurt her in other ways, before and since, and never apologized. Only for that, and only then.

Over the last two years his story, and his demands, changed. Now, he rarely mentioned her mother, only his need, and afterward, his love. The following day he always left a gift.

Allie knuckled away a tear and slipped the silver velvet ribbon from the package. The heavily-embossed, dark blue wrapping fell away easily. She’d seen the paper before, many times. Vancouver had a thousand gift shops, but Warner always went to the same one.

She lifted the lid, but before removing the contents, she went to her room and got the shell book. A gift from her mother, the huge book contained hundreds of color photos of seashells from around the world. She placed it on the counter next to the box, then reached inside where multiple pencil-thin spines greeted her fingers.

Allie removed the shell. Violet tissue drifted to the floor as she placed the unusual specimen on the counter.

She’d seen photos of it, but couldn’t recall its name. A conch, surely, but what kind? She flipped through the book until she found it. Spider conch. She peered at the text. No, a common spider conch, and based on the length of the spines, probably female.

Allie became caught up in the photos, as usual. She paged through to the chapter on cone shells and noticed a passage she hadn’t read before. Several colorful photos adorned the page, including a close-up of the fabled “Glory-of-the-Seas” cone, but it was the Glory’s cousins which attracted her. Their common names were unspectacular: “Marble” cone, “Tulip” cone, and “Courtly” cone. The two she found most interesting had the most boring names: “Textile” and “Geography.” All were found in the Indo-Pacific, and all shared a feature not usually linked to shells–they were hunters.

Her eyes narrowed as she glanced at the calendar. Two weeks to go.

~*~

Janie and Allie rode the bus home; Christmas break had officially begun. “Can you bring me something from Australia?” Janie asked.

“Like what, a kangaroo?”

“I dunno, anything–a souvenir.”

“A lock of Hugh Jackman’s hair?”

“Sure!” Janie sighed. “I’m so jealous I can’t stand it.”

“Don’t be.” Allie looked away, feigning interest in something they passed on the road.

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing. I’m just nervous about the trip. It’ll be a really long flight. Suzie’s gonna be a pain.”

“So? You’re not her mother.”

“Try telling Warner that. Ever since he let Mom die, he–”

What?” Janie followed her theatrical whisper with a nervous laugh. “For a second, I thought you were serious.”

“I am.”

Janie’s eyes grew wide.

Allied nodded. “He took us on a picnic. Mom got stung by a bee.”

“And died?

“Yeah,” Allie said. “She was allergic to bee stings.”

“So how was that your dad’s fault?”

“Mom pleaded with him to take her to a doctor, but he said she was making a big deal out of nothing. He didn’t even want to start packing up right away. It wasn’t until she had trouble breathing that he decided to do something, but by then, it was too late. She died before we could get her to a hospital.”

“Geez, Allie, I’m sorry. I had no idea.”

Allie wiped her tears on the sleeve of her sweater. “He says he didn’t know about her allergy, but he’s lying. I just can’t prove it.”

Janie shook her head. “You can’t be sure.”

“Oh, I’m sure, all right,” Allie said, her grief turning to anger. “There’s just nothing I can do about it.” Not yet, anyway.

The bus wheezed to a stop. Allie gathered her books and stood up.

“You’re not gonna do anything stupid, are you?” Janie asked.

Allie shook her head. “Nah.” She smiled and waved goodbye.

Crazy maybe, but not stupid.

~*~

Despite its length, the flight from Vancouver to Sydney was uneventful. Warner rented a modest condo on the coast north of Brisbane. The girls spent the days at the beach while he worked. If his mood was any indication, business must have been good.

They’d been in the condo almost a week when Warner announced he wanted to celebrate a particularly good deal he’d made. The girls dressed up, and they went to a fancy restaurant for dinner. Allie enjoyed herself so much, she was almost able to believe she lived a normal life.

Back at the condo, Warner sent them off to get ready for bed with promises of a trip up the coast to the Great Barrier Reef the next day.

As Allie brushed her teeth, she saw Warner’s reflection in the mirror. He retrieved a paper bag from the hall closet, opened it, and removed a package wrapped in blue paper and silver ribbon. Allie shuddered as he carried the box out of sight into the kitchen.

Maybe, if I pretend to be asleep….

She rinsed her mouth, washed her face and Suzie’s, then called good night to Warner from the room the girls shared.

Once in bed, Suzie’s breathing quickly fell into the steady, regular pattern of sleep. Allie remained tense. She could hear the television from the other room and Warner’s occasional laugh. She prayed the drinks he’d had with dinner would make him drowsy.

At length, the blare of the TV went silent. She heard the click of a light switch and the creak of a door. She tracked his movements from bedroom to bath and back by sound. A squeaky bed spring in his room promised her a peaceful night.

Too tense to sleep, she stretched, her mind awash with conflicting thoughts and emotions. She forced herself to think only of pleasant things, but her mind continually drifted into areas she wanted to avoid. Finally, she quit trying to think of anything specific. She breathed deeply and let the air out slowly.

The trip would be good; the Great Barrier Reef was a shell collector’s dream. She smiled and then heard the squeak of his bedsprings again.

Damn!

She rolled on her side, facing away from the door, and waited in the dark. She heard the creak of a floorboard and the protest of a hinge down the hall. Dim light spilled into the room as her door was pushed quietly open. She closed her eyes, waiting for his hand on her shoulder and the whispered commands.

No! I’m asleep. Just have to keep my breathing steady.

The whisper came without the touch.

She kept her eyes shut. I’m asleep. I can’t hear you.

The whisper grew insistent. Still, there was no touch. She heard the rustle of sheets, yet felt nothing. The realization hit her like a cannon shot. Suzie! Allie sat upright.

“Warner?” she asked, her voice loud in the dark.

He turned to her from his seat on Suzie’s bed. “Go back to sleep.”

“No.”

“This doesn’t concern you, Allison.”

“Like hell.”

“Watch your language, young lady!”

She almost laughed at that except her stomach was churning, and her real fear was that she might vomit. “Stay away from her!” she said, her voice harsh.

In the dark, she could just make out his features as the muscles in his tight face slowly relaxed into a smile. “Well, well. Look who’s jealous.”

“Allie?” Suzie asked, her voice sleepy-thick.

“It’s okay,” Allie said, “go back to sleep.”

Warner stared at his eldest daughter for a moment, then spoke. “All right then, let her sleep. You come with me.”

Allie looked at the small form in the other bed, then at the man seated next to her. He held a bottle of perfume in one hand and a tube of lubricant in the other.

You bastard.

Allie got up slowly and followed him from the room.

~*~

In the morning they were both up before Suzie. Warner stood at the sink drinking coffee. “I’m going out to get stuff for the trip. Need anything?”

Allie pushed the gift-wrapped package toward him. “I need you to get rid of this.”

A look of concern crossed his face.

She frowned. “Don’t you know how much it hurts Suzie when you never give her anything?”

He paused briefly before answering. “What has she ever given me?”

Allie felt the blood drain from her face. She took a breath and balled her fists, but managed to keep the anger out of her voice. “Just this once, why don’t you get her something nice?”

“Okay–for you.”

“No,” Allie said, “for her.”

“Whatever, but you’re the one who earned it.”

Allie swallowed, the taste of bile raw in her throat, then forced herself to be pleasant. “I’m a shell collector; what reward could be better than visiting the Great Barrier Reef? We’ll find something I want.”

“I don’t know crap about shells, Allison. You’ll have to tell me what you want.”

“I’ve got a better idea. I’ll give you pictures,” she said.

“What for?”

“So you’ll know what I want while we’re looking.”

“Can’t we just buy them?”

“I’d prefer we found our own. Then it would mean something–be something special.”

“Whatever.” He glanced at his watch. “Get Susan up and ready to go. I’ll be back soon.”

As Warner closed the door behind him, Allie opened the shell book and turned to the chapter on cones. She ran her finger down the column of text until she reached the part she wanted. For the hundredth time, she read about the hollow, needle-like tooth which cone shells used to stab their victims and through which they injected paralyzing neurotoxins to kill them. They grew an ample supply of the deadly little harpoons making it possible to sting repeatedly. Humans had died from their venom. The treatment was the same as for snake bites, but there was no known antidote.

Allie carefully clipped two color photos from the treasured book: Conus geographus and Conus textile. Not only were they the most lethal, but they were also the most plentiful. She sealed the clippings, back to back, in a clear plastic bag and closed the book as Suzie strolled into the kitchen.

“Good morning,” Allie said, feeling strangely chipper.

~*~

The drive took much longer than expected, and Allison pestered Warner the whole time about the cone shells she hoped to find. He lectured her briefly for defacing the big shell book but forgave her when she apologized, citing as her defense the excitement of actually going to the Reef.

The sun sat low in the sky before they found lodging. The girls changed into swimsuits while Warner unpacked the car. They met him outside as he brought in the last load.

Suzie had to use both arms to carry the plastic bucket full of beach toys Warner had given her that morning. She smiled deliriously at him. “Where’s your swimsuit, Daddy?”

“I’ll put it on in a minute,” he said.

Allison hoisted a shopping bag bulging with odds and ends. “I think we’ve got everything we need.”

Warner went inside and changed. He’d told Allie he didn’t relish the idea of wading in the ocean looking for shells but conceded it was less stressful than trying to make deals when most of his potential clients would prefer to be out Christmas shopping.

Since Allie claimed their chances of finding specimens were better during the early evening hours, Warner announced they’d eat dinner first. Suzie didn’t want to wait, until Allison explained they’d be searching for live shells instead of the ones which washed up on shore. She smiled as she stroked her sister’s hair. “Just stay with me, and we’ll find the prettiest ones in the whole ocean. Maybe even the ‘Glory’!”

“What’s a ‘gory’?”

Allison laughed. “The ‘Glory-of-the-Sea.’ It used to be the rarest shell of all. People paid thousands for ’em.”

Suzie blinked. “Really?”

“Yup.”

“Thousands of dollars?” Warner asked. “When?”

“In the 1800s,” Allie said. “I can look it up.”

“Don’t bother,” he said. “Stupidity doesn’t impress me.”

Allie bristled but said nothing.

They walked to the beach after dinner, and Allie eagerly approached a man selling soft drinks from a cart. “How long will it take to wade out to the reef?”

“A week or so, I’d wager,” he said, laughing.

Allison’s excitement faded.

“You need to take a tour boat to get to the reef. I haven’t been out there in years.”

“What’s the matter, Allison?” Warner asked.

She told him.

“I’m not paying for a tour boat,” he said. “We’ll get your shells in one of the shops.”

“It’s not fair!” Allie said. She wanted to stamp her feet and scream like her sister did.

Warner responded automatically. “Life’s not about–”

“Yeah,” Allie said. “I know.”

Suzie groaned. “I’m tired.”

“Me too,” Warner said. “Let’s get a good night’s rest. We’ll look into it more tomorrow.”

~*~

They had breakfast in a cafe near a wharf. Suzie smeared dark jelly on her toast, took a huge bite and then spit it out.

“What’s the matter?” Warner asked.

While Suzie wiped her tongue with a napkin, Allie examined the jar in front of the little girl. “It’s called Vegemite,” she said, sniffing the open container. “People really eat this?”

“I can’t stand it myself, luv,” their waitress said, “but people ’round here can’t get enough of it.” She shook her head, “Vegemite and rugby league–what’s the world comin’ to?”

Allie asked her about reaching the reef.

“Tour boats leave every mornin’,” she said. “I’ve got a brochure around here somewhere. You fancy a bit of snorkeling?”

Allie shook her head. “No. I want to look for shells.”

The waitress frowned. “Then don’t waste your time with the tour boats. What you need is a section of dead coral. That’s where you’ll find the best shells.” She crossed her arms.

Allie smiled. “Can you tell us a good place to look?”

“No, but my uncle can. I used to help ‘im find shells for the tourist trade. He’s retired now.”

“I wouldn’t think of bothering him,” Warner said.

“It’s no bother. Besides, he loves it when people treat him like an expert.” She walked away and spoke to a man drinking tea at a table across the room. He nodded and waved. The waitress returned with fresh coffee. “He says he knows just the spot.”

“It’s a sheller’s paradise,” the man said ambling up behind her, “or my name ain’t Duff Chaney.”

Allie chafed at the time spent retrieving Chaney’s boats and preparing them for the trip. It was past lunchtime when they packed a cooler with food and drinks into a dinghy towed behind a weathered skiff. Chaney said little as he arranged the party and their gear and shoved off. The ancient outboard reeked of motor oil and threatened to shed parts. When Chaney yanked the starter rope the noise frightened Suzie who embedded herself in Allie’s side. The trip took about an hour.

“I’ll be back by seven,” Chaney said as he secured a homemade sunshade over one end of their boat. He wrapped an anchor line from the dinghy around a slab of dead, grey coral, then fiddled with the choke on the antique motor in his own boat. “You don’t want to be out here after dark.”

“That’s only four hours,” Allie said.

Warner stared at her. “Only? Four hours is plenty.” He looked at the sky. “Maybe too long. What if the weather changes–”

“No worries, mate.” Chaney gave him a broad, gap-toothed grin. “It’ll stay like this all week.”

“You’re sure?”

In answer, Chaney restarted the outboard motor which belched a cloud of thick, white smoke. “I imagine you’ll be ready to go when I come back,” he said, laughing. “Use plenty of sunscreen. Now, mind the prop’!” Allie felt a sense of relief as he chugged out of sight.

“Let’s go!” Suzie shouted. She jumped into waste-deep water with swim goggles perched on her head. “Right behind ya!” Allie said, splashing in after her. Warner looked like he might spend the afternoon in the shade, but Allie finally coaxed him in.

The search began amid a surprising abundance and variety of shells. Suzie quickly switched her attention to the schools of brightly-colored fish all around them.

Allie held her diving mask in the water and stared through it to minimize the sun’s glare. She found the first cone in less than an hour. About two inches long and stunning to look at, the shell had neither of the designs of the Geography or Textile cones she’d memorized from the book.

“Allie! Come look!” Suzie cried. Allie abandoned her find and sloshed over to her sister. The little girl pointed at a large, conical shell partially buried in the sand. “Is that one? Is that a ‘Glory’?” She waved to Warner. “Come look!”

“What is it?” he asked.

“It’s called a volute, I think,” Allie said, lifting the shell from the water.

“A what?”

“A volute. It’s too big to be a cone.” She smiled at her sister. “And it’s a beauty! Should we keep it?”

“Yeah!” Suzie said.

Allie handed her the shell. “Go put it in the boat, okay?”

As Suzie trundled off, Allie glanced at Warner. With the plastic-bagged photos in hand, he squinted down into the water, resigned to the search, but not happy about it. Sometime later he stopped mumbling, which got Allie’s attention. “Find something?”

“Could be.” Warner bent low to examine something in the shallow water.

Allie felt an adrenaline rush and started toward him. As she approached, he plucked a shell from the sandy bottom. He held it up and compared it to the picture, then smiled.

“How ’bout this?” he said as Allie reached his side. He held a four-inch shell between his thumb and forefinger. “What do you– Ow! Shit.” He dropped the shell. “It bit me!”

“Shells don’t bite,” Allie said.

“That one did.” Warner inspected the fleshy pad of his thumb. “Felt like a bee sting, only worse.” He stared at the tiny wound. “Damn thing did have a stinger! Look.”

Allie inspected the tiny wound, then looked down through the water at their feet. A perfect specimen of Conus geographus lay in the sand. Her heart raced at the find.

“I read something about this kind.” She lowered her voice for the lie she’d often rehearsed in her mind. “It’s also called Lover’s Shell. The natives said the sting was an afri– afro–”

Aphrodisiac?

“Yeah, that’s it.”

“Not that I need it, but that’s still pretty cool.” He frowned. “I just wish it didn’t hurt so much. Can you get the stinger out? My hand’s starting to go numb.”

“I can try.” Allie picked at the tiny harpoon, but her nails weren’t sharp enough or long enough to grip it. “It’s too bad we don’t have any tweezers.” She’d made sure of that.

Warner leaned over the side of the boat and retrieved his cell phone from under a seat. He cursed at the lack of a signal, then grimaced when he saw the time. “Damn! It’ll be hours before Chaney comes back.” He held his thumb to his mouth and tried to get at the tiny barb with his teeth, but that effort also failed.

“Why don’t you sit in the boat for a while,” Allie said, “until you feel better.”

She watched him clamor over the side, her heart hammering like the over-worked piston in Chaney’s outboard motor. Almost done! Now, they only needed to wait.

When Suzie became bored, Allie quit searching for shells and played with her. They stayed close to Warner and the cooler. In time, his speech became thick, and he complained of blurred vision, two of the symptoms Allie expected. The toxin was working, but did he get enough?

“Allishon,” he said, “My lipsh are numb.” When she didn’t respond he added, “but nuthin’ elsh. Lights out early tonight, okay?”

Allie cringed then wondered how she could get the cone to sting him again. Maybe he’ll pass out. I could try then.

She played with Suzie for what seemed like an eternity, then turned back to Warner. “What time is it?”

“Almosht six,” he said. “Allie, I’m worried. I c-can barely move.” He had stretched his arm across the top of the cooler and rested his head on it. He spoke with his eyes closed.

She stared at the man who’d refused to help her mother the day she’d been stung by a bee. The fear in the woman’s voice still haunted Allie’s dreams. When Warner made a whimpering sound, Allie could barely disguise her loathing for him. How does it feel, Daddy dear?

Suzie stood in the water beside the boat drinking from a plastic bottle shaped like a cartoon character. She stared at their father. “Is he really-really sick?”

“In more ways than one,” Allie said.

Suzie looked down into the water. “Is this a ‘Glory’?”

Allie jerked upright as her sister reached for the cone shell Warner had dropped.

“Don’t!” she yelled, surging forward as Suzie lifted the deadly cone in the air. Allie scrambled toward her and knocked it out of her hands.

Suzie yelped in surprise, then began to cry hysterically.

“Did it sting you?” Allie asked as she grabbed her sister’s hands and inspected them.

“You scared me!” Suzie sobbed.

Allie put her hands on either side of Suzie’s head and forced the girl to pay attention. She spoke slowly. “Did–it–sting–you?”

“No,” Suzie said, pulling free. “I just wanted to look at it.” She gazed back down into the water. “Is that the shell that hurt Daddy?”

“Yes,” Allie said. She guided Suzie back to the boat and helped her climb in. “We need to put more sunscreen on. I’ll do your back if you’ll do mine.”

“Allie?” Warner groaned. When she didn’t answer right away he called her again, louder.

“What?” She responded, so severely Suzie shrank away.

“It’s– it’s gettin’ worse,” he said, his voice raspy, his tongue and lips dry.

Allie leaned close and whispered, “Yes, it is. And that’s how Mom felt. You’re dying.”

“No,” he groaned. His eyelids fluttered, and his fingers scrabbled on the gunnels of the boat.

“You need to understand,” she said in the same low voice, “I made it happen. And you know what?” While she waited for him to respond, she tore the cone photos into tiny pieces and scattered them in the ocean. “I’ll get away with it. Just like you did when you killed Mom. The only hard part is going to be pretending I’m sad that you’re dead.”

Warner’s eyes opened wide, and he struggled vainly to speak.

“You’ll never hurt me again, and you’ll never–ever–touch Suzie. We’ll go live with Aunt Maggie, and we’ll be fine.” She forced herself to smile at him. “You’ll be worm food.”

His face contorted with fear, and his voice leaked out in a whine. “I don’t want–”

“Nobody cares what you want,” Allie said.

“It’s not… It’s not fair.”

Allie shook her head just the way he had so often. “Life’s not about fair. You’ve told me that a million times.”

Warner didn’t hear her. Nor would he ever.

Allie gathered Suzie into her arms as the muted growl of Duff Chaney’s boat sounded in the distance. She smiled and kissed the top of her sister’s head.

~End~

Posted in short fiction, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Arty rules are rubbery (Encore edition)

It’s not that I hate saying it; I hate having to say it. Arty rules are rubbery.

When writing, whether for a fiction market or in a memoir, the rules aren’t immutable. They weren’t etched in granite via lightning strike or by vengeful gremlins nor even by well-meaning bureaucrats with no concept of unintended consequences (as if there were any other kinds). You can break the rules anytime you need to. The operative word here is “need.” I’m convinced that the “arty” rule set evolved as the result of countless writers making the same bad choices so often, that some editor somewhere screamed “There oughta be a law!” so loudly and with such anguish, that other editors also took up the call. However, since few had the power to enact legislation, thereby shifting the duty for enforcement to the state, they had to settle for mere rules.

rulesAlas, the landscape is riddled with rules, everywhere for everything, and they’re often wildly different. The rules for golf, for instance, bear no resemblance to the rules for football, or bowling, or fly fishing (or to much of anything else, come to think of it). Try comparing the rules of etiquette with the rules for mud wrestling. And in most cases, there are exceptions to every rule. (To be ruthlessly honest, I’m not sure there are any rules for mud wrestling. Thinking about it did provide the opportunity for me to search for representative images, which I thoroughly enjoyed even though I failed to find any suitable for a <cough> family-friendly blog like this one.)

In writing, more so than elsewhere, the exceptions are so common that calling the rules “Rules” is pretty silly. Calling ’em suggestions would be more accurate, but who heeds suggestions?

Seemingly endless lists of Dos and Don’ts exist for writers: Don’t start your novel with a dream scene; don’t overdo dialect; kill all your darlings, don’t let your children grow up to be cowboys, etc. One can’t be expected to remember them all. Knowing and understanding most of them, however, is essential.

We’re all going to make mistakes, and that’s okay. It’s a learning process after all. No one is expected to ski flawlessly the first time out on the slopes. Everyone, however, is expected to ride the lift chair the same way. Obviously, there are downsides to ignoring the rules. On the ski slope, it could mean breaking a limb. In writing, it could result in having readers laugh at you or your work.

The point of this rant is not that you should ignore the “guidelines,” or whatever the writing world chooses to call them, simply because you can. The idea is to learn the rules so well that when the time comes, you can sidestep them without doing your opus any cheater catharm. And yes, I know it may sound trite. The reality is anything but.

Sometimes my writing students adopt the attitude that the rules are holy writ. They definitely aren’t. But they aren’t arbitrary or capricious, either. In most countries of the world, folks drive on the right. That doesn’t mean they can’t swerve left to avoid colliding with something. You have my permission to do the same thing when writing. Just understand what you’re doing when you do it.

There. I feel better now. Don’t you?

–Josh

Posted in Memoir, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

A Breed Apart (Encore edition)

As we swing into fall, I find myself thinking more and more fancifully. This little tale I wrote a couple years back captures a bit of that. Let me know what you think!

“C’mon now, Lacy,” her father said as he prodded the sow toward his truck. “Pigs ain’t pets. They’re livestock. I’ve told you a million times not to get attached to ‘em.”

“But her babies are only two weeks old.”

“They ain’t babies, Lacy. They’re piglets, and before long they’ll be bacon. Speakin’ of which, where are they?”

“In the hog pen,” she said. Most of them, anyway.

“I wanna see ‘em when I get back, y’hear? And I don’t want any arguments. Any of them runts that ain’t perfect won’t be around long.”

“But–”

“I’ll see you when I get done butcherin’ this old sow. You just see to them piglets and don’t make a big deal outta it. Understand?”

“Yes, Daddy,” she said. Lacy didn’t move as she watched her father drive the sow into his truck, secure the tailgate, and lurch down the rutted dirt track away from their barn. His destination was no secret, and the knowledge brought tears to her eyes. Lacy had been to the slaughterhouse enough times to know she never wanted to go back.

Her unwillingness to eat meat of any kind gave her soul some peace, but not at home where her father harangued her about it, or at school where the other kids labeled her “weird.” Her long-awaited graduation meant freedom from her narrow-minded classmates. Though she’d once dreamed of college, she knew she couldn’t leave the farm. Not yet, if ever.

No longer under her father’s scrutiny, Lacy hurried to the hog pen to check on the little ones. No doubt, some would be struggling, and their lives would be short. But Lacy refused to abandon them, especially the most severely deformed. These she would shower with affection; even if she couldn’t save them, they needed to know some love before her father butchered them, too.

The pen held all but one of the piglets in the farrow. Lacy smiled just thinking of the fancy word. Her father called them a “mess of pigs,” ignoring any and all naming conventions based on the animals’ age.

Of the eight little pigs still in the pen, two had obvious deformities. Not unusual considering her father’s zeal to breed the animals faster, and to force them to market faster still. There were always mutations. That meant nothing to him; he never showed his livestock at county fairs or auctions. He wanted big, fat pigs he could grow and slaughter in the shortest period of time possible.

His obsession for a quick turnaround from mating to meat-eating caused him to conduct wide-ranging experiments. Some came from legitimate experts in animal husbandry; others came from mysterious sources whose expertise was questionable at best. Lacy’s father didn’t care. He tried anything that might speed up the process–potions, proteins, or prayers. It was all the same to him. The less time he spent breeding, fattening, and killing, the faster his profits grew. He wanted only what worked, no matter if it came from science or magic.

Lacy, however, knew the difference. And she took full advantage of it.

After cuddling the two unfortunate piglets for a while, she returned them to the pen and ventured into the woods which separated her father’s business from civilization. The separation was mandated not only by society but by statute. Pig farms have a distinct aroma, one which can cling to the skin, hair, and clothing of those who live on or near them. Lacy had grown used to the smell, but it still offended town folk and nearly everyone in her school. Hence, the border area.

At first, she took great pains to bathe frequently and launder her clothing with strong detergents and “fresheners.” Over time, she realized the futility of her efforts. She was already disliked; dousing herself in perfume wouldn’t change that. If anything, the aroma of pig shit she bore to school every day helped to keep her tormentors at a distance.

Free from interference, she used her school time to advance her knowledge, if not her formal education. She wasn’t preparing for college; she had a greater goal in mind.

Eventually, she reached her oasis, a ramshackle cabin surrounded by crudely fenced pens. Most of the animals in them hurried to greet her, pressing tight enough against the twig and branch enclosures to loosen a feather, a scale, or hair. Lacy modeled her fencing after that of the ancient Celts whom she’d read about in school. She fed the animals with food secretly “liberated” from her father’s stores. Fresh water came from a small stream that ran through the pens and emptied into a swamp close by the piggery.

pigletLacy entered the structure, more hut than house, and went directly to the latest member of her menagerie, a perfectly formed piglet save for one distinct feature: a pair of wings that grew from between the animal’s shoulders. The piglet wiggled and squealed at her approach, its little snout aquiver. Lacy knelt down, and the tiny, porcine angel leaped into her arms, eager to bathe her in piggy kisses.

It was a sweet moment but short-lived. For the first time ever she heard the sound of construction vehicles in the distance. Terrified her hideaway might be uncovered by a roving bulldozer, or worse, by her father, Lacy disentangled herself. She hastily fed all the animals, then hurried back through the woods toward home.

She heard her father’s voice, calling for her, well before he came into view. “Coming,” she yelled back and ran faster.

“Where the hell have you been?” he asked when she finally arrived.

She took a calming breath, then said, “It’s a pretty day. I went for a walk.”

“In the woods?”

She nodded, yes.

“Did ya finish yer chores?”

“Yessir.”

He stared at her for a moment, then shifted closer. Lacy smelled the essence of dead animals emanating from her father’s dirt and blood-stained coveralls. She backed away, holding her breath.

“We got any losers?” he asked.

“Two,” she said. “But I’ll take care of them.” Not that she would enjoy removing the vestigial wings from the two piglets in the hog pen, but if he did it, their chances of survival would plummet.

“Aw right, then,” he said, turning away. “When yer done, get back in the house. I’m gettin’ hungry.”

“Yessir,” she said again, trying to hide her emotions.

He chuckled. “I want pork chops tonight. If you don’t want yours, I’ll eat ‘em.”

She avoided rolling her eyes with a conscious effort. “Um, Daddy?”

“What?”

“I heard some heavy machinery while I was taking my walk. Do you know what’s going on?”

“The county’s buildin’ a road, right through that useless chunk of woods. I ain’t pleased about it, but they paid me a little something for the right of way. I’ve gotta get somebody to harvest the trees though. Oughta make a buck or two from that.”

Lacy’s heart raced. Hoping her father wouldn’t notice, she hurried to the hog pen to perform the surgeries. From past experience, she knew a local anesthetic would suffice. It was all she had. The law required that her father’s animals meet certain minimum health requirements; the standards were upheld by a local veterinarian. She’d learned a lot from him and even assisted with rudimentary surgery.

She often begged him for something to use on the animals she tended. Because she was both earnest and smart, he gave in and provided her with the simplest of supplies: scalpel, surgical scissors, disinfectant, and suture material. That and the anesthetic were all she needed. Over time, she’d become fairly adept at such procedures. She also became adept at giving herself a five-finger discount on his other supplies, which included a vial of pentobarbital, the very stuff used to put sick animals down. She knew just such an animal.

A full stomach had its usual effect on Lacy’s dad, and he fell asleep watching pro wrestling on TV. He woke briefly in response to the needle’s sharp sting, shouting and rising to his feet, but moments later he succumbed to the drug and dropped to the floor. She managed to get his body back into his easy chair, comfortable in the belief the authorities wouldn’t bother with an autopsy.

170196045_sFinally free of his overbearing, money-grubbing dominance, Lacy set about moving her collection of evolving animals back into the hog farm from which they’d originally come. The little, winged piglet would join the others of his kind, a whole collection of breeds very definitely apart.

Best of all, Lacy would be able to continue her quest to grow a dragon. But first, pigs must fly.

~End~

Posted in short fiction, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

A Not So Simple Case of Stage Fright (Encore edition)

Here’s something a little different. And seeing as how my new book is told from the point of view of two teens, I thought it appropriate to share this little story again. Please, let me know what you think.

“I’m done for,” Jack told himself. “If I weren’t such a chicken, I’d take my bike out on the interstate until somebody ran over me.”

“What’re you mumblin’ about, Jerko?”

”Nuthin’.”

Rotten to begin with, Jack’s day had just gotten worse with the arrival of the last person on Earth he wanted to see, Myron “the Beast” Blatnik.

“Look at me, Jerko,” the Beast said. “I want an answer.”

Jack knew what he really wanted was an excuse to punch Jack’s lights out. And any excuse would do.

“It’s nothing important.”

“So, you got my grade fixed?”

There it was, the grade thing. If only Jack hadn’t opened his mouth; if only he hadn’t claimed he knew how to change data in a spreadsheet. If only…. “Yeah, about that,” he began.

“You didn’t do it, did ya?” More statement than question, the Beast delivered his opinion with a quick shove and a dose of halitosis, both well-known Blatnik trademarks.

“The thing is, I got caught,” Jack said, trying to hold his breath long enough for the Beast’s breath to dissipate.

The Beast showed him a fist. “You better not have ratted me out to Mizz M.”

“I didn’t. Honest. I told her I was just lookin’. I wasn’t trying to change anything.”

“Did she believe you?”

Jack shrugged. Mrs. Melchior could be a mystery sometimes, especially when it came to doling out punishment. The one she’d given him was clearly over the top. Super, extra over the top.

“At least you didn’t get suspended,” opined the Beast.

“That would’ve been a lot better than what she came up with.”

“Oh, yeah? What’s that?”

“I’ve gotta play the part of Romeo in the year-end class play.”

The Beast laughed so hard Jack knew everyone in the whole school could hear him, and thanks to the magic of junior high physics, everyone would know exactly why he was laughing.

“C’mon, man. Gimme a break.”

The Beast struggled to control himself. “I heard Four Eyes is gonna be Juliet.” He doubled over once more. “Oh, that’s frickin’ awesome. I can’t wait to see you smoochin’ up 4E.”

“I don’t think that’s required,” Jack said, though he doubted his own words.

The Beast poked Jack’s sternum. “Just don’t forget to fix my grade before the end of the term.”

“You don’t think Mrs. Melchior will notice?”

“Ain’t my problem, Jerko. Do it, or else.”

~*~

Jack put in more hours than he cared to count in an effort to memorize his lines, but when it came time to recite them, he struggled. It didn’t help that most of the class had front-row seats for his mortification. And smack in the middle, where Jack could smell his rank, nasty breath, sat Myron “the Beast” Blatnik, laughing harder than everyone else.

4E, on the other hand, knew every line as if she were reading from a script. It wasn’t fair by a long shot. When Mrs. Melchior finally granted him a reprieve and ended the rehearsal, Jack wasted no time following his Juliet to her locker, hoping to learn her secret.

“How do you do it?” he asked the tall, dark‑haired girl whom everyone but the teacher called 4E. “How can you remember all this stuff?”

“It’s easy. Where I come from, everyone can do it. You just have to give the words a special look.”

Jack had no idea where she came from, but he was absolutely sure it wasn’t anyplace nearby. She had a vaguely Asian look, and one of his friends pegged her as, “Cute, but not Miss Universe.” Jack hadn’t formed an opinion about her since he hadn’t quite gotten into the whole girl and guy thing yet, much to the amusement of his alleged pals.

“That’s fine for you,” he said. “But what about me?”

“I guess you’ll just have to work harder.”

“Aw geez, 4E. I’m already workin’ overtime.”

She just shrugged and walked away, leaving Jack sad and frustrated. At least she didn’t seem to care about her nickname like some kids did. He figured that was because no one, including Mrs. Melchior, knew exactly how to pronounce her real name.

~*~

A few more days passed, and on the eve of the dress rehearsal, Jack concluded his situation was hopeless. He had even given serious thought to running away to someplace where nobody knew him. His overwhelming gloom drove him close to tears as he stood beside his locker and contemplated various forms of pain-free suicide.

“Wow,” said 4E as she sidled up to him in the hallway, “you look like you just received a death sentence.”

“Might as well have,” he muttered. “Every time I think I’ve got my lines down pat, somebody looks at me funny, or makes a joke, or sticks their tongue out at me, and then I can’t even remember what day it is.”

4E stepped closer to him and crossed her arms. “Since you’ve been pretty nice to me, I’ll do you a favor.”

Jack gave her his full attention. “What kinda favor?”

“If you can give me some kind of sign when you need help, I can give you your lines.”

“A sign?”

“Sure. You could wink or something.”

Jack’s laugh held little mirth. “I can just imagine how everyone would react to that! They’d never stop laughing at me. Couldn’t I just rub my nose?”

“Based on the way it’s been going, you’ll rub it completely off by the time we get to the end of the first scene.”

Jack felt tears beginning to form. He had no intention of crying in front of a classmate, let alone a girl, but he had nowhere to hide.

“I’ve got a better idea,” 4E said. “At the dress rehearsal, whenever you need the next line, just start thinking of something really, really weird and specific.”

“Like Eddie Bogart’s funky ear?”

She shook her head. “Nah. It needs to be something nobody else is likely to think about.” Her lips twisted to one side as she gave it more thought. “How ‘bout pickles on ice cream?”

“What good is that supposed to do?”

“You’ll see,” she said. “Oh, and by the way, my name’s not Four Eyes.” She then uttered something that included two tongue clicks and a short, breathy whistle.

Jack decided he’d stick with 4E.

~*~

At the dress rehearsal, Jack donned his costume as if it were required for the guest of honor at a firing squad. Nervous sweat dripped from everywhere, soaking his tights and his short jacket. The only thing which stayed dry was the feather in his monumentally stupid hat.

Somehow he staggered out on the stage where 4E waited for him dressed in similar period clothing. But just as she had no problems with her lines, her costume looked great. In fact, without her big glasses, she was edging closer to Miss Universe territory, and he told her so.

Her smile made her look even prettier. “Now don’t forget what I told you to do if you forget something,” she said.

He couldn’t begin to imagine how thinking of something stupid‑‑like pickles on ice cream‑‑could possibly make any difference, but he agreed. Since he was about to perish on stage anyway, in front of everyone he knew, what difference did it make? On the plus side, by dying out there, Myron Blatnik would be deprived of his main goal in life, Jack’s torture.

Jack somehow managed the first few of his lines without difficulty, but he made the mistake of looking at the Beast squatting at the edge of the stage making faces at him. The curtain shielded Blatnik from the teacher giving him a clear line of sight to the actors. Suddenly, Jack couldn’t remember anything.

His skin grew clammy, and he began shaking and stammering. The worse he got, the more the Beast laughed. Jack stared at 4E in desperation.

She smiled and winked at him which seemed to break the spell.

He closed his eyes and concentrated on a huge bowl of fudge ripple ice cream with sliced pickles piled on top. Suddenly, he heard a voice in his head. It was her!

He opened his eyes to see if she was talking, but she was just smiling, and he could still hear her speaking his lines!

Jack looked around to see if anyone else heard her, too, but it seemed clear no one else could. Mrs. M had grown impatient; the other kids didn’t bother to try and hide their giggles, and the Beast grinned and gave him the finger.

Finally, Jack blurted out his lines, just as 4E had recited them to him.

From then on, with 4E’s help, he made it through the rest of the rehearsal. At the end, Mrs. Melchior complemented both of her star players. The other students, with the exception of the Beast, crowded around them, clapping them on the back and telling them how great they were. Jack even began to believe them.

Once everyone packed up and started leaving, Jack hurried to find and thank 4E as she stood beside her hall locker.

“How can I thank you?” he asked.

“I’m not saying another word until you call me by my proper name,” she said. “It’s–” She rattled off a few syllables punctuated with clicks and a whistle.

“I– I don’t think I–“

“Adios,” she said, turning away. She didn’t seem to notice the smattering of kids who had hung around to watch them.

“Wait,” Jack said and gave it a try.

“That’s close,” she said. “Try again.”

Despite the laughter and the noise of the other kids, Jack did give it another try. And then another. And another. Until he got it right.

“That’s it!” she said, her smile wider than ever.

Jack wiped his forehead. “Okay then. How can I really thank you?”

She didn’t hesitate. “A kiss will do.”

The gang surrounding them thought this new development was insanely funny, and they all burst out laughing, especially the Beast.

Jack merely hitched up his tights, cleared his throat and said, “That’s fine with me, Juliet.” Then he kissed her full on the lips.

It was a long kiss.

Some of the boys continued to giggle, but the girls in the crowd elbowed them into silence.

By the time they finished that one, long kiss, Jack’s world had expanded exponentially.

~*~

With his confidence restored and his fear under control, Jack managed to play his role quite convincingly to a girl he now realized he adored. As a result, they both turned in performances that could only be described as masterful, even for junior high schoolers.

Afterward, at the cast party, the Beast pushed his way between Jack and 4E’s newly found admirers. “Hey, Jerko. You finished with our other project yet?”

With 4E holding his hand, Jack didn’t flinch as he looked the Beast square in the eye. “Before I answer, I’ve got a question for you.”

“Yeah?”

“Do you like ice cream? I mean, as big as you are, you probably eat a lot of it.”

The Beast seemed to expand right where he stood. “So what?”

“What’s your favorite flavor?”

“Vanilla. What of it?”

“Stay with me now,” Jack said, ready to launch into the tactic 4E suggested before the show. She had seen the effect the Beast had on him. He stared hard at Blatnik. “Try thinking of that big ol’ bowl of vanilla ice cream just smothered in pickles.”

Pickles?

“Yeah. Give it a shot,” Jack said. “Unless, of course, you’re afraid.”

The Beast actually growled at him. “Yer in for it now.”

“Oh, puh-leeze. Just take two seconds to think about that ice cream with lovely green pickle slices sliding down on all sides. C’mon. Give it a try.”

4E squeezed Jack’s hand as she smiled, not saying a word.

Suddenly, the Beast looked nervous, and his face reflected a growing fear. He glanced from side to side as if seeking an excape route or an emergency exit.

4E continued to smile, while Jack held his ground and then, at the appropriate moment, cracked his knuckles.

With that, Myron “the Beast” Blatnik reached the breaking point and pushed his way back out of the small crowd.

“Catch ya later,” Jack called out after him.

The Beast didn’t respond.

~*~

Jack walked 4E home a short while later. On the way he couldn’t help but comment, “I still don’t understand what you did to him.”

She chuckled. “Once you got him to focus on something odd, I was able to put a suggestion in his mind.”

“What kinda suggestion?”

“He now believes you’ve got a black belt in karate and could break his arms and legs as easily as you destroy pine boards.”

“No kidding? I don’t know anything about karate.”

“You might want to look into it,” she said. “Just in case.”

Jack realized he’d been holding her hand the entire time they’d been walking, and when they reached her house, he was reluctant to let go. “This whole thing has been amazing. And I still don’t know how you were able to memorize your lines so well.”

“It’s easy,” she said. “Where I come from, everyone can do it.”

Her response sounded familiar, and Jack squinted at her. “Just where, exactly, do you come from?”

“Promise you won’t tell?”

He nodded.

“I come from the fourth planet orbiting the star Earth people call Alpha Centauri.”

Jack laughed. “No, really, where do you come from?”

4E wasn’t laughing. “That is where I come from.”

“Right,” Jack said, still trying to make light of it. “I thought all you space aliens were supposed to be green or look like reptiles or something.”

“Only in the movies,” she said. “Although we do have one thing that humans don’t have.” She pulled the hair back from her forehead to reveal a third eye. “Any time I need to remember something forever, I give it a special look.”

~End~

Posted in short fiction, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments