Oh, those damned middles! (Encore)

MiddleYou know how it starts, and you know how it ends. Now what?

For many, including most of my writing students, the gaping black hole which sits between the beginning and the end of a story can be daunting. How does one navigate that? How does one manufacture the trys and fails that will fill the void and entertain the masses?

I appreciate how challenging it can be to maintain the pace of constant threats and resolutions. What helps me is having more than one point of view character. It may sound counter-intuitive since it involves more plot problems rather than less, but it works for me.

With multiple POV characters, I’m given the option to tell more than one side of the story. It’s best if the players involved have competing motives. F’rinstance:

Polly PopularOne could start with Polly Popular, an entertainer at the bottom of the show biz ladder. She’s maybe working on a cruise ship doing song and dance at night while running bingo games and ping pong tournaments during the day. Her goal is to make it big in Hollywood. Obviously, she has a long way to go. We introduce her being hassled by some asshat cruise director with a grudge against her. Person, place, problem, right?

Next up is Daniel Dirtbag, a loser extraordinaire who is being pressured to commit a heinous crime to pay off gambling debts. All he has to do is follow instructions. It’s either that, or he can pay with his life. Oh, yeah, he lives near the cruise ship docks. Person, place, and problem number two.

Now we toss in Tommy Tourist, a fellow who’s been on his own so long, he can’t even spell female companionship. A recluse, the only reason he’s booked passage on the cruise is because his mother, who still loves him, insisted on it or she’d write him out of her will. Tommy isn’t interested in adventure, and he dreads the thought of being on a boat miles and miles from shore. He spends his paycheck on seasick pills and goes anyway. Person, place and problem number three.

Bad guyFinally, we could even add yet another character, or two! Maybe it’s a wannabe mob boss who wants to extort money from the cruise line, or it could be a real terrorist *posing* as a mobster. Either way, there needs to be some pressure (read: problem) that they’re responding to. For the mob boss, maybe it’s the need to show he’s tougher than anyone else competing for the top job. For the terrorist, maybe it’s a demand from the head of his jihadist organization–“Perform, buddy, or we behead your wife and kiddies.” Et voila, we have yet another person, place and problem.

As the story is told, we switch views over and over. First it’s Polly dealing with her issues. We learn about the tragedies in her life and why she has decided to substitute success for romance. At first, her biggest issue is the cruise director. He’s pissed at her because she refused his advances. Now he wants to punish her for it. (Readers will love her for this; who hasn’t had a boss who hates them because they wouldn’t give in?)

We learn that Tommy has dreams, too. But he doesn’t believe in himself enough to accomplish anything. His inhibitions have tied him in emotional Saran Wrap. In an effort to avoid other passengers, he walks through crew quarters and encounters a weeping Polly. Stricken by her beauty and her emotional state, he begins to rise to the occasion demanding to know what he can do to help her.

Meanwhile, Daniel Dirtbag is given his orders. He’s to board the cruise ship with a carry-on bag given to him by one of the mob’s henchmen. It’s heavy. He’s told to leave it in his cabin when he goes to dinner. He’s also told the bag is rigged to explode if anyone opens it.

The clock is ticking for the mob boss–or the terrorist–doesn’t matter. Someone higher up wants results, sooner rather than later, but naturally, there are problems. There must always be problems!

The reason this approach works for me is because it allows me to get away with writing a single scene featuring the problems of only one or two characters. I don’t have to think about anything except how this one scene will advance the over-all plot: Polly is upset; Polly finds an unlikely ally; Polly plots revenge against the Cruise Director; etc.

TommyMeanwhile, Tommy is rapidly falling in love; he rearranges everything to be near Polly; Polly’s co-worker, not realizing Polly has encouraged Tommy, thinks the geeky passenger is stalking poor Polly. She decides to do something about him, etc.

Daniel has a crisis of conscience, and instead of putting the bag of explosives in his cabin near the engine room, he sneaks it onto one of the lifeboats near an upper deck. Then he discovers that the mob boss (or terrorist) has put another agent on board to watch him. He has to move the bomb or risk having his treachery discovered. Just as he’s about to sneak back onto the lifeboat to grab it, the ship’s captain announces a surprise lifeboat drill, etc.

The point of all this is that you have the flexibility to pursue several different stories at once. Everything intertwines; one player’s success becomes another’s failure. Making these interactions work will generate opportunities for surprises. Tommy gets drunk; Polly gets pregnant; Daniel goes into denial; the FBI takes out the terrorist; a rival gang kills the mob boss. Tommy falls for the gal who thinks he’s a stalker. Whatever.

As long as you know how the story ends, you can take the middle pretty much anywhere you want to go. Just remember to bring the players back into position for the climax, and it should be the biggest firecracker in your July 4th collection. It’s the one everyone’s been waiting for. That’s where everything comes together for one last, grand collision: Polly and Tommy realize they aren’t good for each other, and Polly runs off with Daniel who turns out to be the real hero. The mob boss/terrorist is left dangling over the rail, forty feet above the cruise ship’s drive screws. If he falls, his death will be both quick and certain, to say nothing of gruesome. Who doesn’t love gruesome ends for bad guys?

Mean kidAlas, you won’t be happy with the first ending. It’s too bland and uncertain. So you start to rethink things, and you come up with yet another character, albeit one who isn’t a point of view character. It’s a mean little kid. Yes, I know it’s a stereotype, but who cares?

In the revision, we introduce cute, little Beauregard Butthead, who shows up repeatedly throughout the story. He pops up once again at the end, this time with a very sharp knife purchased in a tourist stall on one of the islands the cruise ship visited. Wee little Beauregard sees the bad guy dangling, helplessly. Beauregard’s mommy is, characteristically, nowhere around. Neither is anyone else. Beauregard remembers when the miscreant dangling below shoved him out of the way earlier in the voyage. He takes the knife from his pocket, giggles, and starts sawing away on the rope.

End of story.

Wphew! There’s an entire novel outlined in — I dunno — twenty minutes. It’s got more middle than most folks will know what to do with.

Now it’s your turn. Go write something better!

–Josh

Posted in editing, novel writing, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

I write fiction, not memoir. Or do I? (Encore)

Shocked-FaceI can’t count the number of times I’ve told folks I make stuff up for a living. Depending on who I’m talking to, I may substitute a different S-word for “stuff.” Shock value, y’know; it’s important sometimes. So, how do I square the idea of writing memoir with making stuff up? Could those two things be any more incompatible?

I dunno, maybe. What I do know is that good writing is good writing, whether the practitioner is relating something biographical or something else, perhaps something brewed up in the dark corners of a twisted mind. Either way, it boils down to storytelling. The same techniques apply to both: one must gain the reader’s attention and trust, create mental images and invoke enough senses to link a reader’s life experience to that of a character–real or invented.

Foot OdourWell-written fiction draws a reader in, and it doesn’t matter if the universe he or she is drawn into is a fantasy or is as real as Aunt Minerva’s root parlor. One does that by constructing a multi-sensory word picture detailing the feel of the clear plastic seat cover on the sofa, the sounds of the cat coughing up a hairball, and the smell of burnt popcorn in the microwave. Those are all mental triggers that work equally well in fiction and non-fiction. Using them puts readers in the room, grimacing at the couch, shifting away from the cat, and pinching off their collective nostrils. C’mon, we’ve all experienced burnt microwave popcorn. In that regard–at least–we’re a team!

Show me the rule which says you can’t reference bad smells in a memoir. Piffle! Anything that puts a reader in a place is fair. The more skillfully one does it, the better. If you’re discussing a difficult decision made by a desperate couple during the Great Depression it really doesn’t matter–in terms of the writing–whether those two people actually existed or not. In the world created by the written word, the writer’s goal should be to make readers join that couple, huddle with them for warmth, their tummies growling in unison from hunger, as they conspire to sell great uncle Jeptha down the river. (Hey, the mob pays, even if everyone else runs a little short by the end of the month.)

Hopefully, you see where I’m going with this. There’s no reason not to make a memoir come alive for the reader. Just as there’s no reason to intentionally make software documentation boring. I know; I’ve written my share. Even in technical writing, boredom should never be a requirement, despite what management at my last employer tried to tell me. If someone has to read it, then whoever is being paid to write it should do the best job they possibly can. And, in the process, if they can make it interesting, then they’ve done something of which they can be justifiably proud.

Coleslaw(Damn. Has anyone else noticed how high they’re making soapboxes these days? Sheesh!)

So, what all this means is pretty simple. If you intend for people to actually read what you write, be it fiction, memoir, documentary, or step-by-step instructions, you owe it to them to make the experience as real as you possibly can.

(And don’t even get me started on mangled English. I’d like to save that for a different rant, thank you veddymuch.)

–Josh

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

“You must invest in yourself if you hope to earn any interest.” (Encore)

Writers write I don’t know if that’s corny or profound, but I’m pretty sure it’s something my Father said, so I’ll go with profound. A determined, if small-scale, investor, Dad never bought a stock he hadn’t thoroughly investigated. And though he started long before I ever even thought about buying stock for myself–50 years ago, at least–he believed his most trusted adviser was the guy he had to look at in the mirror every morning.

So, what does this have to do with writing? Only everything.

You say you’re a writer, right? Or, at the very least, you want people to think of you as a writer. You’re also the one who looks at the person in the mirror every morning, no? Okay, so the next time you see that person, ask this: “Did you write anything yesterday?”

Dollarphotoclub_40154359 txtIf the answer is “No,” it might be time for some soul-searching. How many times in the past week was the answer the same? If you run out of fingers on one hand while you’re counting, there’s a problem. Unless you were sick or tied up with something that kept you away from your project from the instant the alarm went off until the moment you dropped exhausted into bed, then I suspect you’re *not* a writer.

You may have been one, once. Maybe recently. But if you’re not writing now, consistently, day after day–at least a little bit–then you’re only someone who thinks about writing, or perhaps talks about writing, or even teaches writing. But you’re not a writer.

I can hear the howling from my writer friends now. But if the howling is aimed at me, they have the wrong culprit in mind. Sorry guys, but the truth is: writers write.

The late, great, Harper Lee was a writer, once. And just about as good a writer as we saw in the whole 20th century. But she stopped writing. Shortly after the stunningly successful To Kill A Mockingbird came out, she ceased to be a writer.

I say that, because I truly believe writers actually write. Every damned day. That doesn’t mean they have to write reams and reams of stupendously wonderful stuff daily, non-stop, ignoring holidays, hangovers, and hellish weather. But “real” writers work at their craft, at least a little bit, constantly.

Just writeIf you’re working on a memoir, force yourself to write something. Every day. Maybe all you can manage is a single sentence. Fine. Write that sentence. Maybe the next day you’ll have time for more. But get that one precious sentence down. I promise you won’t regret it.

It’s much easier to find excuses for not writing than it is to find the courage to actually sit down and record your words. Just do it. There will be days when you hate the thought of writing, and what you actually write may be 100% crap–utterly uncompromising drivel. So what? Just keep on. Tomorrow’s work will be better, and yesterday’s probably won’t look so bad.

You may not ever become the writer you want to be, but if you don’t write, you’ll never even get close. The only way to realize that dream is to work at it. Every day.

Don’t stop until it’s done. Don’t give up. Don’t give in. Ever.

Write.

–Josh

Posted in Memoir, novel writing, short fiction, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 16 Comments

Why do we ignore some wonderful people?

Mark with a CIt occurs to me that many of the people I used to work with–computer programmers for the most part–were very literal thinkers. They didn’t endeavor to be assholes, but they often managed the role without much effort. (Some of them were almost normal, outside the office, after a few drinks or a bit of heavy medication.)

I mention the experience because it suggests a range of potential characters who should, in my opinion, become more common in popular fiction: players driven by literal responses to everyday life. As the general population grows, so does the “special” one. This group includes folks with intellectual and developmental issues, but it also includes those on the cusp of “normalcy,” whatever that might be.

From my perspective, the film and television industries have done a better job of incorporating such characters into significant roles than have the producers of written fiction.

A great example is the popular TV series “Big Bang Theory,” which features a handful of lovable social misfits and a gorgeous gal who serves as their foil. The series has often been derided as nothing more than “nerd humor” which simply proves that we’re not all blessed with the same degree of taste. I love the show, and everyone knows [cough] I’m brilliant!

ABC’s new series, “Stumptown,” features a young man with Down’s Syndrome in an important supporting role. He offers wonderful balance to his hard-boiled sister who is the show’s lead character. The stories are based on graphic novels of the same name. (Graphic novels, to me, are comic books on steroids–not quite the same thing as traditional novels.)

“9-1-1” is another entertaining TV show which features a special needs character. This time it’s a boy with cerebral palsy whose father is one of the hunky firemen in the series. The relationship they have is endearing and makes the show even more enjoyable.

In the film “I Am Sam,” Sean Penn portrayed a mentally challenged man struggling to retain custody of his young daughter. Audiences loved his character, and he earned an Academy Award nomination for it. Dustin Hoffman’s “Rain Man” character is a classic, and the picture is included in the American Film Institute’s 100 Most Inspiring Movies of All Time.

There are many more examples including Juliette Lewis in “The Other Sister” and Tom Hanks in “Forrest Gump.” But when it comes to listing similar offerings from the written world, only two jump immediately to mind (and both were made into extremely popular films): John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. The characters of Lenny and Boo Radley have been the subjects of countless term papers, book reports, and even a masters thesis or two.

I’d like to know when we’ll begin to see more such characters in popular fiction. If you’re a writer, and you’re reading this right now, why not give some thought to putting someone “special” into your current or upcoming project. It might be a challenge, but it just might pay off in ways you never considered. Perhaps it would give you an opportunity to spend some time with representatives from that population. And there are more opportunities for interaction than one might think. We need to look no farther than the local Publix or Kroger store to find some warm, wonderful, and yes, even quirky people.

Give it some thought. And, please, let me know what you think of the idea.

–Josh

Posted in Historical writing, novel writing, short fiction, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

I don’t wanna push it, but…. (Encore)

Getting behind, for me, is inevitable, damn it. I’ve got lots of stuff to do, and when it comes to saying “No!” to new projects, I suck harder than the Atlanta Braves in the postseason–and coming from a die-hard Bravos fan, that’s sayin’ a lot!

Sadly, it’s true. But for those of us seeking a silver lining, it’s also forced me to be productive even when I don’t feel like it. Much as I’d like to sit back and let the Muse deliver a massage, or whatever other tender mercies the ol’ gal has to offer, what I mostly need to do is put my posterior in a chair and my fingers on a keyboard. Typically, the end result is something I can eventually manhandle into usable shape. It might not be pretty, but it’ll be okay enough to do the job. This blog, f’rinstance, is a great example: ugly more often than not, but serviceable.

If there’s a life lesson in here, it’d be, “Learn how to say, ‘No!'”

GuiltI tell myself most folks are just like me when it comes to a decision like this. Instead of thinking only about ourselves, and our need to be timely and productive, our usual hard-as-nails personas get all squishy when we’re asked to do something for someone else. And it’s usually kids. “Think of the poor kids, you miserable  heel!”

Naturally, I do start thinking about those poor kids. They’re legion, fer cryin’ out loud. Why doesn’t someone ever come ’round and ask about homeless strippers or lingerie models? Surely they need some love, too, right? Call on me, dammit!

What I’m driving at–poorly, I admit–is that there are times when we’ve got stuff to write, and very little time in which to do it. Our options are pretty limited. Either we grovel about the unfairness of life; we find someone else to do the work for us, or we cowboy up and write the best stuff we can write as fast as we can write it.

In case you weren’t sure, I’m a big supporter of option #3: shut up and work. If you have time to read it over, then, by all means, read it over. If not, just pray you did the best job you could do in the time available. And then, move on to the next project. The world won’t grind to a halt if you mangle a little punctuation or fail to craft the perfect sentence. I also suspect something will happen that allows you to go back and fix the problems that you didn’t have time to fix earlier. And there are always things to fix. Always.

The Muse is fickle. If you rely on her for inspiration, you’ll be disappointed, unless writing a few hundred words every other year is enough to satisfy you. Sometimes you just have to sit down and work, no matter how you feel or what else you have to do. Sometimes you have to write a LOT in a very short time.

Do the best you can. At the very least, no one can say you didn’t try. And if they do, the people who know you will ignore them for the idiots they are.

Write on!

–Josh

Posted in Historical writing, Memoir, novel writing, short fiction, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 22 Comments

What’s a tree? (Encore)

My niece, a medical receptionist, witnessed something inspiring last week 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 for 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 writer.

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.

–Josh

Posted in Historical writing, Memoir, novel writing, short fiction, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 14 Comments

Best Damned Squirrel Dog — Part Two

I posted the first half of an old favorite last week. If you missed it, you can catch up here. And now, I’m pleased to present the conclusion of “The Best Damned Squirrel Dog (Ever).” I’d love to hear what you think.

Elinor Thigpen’s hair bore the dual tints of the civil war: blue and gray. She sat behind a vast wooden desk looking like Winston Churchill in drag. Nan knew she’d found the Queen of the Archives.

“Yes?” Ms. Thigpen asked.

“I’m looking into an old case,” Nan said, “I–”

The matron opened a huge ledger. “What’s your badge number?”

“I’m not with the police.”

The ledger closed with the finality of a vault door, and Ms. Thigpen turned away.

“Perhaps you could help me find–”

“I doubt it,” the old woman said. “Good day.”

“You don’t understand,” Nan said, “I’m–”

“I’m not interested in your little project,” Thigpen said, making no attempt to mask her exasperation. “I have my own work to do. The archives are for the use of police and county officials. Do you work for the county?”

“No.”

“Then that’s it, isn’t it?” She turned away again.

Nan clenched her jaws and her fists, the Cutter stubborn streak flaring as it had never flared before. But, rather than risk angering the matron further, Nan counted silently to ten and used the time to scan the Archive Queen’s lair. She focused on a framed certificate awarded by the Daughters of the Old South in grateful recognition of thirty years of dedicated service.

“As a member of the D.O.S., surely you’d want to see justice done for the memory of a proud band of southern heroes.”

Thigpen turned and squinted at her. “What are you talking about?”

Nan explained her theory about the missing gun crew and why they may have missed the battle. “If I can find the bones, maybe I can figure out what actually happened.”

Elinor Thigpen stood as her intractability evolved into a sense of greater purpose. “Follow me.”

For all her pomp and bluster, Elinor knew her domain. In less than half an hour she’d retrieved a large pasteboard box from a dusty corner of the archives. She broke the seal and set the lid aside. Atop an array of dried bones and several grisly skulls lay a manila file folder. Elinor opened it.

She quickly ran her finger over the first page, stopping halfway down and grunting. “Well! I should’ve known.”

“What is it?”

“For years we had a scoundrel named Smithford as coroner. I’ve lost count of the number of times he botched an investigation or made something up to satisfy the carpetbaggers that put him in office.” Elinor flicked the yellowed page with her finger. “Smithford,” she said, as if it were an expletive.

“How long ago did he leave office?” Nan asked.

“In the forties.”

Nan frowned. “Surely you never worked with him.”

Elinor grimaced. “No, but he was in office a mighty long time. He left his mark. Oh, yes, he left his mark.”

Nan touched the file. “What does it say?”

“Smithford claimed the cause of death was unknown and there were no clues as to the identities of the victims. He left the case open for years, but when no one reported seven people missing, he closed it and sent the file here.”

“But everyone in Little River knows about the missing gun crew!”

“Everyone but Smithford, evidently.”

Nan glanced over the coroner’s report and the statement by the boy who found the bones. Suddenly her heart beat faster. “Look!” she said. “It says the boy found the remains on land owned by Jimmy Ray Hastings. He was my granddaddy!” She dug out the letter and the daguerreotype and put them in Elinor’s hands.

“That letter was written by my great-great-grandmother.” She tapped the photo. “To one of these men: her husband. It was written the same day as the battle, and from what she says it’s plain he came to visit.”

Elinor examined Nan’s evidence with reverence.

The younger woman rubbed her eyes. “But why? Why would he take such a chance and leave his post?”

Elinor shrugged. “Maybe he was lonely.”

“In the company of six men and a dog?”

“You’re right,” Elinor said. “Maybe there’s a clue in these bones, but we’ll need an expert opinion.”

“The Coroner?”

“Nah. He’s hardly any better than Smithford. The man I have in mind is a ranger at the battlefield park. Fella named Swan. I’ve known ‘im for years.” She put her hands on her broad hips. “If these bones turn out to be the missing gun crew, you can count on the Daughters of the Old South to do what’s right by them.”

~*~

Though skeptical, Ranger Swan agreed to investigate. Using a pocketknife, he dug a lead slug from a hip bone and examined it with a magnifying glass.

“Well, I’ll be….”

Nan leaned forward and peered through the thick lens. “What is it?”

Swan said nothing but reached for a reference book and thumbed quickly to an entry near the back, read it, and nodded his head. Satisfied, he handed the misshapen lump to Nan. “What you have there is a slug from a Williams Patent Bullet. .58 caliber if I’m not mistaken. It’s pretty messed up, but you can still see the zinc base.”

Nan frowned. “And that means something?”

“Oh, absolutely. Y’see, the zinc was intended to clear residue from a rifle bore, a nicety only the Union could afford. They issued ’em right along with the usual Minié ball cartridges.”

“Then this proves the gun crew didn’t desert,” she said. “They were returning to their posts when Yankees ambushed ’em.” She exhaled wearily. “What a relief to finally clear that up.”

“Hold on now; I’m not so sure,” Swan said. “You don’t really have proof of anything. Those boys may have been the missing gunners, but they died a long way from the battlefield. In my book, that still makes ’em deserters.”

Nan dragged out her great-great-grandmother’s letter and read from a passage near the middle. “‘I hope you’re happy now you’ve made a fool of yourself over your useless, biscuit-eatin’ dog.'” Nan frowned. “No, wait, that’s not it.” She moved her finger to a spot near the end and started reading again. “‘And once you’re back at camp, be nice to young Jeremy, though I doubt you’ll ever get him to swap dogs.'” The letter ended shortly thereafter.

“Now, look at the date. Don’t you see? The men went to visit and were killed returning to their lines. The letter was addressed care of my great-great-granddaddy’s unit. She wouldn’t have done that if he was running away; she wouldn’t have had to. I imagine the same Yankees who killed those men killed her, too, but they missed her daughter.”

Swan held his hands up in mock surrender. “Okay, I’m convinced! I think you’ve figured it out.”

“Then I can tell Ms. Thigpen to proceed with the funeral ceremony?”

The old ranger nodded. “You might want to alert the next of kin. If you need help finding ’em, I’ve got a friend who can track down just about anyone.”

~*~

Nan returned to the earthworks and paused in front of the brass sign. Jeremy and the other ghosts crept close.

“It looks like the Daughters of the Old South will have to come up with a new marker,” she said, “right after the funeral.” Then she turned toward the earthworks. “No more of this deserter nonsense!” She brushed her hair back over her ears. “Too bad we’ll never know why they left here in the first place.” She shrugged and resumed her run.

“Did you hear that?” Gus said. “There’s hope!”

“It’s a miracle,” Jeremy said.

Bart Cutter put his arms around a pair of his ghostly comrades. “At long last–the Final Muster. I’m just sorry it took so long. Y’all deserved better.” He shook his head. “And I’m sorry I got you into this. If I hadn’t been so pig-headed about my dog this never would’ve happened.”

Jeremy frowned and reached for his dog. “I hope they clear ‘Scotch’s name, too.”

~*~

Nan couldn’t believe her ears. She faced Elinor in the compact Memorial Hall at the Confederate cemetery. An oak casket with brass handles dominated the little room.

“What are you saying?” she asked.

“No dogs.” Elinor crossed her arms. “I won’t have it! The men buried here are heroes. I won’t sully their memory by buryin’ them with a bunch of dog bones.”

Nan crossed her own arms. “What makes you think the dog wasn’t a hero? Look at the photo–they gave her a medal, too!”

“It’s too silly to even discuss,” Elinor said. “We’ve already made all the arrangements. Since there’s no way to identify specific remains, they’ll be buried together. That’s as much of a compromise as I’m willing to make. No dogs.”

“But–”

“I won’t hear another word about it.”

Nan frowned. “At least let me have the dog’s remains. I’ll take care of them.”

Elinor waved impatiently at a cardboard box on a chair near the door. “Help yourself.”

Nan slipped the box under her arm, then looked back at the casket, blinking to keep back her tears.

~*~

Bart Cutter lifted his head with a jolt, as if something had bitten him. “Lord have mercy!” he gasped, gaining his feet.

“What is it?” Jeremy asked.

“I don’t know, but something’s changed. I can feel it. Hell’s fire, I can see it, too!”

“What’re you jawin’ about?” Gus asked.

“My hands! Look at ’em–they’re glowin’ like hot coals.”

Jeremy frowned. “They look normal to me.”

“I wonder…” Cutter danced to the top of the earthworks and leaned out. All the others watched, speechless, as he toppled down the other side.

“How’d you do that?” Gus gasped, following in his footsteps. But when he reached the top, the invisible barrier had been restored. Gus bounced back toward the cannons.

Another of the men stepped past him. “I feel it, too,” he said, climbing the low wall in two strides. With his arms extended, he ran down the embankment and joined Cutter.

“C’mon, y’all!” Cutter said.

One by one the others tried to escape the gun emplacement, but none succeeded.

“You two best get movin’,” Gus said. “If I had a chance to make the Final Muster, I’d sure as hell take it.”

Cutter protested, but without conviction. The others urged them to go.

Cutter waved goodbye then looked straight at Jeremy. “I was wrong,” he said. “You do have the best damn squirrel dog that ever lived. If I’d just admitted that early on–”

“I know,” Jeremy said. “Hell, Sarge, we all know. Now, git outta here!”

As the two ghostly soldiers loped across the wide battlefield, Jeremy noticed a third runner. “Look who’s here, boys.”

Nan stopped when she reached the marker. She sat on the wall, faced the cannons, and drank water from a plastic bottle.

“It was a nice ceremony,” she said out loud, despite being alone, “but somehow I expected to feel a lot different. Maybe I would have if more family members had shown up.”

As she took a long sip of water, Gus stood up and grinned.

“You, too?” Jeremy asked.

“I sure hope so.” Still beaming, Gus walked right through the young woman to exit the earthworks.

Other than a slight shiver, she gave no sign that she noticed him.

Gus paused before entering the battlefield. “You’ll all have a turn. I’m sure of it. The bodies are in the ground now, so it’s just a matter of time. Have faith. As soon as someone sheds a tear, you’ll be on your way.”

~*~

Several days passed, and Gus’ words came true for all of the remaining men except Jeremy. He sat beside Butterscotch.

“Well, girl, it’s just you and me now. Feels kinda funny not having anyone to argue with anymore. He rubbed the phantom dog’s phantom ears. “Cutter was right, y’know.”

As he looked out at the tall grass of the battlefield swaying in the gentle breeze, his skin contracted as if he’d been caught in a blizzard. Alternating waves of hot and cold brought him to his feet. He stared down at his hands and saw the glow so many of the others had described.

“It’s my turn!” he yelled, rushing to the top of the embankment. There was no resistance, and he jumped straight in the air. “Can you believe it, ‘Scotch? Finally, after all this time!”

He leaped from the top of the earthworks and landed lightly on his feet. Turning, he called to the dog still sitting where he’d left her. She wagged her tail but made no attempt to leave.

Jeremy looked back across the field to the monument where all the others had gone before him. He heard a sigh from ‘Scotch and turned in time to see her lay down and put her chin on her paws.

“I’d cry for ya if I could,” he said, “but I ‘spect that ain’t the problem. Folks have odd notions about who gets buried where.”

Butterscotch blinked at him but otherwise didn’t respond.

“It’s my time,” Jeremy explained. “You understand, don’t ya, girl? I’ve gotta go. It’s what we’ve been waitin’ for.”

Butterscotch sighed.

“I’ll never forget you.”

She closed her eyes.

Jeremy paused at the top of the embankment, torn. He looked from the dog to the monument and back again. He felt the unyielding pull of the Final Muster, dragging him out of the gun emplacement where he’d been trapped for 150 years.

He’d earned the right to leave. It was only fair.

He’d paid the price.

It was his time.

And then he sighed and stepped back inside the earthworks.

Butterscotch raised her head, and Jeremy settled down beside her.

~*~

It had been a week since Nan last visited the old gun emplacement. The trips just didn’t seem to have the significance they once had. She smiled when she saw the old ranger digging up the brass sign. She called to him, and he set his tools aside as she approached.

“I’m glad I found you here,” she said. “I meant to drop by or call you and apologize.”

“For what?”

“For leaving you with that box of dog bones. I just didn’t know what else to do. I thought maybe you could bury them here or…” Her voice trailed off as he shook his head, and the muscles in her stomach tightened. She knuckled away a tear.

“There’s no need to apologize,” he said. “Shoot, I’ve known Elinor Thigpen since grade school. She never did like dogs, and I never did like arguing with her.”

Nan looked up, puzzled.

“So I didn’t say anything to her when I put the dog bones in the casket with all the others.”

Nan sat back in a mild state of shock.

He smiled. “I thought you’d be pleased.”

“Oh, I am!” She laughed despite the tear tracks on her cheeks. Suddenly, she rubbed her arms.

“What’s wrong?”

“I could’ve sworn I just felt something run past me. On both sides!”

~ End ~

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