Saturday, December 26, 2009

Tangerine Mimosas

The Christmas Eve candlelit service has turned out to be a moment of reflection and even raw emotion for me—which, if you knew me, is strange on about six levels. There’s usually so much activity leading up to the service that the service itself seems like a quiet pause, a long and slow exhalation before plunging back in again and actually “doing Christmas.”

Last year, it was during this service that I suddenly, forcefully became convinced that the book I had been revising for more than a year was going down to defeat. It was awful.

This year was different …

This past year has brought both good and bad. I was right about that book. It was rejected. Seven or eight months later, another one was rejected after another aggressive rewrite letter. So in all, the books I’ve spent three years working on were both shelved this year. And after several years of working with a very wonderful human being of an agent, I am agentless again.

Yet the year was much less than a total loss. My business rebounded strongly, so while I know many people who are struggling and many others who are worried, we cruised to the end of the year rapidly paying down debt, with money in savings, and we were able to provide a worry-free Christmas. I also started doing TV segments this year, which was a huge challenge for a guy who hates cameras, and I’ve been surprised by how much fun it is. I actually like doing TV, and I find myself looking forward to it. And, of course, my kids are healthy and happy, my marriage is strong, and my family is well.

After the service, after wrapping presents, my wife and I sat up and talked about the year that had just gone past. I realized that my attitude toward writing has changed a lot. This year has taught me that, truly, the journey itself can be rewarding, even in the worst moments. I went into this year putting so much pressure on myself to sell, and there were many nights I couldn’t sleep. When the books didn’t sell, I had to deal with the inevitable ugly questions: Should I quit? Am I just not very good after all? Why had I failed?

But one thing I’ve come to realize is that I didn’t fail. I just got very close to selling two books that ultimately didn’t sell. And I learned, too, that I am a writer through and through, that there’s no way I could stop writing because, well, I just like it an awful lot. So when my next project is done, I’ll query it and just move onto the next project. I’m freer than I was before, and even though I would have preferred to sell the books, I’m back to a place where I am writing simply for the pleasure of it. That’s not a bad thing.

And that brings me to the title of this post: tangerine mimosas. On Christmas morning, we woke up and opened presidents and then had tangerine mimosas. The tangerine juice was fresh-squeezed, naturally, and it was a wonderful way to wind down as we watched the kids enjoy their presents. Then after a bit, I went outside to harvest vegetables for dinner. Our meal this year included tomatoes, broccoli and herbs from our own garden. This trek outside has become familiar. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been making nightly trips to my herb garden to collect fresh thyme, oregano, basil, cilantro, chives, basil, or rosemary.

I find something ridiculously extravagant about throwing handfuls of fresh herbs in all of our meals, about cooking with fresh, organic ingredients I grew myself. So it’s funny. In a year in which I experienced the worst professional rejection I’ve ever experienced, I am ending the year feeling rich (although we’re obviously not) and enriched, fortunate and humbled and privileged beyond all measure.

I don’t know what the next year will bring, but I have my hopes and goals. Books are included in there, but not at the top. This year, I think my greatest hope to is that I remain open to the extravagances of life that can’t be bought, but must be earned.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Here We Are, December 23

I think I should do an end-of-the-year post sometime soon ... And maybe I will. But for today, I feel like the only person in the only world who's working and I have this song on repeat:

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Where the Boys Aren't

My rant for the day ...

You know what exhausts me? Publishing trends and the people who say to ignore them. Because you know who doesn't ignore trends? Agents and acquiring editors.

OK. Let me back up a little bit. I'm working on MG books that are basically aimed at boys. I figured these would be sellable, right? I mean, look at the proven success of series like Lightning Thief, Artemis Fowl, Eragon, Lemony Snicket, Harry Potter, and the Inkheart books. There is a market there, and when a series does well, it can break out with HUGE sales.

But it turns out this is a harder market to crack than I figured—and I have a theory why.

First off, the MG/YA publishing industry right now is just completely enamored of first-person teen romances. I get it. Stephanie Meyers sold a lot of books. If you look at the books right now going at auction, they are more often than not first-person teen romances. These books are squarely aimed at girls. They are, in fact, frequently despised by boys.

Second, publishing at this level is run by women. I've been agent and editor shopping now for a few years, and I've had lots of contact with both. In all that time, I've dealt with two or three men total. Everyone else is female. Now please don't misunderstand me: I love females. I married one. My mother is female, as are my sisters and even my dog. I strongly suspect that my childhood pet iguana was female. But I think it's fair to observe that women look for different things in books than men do, and naturally, boys look for different things in books than girls do. I've gotten a lot of feedback from high-up editors and agents, basically saying, "This book needs more emotion, more heart." But see, here's the thing: I know a lot of boys, and I don't know ANY who are clamoring for more "emotion" in their entertainment. Most of them are hoping their parents will relax and allow them to watch movies/play games/buy books in which shit blows up.

But what about all those books I mentioned in the beginning of this post? Didn't they get bought? Didn't the industry recognize this large boyish audience?

Well, no. Of all those series I mentioned, only two were purchased traditionally in the United States (and both were written by authors with previous publication histories). Three were first published overseas and only brought here AFTER they had a track record of success. And one was self-published first.

It's not hard to look at the situation and conclude that MG/YA publishing is delicately, subtly and probably unwittingly tilted against young boy readers. I'm not saying I don't need to continue growing as a writer—I do—and I can't pretend to read the vast feminine hive-mind that currently rules children's publishing, but I think I can fairly be frustrated by it.

Several times now, I've had agents or editors say, "I'm actively looking for boy books! I really want to build my boy list!" But I secretly wonder if they really mean it. I think there's never been a less fashionable time to be a boy than right now. Boys are falling behind in virtually every measure of academia, and schools are even taking away recess and gym—the very things boys need to discharge some of that animal energy. I know the struggle for equal rights is ongoing, and I know there's a lot of progress yet to be made, but I worry that some of this future progress will come at the expense of a whole generation of loud, frequently smelly, sticky-handed and woolly headed little boys.

Being Ready

I should be writing at this very moment—I'm under ten horrid deadlines today—but I just finished one project and I'm moving to another, so I needed a break from writing ... by writing. Go figure.

I want to talk about being ready. I'm not sure I understood what it meant to "be ready" until fairly recently. I'm an impatient guy—I've been known to query novels that aren't even close to finished yet. So in all this hustling and bustling, I never really stopped to ask myself if I was ready to go out into the world, just me and my little books, and go find a publisher. It seemed like a stupid question. Duh. Of course I was ready ...

But being ready as a person—impatient, driven, anxious, hopeful—is a very different thing than being ready as a writer. And I'm afraid somewhere along the way, I confused the two. I was awful close, perhaps, but if I'm being super-honest (which is easier said than done sometimes), I think I started to know about a year ago, maybe two, that I was almost there, but not quite. There were still things needing attention in my books.

This is a hard thing to accept, and I totally respect those writers who say, "I'm working at it, but I'm not ready to send out this book yet." Or, "I'm not going to send out this book at all. It's my practice book."

So I'm working on a book now—and this is a struggle—but every time I start to think about whether or not I can sell this book, I snip that thought like an evil little weed. Every time I start to wonder if it's pitched at the right age group, at the right length, if it's funny enough or deep enough, or whatever, I stop. Those are the thoughts of a writer who is distracted by the market, by the dream, not the thoughts of a writer who is only focused on the book.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Howdy ... and Morning

Monday was the first Monday of the month ... the date I normally post a prompt for the Storytellers. Lately, I'll admit it: life has taken over my blogging. My "free" time is very limited, and every time I open a file to write a blog entry, I think, "I'd rather be working on my book," so I switch over. My plan is to be done with this manuscript by Spring, so I better get moving.

In any event, I've got some pretty funny Christmas pictures for possible prompts (thanks, E. Flanigan). What do you think? Is anyone in this month, or should we reconvene after the holidays?

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Query Update ...

I'm querying a novel again, and you know, it's actually kind of fun. Well, except for the rejection part. That's not very fun. But it's not that bad. Here it is, by the numbers, so far:

52 queries sent
14 rejections based on the query alone
8 requests for partials or fulls
4 rejections of partials or fulls

I can only assume that some agents have already rejected the query, but just didn't respond. I hear that's a thing now, so the number of query rejections is most likely higher than that.

What do I make of all this?

First off, my query letter must be pretty good. Eight requests for partials or fulls is pretty good. And these are some very successful and large agencies in my genre. So I have no complaints there.

Second, this is a numbers game. I think it helps to keep that in perspective. There's no sense in getting tied up emotionally (if you can help it). Just send out as many as you can, and try to forget it. The Internet is an amazing resource for finding dozens of agents who represent any kind of book. I used, blasted out my queries in a three-day period, and that was it.

Finally, the rejections of the partials and fulls have been interesting. This book was originally rejected by a major publisher for lack of character development. The agent rejections have ranged from a simple "Thanks for letting me read it, but I'm passing" to more involved letters. I've heard "I just didn't connect with the character;" "The plot line doesn't feel fresh and contemporary;" and "I didn't find the writing very compelling." Ultimately, they all included some line about publishing being a subjective business and they hope I find representation elsewhere. Two have explicitly invited me to send my next project.

Which brings me to my point. I don't really have a feel for whether this book will sell or not. But I'm already deeply involved in the next project, so I'm not as emotionally invested in young Murph and his search for the toy maker. If he goes onto greater things, wonderful. If he doesn't, well, I have high hopes for Flynn ...

So speaking as someone who's deep in the query process, here's my single best of advice: ignore the process as much as possible and start on your next project ... I think the best thing you can do to make querying easier is to try to forget it's even happening.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Fall in Florida

Because it's Saturday morning ....

Fall in Florida means broccoli in an Earthbox ...

And blooming orchids ...

And the first tomatoes of the season setting fruit ...

Friday, November 20, 2009

Quiet Progress

I was planning a companion post to the last one, but this time about things I (we, you) need to improve in our writing. You know how it is. If you can't name what's not working, then you can't fix it.

But I just ... couldn't. I couldn't bring myself to do it, because I discovered that I had no desire to rub my nose in my own problems like a bad doggy. Not right now. Anyway, I think I've covered that territory pretty well, so what's left to be said?

Instead, I'm going to write about querying and progress. It feels kind of odd, but I find myself querying again. I pretty much know which agents I'm interested in, and I've read widely enough in my genre to know who is repping the kinds of books I'm trying to sell. So I spent a little time this week whipping up a basic query and shipping it out, along with a few sample chapters. Naturally, I included in the query that this book has already been through revisions with a major house and they rejected it. You pretty much have to include that kind of thing.

But it got me thinking about how much has changed since last time I queried.

Early on in my career, I used to send out queries by the truckload. I was a master at querying ... for magazines and newspapers, literary agents, editing jobs, whatever. I was intent on building a career, even though it felt like every door was closed. I used to prepare queries by the batch and spend loads of money and time copying clips and putting together packages (remember those days)? Then the SASE rejections would roll in. And my, would they ever! I remember some days getting five or six rejections in a single day, for various projects and ideas.

For a long time, I kept all the rejections. I guess I thought it was some kind of record-keeping thing, so I'd know who I contacted. But my file grew into a box, which grew into a crate that I kept underneath the bed like some poisonous fungus. One day, when I was having a moment, I thought, "Why the hell am I keeping all these? Why am I building a monument to my own rejection?"

So I dragged the box out, and I threw them all away. I haven't kept a rejection since. And if that means I sometimes queried the same editor, so be it.

Fast forward ten years, and here I am, querying another novel (number six, hard to believe). And the response has been gratifying. So far, more than half of the agents who have replied have requested either a full or a partial. Ten years ago, I was lucky to get 1 out of 10 asking to see anything.

This doesn't mean I'll find representation, and even I do, it doesn't mean I'll find the right representation. But ... to me, it's a small sign that there is such a thing as progress, that you do move forward, even if it's slower than you like and even if it costs more than you expected.

Writing is truly a journey, with way stations and destinations and roundabouts and off-ramps. If nothing else, querying again has reminded me how far I've come, and it's nice to know that I've earned this kind of response. It's nice to know that, no matter how I feel about what's happened, I got more from the last two years than two books I can't sell. And I have to trust that, even if I can't really point to a tangible sign of progress in my fiction, there has been movement. And I bet the same is true for any writer who is actively working at it, who is putting in the time. That, despite the rejections and the scars, there is a quiet progress.

So you tell me: what progress have you made?

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Taking Stock, part I

I'm in a taking-stock kind of mood lately ...

One of the things I hear over and over is that I have to be ruthless with my own work. This advice comes packaged in a million ways: kill your darlings, revise ruthlessly, cut the first chapter, eliminate every spare word, etc., etc., etc. But the point is always the same—I have to be brutally, unflinchingly honest about my own work.

And I don't disagree, but ...

There is a flip-side here. I think the general churlishness of this business has terrified a lot of writers into a defensive crouch. Perhaps daunted by the odds, many writers seem unwilling to stake out their own territory. People don't want to vocalize their dreams, or they give what feels like watered-down versions. And people don't like to be boastful because it might jinx them or seem boastful. So you rarely hear a writer say, "Hey, I'm good at this."

But for some of us, I think it's just as important to be complimentary as it is to be ruthless. At least I know this is true for me, especially over the last few days. No joke, the last few days have been rough. At one point, I caught myself thinking that the last three years of effort have earned me two manuscripts I can't sell and nothing else. As far as tangible progress is concerned, I'm exactly where I was three novels ago.

So you know what? Screw that. Today is my Stuart Smalley day, my Sally Fields day. Today is the day I'm going to say what I do right. I welcome you to do the same. And don't worry ... tomorrow we can talk about what's not working. Here goes ...

[Several minutes tick by.]

Uh, erm, well ... I was all fired up, until I actually got to this part. Ha ha. Let me try again ...

OK, first off, I'm good at plot. My plots are multilayered and I spend a lot of time creating red herrings, twists and turns, and surprises. And I'm good at world-building. That much is true for sure. I'm pretty good at creating a whole world quickly, with its own rules and identifiable vibe. And I know my writing is lean, but I also think I'm a "voice" writer to some extent. My voice isn't lush, and perhaps not intricate, but it's pretty identifiable.

Most off all, though, I think my greatest strength is mood and tone. I spend a lot of time searching for a "vibe" with every story, and it's crucial to me that every word supports that tone. I like fun; I aim for fantastic. My goal is reader immersion. I want the reader to vanish in my rabbit hole and to accept that my outlandish ideas are totally possible in this alternative world.

(OK, I'm warming up to this now!) You know, I actually think I do more right than I do wrong. I almost never, never, never go back and read my own writing, but when I do, or when I have to, I usually enjoy it. That's a nice thing. I often think, "If I didn't write this book myself, I would wish I had written it."

So there you have it. Those are some of the things I think I do right. If you happen to know my writing, feel free to add to the list (kidding).

And now it's your turn. You tell me: without inserting any qualifying criticisms, which parts do you get right?

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Journey

I love stories about publishing journeys. When I find a new author I like, more often than not, I'll search out interviews or blogs and read all about their path to publication. It's more than just instructive -- it's inspiring, and it's endlessly variable. I've probably read hundreds of "path to publication" stories, and each was different.

Before I actually wrote my first "real" novel, I secretly thought my own path to publication would be pretty painless and quick. Write book. Phone rings. I'm in. Funny, right? I suspect that kind of dream is at the beginning for a lot of people -- because if we really knew what was in store for us, we'd be fools to actually start this journey.


I've had a novel under consideration at a major publishing house since this spring. Actually, it was more than just "under consideration." One of the editors there liked it a great deal and supplied me with a detailed revision letter. So I rewrote the book and resubmitted. I just heard back, last week, that she's going to pass. She gave me fairly detailed reasons, and they're not unfamiliar to me.

This makes twice now.

Twice that I've submitted a book to a major house, gotten significant interest and oodles of wonderful praise, and a detailed rewrite letter. Only to be rejected in the end. Along the way, I've had access to some wonderful editorial minds—the two editors I've worked most closely with have had books perched in the top ten of the NYT best-seller's list for most of the past three years. One of these books is probably destined to be a classic.

I wasn't truly and really and deeply crushed this time around, when they passed. Truth is, I expected it. The first time -- now that was a killer -- but not so much this time. It stung for a day or so, and then I got into motion.

You know what they say about insanity, how you do the same thing over and over and expect different results? Here's the truth as I see it: I'm very, very close, but something I'm doing isn't working exactly.

My tendency in these situations is to encapsulate all the responsibility and swallow it like a bitter little pill. Here, though, I think it's not 100% about me or my writing. The book industry sucks right now. It's near impossible for a new author to break in. I'm writing middle-grade "boy funny" books (to quote one insider), and the books in my genre that are going at auction are all teen romances (vampires, werewolves, paranormal anything). This is a tough nut to crack.

I'll admit that I've wavered a few times along the way. How do you know when it's time to quit? In a conversation with my (now former) agent after we heard back, he said, "A lot of times, I'll have to tell people, 'Listen, the universe is trying to tell you something. You should listen. Maybe this isn't for you.' But that's not you. I'm not telling you that, I'm just saying that a lot of people never get that message."

I'm not quitting. I'm retooling. But I want to know: what would the universe have to say to convince you to quit?

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Hole, by E. Allan Flanigan

When the devil's gaze fixed upon me, I didn't see it so much as feel it. And it was covetous.

For weeks I had passed the old man without incident. Each morning as I walked by the decrepit building he called his home, I noticed him there — hunkered against the brick wall, bottle in hand, eyes closed against the bright morning sun

In a neighborhood wasting away into spilled bricks and graffiti, this building's mass of knotted pipes made it stand out like a sentinel. But it was a sentinel that the old man could not see.

As I walked by this day, I felt a curious chill like a tiny death, and my vision was drawn to the old man. His eyes were open, and the sight of one of them stunned me, pulled the breath from my lungs. The eye was dead — a milky, pale blue — and motionless. And it was looking at me.

Oh, how I wish that eye had been closed! But once the eye found me, the end was already written.

When I was a child, my Tante once said, "The devil is active in this world. Trust yourself to recognize him when he is revealed."

I became acquainted with evil when I met that gaze. I had been seen, my content exposed, and the only response was to blind the eye forever.

From that moment forward, I made my choices with care — so rational, so aware. I carried myself as a man of God, knowing His plan.

Each day as I walked by, I studied the man's face. The eye was always closed, the old man asleep. For seven days this occurred, and each night I prayed for the Lord to give me the strength to close the eye when the moment came.

On the eighth day as I approached, the eye fluttered briefly, a glimmer of white. The street was deserted; my opportunity had arrived.

I swiftly rushed to the old man, hauling him up from the ground by his thin frame. He cried out just once as I dragged him toward the heavy wooden doors, threw back the latch, and shoved him inside the darkened building.

It was pitch black as we fell to the floor, I on top of him. He was small beneath me, all bones and ribs.

"Who are you?" he cried. "Why are you doing this?"

I hesitated for a moment then, only for a moment. I could hear his breath, a gentle wheeze with each exhale.

What is the cost if you're mistaken?, I asked myself. What price will be extracted from you?

But by God's will, a beam of light in that moment shone through a hole in the door and settled upon the man's face, upon the man's eye. And the eye flickered there, searching for me.

In the darkness, he did not find me.

I know what the Good Book says, I know about the fear that overtakes a man when he's asked to perform a difficult task. I know about being tested. And in this knowledge, I began to squeeze the old man's neck.

He struggled for air, but his gasping only provoked me to tighten my grip. I held on until the eyelid stopped its desperate movement and was fixed open. I squeezed until my existence was erased from its memory.

Then I rose and escaped the pale eye. I had lifted its weight from my soul. I felt invisible again, and free.

For three days I walked past the building without fear. I admit I even experienced pride, so sure of myself and of God's presence in the world.

But on the fourth day as I walked by that place, I felt the familiar chill, the spotlight gaze.

As I focused upon the building, upon that sentinel, I saw it. A mere flicker in the darkness.

From behind the hole in the door, I saw the shimmer of an unblinking gaze. And from within the darkness, I knew it saw me.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Entourage, by Melanie Avila

The sludge oozed around my feet, a syrupy slime that congealed around my ankles, chilling me from the inside out. It was getting higher. Just moments before the tips of my toes were still dry, but I could no longer see them through the muddy goop that seeped beneath the door.

The door.

I rested my hand against the splintered wood, then traced my fingers along the rusted metal band that held the planks in place. How long would it hold? The others whispered that nothing could keep it out, that there was no use hoping for escape.

I stepped closer to the door and peered through a small hole near the top, fighting the sludge that clung to my feet and pulled me back down like it didn't want me to see what was coming. An ocean drowned the streets and anything unfortunate enough to be out there when the manhole covers first erupted like a rolling boil, spewing the thick black—what exactly was this? It looked like molasses—sludge into the air. Except it was ice cold.

"Is it bad?"

I turned my head at his raspy voice but ignored his question. He didn't want to know what was out there. Didn't believe it anyway.

A scream made me turn away from the door. The two women huddled against the far wall were scrambling over each other, reaching for the pipe that ran along the length of the ceiling. The younger woman grabbed her friend's shoulder and, with a quick yank to free her feet from the muck, leapt for the ceiling and grasped the pipe.

A deep groan echoed through the dank room.

He turned to face them. "It won't hold you."

The young woman's eyes darted his way, then back to the other woman. "Yes it will. Jump, Matusa."

Matusa swatted at her legs and a tremor ran through her corpulent frame. She looked up at the younger woman and slowly shook her head. Tears slid down her cheeks.

"You can."

It didn't make a difference to me. Dangling from a pipe would only delay the inevitable; fighting for five extra minutes wasn't how I planned to die.

Matusa tried to jump but the sludge had her by the knees.

It was rising faster.

Panic rocked through me and I was sure my heart would stop—it wasn't meant to beat this fast. I glared at him, still smug against the wall, and fought to control my breathing when my skin began to crawl.

I looked down at my own legs, but it wasn't my skin that was crawling.

Tiny white creatures swarmed over my pants, undulating upwards in an eerie dance that mesmerized me. Now I understood their screams. They wormed through the hole in the door and I snapped into action, beating my legs, my torso, my arms, desperate to get them off me.

I eyed the pipe. Maybe five extra minutes was worth it.

But it was too late. The powerful sludge pulled at my hips, trapping me next to the door. I cast a desperate glance at him, but it was too late for that, too.

The terrible moaning grew louder and the pipe shattered, sending slivers of metal raining into my flesh, into the sludge.

Unable to move—even my arms were trapped now—I watched the blood trickle down my chest as if it was someone else standing here, some other fool who didn't run when she had the chance. If only he had believed. The metallic odor reached the creatures and they moved faster, devouring the warm liquid that was so different from the muck that carried them here.

The screams began again but I couldn't tear my eyes away from what was happening to me. Was this how they died? I had assumed they drowned, smothered by the sludge—no one said anything about creatures feasting on their flesh. But how could they? There would be no way for that part of the story to pass on to the others.

An unnatural brightness filled the room, and the dark walls became white as the creatures searched for food.

I could hear him choking, gasping. Trying to speak. His voice came out a hiss. "S-s-s-s…sorry."

But it was too late.

Monday, November 9, 2009

The Door, by Jon VanZile

They went to the old city every morning to steal bread, running over cobbled streets and past the tilting, ancient buildings.

They were about the same height, and looked like they might have been siblings—but for the way the boy looked at the girl. He was obviously in love with her. She was 18 months older than he, and her brown hair was long, kinked and matted. They wore rags, and his feet and legs were covered in sores from the vermin that infested the low-lying city.

"Hey!" she said, reaching for Flynn as he turned abruptly away from her and headed down a side alley. "Where are you going?"

But Flynn ignored her and kept pattering toward the door.

"Flynn!" she hissed. "C'mon! We've got to go!"

But in a moment, Flynn was standing before the door. Again. The alley sloped down here and the stones were thick with moss and algae from the water—and other, less pleasant things—that seeped from the old buildings.

He stood before the door, staring at it hard. He was poised on the balls of his feet.

Sophie came up behind him, tugging on his arm to pull him away. "C'mon! Let's go."

He glanced at her, and his eyes were shining. "I'm gonna open it."

"No!" she said, her brows creased. "What is your deal with this stupid door? Can't you just let it go?"

"There's something there. I can feel it. Maybe we'll find something for Kyle. Maybe it's a ... you know."

"So what if it is?" she said. "Who cares?! Just leave it alone!"

"What? You scared?" Flynn said, teasing lightly.

She was holding his arm now, protectively, pulling him back and closer to her. "C'mon, Flynn, can't you smell it? Please, let's just go."

Flynn flared his nostrils and tasted the air pouring from a hole in the old door. It smelled sulfurous and richly organic, like a just-popped match and swamp mud. "Yeah," he said. "I smell it."

"So what else do you need to know? Isn't that enough?"

"You know, I don't get you," Flynn said, turning on her again. "You'll steal anything that's not nailed down, but you're too scared to open a stupid door? What's the big deal?"

"Because I don't believe in getting killed ... or worse ... over nothing. If there was food behind the door, I'd think about it. But there isn't. And—"

But Flynn had shaken her off and was nearing the door. He reached out slowly and put his hand on the old latch. It was cold, and the smell here was stronger. He figured the door opened into a tunnel, or maybe stairs leading down, under the city. It was an old city, built two thousand years ago over a series of natural catacombs in the rock below. But no one went into the catacombs. Even the street kids, who weren't afraid of anything, shied away from the various doors and holes and sluice gates leading down. The city was full of stories.

Behind him, Sophie was watching with terror on her face. "Flynn," she tried again, "please. I've seen what they can do."

He turned around sharply. "So have I."

Sophie bit off her next words and hunched inward under his withering gaze. A dragon had taken his father—how could she have forgotten that?

"I'm sorry. You know I—"

"Are you gonna leave me?" Flynn said. "If I go in, will you go with me?"

Sophie nodded through the tears that sprang into her eyes. "You know I would never leave you," she said. "You know I wouldn't. But—"

The alley echoed with a sharp crack as Flynn suddenly wrenched the clasp open and pushed against the thick, spongy wood. At first, the door wouldn't budge, but then it gave way and fell inward with a crash. A rush of air came at him from the blackness, and as he recoiled from the stink he saw that he had been right: there were slick stairs leading down into blackness.

He turned around, his eyes shining. "C'mon," he said. "I'm not afraid."

Sophie came forward slowly to stand next to him. "Why do you have to do this?" She was barely whispering.

Flynn didn't answer because the answer would have been too hard for him to put into words. He needed to see one again, yes, but mostly he wanted to test himself against his fear. And he wanted to see if what they were saying about him was true, that he had a rare gift.

The last thing he did before stepping into the darkness of the first step was reach out and take her hand.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Woo hoo! I'm baaaack (for now at least)

So I never thought it would happen ... I was beginning to doubt I'd ever be writing new fiction again. To recap: I was clipping along beautifully on a book last winter and spring. I was very excited about this book. Then I got a request for revisions on an older book, which sent me underground all summer. I finished the revisions and decided to shop a nonfiction book, and I got a request for a proposal that took another month to put together. And guess what? I dropped the proposal in the mail this morning.

I've had a zillion writing-related thoughts all this time. I suspect, in a weird way, that I'm a totally different writer now than I was a year ago. At least I certainly hope so, considering that I've now rewritten the same two books over and over and over and over. If I didn't learn anything in that process, then hit me with a frying pan. Also, I don't know how else to describe it, but my writing has gained a certain sure-footedness as of late. I think being exposed to fairly intense criticism, and working REALLY hard to answer that criticism, has sharpened my senses. So as I contemplate picking my book back up, I'm in a good place. My head is on as straight as it gets, I think I'm working on a pretty solid concept with a good start, and I'm generally just really excited about it.

Now, to writing. I drive my oldest son to school every morning, so we spend about half an hour in the car together. Lately, I've been paying attention to how often we talk about school. In total, I'd say it's about 15% of the time. The rest of the time we're talking about everything else -- ideas mostly, but also people and histories and stories.

If you think about it, people almost never talk about what they're doing. Because they're doing it. Who narrates their every activity? Boooring. This is true in books, too. Having the characters talk about what they're doing, or just did, is just flat out redundant. Because the reader was there too, they already saw it happen.

I've been working on this lately, on writing dialogue that isn't about plot as much as it's about the flow of thought stimulated by the events covered in the plot. Like my son and I going to school, people rarely talk about what they're doing. They talk about what they are thinking, the ideas they have. People's thoughts are tangential, and they're often self-referential. So that's my challenge now, as I finally start writing again ... every time I find my characters talking about the plot, I ask myself, "Really? Is that really the way it works?"

More often than not, the answer is no.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Where Are My Spiders?

So I was hoping to post my own story today, but the sad truth is that I haven't finished it yet. I've got a good idea that I'm excited about, but I haven't been able to actually sit down and write it. Here's why.

The last few weeks have been really ... interesting and exciting and kinda stressy. You might already know that I spend a lot of time writing about plants. It's kind of my hobby, and it kind of became my job through a lucky series of events. Anyway, two weeks ago, I got a phone call from a morning show on the local CW affiliate, asking if I wanted to start doing weekly "Gardening Guru" type segments. My first reaction was no. My second was hell no.

My third was yes.

I have zero TV experience—until last week, I'd never even seen a TV studio. And I hate, hate, hate cameras. But the more rational part of my brain said this was a good thing. I thought, It can't possibly hurt to get live TV experience. And the whole idea was a tremendous challenge: I was always the guy who said I NEVER wanted to be on TV. My friends would sit around talking about wanting to be famous, and I was always saying, "No way."

Believe me, my first 1.5 seconds on air were just sheer terror. It's kind of funny, actually. Just before the segment started, when I was standing at the demo table (we were planting papaya from seed), all the cameras in the studio rotated and moved in for the shot. For some reason, this completely unnerved me. The host introduced me and the segment, then turned to me and said, "Nice to have you here, Jon."

But I was frozen. My mind was a complete blank. I was on live TV. The cameras loomed off my left shoulder like predatory, one-eyed aliens. But I knew I had to fill the next second with words. I had to say something. So I reached and came up with the only thing I could think of: "Nice to have you here."

Yep, I parroted the host like a babbling fool.

She looked confused for a split second, but thank goodness she's a professional and just moved on. Anyway, the rest of the segment went off OK, but when I watched it back, I saw a million things I wanted to fix, correct and change.

My second segment was this Tuesday morning. This one was on planting tomatoes. I felt MUCH better after this one. I knew what to expect, I had a plan going in (although there are still lots of things I need to fix). I'm hoping next Tuesday is even easier, and the one after that is easier yet, and someday, live TV will be no big deal. Then I hope to have a need to use my TV skills. :)

And doesn't it figure that right at the same time, other things got really busy. I'm shopping a nonfiction book proposal right now and got a request for a proposal from a leading agent in my market—but she has very specific requirements and I have to basically redo the whole proposal. Then I finally settled on my next fiction project, and of course, I've got the normal full-time workload. So the upshot is that I didn't get my story written, a story I was really excited about, for a prompt I took myself and saved for a month. Drat.

Anyway. I know what the next question is. "Where can we see these clips? Do they really put monkeys on TV?" Indeed, they do.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Revenge, by PM

“The itsy bitsy spider went up the water spout.

Down came the rain, and —” the kids sang.

“Die, spider, die!”

Whack. Whack. Whack.

“Aunt Pammie!” Bella and Nick said.

“I’m sorry, but the only good spider is a dead spider,” Pam said while carefully holding the newspaper with spider guts as far away as possible. “Uhuhuhu-uhuh.” She shuddered.

“Mom said we don’t kill spiders. They eat other bugs.” Nick frowned. Pam could tell he was wondering if, somehow, he was going to get grounded over it.

“That’s insane, Nick,” Pam said.

Bella shook her head. “Don’t be stupid, Nick. That’s not it. Everyone knows if you kill a spider its mother comes back and steals your soul.”

Pam sighed. “That’s even more insane. What is your mother teaching you guys?”

Both kids skipped away, laughing. “The truth, Aunt Pammie, the truth,” Bella shot over her shoulder.


A whisper, a breath, woke Pam. The clock blinked 3:01 a.m. She brushed at a stray hair as it tickled her cheek.


“Shit!” It was a spider.

With a flip of her wrist, Pam sent it onto the covers. She stumbled out of bed, falling as her leg snagged on the covers.

Wrong again.

Twined around her leg, sparkling in the moonlight, was spider silk.

“What the …?”

She hit the floor and beneath her spiders of all shapes and sizes scattered and reformed. Like an undulating furry blanket they covered her.

Oh God oh God oh God.

Choking, she tried wiping the spiders off while ripping at the web on her leg. It wouldn’t come off as she scrabbled up and onto the bed. A line of spiders the size of her face skittered toward her. Each one was covered in iridescent fur and stared with bottomless eyes.

Oh God oh God oh God. They’re after my soul.

She squashed two as she rolled across the bed toward the door. When her bare feet hit the floor there was crunching and something warm and thick oozed between her toes. A faint, high-pitched scream wrapped around the room.

“This isn’t happening. This can’t be happening.”

The screaming went on, grew in pitch as she stumbled to the door. It was coming from the spiders, and Pam slammed her hands over her ears as the screaming grew into something else.

“One of us. One of us,” the spiders chanted.

Oh God oh God. Have to get out. Have to get out!

The door was blocked—covered by webs woven over and over each other. As she shook the white silk, thousands of tiny red-spotted spiders burst out and ran up her arms. Above, stirred by the reverberations from the door, tarantulas dropped from the ceiling.

Pam’s screaming couldn’t block out the spider’s words.

“One of us, one of us. You killed one of us,” they said.

She spun, eyes wide, trembling all over, short of breath.

“Please,” she sobbed. “Please. I’m sorry. I won’t do it again. Please. Oh, God.”

Don’t take my soul.

Skittering, flittering, chittering, twittering—black furry bodies swarmed. Up and over her eyes, they blinded her. Up and into her mouth, they drowned her.

“One of us. One of us,” they sang.


Pam stared unblinking at the man. “You don’t understand,” she said. “You can’t. You really really can’t. Do you know what’ll happen? I mean really really really happen? They know and they have friends. Family. Lots and lots of them. You wouldn’t know just looking at them but,” Pam laughed until tears rolled down her cheeks. “I don’t know anymore. Is the only good spider a dead one? Or is the only good spider a live spider?”

Movement behind the locked window casement caught her eye. A brown spider with spindly legs wove an intricate pattern on its web.

“SSSSSSsssssssssshhhhhhh.” She tried putting her finger to her lips, but the restraints held fast.

“They’ll hear me. If you listen you can hear them. Can’t you hear them?” She said to the man who shook his head and approached with a half-filled syringe. “Can’t you hear them?”

The needle entered her arm and the world’s edges blurred. The spider winked. Pam smiled.

It hadn’t been her soul they’d been after at all.

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Web of Many Colors, Natasha Fondren

A boy crouched in the shadows of moonlight, his blue eyes glittering.

By the window, a crystal swung from the ceiling. It glistened in moonlight; in twinkled in starlight. When the sun shone bright, it sent rivers of color splashing across the walls. Only in the cloudiest and darkest of nights would the crystal blacken, hanging shiny and still, as dead as the mother of Tommy the spider.

Tommy worked in the corner, swinging the first threads for his web from wall to wall, wall to ceiling, and ceiling to wall. It was an ambitious design for a spider as small as he: it spanned four feet and stretched halfway down the wall.

That's when he heard a rustle and then a sound. Not a snap: nothing so loud as that. It was a sound so small, it was almost a non-sound. It was such a tiny sound for the ripping of limbs. Tommy twirled in the air on his thread, unable to find his feet for footing.

Or, at least, two of them.

The blue-eyed boy giggled, holding up two of the spider's legs to view in the moonlight. The spider scurried up his thread. The boy climbed on his bed, careful to first fold Tommy's legs in a tissue and place them in a small, beat-up box on his dresser. The spider watched the boy's glistening blue eyes until they shut, disappearing into darkness.

Tommy spun his web as the boy slept, working until the radials made a thirteen-pointed star. It was not easy work, but he found he could manage with only six of his limbs. He imagined his long legs calling from the box, begging him to finish, to give reason for their removal and imprisonment.

It was morning before Tommy began to work in circles and spirals around the middle of his web, stretching his long legs from radial to radial. He worked all day; his mother would have been proud. With every trip around his web, his ease with being a six-legged spider grew.

But as evening came, so did the boy with the twinkling blue eyes. Tommy heard him when he stepped below. Tommy spun at the top of his web, certain the boy was too short to reach him.

The boy was not.

He plopped a chair beneath the spider’s web and crawled on top. Tommy felt his one leg stretched as far as it would go. He gripped his web; his leg snapped off. The blue-eyed boy screeched in joy, then plucked another leg.

As the spider, in agony, folded its four remaining legs to its belly, the boy jumped off the chair. He ran to his nightstand and repeated the ritual with Tommy's legs, the tissue, and the box.

Tommy flopped on his silk. He imagined he clambered higher up his cord, but it is not easy to climb when you're not sure which legs you have and which you don't.

The next amputation was quick: the boy giggled gleefully, running around the room with a spider leg between each thumb and forefinger. He jumped on the bed, then turned those blue eyes towards the shivering spider.

Tommy could hardly look at those brilliant blue orbs, so afraid he was. As he clung to his web by thread and two legs, he kept thinking of the first time his mother had taught him to spin a web. If she would've been there, she would've said, "Just two more circles to go, Tommy. Never give up!"

The blue-eyed boy rolled the legs back and forth on his hand, then twirled one in between thumb and forefinger. (His third leg? His sixth leg? Tommy didn't know.) Finally, he smushed the spider’s legs in his palms, until they were nothing, until it was as if they had never been.

Tommy tried to climb a little ways up, but his body was too heavy for his two remaining legs. And so he hung. He dreamt his six lost legs danced in circles around him, demanding Tommy finish the web. The spider waited as the crystal cast colors, then diamonds, then colors, then diamonds.

Only then was his shriveled body light enough for his two legs to carry him. He slowly crawled up his balancing line. It took all night long to make the last two circles around his web.

When morning came, the boy stood below, his hands on his waist, his mouth slightly open. His blue eyes glowed in the purple sunlight of early dawn. He dropped a pile of books on the chair, then climbed up.

Tommy waited for the plucks: he was done with his web, after all. The boy stretched both legs as far as they would go, until Tommy feared his body would be torn in half. The two legs tore off, and his black body spun on his silken thread. He blinked at his tormentor, who now was not looking at him, but at the spider's web.

If the spider had ever been in a museum (he had not), or if he had ever visited the Spider Pavilion in the Natural History Museum (the greatest and grandest collection of webs from spiders spun), he would have known that his web was neither the finest nor the commonest. Tommy's web was museum-quality art, but it was not remarkable amongst masters.

Without the crystal, that is. For now his silk weave glowed with every red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and purple in the spectrum.

Then the spider, only a shiny black orb, stilled. The blue-eyed boy wrapped the dead spider in a tissue, then placed it in his treasure box.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Hike, by Melanie Avila

Sheila stepped gingerly over her daughter's outstretched legs and marveled at how big she was getting. It seemed like just yesterday Stacy needed to be carried everywhere, and now her legs were nearly as long as her father's. "Stacy, we're leaving in five minutes. Do you have everything you need?"

Stacy grumbled a non-response and rolled over.

"Come on. Your father's been looking forward to this all week and the weather's perfect for a hike." The gray clouds overhead promised a cool day, and if they were lucky, rain.

Steve ambled to them and nudged Stacy's foot. "Let's go! I found a spectacular view the last time I was out and I want you to see it."

Stacy rolled her eyes. "Is it as exciting as the mound of dirt you dragged me to last weekend?"

"No, this is like nothing I've ever seen before." He shook his head. "Trust me, you've got to see it to believe it." He peeked up at the sky and smiled at Sheila. "Perfect."

Fifteen minutes later they were finally out the door on their way. Raindrops pelted them as they crossed the field near their home. Dry riverbeds sprang to life, carving new paths through the lush field and carrying branches and discarded junk from those who'd passed there before them.

Steve kicked at a piece of plastic drifting in the current. "I hate to see this. Don't they know how long this stays in the environment?"

The brush grew dense and Stacy slowed to a crawl.

"Don't stop now, we're almost there," Steve called over his shoulder.

"Where's there? All I see is this field and that huge dark cloud."

But that wasn't sky up ahead. What looked like darkening clouds was actually a dark gray wall.

They stopped at the base and waited for Steve to give instructions, but he just smiled.

Sheila gasped. "We're not…?"

"Dad, are you serious? You just made me hike for miles and now you're telling me we have to climb a wall?"

"I'm telling you, the view is worth it." He placed one foot on the wall and pulled himself up. "It's not so bad. Just take your time."

Up, up, up they climbed, until Steve pulled himself over a ledge and looked down at them. "This is it," he whispered.

Sheila and Stacy scrambled to join him, and their mouths dropped open. From their spot on the ledge, they overlooked a vast open space, wider than anything they'd ever seen before. Sheila moved closer to Steve. "What is it?"

Acres of blue grass spread across the horizon, dotted with lush black mountains and strange wooden monuments that stretched the length of the field. A low rumbling in the distance made Sheila take a step back.

Steve sighed. "I had to ask around, but one of the guys had seen something like this before." He looked between them, his eyes shining. "It's a living room."

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Collector, E. Flanigan

Megan had already found a bee, a ladybug, a sulphur butterfly, and a grasshopper. She really wanted to make honor roll this semester.

Mr. Gunson had handed out the list of required bugs in 3rd period. "You must include one of each insect on the list to earn an 'A' on this assignment. Don't tell me you can't hurt a butterfly. This is 7th grade, people, and I expect 7th grade work."

That evening, Megan stalked the fields behind her house with her brother's old butterfly net in one hand and a mason jar in the other. A backpack over her shoulder hid the implements used for the actual killing: her mom's nail polish remover and a bag of cotton balls from under the sink.

She repeated the same steps each time she caught something in the net. Transfer bug from net to jar, add toxic cotton ball, wait.

It was usually over pretty fast, but this time was different — the lubber grasshopper was taking a lot longer to die than the other insects had. He was desperate to get out, jumping against the jar lid mightily and persistently.

Megan was captivated by the sight and sound of it, the futile industry, his tenacious grip on life. His large stony eyes seemed surprisingly full of pathos; she kept wishing for him to die so it would be over.

"Whatcha got in the jar, a leprechaun?" Megan sat up with a start to see her neighbor Allan standing only an arm's length away with Nugget on a leash by his side. Allan was smiling.

"Oh, no. It's just a, just a school thing." Megan reached out to stroke Nugget, keeping her eyes on his soft muzzle, his little pink tongue. "I have to collect bugs for Mr. Gunson's class."

"You're too pretty to be collecting bugs." He looked at her with dark, shiny eyes. Megan felt her face flush.

Allan stood silently watching her pet Nugget, and Megan felt stupid for having been so engrossed, for having looked startled in front of him.

She forced her mouth to work, forced herself to think of something to say. "Does Nugget need another bath? Because I could get the hose ...."

"Nah, not today. She hasn't been out much lately, thanks to the old nine-to-five that turned into a seven-to-seven."

Megan had no idea what that meant, and instead turned her attention back to the grasshopper still clink-clinking against the jar.

"You know, Megan, you're too good to me and Nugget," Allan continued. "You're an angel. Your family doesn't tell you that enough." He brushed his thick, dark hair out of his eyes.

Megan felt warm all over and yet frozen, too embarrassed to look at him. "This grasshopper was easy to catch. He just sat there on that railroad tie." She pointed to a two-by-four on the ground ten feet away.

Allan smiled but didn't correct her. "Isn't it funny? He's trapped in a jar and he doesn't even know he's been caught."

Nugget, tired of Megan, began sniffing her backpack instead. Megan glanced over, then turned back to see Allan's lanky frame leaning down to where she crouched. He was reaching a hand to her hair.

Megan stood up abruptly.

Allan laughed. "A leaf, silly." He held a little leaf between his thumb and a long, thickly jointed forefinger.

Megan laughed too, absently running her hand through her own hair now. "Maybe I'm the one who needs a bath."

"Hey, I was just thinking," Allan said. "What would Mr. G think of an orb spider? Are they on your list?"

"Um, I don't think so," Megan said. "Spiders aren't insects."

Allan smiled. "Good point. Smart girl."

She beamed inside.

"I know a nature preserve where there are thousands of orb spiders. When you look up through the trees, you can see layer upon layer of them, right within reach. Ripe for the picking. It would make for some spectacular extra credit."

Megan considered this for a moment. Extra credit would be nice, but her mom wasn't likely to take her to a park just for extra credit. "Do any of those spiders live around here?"

"No big ones," Allan shook his head sadly. "This neighborhood is too young for good tree cover. All we have is saplings. Maybe your mom or dad could take you Saturday."

At this, Megan's eyes teared a little. She blinked quickly and bit the edge of her thumbnail.

Allan suddenly brightened. "Hey, I could take you over there some time .... I mean if that's not too weird."

"Oh, um ... maybe," Megan faltered.

He playfully poked her in the side. "What, you don't trust me?"

Megan giggled. "No, I mean, I think that would be fun."

Allan put an arm around her shoulder. "I know things have been hard, Meg."

She felt excited to be so close to him. She could smell his aftershave. "Would an orb spider be hard to catch?"

"No, they stay still most of the time. But when they find something to eat, they creep, creep, creep up to it." Megan felt something brushing along her collarbone lightly. "Then they POUNCE!" Allan's hand bounced off her shoulder.

He gave her a little tickle and burst out laughing.

Megan laughed too. She looked down at the jar and realized the grasshopper had stopped moving. She picked it up, studied him through the thick glass.

"Do you think he's dead, or did he just give up on the idea of getting away?" Megan asked.

Allan considered the jar for a moment. "What's the real difference? Once you're in the jar, it's just a question of time."

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Billy, by Jude Hardin

Billy Wilder woke with a savage yawp. He bolted from his chair and ran toward the front door slapping at himself with his hands. A black spider, one with a body as big as a jellybean and legs that could span a coffee mug, had been crawling up his chest toward his open, snoring mouth.

When he opened the door and the cold air hit him in the face, he realized that there was of course no spider, not really, that once again his imagination had gotten the best of him.

The terrors usually came at night. They had been coming for seventy-two years now, since he was eleven, and had started during a sleepover with Mike Musselman and Virgil Lamb in a treehouse built from stolen barn wood. Billy had gained admission into the “club,” which had previously included only Mike and Virgil, because he owned a handheld brass telescope his uncle had brought home from the Navy. The telescope, which collapsed and could fit neatly into the pocket of your overalls, was perfect for pretending to be pirates or explorers or beings from another planet. There was no end to the games you could play with that thing, and the three of them got a lot of mileage out of it.

There had been some extortion involved, too, because Billy had seen Mike and Virgil tearing down the dilapidated tobacco barn at the old Schweinhardt place and toting the timbers and planks to their construction site in the woods. Billy had threatened to rat the other boys out if they didn’t let him into their club, so they said okay, he was in, as long as he brought the telescope to every meeting.

One crisp October Friday, the three of them climbed the rope ladder and were taking turns scouting for hostile invaders when Mike said, “Hey, let’s sleep out here tonight.”

“No way,” Virgil said. “Daddy’ll tan my hide if I ain’t in by dark.”

“Me too,” Billy said. “Plus I still got chores to do.”

Mike Musselman, who never let petty annoyances like parents and work and the law prevent him from doing something he considered to be fun, had it all figured out.

“Here’s what we’ll do. Virgil, you tell your folks you’re staying at Billy’s house tonight. Billy, you tell yours you’re staying at my house. I’ll tell mine I’m staying at Virgil’s.”

“Right,” Virgil said. “And when our moms get to talking after Sunday meeting, we’ll be in a pickle for sure.”

“Virgil, Virgil, Virgil. Have you ever known our moms to mention anything as dumb as us when they get to talking after Sunday meeting? They have more important things to cackle about, like how a loaf of bread has gone up to ten cents and such. You know what? I think y’all are just chicken. Bach bach bach bach baaaaaaach.”

Mike hooked his thumbs under his armpits and walked around flapping his elbows.

When you were an eleven-year-old boy in rural Tennessee back then, chicken was about the worst thing another eleven-year-old boy could call you. Either you beat the living shit out of him, or you did the thing he was calling you chicken about. You chewed your first plug of tobacco, took your first drink of hard liquor, hotwired your first car. You stayed out all night, even if it meant a trip to the woodshed with a razor strop the next day.

“I’m in,” Virgil said.

Billy thought about grabbing Mike Musselman by the seat of his pants and heaving him through the doorway like a sack of flour. It was a thirty-foot drop to the ground, and a broken leg or two would teach Mike a little prudence regarding who he called chicken next time. Billy was bigger and stronger than Mike, and could have easily done it.

But he didn’t.

It would have automatically gotten him thrown out of the club, for one thing, blackmail scheme or not, and he definitely didn’t want that. The club had become his sanctuary from the freak show he called home: Mama quoting scriptures a thousand times a day, telling him he was going to roast in Hell if he didn’t repent for his wickedness; Daddy just sitting there quietly reading his newspaper and smoking his pipe until some crazy gauge in his head redlined and he blew ten different kinds of gaskets; big brother Clay, who Billy still had to share a bed with, coming home after work every night with beer on his breath and Molly Herringer on his finger, jacking that monstrosity of his and then wiping it on the sheets.

Billy looked forward to his club meetings with Mike and Virgil, and he wasn’t about to bitch it up over something stupid like this. In fact, a night away from home was starting to sound like a damn good idea.

“Count me in too,” Billy said.

They did the secret handshake and chanted the secret words, descended the ladder and ran to their homes. Billy’s heart raced like a scalded polecat when he asked his mother about staying the night at the Musselmans’ house, but he never allowed himself to lose eye contact. He had become quite the accomplished liar these past few months, a skill that would serve him well through his teen years and into adulthood. Mom finally gave in, but she made him read from the Bible and kneel down and pray before pretending to leave for the Musselmans’ and hightailing back to the treehouse.

The western hilltops glowed red, silhouetted by the dying sun. Billy stood alone, gazing out over the valley, feeling closer to God here than he ever had in church, wondering if any other human had ever witnessed anything so magnificent.

The day slowly faded, and the stars took over by the time Mike and Virgil showed up.

“Where you guys been?” Billy said. “I thought I was going to have to stay out here by myself all night.”

Virgil’s father had made him clean the horse stalls before heading out.

Mike had failed to get permission at all, so he was in essence a fugitive now.

“I’ll take my licks like a man tomorrow,” Mike said. “Tonight we’re going to have ourselves some fun.”

Billy had brought a canteen full of water, Virgil some biscuits from the supper table, and Mike a few strips of dried pork wrapped in cheesecloth. They passed the canteen around and ate some of the food, pretending to be shipwreck survivors bobbing on the open sea in a lifeboat.

“Better save some of these vittles for later,” Mike said. “No telling when we might get rescued.”

They took a vote, and everyone agreed it was best to ration the provisions a little at a time. Billy wrapped everything neatly in the cheesecloth, and stuffed the package into a cracker tin Mike had brought on a previous adventure.

They got bored with the lifeboat scenario after a while, and Virgil suggested they join the French Foreign Legion and snipe on some Nazis with their high-powered rifles.

“That’s dumb,” Mike said. “How we going to see Nazis in the dark? You think they walk around at night holding torches, with big red swastikas painted on their backs? ‘Hey y’all, I’m a Nazi. Go ahead and pick me off like a duck in a shooting gallery.’ You think that’s what they do? Let me tell you something about Nazis, Virgil. They ain’t--”

That’s when a red fireball blazed through the sky, interrupting Mike’s soliloquy about Nazis and changing all three of their lives forever.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

And now, a word from our sponsor ...

I just wanted to drop a quick line for anybody who was looking for the next story post; I didn't get a chance to post the next Storyteller submission today, but I will be back tomorrow. I promise.

I had a very strange morning ...

Monday, October 12, 2009

There Will Always Be Spiders, By Erica Orloff

Kill me.

I stared at him, thinking he had made a mistake. That I had made a mistake. I went back through the cards. No mistake.

Kill me.

I couldn’t face him, so I looked out the window at the sun until my eyes hurt. Then I stood up, my back to him. You know, it’s all a hypothetical until it happens to you.

I remember where we were. Exactly. Precisely. Sitting in a restaurant in L.A., and Christopher Reeve was two tables over in a giant wheelchair with all this apparatus, looking more like a Transformer than a person.

“If that ever happens to me,” Micah said. “Kill me.”

“Me, too,” I said, watching someone spoon-feed Superman. I lifted my glass of merlot. “Just put a pillow over my head.”

Later that night, after we made love in our hotel, he spooned around me and whispered in my ear. “I mean it.”

“Mean what?”

“If we couldn’t do this . . . if I ended up like that, kill me. Make me a promise.”

“I promise,” I whispered. Like promising you will love someone forever, you mean it at the time. I did.

He couldn’t hold me to it. Simple. He couldn’t hold me to a promise. I spun around. “No. I won’t. I can’t. I love you.”

I pulled the chair closer to his bed and sat down. “You’re still here. You can still communicate.”

His eyes drifted to the cards. His face twitched.

I leaned close to him and put my lips to his forehead, letting my tongue trace its way to his black curls. The curls I twined around my fingers. The curls that made me tremble the first time we did it, falling to the floor and tearing off each other’s clothes in a scene that now made me wake up sobbing with the memory.

He could feel my tongue on his forehead. I tried to pretend that was enough, licking the saltiness. Tasting him.

“Why now?” I wanted him to tell me.

He spelled it out.

“Look behind you.”

I turned around. What? What the hell was I looking for that would mean it was time to kill him? Time to die. A picture on the wall of us. The window. What?

And then I saw them.

Spiders. Spinning a web in the corner of the window.

Screaming, I tore at them, killed them one at a time, smashing their guts onto the window panes with my bare hands, shrieking at them. “Get away!”

I faced Micah, sobbing. “Did they . . . climb on you?”


“Well, that’s not good enough, Micah.” I stared down at my palms covered in insect guts and blood. “Not a good enough reason.”

I refused to hold up the cards. Sun set. The room grew dark. I could hear the oxygen filling his lungs, this dependency that would never, ever, ever get better.

Finally, I switched on the light. I stroked his forehead, his face. I placed my tongue next to his eyes and flicked sensuously, begging him. “Please . . . Micah.”

I knew better to argue with him when he was able-bodied. That he hadn’t been able to move anything but his eyelids for a year shouldn’t have mattered.

I held up the cards.

Please, Baby. There will always be spiders.