Just a quick check in today to update a few things.
Halfway through the NaNoWriMo month and … well, I’m behind. I don’t think it’s yet at the point where all is lost, but I should be at the 25,000 word mark and I’m about 7,000 words off the pace. Now, that’s not something I can’t overcome: I’ve written 3,500-4,000 words in a day plenty of times. But it’s a daunting place to be in. Looking back on last year, I see that I was woefully behind around mid-month then as well and I ended up rallying and coming through with a strong second half. I hope that’s the case again. I’m still struggling to get into this story the way I would like, which worries me because at least last year I was enthusiastic about the problem, even if I was struggling with having been laid off right around the beginning of the month. Most days this time around I feel like it’s a chore to reach the standard 1,667 words. But I’m still plugging away as best I can, hoping I can find some inspiration somewhere and finish strong.
A small part of my NaNo struggles also come down to the number of other related tasks I’m dealing with. I’ve been trying to keep this blog more frequently updated, and part of that involves doing some reading for the Short List series that I’m still enthusiastic about. Plus I’m reading a really good book right now and a lot of my friends keep getting really great stories published which are piling up on me. I’ve also been reading chapter books (not picture books) to my oldest daughter at bedtime, which has been fun and I want to write some new reviews of these children’s books based on the new readings and the conversations they spark with her, but finding time is so challenging. Not to mention I’m still trying to check in on the slush reading gig regularly. And, of course, there are non-literary issues to contend with including a baby who’s teething and not sleeping well, illnesses that keep nagging our family, and a renewed effort on my part to fix some of my health issues by eating better and exercising. These are things every person—and particularly every writer, I’m sure—contends with, but sometimes they seem to pile up a little higher and this month feels like one of those periods.
On the bright side, some writer friends of mine turned me on to QuarterReads, a new site for writers and readers that operates a little on the microtransaction model that was sort of hot a number of years ago. Basically you drop $10 into the site and that gives you 40 reads at twenty-five cents. The stories are all under 2,000 words and most of the money goes directly to the author. If you like the story, you can tip up to another seventy-five cents. They do read and vet each submission which gives some quality control to the site so you know you’re not getting unfiltered, unedited garbage. And there are some pretty heavy hitters posting work there now, such as Ken Liu, Cat Rambo, and a couple of people I know and can personally vouch for: Alexis A. Hunter and Natalia Theodoridou. Anyway, I think it’s a really interesting model, and I genuinely hope it succeeds. I even have a story up there now, Corkscrew, which you may recall appeared on the Toasted Cake podcast earlier this year. This is the first print version of the story available, so if you missed it first time around, here’s another chance to catch it.
Speaking of publications, it seems that October ended my rather unlikely streak of publications. From April through September of this year, I had a new publication come out every month. I have one publication pending, an anthology I’m thrilled to be a part of and can’t wait to see come out. But even my most optimistic hopes for it wouldn’t permit the streak to stay alive; the publishers are putting out an advance review copy (ARC) and only finalized the contributors list in September. Not too much chance of a one-month turnaround there. Still, I’m amazed and humbled by this past year’s small step forward. Six stories this year was more than I could have hoped for, and in the meantime I’ve continued to write and (hopefully!) improve, so I’d like to say this is only the beginning. For those who have supported me by reading or signal boosting—in particular my ever-patient wife who also manages to make time to be my biggest cheerleader—I thank you. I write for me, but I try hard to be better for you.
Because my traipsing through short fiction venues is designed to be one-stop, it’s necessary to note that I won’t be bothering with serialized content. I say necessary in the case of Fireside’s October 2014 issue, because the bulk of the issue seems to be devoted to Lilith Saintcrow’s serialized She Wolf And Cub, including a prologue, and then Chapter One. Which is fine because it makes this inaugural edition of The Short List a rather breezy one, consisting of just three stories to read and a short note from editor Brian J. White. That is absolutely not an indictment of She Wolf And Cub—but if I get hooked on every serialized piece I stumble across, I’ll end up doing nothing but catching up on those by the third or fourth Short List. I’m intentionally avoiding it. And that’s actually something worthwhile to note about reading short fiction publications: feel free to skip over anything that doesn’t grab you right away or that just doesn’t sound interesting. With so many other stories to choose from, there’s no sense getting stuck on one that you won’t finish or that isn’t working out for you.
The Ones is a writing blog game in which participants receive a story title, a little wrinkle to up the challenge factor and then must create a single draft story in no more than one hour from the prompt. They then trade stories and post someone else’s entry on their website. My guest is Alisia Faust.
Hello, can you hear me? Is anybody there? Please help me. I think I’m with a very bad man, and I’m afraid.
He came into my house in the middle of the night, tip-toeing on silent cat’s feet. I don’t know why the alarm didn’t go off. It should have! But it didn’t, so he pulled me from my bed and stuffed me in the back of his car. Oh, stupid, stupid, stupid! Why hadn’t I made any noise? I accidentally go off all the time! But I was confused and surprise and so scared. They took my brother too. He’s back here with me. If only I had said something, I wouldn’t be here. If only…
The car is stopping. I hear him loud and clear. It’s a one-sided conversation on the phone.
“Hey, I’m here. Yeah, around the corner from Starbucks. Where are you? Well hurry up, man! I’ve got the–Alright, alright, just hurry up.”
The faint click of disconnection, and a string of words that would make a lady blush tumble out of his mouth. Do you need to know everything he said? I’m not comfortable repeating that last bit.
When Jana and I started out, pedaling away from her dad’s slumping cottage, the sky overhead was a rich blue punctuated by the white gaze of the sun. We packed plastic baggies of peanut butter sandwiches and a couple of oatmeal cookies into the basket fastened to her handlebars. The thermos of milk went into my backpack, along with a couple of towels, a patch kit, and a foot pump. Jana’s front tire had a bad habit of leaking and we planned to make it all the way to the lake with enough time to swim, eat, and work on our tans before we had to start back to beat the twilight.
The edge of town was a couple miles behind when the muggy air started cutting cold and the wispy white clouds transitioned into glowering black monstrosities like smoky demons leaping off the toasted landscape. Jana and I stopped and had a short debate about whether to press on or turn back. We settled on going ahead because that’s what Jana wanted. The sudden chill tugged tiny white goosebumps along the bare brown skin on my arms and legs, and Jana urged me faster so the exertion would keep us warm. I was just about to shout at her to stop and give up, that I wasn’t going to get in the lake anyway with it being so cold, when the hail started.
Anny’s teardrops hold a single sun each, reflecting the steel sky and the ice-crusted landscape. The cheek the salty drops traverse before falling in slow motion are cherub smooth and dark, soft the way nothing in the world save young skin can be. On the way down, one drop in particular wobbles in and out of perfect spherical roundness, taking on the details of a blue calico dress, a brown and pink parka, a pair of white tights dirty only at the knees, puffy boots.
The splash of liquid on frosted concrete curb is, to a particularly attuned ear, audible in a light blip. Touching on the thin wafer of snow, the warm tear burns through to the drab half-foot wall beneath as if it were molten. It can’t darken the already damp surface of the curb, so instead it shimmers there, a sparkle reminiscent of the evening star.
A crystal city erupts from the pit formed by the falling saltwater meteor, spires of ice and glass, slick roadways of frozen sorrow winding up and around each minute, elaborate library or factory or tenement. A glisten of cold starlight glares across the tiny landscape and from this golden glow emerges a silken horse with wings of silver fire, soaring upward. The boy on the bare back of the beast clings to a smoky mane, his tightly curled hair ruffling in the frigid air, a loose tunic snapping behind him. He flies the horse in a looping arc upward, spiraling to the highest peak of the city, glimmering hooves moving in long leaping strides as though sprinting on an invisible path. The horse strains as it rises, diamond flecks of foam sparkling against translucent hide.
I’m writing this with rain hitting the window and it reminds me of that night we got trapped in your dad’s Tahoe with the dead battery on Westlake. Do you remember? We just sat there and listened to the drops pounding against the roof, holding hands, scared of our approaching curfews and mudslides and lightning and whatever. I think about that night sometimes, the part before we moved to the back seat, and I miss that sound.
I miss a lot of things about us. I miss not fighting over R████. I miss going out and doing things. I miss everything being us against the world instead of us against us. For a long time I swore the brighter days were just around the corner. Every relationship has rough patches, okay? This was ours. If we were meant for each other the way you always say, we’d probably have a lot of rough patches over time, you know? So this was one.
The laminate coating on the steering wheel is wearing through, leaving rough patches that tug at my lycra glove. I’ll have to get that fixed. On the clock: 07:51, which gives me nine minutes; on the speedometer: 141 kph, just above the average I’ll have to maintain to clear the checkpoint on time. I peek at the side mirrors and the cyclist weaves back behind a rig, able as always to anticipate my glances, to keep me from getting any more than a glimpse of her. She’s clad in predictable black leather, lithe where I am bulky, her sleek helmet contrasting with my angular one like a robot from the future chasing a steam-powered relic. That’s not an inappropriate comparison, come to think of it.
Out here in the flats where the lanes are generous and the traffic is moderate I can open up a bit, maybe give myself some cushion. The current stereo track is a shifting tempo experimental number so I tap the Next button and a steady bass line tingles along my thighs. Throttles were made to be opened; my sense of acceleration spreads from my spine depressing the seat back and the decrease of strict control over the wheel from whisper to growl. I draft my way past a courier van, using the slingshot effect to clear one-ninety for just a second or two and make a tight weave between two carpoolers.
I wish I could believe the cyclist is stymied, roadblocked perhaps or forced to downshift out of self-preservation, but I know better. A kilometer and a half of clear space opens before the switchbacks start which isn’t much time to burn but I do it anyway, boosting with a tug on the release valve that flattens me: breasts to armpits, stomach to tailbone, cheeks to ears. Timing the valve screw to lower the boost can be tricky. At these speeds your eyes are unreliable, human depth perception and distance estimation, even decision making, not evolved to compensate for speeds up around 300 kph. On an open stretch, during a land speed test for example, it doesn’t matter. Here, my window and margin of error is measured in meters which translates into seconds and I know the risk of miscalculation is far beyond that of a grisly death. This is a company car, after all.
The park across the street from the pharmacy was one of those forced development deals; some EconDev deputy’s idea of a compromise. They worked with city planners in some kind of baseball card version of SimCity: I’ll trade you one tiny strip of grass and anemic tree line for six strip malls and a parking structure in our historic downtown, that kind of thing. Ken sat on his bench in the miserable little park and stared at the building, sneering at the painted facade the color of vomited hot dogs, and counted customers.
The padding of his buttocks had worn thin, like a pair of pants he couldn’t bear to throw out and so had weathered away any once-held utility. The bones of his hips ground against the painted slats—green, of course—and he hated everything. His tricycle was parked nearby underneath a shadeless tree, too newly planted to even stand on its own without the support of wooden crutches and rubber lashes. There were no leaves to keep the chrome handlebars from heating in the glare, there was no security provided by the flimsy chain lock (manufacturer’s provided combination: 1-2-3-4). The vehicle was plodding and uncomfortable to ride but beloved for its single provision: freedom.
Ken settled a curving pipe between his long mustaches and lit it with a match. His customer count reached 75 and he checked his watch while the hot summer wind threatened the light of his pipe. Eight forty-nine and Tim’s Discount Pharmacy had been open for under an hour, currently averaging more than one customer per minute.
There came a clarity with old age, a stripping down of mental tartar, revealing the inconsequentiality of sports, politics, news cycles, social engagement, and leisure. It rendered each of them vaporous and easily waved away with a gnarled hand. What remained was the fleeting bliss of family, the inevitability of oblivion, and the sweet allure of perceived injustice. It was this last that brought Ken to the park each day for the past two months, counting customers, tabulating data and biding time.
I met my husband on my eighth wedding anniversary. He likes to tease me that I even procrastinated on my seven year itch. David, my ex, had taken me down to Florida for a few days of alone time, not a full week. He could never stand to be away from the office very long.
When I first saw Gregory, we were crowded into a tiny Italian restaurant with about six tables total. Greg was there with a date and you could tell right away that the date wasn’t going well; most of what I remember about her are the four cocktails she drank before they got a table. David and Greg struck up a conversation. David was always good at breaking the ice, getting to know people everywhere he went. He was awful at maintaining friendships, but he could make like he was best buddies with a guy he’d run into ten minutes earlier.
Greg was from The City, down to visit family who had arranged his ill-fated date, and we lived in Jersey at the time. It was coincidental but not uncommon to run into a fellow New Yorker this far south, but it got a little funny when Greg mentioned he was staying at the same Hilton we were, just a floor down from us.
I didn’t get much of an impression of Greg then. David did the majority of the talking, converting me into a conversational barnacle, just along for the ride. He had a way of talking for me, saying things like, “Did you watch the game on Sunday? We did. We just about lost it when Folk missed that field goal!” He’d say “we” like I had been right alongside him, wearing my team jersey and spilling beernuts in agitation when the team lost. David’s narrative excluded how I spent the afternoon doing laundry upstairs, looking up recipes on the computer, and fixing the kids a snack. Game time was always David Time, and I tried to play the doting wife, coming down every thirty minutes or so to bring him a fresh beer and see if he wanted any chips. He’d smile and pinch my butt in a distracted but affectionate way. Everything he ever did carried the implied suffix, “little lady.”
The mist is thick in the pre-dawn gloom, and the commuters on the platform at the train station are huddled into overcoats and thick hats, wishing it were still Christmas. The depth of winter has yet to arrive; by the standards of the month to come today’s chill is moderate. But by the standards of the long Indian summer recently past, it is frigid and the workforce waiting for their diesel powered railcar avoid each other’s gaze, each locked in introspective longing for the warmth of their homes and beds.
Within these clusters of non-interacting, space-sharing humans, there is a peculiar silence that permeates gathering locations with shared purpose but no shared engagement. It is a silence typified by a buzz of accepted background noise: Car tires rumbling over the tracks at the edge of the station; hollow chatter from ticket machines stamping dates and times onto counterfeit-proof sheets of pre-paid cardboard; indignant wails from ravens engaged in a dangerous dance with stray cats over a discarded bag of fast food scraps. But there are few conversations, few droopy-eyed attendants who wish to unwrap the scarves from their mouths to exchange pleasantries with strangers.
The cry that escapes the suburbanite-approved pseudo-silence commands immediate attention. Through the bluish fog that obscures the tracks as they curve away from the line of sight, a repeated phrase echoes: