More praise for cooperative editors.

Being a writer is tough. But there are lots of challenges to being one who must read the work so many of us labor away at. Writers sometimes complain about editors. Maybe we shouldn’t (seriously.) If you meet a good one, be grateful. A good editor is worth her weight in gold.

Happy Holidays.

A belated holiday present: publication news!

The good folks over at SpeckLit have notified me they intend to publish some of the drabbles I sent them in the first quarter of 2016.

I won’t spoil the surprise regarding title, plot or content of each, but the expected publication dates for my one hundred word fiction bits are 1/9/16, 1/21/16, 2/2/16, 2/18/16 and 3/19/16. Or you could just watch for them by frequenting the site often, like I do. 🙂  (That’s http://www.specklit.com)

And now for they ones they didn’t go for in my last submission…

The Hills Have More Than Eyes

It had been Hilyard’s idea to come up here.  Something about a monster.  He’d wanted something for his audition—one of those crazy paranormal series.

He got picked off the first night.  Don’t know if I’d call the picker ‘monster.’  It was thin and quick; he was gone in a whirl of fir needles.

Don’t know how it got me.  I started changing the next morning, hiking back down that infernal ridge, wondering what I’d tell his family.

Now I’m alone, something hairy and searching.  Small animals, some insects.  Another climber like him, like me, will come along some day.

Author’s Note: There are worse fates in life than ending up as an insect eating, hill-dwelling hairy beast.  A lot worse.

At Least It Wasn’t Avada Kedavra

“Cartesqu,” the old wizard admonished the old witch, “why have you failed to remove this wretched curse? I have suffered with it two weeks!  It has blackened my tomatoes and ruined my rutabaga.  I cannot raise my wand even a millimeter.”

“I’m sorry, Prazon,” the old witch replied.  “I have labored to no avail to stop this madness.  I, too, am powerless against this harsh punishment.”

Prazon was shocked.  “Who has done this to us and called it punishment?!”

“Our nephew, Taylor,” Cartesqu said with an eye roll.  “It’s his revenge for refusing to let him watch those Harry Potter movies.”

Author’s Note: Not only will the younger generation of wizards be smarter, it will be more vengeful.  Even if the bulk of it will carry names like Taylor, Brianna and Mason.

Blessed Event

“It’s all right, little one,” Joy told her young charge as she fussed in her crib.  Delicately, she scooped up the baby and began rocking her.  “There, there.  Your mom and dad just don’t understand.”

Quietly, Joy hummed a lullaby.  The parents had given her a room, and the freedom to watch over the child from midnight to six a.m.  She invested the time in education, mainly bedtime stories, the ones that would prepare the kid for the future she would enjoy, wreaking havoc over all life on earth.

“There, there,” she said, again, admiring the baby’s searing red eyes.

Author’s note: I love babies, but sometimes they scare me a little.

 

Grey Harlowe Sampler: “Off the Beaten Path”

(Content note: One of my rare, non-scary offerings. Sure, there’s an element of fear here, but this piece is not meant to be read as part of the horror genre or any related one.)

*

We had traveled as far as the car could take us.

Which wasn’t that far, as it turned out.  Onyx had made one wrong turn too many, taking us way off the road, then into a choppy, tree lined path of wet November bark.  Soon, though the custom made vehicle our uncle called the Rune Buggy could keep motoring at a sort of sputtering, irregular pace, we were deeply lost in the forest.  I made Onyx stop the machine before things got any worse, which they promptly did anyway, when it began to rain.

At fourteen, Onyx was the oldest of the three of us, and, I thought, usually the most responsible.  His reputation with me had definitely taken a hit that afternoon, however, as he had a) ruined our carefree joyride in the stolen buggy, and b) scared Peridot, our seven year old sister, who was afraid of both woods and rain, half to death.  I intended to punish him in a most unusual way later.  A frog in his bed.  Toothpaste replaced with hemorrhoid gel.  Something worse.

Just a quick trip down the highway, Beryl, he’d said.  It’s deserted this time of day anyway.  Back in two hours.  See if this thing can set some kind of speed record.  Now we were god knows where.  It would have to be worse than hemorrhoid toothpaste.

Onyx and I left the buggy to argue under a tree about what to do next.  Peridot, who had figured out that neither of us had any idea where we were, refused to leave the safety of the buggy’s awning covered rubber seats.  Past caring, Onyx and I stood under a nearby tree and commenced bickering.

“I can’t believe you didn’t get that cell phone when you had a chance,” I said angrily.  Onyx had just had a birthday and an offer of blissfully modern communication technology had been made.  “That would come in handy right about now.”

“You didn’t ask for one either, genius, so don’t blame me.”

“You know they can’t afford it,” I grumbled.  “They got rid of Portia’s last year.”

Portia was our aunt.  Our parents had checked out two years back.  Portia and the odd but kindly man she called Kai, had taken over in their place.  Portia worked in a dentist’s office and paid most of their bills, while Kai worked part time at a surf shop in our Oregon coastal enclave.  He made okay money during the high season, which this wasn’t, so even with their combined incomes, three kids to support had forced them into a tight budget.

“Even if we had a phone, who would we call?  I don’t know Portia’s work number and Kai supposedly won’t be home until midnight.”  It was Kai’s spontaneous decision to sojourn at a friend’s for the evening that had inspired Onyx’s scheme to abscond with the Rune.

“Gee, I dunno, the cops maybe?  911?  Information?”

“Does Information even still exist?” Onyx joked.  “I thought that went away with video rental stores.”

“Okay, then, what are our options?  Start walking?  Scream for help?”

“All of thirteen and she thinks she knows everything.”  Onyx sighed.  Didn’t you ever see The Blair Witch Project?  That’s how they got seriously lost.”

“Like we’re not seriously lost already,” I snapped, checking the modestly priced digital watch I had felt it was all right to ask my cash strapped guardians for.  “It’s one p.m.  Dark in three hours.  What do you propose we do?”

Onyx sighed some more.  Despite my disapproval of his recklessness, he knew I was looking to him for answers.  Since our parents’ divorce had repelled them from each other like mismatched magnets, leaving us with understanding but not terribly involved replacements, we had stuck to a rigid pecking order.  Onyx in charge and Beryl for back up, with little Peridot, we had decided in automatic, unspoken agreement, a shared responsibility between us.

“Walk, I guess,” he declared, sounding no more confident about it than I felt.  “I can’t have gone that far off the main road.”

Gingerly, we approached the buggy to tell Peridot of the plan.  She whined a lot and warned us we would be eaten by bears or tree snakes, but eventually agreed and let me lift her from the back seat.

“Why do you think he didn’t just name it his dune buggy?” Onyx wondered absently as he leaned down to tie his sneakers.

“I’d be more worried how you’re going to explain how it got left out here,” I said.

“No, I mean, I get that it’s a pun, but it’s…weird he would use the word rune.  Isn’t that another word for crystal?”

“I guess,” I said.  It was unusual for Onyx to ask me to define vocabulary words for him.  He always thought he was so much smarter, especially since his promotion to high school freshman.

“Well, don’t you think that’s strange?  I know he’s one of these recycled happy hippies, but I don’t think he’s some whacked out New Ager or anything.”

Onyx had begun to walk us through the rough, disorderly trail the buggy’s tires had made in the muddy ground while I held Peridot’s hand and said a silent prayer this would actually take us back to the highway.  I hoped it wasn’t too dark when we got there.  We had only gone about a mile from our house and could probably walk back to it in reasonable safety as long as some light held out.

“You don’t suppose he named it after us, do you?” asked Onyx.  “Because of our names?”

“I have no idea.  Who knows why that guy does anything.  He once told me he thought the United States faked the moon landing back in the ‘60s.”

“I remember that,” Onyx admitted.  “Portia made him shut up and then talked about her college trip to England for the rest of dinner.”

We walked in silence for few minutes after that.  I pondered my brother’s sudden mention of our names.  We sometimes had to explain them to strangers, say they were different kinds of stones, and delicately steer them away from any questions about what on earth our parents had been thinking when they picked them out.  This self defense had become less necessary in recent times, during which enough parents had picked out stranger monikers that our own were considered no more unusual than our classmates, Marmalade and Vicar.  But it was tough to discuss our names and avoid mentioning Monica and Richard, the misguided souls who’d thought their babies would want to be named after rocks, even attractive ones.

Peridot announced loudly that she had to pee.  The rules of our hierarchy dictated that anything related to secret girl things had to be handled by me.  Less than thrilled with my status today, I grudgingly led her behind a tree.  Ten minutes later we were following the mushy tire treads again.

“Do you think we’ll ever hear from them again?” I asked Onyx, since he’d been bold enough to broach the topic of our original family.  For a while now, I’d wanted to hear his opinion.  Last we’d heard, Monica was teaching English to Latino immigrants in the Midwest, and Richard had moved to the East Coast to look for work at a cousin’s computer firm.  We had scarcely had more than a phone call from either in months.

“I’m not holding my breath,” he said.

“Me either,” I agreed.

Neither one of us could look at our younger sister.

 

By three thirty, the light was starting to go and I was beginning to get nervous.  I couldn’t even remember the last time we had gone camping let alone

what we’d done during the trip.  What if there were bears in these woods?  We hadn’t even dressed for the weather.  All of us wore sweaters but only Peridot had a coat on.  It wasn’t looking good for signs of highway or rescue.

As my mind started to dwell on any scrap of even basic survival skills I’d learned anywhere, Onyx suddenly blurted out,

“Do you think we’ll ever be, uh, normal?”

“You mean because of our weird names and an uncle who’s in the Flat Earth Society?”

What?

“There’s this group of people who think the planet is actually flat.  Kai says he thinks they’re not totally wrong.”  I was trying to lift the mood, change the subject entirely.  I had never known Onyx to question his mental state, or address the eccentricities of our lives in any serious way.  He was our guide out of the forest and the rest of the time, too.  I had to keep him sane.

“He thinks the Earth is flat?  Totally flat?”

“He told me there might be something to the idea.  And who even knows what he put in that buggy to power it.  Might not even be real gasoline.  Lady bug oil or something.”

“No, it’s regular old gasoline,” came a voice from the tree line just beyond us.  It was Kai.  Amazingly, he had found us.

Peridot and I rushed toward him, babbling about our relief, our fears of bears, how cold it was, other nonsense.  Onyx hung behind somewhat, approaching his uncle with a sheepish, downcast expression.

“How did you find us?” he asked Kai finally.

“I know my gemstones,” Kai said, winking.  “And the treads left a pretty obvious trail.  You’re lucky it’s me who found you, though.  Your aunt would have been a lot less amused.”

 

As we walked, the highway came back into view.  We had gotten fairly close to reaching it on our own, after all.  It was still cold, but there was plenty of daylight left.  Kai packed us into the back seat of his friend’s borrowed sedan.  For once, I could find nothing wrong with my life.  I gave my brother a knowing stare.  He held my gaze a moment, then returned to staring silently out the window.  I knew he resented me for refusing to answer his question, and it would take him a long time to let it go.

Cozy reads for winter nights

By ‘cozy,’ I mean unsettling, unnerving and freaky. Okay, so it’s not technically winter yet, and these books don’t have a winter theme, but they are scarier than what I usually recommend here. They’re also damn good and will hold your attention if you need a solid distraction from the cold.

1. The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, by Joan Aiken. Looks like it’s for and was marketed to teenagers, but this engrossing tale of persecuted youngsters is not for kids.

2. Stephen King’s Full Dark, No Stars. This is the collection so scary it once put me off horror fiction for six months. Not for the faint of heart, or stomach. Novella length stories with bleak plots and bleaker endings. Sort of like the anti-Different Seasons. You have been warned.

3. Haunted Legends, edited by Ellen Datlow. A book of short stories consisting of retellings of classic folk tales (the Jersey Devil, Sleepy Hollow, La Lorna, you get the idea.) Notable for the extremely high quality of the fiction therein (though, really, I would expect nothing less from a Datlow anthology.)

Grey Harlowe Sampler: “The Ride”

(Content note: Rated R…ish.  Mostly for the biting issue and not so subtle mockery of obsessive schedulers.)

*

Pamela Kramer expected things to go wrong every time she had to coordinate anything with Janna Michaelson.  The woman just wasn’t cut out for parenting, in Pamela’s opinion.  Everyone else in their ride share group kept their schedule on a tablet or cell phone.  Janna insisted on writing it down on a chalkboard in her kitchen.  She also wore long skirts everywhere she went, and for a long time Pamela had wanted to tell her they weren’t flattering attire.  And that it wasn’t 1970 anymore.

Still, when she picked up her son, Theo, from Janna’s house at 5:30 p.m. that November evening, she hadn’t expected him to pour himself and his backpack into the car, then announce he had been bitten by a werewolf.

“What?” said Pamela, more annoyed than shocked.

“Well, that’s what Mrs. Michaelson said.  She also said it’s possible I’m going to turn into one.  She doesn’t know for sure.”

Pamela buried her head in her hands.  Finding out Janna Michaelson was just as batshit crazy as Pamela had always suspected was the absolute last thing she needed, especially if Theo was seriously hurt.  She got out of the driver’s seat, and went around to look at the alleged werewolf bite.  When Theo pointed to his upper right bicep, Pamela was relieved to see the wound either wasn’t that bad, or Theo had been exaggerating.  It was really quite small, more like a scratch.  She would give him antibiotics when she got home and call the pediatrician in the morning.  There was one other thing she had to take care of first.

Marching up to Janna Michaelson’s door in a fit of rage she hadn’t felt in a long time, she banged on it, prepared to engage in righteous battle with the idiot who had let Theo play with an unsafe dog.  A little girl answered.

“Hello,” Pamela said, her temper cooling somewhat.  “Is Mrs. Michaelson here?”

“Yes,” said the little girl, “but she can’t have any visitors right now.  She’s with grandpa and he’s very hungry.”

What a bizarre family.  Pamela would have to check in with all the other mothers to see if any of them had experienced the crazy first hand.

“I need to speak to her immediately,” Pamela said.

“They’re in the backyard.”  The little girl pointed toward to a chain link fence just off the porch.  Pamela leaned around toward it.  It looked dirty and she hadn’t had a tetanus booster in a while.

Then Janna Michaelson appeared at the door herself.

“I’m so sorry about Theo’s arm!” she blurted out.  “I didn’t see they’d met until it was too late.  I think our…dog thought it was time to eat.”  This last bit was punctuated by an ugly growling noise, the smell of fresh meat and a gobbling in the background.

Too freaked out to ask any more questions or to read the woman the Riot Act, Pamela said cooly, “I don’t think you should participate in the ride share group anymore.  Children shouldn’t get hurt when they’re in your care.”  This last statement was rendered with the cruelest tone Pamela possessed.  Dogs could seriously injure people; it wasn’t a subject she took lightly.

“Whatever you say,” Janna told her, obviously offended but also sad.  Pamela realized it might not have been the first time someone had complained about her dog’s bad behavior.

Just as she was closing the door, Janna Michaelson paused and looked at Pamela.

“Be careful taking him home tonight.  I don’t think the bite was very deep, but the moon is approaching its apex.”

“Right,” mumbled Pamela, marching back to the car where Theo waited, trying to decide if she should wait for the pediatrician tomorrow, or swing by an emergency room tonight.

Theo was unuaually quiet on the drive home.  Pamela asked if he was really alright.  He said yes.  She turned on the radio.  Someone on NPR was predicting freezing rain for the rest of the weekend.

“At least it’s not on a school day,” Pamela said aloud.  She looked over at Theo, who was looking out his window.  Looking up, over the treeline at the almost full moon.

“You need to tell me what happened again, kiddo,” Pamela told him.  “Because they’re aren’t any werewolves around here.  Was it a large dog?  A Huskey or a Malamute?”

“No,” said Theo.  “They called him grandpa.  He was as big as a gorilla and covered in hair.”

“Well, you shouldn’t have played with him,” Pamela said, in desparation.  Hadn’t she given her children the speech about how to avoid dangerous animals?

“I didn’t!  I tried to say hello to him and he bit me!”

“Okay, I didn’t say it was your fault,” she reassured him.

“They told me…they said I could become one.”

“I think they were just pulling your leg, honey.  There’s no such thing as a werewolf.”

“Okay,” Theo said back, then returned to staring at the moon.

It took almost thirty minutes for them to travel from Janna’s house to their own, yet another reason Pamela wanted to tell the group it was no longer appropriate to have Janna as a member.  She was in full Helicopter Parent mode at this point, thinking about her son’s arm, and the enormous creature Janna Michaelson had exposed him to.  What if the bite got infected?  Infections could be so hard to treat these days…

So she worried, in her typical, seething fashion, half listening to NPR and thinking she would have quite a story to tell Theo’s father when he got home.  She didn’t see the dark, wirey hairs sprouting all over her son’s body, or notice that his finger nails had grown into columns sharp and thick as ice.  It wasn’t until she pulled the family car into the garage that she noticed any of these changes at all, starting with the way his lips and mouth were distorted by huge white teeth.


No one noticed the Kramer family missing until Monday, which was normally Pamela’s day to shuffle the kids to her house until their mothers came to get them.  When the police finally came to the house to investigate, they found a ton of blood in the driver’s side door, but no body, and while there was also a ton of blood insider the house, they found nothing but the skeletons of Mr. Kramer and his younger child, Claire.  Someone did notice that it looked as if the bones had been knawed on for quite some time, as wolves do in their dens.
Every once in a while someone claims to have seen Pamela and her little boy somewhere, like an Elvis sighting or a sighting of a UFO.  They are always well dressed and always plainspoken, but they keep their eyes on the sky.  None of the sightings ever happen around the time of the full moon.

Grey Harlowe Sampler: “The Scarecrow”

Okay, due to inexplicably continued interest (thanks, readers) here’s a bit of what I’ve been up to since we last saw each other. (You can read a slightly different version of this over in the Horror section at Every Writers Resource.com.)

*

When we first heard him say it, we thought he was crazy.  Life in Burns, Nebraska can do that to you.  Especially if you’re manning the register of your father’s farm supply store alone, like Troy had been, while his dad trekked back and forth to the hospice.  Troy’s mom about to die could have pushed him over the edge, too.  It seemed like a lot to deal with for someone “still so young,” as they say, as if seventeen is that young anymore.

“I’m telling you guys, that thing is creeping up on me.”

‘That thing’ was the scarecrow his father always has up in the stretch of grass behind the store.  I never understood why.  It’s a big yard, not farmland.  Troy’s family gave up farming a decade ago.  Why bother with a scarecrow for an empty lawn?

“It’s closer every time I look out that window,” he said, gesturing to his right.  His red hair was messy and he looked generally unkempt.  He also seemed completely serious.

We shuffled about uncomfortably.  We were his friends, supposed to be supporting him.  What do you say when it seems like someone’s really losing it?

Personally, I thought he might be restless.  We’re all prone to stir craziness around these parts.  So much space, so little to do.  Plus all these fields.  Spooky, even if you grew up with them.  And it sometimes feels like everyone is only a minute from bolting, wanting to get out of this town any way they can.

The next time I saw him was in front of the Circle K.  I’d gone out for a nine p.m. munchies run.  He was smoking.  I hadn’t known Troy smoked.

Tentatively, I asked how he was.

“It’s getting closer.  I think it walks at night.  Wants to walk right out of here, I bet.”

“Walk…out of here?”

“Yeah.  Maybe it wants me to take it.  Or it wants to go as me.”

After a pause, I asked if could he take time off from the register.  Visit his mom?

He shook his head.  “She doesn’t talk anymore.”

I offered to check in on him the next day and did.  His hair was still awry, and I saw he hadn’t been shaving.

“Look at that,” was how he greeted me.

Look at it,” he repeated, when I refused.

“Troy.  It’s just a…thing with old clothes on.  A stupid hat.  Stuffed with hay.  Not a monster.  You should go home.”

Slowly, he closed up, and I walked him to his car.  As he left the store’s lot, I glanced over my shoulder.  The scarecrow was where it had always been.

That was the last we saw of Troy.  First, his parents’ store went dark, a CLOSED sign on the door.  Then he hadn’t been at school for days.  There was a ‘missing kid’ crisis, although only briefly.  It was largely assumed he had run away.

That’s what I believe.  Mostly anyway.  Although I did go by the store once, after Troy disappeared.  Under ‘that’ window was the scarecrow, slumped against the store siding like a rag doll.  And I don’t know if this is weird or not, because I never noticed it before, but underneath its floppy farmer’s hat were several chunks of dried red hair.