Moving Forward

How would you describe yourself?

There’s been a discussion on Twitter recently about the differences in how female characters are written by male and female writers. Yesterday (or the day before), women were asked to describe themselves in a way that a male writer would and it was really quite enlightening.

Then came this: “How would you describe yourself, women writers, if you were writing yourself as a character?” (from Maria Dahvana Headley, who I adore)

Here’s the thread. You should read it. It’s very powerful to see how women view themselves when looking through a writer’s lens.

And here is mine. I’m actually quite proud of it.

Her most uttered phrase was “I’m sorry,” born from a lifetime of depression and hand-me-down self-abasement. She loved fiercely, desperately, seeking outside for what she could not find within. Then, at the age of 42, she found her anger…and stopped apologizing for who she was.

I Don’t Do Romance

Once again, I decided to take up the Short Story Challenge held by NYC Midnight. With this contest, you are given a genre, a character, and an object/situation/location and you have to write a story containing all those things. The entrants are divided up into heats and each heat has a different set of prompts. For this challenge, there were over 125 heats and my heat had 32 writers in it. We were tasked with writing a romance that involved a music teacher and something allergic. The maximum word count was 2,500 words and we were given a week to write it.

Now, I don’t do romance. I don’t read romance and I certainly don’t write it. I admire the hell out of the people who do, though, because I just can’t get my brain into that mindset. I’m too bitter and jaded, quite frankly. And I rarely write Happily Ever Afters (HEAs), which are a requirement for a romance story. And now I was supposed to write one? That’s just great. /s/

The results of the first round came out last night and to my great surprise, I placed 4th in my heat. The top 5 advance to the next round, which begins tonight and will require a 2,000 word story with new prompts in 3 days. There goes my weekend.

Anyway, here is the story that got me through Round One. One of the judges commented: “The writing is confident, sharp, and focused. The prose is polished and crafted with expertise. Your premise is engaging, intriguing, and fairly well-developed. The characters have dimension and the dialogue is plausible. You’re certainly a very gifted writer. Good work.”

I have gone through the story this morning and corrected a few errors the judges pointed out, so the word count is now above the maximum of 2,500. The ending is rather abrupt, but that’s a limitation of the word count. I’m sure you’ll forgive me, yeah?

 

A TWICE-PLAYED MELODY

I heard his music before I ever saw his face. Plaintive guitar chords floated out into the hallway, soft but soothing enough for me to hear over the usual noise of the hospital. Whispered conversations, shoes squeaking on the tile floor, the regular beeping of IV pumps and heart monitors, faded into the background as my ears reached for the melody from down the hall.

“That’s pretty music.” I flipped through the charts on the desk. Mesker, Mesker, where was….Oh, there it is.

“Hmph. It’s distracting.” The nurse next to me rolled her eyes. She was always rolling her eyes at something. Damn, Irene, loosen up. It’s just music.

“Who is it?”

Irene jerked her chin towards the end of the hall. “Down there. Sad, really. Nora Mesker. That’s the husband playing his guitar. Thinks it’s going to bring her back.”

Nora Mesker. The chart in my hands and the gossip at the nurses’ station had filled me in on the tragedy that had happened: a remote company retreat, a bee sting, no Epi-Pen, hypoxia. Deep breath, Meg. It’s always so hard to start on a new patient under these circumstances.

The door was cold as I pushed my way into the room. The sound of the guitar wrapped around me, tugging at something deep inside, like an old memory almost forgotten.

The figure on the bed was inert, surrounded by tubes and wires, only the rumpled blonde hair on her pillow seeming to be alive. Machines hissed rhythmically, a clumsy accompaniment to the song that filled the room.

He sat next to the bed, his back facing the door as if closing off the outside world, strumming his guitar and humming as I gently cleared my throat.

“Mr. Mesker?” I stepped to the end of the bed.

He blinked, finally looking at me, his brown eyes rimmed with red and shadows and sadness. “Yes?”

“I’m Megan Carley. I’m a physical therapist. I’ve come to do an assessment on Nora.”

“Why? She’s in a coma. She can’t move.” He turned back to the still form, his fingers plucking at the guitar in his lap.

“Not on her own, no. But—”

“Can you come back later? I—I just can’t deal with this right now.” His hand grasped hers and his voice hitched with emotion. “I don’t know how this happened. She never went anywhere without her Epi-Pen. Never.” He wasn’t even speaking to me anymore, but to himself or to her or maybe the universe at large. He crumpled against the side of the bed, pressing her hand into his face and sobbed. Pain radiated from him in waves and the air in the room was hot and stale.

The hallway felt cool, bright, normal as I clicked the door shut behind me, leaving him to his grief. I would try again the next day.

It was only then that I realized I, too, was crying.

#

It took three more visits before the husband would let me work on Nora, visits where I would stand there while he played his guitar, not knowing what to do with myself. How many similar patients had I worked on? Dozens, probably, each with their own grieving families and lovers, but none, and I mean none, had ever seemed so stricken as this man.

His name, I learned, was Will.

One week, then two, passed. He spoke while I worked, telling stories of how they met, how they loved. He pointed out the flowers that had come from the students at Stinson Middle School, where he was a music teacher. Doctors would come in and out, anxious conferences with Will as he stood clutching Nora’s hand, while I stretched her legs and arms to keep the muscles from atrophying.

Then the day came when they were gone, the room empty and waiting for another occupant. Nora had gone into cardiac arrest during the night.

And that was that. It happens. You get used to it, right?

Except when I tried to sleep that night, I could still hear his guitar.

#

ALMOST TWO YEARS LATER

The coffee shop bustled with the mid-day rush, full of business people and students with backpacks, their conversations and ring tones combining to make a familiar cacophony.

My thumb swiped quickly down my phone, checking the text again, and I lifted my gaze just long enough to sweep around the room. Yeah, I was in the right place, right time. But where was this guy Kristie had been raving about?

Fifteen minutes later. Seriously? Bad enough being set up on a blind date, but then to be stood up? I jabbed at my phone furiously, texting Kristie to let her know just what I thought of this supposedly great guy she met at work.

“Excuse me?” A man’s voice jolted me out of my anger. “Is this seat taken?”

I looked around. All of the other tables appeared to be full with a line of people at the counter. “No, no it’s not. Go ahead. I was just leaving anyway.” Screw this. And screw Kevin, too.

“You don’t have to rush on my account. Please stay and finish your drink.” The table wobbled as he sat down. “Really, sit down. I promise I don’t bite.”

“Your name isn’t Kevin by any chance is it?” No, I’d seen a picture of Kevin and this guy, tall and stocky, in jeans and an old Nirvana t-shirt, was no Kevin.

“No. Is it supposed to be?” His brown eyes crinkled at the corners when he smiled and a wisp of a memory jolted through me. I knew him…. “I’m Will Mesker.” He held out his hand. His skin was warm, rough with calloused fingers.

Will Mesker? “I’m Meg Carley. Have we met before?”

“You know, I was just thinking that myself, but I can’t imagine where.” He looked puzzled. “Where do you work?”

“I work over at Langdon General. I’m a physical therapist. Could we have met there?” My voice trailed off as the color drained from his face.

“That must be it. You helped take care of my wife, Nora.” Just as the light in his eyes dimmed, the lightbulb went on in my own brain.

“Oh, yes. I never got the chance to tell you how sorry I was.” Should I hug him? Touch his arm? What was the right thing to do here? My hand lifted and lowered. Smooth, Meg.

“Thank you. It was…It was hard, you know?”

I nodded, desperate for anything else to say. “You’re a music teacher, right? I remember you playing your guitar.”

He laughed, the sadness leaving his face. “Yeah, that would be me.”

The crowd ebbed and flowed around us as we chatted over our drinks. Then his phone chimed and I was surprised to see an hour had passed. He grimaced at me. “Sorry.” The call ended quickly and he turned back to me. “That was terribly rude of me. I apologize.”

I waved off so minor an infraction. “No big deal. But it’s getting awfully late and I’m supposed to cover a shift at the hospital later.” My chair screeched as I pushed it back and he stood up with me.

“Thank you for sharing your table with me. I enjoyed meeting you… under better circumstances than our first encounter.” He took my hand and grinned. I couldn’t help but smile back.

“It was a lot of fun. Thank you.”

He hesitated. “I was thinking that maybe you’d like to get together again sometime.”

My heart tingled with warmth. “I’d like that. A lot, actually.” A quick exchange of phone numbers and he was walking me out to my car, his hand still holding mine. Another man ambled slowly towards us, holding up his phone and looking at me intently.

“Are you Megan? I’m sorry I’m so late. I’m Kevin.”

Will and I doubled over in laughter and left poor bewildered Kevin standing there alone.

#

We met for coffee again the next week. And the next. We talked a lot, and laughed more. He spoke of Nora, cautiously at first, about how her death had changed him. How he was still changing. And I told him how I had never forgotten his music that he had played for her, that I had somehow carried it with me all this time. On our third date, he took me for a picnic and brought his guitar. That was the moment I realized I was falling in love with him.

“What?” His eyes sparkled and I felt my heart do a slow roll.

I couldn’t speak, didn’t trust my words, so I leaned over and brushed my lips against his. He pulled back, ever so slightly, searching my eyes, his hands reaching up to brush the hair off my face.

“What is this?”

I kissed him again, longer this time, before breaking away. I felt like singing. “I don’t know, but I can’t wait to find out.”

He laughed and pulled me to him, rolling me onto the blanket, his mouth on mine.

It was like something out of a romance novel. I had never been so happy.

#

Eight Months Later

The evening started simply enough. Dinner and a movie at my place. I had to pee after dinner and when I came back out, Will was gone. I found him out on the front porch, smoking. He only ever smoked when he was upset, a habit he had picked up during the days after Nora died.

“Here you are.” I leaned against the railing next to him.

“Here I am.” Smoke veiled his face as he looked out into the night.

“What’s going on? You’ve been acting weird all night.”

Another drag on the cigarette was his answer.

“Yeah, okay, whatever. I’ll be inside.” My hand had just brushed the doorknob when his voice stopped me.

“I can’t do this anymore.”

My face went hot, my hands cold, and my stomach dropped to my feet. “What?”

“I don’t think we should see each other anymore.”

There it was. “Okay.” My voice barely wavered. We might as well have been talking about the weather.

That got his attention. “Okay?”

“Sure. You want to go, then go.” Don’t you dare cry in front of him.

“Just like that?” He seemed confused, thrown off guard. Good.

“Just like that.”

“You don’t want to talk about it?”

“No, Will. You’re the one who didn’t want to talk about it. You just…just dropped this on me like it’s no big deal. I’m just agreeing with you.”

“But—”

“But nothing. You want to leave, then leave.” If he was miserable enough to end things like this, then I didn’t want him to stay. All I wanted was for him to be happy and if I wasn’t enough for that, then it was better to let him go.

I wanted to pull my eyes away from his, to ignore those eyes that I knew so well. But to look away first would be to admit weakness. I could cry later, be weak later. Not now.

He shrugged and walked down the porch steps. I couldn’t bear to see him drive away, so I started back inside. Again, his voice stopped me, coming out of the darkness to stab me in my soul. “Meg, wait.”

I couldn’t turn around. But I did stop.

“I—I’m sorry it happened like this.” I could hear the tears in his voice.

“Good-bye, Will.” Inside, I shut the door behind me and slid to the floor, letting my despair wash over me.

#

THREE MONTHS LATER

The doorbell startled me. I ran lightly down the stairs, sliding to a stop when I saw Will on the other side of the screen door.

“Hello, Meg.”

“Will.” What was he doing here? I haven’t heard from him since the night he ended things and he thinks he can just show up here?

We just stared at each other.

Finally, he spoke. “Can I come in?”

“No.” I went to close the main door.

“Please.” He wasn’t begging. A simple request. “I just want to talk.”

“So talk.” My heart hurt. The pain was back, just when I thought I was over him.

“I wanted to explain.”

My voice was a low hiss. “I don’t want your explanation. I don’t care what your reason was.”

“And why is that? You never even asked me why. You never let me explain.”

“Because this was your decision, not mine. You did this without even thinking to talk to me first. No ‘hey, I’m upset because of this’ or ‘I’m thinking about leaving because of that.’ Just BOOM! You were gone. If you thought so little of me that you could just walk off like that, why should I care about your precious reasons why?” Outside, I could see my neighbor on her porch, listening to my shouting.

Will took a step back, his face horrified.

My chest was heaving with so many emotions I don’t think I could have named them all. “Come in if you’re coming in or go away. I don’t care which.” I sat on my couch, trying very hard not to vomit when I heard the screen door close.

He sat across from me, elbows on his knees, head hanging low. When he finally looked up, I gasped. The sorrow on his face almost brought me to my knees. His voice shook and I had to strain to hear him. “Did you ever get scared?”

“Scared?”

“While we were together?”

“You mean in our relationship?”

He nodded, eyes boring into mine.

“Of course I was scared. I was scared every damn day. That’s how you know you’re still alive.”

“What were you scared of?”

“It doesn’t matter anymore.”

“I can tell you what I was scared of. I was scared of losing you. Of something happening to you the way it happened to Nora. That I didn’t deserve this happiness, not twice in my life. It seemed easier to leave on my own terms than to have it ripped away again.”

“And you couldn’t have told me that? You don’t think we could have worked through that?”

He gave a joyless chuckle. “I didn’t think I could work through that. But I was wrong. I miss you, Meg.”

I couldn’t, wouldn’t, speak. What was there to say?

“What were you scared of? Please?” Now his voice was pleading.

I closed my eyes, taking some deep breaths. When I spoke, my words were low, steady, emotionless. “I was scared that you would leave without telling me why. Which is exactly what you did.”

He pressed his hands to his face, sobbing, and my heart broke all over again. Without thinking, I moved next to him on the couch, as we had sat so many times before. His arm trembled under my touch and I pressed my lips against his cheek. Every minute of sadness over the past months had been leading to this, to this moment. I didn’t need him in my life, but oh! How I wanted him there.

At the touch of my lips he took his hands off his face, turning to look at me, eyes red and swollen. “Meg…”

I kissed his face again, reaching for what I had lost. When our lips met, I knew. I just knew.

THE END

The End of One, Beginning of Another

Three years ago today, I was sitting in front of this computer, staring at the judgmental blinking cursor on the blank page. We had moved to the Seattle-area just a few months earlier, all five of us crammed into a 2-bedroom apartment, my husband looking for work, and exploring the new world of autism (my middle child had been formally identified as autistic earlier in the month). Slowly, the words began to form on the page, piecing together a story that had been bouncing around in my mind for over twenty years.

That was the beginning of Bad River. Three years later, it’s still not done. *shrug* I’m staring down the barrel of my tenth revision. Yeah, TEN versions of this story, some more complete than others, have come and gone. So have several beta readers (professionals and friends), numerous “first page” critiques through classes and competitions, and two nerve-wracking pitches to agents.

(Funny story about the agent pitches. I had booked those pitches when I had the seventh version out with beta readers, deluded-ly thinking that I could do one last revision, maybe a pass through a professional editor, and then start querying. I know, I know.

Anyway, about two weeks before the conference I was going to pitch at, I fell down a Google hole and, in the process, discovered a major, gaping plot hole. The kind of plot hole that emerges in a different dimension, covered in shit. It was a bad, bad plot hole. Had I progressed with that version, I would have been skewered if it had ever gotten published or been read by, well, anyone.

And it was not an easy plot hole to fix, either. In the end, I decided to split the story into two timelines, with two main characters, and weave the two narratives together. This, of course, meant a complete rewrite with some new characters, a whole new town, new relationships, new villains. Not something I could conceivably get done in two weeks. No way, no how.

But, yo, I had these pitches scheduled and paid for, right? I figured I could go and pitch the new idea anyway, letting the agents know that I wasn’t anywhere close to finished, but just looking for feedback on the idea. Smart move, yes?

In some ways, it worked out. Both agents (and the instructor at the conference I spoke to about the book) were interested in the idea. One agent told me she didn’t care how long I took to get it completed, but she wanted my query once it was done. Yay me!

However, here I am nearly eight months later, ready to start on version TEN, and worried that I’ve missed my chance. That said, hopefully what I am constructing here will be worth the sweat and tears and headaches by the time I’m done.)

So, three years later and still not done with the book, but two agents have expressed interest and I’m starting to panic. I have a professional manuscript consult scheduled for (gulp!) next week to hopefully work through some issues. Once of my main characters has a bad motivator.

R5D4-BadMotivator

It’s the end of the year as well as the anniversary of starting on the Bad River journey and I find myself feeling contemplative (and a little unhinged).

I’ve been so busy trying to get Bad River under control that I haven’t really done much with my short stories this year. Looking back at my stats, I have submitted seven stories (or chapters, in the case of BR) to fourteen publications and/or contests. Of those, two of those submissions are still pending, while four of them have either been published (Genesis and The Kalip Woman) or have made it past the initial rounds in different contests (She Works Hard for the Money and I Haven’t Forgotten; neither was published). So, not a terribly great year, but I’m not displeased with it. I’m very happy to have found a home for Genesis (it’s one of my favorites) and I am extremely proud of The Kalip Woman. Have you read them? If not, you should, and tell me what you think.

Looking forward to 2018, I am planning on getting Bad River at least to the point where I can hand it off to a professional for a solid developmental edit in preparation for querying. I also hope to get back to writing more short fiction and making more submissions to different journals and contests. I would love to have more things to share with you here. Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, I am going to take more time for self-care and reading.

What do you all have planned for 2018? Are there any prompts you would like to see me tackle?

Happy New Year, everyone!

When I Was Twelve…

My parents are here to visit for the holidays and my mom brought a folder with some my writing from when I was a kid.

This was a poem I wrote in 1988, so I would have been eleven or twelve.

Not long after this, I stopped writing, except for what I was required to do for school. I will tell you all about why I stopped writing someday, but today is not that day.

In the meantime, read a poem written by 12-year-old me. IMG_7891

She Works Hard for the Money

A while back, I entered another contest from NYCMidnight.com. This time it was a Flash Fiction contest, so less than 1,000 words, but the rest of the structure remained the same: they would assign a genre, location, and object/person, and I would have 72 hours to write and submit a story. In this contest, each writer was guaranteed two rounds and our final score would determine if we moved on to the third round. My particular heat had over thirty entrants in it.

For the first round, my heat was instructed to write a crime caper and it had to include a counting room and a mirror.

I’d never written a crime caper before. They’re not really my thing. Still, I was please with my result: I placed 6th out of more than thirty stories and was awarded 10 points.

Here is that story. Disclaimer: I did some slight editing, so it is now over 1,000 words. Oh, well.

I will post about Round 2 later today or tomorrow. Happy reading!

 

SHE WORKS HARD FOR THE MONEY

My high heels clacked down the long hallway as the ringing casino faded behind me. Don’t trip, Sandy. Whatever happens, do not fall. For the first time in years, I felt alive.

“Can I help you with something, Miss?” A lone guard stood up, a copy of Playboy falling to the floor.

“I don’t know. Can you?” I slipped into a sultry purr as I slid close to him, my new neon dress whispering seduction.

A smile spread below his mustache. He was handsome, very Magnum PI, but was that a . . . perm? Damn, his hair was nicer than mine. “Guests aren’t allowed back here, Miss.”

“I’m so sorry. I was looking for the ladies’ room.” I reached into my purse, past the gun, pulling out a mirrored compact. Instead of looking at my reflection, I peered over my shoulder down the hall. There were Steve and Larry, their big dumb faces peeking around the corner.

If I hadn’t overheard them talking about their plans to rob the casino, I’d still be at the slots, drinking yet another Kamikaze, and wishing I was anywhere else while Alan, no-longer-love-of-my-pathetic-life, was in a conference room learning the latest marketing techniques as part of the 1985 Pocket Calculator Synposium. Roberta, the Princess Di twin with bigger boobs, was probably nearby. Everyone knew about them.

Larry supplied the guns. Steve, a former employee, was the “brains” of the operation. They’d planned to run in, guns blazing, demanding money from the dealers. I talked them out of that.

Another glance in the mirror. Steve was holding something up. Good. The other key. The counting room door needed two to open. The first was always with the floor manager, but somehow Steve had managed to get it.

The second key was here with Mr. Perm. Yeah, it didn’t seem like the most fool-proof security system to me, either. No wonder the Moonburst Hotel and Casino was so rundown. They probably got robbed every other week.

The guard’s key was my responsibility. I put the mirror back into my purse, my fingers curling around the gun Larry had given me. Would the lace gloves I wore obscure my fingerprints? If they were good enough for Madonna . . . .

“The bathrooms are by the craps tables. Let me show you.” Mr. Perm’s hand slithered down my back as he moved me away from the door. Smile, Sandy. He has to think you like him. I faked a giggle.

“I could use a drink.” Yes. Yes, I could use a drink, actually. “Why don’t you come with me?” I put one hand on his chest while the other slowly drew the gun.

His grin grew wider as he cupped my ass. “My shift ends at six. Think you can wait until then?”

I heard footsteps. Larry and Steve, I hoped.

“No, I don’t think I can wait that long.” The gun was heavy, slippery. Don’t drop it, don’t drop it.

I didn’t drop it. The press of hard metal against his ribs made him blink. “What?”

I held a finger to his lips, laughing at his bewildered look. “Shhh.”

Steve appeared next to me, his gun against Mr. Perm’s temple. Larry danced around behind us, a suitcase on the floor next to him. “Hurry up. Hurry up.”

My fingers didn’t tremble as I unhooked the key ring from the guard’s belt and found the key that matched the Steve’s. “Is anyone in there right now?”

The guard gaped at me, but started frantically shaking his head as I cocked the gun.

A nod to Steve and we put our keys in the lock. Larry burst in, waving his gun like Nick Nolte in “48 Hours”. There was a yelp and a thud, but thankfully no gunshot. What the hell?

“Larry, are we clear?” There was no answer. Mr. Perm flinched as I slapped him. “You lie to me, Ponch?”

Larry appeared at the door, his eyes wide, blood trickling from his nose. “Oh, yeah. We’re clear.”

Steve pushed Mr. Perm into the room and I followed. Holy shit. We had made it in.

Steve bound and gagged the guard, who seemed resigned to his fate. On the floor lay the crumpled form of . . . someone in a red blazer. An open metal door led to what I assumed was the vault. On the table, racks of chips. A window overlooked the casino floor. I bet the mirror I had checked my lipstick in had been a one-way mirror.

Moving with a swiftness that surprised me, Larry pulled several bags out of the suitcase and began dumping chips into them, the clatter of the plastic echoing off the plain white walls.

I didn’t want chips. I wanted cash. And I could smell it.

My purse held stacks of 100-dollar bills. I patted the guard on his curly head and strutted out of the counting room, leaving Larry and Steve fighting over the chips. I was done with them.

The casino floor was full of people, laughter, lights, and the sounds of Donna Summer. No one noticed me, not even Alan who was getting off the elevator, Roberta draped over his arm. I looked into the counting-room mirror and adjusted my sunglasses.

Another guard lounged near the exit.

“Excuse me, sir, do you work here?” I kept my voice meek, polite. I would never use that voice again. “I just thought you should know, I saw some strange men going down that hallway over there.” I pointed to where I had just come from. “I think I saw a gun.” The guard took off at a run, yelling into his walkie-talkie. I was already forgotten.

Hot sunlight wrapped around me as I stepped onto Las Vegas Boulevard and hailed a taxi. In mere hours, I’d be on a plane to somewhere tropical. Alone. Alan would just have to deal.

I would miss the kids, though.

Maybe.

Sebastian the Safety Squirrel

Early in 2017, I entered a short story contest through NYCMidnight.com. They hold multiple contests throughout the year. In fact, I’m currently awaiting results from Round 2 of their most recent Flash Fiction contest.

Anyway, with NYCMidnight fiction contests, they give you a series of prompts: genre, setting, and a person/object. It can be really trick and intimidating, especially if you’re assigned a genre you’ve never written before and you’re only given a short amount of time to write the story.

This is what happened in this particular round of the short story contest. I had already made it through the first round (horror/surprise party/substitute teacher) and I was pleased enough with that. Then came Round Two.

For this one, I was tasked to write a 2,000 word maximum story in 48 hours, which is daunting under the best of circumstances. The assignment made it even more so.

I had to write a comedy. A COMEDY, mind you, that included a foot race and a rookie police officer.

Now, I’m a funny lady, but I had never set out to write a comedy before. In 48 hours. Well, shit.

SEBASTIAN THE SAFETY SQUIRREL was the result. I did not advance past this round, but the feedback was mostly positive. It’s unlikely I’ll ever try to have this published, so I thought I would share it here.

I hope it makes you laugh. I certainly laughed while writing it.

 

Sebastian the Safety Squirrel

When my shift started I was excited, eager for the chance to prove myself. By the time it ended, death would have been preferable.

Feedback from a microphone echoed through the large purple head I wore. Through the nylon eyes that tinted everything blue, I watched as a thin blonde sashayed across a rickety platform that lurched with each step she took.

“Welcome to the Wenley Elementary School Jump-Into-Summer Fair.” She beamed as if she were Miss America as meager applause and half-hearted wolf-whistles rose from the group of bored parents and hyper children. “For those of you who don’t know me, I’m Marcie Harrelson, Wenley PTA President. There’s lots of fun activities today for everyone, including the Pre-K Olympics on the far side of the field past the tug-of-war station. Be safe and be sure to wear your sunscreen!” She blew a loud whistle and the crowd scattered.

I glanced at Captain “Just call me Lou” Dowsett as he stood at attention, his badge gleaming like a beacon against his dress uniform. I had only met him once before, briefly, during my five-week tenure at the Wenley Police Department, and now I had to work with him all day. While dressed as Sebastian the Safety Squirrel.

I couldn’t make this shit up if I tried. Still, this was my chance to impress him. To make a difference.

Lou’s voice was muffled as he tapped me on my shoulder. I struggled to pull off my purple head, wincing as it caught on my long, red ponytail.

“You okay in that thing?” He sounded smug, the bastard.

“Yeah.” Sweat was pouring down my face. Day-Glo head included, the outfit had to weigh 50 pounds, which wouldn’t have been so bad, except it was fucking June. Do you have any idea how bad it smelled inside that head? Remember when you left your workout clothes in your trunk and forgot about them for a few months? “It’s a little hard to hear you in here.”

“Don’t I know it. Look, we all have to pull our weight on these Officer Friendly gigs. Soon enough, you’ll get to be Friendly while some other noob gets to be the Squirrel.”

“I don’t mind.” I did mind. I minded a fucking lot, but I kept that to myself. I had wanted to be a police detective ever since I had first seen Lennie Briscoe on Law and Order. I would hold Barbie weddings for Stabler and Benson, officiated by Ice-T himself. I had aced my associate’s degree in Criminal Justice. I speak three languages. I graduated at the top of my class in the Academy. I was born to be a cop.

I was also a giant purple squirrel.

The Officer Friendly booth was set up between tables full of baked goods, watered-down drinks, and lukewarm pizza—all proceeds benefiting the almighty PTA—and the field where frantic teachers tried to wrangle sugar-addled kids from one activity to another. A bounce house stood forlornly empty, its teenage assistant apathetically hosing it down. Again. A young boy sat and wailed for his mom, mourning either his lost chance in the bounce house or his piece of pizza that was now oozing out through the mesh walls. Groups of moms clustered around the fringes, shooting poisoned darts of judgement at each other and occasionally shouting out to a random Ethan or Emma, always causing at least one quarter of the kids within earshot to turn and scream, “What?”

“Put your head back on, Berger. Gotta stay in character.”

“Yes, Sir.” Fuck you, Lou. I forced the shaggy head back on.

“That’s the attitude I like to see. Willingness to do what it takes.” Damn, he was a prick. I wondered what it would take to kick his balls up through the roof of his mouth.

And so began our routine of Officer Friendly and his sidekick, Sebastian the Safety Squirrel. I’d dance around and pantomime in response to his lecture on the horrors of drugs, strangers, and not looking before crossing the street.

As a squirrel, even an oversized one with purple fur, I took that last admonishment as a personal criticism. But it was our schtick: we use crosswalks and hold hands, or people die. Rodents, too.

Lou kept taking breaks, hustling off to have a smoke in the shady corner by the gym or to grab a piece of pizza, leaving me alone to fend off kids who kept throwing balls at my head and running away. He’d come back and we’d do another round of safety lectures. He’d leave again. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Then, as if the day wasn’t absurd enough, Lou suddenly bent over double, clutching his stomach. “I’ll be back.” He lurched off towards the bathrooms and I was, once again, on my own.

No kids were nearby, so I tidied up the D.A.R.E. pamphlets and put out a new box of Sebastian stickers. They said, “Police officers are SAFE friends,” and I wondered if I was, in fact, a trademarked character.

I was watching a tug-o-war game between some older kids and a clown, when I felt someone tugging on my arm. I looked down to see a little boy, maybe six or so, bawling. His face was bright red and a green pendulum of snot dripped from his nose. He was pointing frantically toward the other side of the field. What’s that, Lassie? Timmy’s in the well?

I crouched down, tilting as the weight of my head threatened to pull me over. “What’s up, kiddo?” Now, technically, Sebastian wasn’t supposed to talk, but what the hell else was I going to do?

Gasp, gasp, wail. “My mommy. She’s hurt.”

“Where is she?” I looked around, searching for some poor woman writhing on the ground or carrying around her newly amputated arm. Or something.

“She didn’t feel good. She went to rest in the car while I played. I’m tired and want to leave, but the car door was locked and I could hear her inside. She’s hurt! Please, Sebastian, you have to help!”

A hot flame of purpose flared in my chest. Lou wasn’t back. And the asshole had taken the radio with him. I was on my own.

“Which car is she in?”

“It’s a gray minivan.” Of course it was. “Over there.” He pointed vaguely toward the parking lot riddled with, you guessed it, gray minivans.

“Can you tell me anything else? Bumper stickers?”

He howled in response. People walking by stopped to stare, but do you think they offered to help? Of course not. Fuckers.

“Okay. What’s your name?”

“Ethan.” Of course it was. “Please, you have to help my mom!”

“I will, I will.” I looked around, hoping to see Lou heading back, but no such luck. “Ethan, I need you to go find Officer Friendly. He went to the bathroom. Tell him what you told me, okay? Go on, now.” I gave him a little push on the shoulder and turned towards the field. As I ran, an awkward task in squirrel feet, I tried to pull off my head, but it caught again on my hair. I had an easier time with one of my squirrel hands, sending it flying like some gruesome taxidermy exhibition. I stabbed at my cell phone. 9-1-1. Dispatch picked up right away.

“This is Officer Berger. I’m at the Wenley Elementary School Fair. Reports of a woman injured and in need of assistance. I need a bus.” I had to shout to make sure I was heard through the damned squirrel head. My breaths came in gasps as I lumbered across the field. Then it happened. In no uncertain terms, Sebastian the Safety Squirrel was fucked.

I sensed it coming. My peripheral vision was completely…furry.  I turned my head to see what could only be described as a herd of four-year-olds stampeding towards me. A whistle blew frantically in the background but, like lust-crazed buffalo, the sound only made them charge faster. I never stood a chance.

Time slowed as my internal expletives flowed to the tune of ‘Chariots of Fire’. It added the necessary solemnity to the occasion, I thought.

Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck. Shit.

I went down hard as the first tiny body collided with mine. Then a Stride-Rite light-up sneaker made contact with my clavicle, a blow only slightly cushioned by my purple pelt. Then another. And another. Shoes flashed all around me. I imagined it was like being at a rave, but without the good drugs. Not that I would know.

Then a well-timed sneaker caught its toe under the edge of my fiberglass head. My neck wrenched to the side as the squirrel cranium went flying, taking with it streamers of my red hair, and I could see Queen Elsa’s bland smile looming as a shoe conked me in the forehead. Screams erupted all around me as Sebastian’s head bounced away. Kids scrambled over me and then they were gone, leaving me staring up at the sky with a lump between my eyes and wondering what the hell just happened. In the distance, I could hear cheering and laughter and a little voice screaming, “I won, I won, Daddy! Did you see me? I won.”

Lou’s face swam into focus. “Holy shit, Berger. What’s going on?” He pulled me to my feet, looking disgusted, as a megaphoned voice announced the winner of the Pre-K 50 Yard Dash to be one Emma “Fuck You, Sebastian” Reynolds.

“Sir, we’ve got an injured woman in the parking lot. Her kid told me. I’ve already called it in on my phone. We need to go, sir, now.” I lumbered away, amazed at how much easier it was to run without that damned head on.

“Officer Berger, wait!”

I didn’t wait. I charged into the parking lot, peering inside every gray minivan I could find. I could hear sirens approaching. Good, the ambulance was here. Everything was going to be fine. I was going to save Ethan’s mom.

There it was. A gray minivan, engine running with no one behind the wheel. I peered into the side windows, but all I could see through the baby sun shades was shadowy movement in the optional third-row seating.

“Open up! This is Officer Berger with the Wenley Police! Is everything okay in there?” I pounded on the side of the minivan. Behind me, a crowd had gathered. Lou was pushing his way through, speaking quickly into his radio.

The minivan’s side door slid open silently, suddenly, as if by magic. Blinking, a woman climbed out, clutching a crumpled yellow Wenley Elementary t-shirt to her bare chest. The crowd burst into laughter, which grew even louder when she was followed by a slightly flabby middle-aged man who hadn’t yet remembered to zip up his fly.

“Mommy? Are you okay?” Ethan threw his arms around her, bursting into tears. He hugged her furiously for a long moment, then looked up in surprise. “What are you doing with Coach Seaver?”

Silently, but with her face so red it was incandescent, Marcie Harrelson, President of the Wenley Elementary PTA, loaded a confused but relieved Ethan into the gray minivan. Tiny bits of gravel peppered us as she accelerated away from the fair. The tug-o-war clown grabbed Coach Seaver by the arm and started yelling.

“But Principal Mitchell, you don’t understand…” was all I could hear as the men walked away.

The crowd roared with laughter and then melted back into the mundaneness of the School Fair. Although this would be my first, and last, turn as Sebastian, I knew this day would become a Wenley Elementary legend.

Officer Friendly and Sebastian the Safety Squirrel. These are their stories.

Genesis

It’s always a great feeling to wake up to a notification that one of my stories has been published!

I first started writing Genesis in December of 2015. I had just read a short story by the fabulous Maria Dahvana Headley, And the Winners Will Be Swept Out to Sea, and I was entranced by the style she used to tell the story. I wanted to see if I could do something similar.

The result was a rough draft of a story I titled Goodnight Nobody. After having some Beta readers take a look at it and a couple rounds of revisions, I started sending it out to various magazines. And it got rejected. A lot.

I finally enlisted the help of an editor, Kat Howard, and she gave me some really wonderful, insightful suggestions. Another few revisions later and I was still getting rejected. I submitted it for an apocalypse anthology, but it was going to be six months or more before they would make a decision. So, I waited and moved on to other projects.

Then I heard of Twisted Sister Lit Mag and thought I’d give it a shot. And they liked it! They really liked it! They weren’t thrilled with the title, though, so after a lot of thinking and brainstorming, I renamed the piece Genesis, which is actually a lot more fitting anyway.

Genesis was published today in Twisted Sister’s SURVIVAL issue. This is my first publication for this year, because I’ve been so focused on the book, I haven’t really been doing smaller pieces. I need to remedy that.

Happy reading!