Late last year, Awesome Indies published Awesome Allshorts: Last Days, Lost Ways, the first of a series of planned anthologies. Last Days, Lost Ways contains stories by 21 authors, including Tahlia Newland, Dixiane Hallaj, Bill Kirton, Shauna Bickley — and me. I’m honored to have my story “Smilin’ Mike” published in the company of stories by so many accomplished indie authors.

“Smilin’ Mike” is one of several stories I wrote about a nine-year-old girl whose life is disrupted when her parents divorce. The girl and her mother move in with Nana, her eccentric paternal grandmother, in a quiet suburb of San Diego. (The stories are set in the 1950s, when San Diego had quiet suburbs.) Nana harbors the hope that her son will come to his senses and the family will reunite, a hope shared by the little girl but not her embittered mother. Caught up in the tension between two adults who love her, the child must negotiate a world far more complex and uncertain than the one she has known. When Nana meets one of her favorite TV personalities, Smilin’ Mike, a professional wrestler known for his humor and geniality, the girl discovers that people aren’t always what they seem and even adults can be fooled by a false image.

Last Days, Lost Ways is available as a paperback and ebook from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other online booksellers.

 

If a writer must mark a character for death, it’s safer to choose one that readers hate. In my novel Talion Norlene Jakes falls victim to the sadistic serial killer Rad Sanders, the Professor of Death. Rad kills her to make an impression on her stepdaughter Lu, for whom he has special plans.

Norlene is hard to love. She boozes and does hard drugs and cheats on her husband. She feels endlessly sorry for herself. Listen to her bemoaning a hangover:

Used to be you could have a few Coke-and-whiskeys without paying for it with this torment. Not anymore. You’re old and worn down by life. Sex is like taking a shit for all the pleasure you feel. Wake up every morning with a truckload of shit piled on your chest. A loser husband and a crazy stepdaughter and just enough money to scrape by. Might as well put a bullet in your brain.

Oh yeah, she has a mouth on her. I blame Norlene for all those readers who complained about the bad language in Talion.

She vents her rage on Lu, abusing the poor kid emotionally and physically. Norlene is not very bright, but her real problem is lack of self-awareness, which isn’t the same thing as intelligence. Self awareness requires the honesty to look within yourself and understand how you came to be who you are. Only once does Norlene have a flash of insight that she abuses Lu because she herself suffered abuse as a child:

Today Lu knew better than to answer, “It’s not a house, it’s a trailer,” or some other backtalk. She needed a smacking now and then to make her behave.

“Look at me when I’m talking to you.”

Lu obeyed with her face showing there was no sass on it. Norlene used to face her own mother in the same humbled way. The recognition stabbed like a needle. Why should the girl be anything to you? You ain’t blood.

Norlene immediately dismisses the parallel because she and Lu aren’t “blood.” It never occurs to her that the biological connection never stopped her own mother from beating on her.

Later in the story, after giving Lu a whipping that will leave scars, Norlene puts on a dress that hides her thick waist and shows off her still-shapely legs, and goes off to turn a trick with Rad. Readers know what’s coming. I doubt many of them care what happens to her, but in case they forget Norlene is a human being, there’s this:

Norlene started walking along the highway’s narrow shoulder. Meeting down the road from the lodge was his idea. “We don’t want to compromise your reputation,” was his excuse, but most likely he was scared of Duane. The high roadside weeds tickled her arm with stalks and pods and shriveled flowers. Grasshoppers jumped up and rasped her legs. The weeds were thick with them. When she was little, Norlene thought grasshoppers grew inside weed pods and hatched out like birds. Kids got some strange ideas.

Poor Norlene. Maybe things could have been different.

Daniele is a loner. The way she looks at it, who needs other people when you can read a good book? Worried about her reclusive ways, her brother gives her a parakeet so she won’t be altogether alone. She takes the bird reluctantly and names him Yubi. To her surprise Daniele enjoys having Yubi around. Then Yubi begins a romantic courtship of Daniele, and she finds herself unable to resist his bold advances. The pair settle into a happy relationship — until Daniele steps out into the world and begins dating her boss.

Now she becomes torn between two lovers. One of whom is very jealous.

“Yubi” is a short story with comedy, mild erotic content, and a touch of magical realism.

It was first published in Yellow Silk: A Journal of the Erotic Arts.

Available below as a free download:

 

For Kindle

 Cover Draft 5

 

For iBooks, Nook, and Kobo

 

Cover Draft 5

 

I’ve been working hard to finish the current revision of Daemon Seer. It’s not  the final revision (is it ever?) , but the novel is complete except for minor changes. My monomaniacal focus on finishing has led me to neglect Ancient Children, so instead of a book review or feature I’m offering the first couple of pages of Daemon Seer. Those who have read Talion will recognize the narrator, Lu—she’s 25 now—and a couple of other characters that she mentions.

Talion will also be back for the sequel—and he’s bringing all his friends.

 Chapter 1: The Co-Star of My Worst Nightmare

“I know who you are.” Ken leaned back in his desk chair and folded his hands. As usual he had on a gaudy jacket and clashing bow tie. His forehead and cheeks shone apple-like in the florescent ceiling light.

I thought of a smart-ass comeback –You ought to know, I’ve been working here for months – but it wouldn’t help matters any. The book was lying right there on the desk, a photograph of college professor Rad Sanders staring up from the cover. Rad looked nondescript, of course. Serial killers always do. Above him the book’s title screamed in lurid yellow: Professor of Death. Beneath his chin crawled the name of the author, Willard Steeples.

“How did you figure it out?” I knew Ken was itching to tell me. Otherwise he wouldn’t have summoned me to his office on work time. He scolded us for using the restroom when we weren’t on break.

“Two things,” he said. “Your name, Luanda. It’s quite unusual. And the town, Deliverance. It’s on your job application you went to high school there. So when I read about Luanda Jakes, one of the girls who escaped from this serial killer here, I thought, wait a minute, there can’t be more than one Luanda in a town that small. It so happens I have a cousin in Deliverance. I called him, and sure enough, he said the folks at Hidden Creek Lodge adopted Lu Jakes. He remembered their name. Darlington, the name you have now.” Ken finished with a smug smile, like I was supposed to gasp at his brilliance in tracking down my past.

“I really don’t like talking about it. I’m trying to get on with my life.”

When Willard Steeples asked to interview me, my foster mother, Debbie, had hired an attorney to threaten him and his publisher if anything about me, apart from facts of the crime that were public record, appeared in his sleazoid book. The publisher had backed off fast. Nobody had tracked me down. Until now. If Ken started blabbing, my coworkers would treat me like a freak and eventually reporters and sickos would come slinking to my door.

Ken lurched from his ergonomic chair, circled the desk, and put his hand on my shoulder. “You poor girl. It must have been terrible, seeing your dad killed right in front of your eyes.”

It had been traumatic — all that blood — but Duane Jakes was no great loss to the world.

Ken was massaging my shoulder. I fought the intense urge to shrug him off. Along with being my boss, he now had this secret to hold over me. So I let silence and passivity send the message. After a minute he got it. He eyed me with that way of his, sullen and kind of pitiful, like a dog driven away from the dinner table. You could say Ken would settle for scraps. He just wanted to cop a feel now and then, and I wouldn’t give him even that. Finally he removed his loathsome hand.

“I won’t tell anyone if you don’t want me to. But you killed that monster. You’re an honest-to-goodness heroine.”

“Thanks,” I muttered. “Guess I should get back to work now.”

“Yes.” He patted my shoulder one last time. “Good girl.”

I escaped back to my station.

“What did he want?” asked my coworker Alice. Maybe it was her eyeliner, the way it curved beyond the outer corners of her eyes, but she looked gossipy and sly. If she ever found out my secret, she would tell the world.

“What do you think?”

She snickered.

I spent the afternoon watching employees at Granville Imports, a business in Long Beach, California. Cyber Watch was in Salt Lake, but Ken had us spying for companies across the nation. One woman had figured out a system to work her eBay store in between creating shipping manifests. She would finish a batch, start printing them out, and then hop online to her seller’s dashboard. She stayed long enough to scroll through a few listings — Hummels, cut-glass dinner bells, and whatnot — or dash off an answer to a bidder’s question. Never longer than sixty seconds.

At first I couldn’t get a screenshot to prove what she was doing. Every time I checked on her, I caught just a flash of the browser window before it disappeared. This woman had to know she was being spied on. She’d installed a program that closed her browser when my remote eye landed on her, so I set the remote eye to take a screenshot the microsecond after it moved to a new target. I finally nailed a shot of her eBay dashboard and — bonus time! — a shot of the You Porn homepage on her supervisor’s monitor. A week ago I’d turned in the evidence and reported my suspicions.

The supervisor got fired, but someone at Granville gave the woman another chance. She was behaving herself now. She wasn’t using her phone to go online either. No phones except on breaks and for verifiable emergencies, a ban Ken always recommended to his clients. Of course he imposed the same ban on us.

*

Instead of going straight home after work, I strolled from the building where I worked to the Mormon temple in downtown Salt Lake. The two blocks seemed longer in my three-inch heels and pencil skirt, and my car was parked in the opposite direction. But I needed to calm down, and the temple grounds usually relaxed me. Not that afternoon. I hardly noticed the flowerbeds and tranquil fountains, the smell of roses mingled with traffic fumes, or the tourists gawking at the golden statue of Moroni blowing his horn from the temple’s highest steeple. I didn’t even snicker to myself at the name Moroni or wonder why Joseph Smith couldn’t think of something less ridiculous for his angel of revelation.

Ken’s revelation had me too anxious. He was bound to give up my secret. I imagined him at some backyard shindig casually letting it drop. You won’t believe this, but a girl who works for me was kidnapped by a serial killer . . .

My body remembered that night in the mountains with spells of dizziness and trembling. The fierce cold, even in summer. In nightmares I was falling into Rad’s bottomless gaze. Or I was splayed on the ground, my wrists and ankles scoured with pain. He didn’t torture me, but he staked Lisa to the ground on a tarp, the kind you lay underneath a tent to keep moisture out. Her blood pooled on the plastic.

The spells and nightmares had been going on for years, but lately I was having new symptoms. Moments when color leeched out of the world and bleakness sucked the life from me. Moments when pain seized my belly like a fist and I ached with hunger, not for food but something nameless. Two days ago, a fierce cramp had bent me over. My nose almost touching the keyboard, I could barely hear Alice whispering. Was I okay? Did I need to use the restroom? But the cramp hadn’t been my period, which had ended a week ago. The whole thing baffled me and pissed me off. After ten years I should be healing, not spiraling into some kind of weird post-traumatic syndrome.

I’ve been tagged by Lania Knight for The Next Big Thing blog hop. Jump over to Lania’s blog and read about her coming-of-age novella, Three Cubic Feet. Then come on back to read about my work in progress.

What is the working title of your book?

Right now it’s Daemon Seer.

It’s the sequel to my paranormal thriller Talion. Lu Jakes, the protagonist, sees spirits invisible to most other people. The most powerful one calls himself Talion. In the first novel the spirits are sometimes helpful and other times sinister. In the sequel their nature becomes clearer.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

I wanted  to pick up on the lives of Lu and her friend Lisa ten years after their abduction by serial killer Rad Sanders. Both continue to suffer the aftereffects of that traumatic event.

What genre does the book fall under?

It’s another paranormal thriller. It might be categorized as urban fantasy since the supernatural is more prominent and the story has an urban setting and romantic elements missing from TALION.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie version of your book?

Lu: Ellen Page

Lisa: Lindsay Lohan (although she would have to be uglified since Rad destroyed Lisa’s face and plastic surgery failed to restore its beauty).

Ron: Jesse Eisenburg

Galen: Christopher Egan

Grifford Riley a.k.a. Psycho Cop: Ben Foster or Jeffrey Dean Morgan. It has to be somebody scary.

Talion: Orlando Bloom, maybe (transformed by CGI).

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Two friends find love and help each other survive.

Is your book self-published, published by an independent publisher, or represented by an agent?

I don’t know yet since I’m still writing, but I published Talion myself.

How long did it take to write the first draft of your manuscript?

I haven’t finished the first draft yet. At the rate I’m going, it should take a few more months. I’m writing much faster now that I have no teaching job.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

I don’t know. Reviewers have compared Talion to the works of Thomas Harris, Stephen King, Dean Koontz, and even Henry James. Although I’ve read and enjoyed books by all of those authors, I didn’t set out to imitate any of them. So I’ll let readers decide about Daemon Seer.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I was encouraged by readers who wanted a sequel to Talion. And after I finished writing that novel, I continued to think about the characters and imagine what turns their lives might take.

What else about your book might pique a reader’s interest?

Like Talion, Daemon Seer takes place mostly in Utah—Salt Lake City, Park City, and the surrounding mountains. The setting and landscape are integral to the story.

I’m supposed to end by posting links to bloggers who will present their Next Best Thing a week from today. Although I know quite a few bloggers and made requests, everyone had either participated already or had no interest. What can I say? No branch keeps growing forever. It seems this particular twig has produced its final leaf.

Still, if you have a blog and you’re working on a book or have recently published one , I would be glad to tag you belatedly. Anyone?

Photos of Page and Egan from Fan Pop. Salt Lake at night from Fotolia.

I had fun doing the character interview of Talion‘s heroine, Lu, for  Stacy Eaton’s blog at World Literary Cafe, so I came up with another one. Right now I’m in the middle of writing the sequel to Talion, so the characters remain very much alive in my head.

Hank and Debbie Darlington own a small, upscale resort in the mountains of Utah. The hard work of running the business keeps them so busy they can avoid facing the serious problems in their marriage. They also fail to notice as a serial killer closes his net around their niece, Lisa, who is there for a summer visit.

I imagined what might happen if Hank and Debbie went for marriage counseling. This interview with their marriage counselor takes place a few years before the events in Talion.

COUNSELOR:  It says here in your file you were referred by Dr. Messenger at the fertility clinic.

DEBBIE:  Yes. I—we—we’re having some problems talking to one another.

COUNSELOR:  All right. Why don’t we start by having each of you tell the other what you’re feeling? Hank, would you please tell Debbie what you’re feeling right now.

HANK:  I feel like having a beer. Quit giving me that look, Debs. It was a joke.

COUNSELOR:  Sometimes people make jokes to cover up their nervousness. Are you feeling anxious about this session?

HANK:  No. Should I?

COUNSELOR:  Not at all, Hank. We’re here to communicate with each other. Honest communication will help you feel less anxious.

HANK:  I’m not anxious. I just don’t want to be here.

DEBBIE:  Hank, you promised.

HANK:  Why don’t you ask her? This was her idea.

COUNSELOR:  What was her idea? Starting a family?

HANK:  You don’t need kids to be a family.

COUNSELOR: Debbie’s in the middle of treatment for infertility. And you’re saying you don’t want children?

HANK:  I told her that from the start, before we got married. I don’t want kids. I’m not cut out to be a father.

DEBBIE:  That’s not what you told me. You said you weren’t ready for children. We talked about how people change, and you admitted you had no idea what you’d want in twenty years.

HANK:  I knew I didn’t want kids—then, now, or ever. But you kept grinding.

DEBBIE:  That’s not fair. You wouldn’t discuss it at all unless I kept after you. It’s the same with everything. Your tactic is to avoid talking until I just give up.

HANK:  And yours is to keep grinding until I just give in. I don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of winning an argument with you.

DEBBIE:  Why did you marry me if that’s how you feel?

HANK:  Same reason you married me, I guess.

COUNSELOR:  I’m sensing some hostility from you, Hank.

HANK:  Big surprise. The two of you have me cornered.

COUNSELOR:  I’m not on anyone’s side. I’m here to work with you both.

HANK:  Oh, come on. The whole point of this little session is to get me on board for the treatments. Isn’t that right? Dr. Messenger didn’t like my attitude, so he set this thing up. There’s no chance in hell Debs is gonna change her mind. I’m the one that’s supposed to change. And you—no offense, ma’am, but you’re on her side whether you mean to be or not.

COUNSELOR:  That’s not true.

HANK:  Debs doesn’t give a shit what I think. She don’t care if we go bankrupt paying for the treatments.  She’s been brainwashed by her parents and the Mormon Church into believing she can’t be happy without kids. Damn it, Debs. Don’t start that. She always does this. She says she wants the truth, but when I tell her, she starts bawling.

COUNSELOR:  Are you all right, Debbie?

DEBBIE:  I’m fine. I just wish—it seems like just once he could. . . .

COUNSELOR:  Could what?

DEBBIE:  At least act like he loves me.

COUNSELOR:  Hank, do you love Debbie?

HANK:  Yeah, of course I do. But that don’t mean I’m giving in.

COUNSELOR:  You agreed to her coming to the fertility clinic. In a way you’ve “given in” already. Now she’s undergoing these painful procedures and turning to you for support, and you’re not there for her. Can you understand why she might feel hurt and confused?

HANK:  What do you want from me? I’m supposed to be honest about my feelings. But look what happens when I am.

COUNSELOR:  Why don’t you tell Debbie you love her? Let her know that no matter how strongly you disagree on this issue, it doesn’t change your love for her.

HANK:  What the hell—okay. I love you, Debs. That’s why I married you. Okay, I said it. Now what?

What do you think? Can this marriage be saved?

 

Lightning flashes in the hospital window. The sign it will happen tonight.

They bring a capsule that you tongue against your gums to keep it dry as you suck water through a straw. Alone in the dark, you hide it with the others. Without the capsule you can dream.

His shoulder brushes yours in the motel lounge. The swimming pool sparkles without end. He climbs on the bar and executes an elegant dive. You follow, butterflying in the blue water. As you reach for him, he turns on you with a demon grin. You spin away from him, cocooned in water, unable to call his name.

You perch on a rock overlooking the sea, emblematic, like a woman on a vodka label, smearing your breasts with lipstick. And shriek with joy, knowing he will come.

You drink with him in smiling communion. The goblets, the table, everything is made of glass. Shattered by his laughter, it cuts you to pieces. You kneel on the hotel bed. The mattress is a shallow bowl brimming with lotions and cosmetics mixed in a lurid soup. You plunge in the bowl and begin to swim and then realize you’re covered in blood. Even in sleep you feel it, sticky on your skin.

You crushed his skull with a lamp, they say. In your rage you smashed his face to pulp. They say you had a motive, as if you understood what that is. But you’re not guilty, only broken.

You tremble between sheets that nothing can soil or soften, that contain all kinds of suffering and death. The time has come. No more dreams, no more storms, no more addictions or pride. While the nurse works her Sudoku and the stomach pump stands helpless, you’ll swallow the capsules and set yourself free.

 

“Lorelei” is my entry in Cherie Reich’s 2nd Annual Flash Fiction Blogfest. To read the other entries, please click here.