FRIGHT WEEK!

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Lovely original image by jaime cooper, on freeimages.com.

Okay, I have a real post coming up for you, but I’ve been writing a lot of flash fiction lately and I have a project to tell you about. And I am JUST. SO. EXCITED. And full of coffee. AND EXCITED.

Anyway.

This is like my favorite time of year ever. Working retail has effectively ruined Christmas for me, and has also effectively meant I rarely get home for Thanksgiving. My birthday is boring, and I’m not religious, so Easter doesn’t mean much. Valentine’s Day is overhyped.

So that leaves me with Halloween. Which is all right, because I can’t think of a holiday more meant to fit me–we can wear a lot of black, talk about serial killers, and not pretend to be thankful for things? ALL RIGHT. That’s like the best holiday an Emily could ask for. AND I get to dress up like a zombie? Megasweet.

AND I GET CANDY?

You’re fucking kidding me!

Anyway, with that said:

I’m going to do something a little different this year, and celebrate this lovely holiday with SEVEN DAYS OF FLASH FICTION. Yes. For the week leading up to Halloween (starting tomorrow, 10.24), I’ll post a mini horror story (1,000 words or less) with fun overfiltered horrorshow graphics ONCE A DAY. (Isn’t that font just full of camp?) Why, you ask? What good can this possibly do?

Probably none. But it’ll be fun.

An advanced warning, just in case you don’t usually follow this blog and don’t know me: none of these stories will be appropriate for little ones. Unless, of course, you take a laissez-faire view of parenting, and your bitty monsters have already seen Texas Chainsaw Massacre, or heard you drop the f-bomb in traffic. In which case, bring ’em on. 

We’ll see how I do. I don’t usually write a lot of horror, so this might be pretty terrible. But that’s what this blog is here for, right? Experiments. On you, my captive audience. Muahaha.

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Why Reviews Aren’t Everything

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The Silent Majority: Or, A Story About Reviews

So I wrote this book a while back (you may have heard of it. It’s called Aurian and Jin). Since its publication in November last year, I’ve sold, given away, lent out, etc. about two thousand copies of it.

That’s not a big number, compared to the number of people in the world–or the number of bacteria colonizing the screen of your phone, even. But it’s pretty sizeable. It’s consideration worthy. Two thousand people out there (more, if they lent it out) have at least heard of my book, probably read it, probably had an opinion on it one way or the other. I regularly hear things like this, day-to-day: ‘my cousin loved your book! She’s like your biggest fan now.’ ‘Grandpa’s been recommending your book to his coworkers. They have some suggestions’. ‘I left a copy of your novel in the bathroom at the strip club, and now the girls can’t stop talking about it.’ (Okay. Maybe not so much that last one. Though, now that I think about it, gratis copies to strippers might not be a bad policy.).

My point is–even if my friends and coworkers and family are just being nice to me, a lot of people have read this book, and said something good about it. And yet, when I look at my Amazon listing, I’ve only got sixteen reviews.

Now, I could get all chappy-assed about it. I could recommend (read: demand) that people write a review when they finish the book. But here’s the thing about that, kids:

The vast majority of people, even people who really loved your novel, aren’t going to leave a review at all.

And there’s nothing you can do about it.

I mean, think about it for a few seconds. Before you got all involved with indie authorship, when was the last time you left a review for something on Amazon? If you’re like me at all, the answer to that is, well, never. Even books you really liked, products you really used. It never occurred to me to do it. I would see the reviews up there, read a few of them maybe, buy or not buy (usually regardless of reviews). In fact, I was more likely to consider writing a review if I was dissatisfied with something–because, in my mind, a review existed to let other buyers know what sort of experience I’d had. I couldn’t tell you at this point whether or not I realized the maker of the product might actually see that review, and it certainly never occurred to me to take their feelings into account when I wrote it. The internet, after all, is a very big place–bigger, in some ways, than the physical world–and I’m a very small person in the scheme of things.

People see your book. They don’t see the praise-hungry author hunched over a keyboard behind it, dreaming of row after row of five solid stars. They don’t see your desire for validation, your need for emotional support, the bragging rights (or causes for shame!) inherent in your Amazon rankings. They don’t know what it’s like, being an indie author with no publishing support system or nice fat advance to live on. Most of them don’t know about your Twitter or your blog or where you’ll be next signing books, and they don’t care. If your editing’s decent, they might not even know you’re indie. They might not even remember your name.

Your book was something to read at the beach, something to read at the dentist’s office, something gotten for free, something lent out by a friend. It wasn’t graven in gold and presented by a burning bush on a mountaintop. In the 100,000 or so words of your story, if you’ve got any sort of pride and decency, your hunger for approval and tacit support wasn’t mentioned once. The support of your readers comes to you in the form of money, which gets you things like cheeseburgers and another month of power, and is about as tacit as support gets, unless you’re the government.

Much as small pub might feel like a validation game sometimes–especially when you aren’t making the millions you anticipated–you made a product and now you’re selling it. Praise isn’t the endgame–it’s more like a happy side effect. You want to make people happy, and you probably have. The written proof of respect your ego so desperately craves is optional stuff.

And, hard as it is to swallow, dealing with that is your business, not the reader’s. You sold your damn book, and that’s what you’ve got to worry about. Somewhere out there, a buyer you don’t know is either happy or sad about it. How happy or sad they are, and whether or not they choose to inform you through the Great Equalizer of Amazon, is their deal. Not yours.

So let’s get Nixonic about this. There is a silent majority of readers–silent, at least, on the interwebs–who probably loved what you have to say. You’ll never hear from them, unless your guys happens to know a guy who knows a guy. But they’re out there.

I’m NOT encouraging you to badger people harder about leaving reviews. That’s not what this post is about, and, frankly, I’ve always found it a little off-putting when people do that to me. Too much of your voice, especially your desperate, pleading voice, detracts from the story you have to tell.

What I’m trying to say–even though you don’t know for sure what these people think, be grateful for them. After all, they bought your book.

And there’s all sorts of life going on in this world that isn’t reflected through the internet or Amazon reviews. You might be famous somewhere in Guatemala right now, where a teacher just loaned a thrift store copy of your book to a kid and made his day. You might never know–but you still, indirectly, made that kid’s day.

So step back, smile, and thank your readers. Not just your reviewers.

What’s Up With Me III

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What’s Up With Me, III

It’s time for another all-encompassing ‘what I’m doing’ sort of post.

Obviously, the answer right now is typing.

Anyway.

I have new and exciting crap to tell you about my own crap, which you hopefully read. While I know this post will leave you with a spring in your step and the tender refrains of love music by lute echoing in your ears, please, try and contain your joy until I’m done typing. Really. I hate it when dreams soar prematurely.

1) The King’s Might
My Aurian and Jin unrelated novel, The King’s Might, will be out 7/21/15. Will you like it? I bet you will. It’s more serious than A&J, and far grimmer, which people seem to like, for some reason I don’t completely understand. It’s also about princes, which people also seem to like.

Oh, and one other thing. It’s going to be free.

Yes, you read that right. PERMANENTLY FREE OH SWEET BABY JESUS LOVEJOY JUMBLEBUBBLES. So even if you don’t like it, you haven’t lost a fucking thing, honey. (There will be a post in not too long about my decision to do this, and why I’d do such a silly thing. It’ll be edumacational.)

2) Bonemaker
I wrote another novelette. Sorry, I can’t seem to stop doing it for some reason. It’s about Morda the Bonemaker, and his time as a child in the Joyous Wood. I’m still trying to decide what to do with it, but hell, it’s there. I have this vague plan where I do a few of them–I had a great idea for one about the making of the Sundering Sword–and maybe do a little compilation bookthing. But I don’t know. Just in the throwing-stuff-around phase on this one.

3) Dehydrator.
I haven’t talked about this enough yet. You know what’s surprisingly delicious? Cucumber chips. Put a little salt and vinegar on those bad boys, a light dusting of chili powder, let ’em dehydrate for fifty years or however long it takes where you are. SO TASTY.
Anyway. Lemme try this again.

3) Aurian and Jin.
I’m going to start running free sales on the ol’ A&J through Amazon once more. The first one of these, for one day only, is this weekend: Saturday, June 28th, 2015. I’m hoping to get a few more reviews in time for Little Bird’s release this September, so, you know, buy my stuff and whatnot. (The Antidote will not be free. Because, come on, it’s ninety-nine cents. If you’re that bad off and you want to read it anyway, contact me and I’ll damn well buy it for you.)

4) What the hell should I do next?
I’m going to stick a poll in this post to ask YOU, buddy. Because I’ve got like twenty thousand things going right now, and, while I’ll probably finish at least half of them, I’m curious as to which ones you guys want me to finish FIRST. I like to feel important and liked. Or, well. Important, at least.

And I like to do things for you guys. And about the only thing I’m good at other than writing is baking, which doesn’t transfer to the internets too well. So, tell me what to write and I’ll do it.

A note: all of these projects now have at least 10,000 words on ’em, which is about where something has to be for me to be fairly sure I’m going to finish it.

1) Things That Go Bump In The Night
2) Night Shift
3) Balancer
4) Hesperides
5) The Apple and the Tree

Excerpt: Things That Go Bump in the Night

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Did I tell you guys I was fiddling around with a vampire story? No?

Well, I am. It’s, erm. It’s not exactly Twilight. It’s more one of my gross goddamn stories with a vampire in it. I think–and I know a lot of you guys’ll disagree with me, but you know–I think that, as overplayed as the vampire thing is, there’s a lot to recommend it, especially in our modern age.

If you haven;t figured it out yet, I play with a lot of stories all the time. Not all of them get finished, or even get very far. But I like y’all’s input. Helps me know when I’m doing something right. Write. Whatever.

This is the story of John Fowler, ordinary dude and night clerk at a local corner store, at the close of his first hundred years as a vampire. He’s been, thus far, in a sort of vampire larval stage, possessing neither the Full Thirst nor the full powers of his older brethren. The question later in the story becomes, does John really want to be a fullblown vampire? And if he doesn’t, what the hell are his alternatives?

There’s also fun stuff about a vampire coven without cable, lesbian marital disputes, twin vampire hunters who call a poltergeist ‘Dad’, and a lockbox that may or may not contain the morning take.

May set records for the oldest coming-of-age MC ever written. Take that, frat pack bro comedies about men who can’t grow up.

THINGS THAT GO BUMP IN THE NIGHT

*****

As John fingered the bullet hole in his chest, Marlene the day manager lit a cigarette.

“Jesus,” she said weakly. “You gonna make it through your shift?”

John prodded the hole experimentally. The edges of the wound were crusty already, hardening. He withdrew the finger, blew away the dusty black blood that clung to it. He resisted the urge–a grossout kid urge, unworthy of a member of the eternal undead–to stick his finger in it, wiggle it around a little, and make a face.

“I should be all right,” he said. “It’s just a little uncomfortable. Do we have duct tape in the back? I think I need to make a patch.”

Marlene, a thin stream of smoke curling through her carefully painted lips, stared at him.

“On my desk,” she said. “It’s either on my desk, or it’s on top of the 7-UP crates. John.”

“Yeah?”

“What does–” she gestured with her cigarette to his chest, to the neat black hole, still smoking, in his work polo. “What does it feel like?”

“It hurts.” He shrugged. “What d’you think getting shot feels like? Just because I’m a vampire doesn’t mean I can’t feel pain, you know. I’ve just felt a lot more of it.” He poked at the hole again. “I’m used to it. Do we still have some of the old aprons back there? I should cover this.”

“Hm? Yeah. Oh. Of course.” She opened the back door, leaned in and reached around with the cigaretted hand still held outside. She returned with a work apron and tossed it to him, watching as he tied it around his waist and adjusted the front to cover his wound. “You’re sure you’ll be okay, though.”

“I’ll be fine, Mar. I’ve got spare shirts at home. Go on your damn date with Astrid and be happy you’re alive.” He winked at her. “Don’t waste all that makeup on me.”

“If you need me, I’ve got my cell.”

“I know.”

They stood for a few moments, looking at each other. The back alley was silent, a silence punctuated only by the shouts and music of the Pizza Palace kitchen pulsating dimly across the way. There was no sign anything untoward had just taken place here, let alone an attempted robbery. The small pile of dust which had once been Marlene’s assailant was already blowing away in the breeze.

No sign, of course, except for the blood. And the lockbox, tipped on its side against the dumpster. John could handle this much. He could mop up the blood, carry the lockbox inside. Eating humans was such a waste, always–way more blood than you could handle. You left evidence.

This one, though. This one had deserved it.

John wouldn’t particularly say he enjoyed looks of ultimate terror being flashed in his direction. He was a benign sort of guy. He didn’t particularly enjoy killing, either–the vampire bloodlust was a myth, or at least was a myth in his particular chrysalis-like stage of vampire evolution.

But this guy.

You didn’t point a gun at an innocent middleaged lady coming back from the bank. You just didn’t. John was a vampire–if anyone was supposed to enjoy separating innocent women from their lives, it was him–and even he thought it was monstrously bad form.

He liked Marlene. She was nice.

The peeling door across the way cracked open, and the sounds of a remixed Katy Perry song translated into Spanish saturated the alley. Javier, one of the chefs from Pizza Palace, poked his head around.

“You guys okay?” he asked. “Thought I might’ve heard a gunshot a while back.”

“Slow on the uptake, ain’t you?” Marlene snapped.

“Well, shit, lady. I didn’t wanna get shot or anything.” He peered around. “Is that–”

“Lockbox,” John said. And, because it was the only thing he could think of at the moment: “it landed on a cat.”

A man, John reflected, was a remarkable thing. When provided by a trusted person with an explanation–no matter how strange–for an unlikely event, he stopped asking questions. If the explanation wasn’t reasonable enough, he started providing details of his own.

Javier, case in point, chuckled. “You and Mar so bored you’re throwin’ the lockbox around? All right. That’s fuckin’ crazy. Let me know next time and I’ll bring the guys out.” His moving eyes plotted out the lockbox’s trajectory. “You got it pretty damn far, man. You got an arm on you. Were you guys aiming for the cat, or–”

“JAVIER.” Mr. Palace’s voice boomed from the kitchen. “JAVIER. I’M NOT PAYING YOU TO CHITCHAT.”

“Motherfucker,” Javier mumbled. “See you guys later.” The door slammed shut, Katy Perry reduced once more to a tolerable volume.

Marlene, whose fingers were gripping the cigarette so tightly she’d almost broken it in two, gave John a look. “It landed on the cat,” she repeated. “Christ. You’re a genius.”

“Just experienced, thank you,” John said. He took her, gently, by the shoulders, stubbornly refusing to inhale against the olofactory orchestra that was Marlene’s use of drug store body spray. Of course, since he hadn’t drawn a breath that wasn’t for show or for the sole purpose of sighing in a hundred years, this was easier for him than it was for some people.

He wondered, briefly, how Astrid dealt with it. Of course, Astrid smoked a pack a day, so there was plenty Astrid couldn’t smell. Maybe it was a sultry hint of warm vanilla to her, as opposed to the entire birthday cake.

John sighed, his breath whistling from the hole in his lung. He turned Marlene, as gently as he could, back towards her Accura. “Go, Marlene. Enjoy your date. Make her buy you some lobster. You’ve been talking about wanting lobster for like a month.”

“It is lobster night at Crabby Chic,” Marlene said, thoughtful.

“And you’ve been wanting a night off with Astrid since she started working the new shift.”

“Well, yeah. But–”

“No buts. I’m a vampire, Marlene. I can handle a little blood and a hole in my lung. You go and have fun.” He patted her shoulder. “Just try check out the alley before you get out of the car next time, okay? You known thieves like to wait out here much past sunset.” He picked up the lockbox, gingerly, so none of the blood that now painted it got on his shirt. “And maybe it’s time to just start using a deposit bag. Toting this lockbox makes you look less safe, not more, okay? They can see the lockbox. They can’t see a deposit bag. And your life is worth more than the morning shift’s take.”

Marlene smiled a little. John smiled in return–he was worried, at first, he had traumatized her a little. He would’ve hated to do it. Marlene was a nice lady.

Of course, she’d also been working with him for four years. She was used to his shit. Had, in fact, long since passed the point where ‘they were delicious’ wasn’t an acceptable answer to the question ‘what happened to our rat problem in the back room?’.

And even now–even after witnessing firsthand her employee feeding on a human being–Marlene was still a nice lady. And the feeding–that could be a disturbing sight, John knew. The Jackson Polluck effect of the blood spatter sent most people running permanently in the other direction.

Of course, he’d also taken a bullet for her. Little bastard had been packing, which he hadn’t been expecting when he came to Marlene’s aid. Then again: that was another thing easier for him to deal with than it was for most people. And no one–no one–should have to die or fear for their lives because of the morning’s take from a shitty convenience store.

John wasn’t so ancient he had forgotten what fearing for his life felt like. In fact, it was a condition so hardwired into the human brain that he still did it occasionally. He felt silly when he remembered, of course, but it was still a default reaction.

“Go,” John repeated. “Have some fun.”

Nothing a little duct tape couldn’t patch up.

Reading: A Passion, Not an Assignment

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Much prettier original image by Thomas Le Febvre, via unsplash.com.

Reading as a Passion, Not an Assignment

I see it more and more here lately. The trend of ‘shelfies’, where book lovers posts pictures of their bookshelves so eeeeveryone can see just what they’re reading (just as contrived, of course, as the actual selfie. And a good deal more full of intellectual back-patting). A quote from Ovid, culled lovingly and out of context for a Facebook profile. And any more, if you DARE misuse an apostrophe in a comment thread, God save your soul from the grammar Nazis lurking in the next comment with a Final Solution for you.

Hurr, hurr. Aren’t you all very clever.

I was an English major in college (no, I didn’t graduate). I’m not well educated, but I’m not poorly educated, either. I’m not a literary genius–however, I’m pretty far from being an idiot too. What I am is a writer. What I am is a lifelong lover of books.

So let me ask you this, earnestly and directly:

Please stop using my lifelong passion as your selfish intellectual coup de grace. Please Jesus. Please, please, please.

Every book website I check into, EVERY ONE, has a list of ‘Classics To Read Before You Reach This Arbitrary Age.’ Because, tee hee, you’re nothing if you haven’t read Anna Karenina by the time you’re thirty! How on Earth can you ever hope to fit in with your well-read friends and eventually marry a well-read man if you don’t know shit about Dostoyevsky? (Also, here’s a list of thirty really popular romance novels you can sneak on the side while you finish those Russian monsters. Don’t tell your lit teacher.). But reading like totally benefits you and makes you a better person. It’s like Echinacea. Feeling foggy today? Take a book!

When the fuck did reading ‘great literature’ become a task we completed so our family and friends could give us approving nods, or so we could be one step closer to realization on our self-improvement programs? When did this awful self-perpetuating trend of doing ‘smart things’ just so you can benefit begin?

(For that matter, when did everything become a matter of self-improvement and lifestyle affirmation? Part of life is learning to roll with the punches, and if everything you surround yourself with gives you a warm glow inside and a friendship with likeable characters then you, sir or madam, are not learning to roll. Folks need to learn how to enjoy disagreement, how to debate and dissent without personal hard feelings. But that’s neither here nor there.)

We need to de-mystify the purpose of reading, especially reading classics. I might argue we need to de-emphasize the importance of ‘classics’ altogether. You read Ulysses? So what? I can read Ulysses too. So could any child old enough to know most of the words. The question is, really, did you enjoy it. Did you connect with it. Not did you read it. (We won’t even enter into the stratosphere of ‘did you understand it’. I’m not even certain Joyce understood it).

I have never read Anna Karenina. I haven’t read it because I’m not a big goddamn fan of Tolstoy. I like his shorter stuff, but I made it like halfway through War and Peace, got tired, and took a nap. I never even made it to Anna. Does this mean I’m an idiot? Um, no. Does it mean I’ve missed some vital piece of my existence? Maybe, but if I have I so far haven’t noticed it. If I ever feel it calling to me, I’ll try again. But so far, I haven’t. Kreutzer Sonata, on the other hand–there’s a great damn story. I enjoyed it.

I repeat: I did not read this great classical work of literature, Anna Karenina, because I wasn’t interested in it.

I repeat, also: reading is my passion. I love books. Like, looove them love them. The first men I ever loved were men in books, the first women I ever wanted to be ‘besties’ with were characters on paper. I read hundreds of books a year. Hundreds. Not because that’s cool (it’s, um, not) or because I have a set number of books I need to read to feel literarily educated. I read them because I’m interested. I read them because I like to read and I get caught up. Could I tell you exactly how many books I’ve read this year? No. Fuck, no. Because I don’t keep count. I’m too busy reading.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying reading can’t improve you as a human being. Reading a book, after all, is a great way to see places you’ve never been, feel things it is otherwise physically impossible for you to feel. A great book is an uncomfortable experience. It makes you feel things, sometimes, that are taboo, inappropriate, misunderstood. It makes you question your own value system and what you know about the world around you. It lets you into other peoples’ lives, other times, other cultures. And, sometimes: it’s just plain good. You just plain liked it. And that’s nothing to be ashamed of.

So. The short version of what I’m saying: never read something because it is expected of you to read it. Don’t read for the promise of life change. Don’t read for the promise of learning.

Read because you’re interested. Read it because it’s a good book and you like it. If the only thing you like is Harlequin romances, well, so what? They might not be putting your portrait on the wall at Columbia anytime soon, but you’re going to be a happy camper. Maybe not the most empathetic and educated camper, but again, so fucking what?

Otherwise, with every volume you dry-swallow because you’re supposed to read it and it’s ‘great literature’, you’re on the road to becoming one more person, in a world filled with these people, who doesn’t enjoy reading. With every sentence you underline because you ‘feel it relates to your problems’ and it’ll make a great facebook quote later you are becoming one more cog in the great grinding self-involved culture machine. Let a book take you outside of yourself, not farther in. The world isn’t all about you, and your reading shouldn’t be either. Not everything written ever is going to validate your lifestyle and your beliefs, and you shouldn’t expect it to.

When you’ve finished a good book at four AM, and the house is quiet, keep staring for a few seconds at that final page. Take a deep breath. Put it down. And if it’s a good book, if you really cared about it, for the rest of the day you’ll catch yourself thinking about it.

Not because it’s Great Literature and you know you’re supposed to. Because you can’t help yourself. Because it’s part of you now, and you have to.

Here are fifteen books that’ve done this for me. Some of them are classics, because, y’know, classics tend to be pretty good. Check ’em out if you want, you might like them as much as I did. I’d leave a note here that some of these books might not tally with your personal value system or your view on the way the world should work, but frankly, I don’t give a good goddamn. Some of them don’t tally with MINE. And I liked them anyway. Words are words. They can’t hurt you.

The Left Hand of Darkness (Ursula K. LeGuin)
Midnight’s Children (Salman Rushdie)
A Wizard of Earthsea (Ursula K. LeGuin)
Dead Souls (Nikolai Gogol)
Native Son (Richard Wright)
The Twelve Caesars (Suetonius)–sooooo much more entertaining than Tacitus. So. Much. Make yourself some popcorn and learn about the Julio-Claudian dynasty.
Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (Alison Bechdel)
Women (Charles Bukowski)–I know what you’re thinking here. Lewd bunch of crap. You’re thinking that because you had a strong reaction to it. Therefore: read ESPECIALLY if you are NOT a chauvinist pig.
The Good Earth (Pearl S. Buck)
The Woman Warrior (Maxine Hong Kingston)
The Darling (Russell Banks)–A book all Americans who feel woefully exposed when they travel should read right about now. If you read it and you don’t understand why I said that, message me and we’ll talk.
The Secret History (Donna Tartt)
McTeague (Frank Norris)
The Monk (Matthew Lewis)–this is hands-down the best Gothic novel ever written. It has monks, a pure young heroine, crypts, foreign locales, the Devil–screw you, Ann Radcliffe. Screw you.
The Immoralist (Andre Gide)

EXCERPT: Balancer, Pt. II

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Soooo hey, you guys. The Antidote comes out tomorrow, and I am, of course, losing my shit trying to get stuff ready. As a result, I’m here telling you to fricking buy it if you liked Aurian and Jin. I’d say something more entertaining, but I’m a little tired. So: buy my book.

Also, to distract you from how tired and boring I am today, here’s more Balancer. Poor Habbi. It’s tough when the High Mother of the village is actually your mother. You get held to a higher standard.

Here’s the first part of Habbi’s story, if you didn’t catch it. The Balancer, Pt I.

*****

Habbi spent as many days as he could in his wada on the foremost peak of Mount Farsight, fiddling with the arrangement of his dreamstones and trimming the goat. The goat proved rather resistant to the concept of trimming: every time Habbi got near him with the shears he would bleat piteously, lower his horns, and threaten a last-stand charge. Habbi was not a herder–was, in fact, one of only four boys in the village whom the Mother had decreed unfit for a future with livestock.

Chasing Stew from one end of the yard to the other with the shears and a horsehair brush, Habbi reflected that the Mother, as in all things, had been entirely correct.

But try as he might, he couldn’t bring himself to kill the goat. Yes, it would mean stew for weeks–and, at the end of those weeks, another trip to the ur-village, another sight of Mikki and her clever red beads. But he rather liked the goat, cursed though it was. He’d been destined for a life of Balancing from his tenth birthday, cut off from the day-to-day activities of the Stone Nation. This goat was the only goat he’d ever really gotten to know. He liked its ugly chipped horns and its monotone bleat.

He liked its company.

The life of a Balancer, he reflected, was a life of loneliness. It was the life of the fulcrum point, lived in this little stone shack on a mountain peak not so different in appearance from a fulcrum point itself. But there were different types of loneliness, and just because this path had been chosen for him did not mean he had to live its most extreme manifestation.

He could keep a goat. Even Ostil, the Balancer Before, had kept his hawks.

He just couldn’t keep a woman.

He couldn’t keep Mikki.

“No,” Habbi told himself, scowling. “Stop that.”

The goat, who had been watching him trim up his cooking herbs from the pen, baaaed at him.

Habbit made a new path through the herbs, laying smooth stones from the village stream in between their rows. He scrubbed the soot from his wada walls and hung bunches of herb trimmings from the rafters to sweeten the place’s smell. He rearranged his dream stones around the shallow hole by the campfire in which he slept, wrapped some of them up in the curly yak skin under which he slept at night. He consulted the stars at night, Balanced his mind and listened to their singing. He placed the dreamstones around himself, chose locations analagous to those stars that spoke to him most sweetly in the sky. It did not increase his harvest particularly, and most mornings he woke with only one stone filled, two if he was lucky. He weighed each one, decanted it carefully into a crystal storage vial of proper warding strength.

His was an important job, he reminded himself. If it were not for the Balancer–if it were not for The One Whose Dreams Are Communal, whose nightly wanderings were the best currency in the Nations–the stones would not hold the dreams of his people. The dreams would wander the world and cause mischief, as they had in the beginning of things. And the Stone Nations would have nothing of value to trade with at the Great Gathering–only tough mountain goats and yak’s milk, shards of obsidian found deep in the mountain caves. Like they had, indeed, before the First Balancer. Before the dreams had been captured, and the world had been righted.

Habbi had not forgotten the anger dream, its mewling and its distended little belly. And there were worse things. There were much, much worse.

Unfortunately, he had also not forgotten Mikki.

Habbi lasted, in the contemplative solitude prescribed for him, for precisely three days. After three days, he was out of corn–and that, he told himself, was a perfectly logical reason to go to the ur-village. Without corn, he couldn’t make his morning mush. And it was coincidental–entirely coincidental–that Algar Farmer’s booth at market was only three booths away from Wolef Herdsman’s.

He wouldn’t even look to see if she was there.

That was the proper way of things.

Yes.

Habbi had, with the force of will that came only to the truly Balanced, managed to entirely forget about the half-sack of corn he kept in the loft.

On the third day, he took up his staff and his traveling sack, tied on his warm fur boots and the cloak of skins his mother had sewed him before his going-away. He selected three crystal vials, full of the green glow of harmless laughing-dreams. He told the goat he was going away for the day: the goat, being a goat and therefore unconcerned, threw up its cud and ate some of it.

Habbi took the sloping twisted path down the mountainside to the ur-village. He nodded, with proper ceremonial sternness, to the guards at the wooden gate.

He wound his way through the market, which was small but lively. He basked in the sound of other human voices, the sight of maidens almost as pretty as Mikki on stone benches in the Great School for Women, dutifully repeating the lessons of their teachers. He waved hello to the folk who waved at him.

He was displeased, but not entirely surprised, to find the Mother standing in front of the Farmer’s booth, arms crossed, face severe under the tattoos of leadership that covered it. She was carrying her carved ivory staff, which she only carried when she was out to teach someone a lesson. Habbi had the rather unfortunate idea this lesson might be taught to him.

“Hello, High Mother,” he said, covering his eyes and bowing in the traditional greeting for a High Mother of the Nations.

“Hello yourself,” the Mother said, scowling most untraditionally. “Habbi. You and I need to talk.”

Habbi had thought of this situation, back in his wada while he decanted the dreams. He had debated what he would say, what he would do, if caught by the Mother.

Of course, he reflected wryly. The very fact that he considered it being caught said something about his state of mind. The phrase he had prepared: “hello, High Mother, I was just picking up some corn for my morning mush”–died on his lips as he looked at her.

It made a child out of you, being caught with your hand in the honey-pot by the Mother. It was even worse when Habbi’s particular set of circumstances applied: when you were the Balancer of your ur-village, responsible for the flow of its dreams. Longing was an imbalance, lust and love more specific than a warm detached glow were imbalances. It led you to do things like leave dreams in dreamstones.

And, of course, it didn’t help when the High Mother was your mother.

“Habbi,” Mother said. “I’ve let this go on long enough. I’ve let you cast eyes on Mikki for long enough. I’ve let Mikki cast eyes on you for long enough. It ends now.”

“I was, um,” said the Balancer. “Corn.”

“You’ve half a sack left in your wada,” Mother said, scowling. “You think I don’t keep track of what you buy? Onegod, it’s not like you’ve been eating anything but goat stew lately anyways.”

“Erm,” said the Balancer. The Mother whacked her ivory staff against poor Algar Farmer’s  booth in a manner that suggested, very plainly, that she would rather be whacking Habbi.

“This is difficult for me,” the Mother said. “I hope you know that, Habbi. The Rule of the Nations says I should treat you one way, my heart as your mother says something entirely different. You’re lucky: nothing’s come of it so far. The Balance hasn’t been upset, no laws have been broken. But should there be one sign–one single physical sign–that all is not right with you, and your little fastness up on Mount Farsight is less than perfectly Balanced, I’ll be forced to take measures. And that’ll hurt me, Habbi. That’ll hurt me very much.”

And Habbi, who never had known when enough was enough, said: “hurt you? Imagine how I’ll feel about it.”

And his reward for this statement was a single admonitory whack from the ivory staff. Which wasn’t too bad–the punishment for his crime was, by strictest interpretation of the painted caves, ten whacks and one night in the wilderness. And a man of Habbi’s slight build and poor wilderness skills would last precisely thirty minutes in the wilderness after ten whacks from that staff.

So it was a kindness the Mother did him. He tried very hard to remind himself of this as the stinging of his cheek turned into a steady burn. As he explored the bruised flesh with his fingers, touched the impressions the staff carvings had made on his face, he told himself: you had this coming. You are lucky it wasn’t anything more.

“I blame myself, really,” the Mother said. She sighed. “It was foolish, maybe, to put you up on the mountain so young. Onegod knows, I’ve coddled you and let you get away with far too much for far too long. But what were we to do? Ostil died so quickly, and you were the only one in the village who showed proper talent for Balancing. Great talent, shining in the depths of your mind like a white lamp. And please believe me, my son. I felt sorry for you. Few Balancers ascend Farsight before their fiftieth year is out–they have lived among people, had women and sired children. They have been prepared for the contemplative life for years.” She touched his cheek, tears brimming in her kohl-painted eyes.

“Don’t cry, Mama,” Habbi said uncomfortably. For a moment, tattoos and war paint and ivory staff and all, she was just his mother again, just the squat plump woman who had herded goats and hunted yaks and cooked stew for her brood in the family wada before Onegod had called her to the position of leadership she now inhabited.

Mother was young, too, he realized suddenly. Young, for the High Mother position. He was her eldest, and he was only nineteen–though it was forbidden for a male to know his mother’s precise age, she couldn’t have been more than forty. There was no white in her hair, and only recently had he begun to notice wrinkles under the circular tattoos that covered her face.

They would have to help each other. Their positions, after all, were related–a young Balancer balanced by a young Mother. Habbi kissed his mother’s cheek, surprised, as he always was when he saw her these days, by how far down he had to bend to do so.

“I’m sorry, Mother,” he said. “You’re right, of course. You always are. I’ll stay away from Mikki–I’ll try and come to market when the women are all at the Great School. I’ll try not to come so often.”

He pressed one of his crystal vials into his mother’s palm. “For you,” he said. “I was going to spend them on corn, but I suppose that’s immaterial now. Laughing dreams. Good ones. May they help you find a little laughter.”

His mother smiled, tucked the vial into her kirtle. “A balanced gift,” she said. “Perhaps all isn’t lost with you yet, my son. I’ll use them tonight. I’ll think of you laughing.”

As he climbed the twisting path back to his own wada, he tried not to think about the fact that, from here on out, there would be very little laughter left in the world for him.

It was not so bad. He enjoyed the Balancing, didn’t he? Enjoyed the sense of floating it gave him, the sense of suspension. He enjoyed looking up to the pinprick quilt of the stars, enjoyed mining them for answers.

He just wished he could experience his own dreams, sometimes. Even that–even the turnings of his subconscious mind–would be company of a sort. Better company than a stupid goat. Better company than the dreams he had to destroy, their twisting shapes making a sickness in his heart.

He knew what the Mother would say he could almost hear it: you are young, Habbi. Your training was incomplete. These longings will pass.

But it was not the High Mother’s face he saw when he imagined this, that visage made impersonal and mythical with tattoos and paint, but his own mother’s, her eyes worried and her lips turned down at the corners.

This train of thought was why, upon returning to his quiet wada on top of Mount Farsight, he did not immediately notice the cloaked figure hunched by the goat pen, petting the goat. He only became aware, in fact, because Stew let out a particularly pleased bleat–the cloaked figure had apparently found the spot behind his left ear which, Habbi had found through trial and error, it liked to have scratched best.

“I’m glad to see you’ve kept at least one of them,” the cloaked figure said, straightening. “I mean, I suppose even you would get tired of stewed goat after a while. You and I need to talk, Habbi. It’s urgent.”

The figure pushed back its hood.

“Stones and nightmares,” Habbi swore. “Black dreams and a turned knife, I can’t catch a break today, can I?”

It was Mikki.

WRITING: Why I Read One Star Reviews

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WRITING: Why I Read One Star Reviews

A note: this is me talking to y’all as a reader and not a writer. I’ve had some awakenings lately as to what actually DOES make me buy a book on Amazon.

A second note: I’m probably not a good example of the majority. I have, for a while now, stubbornly bought indies with low review-numbers because their samples and blurbs are well written, and I don’t give six fucks and a half dozen dry humps whether the rest of the world liked it or not. But I’m not the only person more or less like me I know, so. There you go. Encouragement onward!

I was paging through Goodreads yesterday, looking through books for something new to spend my time on. I’ve been stuck in this fantasy/sci-fi loop for like a month, and it’s time for something different.

I found a book, mentioned several times in my feeds, called Slammerkin. Don’t ask me how it is; I haven’t read it yet. But I sure as hell bought it.

No, I’m not just telling you how my day went. What made this blogworthy–what made it worthy of discussion–is the reason why I bought it.

It wasn’t the numerous high reviews, the critical ratings, the sample (though that did help persuade me–the lady can write). It certainly wasn’t some bookspamming yahoo on Twitter. No, no. It was the numerous negative reviews.

Did you read me right there? It was the negative reviews.

Some people–not all, but some–passionately hated every character in there. They hated the premise. They hated the vapid and superficial main character. They hated the raunchiness, the depressing view of the world, attributed misandry, greed, and formless ambition to the author (!!) as well as her main character.

The negative reviews were eloquent, glowing in their expressive contempt for this novel, its characters, and even its author. Which would make you think this is a book to avoid, right?

Right?

Hell no. Hell to the no. What those reviews tell me is that a lot of people read it through–and apparently cared enough to remember quite a bit in the way of detail–and formed some very passionate opinions. If they hated it, holy shit, they had fun on the way. This book made them think. It made them care enough to hate.

And that–that caring–is more important to me in choosing a book than whether or not some assistant football coach in Choochaneechee, Iowa liked it.

These negative reviews, I have to admit, said things I liked about this book. Grungy? Count me in. Not a sentimental, gibbering bunch of pastoral holier-than-thou garbage? Sweet. Unlikeable main character? Big deal, I don’t like people anyway. And even the negative reviews admitted, the book is well written and well researched. And those two matter a lot more to me than this liking the main character garbage.

A note–if a book has several one-star reviews complaining about writing quality, plot continuity, or editing, it’s a little different. Even I’m not going to revenge-buy a bad book. But when it’s personal–oh buddy. I don’t care what some random person thought of the book, when I’m debating whether or not to buy. I care whether or not they cared. And if they passionately disliked several things that sound like things I’d like, well, one star be damned.

I’d say, as a reader, I actually look for groupings of one and five star reviews. If there are a lot of those, and few three and four star reviews, I’m happy. If, on the other hand, there are a lot of three and four stars–if, in essence, people didn’t feel strongly about it, but didn’t super duper love it, either–I avoid. Like everybody, I’ll read a book with a large percentage of five star reviews. At least, unless those reviews are badly spelled or obviously fake. Or something.

I’ll be honest, I don’t put too much stock in a negative review that cites its main reason for negativity as dislike of the main character. I mean, this is a novel, not a tea party. Nobody said you had to like everyone in it. And, to be honest again–I don’t much trust the truth of one-star reviews anyway. If you hated it that much, you probably liked it a little, deep down inside.

You liked it enough to devote about thirty minutes to ranting over it. Anyway.

I wanted to share this for you sad-face indie folks who just got your first nasty review on Amazon. Some of us DO check the one-stars, and we check them to buy, not to avoid. So, when that crazy mouth-foamer posts a one-star review with MY CATS ALL HATED IT in all caps as the title, don’t despair. It might destroy your average a little bit, but most sensible people aren’t going to let a bunch of personal (purrsonal) opinions they may or may not share shadow their view of how good something might be.

When I want to know what a book is about, what it says to people, I check the one-star reviews. When I want to know if it’s well-written, I check the sample. People give different star-values to things they like–a book with one bad typo which a reviewer otherwise considers perfect might get three stars, where another person might take pity on an author and give a steaming pile of garbage five. However, the stuff you hate only gets one rating, and that’s one star. MAYBE two. Usually one. And me, I want to know what you felt strongly enough about to hate.

Hopefully this cheers somebody up. I know it certainly did me, when I realized what I’d been doing. Like I said, no one star reviews yet, but I know that day is coming. I hope somebody one day hates my book as dramatically as these folks hated Slammerkin. That would tickle me almost as pink as someone loving it–I mean, at least they noticed, right?

Excerpt: Balancer

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I’ve been experimenting with storystuff lately, as you’ve probably noticed. Nothing too serious. Just a couple of spring flings.

This might be the one, though. Cue songs about summer love. I need a new fantasy, since I’m getting pretty close to buttoning up Aurian and Jin, and I want to do something out of the norm for me–out, that is, of that comfortable high middle ages ladies n’ lords norm. I need to get better at worldbuilding, honestly–much as I hate even saying that, because it implies worldbuilding is somehow a separate thing from writing a good story, and it’s not. Frankly, the most fabulous thing about this so far is that first line, but I can roll with it. Paying for things with dreams? Yes, awesome. Goats? Always awesome. Paying for goats with dreams? Fucking perfect. Right. Yes.

I’ll be coherent tomorrow, when I’ve gotten some sleep and I’m not feeling quite as sick. Until then, here’s some Balancer for you. What d’you guys think, could this be The One? And if it is–where should I propose? Should there be a moonlit garden, those floating lantern thingies? Or is this just another cheap beginning, and it’s bound to break my heart somewhere along the line with its loose ways and shallow disposition? In which case, I can at least glean a country song from it.

BALANCER

ONE
Stew Before The Week’s Out

It was market-day in the ur-village of Sivit, and Habbi the Balancer bought a goat with his last vial of daydreams.

It was a fabulous price. Habbi had been expecting to spend the vial, two vials of nightmares, and at least one of his hoarded flying dreams, but the goats had produced plentifully last season, and the ur-village was filled with more of them than herders could possibly market.

This goat was old, also. His fur was matted and rank, turned by a season’s foraging into a mass of brown dreadlocks almost as long as Habbi’s own. His horns were yellowed, chipped from rummaging on the mountain peaks for grass. He regarded Habbi now from the stone pen in back where Habbi had put him, his sideways goat-eyes unblinking.

Habbi did not care that the goat was old, was male, that his mating days were long past. He didn’t need to produce more goats or milk. He hadn’t, in fact, really needed a goat at all.

He regarded the goat for a while with both arms crossed.

“All right, Goat,” he said at last. “You’ll be stew before the week’s out. I shan’t get attached.”

The goat bleated mournfully, shaking his bearded chin.

“Nope,” Habbi said. “Not going to happen.”

He stepped back into his wada and tacked the skins that served as a door closed. He laid out his dreamstones and began polishing them with an old hide, buffing the stones until they shone. One of them glowed sullenly, its belly churning as though there were a war inside of it.

It was not a war, of course. Not yet. It was a dream.

Surprised, Habbi held the stone up to the sunlight filtering in from the wada smokehole–had he been so careless, truly? The dream inside the stone pulsed faintly, sensing the touch of its maker. It was deep red, fringed with oranges and livid pinks. Probably an anger dream, judging by the color and the faint sulphur stench of the stone.

Not good for much, unless he wanted to get into the darker aspects of his trade. Dangerous to leave untended.

Outside, the goat bleated again.

“Hold on, Goat,” Habbi murmured. He turned the stone around in his hands. A bad business for a cursed day–leaving dreams trapped for this long was careless. He’d been in too great a hurry to get to market, too focused on the acquisition of the goat. Dreams tended to feed on themselves, and the bigger they got, the more likely they were to break the dreamstone’s wards. This one was hungry and big, and its stony prison shook with the effort of retaining it.

The last runaway dream he’d heard of had been in Starek, on the other side of Sivit. It had been a flying dream–some amateur Balancer had doubtless been trying to save it up and stored it in a stone with inadequate warding. The whole village had floated a foot from the ground for a month, and the Stareki had resorted to tying rocks to their ankles for simple acts such as walking and bathing.

It had been bad business. Yes. But this business could have been much worse. Habbi cursed himself for an idiot as he readied the dreamstone for discharge, readied his bone blade for the kill that would follow: such carelessness was for the elderly, folks whose dreams were weak and almost used up. A young man’s anger dream–especially a Balancer’s anger dream–Onegod, that could start chaos.

No more, Habbi told himself firmly. No more getting so excited about market. You would’ve wrecked the Stone Nations, and for what? For a mangy old goat? For a few moments chatting about the weather with Wolef the Herdsman? For a taste of Mikka Wolef-Daughter’s cinnamon tea?

(Or, he reflected, for a sight of Mikka Wolef-Daughter? Her hair had been braided and the braids had looked new. There were red clay beads in them, clever clay beads. Her kirtle had been perfectly clean, the skins fragrant and rubbed with fresh oil, gleaming the same rich brown as her almond eyes. And there had been something in the way she had delivered the ritual greeting. She had almost met his eyes. It had been bold and familiar. It had thrilled him, a little–)

“No,” Habbi said, shaking his head. Even this–even Mikka Wolef-Daughter, with her bold eyes–was not worth the forgetting of a dream. He wiped down the blade of his bone knife one last time and dropped the stone onto the ground he crouched over.

“Come out,” he snapped, forgoing the singsong tone proper to the ritual for expediency. “Come out, dream thing. Your maker is calling.”

In the oval belly of the stone, the dream trembled. Habbi glanced down, ascertaining its condition with practiced ease: the dream boiled and flexed, making the stone shake and the entire sleeping section of his wada smell like a rotten egg. He raised his knife.

The stone was listing to the left. Its dream was nearly full-grown. It would move left when it escaped the stone, and quickly. His knife arm might not be fast enough on its own.

He would need to be Balanced. He would need to be prepared.

He closed his eyes and allowed his mind to blossom, to expand in the familiar spiral of the Balancing. He let the cold of the mountain air wash over him, the faint peaty smell of the bog some four hundred feet below. He filed these things, along with the rotten-egg smell of the dream and the faint warmth of his cookfire, into their proper places across from each other in his consciousness.

Outside, the goat was bleating.

He Balanced it with a soft hum.

The fire cracked and popped.

He Balanced it with the back and forth scraping of his boot against the ground.

When it was all Balanced–when each thing had its opposite, when, as his old teacher would have said, each hand had its foot, he spoke the final words of the ceremony, soft and low so as not to disturb the world he had righted.

“I release you, dream thing.”

And it was fast, as he knew it would be. As he knew it would, it moved left. It blurred for a few seconds, red and orange and plasmic and formless, before it took on a form he’d seen them take too often: a humanoid fetus, limbs still echoing the curve of the womb, lashless and hairless, huge head crowned in blood and afterbirth.

“Mama,” the thing burbled. “Mamama. Ma. Mama.”

They tried to appeal to their makers, did the dreams.

A less powerful Balancer might have even hesitated.

Habbi’s knife flew true, and his arm was strong. The thing cried out once, disappeared in a flash of red light.

Its blood on his knife did not.

He wiped it off with his polishing cloth, keeping his movements slow and calm as the world around him returned to its usual state of Unbalance. This was the part he hated–the blood on the blade. He had made the thing, in a way–it had been his dream. A part of him.

No more Mikka, he told himself firmly. No more goats. It was getting foolish, these market trips.

Outside, the goat bleated mournfully. Habbi ripped the skins from the doorway and shouted at it:

“BE QUIET, GOAT!”

And the goat, he saw, had escaped its pen, as goats were wont to do. It was standing right outside the wada, chewing patiently on a handful of Habbi’s hard-grown cooking herbs. Its sideways eyes regarded him clinically.

“Gah,” said Habbi. “Goat! I’ll turn you into stew!”

He snatched the axe from its hook by the wada door and advanced a few threatening steps, hefting it above his head and scowling.

The goat continued to chew. With a liquid hrrukhkk, it spat up its herbs.

Habbi shook the axe.

The goat began to eat what it had regurgitated.

Sighing, Habbi returned the axe to its hook. “Onegod,” he groaned. “Even you can see I’m hopeless. How can I just sit up here on this peak all day? What do they expect me to do, commune with the wind? I need company, Goat. I’ll go mad without it. But when I get it, I can’t concentrate.”

“Baaa,” said the goat.

“Fine,” said Habbi. “If that’s how you want it to be, I suppose I’ll have to keep you. Your name is Stew. And stew, mind you, is precisely what you’ll become if you prove too much trouble.”

“Baaa,” Stew said, and headbutted him gently.

“None of that,” said Habbi. “Not until we get you cleaned up.”

The Antidote: Cover Reveal

Oh, man. I had a whole witty and insightful post for today, and instead you get THIS self-promotional bull puckey. I could cry for you. But I won’t: too busy promoting myself. (Don’t worry, you’ll get witty and insightful later on).

The reason we’re interrupting our normal psuedo-intellectual programming is simple: I wanted to show you guys the cover for The Antidote, the Aurian and Jin novelette that’s coming out in less than two weeks (!!!!!) on 4/30/15. Be happy with me. Gush with me. And thank my talented cover artist and designer, known to many as Cissy Russell but to me as Mom, who, when I went off the deep end a wrote a novelette, helped me get ready to release it in record time.

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THE STORY:

After the death of Morda Bonemaker, Aurian and Jin Koch are left gathering up the pieces of society and sweeping them, as only an innkeeper and his slovenly wife can, under the rug. Though they’ve quelled international disaster a few times already, a new personal disaster is looming–Jin Koch, renegade Bonedancer, retribution dancer, mysterious one-eyed soldier and lowborn pain in the ass, is pregnant.

Now, Aurian and Jin have to seek out the quiet life Aurian’s always wanted–with, hopefully, a bigger and better inn somewhere in it. However, Jin doesn’t know how to do quiet, and Aurian’s more or less forgotten. Can they find happiness in the Gold Band farming village of Pretty-on-Picture? Or will Jin’s history of violence and mayhem destroy even the purest of intentions?

A fun Aurian and Jin short of roughly 70 pages, featuring joyful funeral processions, mobs, putting branches through cows, dammed rivers, villagers burdened by a lack apostrophe placement skills, and, of course, drunks. Availiable 4/30/15 for .99 for Amazon Kindle.

EXCERPT: Night Shift, Part Deux

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A little more of this story, since you guys said you liked it. Nothing too exciting happens. Lesbians and Vietnam, you know how it is. Just a day in the life of the fucktarded townspeople of Bully, NC. This is a little more telling than I usually like to do, but it’s coupled with showing later on, I promise.

If you missed the first part of the story, here it is. Though, you know, it’s the next post down, so you probably could’ve managed on your own, but whatever, convenience.

*****

The thing about Tinker was–well, there were a lot of things about Tinker. Riley thought through them, in conscripted order, whenever she heard a siren start, or a dog bark, or someone shouting outside. She thought about them whenever she ran the garbage disposal and heard something break inside it. She thought about them when she was up late at night, all the bills were paid, and she needed something comfortable to worry about.

But the main thing about Tinker–the most surprising thing–was simply this. She was sane.

Riley had spent the last few years of their friendship thinking that certainly–certainly–this wasn’t the case. Every time Tinker tried to order live scorpions from Amazon, or drink Skittles dissolved in whiskey, or, most common, dump rotting meat products on someone’s luxury vehicle, she thought certainly, certainly, Tinker had finally gone off the deep end, had become an alcoholic, taken a dose of LSD.

But Tinker didn’t do drugs. She was a light drinker. And, as far as Riley’s somewhat unreliable experience could suggest, she was sound of mind and body. She always knew the date, her address, who was president. And that was how you checked these things. Wasn’t it?

It was perplexing, to say the least.

The miracle of her friend’s birth and raising–a scrawny child of the nineties in the tiny town of Bully, NC, learning through the magic of the internet how to dye her hair with Kool-Aid and think in the fashion most opposite everybody else–had somehow resulted in her continued existence. Somehow, some way, Tinker Tonkin continued to both toss rotten meat on police cars AND rent apartments, go to the drugstore, work part time at Caveat Coffee.

It was as though she led a double life. Double lives–both of them charmed.

“It’s not that odd, really,” Tinker had explained to her one night as they mined the Piggly Wiggly dumpster for old sausage. “I don’t hurt anybody. I don’t hold grudges. And this town–well, it’s never had an artist before. It’s inclined to forgive me a lot just for that.”

And Tinker was an artist. Bully’s own artist. Though her exhibits might boast nose cones and sachets of potpurri at the door, and most of her paycheck must have gone to property damage fees, there was something about her rotting meat tableaux that drew people, even the people who’d gotten caught in the middle of them. The texture, the raw reds and browns, the sense that, in the grainy photographs and boxed-in rotting masses, you were seeing something obscene, something private, something not so different, in sheer wrongness, from pornography or horror movie gore.

The livid colors and unconscionable stench reminded Riley of the photographs her grandfather had taken in Vietnam, kept buried for most of her childhood under the leatherette photo albums in the family room. They reminded her, specifically, of the moment she had first realized the people smiling in those photos were now mostly dead. Had died in a ditch somewhere, young guys with shy grins and stupid jug ears: victims of the Viet Cong in the jungle, quiet and softfooted and sure.

It was an uneasy feeling. Sickness, darkness, childhood lost. Almost a feeling of rape. Riley didn’t like the meat pieces, but she had to admit: they worked. They unsettled.

Which was what Tinker, being Tinker, thought art should do.

Tinker had found a terrycloth robe somewhere in the apartment’s reeking bowels and had donned it. It was covered in khaki splotches, which Riley thought of subconsciously as ‘Tonkin Camo’. The robe’s ratty bottom left a few inches of her acid green ass visible, but it was better than nothing.

Tinker fished in her pocket, came up with a flattened pack of Djarum Blacks. She lit one, draped herself equally over the couch, a pile of laundry nearly as high as the couch, and Riley’s lap.

“So,” she said, belching out a curl of clove-scented smoke. “What brings you to mein humble abode? I don’t see you much any more.” Her eyes narrowed. “Not unless you want something.”

“I don’t want anything. I had something to tell you.”

“You couldn’t call?”

“Your phone’s been dead for a year, Tink.”

“Hmm,” Tink said, acknowledging the truth of this with a neutral nod. “Well played.”

RIley wasn’t sure exactly what she was supposed to have been playing, or how she had done whatever it was well. She shifted a little, Tinker’s half-shaven head itching her thighs. That damn smoke–Riley had never been able to stand the sweet-heavy smoke of her friend’s cigarettes. When they were in high school, her mother had only needed to sniff her to know who she had been hanging out with.

“I just came by to tell you,” Riley said. “Ashford Mims is dead. Remember him?”

“Mhmm.” Tinker’s eyes were fixed on the popcorn swirl of the ceiling. “He was a senior when we were juniors. Football star. What happened to him?”

“Car wreck. They found his Buick wrapped around a tree on the side of old 86. Nasty mess. They’re not sure if it was a hit and run or if it was suicide–doesn’t seem like anything another driver could’ve driven away from, though.” Riley found herself intrigued by the ceiling too–cracking and peeling, galaxies of little white stars. “Funeral’s on Wednesday. His mom said to tell you you should come.”

“I never knew him that well.”

“Yeah, neither did I. But you remember how Mrs. Mims is, right? She wants the whole school there. Even ten years after we’ve graduated. A bunch of people talking about how nice Ash was, how kind and good with animals and all that.”

“He wasn’t.”

“I figure it wouldn’t be the worst thing to do, might comfort–what?”

“He wasn’t good with animals. I saw him kick a dog out on the tennis courts once.” Tinker scowled. “The dog didn’t deserve it, either.”

Riley realized she was staring. “Tinker,” she said. “The guy died.”

“I know that. But he wasn’t good with animals.” Tinker put her cigarette out on the coffee table, not even bothering to wipe the embers away. Riley watched them fizzle and darken, looked across at the patchwork of ashen squares where Tinker had done this a hundred times before.

“The best way to remember the dead,” Tinker intoned, in the manner of someone quoting a hallowed source, “is to tell the truth.”

“Okay, okay. Fine. Just don’t tell too much truth at the funeral.” Riley frowned. “You are going, right? I’ll give you a lift. Don’t make me do this alone, Tink. That wake’s going to be like a high school reunion.”

“Why would that bother you?” She shrugged. “Okay, fine. Whatever. I’ll go. I think I’ve got black clothing lying somewhere around here, I can find it by Wednesday.”

“Great. I’ll come pick you up.”

They sat for a little while in uncomfortable silence. They had been so close in high school–had spent every day together, walked home from school together, had hung out in Caveat Coffee and talked on the phone late at night when Riley couldn’t sleep, which was almost every night. They had gone to prom together, causing a minor commotion in both the Prom Committee and the parking lot of Bully Southern Baptist after church. They had gotten drunk for the first time that night in the Tonkin family basement, splitting a twelve pack of Pabst Tinker’s older brother had gotten for them at the corner stab n’ grab. Riley had told Tinker she liked girls. Tinker had told Riley she didn’t like much of anybody. The next morning, they had gone on like it had never happened. Like friends do. Good friends.

What had happened to all that? Age, Riley guessed. Responsibilities. Bills. Riley’s world was night shift at a convenience store, a bare apartment, visiting with Mom on the weekends. Tinker’s world, though it couldn’t have contained much more–Bully was only so big, after all–seemed alien. A rotting meat world, a child’s make-believe world.
The world of a fugitive from life.

The apartment felt even closer and danker than usual, somehow. The smell of Tinker’s ashed cigarette, hot and sharp and sweet. Riley felt her throat constrict. The ceiling seemed to swell, bulge, though it must have just been her imagination.

“I gotta go,” Riley said, swallowing. “I gotta get ready for work.”

“You haven’t even had a beer,” said Tinker.

“I know. I’ll catch you next time.” And then, for reasons she didn’t entirely understand, Riley added: “sorry, Tink.”

She noticed, on her way out, that the parking lot was once again quiet. The BMW, now boasting a meaty topcoat and a cracked windshield, had been moved across the lot. No one had called the police. No one had even bothered hosing off the meat–the BMW owner had probably been proud to find his car so afflicted. People often were, sometimes even to the point of refusing Tinker’s repair money. The town had never had art before, particularly abstract art, and if there was one thing Bully liked as a whole it was feeling included.

Riley didn’t get it, but then again, she didn’t have to. Her car was off limits. Tinker had pinky-sworn it when they were seventeen.

All in all, it was a typical night.