FREE RANGE MEAT teaser

Note: This story will appear in my upcoming collection Dr. Elessar’s Cabinet of Curiosities, and that’s why I’m posting this teaser.  However, it has already been published in “Kindle” format, and there is a link to that below, in case you cannot wait for The Cabinet to be published.

Free Range Meat cover

FREE RANGE MEAT

            It was unusually hot and bright that day, and as Brian approached the parking lot, he almost regretted his decision to walk to the shopping plaza where his nearest Whole Foods was located.  Though his backpack was currently empty, he was already sweating heavily beneath it, his tee-shirt sticking to his back.  The front of his shirt also, though less sopped than the rear, bore visible sweat marks.  Brian had decided already that, as soon as he got home, he was going to take another shower.  He hated to waste the water, but even his conservational idealism had its limits; many hours remained before bedtime, and he really didn’t want to spend the rest of the afternoon stinking of stale sweat.

            The sky was barely dotted with occasional small clouds, but the air was noticeably humid, and the temperature was well into the upper eighties even though it was only early May.  Brian shook his head, tossing his mid-length, straight hair—also damp with sweat—from side to side as he went.  He wondered, given such unusual warmth, how anyone could possibly doubt that climate change was real, that the world was getting warmer thanks to the unrestrained use of fossil fuels and the ridiculous output of all the cattle humans raised just so they could eat steak and burgers, wasting countless acres of land that could have grown food for people to eat directly, without nearly so much impact on the environment.

            He had to remind himself that one unseasonably hot day was no more proof of global warming than a particularly cold winter day was evidence against it.  Still, the emotional weight was hard to resist.  He didn’t think he was mistaken in believing that his childhood summers had not been as severe, nor as early, as they were now.  That was memory, though, surely colored by the fact that a child’s body was more resilient than an adult’s—though Brian was lean and muscular from regular workouts, a regimen he’d undertaken more to fight against his moderate scoliosis than for trying to look good.  Indeed, at forty-four, Brian had often been assured that he looked easily ten years younger.  The tee-shirts and shorts he habitually wore helped this impression, but even in a suit and tie, which he wore when meeting with certain clients, Brian could easily pass for a young, upwardly mobile professional rather than a man approaching middle age.  Even his simple, wire-framed glasses made him look young and intelligent.

            Brian took no special pride in the fact that he looked good for his age, except to think to himself that this was what clean living did for a person.  And though, just as with the weather on any given day, he knew that his individual attributes couldn’t honestly be used as evidence of a general trend, he was nonetheless convinced that his health and appearance were due more to lifestyle than to genetics.  Perhaps his genes could be credited with the fact that he was smart enough to recognize better ways to live and had the will to act on that recognition. Continue reading

PROMETHEUS AND CHIRON teaser

Note: This story will appear in my upcoming collection Dr. Elessar’s Cabinet of Curiosities, and that’s why I’m posting this teaser.  However, it has already been published in “Kindle” format, and there is a link to that below, in case you cannot wait for The Cabinet to be published.

prometheuscover

PROMETHEUS AND CHIRON

          Tommy first saw the woman at the station in the evening as he waited to catch the train home. He had done some drywalling in a friend of a friend’s house that day and was tired and sore as he waited.  The job had been off the books, so as not to endanger his disability benefits, and it was good to have the extra money; quite apart from eking out basic living expenses, the supplemental cash helped pay for his medical needs.

          Tommy had injured himself some years before, during a construction job on a three-story building.  The fall had not been as serious as it might have been, but three fractured lumbar vertebrae, with the addition of disc herniations and joint injuries to his right knee had left him in chronic pain.  He’d begun taking prescription opiates at first solely to relieve his agony; the extent of his MRI-revealed injuries had at least ensured that he never had to fight much to convince doctors that his pain was real.  After a while, though, he’d found that the meds also made other aspects of life easier, and his dose had slowly but steadily increased.

          Tommy stood at the far end of the station, smoking a cigarette in the designated area.  He had swallowed two extra blues on his way from the job, trying to take the edge off his soreness, to assuage his own jitters, and to relieve his psychic distress over when his next paying job might be coming.  He had just achieved a bit of equanimity when he looked across the track and saw, in the electric light that locally banished the already-thick nighttime, a woman seated on one of the benches.

          Something didn’t seem right about her.  She was extremely pale, Tommy could see that even from across the tracks in the artificial light, and she was visibly trembling and squirming.  She didn’t look healthy. Continue reading

IN THE SHADE teaser

Hand version 1

IN THE SHADE

 

            When Gary Sawyer first heard the screams, he thought they were just the noises of boys playing.  His son, Kyle, had been out most of the morning with his friend, Sean Corcoran, from two “blocks” up, and they were rarely the quietest of companions.  Upon noticing the sharp, high-pitched noises from one of the boys, overlaid with shouted but unintelligible words from the other, Gary assumed that the two were involved in some strange adventure game, or that one of them might be angry at the other.  Such things happened from time to time, even between boys who were as good friends as Kyle and Sean were.

            Gary sometimes thought of the stretch of road on which he lived—and from the end of which he heard the noises—as a “block,” but it really wasn’t.  It was a cul-de-sac, a little, knobby protuberance sticking off the main street, with three houses along each side and four circled around the bulb at its end.  Well…there were three completed houses at the end, and one that was still under construction.

            Gary was not a fan of the way streets were laid out in Florida developments.  He had grown up in the Midwest and the northeast, and one thing you could say about northern suburbia—at least where he had lived—blocks there were blocks.  Streets crossed each other at right angles—more or less—and they split neighborhoods into rectangular agglomerations of dwellings, with backyards abutting other backyards, usually with fences in between, as God clearly intended.

            In Florida, however, things rarely followed any sane deity’s design.  The roads along which people lived tended to meander and twist like big, sightless worms working their way through the soil of neighborhoods, with no clear geometric path.  Occasionally they would close into a single, huge loop, but there was rarely anything one could honestly call a block.  Also, there were all those little protruding bits of rapidly terminating street, such as the one on which the Sawyers lived—strange polyps of roadway.  They were called cul-de-sacs, and residents often referred to them as “sacks.”  Gary supposed the French term sounded fancier than “dead end”, but where he had grown up that was what they would have been called. Continue reading

HOUSE GUEST teaser

The following is an excerpt from the beginning of my short story House Guest, the oldest active story in my opus, so to speak.  It will be the first entry in my upcoming collection Dr. Elessar’s Cabinet of Curiosities.  Enjoy!

knocker

HOUSE GUEST

            William Harrison sat up in bed, awakened by a particularly frightening nightmare.

            This was all too common an event for him, though he’d thought it was becoming less so.  His pajamas were slightly damp with sweat, but that was as much because he was using too many covers as that he was frightened by his dream.  He’d had far too many, sometimes far more terrible and vivid, dreams in his life to let himself be bothered all that much by this last one.  In fact, as was usual, he couldn’t even remember what the dream had been about now that he was awake.

            He blinked sleep from his eyes and looked around the dark room, first noting that, according to his bedside clock, it was just after three in the morning.  Surely that was the loneliest time of night…the soul’s midnight, he had heard someone call it once, though he didn’t know why.

            He sighed.

            His bed was too big.  He noticed this acutely in the near blackness of his room, the pale rectangle showing vividly against the surrounding dark.  For the past several months, he’d slept in a bed that was little more than a cot, and the king-sized mattress he lay on now was far, far larger than that.  To add to—and to worsen—its relative size, his wife, Melissa, wasn’t there with him.  And, of course, neither was Tammy, their four-year-old daughter, who would sometimes crawl into bed with her parents during the night, when her own nightmares, or just her darkened room, became too frightening. Continue reading

Free Range Meat

Free Range Meat cover

Would you try to help a dog locked inside a car on a hot, sunny day?

Brian certainly would. As an environmentally conscious “near-vegan,” he loves all the creatures of the world—even humans, most of the time—and he does his best to help them whenever he can. So, when he hears the obvious sound of a dog trapped in a black SUV on the hottest day of the year, he commits himself to helping it get out if its owner doesn’t arrive within a few minutes.

But isn’t that an unusually dark SUV? Even the windows are so tinted that Brian can’t see inside.

And don’t those barks and whimpers sound just a little…off? What breed of dog makes sounds like that?

These are troubling questions, and as Brian will learn, sometimes even the noblest of intentions can lead one to places one might do better to avoid.

Solitaire

solitaire cover

It’s the early nineteen-nineties, and Jerry, a successful advertising executive, is having a breakdown. He’s done too much shading of the truth, and he’s watched too much Headline News, and he can no longer make sense of the world. Now, sitting at the breakfast table, he contemplates the possible future for himself and his family while dealing out a hand of solitaire…

Author’s note for “Prometheus and Chiron”

pandccover

See on Amazon

Prometheus and Chiron is a more or less straightforward horror story, and its trigger was also straightforward—so straightforward that you might be able to guess it without me telling you, once you’ve read the story.  But I’ll tell you anyway.

One morning, in the waning months of the year, I was nearly alone on the train station platform, waiting for my usual train.  The sun had not yet risen, so it was still quite dark.  As I dithered about (most likely doing some writing or editing), I glanced across the track, and saw a woman standing very still beneath one of the electric lights on the other side.  I looked away for what seemed only a moment, though it could have been quite a bit longer, and when I looked back up, the woman was gone, as though she’d vanished into thin air.

A look down the platform soon revealed that she had simply walked to the other end, for undisclosed reasons of her own.  But her initial silent presence and subsequent seeming vanishment made me think about the possibility of a ghost haunting a railroad platform.  What might have led someone to die in, and then to haunt, such a place?  Under what conditions would such a ghost be visible?  What if it were a ghost that only a certain type of person could see?  This wouldn’t necessarily be a person with psychic abilities (as in my story If the Spirit Moves You, from Welcome to Paradox City) but a person who has certain characteristics, perhaps similar in some special way to the person whose ghost remains.

The story took shape pretty quickly from there.  I don’t recall how long it was before I started writing it, but by the time I did, all the elements were present.  I wanted to deal, of course, with the hellish experience of a spirit being trapped in one place, right where she had died, and the frightening fact of a living person finding himself able to see such a ghost.  But I also wanted to deal with the much realer hell that both of the characters in the story exemplify, one with which I’m familiar on many levels:  as a physician who has treated those with chronic pain and with addiction problems, as a sufferer of chronic pain due to back injury, and as someone who has seen friends and family die as a consequence of addiction.

The ghost-woman trapped at the station represents the classic, purely self-destructive individual that most people probably imagine when they think of drug addicts:  someone who, for whatever reasons, started taking drugs and got hooked on them.  I dealt with this tangentially in Ifowonco, but it’s central to Prometheus and Chiron.  This ghost is a woman whose life was ruined—and ended—by her abuse of narcotics.  Unfortunately for her, at the place she died, a supernatural force was present, one not merely destructive but actively malevolent.

Tommy, on the other hand—the protagonist—is a different breed of addiction victim.  He’s a former Marine, a hard worker, a basically upright citizen and good person, who worked in the construction industry.  Because of an accident on the job, he’s been left with chronic pain from low back and knee injuries.  He’s qualified for disability benefits, but as many people know, these can be woefully limited in the relief they provide.  To cover his cost of living, Tommy has to do at least some paying work now and then, but he has to hide that work from the authorities, so he doesn’t lose his benefits, and he has to treat his pain to be able to function at all.  Unfortunately, the only available medicines capable of dealing with significant chronic pain are opiates…and they come with a series of liabilities, including increasing levels of physical dependence—and the risk of psychological dependence—and consequent, agonizing withdrawal symptoms if one is suddenly deprived of them.  This is a terrible, no-win situation in which all too many well-intentioned people find themselves.

It’s this dependence on opiates, which he shares with the ghost-woman, that allows Tommy to see her, and that, combined with his good heart, makes him vulnerable to the danger he encounters.

The title of this story arrived after I’d almost completed the first draft, but it must have been percolating through my subconscious for some time.  It is, in a way, somewhat pretentious, but I couldn’t help myself; it seemed so appropriate.  It also risks, for those familiar with mythology, giving away the end of the story.  I recognized that possibility but decided that the risk was worth it.

Prometheus and Chiron is shorter than many of my short stories, and it’s fairly concentrated and direct.  Writing it was enjoyable—it almost always is—and more than a little bit cathartic.  It allowed me to express some of the personal horror I experienced while taking prescription pain medications for many years while at the same time suffering through the pain that made them necessary.  (It wouldn’t be too over-simplistic to say that those experiences were a large part of what led to the crashing and burning of my previous life.)

Writing Tommy’s character was a revelatory experience.  Knowing that he was going to be going through some very bad things indeed, I named him after someone I knew—not well, but well enough to know that I didn’t like him much.  However, as I wrote, I realized that my fictional Tommy was a far finer person than my impression of his namesake.  This led me to wonder if, just maybe, the real person had aspects to his character that were also quite admirable, if only on some small scale, and which I was being uncharitable in not recognizing.  I can’t give you an answer to that question, because I only knew the real Tommy briefly and haven’t seen or heard from him in a long time.  Maybe, though, if we all knew the inner workings of other people’s minds as well as we experience imaginary characters through the medium of fiction, we would find at least some sympathy for even the most unpleasant of people.  For me, at least, that’s probably a lesson worth considering.

Enough philosophizing.  Ultimately, Prometheus and Chiron was meant to be, and is, a fairly simple supernatural horror story, and I don’t expect or ask for anyone to care much about it on any other level.  I hope you enjoy it.

“I for one welcome our new computer overlords” – The Audio!

ifowonco final

Hello there, everyone.

Here, at last, is the audio version of I for one welcome our new computer overlords, read by the author (me).  You are free to listen to it on this site, or to download it to listen at a later time, and even to share the file with your friends.  You are not allowed to charge anyone money, or to otherwise make money, from that process, nor to pass the work off as your own.  Other than that, however, please enjoy.  If anyone does a dance remix, please let me know, I’d love to hear it.

I apologize for the many imperfections in this audio file – there are inconsistencies in volume and tone, which make it clear where I began new recording sessions, and there is also the occasional air sound on the mic.  As I’ve written before, doing this is a learning process, and I expect that my next audio recorded story (probably Prometheus and Chiron), will have somewhat better production values.  Depending on the reception this one receives, there will be at least some delay before I do that; it’s a time-consuming process, and even though P and C is a shorter story than Ifowonco, on this one I must have put in  ten to twenty hours of work for each hour of the final recording (just over two).  I really must get back into full-throttle writing of Unanimity, also.  However, depending on how enthusiastic the reception is for this audio version of Ifowonco, as well as the inscrutable exhortations of my soul, I may turn to my next audio recording sooner rather than later.  I also plan to turn this audio into a video, which will likely just be the audio track, playing over some fixed image – probably the e-book cover, I shouldn’t wonder.

As you may notice, in order to be able to post the audio recording here, I’ve upgraded my site, and you shouldn’t be seeing advertisements on it anymore.  If you do, in the future, they’ll be ads I’ve put up myself.

And speaking of advertising…if you enjoy this audio telling of my story, I encourage you to buy the e-book version for Kindle.  It’s only 99 cents (in America, with equivalent pricing in other territories), and the Kindle app is free and can be used on any smartphone, laptop, desktop, or tablet.  Even though one loses the romance of the paper book, the convenience of being able to carry around an essentially limitless library in your pocket is hard to beat, as even Peter Lunsford admits.  I currently lug 118 volumes around with me wherever I go, and believe me, I’m just getting started.

To purchase, or just to peruse, the story at Amazon, just click on the image of the cover above, or on any of the full or abbreviated instances of the title written in this post (similarly, you can see Prometheus and Chiron by clicking on any of the links attached to its title or abbreviation).

Okay, well, without further ado (and there has been much of it, hopefully not about nothing), here is the audio version of Ifowonco, submitted for your enjoyment:

TTFN!

Author’s note for “If the Spirit Moves You”

This author’s note for If the Spirit Moves You is the last one from Welcome to Paradox City, and though it’s the middle story in that small collection, I think it was the last one that I wrote.  It’s also the lightest-hearted story in the book, though it still qualifies as one of “three dark tales,” because its subject matter is ghosts…or the “unquiet dead” as one of the characters in the story asks us to say.

This was not a title-driven story.  The idea for it was triggered by a comment I heard while staying with my parents and my sister for a few months, after having completed Work Release at the tail end of my sojourn with the Florida DOC.  It was October and, as was their wont, my sister and mother had put up many holiday-related decorations in and around the house, including the front lawn.  One morning my sister came in from raking some leaves and she said to my mother that, while she was out front, a ghost fell out of the tree near her.  I knew she was referring to one of the decorations she had put up earlier, but her statement made me think about what might happen if a person were outside and a real ghost fell out of a nearby tree.

Of course, ghosts, as understood in popular culture, aren’t normally prone to falling, so the idea seemed humorous to me.  I wondered under what circumstances a ghost really might be subject to the usual influence of gravity.  I also wondered under what circumstances a person might actually see such a thing happen.

The story didn’t develop right then and there but percolated and fermented and sporulated and incubated and underwent all sorts of other metaphorical processes for quite some time.  Finally, it popped out in more or less complete form:  What if people don’t see ghosts anymore, not because we have come to know that they don’t exist, but because the increasing disbelief in them has deprived them of their power?  If that were the case, and if they realized it, how might they seek to change the situation, so that they could regain their influence.  Also, why would they want to do it?  I thought it would be more interesting, and more fun, if they weren’t trying to accomplish anything sinister, but rather to bring themselves to the attention of the modern world, so they could enlist the aid of modern science in helping to free them from their prison as earthbound spirits.

The purpose of writing this story was just to play with the idea.  I suppose that’s ultimately true of any story at some level, but I also wanted to make this one funny, at least a little.  Thus, the almost slapstick nature of the young ghost’s tumble from the tree while trying to practice hanging himself, and the confused subsequent interaction between him and Edgar Lee, the story’s protagonist, in which each only slowly realizes the other’s nature.

Among many influences on the story, one is my love of manga and anime, a taste I acquired only after I was already in my thirties.  The supernatural stories in manga often have a different kind of sensibility than many traditional Western tales.  This is probably partly because of the cultural heritage of Shintoism, which considered spirits to be integral and essential parts of the world.  Many anime and manga have characters who—unlike nearly all of their fellow modern humans—can see and interact with spirits of one kind or another, good and bad.  This would be just the sort of person who might encounter an inept ghost falling out of a tree.  Thus, Edgar Lee, I decided, had at least some Asian heritage…including a great-grandfather who had, in China, used a peach wood sword to exorcise demons.

I enjoyed combining seemingly contradictory attributes into individual characters in this story.  There’s the inept and clumsy young ghost with a bit of a snarky attitude, who is a fan of James Randi—that rock-star of the skeptical debunker community.  There’s the ghost’s friend and fellow spirit, the instigator of the plan to reawaken belief in and awareness of ghosts, who is painfully PC in his sensibilities and tries to raise consciousness about the inappropriate use of stereotypes regarding the “unquiet dead”.  There’s Edgar’s father, a sober and rational retired electrical engineer who is utterly unsurprised when Edgar discovers his own supernatural ability, and who says, “These things happen.”  And of course, there’s Edgar himself, a struggling copywriter for a PR firm who realizes that he is possibly the last person on Earth who can see ghosts.

This obviously isn’t supposed to be a deep story, though I do try to take it and its characters seriously within their own world.  It’s always harder to be funny than it is to be scary—probably for good, sound, biological reasons—so I rarely write to try to make other people laugh.  In this story, mostly, I was writing to make myself laugh, or at least to smile, while still creating interesting characters with a problem that really would be bad if we were faced with it.  How horrible would it be to be trapped on Earth for eternity, unable to have any effect whatsoever on anything that happens?  Pretty horrible, I’m thinking.

The story makes a nice buffer between the other two in Welcome to Paradox City, neither of which has much humor, and both of which have very non-happy endings.  If the Spirit Moves You ends on a rather optimistic note, and I like sometimes to imagine what sort of events might have followed the story’s conclusion.  I hope that some readers think about such things as well, and that at least a few of them share my bizarre sense of humor and get a modest laugh out of the story.

Finally, a brief word about the title.  The first draft of the story was complete before I even started thinking about what to call it, and that task required a few solid days’ pondering.  I considered and rejected several rather stupid and ham-handed plays on words, including one which turned out already to have been used by a Bugs Bunny cartoon.  Finally, I decided just to go with a slight variant on the dry joke Edgar’s father makes at the end of the story.  He is, probably, my favorite character in the tale, and is partly modeled after my own father; giving him (nearly) the last word as well as the honor of naming the story seemed entirely appropriate.