Sunday, December 30, 2007


Now that I'm submitting stories to contests and paying markets, it's about time I had a more serious website. It's here, and I'd appreciate tips and suggestions.

I've also prettified my Lulu Storefront and would appreciate thoughts on my new banner. You'll see I've got my newly-compiled "Will and Diana Adventures" ready for purchase (it's also available in Kindle format at Amazon). It has two stories that have not been posted here, and lots of nifty pictures, like in "My New-Found Land."

And speaking of "My New-Found Land," Thomma has a very nice review of it on her site. Thanks, Thomma! I'm so glad you enjoyed it!

And finally, I know it's the holidays, folks, and I'm as guilty as anyone of comment laziness, but a lot of people contributed some very fine stories to the Holiday Flash Fiction Carnival, so please take a minute to read and comment. The person looking for comment love tomorrow might be you, yanno.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Holiday Flash Fiction Carnival

Happy Holidays, everyone! No matter what you're celebrating this month, we've got a story for you! Just take your pick from the offerings below and be sure to leave a comment!

Submissions are still trickling in, so be sure to stop back by and see what's new!


Musical Hanukkah Celebration by Susan Helene Gottfried


Forever Christmas by William Skye

The Perfect Gift by Jared Holt

Christmas Parade, 1968 by Virginia Lee

Age of Abundance by Ann Pino

Christmas at the Old Motel by Ann Pino, aka Bunnygirl

Why We Have an Artificial Tree by Sherry Antonetti

Sauce for the Goose by Sherry Antonetti

The Real Christmas Fruitcake by Sherry Antonetti

Arcady and Zene: A Decent Christmas by Arachne Jericho

The Christmas Gift by Kat Frass

Blunt Reality by Kate Boddie

Christmas Story by WriterKat

O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree by Lee Ann

New Year's

New Year's Eve by Thomma Lyn

New Year's Eve in Dallas by Susan Helene Gottfried

Thursday, December 20, 2007

O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree

Flash fiction by guest blogger Lee Ann

Rows of evergreen trees filled the field, stretching to the edge of the narrow road and back to where the woods began. Some were the right size, anywhere from four to six feet high but others climbed toward the dull sky, reaching up to ten feet and beyond. The wind that whispered through the branches reminded her of ghosts and the entire Christmas tree farm experience was surreal, reminding Bethany of an animated holiday special. If a talking or singing snowman emerged from the trees, she would not have been too surprised.

“Do you see one you like?” Raleigh’s voice interrupted her musing. With a borrowed handsaw, orange with wicked sharp teeth, he looked out of place. Under normal circumstances, he was handier with a pen or television remote than any type of tool so in this wild place, Raleigh looked like a deranged tree man bent on mayhem.

Bethany walked down the road, turned left and sauntered through more trees. An insane urge to hum carols seized her but she did not, dealing instead with the task at hand. How, she wondered, do you choose a single tree of the proper size from hundreds of like pines? And how do you adjust the concept of size from the wide-open field of trees to the close, confined walls of an apartment?

One tree, tall enough but slimmer than most of the rest, seemed like the ideal choice. She touched one branch, amazed at the give of a living object, and waved one mittened hand at Raleigh.

“I want this one.” She imagined it in a stand, decked with small multi-colored lights and ornaments. “It will look just right.”

He shrugged. “If you’re sure.”

Raleigh knelt on the frosty ground and began sawing at the slender trunk with the jagged teeth of the saw. The soft wind sounds through the other trees ceased and a high keening echoed in her ears, the awful sound of an emergency siren or a banshee.

“Stop!” Bethany screamed. “You’re killing it.”

“Huh?” Raleigh stopped, sap spattered across his freckled hands like blood. “What are you talking about?”

The tree’s screams grated on her soul like someone’s fingernails scratching down a chalkboard and she knew even though they stopped, it would die, mortally wounded. Still, she could not listen any longer so she pulled the saw out of his hands.

“I changed my mind.” The lie sounded fine as she spoke it, plausible and convincing.

“I think it would be better to buy a fake tree. Let’s turn in this saw and head for Wal-Mart.”

He scowled but pulled himself up from the ground, brushing the dirt from his jeans.

“Whatever, Bethie, whatever. I just wish you had decided it sooner. We drove by three different Wal-Mart stores on the way here.”

Raleigh turned to go and she followed. Although the screams softened into whimpers, she could still hear them but she did not look back, not even once.

Forever Christmas

A flash fiction by friend and guest-blogger William Skye

The dream of winter. The dream of snow. Soft flakes falling in moonlight; the crack-crack-crackling of ice in a world gone still. Soft and cold, as white as the night is black.

Drifts piled high. Cold breath steams frosty and freezes in the ice thin air. Walking. Crunching and cracking. Slowly walking. Houses, some lit, some dark, some festive, some sullen. They cocoon their human larva and weave the dream of spring.

The path gives way to a flat land, where houses dare not grow. Snow piles and drifts in cold waves, pushed by the wind, watched by the moon. Soft flakes falling. Here it is deep, here it is hard. With each crunch-step a steam breath, and finally a rest. The slope down to the sea.

The moon is full and hard and bright in a sky filled with jewel lights. Bleached of color, a world of black white. Down the slope, to the slap of an ice fringed sea. Hard to walk. The sand gives way. She falls once, but catches herself and goes on. The sea is black and full of dancing lights. The moon paints a streak of white in the black, and in it she just sees something move. Up. Down. Up. Whales? Orca, yes, Orca. Their steamy breath, white cotton puffs clear in the moonlight. For a moment her heart is warm.

Quiet, she begins to shiver. Her breath is soft and white, and she is dizzy. Squatting on her heels she stares down, and sees it. Up. Down. Up with the wave. She pulls off her mitten and grabs into the freezing, burning water. Got it! A shell. She drops it in the snow and her mitten, warm and dry, wraps her hand again.

She stands and turns to go back, but first angles the moonlight on her prize. It is familiar, many ridges. She looks slightly away to catch any color; faint yellow. Tiger Lucina. What are you doing here, my tropical friend? And who is asking whom?

She zippers the sea gift into her jacket. Oh, the slope shines faraway bright. So much easier down than up. The snow crusted sand is hard walking. Finally, the dark base. She rests, then on to it, climbing, crabbing, jogging an inch at a time. Eventually, fitfully, to the top. Her heart is in her throat. Dots at the edges of her eyes. A step, a stumble, her strength fails, she falls.

A white light. A world of light. A whorl of sound, of traffic in the city. The woman who is not a mother stares into the face of the girl who is not a daughter. Not Mother not daughter, hand-in-hand on the curb they wait. The busses stream past, the sickly smell of burning fat, sometimes fishy, sometimes bovine, equine, porcine. The terrible heat and grit and unwashable staleness. Close bodies, standing, waiting. Not daughter is at the bottom of a well of humanity, breathing softly, trying not to inhale through her nose.

Talking. Mr. Li and Mrs. Li, always arguing. A parody of language, a song of anger and accusation. Waiting for the bus. Honking, swirling traffic. Jimmy and Eloisa, but that’s not right, kissing. He stares at her green eyes, and then at her tits, dappled with sweat, up, down, inside her white blouse. Laughing. “And do you think she doesn’t know?” not Mother said. Not daughter didn’t know what to think. She felt beads of sweat on her upper lip and drew her breaths in little pants. Eloisa wore little pants. Didn’t she know?

An age of the world turned and the sun blotted out, a white leviathan grunted and hissed air shot black from the blowhole on top, bobbed up, down, up and stop. Steps, pulled gently, she stumbled slightly but was caught. The blesséd blessed bus. Twice and thrice blessed. An end to waiting, Hail Mary! Motion, Ye Saints Be Praised! Air conditioning, Hosanna! But wait, the windows are all open, a dark breeze when the bus pulls into traffic, stifling heat when it stops. The smell of fried flesh. Oh, ye curséd and ye vile city transport.

Into the heart of the city. Shopping, yes, Christmas shopping. The air-conditioned mall. Not daughter one more piece of baggage for not Mother, but like an egg placed in her pocket for safe keeping, never a cross word or jar or snap. A soft touch, a gentle kindness, a smile, a cold drink with lunch and no tsk-tsk because she was too hot to eat more.

Encumbered and laden like llamas they return from whence, retracing and rebussing themselves across the sweat stain city. Not Mother proud her not daughter absorbs the lessons of stoic propriety and proper demeanor.

And walking. She looks up into not Mother’s face, and down into her own, and they are walking in Pertumbuco, yes, a few short blocks, and then the house. No air-conditioning, but ceiling fans, and no flat gassy smells, but not Mother’s airy scents, Lemon Grass and Lilac. Jimmy is napping, the TV murmuring. Not daughter can at last use the bathroom, pee, wash. She pulls off the white skirt, rolls up and rolls down the sweaty clothes. Naked, she runs the washcloth over herself. Luxury, pure luxury. Convinced Jimmy is asleep she dashes damp for her chest of drawers, grabs panties, white cotton, left step right step pull up, lays on the cool sheets, and dissolves in siesta.

Giggles wake her. “Don’t wake Granma,” boy whispers. “Too late,” girl whispers. “I’m tellin’,” boy whispers, hoarsely.

She sits up in the chair, and feels the fire’s warmth pleasant on her face. Christmas tree shines in the corner. “No one’s telling,” she says, and “go back to playing. I’m awake.” Smile.

Her husband rounds the corner. For a moment she is shocked, he looks so old. Hair gone, skin loose, sweater red, with a cup of tea, for her. She closes her eyes for a moment and pulls herself straight, and back to the present. He perches on the arm of her chair.

“I had a dream,” she tells him. “I think it was of when I was a girl. Ceiling fans on at Christmas, everything so hot, the city so still and stifling. The busses ran on that bio-diesel, do you remember? Everything smelled like cooking.”

“Umm,” he said. Not a yes or a no but an I Hear You. “Before the Big Snap.”

“Uh-huh,” she replies. “Before this damn new ice age. Before these damn glaciers everywhere.” She sips her tea. “God, what a world.”

“And this?” he says, picking the shell up from the end table. He runs his fingernail across the ridges, up and down.

She takes it. “I’m not sure where it came from. It’s Lucina. Tropical. Something, something to do with it, too, the dream. I can’t remember.”

“Tropical?” he says. “That’s not a word you hear much anymore.” He touches the shell. “All gone?”

She nods, “All gone.”

Christmas at the Old Motel

(a Will and Diana Adventure)

Wind was blowing through the broken window again. Before Amalia could get up, Diana set her knitting aside and wedged the rags back in place. She paused, peering out the grimy pane of glass.

“They’ll be back when they can,” Amalia told her.

“I don’t know why you wouldn’t let me go with them.”

“It’s Unitas’ rule, not mine.”

Diana gave her a disgusted look. “You could’ve told Harley I was the same age as Will.”

“Honesty is the best policy.” Amalia bent back over her journal.

Diana returned to her seat of duffel bags and an old seat cushion and picked up her knitting. “Well, you won’t be able to stop me next year. I’ll be old enough to go on all the same missions Will goes on. Even the dangerous ones.”

Amalia’s shoulders tightened and her pen quit moving. “And if something happened to you, your family—”

“Would still be dead.”

“I suppose so.” Amalia began writing again.

Diana examined her knitting and tried to pick up where she left off, but she kept dropping stitches and finally set the shapeless project aside.

“Why don’t you fletch a few arrows?”

“Don’t feel like it.”

“Take a nap. I’ll wake you for your turn on watch.”

“I’m not tired.”

“Would you like me to read to you?”

“No.” Diana got to her feet and paced the cold, narrow room.

“If you can’t find a useful project I can make sure you get assigned one.”

Diana sat down and sullenly picked up her knitting again. “I just want Will to come back.”

Amalia didn’t answer.

“What kind of dumb mission takes place over Christmas? Last year all the groups called a truce and we played soccer with the snipers from Hispanos Unidos.”

“And by New Year’s they had shot three of our camp supporters. We can't trust anyone.”

“So why did you let Will go? He's my best friend and he's the closest thing I’ve got to family and—”

Amalia’s voice took on an edge. “You’ve got me.”

“It's not the same. Some fucking Christmas this is.”

“Diana.” Amalia turned intense eyes upon her. “You obviously need constructive work to do. Go help Paloma with supper.”

“I don’t want to.”

“Go now, or I’ll make sure you get assigned something you’ll like even less.”

Diana spent the rest of the afternoon tending fires and stoking improvised brick ovens in the shelter of a collapsed wing of the motel. Finally it was time to go on watch. With a pocket full of dry cornbread, she went to her station on a low wall at the entrance to the motor court. Now that she had access to binoculars, she scanned the horizon anxiously. But she saw neither friends nor enemies, only the blank scrubland stretching toward the distant mesas.

As the sun set and a light snow began to fall, her hope faded that Will and the rest of their party might make it back for Christmas Eve. When Ikea relieved her, she handed over the binoculars and trudged back to the room she shared with Auntie.

As she stepped inside, she sucked in her breath. On the wobbly dresser, Amalia had arranged some branches of mesquite and lit her two precious wax candles, their light reflecting like stars in the dusty mirror. Occupying pride of place was a bundle wrapped in cloth and tied with a fraying ribbon.

At Diana’s questioning look, Amalia ducked her head. “I know we said we’d wait until Will came back. So consider it a surprise from Santa.”

“I’m a little old for Santa.” She picked up the gift. “Maybe I should open it later. I don’t have yours ready yet.”

“Santa gave me what I wanted.” Amalia sat on the edge of the musty bed and motioned Diana to her. “You seem to forget you're not the only one who has no home or kin. I know I'm hard on you sometimes, but you're my family now, and when I think what it would mean to lose you. . .”

Diana stared in silence as Amalia looked away, sniffling. Auntie never cried, not even on the day she buried her own sister. “I'm sorry.” She threw her arms around her. “I don't know what makes me so selfish. It's a good Christmas, just us together. Really.”

Diana opened her present, which consisted of some much-needed socks and a warm knit cap. Then Amalia read the nativity story from the Bible while Diana dozed beside her on the bed. Finally Amalia put the book away and they slept huddled in their patched wool blankets while snowflakes drifted lazily outside the window.

Just before sunrise, a soft sound awakened her and Diana opened one eye to see the door swing inward. Thinking it was the wind, she stumbled to her feet to close it.

A shadow in the doorway gave her pause. “You came back!”

Will was filthy and damp with melting snow, but he grabbed Diana tight, as if he might pull her into his body so he could have her with him always. Over the top of her head, he met Amalia’s suspicious eyes.

“Are you AWOL?”

Will limped to the bed, carrying a saddlebag. “I'm heading straight back after breakfast. What’s Harley going to do? Kick me out?” He reached into his bag and produced two paper-wrapped packages. “For my favorite ladies. Merry Christmas.”

Amalia’s eyes narrowed. “How did you get—?”

“Does it matter?”

“Stealing is no way to celebrate the birth of our Savior.”

“You know I don't care about that Baby Jesus stuff.” He opened his arms for Diana to sit on his lap, where he kissed her hair and wrapped her braid around a chilblained hand. “Aren't you going to open your present?”

“This is my present.” She looked to Amalia for approval. “Isn't that what's important? That we lost our families but made our own, instead?”

Amalia was examining her gift, frowning as if she might have something else to say about it. But instead her features softened and she put it aside. “Of course,” she said. “Being with the ones we love is the best gift of all.”

Monday, December 17, 2007

Sticky: Holiday Flash Fiction Carnival

Send story links! Carnival submission details here.

The Sniper

(a "Will and Diana" Adventure)

It started with a ping off the dutch oven. A musical note, it startled Cascabel as she was about to crack an egg. A few feet away, Macy looked up from the coffee grinder with a frown.

The second bullet zipped past Cascabel's arm like a bee. She dropped the egg and clutched her shoulder.

“Get down!” Paloma shoved Cascabel to the ground while Macy shrieked and scurried behind a donkey cart.

There was a rustle in the nearest tent and Ikea poked her head out the flap. A bullet punctured the canvas inches from her face. With a gasp she ducked back inside, but her action had given Paloma and Cascabel enough time to hurry to the shelter of Macy’s cart. Ikea fired some warning shots, sounding the alarm.

In a tent at the edge of camp, Will sat up with a start. He grabbed the rifle he kept by his side and scrambled to his feet, stepping into his moccasins as he ran outside. Diana tried to follow, but Amalia grabbed her arm and jerked her back.

Will heard them arguing as he zig-zagged toward the shelter of a crumbling wall. He hoped Amalia would keep Diana away. Although he trusted his adoptive sister’s aim, it made him crazy when someone took shots at her, and bringing down a sniper would require he keep his cool.

He stopped to collect his thoughts as bullets chipped harmlessly at the other side of the wall. How the hell had someone gotten close enough to fire on their camp? And was it a loner, or part of an advance group for an enemy unit?

A few feet away, Sachi waved to him from behind the shelter of a metal drum. She made hand signals that Will thought he understood, then fired in the direction the shots seemed to be coming from. Her distraction drew the sniper’s fire and Will made a run for it.

It took only a few minutes of ducking and dodging to get out of the line of fire, but it felt like hours before he was safely scrambling up the hillside behind the cover of some creosote and mesquite. Although he couldn’t make out the marksman’s exact position, he suspected he was hiding somewhere along the ridge of flattened space where a road used to wind through these sand hills.

He was almost over the spot when he came upon Boeing taking temporary shelter behind a rock. “What the hell’s going on?” Will asked.

“Seems to be just one. Got past the Javelina somehow.”

“He better have shot him,” Will muttered. “’Cause if any of our people get killed, I’ll slit Javelina’s fucking throat.”

The two young men advanced slowly, sometimes crouching, sometimes dragging themselves through the brush on their bellies, until they finally made out their target—a dark-hatted figure in bandoliers taking aim at the camp from behind a rusted pickup truck.

Just as Will and Boeing raised their guns to their shoulders, a shadow rustled the nearby scrub. They cursed and were about to fire when they realized it was only Javier. “We were hoping you were dead,” Will said. With a snort of disgust, he turned back to the sniper

It was never clear whether it was his shot or Boeing’s that laid the sniper flat against the rusting metal, but what neither of them doubted was that Javier’s shot was an afterthought, punctuating the body with a superfluous hole after the real work had been done.

It was Javier who was first down the trail to the sniper’s perch, where he shot the marksman a few extra times with his pistol.

“Quit wasting ammo,” Boeing said.

“If you’d done your job and kept proper watch—”

“Me? He came up on your side, asshole!”

While they shouted at each other, Will turned the body over. “Shit. He’s just a kid.” He started checking the boy’s gear and clothing for signs of group affiliation.

“What’s he got?” Javier forced his way forward and shoved his hand in one of the boy’s pockets. With a pleased smile he withdrew a few silver coins.

“That belongs to the group,” Will said.

“No, it belongs to me. For the trouble I had to go to to kill the little bastard.”

Boeing lunged toward him. “You didn’t do jack, Javelina—”

Before he could say any more, Will’s fist connected with Javier’s gut, knocking the wind out of him with a gasp. “You’re such an asshole.” He picked up the coins where they had spilled on the ground, then returned to the matter at hand. “I don’t see any evidence the kid had affiliation,” he told Boeing as Javier lay wheezing at his feet.

“Probably a lone troublemaker.”

Will examined the sniper’s face, the blunted boyish features innocent in repose. “We’ll take him down to camp and make sure he gets a decent burial.”

From where he was still trying to catch his breath, Javier gasped, “Let the fucker rot. He wanted to kill us.”

Boeing kicked Javier in the ribs, then helped Will pick up the body. “This kid wasn’t a half bad shot,” he said as they stumbled down the trail. "I wonder why he did it.”

“No telling.”

“Maybe he had something to prove.”

Will adjusted his footing in a patch of loose gravel. He thought of Macy and Cascabel and wondered if there would still be coffee and eggs. “He only proved he could shoot at women making breakfast. That’s nothing special.”

“And it's a dumb way to die,” Boeing added.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Holiday Flash Fiction Carnival:

Watch This Space!

I'll be hosting a Holiday Flash Fiction Carnival, starting December 21. Anyone who wants to join is welcome.

Requirements are minimal:

* Must be 1500 words or less, 1000 or less preferred.
* Must have a December holiday or New Year's as a theme. I expect Christmas and Hanukkah to get the most representation, but Winter Solstice, Kwanzaa, ancient Mithraic rites, or even a respectful Bah Humbug are fine.
* Must be fiction (duh).
* Can be old or new, posted on your blog or someone else's, or even published in a zine somewhere, so long as it's linkable.

Any other questions? Just ask!

Send those story links to me between now and the 21st via the comments section below or via email to uhamp "at" yahoo "dot" com.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Flash Fiction Interlude: Hunger

(A Will and Diana Adventure)

Diana bent over the cluster of spiny cactus pads, searching for the best one. “Best” was a relative term. Not only were the nopales a detestable food that she hadn’t liked even before it became this summer’s staple, but this patch was particularly poor; the pads were thin and wrinkled, with black spots of spreading rot. She selected one that was less pock-marked than the rest, sliced it off and dropped it in her bag.

She stood and stretched her aching back. Around her, the other girls worked listlessly. They were thin and dispirited after a long summer stationed at this remote site, waiting for the invading armies of Texas and Mexico to make the next move. In the meantime, food had run scarce and game died from drought.

Diana adjusted her thick gloves and bent back over the cactus. In spite of the weak rumble of her stomach, the nopales didn’t appeal. Her thoughts drifted to a cache of lizard eggs she had found a few weeks ago. She had been less hungry then, and the soft-boned proto-lizards had sufficiently repulsed her that she hadn’t tried to eat them. Now she would gladly eat a lizard in any stage of gestation, goo and all. But as she scanned the dusty, rock-strewn field, she saw no sign that anything lived here other than the wretched nopales.

“Think we got enough?” One of the girls removed a glove and fanned herself. “Maybe they’ll let us have some of that soup before the boys get back and eat it all.”

“Caldo de huesos,” Diana’s friend Sachi muttered as she examined a pad for rot. “My favorite.”

Diana silently agreed. The weak broth of nettles and boiled rabbit bones was hardly anything to look forward to. “Better than nothing.”

“But not better than posole.”

“Or roast chicken,” another girl said.

“Or a thick goat stew with potatoes and carrots, and—”

“Stop that,” Diana said, tying off her bag. “You know what Harley said. No talking about food we don’t have.”

“Well if he’d let us take what we needed from that ranch on the other side of the arroyo, we wouldn’t be so hungry,” Sachi pointed out. “It’s not like they’re going to miss one of their skinny cows, anyway. They’re probably all gristle and will die before the summer is out.”

The other girls murmured in agreement as they headed back to camp to turn over their nopales to the camp supporters who would strip them of spines and cook them.

As Diana gave her sack to Aunt Amalia, she averted her eyes and shied away from the hand that reached to comfort her. For the last several days Auntie had been looking at her strangely, as if hunger was a visible thing etched in her face. And last night as Diana snuggled against Will for warmth in the cool desert air, he had run a hand across her hip and expressed concern at the way her bones jutted sharp underneath her skin.

“They’re not very good,” Diana said of the nopales, hoping to avoid a personal discussion.

“Just don’t overcook them,” Sachi said to no one in particular. “I hate it when they get slimy.”

“Don’t worry,” Amalia told her. “We’ll roast them. And Harley got a snake for the soup pot.”

“A big one?” a girl asked hopefully.

Amalia picked up Diana’s sack. “We take what we can get.”

Diana and Sachi exchanged a glance. Where there was one snake, perhaps there would be others. “Where did he find it? We’ll go see if there's more,” she said.

“Just be back in time for your turn on watch. And bring some Russian thistle for the horses.”

Sachi and Diana headed out on foot. Once they were beyond the immediate camp environs, they drew their guns and began scanning the ground for signs of life. They tracked west for half an hour without seeing anything. When they came to one of the arroyos bordering the nearby ranch, they slid down the bank and began following its twists and turns. After a few minutes they came across boot prints and their hopes fell. If the boys had already passed this way, it wasn't likely there would be any game.

They were about to turn back when they heard voices.

“You look like a fucking cannibal, man.”

“And what do you think you look like?”

“Hold it steady so I can get another piece.”

Around the bend Will and two other boys huddled over the carcass of a spotted calf. Blood soaked the parched soil and flies buzzed over a glistening pile of entrails.

The boys looked up. Their hands and mouths were dripping red and they tightened their grip on their knives. But seeing it was only Sachi and Diana, they relaxed and waved them forward.

“It would've died anyway, so it's not really rustling," Aguilero said. "But still, don’t tell."

“Oh, God, no.” Sachi cut a strip of bloody flank and shoved it in her mouth. “I’ve been wanting to do this for weeks.”

“Harley’s got the right idea about principles,” Will said, “But there’s gotta be limits.”

“I don't want to starve over someone's idea of right and wrong,” Boeing agreed. He dug into the calf’s open belly and sliced off a piece of liver. “Here you go, baby.” He dangled it in front of Sachi’s lips. “And if you come by my tent tonight, I’ll have some other organ meat for you.”

While the others ate and teased each other, Will drew Diana away. In the shade of a rock was an oozing leather pouch. “I was going to bring you this.”

Diana opened it and stared for a moment at the quivering mass of raw meat. Her mind flashed back on her other life, on who she had been before the Guard destroyed her home and killed her family. She had a fleeting impression of eggs scrambled with chiles, of beans and summer squash, and of honey drizzled over corn cakes hot from the oven. How had she come to this?

A wave of dizziness hit her. She scooped a handful of the bleeding flesh and devoured it.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Identity Management

No, I’m not going to talk about single sign-on, LDAP, or strong passwords, so disappointed techies will be advised to keep moving.

* * *

Okay, are we writers alone now? Good. Because I want to take a minute to discuss who we really are.

In the years I’ve been writing and meeting writers online, I’ve seen a wide range of attitudes toward the end result of our efforts. For some, just getting their work into the hands of a few friends is enough, while for others, print publication and financial success are the only markers that their long hours at the computer have not been in vain.

Why such a disparity in what a writer considers “success?”

Clearly, some of it is innate. Some people are naturally oriented toward the external trappings of success (such as a positive review in the New York Times) while others see success as something internal. (Who cares if anyone else likes it? I had fun!)

But there’s another element to all this that had eluded me until recently: Identity.

When you define yourself first and foremost as a writer, that means something to others, and you’d have to be made of stone to not be swayed by the cultural assumption that if you’re a writer, you therefore must be published. For those of us who see writing as our primary identity, a sense of true accomplishment can only come from commercial success.

Even if we hit the brass ring of traditional publication, that doesn’t mean the book will sell or that we'll ever be published again. Therefore it seems to me that we writers would be wise to better appreciate our other identities.

Most writers are fully capable of developing other artistic skills, so why not paint, learn a musical instrument, or sing? If you already do these things privately, maybe there’s a retirement home that would enjoy some new paintings or a piano concerto. Maybe there’s a church or civic choir that would appreciate your lovely voice.

Get some new certifications and develop new career goals. If you don’t have a non-writing career, why not do a little volunteer work?

Want to do something non-creative for a change? You could take up a sport. Go back to school. Learn to fix cars or re-upholster furniture. Plan a garden for spring. The possibilities are almost limitless.

Then when the query-go-round has got you down, your writing is only one piece of your identity that’s not going as well as you would like. People love your great ideas at the office. Your brownies/quilts/therapy pets were a hit at the retirement home. You finally mastered that tricky heel work in your flamenco dance or hit a shot on the golf course that made your buddies jealous.

No matter how much our writing lives mean to us, we’re more than our stories. When we stop narrowly defining our success, we become open to many more ways to feel a sense of accomplishment.

Let’s not succumb to the temptation to box ourselves into narrow ways of interpreting our lives.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Flash Fiction Interlude: The Glass Cantaloupe

Author's Note: This is a bit of a departure from my usual New Mexico spec fiction. I wrote this for the third Absolute Write flash fiction carnival, which will be hosted by Virginia Lee. The theme is "transform," but this piece would've worked just as well for the last carnival, hosted by Samuel Tinianow.
* * * * *

I swallowed a glass cantaloupe the other night.

I’m not sure how I did it. It happened in a somnambulist state and we all know how that can be. I awoke on the floor, my stomach round, hard and full. After prodding it gently for a few minutes, I came to realize what had happened.


My first thought was to go to the doctor, but I quickly nixed that idea. It wasn’t just the problem of my pants not fitting—I had some old gym sweats that would do. But I was worried about the seatbelt cutting across my belly, and about car accidents. What if I got in a wreck and the cantaloupe shattered? I might bleed to death from all the cuts!

Better to play it safe. I called in sick and spent the day watching television, trying not to think about the glass cantaloupe, except to wonder how long it would take my gastric acids to break it down enough to pass.

I slept that night propped up on pillows, with bolsters of quilts and blankets on either side so I wouldn’t roll onto my stomach or fall out of bed.

In the morning things were no better. That damn cantaloupe was still there and I realized what a fool I had been. A solid glass cantaloupe wasn’t likely to break down in a single day.

I got online and searched “glass” and “gastric acids.” What I read didn’t give me much confidence. I was going to be waiting a long time for this thing to dissolve on its own, and since it filled my entire stomach, leaving me unable to eat, I needed to take action.

I called my doctor’s office. Annoyingly, Dr. Jameson didn’t do house calls. “But this is urgent,” I explained. “I can’t leave the house.”

“What seems to be the problem?” the nurse said.

“It’s my stomach. I swallowed a glass cantaloupe by mistake.”

“A what?”

“A glass cantaloupe. I’d have come to your office yesterday, but I’m afraid to get behind the wheel of a car. I might get in an accident and shatter it, you know.”

“Shatter the car?”

“No, shatter the cantaloupe. Please, just ask the doctor to make an exception and make a house call. I’ll pay for his gas.”

Instead I got a referral to a psychiatrist. I really need to change doctors.

I tried calling my brother next, since he’s a lawyer and the brainy one in our family. But he was no help. He said he had a meeting with a new client and didn’t have time for jokes. Then I called my ex-wife, who was always a practical sort. She told me to quit being dramatic and reminded me that our daughter’s ballet recital was on Thursday.

Discouraged, I made my way into the kitchen, trying to avoid bumping into doorknobs and countertops, hoping to find something to eat. But I couldn’t get anything down. The cantaloupe took up too much room inside me. Not sure what I should do, and feeling a little testy, I lay down for a nap.

I awoke in the evening with no better idea of what to do, so I watched TV in the hope of distracting myself. Around bedtime my brother called and asked if I still had a glass cantaloupe in my stomach. He treated it like a joke, so I told him to go to hell and turned off the phone.

By the third day I was feeling light-headed. Not being able to eat will do that to you. I think I was dehydrated, too. Cantaloupes don’t seem so big until you’ve got one taking up your entire stomach. At least feeling dizzy made it easy to stay in bed. At one point a girl from the office called and said something about paperwork that would need to be filled out if I didn’t return to work the next day. I told her to email it to me and went back to sleep. In the evening someone knocked on my door but when I tried to get out of bed I felt weak in my knees and decided it was safer to stay where I was and not risk falling.

By the fourth day I could feel the glass beginning to spread through my body. My gastric juices were breaking up the cantaloupe, but instead of passing through, it was permeating every cell. This was an alarming development. If I didn’t do something, I would soon be entirely made of glass. But my phone battery was dead and I didn’t trust my new glass feet not to crack if I tried to cross the room. So I stayed in bed and went back to sleep.

I don’t know how much time passed after that. Sometimes I heard knocking at the door and sometimes I saw icy figures moving through my room, just beyond my closed eyelids. It was convenient to be able to see without opening my eyes. Turning to glass had its advantages.

Finally there came a day when the pounding at the door was followed by scratching and fumbling, then the sound of a key turning in the lock. My newly-sensitive glass ears heard ringing voices and the stomp of winter boots, but the words made little sense.



“Cantaloupe,” I tried to say through my glass lips.

Rough hands grabbed me. I tried to protest but was terrified to move, lest I shatter my neck and die on the spot. I was put onto a stretcher and carried through the rooms of my glass house. Outside in the brittle air, lights flashed red and white. Voices called to each other. “Found him! He’s alive!”

Somewhere static crackled on a receiver.

And as they heaved me into the waiting ambulance, I felt my glass mind shatter.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Reading in Decline

According to a new study from the National Endowment for the Arts, not only are Americans reading fewer books, they're reading less of everything. This includes not just print media but online news sources, blogs, and presumably even the backs of cereal boxes.

The study found that in 2006, 15-to-24-year-olds spent an average of seven minutes on voluntary reading on weekdays and 10 minutes on Saturdays and Sundays, while finding time to watch two hours or more of television each day.

And if you think the older generations read more, don't get your hopes up. They're not better by much. In 2006 people ages 35 to 44 read only 12 minutes a day, and Americans 65 and older read less than an hour each weekday and just over an hour on weekends.

Even when Americans do read, apparently they don't do it very well. The proportion of 12th graders reading at or above the proficient level fell from 40% in 1992 to 35% in 2005. The percentage of proficient readers among college graduates declined by 23% and by 10% among Americans who had been to graduate school.

According to the study, employers are spending more than 3.1 billion annually on remedial training in reading and writing for their employees.

The problem isn't with writers, apparently, since according to Dana Goia, NEA chairman, "I don't think, in a country that publishes 100,000 books a year, the problem is that people can't find something they want to read." Rather, he cites America as having become "distracted as a society," caught up in multitasking and electronic media.

What does this mean for fiction writers? Well, we've been seeing it for awhile. No longer can a writer ease into the story with lush description of time and place like Dickens and Hardy used to do. Now your opening line, your "hook," is the make-or-break moment. If you can't capture an agent or reader's attention in the first few words, you're sunk. The change in public attention spans also shows up in word counts. No matter how good your novel, unless you're a well-established author, your story is unlikely to find a publisher if it goes much over 100,000 words. Quality doesn't even factor into the equation.

At the same time, competition for agents is tight, with some agencies getting over 20,000 queries per year. With reading on the decline and the number of manuscripts on the rise, is it any wonder there's so much anxiety in the literary world? Things are in a state of flux and people are scrambling for solutions: e-publishing, POD, the new Kindle e-reader, and of course the old standby, "Just write a better book. Get lucky with the market trends."

But really, if reading is on the decline in all mediums, how much does it matter whether your book is published in trade paperback or downloadable pdf? Maybe you'll get lucky and hit it big, maybe you won't. Hone your craft and hope for the big break, but don't drain your cell phone batteries waiting for the agent to call.

Instead, write for the love of it. Write because in a world where so many spend their non-working hours zoned out in front of the television, we're engaged in a challenging creative pursuit that requires us to think, grow, and stretch our boundaries. The pleasure we take in our fictional worlds and imaginary friends may be the only real profit we get out of our efforts, but in a stressful world where so little is within our span of control, this is no small thing.

"To Read or Not to Read" available from NEA Publications.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

World Building and Peak Oil

With apologies to my dear blogfriends who say I make them smile...

For those who read my spec fiction and wonder where I draw my worldbuilding inspiration, there will be a show on the History Channel this Tuesday, November 13. It's called Oil Apocalypse and some info about the show is here.

Petroleum is the bedrock of our current society and it's so much more than just your car! It's food-- fertilizer, tractors, and trucks to ship the stuff to your grocery store. It's home heating oil. In some parts of the country, it's electricity. It's the cheap goods from China that came here on a diesel-fueled ship. It's our military, no matter where they fight or whether you think they should be fighting at all. It's our space program. It's asphalt roads. It's the plane that takes you on vacation or to visit your relatives. It's medicine. It's plastic. Look around you right now and imagine what it would take to replace every plastic item with something made of something else. We'd need rubber (brought by diesel ship), wood (shipped by truck and rail), metal and glass (created in our mostly-defunct factories). Not so simple, is it?

The problem with an oil supply crunch isn't that we can't come up with alternatives but that we aren't. We're not rebuilding our factories and railways, we're not cutting back on use of plastic and petroleum-based fertilizers, and while we're doing better at making solar panels, what are they made of? Yeah. Plastic. When the raw materials get scarce, what's our next plan?

As a nation, we're standing next to the cellar door while the tornado approaches, refusing to take shelter because we don't believe the tornado is real and because going down those stairs might be scary.

I can't speak to whether we'll make the necessary changes in our economy and lifestyle in time to save ourselves from the tornado. But in my fictional world, action came too late and the result was war, disease and a lot of poverty. It didn't happen overnight. People didn't go to bed in the 21st century and wake up to find the lights all out and a medieval world outside their window. The collapse came in fits and starts, with some places doing just fine while others devolved into chaos. Historically, this is how most great societies collapsed, and it's the model I went with for my fictional world.

This isn't a plug for any particular party, politician or policy. I try to keep my blogs non-political. This isn't even a plug for Peak Oil, per se. If you think there's "plenty of time" and it's not our generation's problem, that's your right and privilege. I hope our generation's children and grandchildren feel the same way.

But if you want a better understanding of what prompted me to imagine Will and Diana's world (and for those with access to "Tin Soldier" the world of Amalia and Carina), check out Oil Apocalypse this week. Check your local listings for times.

Saturday, November 10, 2007


Writer blog-pal Susan recently gave me this very nice award!

I'm flattered and I hope my friends will spend some time at Susan's blog, where they'll have an opportunity to meet her fun characters, who can't all be fictional since some have their own fans, right?

And since there's no point to an award unless you pass it along, I'm giving this award to Thomma and her many feline friends who never fail to pop in and leave a pick-me-up comment when I need one.

Thanks for making me smile, Thomma! And thanks for the award, Susan!

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Flash Fiction Interlude: The Afternoon Boyfriend

AUTHOR'S NOTE: This is an excerpt from My New-Found Land, Diana Channing's journey across post-collapse America. I've altered it very slightly from the book edition to work as a stand-alone story

It was a fine sunny day for traveling, and with the soft blue sky and scent of spring in the air, I could almost forget I was alone and far from home.

The crumbling asphalt road traced a path parallel to the rail line, and around noon I came upon a stalled train. There was a man standing in the shadow of the open door of the last car, and I asked him why the train was stopped.

“Something blocking the tracks,” he said. He sounded cheerful, like being stranded was a grand adventure that suited him just fine. “We may be here awhile. Come on board. I’ve got a bottle of Tennessee whiskey, if you’d like to share.”

What a silly idea! I laughed and shook my head.

“Don’t tell me I’m going to have to settle for the company of desperate war widows and screaming children.”

He had a nice smile, and I guess I must’ve had a touch of spring fever, because I heard myself say, “Maybe just one drink.” I tethered my mare to a nearby tree and climbed into the car.

The man’s name was Gilbert, and he hadn’t been lying about the whiskey. He had a whole bottle of it, as well as a nice cheese and some spicy peanuts. I was nervous at first that he might have other ideas besides just a drink, but he took no issue with my desire to sit in the open doorway, so I was reassured. He set the bottle and food within arm’s reach, and we dangled our legs over the side of the car, sipping our whiskey and looking out at the landscape.

“Where’re you from?” he asked.

“All over. You?”

“Mississippi. I’ve been trying to get to Chicago for a couple weeks now, but the train keeps getting diverted. At the rate I’m going, I’ll get to see the whole world.”

“That happened to a friend of mine,” I said. “She finally got tired of it and got off.”

“It’s tempting. But I really need to get to Chicago.”

“What for?”

“It’s personal.”

I wondered what could be so secret about a trip to Chicago, but it was none of my business. I leaned against the door frame and he told me about Mississippi, with its kudzu, sweltering summers, and air heavy with moisture all year round.

“Sounds lovely. It’s desert where I’m from. Some days it’s so dry you can feel the moisture being sucked out of your skin. And then the creeks and wells run dry, and in the afternoon the dust storms come.”

“How do you survive?”

“We know our land. And the rains come, eventually. We used to take our chairs outside and watch the clouds roll in, the way people in the old days watched television.”

We talked for an hour about everything and nothing. The cheese was sharp and the whiskey was smooth, like dark honey. The afternoon sunshine turned soft and I found myself leaning against Gilbert’s shoulder, his arm around my waist. I could’ve sat like that all afternoon, talking nonsense and dreaming the world away.

The train made a sudden jerk. Gilbert’s arm tightened around me and I grabbed onto the door frame for support. “I’ve got to go,” I said.

He pulled me close and kissed me hard.

The train jerked again. Gilbert let me go, and I jumped to the ground. I turned back and waved, and he got to his feet, laughing. We stood calling our good-byes as the train started up, first slowly, then faster and faster, until it was nothing but a pinpoint in the distance.

I looked around, wondering how the bright afternoon could’ve lost its luster so quickly. Gilbert and I had been best friends for an hour and now just like that, he was gone.

I walked over to my horse and leaned against her shoulder. “Well, better to be friends for an hour than never at all.”

She turned her head and looked at me like she didn’t quite agree.

“Okay. It was a dumb thing to do.” I swung into the saddle, light-headed from the whiskey, and we continued on our way.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Custom Fiction

I ran across this story in the Chronicle of Higher Education this week. It's about someone who is compiling digital information in such a way that it can be printed in POD format, but customized:

If all goes as planned, the book will be published digitally, and it will allow each reader to create a personal version of the text, based on his or her interest in reading digitized excerpts of the unpublished messages and other source material.

The librarian hopes to let people print hardbound copies of the book, each of them customized and unique. “The notion of the final fixed copy is giving way,” he says. “Texts are always in flux.”

I can see how this would work for certain types of non-fiction texts, but it got me wondering if there might be fiction applications, too. Obviously in a bricks-and-mortar bookstore, there would have to be a "standard" version of a novel. But what if when you purchased online, you could choose between the happy ending and the tragic ending? The PG version or the R or even X-rated version? Abridged or unabridged? Maybe you just want the first three chapters, to see if you're going to like it.

I realize that abridged versions and changed endings aren't new to the publishing industry, but in the past, one hasn't always gotten a choice of which version to buy. Someone has to decide, for example that they'll print a certain number of copies of A Clockwork Orange with one ending, and a certain number of copies with the other ending. Someone is making decisions about what they think will sell, and if they guess wrong either they or the reader will be unhappy. But in a POD format with the reader deciding what they want, there is no risk to the publisher that they'll get stuck with a warehouse full of unwanted pulp.

I hope to keep an eye on how this customization works in actual practice. It might be fun to write a story that the reader can adapt to his or her personal tastes.

Seventy Days of Sweat Update - Week Three

I don't have too much to show for this week. The Halloween Fiction Carnival took up a fair chunk of my time mid-week, and I also made the not-so-surprising discovery that I was starting my novel in the wrong place.

Now that I'm starting where I should've started before, a lot of things that felt like just a bunch of unconnected events make much more sense. Oddly, I knew ahead of time what would happen, just not the why. Now that I'm not mucking around in prologue-y stuff, things are flowing nicely.

I'm looking forward to a good week of writing!

Seventy Days of Sweat Tally
Novel: 2,500 words
Short/Flash Fiction: 5,500 words
Edits: 1,000 words
Submissions: 1
Acceptances: 1
Trashed: 7,500 words

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Halloween Fiction Carnival

Welcome to my first Halloween Fiction Carnival!

Not sure what to wear to this shindig? That's okay! We're easy. Just follow these tips from Susan Helene Gottfried's ShapeShifter boys about what not to wear, and you'll be fine.

So let's get started with a little tale of Hoo Doo. Lee Ann Sontheimer Murphy tells of a conjure supper and it's eerie aftermath.

And after reading about supper, if you're ready for dessert, Virgina Lee has A Chocolate Tale for you!

Still hungry? So is Ernie on Jeff's blog! Or if what you're really after is more candy, the boys in ShapeShifter have a proven method for getting the Halloween goods without having to knock on any doors!

Do you think you've got the upper hand on the unexplainable? So did my fictional friend Coyote until his Ghost Story took an unexpected turn.

And speaking of the unexpected, a young man finds something he wasn't expecting in Thomma Lyn's The Saddle of Private Lucius Gray

Not scary enough? Vesper has written a darkly evocative piece for the season, A Mother's Gift. And speaking of gifts, Vesper has a poem and a less traditional story rounding out her Halloween Triptych. Thanks for the treats, Vesper!

Or maybe scary stories aren't for you and you'd rather read about real life? Jerry Waxler interviews award winning horror writer, Jonathan Maberry, (Ghost Road Blues) and gets plenty of food for thought about the horror genre and horror in real life. Find out if horror is based on memoir and draw your own conclusions about where the darkness in our world and the darkness in our minds intersect.

At at the end of all this, Kate Boddie wants everyone to be sure they don't have a Halloween Hangover! Scary, indeed!

Happy Halloween, friends!

Ghost Story

(A Will and Diana Adventure)

NOTE: New readers may want to read up on Will and Diana's world before proceeding.

As they rode up to the decaying hacienda, Coyote closed his eyes and sniffed the air. “We’re staying here?”

“Got a problem with it, Great Psychic One?” Boeing sneered.

Coyote squinted at the mansion with its crumbling stairs and gaping windows. “It’s haunted.”

“Better not let Harley hear you say that,” Will said. “He says it’s dangerous to make people nervous when they're carrying guns.”

Coyote worked a shrug into his movements as he dismounted. “He’ll find out soon enough.”

While camp supporters built cooking fires beside the empty swimming pool, Coyote wandered the usable bedrooms with a pensive air. Finally he settled on a spot and started spreading out his blankets.

Sachi stopped weaving feathers in Diana’s braid. “Go away. We were here first.” She pointed to a row of packs and bundles as evidence.

“But this room is farthest from it. I won’t molest you or anything. I just want to be able to sleep tonight.”

By now Tiffany and Ikea had wandered in and looked at Coyote with dismay. “Don’t get weird with us.”

“It’s that thing at the end of the hall that’s weird, not me.” He lay down, using his duffel bag for a pillow. “Wake me when it’s time to eat, okay?”

This would never do. The girls went in search of a place to banish him to. Harley’s room was out of the question. The camp supporters’ room was too small and crowded. The boys’ room was already a rumpled mess. At the sight of the girls looking around the door frame, Boeing scooted over on his bedroll and patted the space beside him. “Come on in, ladies. But no more than two at a time, please.”

Sachi frowned. “Is there enough room in here for Coyote? He wants to sleep in our room, and—”

“I’ll trade.”

The girls walked away in a huff. There was one more room at the end of the hall and Tiffany paused in the doorway. “Looks like something happened here.”

Diana pushed her way past. The few remaining bits of furniture looked like someone had taken an axe to them, and a yellowing sheet on the floor covered a suspicious bulge. She picked up a corner of the sheet, hesitated, then pulled it away in a cloud of plaster dust.

“Well, that shouldn’t scare him,” Sachi said.

Ikea agreed. “I’ve seen him cut rings off dead people, and this is just bones.”

“But where’s the rest of it?” Tiffany asked.

Diana bent to examine the skeleton more closely. “Looks cut up with an axe.”

Sachi nodded wisely. “When you die a violent death, you become a ghost.”

“And the bones aren’t even all here,” Ikea added. “Poor thing can’t rest in peace.”

Diana was about to say something when a scratching on a door at the back of the room drew her attention. The girls fell silent and looked at each other. The scratching grew more insistent.

Tiffany was wearing a knife, so it was she who opened the door. At first they saw nothing but a dusty stairwell. Then the girls noticed the raven.

“Cats bring birds to doorsteps,” Ikea said hopefully.

“But they don’t leave a hatchet stuck in them,” Diana said.

Sachi swore softly in her father’s native Japanese.

“It’s got to be a trick,” Tiffany said.

The girls turned back into the room and were startled to find the sheet drawn back over the skeleton and another raven lying on it, blood spreading beneath it like a new pair of wings.

“Damn you, Coyote!”

The girls ran back to their room.

“Get up!”

“We know you’re not asleep!”

Coyote sat up and blinked. “Is it supper time?”

A flurry of accusations followed, punctuated by Coyote’s protestations of innocence. As their voices grew louder, Boeing wandered to the door with Will close behind.

“Get him out of here,” Ikea said, waving a hand at Coyote.

“What’d he do?”

The girls related his crimes, real and presumed, while Will slipped away. When he came back, he said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. There’s some bones in there, but no birds.”

The girls ran down the hall to check, then turned on Will and Boeing, adding them to the list of perpetrators and reciting a litany of complaints and curses before stomping downstairs in disgust.

Supper was a tense affair, with the girls studiously ignoring the boys who tried to act like this was normal. But Coyote’s attempt at dinner conversation was another matter.

“There’s a rancho near Truchas where some people were murdered by their son,” he said. “He smothered them with pillows and now anyone who tries to sleep there—”

“No ghost stories,” Harley said. “You know the rules.”

“Did I say anything about ghosts?” Coyote toyed with his food but didn’t eat. Instead, he looked around. “If I was a ghost, this would be the perfect place. Sickness, suicide, murder. . . this house has seen it all. Yeah, if I was a ghost—”

“Enough!” Harley pointed to the door. “Go relieve Aguilero. I want you at that front gate, no wandering off. Understood?”

Coyote stalked away, mumbling, while the girls exchanged satisfied glances. They returned to their supper, making idle chat about archery practice and piñon harvests. When a dessert of quince and apples was brought around, they all took double portions.

Their satisfaction was short-lived. As they knitted in their room by lantern light, the house settled with odd creaks and sighs. At a tap on their door, they jumped, but found no visitor. Things scraped across the attic in a manner very unlike mice. And footsteps in the hallway seemed always to lead, upon investigation, to no one being there at all.

The girls huddled closer, stitching furiously. But at a sound like pebbles skittering across the ceiling, Diana stood up in exasperation. “It’s got to be him.” She went to the window and peered out. A dark figure paced the watch station at the gate.

“It’s the other boys, then,” Tiffany said. But when she went down the hall, nervously clutching her knife, she found reassuring lumps under the boys' blankets, and Aguilero was snoring loudly.

A sound from the next room, the one with the bones, gave her pause.

“It’s back,” Ikea said.

The scratching grew louder.

“We'll go together,” Diana said.

Sachi picked up the lantern and held it high as Tiffany flung open the door.

Birds. A dozen of them, all dead. The lump under the sheet was gone and behind the stairwell door was that persistent scratching.

Wide-eyed and holding each other for reassurance, they approached the stairwell. Diana reached for the knob and pulled. It wouldn’t open. She pulled again. Still stuck.

“Let me help.” Sachi gave it a mighty jerk, the door flew open and a dark faceless thing lunged at them with a howl.

Shrieking, the girls tripped over each other as they raced for the door. In the hall they collided with Boeing and Aguilero. Aguilero caught Sachi in his arms where she struggled and flailed. It was Ikea who got out the words, “Back there!”

Boeing ran to investigate. After a series of shouts, thumps and curses, he dragged Coyote into the hallway, still holding onto his dark blanket. “Is this your monster, ladies?”

By now Harley had emerged from his room. “Didn’t I put you on watch?”

“I traded with Will.”

“Well, trade back again. And in the morning, you and I are going to have a long talk.”

Coyote made a show of annoyance as he slunk down the stairs, but once outside, he ran to where Will was manning the watch station.

“How’d it go?” Will asked.

“Oh, man—”

Half an hour later, still chuckling, they were joined by Boeing and Aguilero. As always, Aguilero had some whiskey and passed the flask around, offering a toast “to scared little girls."

“May we find other ways to make them scream next time,” Boeing added.

They rehashed the events of the night, snickering. “But the best touch of all,” Aguilero said, “Was those birds. How’d you do it?”

Coyote paused, the flask frozen at his lips. “What birds?”

Boeing gave him a shove. “What birds, my ass. You know. All those dead ravens.”

Coyote sucked down the last of the whiskey and shook his head. “I didn’t do anything with birds. You mean you guys didn’t—”

They looked at Will, who spread his arms wide in innocence. “Don’t look at me. Where the would I get a bunch of dead birds?”

Aguilero snatched the empty flask from Coyote’s hands. “Well, whoever got the birds, they were a great touch. See you at breakfast.” He started toward the house with Will and Boeing trailing behind.

Coyote looked around at the dark and brooding landscape, retreating until his back was against the wall. Suddenly weak, he sank to the ground and pulled his knees close to his chest. He stared intently into the night as if he could will the sun to rise, and shivering, he waited for morning.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Halloween Blog Fiction Carnival Tomorrow!

I know this is last-minute, but if anyone is planning to post a Halloween-themed story on their own blog tomorrow and would like a shout-out here, just email me the link or leave it in the comments. I'll add you to the roll!

And if you don't have a story of your own, be sure to stop by here anyway for what I hope will be some spooky entertainment. My story features Coyote, so you know it's going to be fun!

UPDATE: Don't worry if your story isn't ready until tomorrow. Send the link, anyway! I'll update the carnival throughout the day, time at work permitting. Just don't tell my boss, okay?

Monday, October 29, 2007

My Story at Flashes of Speculation

Hey, peeps! They posted my story at Flashes of Speculation! Go take a look!

In case anyone is curious, this was the prologue to the first of the novels that resulted in the Will and Diana flash fiction posted here and my POD book, My New-Found Land. All my prologues end up on the cutting room floor, since they're really more for organizing my own headspace than for the reader.

I'm glad this one found a home!


Sunday, October 28, 2007

Flash Fiction Interlude: Madness of Allies

A Will and Diana Adventure

AUTHOR'S NOTE: I wrote this piece for the Second AW Flash Fiction Carnival, for which the theme is "madness." I also wrote it in honor of the Halloween season. In this story, Will and Diana find that delivering messages isn't as safe an assignment as they've been led to believe.

Their horses picked their way along the cracked and overgrown road. “I bet that’s it up there,” Diana said, indicating the collapsing concrete façade of a building just visible through the trees.

Will squinted as they drew near, taking in the sullen teenagers armed with a motley assortment of weapons as they leaned against the walls and lounged on broken curbs. “If this is school, I’m glad I never went.”

“I’m sure it wasn’t like this in Auntie’s day.”

“That Kalashkinov over there is what it would’ve taken to keep me in a building like that, learning. . . what is it? Factions?”

“Fractions.” Diana was about to elaborate, but one of the guards had noticed them and was now ambling across the parking lot.

Will and Diana reined in and saluted smartly.

The guard stared, glassy-eyed. “What’d ya want?”

“Message for Leland Brierson,” Will said. “Magister.”

The guard grunted and waved his weapon in desultory fashion. “That door.”

“That door” led to a tiled hallway reeking of trash and urine, the only light from flickering lanterns hung from ceiling supports. The sound of their boots rang on the floor, echoed by tapping and scratching from behind the doors they passed.

“Where are we supposed to go?” Diana asked, scanning the walls as if the half-century old graffiti might hold clues.

The stench grew stronger, the tapping more insistent. Curious, Diana gave a return tap.

A door erupted in a flurry of knocks and a voice rasped, “We’ve got three dead. Take them out. Please.”

Will jerked Diana away. “This is bullshit.” He pulled her down another corridor, darker than the one before, but it didn’t lead to an exit, only to other hallways and past rooms where men beat on the walls and screamed.

They finally emerged into a cavern of a room. There were guards all around but they looked no more alert than the ones outside and one was busy injecting himself with something. At the far end was a stage where a man in black sat surrounded by torches and simpering women who pulled veils across their faces and disappeared into the shadows. The man regarded Will and Diana silently, through heavy-lidded eyes.

Will saluted. “Message from Unitas, sir.”

Magister waved a hand and a guard wandered over to take the piece of paper from Will’s hand. Magister read it and frowned. “But Vanter is my favorite prisoner.”

“New allies. They’re asking for his release.”

Magister spoke to a guard, then lolled back in his upholstered chair and sipped something dark and viscous from a glass. “So where are you kids from? Before the wars?”

Will and Diana exchanged glances. “Valle Redondo.”

This made Magister sit up. “Really? So you’ve made the acquaintance of Strecker.”

“He killed my family!” Diana spat.

Magister’s eyes widened mockingly. “How very sad for you. Come closer and let me see your pretty face.”

Will moved so that his body blocked Magister’s view. “We’ll wait here for Vanter.”

“As you wish.” Magister leaned back again, staring at them without blinking. At the sound of footsteps, though, he sat up with renewed interest. “Bring him up here, Aspergillus.”

The guard dragged a bound and stumbling man up the stairs and forced him to his knees. The prisoner was pale, with patchy rings of fungus on his shaved scalp and skeletal limbs. He trembled from fear and cold.

Magister stood up. “Is this your man?”

“We’ve never seen Vanter, so we can’t say.”

“What a shame.” He took a knife from somewhere among the folds of his black clothes. There was a sudden flailing of waxen limbs, a shriek and flash of blade. Blood pooled across the floor and trickled off the edge of the stage.

Magister wiped the knife on his robe. “You can have him, and you’ll find him much easier to deal with than I did.”

“That won’t be necessary,” Will said softly. He took Diana’s arm and began backing away.

“Don’t go. I’m short a prisoner now.” He looked from Will to Diana. “And a pretty girl would be a welcome addition to my family.”

Will reached for his gun and at the same time the desultory guards raised their own weapons. “Go ahead,” Will told Magister. “Give them the order. I can shoot you faster they can shoot me.”

Diana slipped her gun out of its holster and moved to Will’s side. “They’ll have to kill me, too.”

Magister looked from one to the other of them, then suddenly threw back his head and laughed. He howled like a mad dog and shrieked until tears streaked his cheeks. From the shadows behind his high seat, one of the veiled women emerged with a tray and Magister stopped to breathe something from a vial and chase it with several gulps from a wine glass. Then while the woman scurried away, he began laughing again, finally collapsing in wheezing convulsions.

“Come on,” a guard said, jerking his gun at Will and Diana. When they hesitated, he added, “This’ll probably be the only chance you get.”

They followed the young man through the winding halls, the tapping on the doors echoing after them.

“He’s lost it, you know,” the guard said. “This crazy world would do it to anyone.”

“Didn’t do it to most folks,” Will said. “Our commander said Magister was always a little. . .”

“Unstable.” Diana finished for him.

The guard waved a hand. “He was okay before. But ever since he allied with the drug runners out of Sonora. . .”

Diana blinked as they emerged into daylight. “You want to come with us?”

“This is no place for a sane person,” Will added.

“No,” the guard said. “I’ve got everything I need here, thanks to the Sonora guys.” Without even glancing at the bright blue sky and the aspen leaves shimmering in the crisp afternoon, he added, “I don't think this world has a future.”

Seventy Days of Sweat Update - Week Two

I’m at 7,500 on my new novel and I hate it all. It's hard to remember sometimes that the early chapters are nearly always like this. I haven't found my groove yet and a lot of what I'm writing will be cut in the final version. I don't mind because any writing is good, even if only for practice, and I'm good at taking my unused chapters and doing other things with them. But for now, I'm frustrated with the novel and I’ll be glad when I hit my stride and start liking it.

In other news, I tweaked an old prologue this week (a fun thing to do with those tossed-out early chapters) and made it into a stand-along flash fiction story. I have it out for submission to Flashes of Speculation. I think it's at least as well-written as anything they've got on their site, but tastes differ and it may not be what they're looking for, so we’ll see how it goes.

I’ve also got a new story that I'll probably post later tonight for the next AW flash fiction carnival. The theme for the carnival is "madness," so it's another dark story. But I'm also working on a fun Halloween story featuring Coyote, so be sure to check back on Wednesday for that one!

Here at the end of Week Two of Seventy Days of Sweat, I'm feeling like I'm not as productive as I could be. When I have a novel that's going well, I can turn out 2,000-3,000 words in an evening, no problem. But at least I'm writing new stuff after six months of doing nothing but editing old pieces. My main goal in signing up for this challenge was to force myself to be accountable again and get some new pixels on paper. So far, so good!

Seventy Days of Sweat Tally
Novel: 7,500 words
Short/Flash Fiction: 4,000 words
Edits: 1,000 words
Submissions: 1

Monday, October 22, 2007

Flash Fiction Interlude: The Message

AUTHOR'S NOTE: This piece is not one of the "Will and Diana Adventures," and is contemporaneous with the beginning of "My New-Found Land." I've wondered for a long time how Will found out Diana had run away and how he reacted. I finally decided to ask, and this was the answer. Language alert for sensitive readers.

Coyote had spent the day jumping at shadows and scanning the bleak December horizon. When the rider trotted into camp at supper time announcing, “Message for William Channing,” he cursed.

Will had just sat down with a bowl of beans. After casting a worried glance at Coyote, he stood and reached for the note. His reading skills were poor, but he managed the message with unusual speed. The blood drained from his face and he crumpled the note. “Who gave you these lies?”

“Came in on the official line, sir. They wouldn’t have sent it through if it wasn’t legit.”

Harley pushed through the knot of curious soldiers and camp supporters and held out his hand. “Let me see.”

Will threw the balled-up paper at him and lunged at the messenger. “You let her get away!"

“I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m just the messenger.”

Harley made a dismissing motion and the boy wheeled his horse and kicked it hard.

Will turned on Harley, his eyes wild with panic. “What did you do that for? Now how am I going to find her?”

“The boy has nothing to do with it. Maybe you should—”

“Go to hell.” He took off toward the corral. Harley called after him but Will was out the gate in minutes, his horse’s hooves thundering across the desert.

Cursing, Coyote saddled his mare and gave chase. But as he galloped across the scrubland, agitated thoughts intruded, blocking the voices that had warned him this would happen and that might offer clues as to where Will was going. As night fell and the tracks grew dim, he wondered if he would find him or be left wandering the desert.

The sound of gunfire gave Coyote his answer. He came over a sand hill and saw dark forms scattered around a campfire over which a kettle still simmered. A few nervous donkeys tugged at their tethers and somewhere a dog whined. Coyote jumped off his horse and walked toward the only person still standing.

“Killing refugees won’t fix anything.”

Will advanced on him with murder in his eyes. “You fucking son of a bitch. You knew.”

“They don’t let me change the future, Will.”

“Maybe not.” He leveled his pistol. “But I’m sure as hell going to change yours.”

Coyote spread his arms wide. “Go ahead.”

Moments passed. The wind blew a wisp of cloud across the moon and whistled through a patch of tumbleweed.

“I said—”

Coyote felt the bullet whine past his ear and heard the next one drop into the chamber. He closed his eyes.

Instead of firing, Will dropped to his knees. He howled and tore at the earth as if the entire planet had given offense. When the ground made no move to swallow him and no lightning descended from the heavens to take him from this hell, he collapsed into keening sobs.

Coyote walked over and made as if to touch him, but thought better of it and sat down instead. Noticing that Will was bleeding, he shrugged off his jacket and took a knife to the hem of his shirt, tearing it away in a long strip. “How about you let me bandage that arm?”

Getting no answer, he stood and put another branch on the fire. He examined the bodies scattered about, silently cursing whoever thought giving Will this news by messenger was a good idea. Finding no survivors, he returned to the fire and lifted the lid of the kettle. Soup. He ladled some into a cup and took it to where Will lay breathing in ragged gasps.

“Drink some of this.” He held out the cup and fumbled in his pocket. “And here’s a handkerchief. It’s mostly clean.”

Will swiped at his nose. “Go away.”

Coyote sat down, and after setting the cup aside, began bandaging Will’s wounded arm.

Will stared into the darkness beyond the fire’s glow. “Did your voices say where she went?”


“Would you tell me if they did?”

“Probably not.”

“She didn’t go with him, did she?”

“No.” Coyote tied the ends of the bandage in a knot. “I can tell you that for sure.”

Will wiped his face with Coyote’s handkerchief and looked away. “She was my only friend.”

Coyote jumped to his feet. “You fucking ingrate! I let you cuss at me. I let you shoot at me, and I still tried to feed and bandage you after. If you don't think that's friendship, you’re one selfish son of a bitch.” He put a hand on his gun. “Maybe I should be doing the shooting around here.”

“Maybe you should.”

“Oh, for Christ’s sake.” Coyote kicked a rock, then stomped off to check on the refugees' donkeys. Under one of the carts he found a white dog that whined and lapped his hand when he bent to smooth its matted fur.

The dog followed him back to the fire where Coyote ladled another cup of soup and investigated a rucksack where he found a bottle of murky homebrew. He winced at the taste, but the warmth spreading through his body took the chill off the night. He fished a piece of gristle out of the soup and shared it with the mutt.

After a long while, Will sat down beside him. "I'm sorry, Joseph."

Coyote looked at him, startled. It was the first time Will had ever called him by his given name. When Will wouldn't meet his eyes, he turned back to his cup with a grunt that could've meant anything.

Will poked the fire with a stick. "How's the soup?"

"Just refugee crap."

"And the whiskey?"

"Sucks." Coyote handed him the bottle.

Will examined it in the fire's light and took a long pull. "I promise," he said. "I won't cuss at you or shoot at you ever again."

Coyote took the bottle back. "It's okay if you cuss at me. Just don't shoot any more."

"I missed on purpose, you know."


Will frowned. "Your voices didn't tell you I would?"

Coyote took another drink from the bottle and wiped his mouth on his sleeve. "They don't tell me stuff about my own future."

"So you would've let me. . ."

"You gotta do what you gotta do."

Will pondered this in silence, shivering as the stars came out and the cold deepened. “Any more of that soup?” he finally said.

Coyote scooped some into his own cup and handed it over. “Anything for a friend.”

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Flash Fiction Interlude: Killing Their Own

(A Will and Diana Adventure)

Diana tried not to fidget as she stood lookout by the wall of a crumbling adobe church. In the dark of the new moon, she could make out shadows where her friend Sachi was stationed on the other side of the road. She would’ve liked to have used her flashlight to send a signal, but didn’t want to risk giving away her position, in case a stranger was nearby.

She leaned against the wall, listening to the faint sounds of music and laughter from up the road. What they were attempting tonight could get them all in trouble. If Javier hadn’t incurred the hatred of the townspeople in the brief time their unit had been camped nearby, they would’ve had no hope of getting away with it. If he hadn’t been so hateful overall, they wouldn’t be doing it in the first place.

A veil of clouds passed over the stars and a mouse rustled among the trash at Diana’s feet. Two men left the bar and came down her road singing about their amorcita. She backed deeper into the recesses of the church wall and waited for them to pass. Then she resumed her station, occasionally kicking a pebble or tracing an arc in the dust with the toe of her boot.

Finally she heard it—the sound of angry voices and threats. She couldn’t see what was happening, but other than Javier's, none of the voices sounded like the young men of her unit. That was a good sign. They had obviously succeeded in getting Javier to provoke someone.

Silence. Then a lone shadow moving along the road, silhouetted against the glow from the cantina’s electric lights.

Diana looked around. This was the moment. If there were people around or anything to indicate this was a bad time to do it, now was the time to signal—

She jumped at the crack of the first rifle shot and again at the second. Will and Boeing rarely missed, but to Diana’s shock, Javier was running down the road, heading toward her lookout station. He was limping as if he’d been hit, but was still moving fast. Dammit, it wasn’t supposed to happen like this!

He veered off the road, heading for the open desert. Diana gave chase and they fled across the barren landscape until he stumbled into a clump of Russian thistle. Entangled, he fell onto his wounded leg with a scream.

Diana trained her gun on him. She couldn’t see his face in the darkness and heard only his labored breathing and pleading words.

“Let me go. Tell them you couldn’t see me in the dark.”

She sucked in her breath. She had never killed like this, point-blank, in cold blood. Javier was hostile, divisive, and a danger to their group, but he had never done anything to her personally.

He whimpered as he tried to disentangle himself from the thorns. “Help me get away. I won’t forget it.”

Footsteps behind her. Frantic scrabbling in the dust and weeds in front of her. More footsteps, running to catch up. Diana took aim at where she knew Javier’s chest must be and pulled the trigger.

She was gulping air in great heavy gasps when Will caught up to her.

“Did you get him? Turn on your flashlight.”

She did, but looked away.

“Nice job.” He pulled out his knife and bent over the body. “Just to be sure.”

Diana hoped her light was steady because if she watched, she would surely be sick.

More footsteps as others from their group approached and clustered around, giving Diana the opportunity to move out of the circle of their lights.

“Can’t believe I fucking missed,” Boeing said.

“I told you we should’ve blown him up.”

“Shut up, Coyote.”

Aguilero shone his light in an arc, frowning in disgust. “We’ve got a lot of tracks to try and hide. Some of us have to get back for watch before Harley finds out.”

During the quick conference that followed, Will joined Diana in the shadows. “What’s the matter? We’ve killed people before.”

“But I knew him.”

“He was a jerk.”

“But he was still one of us. It was wrong.”

“Too late now, and there’s no point worrying about what’s done.”

By now Dell and Sachi were scraping in the dirt while Boeing and Aguilero cut switches to dust over their tracks. Will and Diana helped dig and when they were done they dragged the body to the edge of the shallow hole. Before shoving it in and covering it with earth, Dell dabbed her fingers in Javier's blood and streaked some down each of her cheeks. “For getting my girlfriend killed on the Terralinda raid,” she said. She spat into the grave.

Sachi followed suit. “For injuring my favorite horse, and for all those things you said about me.”

Aguilero, Boeing and Will followed, voicing their resentments as they marked themselves. When it was Diana’s turn, she hesitated. Will helped, painting blood on her wrists and the backs of her hands when she shied away from having him mark her face.

Knowing she should voice a resentment, she searched her memory. Although she could recall nothing pleasant, there was nothing she could really hate about Javier, either. “Just because.”

She stepped back from the grave and Aguilero handed her a switch. “Be sure to cover your tracks.”

“Yes." Instead of looking at the ground she looked at the sky. The wispy clouds had moved on and the velvet night was alive with stars.

Will edged closer and whispered in her ear. “What do you see up there?”

There were thousands of little worlds up there, glittering with empty promises.

“Nothing,” she said.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Flash Fiction Interlude: Practical Tracking

(A Will and Diana Adventure)

The young people fanned out across the field, parting the sweet-smelling gramma grass with their poles.

“I don’t know why we have to practice this at noon,” Will said. “Can’t get good shadows.”

Diana stooped to peer at a displaced rock. “That’s the point."

“Well, I think this is stupid,” Coyote said from a few feet away. He stopped pretending to look for footprints and swung his pole in an arc. “I can tell you where the tracks are and where they end up.”

“Like you knew where the fish would be biting the other night?” Will said. “Next time I want beans and cactus for supper, I’ll be sure to ask you where to bait my lines.”

“Okay, so sometimes I get it wrong. But today—”

“Found one!” Diana dropped to her knees, laid her pole alongside the boot print and began adjusting the leather rings. “Most likely male. Walking, not running. Might be carrying something.” She angled her pole outward from the track, searching for the next one.

“He’s definitely carrying something,” Coyote said. “Want to know what it is?”

Diana sat back on her heels. “Will you let us figure it out from the tracks, please?”

Will jerked his head in agreement. “Yeah, man. I ain’t missing lunch just so you can practice talking to your imaginary friends.”

“They’re not imaginary, and I don’t—”

“Here it is!” Diana had found the next track. She moved another ring to get the measure of the stride, making mental note of the angle. “Are you guys going to help or argue?”

Will squatted beside her and adjusted the rings on his pole, but noticed Coyote hadn’t moved and was looking around, sniffing the air. “What a weirdo,” he muttered. “How’d we get stuck with him?”

“Just help me find the next track. Aguilero’s team is probably halfway done already.”

For the next few minutes they searched for tracks using their poles to measure where the next one must be. Soon they had a feel for where to look and simply walked, poking and peering at the ground as they went, sometimes stopping to examine a rock or tuft of trampled grass, sometimes using their poles to measure where a missing track should’ve been.

They lost the tracks on a broad flat rock but found them again several feet away. When they lost their trail again in loose gravel, they circled outward from their last known sign, but this time it seemed their quarry had vanished. Diana leaned on her pole and sighed, gazing across the field to where the other teams were still moving forward. “We’re going to lose.”

Coyote, who had been swiping at rocks with his pole to see how far he could hit them, said, “That’s because you won’t let me tell you anything.” He hit another rock and sent it into an ant bed.

“That would be dishonest,” Diana said.

“In real life, any way you get your man is honest. It’s us against them.”

“That’s true,” Will said. “So okay, show us where the trail picks up.”

“But not where it ends,” Diana added.

With a pleased little grin, Coyote began leading them in a completely unexpected direction. When Diana made to question him, he waved a hand for silence and pointed with his pole. There in the dry, sandy earth was the unmistakable print of a shoe.

Diana bent to measure the print against the rings on her pole. “It’s not the right one,” she said. “It’s too small.”

“Just follow them.”

Diana stood up. “Look, I’m glad you’ve got your little voices to tell you things, but these aren’t our tracks. Who knows where they lead? They sure won't take us to Harley's note telling us where to find our lunch."

Will crouched to get a better look at the print in question. "She's right. Even I can tell this isn't the right one. This is someone else."

"So come on," Diana said. "Show us where the real tracks are so we don't embarrass ourselves by finishing last."

Coyote twirled his pole, still with that maddening smile. "Just follow them," he said again. "Don't you trust me?"

"Not on your life," Will said, but he jerked his head at Diana, indicating they should follow the tracks for now.

Diana scowled at Coyote from under the brim of her hat. "This better be good."

"It is." He followed with poorly concealed excitement as Diana picked up the trail.

"Whoever it is, they were running."

"Yes," Coyote said.

"And carrying something." Diana marked the depth of a print with her pole.

"Yes, you've got it now!" Coyote thrust his canteen into Will's hands. "Give her this when you find her. I'll go get the donkey cart."

Before they could ask what he was talking about, Coyote was gone, dashing through the waving grasses.

"I'm telling Harley not to put me on a team with crazy people any more," Will said.

"But you're the only guy who doesn't harass him."

"Maybe I should start."

They returned to the trail and followed the tracks toward an arroyo. The signs were easy to spot now, stones displaced and grasses trampled. At the edge of the arroyo they paused where a skid of displaced earth and rocks led into the ditch. At the bottom lay a young woman, motionless and clutching something to her chest.

Cursing, Will bounded into the arroyo with Diana slipping and scrabbling for purchase as she followed. The woman's skin was dry and flushed. As Will splashed water on her and Diana tried to find a pulse, the woman's arms fell open and a wail emerged from the bundle she had been holding.

Diana grabbed the baby and checked it for injuries while Will raised the woman to a sitting position and held his canteen to her lips. She was conscious now, blinking and confused.

The baby cried again and the woman reached for it, but Will held her back and tried to make her drink some more.

"The baby's fine," Diana said, although she wasn't at all sure.

"We've got somebody coming with a cart," Will added. "You're safe."

The woman nodded and lay listlessly in his arms while Diana frowned at the baby, trying to figure out how best to hold it. Finally she laid it on her lap and fanned it with her hat. "You know," she said, "If Coyote hadn't—”

"I know."

"I wonder why he didn't tell us from the beginning."

Will shrugged. "I think he bluffs a lot. He knows but he doesn't know."

"Hm." Diana stopped fanning and peered into the baby's dimpled face. Unimpressed, she began waving the hat over it again. "Well, if he ever got good at understanding those voices he hears, he'd be the best friend in the world to have."

Will looked at her sharply. "What are you trying to say?"

Diana gave him a sly smile. "Just that we're done with this tracking exercise, and I think we won."

Monday, October 15, 2007

Flash Fiction Interlude: Macy

(A Will and Diana Adventure)

AUTHOR'S NOTE: This story assumes a prior knowledge of Will and Diana's world, and it also contains more bad language than most of my other stories. Uneducated teenagers who kill for a living don't have very refined vocabularies.

The little blonde struggled with the iron pot as she dragged it toward the creek.

“Hey, Macy!”

She swiped a curl out of her eyes and looked up. It was the new boy, the one who said he was seventeen but who she suspected was closer to her age, fifteen. Everyone said he was a demolition genius, but it was hard to believe that this coltish boy with the mischievous smile was the half-crazy derailment expert so widely feared in the rail towns.

He caught up to her, panting. “Want me to carry that? It looks heavy.”

“I can manage.”

Coyote followed her to the muddy bank. “Can I help you scrub it out?”

Macy sat down to take off her shoes. “You’re not fooling me. I saw you talking to Boeing and them. You’re not here to wash anything, so why don’t you just admit it?”

Coyote’s ears flushed red and he fumbled in his pocket. “Well, Boeing said. . .”

“I can imagine.” She rolled up the cuffs of her pants and dragged the pot into the water. “The answer is no.”

“But I’ve got a dollar. Silver, not that stupid paper.”

“I don’t do that any more. I’ll do it on a spy mission or to distract a guard, because that’s my job. You guys are on your own.” She bent over the pot and began scrubbing the inside with a rag. “Town’s not far away. You want to buy a girl, go there.”

Coyote waded into the water, boots and all. “Why are you being this way? I’m not like Boeing.”

Macy could think of a hundred ways this skinny kid wasn’t like Boeing, but before she could toss out a few cutting comparisons, the sound of voices caught her attention. She wiped her hands on her pants as three young men came around a bend in the creek.

Even now, her heart still skipped a beat at the sight of Boeing's handsome, even features. She had known she shouldn’t expect much from such a good-looking charmer, but he had come around often enough that she had allowed herself to hope. She had also quit charging him, which was too bad, since the money would’ve come in handy. Maybe she could’ve afforded to have the baby, or at least pay for a proper abortion. Now she wouldn’t ever be able to have children, and Boeing insisted it wasn’t his fault.

Boeing’s lips twisted into an ugly smirk, but he didn’t say anything to her and called to Coyote instead. “What’s the matter? Don’t tell me she said no. You’re a pathetic piece of shit if this slut won’t take your money."

Will pulled his hat lower and looked away in annoyance.

Aguilero laughed. “Even whores got sense," he told Boeing. "Maybe his imaginary friends made a eunuch of him.”

Boeing turned to Macy. “That shouldn’t stop you. Everyone knows whores will do it with anything for the right price.”

“Enough,” Will said. "Leave the girl alone. I thought we wanted to catch some fish.”

“And I got one. Cut the chivalrous crap, okay? I’m not the one who wants to fuck his own sister.”

With startling swiftness, Will dropped his fishing pole and slammed a fist into Boeing's belly. Boeing bent double, gasping, then reached for Will’s legs and threw his weight against him, sending them both into the creek with a splash.

As they cursed and pummeled each other, Aguilero walked over to Macy and gazed at her down the bridge of his much-broken beak of a nose. “It’s just as well,” he said. “They needed a bath. It was getting hard to hunt with them because they scared the game.”

Before Macy could figure out if she should laugh, he added, “So since you’re free tonight, how about it?”

Men were all alike. Not a nice one in the bunch. “I’m not free.” She waved a hand at Coyote, who was watching the proceedings with cat-like curiosity. “You can say whatever nasty things you want about him, but at least he doesn’t call me names. If I spend the night with anyone, it’ll be with him.”

Boeing had forced Will’s head under water, but now he let go and turned around. “Hey, Coyote! When she takes you to her tent tonight, be sure you ask her to—”

His words were choked off by Will’s hand around his throat and the boys fell back into the water and began struggling again.

Macy fled into the woods and didn’t stop running until she came to a low wall. Far from the boys and their taunts, she curled up on the concrete and cried. When her tears were spent, she lay sniffling and listening to the chirping of birds overhead and the scratching of squirrels’ feet on the bark of nearby trees. After a long time she heard another sound: footsteps. She sat up, cursing herself for being so far from camp without a weapon.

“Oh,” she said, as Coyote emerged from the forest. “I thought you’d at least want to wait until tonight.”

“Actually, I came to bring you your shoes.” He set them on the wall. “You didn’t step on anything, did you?” He reached for one of her feet, but she jerked away. “Okay.” He sighed. “I just wanted to make sure you hadn’t cut yourself.” He shoved his hands in his pockets. “I also wanted to tell you thanks for taking up for me back there, but I don’t want it if you’re doing it just to spite them. Even if I’m paying you should want it a little, so forget about it. No hard feelings.”

As he turned back to the trail, he added, “Don’t worry about the stew pot. Will broke Boeing’s nose, then me and him made him take the pot back to camp.”

Macy hugged her knees and watched Coyote disappear into the woods. She stared so long at the shadows that she lost track of time and was startled to realize it was late in the day and she still had chores to do. She tugged on her socks and laced up her shoes, pausing to run a finger across the battered leather, marveling that Coyote had brought them to her so she wouldn’t hurt her feet. Maybe he was crazy, but at least he was nice.

She walked the trail, enjoying the afternoon sunlight filtering through the aspens. At the sight of one of Coyote’s boot prints, she impulsively scooped up some of the soft earth. A curandera had once told her that the dust of a person’s footprints held magic. Macy wasn’t so sure about that, but she dropped a bit into her pocket, just in case.