Fiction

Pre-Order “The Pale”

The Pale: An Avery Cates Story

The Pale: An Avery Cates Story

So, here is the third Avery Cates short story in my ongoing writing experiment: The Pale. Out on September 15, it’s available for pre-order over at Amazon and Kobo at the moment, with Google Play to follow. It’ll be available for Nook in September.

I’ve also gone ahead and created a dedicated web page for this new series, as it appears I’m actually going to keep doing this and deliver three novels in short-story slices. Why not? I’m having fun.

In The Pale, we pick up where we left off in The Walled City as Cates is on the road trying to put distance between him and The Angels. He meets an old man with a … peculiar companion, who decides to accompany Cates for security. A decision he regrets as it becomes clear that someone is hunting Avery.

Check it out!

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drying eyes, wasted breath

It had only been fifteen minutes, and Bob hated them all. He knew every detail of the elevator, from the three buttons which refused to light up when you pressed them to the minute design of diamonds on the worn, red and black carpet. He didn’t know the specific people he was trapped with, but he thought he knew their type, and was convinced, based on the slanting looks and curling lips, that they knew his. Jocular in familiarity, contemptuous, he snapped his gum cheerily, to annoy, and shifted his weight from foot to foot.

Softly, in the background, an instrumental Killing Me Softly played over the tinny speakers.

Bob had not been very surprised when the little door marked EMERGENCY had been opened to reveal loose wires where the phone should have been. None of the other people in the elevator evinced any shock either, but whether that was actual cynicism or an urbane facade Bob couldn’t say. They had all looked at each other and shaken heads, clucked tongues, no longer amazed, it was implied, by the incompetence of Other People. He thought it must have been the rarest of coincidences, that the Brain Trust of the World, the four most brilliant people in the universe, happened to all work in his building. One of the Brain Trust was now busily reading People magazine, slouching against the rear wall of the elevator with the bored insubordination of youth, the implication that he would not even attempt to somehow make the situation better, and that the rest of the Brain Trust ought to leave him alone.

The kid annoyed Bob the most. Probably about twenty-one or -two, he had INTERN written all over him, from the wrap around sunglasses he wore (still) even indoors to the loud music leaking out of earphones, to the combination of decent dress pants and shirt with unlaced sneakers and a worn denim jacket. His cool demeanor made Bob decide that if anyone was going to have to climb into the shaft in a heroic search for help, it would be the kid.

They were suspended between the fifteenth and sixteenth floors, the elevator having squealed and sighed and jerked to a halt a few seconds after the doors had shut on floor fifteen. Bob had accepted this turn of events with cheer and aplomb, because he was now about ten feet away from his floor, twenty seconds away from being off the elevator and into the warm current of a Typical Day. Now instead of floating along on the swells of things that happened every day, he was standing in a box with four strangers who were, if nothing else, not quite as tantalizingly close to a Typical Day.

They’ve got to know what happened. They must be working on the problem.”

Bob looked up in surprise, at The Librarian. He didn’t know what the woman actually did with her time, but the sharply angled glasses perched on her nose made him think of a librarian. She wore an affected shawl over her shoulders, too, and stood in the center of the elevator in a stiff-backed posture. She wasn’t looking at anyone, and he figured she was speaking just to comfort yourself. He snapped his gum a little louder and replied to the air

Sure, sure. That phone looks like it was attended to without delay.”

The Librarian looked at him, sniffed, and looked away.

Bob shrugged, chewing his gum. He leaned against the wall of the elevator and stared at the ceiling. He couldn’t even see an escape hatch, a maintenance crawlspace -every movie he’d ever seen that had involved people trapped in an elevator had involved a crawlspace, but he couldn’t see one here. He wondered if there was any way out of the elevator. Or at least one that didn’t involve the elevator splitting open after hitting the basement.

(more…)

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My Rottened Heart and All the Grubs Within

John had for some time tried to be a good man, until the death of Casey Farrow made the burden unmanageable. That night, after the phone had stopped ringing finally, he’d waited for Celia to fall asleep, waited for her breathing to deepen and smooth out, waited for the soft and feminine snore to begin, and slipped out of the bedroom and into the living room. Finding his hidden pack of cigarettes, stale and dusty, he went into the cold kitchen, sat down at the little-used table and smoked in the dark, staring at unfamiliar shapes: the fridge, the microwave, the door to the bathroom.

He thought about Casey Farrow’s wife, Margaret.

Sitting, he looked around the dark kitchen. It had been Celia’s apartment, now theirs. They had decided that Celia’s was larger and in a better neighborhood, that his apartment was cold and cramped. He regretted the decision, he wished for his own private space, someplace where he wouldn’t have to pretend to be normal.

He thought about Celia, the laughing girl he’d met five years ago, and never fallen in love with.

Celia was pretty but unspectacular. She laughed at too many things and took disproportionate joy in simple, everyday things. She was honest and affectionate and practical and willing in bed and hundred other attractive things, but for John there was always one thing she wasn’t, and would never be. She was not Casey’s wife Margaret.

For her part, Celia lay awake and imagined she knew what John was chewing on in the kitchen. The empty half of the bed seemed to glow radioactively next to her, his fading body heat an accusation.

She kicked at the covers. Sat up. Fell back to the mattress. Let out an explosive breath.

Celia had always been a popular girl, but one of those pretty tomboyish girls who garnered more emotional conversations than kisses. She’d made up for it with aggressiveness, making a cheerful habit of dominating conversations and attempting seductions carelessly. She had a reputation in high school, and several boyfriends in college, but John quieted her.

She was two years younger than him, and had known him since high school. In school she’d been able to walk up to any boy and say anything, she was famous for it. But around John, she’d always been tongue-tied. She found it almost impossible to speak two words to him, and so naturally they became friends in college, where she had chosen to attend the same school as he did. They met at a dorm party and he recognized her, which thrilled her, secretly. For some time, then, she settled into her familiar role as John’s faux-sister, providing emotional talks and quiet, non-physical support. It killed her, froze her brittle inside, but she settled for it, and made up for it by dating. Predatorily, she seduced well-meaning men around, men who hardly had time to decide whether they were attracted to her mix of pretty and broad shoulders before they found themselves in bed with her. John’s amused commentaries on her love life merely irritated her, but silently.

For his part, John had met and fallen in love with Margaret, asked her out, been refused, and settled with a companionable flirtation with her. Young, optimistic, and unimpressed with her choice of boyfriend, John had been quietly and self-satisfyingly sure that she would come around. She never did.

On the wedding day, John brought Celia as his date to watch Margaret marry another man. He drank and drank and drank but could not seem to get drunk. He sat with Celia and kept track of Margaret. He danced with Celia and watched Margaret dance. He talked to Celia and heard Margaret’s vows in his head. And after the reception, with a headache, with dust in his mouth, he took Celia to bed and thought of Margaret as he’d never seen her. Imagined her elsewhere, doing similar things.

Celia lay awake and remembered that night. Fully aware, she’d let him and could not bring herself to get out of bed, go to the kitchen, and tell him what a bastard he was.

(more…)

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The Music Makers

We watch him warily, all of us, trying not to look apprehensive. We watch him and Henry. Henry sitting politely, smiling a little. The Doctor was smiling too, but it was the toothy grin of the vulture, and we all vibrate with tension. I glance over at Ubie, and he flashes his bright blue eyes at me for just a second, but for Ubie to show any hint of weakness meant he was tremendously upset. He glances back at me again and shook his head just a little bit, telling me, telling us all to hang back.

Good morning, Mr. Bodkin,” the doctor said cheerily, pulling Henry’s chart off the bed and glancing at it with a fussy expression. “How are we today?”

Henry offers him his brave smile, but his eyes fly around to all of us.

I try to will all of us to stay quiet, for once. I shut my eyes and will it. Then Lil’s voice, high-pitched and tremulous.

You’re okay, Henry. Okay!”

And that was it, everyone starts talking at once. All of us, shouting at Henry. He tries to ignore us for a while, smiling at the doctor, and then he shuts his eyes and cocks his head. I open my eyes in time to see him shiver a little.

Shut up!” he shouts. “Shut up all of you!!!”

(more…)

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Mr. Benders’ New House

This story was originally published in Brutarian Quarterly 48/49.

WE KNEW the old green house on the northeast corner of the intersection as the Gooly House, because in the dim recesses of our young minds we all knew that Mrs. Gooly, whom we had feared and hated, had lived there for some years, keeping our errant tennis balls, frisbees, and gliders, a reign of tyranny over our childhoods. We’d hated Mrs. Gooly, because she insisted we stay outside her low, crumbling stone fence, because she wouldn’t let us reclaim our lost toys, because she snitched to our parents whenever we did anything in her sight, because she smelled slightly of dust at all times. We called her Mrs. Ghouly, not very original, but appropriate enough, and fought the urge to run past her house, forcing ourselves to walk sedately, untroubled by an obvious witch in our midst.

The house was mysterious. Three floors, with wickedly peaked roofs, and a dark, mulchy green. The windows were always shuttered, giving it a blind, moon-faced appearance. The yard surrounded it like a moat, a continuous band of green, overgrown to the extreme with odd plants we didn’t see in any other yard, a narrow path of slate leading from the slumped gate to the front door. The stone fence was only about three feet high, and was of a chalky substance we weren’t sure was really stone. It could be vaulted with one well-timed jump, unless you were Clarence from four doors down who was fat and always split his pants. We were terrified of the Gooly House, and of Mrs. Gooly, and we were shocked, and distrustful, when informed that she had passed away.

For weeks we feared ghosts. The house looked exactly the same; shuttered, moldy, brooding. Mrs. Gooly, being the undead, had no family that anyone knew of, so her spirit was free, we were convinced, to roam the house as she had in life, except, certainly, with new untold powers of evil. We crept past it, an eye out for black magic, and didn’t find out that someone had bought the house until the daring daylight raid we planned, almost a year after Mrs. Gooly’s demise.

A year is a long time in childhood. A whole slate of holidays had come and gone, a whole school year. Mrs. Gooly faded into the past, and if we still moved quicker when passing her looming green house, we didn’t do it consciously anymore. As she faded from fearsome witch to crabby old lady who used to live there, the neighborhood kids began more and more to look longingly towards the uncharted reaches of the Gooly House, where years’ worth of sporting goods lay waiting in the dim recesses of the tall grass, on the slightly slanted roof, in the gutters. Even after a year it took some weeks for us to come up with the combined courage to plan and execute a raid on the Gooly house.

There were five of us in charge. Myself, so pale I was almost invisible, and thin and known as the fastest runner on the block, a boy who fought back challengers every week, defeating kids from whole other neighborhoods in races; there was Rapheal, Rafe, who was my polar opposite: deeply tan, with dark hair and a muscular build, even at that age, that I envied; Marcia, who would, three years later, be my first kiss, but who was then just a freckled, red-haired, skinny girl who sometimes punched us in the shoulders for no reason; Lewis, deceptively nerdy in his thick, taped-up glasses; and Tanya, bossy, always bruised, who stole from us whenever we accidentally let her into our houses. Over grape sodas and Flav-or-Ice, we began by idly discussing how many balls we had lost at the Gooly house, and slowly devised a plan which we figured would net thousands of dollars in rubber and plastic – what we planned to do with all those toys, I couldn’t say. It was just a challenge.

The details of the plan were as follows:

The raid would be conducted during daylight, because even if we were bigger kids than ever, there was no way we were going into the Gooly house in the dark – I would challenge you today to do so, and you’d make some excuse up. We would enter the Gooly house perimeter from Webster Street through the King’s yard – the Kings were tolerant of us using their yard as a shortcut through the neighborhood, and this would allow us to enter the Gooly house perimeter without being observed by any stray parents who might have wandered from the house. Our parents never left the house during the day on a weekend, we knew that, although we couldn’t figure out why. Dads stayed in their easy chairs watching sports, Moms did whatever Moms did, mysterious things we didn’t want any part of. While unlikely that any of them would be seen on the streets, we didn’t want to take chances. Finally, we would start on the roof, beginning with the most dangerous and vulnerable area and working our way downward into the concealing safety of the tall grass, the myserious, lush jungle of the untended yard.

We crashed over the Kings’ fence boldly, trying to impress whatever ghosts there might be with our lack of fear. The house loomed before us as it always had – forbidding, not so much dark as a lack of light in the shape of a house- only closer. The siding was water-damaged, and we discovered to our mild surprise that part of the deep green color of the house was a thriving ivy plant that was consuming it, slowly. I remember we stood there, staring at it, for a few seconds, and then Marcia snorted in derision at men in general and began hoisting her slim frame up the side of the house, which was actually pretty easy; the small shed outside the back door gave easy purchase for the porch window sill, which was a quick lunge away from the porch roof, which was in turn just a few seconds of huffing and puffing from the second story roof, which, we theorized, was the pot of gold. And then, unexpected, an adult voice.

What the hell are you kids doing back here?”

We didn’t know his name then, but Mr. Benders was standing in the dark rectangle of the porch door. He was Our Parents’ Age, which was the only other age we knew aside from Our Age and Younger Than Us. he was balding and paunchy, wearing ridiculously baggy shorts and a bright shirt with a floral pattern. Holding a beer in one hand, he was dirty, with dark smudges on his face.

We froze, stupefied by the one variable we hadn’t considered: someone was actually living in the Gooly House. It stunned us. Who would live here? It was inconceivable!

Marcia slipped and grunted, and Mr. Benders glanced up sharply. “Is someone on the roof, for crying out loud?”

Regaining her feminine grace, Marcia dropped lightly to the ground directly in front of Mr. Benders, and they faced each other through the screen door for a few moments, Benders with beer in hand, Marcia with one hand on a cocked hip, like she owned the place.

Benders looked over her shoulder. “You kids got parents?”

We began making our retreat, mumbling vague apologies and making our way through the messy yard. Mr. Benders watched us go, and then disappeared inside the house. He was the topic of hot conversation for the rest of the day, and we actually pumped our parents for information, slyly, in roundabout ways they wouldn’t be able to decipher. All we learned was that Mr. Benders had nothing to do with Mrs. Gooly, that he had simply bought the house and moved into the neighborhood. Instantly, our feelings for Mr. Benders turned sympathetic, because he obviously didn’t know that the house was haunted. On the phone that evening, Marcia and I solemnly decided that it was too late to save him; Mrs. Gooly would likely murder him in his sleep that very night. This also meant we could return for the lost Super Pinkies shortly.

Summer back then was a real Time, an actual period in our lives. We recalled, dimly, Summers past. We looked forward to, brightly, Summers to come. There was School, and there were Holidays. And there was Summer. Today, of course, things have been diced much finer as we’ve aged: we don’t even have Days any more, we have Hours. Rush Hour. Lunch Hour. Happy Hour. But during the Benders Incident, as we always called it, we still had Summers, endless tracts of fertile time in which to explore, and make up games, eat junk food, and nap.

The day after our bold but failed daylight raid, we all woke up, as usual, watched cartoons, as usual, ate cereal, as usual, and emerged into the hot street to being wasting the day, as usual. There we all stopped, because up the hill, outside the Gooly House, something unexpected had happened at some point. While we’d been sleeping, or eating, or watching, Mr. Benders had begun cleaning out the house, and there was a large collection of stuff out on the sidewalk for the garbage, beckoning us with subtle glints in the sunlight and mysterious shadows.

Rafe and Lewis were standing on the opposite corner, drinking Cokes.

Hey, Ramis,” Rafe said with his light accent, “Can you believe all that crap?”

That guy’s gonna be doing this for weeks, man.” Lewis confirmed.

We crossed the street and arrived at the growing collection of stuff just as Mr. Benders appeared, hauling a lagre black trunk down the front stairs.

We watched him, amazed. The Gooly House’s secrets were being spilled out onto the street. Who knew what kind of arcana Mrs. Gooly had collected in her hundreds of years living there, hunting the children of the neighborhood, poisoning our drinking water, flying through the night on her broom, stealing our prized possessions. Mr. Benders was struggling with the trunk as if it weighed a lot, and Rafe nudged me out of my fantasies.

How much you wanna bet the old bat’s in that trunk?”

A chill ran through me. We watched Mr. Benders huff and puff the trunk down onto the sidewalk, then pause to pull a rag from his back pocket and wipe sweat from his brow. With a slight start, he noticed us.

Great, it’s the goddamn Little Rascals again. Your parents just let you run wild around here?”

Sure,” Rafe said, always an instigator, “why not?”

Mr. Benders shook his head, and bent down to grsp the trunk by its cracked leather handle.

Hey, Mister,” I said, “you mind if we look through all this stuff?”

Mr. Benders paused, breathing hard, bent at the waist. “Knock yourself out, kid. But don’t make a mess. Whoever lived here before left three houses worth of stuff the goddamn Realtor couldn’t be bothered to clean out, and I don’t want to have to clean it up twice, got it?”

I nodded. It would be some time before we realized that Mr. Benders’ favorite word was ‘goddamn’.

We regarded the epic pile of trash professionally, although most of it wasn’t immediately familiar to us. There were boxes, moldy and unlabelled. There were two huge, beaten leather chairs that had backs like wings arching out over you, which we all probably considered sitting in but were too scared – they didn’t look like chairs made for humans, but rather like chairs made for vampires, or demons. While Mr. Benders loudly grunted and panted behind us, struggling with the trunk, we gingerly picked over the junk, looking for anything we could make sense of.

Hey, Mister,” Lewis suddenly said, making us turn, “what’s in the trunk?”

Mr. Benders, standing beside the trunk like a winded Great White Hunter, shrugged. “Who cares? The old bat who lived here kept everything. Wouldn’t be surprised if it was full of goddamned bottlecaps.”

Bottlecaps piqued mild interest, as we played Bottlecaps now and again on chalked boards in the street. While we wouldn’t use that many bottlecaps in our whole lives, there might, we all suspected, be some real humdingers in there, unusual caps that would prove to be the secret ingredient to a championship season.

Can we open it?”

Mr. Benders glanced down at the trunk and toed it with his sneaker. “Kid, if you can get it open, be my guest.”

With that he wiped sweat from his face and walked back into the Gooly House. We waited until the door had shut behind him, swallowing him back into the Gooly universe that was humming inside it like greased, blackened machinary whose use had been forgotten, and then we swarmed over the junk.

We left the trunk for last, for when the girls showed up, because we figured it would be the big discovery of the day and knew we’d be in trouble if we tried to hoard it for ourselves. The pile offered plenty of junk, anyway; aside from old lady clothes and a collection of strange, heavy records that seemed to be made of stone, there were three objects that captured the rest of our day’s attention, and solidified Mrs. Gooly’s legacy as a witch of some sort.

First, there was the Box with the crank. It was black, cracked everywhere like old skin, and had no lid or hinges we could detect. It did, however, have a worn wooden crank that reached out of it like a twisted arm. Lewis cranked it once or twice, and it produced an ominous ticking noise from within -whether this meant it was broken or if this meant it was winding up for something, we didn’t know, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to know; the ticking made my back tighten up in anxiety. We shook it, but nothing rattled inside. We turned it over and over in our hands and could see no possible way inside.

Underneath a pile of chemically-smelling dresses – nothing we had ever seen Mrs. Gooly wearing – we found a jewelry box full of photographs. We were at first not interested, expecting just the usual photos – pictures of Mrs. Gooly in happier times, looking much like our own grandmothers in their own stiff, fading pictures. A closer look, however, revealed that the photos were neither of Mrs. Gooly, or very ordinary. They appeared to have all been taken at the same time, in the same place, but we couldn’t be sure – they were all confused, blurred images, with shapes that might have been people, or furniture. In some of the photos there was a perceived violence, a horror of motion that we couldn’t seem to look away from. In others, there didn’t seem to be anything – just blurry shots of an empty room, beaten wood floors, pale plaster walls.

We sat on the curb and went through the photos one at a time, carefully, passing them down the line and staring at them. I felt as if there was something in those photos, a puzzle, and if I had enough time to stare at them, I might piece them together. In one, a man wearing baggy dress pants, a short, thick tie from black and white movies, and a towering pile of curly dark hair seems to float above a group of seated people. Their blurred faces appear to be raised in awe, or panic, arms half raised as well in a desperate attempt to fend something off, or block their sight, or maybe in hysteria.

The girls, fresh from mysterious girl business somewhere, arrived in time for the third discovery: an ominous book written entirely in runes. The dark green leather of the book was cracked but somehow velvety, and gave me goosebumps to touch. The paper bound within was smooth and felt wet to my fingers, as if it were leaving some oily residue behind. We all stood around wiping our hands on our pants and shirts after touching it. The runes were inscrutable, darkly printed, stark against the yellowed white of the paper. Each page was a solid block of symbols, with no paragraphs, punctuation, or illustration. They began neatly on the first page, and ended abruptly on the last unnumbered sheet. The smell of the book was one of neglect and time and something that scratched our throats and made us cough.

The girls were excited by the book. Declaring it a witch’s spellbook, they claimed only girls could handle it and clutched it between them possessively. Honestly, I recall being very glad to let them have it, but Rafe had to make a stand and threatened them with the usual if they kept it for themselves: torment, vandalism, exclusion from the next thousand days of Running Bases and stickball. Tanya and Marcia paid him no mind, and Rafe was forced to admit that he was not going to hit a girl any time soon. The girls cackled over their grimoire and threatened to turn us into rodents if we bothered them.

The rest of the stuff was equally inexplicable, and equally useless to us, but didn’t seem very dark or magical: old clothes, pieces of sagging and empty furniture, boxes and boxes of shoes we didn’t think anyone had ever worn. After a few hours a truck came and three large men who spoke a foreign language began collecting everything. When we claimed our three prizes, they shrugged and muttered and didn’t cause us any trouble.

I spent the night staring at the photos, seeking clues. In one, the one where a group of people seemed to be running for their lives from a sparsely furnished room, and among the people there was a tall, bony woman tht could certainly have been Mrs. Gooly. I dug my plastic microscope from under the bed, dusted it off, and ran the photo beneath it, searchin for clues. Up close the photo was just a grayscale jumble, darks and greys, dots. I did discover, on the edge of the print, what could only be a cat’s tail, puffed and the tail bit of a fleeing animal, one paw still barely visible as it fled.

The next day the five of us gathered across from the Gooly house and discussed our treasures. The girls had not been able to pry any secrets from the spell book, and were seriously considering bring Marcia’s older sister Maryanne into the discovery process, Maryanne being seventeen and well read, an untapped resource of knowledge we had never found a use for.

Rafe had nervously cranked the mysterious box for a full five minutes, listening to its dry clickings, and came out to us on the corner convinced it was merely broken, and not mysterious at all.

Lewis had claimed the trunk, and had enlisted his older brother in dragging it to his house. He had not been able to pick the lock or otherwise break into the trunk, but felt confident that he would be able to, because his brother had learned how to pick the locks on the lockers at his high school

As would become the daily ritual of the summer, Mr. Benders emerged a few minutes later lugging a new load of stuff out onto the street, huffing and puffing. Pausing to catch his breath, he noticed us across the street and shook his head a little.

You kids got no ambition, huh? Watching me clean this house out the best you can do? What happened to vandalism, or juvenile delinquency.”

Rafe sneered at him. “Hey man, we’re watching you have a heart attack – who’s dumb?”

Mr. Benders surprised us by laughing, which turned into a bad coughing fit. Finally, he waved at us dismissively, and continued hauling three overstuffed cardboard boxes out to the curb. We waited until he turned his back on them, and then swarmed over to them. They revealed nothing more than a collection of faded tablecloths, musty and uninteresting. We settled down to wait for more treasures anyway.

Over the next few months, we watched Mr. Benders clear out the Gooly house with growing excitement, seeing mysteries heretofore unsuspected revealed daily, and our collections of oddities grew with each batch. Everything seemed to confirm our suspicions about Mrs. Gooly’s nature: her possesions, once exposed to the harsh summer sun and our sharp inspection, were arcane and obviously heavy with black magic. We found a soft velvety bag filled with smooth, black stones, seized upon as magical stones. We claimed what Lewis identified as a camera, a black box with a lens protruding from one end. We could find no way to load film into it, and Marcia immediately began referring to it as the Soul Camera, a term which made us all shiver with expectation. Who knew what you might do with a Soul Camera once you learned how to use it? There was a long, smooth black rod, inexplicable but vibrating with implied violence. A glass cube. A small jewelry box filled with sand. Gold coins from some distant land none of us had heard of.

Every day Mr. Benders hauled a quantity of stuff from within the Gooly House, and every day we found new, arcane items to add to our collection. But no matter how hard we studied it all, nothing fell into place. The Gooly House made no more sense than it had before. I stared at the photos until my eyes ached, under my blankets with flashlights, but no inspiration came to me. They remained fuzzy, indistinct photos that may have been about amazing happenings, or simply badly photographed. We all fell into private and separate contemplations of the meaning of our treasures, and stopped talking about the Gooly House, and shared none of it.

Finally, the days bled into Fall, and school began firming up into a reality. We were dragged into clothing stores and department stores, we were measured and groomed, largely against our wills. Shoes were purchased. September came and we all began eyeing the calendar with dread, knowing that one Sunday evening we would be shuffled off to bed earlier than we’d become used to, and we’d be woken up earlier than we wished, pushed into good clothes, and pushed out the door with bookbags and bag lunches in hand, stunned, amazed, and regretful of a million things. Another summer gone.

Mr. Benders was finally done cleaning out the Gooly House by this time, and we didn’t see him much that final week as he resumed the normal interior lifestyle of an adult. Our parents hinted that he was gutting the place and having it all redone in a more modern style, which seemed like grown-up parlance for driving out the haunting Spirit of Mrs. Gooly, which we all expected to see rise up from the chimney someday, hovering over the neighborhood angrily for a moment, and then fly off to possess a familiar, like a squirrel or cat. We’d fallen out of the habit of waiting for him outside his house anyway, and had finished the last two weeks of our vacation playing stickball a block away, Rafe bossing everyone but Marcia around. Marcia would just cross her arms and stick out her butt and tell Rafe to soak his head, and he would just give a sly latin smile and shrug, as if it was all a big joke he’d cooked up. I hit a grand slam, and was a minor celeb for a day, something I still remember, since I don’t hit very many grand slams.

The last Saturday of vacation we played basketball in the park, Rafe humiliating me and Lewis with various trick shots and in-your-face stuffs. We took it in stride, used to it. Walking home in sweaty, drooping clothes, Lewis suddenly looked up.

Hey, y’know what? I never did get that goddamn trunk open.”

For a moment we didn’t remember what he was talking about. Then it hit us. The trunk! The Gooly Trunk! All the terrible secrets we’d imagined hidden in that house came flooding back, and I was sure that the key to it all, the last piece of the puzzle that had eluded us, was locked inside that trunk. All we had to do was get it open.

On the way to Lewis’ house, he explained what steps had already been taken, and it became clear that Lewis and his older brother had exhausted subtlety. Picking the locks would not do. Brute force was called for. We located a hammer and chisel in the garage, where Lewis’ mother had banished the musty old trunk, and dragged the trunk to the top of their sloped driveway, a cool late-summer breeeze making us shiver in our sweaty clothes. Rafe took the tools up confidently, in charge, and we all stood around it as he knelt, pushed the chisel into the small gap of the latch, and raised the hammer up for a final blow at Mrs. Gooly.

I’ll never forget what happened. I’ll never forget the five of us, as we were. Lewis, pudgy but thinning with age, sheened with sweat, his eyes bright and wide, expectant. Marcia radiant, skinny, just beginning to hint at curves, her hair up, mouth open nervously, skin pink. Rafe, strong back bunched with muscle, curly hair matted from exertion. And Tanya, on the edge, already fading from our thoughts even when she’d still been there, just out of my peripheral vision. Saying something I never heard as Rafe raised the hammer, because when he brought it down, there was an explosion.

Or so it seemed to me at the time. Certainly, the trunk exploded, splitting open with such force that the lid banged loudly on the pavement. And we all dived instinctively away from a sudden cloud of green, yellow, and tan: hundreds of tennis balls, Spaldings, Super Pinkies, compressed impossibly into a steamer trunk for years, freed with a startling expulsion of suppressed kinetic energy. Rafe was hit in the face by the lid flying upward, and landed hard on his back in the driveway. The rest of us were pummeled for three seconds by hundreds of hard rubber balls, and then found cover as the explosion turned into a steady rain of balls falling back to earth, where they then rolled down the driveway and into the street.

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Phillip K. Marks

69448_7155Writing is a curious thing, sometimes. On the one hand it’s art and you have to respect the mysterious and largely amoral idea machine that lurks somewhere inside your head – mysterious and somewhat disturbing, most times. On the other hand, there’s artifice and artificiality to it as well – you take those ideas and you think about manipulating a plot, and the market you might sell it to, and how readers will react.

So, you sometimes develop crutches or tools – like, say, a character who exists mainly to star in a certain kind of story that you often return to. I’m a fan of detective novels, and I’m a fan of the old Kolchak: The Night Stalker series, and for some reason I keep coming up with gonzo supernatural stories that are presented and structured as mysteries. And so I’ve created a character named Philip K. Marks who often stars in these stories as an alcoholic former writer who investigates weird, strange situations.

BUY ME

BUY ME

In fact, he’s not that different in some ways from Lem Vonnegan, the main character in We Are Not Good People. He’s a bit run-down, has made bold, moral choices in his life that have cost him, and he’s oppressed by forces often – regularly – beyond his control or sometimes even his comprehension. Whereas in the earlier stories I wrote about him he was well-known and somewhat prosperous, over time he’s had adventures that went horrifyingly wrong, and there’s continuity in the stories themselves, so in the more recent ones he’s lost his memory and some of his focus and energy, and he’s fallen pretty far in social and economic turns, too. Although he’s not a mage or a gunner, he’d get along well with Lem and Avery Cates, I think, and his adventures always involve magic, horror, and science fiction elements.

I like almost all of the stories I’ve written about Marks, and I’ve actually sold a few. “Sift, Almost Invisible, Through” appeared in the MWA Anthology Crimes by Moonlight, edited by Charlaine Harris, in 2010, and “A Meek and Thankful Heart” appeared in Buzzy Mag in 2013. And I recently sold a third story, titled “Howling on for More” which should be appearing over at Black Denim Lit in April (or so I’m told).

Three stories ain’t exactly an anthology, but I have a bunch of others, and it’s been surprisingly successful for me to sell three stories with the same character, especially one so different from Avery Cates and Lem Vonnegan (or perhaps not so different). And since I have several other stories starring the amnesic and world-weary Mr. Marks, I guess I have a long-term project now to start sending out more of those stories so I can someday collect them into one anthology that no one will publish.

At my current apparent rate of selling one story every 2-3 years, I’ll manage this by the time I’m 157. Which is fine. I plan to live that long anyway through a careful application of booze, lack of exercise, and positive thinking.

In the mean time, Marks will remain a sponge character for all the ideas I have that need a bit of structure to hold them up. Even though Marks started off as a catch-all tool of sorts, he’s developed quite the backstory and personality. In fact, it might be time to write a Marks novel one of these days, if I can think of the right idea for it. All writers have tools they use to hide the gears from y’all, and sometimes it’s nice when those tools ascend a bit and become characters.

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Prompting the Question

Just a story.

Just a story.

So, as noted in this great review from Matt Handle, many people are assuming/hoping that the new Avery Cates story The Shattered Gears is a teaser for a new Cates novel. I’ve had a lot of emails along those lines, asking if this is leading to something and if I have a clear storyline for a new Cates book, and whether The Shattered Gears is part of that.

The answer is yes and no. Yes, I have a very clear idea of what Cates gets up to and a lot of notes for a new novel. And yes, The Shattered Gears is directly connected, so it’s canon, baby. In fact, Gears started off as a way of organizing some thoughts for a new Cates book. But no, I have no plans to write that book right now. It will remain just a collection of ideas for now.

The same goes for We Are Not Good People and the Ustari universe. Do I have ideas for another novel or fifteen with Lem and Mags? Sure! Am I working on them right now? No! Reasons include:

  • It’s the holidays and I am incapacitated by drink more or less continuously
  • No one has paid me an enormous amount of money to write those novels (yet)
  • My work writing and composing the world’s worst rock songs in my home office takes too much of my time
  • I’m far too busy perfecting my Irish accent
  • I’m actually in the middle of writing a novel now that not only has nothing to do with Cates or Lem Vonnegan, it has nothing to do with cyborgs or magic at all.

Anyways, I’m delighted people seem to enjoy The Shattered Gears so much. If it sells well I might make releasing Cates stories a more or less regular event, though not all of those potential stories would be directly related to a new storyline, some might be flashbacks. Who knows? It might be fun.

Anyways, you know the best way to guarantee sequels? Buy the existing books and then emotionally manipulate everyone you know to follow suit.

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Self Promotion Round Up

October 7, 2014

October 7, 2014

Believe me, if there was a digital version of a sandwich board that read PAY ATTENTION TO ME OR I WILL FOLLOW YOU HOME AND TAKE A DUMP ON YOUR LAWN I would wear that sumbitch. Lacking that, I must lower myself to doing self-promotion like a commoner, begging people to put eyeballs on me. It’s humiliating. It’s why I drink. Damn you all, just buy my books without me having to do anything! Including write the books, as that is a LOT of effort.

Freebies!

Still, promotion must be done. Here’s a round up of all the freebies out there currently to inspire you to read my mighty works:

Here’s a starred review of We Are Not Good People in Publisher’s Weekly, BTW.

Appearances!

If the idea of meeting me and shaking my sweaty hand as I mutter and twitch appeals to you, you will have your opportunities, my friends:

Essays!

I’ve been writing a lot of things in service of self-promotion. Some of them are even good!

That does it for now. More things in the works, of course, but self promotion is exhausting and makes me feel dirty, so I need to drink now.

 

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American Wedding Confidential: Will The Real Best Man Please Stand Up?

Out Now. BUY IT.

Out Now. BUY IT.

Celebrating the publication of my darkly humorous novella The Ruiner (out now from Damnation Books at Amazon and B&N), I thought I’d repost this essay I once wrote for the zine.

In which I learn the explosive force of love.

About year ago this Thursday my old friend Emil got married and asked me to be his best man. Emil’s a good friend of The Inner Swine Inner Circle (TISIC) in general, and there was some resentment, jealousy, and harsh words concerning my elevation to Best Man status. There were also isolated incidents of violence. Eventually, Emil managed to cool tempers and remind the rest of TISIC that they were, above all else, contractually obligated to me in perpetuity. After that impassioned speech the members of TISIC retreated to their various abodes to scan the fine print of their contracts, only to return in much more manageable moods.

The Best Man has a lot of duties in the modern wedding. Whereas in the good old days he was merely a responsible member of the groom’s clan who vouched for the groom’s sanity, financial solvency, and lack of venereal diseases, these days the Best Man has lots to do: organize a bachelor party (I’m told it was a humdinger; personally I don’t remember much after that fifth body shot off of Lola the Stripper’s washboard stomach), deliver the viciously hungover groom to the actual wedding the next day (Emil still had his Emergency Room ID bracelet on), manage not to vomit during the ceremony, and then, finally, and most importantly, make a speech at the reception.

The Best Man’s Speech is supposed to accomplish a few minor but cherished conventions: it’s supposed to compliment the groom, his choice of bride, and form a verbal bridge between the carefree days of the groom’s prior friendships and the more complex but equally rewarding years of mature friendship to come. In other words, the Best Man’s job is to reassure the groom’s buddies that they will indeed see him from time to time despite the nag he’s chaining himself to, and to reassure the groom that his buddies will always be there to say mean things about his wife in private if he needs them to.

I worked very hard on my speech in the ambulance, riding with Emil to the ER after the bachelor party had taken a dramatic turn. The transcript which follows is taken from the wedding video, and more accurately reflects what was actually said than the scrawled speech written on cocktail napkins in the ambulance. I think I accomplished the goals of the Best Man’s Speech admirably:

“Ladies and Gentlemen, friends and family, I’ve known Emil for sixteen years. When we met back in prison we didn’t like each other very much; he always wanted to pitch and I never let him. Being cellmates gave us time to get to know each other and by the time our parole hearing came up I was proud to stand next to him, hold his hand, and testify that we had each found Jesus and would dedicate our lives to upholding the laws of the land if we were released.

“In short, I’ve known Emil long and well. And in many ways, most of which I don’t wish to discuss here.
Over the years Emil and I have gone through a great many things and we’ve always supported each other: when my dog Skippy died, Emil was there to help me through it, tenderly digging a grave for poor Skippy and getting me drunk later that night before we traced the plate number of the car that hit Skippy and set it on fire, in revenge.

“When I became addicted to Internet Porn a few years ago, alienating my friends and family, losing my job, ending up at one point getting busted for public lewdness in The @ Café in New York City, Emil was the one who came to my apartment one July evening, knocked me cold and kidnapped me. Emil kept me in a cold, dark basement for six months, deprogramming me. To this day whenever I see a computer keyboard I shake and vomit helplessly. While this has caused me difficulty and unpopularity at work, it saved me: if not for Emil and the vicious torture he put me through in that basement, I would be in some asylum somewhere, trying to log onto from a pay phone.

“Emil has always been there for me, and I am pleased to be here for him today, the day he marries Petra.

“In the four and a half days I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Petra, I’ve realized that Emil’s life was but an empty and meaningless melange of sex, drugs, and progressive jazz music. In less than a week, she has become not only a dear friend of mine, but a dear friend of all the members of The Inner Swine Inner Circle, The Inner Swine being the magazine I publish which I really think you all ought to read and purchase subscriptions, because you see that large black guy in the back standing with several dozen men in fatigues? That’s Ken [REDACTED] and he’s going to be waiting for you after the reception, and all I can say is that he’s much nicer to people who have subscriptions than to anyone else, and I can also say that I have less and less influence over him every day.

“What? All right, all right, Emil, Jesus, calm the fuck down, okay?

“Anyway, as I was saying, Petra has not only redeemed Emil from his obvious descent into damnation and syphilitic degeneration, but she has entered and improved the lives of all of us. She’s a rare and delicate flower of womanhood, she’s a compassionate and beautiful creature who’s….energy and….emotion….and….and….ladies and gentlemen, I love her. Petra, I love you.

“I cannot stand here and pretend that everything is okay, while I am dying inside! Petra, I’ve been dying inside all these past few days! Ever since Tuesday night I’ve been tortured by my love for you, while you marry this troll, this monster, this syphilitic mistake masquerading as a man! Oh, the stories I could tell you! Emil, the whoremonger! Emil the petty thief! The man he killed in Mexico! The drugs he dealt to little kids while on work release! The Kiddie Porn! Oh, Petra, you’re making a mistake!

“Ladies and gentlemen, keep that madman away from me! Excuse me….pardon me….Ken! Help! Ladies and gentlemen, I beseech you! Petra! Petra!”

(At this point the audio becomes garbled as many voices intrude and the action on-screen gets a little hectic. Occasionally you can here me shouting “Not the face!” but I don’t think technically that’s part of the speech. At this point I felt the explosive power of love, and it certainly beat the shit out of me)

I often wonder what became of Emil and Petra. I suspect he still communicates with other members of TISIC, but none of the bastards will admit it, and the court order prevents me from finding out for myself. If anyone has heard of Emil and Petra’s whereabouts, please contact me. There’s money in it for you.

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