Thursday, February 23, 2017

Wolves of Sorrow


Dagmar stood on the wooden platform in the middle of the forest, waiting for the ritual to end. The rich scent of the earth’s awakening to spring brought anxiety to the forefront of her mind. I should be planting crops, not grieving. I don’t even know what to say about this…She wiped the tears away, catching a slightly disapproving look from the priestess, Birgit. No more tears. That time is done.

No tears.

They would not hand her the shield if she continued to cry. It belonged to her husband. It lay over his body when his companions brought him home. Birgit took the shield from his body and presented it to Dagmar with an invitation to join the Wolves of Sorrow. Her heart full of rage at the warriors across the sea who killed him, Dagmar accepted without a thought. Now she wondered if her courage would match her desire for revenge.

Her husband’s shield had been repainted with a depiction of a wolf’s face in dark purple. A single tear appeared under the left eye, the eye sacrificed for knowledge by Odin the Allfather. She accepted the redesigned shield with a grateful bow.

She was no stranger to battle. Everyone in the village could sharpen weapons and step through the basic attack and defensive movements. With Björn by her side, she fought in a skirmish to keep raiders from plundering their village several years ago.

And now she stood with the widow-warriors, about to voyage across the sea to protect the settlements and hunt the men who broke the treaty. Her husband’s friends told her that he had been killed by the king himself.

The priestess held up a sword to the crowd of women surrounding the platform. “We know this belongs to one of King Cuthbert’s soldiers. They may not have been wearing the armor of their kingdom, but they still carried the king’s weapons. They are no more than well-paid bandits, and we’ll show them what it means to rob us.”

The resounding cheers swept her up and she held up the shield, mimicking Björn’s battlecry. As the women marched down the hill from the forest and through the village, they beat their axes against their shields, each bearing the same wolf face. Villagers paused in their tracks for the procession. Onward, thought Dagmar as she raised her axe and shield and shouted. Onward to war.

They reached the shore and waded out to the dragon ships. The Wolves of Sorrow took up three boats, followed by the vikings who made their lives by exploring and raiding other lands. They pushed out with their oars and slowly rowed out of the narrow bay.

Clouds played among the mountaintops as they passed down the bay to the open ocean. The evergreen trees towered over each other and the occasional cry of golden eagles soared over the water. Dagmar shivered suddenly at the world around her. Rarely having left the village, she now realized the vast beauty around her in a new way. That Björn didn’t return standing at the prow of the dragon ship still seemed surreal to Dagmar. For days, she expected to see him walk by the hearth and sit next to her on the bench, and share a story from his travels or offer her some mead. Alas, his side of the bed remained cold. Cold as the light breeze that came down the bay. As placid as the water that stretched out on both sides of the ships. His blanket untouched, though she longed to wrap herself up in it and sleep to forget the world without him.


No storms accompanied them across the sea. The priestess said it was a blessing. “They favor the Wolves of Sorrow,” she said. “They’ll guide us right through the king’s front gates. Cuthbert will fall to his knees and beg us for mercy. We will grant him none.” The widow-warriors shouted in agreement. Steadily and with unflagging determination, they reached the shores of Northumbria, where dark clouds began to gather.

Low thunder rolled across the sky, as though the gods grumbled in impatience. The warriors made camp near the windowless citadel where the petty king resided. A nearby monastery bustled with activity. Monks tended their gardens and loaded barrels of ale onto wagons.

Like the gods, Dagmar was growing impatient. The moment came when the king led a hunting party out of the citadel’s front gate. Accompanied by a couple dozen friends and guards, they rode out into the woods in a column.

A while later, a young scout, Askr, appeared with his bright eyes through the leaves where the warriors hid and watched. “They’re far enough away from the citadel! They’re busy setting up tents and drinking—now is the perfect time!”

The ambush happened quickly. The Wolves of Sorrow led the charge into King Cuthbert’s distracted encampment with raised axes and shields. The Northumbrian men were taken aback at first, bewildered by the sight of the women in armor. A man with a black and white striped beard laughed. Others joined him. The laughter turned to a bellow of disbelief and agony when Dagmar’s axe cut into his shoulder and almost severed his arm from his body. The men gaped and fumbled for their swords. Unprepared, they scrambled as the warrior-widows tore through them in flashes of steel and blood with the rain pounding down on them all. Lightning cracked overhead, illuminating the steel.

Dagmar advanced on the king with her axe held high. “It was you.”

She saw that he didn’t understand her words, but he trembled slightly, his path blocked from any weapon. Her lip twitched in a smile as he held up his hands. His words trembled too.

She plucked the crown from his head and hitched it on the end of the scabbard on her belt. “My son will wear this. We will make him king of Northumbria.” She drove the blade into the side of the king’s neck and it was done. Dagmar turned to the other warriors, emerging into the camp now that the Wolves of Sorrow slaked their thirst. The widows howled and bayed, their prey conquered, their pack ever stronger.

Monday, January 2, 2017

The Smell of the Apocalypse


The 10-alarm blaze displaced 125 people. Several cars exploded as the fire spread from house to house. Local news reports showed plumes of smoke drifting for miles away from the fire. The following morning, Callie paused on the walkway on her way to the bus stop. The acrid odor of smoke hung heavily in the air. On this quiet morning surrounded by silent houses, it conjured an eerie sensation.  

There was no traffic. The combination of smoke and silence triggered a survivalist impulse. The lyricism of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road came to mind, bringing forth images of charred trees and a world laid to waste. The post-election newsfeed on her phone promised a bleak future. A worldwide dystopia run by a coalition of dictators was to come, and the time to plan for revolution is now. It feels like it’s already over, and the sixth extinction has come to pass, Callie thought as the bitter tang of soot settled around herThis is what the apocalypse smells like

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Dinner and a Movie, 1977


You walked up the stairs with your dad and stood in the hallway. My grandmother’s chihuahua terrified you. You decided to call him Pringles instead of Gringo. “Pringles, despite the name change, still growled at you and tore at the cuffs of your corduroy pants. You clung to your dad. My grandparents and great-grandmother stood around us, seeing my mom and your dad off on this “first date with the kids.” Curiosity shone in our eyes, but after a brief glance, we stared at the floor with all the attention being focused on our introduction 

We sat quietly on the blue bench seat of my mom’s white Dodge Dart. Car windows still had fins to open and stick your hand out to be pushed by the wind. Back in those days, you could crawl up over the back seat and lay in that flat space under the window, breathing on the glass and drawing with the tip of your finger. The music of the flower children played on the radio.  

At the Chinese restaurant, you only ate bread rolls and refused to touch the fried rice or the pork tinged with bright pink dye. The first spark of mischief ignited when we slid under the table together because the adults were taking so damn long with all their flirting and talking. We had no idea the adventure ahead would change our lives.  

I was seven and you were six. I loved Doctor Who and Star Trek. I wanted to design space ships that could travel across the galaxy. When words in that yellow font scrolled up the movie screen against the background of space, I sat right up. What followed was that epic battle scene with imperial ships gunning down the rebels. Then came the lady in white with the weird hair-do, like she wore donuts on each side of her head. She didn’t collapse like the damsels we knew. She watched as her homeworld was destroyed, and resolved to fight the empire.  

She was funny and stood up to anyone. I loved Uhura, but they rarely seemed to let her off the ship. I had no doubt she’d roll up her sleeves and fight, too, but with Leia, we saw it. She was kick-ass and smart in the way I wanted to be kick-ass and smart. By the time the movie was over, we begged to see it again. Immediately.  


 On the way home, we were not quiet. The back seat of the Dodge Dart became the Millennium Falcon, and we were the heroes. As future step-siblings, the foundation for our friendship was laid out. From then on, you encouraged me to the leading heroine in D&D and LARP games. In the years that followed, we sought out others like Uhura and Leia—you, the burgeoning artist, drew all of them, and I started writing the stories for our own worlds that were populated by women who could be admired for their courage, wit, and brillianceNo weeping or swooning allowed.  

In June of 1994, you told me to watch The Crow. I told you I don’t watch stupid love stories. A month later you were gone, struck down on a sidewalk and killed by an irresponsible asshole who had no business driving. Your best friend gave me a VHS copy of The Crow. It was a bittersweet way to show me how wrong I was. The film was amazing, and all the more poignant knowing Brandon Lee was gone, too.  

Our relationship was bookended by films that changed my life, and you were an integral part of each. You fed my Star Wars dolls to the perpetually barking “Pringles” and I laughed. (Though now when I see how much those dolls are worth, their indignant demise as chew toys is no longer funny.) How many hours did we spend riding our bicycles to go climb trees, or hang out in the colonial-era graveyard across the street, and reach out to our childhood muses?  

We had no idea the actress playing Leia was being bullied about her weight, or the other pressures and struggles she coped with over the years. She was more of a heroine in real life than we knew. Like you, Carrie Fisher left us far too soon. The memory of that first date shall remain with me forever, and it gives me solace to know it was a starting point for so many stories that came to be

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Losing 20 Hours a Week


The realization of how much lost time factors into my week came as a bitter revelation. It’s an inflection point that made me evaluate everything: my career, the location of my job, the job itself, trying to balance writing and publishing novels, maintaining blogs, managing a household, and somewhere in there, find time for family and friends. Since I moved a bit further away from downtown Boston in 2015, my commute has increased considerably. If things are going well with the MBTA, which isn’t often, my commute is 15 hours a week. It’s usually closer to 20. One horrendous night when the OrangeLine was on fire and the Red Line was experiencing severe delays, and every bus and Uber driver was overloaded, it took nearly 4 hours to get home, making for a total of 6 hours of commuting that day. The subway stop closest to home is three miles away, and the bus that takes me there runs sporadically after 7 p.m. Walking is a dicey idea in this not-so-pedestrian-friendly town.

We can consider ourselves fortunate that smartphone give us the ability to do many things while standing around and waiting for the next packed bus to pass us by without stopping. But do I really want to look back at the age of 70, no doubt with chronic neck problems, and wonder why I chose to spend my time like I did, hunched over my phone in an angry crowd, or can I make changes now to shift the latter half of my career into a more positive direction?

Progressive-minded companies understand this. Remote working and flex time are becoming more common. There’s an amazing array of technology out there that makes this easy. So why are so many others reluctant to catch on? Why are optics favored over productivity? Does it really matter if a desk jockey stuck in a grubby cube dyes their hair purple? Individuality shouldn’t be crushed by inane conformity. Numerous studies have shown the negative effects of open office spaces. More lost time, increased stress, and feeling like you’re in a micromanager’s peeping paradise serves no one well. Some executives cite “that one bad apple” who ruined the trust for everyone else, but is that the real story, or do some people simply have a hard time transitioning from a traditional mindset?

With today’s sky-high rents in places like downtown Boston, you’d think a key goal would be to reduce overhead costs. A smaller space with desk sharing would be far more economical, and time can be set aside for meetings requiring larger groups. People feeling like their time is valued and who are able to get more done are more likely to stick around.

A number of things have delayed my fourth novel: moving and renovations, family issues, transforming my career from editor to digital strategist by earning two certificates and studying relentlessly. It’s wonderful to find my calling, albeit at midlife, but it’s also given me time to reflect on what values I attach to my identity and what I need to do to nurture my career. It’s been an epiphany to conclude they’re not mutually exclusive. Yes, I need to pay my mortgage, but is sacrificing quality of life necessary? An essential aspect of digital strategy is digital transformation—the online world is our world, and everything is evolving. Businesses that are slow to adapt risk falling into obscurity as disruptors and innovators from all industries create replacements for what refuses to change.


We’ve crossed the threshold of a new era. It’s exciting and anxiety-inducing. What happens if our robot overlords push us into pod hives to serve as living batteries for the Matrix? Self-driving cars are on the horizon. Smart homes are going to do our shopping for us. Data analytics/business intelligence is a massive opportunity for growth. Schools must be better at preparing students for the future. In order to do that, new leaders have to guide the process. Old-school attitudes about education and employment must transform for us to remain in the game in terms of innovation in all areas of life. While there has been good reason to be really stressed out and angry lately, the badly bruised optimist within me believes there’s still hope. Let the creative spirit flourish, allow for a progressive work environment, and let’s all enjoy more time to pursue the ideas that can make the world a better place. 

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Old Tin


It was Beth’s favorite thing to do whenever they visited second-hand shops. There was always an old tin filled with vintage jewelry. Usually a trove of tarnished, gaudy baubles, there was invariable a treasure that made it worth purchasing the whole thing.

Beth opened the blue cover decorated with butter cookies and pushed through the broken strings of beads and heavy brooches. Single earrings that have long since been separated from their pair lay like fallen sentries.

Beth grinned as she tugged on a long necklace. “And there it is. Bingo.” The large tootsie-roll like beads were lacquered in red and black. Carved in a Chinese pattern of dubious authenticity, the beads clacked together under the shop’s fluorescent lights.

“It’s hideous,” Callie said.

“It’s perfect.”

Beth’s intention suddenly dawned on Callie and she laughed. “For the lamp with the red velvet shade?”

Beth held up the necklace. “Cut them into three or four piece segments, and hang them around the bottom of the shade. It’ll be the best ugly lamp I ever made.”

It was another of Beth’s passions. On trash days, she searched the neighborhood’s sidewalks for abandoned lamps. Only the tackiest or most bordello-worthy would do. Once refurbished, Beth gave the lamps to friends and family who had a wry appreciation for her art. Beth and Callie’s Somerville apartment featured a small octagonal living room that was impractical for furniture. It became their shared art studio, where they got buzzed and critiqued each other’s projects. The lamps stood in the center of the room on the paint-speckled floor, illuminating the space with rainbow hues when colored light bulbs were used. Rubenesque cherubs adorned the tops, plastic beveled gems sparkled, and random objects were pasted on the shades. They never ceased to draw amazed reactions.

Callie plucked a gold pin in the shape of a heron from the tin. “Put this on the side. Its shadow will be cast on the wall. Fits with the theme, don’t you think?”

“Definitely,” Beth said. She put the pieces back in the tin and closed the lid. “Five dollars well spent!”


As Beth paid for the jewelry, Callie looked at the clumps of jewelry strewn on a nearby counter. An array of neons, pastels, and heavy Goth pieces from the 1980s filled a tin of her own at home. Callie perused these high school-era relics from time to time, with memories drifting over the decades. It was a strange sensation to look at the collections of jewelry offloaded to a second-hand shop by surviving relatives and wonder how her own would look on a similar counter years from now. Some of the pieces in Beth’s tin reminded her of her great-grandmother. It was a fugue of generations, threaded together with shiny trinkets precious to interconnected hearts. 


Saturday, September 24, 2016

Laudanum


The liquid morphine patched together vivid images. The bevy of crickets outside sounded like a worn fan belt on the minivan from up the road. Images from the ER lingered; the pain had floated away. This bout of tonsillitis had been severe, but she got to keep them. One more, though, the doctor said, and out they go. This is really unusual at your age. Callie was grateful to be home. The real blended with the fantastical as the medicine deepened its hold. The veil between spheres of existence thinned, revealing strange figures interacting in their own worlds, unaware of her presence. Sounds of the neighborhood anchored her to her own world. If only I’d remember these visions later. A deep, healing sleep followed. 

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The Idiomatic: A Flash Fiction Challenge

Shortly after I got the phrase “Hell wasn’t built in a day” from the Idiomatic, I came down with a savage case of the weretonsils, and would up in the ER late at night over the weekend. My husband joked that I really know how to surprise him with a romantic date. We settled in for a few hours of intravenous steroids, and as I waited in the hospital bed, all the ideas I originally had for the story changed and turned into this as I observed life after midnight in the ER—not my usual style, but hey, why not try something different? 


Hell Wasn't Built in a Day


The thread of life was unspooling and near its end. A small cluster of hospital staff stood around the bed.

“There’s no one to contact?” asked the doctor.

A nurse shook her head over the clipboard she was holding. “Her former husband hung up on me after saying no one in her family wants to hear about her.”

From within a remaining spark of consciousness, Karen felt a great heaviness within her chest. Suffocating…so cold

She was vaguely aware of how large the johnny felt over her emaciated body. Uncounted weeks’ of grime and sweat covered her skin.

“Do we admit her?” asked the nurse.

“There’s no time. She won’t be with us long. It’s amazing she’s here at all, considering the level of fentanyl we found.”

Karen struggled to remember her last moments before she landed in the hospital. The touch of hands as she passed by her dealer on Boston Common and they exchanged money for the sealed packet. Hiding in the curved nook at the bottom of the stairwell of the Chinatown T stop with her gear. The exquisite rush as the ambrosia flowed. The slump leading to an indefinite doze.

She didn’t remember how she found herself walking down the street, but she did recall the comment someone made about the tourniquet still wrapped around her arm. The heaviness set in her chest, as though an alien whisper blew Earth’s atmosphere away in a puff. Then darkness.

It was light years from the life she knew. Fitting the sash around her shoulders when she got her MBA from Wharton. Dan putting the platinum ring on her finger a month later. The leather strap of her briefcase neatly tucking under her lapel as she headed off to her career in health insurance. The sharpness of that thick strap, holding a goldmine of data and business deals, was once a joy that could’ve rivaled the rush anticipated when the tourniquet tightened on her skin.

Her earliest memories were of ruthless ambition, even in grade school. There was no high greater than a power play, until the pills led her down the dark path.

The pain killers. The very ones she helped push to a broader market. There are some kinds of pain that can’t be banished, even with the strongest of drugs. The images from the moments before the accident seared into her memory. Distracted by the shrill notifications, she never thought to look up while she argued with a colleague.

“My husband’s an important lobbyist with pharma! If my CBA doesn’t support his argument, we’ll lose!”

She grimaced at her colleague’s next text. “What’s a CBA?

“Cost-benefit analysis! What kind of idiot school did y—”

A thundering crash jolted her in her seat. A sickening crunch brought her out of her self-centered universe. She had collided head-on with her husband’s gold Buick. They both looked up from their phones and over the steering wheels and faced each other, their child’s aqua bicycle crushed between their cars. The only thing that had kept them together was now gone. The child wasn’t much more than a status symbol to begin with. An opportunity to brag about the most progressive charter schools and exotic extracurricular activities over cocktails and sea urchin foam-covered canapés. How did the nanny allow the kid to be on a bicycle anyway? That hour was reserved for creating an outline for the junior entrepreneur program. The nanny ought to be sued for endangerment. Always arguing about the importance of playing outside. Really.

There was no reason to stay together. Karen and Dan already had secondary households set up with their respective lovers. Once the prescription to treat her broken shoulder ran out, she turned to friends in the business for freebies. Until she wore them out. Until she slept through conference calls and missed her targets.

The job crashed and burned. She stayed with her sister’s family until things began to disappear. Blank checks from the checkbook. The new tablet for her niece’s birthday.

She settled for an apartment on the gritty side of town. What money she had disappeared as though it had never been there. The ambitious mean girl was now a denigrated, feeble outcast. It was only a short time before she was evicted. She slept in the entryway of a vacant office space downtown. Until.

Until.

“How does it come to this for so many people?” a voice above her asked.

The doctor clicked his pen. “Hell wasn’t built in a day.”

The last of the light flickered over her eyelids, and she was gone.