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.
Saturday, September 24, 2016
Wednesday, August 31, 2016
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.
“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.
Saturday, July 30, 2016
Callie turned off the light. As darkness settled in the room, the sounds of the city shifted. A distant train horn blared then fell silent. The hushed whisper of traffic deceived her ears with its ebbing and flowing like an ocean. From the pillow in her new, quiet neighborhood, Callie envisioned the city’s infinite complexity. From the gap in the curtain, she saw the haze of lights hanging below the clouds. The rain’s first drops pattered on the window. The grey peace tempted the Muse that dwelled in her mind, but sleep stole her away.
I’ve been working on my fourth novel since 1994. It’s been such a long time that it feels surreal to say that it’s being published this fall. The Muse for this particular story has been around so long that it’s an old friend I'll be sad to say goodbye to (I’ve come to realize there seems to be a Muse for each one). There has been a special Muse serving as an advisory role for this novel, and it’s one of the reasons why I’ve been almost reluctant to finish writing the novel: my brother, Matthew.
This week would have been his 45th birthday. The idea for this novel came to me the week he died in July 1994. It was my way of keeping him alive, but it has evolved into a complex work of speculative fiction that very much reflects the anxieties of our time: governments exploiting their citizens, big data serving as an overlord of surveillance, and revolutionary movements that struggle to promote their idea of freedom. The first draft of this story included a group that was much like the hacktivist enclave Anonymous, so it was kind of eerie when they actually popped up as a real thing in the 2000s, and really became well-known during the Occupy Wall Street movement. Other unsettling things that I conceived back then came to pass as well, and have matured in the novel.
The basic concept has remained the same: what if ancient Sumer never collapsed, but became a space-age super power? A young woman with the powers of an oracle has been suppressed by her guardians. One night she indulges in a psychoactive drug at a club, inadvertently quotes an ancient text, and attracts the attention of an emissary of the gods, sent to right the balance of power in this society. She re-enacts Inanna’s journey to the underworld, and emerges as one of the gods’ emissaries on earth.
While mythology plays a strong role, so does the idea of colonizing space. Research and mining colonies are scattered throughout the solar system, but are in early stages of development. The government promotes living off-world, but most people aren’t interested until all the comforts they want are widely available. It’s very much a pioneer’s life, so in order to build the luxury colonies needed, mass incarceration fills the gap by sending prisoners to do hard labor on the colonies. People are convicted of minor offenses (frequently falsely) and sent off-world. This was also an opportunity to explore the Overview Effect, written about by author Frank White. An avid supporter of space programs, White interviewed a number of astronauts about the profound change in perception of Earth after having seen it from space. Because space has always fascinated me, too, I attended several events that featured the astronauts he interviewed (plus, he was in one of the coolest writing groups I ever belonged to, and miss dearly as everyone got caught up in the usual life stuff). You can check out one of the videos here.
Lords of Kur is the longest novel I’ve written, and the most layered in terms of themes, characters, and worldbuilding. It’s a true departure from following the life of a real woman marginalized by history, as I have done in the first three novels and a few short stories. I suppose it’s no accident that I finished it almost exactly on the twenty-second anniversary of when I started it. The fifth novel to come is also one that has been waiting in the wings a long time, so I struggle with impatience. But I’m a few short weeks away from the editing phase, and I’m delighted with the cover art. Very worthy of my brother’s style. It’s been somewhat of a melancholy journey without him. He was the artist; I was the writer. We helped each other on our respective projects, and I can only imagine what we could have accomplished together. I continue the endeavor without him. It goes without saying that Lords of Kur will be dedicated to him. It’s a story that gave me strength for years, and I hope it finds its audience.
(originally published April 14, 2016, for one of Chuck Wendig’s weekly writing challenges)
Gregor crouched in the darkness and wiped the soot from his hands. No fire had been as satisfying as this one. The house was built like a fortress with grates covering the windows. He blocked the doors to prevent the captain of the guard and his family from escaping. He hoped the pompous duke watched in horror from his commanding view at Bell Rock Manor. The spate of fires across the city were no coincidence. Vengeance spread in memory of Gregor’s dear sister, Sadie, who was burned at the stake for witchcraft.
As industrial innovations accelerated over a few short years, the king and his men saw fit to reform religion. When the decree came, the king unveiled new statues in the capital’s cathedral. Gone were the horned god of the hunt, the sorceress, and the rugged blacksmith. The aspects of the natural world they represented were replaced with austerity. The faces of the gods appeared stern. The new rituals were equally cold; no ecstatic songs were welcome any longer in the redesigned and stark chambers for the congregation. The gods now favored an unyielding aristocracy that wanted to keep the rest of society under tight control. The Old Ways, as they were now called, were not tolerated.
The duke’s men enforced the decree and swept the city for practitioners of witchcraft, making examples of the women and men who chanted over candles and collected seashells and feathers for their shrines. Sadie shunned the decree and continued to read tarot cards for worried wives and young women who yearned for something more than long shifts in the factories that churned out textiles at a rapid pace.
Gregor kept a pinch of her ashes in the locket she gave him on a winter solstice many years ago. He pulled the chain holding the locket from the inside of his shirt and kissed it when the fire reached the top floor of the captain’s house. “For you, dear sister.”
Bell Rock Manor loomed on the steep hill above the city of Raynport. Gas lights around the perimeter of the property replaced the torches of a newly bygone era. He removed a scrap of smudged paper from a pocket and dug out a shard of blackened bone. He reviewed his list. The members of the jury—done. The bailiff who twisted Sadie’s arms until her shoulders dislocated when they hauled her out to the stake—done. The captain of the guard was still screaming, but would be done soon enough. That just left one more.
Gregor glared at the mansion and spat on the ground, wiping his chin with the cuff of his jacket. “I’ll come for you soon enough.” He scuttled deeper into the shadows to enjoy his handiwork.
Nearby, the captain’s deputy reviewed the same list of names on a paper of his own. “I think we know who we’re looking for. Search the area; he’s probably watching. Send a squad to where he lives. I don’t care if we have to search every inch of the city. We’ll catch him.”
The deputy searched the area around the house, shaking his head. “See here, this is where it started. Underbrush piled up under the back porch and set alight. Smell that? Kerosene.”
Gregor sneered in the darkness. So what? You know how the fire started. Soon I’ll write your name on the list using my blacked spur of bone.
An idea flashed. He ducked out of his hiding place in the bushes and dashed down an alleyway. Debris shielded him from detection. When he emerged by the Rusty Cleaver, he crouched again to watch a homeless carny performer entertain a small crowd in front of the tavern. A jar of magefire sat on a crate behind him. An innocuous substance that made it appear as though things were really burning, the magefire caught Gregor’s eye.
As the carny performer dazzled the small crowd by juggling flasks coated in magefire, Gregor swooped in and swiped the jar on the crate. He resisted the urge to douse himself in the substance and set it alight. The jar fit easily in his coat pocket. He turned the corner to the pyramid of empty barrels behind the tavern. He pulled one from the stack and rolled it to the area where deliveries were prepared. He spotted the reserved barrels for the duke. Prying off the lid, he crawled inside.
He had nothing but time.
Hours later, he was jostled awake as the barrels were loaded onto a cart. He relished each bump in the road—the cart lurched along on its journey, filling him with glee in anticipation of reaching his destination.
The kitchen staff at the manor rolled the barrels into the cellar. From his muffled perspective, he listened to them complain about the duke and his insufferable family. When silence descended, he crawled out of the barrel and looked around.
“Almost too easy.” Gregor jumped at the sound of his own voice. He clasped a hand over his mouth.
And now…to get to work.
He filled his pack with bottles of kerosene he found on the cellar’s shelves. He hoarded matches in his pocket. Before he left the cellar, he opened the tap on a barrel of mead and set the leaking alcohol alight. He whispered a prayer to the god of the forge and snuck into the passageway that allowed servants to pass unseen throughout the manor.
As the first explosion in the cellar rocked the manor in its foundation, Gregor grew reckless. He dashed into rooms and set pools of kerosene on fire without checking whether anyone was watching. With the fire alarming the manor’s residents, panic drove them in search of escape—and in search of the cause. Word of an arsonist on the loose had reached the manor faster than he’d realized.
Gregor set a lace tablecloth on fire in the second floor tea room and ran back into the passageway. Footsteps charged in his direction. The booted footsteps of armored guards. Spotting him, they hollered and gave chase. He ran back into the tea room. Frantic, he charged through the tall window onto the balcony overlooking the back of the manor. The view staggered him.
The back of the manse faced a cliff. Waves crashed on the rocks as the ocean carried in a storm. Lightning cracked the evening’s violet sky.
A table laden with porcelain shattered when the guards tore through the room to get to the balcony. His heart pounding, Gregor raced over the side and climbed down a trellis covered with wisteria in full bloom.
Amid shouting, guards circled around each side of Bell Rock Manor. Gregor ran to the cliffside. Dropping the bag of kerosene, he pulled the bottle of magefire out of his coat pocket and doused himself with it. The guards pulled back.
He clenched the shard of charred bone he’d taken from the heap of Sadie’s remains in one hand, and held the locket in the other. Kissing the locket, Gregor uttered a prayer of homage to his sister. He looked out to sea, where the asylum that once held him stood on a lonely and rocky island stood a short distance away. She had helped him escape. She sheltered him until they took her away from him.
With the flick of his hand, the magefire came to life and consumed him. The guards reared in horror, not realizing the harmless effects. The dive awaiting him, on the other hand, was another matter.
Delighting in being enveloped in magefire, Gregor screamed. Clutching the bone shard and the locket, he leapt from the cliff and into the ocean.
The guards stood over, watching the fire be quenched by the waves. No body lay smashed on the rocks.
“That’s enough of that,” said the squad captain with a shrug. “We don’t have to worry about him anymore.”
The storm raged above Raynport well into the night. No one saw the figure creep out of the water and into a seaside cave along the bay. No one heard him shout in triumph. He shook his fist at the shadowy asylum on the water, the locket still clutched in his hand.
(For Chuck Wendig’s writing challenge week of Feb. 8, 2016—my roll got me a combo of time travel and mythology, so here we go!)
Hafvilla. (n.) Norse. The state of feeling bewildered while lost at sea.
Lex faced the camera and smiled. “Next, on Arcane Fortunes with Lex Colson, I’ll set forth on my own journey to test the accuracy of the long-rumored sunstone. Did the Vikings succeed in navigating on cloudy days because of them?” He held the chunk of calcite up to the sky. “It’s a perfect day to test out our theory, so let’s find out!”
Lex gestured to cut the film. “I feel ridiculous in this outfit. This is like a Renn fest for fur fetishists.”
The cameraman burst into laughter. “Dude, you look amazing! The Vikings would think you’re one of them. Hoist that drinking horn high and make a toast to Odin!”
“Ha. Funny guy. I’m hardly worthy of a journey to Valhalla.”
“Don’t I know it, bro. That five-star hotel back in the city already has your champagne cooled. Hardly a warrior’s abode.”
“Hey, ease up. I’m planning on proposing to Jenny under the northern lights after we film this; give me a break!”
“Whatever. Just look good for the shot.”
With the obligatory b-roll shots taken, Lex made sure the cameras on his replica ship were secured. “Okay, so I’ll take a spin out there for a bit and be right back for the next scene.”
Steve waved and set his video equipment down. “Don’t go too far out, son. You know you can’t swim.”
“Ha ha, very funny. I’ll catch a walrus for you.”
Lex dipped the oar into the water and pushed. The serenity of the drifting boat made him pause and enjoy the scene. The rough Norwegian landscape made for one of the most beautiful episodes he’d ever filmed, and he was looking forward to the results.
A low mist crept across the water. The wind was light; no storm approached. Lex let the boat drift further into the fogbank. “This is perfect. Just the shot I need!”
He held the sunstone up to the clouds and faced the camera. “As you can see, the sun is completely blocked out now. Yet, if I hold the calcite up just so, a line of light catches on this mark here, showing I’m moving northwest. While this makes navigating across the Atlantic much more plausible when we consider the Vikings, it doesn’t mean it was easy, even in their seaworthy dragon ships. They were always one storm away from Valhalla!”
Amused, Lex ended the shot. He rowed out further to capture additional footage. He wasn’t aware of time passing until a flash of silver light rippled over the water. His gaze shot to the sky, but it was still foggy.
No voice came from the shore.
Lex rowed in earnest, eager to make his way back. “Oh man, we still have several more scenes to do, and all those people in costume in the mead hall waiting on our dime. Damn it!”
Just when his heart began to pound in panic, the shore came into view. The crew was nowhere to be found. He jumped ship and pulled it up the shore alone. “All swilling mead by now, I bet,” Lex said. “Here I come, guys, fill my flagon!” He hoisted the drinking horn to the air.
He passed a wooden rack with fish dangling from it. He pulled the small camera out of his pocket for an impromptu shot. “Did you know the Vikings cured their fish by the sea?
Nothing better than fresh salt air to season the fish!”
Nothing better than fresh salt air to season the fish!”
A group of men stood nearby in full costume. Lex whistled. “Wow, you guys look so authentic—great job! Look at those beards!” He clapped a man on the shoulder as he walked by. “Very cool, bros. Love the axes, too. You borrow them from that show about Ragnar Lothbrook?”
Lex walked to the grand long house and whistled again. “Place looks more amazing every time I see it. I’ll be damned if this episode doesn’t earn us an award.”
He entered the building and stood, stunned. “Fuck me—if this isn’t a scene right out of Beowulf. Did I land on a movie set? Hey, who’s the director around here? I think I’m lost.”
He entered the building and stood, stunned. “Fuck me—if this isn’t a scene right out of Beowulf. Did I land on a movie set? Hey, who’s the director around here? I think I’m lost.”
Men stared. Dogs stared. Lex made his way through the crowd, apologizing if any film was rolling. At last, he saw the man on a gigantic throne. Dragons were carved on either side of it, like the figureheads on the ships. A one-eyed man watched him from it, nodding and tapping his finger along his own drinking horn. The main door to the long house opened, and two ravens flew to the man, cawing loudly as they landed on either side of his shoulders.
“Now, what did you see today?”
They conferred with their heads bowed for a few moments before the one-eyed king regarded Lex. “A stranger comes. And what news do you bring? Did someone raid your farm? You look like you barely escaped with your life—were you having a roll with your woman and need to rush out with just the blankets on?”
The men around him roared in laughter. Lex shrugged and smiled. “I suppose I deserved that. I do look ridiculous compared to you guys. What movie’s being filmed here? Beowulf?”
The king took a swig from the horn. “Beowulf. A worthy name in Valhalla, but no. This is but a mere tavern at the edge of Asgard. I come here to collect my thoughts when I need to get away from the wife. Right, men?”
Men with whorls of tattoos and rings in their beards laughed and joined him in drink. The great fire in the rectangular pit burned bright, flanked with spits of roasting meat. The power bar Lex had for breakfast now seemed woefully inadequate. His stomach agreed with a low growl.
Two growls accompanied him. He looked down to see two—wolves. He raised his hands quickly in a gesture of helplessness, much to the amusement of the watching crowd.
The king beckoned. “Freki, Greri—don’t judge a man by his hunger. Come here.”
The wolves trotted to the dais and came to rest.
Lex gaped. “This is one hell of a setting! This is probably one of the most authentic sets I’ve ever seen. Odin, the ravens, the wolves—the warriors—you have it all!”
Odin nodded and stood. He made his way down to the area by the fire. “Young man, what is your name?”
“Lex; I’m the host of Arcane Fortunes. Maybe you’ve seen it on the History Channel?”
Odin chuckled. “Arcane Fortunes, eh? Let me tell you of arcane fortunes…the wisdom of Yggdrasil, the coming of Ragnarok—when that good-for-nothing Loki steers Naglfar, a ship carrying an army of frost giants to destroy the world, and the wolf Fenrir devours me. A wolf devouring a god, you wonder—how can it be so? Well, I may have made my peace with that knowledge long ago, but it doesn’t mean I won’t fight. Come, let me show you something.”
Odin escorted Lex out the door of the hall. The night sky shimmered above. A colorful bridge covered the sky over the hall.
“That is Bifrost—the bridge between your plane and Asgard. I don’t know if Loki was involved in this prank, but you don’t belong here, my friend. Not that I don’t want to be a hospitable host. You’re certainly welcome to feast with us and enjoy. You’ll have a long journey home, though. It’s a long walk across that bridge.”
Lex stayed. He feasted and drank mead, and scratched the ears of the wolves. He recorded it all, or so he thought. After falling asleep by the fire, he was astonished to find himself back in his paltry boat in his pathetic fur outfit. He was still surrounded by dense fog.
He ran the camera. The video was blank.
(originally published November 1, 2015)
Another year, another Boston Book Festival. Only this year was different in that I decided my time was better spent working on my own writing, rather than going to hear other authors talk about their published works. I was sorry not to go, but this fall has been a whirlwind. So much so that I’ve even been neglecting this blog a bit…but all’s well, and moving onward. The fourth novel is well underway, and I’m preparing a short story for submission to an anthology. But I participated in BBF in one small way, by writing a story for their One City, One Story program, where they invited writers to tell a flash fiction story about what home means to them. Here’s what I sent them.
A keychain shouldn’t be empty of keys, Callie thought as she placed hers on the bare wooden floor. The sunlight glinted off the various trinkets that found their way onto the rings over the years. Practical things like the tiny flashlight and bottle opener, and the fanciful, such as the silver-and-shell seahorse pendant from a trip to Mexico, and the enameled black heart, emblazoned with Emily Strange’s face and the words“Bad Girl Gone Worse” over a spiderweb.
Callie snapped a photo of the bereft keychain. “We’re officially homeless,” she said.
With the photo snapped and uploaded to Instagram with a poignant comment, Callie surveyed the empty room. The moving truck idled by the curb. Shafts of sunlight lengthened along the polished pine floor.
Callie couldn’t fight the emotional storm that descended. Reels of memories played, but one in particular brought tears to her eyes.
“I’ll never forget that moment—after the closing and this place was truly mine. It was empty and sunny, just like this. Diva the Queen of Wonder Dogs and Best Witch’s Familiar Ever was with me. It was her first time seeing the place. She ran through all the rooms and skidded to a halt right here to relax in the sun. Missing her still breaks my heart.”
Kissing her head, Jack pulled her in for a hug. “I know. I’m sorry. We can get a new dog after we settle into the new house.”
“It’s not that,” Callie said with a despondent sniff. “There are so many memories here. I’m happy about the house, but this place is a whole era.”
“A new era awaits.” His squeeze comforted her. “Come on. The movers are waiting.”
She said goodbye to twenty-five years as they drove through Somerville. The store-front ghosts of the past appeared in her mind’s eye. Disc Diggers and Someday Café in Davis Square; Arsenic and Old Lace in Porter Square; WordsWorth and the Tasty at Harvard. At least Bob Slate’s was resurrected, Callie thought as they continued to drive.
“To think people used to make fun of me for living in Davis Square,” Callie said. “And now it’s hipster central and exorbitantly expensive.”
Jack reached out with one hand to caress her neck. “Hey, we’re only a couple towns over now. We can still go to our favorites anytime. I’m sure it will be hip where we’re moving someday, too.”
Callie laughed. “Someday. That town has a way to go before anyone calls it ‘cool.’ Feels like the end of the universe at the moment.”
Jack laughed and turned on the music. As if on cue to summon her muse, Kate Bush, Nick Cave, and other prophets of the bygone era of her twenties conjured deeper memories. Maudlin sentiments lured like a will-o-wisp.
Remnants of snow banks from a month’s worth of blizzards clung to the curbs—filthy and battered sentinels of one of the harshest winters in recent memory. Spring’s warmth was slow to start, but the densely packed snow showed its age with deepening pits, revealing humanity’s wake—pollution and litter.
When they pulled up to the driveway of their new home, long-time residents pulled their curtains aside to peer at them. The moving truck hadn’t caught up yet. Callie got out of the car, smiling as she thought of the day the real estate agent showed them the house. They had barely crossed the threshold when both Jack and Callie felt that this was their new home. She opened the door and smelled the memories of the family that had left. Years of cooking, favorite colognes, and the mustiness of old things lingered.
“It’s all about the past,” Callie said. “That’s where home really is. Everyone’s too busy to notice it in the present. When you think of home, it’s always in the past.”