Plugged In

computer-faces

(2,310 words)

Rose knew they’d be coming soon to implant her.

It  wouldn’t be long before they caught up to her, so she’d come here, to the cabin at the foot of the mountain. Her father used to bring her here when she was a child, and they’d walk in the woods, fish in the streams, cook their supper over an open flame. Sometimes they’d roll their sleeping bags out under the stars to sleep. On cold nights (back then there were still cold nights), they’d sleep in the cabin, snug in their bunks. One night, she’d heard a bear sniffing around outside, lured by the smell of fish (back then there were still bears) but she felt safe with her father. He was a zoologist and knew about animals.

Rose walked along a dried up stream bed, thinking of her father. Only he would understand why she’d come here. If he were still alive, he would have resisted implantation to the bitter end, just as she was doing now. He might even have joined the infamous Anti-Implantation League. Rose would have enlisted in AIL if she had known where to find them. It would mean she’d become an outlaw, but the kids were grown and Greg–well, she and Greg hadn’t seen eye to eye for a while now.

 

“Nervous?” he’d asked her that morning at the breakfast table. She hadn’t touched her food and sat motionless, except the fingers of her right hand, which tapped on the table like rain pattering. She couldn’t seem to stop.

“No.” Nervous wasn’t quite the word. Panic blew through her like a disorienting wind. In one hour, she was scheduled to be implanted.

She was surprised her husband had noticed her at all. His blank face stared out across the room. He’d accessed the morning news and was now reading it as he took absent-minded bites of his breakfast. Her drumming fingers must have annoyed him, and he’d looked over.

“Look, don’t worry,” he said, trying to soothe her. He even reached out a hand to touch hers–maybe he was just trying to still it–but she pulled it away and clasped her fingers together in her lap.

“It’s not painful,” Greg went on. “One day in Recovery and you’re done.”

“You know it’s not the procedure itself that I’m worried about. It’s the consequences of the procedure.”

He sighed. “We’ve been over this, Rose. There’s no point in complaining about it, now that it’s law.”

She said nothing because he was right. They’d discussed, debated, and fought over everything there was to say about it. Greg had gotten his implant five years ago with the twins, when they turned eighteen. Before that, both parents had needed to give consent. She had refused to give it, and did so while she had any say in it. It had led to increased tension in the household, with many arguments and slamming of doors, but she had held her ground. Now she had no choice.

“Look, I understand your misgivings,” Greg said now. “I really do. Just try to focus on all the good things about it. I guarantee you’ll end up loving it. You’ll see.” He stood and put a hand on her shoulder. “It’s almost time. I’ll be right back.” He disappeared down the hallway. The bathroom door clicked shut.

Rose sat at the table a moment longer, just trying to breathe. The walls of her spacious apartment closed in on her. She spied the key card on the table. In a moment, it was in her hand, and she was hurrying out the door, down the five flights in the elevator, and into the garage where she found the car. She inserted the card, got in, pushed the start button and drove away, with no plan, no supplies, no thought, except to get away.

She’d driven aimlessly for awhile, sure that she’d see police lights flashing behind her at any moment. The city went about its business, however, as cars and transports zipped down the congested streets. Morning commuters walked in groups, island of isolation as they voiced commands to their implants, fully engaged with the computer chips in their heads.

The good things. She knew what the good things were supposed to be. A database lodged in her mind, with instant access to any of it, at any time, in any place. News, music, games, movies, work reports or charts, anything she wanted would be routed to the visual and auditory receptors in her brain. She could shop, do her banking, make and cancel appointments. Virtual reality programs would allow her to walk in wild places that were no longer on the earth. She could travel the world without leaving her living room, fly through the air, even make love to a perfect man that didn’t exist. She could do all of these things and more, and it was all free.

She didn’t want it. Not any of it, all because of what Greg called her “misgivings”. It may not have cost a things, but this revolutionary device was anything but free. Rose wasn’t willing to pay the price it demanded.

She’d finally taken the exit that led here, knowing it was where she wanted to be these last few hours. She thought they would have caught up with her on the road, but maybe Greg hadn’t called the authorities right away. Maybe on some level he understood her resistance and had given her that much.

 

The autumn sun was hot, and in her haste to escape she’d forgotten her sun gear. The UV rays were deadly without her sunscreen, but she lifted her face toward it regardless, relishing the heat of it. She listened to the warblings of the forlorn birds, the sad song of the wind through the dry, brittle leaves, the silent spaces between these things.

She wanted to stay out longer, but the sun pressed down on her like a fist. She made her way back to the stuffy cabin, which was relatively cooler. Easing down on the hard bunk, she pillowed her head on her arms, letting her mind drift. It was perhaps the last time it would be able to do so.

She thought of the twins. How embarrassed they’d be at her behavior. Like a recalcitrant child throwing a tantrum, or an old biddy, hopelessly old-fashioned, resisting modern plumbing when the outhouse would do just fine. A Neanderthal, that’s what she was, afraid of the shiny new people coming to populate the earth, with their big brains and big ideas.

 

“It’s not such a big deal, Mom,” Jake had said the last time they were over for dinner. “You’re on your computer half the time for work anyway, so what’s the difference?”

He gestured toward the back room that held her workstation. She was a biologist, but ironically, she spent more time in that room than out in the field. Most of her work consisted of writing out grant applications, articles for conservation groups, letters of protest to corporations and government officials, and lobbying the powers-that-be to preserve what little was left of the natural world.

“The difference is an off button,” Rose replied, trying to catch his eye, though she knew he was distracted. Probably searching for the next song, or listening to the latest commercial that popped up through the ether. Even in Inactive Mode, which she insisted on when they came over, The user is still “online”, subject to the occasional but consistent weather update, breaking news, or infomercial. Maybe even one of Greg’s ingenious ads.

Everyone ignored her. Perhaps they simply didn’t hear her.

“Besides,” Julie piped up. “With the virtual reality programs, you can walk with the rhinos and elephants and whatever on the Serengeti. Or watch polar bears float on the Arctic ice floes. Isn’t that something you’ve always wanted to do?”

“It isn’t real, honey,” Rose said, pushing her reconstituted food around on her plate. “What would be the point?”

Greg slammed down his glass of water, sloshing it onto the table. “The point is, Rose, that it isn’t real now, and never will be again. Don’t you see that? No matter how many letters or articles you write, no matter how many more dire reports you make or protests you organize, the world is never, ever going to be what it once was. Why can’t you just accept it?”

The table fell silent. The twins were looking away, and she knew they were secretly accessing something, anything, to fill the awkward silence. Greg busied himself with a towel,soaking up the spilled water.

Finally she said, “I can’t accept it. I won’t. No one’s talking about it, but I will. I can’t accept something that will allow others to know where I am, what I’m doing at all times. Who I call, what I watch, what I listen to, what I write or read, how much money I have in the bank, what I buy. It’s like being stripped naked in front of strangers. It’s like being raped.”

“Geez, Mom, don’t be so melodramatic,” Jake said, cringing at her words.

“Yeah, it’s just a safety thing, you know that,” Julie said. “It’s to stop the terrorists. They’re blowing people up everyday. You want them to be stopped, don’t you?”

“Of course, but not in exchange for my privacy.”

“People who have nothing to hide shouldn’t feel threatened by this,” Greg insisted. “So what if others know you’re reading the latest thriller or called your mother yesterday? The point is to monitor for signs of terrorist activities, like buying bomb materials or calling known terrorist suspects, suspicious activities like that. You’re not doing any of that, are you, Rose?”

“Of course not.”

“Then what’s the problem?”

“The problem is that it’s nobody’s business what I do with my life!”

“You’re being selfish, Mom,” Julie said, as if admonishing a child.

“Selfish?”

“Yeah. It’s a small price to pay for keeping us safe, don’t you think?”

“You do want us to be safe, don’t you, Mom?” Jake added, finally meeting her eyes.

Yes, she did. Of course she did. What kind of mother would she be if she had given any other answer?

 

She felt nauseated, and not just from the heat and her thirst. She forced her mind back to happier memories, like being with her father here in this cabin. They’d go on adventures together, either in these woods, pretending they were great adventurers like Lewis and Clark; or in their imaginations, as they read books together, real books with the smell of paper and ink. He’d take her to the zoo, where the last remnants of wildlife had been gathered. She’d watch the lions loll about in the sun until it became too hot, even for them. The sad-looking gorillas, listless and apathetic, seemed to know they were the last of their kind.

Her father’s death two years ago had been the hardest loss she’d ever had to endure. He’d been on the boat coming back from Africa with the last herd of elephants in existence. He’d some how survived the incomprehensible violence of that continent, the rampant disease, as well as the massive, complex paperwork involved in getting the elephants onto the boat. But one night on the way home, he’d somehow fallen over the railing into the sea, and was presumed dead.

Painful thoughts, after all, but they were hers. She lingered on them, remembering his peculiar smell of aftershave mixed with the scent of hay and animal dung. His easy laugh, the books they read together. She remembered one in particular: Watership Down, it was called, about a group of rabbits trying to find a home. She’d loved the rabbits as a child, but realized later it wasn’t just about bunnies. It had been about the need to live free.

Rose drifted off and dreamed about rabbits caught in barbed wire, their fury flesh torn and bleeding. She woke to the sound of a vehicle approaching.

She sighed and got up from the bunk, wiping the sweat from her brow. Her time was up. Time for Rose Green to be plugged in.

She opened the door and looked out. Along the dirt road that led up to the cabin, one lone vehicle approached, leaving a cloud of dust behind it. It didn’t look like a police or government car. It was an old gasoline-powered Ford pickup, something she hadn’t seen in a long time.

Curious now, she left the door of the cabin and walked toward the car. As she stood in the hot sun shading her eyes, a young woman emerged from the driver’s side and approached her. She wore travel-stained clothes and a gun belt, but her hands weren’t near the holster.

“Rose Green?”

“Who else would it be?” Rose replied, inclined to be insolent. “You know exactly who I am and why I’m here.”

A corner of the woman’s mouth turned up. “Yes, I do.”

Why wasn’t she arresting her? “You don’t look like the police.”

“That’s because we’re not. But they’re about ten minutes behind us, so if you want to avoid that implant, you’d better get in the truck.”

After a moment of confusion, a burst of hope. “You’re A.I.L.”

The woman nodded. She held out a calloused hand. “Hurry.”

Rose took it without hesitation. “I’m Elena,” the woman said, and led her to the car.

“But how did you find me?”

Elena didn’t reply. The passenger side door opened and a man emerged. His long white hair blew in the wind and his weathered face behind the sunglasses was cracked like mud in a drought. Rose knew who he was before he even spoke.”

“Not many places left for you to go.” He smiled, showing cracked, stained teeth. “What do you say, Rosie?” asked her father. “Ready for another adventure?”

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Revision, POV, and a Writer’s Choices

chewed-pencil

With Lilly on school vacation, this has been a scaled-down writing week. One thing I did manage to do was print out a clean copy of Wolf Dream to begin a third round of revising. Normally by this time I’d be dotting my i’s and crossing my t’s, looking for grammatical or punctuation changes, and stylistic changes at the sentence level; the first and second rounds are for the Big Changes: switching things around, adding and deleting scenes and subplots, and generally getting it in the form I want.

Unfortunately, it still needs more. It’s only 169 pages, and 169 pages does not a novel make, especially in the supernatural genre. Publishers in that genre are usually looking for 150,000 to 200,000 words. I have roughly 47,000. Um, nope. That’s a novella. And that’s fine, if that’s what I was aiming to write. It’s not. I was hoping to write a novel.  So I need more.

I’m beginning to figure out what it still might need: more description of settings, further characterization of secondary characters, and an expansion and exploration of an important supernatural element. Simply put, I need to put more meat on the bones. I’m so used to writing short stories, wherein the mantra is cut, cut, cut, that it’s now hard for me to fatten up a story.

I didn’t have this problem with my (rough draft) dragon novel. That’s well over 300 pages, but then again, I had three viewpoint characters in third person point of view. Wolf Dream is told by one character in first person, which naturally limits the storytelling. But I feel first person is the best way to tell this particular story, and so I need to work with it and expand in other ways.

I’m reading a novel right now that switches back and forth, not only in time, but in point of view as well. The first person chapters tell what’s happening with the protagonist right now; the third person omniscient chapters tell what happened in the recent past to various characters, including the protagonist. It serves to get some backstory in, as well as anchor the protagonist in the milieu. It works for that story.

So simply because I chose first person for my story doesn’t mean I’m limited to it. But mixing up points of view is something I consider appropriate for more experienced writers; I still find it challenging to write in third person multiple.

All this is to say that writers have a multitude of choices they can make to tell their stories-the challenging part is to figure out what is right for our own. I’m still struggling with that, and the only way I’m going to figure it out is to try different things and see what works best. Sometimes that means spending a ton of time on one way, and if it doesn’t work, throw it out. But it’s the only way to learn.

Shiny Pretty Things

blue-jewel

(3,220 words)

The scenic view was deserted in the middle of the week, and since Ruby had been suspended from Fire Creek Junior High two days ago, she’d hitch a ride to her favorite spot to gaze at the canyon, and to be alone. She looked down from her perch at the railing; the sun glittered off the river winding its way through the gorge below, causing it to shine like a snake covered in diamonds.

Snake woman. Lizard girl. Dragon lady. The girls’ snickers and cruel words echoed in her head. They had been laughing, of course, at the scales. Ruby tried very hard to hide the rough, reddish-brown upraised flaps of skin that covered the backs of her arms, legs, stomach and back. She wrapped herself up in long sleeves and pants, even in the hot summers. No doctor had ever been able to diagnose or cure the scales, and she could never hide them for long, especially in the girls’ locker room.

It had been Ava who started the teasing. She and her friends had circled around Ruby, calling her names. It started after Mark had talked to Ruby at lunch earlier that day, smiling shyly and asking her if she might want to go to a movie sometime. Everyone knew that Ava liked Mark.

“Do you think Mark will want to go out with a snake like you?” Ava had curled her lip in disgust.

“I told him no,” Ruby had replied, holding her books against her chest like feeble armor. Her heart had fluttered with excitement when Mark approached her. Despite the secret scales, her long red hair and green eyes made her the kind of girl that boys approached. She wished she was the kind of girl that could have said yes to Mark’s invitation. But Ava was right. He would have seen the scales, eventually, and recoiled in horror. It was better to have him long for her, than to have him be repulsed by her.

Ava had leaned in close. “You stay away from him, got it, bitch?”

Ruby would have told her she wouldn’t have to worry, but it was then she noticed the necklace that hung from Ava’s neck. A long silver chain held a large blue jewel. A sapphire? It was probably just a cheap bauble, but it didn’t matter. The fluorescent lights of the hallway danced in its faceted depths. She wanted it.

No. She had to have it.

Before she knew what she was doing, Ruby had reached out toward the necklace. Ava stepped back in revulsion. “Don’t touch me, snake!”

Ruby’s rage arose, not by Ava’s words, but by being prevented from taking the necklace. She didn’t really know what happened or how. Only images and sensations flashed through her memory: simmering anger, a deep breath, immense heat shimmering before her, screaming throughout the hallway. The sickening smell of scorched flesh hung in the air. Ava lay on the floor with her face and neck nearly burned beyond recognition. The blue jewel had indeed been plastic, as it had melted into her ruined skin.

A sliver of guilt pierced her consciousness; she hadn’t wanted to hurt Ava. But she regretted more that she hadn’t gotten the jewel from her. She liked shiny, pretty things. She couldn’t help it. It was a compulsion, as her foster parents had come to know with the multiple shoplifting charges. They had been ready to send her to teenage boot camp, but this latest incident had gone way beyond petty theft. The police had been at her house for a long time, asking a lot of questions. Ruby could tell them nothing about what actually happened. The investigation was ongoing, and in the meantime she had been suspended from school. So she came up here, to look out over the canyon, and wish that she could dive into the river below, as if into a pile of diamonds.

A car pulled up and screeched to a halt. Matt, her foster father, glowered over the wheel of his precious restored Camaro.

“Ruby, get your ass in the car now!”

She reluctantly obeyed, sliding into the leather seat next to him. “What’s going on?”

“There’s some one at the house that wants to talk to you.”

“The police again?”

“No, not the police.” He took a Marlboro out of the box that was rolled up in his t-shirt sleeve.

“Who then?”

He lit the cigarette, and took a drag. “Come and see,” he said, and his words were wisps of smoke drifting in the hazy afternoon light.

 

His name was Uriah Jones, and he was with the Draco School for the Gifted. He extended his card to Ruby, and she took it from his hands warily as he stood smiling before her. She didn’t even glance at the card; she couldn’t stop looking at him. He was tall, with caramel-colored skin that was nearly golden, and eyes as blue as Ava’s jewel.

“It’s nice to meet you, Ruby,” he said in his deep, rumbly voice. “I’ve already spoken to your parents about possibly recruiting you to Draco School. Your grades have been exceptional everywhere you’ve attended, and I think you might fit in nicely with us.”

“But I’m in trouble,” Ruby began, glancing at her foster parents. Matt stood near the television with is bulky arms crossed; Nadine sat perched on the edge of the recliner, mashing out her cigarette into a red plastic ashtray on the end table.

“Now you listen to what this man has to say, Ruby,” she said, immediately reaching for another cigarette from its box on the table.

“I’ve reassured your parents that I can smooth things over with the authorities,” Uriah Jones said. He turned to Matt and Nadine. “May I speak to Ruby alone?”

“Of course, of course,” Nadine gestured with a wave of her lacquered fingernails. “Ruby, why don’t you show Mr. Jones your room?”

Ruby thought it strange to show a grown man her room, but only nodded and led him down the hallway. She sat on the folding chair near the card table that served as a desk, while he sat down on the edge of her austere bed. She waited for him to speak, but he only looked at her thoughtfully for several minutes. She fidgeted, looking around at the bare walls of the room.

“How old are you, Ruby?” he finally asked.

“Thirteen.”

“And are you happy here?”

She shrugged. “I guess.”

Another long silence ensued. Then he said, “Do you know what you are?”

She tore her eyes away from his luminous blue ones, and thought, I’m a thief, and I hurt people and I don’t even care, I’m the smartest person in my school, and I don’t care, all I care about is pretty shiny things, and I have ugly scales like a reptile.

Her eyes filled with tears. “I’m a monster,” she whispered.

She thought he’d either agree, or try to sooth her. What he said was, “We’ve been called monsters for a very long time.”

She looked up. “We?”

Without a word, he rolled up the cuff of his dress shirt. Scales crawled up his arm, just like hers. They shone faintly in the light of her room, golden brown ovals moving with and against each other as he flexed his arm to show her. She met his jewel-like eyes with awe, and knew she was with a kindred spirit.

“What are we?”

He rolled his sleeve back down as he answered. “There aren’t many of us left. We’ve evolved over time to take on the human form, but it’s not our true form. We can be dangerous if pushed, as that girl at your school found out to her misfortune. But mostly, we like things that shine and glitter, and collect them. We’re not complete without our hoard. I can smell yours now, right in this room.”

Ruby’s scales rippled in alarm. She kept her hoard of treasures in a box in the corner of her closet, covered with old blankets and clothes. It held all the pretty, shiny things she had either found or stolen over the years: new coins or keys, jewelry, baubles, polished stones, geodes, cheap trinkets, even some Christmas tinsel. No one knew about her hoard, and a sudden panic surged through her. She was ready to do what she did to Ava to protect it.

Amusement gleamed in the man’s eyes. “I’m not here to steal your hoard, Ruby. Where I’m proposing to take you, there are treasures beyond imagining.”

She relaxed a little, but her scales still prickled with alertness. “What if the police arrest me? Can I still go to your school?” She wanted to go. Not so much for the education (though even the slightest intellectual challenge would be nice), but to be among her own kind.

Uriah laughed his deep laugh. “There is no school, foolish girl. And  you have more to worry about than the police. The article in your local paper about the burned girl likely didn’t just alert me to your presence here. It also surely alerted a Hunter.”

“What’s a Hunter?”

“Exactly what such a word implies. Humans have hunted down and slain our kind for millennia.”

“Why?”

He sighed, and looked out the window of her room, as if an answer existed somewhere beyond the glass. “Because we are different. To prove their own bravery to themselves. Because we are no dumb animal, and challenge them. In the end, I think they like to collect their own pretty things. To them, we are the treasure.”

“What do I do?” For the first time, fear invaded her mind.

“You come with me, of course.”

She hesitated. “Can I take my hoard?”

Uriah Jones’ deep laughter surely filtered down to the living room, alerting Ruby’s parents that their troublesome foster child would soon be off of their hands.

 

Ruby packed some clothes and some personal items into her backpack. She emptied her box of treasure into a plastic shopping bag, and shoved it down into the bottom of the pack. The farewell with her foster parents was brief; Nadine gave her a quick hug, and Matt advised her to listen to Mr. Jones and to do what he says.

“We’ll miss you,” Nadine said, attempting a sad smile, but Ruby knew the only thing she’d miss was her monthly stipend.

They wound their way through the dusty hills, Ruby pestering Uriah with questions. Where were they going? How many of their kind were there? What kind of treasure did they have? What had happened when she burned Ava? What had he meant by their “true form”?

He answered her questions patiently: There’s a place not far from here where they’ll be safe. They were an endangered species; they tended to be solitary creatures, but since there were so few of them, they often banded together and protected each other. Their hoard consisted of the treasures of the ages, like nothing she’d ever seen before: piles of gold and silver, mountains of jewels. The burning of her schoolmate had been an accident, but she will learn to control her fire, especially after she makes her first transformation.

“Transformation?”

“Into your true form,” he said. He opened his mouth to continue, but stopped and slowed the car. A black Mustang blocked the middle of the road. Uriah braked the same time a woman stepped out of the Mustang, holding some thing in her hands. Tall, muscular, with short dark hair, she was dressed all in black: tank top, leggings, knee-high leather boots. Over all she wore a cloak that glinted in the late afternoon sun. Ruby stared at the cloak, mesmerized.

“Hunter!” Uriah cried as she raised a crossbow, notched a bolt and aimed straight at them. “Get down, Ruby!” He pushed her down behind the dashboard and ducked as the windshield shattered with the impact of the bolt. Ruby lifted her head, and shook pieces of glass out of her hair. The woman took a few steps toward them and calmly notched another bolt, her face a mask of determination.

“Stay down,” Uriah told her. Still hunched behind the dashboard, he opened the driver side door and eased out to crouch behind it. The Hunter let loose her bolt, and it splintered the door’s window. In the moment she lowered her crossbow to retrieve another bolt, Uriah stood and quickly took a deep breath, so deep  his chest puffed out with it. The Hunter, seeing this, dropped to her knees on the pavement and swirled the cloak around her, just as Uriah blew out a massive jet of flame from his mouth. The fire seemed to go on forever, and completely engulfed the Hunter. When at last it sputtered out, Uriah fell back into the car, panting.

To Ruby’s amazement, the Hunter threw back the cloak and stood, unharmed. She bent to pick up the crossbow and continue her attack. In that moment Uriah threw the car into drive and sped toward her, then lurched around the parked Mustang. As Ruby looked back, the Hunter jumped into it to pursue them.

They careened through the curving roads as hot wind blasted them through the broken windshield.

“How did she live through that?” Ruby asked, as Uriah feverishly drove them higher into the hills.

“Dragon scales,” he replied, his eyes darting to the rear view mirror. “They turn their kills into cloaks, to protect themselves from the fire. Lucky for us, their honor code demands that they use the ancient weapons. Cross bows are clumsy and slow.”

“Why didn’t you use the fire on her again?”

He shook his head. “It takes time to rekindle in this form.”

There was little traffic on the road, but after turning a sharp corner at speed, they nearly ran into a white pickup truck coming in the opposite direction. The driver honked his horn and yelled out the window, but that was only the beginning of his trouble. As the pickup took the corner, the Mustang roared right toward him, and they both veered away from each other into the sides of the road. The Mustang sideswiped a sign post, and then spun around into a gully to face the other way; black smoke curled out from beneath the hood. Ruby couldn’t see what happened to the pickup as it swerved around the corner.

Uriah pressed the gas pedal to the floor of the car, and soon they approached Ruby’s favorite scenic view at the top of the hill. She though he’d drive right past it, but  he turned into the parking lot and squealed to a halt.

“We only  have a few minutes,” he said. Ruby followed him out of the car, and he pulled her toward the railing. The sun was setting in the distance; the bottom of its orb just touched the tops of the hills that formed the canyon. The walls of the gorge blazed red, and the river ran black below, dappled by the sun as if lit by stars. On the ledge, their shadows slanted long behind them.

Uriah faced her and held her eyes with his. His skin glowed golden in the sun. “Do you trust me, Ruby?”

“Yes.” Ever since they’d encountered the Mustang in the road, she’d been terrified, but trusted Uriah to protect her. Now, as he asked her this at the lip of the canyon, a new terror gripped her, though she couldn’t understand it completely.

“Be what you are meant to be,” he said. He climbed onto the railing, and swung his long legs around to the other side. He smiled at her, and then dove over the edge, his arms out in front of him as if he were a swimmer diving into a pool.

“No!” Ruby looked frantically over the edge. His small form dropped towards the bottom, but the rive was a good hundred feet to the left, and he would only smash against the rocks below.

She turned as a vehicle approached. The white pickup truck crested the hill and rattled into the parking lot, but its original driver was not at the wheel. It was the Hunter.

The pickup barely stopped before she opened the door, her crossbow already in hand. Ruby quickly climbed up on the railing. As she swung her legs around and perched there, a sudden wind gusted up from below, blowing her hair into her face. A huge shadow blurred up and past her, and when she pushed her hair from her eyes, a golden dragon with black wings rose up into the air before her. Its huge blue eyes swiveled to look at her.

Its scales gleamed in the sun. She sat paralyzed with its beauty, until Uriah’s voice spoke in side her head: Hurry. She looked back at the Hunter, who had also paused to take in the majestic form of the dragon, but had recovered herself and was notching a bolt to the crossbow. She raised it and aimed it at Ruby.

Ruby had no time. She dove off the edge, slicing through the air as the rocky bottom rushed up at her. She nearly screamed, but Uriah’s voice spoke again: Believe. Another voice clawed its way up through her fear and said, Dragon lady. But it wasn’t Ava’s voice, taunting her. It was her own, strong and clear.

She spread her arms wide out of instinct, and as she did so, the skin on her shoulder blades pricked and then painfully burst open as wings unfurled behind her, ripping her clothes. Her neck and limbs elongated, and claws erupted from the ends of her digits. her face stretched into a snout, and sharp teeth clicked inside her mouth. A long, sinuous tail sprouted behind her. Her scales tingled and rippled as they spread across her enlarged body. They shone bright red, like new blood. A growing heat flared inside her; she was a furnace burning with fire.

She pumped her black wings and floated upward toward the golden dragon, who circled above her, waiting. The Hunter was now at the railing, aiming her crossbow at Uriah. The bolt flew at him, but fell harmlessly off the armor of his scales. Ruby instinctively knew that there was a vulnerable spot, just where the neck met the body. The Hunter had missed it, but anger filled her nevertheless. She inhaled air into the furnace like a bellows, fanning the embers into flames.

She breathed out, releasing the inferno behind her. The Hunter, distracted by her attack on Uriah, wasn’t quick enough. Her eyes widened as she reached for the cloak, but the fire engulfed her, and this time, when the flames died, all that was left was smoking ash. It blew away in the wind, leaving the dragon cloak behind. Uriah flapped to the railing and plucked the cloak from the ground with precise claws, and then flew off over the gorge.

Come, he thought in her head, there are caverns below. She followed as he flew down toward the river. Ruby exulted as she dove through the diamond-like surface, forgetting about her tiny hoard back in the car. Where she was going, deeper and deeper through the water, into the earth below, the shiniest, prettiest things waited.

 

 

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

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I’ve been intrigued by the strange photo on the cover of this book for awhile now, but probably would never have picked it up if my book club members hadn’t suggested it. My sister didn’t realize it was a YA novel, though in the end it didn’t matter-this is a delightfully “peculiar” book no matter what the genre.

As a child, Jacob Portman loved his grandfather Abraham’s stories about the house of peculiar children he’d been sent to as a child-in order to protect him from the “monsters”. The children who lived there had odd powers or peculiarities-an invisible boy, a levitating girl, a boy who had bees living inside of him-peculiarities that were backed up by some old photos that his grandfather had shown him over the years.

As he grew older, Jacob realized his grandfather had probably been telling tall tales, and that the “monsters” were actually the Nazis during World War II. His parents had likely sent him to an orphanage in England to protect him, while the rest of his family was slaughtered. And the pictures? Weird camera tricks.

But then his grandfather is killed, supposedly by a wild animal; Jacob is sent to check on him that day, and his grandfather dies in his arms with some enigmatic words: “Go to the island, it’s not safe here. Find the bird. In the loop. On the other side of the old man’s grave. September 3, 1940.” And then Jacob sees something in the underbrush nearby, something decidedly monstrous.

Afterward, he suffers nightmares and anxiety, and his parents send him to a psychiatrist. Dr. Golan suggests that he look into his grandfather’s stories, if only to find some kind of closure. When his aunt gives him a book from his grandfather’s house, an Emerson book with Jacob’s name on  it, he finds a letter inside written to Abe from Headmistress Alma LeFay Peregrine, with a postmark from Cairnholm Island, Cymru (Wales), UK.

From this and various other clues, Jacob pieces together that his grandfather wanted him to find this Miss Peregrine and her home for peculiar children-and realizes that if he did, maybe they could shed some light on his grandfather’s secrets.

The book takes off from there, with Jacob and his father travelling to Wales, the discovery of the bombed-out house, and Jacob’s initiation into the world of the peculiar. The weird photos only add to the story; they’re old pictures the author has found through tag sales and private collections over the years. I find it an ingenious way to tell a story-in the author interview at the end of the book, Riggs says that he both made up a story around some of the pictures, and tried to weave others into the narrative as he went along. It’s inspired me to more frequently use pictures as story prompts; one might get a best-seller out of it!

Going in, we thought this book would be a creepy, kind of freaky read, but it was actually more on the whimsical side, and the recent previews for the movie version only reinforces this. It’s a fun, adventurous read, for YA readers, as well as those who have a taste for the peculiar.

Book Review 2016

Looking over my reading list of this past year, I thought I’d pick out some favorites, some not-so-favorites, the hits, the misses, and the abandoned.

I’ve read fourteen books this year (12 fiction and 2 non-fiction) and I’ve loved, or at least mostly liked, all of them. I’d have to say my top three favorites are:

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  • Dark Places, by Gillian Flynn.
  • City of Mirrors, by Justin Cronin.
  • Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, by Ransom Riggs. I just finished reading this book and don’t have a review yet; stay tuned.

My least favorite book out of all of them has to be The Martian, by Andy Weir. Don’t get me wrong; I loved the movie, but the book was a bit tedious. Good story, but better told through a different medium.

The award for Most Mind-Blowing Book goes to Dark Matter, by Blake Crouch, and the Just Plain Weird award goes to Night of the Animals, by Bill Broun.

There were three books that I started with good intentions, but will join the Halls of the Unfinished:

  • Steering the Craft, by Ursula K. LeGuin. I hadn’t read a good craft book in a while, but I just wasn’t disciplined enough to get through this one at the time. I had better luck with Old Friend From Far Away, by Natalie Goldberg, which I’m still writing through.
  • Circling the Sun, by Paula McLain. I thought I’d really like this novelization of Beryl Markham’s life (the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic), but…I just didn’t. Maybe I’d have better luck with West With the Night, a memoir.
  • The Lace Reader, by Brunonia Barry. This book, about a family of lace readers in Salem, Massachusetts, has been on my shelf for a long time, and I finally started it a while ago and have been reading it between book club reads. I’m not sure if it will ever get finished.

The book club has really kept me on track with reading-if I didn’t have anyone else to read books with and have a deadline, it would probably take me a lot longer to read a book, and I certainly wouldn’t have read a lot of these titles, which would have been a shame. I can’t wait to see what great books the new year holds for me!

Have you read any of these books? What was your favorite book of the year?

 

 

I Dream of TV

Have you ever been tempted to just give up all effort at writing (or whatever it is you do to make art) and just curl up on the couch with ice cream and watch TV the rest of your life? To just enjoy the fruits of other, more talented people’s imaginations?

Maybe it’s just the time of the year, with the combined effect of illness (Lilly’s or my own), snow days caused by weather, or the crunch of trying to get ready for the holidays, but I just can’t seem to get pen to paper lately (I’m writing this in a nearly deserted Dunkin Donuts on a Sunday evening at 4:45 p.m., in a stolen hour before I head home for dinner and Lilly potty time, the best I could do in nearly a week).

Of course this happens every December, and I sort of expect it-I’m just not going to get any writing done. At first I’m frustrated, but then a sort of numb resignation sets in, and I’m convinced I should just give it up already and settle in front of the boob tube, for all I’ve accomplished lately. But I know I’ll eventually get past this fallow time and get back on track.

In the meantime, I can dream about all the shows I could watch instead of writing:

  • Continue getting through The Walking Dead (TNT).  I began watching this past summer, and I’m currently mid-fifth season; Rick and Co. have just arrived at Alexandria, and though it’s a much-needed respite for the shell-shocked group, inevitably it won’t last. I’m aware that the much-hated Negan is out there with his barbed-wire baseball bat Lucille, and who he kills with it. It’s just going to get darker and darker for these people, and time will tell if I will be able to sit back and watch this train wreck. But I can’t abandon them now.
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  • Grimm (NBC) comes back in January for its 6th, but alas, last season. Apparently its ratings haven’t been enough for the network to keep it around, and it’s been cancelled. It’s been given a 13-episode run to tie up the plot lines, and it will be interesting to see how they manage to do this. My question is, how in the world will I get by without
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    him?

 

Not to mention: Monrosalee! Wu’s one-liners! Crazy, icky creatures! It’s just a fun, entertaining show that I’ll miss.

  • Game of Thrones (HBO) won’t be back until April for its usual 12-episode run, its 7th and supposedly penultimate season. In this list of boy’s club shows, I’m gratified that the two most powerful people in this one are women (among many strong female characters). It’s the War of the Queens, and I can’t wait to see it play out.
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After that, I may be in a show hole, and I might just check out:

  • Sherlock (BBC America). There’s something immensely appealing about Benedict Cumberbatch, and this Sherlock Holmes update looks slick and quirky. And I’ll always love Martin Freeman, thanks to the Hobbit movies.
  • Nano Hobbit
  • Taboo (FX). I’ve admired Tom Hardy since Mad Max: Fury Road, and most everything he’s involved in turns out exceptional. He produces and stars in this show, and I’ve seen tantalizing trailers, though I’m still unsure of what it’s all about. Something about a kind of prodigal son returning from some exotic land to 1800’s London to continue his family’s shipping business, but there’s all kinds of deceit, murder and mayhem. Whatever-it’s Tom Hardy!
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  • There’s also other shows of interest I’ve mentioned before: Once Upon a Time, Vikings, Downton Abbey. Maybe someday…oh, I could so easily get sucked in if I didn’t keep up my writing nerve. I don’t know if I could ever write stories as compelling as these, but they inspire me to try, at least, and are there to fill the well when it’s feeling a bit empty.

Do you watch any of these shows? What’s on your fantasy couch potato list?

The Continuing Ethical Problem of Santa

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My daughter Lilly will be eight years old in February. She still unequivocally believes in Santa Claus, despite being aware that others -most grown ups and some older children- don’t believe in him (thanks to perennial favorite The Polar Express).

It seemed so harmless and fun when she was a toddler. You want your child to believe in magic, to be awed and entertained, to be tickled by its possibilities. Besides, you almost have no choice but to perpetuate the cultural phenomena of Santa, unless you want your kid to be that kid that goes around telling all the other children that Santa is a big fat lie.

But then, as your child gets older, the questions begin: how does Santa know when you’re naughty or nice? (Um, monitors, like on Polar Express?)How does he get in our house when we have no chimney?(We’ll leave the door unlocked). Is that really Santa at Yankee Candle? (Yes, but he does have a lot of helpers that goes to other places. He can’t be everywhere at once, right?) Does he know everything? (Not everything, but he knows a lot). Can he do magic? (A little bit. His reindeer can fly, after all). Do you believe in Santa, mom? (Um, sure I do).

Lie after lie after lie. Suddenly you realize you’ve created a monster, and it’s pulling you down into a vortex of falsehood and illusion. This can’t possibly be good, right? And you dread the day when it all comes crashing down, when your sweet child looks at you with wounded, betrayed eyes with the question Why? on her trembling lips. And that day will come.

Lilly is already upset that magic isn’t real; real magic, when you say abracadabra and wave the wand, and a unicorn appears.  But it doesn’t work; nothing appears in a puff of smoke. I try to explain to her that magicians use illusion: they trick you into thinking you’re seeing something that’s not there. But she’s not buying it. She wants it to be real.  She wants the impossibility of something out of nothing.

So when the day comes that I have to explain that Santa Claus isn’t a real person, he’s simply the generous and giving spirit of Christmas, well…I think that’s going to go over like a lead balloon. Like the kid in The Polar Express, she’s going to feel railroaded, bamboozled, taken for a ride. And I don’t blame her.

Am I worrying too much about this? None of us has ever died in finding out that Santa isn’t a real flesh and blood person. But maybe a little something inside ourselves die. A basic trust in our parents, for one thing. I don’t exactly remember the day when it became clear to me that Santa (Easter Bunny, tooth fairy, fill in the blank) wasn’t real; it might have been an accumulation of evidence over time. I just remember feeling resigned that magic had no place in the real world. (Maybe that’s why I write in the genre I do-it’s the only way to bring magic back into my world).

“Magic” in a metaphorical sense is all well and good when you’re old enough to appreciate it. But when you’re a kid, it just sucks when the real magic dies. Lucky for me, Lilly isn’t there yet.

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