excerpts New Post Writing again

Flash Fiction: “A Bloody Mess”

If anyone ever asks where my ideas come from, I’ll be able to say honestly, “Facebook posts plus illness-related sleep deprivation plus general depravity.” I’m blaming this one on a friend’s post about a dripping ceiling fan.  I have no idea if I’ll ever do more with it (or if it’s worth pursuing)  but I have the shape of the story jotted down, just in case.

Blood dripped from the bathroom ceiling, seeping through the edges of the light fixture to fall like dark tears onto a shiny tile floor.  Drop after drop plinked into a rippling puddle beside the clothes hamper, and the liquid pooling inside the lightshade  cast eerie crimson shadows over gore-splattered walls. The air reeked of iron and piss.

Before Joelle Petak entered the crime scene she applied a fresh layer of lip gloss and rolled it back and forth until the eucalyptus scent rose into her sinuses and dulled the stink.  The she lifted one sneaker-clad foot over the black, buzzing lump of flesh in the doorway and hopped a little to clear the obstacle. An irritable cloud of flies rose at her passing, then returned to their feasting. Joelle landed in the clear spot of floor beside the toilet and regarded the lump of meat in the bathtub. The second corpse was as much of a shredded, anonymous mass as the first.

A hot wash of fear and disgust caught at Joelle’s belly, loosened her insides until she had to clench every muscle to keep her bowels and bladder under control. This one was going to be bad. She had seen worse carnage than this only once, when a sorority pledge had been tasked to complete a Greater Demon summoning and actually cast it perfectly–on the open quad on a Saturday night during football season.

This case might be worse by the time all was said and done. This time, the monsters were still on the loose. She pushed aside those concerns and swung her big purse of holding around to the front. Good, bad, or ugly, her job didn’t change. She was here to make the past give up its secrets in the service of justice.

The snap closure on her purse popped open with a sharp noise, and Joelle froze as she caught a glimpse of motion in the hallway. Both patrol officers behind her had dropped their hands to their weapons belts. She slowly lifted her field recorder from the bag with two fingers. “Y’all aren’t gonna shoot me over a little razzle-dazzle, are you?”

“Sorry, ma’am,” the patrol officer on the right said. His dark face had a sickly grayish cast and gleamed with sweat. His female partner had her other hand over her mouth, and her fingers were trembling. She shrugged, and the dull pain in her eyes spoke volumes. She had lost someone to death here tonight. Joelle wondered how many first responders had gone down before the big guns were called in.

 She lifted her eyes to the ceiling and the blood now raining down from the dimmed fixture. “How many more, do you think?”

“We aren’t sure,” said the woman patrol officer. Her words had thick, rounded edges, as though she was forcing them out around some obstruction in her throat. “In some bedrooms there are piles—” a shallow breath, and another, and she finished, “There’s no way to tell.”

“I’d best get my mojo moving, then. There’ll be a lot of flashing light. Please don’t shoot me, ‘kay?” Joelle  raised the recorder and muttered the triggering spell.

 Glitter exploded from the device in her hands and spread in a rainbow sphere of sparkles that chimed bright melodies. The flecks of light clanged and rang in dissonant notes as they struck surfaces and reached the doorway.  The shimmering veil hung for a moment, then melted away, leaving behind pale residue on everything but Joelle herself. The buzz of the flies stopped. A pall of acrid smoke hung in the silence.

The recorder chirped its happy done-collecting-things tune, and Joelle brushed away an errant dead insect. “All righty, then. One room down. Twelve to go.”

excerpts New Post

Decision Point: a bit of flash fiction

This short piece was first written for an online site a few years ago. I recently converted it to first-person present tense for the fun of it. Verb tense does change the feel of the story.  Not sure if it works or not, but it’s done, so up it goes. 


We don’t belong here. This rocky path high in the San Bernardino Mountains is no place for city slickers like us. We aren’t dressed for the weather or the terrain, we have no maps, canteens, or first-aid kits, and no one else in the wide world knows where we are.

We don’t belong, but we’re here. The trail goes two directions: forward or back. The sun is glimmering behind a seductive green fringe of pine boughs, the cool breeze perfumed with the scent of pine is rustling sweet meadow grasses, and the trail is a dusty-brown invitation to continue into the shadowed forest again. Forward or back: decision time.

We decided once already. That’s how we got this far.

A few hours earlier we were all lounging around a hotel pool in the blistering mid-summer heat of California’s Central Valley. There are five of us: Dru, Gary, Alexis, Kyle and me, co-workers by necessity, friends by serendipitous chance. Our company pulls together its best people to set up new locations, and the job involves a month of six-dat workweeks where the shifts routinely top twelve hours. We were enjoying the twenty-four hour break between week two and three, recreating as hard as we could in floating chairs with umbrella drinks, when Dru found an idea in her third mai tai.

Dru is short for Prudence, but I’ve never met anyone with a less appropriate name. Moderation is for monks, she says, laughing, and she has a sunny persuasiveness that makes the most ridiculous ideas seem reasonable.

“Let’s go for a drive,” she says, and that is that. Alexis the designated driver chooses a route titled “Scenic Byway” from the rental van’s GPS, and off we go.

Eight clogged lanes of highway become four, and then two. Brown, withered plains give way to scrubby hills, and the roads empty out. Twenty miles from millions of people, we are the only souls  in the universe.

The road shrinks again to one lane with narrow shoulders, and the route twists  and climbs uphill through tall trees as straight as telephone poles. Drifts of snow huddle at the tree bases, gray in the shade. Gary opens the windows, and we shiver in our tank tops and shorts. “National Forest,” declares a faded wood sign.

Conversation quiets to murmurs of “I’ve never seen so much green,” and “I wonder what kind of bird that is.”

Kyle, ever the curious one, checks online. “Steller’s Jay,” he says, but we are happier when his phone loses signal so we can christen the world for ourselves.

Ship-mast pines, old-man bushes with clumps of leaves like shaking fists, and bat-squirrels who cling upside-down from branches. We laugh at every new discovery claimed, and then we run out of road. No tire tracks mar the smooth gravel of the turnaround. A trailhead beckons to us from the far side. Fallen pine needles lie thick on the path, undisturbed by any travelers. The sign beside the entrance is unreadable, paint weathered off, surface sanded flat by time’s passage.

I trace the carved symbols by hand, but their meaning is long gone. Dru says, “Let’s see where it goes.”

That’s the kind of suggestion that gets people killed in these wild places on the edge of civilization. Nature doesn’t forgive mistakes. Hypothermia, dehydration, starvation–all those deadly fates are one injury, one slip, one wrong turn away. People die every year because they mistake proximity for safety. I know how stupid this idea is.

I say, “Great idea.”

It’s stupid, but risk is part of life. We live, we dare, we head into the woods. Dru skips along in her flip-flops, Gary grumbles about blisters, Kyle and Alexis complain about sweat, but no one wants to be the first to give up. Then Drew stops at a narrow cross-trail, looking tempted.

There’s stupid, and then there’s stupid. “No turns,” I say.

She walks on, but she asks, “Why not?” so I tell gruesome stories about people dying lost in the woods. Survival is about choosing risks. All decisions have consequences.

A snide remark from Alexis and a joke from Gary lead to an unforgettable discussion about survival and the human spirit. The conversation meanders like the trail. We walk, and we talk, and we soak up the joy that comes with baring your heart and past to friends while getting grit in your teeth, twigs in your socks, and sunburn on the tips of your ears.

One more curve, we agree every time we come around a corner and the trail goes on. One more, until we reach this overlook where the smoggy human grid of the valley spreads out below us. We joke about zombies and escaping the apocalypse, we admire the way the trail dives back into the trees at the far end of the soft forest grass—so enticing—and we look at the sun, not setting yet but soon.

Do we turn back? Or do we toss the coins of our lives onto luck’s table and gamble our futures for the thrill of new and now?

Life never lets us see the endings we don’t make. That’s what stories are for.

Do we walk back safe with full hearts and no regrets? Do we retreat with the itch of what if scratching at our souls for the rest of our lives?  Or do we freeze in the dark, caught by a late-season blizzard blowing off the Pacific? Maybe we fall to our deaths, first one alone, the the rest in a tumble of screams when a rotted slope crumbles beneath us. Perhaps adventurers from a generation not yet born will find our starved and withered corpses lost deep in the heart of the wilds.

We stand in a meadow bathed by golden light and weigh a simple choice that is not simple at all. One decision will create a whole ever-after for each of us.

What would you choose?

Photo credits: William Morris, private collection


excerpts New Post

Writing Progress, Weekend Share

First scenelet of Heartwood Take 2. I feel comfortable posting since this will be the 10% in the Look Inside preview feature. Unless…okay, true confession, I want it out in the world where someone can tell me, “oh geez, don’t, ugh, it’s slow, boring and confusing, stop please stop.” Or, ya know, the opposite. Here ’tis:

When destiny knocked on Grace Trapani’s front door, she was out back on the patio trimming the herbs in her summer planters. The rapping sound startled her, sending a jolt of panic through nerves wound tight from months of worry. The mental short circuit bypassed common sense, which whispered the pizza must be here, and jumped straight to the terror that never went away: what if it’s him?

The idea died as fast as it sparked. Grace’s ex-husband would not knock if he came to reclaim his stolen family and punish his disobedient wife. Joshua Salucci carried a Public Safety badge now that he’d sold his soul to the devil. He could break down the door with Federal troops behind him if he wanted—but more likely he would use his new Satanic powers on Grace and force her to open it for him.

That’s why Grace had forsaken him in the first place. When Josh’s judgment first came on him, when he’d embraced evil and called the authorities against every tenet of their faith, Grace had seen her doom in his eyes. As soon as the Public Safety thugs took him away from the compound—to train him, they’d said, as if they thought that would be reassuring — she’d grabbed the girls and fled for their lives.

And for weeks she’d flinched at every shadow, cringed at every stranger’s voice, moving from hotel to hotel, daily giving thanks for the savings they had never entrusted to worldly banks. Through the God’s mercy and the kindness of strangers they had found sanctuary here in sleepy Elgin, Illinois, in a home on the enemy’s doorstep where Josh would never look.

These days she could quell the static bursts of fear with facts. If Josh could have found them, he would have come to destroy her months ago. This was the pizza delivery, and the pizza was not her responsibility.

Knuckles rapped on the front door again, harder this time. Grace set down her basket of herbs and picked up the garden hose. Water hit the upstairs bedroom window with a splatter. The sash slid open, and thumping drumbeats blasted outside, chased by screaming waves of guitar and keyboard noise. Gloria stuck out her head. The so-called music drowned out her voice, but her mouth made a familiar shape. “What?”

Memory provided Grace with the proper aggrieved tone, and again when Lauren came up beside her sister and mouthed all three syllables of “Mom!”

The twins had their black curls piled high on their heads in complicated braided arrangements today, and both wore the same indignant expression. They looked most like their father when they were angry, a detail that bothered Grace more than she liked to admit. Her children had inherited his flair for martyrdom too.

Grace considered embarrassing them in public her favorite parental duty. “Your supper’s here. They’ve knocked twice already, so you’d best hurry. I left money in the key tray for you. Bring the party out back, please. I’ll set out plates and napkins for you.”

“Fine!” The window slammed back down. The music stopped, and a shout bounced through the house. “Stay there, pizza man! We’re coming!”

Grace supposed she should discuss indoor voices with them again later, but she hated ruining together time with lectures. This would be their last summer together as a family, and she wanted everything to be as perfect as she could make it.
Oh, to be young again, trembling on the pinnacle of childhood, eager to leap into the bright air of adulthood, blissfully ignorant of the rocks below waiting to break you when you fall.

She’d always feared the girls would inherit her sin and Josh’s, and last year the mandatory tests had proved it. Starting at sixteen, her daughters’ summers would be spent fulfilling government service obligations and attending classes on coping with the horror their lives might become.

Grace didn’t want them to go, but they couldn’t claim conscientious objection. Josh would be looking for a woman Grace’s age with two daughters, and the religious exemption would put them on a short list. Grace consoled herself that education was not all indoctrination, and anyway, that was a worry for another day. She didn’t need to borrow next year’s troubles when she would have a half-dozen hungry guests to manage any minute now.

Lauren’s and Gloria’s effortless socializing was a constant marvel to Grace. They certainly didn’t get that gift from her. She’d been warned that switching schools at their age could be traumatic, but they’d made the transition with a determined enthusiasm that won over everyone they met. Every day Grace saw more glimpses of the amazing women they would become.

Thoughts of gratitude reminded her to say a blessing before the meal. Most of Lauren and Gloria’s friends got uncomfortable about religion, but that was no reason to skip the formalities herself. Gloria was at the point of making jokes about Grace saying grace, but it looked like Lauren might grow into faith, not out of it. Another worry for the future, not for today. Grace could only show them the path. They had to find their own way. She’d fought for that, for them.

She bowed her head. “Thank you, Lord, for what we are about to receive from your bounty. Amen.”

It was a perfect summer evening: sun low in a blue sky dotted with clouds, rainbows dancing in the spray from the sprinklers, green plants in the freshly-weeded garden swaying gently in the rising breeze. She loved these dog days of the year when life ripened slowly in the heat.

The girls had complained about the sticky, humid, nasty, frizzy-hair-making, zit-causing, disgusting weather all morning during the yard work. The whole gaggle of them had spent the afternoon in Lauren’s air-conditioned room, painting their nails, doing those absurd things to their hair, trying on each others’ clothes, and discussing grown-up topics like the difference between second and third base. They thought they were quiet when they whispered.

Now footsteps thundered down the stairs, followed by shrieks of laughter, a sound to warm the heart of any mother raising two angsty teens on her own. Grace gathered up her little bubble of happiness and the plates to set places at the picnic table. Indoors the girls belted out shrill commentary, and the hinges on the cheap metal screen door squealed as it opened.

Silence fell, followed by the declaration of ultimate disgust. “Mo-o-om!”

Grace prayed for patience. “Lauren, honey, I told you, the money’s in the tray.”

“It isn’t the pizza.” Gloria yelled, and a second later she appeared at the kitchen door. “It’s for you. Somebody from the Department of Public Safety.”

The perfect day veered off script into disaster

The cat picture at the top of the post has nothing to do with anything. I like the picture, that’s all.

excerpts Whimsy

After a Happy Ending

I’d never put these two characters together, so I thought I would try it and see what happened. The scene takes place a few months after the end of Joining in the Round, and it’s helping me solidify ideas for future partner stories.

The first crisis of the day began with slammed doors and stomping feet. Alison paused mid-pour to listen. Her tea steamed quietly in the strainer. Heavy footsteps thumped overhead and down the back stairs: Carl, from the sound of it, or Felicity. They both walked hard when they were in a hurry. Or in a mood.

Carl was in a terrible hurry, storming out the back door of the farmhouse into the teeth of a February snow squall.  Alison caught a glimpse of pale hair and a dark scowl in the gap between stairs and kitchen doorway, and then he was gone. Icy air swirled through the room in the wake of his passage.

Where Carl went, Felicity wouldn’t be far behind. Alison finished setting up her tea and started its timer. Then she poured a mug of coffee and left it on the counter as bait before retreating through the swing door to the dining room with her tea.

Felicity’s irritated mutterings preceded her appearance. She thudded down the stairs, opened the back door only to slam it shut again hard enough to make the dishes in the sideboard rattle.  A short silence followed, and a long sigh, and Felicity appeared in the kitchen doorway.

Tall, brown, and stately, she held the coffee mug aloft in one hand while she tied a white fluffy bathrobe around herself with the other. Pink flannel pajamas decorated with red hearts peeked from beneath the robe. Her hair bounced in a damp curling black cloud around her face, and her lips curved up at the sight of Alison on the far side of the table.

The big, solid table was long enough to seat ten people in its big, solid chairs. Alison grinned back and swung her feet, which did not quite reach the floor. “Laugh away. I feel like a toddler.  Someday I will remember to ask Justin why he picked furniture sized for giants when he isn’t that much taller than I am.”

“I wasn’t going to laugh. I was plotting your future.” Felicity moved around the table. “My cousin Eileen is casting a historical series, and you’d be perfect for her Queen Louise.”

“Someone is making a series about Queen Louise of Prussia?”Alison closed her mouth when she realized it was gaping open.  Someone else in the world knows who that is? “Sign me up! She was an amazing human being.”

“Was she?  Something else you have in common, then. I was going off looks alone.” Felicity tipped her head to one side.”Yes, indeed. Tiny, busty, all dressed up and smiling like mischief? You’re a dead ringer for the portraits on Eileen’s idea board.”

She made a show of lifting her mug in both hands like a chalice and bowed slightly. “Your majesty, I thank you for this generous gift. My heart overflows with gratitude. ”

Alison waved off the thanks with an appropriately regal hand. “Not necessary. I make the stuff in pure self defense. Naomi and I are the only people in this house who can be civilized in the morning without a cup of vile bean drippings.”

“One cup? Ha. Carl needs three.” Felicity sat down gracefully next to Alison–her feet reached the floor just fine when she leaned back–and took a slow, reverent sip of her drink. “Mmm. How can someone who calls this ‘vile bean drippings’ brew such fantastic coffee?”

“Magic.” Alison turned off the timer and sampled her tea. “And working for Justin. Lots of practice and access to the best available beans and equipment. Speaking of magic, where did tall, blond and brooding go in such a rush? Or should I not ask?”

“You can ask. I can speculate. Naomi knows more. I heard Carl’s side of her call from the shower. Serena took Justin out for a walk at dawn for some reason only Serena could explain, Naomi caught a scary vibe from Serena and sent Parker after them, and that aggravated my personal mind reader enough that he took off without a word to me.”

She paused as if reconsidering her words, then rested both elbows on the table and put her head in her hands. “When did my life reach a point where that explanation makes any sense?”

“Five minutes after meeting Carl, I imagine,” Alison said with sympathy. “That’s when my life took a permanent tilt to the weird side.”

They enjoyed a quiet few minutes gazing out the big dining room windows at the wintry vista. The view currently ended past the mixed trees at the edge of the yard. Falling snow hid the distant horizon so well Alison could imagine proper mountains out there instead of vast, flat, boring Nebraska cropland.

Felicity frowned at the snow. “I refuse to chase him. I am staying right here, warm and safe. One after another out the door–that is the plot of every horror movie ever made.”

“Movie monsters wouldn’t last five minutes out there,” Alison pointed out. “Not with Justin’s hired team of armed and highly-trained security professionals on the job. And they would call us if there was a real problem. There isn’t.” She displayed the phone on her wrist: strong signal, no messages waiting. “See? Nothing. Things get dramatic around Justin. Don’t get sucked in. Stick to your sensible plan.”

“I will,” Felicity said agreeably. “Whatever ridiculous melodrama they have brewing, they can work through it without me this time. I don’t like drama. I am a sensible woman. I have a business to run.”

“One you can run in your pajamas,” Alison said. Felicity clearly needed help convincing herself. “I envy that, by the way.”

Felicity glanced her way. “Liar. You love dressing up and being the shiny public face of the “Justin Wyatt, eccentric billionaire” franchise. You won’t convince me otherwise.”

“I won’t even try. I still have days when I’d rather work in comfort. The part I enjoy is swinging Justin’s financial weight around and making opportunities happen.”

Felicity took another long swig of coffee. “Don’t I know it. Thank you for aiming me at the accounting firm you use. With all the new business I’m getting, I will need lots more help with taxes and excises. My big decision is whether I should bother with the hassle of a storefront at this point.”

Nothing about Felicity had surprised Alison more than finding out the woman owned a thriving international craft supplies business. She’d run it all from a tiny storefront.  Now the store was gone, but the popularity of the supplies catalog was skyrocketing. Some discreet mentions here and there, that was all it took. “I can’t help you with that one,” she said. “But I love the pajamas. I wouldn’t mind curling up in soft robe right now.”

“Suit and heels before breakfast is a bit much even for you.”

That was true enough. Alison said, “I had a virtual conference with a research firm in India at 4 AM local, and I have two more meetings with the Seattle office later. I really need to get home now that Justin’s done with his son’s visitation. I miss Tyler.

“I’d love to meet him someday,”  Felicity said. “It seems odd to me that your husband didn’t come with you.”

“We’re an odd couple. And we’re not lifers. I’ll be filing for release at the annual term review if Tyler doesn’t beat me to it,” Alison said. “We love each other, but….”

“Oh, yes. But.”  Felicity shrugged without taking her eyes off the view. “My mom’s favorite term is six month plus paternal support. Long enough that she’s getting tired of them, short enough they don’t start feeling entitled, she says.”

Alison bit her lip. Saying, your mom sounds like a selfish wench might not go over well. She didn’t know Felicity well enough to guess, so she went with,”There’s something for everyone.  I wish Tyler was here too, but he has some project incubating in Justin’s main R&D lab out in Seattle. He can’t telecommute. I can, and Justin needed me to run interference while his ex-wife was visiting. Compromises. We all make them.”

“Oh, yes.” Felicity retreated into staring outside at nothing, and Alison finished her tea on affectionate thoughts of her adorable, clueless, brilliant marriage partner. He was a good man. He just wasn’t the right good man to keep forever. If such a man existed. Alison had her doubts on that score.

She debated calling the security team for a briefing on whatever kerfuffle was brewing, but  Justin’s personal dramas were no longer hers to manage. She couldn’t honestly say she regretted that. Felicity had the right idea. Whatever mess Justin was making, he could clean it up himself.

She hoped.  It was so hard to stop herself from getting involved.

The snow squall blew past, and sunbeams shot through fast-moving clouds over the nearby fields. The bright rays touched bare tree limbs in the yard with golden light and gave the landscape a bleak, monochrome beauty that made Alison’s fingers itch for her camera.


Felicity remarked, “I must do a weaving in this color scheme someday. I’ve been thinking on it since I got here. Can I borrow your art camera? I should collect some index photos while the light is doing that.”

“I’d be glad to take the pictures for you.”  Being sensible didn’t stop worry from plucking at Alison’s nerves. Staying busy did, and it was nice to be appreciated for something other than efficiency. “I don’t like loaning equipment, but I work cheap. Please say yes.”

Felicity nodded firmly. “You’ve got yourself a deal.”