Wolf’s Eyes

It has been eons since I shared one of my old short stories on The Eye-Dancers!  And so, for this post, blemishes and warts and all, I will share a story I wrote way back in 2007–just before I began writing The Eye-Dancers the novel.  The story is called “Wolf’s Eyes”–and, again, I am not going back in and updating it all.  What follows is the story, exactly as I wrote in fourteen years ago.

On the surface, this story is very different from The Eye-Dancers, but what they have in common, I hope, is an honest exploration into the human condition and a depiction of the struggles and challenges and loves and hurts and joys and wonders of life.

I hope you enjoy the story!

 

“Wolf’s Eyes”

Copyright 2021 by Michael S. Fedison

**************************

Nick dodged the punch easily.  The guy had telegraphed it by a mile.  Off-balance, stumbling forward,  the puncher fell into a snow bank.  Nick could have pressed his advantage, pummeled the guy, but he didn’t.  Over the years, he had learned to keep his cool—essential in his line of work.  He would only use force as a last resort.  Even then, it was risky.  Breach of the peace lawsuits were common, and often went in favor of the debtor.

“Look, Mr. Hickman,” Nick said, speaking slowly, calmly.  The man who had tried to hit him—Hickman—regained his feet, brushing snow from his nightclothes.  Fresh flakes, swaying drunkenly in a light, cold breeze, salted the air.  The only light came from a nearby street lamp, which glowed in the dark like a beacon, and a small fluorescent light that hung above Hickman’s front door.  “I have to take it away tonight.  You know that.  Why make it any harder than it has to be?”

“You lied to me!” Hickman said, closing the distance by half between himself and Nick with one long step.  “You told me you’d give me more time.”

Nick took a deep breath.  This was a part of the job he hated.  It was why he’d come here tonight after eleven—hoping to avoid a confrontation.  But no such luck.  “I didn’t lie to you, Mr. Hickman,” he said.  “I said I’d give you more time, and I did.  But I can’t give you another day.  My boss wouldn’t like it.”

From behind, a door opened, then slammed shut.  Nick turned, but kept an eye on Hickman, just in case he tried something again.  Great, just what he needed.  Mrs. Hickman.

“We’ll get the money!” she yelled.  “Just give him one more week.  Can’t you do that?”  She was now face-to-face with Nick.

Nick shook his head.  “I extended the deadline last time,” he said.  “I wasn’t authorized to do that, either, and I got an earful for it.  Can’t do it again.  The car needs to come with me.”

Hickman tensed, and Nick readied himself for a second attack.  But the thin, balding man just stood his ground.  The fight had apparently gone out of him.  “I’m just a little down on my luck right now, that’s all,” he said.  “I need to get a job.  I will get a job.  It’s not my fault I got laid off.  But how can I get hired somewhere if you take my car away, huh?  It’s the only one we have.”

Nick shrugged.  “I’m sorry.  But if I don’t take this car tonight, I’ll be looking for a job myself come tomorrow morning.”  With that, he got on his hands and knees, ready to finish what he’d started before Hickman had interrupted him.

The Hickmans stared at him while he worked.  It was as if they were frozen into silence by a combination of the subzero temperatures and Nick’s unbendable resolve.  He had pulled his tow truck into the driveway, directly behind the Hickmans’ blue ’03 Stratus.  Now, with the aid of a flashlight strategically placed on the snow-dusted surface of the driveway, he secured the tow chains around the car’s rear axle.  That got Hickman moving again.

He placed his gloveless hands on the Stratus’s trunk, as if to proclaim ownership and a right of refusal for its being towed away, then quickly pulled his hands away, wincing, the metal too cold to touch.

“Stop!” he said.  “Stop it!  How will I get a job without a car?  There’s no good work to be had in this town, and the city’s twenty miles from here.”  It sounded like he was on the verge of tears.

“I know,” Nick said, as he operated the winch, lifting the car off of its back wheels.  “I’m sorry.”

“You’re sorry?”  It was Mrs. Hickman.  “You’re sorry?  How can you do this to us?  How can you just . . . steal our car like this?”

“It’s not stealing, Mrs. Hickman, and you know it.”  He checked his work, making sure everything was tight and properly secured.  Then he hopped into his truck.

As he backed slowly down the driveway, the Hickmans followed him.  Mrs. Hickman signaled for him to roll down his window.  He did, not sure why he was still such a glutton for punishment after all these years.

“You have no soul, do you know that?” she screamed at him.  Puffs of vapor escaped her lips, adding emphasis to her accusation.  “You are evil!”

Nick reclosed the window.  It served no purpose to argue with these people.  When he drove away a moment later, he looked in his rearview mirror.  Mrs. Hickman had her head on her husband’s shoulder, and he was holding tightly onto her, as if it were her support alone that prevented him from falling, face-first, onto the ground.

Two hours later, Nick thanked his father for staying over and watching Angel.  His father said to think nothing of it—Angel was a joy, as always—but Nick knew how fortunate he was.  Having his parents still living in the same community as he did helped him out immeasurably.  How many times had his father or mother babysat for Angel when Nick was out roaming the streets on one of his jobs?  Hundreds, easily.  And often at odd hours of the night.

When his father left, Nick felt bad.  He wished he could do something special for his parents, something more than the standard run-of-the-mill “thanks, Dad, thanks, Mom.”  He shuffled into the kitchen, ran some tap water into a tea kettle, then placed the kettle on the front left burner of the stovetop.  After turning the heat on high, he leaned against the counter.  Maybe he could put aside some money for them—little by little—and, once it amounted to enough, present it to them so they could take a cruise or visit Switzerland—a lifelong dream.  He shook his head.  He wouldn’t be able to save that much.  Not with Angel to look after.  Any money he could squirrel away went toward her college fund or the braces she might need in a few years.  Not for the first time, he thought back twelve years and wished he’d chosen a different line of work.

It had been one of those spur-of-the-moment decisions, made by an eighteen-year-old kid, fresh out of high school.  A friend of Nick’s at the time had an idea:  His uncle ran a repo agency, and was willing to hire the two of them on a trial basis—just to give them some real experience before they decided what to do with the rest of their lives.  “If nothin’ else, the job’ll show you how well you can work under pressure,” the friend’s uncle—a gray-bearded man who went by the name of “Buddy”—explained to Nick during their interview.  Nick found out quickly how true that was.  His friend, apparently unable to cope with that pressure, quit after a week.  But Nick stayed on.  He didn’t mind all the driving, worked the tow truck with ease, and wasn’t afraid of confrontations with angry debtors.  Nick was 6’3”, and, even at eighteen, was chiseled with muscle.  Most people didn’t want to tangle with him.

After a month on the job, Buddy told Nick he was hired, full-time, if he wanted it.  “Man, you’re already one of my top agents,” Buddy informed him.  Nick accepted.  The pay was decent—not great, but a lot better than flipping burgers.  The hours were long and irregular, but Nick didn’t mind.  He was a teenager.  Who cared if he sometimes spent entire nights driving around, searching for cars?

But, eventually, that all changed.  He met a girl, fell in love, and suddenly resented the crazy work schedule.  Sometimes, out on a date with Marie, he’d hear the whine of his cell phone, and he knew what it meant.  A job.  He’d need to cut the date short and perhaps drive as far as the county line—fifty miles one way.  Once he got married and they had Angel, it just got worse.  He wished he could work at an office, like a normal guy, and come home every night by six.

Additionally, after years on the job, he was tired of it.  Seventy-five percent of the time, he was able to avoid the debtors.  That’s why the late-night shifts often proved to be so effective.  There isn’t going to be a confrontation with someone who’s asleep.  But the other 25 percent of the time . . . He was burned out with it.  The ridiculous excuses.  The threats.  The name-calling.  It had just gotten old.

But the worst aspect of the job was what he’d experienced tonight.  Taking the car from the Hickmans wasn’t easy—it bothered Nick, and he suspected he might lie awake in bed for a while, replaying the image of the couple holding onto each other at the base of their driveway.  He wished he could be more hardhearted, but Marie had been glad that he wasn’t.  She used to say, “If it didn’t bother you, then you wouldn’t be you.”

The kettle on the stovetop began to whistle.  He shut off the burner, poured the steaming water into a teacup, then mixed in the hot chocolate packet.  It was a good night for hot chocolate.  The thermometer out on the front porch had read seven below when he’d gotten home.  Spring didn’t want to arrive this year.  Tomorrow was the first of April, and still there was no melting of the snow pack, no relief from the record-setting cold, no signs of the earth’s renewal.  Normally, crocus flowers would be pushing their way through the last patches of snow, and the daffodils, eager to upstage them, would be ready to bloom in a matter of days.  But now, there was only the deep snow and the whipping, howling northwesterly winds, and the endless days of leaden-gray clouds sealing off the sky.

He sat down at the table, took a sip of the chocolate.  Good and hot, and sweet, just the way he liked it.  He thought again of Marie.  He tried to push her away—thinking of her was too painful, but in his mind’s eye he could see her so clearly, as though she were sitting across from him, smiling, waiting to listen to how his job went.  If only it could be.  She would never smile at him again.  Never talk to him again.  Five years ago, she was driving along Pebble Creek Road, south of town.  Suddenly, a deer darted in front of her.  Swerving to avoid it, she lost control, and slammed into a tree.  The impact broke her neck, killing her instantly.  And Nick never could come to grips with that.  The power of an instant.  One moment, driving home, looking forward to seeing your husband and baby daughter, the next—in the blink of an eye, two final beats of the heart—slumped dead and motionless over the steering wheel.  He shuddered to think what might have happened to him if it weren’t for Angel.  She was the reason he’d managed to hold on—she still was.

He put his cup of hot chocolate down, rubbed his eyes.  It was no good brooding this way.  “Quit it,” he told himself.  “Why don’t you just quit it?”  As if in response, the wind grew louder outside, screeching, rattling the eaves and seeking entry into the warm house.

“Quit what?” a high-pitched little girl’s voice said from behind him.

He turned.  “Angel!  What are you doing up?”

“I couldn’t sleep.  I thought I heard the wolf, and . . .”  She tilted her head.  “But, Daddy, quit what?  What are you gonna quit?”  Her eyes were bright and alert.  Here it was, after one o’clock in the morning, and his seven-year-old was wide awake.  Like father, like daughter, he thought.  She walked up to the table, and looked into his cup.  “Can I have some?” she asked.

He handed her the cup.  “Careful, Angel.  It’s hot.  Just take a sip.”

She did—a loud, slurping sip.  He laughed, and it felt good.  Angel usually had that effect on him.  They had named her Angela, but he had never called her that, and was sure he never would, not even after she grew up, settled down, and had children of her own.  She would always be his Angel.

“So what are you gonna quit?” she said again, once she had sampled enough hot chocolate to her satisfaction.

He placed the cup back onto the tabletop.  “Nothing, Angel.  I was just thinking about my job, that’s all.”  He didn’t want to mention Marie.  No reason to go down that path.

She sat on his lap.  “You don’t like your job, do you, Daddy?”

He smiled.  “I just don’t like taking stuff away from people, that’s all.  I remember how, right after I started, a couple of the other guys told me not to worry.  It would get easier, the more I got used to it.  But it hasn’t.”

She looked up at him.  “Well, if you don’t like it, then why do you do it?”

It was a fair question.  He asked it himself from time to time.  But the answer was obvious, as clear as the blue in his daughter’s eyes.  There weren’t many good jobs in the area—Hickman had been right about that.  Besides, what could Nick do?  He had no degree, no special skills.  His entire working life had been spent repossessing automobiles from people who couldn’t—or, at times, wouldn’t—pay their bills.

He put his arms around Angel.  “To take care of you,” he said.  “And so when you get to be, oh, seventeen or so, you’ll be able to go to the mall with your friends and pick out all the jewelry you want, and they’ll say, ‘How can you buy all that stuff?’ And you’ll say, ‘Cause my dad’s a repo man, and he takes of me.’”

Angel giggled and rested her head on Nick’s shoulder.  “You’re silly, Daddy.”

“I’ll show you who’s silly,” he said, and reached for her underarm.  Even through her pajama top, he knew how ticklish she was.

She squirmed and laughed.  “Stop, stop!” she said.  When he did, she kept on laughing.  Then she looked into his eyes.  “I love you, Daddy.”

He almost cried then.  The trust in her.  The confidence she had in him.  He hoped he would prove worthy of it.  “I love you, too, Angel.”  He hugged her tight.  “Now, why don’t you go back to bed, honey?  It’s way too late for little girls to be up.  You have school tomorrow.”

She pulled back, sitting on his knees now.  “But, Daddy, I can’t sleep!  I heard the wolf howling!  I hoped maybe he wasn’t really there, but I kept on hearing him!  Didn’t you hear him?”

“No,” he said.  “And I don’t hear him now, either.  Do you?”

She turned her head sideways, listening.  “No,” she said.  “But I heard him before!  I know I did.  What if he’s here now?  Right next to my window?  Right—”

“Ssh,” Nick said.  “I’m sure he’s not here.”  Well, he was fairly sure.  Wolves were rare in these parts, but periodically some hunter or hiker might come across some paw prints deep in the woods, or even catch a glimpse of a wolf pack, especially at dusk or dawn.  Even then, the wolves were generally of no concern.  They almost never ventured into the town, and, though he lived a few miles out—in the boonies, as his parents liked to say—Nick hadn’t ever seen one on his land.  But he knew this year might be different.

Over the past two weeks, there had been an abnormally high frequency of wolf sightings
. . . though Nick wondered if they were genuine.  Maybe the folks who claimed to have seen a wolf were just trying to cause a stir.  If that was their intent, they succeeded.  Some of the town’s residents had joined together on what they called a “wolf watch.”  They thought some of their livestock might be in danger of attack, and, besides, wolves shouldn’t feel free to roam this far south.  “Keep ‘em up in Canada,” one old man had told Nick last week while waiting in line at the post office.  “They got no business comin’ down here.  Where’s the Border Patrol when you need ‘em?”

Still, Nick didn’t think he’d see a wolf on his property any time soon.  And he certainly didn’t want his daughter losing sleep on account of such an unlikely scenario.

“I’m sure it’ll be safe in your room, Angel,” he said.  “Go to sleep.”

This seemed to reassure her—a little.  “What about Michelle and Tammy and Carrie and Henrietta and Rosetta and—”

Nick let out a chuckle.  He kept a dozen chickens in the barn (he had always loved the taste of fresh eggs), and Angel had named each one of them.  Some of them were hard to distinguish, but Angel always seemed to know who was who.  “I’m sure they’ll be fine, too,” he said.  “The barn door is shut and latched.”

“I hope so,” Angel said.  “’Cause Jane Ferguson told me in school today that the wolf musta come to her house last night, ‘cause this morning, when her dad went outside, he saw wolf tracks goin’ straight to the barn.  And if the wolf went there . . .”

“Don’t worry about that, honey,” Nick said, but he understood Angel’s alarm.  The Fergusons lived only a half mile up the road from them.  That was too close for comfort.  “Nothing bad will happen.”

She got off his lap.  Her eyes were finally starting to look sleepy.  “Promise?”

“I promise,” he said.  “No wolf will break into our barn tonight.  Okay?”  He smiled at her.  “Here.  One for the road.”  He held the cup out to her, and she took one last loud sip of the hot chocolate.

“Thanks, Daddy,” she said.  “But it’s not so hot anymore.  G’night.”

“Good night, Angel.”

She left the kitchen, and he heard her climbing the stairs to her bedroom.

Ryersons’ General Store was one of those relics from America’s past—a small-town shop with dusty hardwood floors, a proprietor who knew you by name, and cramped shelves filled to overflowing with items you could buy much cheaper at the super chain stores in the city.  But Nick had always liked this place.  He’d shopped here since he was a kid.

When he opened the door, a bell announced his presence.  Jim Ryerson, who had owned the store since before Nick was born, stood behind the cash register, chatting with a red-haired woman Nick couldn’t identify.  He glanced up at him and waved.  Nick waved back, then proceeded to the refrigerator case.  He slid open the glass door, which squeaked, and retrieved a gallon of whole milk, along with a package of sharp cheddar cheese.  Then he approached the checkout counter.  Close up, the redhead looked familiar, but Nick still couldn’t place her.

“You should put a signup sheet outside, or right up front,” the woman was telling Ryerson.  “And get the men to band up.”

Ryerson looked over at Nick.  “All set, Nick?”

Nick nodded, placed his items onto the counter.  The woman eyed him, unfriendly.

“Impound many cars lately?” Ryerson said.

“A few,” Nick said, and suddenly it occurred to him why the woman looked familiar.  A couple of years ago, Nick seized a minivan from her.  She’d been four months behind on her payments.  At the mention of impounding cars, the redhead’s expression darkened.  Nick worked the entire county, and many of his jobs sent him down to the city.  He didn’t usually need to repo cars from his own town.  But he’d gone after enough that awkward, chance encounters like this one were bound to happen once in a while.  “Awful cold lately,” he said, wanting to change the subject.

“Tell me about it,” Ryerson said.  “Worst spell I’ve ever seen this time of year.  Makes me want to pack up an’ move to Florida.”

“Nah, too crowded,” Nick said.  “And too flat.”

“Well, at least they don’t have wolves there,” the woman said.  She was still scowling at him.

“Has there been another sighting?” Nick asked.

Ryerson nodded.  “They saw ‘im up by the Baker place at dawn.  Tried to shoot ‘im, but Kenny Baker never did win any prizes for marksmanship.”

“Man, what’s going on?” Nick said.  “Nothing like this has ever happened before.”

“It’s probably this crazy weather,” Ryerson said.  “With the cold we’ve been gettin’, and with the snow still so deep, pickin’s must be slim out in the woods.  So what’s a wolf do?  He comes raidin’ our barns, lookin’ for meat.”

Nick thought about that.  It was as good an explanation as any.  He was relieved he had a shotgun at home—an old Remington his father had given him.  He didn’t think he’d need to use it, but he was beginning to wonder . . . .

“Raiding barns would be bad enough,” the woman said.  “But he’s goin’ after pets, too.  My neighbor said the wolf got to chasin’ some cat right out in the road.  And my kids are havin’ nightmares, worryin’ about ‘im!  You got to put that signup sheet out, Mr. Ryerson.  Get a bunch of men to go out together and not come home till they gut that monster.”

Ryerson told her he would consider the suggestion.

“Do more than consider it,” she shot back.  “Everyone in this town will rest easier once that wolf is dead.”

Another late-night job, but this time there was no confrontation.  It went smoothly, and he was home just after midnight.  As he went upstairs, to check on Angel (his dad said she’d been asleep for hours), he felt that familiar sense of relief mixed with regret that he always did after completing a repo job.  He was relieved that the job was over, but he regretted having to take someone’s car.  He didn’t know the person he had targeted tonight.  A woman, apparently living by herself.  He didn’t know if she was delinquent on her payments because she was stupid with money, irresponsible, or whether she had been dealt one of those cruel, random blows life sometimes liked to dish out.  Maybe she was a good person, who tried hard to balance her checkbook.  Maybe she was kind and generous, lending money she didn’t have.  He didn’t know, and didn’t particularly want to.  Knowing always made the work harder.

He tiptoed to Angel’s door, gently pushed it open.  Her nightlight was on, and she was breathing gently, in a deep, sound sleep.  Any doubts and misgivings about his profession left him.  Everything he did, he did for Angel.  That was the only thing that mattered.

All through the next week, it snowed.  Still no sign of winter’s retreat.  Easter was approaching, but it seemed more like Christmastime.  And the temperatures remained well below freezing.  The townspeople openly wondered whether spring would ever come this year.

There were more wolf sightings, too.  A high school boy, out snowshoeing in his backyard, saw paw prints that led straight up to the porch.  An old married couple said the wolf had raided their storage shed, rummaging for scraps of thrown-out meat.  Another couple said the wolf had scratched at the side of their barn, apparently sniffing the sheep within, until its paws must have bled.  Dried red streaks littered the siding like a crazed, haphazard display of graffiti.  Even Jim Ryerson claimed he thought he saw the wolf out behind the general store, right in town, one night, in the moonshine.  And several people said they heard the wolf howling, deep into the night.

That whole week, whenever Nick came home from a repo job, he always thought of his Remington, secured and locked away in its gun case, but ready to use if necessary.

 

“Daddy!  Daddy!  The barn’s open!  Daddy!”

Angel was shaking him, rousing him, but he didn’t want to be roused.  This had been a rare night with no jobs.  He’d tucked himself in early.  “Wha?” he said.  “Angel, what are you doing?”  He shook his head, trying to clear it, rubbed some of the sleep from his eyes.  Checking the digital clock on his nightstand, he saw that it was 2:33 a.m.

“Daddy, the barn!” she shouted.  “I can hear the door!  It got loose!”

He sat up.  “That’s impossible, Angel.  That door’s latched.  It—”  But then he heard it.  A dull, rhythmic thud, thud coming from beyond his window.  The wind had been fierce earlier—fifty miles per hour.  There had been an advisory to stay off the roads.  Somehow, it must have jarred the door loose.  He slid back down, plopping his head onto the pillow.

“Daddy, what are you doing?” Angel said.  “The barn!  The chickens—”

“I’ll check on the chickens in the morning, honey.  If the latch broke, there’s not much I can do till it gets light anyway.”

“But, Daddy, the wolf!  He’ll get Jillian and Henrietta and Rosetta and—”

He sat up again.  “Angel . . .”  But then he stopped himself.  She was breathing so fast, nearly hyperventilating.  He knew she would never be able to get to sleep until he checked outside.  “Okay,” he said.  “Okay, honey.  I’ll go take a look.”

“Hurry, Daddy!”

He hurried.  And, once downstairs, he actually felt alert and awake.  He put on his overcoat—it was in the teens outside, and with the wind chill, it surely felt a lot worse—then considered the Remington.  He doubted the wolf would be out there, but if he was going to wander outside in the middle of the night, he wanted to be prepared for anything.  He unlocked the case, and pulled out the gun.

“Daddy?”  Angel looked scared.  She stared at the Remington.

“Go upstairs, Angel,” he said.  “I won’t be long.  I’m sure everything will be just fine.”  He offered her a reassuring smile, then opened the front door.  The wind sliced into him, freezing his exposed cheeks and hands.  Stupid, no gloves, he thought, but he didn’t want to go back and get them.  He went outside.

The barn door was clearly visible, bathed in the glow of two lamps that hung directly above it.  It had gotten loose, all right.  It banged repeatedly against the side of the barn, wood smiting wood, the sound echoing along the cold current of the wind.  A few bundles of straw whirled about the open entranceway, some of it spilling out into the snow-strewn path.  Looking more closely, Nick thought he saw something else, too. . . .

Tracks.

He walked over to the barn.  There were several sets of tracks, both going and coming.  He knelt down to examine them.  Wolf tracks, without a doubt.  And fresh.  Interspersed with the tracks, trickles of blood marred the path, freckling the snow with reddish-brown blotches.

“Great,” Nick said.  “Just great.”  From behind him, deep inside the barn, he heard the chickens clucking and moving about.  How many of them had the wolf gotten?  He was about to go check, when, from the corner of his eye, he saw movement.

He wheeled around, quickly, and saw, in the distance, a large shape heading for the woods.  It had to be the wolf, the same wolf that had raided his barn and killed who knew how many of his chickens.

“That’s the last time you’re gonna kill anything,” Nick said.  As if speaking for the wolf, in response, the loose door slammed into the barn’s side, causing Nick to jump.  “Get a grip,” he told himself, and set off after the wolf.

In his haste, Nick had forgotten to grab his flashlight, but the night was clear, and a cluster of distant stars along with a waning gibbous moon provided just enough illumination for him to see.  Snow crunched beneath his feet as he trudged into the woods.  He had lost sight of the wolf, but the tracks served as a guide.

He picked up his pace, nearly running, not wanting the animal to escape.  The tracks led around a bare maple tree, its limbs casting black shadows, like twisted fingers, onto the ground.  Nick sped past the tree, ready to continue the pursuit.  He was in a clearing now, but the tracks no longer forged ahead.  Rather, they veered sharply off course, they—

To his right, not ten feet away, he spotted two yellow eyes, reflected in the moonlight, staring at him.  He swallowed, but it felt scratchy.  His throat had gone dry.  The yellow in the wolf’s eyes was wild, feral.  Nick realized one wrong move might prove deadly.

At the wolf’s feet, three dead chickens lay in the snow.  They appeared remarkably unharmed—but they were dead, just the same.  Nick felt a rage come over him.  Angel would be heartbroken over this.  “Just stay right where you are,” he said, and slowly raised his Remington.  He tried to remain calm, but his heart was beating like a trip-hammer.  He was sure the wolf could hear it, sense it.  Just like it could probably smell the fear on his skin, the way it seeped through his pores and spread over his body like sweat.  He took aim.  Still, the wolf stood its ground.  Nick had it now.  All he had to do was fire his gun.

But then the wolf staggered.  It nearly fell over, but it was able to balance itself with an effort.  Nick couldn’t help but notice how ragged the animal was, how thin.  Its ribs stuck out through a mangy coat of fur, its left ear was gashed at the base, and blood leaked from its forepaws.

Looking into those wild yellow eyes, Nick pulled back the trigger, and . . . hesitated.  The wolf continued to stare at him.  It was almost as if the animal were attempting to communicate with him, connect with him.  That was a ridiculous notion, absurdly impossible.  And yet . . . why didn’t the wolf attack?  Or run away?  Or move at all?  Why did it just stand there like that?

Again the wolf staggered.  Clearly it was exhausted.  Finally, it looked away, at the multiple sets of tracks it had made.  Then it glanced at the chickens, before locking its gaze back onto Nick again.

Nick returned the gaze, peering deeply into the yellow depths of the wolf’s eyes, as if they were the gateway to a strange new world and he was an explorer intent on discovering its secrets.  He blinked, wanting to look away, wanting to fire his Remington and rid the community of this menace.  But he was unable to.  He was getting lost in the animal’s eyes, searching, searching. . . . until, like a cog fitting perfectly into place, he felt something click inside his head.  And he was able to see . . . really and truly see.  He saw the wolf for what it was . . . for what she was.  He saw a den tucked away deeper within the woods, where pups huddled together for warmth.  The wolf’s brood.  Somehow, he had no idea how, he knew those pups desperately needed to eat something, or they might not live to greet the morning.  He considered the wolf’s protruding ribcage again, her state of exhaustion.  How many nights had she hunted for food?  How many nights had she gone back to her children with nothing to share but hunger?  She must have been ravenous, on the verge of starvation herself—but she hadn’t taken a single bite out of the chickens.  She was saving them for her pups.

The wolf sat down, too tired to remain standing.  She wouldn’t take her eyes off of Nick.  In them, he thought he saw a recognition.  A species of kinship.

He lowered the gun.  “Go ahead, then,” he said.  “Take those birds back to your pups.”

The wolf, still, silent, looked at him.  Looked in him.  It even seemed to Nick that she nodded her head, ever so slightly.

He turned around, headed back through the woods, following the wolf’s tracks and his own, in reverse.  As he walked, he thought about what to tell Angel.  He knew she would ask him why he hadn’t shot the wolf, why he had let the wolf get away after killing the chickens.  He wished he might be able to invent a story for her, one that would lessen her hurt and outrage.  But all he could do was tell her the truth.  Tell her how shooting the wolf was something he just couldn’t bring himself to do.

And maybe someday, after she had grown older and this night had become merely a momentary blip on the radar screen of her memory, she would come to understand.

**************************************

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

In the Midst of the Action, a Quiet Remembrance (Or, Hanging Out in the Comic Book Shop)

In recent years, the world has been introduced to the Marvel universe through a series of Hollywood blockbusters, complete with endless action, A-list actors, and hi-tech special effects.  The result has been a surge in superhero popularity.  As a lifelong comic book aficionado and collector of the vintage comics from yesteryear, I view all of this as a positive development.  That said, I am not a huge fan of these movies.  I’ve seen a couple of them, thought they were okay, but I am far from a devoted watcher.

 

In a way, this seems counterintuitive.  Why wouldn’t I, of all people, who spent a good chunk of my childhood lost in the pages of The Fantastic Four, The Avengers, and The X-Men, be the first in line to see the debut of a new superhero movie based on the comics I love?  Of course, it’s not that I dislike these modern-day box-office smashes.  It’s more . . . I can take them or leave them.  They’re okay.  Not bad.  If I had the choice to watch a recent Marvel movie or an episode of the original Twilight Zone or a rerun of Cheers or The Honeymooners, it wouldn’t be a close call.  I’d go for Serling and the sitcoms!

 

One reason for this, I suppose, is the fact that I am a comic book purist.  (Is there such a thing?)  I have a deep fondness for the comics themselves, the original stories, created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko and the talented staff at the old Marvel offices back in the 1960s.  So when I see the movie adaptations, which, while endeavoring to be as faithful as possible to these adventures from yesteryear, nevertheless take dozens of liberties with the characters and plotlines, I become, how shall we say, a bit unnerved.  I equate it to watching the film adaptation of a beloved novel.  It’s never the same, and you recognize the cinematic shortcomings and limitations within the first few minutes of the movie.

 

But it’s more than that.

The movies are loud.  In-your-face.  As they should be.  I’m not criticizing them for that.  They are, after all, action-packed blockbusters replete with the best special effects our technology offers.  But, for me, the comic books I remember, the comic books I still own in boxes and protective Mylar sleeves, are steeped in quiet.  Some of my favorite childhood memories revolve around the comics shop.  When I was a kid, before I was old enough to drive, and before the advent of the mobile digital age revolutionized our culture, my mother would usually take me to the local comic stores.  We didn’t have a comic book shop in our neighborhood.  We needed to travel to the other side of town–generally once or twice a month.  There were a couple of different comic stores we went to.  One was owned by someone I always thought of as The Lion Man.  But the store I went to the most was Empire Comics, located on Rochester, NY’s south side, across the street from Mt. Hope Cemetery, which at nearly 200 acres, is a destination unto itself, and just a few blocks removed from Highland Park, a verdant oasis amidst the urban hustle and bustle, and home every year to the Lilac Festival.

 

Sometimes I’d go there just with my mother.  Other times, some of my friends would tag along and we might make a day of it–starting out at the comic shop, then maybe taking a hike through the park or the cemetery (which is like a park), all topped off with lunch and ice cream at one of the many local restaurants.  Whoever was with me, though, I always savored my time in the shop.  Empire Comics was long and rectangular.  The owner, Jim, had his best, most valuable comics locked away in a glass display case by the register at the front of the store.  Beyond that, there were rows and rows of back issues, lining the shop, sorted in alphabetical order and arranged by issue number.  The layout and floor plan of the fictional Eastside Comics in The Singularity Wheel, where Mitchell works, is based on the interior of the old Empire Comics. (Empire Comics closed its doors about ten years ago.)

 

My mother, indifferent to the world of comic books, nevertheless made the most of these sojourns.  She’d talk to Jim and his staff–she was much, much more outgoing than I am.  It got to the point where, when my mother and I walked into the shop, Jim would yell her name, akin to the famous “Norm!” greeting from Cheers.  He wouldn’t shout “Michael!”  No–it was always, “Linda!”  I didn’t mind.  I just wanted to look at the comics.  And buy a few, too.  As my mother chatted away with Jim and the other workers, I lost myself in the comic book bins, browsing through hundreds of back issues.  I’d wander to the back of the shop, take in the sights–for me, it was heaven.  I felt as though I were in a magical cocoon.  It was quiet.  Oftentimes, my mother and I were the only customers in the shop.   I’d get lost in the musty smell of decades-old comic books, and I’d dread the moment when my mother would call over to me and tell me we had to go.

 

And so when I watch one of the new Marvel movies, they just seem too aloof somehow, too loud.  As the cliche goes, and as I’ve said aloud to more than one Marvel movie, “It’s not you, it’s me.”  Because, for me, those old comic books, those long-ago visits to Jim’s shop, are sacred.  Personal.  They are embedded, tucked away in a corner of my heart, entrenched in a permanent wrinkle of my soul.  In some ways, The Eye-Dancers saga is an extension of this, a literary shout-out to my childhood, the comic books I shared it with, and the remembrances that remain, steadfast and solid, like a faithful and devoted friend.

 

Will I watch another Marvel movie, despite my lukewarm, even critical, view of them?  Sure.  Any movie that features The Avengers can’t be all bad.  But while I do, you can bet I’ll be thinking of Jim and my mother and the sounds and silences of the old comic book shop on the corner of Langslow and Mt. Hope on the south side of Rochester.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

To Entertain or to Illuminate, That Is (Not) the Question . . .

On September 22, 1959, on the eve of the premiere of the new television series The Twilight Zone, Rod Serling sat down for an interview with Mike Wallace.  Serling, by that time already considered one of television’s brightest writing stars, had amassed a formidable resume.  He was known throughout the industry as television’s “angry young man” due to his ardent and very vocal criticism of the censorship so rampant in the medium at that time.

serling2

 

Determined to produce gritty, realistic scripts that dealt with injustice, inequality, and greed, Serling wrote for Kraft Television Theater, Playhouse 90, and other venues that featured live TV dramas of the day.  His breakthrough script, “Patterns,” which aired in February 1955, launched him into orbit, and by the time of the Wallace interview, Serling, already a winner of three Emmy awards, was an established industry heavyweight.

patterns

 

At the start of the interview, Wallace credits Serling as the accomplished writer he is; he discusses Serling’s rise within the industry, and his ongoing battles against sponsor-mandated censorship.  About midway through the conversation, the discussion takes a turn . . .

wallaceinterview

 

“You’ve got a new series coming up called The Twilight Zone,” Wallace says, and simply from his tone of voice, his delivery, one can sense Wallace’s disappointment.  After all, in the interview, Serling himself admits to be being “tired,” and that he doesn’t “want to fight anymore”–with corporate sponsors and their dictates on what can and cannot be included in his scripts.  The Twilight Zone, a short, half-hour sci-fi and fantasy excursion, was deemed by many, Wallace among them, as a sellout on the part of one of TV’s most serious and hard-hitting writers.

Wallace suggests the episodes will be “potboilers,” which Serling rejects, stating that he believes the shows will be “high-quality . . . extremely polished films.”

eyeofthebeholder

 

Undeterred, Wallace then says, “For the time being and for the foreseeable future [since Serling would be so focused on The Twilight Zone going forward], you’ve given up on writing anything important for television, right?”

Even here, Wallace is not finished. He quotes TV producer Herbert Brodkin as saying, “Rod is either going to stay commercial or become a discerning artist, but not both.”

herbertbrodkin

 

To which Serling replies, “I presume Herb means that inherently you cannot be commercial and artistic.  You cannot be commercial and quality.  You cannot be commercial concurrent with having a preoccupation with the level of storytelling that you want to achieve.  And this I have to reject. . . . I don’t think calling something commercial tags it with a kind of an odious suggestion that it stinks, that it’s something raunchy to be ashamed of. . . . I think innate in what Herb says is the suggestion made by many people that you can’t have public acceptance and still be artistic.  And, as I said, I have to reject that.”

serlingwallce1

 

***************

When I was an English major in college, there was a fellow student, named John, who shared several classes with me.  I’ve blogged about John before.  In addition to wanting to create something new, uniquely his own, John also wanted to create something artistic, arcane, even inaccessible.

“If just anyone can understand it,” he said once, “then I’ve failed.  I’m not writing for the layperson.  I’m writing for the select few.  If John Q. Public ‘gets’ my story, then what’s the point?  Anyone can write a story like that!”

hardtounderstand

 

I understood his sentiment–up to a point.  All writers, all artists want to say something, to have one of their stories or songs or paintings or performances move an audience to tears, open eyes, create dialogue, and promote new viewpoints.  We all want our work to matter.

artistic

 

But I strongly disagreed with his assertion that a work is somehow elevated if it’s nearly incomprehensible; that a story can only have merit if it needs a literature professor to explain its themes, ideas, and structure to a room full of confused and bored students.

Sure, I want my stories to make people to stop, think, perhaps question things they hadn’t even considered before, or, if they had, maybe the story enables them to see something familiar through a different lens, changing their perspective, granting them a peek on the other side of the mountain, as it were.  But to accomplish that, I don’t believe I, or any other writer, needs to create a piece that requires a literary road map through which to navigate.

literaryroadmap

 

Certainly it is my hope that The Eye-Dancers will prompt readers to step back and think about the very nature of what we term “reality”; to consider the mysterious, even seemingly otherworldly psychic connection two strangers can share; and to wonder at the possibility that we, each of us, are just one piece of an infinite puzzle that includes countless variants of ourselves scattered throughout worlds that parallel our own like invisible, silent shadows.

parallelworlds

 

But more than this, it is my hope that readers will relate to the characters, cheer them on, root for them, get swept up in the flow and momentum of the story, and have fun as they read.

When I explained this to John, when I told him I wanted a wide swath of people to enjoy my stories, not just a select few, he simply shook his head and gave me a look that I could only interpret as pure pity.

************

The Twilight Zone remained on the air for five unforgettable seasons; and those “potboiler” episodes, those flights of fancy that delved into the genres of science fiction and fantasy, those “commercial” attempts at expression have endured and prospered.  It can be argued, indeed, that The Twilight Zone is more appreciated, more loved, more respected now, on the precipice of 2015, than it was when it actually ran.

Serling himself expressed a possible reason for the show’s ongoing popularity.  “On The Twilight Zone,” he once said, “I knew that I could get away with Martians saying things that Republicans and Democrats couldn’t.”  He was able, in other words, to utilize imaginative storytelling, plots that took viewers by the hand and led them to strange, often frightening new worlds, to comment on and critique the social ills, prejudices, and personal crises occurring in our own, very real lives.

themasks

 

The Twilight Zone accomplished Serling’s vision and proved beyond a doubt that a story, a novel, a piece of art, does not need to choose between entertaining and illuminating its audience.

The great pieces, the truly memorable works that hold up through the dust and years and passing of decades and centuries are the ones that accomplish both.

doingboth

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Short Story — “The Beggar”

The Eye-Dancers, it’s my hope, tackles, among other things, the very concept of what we term “reality.”  What does “real” mean?  And is the line that separates “reality” from our perceptions and dreams and nightmares truly as distinct as we might imagine?  What other worlds and universes exist, and how can two strangers, so far apart it’s nearly impossible to imagine the distance, share a psychic connection, a cosmic bond, with one another?

Of course, there are many ways a story can question our perceptions and our views of reality.  Over ten years ago, I wrote a short story titled “The Beggar,”  in which the protagonist  is confronted by something, and someone, who ultimately contradicts some of his long-held assumptions and challenges the way he looks at the world.

I hope you enjoy “The Beggar.”

bus

 

dollar

frontrange

“The Beggar”

Copyright 2014 Michael S. Fedison

*****************

Looking through the bus window, Mark saw the beggar. The old man was standing in front of a middle-aged blonde woman, no doubt asking, pleading, for money, just a dollar, just a quarter, anything to help out. Mark knew the routine. He’d been on the receiving end of it more than once.

“Look at that old loser,” Mark’s seatmate, a prematurely graying accountant named Harold Gardener, said. The bus slowly lumbered on, and the beggar disappeared, as if by magic. A Winchell’s Donuts, a Burger King, and the entire assortment of suburban paraphernalia came into view and then slipped past in a never-ending display of sprawl. “I’ve seen that freeloader way too many times. Why don’t they arrest him? Or shoot ‘im.”

Mark said nothing. He sat with Gardener several times a week—the accountant worked four blocks north of Mark’s office and never said good-bye when Mark got up to leave, so Mark had stopped saying good-bye, too—but he’d learned early on that they disagreed on most issues, the beggar among them. Gardener seemed to hate him, eyeing him as he would the carrier of some soul-infesting disease. But Mark could sympathize with the old man. Even the word beggar sounded distasteful to him. Maybe the guy was all right. Maybe he’d even been successful once.

“Filth, that’s what bums like that are,” Gardener continued. He glanced at Mark, as though awaiting a reaction. When he didn’t get one, he said, “I didn’t move my family out here to deal with filth like that. Know what I mean?” With that, Gardener faced forward, looking at the brown hair of a businesswoman seated in front of him.

Mark looked at Gardener. “I think you’re too hard on him. I mean, c’mon, filth?”

Gardener snorted. It was the kind of sound a man makes when in the presence of unspeakable stupidity. “I see enough of those bums in the city. Down by Coors and the train station. I don’t need to see them here.”

Mark thought of pursuing the conversation, but he didn’t. He knew Gardener’s view of the old man was set in granite, and it was just too early for an argument. Better to let it rest. Hopefully, they wouldn’t see the beggar again. The bus rarely passed him.

But Mark had seen the old man several times, never knowing when or where he’d turn up. The beggar seemed as unpredictable as the weather. The first time Mark encountered him, in fact, he had been walking down the litter-free streets of an upscale neighborhood.

It had been a chilly day in mid-October, with a perfect Colorado blue sky and a tang in the air that felt so pure and fresh, Mark wanted to take a bite out of it. He was enjoying his daily lunch stroll, walking through the neighborhood behind his office. He rarely failed to take a walk at lunchtime, even during winter cold spells or spring snowstorms or summer rain showers. It was a running joke at the office. They said, rain or sleet or snow, Mark will take his walk, even more reliable than the postal service! You could set your clock to it. But he didn’t mind the teasing. At least he stood out for something. Besides, it was good to get away from the cubicles and the people and the stress. It was—

A gaunt old man with a full, gray beard and a tattered wool hat turned the corner at the nearest stop sign. He was heading toward Mark.

Mark did a double-take. The man’s appearance did not fit in with the affluent surroundings of the neighborhood. Most of the lawns were large and well-tended, and the houses—sleek, new ranches with attached garages and gigantic western-facing windows—all looked shiny and polished, as if they had just been given a coat of varnish.

Not wishing to judge a book by its cover but unable to avoid it, Mark quickly deduced the man was a vagrant. Trying to appear indifferent, acting as if it were the most natural thing in the world, Mark slowly crossed the street, wanting to avoid the man without making it look so obvious. He whistled a tune as he did, giving the performance an air of nonchalance it otherwise might have lacked. He focused his attention to the west. Over the rooftops of the ranches, the distant snowcapped peaks of the Front Range sparkled like sunlit diamonds.

“Pardon me, young man? Young man?”

Mark turned his head. The drifter was there, staring at him. He berated himself. While he had been carelessly enjoying the view, the old-timer must have snuck up on him.

“Do you live here?” The beggar had no teeth that Mark could see. His face was covered in a scraggly forest of white hair. His wool hat had holes in it. It looked nearly as old as the man who wore it.

“Uh, no, no, I just work here.” Mark was looking for an out. He could have simply walked away—he knew most guys would—but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. His wife had always told him how much she appreciated his sensitivity. Right now, he wished he could be as bottom-line oriented and callous as Gardener. “I work over on East Hampden. I’m just taking a walk.”

The old man nodded, then said, “It’s good that you have a job. I had a job once. A whole bunch of them. But I don’t have one now. What do you say, my young friend? Can you help a fella out? I didn’t eat any breakfast this morning, and my stomach’s groaning.”

Mark couldn’t believe how fast the man had launched into his sales pitch. He started to walk away.

“Hey, wait!” the old man said, following Mark. “Even a dollar would help! Even a quarter.”

Mark kept walking, but the man had caught up with him. “Why are you in this neighborhood, mister?” Mark asked. He picked up his pace. So did the beggar. “You might get arrested just for hanging around here. You shouldn’t be here.”

“Oh, I know,” the man said. He was huffing now, struggling to keep up with Mark. “People here are much too good to even look at me. But I wanted to do something different today. Is that so bad?”

“No, it’s just—”

“And then you came along, and I thought—‘well, what a break. That nice young fella will help me buy some lunch. Thank the Lord for his kindness’. That’s what I thought, yessir. Now, how about it, fella? Give an old man a break, huh? Just a few bucks. A few measly bucks. What’s it to you?”

They walked past a white ranch with skylights and a privacy fence to the rear and sides. A young woman in a ponytail was working in her flower garden, preparing it for winter. She eyed Mark and the beggar with suspicion. What is that grungy old man doing on my street? her look said. We don’t have people like that on my street. Mark shot her a disapproving look right back, and suddenly felt a strong impulse to give the man some money.

Turning a corner, walking past more polished, white ranches, Mark stopped. The beggar stopped, too, then bent over and gasped as if he had just sprinted five miles and needed to get his wind back.

“You walk too fast, young man,” the drifter said once he had sufficiently recovered. “Give an old guy a break.”

Mark took out his wallet, fished inside, then handed the man a ten dollar bill—and imagined how fiercely his wife would protest. He had been stopped by beggars before, and he almost always gave them something. One time, two summers ago, she let him have it after he had given some guy a twenty.

“What’s the point?” she had said. “All they do is go spend it on booze. They’re better off without it.”

“But he said he wanted to buy something for his daughter. He said—”

His wife rolled her eyes. “Oh, please, Mark. Spare me.”

“I thought you liked my sensitivity,” he said, a pout on his face. He fought to remove it. Pouting never worked with his wife.

“There’s a fine line sometimes,” she said, frowning, “between sensitivity and stupidity. Giving a beggar a twenty and thinking he’s gonna spend it on something other than booze? That, I’m afraid, crosses the line.”

That ended the discussion. He thought about pressing his case—the man’s eyes had looked so honest, so needy—but he admitted to himself that his wife was probably right. Still, what could he do about it? She’d told him before he had a face that attracted beggars.

“What?” he’d protested. “How so?”

“Because,” she’d replied. “They can see you’re a softie.”

Last year, they’d moved out of Denver and headed southeast. They now lived in a brick ranch several miles outside the city. Their neighborhood was quiet, even dull, but peaceful. And there were no beggars. He worked in Aurora, and for a while he hadn’t had to deal with any beggars there, either. But the old man in the wool cap changed all of that.

Handing the ten dollar bill to the man, Mark resolved not to tell his wife about it.

“Bless you, son, bless you!” the man gushed. He seemed like a kid on a treasure hunt who has just discovered the coveted prize. It made Mark uncomfortable. The man’s ridiculous display, his outright begging—he had no pride, no dignity. That’s what bothered Mark the most, and that’s what made him think he could never beg for money himself. “You don’t know how grateful I am!” the old man said.

“It’s okay, really,” Mark said. “Just go get something good to eat. No big deal.” He looked around at the white ranches. No one was outside. But that didn’t mean someone wasn’t watching this spectacle from behind a window. He told the old man he needed to get back to the office.

“Bless you, young man,” the beggar repeated when Mark started to walk away. “I’ll never forget this.”

I hope you do, was all Mark thought.

The bus did not pass by the beggar again for a long while. And Mark himself had been spared dealing with the old man, too. After that first encounter, he’d been flagged down by the beggar a handful of other times—and he always gave the man a dollar or two, never again a full ten—but it now had been months since their paths had crossed. That was okay with Mark. He suspected his wife’s harsh view applied to this beggar as much as it did to any other—though he never recalled having smelled alcohol on the man’s breath.

As more time passed and he didn’t see the beggar, Mark wondered if maybe the old man had moved on to another section of town, or even died. It certainly was possible. He had to have been at least seventy, and, with his vagabond lifestyle, he couldn’t have been in good health. The possibility of the man’s death had no effect on Mark. It did not sadden him. What was an old drifter to him? Nor did it please him. He was positive the beggar’s death would please Gardener, though.

But the old man was not dead.

“I swear, if he ever tries that with me again, I’ll punch ‘im, tear ‘im in half!” Gardener raged. “Old freeloading . . . ”

“Where’d you see him?” Mark asked.

“Right outside my office! Can you believe it? The nerve of those people!” The bus worked its way through streets still soaked from on overnight thundershower. But the sky was brightening by the minute, and warm spring sunshine filtered through the window, striking Gardener on the side of his face.

“I thought he might be dead. I hadn’t seen him in a while,” Mark said.

“Well, he’ll wish he was dead if he ever asks me for money again! Old piece of—”

Mark tapped Gardener on the elbow and nodded imperceptibly (he hoped) across the aisle. Gardener glanced in that direction, at the people seated across from him and Mark. An old woman with a floral dress sat next to a little girl with pigtailed blonde hair. The woman was glaring at Gardener—and Mark—and the girl was gaping at them with wide-eyed delight, as though she were hoping to hear a forbidden word. Mark had never seen either of them before, and he doubted he’d see them again.

Gardener clenched his teeth and whispered, “Great. Now I can’t even talk about it.”

“That’s why a wife is good,” Mark offered. “Great sounding board.”

Gardener shook his head. He’d said before he wasn’t the marrying kind.

“What did you say to him?” Mark asked. He didn’t understand why he cared, but for some reason, he did.

“I told ‘im—” Gardener said, his voice loud again, and Mark nudged him. Stealing a quick glance across the aisle, Mark was sure that if the old woman’s eyes could shoot laser beams, both he and Gardener would be vaporized by now. The pigtailed girl was still smiling. From the back of the bus, there was laughter. From the front, a few muffled words, but mainly silence, save for the drone of the bus’s engine and the swoosh of the tires as they sloshed through the rain-drenched street.

“I told ‘im to get his filthy, lice-infested self out of there,” Gardener said quietly, obviously fighting to keep his temper in check. “I told ‘im to go beg somewhere else, or go stand in front of the next garbage truck he sees. Then they could run ‘im over, pick ‘im up, and take ‘im to the dump with the rest of the trash.”

Mark said, “Man, you really hate that guy, don’t you?”

“Yup,” Gardener said. “Like I hate fleas, or roaches. Pests. Like I hate pests.”

That day on his lunchtime walk, Mark crossed paths with the beggar. It had been so long since he’d seen him, it caught him by surprise. He was walking through a different neighborhood today, several blocks away from the office. The houses in here were not as polished, not as large, and several For Sale signs dotted the bottoms of lawns. He liked this neighborhood, in part because it did not feel so suffocating, in part because it had a lot of trees—primarily maple, Russian Olive, and spruce, but there were also a few aspen and dogwood. He also liked it that no one else from his office ever walked through this area. Some of the others strolled through the upper-class neighborhood close by, but no one came this far out. Any time he really needed to get away from it all, he came here.

He had been thinking of what to get his wife on their wedding anniversary in August. It would mark their eighth year together, which amazed him. It seemed just yesterday that they had exchanged their vows. He wanted to surprise her this time, really come up with something original. But before he could construct a mental list of potential possibilities, he spotted the beggar.

He had just turned a corner and was walking toward Mark, briskly, with a purpose, as if he’d known Mark would be walking down these streets today. Mark brushed that idea aside as sheer foolishness. Just a coincidence, that’s all, and not a very appealing one. He didn’t want to deal with the old-timer today. He hated the begging, the loss of all self-respect. If the drifter was not embarrassed at his own behavior, Mark was embarrassed for him. Instinctively, he felt for the bulge in his pants pocket—his wallet. He was pretty sure he had a few singles in there.

This time, Mark did not pretend he wanted to cross the street. He walked straight for the old man. The best thing to do, he figured, was to get this over with, give the man some small bills, then cut short the “bless you, young man” performance that would undoubtedly follow.

They approached each other. Mark looked down at the pavement. If the beggar wanted to stop him, he would. If not, Mark would keep right on walking. No reason to offer money unasked.

“Young man, young man.”

Why am I not surprised? Mark thought. He noticed the beggar was still wearing his wool hat, despite the heat of the day.

“Hey, slow down, and give an old guy a break, huh?” the man said. “Don’t make me run after you again.”

Mark came to a stop. He and the beggar stood on a sidewalk in front of a beige ranch with a roof that looked like it needed repairing. Mark thought that roof must have leaked last night, during the rain storm. A tall maple tree, its leaves still wet and glistening in the sun, provided the two of them with welcome shade.

“You remember me,” Mark said.

“Of course I remember you. Ten dollars last fall. Made me have a heart attack almost, chasing after you that way. And whenever I’ve seen you since, you’ve been generous.”

Mark winced. Generous? What was a dollar or two? He wondered if most people responded to the old man the way Gardener did. If so, it was easy to see how his pittance had seemed generous to the man. He reached into his pocket, pulled out his wallet, and took out a five dollar bill.

“Here you go, mister.”

The beggar just looked at the bill, then at Mark. Tears welled up in his eyes and spilled out into the tangled, gnarled beard that covered his cheeks. Then he shook his head. “No,” he said. “Not today.” He reached into his own pants pocket, and for a moment, Mark worried that the old man was going to pull out a gun. But all he had was a one dollar bill. “I know it isn’t much,” he said. “But take it, and please know I’d give more if I could.”

Mark stood there, and he felt his jaw drop open. He didn’t know if he should feel honored or insulted. What exactly was going on here? In the distance, from somebody’s backyard, he could hear the giggling of a little girl.

“Look,” Mark said, “just take this, okay?” He thrust the five dollar bill out further. “Go buy lunch with it.”

The beggar shook his head fiercely. “No! Take my dollar! I’m giving it to you. Don’t you see? I’m giving it to you! I don’t want your money today. Please take it.” The man’s hand was trembling, and the dollar fell to the ground. Mark snatched it up. “Keep it,” the old man said, then started to walk away.

Mark easily caught up with him. “Wait!” he said. “I don’t need your money, mister. Take it back, and take the five, too.”

The beggar brushed past Mark. He continued walking. Shaking his head even harder, he said, “You don’t understand, you don’t understand.” Then he reached the next intersection and turned the corner.

Mark just stood there on the sidewalk, feeling stupid and sad. He folded his five and the beggar’s one and stuffed them into his wallet.

“Thanks for the dollar, old man,” he said.

In the distance, he heard the little girl giggle again.

Gardener wasn’t on the bus today. He was probably in bed with the flu. A nasty bug was going around. It was September, and a cold snap had come in strong and bitter, blowing down from the mountains and reminding everyone that winter was not far off. Mark heard that the people of Vail had awakened to nine inches of snow that morning. But that just made him smile, as he thought of the anniversary gift he had bought for his wife last month—a weekend stay at her favorite ski lodge the second weekend of December. He had everything reserved, right down to the privacy booth in the restaurant she liked. All he needed now was for the mountain weather to cooperate. With nine inches of snow already, things were headed in the right direction.

Mark sat by the window. People on the sidewalk were bundled in winter coats and scarves. They were shivering, not used to the below-freezing temperatures. Just last week, it had been in the eighties.

“Whew, it’s freezing out there,” Mark heard someone say. A young woman with flushed cheeks sat down beside him. “Feels like February.” She took off her hat and scarf and placed them in her lap. Long black hair fell over the puffed bulk of her winter coat. She looked familiar to Mark, but he had never sat next to her before.

“Yeah,” he said. “Good weather for sleeping in, huh?”

“Tell me about it,” she said. “I wish I could. But, duty calls, y’know?”

He just smiled. The bus slowly worked through its rounds. Three stops before he would get off, Mark spotted the beggar. He had his coat wrapped tightly around himself, and he was talking to a young blond-haired man on the sidewalk. Mark saw the blond man hand the beggar a bill. He couldn’t tell what denomination, but he saw the old drifter smile and nod, almost bow, and he could read the lips: “Bless you, son, bless you.”

The bus pulled away from the curb.

“I don’t think I could ever do that, could you?” the woman next to Mark said.

“Do what?”

“Give away money like that guy just did. I mean, I feel bad for someone who doesn’t have a bed to sleep in at night and all, but, I mean, like, what do they do with five bucks? It isn’t gonna really help them get a life or anything.”

“No,” Mark agreed, “but maybe it can buy them a hot meal.”

The woman shrugged. “That’s what the shelters and soup kitchens are for. They can get their meals for free there. It just bothers me, the way they come up to you and just, like, beg. They have no respect, for themselves or anybody else. Being that poor, I guess it makes you self-centered, y’know? Never thinking of anything but your own needs. Always wanting to take.” She shook her head. “I wouldn’t give him a penny.”

At the next stop, she got up.

“Keep warm,” she said, then headed for the door.

Mark nodded and smiled. But he didn’t feel warm at all.

*****************

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

 

It’s Magic!

“Pick a card, any card,” he said, and winked.

pickacardanycard

 

I went for the top card on the deck, but pulled my hand back.  That would be too easy.

“Crafty,” he said, smiling.  I shrugged.  I was twelve years old, and this was the first time I’d ever met him.  “Cousin Ed,” we called him.  He was actually my grandmother’s cousin–I wasn’t even sure what that made him to me.  I just knew he was fun, lived in Boston and spoke with an accent so thick you could hear the chowder coating each syllable, and loved to perform card tricks.

chowder

 

“C’mon, Mike,” my oldest brother said.  The entire family was gathered around the table.  It was a warm, humid evening in late July, the windows opened, the metallic hum of the cicadas and the steady, thrumming chorus of the crickets filtering in.  “Will you pick a card already?  Geez!  This isn’t exactly rocket science here.”

cricket

 

Cousin Ed laughed out loud at this and tapped on the deck.  “Listen to your brother,” he said.

I picked a card near the bottom of the deck.

“Okay, now show everyone here your card,” Ed said, “except for me, of course.”  My mother and father, brothers and sister moved in close as I showed them the card.  It was the seven of diamonds.  It’s funny–the things you remember through the years.  I have forgotten so many things–countless details that have evaporated from my conscious memory like smoke on an autumn wind.  But I remember the seven of diamonds . . .

sevendiamonds

 

Ed held out the deck, cutting it in two and shielding his eyes for effect.  “Kindly put the card back,” he said.

I did, and faster than the eye could follow, he slapped the deck back together and began to shuffle.  He shuffled like no one I had ever seen, his hands a blur, his fingers maneuvering, redirecting, reconfiguring.  We all knew we were in the presence of a master of his craft.  He made the hyper-speed shuffling look easy.

shuffling

 

This went on for over a minute.  And then, finally, Cousin Ed placed the deck, facedown, on the table and tapped the top card.

“Turn the top card over if you would, my good man,” he said.  But it wasn’t the card I had chosen.  “Darn!”  Ed said.  “Guess I must’ve tapped the deck too hard.”  “Hard” came out “hahd,” the “r” silent, the chowder sticking to the word, rich and thick like paste.

bostonaccent

 

He tapped the deck again, then turned it over, revealing the bottom card.  “Now I know that must your card,” he said.

I shook my head, and my sister snickered behind me.

“Hmm.”  Ed rubbed his chin, then fanned the deck, face-up, along the surface of the table.  He rubbed his chin harder, thinking, frowning, and then reached for the seven of diamonds.  He said nothing as he held up the card; he just smiled.  The smile said it all.

“How . . . ?” my brother said.

Ed bowed, smiled wider.  “It’s magic,” he said.

magictrick

 

Later, I had a moment with Cousin Ed alone.  I asked him, point blank–how had he done it?

He told me it was all in the sleight of hand, the art of shuffling, the showmanship and banter, and, most important of all, making the audience’s eyes follow where he wanted them to go.  “It’s not much of a trick, once you know the secret,” he admitted.  “That’s how tricks are.  It’s the not knowing that makes them magic.”

sleightofhand

 

I didn’t want to hear that, and again urged him to show me how he’d done it.

“Aw, why not?” he said.  “Not sure when I’ll be out here visiting again.  But I’m tellin’ ya, you’re gonna be disappointed . . .”

And when he was through, when the dense morning fog had rolled out to sea, replaced by the clear, bright light of day, I realized he’d been right.

The trick had lost its luster.

The magic was gone.

fog

 

*************************

There are many details authors must account for in a single novel.  Events that occur in chapter two reverberate throughout the story and affect the goings-on in chapter twenty-six.  Characters grow and evolve.  Twists and turns arise, unexpectedly, sprinkled in as if by mischievous literary elves intent on leaving their pixie footprint on every page.

elves

 

And sometimes, especially in science fiction and fantasy–but by no means limited to speculative fiction–the unexplainable happens.  Time warps occur.  A series of deja vu moments takes place for the protagonist that somehow seem connected–but to what?  And when?  And where?  Or, as the case may be, mysterious little “ghost girls” with swirling blue eyes haunt the dreams of seventh-grade boys and open portals to other, distant dimensions.

alternatedimensions

 

Much to Marc Kuslanski‘s chagrin, the endless blue void in The Eye-Dancers; the strange psychic connection the boys share with Monica Tisdale, the “ghost girl”; and the extent and methods of her paranormal abilities are never explained.  They are hinted at, lived through, coped with . . . but never explained.

I debated this as I wrote the novel.  Should a coherent, logical (or perhaps even pseudo-logical) bow tie of an explanation be given?  Should the unexplainable, in fact, be explained? What would be gained if it were?  What would be lost?

There was a moment during the writing process when I thought back to old Cousin Ed and his card trick, the way I had felt, like a pin-pricked balloon, when he shared the secret with me.  And I knew the approach I needed to take.

pinprickedballoon

 

Granted, Marc, always the scientist at heart, tries to explain everything that happens, using quantum theory as the bedrock of his analysis.  But the novel never fully confirms, or refutes, his conclusions.  Perhaps some of them are correct.  And perhaps others are 100% wrong.

It is left for the reader to decide.

unansweredquestions

 

******************

After Cousin Ed returned to Boston, I was determined to learn how to shuffle like a pro so I could perform his card trick when school opened in the fall.  I spent hours that summer practicing, and on the first day back to class, I made sure to bring a deck of cards with me.

At lunch, with several students watching, I whipped out the deck, asked for someone to pick a card.  Any card.

pickacardanycardend

 

When it was over, I had achieved the desired end result.  I wasn’t nearly as skilled as Ed, but the performance was good enough to mystify and confound.  My friends asked, “Hey, how’d you do that?”

I shrugged, smiled.

“It’s magic,” I said.

And no matter how many times they asked, I never did reveal the secret.

magic!

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Coda

Every day, every moment, we are faced with choices.  Many of these choices are easy to gloss over.  We’re often not even aware of making them.  My morning rituals, for example, are so built in, so automatic, I don’t even consciously consider them.  I just do them, as if I have a built-in program set to function in a specific, pre-defined manner each day upon waking.

routine

 

That’s not how it is with everything, though, of course.  Sometimes we are confronted with decisions that cause us to pause, even agonize, as we hem and haw, weighing the pros and cons.  Should we, or shouldn’t we?  These are the choices that define us.  And, sometimes, these are the choices that cause us the most regret . . .

choices

 

****************

The Wonder Years is easily one of my all-time favorite television shows.  And in a second-season episode called “Coda,” the main character and narrator of the show, Kevin Arnold, reflects on a decision he made, two decades ago, that he will never forget.

kevinatpiano

 

The story starts with Kevin riding his bike down a neighborhood street.  He comes to a stop in front of a particular house, and we peer in through the window along with him where we see a boy playing the piano, his instructor by his side, a collection of what we assume to be parents in the background.  The boy is playing Pachelbel’s Canon in D major.  We, and Kevin, can hear it perfectly.

The narrator, the adult Kevin discussing the scene from a perspective twenty years removed, begins this way:

“When you’re a little kid, you’re a little bit of everything–artist, scientist, athlete, scholar.  Sometimes it seems like growing up is a process of giving those things up, one by one.”   Here the narration pauses, and Kevin, the twelve-year-old Kevin, sitting on his bicycle in the fading light of dusk, continues to look in through the window, a wistful expression on his face.

“I guess we all have one thing we regret giving up,” the voice-over continues.  “One thing we really miss, that we gave up because we were too lazy, or we couldn’t stick it out.  Or because we were afraid.”

Here the scene shifts.  We see a football tossed high in the air, and we realize, immediately, that time, capricious as ever, has run backward.  We are viewing a moment prior to the opening scene.

Kevin and his friends are playing football in the street, pretending to be members of the New York Jets, complete with a play-by-play broadcast.

paul

 

doug

 

We hear the imagined cheers of a capacity crowd before Kevin’s mother steps outside to break it up.  It is time for his piano lesson. . .

norma

 

As Kevin arrives at his instructor’s house, the student scheduled ahead of him is finishing up his lesson.  But this is no ordinary student.  This is Ronald Hirschmuller.

The narrator tells us that Ronald is a “legend.”  He plays everything perfectly, and practices “4700 hours a week.  I hated Ronald Hirschmuller.”

After Ronald leaves, Kevin begins his practice session.  When he plays for a while, making several mistakes, the instructor, a straight-talking, likeable, chain-smoking woman named Mrs. Carpose, mocks that he must have practiced all of forty-two minutes this past week.  She tells him she’s going to start feeling guilty about taking his parents’ money if he doesn’t start putting more effort into his lessons.

mrscarpose

 

Then she asks him if he’s thought about what he’ll play for the recital this year.  The recital is the signature event of the year for Mrs. Carpose’s students–a chance for them to play in front of all the students and their parents.

But Kevin wants no part of it–he’s too busy to play at the recital.  He tells her he’s in junior high now, and has a lot of demands on his time.

When Mrs. Carpose presses, prodding him to reconsider, he says, “Look, I’m not like Ronald Hirschmuller.”  He has a diversity of interests, he explains.  He doesn’t want to devote all his spare time to practicing piano.  And he doesn’t want to play at the recital.

But when his father learns of this, he tells Kevin he has two choices.  He can either quit the piano (his father doesn’t want to continue paying for lessons if Kevin isn’t practicing), or he can start to practice more and take it seriously.

jackarnold

 

Kevin tries to practice that night, but makes the same old mistakes.  Frustrated, he decides to quit.

“Why?” Mrs. Carpose asks him at his next lesson when he informs her of his decision.

After avoiding the truth for a while, he comes out and tells her, “I’m not gonna be like Ronald Hirschmuller.  I’m never gonna be that good.  Even if I practiced all the time . . . he’s just more talented than me!”

“Oh, don’t give me that,” his teacher scolds.  “You have more talent in your little pinky than Ronald Hirschmuller has in his whole body.  Why that kid’s a machine!  You have a feel for music, and you know it.  But that’s not the point–who’s better, who’s worse.  Why, that’s not music!  That’s not what it’s about!”

She tells him to sit down and play Pachelbel’s Canon in D major.  “My final request,” she says.

pachelbel

 

After slipping up early, Kevin gets into a rhythm and plays beautifully.

“All of a sudden, as I started to play,” the Kevin of two decades later says in a voice-over, “it was like there was electricity flowing through my veins.  Suddenly I could do no wrong.”

kevinandcarpose

 

This encourages him to reconsider and play at the recital, after all.  “I would play Canon in D major like Mrs. Carpose had never heard it before,” he tells us in another voice-over.  “Like the world had never heard it before.  Like Ronald Hirschmuller had never heard it before.”

His optimism is shattered at the dress rehearsal, however.  With all the students gathered, Kevin learns that Ronald Hirschmuller also plans on playing Canon in D major at the recital.

He is shocked, and angry at his teacher.  How could she do that to him?  Why would she want him to play the same piece as the best student in the class?  Was she deliberately trying to humiliate him?

Ronald plays Canon in D major before the assembled students, and, of course, he is flawless, technically perfect, as always.  As Ronald plays, Kevin sits there listening, growing more nervous, more anxious by the second.  He wishes Ronald would make a mistake–just one slip-up.  But he doesn’t.

Mrs. Carpose asks Kevin to play next, which only heightens his anxiety.  How can he follow that performance?  Predictably, in a state of near-panic, Kevin butchers the piece.  It is a complete embarrassment, “the piano rehearsal from hell,” he tells us in a voice-over.  After the last note is played, Ronald Hirschmuller smirks and offers a sarcastic applause.

ronaldsarcasticclap

 

Mrs. Carpose tries to encourage him.  “So you choked,” she says as he leaves.  “You’ll do better tomorrow night”–at the recital.

“Yeah,” Kevin says, not even making eye contact.

But tomorrow night arrives and Kevin does not attend the recital.

The final scene of the episode returns us to where it started–Kevin outside of Mrs. Carpose’s house, listening to Ronald Hirschmuller playing Canon in D major at the recital for his fellow students and their parents.

Kevin sits there on his bike, looking in.  And the adult Kevin breaks in with the episode’s final voice-over . . .

“I never did forget that night.  I remember the light glowing from Mrs. Carpose’s window.  And I remember the darkness as I sat out there in the street looking in.  And now, more than twenty years later, I still remember every note of the music that wandered out into the still night air.”

Here, he begins to ride away, looking back one last time.

“The things is,” he says, “I can’t remember how to play it anymore.”

********************

The ever-present specter of peer pressure, which influences Kevin so profoundly in this episode, is something that also deeply affects the main characters in The Eye-Dancers.  Indeed, at its heart, the novel is about the characters being forced to confront that same pressure, those external expectations, and learning to overcome the burdens they create.

peerpressure

 

I suppose all of us have had to struggle with those burdens at one point or another.  I suppose many of us still do.  I know I do.

My outlet for as long as I can remember, my expression of these struggles, has always been to write them out and share them on the page.

 

writing

 

Thank you so much for reading them.

–Mike

The Conundrum of Creativity (Or, Sometimes They May See You Sweat)

One fall day in my junior year of college, I met with my academic advisor, a bearded, gray-haired man in his early sixties who also happened to teach two of my Writing courses that semester.  It was late in the afternoon, his office overlooking the campus’s back parking lot.  Mellow October sunshine filtered in through the open window, the breeze ruffling the ungraded papers on his desk.

ungradedessays

 

We were talking about career choices.  What did I want to do with my life when I graduated?  I loved writing, of course.  I knew I wanted to be a writer. I’d known that since the second grade.  Maybe I’d need to acquire a “day” job to pay the bills, but the nights, the weekends–they would belong to my flights of fancy.

flightsoffancy

 

My advisor smiled.  “If you love it,” he said.  “If you feel called to do it, then it’s right for you.  That’s the way I feel about teaching.”

I nodded, but perhaps sensing I thought he was just issuing a standard company line or that I wasn’t grasping the heart of his message, he went on: “You know, I’ve been teaching here for over thirty years.  I’ve probably forgotten more about writing and literature than most people will ever know.”  He laughed, shook his head, thumbed the thick glasses he wore up the bridge of his nose.  I sensed that, for a moment, his mind was peering back through the decades, wondering at the swiftness of it all, the transitory nature of life.

literature

 

“But I’ll tell you this,” he said.  “Before I walk into that classroom, I still feel butterflies.  I know there are students in there, my students, and maybe some of them even want to go on to become journalists or poets or novelists–just like you.  I have to be able to teach you something worthwhile.  Others? They’re probably taking my course because it’s required.  They don’t want to be there.  But maybe I can light a spark, you see.  Maybe I can inspire them to read something great long after they’ve forgotten all about me.”

butterflies

 

“You get nervous?” I asked.  Somehow the rest of his message had got lost.  After all, in class he never seemed nervous.  And why should he be?  He was one of my favorite professors–always engaging and interesting.  Teaching appeared to come so effortlessly, so naturally to him.

He smiled again.  “Just before class starts, my heart beats a little faster.  I do a quick mental checklist on the lesson.  Yeah.  I get nervous.  But that’s a good thing.”  He paused for effect. “It means I still care.  I still love what I do.  When the day comes that I don’t feel those butterflies before class, I’ll know it’s time to retire.”

retirement

 

********************

On July 3, 1950, New York Yankees legend Joe DiMaggio got word that he was slated to start the next game at first base.  Upon hearing the news, he wondered if it might be some sort of practical joke.  Him play first base?  He was the center fielder, he’d been the Yankees center fielder since his rookie season, fourteen years earlier.  He hadn’t played first base since his days in the minor leagues.

dimaggio

 

But manager Casey Stengel was serious.

stengel

 

The team was in a funk, and Stengel wanted to inject some youth into the outfield.  Inwardly, DiMaggio seethed.  Stengel had just joined the team as manager the previous season, whereas Joltin’ Joe, the Yankee Clipper, had been the star of the franchise for a decade and a half.  But he did not openly dispute his manager.  He readied himself to play first base.

Prior to the start of the game, DiMaggio fielded practice ball after practice ball, trying to acclimate himself to this new, foreign defensive position.  Before the first pitch was even thrown, his uniform was soaked with sweat.  Feeling like the proverbial fish out of water, DiMaggio had never been so nervous.

fishoutofwater

 

During the game, he made no errors, but clearly looked out of sorts.  It was the longest game of his life.

The next day, DiMaggio was back in center field.  He never played first base again.

Later, he was asked why he felt so much pressure.  He was Joe DiMaggio, after all.  What did he have left to prove?  He had already cemented himself as one of the all-time greats, a sure first-ballot Hall-of-Famer.  Hadn’t he earned the right to relax?  Wasn’t his legacy assured?

dimaggioautographs

 

“There is always some kid who may be seeing me for the first or last time,” the Yankee Clipper responded.  “I owe him my best.”

****************

It is one of the tenets of writing, of any form of creative expression–we must first and foremost do what we love, express what matters to us, write about the relationships, ideas, concepts, themes, passions that resonate within, in some deep, secret chamber of the heart.  Whether we are singing opera or crafting poetry or writing blogs–it is imperative that we do what we want to do, what we are called to do.  As soon as we begin creating solely based on what others are doing or expecting, as soon as we force ourselves into a certain genre or form we don’t love, the results will suffer.

writewhatyoulove

 

And yet, and yet . . .

When the time arrives, and we decide to take the plunge and share our work with someone else, be it one person, a hundred, or thousands upon thousands, we no longer are creating in a vacuum.

Our work is now “out there.”  It has become a part of a larger whole, a single grain of sand on an artistic shore that expands, shifts, and evolves every day, every moment.

beach

 

****************

Every time I publish a blog post, every time I share a story with someone, anyone, every time I see a new review of The Eye-Dancers posted on the Web, I feel those same butterflies my old English professor felt before the start of each class.

butterfly

 

Sometimes I berate myself.  Why should I care so much what others think of my work?  Don’t I write for myself, first and foremost?  Isn’t that enough?

And you know, the honest answer is–no.  It’s not enough.  If it were enough, I never would have released The Eye-Dancers, never would submit a short story to a literary magazine, never would publish a single blog post.  My words would simply sit there on the page, locked inside the hard drive of my computer or the folders inside my drawer.

harddrive

 

But that’s not why we create art.  We sing and dance and draw and write to share a piece of ourselves with others.  We write about a personal experience and then, when someone else, someone we don’t even know, reads it and says, “Yes!  I know what he’s saying, I’ve felt that way, too,” a special kind of magic takes place.

magic

 

It is that magic, that sharing, that bridging of the gap between us that makes writing and creating so worthwhile.

So yes.  As I hit that Publish button right now, I do feel a little bit nervous.

I wouldn’t want it any other way.

publish

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

The Writing Process Blog Tour

Once again, I have been invited to participate in a blog hop, and once again, I thank you, the WordPress Community, for all of your ongoing support.  It’s a true pleasure being a part of the blogosphere, and having the chance to virtually meet so many great people from around the world has been a richly rewarding experience.

This blog hop–the Writing Process Blog Tour–is one I am particularly intrigued by.  Discussing the writing process is always fun for me, and I want to thank Ipuna Black for tagging me to join in on this tour!

Ipuna writes YA fantasy and is in the process of querying agents with her completed novel. You can follow her on Twitter @IpunaBlack, on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ipuna.black, or on her website at ipunablack.com.

Thanks so much again, Ipuna!

And now, on to the questions . . .

*****************

What am I working on?

I am in the midst of writing a sequel to The Eye-Dancers, which, honestly, was not planned.  When I wrote The Eye-Dancers, I really thought it would be a stand-alone novel, but then a funny thing happened.  The germ of an idea struck.  At first, I brushed it off.  There was no need for a sequel!  There were other writing projects to tackle.  But the idea hung around, expanded, became more real.  Muscles and tendons, living cells and nerve endings attached themselves to the bare bones of the frame.  Again, I tried to shrug it off, but it latched on tight, like a poodle yanking on my pants leg, unwilling to let go.  And that’s when I realized–this was a story I had to write.

idea

And so I am, and really enjoying it.  The sequel takes place five years after the conclusion of The Eye-Dancers, and it’s been fun delving back in to the characters’ lives now that they are older, on the threshold of their senior year in high school.

How does my work differ from others in its genre?

That’s an interesting question, but, honestly, it’s not one I spend any time thinking about.  Just like with The Eye-Dancers, I have a story to tell.  It came to me, not the other way around.  Whatever differences or similarities it has with other stories of the genre are not by intrinsic design.  I am just writing the story the best way I know how.

One thing I will say, though.  The majority of YA sci-fi/fantasy novels do not include four boys as the protagonists.  In this sense, The Eye-Dancers, as well as the sequel, stand out a bit.  Whether in a good way or a not-so-good way I leave to the readers to determine!

fantasy

Why do I write what I do?

Ray Bradbury once said, “Love.  Fall in love and stay in love.  Write only what you love, and love what you write.  The key word is love.  You have to get up in the morning and write something you love, something to live for.”

And, in a nutshell, that’s why I write the things I do.  With The Eye-Dancers, Mitchell, Joe, Ryan, and Marc were inspired by friends I grew up with.  The themes in the story are based on ideas, concepts, ways of looking at the universe that have always resonated for me.

I remember talking with my friends when we were boys, when the pathway to adulthood seemed long and winding, the destination so far away we couldn’t see it, didn’t even think about it.  Sometimes we’d go outside at night, look up at the stars, and openly wonder, “Are we alone?  What’s up there?  What is the true scope of the universe?”  And, to the best of my ability, The Eye-Dancers tackles these questions from my youth.

stars

Why do I write what I do?  I have things to say, I guess.  There are things that mean much to me–people, places, ideas, relationships.  And putting these things down on paper in story form (or on the screen, as the case may be) has always been my preferred way of expressing them.

How does your writing process work?

Generally an idea strikes, unasked for, unplanned.  If it’s a short story, I’ll jot a few notes down–essentials I want to make sure I don’t forget.  And then I’ll write the story.  For a standard-length short story (say, between 3,000 and 5,000 words), I usually finish the first draft in a day or two.  Then the hard part–the editing, revisions, rewriting.  This stage may take up to a week.

For a novel, I will also jot down some notes–perhaps two or three pages’ worth–on the characters and the overall arc of the story.  But nothing too detailed.  Without exception, writing a novel is a journey of discovery, and, for me, I have found that if I cling too tightly to preconceived notions about characters or plot, I restrict the story from being told in its own, natural manner.  What I think might happen five chapters down the road rarely does.

That is, simultaneously, the most exciting and most insecure aspect of the writing process.  When we being a long work, we can’t know for sure just how it will turn out or, in truth, that it will turn out at all.  All we can do is dive in, head first, and let the story take us where it will.

windingroad

**************

And now, the best part of the blog hop!  It is my pleasure to pass the baton on to three authors whose work I greatly admire.  Please check out their wonderful websites, delve in to their creativity, and enjoy your stay, as I’m sure you will . . .

“Catnip” at Life with Catnip

Barbara Monier

Abby Jones at A Gentle and Quiet Spirit

Thanks so much to Catnip, Barbara, and Abby for participating in the blog hop!  And thanks so much to everyone for reading!

–Mike

Meet My Main Character Blog Tour

The Eye-Dancers blog will turn two years old later this summer (time does fly!), and I have enjoyed every minute of it.  And the number-one thing about blogging for me has, undoubtedly, been the many virtual friends I have made here in the WordPress Community.

One of those friends, Sherri Matthews, recently tagged me to take part in the Meet My Main Character Blog Tour.  Sherri, who is currently working on her memoir, is a wonderfully talented blogger and a great person.  For any of you who have not yet visited her blog, I strongly encourage you to do so.  I am sure you will enjoy it as much as I do, and will want to pull up a chair and stay for a while.

Thanks so much, Sherri, for including me in this tour!  Please check out the other writers she has tagged for the tour as well!

For this blog tour, we have to answer a series of questions about the main character in a work-in-progress.  My WIP is the sequel to The Eye-Dancers, and, just as in the first novel, the sequel (still without a title!) has four main characters–Mitchell Brant, Joe Marma, Ryan Swinton, and Marc Kuslanski.  Not to mention the “ghost girl,” who is back as well!  And, in fact, it is the “ghost girl” I will feature here.  She is a major force in The Eye-Dancers, and even more so in the sequel . . .

 

1. What is the name of your character? Is he/she fictional or a historic person?

The “ghost girl,” so called by Mitchell and his friends in The Eye-Dancers, is actually a girl by the name of Monica Tisdale.  In The Eye-Dancers, she is seven years old.  But when the sequel takes place, five years have now passed; she is older, on the cusp of being a teenager, much more aware of her strange, dimension-busting abilities, and facing a problem of, literally, infinite implications.

infinity

Monica Tisdale is strictly a fictional character.

2. When and where is the story set?

Five years after The Eye-Dancers–in contemporary western New York State.  (At least that’s where the story starts.  But, just as in the first book, the boys are transported through the void again, into the “ghost girl’s” world.)

void

3. What should we know about him/her?

Monica Tisdale is a very unusual girl.  She is able to tap in to phenomena many people aren’t even aware of.  But now, at the onset of the sequel, she is perhaps a bit too eager to take her uncanny and ever-evolving abilities to the next level.  Bored with the everyday routines around her, the “ghost girl” gets herself caught up in an endlessly layered problem of her own making . . .

endlessproblem

4. What is the main conflict? What messes up his/her life?

Well, as mentioned above, she kind of messes up her life.  Since the conclusion of The Eye-Dancers, she has honed her paranormal abilities, understands them better, and feels she is ready for something huge.

She is fascinated with the concept of parallel worlds–especially so, considering Mitchell, Joe, Ryan, and Marc, all from a different plane of reality, journeyed to her world in The Eye-Dancers.  Now she wonders.  How many Monica Tisdales are really out there, across all of the known (not to mention, unknown) universes?  Are there a million versions of her?  A billion?  An infinite number?

multipleworlds

She is determined to find out . . .

5. What is the personal goal of the character?

Once she steps over the edge, once she swirls the mixture of cosmic stardust and does indeed tap in to worlds upon worlds, she realizes (too late) that it is all far too much for one person, one brain, to absorb.  She must somehow undo what she has set into motion.  But she can’t do it alone.  She needs help.

stardust

And that’s where Mitchell and his friends come in.

6. Is there a working title for this novel, and can we read more about it?

At this point, there is no working title.  Hopefully one of the characters will provide one soon!

7. When can we expect the book to be published?

Hmm.  I am shooting for sometime in 2015!  It’s still fairly early in the game, but that’s the (rather vague!) goal.

*********************

And now, it’s my pleasure to pass the baton on to four authors.  I am a big fan of each of these talented wordsmiths–gifted writers all.  If you haven’t yet visited their websites, now is the time!  They represent a true treasure trove of creativity, and I thank each of them for wanting to participate in the Meet My Main Character Blog Tour!

I will look forward to seeing your Main Character posts a week from today!

Melissa Hazelwood at Today, You Will Write

Teagan Geneviene at Teagan’s Books

Jennifer K. Marsh

Joanne Blakie at Writeaway

Thank you again to Melissa, Teagan, Jennifer, and Joanne for participating!  And thanks so much to everyone for reading.

–Mike

Author Interview with Sonya Solomonovich

Last summer, I ran a promotion for The Eye-Dancers.  During that promo, Sonya Solomonovich purchased a copy of the book.  Later that fall, she took the time to interview me on her website.  It was a fun interview, as she aimed several of her questions at the main characters of The Eye-DancersMitchell, Joe, Ryan, and Marc had a great time answering her questions, and so did I.

So when she announced the release of her new novel, Dryad, it was an easy decision for me.  I purchased a copy, and genuinely enjoyed the book.  I also wanted to reciprocate and interview her–along with several characters in her book.

dryad

 

What follows is my interview with Sonya, and Solena, and Tyler, and . . . well, you get the idea.

I hope you enjoy the interview!

*******************

1.  The main character of Dryad is, well, a dryad!  Have you always been interested in dryads?  Or is it something that you’ve recently discovered and wanted to write about?

I’ve always been interested in Greek Mythology but not so much in dryads.  The idea for Dryad emerged when a friend of mine suggested I should write about a dryad from the Amazon rainforest climbing the corporate ladder.

2. As a writer myself, I am always fascinated by ideas–how they strike, when they hit, and how complete they are when they do come.  With Dryad, did the idea hit you all at once?  Or was it gradual–a scenario here, a character there, a scene there, and you had to build it slowly, over time?

I’m so bad at coming up with ideas for my own books.  It was really a friend of mine who came up with this idea–and wrote it down on a napkin for me–but then gradually I started building on it.  For a while I was considering the main character to be a male dryad, but then I changed it to a female.  Then I decided to add a time travel element and the talking alligator.  Then I forgot all about it for a couple of years.  Finally, it all came together when I realized I wanted to write an adventure that would be both silly and epic, and by that time most of the characters were already in place.

3.  Solena, the main character of Dryad, is a dryad who sympathizes with humans and who takes on the appearance and identity of a human for the majority of the novel.  How much of yourself would you say is a part of her?  Are you a lot like Solena?  Or is she the polar opposite of you?

I have to admit I’m a lot like her.  Sometimes I think I’m a different species and I’m still trying to figure out what humans are all about 🙂  Also, like Solena, I’m a romantic and I enjoy all the superficial glamour and glitz of Hollywood and pop culture.  I think it’s okay to do that in moderation.

4.  The character of Teddy Goldman intrigued me–a self-help guru who, for years, even as a best-selling writer, had his better-looking brother pose for him in PR photographs.  Did any real-life self-help or celebrity personality serve as an inspiration for Teddy Goldman?

I’m glad you asked this question because I love self-help books.  Some are funny and ridiculous, while some are really helpful.  Teddy Goldman is mostly based on fitness guru Matt Furey, who calls himself “Zen Master of the Internet.”  There are a lot of similarities there because Matt Furey is a martial artist who also writes on other diverse self-help topics.  Initially it was meant to be just a small joke, but then he became a more and more important part of the plot.  Then there came a moment when I thought, wait a minute, this character is too perfect.  So that was when I decided he is actually not hunky and has a limp and a better-looking brother.

5.  One of the central themes of Dryad is respecting the environment.  Is this something you have always been passionate about, and do you often incorporate this into your fiction?

I didn’t really become interested in the environment until about two years ago, when I moved to the west coast of Canada.  Everyone here is so environmentally conscious that I couldn’t help but get into the spirit.  And of course, I love animals so it finally dawned on me that animals can’t survive without a habitat!

 

And now, here are questions for the characters themselves!

1.  Tyler–you are quite the unique character–a talking alligator!  Do the alligators who cannot talk resent you?  Do you have trouble “fitting in” with other alligators?  And do you feel more “at home” with humans than with alligators?

Man, I don’t want to fit in with those yokels, the other alligators.  I’m sure they resent me, and I just love being resented: it means I’ve made it big!  I’m a hotshot executive now, and I’m much happier with my human friends and frenemies.  My life is like some sort of crazy reality show.

2.  Solena–you of course are a dryad.  But over the course of the novel, you take on the appearance and identity of a human and spend a lot of time with other humans.  You even have a romantic relationship with one.  What do you feel are the main differences between humans and dryads?  And what can we teach each other and learn from each other?

That’s a really good question, Mike.  Humans have so many different arts and sciences that there is almost no limit on what they can do!  They could certainly teach dryads to be more innovative.  On the other hand, dryads are good at being happy with what they have.  They inhabit the natural world and are in harmony with it.  (Some) humans could learn from us to connect with nature and enjoy life!

3.  Roger St, Amour, as a seventeenth-century pirate transported to the twenty-first century, what are your thoughts of our way of life today?  We’ve progressed a great deal as a society in terms of knowledge and technology.  But, in your eyes, have we lost anything precious along the way?

Aye, we have lost much of what makes a man feel alive.  How is it that you ride about in magical carriages and yet do not feel a sense of freedom?  A man cannot go anywhere without everyone knowing where he is and sending him those blasted emails.  I’m setting a course back to the seventeenth century as soon as I can!

4.  Sir Lancelot and Gawaine!  Knights of the round table, and, along with St. Amour and others, time travelers from the distant past.  The two of you are the epitome of chivalry.  Based on your observations, is chivalry still alive in the twenty-first century?

Aye and nay…  There is much amiss in this world, and chivalry does not rule the day.  Yet we have seen many ladies and gentlemen fighting against injustice, and that is the most important part of chivalry, methinks.

And, we will finish with Sonya–one last question!

Do you have a sequel for Dryad planned?  What are some of the writing projects you will work on next?

As a matter of fact I do!  I’d like to write a sequel with the knights and Jackson (St. Amour’s lieutenant) as the main characters.  So far they have been minor characters, but maybe they should go on their own time-travel adventure.  Right now, I’m taking a break from writing but I’m sure I’ll come up with a new novel or screenplay one of these days.

 

***********************

ss

 

Sonya Solomonovich has been a journalist, a teacher, and an editor. She briefly flirted with the idea of becoming a fitness instructor, but then realized that what she enjoys most is writing novels. Sonya is passionate about all things swashbuckling and seafaring. She lives in Vancouver, Canada.

You can connect with Sonya on her website and Goodreads.

If you’d like to buy a copy of Dryad, please click here.

Thanks so much to Sonya (and Tyler, and Solena, and . . .) for doing this interview, and thanks so much to everyone for reading!

–Mike

Previous Older Entries

%d bloggers like this: