The Sibling’s the Thing (Or, Broken Bones and Unpaid Bets)

In The Eye-Dancers novels, siblings play a sizable role–and a dominant one in Joe Marma‘s case.  This naturally evolved during the writing of the stories, but also it is a reflection of the siblings in my own life.  As the youngest of four children, I know firsthand what it’s like to share a household with multiple siblings growing up.

 

In my case, I am more than seven years younger than my next-oldest sibling, so there is an age gap–nothing that matters now that we’re adults, but back when I was a little kid, my siblings were already in high school.  They seemed like full-fledged grown-ups to me.  And sometimes, they were tasked with watching me–especially when we visited the neighbors’ pool across the street.

My family used to have a pool when I was too little to swim.  But by the time I could actually use a pool, it was long gone.  And so we’d use the pool in the backyard of the neighbors’ house–kitty-corner and across the street. (In fact, these neighbors were the same family the Marmas were inspired by in The Eye-Dancers!)

 

I remember especially the summer I was eight years old, I would go over to their pool every day.  Joe and his brother did not use the pool much, and so it was usually just me–and sometimes my brothers.  My mother would often be there, too, to supervise.

But one time she tasked my brother Dave to watch me.  He was outside the pool.  I was the only one in the water.  “Don’t throw anything into the pool!” my mother had warned us before we crossed the street and I jumped into the pool.  She knew I liked to play “diving catches” in the pool, where someone would throw a ball several feet away from me and I would dive to try to catch it before it hit the surface of the water.  As luck would have it, that day, there was a volleyball in the neighbors’ backyard, not ten feet from the pool.  How could we resist?

 

“Dive!” Dave said, and whipped the ball just out of reach.  I dived, reached for the volleyball.

Crack!  My left pinky snapped back, the force of the ball rivaling a Nolan Ryan fastball.

Houston Astros Nolan Ryan pitching

 

“Ow!”  I grabbed my finger, the pain immediate and sharp.  The game ended as fast as it had begun.

I wound up with a broken pinky for the summer.  My mother was not pleased.

Another time, later that same summer, once my pinky had healed enough for the cast to be removed, my other older brother, John, made a wager with me.  He was in the pool with me. He knew I liked to submerge and swim underwater from one end of the pool to the other multiple times, seeing how many laps I could complete before needing to come up for air.

“I bet you ten bucks you can’t make it across the pool underwater six times,” he challenged.  My record was four.  Six was a stretch.  But I accepted the challenge.

“Ten bucks?”

 

“Ten bucks,” he reiterated.  In the 1980s, to an eight-year-old, ten dollars was a fortune!  I was all in.

“You’re gonna owe me,” I said, and dove under.  I made the first two laps easily.  The third was a little harder–I was starting to feel the lack of oxygen.  The fourth lap–my old record–was harder still.  Then the fifth–I was venturing into uncharted waters, never having stayed under this long before.  But I made it, tapping the far end of the pool.

Can I make this last lap? I wondered.  I seriously considered coming up for air, losing the bet.  But I wouldn’t give my brother the satisfaction.  I kicked off the side, determined to complete the final lap.

My lungs felt like they would rupture; I was getting woozy.  But I made it, tapping the side of the opposite end and surfacing.  I gulped in the air, letting it slide down into my lungs like a healing balm.  I couldn’t talk for several seconds, gasping, regaining my wind.

 

Finally, I said, “I want my ten bucks!”

My brother swam up to me.  “I can’t believe you did it!” he said.  “I didn’t think you had a chance.”

“Fork it over,” I said.  “When we get home.”

“What?  The ten bucks?”  He smiled.  I didn’t like the looks of that smile.  “Here.  Ten bucks.”

And he proceeded to hit me on my upper arm.  Ten times.

“There!” he said.  “There’s your ten bucks!”

I laid into him, told him it wasn’t fair.  But all he did was laugh.

Now, decades later, I look back at both of these scenarios and smile. I sure wasn’t smiling when they happened!  But now they are treasured memories.  It is memories such as these–little things, anecdotes, small events really, but monumental in their own way–that inspire me to write.  To capture something of the spirit of youth, of my past, of life in a previous century.

 

I am grateful and blessed for the memories.

And yes.  My brother still owes me ten bucks.

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

People You Know, Characters You Create

Have you ever wanted to write–or actually written–a piece of fiction that featured characters based on actual people you know?  Now, granted–even when we create our characters “out of thin air,” there are elements of people we know in them.  Or, sometimes, a composite of several people’s characteristics rolled into one.  This may be on a subconscious level–you’re not necessarily trying to base your characters on anyone.  But it’s inevitable that traits from some people you know (or you. yourself, as the author) will find their way into some of your characters.

However, that’s not what we’re talking about here.  What we’re talking about is . . . you know Jane from across the hall in your apartment complex, and you want to create a character “based” on her.  Or perhaps someone from school–a bully, your best friend, a teacher, a nerd–whoever it is.  You want to feature them in your next novel (with a different name, of course).  Can you literally have at it, and re-create the real-life person in your fictional story?  Or do you need to add several layers of a literary buffer, effectively “disguising” them, perhaps even from themselves should they read your work?

 

The interesting thing about that is–whatever your intention, it likely doesn’t matter because as you write, as you go forward with your literary endeavor, creative elements will take over.

As I’ve posted about in the past, the main characters in The Eye-Dancers were based on friends I had growing up.  Specifically, Mitchell Brant was inspired by Matt B.; Ryan Swinton by Rick S.; Joe Marma by, well, Joe M.; and Marc Kuslanski by MattK.  The supporting character of Matt “Grronk” Giselmo was also inspired by a Matt–Matt G.  A lot of Matts!  As for last names, of course I changed them, though I matched the first letter of the fictional characters’ last names with their real-life inspirations.

 

And, honestly, when I set out to write the novel, my intent was to keep the characters relatively close to my real-life friends.  I wasn’t aiming to incorporate much “separation” at all.  Sure, I’d change details and respect their privacy.  Of course.  But as for their personalities, quirks, inside jokes, nicknames, and even physical tendencies, I was drawing form the real thing.

But then, as I continued to move forward with the story, a funny thing happened.  I began seeing the protagonists solely as who they were, and wasn’t even thinking of the real-life Matts or Rick or Joe.  Ryan Swinton was only Ryan Swinton.  Marc Kuslanski was only Marc Kuslanski.  At a certain point during the writing process, it was as if the characters weren’t inspired by anyone.  They had matured, grown, morphed, and become exclusively who they were.  Obviously, even with this development, the characters retained elements of their real-life inspirations.  How could they not?  That’s how they were “born.”  But they had fully and completely become their own entities.  As I wrote their scenes, I no longer even glimpsed the actual people they were based on.  I saw only the protagonists themselves.

 

It was a revelatory experience, one I honestly did not expect.  At the outset, I was “seeing” them so much as offshoots of the people I knew; I assumed it would remain that way throughout the process.  But as so often happens with creative endeavors, the process, the experience, the flow, the wonder takes on a life of its own and leads you where it will.  The writing is in charge.  Not the author.

So, if you are in a similar circumstance–about to begin a novel or a fictionalized work of some sort and are basing your characters on people you know (or knew), and you’re wondering how “close” to cut it . . . you probably have nothing to worry about.

Because as you begin, as you wade through the literary waters, as the bones of the story fill out with muscle and sinew and soul and emotion . . . the characters will become who they decide to become, and the initial inspirations will fade into the background.

So write.  Let your characters lead on.  It promises to be a journey as exciting as it is unpredictable.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

From the Micro to the Macro (Or, a Red Squirrel Tells a Story)

Imagine this situation.  A writer (let’s call her Jane) has a story idea–something that resonates, will not recede into the background, and something that, as if having a life of its own, continues to progress and grow and mature.  Jane is fired up, enthusiastic, and prepared to put in the long hours to craft a novel.

But she hesitates.  Despite wanting–needing–to write it, she pauses and thinks about it.  Her mind is all too ready to issue doubts and protestations, reasons to chuck the project and go back to reading others’ work instead of creating her own.

 

“Your idea’s too small,” her inner critic says.  “It’s so common, so run of the mill.  It’s just day-to-day family stuff, domestic life.  Who cares?”

Jane shoots back that she cares, and, as the author of the piece, doesn’t that count?  Doesn’t that matter?

But her inner critic is unrelenting.  “You have to come up with something bigger.  Bolder.  More exciting and universal.  Don’t waste your time on what you have now.”

Angered by the thoughts swirling in her own head, Jane feels an urge to punch . . . what?  Her own thoughts?  Her own doubts and fears?  But how can she do that?  And besides, maybe her inner doubts are right.  There is little violence in her story.  No international politics or major business deals.  No espionage.  The movers and shakers of the world do not appear.  It’s insular, isolated, just a mother, a daughter, a beloved cat.  A few friends.  Small-town settings, and small-town goings-on.  She’s writing about her memories.  Her loves and passions.  But they are small.  Who will care?  Who will be engaged with any of it?

 

She sleeps on it, tossing and turning through the night.

Early the next morning, Jane takes a walk through the woods that surround her home.  It is fall, there is a bite to the air, but it is invigorating, wakening, a tonic to her senses.  Fallen leaves crunch under feet.  Squirrels chatter nearby, scolding her for the intrusion.  Chipmunks dart to and fro, preparing for the winter ahead.  Songbirds twitter, mostly unseen, from the trees.  A particularly brazen red squirrel darts in front of her, on some mission that, evidently, cannot wait.

 

And that’s when she realizes.

To that rushing squirrel, at that moment, in this remote, out-of-the-way corner of the globe–no human voices to be heard, no car engines roaring in the distance, no city noises or excitement for miles around–this is the universe, the be-all and end-all.  It is everything.  Perhaps no one but Jane will ever know of this squirrel.  Perhaps her eyes are the only human eyes who will ever see it.  But that doesn’t matter.  This squirrel’s mission, this squirrel’s task, is the most important thing in the world, here and now, in this place.

 

And, she realizes, isn’t that the same for us?  For the lonely widow with no one to talk to you?  For the homeless person, down on his luck, trying to figure out a better way?  For the high-end executive, alone, at night, stressing over the details of the latest progress report?  For the little boy or girl, with two days before summer vacation, looking forward to two months without homework?  For the neighbor down the street who everyone disregards as “boring” and “dull” and doesn’t really talk to?

We all have stories.  Our lives are comprised of moments, thoughts, hopes, dreams, triumphs, sadness, and countless “mundane” things that make up the bulk of day-to-day living.  To us, as individuals, our “little problems” are the universe.  They are our stories.  And they are worth sharing.

 

Because what you are feeling today, countless others are, too.  What I am struggling with in my day-to-day, many others are, too.  Are there differences?  Of course.  We are each our own person, with our own unique set of experiences and thoughts and feelings.  But there is a thread, invisible perhaps, but as real as the air we breathe, that links us.  We are both unique and universal, individuals and a part of the whole.

There is no such thing as a story “too small,” a subject too “mundane.”  If someone is living it, feeling it, if someone is moved by it, then it can reach others, too.  It can serve as both a window and a mirror, a reminder that we are all different, but all inextricably connected.

 

So, if you have an idea about a “small” thing, a particular “mundane” situation, write it.  Share it.  Give it to the world.

We will all be better for it.  And, if we are looking, really looking, we will see the macro in the micro, and recognize ourselves in the story.  And maybe, even learn something new about ourselves (and those we know) along the way.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

The Swing Set in the Backyard (Or . . . So, You Want to Write a Novel?)

When I was eight years old, my parents bought a swing set for the backyard.  It was red and yellow, with two swings.  My father installed it at the extreme northern end of the yard, a few feet to the left of the brick fireplace he had built upon moving into the house, years before I was born.  I cannot say I remember whether or not I had asked for a swing set or if my parents decided it would be a good idea to get one.  Either way, that summer–the summer I was eight–I spent a lot of time on those swings.

 

Well, I mainly used the swing closer to the fireplace.  If anyone wanted to join me, they needed to use the other swing.  Sometimes, I’d swing for hours.  I used to love swinging on July evenings, the air warm, the yard fragrant with flowers and freshly cut grass, the scent of a late barbecue from next door wafting on the breeze.  I’d plop down on the swing, push my way into a swinging motion, and kick . . . and kick . . . and kick.  Higher.  Always trying to get as high as possible, so I could see.

 

Indeed.  Especially at twilight, when I reached the apex of my swinging journey, I would peer to the north, beyond the backyard, beyond the neighbor’s yard . . . above the rooftops.  And I would glimpse . . .

But then I bottomed out again, beginning another rotation.  When I returned to the top of the arc, though, there it was . . . a netherworld.  A distant, ghostlike village just beyond the horizon.  As dusk descended, the village would, counterintuitively, glow brighter, shining in contrast to the darkening landscape.  If I looked closely enough, I could see spectral shapes moving to and fro.  Every few seconds, as I reached the apex of my swinging arc, I would see them again, a moment or two removed from my last glimpse.  Glimpse after glimpse, for an hour or more each night . . . before it became full-on dark and my mother called me inside.  Snapshots into another world, another dimension.

 

Back then, immersed in the wonder of being eight years old, I believed–fully–that what I was seeing out in the twilit distance was real–an alternate dimension of sorts, with wraiths living their lives and doing whatever it was they did.  I’d think of them during the day, too, or when I was inside, or at night while I slept.  What were they doing when I couldn’t see them?  I began to write down ideas.  Stories.  A love of the creative process was born.

 

That’s probably how it starts for many writers and artists–early on, at some point during childhood, you realize that your mind tends to drift.  That, even more than most kids, you question and conjure and wonder, and ask, “What if?”  You get lost in story and have conversations with yourself when no one’s around . . . or sometimes even when they are.  And as you get a little older and master the language more, the nuances, the flow, the texture and taste of the words . . . you write.  Short stories.  Essays.  Plays. Novels.

 

Novels.  I would have to say the number one question I get from non-writers who are aware that I have written novels is: “Where did you get the idea?”  And that is often followed by: “I could never write a novel.  Way too long!”

Long it is.  And that’s the challenge.  That’s the price that must be paid if you want to turn your aha-light bulb idea into three hundred pages of story and forward motion.  Ideas are a dime a dozen (even good ones).  Be it fiction or nonfiction, writing a book is work.  A lot of work.

 

Do you outline?  If research is needed, how much do you do?  After writing seven chapters–riding the roller coaster of inspiration–what happens when you come to chapter eight and, suddenly, the shine wears off, the plot becomes murky, and you’re not sure which direction to take?  And–if you’re like 99.9 percent of writers in the world, you also have a day job.  You have bills to pay, responsibilities to attend to, tasks to complete, people to care for.  How on earth do you carve out the time to write a novel?  And even if you do, will you have any energy left over after all the responsibilities of the day are done?  Writing takes energy and creativity.  These may be in short supply after a full day.

 

Or maybe you set your alarm for 4:00 a.m. and try to get some writing in before anyone else is up.  But are you?  Or will you feel like a zombie author, staring half-asleep at your screen, unable to process thoughts?  Make no mistake about it–writing a book is difficult.  In many ways, the writing itself is the easiest part.  It’s everything else that can trip us up, even when we enter the project with the best of intentions.

 

And that’s the trick, really.  Does writing a novel take talent?  I suppose.  Some writers have an abundance of talent; others may not have quite as much, but they have enough–they can do it.  If they didn’t have the ability to write a book, they wouldn’t have arrived at this point–planning out a story line, falling in love with an idea so much, they are willing to spend the next year or more bringing it alive on the page.  Anyone who reaches this point in the journey has the ability to write a book.  It is hard–it requires creating something out of nothing and then spending countless hours editing and honing and slicing away at the result–polishing it, killing your darlings, and revising, revising, revising.

 

Which brings us to the key.  The secret ingredient, if you will, of not only starting, but finishing a novel.  Well, perhaps there are two ingredients.  The first is commitment.  Given all of the challenges already touched on here, it can feel impossible–literally–to find the time and energy to complete a novel.  How do you overcome the challenge?  You have to be committed to your work, your idea, and have the perseverance to see it through.  There is no other way.

 

The other ingredient?  Confidence.  Self-belief.  Have you shared your idea with others?  Quite likely, you have received some very encouraging and positive feedback.  “Great idea!  I’ll buy it when it’s available!  Wow!  I wish I’d have thought of that!  Sounds like a best seller!”  But, just as likely, you will have received some lukewarm or even negative feedback, too. “Really?  Sounds contrived to me.  I don’t think your idea is believable.  Who cares?  The market is full of stories like that.  Your novel will get lost in a sea of similar stories.”  Or–“There’s no market for that, though.  No one will buy it.”  The list of would-be criticisms can stretch on, as long as the Sahara Desert.  It is easy to become discouraged, assess the monumental task ahead, and then shrug your shoulders and say, “Maybe they’re right.  Who am I kidding?  Who would want to hear what I have to say?”

 

This is where belief must come in.  There is no one–no one–in the world with your unique perspective.  It is likely true that your story idea is not entirely original (in reality, at this point, there may not be a truly original idea in existence; everything, in one way or another, has already been done).  But it has not been done, and not been told, in your point of view.  Only you can bring your life experiences, your voice, your essence, to the subject.  In short, only you can tell the story you have inside you, the story you feel a need to share with the world.

 

And that matters.  That’s what it’s all about.  Something–some force, some pure and true element of your soul–has instilled in you a need to write a story.  If you don’t write it, it will nag you, always.  So, press on.  Don’t listen to the naysayers (including the ones inside your own head).  Find a way to complete the project, even if it takes years.

Because, when it comes right down to it, we all have that eight-year-old inside of us, full of inspiration and imagination and wonder–with a story to tell.

So tell it.  Share it.  The world will be a better place when you do.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

The Soft Side of Winter (Or, Sherlock Holmes and a Cup of Tea)

It’s no secret that Vermont can be a harsh place to live during the winter months, and this winter is no exception.  While we have not seen massive amounts of snow to date here in the hills of east-central Vermont (“only” 25 inches so far), the temperatures have been bone-chilling.  Of course, it’s always cold here in the Green Mountain State in January.  Thaw?  What thaw?  The earth is buried under a blanket of snow for months.  But for the past three weeks, multiple days have topped out in the single digits, and a good chunk of nights have dipped well below zero degrees.  And when the wind whips, on top of all that?  It is best to be remain indoors.

 

Given all of this, it is natural to wonder what can possibly be meant by a “soft side.”  A soft side to ten below zero?  But, in fact, there is one.

With such inhospitable conditions outside, and with evening still descending early (though it is slowly starting to get lighter)–this is a season for reflection.  For stillness.  For unwinding. The frenetic warmer months are looked forward to, of course.  Who wants it to be ten below zero for long?  But during this dark, cold season, there is the opportunity for long nights in front of a fire, hot chocolate on the desk beside me, getting lost in story and wonder.

 

And on these cold, cold nights, after finishing the day’s work, the call of an old movie beckons.  Or an old television show.  Or a good book.  Below-zero nights are made for The Honeymooners or It’s a Wonderful Life, or The Wizard of Oz.

 

Or maybe an old Hitchcock thriller, something slow and unrushed, like Rear Window.  Or perhaps Forrest Gump or a long, epic-length documentary.  It doesn’t so much matter what–just that it happens, that there is a chance to escape the blistering pace of the workaday world, at least for a while.  Sherlock Holmes and a cup of tea, enjoying the warmth inside, the quiet of a winter night enveloping the house like a soft, thick glove.

 

And maybe that’s the reminder we all need as we begin another year, a year with challenges and struggles and deadlines and political upheaval and setbacks and frustrations and joys and triumphs.  There is always so much to do.

But sometimes, even in the midst of it all, we just need to be.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

“Who’s That Tree?” (A Childhood Holiday Tradition)

Without question, Christmas was the most looked-forward-to day of the year for my family when I was growing up in Rochester, New York, in the 1980s.  I look back at those days now with a sense of nostalgia that would have mystified my child-self.  Back then, the 1980s were the alpha and the omega, the here and the when, the be-all and the end-all.  Little did I realize in that last decade before email and the internet that at some future point, decades hence, popular culture would “look back” at the decade in which I spent my childhood and use it as the backdrop for television shows and movies.  I wouldn’t have thought such a thing possible.  When you’re ten or twelve, you are eternally young, and the world where you grow up is young with you.  It feels like a forever state, a permanent condition of things.  But of course it is not.

 

It is fleeting.

I blinked and the 1990s came and went.  Then the 2000s.  Then the 2010s.  And here we are now, on the precipice of 2022.  So many years.  So many changes.  Yet the memories remain.  The traditions and stories and experiences of childhood linger, like woodsmoke on a winter wind.  Enduring.  Tangy.  And real.

 

And while there were many traditions my family shared when I was a kid, the most festive ones revolved around Christmas.

It started with my mother.  She had the most exuberant Christmas spirit in the neighborhood.  One of (many) holiday traditions she started was shopping for the family Christmas tree the first Sunday every December.  It was the same every year.  She’d round us up early that Sunday morning, and we’d drive the family station wagon the mile and a half through the neighborhood to Wambach Farms, an old country store/farmstand that, during the Christmas season, had an enormous variety of Christmas trees for sale out on the back lot. We’d park the car and head right back to the lot, wasting no time to examine the trees.

 

It was serious business.  We weren’t going to settle for just any tree.  It had to be the perfect one.  Not too tall, not too fat, not too thin.  Just right.  The process generally took twenty minutes to a half hour.  We’d fan out–me, my two brothers, my sister, my parents–and scan the merchandise.  Without fail, within a couple of minutes, someone would yell, “Hey!  Everyone!  Mom!  I found it!  This is our tree!”  And we’d all go over to whoever exclaimed it, and, also without fail, the consensus would be to keep looking.  “Nah, it’s too tall and skinny,” someone would say. “Who’s that tree?”  “It looks like Bigelow (a colleague of my father’s at work).  Or, “No way.  That tree is too short and squat, like Reggie!” (a neighborhood dog).  The hunt for the perfect tree went on.

 

Since we shopped for our tree when the store opened, early Sunday morning, there were usually very few other shoppers around.  It was quiet, still, the frosty December air surrounding us like an icy embrace, breath smoking in front of us.  And the excitement was palpable.  It was an honor to be the one to discover the perfect tree.

 

And eventually, of course, someone did.  It was one of those things, hard to define, difficult to establish a template or a set of exact parameters.  Our trees from year to year did have some similar characteristics, but they were also different, unique, individualized.  You just knew it when you saw it.

 

When we did, we’d check out–old Mr. Wambach making small talk with my parents at the register–and then we’d drive the tree home, my father tying it down in the trunk of the car.  It would take hours to decorate.  We’d spend the rest of Sunday morning on it.  And when it was done, the Christmas season in our house would officially begin.

 

Every year in the 1980s, we repeated this Christmas ritual.  And yes, at the time, it felt eternal.  Every year would be the same.  It would never change.  Ever.  The mind of a child, a kid growing up, lucky to be secure in his family and surroundings, living in the moment of his youth.

The thing is, those days are eternal.  They endure.  In my mind, and in my heart.  They will never grow old.

 

I hope you have memories like that, too, during this holiday season or during another one.  I hope you continue to make such memories.

A blessed and merry holiday season to all.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

 

Appreciation in This Season of Thanksgiving

Late fall is a frigid time of the year in the hills of east-central Vermont, where I live.  Daytime highs rarely reach forty degrees Fahrenheit, and nighttime lows almost always are well below freezing.  The other day, the first measurable snow of the season blew in–three inches.  A long winter looms ahead.

 

But this is a good time of year to reflect.  Another year nears its inevitable and inexorable end.  The days are short; the nights long.  Often, there is a stillness in the air.  Outside, on the meadow, early in the morning, before the birds awaken, there are few sounds.  It is still and silent, my breath visible on the sharp, subfreezing air.  A time to reflect, indeed.  And to think of things for which I am thankful.

 

There are many–too many to list, both past and present.  And one of them is the success of my “freelance” business.  For nearly two years now, I have been working, well, for myself, copy editing books.  The workload is intense–this year alone, I will have worked on close to two hundred titles when the dust settles at the end of December.  Very thankful, indeed.  But the hectic schedule (which, even now, I am still adjusting to and learning how to include my own writing projects into the mix) makes it more difficult to blog than ever before.  As readers of this space surely are aware, the frequency of posts on this site has gradually decreased over the years–settling in to its current rhythm of one post per month.

 

But for those of you who still stop in, pull up a virtual chair, sip a virtual tea, and read these, well, virtual scribblings, I am enormously thankful.  In fact, you are the reason why I still blog at all.  You are what makes this so rewarding and enduring.

 

The Eye-Dancers website turns ten years old in 2022.  When I began this blog in the summer of 2012, I genuinely wondered if I could cobble together ten weeks’ worth of posts, never mind ten years.  It has been a wonderful journey.

And, as long as you want to keep visiting from time to time, and perusing these words and posts, it’s a journey that will continue.

 

Thank you for sticking around!  And thank you for reading.

–Mike

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

Carpe Diem (Or, Pursue an Idea When It Hits)

There is a scene, early in the 1989 drama Dead Poets Society, where the new English teacher at the Welton Academy prep school, John Keating, has one of his students read aloud from a 17th-century Robert Herrick poem.  The stanza reads:

Gather ye Rose-buds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying:
And this same flower that smiles to day,
To morrow will be dying.

Keating and his class are standing in a hallway, beside the school’s trophy case.  Old team photographs of long-ago academy sports teams are hung inside the case, the students from a different time staring out at the onlookers, their expressions locked in place across the chasm of decades.

 

Keating asks his class what the verse means.  What was Herrick getting at?  “Carpe diem,” he tells them.  “Seize the day.”  But why?  Why “seize the day”?

“Because we are food for worms, lads,” Keating goes on.  “Because, believe it or not, each and every one of us in this room, will, one day, stop breathing.  We’ll die.”

Here, Keating asks the students to step forward to look at the photographs of the old sports teams.

“They’re not that different from you, are they?” Keating says to his class.  “Same haircuts. . . . Invincible, just like you feel.  The world is their oyster.  They believe they are destined for great things, just like many of you do. . . . But you see . . . these boys are now fertilizing daffodils.”

 

Keating then has them lean in close, tells them to listen, listen to the voices, the murmurs of the ghosts before them.  Do they hear it?  Keating whispers in a voice meant to sound like the grave:  “Carpe . . . diem.  Seize the day, boys.  Make your lives extraordinary.”

This scene is memorable for many reasons, not the least of which is the remarkable performance of Robin Williams, who plays Keating.  But what of the message?  What of carpe diem?  Is it wise counsel?

As with anything, if misunderstood or taken to the extreme, it can harm more than help.  After all, I may want to “seize the day” by climbing Mount Everest, even though I have no training and no preparation.  Or I may want to drop everything and experience life to the full by walking across America, leaving all my responsibilities and cares behind me.  That might feel good in the moment, but doubtful it would lead anywhere beneficial.

 

What, then, is carpe diem, and how should we apply it?  How about with writing or creativity?  Is there a literary version of carpe diem?  And if so, what does it look like?

I don’t know about you, but when it comes to anything creative–a story idea, a scene from a novel, an inspiration–I cannot force things.  If I say, “I want to write a short story today,” but have no workable idea to write about, try as I may, I won’t produce anything of value.

On the other hand, my best ideas always come unasked for, unplanned.  I can be doing anything–mowing the lawn, taking a walk, lying in bed–and boom!  It hits.  Where does it come from?  We may never know.  But it comes.  And it comes in its time and its choosing.  What to do then?

 

Carpe diem, of course!  It’s not every day an inspired idea strikes.  Whether it’s a novel idea, a short story, a poem, a song . . . it doesn’t matter.  When that idea strikes, in the white-hot fire of the creative epiphany, that is the time to act.

 

If it’s a poem, write it.  Right then and there, if possible.  Same with a song.  If it’s a short story, maybe jot a few notes if you can’t write it immediately.  Capture the details lest you forget them, and then, at the first opportunity, write the story.  If it’s a novel, again, jot down plot points, character traits, perhaps even make an outline.  However you work, whatever preparations you need to do before undertaking a long-form creative endeavor . . . do what you must.  And then begin writing the actual novel as soon as you can.

Because . . . why wait?  Why wait and allow apathy or indifference to seep into the picture?  Carpe diem.  Seize the literary day!  Take advantage of that gift–that new idea–while it’s fresh and you are fired up.

Write.  Create.  Make your words sing.

And make your (literary) life extraordinary.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

An Easy Memory in Stressful Times (Or, a Long-Ago Conversation about Nothing . . . and Everything)

It’s no secret that the main characters of The Eye-Dancers are based on some of my neighborhood friends growing up in the 1980s in a suburb of Rochester, New York.  From the novel, Mitchell, Joe, Ryan, and Marc are inspired by flesh-and-blood comrades from my youth.  The real-life versions were Matt B, Joe, Rick, and Matt K.  (Yes, two Matts, and three if you include the person who inspired the supporting character of Grronk.)  Back then, more than anything, we were summer friends–out-of-school-on-vacation friends who would hang out in those days before the internet and smartphones and enjoy all manner of adventures . . . and conversations.

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And I have to say, in the turbulent and tempest-tossed years of the 2020s, as we toil through a pandemic, remembering those long-ago days of childhood is an elixir for the soul.  Writing The Eye-Dancers was a labor of love, drawing on the old memories . . . but the memories persist, endure, and still provide comfort and diversion.

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Scene: The house where I grew up, standing on the driveway, bouncing the basketball, summer evening, sometime in the late 1980s.

Yes, bouncing the basketball.  (And taking a few shots at the hoop that was attached just above the gutter over the garage.  In my memory, I never missed.)  Rick was my neighbor, and Joe lived across the street.  More often than not, on summer evenings, if I wanted to “call” them, I’d simply head outside and start shooting baskets.  They’d hear the dribble-dribble-dribble of the ball, and, almost without fail, there would come the slam-click of their screen door snapping shut behind them as they darted outside.  They’d walk over to me, shoot a few baskets themselves.

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Sometimes, one of them would go back in their house to call Matt, or Matt, or Matt (remember, no smartphones).  And sometimes they’d come, and sometimes they wouldn’t.  (All three Matts lived on different streets, but all within a mile of the house I grew up in.)  Either way, we’d spend the evening shooting at the hoop and talking.  About nothing at all.  About life itself.

“You think anything’s up there?” Joe might say, pointing at the heavens as late afternoon slowly bled into evening, the sky darkening, random stars appearing, as if by magic, glittering like celestial diamonds.  “I mean, you know, for real?”

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And I’d nod.  “Absolutely.  The odds that there isn’t anyone else out there” (and I’d point to the sky myself) “are astronomically remote.”  Then I’d smile.  “‘Astronomically.’  See what I did there?”  They’d roll their eyes.  “There’s almost no chance we’re alone in the universe.”

Rick nodded again.  “Yeah,” he said.  “Wonder what they’re like?’

Joe shrugged.  “Prob’ly not so different from us.”  In the gloaming, he shot at the basket.  Missed.  Swore.  “I mean, people are people, right?  Everywhere.”

“Who says they’re people, though?” I’d counter, and shoot at the hoop myself.  Nothing but net.  “Maybe they’re scorpions or one-celled organisms, or giants with twenty-seven heads and brains the size of peas.”

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“Brains the size of peas,” Rick said.  “Like my brother.”  His brother was Bill, “Tyler” in The Eye-Dancers, four years Rick’s junior.  Bill would sometimes emerge from their house, too.  But not tonight.

“Is Matt coming?” I asked.

“Which one?” Joe said.

“Any of them.”

“Maybe Grronk,” Joe said.  “But you know Grronk.  Maybe, maybe not.”

Rick shot at the hoop.  Missed.  Swore.  “You guys hungry?”

“I’m always hungry,” Joe said, taking another shot.  He missed.  Swore.

“What?  You want to order a pizza?” I said.  They shrugged.  Maybe later.

 

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“Damn.  Can’t believe school starts in three weeks already,” Joe said.

I took a shot.  Swish.

“We gotta have fun till then,” Rick said.  “Why is it that summer seems to go by in a week, and the school year seems to take ten years?”

“Yeah,” Joe said.  “That’s true.  I wonder what I’m gonna do.”

“What do you mean?”

He shrugged.  “I don’t know.  When I grow up.  I don’t think about it much.  But sometimes . . . it’s like . . . what will I do?”

Rick and I shrugged back.  Why talk about adulthood and earning a living now?  It was summer.  We were young.  Now wasn’t the time.  Or . . . maybe it was.  Nothing lasts forever.

“I don’t know what I’ll be,” Rick said.  “Just so long as I make money, I guess.”

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We agreed with that.  But even back then, I knew I wanted to write.  To have an audience.  To reach people.  Inspire them, even.  So I said it.

Neither Joe nor Rick replied, but they seemed to understand.  The silence was comfortable, warm, like a snug glove you put on your hand in winter.

Joe took a shot.  Swish!  He cheered.

We moved on to discussing superheroes.  Who was better?  Batman or Superman? (Superman.)  Spider-Man or Wolverine? (Give me Spidey any day of the week.)  We argued, laughed, took a few more shots.  We didn’t order pizza, and Grronk never showed.  We talked about subjects so ridiculous, any outside observer would surely laugh and shake their head.

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But we didn’t stop talking until close to midnight.  And even then, we just hung out for a few more minutes, looking up again, the stars having multiplied.

I remember feeling very young and very strong and very free, with a future as limitless as the night sky above.

And today, especially today, during this challenging year of 2021, those old conversations and feelings and vistas are needed. They represent the musings and beliefs of a child–long ago.  From a different time, a different century.

I’ll always remember them.  And hopefully have the wisdom to keep them alive.

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Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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