The Send-Off

Their hold on me had long since loosened. It had seemed so strong only because I’d never tested it. Turns out they were counting on me not looking too closely, not asking too many questions – not testing that doorknob to see if they still locked it.

Overhead, stars glinted like knife-points. The cold night air woke up my lungs and electrified my steps. I took all their dancing lessons and used them to sprint, light and silent, towards freedom.

I knew the guards’ routines and their names. I’d committed them to memory, along with the names of the kitchen staff and the people who cleaned the house and tended the immaculate yard, because theirs were the names my keepers wanted me to cast aside. So I knew it was Matthew who’d be getting the worst of it when I tore out of here in my older brother’s Bentley – but I also knew he’d laugh about it and tell all his friends at the bar tomorrow night. I’d certainly be giving them plenty to talk about.

The keys were in Harold’s office attached to the garage; the PIN for the chauffeur’s storage box was the same as Dad’s safe and his computer. I hadn’t actually taken anything from either: I’d just hidden some documents in some inconvenient places – after photographing them with my phone – and forwarded some incriminating emails.

And changed his PIN.

Even the car I was taking wouldn’t be taken for long. I’d leave it at the bus station and they could rescue it there. My brother would be relieved to get it back, especially if I didn’t come back with it.

Harold always looked so tidy that I wasn’t expecting his box of keys to be such a mess. Spare keys cluttered against electronic fobs and something that looked like it would start a tractor. I lost precious seconds rummaging. It had to be the Bentley; one, because it was my brother’s; two, because everyone knew it was my brother’s; three, because while my father had several tempting cars and he’d been the one to buy off the judge, my plans for him went beyond his cars.

Matthew would be circling back soon. Finally, the keys materialized. I took out my phone and sent five tweets, three emails, and one text confirming my friend would pick me up from the bus station. Then I took out the SIM card and dropped it in the nearest toolbox; the phone itself I placed under one of the Bentley’s tires.

I felt the crunch as the Bentley shot out of the garage. Matthew was standing at the edge of the driveway, right on schedule. His glowing phone screen lit up his stunned expression.

I waved. “Check Twitter.”

He showed me his screen. “Why now?”

“Tell them I’m sorry it wasn’t sooner.”

“Better late than never, huh?” He didn’t quite smile; I still had work to do to earn that.

“I hope so.”

He waved me out into the night.

In the Dripping Cold

She knew he was terrified of small spaces. There was an elevator in their building, but Steve always took the stairs, even though they lived on the fourth floor. Something had happened in his childhood, something involving a prank in a basement; he’d never told her the details and Emily had never asked. She’d seen what crowded elevators and dark closets and even congested streets did to him, and she assumed even asking about it would trigger those fears – which is why, when Steve left the trail to run into a moss-shrouded cave, Emily stayed frozen in shock on the trail.

“Steve?” she finally managed, her voice squeaking out high and stunned. Rowdy pulled at the end of his leash, his spiraled tail whipping back and forth, thrilled at the prospect of an offroad adventure.

“Steve!” she called, louder, hearing in her voice a quaver of fear and feeling that fear seize her chest. She tied Rowdy’s leash to the nearest tree and follow Steve off the trail. Rowdy sat down to watch, perplexed at being left behind but not worried about his humans in the least.

Inside, the cave’s walls were slick with water and damp moss. Daylight disappeared with frightening speed, leaving her in the close-pressing damp and the sudden awareness of the weight of unfathomable earth and rock overhead. Emily activated her phone’s flashlight and found herself in a narrow tunnel, penned in by dripping rock. Outside had been misty and chilly; inside the cave was a cold that scraped the bones. She crept forward, listening, trying to pick out the sound of Steve counting himself back to calmness.

The tunnel split into three, each one looming black and craggy into the trembling light from her phone. Something moved in the left-hand tunnel and she jumped: it was Steve, his gray jacket flashing like lightning as he darted down another passageway.

“Steve!” she shouted after him. It didn’t echo the way she thought it would. The word slammed into the dripping cold and stopped. Emily gave chase, hearing only her ragged breath and slap of her boots on stone. She looked back, trying to keep track of her path, and glimpsed Steve’s jacket flashing across the tunnel behind her.

She turned back. “Steve, wait!” Now she was close enough to hear him. He was counting to himself, muttering a stream of numbers that didn’t flow right. Suddenly he was off to her left again, counting into the 20s. When she turned to catch up to him, he was gone, passing behind her going the opposite direction, nine-ten-eleven.

At the next intersection, they collided. Steve kept muttering thirtyfive-thirtysix-thirtyseven even as Emily brushed the bangs from his damp face and said his name just as insistently as he was counting.

“Emily?” he whispered, his eyes finally meeting hers.

“Why did you come in here?” she cried. It wasn’t the right question, but it was the most urgent one.

“It called me,” he said, his voice hoarse. “It told me that if I just kept going, I’d get out again.”

I was calling.” Emily’s voice broke on a sob. “I was trying to get you to come back.”

“Are we lost?”

“Maybe.”

“I didn’t hear you,” he whispered. “It didn’t let me hear you.”

Hand in hand they made their way back to the tunnels. The damp rock walls were indistinguishable. Emily had no idea how far she’d run, and she was beginning to feel what she suspected Steve felt: compressed, contained, trapped. She swallowed her panic. If she fell apart, neither of them would make it out.

A sound floated back to them, almost unrecognizable in how the echoes had distorted it: Rowdy was barking.

“Tell me you hear that.”

Steve managed a smile. “I hear it.”

The echoes led them through narrow tunnels that Emily didn’t remember taking. How long had she actually been in here? Unbidden, the thought of all those tons of earth overhead came to mind and she forced it away by squeezing Steve’s hand more tightly.

After the next turn, there was enough light for Emily to turn off her flashlight. They emerged into the ferns and there was Rowdy, sitting patiently on the mist-shrouded trail, panting happily.

They untied him and left. Without discussion, they followed the trail back the way they’d come, abandoning the summit. They never looked back at the cave. If Steve later thought Emily sounded distant, and if Emily felt an enduring, unalterable cold, neither of them said so.

Evolving Language: What to Keep and What to Leave Behind

Cross-posted to Nebula Creative Services, my freelance writing & editing home. Come follow me there, too!

A language shifts and evolves like a landscape shaped by wind and water. Sometimes the changes strike quickly, like a new term or style change ruling that hits both writing professionals and general language users like a landslide, instantaneously transforming the landscape. Sometimes they take longer to acclimate, like the gradual eradication of ethnic slurs that vanish from the landscape like a shifting riverbed.

Yet some rules and usages stick around, apparently as immutable as mountains, but if anything is true about languages it’s that nothing about them is permanent. Below are a grammar rule I hope stays standing, a crumbled mountain of an old rule I don’t miss, and a new forest I’d like to see grow.

Let It Stay: the Oxford comma. My writing friends have many and sundry strong opinions, but the Oxford comma, whether for or against, is the hill they’ll die on. I am strongly for, if for no other reason than to avoid being these writers and editors who caused some hilarious confusion by not deploying that little extra comma.

Let It Fall: double spacing after a period. This is a holdover from the days of typewriters, when every letter took up the same amount of space and made it hard to tell where sentences began and ended. I was still instructed to use the double space even though I learned to type on a computer keyboard (shoutout to Mavis Beacon!), and modern, proportional fonts help our eyes pick out sentence breaks more easily. Adding the extra space was a hard habit for me to break, but I did, mostly because publications nowadays specifically ask writers to only use one space after a period. As of April 2020, even Microsoft Word now flags double spaces after periods as a grammatical error…but given Word’s, uh, less than reliable grammar-checking, maybe that’s not a great argument.

Let It Grow: the singular “they.” It’s about time the English language got a gender-neutral singular pronoun, for so many reasons, and as of 2019, it’s safe to safe to say we have one. Major style guides ranging from the MLA to the APA to the Associated Press have all given their blessing to the singular “they” to some extent. With “they” still acting as a plural pronoun, there’s bound to be confusion as the singular usage gains popularity, but like so many changes across the history of English, normalizing it (and the people who use it) can only serve to make our language more accessible, more accommodating, and easier to use.

The Bridal Shower

Alyssa wants to be excited for her bridal shower, but every time the doorbell rings, her heart hammers in panic. Andi is hosting; she opens the door to welcome another guest and exchanges a look of relief with Alyssa.

“Maybe she’s just not coming,” Andi says in an undertone while their mom welcomes their aunt.

“Oh, Nancy will be here.” Alyssa has to stop herself yet again from fidgeting with her engagement ring, spinning it around and around her finger. She’s dropped it twice already. “She texted me to get approval for her dress choice.”

“A dress for a bridal shower?”

“Yep.”

“But she won’t back off on you wearing her wedding dress.”

“Nope.” Alyssa feels sweat break out in her armpits. Thank goodness it’s warm; she can blame it on the weather. But the pile of gifts is growing, and she knows that once her future mother-in-law arrives, a massive box concealing an unwanted gift will be added to the pile. Alyssa will have to open it and act surprised and delighted when she sees what she dreads Nancy is giving her: her own wedding dress, circa 1976.

Nancy had an ostentatious wedding with a dress that’s all puffy sleeves and ballgown skirt, complete with a lace-trimmed veil and train to rival Princess Diana’s. The wedding pictures Alyssa has seen in her fiancé’s house left her with an impression of a smiling face atop a pyramid of lace.

The only part of the ensemble Alyssa can see herself wearing is the tiara: a simple, art-deco inspired curve of crystal-studded rays like a sunburst. Alyssa is planning on a fairly modern wedding, but she loves the idea of a long veil obscuring her face. Something about the mystery and drama appeals to her; she and Andrew met in theater class, after all.

The kind of drama she did not want with her wedding was a mother-in-law with no daughters who took it for granted that her son’s bride would wear her dress. Andrew’s attempts to discourage her have so far been interpreted as rebuttals made by someone who intends to accept an offer but first refuses a few times for politeness’ sake.

Alyssa’s stomach turns. She knows she should have discussed this with Nancy well before the party, but Andrew insisted on handling it, and Alyssa was more than happy to let him take on this particular wedding-planning hiccup. Now she’s going to have to deal with it herself after all.

How is it possible to be this sweaty?

Alyssa’s aunt appears in the kitchen, leading Nancy. Alyssa feels her smile becomes fixed, frozen with dread. Nancy holds up a huge, flat box and beams.

Nancy’s arrival is only the beginning of Alyssa’s discomfort. They don’t open gifts right away; first there’s food, drinks (for Alyssa, champagne tinted just opaque enough to pass for a mimosa), and games. There are enough guests that Alyssa can avoid Nancy. Every time Nancy’s laugh rings out over the others, though, she remembers what’s coming and feels her pulse race.

At last, they seat themselves for gifts. Andi, probably wanting the tension broken just as much as Alyssa, brings Nancy’s gift to her first.

“I think you’ll like this,” Nancy says, grinning secretively, “but then, I’m biased.”

Andi and Mom shoot Alyssa warning looks. Alyssa perks up her smile. Whatever’s in the box, it was generous of Nancy to give her something, and they’ll deal with the dress issue later.

Alyssa pulls off the paper and lifts the lid. The first thing she sees is a mass of tulle, and her heart sinks.

Then she sees the sparkle. It’s Nancy’s tiara, resting atop a cloudlike veil, not a scrap of lace in sight.

“Andrew’s been telling me how excited you are to shop for your dress,” Nancy says, “but he also said how much you loved the tiara I wore, so I thought maybe you’d like to wear it.”

Alyssa gently lifts it free from the box. Its sparkle flashes on the walls and the other women murmur appreciatively. “It’s beautiful,” she says.

“The veil is mine, too, but I took all the lace off. Andrew says you’re not really a lacy girl. I figured you could bead it or sew on some ribbon or something.”

Her tone is casual, but Nancy’s eyes betray her uncertainty. Alyssa feels her heart resume normal operations.

“Thank you,” she says, and it’s a relief to be able to say it honestly. “I’d be honored to wear it.”

Favorite Reads of 2019

It’s New Year’s Eve and our very large dog is on the couch, hiding under a blanket because she’s terrified of the fireworks. About three-quarters of me now fits on said couch with her because she’s a big girl, but she’s scared and I’m happy to spoil her.

I read 34 books this year, better than last year but not as many as I’d like. Per usual, very few of the books I read this year actually came out this year – in fact, my 2019 reading list included first-time reads of “Parable of the Sower” (great!), “The Red Tent” (enjoyable!), and “The Time-Traveler’s Wife” (kind of irritating!). Most of my current reads tend to be comics, and there were some great ones this year. I want to get better about reading new releases, particularly YA science fiction, the genre of my WIP.

Here are my favorite reads from the year:

Favorite Fiction: “The Hazel Wood” by Melissa Albert. This reminded me of “Magicians” but way less squicky, though “Hazel Wood” is dark and unsettling in its own fashion. The tone of the dark fairy tales that give the main story its impetus remind me of Carmen Maria Machado’s “Her Body and Other Problems,” another great read this year.

Favorite Nonfiction: “Inspired” by Rachel Held Evans. I got “A Year of Biblical Womanhood” for Christmas last year and it immediately made me an RHE fan. I started telling all of my friends about her and encouraging them to check out the same affirming and inspiring book – and then less than two months later, Rachel was gone. She left us with “Inspired,” a book I found even more encouraging and affirming than “Womanhood.” If she had to give us a final book, I’m grateful it was this one.

Favorite Comic: Tie between the final volumes of “The Wicked + The Divine” and “Paper Girls.” Both wrapped up their stories in incredibly satisfying ways, with clever, intricate art and emotional writing.

What did you enjoy reading in 2019? What releases are you looking forward to in 2020?

2019 Award Eligibility

It is time to begin nominating works for 2020 science fiction and fantasy awards, and that means compiling your work for consideration. This is my first time doing this kind of thing. Bummer, too, because there were a couple stories in the previous year that I would have much more confidently listed for nomination, as opposed to sort of holding them gingerly out in front of me like offerings to an angry god.

It wasn’t my most productive year in terms of short fiction – I spent a lot of my writing time working on my book, and the rest of my time being reasonably gainfully employed.

Here’s my 2019, though. I am proud of them. I have one more story forthcoming this year from Metaphorosis, which I’ll add when it’s published.

“Blueprint for the End of the World”

Askance Publishing, Winter Short Story Competition runner-up
February 2019 (read here)

We saw how it began. Fifteen of us were from that country that had broken first and pressed the button. There was a little violence, of course, a brief frenzy of retribution quickly interrupted by station security.

We’d passed over my hometown twenty minutes earlier. I wouldn’t have to watch them burn, at least. Out of the shifting cross-stitch of white vapor came the remaining shuttles, straining to reach us before the atmosphere ignited.

What was that? Who launched first? Oh. Does that really matter now?

“Last Words”

Shoreline of Infinity Issue 16
October 2019 (read here)

Her first clumsy paintings portrayed uncomplicated emotions in cheerful ochre, bright cerulean, or undiluted violet. Later, they became more sophisticated: muted reds paired with warm grays to indicate the stress of leadership; her childhood memories captured in candy-bright pinks and blues against wistful navy.

And now she lay under impassive black.

She’d have hated this.

“What Lies in Light”

Metaphorosis December 2019
(buy here; online coming Dec. 13th)

Two stories below us, a pool of shimmering light spreads out across the caldera. It’s the root of a rainbow, liquefied gems, a quantum weaving of light and color that feels as warm and pleasant on my face as sunshine. Even though I’ve never seen it up close, it looks exactly the same as it does in my dreams. I half-expect to hear my brother’s voice next, crying out to me from the depths.

The Many Names of Kitty

(CW: pet death)

Once upon a time, a cat and her kittens were living in a blackberry bush.

The girl who would later be my sister-in-law was the one to find them. Her family found homes for all but two of the kittens, and they kept the mother as well. The cat ended up being called Mom Cat, or just Mom. I guess when the conversation usually goes “Did you feed Mom?” or “We need to clip Mom’s nails,” it’s easy to tell which maternal figure you’re referring to.

Over the four years she lived in their house, Mom Cat got fat and happy. In fact, she got too fat – she was tired of having her two kids underfoot and routinely stole their food. So, when Kevin and I got our own place in Salem in 2009, his mother made us an offer: get Mom Cat out of her house, and she would cover any and all vet bills.

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Well. Far be it from us to turn down a free cat.

My only condition was that we needed to give her a proper name because no way was I addressing a cat as “mom.” We settled on “Majka,” which means “mother” in Serbo-Croatian.

Yeah, that didn’t stick.

The 14-pound cat became known as Kitty and I was forever validating her name, or lack thereof, to vets. “See, it’s because she had kittens when they found her…”

She made routine appearances on my old blog chronicling the odd things she sat or slept on: our clothes, our friends’ clothes, clean laundry, the remote, IKEA parts while we were assembling furniture, letters I was writing to a friend in Spain, and…okay, you know what, just enjoy this assortment of things Kitty deemed lay-on-able:

Thanks to prescription food, she lost her resemblance to a bowling ball and started looking more like a cat. She moved with us from the Salem apartment to a Vancouver apartment to a house to another house. Her favorite place to sleep was on Kevin’s chest while he was trying to read in the evenings. When we got a dog, she immediately established that she was not to be messed with. When we added two kittens to the household, Kitty wanted nothing to do with Robot (the female) but let Rocket (the male) sidle up to her at all hours demanding a bath and a snuggle.

Whenever we had people over, she’d position herself in the exact middle of the couch and sit, eyes closed, as if she’d been sleeping there all day and couldn’t be bothered to relocate. Anyone who tried to sit near her or, heaven forbid, pet her got hissed at. Even her original family, when they visited, were greeted with snarls and pretend sleep.

Once she leapt up into a friend’s lap, and everyone in the room froze, delighted that Kitty was making a friend and afraid to ruin the moment.

Then Kitty realized she was in a stranger’s lap. She hissed at the lap’s owner and fled.

I can’t remember who first described Kitty as “boss,” but they found her ornery nature an indication of Kitty’s ability to set boundaries, advocate for herself, and demand respect. Thus Boss Kitty found new fame in her elder years as a weird sort of feline feminist icon. She’d often be found perched on an armrest or the back of the couch, determinedly ignoring you – unless you were one of the two people who lived in the house, in which case you could give her chin scratches but she’d really prefer it if you sat down so she could sleep in your lap.

When Kevin’s family found and adopted Kitty, Kevin and I weren’t even dating yet. We ended up having her for longer than we’ve been married. She outlived our first dog and endured three moves with us. There’s the saying that cats have nine lives, but in the wake of saying goodbye to our first pet, I feel more like our pets measure our lives rather than the other way around. Kitty was an era unto herself. The years she was ours were marked by dozens of milestones: first apartment, wedding, new friends, new jobs, anniversaries, first publications, first house, second house. She led an eventful life. It was hard to see it come to an end, but she was a fixture of our first ten years together, and we’re honored to have gotten to share our house with Boss Kitty.

From Me To You

“Come on!Mags gritted her teeth and cranked the key with all her strength. Her breath puffed around her in the cold air. The Bel Air’s engine only continued to gutter.

“You know, brute force isn’t what makes it start.” Nadine was leaning against the rear fender, her cigarette’s glow flaring on the collar of her fake fur coat and her perfectly-flicked eyeliner.

“Well, it’s the only thing I know to try.” Mags got out, yanking her miniskirt down to cover as much of her legs as possible, and huddled against Nadine. Her top half was fairly warm under her wool coat, scarf, and beret, but her legs were freezing. “If we don’t freeze to death, Dad’s going to kill me.”

Nadine grinned. “What, for borrowing his car without permission and sneaking off to the Beatles concert through a foot of snow with your secret girlfriend? What’s the big deal?”

And playing hooky to drive through said snow. Don’t forget that part.” Mags sighed and reached one hand out of the warmth of her coat sleeve. “Give me a drag.”

Nadine handed over the cigarette. Mags inhaled deeply and exhaled in an anxious hiss. “Do you have money left? We could take a bus.”

Mags could barely see Nadine’s head shaking, she was so deeply burrowed into her coat. “There’s no way the buses are running in this weather,” came her muffled response. “And that still leaves your dad’s car in DC.”

Mags took another deep puff of Nadine’s cigarette and handed it back. “Well, if we don’t beat feet, I won’t be back in bed by morning and then I’ll really be in trouble. Time to get help.”

She trotted off across the slushy parking lot, wrapping her coat tighter around her shivering body. Nadine followed, humming “I Want To Hold Your Hand.” In defiance of the cold and the arena’s policies, a group of fans was still clustered near the Coliseum’s doors, their laughter echoing off the high brick walls.

Mags hopped up to sit on a nearby concrete half-wall, then swung her legs up. Nadine offered one warm hand to help her stand.

The Mags of a year ago would never have done something like this. Then again, the Mags of a year ago still hadn’t found the courage to kiss Nadine, nor would she have dared weave a web of lies to ensure they got to see the Fab Four live.

What a square that Mags was.

“Hello, everyone!” Mags threw her arms wide. Several members of the crowd looked her way. Mags ignored their giggles; she needed to focus on keeping her balance anyway. “I’ve got a cigarette and a kiss for anyone who can get my car started!”

Nadine’s indignation at having her cigarettes given away was drowned out by the whistling and hollering that ensued.

“I’ll start your engine, sweetie!”

“What brand cigarette?”

“Mags?”

The last came from a girl at the edge of the crowd: Ellie, a fellow senior and the star of the girls’ basketball team. She was sharing a plaid blanket with Nancy, another girl from their class, who was looking up at Mags dubiously.

“I can take a look,” Ellie said, grinning, “My uncle is a mechanic, and my brother and I are always helping him for kicks.”

“Righteous!” Mags hopped down from the wall with a sigh of relief. “I really thought we were going to be stranded here. You’re boss, Ellie.”

“No sweat.”

“Cigarette, as promised?” Nadine presented one with fingers shaking with cold.

“No thanks.” She sent a sidelong smile at Mags. “I don’t need the kiss, either.”

Mags glanced at Nancy, whose expression was unreadable: pride, maybe, or defiance. Mags nodded. Nancy nodded back.

They huddled around Ellie while she worked, taking turns holding the heavy flashlight Mags found in the trunk. Eventually Ellie slammed the hood.

“Did you fix it?” Mags asked excitedly.

“Whatever it is, I can’t figure it out. Sorry.”

Mags and Nadine exchanged terrified glances.

Ellie held up one grease-smudged finger. “But,” she continued, “We can tow you back home. It’ll be slow, dangerous, and probably illegal –”

“We’re in,” Mags and Nadine said together.

“Thanks, Ellie,” Mags said fervently.

“No sweat.”

“Us girls have to stick together,” Nancy added.

So Mags and Nadine huddled in the back seat of the Bel Air, keeping each other’s hands warm while they waited for Ellie, singing their favorite lyrics from that night back and forth to each other.

Photo by adrian on Unsplash