It’s 2013 and I am still on hiatus from writing.  For those of you who are just tuning in, I decided to take a break from writing fiction a year and a half ago to go back to school so I may get a better job to support me and my family, thus enabling me to write again.  So, to all of you who hoped I’d be posting more writing-related stuff on here this year, I’m afraid you must prepare to be disappointed.  I can’t say that I won’t post something here and there, but I don’t see a sudden year-long flurry in my writing-related posts when I don’t have the writing to talk about.

It it helps, you’re not the only ones waiting.

There is a memory device known as the method of loci.  It’s been around since ancient Greek and Roman times, but it still shows up today in pop culture, from Hannibal Rising by Thomas Harris to the BBC incarnation of Sherlock.  Method of loci is sometimes called the “palace of the mind”, as it involves the mental construction of a visual environment in which the thinker may store memories by linking them to a physical, even imagined, location.  This is particularly well-described by Harris as Hannibal Lecter’s mental palace is an elaborate, decorated structure in tune with everything we know about the fictional serial killer.

I’m not so talented as Hannibal Lecter with his sprawling mental palace.  I have a mental diner.  It’s where the characters from my stories hang out when they’re not being called to duty in my fiction.

A young man sits at a table by the window.  A tattoo in the shape of a sword hilt is barely visible on his chest above the open top of his white shirt.  A beautiful dark-haired woman clings to his arm, occasionally casting wary glances at the demon sitting at the bar who stares at her with a immovable grin.

A few stools down from the demon, a man in all-black attire types away at a laptop and pointedly ignores the caped figure in the corner booth, giving an interview to several adoring reporters in the corner booth.

An older man sits near the door.  His leathery face matches his worn cowboy boots and he absently rubs his Colt revolver with one hand and the silver cross tied around his neck with the other.  The shot of tequila in front of him is untouched.

Another older man sits in the back of the diner.  Propped up next to him is a large box wrapped in thick chains.  Occasionally, something inside causes the box to rock violently and the man looks upon it with tear-filled eyes.

A young girl sits at a table by another window.  She sings quietly to herself while a dozen or so bees swirl around her head.

Near the door to the kitchen, a wizard sits staring at a picture of his terminally-ill mother as electricity crackles between his fingers.

An elf sits at the end of the bar.  His head rests on the worn, polished wood and he snores too loudly for someone so small.  A half-finished glass of milk rests in front of him next to police badge.

Finally, Santa Claus sits in the middle of the room.  His hands shake as he pops a couple of Xanax and lights a cigarette.  A highball glass and a bottle of Maker’s Mark sit in front of him and he jerks violently in surprise at the smallest noise.

Other characters come and go, but these are the regulars.  They are they stalwarts—the ideas that are strong enough that they just won’t leave my head, even when I know I won’t be able to work on them for some time.  They sit and dine and drink, sometimes watching the news on the television above the bar.  Occasionally, one will take a restroom break or make a phone call to someone on the outside.

And, like you, they wait.

For those of you who don’t know, I’ve been on hiatus from writing since I decided to go back to school almost a year ago.  Maintaining my 4.0 GPA (yeah, I’m that guy) doesn’t leave much room for composing new fiction.  As such, I haven’t been posting much as this site is mostly dedicated to my pursuit of writing success.  No writing equals no success to report.

However, a few people have commented on my lack of updates (you know who you are), so I am going to take the easy way out and do what I’ve been saying I’m going to do for a while—serialize my first finished novel.  I worked for months on the story, writing nearly every night until it was finished.  The result, while not a very well-written story, was proof to myself that I could finish a novel and confidence to a writer is at least as important as talent.  I never even considered sending it to agents because I knew it wasn’t that good.  It served its purpose, though, in teaching me the kind of commitment necessary to write a full novel.

I called the novel Terra Incognita, although I was never really in love with that title.  I’m putting it out here—warts and all—because I have nothing better to talk about right now.  Updates will come as frequently as I care to post them.  Please enjoy and be kind for the many, many mistakes I left in the story.

Chapter One

Marcus Briggs drove along the expressway at slightly less than sixty miles per hour. Cars and trucks sped around him, doing the speed limit of sixty-five or greater. Some people honked their horns, annoyed they were forced to switch lanes to maintain their high-speed pursuit of a better life.

The radio in Marcus’s old Toyota was on, tuned to public radio, but Marcus did not hear it. The only sound in his ears, hours after hearing it, was Heather’s voice.

“We need to talk,” she had said. “Not now, but when you get home from work.”

That was an hour ago, just long enough for him to make up an excuse about being sick and getting excused from his job at the store. Now, for better or worse, he was nearly home. He was betting on worse.

He knew this talk would not be a pleasant experience, or a quick one. For some time, Heather had been growing more and more distant. Another three weeks would mark their two-year anniversary of cohabitation, and Marcus had hoped to celebrate with a weekend at the Biltmore estate in Asheville, where he had proposed before dozens of tourists in the flower gardens. Now, he simply hoped Heather’s bags were not completely packed when he got home.

As he exited the expressway, he thought of all the things he had done wrong over the previous three years that he and Heather had been together. Nothing major came to mind, no deal breakers. By all accounts, Marcus was a great guy, perhaps a little too career-oriented and not family-oriented enough, but a worthwhile boyfriend nonetheless.

“But . . .,” added Heather’s best friend Tanya, “she thinks you’re boring now.”

Ouch, he had thought when she said it. He felt a bit of helpless indignation at the remark. While his interests certainly did not coincide with those of most people, he hardly considered himself boring. If he was so boring, he wondered, what had attracted Heather to him in the first place? He considered her out of his league when they met in college and his views on this had not changed, although he was not foolish enough to question the good thing he thought they had together.

Marcus pulled off the expressway, hardly paying attention to where he was going. His internal pilot, that unconscious portion of his brain that navigated when he was too tired or stressed to think about the driving process, was leading him faithfully home to this confrontation that he both dreaded and desperately wished to begin.

Turning left onto Wallace Avenue, he thought about his job and how much it, or rather his dedication to it, was to blame for his problems in his relationship with Heather. Having worked retail since his graduation from high school, Marcus felt a certain comfort and competency with the business world he did not feel anywhere else. He had quickly advanced from the lowest rungs of the ladder at SportsWorld through a combination of his remarkable business savvy and his love of sports and last year had become the youngest general manager in the company’s two decades of existence. As the company looked to expand out of the Carolinas into other markets in the South, Marcus’s name frequently arose as a candidate to lead this expansion.

Heather, however, had bristled at the thought of relocation. She loved living in Blue Ridge Mountains, though she cursed the harsh winters with the fluency of a born New Yorker. As a paralegal working in a busy law office, her coworkers had become a second family and, more recently, her support group as she and Marcus grew more distant. He often saw people from the firm in his store, shopping for their camping supplies or softball gloves, scowling at him as he walked past. He sometimes wondered if somewhere within the halls of Parker, Gregg, and Smith if there was a dart board with his often-pierced photograph tack to it.

Frustration rose within Marcus as he turned right onto Baker Street, like acid rising into the throat during a particularly bad case of indigestion. He forced it back down, knowing that only through cool negotiation would he be able to rescue his relationship with Heather. Now was the time to admit to every wrong she accused him of committing, valid or not, and to accept any penance she deemed necessary.

Turning left at last onto Herringbone Court, he felt his heart rate quicken as the Toyota seemed to slow to keep balance. The vehicle crawled down the pavement, Marcus fearing what he would see as he approached the cul de sac. At last, the Victorian came into view and he saw, to his relief, Heather’s silver Ford parked in the driveway. One light, in the kitchen, was on and he knew she was inside waiting to say her goodbyes.

Marcus switched off his lights to attempt some element of surprise, hoping to catch her off guard and verbally disarm her before she could launch her goodbye speech. Pulling his car into the driveway directly behind Heather’s, he hoped to cut off her exit unless she drove through the yard she had worked so hard every weekend of the past summer to maintain. Still, he hoped the situation would not come to that end. He turned off the ignition, got out as quietly as possible, and walked slowly past the Ford. The back seat, he saw, was loaded with Heather’s clothes and an assortment of boxes, all ironically bearing a label from the SportsWorld warehouse. The passenger seat also held a few boxes and a small television, the one from their bedroom. Marcus wondered briefly where she intended to go with so few things, or if perhaps this was just the first haul that preceded her return with the moving van.

Approaching the side door leading directly into the kitchen, Marcus saw the light from within spilling outward through the beveled glass. He stopped, fear welling up inside him. What if he failed to persuade her to stay? What if she had found someone else? These possibilities had not arisen in his mind before. Like the many problems that came with operating a multi-million dollar sporting goods store, his mind saw this issue as just one more needing a quick, decisive resolution. Up to that moment, Marcus held absolute confidence that he could fix whatever the problem was in their relationship and they would go on living a content life together. Now, he found his confidence shaken as tears began to well in his eyes. Fighting them back, he pressed on and opened the door.

Heather sat, hands folded upon the table, waiting for him. Her face was void of expression and she said nothing as Marcus entered the kitchen and sat down tentatively across from her. Trying to think of where to begin his argument, he reached across the table to grasp Heather’s hands, but she pulled them away, laying them in her lap as she continued to stare at him.

A long, uncomfortable silence descended and lasted for what Marcus felt was a lifetime. Finally, he knew he must speak or he would lose the ability to do so.

“Don’t go,” he whispered, then, “please.”

Heather sighed and looked away from him toward the floor. Her red-rimmed eyes glazed over and a single tear fell into her lap. “I . . .” she began. Her voice croaked, telling him that she had been crying for some time. Still not looking at him, she started over, “I finished and put away all your laundry and went to the grocery. You shouldn’t have to go again for a few weeks.”

Marcus half stood and pulled his chair a quarter turn around the table to be closer to her. “Whatever the problem is, we can work it out. Just tell me what you want me to do and I’ll do it.” He started to reach for her hand again, but thought better of it. “I don’t want to lose you.”

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m sorry I can’t be what you need.”

“You are what I need. You’re everything I need.”

Heather snorted, then snuffled again to keep her nose from dousing her sweater. “What you need is someone who doesn’t mind to be alone a lot” She managed a weak smile and looked up at him, “and I don’t want to be alone anymore.”

Marcus left his chair now, descending to his knees right in front of her. He was careful not to touch her or come too close to her, less she recoil again. “I’m sorry I made you feel that way. I wish you had told me sooner.” He bit his lip, thinking the last line made it sound like he was giving up. “Tell me what I need to do to fix this and I will,” he repeated.

Heather stood up. “It’s too late for that now.” Leaning over, she kissed him on his forehead. Her lips felt hot against his skin. Stepping around him, he walked to the door and went out into the night.

Marcus’s mind raced, debating on whether he should accept defeat or follow her out to the driveway and beg again for her forgiveness. In his moment of indecision, he heard a car door open and slam, then the engine start up and grow fainter. The engine noise stopped and he heard again a door open and slam shut. Steps came back up the driveway and for a brief moment, Marcus thought his pleas had paid dividends, a thought that shattered when he heard another car door open and shut, this time closer, and another engine crank and fade into silence.

Stumbling out of the kitchen onto the driveway, Marcus looked out and saw his car, parked now against the curb of the cul de sac. She had moved it to allow herself to leave. Without conscious thought, he walked down the driveway and opened the door to the Toyota. Her key, with its yellow plastic head, lay in the seat. He picked it up, inserted it into the ignition as he sat down, and pulled the car back into the driveway to where Heather’s Ford had been moments before.

Marcus felt as though his guts had just been spilled out through a hole in the bottom of his abdomen, but with the confrontation finally over, he found that he could think more clearly. Arguments against Heather leaving now filled his head and he wanted to kick himself for not putting up a better defense for their relationship. Getting out of the car, he walked back to the kitchen door and stopped looking down the street, hoping against hope that she would change her mind and come back. He had no idea how long he stood grasping both the door latch and his last shreds of hope, but finally he turned away from Herringbone Court and entered the kitchen.

His first thought upon reentering the house was to go immediately to bed. Perhaps this was all just a bad dream, he told himself. Perhaps Heather would sleep on it and decide that it was a bad decision. Still, he knew better so instead of walking through the kitchen to the stairway just beyond to go up to the bedroom he now had all to himself, he decided his best option was to drink himself into oblivion and hope for the best.

Marcus rarely drank and never did so to excess. He never understood the appeal of downing a case just for a few hours of mindless euphoria, especially when hangovers seemed to last so much longer. Besides, he had often told friends at college parties, most alcoholic drinks tasted horrible. Why endure such nasty concoctions when an ice cold Coca-cola tasted so much better?

Reaching into the cabinet above the stove, he pulled down the bottle of Absolut, not one of the flavored versions so trendy with his alcoholic friends in retail management, but plain vodka. He tipped the bottle up, allowing the colorless liquid to fill his mouth. He tried to swallow the vile liquid, but gagged from the taste and spit most of it out onto the kitchen counter. As he cleaned the spill with a few paper towels, he pulled a rocks glass from another cabinet and half filled it with Absolut. He tossed the sodden towels and pulled the half gallon of orange juice from the refrigerator, topping off the glass.

He returned to the kitchen table, stirring the drink with his index finger, and flopped into the chair Heather had occupied a short time before. He took a sip and still found the vodka almost too much to handle. Setting the glass down, he stared blankly at the table for a while. Cow print salt and pepper shakers stood sentry in the center flanking an arrangement of artificial daisies blooming over a small vase of the same bovine pattern. These rested on a square red and white table cloth, too big for the small round table they used in the kitchen and marked here and there by tiny punctures from knife tips and fork tongs.

Marcus raised the drink for another sip, this time hardly noticing the vodka. Adjusting rather quickly to alcoholism, he thought as his eyes passed to a small stack of envelopes lying next to the salt shaker. The top envelope, he could see, was the cable bill, unopened and addressed to Heather Bentham. He lifted the stack, hardly believing that there could be such insensitivity among human beings as to send him bills as his world was crumbling around him.

The cable bill. A credit card application. A letter from some supposed psychic who desperately needed to speak to Marcus, but obviously could not find a phone number in her crystal ball. Then he came to the last envelope, bigger than the others and oddly shaped, it was perfectly square and felt less like paper and more like . . .

“Leather . . . “ Marcus said to himself. He was looking at the back of the piece of mail and saw that a wax seal held the fold shut rather than some commercial adhesive. The seal bore an insignia he had never seen, some symbol he could not quite make out. A strong feeling of unease settled in his stomach upon seeing the seal, resting next to his sense of loss like two old buddies sitting at the bar.

He flipped the thing over slowly, noting that the envelope was constructed of a single piece, deftly folded into shape through some art that eluded him. He then looked at his name and address on the front, hand-written in an untidy scrawl that Marcus found disturbingly familiar. Recognition came to the surface of his consciousness and then sank again into the depths of his mind, like a trophy fish that rises to the surface to taunt the angler before disappearing with a ripple into the murk.

Instinct told him he should not open this particular piece of mail. Something deep inside him warned him of something terribly wrong with the letter, but it competed with a strong sense of urgency, compelling him to open it immediately and not waste any more valuable time. He touched the seal, pausing a moment when he noticed his hand shaking. Marcus took a deep breath to steady himself and pulled at the wax, peeling it easily from the leather.

Inside the envelope, the letter, for Marcus felt sure that it was a letter, offered another surprise by its material. Rather than common copy paper or a piece of notebook paper, a nearly transparent sheet of what Marcus guessed must be papyrus or something similar, folded neatly in half, slid out. He handled it gingerly, afraid that the smallest shake of his hand would tear it. At the top he saw no date when the missive was composed, only his name written in the same hand that had addressed the envelope.

He read the letter. When he finished, he continued to stare at the strange note, an expression of troubled confusion settling upon his face. He read the letter again. A third time. A fourth. When he finished his sixth reading, he let the letter fall from his limp hand onto the table. He wanted to read it again, just to be sure that the first six times had not been a hallucination, but he could not force his eyes to look at it again. Instead, he picked it up carefully, as though afraid it would bite his hand, folded it, and stuck it inside his shirt pocket.

Leaving his drink on the table and the kitchen light on, Marcus charged out the kitchen door, even forgetting to lock the door in his haste. He opened the door to the Toyota and got in, turning the key in the ignition before his backside touched the seat. The car backed quickly into the cul de sac and then sped quickly down Herringbone Court, following the Ford that had left just a few minutes before.

Photographs and memories,

All the love you gave to me

Somehow it just can’t be true

That’s all I’ve left of you.

–Jim Croce, “Photographs and Memories”

When I was younger, around twelve or so, my parents would sometimes be out of the house and I would be free to explore that magical repository known as “their closet”.  Unlike some kids, my interest in my parents’ closet had nothing to do with finding something that shouldn’t be there, but rather with unearthing what should be there.  Like an archaeologist, I would sift through the old clothes and boxes in search of what I was really after.

History.

In the closet, my dad kept (and still keeps–I checked) various bits of nostalgia such as slides from the time he spent in Korea while serving with the Army.  He was too late for the war, but those pictures of a much younger him never failed to fascinate me, particularly against such an exotic backdrop.  He showed them occasionally when I was in elementary school, and I was even allowed to take them to school during the sixth grade to tell, thanks to some handwritten notes, about his experiences there.  There were also pictures, mostly of me and my brother when we were younger, but also of my parents when they were younger, filling in the vast space before my memories began to take root.  There were papers, none of which I understood at the time, but that I knew to be important simply because they were in the closet rather than in the trash.  Other items, such as my mom’s crafts abandoned craft projects and my dad’s airplane magazines collected there as well, not important enough to keep out, but too important, at least to them, to throw away.

During one such exploration into the Closet of Wonders, I discovered a couple of notebooks that I had never seen before.  They were tucked in the very back at the top of the closet–the area where other parents might hide a handgun or a porn collection.  Inside the notebooks were the opening pages of a handwritten manuscript, began, then abandoned, by my mother.   I read through the pages and was not surprised that they were the beginning stages of a romance novel.  My mother read every book Harlequin put out for a couple of decades, so it was only natural that she might try to express her love for those stories by trying one herself.  Even at that age, I could see a few problems with spelling and grammar, but I had recently learned about the differences between a “rough draft” and a “finished piece”.

So, I asked her about them.

My mom, for those of you who didn’t know her, was as fearless as anyone I’ve ever met, but at the mention of her aborted manuscripts, she shrugged off the question, somewhat embarrassed.  She had been a stay-at-home mom and babysitter until my brother and I were both in school and, having the time, she thought she’d give it a try.  It turned out to be a lot harder than she expected and, aware of her own limitations, she gave it up.  She told me, though, that she had always wanted to be a writer.

Now, we come to the present.  She has been gone two years today and in that two years, I’ve done what she had only dreamed of doing–become a published author.  This fall, I will have two more stories published, bringing my total to six, and my only regret is that she has not been here to tell me how inappropriate they are and how proud she is that I wrote them anyway.  Also, I made a commitment to writing my Christmas stories without ever realizing that I was writing them for her, Santa’s biggest fan, even though she’ll never read them.  They are a tribute–however silly or sad or gross they are–to the woman who showed me that even working in retail during the holidays cannot dampen the joy one can find in the holiday season.

According to the old saying, time heals all wounds.  It’s true, but tell that to the amputee who will never hold anything with his missing hand again, or the cancer patient who has parts removed as if she was an old station wagon, or the son who will never share his victories with his mother, victories in battles that he has fought for them both.  Yes, time does heal all wounds, but sometimes the scars left by time are almost too horrible to behold.

I miss my mother.  She could be a pain in the rump sometimes, but no one would have been more thrilled by my published stories, even the ones she really didn’t like (I can only imagine the eye-rolling response I would have received for “Santa’s Worst Stop).  She was my first fan, the one who read my stories in elementary school and told me how good they were, even when they weren’t, and no amount of success, no mile-long line at a book signing or movie deal, will replace her.

Okay, that’s enough crying for this year, I think.  Time to go work on a Christmas story.  Mom would have liked that.

Most writers, myself included, have the same problems.  We don’t eat healthy food, we don’t exercise enough, we don’t get enough caffeine, and we sure as hell don’t get enough sleep.  Most of us are not lacking in ideas, knowledge, resources, or even, in most cases, talent.

What we lack, more than anything, is time.

It’s also not just a matter of making time.  Just as important is the matter of managing the time you pry loose from your schedule.  Sometimes it is the ultimate test of will to focus on one story at a time with all the various ideas bouncing around in the writer’s mind like bingo balls.

I’m not different in this regard.  I have lots of ideas floating around in my head and every time I sit down to write I have to determine what the greatest priority is.  Do I work on the short story I plan on submitting to an anthology next month or I do I try to peck out a little more progress on the novel-in-progress?  It’s often a hard call that leaves me paralyzed looking at the blank computer screen for a long time before I can actually make a decision.

So, to give you an idea of what I’m talking about, here’s a far-from-comprehensive list of the things I plan to write when, and if, I get the time and after I finish the other things I’ve already started:

–a short story about married vampire hunters;

–a new twist on the Jekyll and Hyde tale, a comedic romp that may either take shape as a short story or a screenplay;

–a short story about redneck storm chasers;

–a romantic comedy screenplay structured around karaoke bars;

–a television pilot based on my umpteen years in retail, sort of The Office meets Wal-Mart;

–a musical about the life of a spoiled pop diva (I’ll need some help with this one—I am musically illiterate);

–a play about a guy abducted and locked in a crazy woman’s basement;

–a stand-up comedy routine, including jokes about my experience with cancer and life as a retail manager.

And this is just a small sample of what goes through my head on an almost daily basis.  I do what I can to jot down the ideas when they occur to me, but even so some of them escape my grasp.  They are like fish that come just to the surface of the lake and then disappear into the murky depths before they can be caught.  Sometimes the resurface, remembered at an opportune time which allows me to hook them and mount them up on my wall.  Sometimes they disappear without even the slightest notion that they occurred in the first place.

It would be easy for me to look at the above list and get overwhelmed by the amount of work and the time commitment that they represent.  I could write consistently for years, decades even, and not completely check off every item.  What is important to remember, for me and for every other writer faced with the same problem, is that the writing—whether it is a short story or a novel, a television pilot or a plan—only comes one word at a time.  Whichever project I decide to work on each and every night cannot be written any faster than that.  Some of these stories speak stronger to me than others, and some would be tremendous fun to write, but regardless, the work only happens at two speeds:  stop, or one word followed by another word followed by another.

And, if anyone feels the need to take one of these ideas and write it, by all means, go for it.  Just because you take an idea and make it your own does not mean that you will do it better than me.  I don’t mind the competition, because it’s not other writers I’m competing with—it’s me versus the story.  And it’s always me versus the story.  As long as I do the best job I can, I can’t allow myself to be worried about what anyone else does.

Now, time to go write about some inbred hillbillies.  Later!

I attended my second Relay for Life Survivors’ Dinner this evening and my wife and I enjoyed a good meal along with several inspirational stories of people dealing with cancer.

Before last year’s dinner, my first since my cancer diagnosis in July 2009, I was told that I might be asked to give a speech about my experience with the disease.  I had most of the speech prepared, but found out shortly before the dinner that I would not be giving it after all.  I was a little disappointed, but upon further reflection, having a large group of mostly elderly cancer survivors listen to me talk about my nuts was probably not the best idea.

Still, I thought the speech was pretty good–entertaining, at least–and I decided to go ahead, finish it this evening, and post it on here.

And so, I give you my Relay for Life Survivors’ Dinner Speech That I Was Not Asked to Give:

Good evening, my name is Lee Smiley and, like the rest of the speakers tonight, I’m a cancer survivor.  My experience, however, is a little different.  It is a tale of laughter and tears, of hardship and triumph, of sickness and health. 

And it all started with Legos. 

Well, that’s not entirely true.  The Legos came later. 

When you tell a friend you have cancer, the question you most often hear is, “What kind?”  For most of us, our answer is usually followed by a story, some personal anecdote about someone close to that friend who has battled the same disease.  “Oh, my sister is battling breast cancer,” they might say, or “My father had prostate cancer.” 

But when you tell someone you have testicular cancer, that pretty well ends the conversation.  There are no follow up questions.  Nobody asks you, “Oh, which side?”  What you usually get is an awkward silence, maybe a smile, and a quick change of subject.  

In early 2008, I started having troubles in—to put it nicely—my nether regions.  What began as a mild discomfort gradually grew into serious pain, to the point where any impact stronger than a light breeze would double me over, near vomiting.  It reached the point where my children would run up for me to hug them and I’d recoil in terror as though they were about to mug me. 

After much “suggesting”  from my wife, I did the un-male thing and went to the doctor, who diagnosed a bad case of epiditimytis, a bacterial infection of the testicular lining immortalized in the Mary Poppins song, Supercalifragilisticepiditimytis.  I can tell you, it was quite atrocious, but after a round of antibiotics, I was back to normal. 

Or so I thought. 

A year or so later, I was back at the doctor.  When asked about my symptoms, I told the physician that I was having similar pain to before, but now it was accompanied by serious fatigue.  I may be a little chubby, but don’t let that fool you.  I play tennis, chase my four children around, and have a somewhat physical job, so for me to be winded after ten minutes of hitting a tennis ball made me fairly sure that something was wrong. 

My wife, bless her, wanted to contribute to the list of symptoms.  She told him that “it feels like a Lego in there.” 

“A Lego, huh?” the doctor asked as he checked for the offending toy. 

“Hey, I’m a mother,” my wife told him.  “I know what a Lego feels like.” 

She got me to wondering if, perhaps through some unfortunate childhood swallowing accident, it could actually be a Lego in there.  The theory did nothing to explain why, if it was a little plastic cube, what was supposed to be there wasn’t, but it did make me dredge my memory for something that could explain what was going on.  Nothing came to mind, so I started, instead, to think of what I could build with it once it came out.  A Lego fertility clinic, perhaps. 

After a few tests, I was referred to a urologist in Paris, Dr. Mobley, who sent me immediately to the hopsital there for further tests.  One of these was an ultrasound of the Lego, which was done by a attractive young woman who took me into a dark room and told me to take off my pants and underwear.  She gave me a bath towel and told me, “Lie down on the table and use this to cover yourself.”  I thought about asking her if she had anything bigger than a bath towel—a king size sheet, maybe—but she was gone before I could think of anything other than, “Okay.” 

When the attractive ultrasound tech came back and began scanning for the Lego, I did everything in my power to not think about the attractive ultrasound tech scanning for the Lego.  We talked, though, and to hide my unease, I tried to be funny. 

“Can you see the baby?” 

“Is it a boy or a girl?” 

I thought about asking if this counted as getting to second or third base for her, but thought that might take me too close to thinking about what she was doing.  Instead, we talked about her family’s farm—what they grew, how they grew it, and how it had nothing to do with where she was touching. 

With the ultrasound done, I went back to Dr. Mobley’s office and found he already had the results from the test. 

“You definitely have a mass there,” he told me, and that was all it took to set my mind off again.  While my wife was crying over the diagnosis, I was imagining rows of sperm, all sitting in little pews, while another sperm cell in a priest’s robe stood before them reading the Gospel.  Before I could decide whether my testicular mass would be in English or, for a more exotic experience, Latin, I realized that my wife was about to come apart if I didn’t say something. 

“Well,” I said.  “What now?” 

Dr. Mobley told me he thought the mass was a seminoma, a rare form of testicular cancer, and that he wanted to remove the Lego. 

“Okay,” I said.  “When?” 

“How about tomorrow?” he asked, and when he didn’t smile or anything I knew he was serious.  I had started vacation that day and would be off for another eight days, so I told him yeah, I could do it.  We had been planning on going to see my father-in-law in Kansas that weekend, but that plan vanished with those three words from the doctor.  In a matter of minutes, I had gone from complaining of a child’s toy stuck in my body to having cancer and surgery less than 24 hours away. 

So, back to the hospital we went, this time to preregister for the surgery.  There were more tests, to the point that I told them if they wanted to take any more blood from me they were going to have to put some back in.  And I told jokes.  Jokes at the registration desk.  Jokes with the nurse in charge of my prep work.  Jokes that were inappropriate and, I suspect, in danger of getting me hauled off to the psych ward as soon as the surgery was over. 

The next day, we went back to the hospital for the surgery.  Step one, once I was placed in a room, was to have a nurse come in and shave virtually my entire body.  Despite having a surgery that required about six-inches of incision, this lady acted as though she was mowing her lawn.  I couldn’t tell if she thought she was prepping me for surgery or sheering wool.  During this process, a dozen or so people came in and out of the room for various things—bringing supplies, asking the clipper-happy nurse a question, checking that the remote for the television had batteries—and I’m sure all of them stopped outside my room to snicker about what they saw.  On top of this, my wife and mother sat nearby, unsure of whether to laugh at me or cry. 

Soon, they came to haul me away, but not before I assured my wife that I would see her soon, as long as I didn’t die on the operating table.  Somehow, she found this less than reassuring. 

As they wheeled me to the surgical suite, I made hand signals to mark which way the bed was turning, just in case there was another bed headed that way that needed to know our intentions.  For some reason, the staff thought this was hilarious, as did I until they wheeled me into a room that looked like a torture chamber from a horror movie.  Everything was stainless steel—the tables, the shelves, the surgical instruments, even Dr. Mobley, who had donned a suit of armor and was talking to an assistant about proper jousting techniques.  Okay, I made that last part up.  Sue me. 

Next came the anesthes— 

I woke up in another room.  Despite having a large bandage covering a sewn-up hole in my abdomen, I felt pretty good.  Several hours had passed, more than they expected, as I reacted strongly to the anesthesia, strongly enough that I became sick when I tried to go to the restroom.  A nurse brought me some phenergan for the nausea and I was— 

I woke up again a little while later.  I still felt pretty good and this time, when I went to the restroom—which I had to do before they’d let me leave—I managed without being sick.  I got dressed–feeling myself and thinking of the tagline from Highlander, “There can be only one”–and received permission to head home, along with a prescription for some mild pain medication.  Still under the influence of the meds, I asked my wife, “What do a confused squirrel, an asylum on high alert, and I have in common?”

“I don’t know,” she answered.

“We’re all missing a nut.”

I thought it was funny. Her, not so much.

They brought a wheelchair for me, but I wasn’t ready to leave.  Not yet.  As I was having part of my overproductive reproductive system removed, my next-door neighbor was giving birth to her second child, and I insisted on seeing them before I went home to begin my recovery. 

As I looked at the little newborn girl, I thought of all the wonders of modern medicine, how doctors can save a life, while just down the hall, they bring a new one into the world.  I thought of all the amazing, everyday miracles that happen every day in hospitals and doctor’s offices all over the world.  Diseases are treated and cured.  Hope is given back to those who have had none.  And babies are born.  Babies like this one. 

Then, I thought, “I should really get her some Legos.”

(Yes, I know I’m posting this early on Wednesday, but as I worked late and haven’t been to bed yet, it’s still Tuesday to me.  Get over it.)

Last weekend, I made my sojourn to Frankfort, Kentucky, for the annual meeting of the Statewide Selection Committee for the Kentucky Governor’s Scholars Program.  As usual, I had a great time seeing old friends and making new ones, despite my car biting the dust when I got to the hotel.

The committee is made up of volunteers—mostly people who, unlike me, work in education in some capacity–from all over who have insanely agreed to put off every other event in their lives for a couple of weeks in order to score nearly 2000 applications from students hoping to attend the program.  Some of us attend every year, mostly for the excellent lunch provided by the staff, and some do not attend at all for various reasons.  I try to make it every year, and not only for the lunch, but for the conversation.  It’s nice to learn what is new with the program, what changes are being made, and how the many hours I spend scoring applications benefit students from across the state of Kentucky.

During this year’s meeting, two of the members were discussing how little imagination children seem to have compared to what we had growing up and, as a fellow committee member and a parent and a writer, I have a few thoughts on this topic.

I used to score a part of the GSP application we called “The Unique”.  We asked the students to write a short description of something that set them apart from their peers, something that would make us take notice and say, “Now, there’s a kid who should be a Governor’s Scholar.”  I have talked about the shortcomings from this part of the application before, so I won’t rehash them here.  For the five or so years I scored Uniques, they collectively got worse and worse until, last year, the program decided to scrap them in favor of a Leadership Project that the students would describe, in bullet point format, from conception to execution.  The project could be something they actually plan to do or purely theoretical, but the entire idea was to get the students to think about what they could do to help their communities and, from our perspective, to see how organized and pragmatic their thinking processes are.  So far, the feedback has been generally positive about the change within the program, but the people scoring them have complained about the same general idea that I and others did with the Uniques—lack of creativity and imagination.

Sadly, I see the same problem in my own children.  It seems that my children can’t be outside for more than a few minutes before they are whining about wanted to come inside because there’s nothing to do.  They don’t want to jump on the trampoline or play with all the toys we’ve bought for them or watch the movies lying tossed like frisbees around their bedrooms or read any of the books bulging from the shelves.  You simply cannot walk into either of their bedrooms without stepping on something that is now too boring for them to play with.

As a child, I was certainly not deprived, but I wasn’t overwhelmed with material goods the way other children I knew were.  I loved to be outside playing baseball, even if “playing baseball” meant throwing imaginary no-hitters against a brick wall at the church next door or slaying invisible dragons with the straightest stick I could find in the brush pile.  Everything I needed to entertain myself for hours was lying around my yard and inside own head.

Nowadays, every stimulus children have comes from outside.  They have video games and movies and internet and all the other assorted things that the generations before first imagined, then brought into being.  Studies have shown that young people read less than their older counterparts, and while a number of legitimate ideas have been offered as to why this is, I think one of the most important, yet least discussed, is that with stimulus thrust upon them, children have perhaps lost the ability to produce these things inside their own minds, to see the invisible dragons or the fierce batters ready to spoil that historic moment in sports history.  Why imagine a thing when you can put a disk into a little machine and experience it without all the effort?  Are we driving our kids to the point where they cannot appreciate the simple act of creation that can occur inside the imagination and will we miss out on what those imaginings can provide for us in the future?

I have other fears regarding the loss of imagination as it affects my writing.  Children who cannot focus enough on a story to see what is happening without having it on Blu-Ray will not, as a rule, be potential readers.  On a larger scale, what will happen to literature as more and more children lose the ability to imagine stories themselves, to create the future of what we will read?  Even as the publishing industry shifts to a modern, digitized format, I wonder if there will be much worth reading when my children’s generation are the movers and shakers in society.

There is hope, however.  J.K. Rowling, for example, has done as much as any single person to reverse this awful trend.  The Harry Potter series gave children (and adults, for that matter) such a rich world, with vibrant characters and brilliant settings, that an entire generation learned to imagine again, creating a ripple effect in the Young Adult market and making it probably the only bright spot in the book world right now.  Not only is the Harry Potter generation reading more, they are writing.  I see young people all the time who are writing novels or short stories with the ultimate goal of being published.  Now, if they could only spell and use proper grammar . . . but that’s a rant for another day.

Imagination is not an intangible thing.  Without it, there is no industry, no innovation, no progress.  It’s hard to look around and not see the advances in technology that started, in their embryonic stage, as an idea.  An imagining.  How will society progress as more and more of our ideas, our very thoughts, come from the television or the internet?  Who will rise up and have the original thought that changes the world?

Why not me?  Why not you?  Go out, find a child, and slay the invisible dragons.

Admittedly, I’m a little tardy posting my first entry of 2011.  January just seemed to slip by me.  In my defense, though, I’ve had a lot going on (more than usual), some of which I’ll talk about on here and some of which I won’t.  Let me just say that change has been the rule of late rather than the exception.  And it’s not over yet.

I’d like to start this year by looking back at last year.  In some respects, it was a very successful year.  I stayed cancer-free.  I didn’t lose a parent.  My focus on short stories in 2010 yielded some positive results, including my first four published works (see my Bibliography).  I’ve seen other writers post their publishing income from a year, so here’s mine for the past year—$18.  It’s not much, but it is more than I made from writing my previous 33 years of life combined and, more importantly, it’s the tiny snowball that I hope to being rolling downhill to one day create an avalanche of publishing income that will allow me to retire from my day job and do this full time.

Yes, I’m still in that dream state where the Promised Land seems just over every mountain I must climb.

If I had to assign a title for 2009, with my cancer ordeal and the death of my mother, I would have to call it the Year of Loss.  On a smaller scale, I also had to deal with the realization that, given the current market conditions in publishing, I was not going to find an agent without first obtaining a few publishing credits—i.e. short stories—to lend myself a little credibility.  2010 I would call the Year of Recovery.  In addition to coping with the loss of both a beloved parent and my right testicle, I learned to temper my frustrations with the publishing industry by working within its unspoken system of rules, by paying my dues in the hopes that small success will lead to bigger success going forward.

This year, 2011, I believe will be the Year of Change.  As I mentioned before, my life is transitioning in nearly every area right now.  Some of these areas are painful and, right now, too personal for me to discuss in a public forum.  Some of these, however, are efforts I am making to improve my life, to push myself into a higher level of satisfaction with where I am and where I am going.  That said, here is an incomplete list of my goals for 2011:

  • One goal I have set, like so many people do every year, is to get in better shape.  I bought a treadmill three or so years ago and, since that time, it has mostly served as a laundry landing strip.  Beginning January 1st, however, I actually began using the treadmill for its God-given purpose and, since then, I have gone from doing a mile run/walk in 22 minutes, to 13:42 and have nearly lost 20 pounds.  I’m also doing crunches and am happy to report that discernible abs have been reported.  I still have a long way to go, but there is hope that I won’t finish this year a white beard away from looking like Santa.
  • I am also looking into going back to school to complete my degree.  I squandered a perfectly good scholarship when I was younger, overwhelmed as I was by the responsibilities of supporting a family, and now that my darling wife has provided me with such great inspiration by completing her Master’s degree, I want to remedy this one glaring hole in my accomplishments.  My hope is that, by fall, I will find a way to resume my studies without putting my family in a more serious financial bind than we are already in (cancer be expensive) and will start along the path that I abandoned so long ago.
  • I had some success with short stories this past year and would like to build upon that this year.  I have a few stories that have yet to find a good home, but I believe that’s mostly because I haven’t found the right market yet.  I’ve become better at researching my possibilities and targeting where to send my work, so I am optimistic that I’ll place at least a few of the stories I’ve finished.  I’ve already sent a new story out this year for a rather prestigious contest and I will be thrilled if I win or finish in the top three.  I also have a few more stories that I want to write this year, but not so many as last year because . . . .
  • I’m going back to novel writing for a while.  I still want to do some short stories as the ideas strike me, including three new Christmas stories, but I’m shifting my focus back to completing some of the novels I’ve left hanging while I worked on just getting something published.  I’ve already been working on Project Supervillain—which I am about ready to rename as soon as I can decide whatever the hell it is I’m going to call it.  The project now is at around 45,000 words and I have a pretty good feel for where I think the story is going to go all the way to its conclusion.  I’m guessing it will top out around 90-100k for a first draft, and then who knows after that.  As Stephen King says, some people are “leaver-outers” whereas others, including Mr. King, are “putter-inners”.  I’m more of a “leaver-outer” in that, when I go back and reread, I see lots of areas where I need more explanation of what is happening, more inner dialogue from the characters, better description, etc.  Still, for every word I add to the story after the first draft, I try to remove at least one, if not two.
  • In addition to P.S., I want to dust off Dead and Dying and see if I can take that next step now that the economy is showing some signs of life.  I feel that the recession, combined with my lack of publishing credits, hurt me during my last round of submissions, even though this particular novel gained three full manuscript requests from literary agents.  Everyone who read it, agents included, said wonderful things about it, but none of them thought they could see it in the market as it was two years ago.  I’m hoping that things have changed enough—both with me and with the industry—that I might be able to find a literary agent with this one even as I’m finishing up P.S. and moving on to other projects.
  • My other finished and submitted novel, Gifts of the Hirakee, did not receive the kind of compliments from my beta readers that I was hoping for and was only submitted to a couple of agents, who all passed, before I shelved it.  I still think this story has some merit and if any of my friends would like to take a look, read the thing, and let me know what I can do to improve it, send me an email and I’ll see about shooting it your way.
  • Finally, I want to learn to be happy again.  It seems like such a simple thing—being happy—but I’ve learned over the past few years that happiness, like relationships or parenthood or writing fiction, is something that requires constant work.  I’ve allowed myself to dwell on the pressures and obstacles in my life and have forgotten to take pleasure in all the blessings I do have.  My family, my work, and my friends are all precious to me, more now than ever, and I will work this year on improving myself with regards to all of them.  It’s time for me to leave the dark place where I’ve been hiding from my problems and learn to face them without cynicism, without doubt, and without fear.  In one of my novels-in-progress, a modern-day knight faces hordes of demons to save the ones he loves.  Likewise, I must face my own demons this year, but I must do so to save myself.

This is the Year of Change.  It has already begun and, by the time it is over and I have posted the last of this year’s Christmas stories, I hope to look back and marvel at the progress I’ve made.  And if you wish to have your own Year of Change, you don’t have to let this one pass you by before you start.  Every day is a chance for renewal.  Every sunrise is another opportunity for you to remake yourself into whatever you like.  I’ve learned well in the past few years that life is too short to be wasted on negativity and excuses.  For me, the Year of Change is every day.

And it’s only just begun.

While I await the results of a few short stories out on submission and in between working on this year’s Christmas short stories and before I go back to work on one of my novels-in-progress, I thought I’d update here about my recent goings-on:

–My short story, “Nehemiah’s Apparatus”, a Civil War zombie story, hit the cyber shelves this week as part of the Pill Hill Press anthology, Gone with the Dirt:  Undead Dixie.  You can order it here.

–My short story, “Santa’s Worst Stop”, is still available in the Fall issue of Ghostlight Magazine.  You can order it in print or download a digital copy here.

–I had my first interview as an author recently.  Tennessee Magnet, a local paper which covers nine counties in my little agrarian corner of the world, printed some very nice stuff about me and, as a bonus, a piece of flash fiction I did called, “Grandpa Rides the Wave”.  Thanks to Cindy and Chris for taking an interest in what I’m doing.

–My aforementioned annual Christmas stories are in the works and will hopefully be completed soon.  This will be a rough week for me after tomorrow–I’m working Thanksgiving Day and most of Black Friday, but my wife and children will be out of town the latter half of the week and, lacking offspring to yell at, I hope to use some of my alone time for finishing the last of the three and editing them all.  I also plan on re-posting a couple of my previous Christmas stories that are not currently out on submission.

–My fantasy football team, the Munchkinland Giants, after taking over sole possession of first place in my league last week, got smoked by the last place team, probably dropping me to 2nd or 3rd with the playoffs just around the corner.  Damn near everybody on my team had an off week, but hopefully they have them out of the way so they can perform well in the playoffs.

–As I mentioned before, I will be working this Thanksgiving, the first time I have done so since I left Wal-Mart eleven years ago.  My also-aforementioned wife and children will be out of town over the weekend, but we all plan on being home for Christmas this year, something that hasn’t happened the last three years while I’ve been working that holiday.

–My writing plans for the near future are as follows:  finish and post the Christmas stories, revise/rewrite a short story for a content due in February, and, when all my shorter work is floating about in search of a home, I plan on getting back to work on one of my novels, probably Project Supervillain.  I haven’t worked on this one in some time, but I think I’m about ready to start back on it.  I also plan on taking my newly-acquired publishing credits and testing the agent waters again.  While they are certainly not feature stories in Harper’s or Fantasy and Science Fiction, they are a start and I want to see if they affect my chances at all.

That’s about all for now.  I will start posting my Christmas stories somewhere around the first of December, so feel free to stop by and give them a look.  You’ll laugh.  You’ll cry.  You might even throw up a bit.  It’s okay.  I won’t be offended.  You, on the other hand . . . .

To make up for my recent laziness in posting on here recently, I’m going to do something different to celebrate this grand holiday.  Still lazy, but a different kind of lazy.

As those of you who follow regularly (yes, both of you) know, I’ve been at full-stop on most of my longer projects this year.  Part of it is my desire to work on more short stories to gain some publishing credits before I tackle the vexing task of finding an agent to represent my work.  The other, and perhaps bigger, part is my inability to focus on my longer works enough to capture the detail I’m accustomed to in my writing.  Normally, I can find the focus to see what’s happening in the story almost as though I’m recording an actual event rather than creating something in my head.  This past year–with new stresses at work, old stresses at home, cancer, and the death of my mother–has dropped a veil over my once-pristine vision.  I can’t see what’s going on or maintain enough concentration to really do what I consider good writing.

Still, it’s getting better.  It’s hard, harder now than before, but anything worth doing is.

So, for the sake of progress and because I really like the Halloween-y feel to it, I’m posting the first chapter from one of my works-in-progress–Wielder of the Soul.  In this story, a Knight with a magical sword forged from his own soul battles demons in modern-day Nashville and finds himself willing to risk everything for a women custom-made to bring him down.

And so, unedited and probably pretty rough, Chapter One of Wielder of the Soul:

The blue Toyota turned into the alley and stopped.  Its headlights shone ahead, illuminating the dumpsters spaced out like chess pieces, the piles of debris, the gritty brick walls to either side and, at the far end, the plain steel door.

The engine died, the headlights winked out, and the driver’s door opened.

Emerging from the car, the Knight studied the alley ahead of him.  Nothing moved save for a few bits of newspaper, yellowed corners flapping in the wind.  Shadows dominated the open spaces.  Even with the breeze coming from behind him, he could smell the stench of the dumpsters and the urine marking the place as a frequent pit stop for the homeless that congregated to this part of the city.  He could hear hurried scratchy footsteps receding from him, probably a rat startled by the appearance of the car.

Probably.

The Knight drew his sword anyway.

Shutting the door to the Toyota, he walked forward.  His eyes remained fixed on the steel door at the far end, now a barely discernible block of darkness against the greater darkness surrounding it.  All his other senses, though, were alert for any threat.  He heard the rat again as he approached it, scrabbling, scrabbling, scrabbling, then stopping when he was close enough to it.  Only when he was a few yards past it did he hear it move again, this time hurrying back toward the mouth of the alley.

Wise move, the Knight thought.

The reek of the garbage this far in, sheltered from the wind, was enormous.  The Knight knew that most men would turn back at this point just from the smell.  No men, at least none that he knew, would continue on and do what he was about to do.

He stood before the door, a dented and rusting portal set into a matching frame.  No handle or knob stuck out from its pock-marked surface, but this did not trouble the Knight.  Reaching forward with his free hand, he placed his palm on the cold metal and concentrated.  A silvery glow radiated from beneath his touch and crawled along the door’s surface until it reached the locking mechanism.  From somewhere inside, he could hear latches freeing themselves and tiny metal pins snapping.

The door swung open.  The darkness in the room beyond the door was absolute; not even the minimal light leaching into the alley penetrated beyond the dented threshold.  The Knight stared into the darkness, gaining a sense of immense space beyond, but nothing else.  He took a deep breath and passed through the door.

The darkness engulfed him like water.  All light and sound from outside were snuffed out in a moment and the Knight used all his senses, searching for some way to find his bearings.  He took another tentative step forward and was rewarded by the sound of the door slamming shut behind him.

So it begins.

The room erupted in light and sound.  Brilliant white strobe lights brought the space into view in lightning-flash glimpses and Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” blared from hidden speakers, giving the Knight his first view of what he was up against.  Long rows of shelves aligned themselves to either side of him like those in a library.  These shelves held no books, however.  Instead, a gruesome assortment of items–shrunken heads, severed hands and feet, other decaying parts the Knight couldn’t quite identify–sat in boxes or hung suspended by string on long hooks.  He took a glance along a couple of the other rows and saw more of the same.

The Knight knew two things at once.  The first was that he was in a place he had only heard of in rumors and whispers in the Nashville demon scene as the “Body Shop”.  According to local lore, the place was the prime shopping location for all sorts of denizens of the city’s underbelly.  Any practicioner of black magic could get that hard-to-find spell component here and anyone looking for a particularly macabre novelty item need look no further.  The place did a roaring business, it was said, during Halloween.  Also, any demon looking for a quick snack could find it, and more, at the Body Shop.

The second thing the Knight knew was that he was being watched.

Picking an aisle, the Knight walked further into the room.  The ceilings were high and lost in darkness; the place had been a warehouse before its grizzly conversion.  Dark stains dotted the floor as he walked and a few fresh pools of thick liquid, black in the harsh light, puddled under some of the merchandise.  Drops still clung to one pair of severed hands to his left, their rhythmic pattering lost in roaring music. 

The sense of being watched grew stronger.  Now, he knew the eyes upon him were not only watching, but were interested, keenly aware of who he was and why he was there.  The Knight’s left hand crept down to his left hip where his .45 automatic sat in its holster.  He doubted he would need the gun or that it would do any good against whatever was watching him, but he liked to know it was there.

“Enter Sandman” ended gave way to something by Marylin Manson the Knight didn’t know.  In the moment between the songs, though, he had heard something out of place, even as his ears rang from the extreme volume.  A buzzing was growing louder from behind him and now, even above the cacophony, he could hear it growing, drawing nearer.

The Knight spun and saw his attacker at once.  Vaguely female in form, she dove for him out of the darkness above him, her arms outstretched, a terrible wail issuing from beneath her glowing red eyes.

The Knight dove to the side, crashing into the shelves to his left as the figure dropped toward him.  He recovered quickly and jumped back forward, his sword flashing in the intermittent light.  The blade sliced cleanly through the figure and sent its two halves spinning in opposite directions.

“What the hell?” the Knight asked.

He moved over to one of the halves of the thing he had just bissected and knelt down beside it.  Beneath the gauzy material that made up the thing’s dress and the stringy black hair on what was left of its head, cleanly sliced pieces of plastic and small electronic compenents reflected the flashing strobes.  As he picked up the half a head, he could faintly hear the thing trying to continue its electronic wail, now only a weak warble as the thing died.  Running his hand through the hair, he felt where the zip line was attached to the internal pulley, giving the toy its swooping motion.

The Knight squeezed the toy with his hand until the plastic split and then cast the thing back down the aisle.  Then he stood and moved on, mad at himself for being so easily duped.  He was nearly to the end of the counter when he heard another noise from behind him, unidentifiable beneath the guitars and screamed lyrics.  Only as Manson gave way to Nine Inch Nails, allowing a second of pause between, did he hear it clearly, the metallic scrabbling that sent a cold chill down his spine.

He spun again, this time bringing his sword up before him like a shield, while his left hand darted down to the empty holster at his hip.  The .45 roared as his eyes settled on the pair of severed hands holding the weapon and the bullet crashed into the wall behind him, making a hole in the concrete wall the size of his head.

The Knight dove for cover at the end of the aisle, rolling around the corner of one of the counters just as another shot rang out, this one ricocheting off one of the shelves and just past his left ear.

Out of the way for the moment, the Knight strained to hear the metallic scraping again, the sound of the hands dragging the gun toward him on the floor, but could hear nothing but the electronic pulsating music and Trent Reznor’s voice.  He knew they were coming, though, could sense their approach, and knew he had to act quickly.

Looking to his right, he could see a doorway at the far end of the room.  The door was closed, but bright, steady light streamed from around its edges.  He knew he needed to get to that room, but to do so he would have to cross in front of the gunslinging hands, now at a closer range than before, and he doubted his luck would keep him safe from a third shot.

Sometimes, he thought, a man has to make his own luck.

The Knight stood up and rounded the corner into the next aisle.  Row upon row of shrunken heads stared at him, a wide-eyed audience of the dead.  He swept his hand over a shelf of them, sending them rolling into the floor, and pushed against the shelf.  He knew the one he had collided with, the one where the thieving hands hand stolen his gun, was sturdy enough for what he intended to do, but he wanted to make sure this one was as well.  He pushed hard and the counter held. 

The Knight then reached down and plucked one of the shrunken heads from the floor, a blonde female with long hair like corn silk.  Holding the head by the hair, he gave it a few experimental twirls and, satisfied that it would serve his purpose, backed up against the counter behind which the hands waited.  In one quick motion, the Knight ran, planted his foot on a shelf halfway up the other counter, and jumped, flinging the shrunken head out toward the end of the aisle into the firing range of the .45.  Sword in hand, he vaulted over the counter toward the hands just as the gun roared again, drawn by the rolling head.

The severed hands held the gun just as a live person might–one palm up beneath holding the weapon steady while the other wrapped itself around the handle, one finger on the trigger.  The Knight brought the sword down point first as he landed in a crouched position behind the hands, the tip impaling the hand supporting the gun and driving a few inches into the concrete floor.  The skin around the blade sizzled and caught fire, twitching itself free of the gun as it burned and writhed.

The second hand tried to turn the gun around, but without the other hand to support it, the heavy weapon fell over sideways.  Still, the hand tried to spin it around to face the Knight, who kicked it away toward the wall.  The hand still would not give up and crawled like Thing from the Addam’s Family toward his booted foot.  The Knight let it climb on, then kicked upward, popping it upward before him.  Another quick slash with his sword sent it spiraling away in two flaming pieces.

The Knight rounded the corner and studied the doorway at the end of the room.  White light continued to stream around its edges.  Keeping his sword ready, he walked toward it and, just as he reached the rusted metal portal, all light and sound behind him died again, leaving him again in blackness except for what illumination trickled around the closed door.  He put his ear to the cold steel and heard an atonal humming from somewhere beyond and the occasional rasping of metal on metal.

The Knight stepped back and kicked the door open.

The light washed over in a flood of fluorescence, temporarily blinding him.  He could see through his squinted eyes that the room was long and well lit from one end to the other with harsh overhead bulbs.  Two rows of what he quickly identified as metal autopsy tables ran along the side walls–some empty, some bearing shrouded figures, some bearing human bodies in various states of decay.  He also saw movement from halfway down the far row of tables, but only when his eyes adjusted to the sudden light did he see what was causing it.

A large demon, nearly as wide as the Knight was tall, stood over what was left of a young man on one of the autopsy tables.  He wore nothing over his reddish skin other than a blood-soaked apron which he held to his mouth and licked with a wide black tongue.  In the demon’s meaty hand, a huge cleaver, its blade roughly the same length and width as a small car hood, dripped blood onto the tile floor.

At first, the demon seemed surprised to see the Knight, then recognition twisted his piggish face into a glare of pure hatred.  He let out a feral roar and charged toward the door, his bulk knocking aside tables as he built up speed.

The Knight charged forward as well, knowing that one blow from the huge cleaver would cut him in two.  He was nearly to the demon, could see the massive blade swing back to strike, when he dropped to the floor and slid feet first through the demon’s tree trunk legs.  As he slid, he felt the cleaver slice the air just above him, missing him by inches.  He stabbed out with his own blade, cutting a deep gash in the beast’s knee.  The skin around the wound sizzled at once, but did not catch fire as the hands had.  This demon was far too strong to be dispatched so easily.

The Knight was up immediately and pitched forward into a roll just in time to avoid another sweeping arc of the cleaver that pared large pieces of metal off two tables.  The demon rushed forward, bringing his weapon in a backhanded swipe, but the Knight was again quicker.  He stepped just out of range, so close that he could feel the sharp wind of the cleaver’s passing against his abdomen and had to glance down to make sure his intestines were not about to spill onto his feet.

The demon kept the momentum from his backhand attack and spun with remarkable grace to haul his blade in an overhead arc that caught the Knight by surprise.  The Knight dove to the floor and felt the blade crash down where he had just been, pulverizing the tile and the concrete beyond.

Acting now on pure instinct, the Knight rolled to the side and heard the grinding noise of the cleaver being pulled free of the floor.  He looked up just in time to see the huge blade rising above him like that of a guillotine over a condemned man.

The Knight felt, rather than saw, the table next to him.  Reaching out with his foot, he pulled hard on it just as the demon’s huge arm muscles flexed to bring the cleaver down.  The blade bit sawed cleanly through the top layer of the table, but stuck in a lower shelf just inches above the Knight’s body, so close that he could smell the stench of old blood on the metal.

Placing his sword on his chest, he grabbed the underside of the table and pulled hard, sliding himself under the demon and beyond.  He hoped the cleaver would stay buried in the metal table for a bit so he could get some space between himself and his opponent, but his hope died as he stood up and heard the high scraping of the blade being freed.

The Knight had just enough time to thrust his sword down behind him and brace the flat of the blade with his foot before the great cleaver struck him.  Instead of cutting him in half, the demon connected a solid blow with the sword that sent the Knight flying against the concrete wall.  His vision darkened for a moment, the unconsciousness fought back only by the Knight’s will to survive and the adrenalin coursing through his body.  He looked up, head swimming, and saw the demon coming for him again, this time to finish the job.  The hulking creature lumbered forward, preparing the cleaver for a sidearm attack meant to bissect the Knight.

The Knight was quicker.  Planting one foot against the wall, he pushed off into the air, his right hand holding his sword aloft.  The demon’s eyes grew wide before the bold move and he brought the cleaver up before him in a defensive gesture that cut short his attack.  The two blades were about to collide when the Knight’s sword disappeared from his right hand and reappeared in his left, now beneath the demon’s defenses.  The smaller weapon struck home into the demon’s side and the blade bit deep into its body.

Fire blasted from the demon’s wound, expelling the sword and the Knight holding it with such force that they tumbled over a nearby table.  From where he lay breathless upon the floor, the Knight could hear a high whistling noise that grew in volume until he was forced to cover his ears.  He dared a glance through the table at the demon, now fully engulfed in flames.  Great gouts of fire shot out in all directions from the burning body until, with a deafening boom, the creature exploded like a gory supernova.  Nearby tables flew outward from the blast, including the one the Knight lay huddled behind, spilling their horrific contents across the room.  Fluorescent tube lights overhead shattered and sprayed glass across a wide arc of sudden darkness beneath. Hurling himself to the floor, the Knight covered his face with his arms as a wave of heat rolled over him, catching the fabric of his clothing on fire in a few places.

The Knight rolled a few times to extinguish the flames and, when all grew quiet around him except for the ringing now present in his ears, stood up to survey the damage.

Over half of the two dozen or so tables in the room were now either overturned or barely recognizable hunks of partially melted steel.  The bodies lay in complete disarray across the floor, some of which burned like camp fires.  A portion of the wall nearest to where the demon had exploded was in ruins, the hole obscured by a thick cloud of white dust and black smoke.

The Knight could sense no more threat inside the building.  If any more demons were present, they were keeping their distance and, he suspected, wanted no part of him after what he had just done.  He held out the sword, sure that he would not need it again tonight, and willed it into his body.  Just as it had done in his final attack on the butcher demon, the blade disappeared, but this time it did not return to his opposite hand.  Instead, the Knight felt the burning sensation in the skin over his torso that told him the sword, crafted from his own soul and deadly against the minions of Hell, had returned to its proper home.

Smoke was filling the air and stinging the Knight’s eyes.  He crouched low and looked at the hole in the wall.  Debris outside had ignited and now that way out was blocked by flames pouring more black smoke into the room.

He looked to the opposite side from where he entered and saw another metal door that matched the one he had kicked open.  He scuttled toward it, leaning lower and lower to the floor to avoid the choking air above him.  He was just about to push the portal open when he heard a sound from a nearby corner.

Something moved atop one of the few tables left standing.  Shrouded in a white sheet–white except for the splattered stains of blood–the figure shifted and let out a soft moan.

The Knight almost ignored the sound and the movement.  Half the room was burning and he could hear approaching sirens from outside the door.  Whatever it was beneath the sheet, it would either burn or be found by the firefighters on the scene.  He put his hand on the door, meaning to pass through, but he found his feet would not move.  A moment later he was standing over the table, not sure of how he got there.  He reached down and pulled the sheet back.

A woman lay on the table, a woman of such beauty that the Knight’s breath, what he could draw through the smoke-filled air, caught in his throat.  Her fair skin was unmarked anywhere he could see and, thanks to the tank top and shorts she was wearing, he could see a great deal of it.  Her face seemed carved from some flawless marble, a masterpiece of delicacy and femininity.  Perfect rosebud lips rested below a slightly upturned nose.  Her eyes were closed, but the Knight could see rapid movement behind the lids.  Dreaming, he thought.  Above her brow, drawn tight as though in deep concentration, her black hair cascaded off the end of the metal table like inverted smoke.

She moaned again, this time arching her back and twisting a little in the process.  The Knight took a step back, torn between his desire to leave before she woke up and his desire to touch her.

Her eyes opened and she looked at him.

Too late, he thought.

She looked away from him and took a quick glance around the room.  “Where am I?”  her voice was high and melodic.

Part of the Knight wanted to run then, to spin on his heel and leave through the door without looking back.  Another part, larger than the first, made him answer her.

“You’re in a dangerous place and I have to get you out of here.”

She attempted to sit up and the Knight marveled at the lines of her body as she did so.  She rose to her elbows, then to a sitting position before clutching her head and falling back upon the table.

The Knight reached out and touched her.  She recoiled at first, then relaxed as he slid his arms under her shoulders and knees.  Lifting her without effort, he coughed from the smoke and made for the door, kicking it open and carrying the woman into the night.

Here is a list of various things that I should be working on, but am not:

Project Supervillain.  Status:  In production.  This novel is stalled at almost 40,000 words.  I still work on it a couple of days a week, making a little headway against the rushing waters of doubt.  I still think this is my strongest novel-in-progress.  I think if I can work through the section I’m in and get to the next part of the story, the pace should pick up and the writing should get easier.  It’s a rough thing when you’re writing and you know in the back of your mind that everything you put down is going to have to be redone.  Still, you have to get through the night to get to the dawn.  I’m hoping dawn comes quickly, because I’m sure as hell tired of writing in the dark.

Project Steampunk.  Status:  In production.  This short story is nearing completion and I’ve found a few markets I would like to submit it to once I have it done and polished.  I need to go back and particularly work on trimming up the end, which I let drag out a bit too long.  I’m guessing that the first draft will come in at about 6000 words, with about 1000 words of fat to be cut away from that.  I like the story and I like the characters, now I just have to give them the end they deserve.

Salvation.  Status:  On submission.  I’ve sent this out to a couple of places over the past week and already had one rejection.  On the positive side, that rejection told me a few of the issues with the story, issues that I have corrected, and now it’s back out there and will hopefully find a good home.

The Interview of Harper Milton Todd.  Status:  On submission.  This short story received very good feedback from John Joseph Adams when I submitted it for an anthology he was putting together, but didn’t quite make it, so I have a reasonable amount of hope that I will find another suitable home for it.

The Pilot.  Status:  On submission.  Considering all the science fiction markets out there, I shouldn’t be having as much trouble find a place to submit this story as I am, but I think I need to go back and revise it a bit.  I haven’t looked over it in a while, so I’m sure that in the cool aftermath of my last failed submission, I need to regain that familiarity again.  It’s hard to feel confident about submitting a story when you don’t remember much about it.

Christmas 2010 #1.  Status:  In production.  The first of this year’s Christmas short stories for my blog is off to a good start.  I have the story in mind and am seeing it more clearly than just about anything else I’m working on right now.  I’m also working on ideas for the other two (for those of you new here, I’m trying to do three Christmas short stories a year on my blog) , although I need to get a move on if I’m going to have them written, edited, and polished by December.  Maybe some day I’ll be able to yank them off my blog, do a print anthology, and have people do productions of my off-color holiday tales on stage years after my death.

For the most part, I plan on finishing all of these "In production" pieces before I move on to something else.  My goal is to have them all completed and ready for submission by the end of the year, which seems like a long time for those of you who don’t have four children and a fifty-hour-a-week job.  I’ll probably write again soon on here about that very topic–how jealous I am over my lack of writing time.  Alas, that will have to wait for another time.

And, if any of you have found your way here from my short story, "The Hunt", appearing on Flashes in the Dark, I welcome you and hope you’ll stop by occasionally to say hello and let me know what you think about whatever it is I’m rambling about.  Feel free to email me at leesmiley@gmail.com .