Book Excerpt: TNT 2

They stood at the long service counter. Just a single table in the room had free seats. A dark-haired girl sat at it, and Todd looked her over. She had delicate features in a heart-shaped face and wore the stock student fashion of jeans and short-sleeved sweater. Todd noted embroidery around the sweater’s shiny buttons, and that her long hair was pinned back with a wide silver clip. The girl was simultaneously young and very grown up, poised and alone in the din.

He set down his beer. “Watch the master.”

Donny watched. His buddy claimed the empty captain’s chair beside the stranger. Todd touched her shoulder to get her attention as the musicians returned to the stage for the next set. “I’m Todd Taft.” The band picked up their instruments and began playing, and Donny couldn’t hear the rest.

The girl shook her head as she spoke. Todd’s brow furrowed and he added something. But she laughed as she shook her head again.

The guitarist started to sing.

“Ready?” The man who’d reached the table ignored Todd, eyes only for his date. She got up and they left the bar. She looked great from behind; her escort wore a sports jacket over faded jeans and looked like a preppie out slumming.

Grinning, Donny brought their beers over to the deserted table. “Nice going, cowboy.”

Todd rolled his eyes as he cupped his crotch. “I’m in love!”

Donny laughed and ordered another round. They remained until the bar closed, drinking a few last beers as the band played Eagles cover tunes. Todd drove home with the girl’s brown eyes impressed on the lyrics of Peaceful Easy Feeling.

He kept thinking about her. It was the challenge of being turned down, or maybe it was the boredom when work finished up and he had nowhere to go. Or the way he’d felt inside when she gazed at him. The attraction rolled over him in a gigantic wave, pulling him under with a siren’s lure.

He headed back to Cumberland in the hopes of finding her, the girl who’d refused to tell him her name.

Copyright © 2014 Jadi Campbell. Look for this novel in book and eBook form on Amazon.com in December.

Book Excerpt: TNT 1

For your reading enjoyment: excerpts from my coming book. I’m writing madly, aiming to finish by December. A pre-Christmas book release sounded like a no brainer. Unfortunately that’s just what I feel like half the time when it comes to promotion. I’m still figuring out the marketing end of self publishing.

Anyway.

Prepare to meet a hero with dangerous fantasies. A young woman trapped in a cult. A person who dreams other people’s futures. A man drinking glühwein at a Christmas Market as he waits for disaster. And Lynn, the connecting thread, taking a train trip with a seductive stranger. I’ll be posting the first pages to each chapter.

Committing my characters to an appearance on this blog makes them real. As of tonight, they exist beyond my imagination.

Here are the opening pages to my novel (Name being withheld until publication date). This first chapter is titled, TNT.

 1976: A History of the Hunt

TNT: Noun, 1. A yellow crystalline compound, CH3C6H2(NO2)3, used mainly as a high explosive. –Dictionary definition

The lot attendant waved his hand and vehicles inched forward. A Camaro was next in line, and he motioned wearily for it to advance.

He was in his late twenties, with short hair and a carefully shaved face. He wore worn-in work boots with metal tips shined to a high buff, jeans, and a nylon jacket over a tee shirt. The jacket flapped open suddenly to reveal a shirt printed with tangled stick figures. Red letters advertised Certified Muff Diver. Demonstrations upon request.

The attendant bared his teeth and closed the jacket as the teens in the car stared. “Five bucks parking, make sure you place the receipt on the dashboard or plan on paying to retrieve your vehicle from the towing company.” He handed over a parking stub and pointed to the farthest corner of the lot. “Over there, champ. You’ll want to keep this nice conveyance safe.”

No one in the car said a word. “Nice shirt,” the teen in the back seat commented once they were out of earshot. “Who’s that?”

“You don’t know? That’s Todd Taft. My sister Janine graduated with him. Todd was a big hero back in the day,” the driver recalled. “They called him TNT. Now he’s just a guy with a bad attitude who works parking cars.”

***

The last sports fan drove off with a wave after the game ended. “So long, pal,” Todd called cheerfully. The driver turned into the street and Todd stopped smiling. “Dim mother fucker,” he added under his breath. The rainbow painted on the side of the microbus faded in the distance. Todd watched until it vanished from his sight. The work keys jangled as he attached the chain link fence across the entryway. He walked back towards his booth, whistling.

The part-time attendant strolled over from the other end of the tarmac. Donny Shoemaker wore a clean pair of jeans, his ponytail tied back with a rubber band.

“Feel like a beer?”

“Well, that depends. Got somewhere in mind?”

“I thought I’d head over to Cumberland. Dante’s has a live band on. It’s Ladies’ Night! And in Cumberland that means college women.”

“I don’t need someone who can debate, Donny. I’d rather get laid.” But Todd reopened the booth where he always kept a clean tee shirt behind his crossword dictionary.

Donny waited impatiently. “It’s quicker if we take the back roads.”

“It’s all back roads, remember? This is upstate,” Todd said dryly.

“Christ, Taft,” Donny remarked when he was finally done. “Don’t you ever buy clothes in the right size?”

Todd looked down at the fresh shirt, tight on his barrel chest. “What are you talking about? My shirt?” he asked innocently. “Oh, it fits. Free advertising, Shoemaker, free advertising.” Todd ran a comb through his short black hair and let out a rebel yell. “It’s Saturday night. Look out, ladies, here we come.”

Copyright © 2014 Jadi Campbell. Look for this novel in book and eBook form on Amazon.com in December.

Thuvia, Maid of Mars

She placed the wooden box on the red bedcover, reluctant to open it. As soon as she recognized the odd sense of fate she laughed at herself, It’s not like he’s Blue Beard or something and anyway the box isn’t big enough to fit a head into! – And besides, it wasn’t as if the box had a lock she’d need to break open.

Charlene pulled the wooden lid back and peered in. Sure enough, Linda’s missing photograph of Rob and herself laying on their sofa was on very top of the box, just where Carl had claimed it would be. Underneath lay a jumble of boy’s treasures, the usual collection of any adult. Charlene lifted the picture out carefully, the old photo thick and heavy in her fingers. Careful as well of her husband’s privacy, gently she placed the lid back and returned the box to its place at the bottom of the closet floor.

Charlene began to dial Linda’s number on her cell phone as she turned back to the room to retrieve the photograph. The image of Linda and Rob looked up at her from the red bedspread, stained a color like wine in the bright afternoon sunshine from the window. Linda would be relieved to hear it was safe and sound.

Charlene picked the photograph back up and more photos fell and fluttered down to the bedspread. Apparently they’d stuck to the back of the first photograph after years of laying in the darkness of Carl’s treasure trove.

Charlene stared down at photos she’d never seen and hadn’t known her husband possessed. The first one was a gray photo, slightly blurry and out of focus, taken from the railing of a ship. A whale’s flukes were just visible in the background. The only elements clearly in focus were Rob’s huge grin and outstretched hand, pointing excitedly at the gigantic mammal.

Two photographs were close ups of a radiant, exhausted Linda holding Jennifer, their newborn baby. The infant couldn’t be seen through the swaddling of the baby blanket wrapping her, but it was clear these were photographs Rob had snapped as he welcomed home his wife and first born child in the middle of winter, snow piled at either side of the front doorway.

Charlene fanned the photos out on the bed and she sat down. She looked the images of a baby in winter and felt frozen. What in the world? Charlene dropped the cell phone. The phone call to Linda would have to wait.

Carefully she put the photos in a perfect stack and set them on the mound of the pillow on her side of the bed. She pulled the box back out of its hiding place and placed it in the very center of the bedspread where she’d have the most room. Her heart pounding, Blue Beard indeed! Charlene reopened her husband’s childhood box.

Charlene grimaced as she looked down into a jumble. It was a random collection, the emotional residue of any small boy’s life. But this didn’t explain what the photographs belonging to Linda and Rob were doing there. She began to slowly remove objects to review each of them more carefully.

The sun moving across the bed winked at her when light glinted off ruby glass in the box. Charlene gasped out loud as she recognized the eighth Venetian cordial glass that had gone missing so many years ago. The last time she’d seen it was at the dinner party to introduce Carl into her circle of intimates. In all the years since, she’d thought two glasses had broken. Carl had never bothered to correct her assumption and now Charlene knew why: that night, he stole one of those glasses.

Charlene sat very still. Then, with one swift motion, she upended the box and dumped its contents out onto the bed. A golf ball rolled off the spread and bounced over into a corner. She retrieved it and turned it over in her palm, biting her lips. It was signed in red ink with the name Jack Nicklaus, 1980.

“I hate golf,” Carl claimed; he found the game mind numbingly boring to watch on television, and not much of a sport to play in real life. Charlene thought, What’s he doing with a golf ball signed by the man considered to be the greatest PGA Championship player of all time?

Terry Rundell, she thought with the next breath. Terry and Carl worked together, and Terry was an absolute golf freak. Charlene had no actual proof that her husband stole the ball. But she knew. In light of all the other tokens she was looking at on the bed, Charlene knew.

Suddenly they were no longer random. With her fingertips Charlene picked up the single, ominous pearl colored silk stocking she’d overlooked. Charlene draped it over her left forearm and held it out in the sunlight in front of her where she perched on the red bedspread. One stocking. One. Stolen from a clothesline, maybe. Or filched from the back of a dresser drawer from a house where they’d been invited for dinner, or drinks, or an innocuous social gathering. Who had it belonged to, and what was it about the woman to compel Carl to steal her stocking?

Her mouth twisted in disgust and she dropped the silky, filmy thing into a pile. She continued to sort through the other items.

An old paperback had landed on the bed half-opened. Its cover was yellowed, the edges of the pages cracked and cuThuvia Maid of Mars-1920.jpgrling. Charlene placed it with the cover up in front of her. Thuvia, Maid of Mars, by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Her brain racing, Charlene recalled that Edgar Rice Burroughs had written the popular Tarzan series. This book must be one of his potboilers.

She turned cautiously to the first page. For Timmy, as promised! With love from Grandpa Brent was written on the flyleaf in an old man’s shaky, old-fashioned penmanship. Underneath he’d added, Xmas 1966. It had to be the treasured present of a boy from Carl’s grade school class, or later. Charlene knew adults have even stronger emotional attachments to items from their childhoods than children do. Well, wherever Timmy might be, this book left his possession years ago. She placed a tender palm on the cover as she closed the book and set it by the crumpled stocking.

Next Charlene opened a little bag with a drawstring and dumped out a bizarre collection of markers from children’s board games. The doll’s house teacup and Barbie shoe in the bottom of the bag bothered her the most. Those items were just too weird to find in a man’s box of memories… Charlene placed all of them back into their bag, firmly retied the strings, and went on to the next objects.

She frowned as she turned over used beer coasters. Those might be from the wet bar in the basement of one of Carl’s friends, someone he admired. Had Carl taken them as mementos of a night out drinking? Or were the coasters part of some guy’s foolish beer decal collection?

Charlene thought over who the friend might be as she jiggled the box absently. An object bumped against the bottom, and Charlene peered back into what she now considered Bluebeard’s box. Dislodged now, inside rolled a rare, colored, tiger-eye marble belonging to the little kid next door.

Determinedly Charlene picked up the box and shook it upside down. “What next!” she muttered, and out fluttered a single stamp. She plucked it from the bedspread and held it up in the sunlight. It was from The Cook Islands, 3 cents. Charlene didn’t have to use her imagination to picture a stamp collection belonging to someone who had the misfortune to come within Carl’s orbit. If the owner hadn’t noticed it yet, he or she or they, young or old, new to the hobby or an impassioned and seasoned collector… somewhere at some point, the person would notice a tiny object they had once thought theirs was gone. And they would lament the loss without knowing where it had gone, or who had removed it.

– from my short story “Carl Possessed” in Broken In: A Novel in Stories. Available online at amazon.com, amazon.de, and amazon in countries everywhere.

(All photogaphs can be enlarged by simply clicking on the image.)

Edgar Rice Burroughs, Thuvia, Maid of Mars & A Princess of Mars, A. C. McClurg Publisher, 1920. (Photos from Wikipedia)

Speed Dating – Part 2

“Jesus, cancer!” Rick shuddered in his chair at the mental image of watching a loved one waste away, or bearing witness to a beloved person’s features distort with pain. “Maybe my life style as a Good time Charlie was actually good protection. It always worked pretty well, as long as I wanted it to. Well.” He looked away to the back wall of the bar, refocused on the present and the woman listening carefully at the other side of the small table. “And you? How did you survive those years in the jungle?”

Maricela took a deliberate slow swallow from her non-alcoholic beer. “I would go out dancing on weekends, with my friends.” She looked away, her gaze on somewhere in the past. “I drank,” she answered quietly. “I went on short term binges. I didn’t really have relationships, or if I did, they sure were fluid ones. All high-percentage based.”

She gave him a wry smile and raised the near beer in a toast. “I had one black out too many. Finally I figured out I could get the smallest of buzzes from a near beer and it tastes just close enough to the real thing. Most people thing women drink these because they’re trying to avoid the calories.”

Maricela laughed softly; Rick thought she sounded sad. “I don’t judge you,” he was prepared to say, wanting to comfort her. He was shocked when she turned her face to him and he saw she was grinning.

“Holy shit! I was such a wild thing. I had fun, that’s for sure! I only regret I can’t remember more of it.”

Maricela’s utter candor and what sounded like a total lack of shame were attractive. She had no idea how sexy it was, the unfolding mystery of her past – her honesty about it – and the acceptance of both who she was now and what she had been like. She had no idea of the affect this had.

They sat in a bar and grill, perhaps an odd place given Maricela’s most recent story. But when he looked across the table at her she seemed at peace, happy to be with him eating lunch. Maricela talked on, unconcerned. “My friends, the women anyway, sit around and do the ‘Woulda coulda shoulda’ game. Where it went wrong, why it might have gone wrong, how they should have been stronger, or more assertive in their careers, or better mommies, or more giving to their ex-husband. Or rather most of the time, how they should have been less giving to the s.o.b.! In the end it’s all the same.

“Not me.” Maricela pierced Rick with a look. “Regretting the past doesn’t make it go away, or erase the mistakes. As nice as that would be… It’s mental masturbation. You root around in old dirt and feel guilty or bad about yourself over, and over, and over again.

“At first there was no way I was going to do a 12 steps program. Who needs to go into critical self-analysis when you can grow up Catholic? The gift that goes on giving: guilt. When I finally decided to stop drinking, I got a year of therapy to help me figure out why I liked drinking so much.”

“And?”

She laughed out loud again and the sound was truly joyous. “Well, it’s the reason I still drink non-alcoholic beer. I like the taste! I like beer! When I drank, I drank too much. There were no big revelations, which might have been the biggest revelation of all. We go hunting for deep answers, if my father had been more affectionate, if my mother only praised me more. I drank because I worked so hard. And since I weigh 130 pounds, it didn’t take much to help me unwind. I don’t have any buried family trauma, and I don’t have tendencies to be drug dependent. I never even smoked cigarettes, so I didn’t like smoking pot. When I tried smoking a joint it just tore out my lungs.

“But now I am sorry, I’m blathering on suddenly about all this! It’s old history, it’s really ancient. I haven’t gotten drunk in over a decade! It’s no big deal, Rick, I’m not a heroine or anything; I just got a little smarter about how I was living my life and what I want from it. One of the major things though, is I decided, if I met someone I wanted to see again, I have to be up front about who I am and who I’m not. And I am definitely not a drinker any more.”

“Yo, I’ve done some drinking in my time too. Not to worry. I think it goes with the territory of being young and getting older and wiser.” Inside he exulted.

They sat silent for a few minutes and Maricela resumed eating her cooling food. The silence wasn’t awkward; she really did seem at peace with herself and with the long speech she’d just given him. Rick waited until she finished eating and her hands were back in her lap before he reached over and, taking her left hand in his, silently raised it to his cheek. It was dated, the gesture: but Rick meant it.

Much later, Rick woke to feel Maricela’s presence in his bed beside him. She lay curled on her left side, the hand he’d held to his cheek earlier at lunch brushing against him.

– from my short story “Speed Dating” in Broken In: A Novel in Stories. Available in paperback or eBook at amazon.com, amazon.de, and amazon in countries everywhere.

 

Speed Dating – Part 1

Slowly Rick garnered the pertinent facts about Maricela. She came from a large family where education was a priority. All five of the Howard siblings had at least some graduate school time or professional training under their belts. Maricela was an intellectual prodigy and had gone to college entirely on grants and scholarships. She’d been a natural scholar, the acknowledged golden child of any seminar class. Ironically, his parents moved briefly to Brookville when Maricela had finished up her undergraduate work there; they’d just missed one another.

She worked as a financial advisor with an ethical investments firm, a job she loved since she began there eight years ago. She had been promoted twice and refused the next offer for further advancement, preferring to keep close to her individual clients. Her field of expertise was alternative energies and fair trade. Maricela firmly believed the phrase sustainable and responsible investing was not an oxymoron.

She’d had one, failed, live-in relationship. When she discovered his coke habit she ended the relationship. “It wasn’t just that he lied to me about how much he used,” Maricela explained. “And it wasn’t the way I found out: catching him in the kitchen over the butcher block, for God’s sake. He promised he’d ease up on what he was using, but I know too much about how much fun partying is.

“Speedy drugs weren’t ever my thing. They just made me nauseous and I preferred alcohol anyway, so it wasn’t like I felt holier than thou. It was the way he wasn’t willing to stay clean, and how cagey he was being about the realities of that fact. He kept pretending he was in control of his habit and lied about how much he did. Typical user behavior. It was the set up for more hiding and bullshit stories that eventually made me end it.”

The tone might have made Rick suspicious, because in the voice of the wrong woman it sounded phony. Worse, it sounded like what someone with a martyr complex might say. But Maricela was simply stating the facts. Her ex hadn’t wanted to be honest about needing to snort coke; and Maricela was unwilling to settle for a relationship based on prevarications.

Maricela’s friends held her in affection and quite often in awe. Despite her formidable brainpower her personality was easy and accessible; there was nothing of the intellectual snob about her. She’d cohabitated for the last 3 years with a long time friend named Sarah. Together the two of them had rented the converted loft space.

When Sarah was diagnosed with cancer the prior spring, Maricela put her own social life on hold in order to be there for her friend. That was the reason why she’d been out of the dating pool. It had nothing to do with an unwillingness to engage with other people. On the contrary: a deep commitment to the people she cared about led Maricela to prioritize how she used her time.

Almost every bit of information Chris and Sybil had offered to describe Maricela turned out to be accurate. The only piece of information they’d gotten wrong was her choice of alcohol. Instead of wine, most of the time Maricela drank near beer.

Rick noted all of these things and thought, This woman is someone worth getting to know, no matter where it leads. Surprised, Rick actually asked himself if he’d be willing to just be friends with her if the physical chemistry didn’t pan out. He was even more surprised when the answer to that question was, yes.

“I’m not being coy about bringing you home with me, you know,” she informed him one day; the two were having lunch. “Trust me on this one. In my earlier days we’d already be there! But Sarah’s really sick. She’s going through chemo, and the procedure is quite simply hell. It’s really important right now that we keep the apartment as germ-free and sterile as possible. You understand, right?”

“Sure,” Rick said, and hesitated. “No, actually, I don’t. I doubt if I can even begin to understand. I don’t think I’d know how to handle it if someone I was close to got cancer,” he admitted. “Or if I could be as supportive.”

Maricela turned what he’d said over in her mind and shrugged. “She’s my best friend. I sit with her when she’s awake half the night throwing up because the poisons in the chemotherapy mean she won’t keep anything down for long. The other half the night she can’t stop crying because she knows she’s getting weaker and weaker, and feels sicker and sicker. She’s really terrified that this is it, she’s going to die, and in the end all the chemo and medical attention in the world aren’t going to make a bit of difference. She’s scared maybe she’s putting herself through hell for nothing. And me along with her.

“Next,” continued Maricela relentlessly, “Sarah lost her hair. It was coming out in patches so Sarah had it all shaved off. Then she went through this awful period where her face puffed up. Her skin was reacting to a combination of the drugs, and she couldn’t go out in bright sunlight because of allergic reactions to some of the other meds. And when you’re a friend, all you can really do is just, be there. It’s not your sickness or your pain.

“Trust me. When you see it, you wouldn’t wish it on your worst enemy.

“The only thing you can do is fetch the bucket, get a cup of herb tea, and offer to do the shopping. Just being there for your friend and not being afraid to do that little extra helps more than anyone imagines. A person with cancer needs you to be normal, because nothing else in their life is any more. Nothing else around them will ever be the same again. I won’t go into the gruesome details about the bouts of depression Sarah endures, but picture your blackest, darkest thoughts. Magnify those by about a thousand and maybe you have some idea of how deep the depression of a person with cancer and on meds is. A cancer patient doesn’t know if it’s her or the heavy-duty medications doing the talking, or thinking, or feeling all those awful things.

“Every day becomes a big surprise, and not one you want to wake up to. Are you going to manifest new symptoms? How’s the old mood going to be, will you feel incapacitated or can you function again? What fun tests, and diagnostics, and medical procedures do you have scheduled this time? What will the news be, and how are you going to be able to bear to hear it? There was a phase where all the test results were bad; every one of them was really horribly grim. Sarah started going in and out of depressions where she couldn’t stand to be around anybody at all. What she was feeling, the agony, the fear, and exhaustion finally overwhelmed her.

“It’s not a question of staying supportive,” Maricela repeated. “Cancer survivors travel to hell and back. All I do is let her know I’ll be waiting there each time she returns.”

Rick listened to Maricela with both admiration and dismay. “I’m not so sure. I’d be scared I’d react the wrong way and make things worse,” he persisted. “Or that I wouldn’t be able to face someone else’s illness. I don’t know if I’d be up to being supportive.”

He looked at Maricela’s face as he admitted that, afraid to see her light brown eyes darken. But he didn’t want to present himself in a false light, especially when compared with the relentless clean light of her frankness. Only honesty was admissible.

He was silent, thinking about all of the relationship games he’d so willingly played over the years. One set of games to get close enough to climb into bed; another set to extricate himself from the mussed up sheets afterwards. When he realized she was waiting patiently for him to talk, or to remain silent, just as he wished, Rick surprised himself for the third time in an hour. He opened his mouth and as if in the third person, Rick heard himself really talk.

“I don’t know what I’d do if someone I loved was ill, much less going to die. I’ve never been in that situation! My mom was always great. She’d make home made chicken soup with egg noodles, nothing fancy, but it was like the great home remedy for anything that ever made a little kid feel bad. I would pretend to have a really, really bad cough, just to get her to make it.

“It’s the only dish I ever make for someone on a regular basis.” Rick was thinking out loud; silent, Maricela listened without judgment as he began to peel away protective layers.

“My mother made soup, but it was about emotional support. When I make it for anyone it’s, soup. The emotional support’s what I get, by recreating the atmosphere of my mom. It’s never about doing something for another person at all.

“Jesus! Why didn’t I ever notice this before? For me,” his voice was almost at a crawl. Maricela actually leaned across the table so she could hear him without having to interrupt to ask him to speak more loudly. “For me, relationships were, are, something to have fun with. It’s all speed dating. I never put much energy into the mutual support aspect of it, beyond being honest and not cheating on a girlfriend as long as we’re together.

“Jesus, cancer!” Rick shuddered in his chair at the mental image of watching a loved one waste away, or bearing witness to a beloved person’s features distort with pain. “Maybe my life style as a Good time Charlie was actually good protection. It always worked pretty well, as long as I wanted it to. Well.” He looked away to the back wall of the bar, refocused on the present and the woman listening carefully at the other side of the small table. “And you? How did you survive those years in the jungle?”

– from my short story “Speed Dating” in Broken In: A Novel in Stories. Available in paperback or eBook at amazon.com, amazon.de, and amazon in countries everywhere.

Broken In

An hour later Jeff could no longer see clearly in the increasing gloom of dusk. A thorough search of the grounds hadn’t revealed any gopher activity. Jeff wasn’t reassured; he examined the wire fence line separating his lot from the edge of the forest and found it badly bent in places. The fencing had been rolled out from a long heavy roll of reinforced wire, and twists in one section affected the entire fence line. Jeff repaired it as best he could. Before he was done, he decided he’d check the perimeter each weekend.

A month later his peace of mind hadn’t increased. On the contrary, a deep unease kept growing. There were nights when Colleen didn’t wake him up by barking; he slept badly anyway. Jeff was unused to feeling disquieted, and it took a long time before he was willing to even admit to himself that the feeling existed.

On Saturday afternoon he headed down into the cellar. Ostensibly he wanted to check the heater, but his unease had stubbornly gone on growing unchecked. It was as if the weight of worry was breaking down and into his brain, too, like a growth of cells going rogue, lurking, a cancer of fear and vague suspicions.

The cellar’s double lock and bolt were firmly in place. Relieved, Jeff unlocked them and opened the door leading down into the basement. He felt for the light switch on the right wall. “See there, nothing to worry about,” he told himself aloud. His triumph retreated immediately upon realizing he couldn’t see. Well, bulbs did burn out and it had been months since he’d checked.

Actually, Jeff couldn’t remember the last time he’d gone down in the house cellar; the garage contained a laundry corner and the kitchen had a pantry. The only things in the little basement were packing boxes and old belongings he hadn’t found places for when he’d moved in. Those were all stacked on a long worktable at the back of the cellar in a room originally designed for power tools.

Jeff got a flashlight and extra bulbs from the top shelf of the hallway closet and descended the thirteen cellar steps in the light from the upstairs hallway. At the bottom he switched on the torch and ran the light over the walls and the hanging light cord. He frowned: the cord hung as it always had, but there was no light bulb in it. Jeff thought back but couldn’t remember if the bulb had burned out and he’d removed it and simply hadn’t replaced it; it really had been too long since he’d been down here. But he was holding a bulb now, and he grimaced and screwed it in.

Still no light. “What the..?” Jeff said out loud. The hairs at the back of his neck rose when Colleen barked from the top of the stairs. “Come here, girl!” he ordered. She raced down the steps, tail wagging. Jeff was reassured when the dog didn’t growl once she was in the cellar.

He played the flashlight over the small main cellar room but aside from the kaput light cord nothing looked different. This was troublesome though; he needed an outlet for a light down here. The circuit box was in the other cellar room. Maybe the switch for the main cellar room had gotten tripped somehow.

Jeff thought some more. There was an outlet at the back of the wall behind the stacks of his boxes. If need be, he could run a cord from there. He pushed open the door to the smaller room and gasped.

The room was ever so dimly lit up by a night-light in the cellar wall. The home’s previous tenants had needed it for their toddlers, and Jeff had left the discarded night light down there with his unneeded belongings. Boxes were in the exact same order they had been in when he first stored them, but they were stacked against the opposite wall. Someone had completely cleared the worktable. It was as if mischievous elves had executed a moving exercise in his absence.

Colleen wagged her tail at him but was otherwise unimpressed with the uncanny room. Jeff’s hand trembled as he held it an inch over the ridiculously tiny night light bulb. The little pink light was too hot to touch; it had been burning for days, if not weeks or months.

Jeff used his sleeve to protect his hand and turned off the light. When he got back up to the top of the stairs he double-checked the dead bolt on the cellar door. He was breathing much harder than climbing the simple thirteen steps back up into the house warranted.

He reviewed his actions of the past few weeks, going back for the past few months; the light could well have burned that long. Jeff was seeing someone new, and spent Saturdays over at her place. It had to be when the punks decided to play their practical joke. He’d been on a long project at work and had put in late hours. Perhaps that was when they broke in. But Colleen would have been in the yard, and surely would have barked at the intruders. Jeff recalled the words of his neighbor Jeremy, telling him how the dog barked incessantly all day long.

Jeff didn’t sleep at all that night. For once he allowed Colleen to sleep up on the bed with him. He lay with his arms wrapped around the collie trying to feel secure. Every time he closed his eyes he met the faces of Charles Manson and the Manson Family, x’es carved into their foreheads, eyes staring out in insanity and darkness. Those eyes contained pools as black and drained of light as his cellar. Creepy crawly, Jeff thought. He shivered. Creepy, crawly, creepy, crawly, creepy creepy crawly crawly… Jeff groaned and pulled the dog closer to his body. She whined for him to let her loose, but remained lying where he held her. Creepy, crawly…

The cellar was the only place Jeff found anything rearranged indoors. It didn’t stop him from inspecting the house. Jeff would tour it before leaving for work, trying to convince himself it was secure. He compulsively checked in the evenings both before and after it became dark.

Jeff couldn’t shake the image of the Manson Family. He sensed a family of deranged drug addicts, perverts tossing his house for the fun of it, breaking him in for something. It had to be a gang, a group, a motley crew. Jeff couldn’t decide if it would be worse if they were highly organized, or simply random criminals.

A week later the wire of his fence line was deliberately cut. It had rained since the fence was sabotaged; search though he might, Jeff found no footprints. One weekend he found chewed rubber balls scattered throughout the entire back lot. Were some neighborhood kids throwing balls at his windows, or at his dog? Was that what was going on?

Hulton Archive / Getty

– from my first book Broken In: A Novel in Stories. Available as paperback or eBook at amazon.com, amazon.de, and amazon in countries everywhere.

 

The Gift of Gab

I’ve belonged to a writers’ group for two years. How did I survive so long without the company of my crazy peers and fellow wordsmiths? I have no idea what I did before I hooked up with these people.

In my group you find: Short stories. Essays. Erotic (really erotic) poetry. Autobiographies. Journalism. Novels. Urban fantasy. Flash fiction. Song lyrics. Wistful thinking (this is how a member explains what he writes, and I love his description).

We come together to share and critique works-in-progress. We use writing exercises to loosen up our creative muscles. And we’re committed to public readings.

Two roosters singing at a microphone, isolated Stock Photo

A little café named Wir Sind Babel was one venue. A brightly lit coffee house with marble floors and comfy chairs was another. And the last one…. well, that venue gets a blog post all its own.

An Irish pub I’ll call The Blarney Stone seemed like the ideal spot. The bar’s slowest weeknight was the perfect time.

We could use a side room for our event. The space looked like a library room filled with bookcases, a perfect setting for our brilliant words. Even better, the owner promised us  if we could total 50 people we’d get the main room – and he had a microphone we could use! They often feature live musical acts and the entire bar was already wired to hear us. Sweet!

A Toast Master offered to be our MC. He’d read short bios to introduce each reader. We printed up fliers for the tables and info sheets to hand out ahead of time. It was all perfect…

Doesn’t this sound too good to be true?

That Tuesday we arrived with high expectations. The bar was packed. Our side room grew too small for all our friends and guests, but the main room had filled with patrons who, sadly, were not there for our earthshaking literary creations.

Every chair was taken and people sat and stood everywhere. Waiters and waitresses had to slither their way with plates and drinks through the crowds. Then we realized our side room had no door, and that meant no barriers against the noise levels that kept increasing.

No worries. We were as cool as the collective cucumber, because we had the ultimate secret weapon: the microphone. The first reader began to recite her piece.

And then the m crophone we were loan d began sh rt ng out w th ever sec nd sente ce and nex with ev ry thi d word. It g t wors . The m ke beg n to let o t awf l and ear splitt ng sccccrrre eee ee ech hhhhiiiing fee eeedb ck. We checked that the batteries were fresh and the wiring solid. We tried holding the mike in different parts of the room, closer to our lips, away from our mouths, up in the air. We recited louder, and then more quietly; none of it made a difference.

At that point every writer in the room knew we’d been rat f cked. Without saying much (not that we could have heard one another anyway over the noise in the pub) we had that group moment of grokking that this evening would not be the literary triumph we’d all awaited.

The first reader gamely made it through her piece. The second reader performed in a different corner of the room. By the time it was my turn to read I lay the mike down on the pult and basically yelled out my piece, observing every pause, emphasis and careful nuance I’d practiced.No one heard a word over the pub din.

But I am so very proud of all of us. We observed grace under pressure. We went forward despite impossible conditions (and false promises made to us). We made the best out of the debacle… and it really brought us together as fellow failed performers.

The pub owner got more than fifty extra paying guests on what was his slowest night of the week! I’d like to say he bought us a round of drinks to make up for it. I’d really like to say that our words triumphed over noise decibels. But no, that night the gift of gab got stuck in a malfunctioning microphone.

Microphone Stock PhotographyMicrophone Stock PhotographyMicrophone Stock Photography

Our next public reading is in a month, and it will not be held in an Irish pub. The first moral of the story? To get over stage fright, sometimes you have to scream. The second moral to the story? Don’t mess with writers, because at some point we will write about you and what you did.

We’ll be back at the newly renovated Wir Sind Babel. The date is Thursday, May 22. Doors open at 1900. Hope to see you all there!

NOTES:

http://www.wirsindbabel.de/selbst.html

Eckladen Uhlandstrasse 26 am Olgaeck /70182 Stuttgart
0711-620 2118

Images courtesy of dreamstime.com