Living as a writer

I’ve often wondered–and heard others wonder–what it takes to become a full-time writer. I’m not talking about a journalist, but rather a novelist. That’s my aspiration. There a lot of answers to this question and plenty of good answers. First and foremost is this: you have to write the books.

But aside from the craft (and toil) of writing, the fundamental question is not so difficult to answer. It boils down to this: how much does it cost to live? This is a question that everyone must answer, no matter the profession. And the answer is the same for each of them.

Cost of living is unique to every person in every part of the world. But there is a solution to becoming a full-time whatever sooner rather than later. The solution is that you have to reduce your living expenses to the minimal, essential amount that you are happy with. Once you’ve done that, you’ll know how much money you have to earn doing whatever to maintain your lifestyle.

Let’s look at an example:

Jack wants to be a writer. Nothing else. He wants to tap away at his computer and produce works of fiction. So, how much does he need to earn to survive? He’s done all the right things to reduce his expenses. He canceled Netflix and sold his TV on Craig’s List. In fact, he sold a whole bunch of stuff on Craig’s List and reduced his possessions to a capsule wardrobe, stuff to write with, and those things that truly bring him pleasure. He ditched his internet service and uses a local coffee shop to surf and maintain his online presence. He splurged a little on a tablet and keyboard for writing. He went with a cheap mobile phone provider. And he found the cheapest place he could to live in a city where he can ride a bike or walk everywhere he needs to go. His monthly expenses look like this:

  • Rent: $500
  • Phone: $50
  • Business: $50
  • Food: $250
  • Medical: $400
  • Savings: $150
  • Other: $100

Total monthly expenses: $1,500 (or $18,000 per year net).

So, to live an absolutely frugal writer’s life, you need to earn less than $20,000 per year. You can scale this up if you’re married and/or have children. But by keeping things simple, you can examine your lifestyle and live the most basic life you are comfortable with. I would suggest (and others would agree) that a family of four can live well on $25,000 per year.

If Only She Could

1.

“Her finger’s not getting any better.”

Tom looked up from his workbench and pushed his glasses up onto his forehead. He looked at her standing there, outlined by sunlight streaming in through the back door. Lucy was standing in her shadow, the strong, older hands resting gently on Lucy’s shoulders.

“It looks like it’s spreading. Could it be this thing that’s going around?” She was just starting to get a little of that wild animal look. The look that developed when society started falling apart. When the grocery stores closed down and the police stopped patrolling and folks starting seeing one another less and less.

And where was everyone going, anyway? Did they just disappear or did they know something she didn’t? Was there something better someplace else? She didn’t have an answer. And neither did Tom.

And Howie was missing going on three months now. Not much hope there anymore. But Lucy was still here, though she seemed sick somehow. And that damn finger that wouldn’t heal. To hell with Beth Gurgens and her biting! Jesus, they weren’t three years old anymore! And where was Beth now anyway? Gone. Just like the rest of her family. Just like the others.

She sighed.

Maybe they shouldn’t have moved so far outside of town. Tom and his damn fool ideas about living off the grid! What she wouldn’t do for a little taste of the grid right about now.

2.

It seemed like they came from every direction at once. Everywhere she looked the shambling bodies closed in, slow, emotionless, merciless. Too many of them.

“Do something, Tom!” she screamed. She was angry, not really at him, but at everything all at once. And she was scared. She’d never been so scared in her whole life.

“Like what?” he bellowed back at her. The noise around them was a deafening cacophony of moans and grunts. A hand smacked against the glass of the window behind her. The glass cracked, a long crooked line shooting up toward the top edge, the sound like breaking ice.

“I don’t know! You’re a fucking marine!” she screamed.

He shoved her up into the attic opening, tearing her jeans along the left leg. And then he jumped up and grabbed the wooden framing and started to haul his body upward and the glass window shattered and the sound filled everything and Tom screamed and then he was up there with her and they breathed heavily for a bit.

“We can’t stay up here forever,” she said.

“Oh, I don’t know,” he said. “I wouldn’t mind.” Tom smiled. He held her hand and squeezed. And she loved him for that. And then she noticed all the blood on his legs.

“Hungry bastards,” he said, wincing, as she gently touched his torn jeans. “All right, let’s get moving.”

3.

The dying takes a while. Then the burying. Then the waiting and sorrow. Then the banditry. Then surviving.

4.

He set aside a trunk just for her. Hiking boots. Clothes. Rucksack. He had a sword. The only doomsday “prepper” who didn’t own a gun.

“We’d eventually run out of bullets anyway. Besides, guns are heavy and loud.” He smiled when he said that.

He’d studied martial arts his whole life. He’d promised to teach her some day. But the kids had come pretty quickly and then, well, where did the time go?

The ache in her heart for him was indescribable. She knew that empty space would never — could never — be filled.

5.

It started to snow.

The snow drifts were now up to her hips. She kept pushing forward, trudging against the weight of the rucksack on her back and the snow pressing on her legs. It was slow going, agonizing, torturing. Her legs started to burn and her breathing became ragged.

Eventually she just gave up. What was the point anymore anyway? Tom was gone. So were little Lucy and Howie. The only things she’d ever really cared about.

Her legs hurt. She was so hungry she didn’t even feel it anymore. And it was cold. So bitter cold and why did it have to be so fucking cold! She just needed a moment.

Just a short rest.

She set down the frayed rucksack and walked a few more steps. She thought it might be easier without the weight of the rucksack on her shoulders, but it didn’t seem to make any difference. The snow was getting really deep and the sky showed no signs of stopping now. It seemed it would snow for days.

She was so tired.

And it was so cold.

She just needed a few minutes. Then maybe she would get up and get moving again. Maybe she would figure out what to do next. How to find something to eat. How to survive.

But for right now she just needed to close her eyes for a moment. Just…

Coda.

The sunlight danced through the high windows set into the gabled bedroom wall. Her hair was still wet from the shower and she lay naked on the bed, the rays of sunlight warm against her skin. She could feel Tom’s fingers brushing lightly over her shoulder and down her back. She luxuriated in the moment, taking it all in with her entire being. She could hear Lucy and Howie playing in the other room, their peals of laughter tinkling like wind chimes from somewhere far off.

She was happy here.

This was the place she always loved the most. It must be Saturday. Tom would make blueberry buttermilk pancakes in a little bit. But for now, lying next to him, she could imagine staying like this forever. Inside this moment.

If only she could.

The Butler and the Novelist

Chuck Wendig’s Famous “Flash Fiction Challenge”

Topic: Write a short story based on a tweet by Magic Realism Bot.

Tweet: A butler counts to ten. In that time, he lives twelve years as a 16th Century novelist.

Length: 1,500 words (oops, I went over by roughly 500 words)

It’s time for another shot at tackling one of the Penmonkey’s story challenges. I’m not following his deadlines, just going back through and picking out the ones that interest me and working on them in my spare time (ahem). The results will be posted to Chuck’s website, Medium, and Wattpad.

The Butler and the Novelist

Prologue

Thomas set down his cloth, using his thumbs to pull up his waistband. He adjusted his jacket, taking a quick peek in the mirror that was angled down above the fireplace. His eyes were a bit baggier and his belly certainly a little bigger. But, at 48, he still looked decent for his age. He pinched his necktie with his right thumb and index finger, pulling it back to center. To the left of the mirror was a beautiful stone clock with a brass bezel and shiny brass hands. It was 10:10 in the morning. Glancing to the right, he noticed an old porcelain bust of Thomas More. He recognized the face from an imprint of Utopia he had muddled through at primary school. Though a difficult read, Thomas had liked it for some reason. He’d never noticed the bust before, which was odd considering he’d been the butler for the Rothscombe-Deloney household for more than twenty years. Surely he would have noticed the bust, especially considering his reading history-and the fact that they shared a first name. There was a small brass plaque screwed into the base of the bust. It was faded and unreadable.

Thomas retrieved his cloth, picked up the bust and began vigorously to polish it. After a few moments, he could make out the simple words.

“Count to ten…” read the small inscription. Smiling, bemused and curious, Thomas took a breath. And counted.


1.

“How now, Thomas!” came a hearty voice behind him before a heavy hand slapped him hard on the shoulder.

“How do you fare?” said a second voice.

Thomas blinked. In front of him was a long wooden bar, a crowd of men jostling for position, reaching out, grabbing pints of dark beer. He spun to look at the owner of the hand on his shoulder, the second man shouldering past him to the bar. He stared at the man, whose hand was still clasped, friendly, on his shoulder. The man was dressed in a funny getup like he was going to or coming from a costume party.

“Cat got yer tongue, then, Thomas?” The man smiled, his mouth full of straight but yellow teeth.

“This’ll loosen yer vocalator,” said the other man, turning from the bar and handing a large pint of beer to Thomas. Thomas took the glass and stood there, mute and dumb, staring back and forth between the two men.

“Let us come sit,” said the man with the friendly hand, guiding Thomas away from the bar. They found a bench against the wall and sat, the three of them, with Thomas in the middle.

“Who are you guys? And why are you dressed in costumes?” asked Thomas.

It was very loud, the crowd becoming rowdier as the minutes passed.

“I come not into a guise of any sort, Thomas,” said one of them seriously. “What manner of costume do you think he means, Edward?” he asked, looking across Thomas at the other man.

“Methinks Thomas has come over odd, Robert,” said Edward. “Do you ken his meaning?”

“Tis Greek to me, Edward,” said Thomas. Both men laughed and knocked their glasses against Thomas’s, then drank from them. Thomas smiled awkwardly and took a sip. It was strong and bitter-sweet. And cool. Thomas smiled more broadly.

“Hey, this is pretty good,” he said. Was he dreaming this? He looked at each man in turn. Then he blinked.

2.

Edward shook his head, looking over at Robert. “Seems his mind has gone over to his writing,” he said.

“Tis a foregone conclusion, indeed,” said Robert.

“My writing?” asked Thomas. He was starting to sense something wasn’t right. The scene around him had changed. He was in a dark office, a writing table against one wall, quills and paper scattered haphazardly across it. Everything was too real to be a dream. Edward and Robert smelled too pungent, their clothes too authentic. What was going on?

“Your tales,” said Edward. “What, pray tell, are you on about—”

“What year is it?” asked Thomas, cutting Edward off and sitting forward to lean his elbows on his knees.

“Why, Thomas, it’s 1588. Has the Devil got into your head, man?”

Thomas didn’t want to ask the next question. “Who do you think I am?”

Edward laughed, but Robert looked pensive. “You are Thomas Deloney.”

“A great writer, Thomas,” added Edward. Thomas stared at him and blinked.


3.

“No one’ll ever take you serious if you write in plain English,” said Robert.

“You think so?” Thomas asked. “I’m not so sure.” It was all incredible and unbelievable, but Thomas didn’t care. Whatever fates had brought him here, he had to do something with it. If they thought he was a writer, he would write.

“You speak well and truly strange, methinks,” Edward said, scratching a match across his shoe sole and lighting his pipe.

“I’m pretty sure that one day everyone who speaks English will also read English,” Thomas replied.

“Not every man who speaks English comes to reading, in any language,” Robert said. Edward laughed.

“‘Tis true, Thomas, ’tis true.” Edward sucked on his pipe, blowing out small clouds of smoke, shaking his match until the flame was out.

“But what I’m writing is the truth,” said Thomas.

“What know you of sooth?” asked Edward. “What ye’ve written so far beggars all description.”

“It’s a story of the future,” Thomas said, huffing out his breath like a child.

“‘Tis a brave new world you tell of, Thomas. I can see it—in my mind’s eye, as you are wont to say,” soothed Robert.

“God blind me!” said Edward. “You keep writing that stuff, all fast and loose, and you’ll be a laughing stock. Out on your ear in one fell swoop!”

Thomas looked at Edward, his frustration building up. He balled up his fists and blinked.


4.

“Once more into the breach,” muttered Thomas, sitting down at the huge desk. He realized he was becoming obsessed. To him, he was more or less writing a journal of his life. But to his two friends, it seemed like a story of sorcery and witchcraft. But he was trying to get to the theme. The story wasn’t about the computers and cars and spaceships that were commonplace in his world. The story was about men, mankind rather. The fact that nothing has changed. On the inside. Regardless of the advances on the outside. People are still people—in any time or age.

“You think truth will out, do ya, Thomas?” It was Edward again, pushing Thomas’s buttons. Edward stared at the stacks of hand-written pages piled around the room. “Well, if they say brevity is the soul of wit, I come to thinking your tale won’t be so amusing.” Robert chuckled and slapped Thomas on the shoulder.

“Worry not, fair Thomas,” he said. “Write your tale. We wait with bated breath for its outcome, though these pages will be cold comfort to a man who has lost his fortune.”

“I will finish it,” Thomas said, turning back to the desk. “And I will share my fortune with you when it goes viral.”

“There you go speaking odd, Thomas,” laughed Robert and slapped Thomas so hard on his back that it made his eyes blink.


5.

Thomas, Edward, and Robert sat out in the garden, drinking beer. The grass was soft and lit by a late afternoon sun. Thomas was three beers in and feeling it.

“If I understand you at all, Thomas, you mean to say that there are com-pyoo-ters,” Edward struggled through the word, “that you hold in yer hand and with it, you can converse with another a farthing or more distant?” Edward was holding his hand out, palm up as if to demonstrate holding something, which honestly he couldn’t even begin to picture.

“Yes. It’s called an iPhone—or an Android phone, I guess—and it’s like an old-timey telephone, but portable,” Thomas said, sipping his beer.

“Old-timey? Te-le-phone? Honestly, Thomas, soon you’ll be telling me the Earth moves ’round the Sun and expect me to believe it,” said Robert.

Thomas laughed out loud. “It does! It absolutely does!” he said. Edward scoffed. Thomas blinked.


6.

He never stopped. Not once. When a candle burned low, either Edward or Robert would bring another, already lit, and set it on the table. When he pulled at the last slip of foolscap, one or other of the men would lay another stack where the old one had dwindled.

He did not eat.

He drank wine at a constant rate.

He was tipsy, not only on the wine but on the thrill of getting all of the words onto the pages. And he was frantic, somehow worried that he wouldn’t finish, wouldn’t put down on paper the words that told his life, his personal triumphs, and failures. The truth.

Somehow he felt that time was slipping away from him. He realized suddenly how tired he was. When was the last time he had slept? He picked up his pencil and bent over the page. His heavy, tired head bobbed and his eyes blinked closed.


7.

Everything seemed to become less and less substantial. Not just his own body, but everything around him. It was as though the world was a projected image, and some competing light source was starting to shine through it all. Thomas had a frenetic desire to put down the story onto the pages. To tell about a simple butler working in a home hundreds of years in the future. He knew no one here would believe it, but perhaps someone would read it one day and think, “How that man must have had a vision! To see things as they are. And how they are not much changed from his time.”

His hand moved in a blur, from left to right across the paper. His hand was cramped but he didn’t pause, just kept putting the words down, link a monkey with a pen, scribble, scribble


8…9…10

Just images now. His pencil flying across the page, the words flowing out of him. A warm, jasmine-scented breeze coming in from the window, gently blowing up the edges of the paper strewn across his desk. The distant hum of bees in the garden.

“What year is it?” he asked no one, his voice papery and distant. But then he felt the feathery touch of Edward’s hand on his shoulder.

“It is the year 1600, Thomas.” Edward paused, bending forward to look over Thomas’s shoulder at the page resting under Thomas’s hand, the pencil hovering. “Are ye finished?” Thomas looked at the page, the sentence he had been writing dangled there, no verb yet, and no punctuation. No, it wasn’t finished. He turned to look up at Edward and smiled as he blinked his eyes.


Epilogue

Thomas exhaled in a hard blow of air, dropping the bust and staggering backward, his arms windmilling to keep him upright. The porcelain bust shattered on the hearthstone so completely that it looked like a pile of sand. Thomas lost his fight for balance and crashed onto his backside, his arms reaching out behind him. He sat there, leaning back on his hands, his knees slightly bent, staring between them at the remains of the bust.

Climbing unsteadily to his feet, he walked over and bent down, sifting through the sand with his fingers. As the sand flattened out into more or less one smooth layer, Thomas realized the plaque wasn’t there. Puzzled, he stood, looking again into the mirror. The clock to the left of the mantle showed 10:12 in the morning.

Thomas rubbed his chin with his fingers, thinking. Suddenly, he took in a deep breath, staring into his own eyes reflected in the mirror. Squeezing his eyes shut, he said, “One.”

He opened his eyes and laughed, expelling his breath in a long huff. His face reflected back at him, the room behind him the familiar one belonging to the Rothscombe-Deloney home he’d been working in his whole adult life. His eyes lost focus for a moment, his thoughts turning inward at what he had just imagined. Or had he?

Shaking his head, he picked up his cloth and went in search of a broom.

Excerpt from “Eidolon Vodou”

The following is from the opening chapter to my new book. Still woking on finishing the story, but I hope to have it published before the end of the year. Let me know what you think!


THE SUN FINALLY dipped below the horizon, dropping the field into darkness. The trees running along the sides of the field cast long shadows and rose like ghosts from the rough terrain. Little Crook took a deep breath, taking in the mixture of smells. Dusty clay pervaded everything, but the young Haitian boy’s blood, pouring out of his opened neck, began to take over. The mambo, or vodou priestess, tossed the large butchering knife aside and held the boy’s shoulders as his feet kicked, shuffling up more clay dust. She eased him onto his back, positioning his pulsing neck over a metal pail, the blood running thickly down the rough sides and filling it. It shined in the darkness.

Little Crook slowly unbuttoned his shirt, pulling it off and folding it neatly before setting it on the ground by his feet. He removed his shoes, socks, and trousers and placed them in a tidy pile on top the shirt. Standing in his underwear, he shivered slightly, wrapping his arms protectively around his torso. Though he was forty years old, he looked not unlike the bleeding boy a few feet away. Malnutrition in his own childhood had rendered him forever thin, emaciated, and his face looked too young. It was something that always bothered him; he was treated like a child because he looked like one.

After tonight, those who had taunted him his whole life would beg for their lives. And Little Crook would not spare them.

He took a few steps toward the mambo and the boy—was he dead now?—but she waved him away, motioning for him to go over to the circle of smooth stones behind him.

The stones were like pavers, each one slightly curved and aligned to circle inward in a spiral. Little Crook knew it was a perfect arrangement, placed to match the Fibonacci sequence: an ancient mathematical perfection. It was no wonder that it was here. This was what he had been searching for since taking power. The Portal.

He had heard of it since he was a child. Stories told that the brutal Haitian dictators of the past, Gwavoka and his son Tivoka had discovered it—or rediscovered it—and tried to open it. And then the holy man, Ti Preche, had supposedly succeeded before the Americans had kidnapped him and taken him to Africa. Maybe they all had succeeded, but it didn’t look like it to Little Crook. He had heard, too, that Haitians had long ago opened this Portal, using its powers to cast out the French colonialists and gain their freedom. But they had failed to control the power and the country had never recovered.

“Lie down,” the mambo said. Lost in his thoughts, Little Crook looked over, thinking that the boy might still be alive, trying to sit up. But the mambo was walking toward Little Crook, the bucket in both hands, heavy with its liquid content. She was talking to him. He pushed his gold-rimmed glassed up onto his nose and turned.

He stood in the center of the spiral and lowered himself to the stones, laying out flat on his back. He angled his arms and legs out like the Vitruvian Man. Little Crook knew his proportions were just as humanly perfect, but he winced imagining the greater perfection DaVinci had drawn. He closed his eyes and slowed his breathing.

The mambo stepped into the space between his splayed legs and set the metal bucket down, its bottom rasping on the stones. She bent down and tugged at Little Crook’s underwear and he lifted his hips, bringing his legs together quickly so she could pull them off. Completely naked, Little Crook stared up at the clear sky. Stars stared brightly back down at him.

Speaking in a quiet, but forceful voice, the mambo began her incantations as Little Crook closed his eyes and relaxed his body. He responded to her verses where he was supposed to and he felt the stones beneath his body grow warm. He thought he could see light pushing at the edges of his eyelids, but he only squeezed his eyes tighter and concentrated on the mambo’s voice.

The hot splash on his stomach caused him to inhale sharply between his clenched teeth. He hadn’t expected the blood to be so warm still. She poured more of the thick blood onto his body, its smell heavy and dark, but not unpleasant to Little Crook’s nose. It made him think of wet clay and old rusted frying pans, a strong metallic smell. Some of the blood splashed onto his face and he tasted the liquid iron on his lips. It was the taste of his childhood, lips bloodied by bullies, the taste of bitter humiliation a reminder of his frailty. His heart began to beat faster and the stones grew even warmer.

The mambo bent over Little Crook’s body and began to smear the blood with the palms of her hands, her voice rising. The drops rolled off his body and hit the stones below him and hissed as wet, metallic steam hissed up into the air. The blood on Little Crook’s body began to bubble and boil, wisps of gray-black smoke coming off his body in waves. His back burned from the hot stones and he heard a grumble from somewhere beneath him.

Backing away, the mambo continued to speak in a language even Little Crook did not fully understand. He too was a houngan, a vodou priest, but his studies had been more for show and less for purpose than the mambo’s. She was a true priestess. Without her, this wouldn’t be happening.

As her voice grew more distant and the rumbling beneath him more pronounced, Little Crook opened his eyes. He could see the mambo standing by the dead boy, her bloodied hands held in front of her protectively. Her eyes opened wide as the grumbling grew to a violent crescendo,  and the stones beneath Little Crook began to shake. He could feel the spaces between them widening as they began to crack and move apart. Suddenly the stones near his feet began to descend and Little Crook scrambled to his feet, jumping off the stone circle, blood dripping down off his body.

The sound of the stones grinding against one another drove into Little Crook’s head. It was overpowering, mixing with the smell of blood, now shifting to the scent of death and decay, bringing on a writhing headache and nausea. The portal was opening!

The perfect spiral dropped down following its shape, the stones forming steps that twisted down into the earth in an ever darkening circle. The black smoke was sucked from the air and pulled down the steps into the darkness. Then the grumbling and grinding stopped as quickly as it had begun and a blinding white light shot up from the ground, blinding Little Crook.

He dropped to his knees and vomited onto the ground, resting on his hands and knees. His whole body shook and he shivered again now that he was no longer lying on the hot stones.

He heard heavy footfalls as something pounded up the steps from the earth below. He raised his head to look and the fetid smell of decay bellowed out of the hole ahead of the thing coming up the steps. Little Crook trembled in fear, struggling to get ahold of himself. This was the whole reason he had come here—had lured the boy with the promise of God’s salvation for his dying mother—had allowed the mambo to practice the Rites of Blood and call this thing forth from the Portal.

He didn’t want to look. He wanted to run. The smell was overpowering and he dry heaved as he tried to stand, finally managing to get to his feet. When he looked again he saw a battered black silk top hat bounce up from the hole followed by something darker than the shadow of the night around him. The footsteps slapped flatly on the stones, a sound like a wet mop cracking against a wooden rail. Little Crook heard the mambo start to sob.

The thing kept coming, impossibly tall—at least twice as tall as Little Crook, who was not tall for a man, but still. In the darkness, he could make out a morning coat, all rotten through its gray and black stripes. Blood had smeared Little Crook’s glasses, but he could see the thing’s arms were very long, as were its legs, wrapped in tattered black trousers ending in bare feet, no more than whitewashed leather over skeletal bones. Little Crook lifted his gaze and found himself staring into the face of a monster of a man. Pale white skin pulled tight over the bones, large nose and lips, curled into a smile. And dark black Ray-Ban sunglasses hiding its eyes.

It stopped at the top of the stairs and turned in a full circle, arms out wide, looking up at the sky. “So long!” it cried, followed by a rasping laugh that sent Little Crook’s headache back into high gear. Then the monster stopped, facing Little Crook and stared, its smile fading. Little Crook felt his skin itch and crawl like a thousand cockroaches were crawling all over his body. He fought the urge to scratch, bringing his hands together to cover his naked crotch.

“Ah, Ti Vòlè!” said the monster, naming Little Crook in Creole. It was smiling again.

His chin trembling, Little Crook could barely whisper. “Baron Samedi.”

Baron Samedi took a step forward and Little Crook instinctively stepped backward. He heard the mambo gasp and he turned his head to see her, eyes wide, panicked, frozen. Then something in her mind broke, Little Crook could see it in her eyes, and he watched her run off across the field, disappearing into the darkness.

He was now alone with the monster.

Taking another step, Baron Samedi came to the edge of the stone circle and stopped. His smile dropped at the corners of his mouth. He tried to take another step, but his foot didn’t move beyond the circle of stones. He stared down at his foot and swung it back then kicked forward. His toes slammed into the air as though hitting a wall and he screamed, sending Little Crook into another fit of nausea and dry heaving. The scream was not one of pain but of fury. The sound echoed across the field.

Little Crook brought his hands back down from his ears where he had futilely fought to keep the sound out. He looked up at Baron Samedi and watched as the monster put a long, black cigar in its mouth and began to puff on it. The end burst into flame and then settled to a glowing ember as big around as Little Crook’s wrist as Baron Samedi sucked in smoke and blew it into the air. The smell overpowered Little Crook, that same scent of death and decay that still wafted up from below.

“You have failed me, Ti Vòlè.” Baron Samedi spoke quietly now, his voice low and sinister. Little Crook was still afraid, but the fact that the monster could not step beyond the stones made him feel a little safer.

“We are alone,” Little Crook said. “And I need something from you.”

“You are asking for something?” Baron Samedi spat. “You are nothing, houngon.” Baron Samedi used the vodou word for witch doctor. “And we are not alone.” Baron Samedi smiled and Little Crook heard a scraping sound and turned to watch the dead boy getting slowly to his feet. He turned and Little Crook could see the boy’s eyes, milky white and lifeless. The boy raised his chin and moaned and as he did his neck opened up and Little Crook could see the ripped tendons and sinew of his throat, covered with pasty blood that had begun to thicken into a black jelly. As the moaning breath came out, a small bubble grew in the blood and then POPPED! like a tiny pudding balloon. Little Crook felt the fear return to his belly, a surge of adrenalin overpowering him. He started to tremble more forcefully.

The boy took a step and started an awkward shuffling walk toward Little Crook.

“You have more work to do, Ti Vòlè. You must open the way for me. We have been trapped here for a long time; we just want to be free. We just want to experience the world as you do.” The boy stopped in front of Little Crook. He could not see the boy breathing. The boy just stood there, swaying slightly. “Bring more blood,” Baron Samedi said. His voice softened. “Bring more blood and I will help you.”

Little Crook backed away, thankful that the boy didn’t follow. When he was far enough, he turned and started running, forgetting about his clothes.

“Bring more blood!” Baron Samedi yelled after him. “Bring more blood!”

Little Crook risked a glance back over his shoulder, slowing to a jog. He watched as Baron Samedi took a longing look at the sky and then started walking back down the stairs, the dead boy shuffling after him.

Little Crook turned back around, slowing now to a brisk walk. He began to feel a little less afraid. He thought again of what he planned to do, how he would have even more power now. He would make his enemies suffer, watch them twist in pain as he wielded that power against them. Not much longer now. He just needed…more blood.

The Tree

Chuck Wendig’s Famous “Flash Fiction Challenge”

Topic: Write a piece of flash fiction about a tree.

Length: 1,000 words

While working on the revisions to my first novel, I thought I’d finally take some time to un-muddle my brain and do some of the writing exercises proposed by a favorite author of mine: Chuck Wendig. I’ll post them here, link them back to his website, and put them up on Medium and Wattpad for extra credit. Chuck, if you’re reading, thank you. I needed this.

 

The Tree

Samantha, right? That’s my name, Samantha. Isn’t it? Is that what they want to call me, for me to call myself? Fine, I’m Samantha. Samantha what, I don’t know. But it doesn’t matter. I pull at my cardigan, totally self-conscious in front of them. Why are they just sitting there, staring?

“Hi,” I mumble. “I’m, uh, Samantha.”

“Hello, Samantha,” they say in unison. Creepy. I wipe my palms, sweaty now (hey, I’m nervous, okay?), on my skirt. Fiddle with my gray cardigan again.

“I believe that the time I’ve spent here has been good for me.” For us, I almost say out loud. “I know I’ve learned a lot about myself and I believe that I’m ready to be set free.”

My eyes dart to each one of theirs, their faces unsmiling. One of the women is scribbling on a screen with her stylus. The little squeaks hurt my head and I wince, willing her to stop. She does. There are seven of them, all sitting there in those immaculate white suits, white gloves over hands with five fingers on each. Five fingers! Can you guys believe it? I bet they have five toes too. Their pale weird faces inside the glass bubbles staring at me make me nervous all over again.

“I believe I have achieved atonement,” I say. They all glance at one another. One of them, the Commander I’ve heard him called, reaches out to the little silver box on the table and twists a dial.

“Would you please repeat that, Samantha?” he says, smiling. I wish I could smile. I wish I knew how they did it, twisting their mouths like that. The first time I saw it I was filled with such a sense of wonder because when they did it their eyes would light up. Their whole faces would light up! Not literally glow, not like I do when I’m happy, but you get it. Happy.

But his eyes are not lit up. It’s almost as though his smile doesn’t reach his eyes today. Is that possible? Or does it mean something else? I think about when they were rounding us up and putting us into the boxes that they didn’t smile then.

“I believe I have achieved atonement,” I repeat, glancing down again at my pretty clothes. I try to smile. Fail. Look back at them. The seven of them exchange glances like they aren’t quite sure. The Commander shrugs.

“Proceed,” he says.

I start talking then, without interruption. I try to start at the beginning and move the story up to the present, but time as a linear thing is such a weird thing to try and grasp. It’s how they want me to tell my story because that’s how they understand things. But I find it almost impossible because what I’m really doing is expressing a series of emotions. The fear I felt and the panic. The terrible need to escape, to not become injured. Or worse. To have them take a part of me away. A part of us.

I can tell the seven of them have no idea what I’m talking about. A few of them have that same smile now, the one that only goes as far as the corners of their tiny mouths. Their eyes are cold and hollow. I can sense that somehow I am not going to be let go. And that is the dilemma, especially for her. Because she is such a delicate one and being sent back into the room (the cage?) will not be good for her mind. Would break it and cause the rest of us more damage than what was already done. Poor Samantha.

I squeeze my eyes shut, bringing an image of the girl into my mind. She stands there with us in her pink skirt and her gray cardigan. She is smiling. Somehow she’s figured out how to do it. Then I understand: she doesn’t want to go. She wants to try and be like them. To smile like them and to talk like them. But she doesn’t get it. She doesn’t realize what the (time?) shutting away would do to her. What they would do to her. And in my mind, I start to push. And I push as hard as I can. Pushing, pushing, shoving.

I stand there gawking for a moment, not quite believing it. The cardigan is gone now; I stare down at the ugly orange jumpsuit, frayed a little at the left lapel where I kept tugging on it, teasing out the fibers. I want to pluck a string from it, but my hands are stuck behind me somehow. The cardigan, the pink skirt. All of it is gone. And that’s it. Samantha is free. I didn’t want to let her go, honestly, I didn’t. But I had to, you know? I couldn’t let her stay in here, not with her cute pink skirt and her darling gray cardigan. And now that she’s gone, and it’s just me and the gang, it’s finally all right. I smile.

We smile.

We look up at the twisted branches filtering bright starshine down on our hair and face. An impossibly warm and bright day. We breathe in the heady smell of summer. Pollen, grass, earth. The giddy sounds. Birds chirruping, a beetle buzzing its wings somewhere behind us. And bees! Flitting from flower to flower in their dance that will keep everything going even after we’re gone. This is absolutely perfect. The rest of us deserve this moment. This last piece of solitude. Our mind is lost as we gaze up at the twin stars, the warmth comforting. We don’t even notice the rope, its primitive form wrapped tightly on one end around a branch high above, draped softly over our neck on the other end. We don’t notice the stool, either, until the last moment. The moment when the man in the white suit, light sparkling on the glass bowl, kicks it.

My eyes open. I am in the constructed box with the metal walls. This time I know more. This time I can look for a different advantage so that we don’t end up all hanging under the tree. We could leave at any time, but then we wouldn’t understand them. Know what they want. I look down at myself and see that this new form is very pleasing, though I am not happy about the bright orange. I shiver, my shoulders bunching up, my head shaking the wisps out around it. There, that’s better. She would be happy: Samantha so loved the combination of pink and gray.

On being a father

I was thinking about my boy today. I was thinking, “Why do we do it? Why do we talk about this amazing thing we’re going to do together: raise a family?” And as soon as they’re old enough to crawl — and for the rest of their lives — we send them off for most of the day to be cared for and taught by relative strangers. Of course I’ve never lived it, but I long with deep melancholy for the caveman days. For a simpler life. A life where I don’t sell eight hours of my life every day in pursuit of something that gives me not much more than the ability to afford the accoutrements of my lifestyle.

I want to wander through the day with my son, exploring and playing. I want to see things for the first time again through his eyes. I want to be a boy myself, lost in the long, lazy, sweltering afternoons of summer, running barefoot over grass and sand and sprinting falling diving into the cold sea.

I want to coax a fiddler crab out of its shell and delight in my boy’s squeal of laughter as it scuttles into the surf crawling awkwardly. I want to hold the net as he pulls in his first catch from Mother Ocean. And I want to tell him my story as we sit around a campfire on the beach in the night eating fresh fish and stone-baked potatoes and corn. And just a few steps away and I cannot see the endless blackness of the universe for all the brightness of the sparkling stars.

Man, doesn’t that sound good? Just plain good?

But what am I doing? Jumping from one idea to another trying to make a “career” out of my gypsy life, instead of embracing my wanderlust and just living.

What will my son gain by having a father who sends him to preschool every day? And later to substandard, outdated, ridiculous institutions whose purpose is to build more American slaves? My job gives us what? A big house? A nice car? Lots of toys? Sushi dinner?

I am dissatisfied.

In fewer than ten years I’ll be 50. Fifty. That means I’m probably about halfway done with this life. And my boy will be turning 13. A teenager for the first time. Man, what a rough time that will be for him. I remember 13. It sucks sometimes. Will I be there for him? I’ve got a plan: retirement by 50. But is that too late? What about the next ten years? Am I spending enough time with him right now to prepare him for his next challenge?

Right now I spend about an hour with my son in the mornings getting him ready to go. Breakfast. Clothing change. Get in the car. He’s a bit of a pain in the ass in the mornings, so I wouldn’t necessarily call it quality father-son time. And then I see him again around five thirty or six o’clock in the evening until I put him to bed at eight. Two hours. And part of that time is getting him to eat his vegetables and another part is getting him to bathe and clean his teeth and get ready for bed.

I think that reading to him in bed is quality time.

I sometimes go to the park with him.

Rarely, I play with him and his Legos

I feel like this is not how things ought to be.

I feel like I should wake up in the morning as the sun is coming up and go for a run on the beach. Have a coffee. Wait for my boy to wake on his own. Let him take his time.

And then, when he’s ready, go exploring and snorkeling and play cards and build forts. Or maybe I’m just missing my own childhood.

Maybe I’m foolishly wishing that I had more time. Time to be free, time to play. And maybe there’s a message in there too, for all of us.

Children remind us that being children can be great. And that we should take the time to explore that greatness from time to time.

As for me, my boy just woke up. It’s Saturday. No work. Take our time. Play. And imagine for a moment that every day could be just like this one.

Leaving Sierra Leone

Leaving Sierra Leone was a masterpiece. Every moment was recorded in my head, like the surreal digital camera work of Michael Mann in one of the late night taxi scenes in Collateral. I sat outside the BAST house, staring at the Africa Bar, at the large fruit bat flying overhead, at the brightly lit monstrosity of a US embassy sitting on the top of the hill away north. I drank a Tubourg pilsener and smoked a 555. It was my last moment aboard Leicester Square.

The driver was silent the whole way. Perhaps he understood that I wanted simply to absorb Sierra Leone one last time. Without commentary.

We passed through the circle at Hilltop Flats and then past Mamba Point, turning into Spur Road and dashing down the hill, slowing for speed bumps every hundred yards. We drove quickly past the wall painted AfriCel orange hiding the compound where K.F.F. lives. And then down all the way to the Lumley Beach Road where the hard right hand turn takes you past Atlantic Bar. The traffic in Spur Road was horrendous. People on foot flitted past the window going to where I did not know. They were selling their biscuits and batteries and Fantas and myriad other bits of junk by candlelight. They were going nowhere.

Cars cut in front of us, moving at a crawl, the sheer will of their determination the only reason they eased ahead. Why they will never turn that into something tangible, something to counter the sense of their own fatal determinism, I know not. I think it has something to do with climate, or post-colonial lethargy, or something.

Once on Lumley Beach the traffic disappeared and in five minutes we were on the last rough bit of Salone road I would ever drive. We passed Ramadas, Roys, Plan B Wine Bar, China Town, Beach Apple Bar–all busy and well lighted and somehow cheery. In all, the trip took thirty minutes. In a half hour I saw everything about Sierra Leone that I love and loathe. I boarded the heaving old Russian Mi7 without any remorse, regret, or rueful rage. I was simply leaving.

Sitting in the airport at Lungi, I drank cold Beck’s, one after the other, determined not to take any of these filthy Leone notes back with me. I arrived at 21.45 and sat in the airport lounge until 03.30 when we finally boarded the BMI Airbus 321 bound for Heathrow and, finally, Stuttgart. I had worn my IMATT ball cap, a sort of all-access pass that got me quickly through customs. But the other edge of the sword was a constant stream of locals (baggage handlers, security guards, regular joes) reaching out to shake my hand.

“IMATT, we love you!”

“Oh, my friend. IMATT save this country.”

“Mistah IMATT! Yah, good friend!”

“IMATT please assist me–I must take a taxi.”

“IMATT, you give me you hat?”

“IMATT, gimme small-small.”

“I watched your bags, gimme something.”

I won’t miss Sierra Leone. But I will miss my life there. For one year I was not an American. I wasn’t a Sierra Leonean either; I was something else. I was, as Captain Renault described Rick once so eloquently to Colonel Strasser, a citizen of the world.

Many of my friends had already gone on. But I left a few behind. R.F. rang me four times to wish me well. And G.H. rang me whilst making popcorn lamenting that there was no one to watch a film with him. Even T.S. called, though he really had nothing to say, just a rambling goodbye. He simply rang off after a few minutes with a heavy, “Okay, bud. Catch ya later.”

There is a real sorrow in diverging paths. I have shared great hardship and great joy with these men and women and I will have a cry some day when I’m finally home and can sit alone with a glass of Glenfiddich. Until then, I’m still full of the excited angst of returning to the Marines, giving a brief tomorrow to a handful of senior officers, and getting on with the next adventure. Perhaps it was good to have had so many delays in my flights today (we even diverted for three hours to Grand Canary for a passenger who had a seizure). It took a full 24 hours to arrive in Stuttgart, where I sit on the tarmac now, typing. It’s given me the chance to let things wash away. As I step down off this tiny Lufthansa regional jet, I will simply marvel at the modern world–happy to be home again.

Arriving in Sierra Leone

The train from Stuttgart to Brussels was hell. I couldn’t fly because the small prop aircraft wouldn’t allow my three heavy trunks. So I had to take the train. I had intended no taking the ICE, with only one stop-over in Cologne. But when I got to the station, the conductor told me there wasn’t room on an ICE for my kit either. I watched sullenly as the train pulled away. I was re-routed on the regional trains because they’ve all got a bicycle car attached to them which is generally a large open area. Of course, this meant a few more changes–and a slower trip. I had my backpack, guitar case, and three heavy green trunks (about 70cm x 30cm and roughly 30kg each). Each change of trains meant lugging off the boxes and luggage, finding a cart, loading up, taking the lift down, rushing along the corridor to the appropriate set of tracks, taking the lift up, finding the bicycle car, and loading everything up again. All in about 5 or 10 minutes’ time, depending on the schedule. And it got into the upper 20s that day–and me in my sports coat and a wool fedora.

I changed trains four times in Germany.

I changed trains three times in Belgium.

I left Stuttgart around 13:00 and arrived at my hotel at half-past eleven that night. Quite a long day. But I met a cute German girl on the train (got her email). And on one stop in Belgium, two hoodlum-looking youths actually helped me with all the trunks (which was good because there was no lift). And when I arrived in Brussels, a nice young girl actually toted one of the trunks all the way through the station and out to the taxi stand and helped me get a taxi. I asked her out for a drink, but she insisted she was just being friendly. Amazing.

In my room, I dug up the number of an old friend I knew was living in Brussels. She was surprised and thrilled to hear from me and we spent the entire night drinking and reminiscing. I crawled into my taxicab early next morning exhausted. And as I’ve said before, I sleep quite well and easily on aircraft.

I stepped down from the Brussels Airlines Boeing 747-400 and was met by a cloying heat. There was a breeze, however, and it was thrilling to walk across the tarmac to the terminal. Customs gave me no problems with my Official Passport. I went into the baggage claim and immediately spotted my contact, Maj M. He was bald and dressed in old shorts, tee-shirt, and flips. I got a local boy to collect my boxes and we went outside to what would soon be my personal Land Rover Defender 110. There was a policy about not taking the ferry after dark, so we had to stay overnight at the airport hotel.

Maj M. was a wealth of knowledge in regard to the social quibbles at IMATT. It was immediately obvious that because there was no war, office politics played the lead role in daily affairs. I made an instantaneous decision to remain completely removed from all of it. And to tell anyone who wanted to drag me into it to fuck off.

That night we had dinner by the hotel pool. The breeze was very pleasant, but there was still this underlying sticky heat that you couldn’t get away from. We put away a few Heinekens along with barracuda and rice. The flying ants were a bit tough to deal with, but over time the annoyance faded. I stayed up a bit later alone at the bar with some Brits. We spoke a little about Africa and drank a few more beers. Then I was off to bed.

The next morning we set off in the Rover.

We drove down to the ferry landing and got aboard. We waited in the upstairs VIP lounge (a moldering, dirty room) and were bombarded by Arabic prayer chants from the stereo. Everything in Salone is played so loud that the sound is distorted. It’s a little disturbing.

The ride across is about half an hour. Maj M. and I continued our conversation about everyone’s dirty laundry. As Freetown came into view, I was reminded of both Liberia and Haiti from a few years back. Everything is so lush and green and beautiful…from a distance. Up close, the country is filthy and the smell is horrible. The folks here are much like the Haitians in that there is no capacity to plan for the future. Each day is lived in the pursuit of enough food and water to get by. It’s a terrible existence that is perpetuated generationally and enforced by poor governance.

But the Sierra Leoneans are extremely friendly. This friendliness is almost overwhelming. I remembered the special handshake and had learned a few phrases prior to arriving. “Ha di bodi?” (“How the body”) or “Ha di dey?” (“How the day?”) are common greetings, the response to both is “No bad.” They are friendly and then they want money. It’s very simple. They are socially accustomed to begging, especially from the rich white man.

I checked into the UK compound at Leicester Square. The American house is like all the others; it’s simple but functional. And surrounded on all sides by a wall. The brand new US Embassy sits across the valley a few kilometers away. It’s massive and dominates the hillside. I did my check-in, got my IMATT identification card and hung about. I realized that the best view, of course, is right out the front door:

Monday I got into Freetown briefly. I met Mimo, a Lebanese diamond dealer. He’s the sort of character who’s tied in with everything in the city. He knows all the club owners too and has promised to get me on stage for an evening.

Tuesday morning we drove the six hours to Kenema. The roads were quite rough part of the way. But they are repaving and it should be a much better trip in the coming months. Hard to believe the Brits paved every road in the 1940s and 50s and everything has gone to pot since then–most of the roads are just red clay now with bits of pavement to remind.

Once out in Kenema I was introduced to the folks at the house. There are several British army soldiers, two Canadians, and two British national policemen. So far everyone’s been great, in spite of Maj M.’s warnings and complaints. I got a crash course in running the finances (god help them if I remain in charge of the money figures) and general maintenance of the house. The fellow I’m replacing basically managed the house. But it turns out I’m going to be going out with the mobile teams to help train and advise the Republic of Sierra Leone Armed Forces (RSLAF). I attended a few morning meetings at the RSLAF HQ and was impressed. They’re very professional by African standards. I think they’ll be fine as long as there remains a contingent of British support here. Once the Brits leave, however, it will be a repeat of the first British departure: Failure.

Kenema is a thriving town, the center of Sierra Leone’s diamond trade. And the only place to find a good meal is the Capital Bar. I had the double burger there for lunch on Thursday and it rivaled Hut’s in Austin. And I didn’t get a chance to visit the public baths in Baden Baden while I was in Germany, but I did pass by the Sierra Leone Roman Bath House on the way to Kenema.

On Friday I went out with LtCol S. and SgtMaj K. We observed a platoon doing a live-fire jungle warfare exercise. They moved through the jungle with instructors yelling at them and smacking them with sticks. “Go fasta! Move you legs! Wat di matta!” It was very much like OCS. I was impressed by their professionalism. The young platoon commander, a second lieutenant, was very inexperienced. He certainly needs some cultivation. The problem is that his seniors never went to any formal schools. They all got commissioned or promoted during the last war. So there’s no one there to instill in him the values he needs to be successful in the future. As a mobile team guy, I’m going to do my best to develop his abilities.

In any case, we had a little party here on Friday night to say goodbye to the fellow I’m replacing, Maj M. We all drank and smoked and met some NGOs who were friends with the young female lance corporal medic who works here. At some point, LtCol S., a little tipsy, walked in carrying my guitar and ordered me to start playing. Turns out another fellow plays as well, so we switched off about three songs each with my ending up finishing the evening. Everyone was quite fond of “King.”

And lastly I should say a word about my new boss, LtCol S. He’s an interesting fellow. He joined the army and after several years decided he was going in the wrong direction. He left the army and went to art college at age 39. This decision cost him his wife of 20 years and some estrangement with his children until later in life. But he wanted to paint. Eventually, he decided to balance the two parts of his life and he returned to the army as a reservist. And he’s been doing both ever since. He told me, “There will come a point in my life when I’ll be lying on my death bed and I’ll have about two hours’ conscious thought left. Do I want to spend those two hours in absolute hell? Or do I want to think back and say, ‘I may have fucked up, but I fixed it in the end?’ I think the latter.”

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