You are viewing kaiya_hart

Mar. 12th, 2013

She was 16, drunk enough that she couldn't walk and was frequently unconscious. But she DIDN'T say, 'NO!' so it wasn't really rape. Welcome to the world of rape culture.

Sooo, by this logic, if I decide to walk into your house and beat you unconscious with a baseball bat, I'm not breaking any laws because you failed to tell me not to do that while your brains were spread all over the floor. Get it through your heads. It does not matter if she is passed out and doesn't say no. It doesn't matter how she dresses or if she teased you a little and then backed out. Rape is rape. You are a rapist. And, in my opinion, all men who rape a woman deserve to be gelded, just like we would geld an over aggressive stallion. You took her choice. Why shouldn't we be allowed to take yours? I am sick to death of this 'well it was there, so I took it' attitude about rape. I'm sick of this idea that, just because she wasn't wearing freaking sheet over her head and a chastity belt, it is okay for a man to force himself on her. And I am sick, sick, sick of hearing about 'legitimate rape'. Rape is the act of a beast. Actually, that is an insult to animals, as most of them play a courting game and the FEMALE decides who gets to have sex with her. I think the fact that there even needs to be a debate about rape (which has next to nothing to do with sex, FYI) says something about humanity. Something disturbing. If a child is playing on the sidewalk and someone takes them, that is a crime. If someone's car is taken by a carjacker or a theif, THAT is a crime. If I walk up to you on the street and force you to give me your money at gunpoint, that is ALSO a crime. So why is it okay to forcibly rob me of my self respect, my sense of safety, and place YOUR body inside of MINE? Oh, that's right. Because I'm a fucking woman. Thank you, fucktards of the world, for making me wish I belonged to any species but human. And anyone that feels the need to come back with some smart ass retort about rape not being wrong or any woman deserving what she gets, this is your warning. I am a mean little psycho. I will make your life a living hell.

Shell Shocked (Working Title)

So, here is the preface for the one off I am publishing in December! Again, these are still what I consider rough drafts. Not even the fabulous Miss Lisha has seen these yet, so these little teasers may change a lot. Please forgive all misspellings and grammar errors. No matter how many times I read on a computer screen, I never catch them all until I can read it on paper.

So, just to give you a little description, this story starts durin the last years of WWII. Again, forgive all errors as I am still researching. This is close to being a steampunk fantasy, but this is not a light hearted book and war is not in any way glamorized. That said, while the preface may be rated G, there are some pretty nasty things later on. You have been warned (and will be warned again when I release it). Without further ado, here we go!


I hate this place, Buddy Parks thought in the hot, perfumed night, full of the sounds of foreign animals rustling in the nearby sugarcane, or maybe that was the Japanese soldiers. There was never any guarantee of what –or who – was out there. Since the day he’d arrived, he’d been waiting for that moment when he could go home. He read the letters his brother sent him until they were soft and the creases were black with dirt. Sometimes, when he tore the envelopes open, he thought he caught the scent of red dirt and oil derricks, but he knew that was just wistful thinking; his parents and his baby brother had moved out of Oklahoma, following the rest of the rough necks to the Illinois plains and a newer, richer oil field.
Theo was only fifteen, and his letters were sometimes scrawled on bits of paper torn out of a notebook with notes on his schoolwork on the other side, but that didn’t matter. The letters were full of excitement over the new place and all the things Theo was discovering on a daily basis, things they’d never seen or had in the dusty, hot reaches of Oklahoma. He didn’t always word things right, but Buddy Parks was discovering a new found love for a brother that had once been known only as ‘the pest’ to him, a small, buzzing annoyance amid the voices and adventures that populated Buddy’s world.
His mama’s letters came, neatly written on her favorite stationary, her delicate script pausing often to insert things his father had wanted passed along, just like a conversation on the paper. Always, though, he could feel the undercurrent of their worry, all the things they weren’t saying, but were definitely thinking. They knew enough to be frightened for him, even though he never told them the really bad things. Theo, though, was too young to have heard the bad stuff and really put it in the same thought as his heroic older brother and he couldn’t have seen any of it because their dad still refused to buy a television and Theo had no time for things like newsreels. It was a breath of fresh air to hear from ‘The Kid’ – Buddy’s pet name for his brother when he wasn’t with his older friends – who prattled on about his new school and the basketball team and his new best friend – who had the prettiest older sister – without that sense of saying everything else just to avoid saying what he couldn’t stand to think.
Buddy shifted his weight and listened to the rustling cane in the hot, still air. Animals. He hoped. He kept one hand tight on the butt of his gun, the other on the muzzle. In the light of the moon, he could see the dark, definite lines of his new tattoo on his left arm. It ran from wrist to elbow and the red haired cowgirl wasn’t wearing much more than her cute little smile. She’d been wearing less than that when he’d sobered up enough to realize his mama was going to beat him hard enough for getting a tattoo, but she’d kill him for having a naked girl. His buddy Jim had just laughed, taken another good drink of whiskey, and drawn in some skimpy clothes. He twitched his arm to make the cowgirl shake her hips a little. He wondered if Theo’s best friend’s older sister really was pretty. He kind of hoped she was a redhead. He also hoped it was some animal shaking that damn cane and not a Jap. Please, God, let them be on their own side of the island tonight. Please.
A soft snick and an ominous rattle – metal on dirt and rock – answered his fervent prayers. He watched, horrified, as the grenade rolled toward him, then neatly through his legs like a bowling ball between the gutters for a strike. He didn’t pause to think about what – or who – he was leaping toward. He just leapt.

Soooo, Happy Friday!!! I hope you enjoy this teaser from The Broken Tomb, due out late November!!! This is still a work in progress, so please forgive me if some minor mistakes remain. I also reserve the right to add extra details into this during the final rewrite.

“It is too quiet here,” Rook said. His voice was low and Shea wondered if he had intentionally pitched it that way or if he, like her, dreaded to speak too loudly into the oppressive air. Shea could not shake the feeling that something terrible slept nearby. Behind Aisling, Perth, their pack horse, was flaring his nostrils and rolling his great, dark eyes. All the other horses, save her own and Galen’s, were dancing nervously.
Aisling swung his head side to side, the flicker of crimson deep in the dark wells of his eyes looked like embers. “Animals do not linger here,” Mithala said, turning to look back at Rook. “I would like to believe those stories about the Hearth are just that, but the animals say different. And it is a fool who lingers where nature will not.” She glanced at Shea. They’d had a quick, whispered discussion over her encounter at the stream. Although the warrior didn’t understand the visit or what worth the broken, dented remains of an old vase could have to anyone, she did know the dangers of the plains.
“Star Jasmine lurks in the long grass, hidden and more deadly than anywhere else. Beasts of a foul sort haunt those grasses, especially so close to the Loddan Mòre. And, even were neither of those things a concern, the very ground is dangerous, solid one moment and a sucking, wet sinkhole the next. Even elves would not walk away from the cleared roads when they wandered these lands freely. Were this not the case, we must still catch Gil and Silas soon or we risk losing them when the road begins to split apart into many and no ground will be gained if we are picking our way through long grass, trying not to fall into the many traps hidden within.”
At the time, Shea had seen the sense in the argument. When Mithala suggested the woman had been an agent with ill intent, she allowed herself to be convinced. Now, however, she doubted her choice; she didn’t much care for the girl or her rasping, broken voice, but she suddenly felt sure that she hadn’t been sent to mislead them.
“Have you come this way often?” Shea asked Bran, to still the sudden surety that the most dangerous trap lay ahead, along the dusty road.
“Aye,” he said. His usual smile was gone and Shea saw that he was running Mika’s mane through his fingers repeatedly, as though nervous.
“Is it always so… heavy?” she asked.
He nodded. “As if in complete contrast to the way it once was. We draw near Hilgarath. Or, if you rather, The Rath, as those near enough to know of it now call the abandoned village.” He glanced at the elf, then back at her. “Remember to touch nothing. Remain on your horse and keep to the road. No matter what you might see or hear.”
Shea started to ask him about that, but he shook his head at her and pointed his chin. She looked and found Galen eyeing them with icy hatred in his pale eyes. Shea sighed; despite her attempts to keep off Galen’s toes, she always seemed to be stomping right on them. She looked away from him, her gaze falling on Rook. Her adoptive father was shifting nervously in his saddle. Shea frowned; she found it surprising enough that he didn’t know of the Hearth since he’d spent much of his youth travelling Inìsfail with the man who’d become lord of their valley. Beyond that, he has spent years as King Bastian’s Rook, one of two men who played bodyguard, emissary, and spy to the man who ruled Kildàrroch, and it was difficult to believe that he had not heard tell of the place during those years, if it was half as troublesome as Bran made it out to be.
“Haven’t you ever been this way before?” Shea asked Rook, nudging Aisling so that she was riding beside him.
“This road leads into Dalrỳ before it splits,” Rook said, as if that should explain everything.
Shea peered at him long and hard, but he didn’t go on. “Are you not welcome in Dalrỳ?” Shea asked, perplexed.
Rook’s expression turned to stone, something she had rarely seen happen and only when he was furious. “Dalrỳ is not welcome to me,” he said stiffly and his tone warned her off further questions. She might have asked anyway; he’d never giver her cause to truly fear his anger, but they crested the hill the road had been climbing and, at the top of the next, she saw the village.
The low houses sat amid the twisting outlines of the slim trees, looking forlorn and forgotten behind a low, crumbling wall. They were gray with age, their few remaining windows black holes. Roofs had collapsed, inward. Walls were missing here or there, leaving the other three to lean precariously on the remains of a roof, or a few, crumbling inner beams. In a couple cases, the only thing to mark the location of a house was a pile of broken plaster, rotted wood, and haphazardly tumbled stone. In the center of the small cluster was a paved square which straddled the road and a tiered fountain, dry and silent now, in the center of that.
“It doesn’t look dangerous,” Shea said. Galen flashed her an exasperated look and she sighed, equally frustrated with him. “I’m not saying I plan on settling here or that it’s particularly quaint. Just that it looks like an abandoned village. Nothing more.”
“Not all that will eat you will wear a demon’s guise,” Mithala quoted. She looked at Shea.
“The book of warriors,” the younger girl replied, surprised; she’d read it long ago, at Brenna’s insistence, but she had difficulties imagining Mithala sitting somewhere with the thick, faded manual, perhaps because the warrior had such a wild energy that it seemed unlikely she would be coerced into reading anything so dry and condescending.
“Aye. And how much easier would it be to live in this world if that blasted book did not speak the truth?” Mithala sighed. The she grinned, white teeth flashing. “Yet it would also be equally more boring.”
Shea smiled back, aware she’d been chastised, but not in a way to cause her embarrassment. “Point taken,” she said.
As they rode into Hilgarath, Shea felt a tingling along her spine. The shadows seemed to deepen and, though she could look up and see the cloudless arch of blue over the wide line of the road, or look east and see the long, golden veils of morning sunlight filtering through the trees, there was a strange sort of darkness to the air around them. Shea watched Aisling’s ears, twitching as he snorted and shook his head. He was not happy to be in this place and she did not disagree; there was too much heaviness here, as if something terrible was lurking nearby.
Tam had drawn closer to Aisling, pacing near the horse’s shoulder. Behind, Perth was huddled close to Aisling’s hindquarters, as if trying to hide his large head in the smaller stallion’s tail. Mithala’s horse, Thrall, began to dance, snorting and squealing as they went.
“I bloody hate coming this way,” Mithala spat, trying to keep her warhorse from bolting blindly off. “Even braver horses lose their heads in this infernal passage.” True to her words, both Bran and Rook were fighting their mounts, which were trying desperately to get away from their owners, Mika with his nose straight up in the air and Jess making small leaps every two steps, something she’d never seen him do before. Only Galen’s horse, Freyja, was as calm as Aisling. Shea had long since accepted that the elf’s horse was as different in her own right; she flickered, at times, like a spirit, and walked without sound. She rarely panicked and, when Galen spoke to her, she responded as though she understood him. Now she walked forward, her step steady and breathing easy. The only sign she might not be perfectly content in this place was her ears. They were pinned tight to her skull.
They passed the remains of the wall and the first of the houses, merely low foundation stone set in long rectangles filled with weeds and dead leaves, and the darkness grew. Shea did not flinch from the gloom, reminded of Darkwood, where it was always some shade of night.
Behind the blind windows, shadows shifted and moved, almost as though there were people hiding within the ruined buildings. Shea heard a soft whispering. At first, she thought it was the trees, caught in a gentle wind. Then she realized that she could hear the strain of malice and catch the rise and fall of spoken sentences, though she could not understand them. It sounded like a warning. Or, perhaps, a threat. Shea shivered and looked ahead.
The dry, stone fountain split their path. Vines had grown up over it, creeping over the stonework in thick plaits and dropping down over the lips of the stacked, rounded dishes in tangled clumps, like a memory of the water that had once tumbled cheerfully down. The vines were long dead, their leaves black and withered. The stones at the base of the fountain were cracked and caked with dirt. Shea thought she saw figures there, pale wisps of mist that might have held the shapes of men and women, yet she blinked and there was nothing.
Thrall reared, suddenly, shrieking. The beads in his heavy feathers glittered as he struck at the air. Mithala flung curses at him and clung to his long mane, fighting to hold on to his reins. Shea looked away, checking Perth, who had only pressed closer to Aisling. He was trembling, his shoulders slick and white with sweat, but he held steady. When Shea looked back, she saw what had startled her friend’s horse. A child sat upon the fountain.
Shea gasped and rubbed her eyes. The girl did not vanish, though she sat so still that Shea wondered if she was really alive or just a clever carving. Her head was bent over folded hands, which appeared lightly sun-kissed. Her bare feet rested upon the dirty, broken stones, and the straight fall of her hair, which was parted to her right, fell in a black curtain to sweep her shoulders. Against it, the doll-like shape of her profile was contemplative, even sad. Shea saw her blink and shot a look at the others. Mithala was fighting her horse, obviously determined not to lose him in this cursed place where she was unlikely to recover him. Rook was spinning Jess in circles and Bran was sitting firm on Mika and laughing merrily, despite the fact that his horse was spooking sideways in long leaps. Only Galen seemed to notice the girl. He was staring at her with an expression that looked confused, as if he recognized the child and was trying to puzzle out where he’d seen her before.
Aisling nickered gently, as if calling to an old friend. The girl looked up and back at him. Deep, deep green eyes, like jewels, fell upon Shea. She felt a trembling within her, a sense of recognition she couldn’t place. She shot a look at Galen, but he seemed completely focused on the child. The girl stood, revealing a thin gown of yellowed white. The cloth was poor and hung from her shoulders like sackcloth. Shea marked her eight years old, at most, though there was an awareness to her strange colored eyes that belonged to someone older.
Thrall had stopped rearing and was pawing at the road, tossing his head wildly, and snorting. The other two horses were crowded against each other, seeming to take comfort from the contact and standing still, though they still shivered their skin and rolled their eyes. The others had spotted the girl and looked at her with the same confusion Shea felt. What was a child doing out here?
“Hello, little one,” Mithala said at last, her tone light and friendly. “Who are you?”
The girl stared up at the warrior, silence her only answer. Galen dismounted and Shea felt a sick twist in her stomach when he unsheathed his sword. His face was hard and unfriendly. He drew close to the girl, but stopped just out of her reach. “This is no place for a child,” he said. He did not lunge at the girl to cut off her head, as Shea half expected him to, but it was clear he suspected a trap. “How did you come to be here?” he demanded.


Video Gamed

This entry is for the guy who just tried to help me and make friends in World of Warcraft... I'm old and that means I cannot simultaneously manage to attack a training dummy and chat with you at the same time. I am sorry I didn't know that you were asking me to join your guild; I was just focusing on getting to level 2 so that I don't look like a complete loser. Wait... too late for that; it took me an hour to figure out how to do more than swing mindlessly at the air and I still don't know how to throw that pretty knife in my inventory. Yup, I got gamed. I spent more time in the graveyard asking for my life back than actually fighting. When I did quests, despite my extensive x-box knowledge, I could not figure out exactly how to work the map so that it stops trying to take me to quests that I am yet too stupid and weak to attempt. I used stealth a lot... until something that looked like a rabid Easter bunny ran right into me and proceeded to murder me with its hammer. Still... It was a lot of fun and the guy trying to help me must not have been Chuck Norris; he didn't bury his warhammer in my head for being slow. Thanks for that, Random Gamer Guy. If you ask me to join your group again, I will gladly accept. Please forgive me my elderly shortcomings and don't hold it against me. I was just supposed to be installing the game as I have finally found a few seconds to spend with The Beast and I somehow managed to find myself running around trying to avoid being killed. Someday I will tell you all about the fantastic amount of depression glass in my mother's basement. One should never assume that offering to sell a little antique glass is simple and clear an entire week for the job. Now I am going to go do something I AM good at and read Miss Lisha's chapters (she has been very, very patient with me and my software traumas and family dramas).

Facing the End

I think one of life's hardest questions is how to get over losing someone who has always been there for you. Everyone says that 'time heals all wounds' or that you 'just have to accept what you can't change'. Like most sayings, they hold a lot of truth, yet cannot help those struggling through the pain of grief. Just saying those words can't ease anything. In fact, they are better left unsaid, in my opinion, because they actually make you hurt a little worse when you realize that reality has given you so few options. You can't argue with Death. You can't beg him to return the lost or challenge him to a game. You just have to sit down and accept. And it is, pardon my french, a total shitter.

My father died a couple of weeks ago. This was a man I adored above all others. I have always been a daddy's girl. Since the very first day of my life. My father was the very center of my universe as a child and, these days, he is still my personal hero. He was a true cowboy, a man who loved animals and who could tie just about any knot you wanted. He fought in WWII and he grew up in Oklahoma on an oil field. He was multi-faceted and wise and kind. He was everything a real man ought to be.

Everything good about me came from my mother and father and I've always been proud of that - at least since I stopped being a teenager and realized they weren't really trying to ruin my life by being uber strict. My dad was a great man. Not just good, but great. He rarely lost his temper and was always ready to offer a shoulder to cry on. He was often so silent you might forget he was in the room, but when he did speak, it was in your best interest to listen. So it is no wonder that I look around me at the world and find that it has lost a lot of its color since he died. The things I was agonizing over less than a month ago no longer seem to matter. The cover for the new book, book sales, tack for my horse, facebook, twitter... all of it seems so petty right now with this great, gaping black void sitting at the center of my existence. I find it hard to believe that any amount of time will actually ease this pain.

I think that what that saying really means is that, eventually, you begin to forget. It isn't that the wound is healed, but that time and distance make it possible to ignore, if only for short periods of time. I don't think anything can ever fill this hole in my heart, that any amount of scar tissue will ever be able to seal it. This was the man who taught me to ride, the man who used to rock me to sleep and tell me stories about his own childhood running wild over the plains of Oklahoma. He was the reason I became a writer and my greatest supporter along with my mother. There is no part of me that does not miss him now. Every fiber of my being rebels against his death, as if it absolutely cannot be, because my world depends upon him being here to catch me when I fall. I find myself wandering through the house where I grew up, searching for him around corners and always feeling as though I've just missed him. I drive his car, where everything has been programmed to his preferences, and find myself thinking I have to hurry because he'll want it back. Amid all this, well meaning family friends try to comfort me with words that do nothing but irritate the raw wounds, and strangers speak as though they have a right to point out that he had a long life. As if that should make it better. As if we should be glad he was allotted so many years. Anyone who has ever lost someone they love knows that, young or old, it was never long enough. I've lost a brother and a sister, both of them close to my heart, and I'm still waiting for that pain to fade. To now have to add the man who was a part of my very foundation only makes it more apparent how much I still miss them.

I watch my mother, looking around her in a daze, resisting leaving the house as though he might be back at any moment. She's been with my father since she was 17 and she is 83 now. Their marriage was one that went through a lot of ups and downs, but they faced everything as a united front. To see her for the first time, without her other half, is more than a little upsetting. I worry for her and wonder how she is going to weather this storm. She turns the heat up a little more everyday, until I'm forced to strip down to a thin t-shirt and wish for a pair of shorts, yet still she complains she is cold. When people come up to her with their attempts at comfort, trying to be kind and never realizing that the words they speak are lashes of pain that only outline her loss, I feel as though I must protect her. Never before have I seen my mother as frail or delicate, although she is smaller than me. She has always been iron. She's always come out fighting, no matter what she was faced with. She's lost two children to cancer, suffered through her own brain tumors, nearly died in surgery, and always, always, fought back. Now I look at her, sleepless at 3 A.M. and wonder how much is too much?

All of this might lead someone to think that I am questioning God or my faith. Let's be clear. I'm not exactly Christian. I'm not exactly not. I have a very definite idea of God and an even more definite one of faith and most religions spend far too much time trying to point out what is wrong. My ideas are pretty simple. I believe in God. I believe that all things divine live within us and through us and are there when we need them. They are as beautiful or ugly as we want to make them; I believe the universe tends to mirror the face that you present it with. I believe that faith is really just the promise to accept those things which come to you that cannot be avoided or changed. Like death. These things are there for a reason. They are your obstacles, the things which you must face. This is the side of me which is calm and peaceful, the side that neither fears my own death nor seeks it. The other side of me, the human side, can only rage and scream and cry because she wants her daddy. I guess you could say that, so far as my father is concerned, I'm still just a child and I never stopped needing him.

So why bother to write all this out and share it with anyone who happens by my blog? Well, there are many reasons. I keep trying to return to my normal schedules and find that, whenever I log into facebook, I just can't. I want to try to sell my new book, to be friendly and chipper, yet there is a dark cloud hanging over my head that refuses to let the sunlight in. And, worst of all, I don't WANT to let the sun in. I want to sit here, sinking in my misery, away from the daily drama of facebook and twitter. I want to go through the old pictures of my father in his uniform, with his horses, or just holding one of the multiple babies that was always somewhere nearby. I don't want to interact. I want time to accept this horrible emptiness, time to learn how to deal with it. As always, when I am hurt, I pull away, down a hole, to inventory my wounds. I realize that, someday soon, I will have no choice but to return to my friends, and I know that I won't always be lost to despair. Yet, for now, I need to focus on my mother and fully explore my father's life. This means that I won't be around for a while. How long I don't know. I do know that I will return, eventually, to a happier me, and I will come back with stories of my insane family and their wild antics (being home means I get to use them for inspiration). Hopefully I will find you all here, same as you ever were.

Spooked : two tales of horror


Two short stories

By Kaiya Hart

This is a work of fiction.
Any connection to people living or dead
is purely coincidental.


Lisa Kitchner didn’t like children. Even when she was a child, she hadn’t liked them. She’d been the sort who sat in corners with thick, musty books, glaring at the other children who screamed laughter at every little thing. It had been a relief to her when she was finally done with the messy business of being a child. At the first opportunity, she’d moved out of her parent’s house, still crowded with her younger brothers and sisters, ignoring the tears gleaming in the eyes of her family and promising to visit often. Which was lie because she had no intention of doing anything of the sort unless circumstances forced it. Her last thought, as she walked out the door, was, ‘they will survive.’ She didn’t consider it harsh, just a fact of life. Her leaving wouldn’t kill them and neither would they have time to miss her; they barely noticed her while she was living under the same roof. In her opinion, her parents’ tears were there because they knew they were supposed to cry, not because they really wanted their daughter to stay or because they would long to see her – first born or not – when she was gone. Lisa had always been the sort of child that was easy to ignore because she was always the sort of child that was quiet, unobtrusive, and busy practicing to become the sort of adult that claimed no family at all, if it was avoidable.

Lisa found an apartment that was inexpensive and, although it was less than perfect, she fell in love with it at once. The building had once been one of those large, sprawling Victorian houses whose costly upkeep had outgrown its usefulness as a single family home. The current owner had remade the house into four large apartments and, although it was a bit shabby, it was also full of the charm and distinction that made it stand out from the neat, well ordered, modern apartments that always made Lisa think of cell blocks in a prison rather than a cozy home.

Lisa’s apartment was in the top, right corner of the house, a cluster of dusty rooms that got little light; huge, shaggy trees gathered around the edges of the backyard like onlookers at the scene of a fatal traffic accident, craning their necks to see the body. She didn’t know if they were spruce, fir, or some alien breed of tree that didn’t even belong on the planet, but she didn’t mind them either. Their long branches hung heavy with their soft growth of spinney needles, drooping nearly to the ground as though the trees were very tired of having to hold their burden up. Their bark was dark and had its own half-shed, falling apart look about it. The ground beneath was grassless and covered with a rust colored carpet of fallen needles, a few random weeds that grew in small, ragged tufts, and a scattering of trash that might have been left behind by careless picnickers or just blown in on the back of the wind. Lisa vowed to clean the area of the empty drink cups and hamburger wrappers; she loved her new home before the first stick of garage sale furniture made it through the door and felt oddly responsible for the way the yard looked, although it was not her neglect which had brought the trash in. It wasn’t just that it was hers alone, far from the loud, raucous shouts of her brothers and sisters, away from the pounding of feet on the stairways and the laughter that always seemed to come from directly below her window. There was something more than that, something deeper which connected her instantly to the house and to the trees around it, which did not look as ugly to her as she thought they might to other people.

The bones of the old house were still there, making doorways into arches and smelling of old wood. It was the sort of house that belonged in a story, the sort of place where fairytales were born and dreams became reality. As a result, her apartment felt like a place for painting, where no-one would stand in the doorway glowering and telling her how useless her ‘hobby’ was, how she ought to focus on becoming the manager of the diner where she worked or take classes to get her into data entry, where there was plenty of room for advancement if she kept going to night school and learning about computers. In her apartment, such talk was only a bad memory and the hours she had spent pretending to listen to it was a part of the life she had left behind for good. It was her home, a place of comfort, where her dreams could be safely nourished. It was a place for solace and reading interesting books, where television didn’t exist and no-one burst in without knocking. It was a sanctuary.

Lisa set up her easel in the spare bedroom. It wasn’t much; it wasn’t even big enough to comfortably fit a narrow twin without making the space feel overly crowded, but it had a set of shelves along one wall where she could keep her paints and extra brushes and a narrow closet where she could store blank canvasses. In the afternoon, Lisa attended art classes at the local community college – something both her parents had sneered at – and at night she waitressed at the diner where, sometimes, her regular customers called her by her first name and gave her generous tips when they could afford it. On slow evenings she could even pause to hear the stories the older customers would tell and it never failed to inspire her. Mornings, though, were for painting alone, the time when she was completely at peace with herself and her life and all things, past, and future, faded into the background.

At first, she stood in the perfect stillness of her apartment, all too aware of the silence of the house; all the other apartments were deserted, so far. The landlord had told her in one quick sentence and without explaining further that it was rare for any renters to stay overly long. When she tried to ask him about it, he had simply plunged headlong into a pitch about the massive amounts of hot water she would have for her shower and the washer and dryer he had installed in each unit, although no-one expected him to provide such amenities. She spent a couple mornings staring out her window at the tall, shaggy trees that made her think of giants that had stood so long in one spot that moss had taken root and grown over them. They were a dark, dusty green and full of shadows and, before she knew it, she began to paint them. The empty rooms that surrounded her ceased to matter and the final piece fell into place, the beginning of a life spent in happiness.

The trees were easy. Almost too easy, actually; they practically jumped onto the page, as though her hands had painted them a thousand times before. She’d meant for them to just be a warm-up, little more than practice painting, so she hadn’t considered adding anything extra to the painting. Yet, when she’d finished them, she found herself dabbing in a smallish figure in the shadows of the largest tree. At first, she applauded herself for her imagination, but, when she looked, she saw there actually was someone standing under the tree. A small, skinny someone. Lisa squinted at the figure and her heart sank; it was a child, she was sure of it, one that was just the right age for high pitched, overdone laughter and a blatant disregard for the peace others coveted. She couldn’t see hardly anything but the narrow chest, which was clothed in a white t-shirt that was no longer quite white, and a pair of pale hands that looked as though they were clenched into fists, but she didn’t have to. To Lisa, all children looked alike with their plump, rosy cheeks and their over bright eyes. To Lisa they all looked like more trouble than she was willing to put up with.

In class that day, Lisa’s professor called her inattentive and unimaginative. At work, she dropped a tray full of loaded, steaming plates. She came home, turning down the long lane to the house, her heart throbbing in her chest as the thick tops of the ancient trees – more of those dark, shaggy trees that surrounded the backyard of the house – bent in over her car, shutting out even the sliver of moon. She wondered why anyone would plant such dreary trees around such a lovely home, even in an era that had enjoyed hiding beautiful things behind dark hedges and thick curtains.

All the windows were dark, the only light the one on the porch, which was on a timer. There were no other cars in the small, gravel parking lot and when she went inside, there were no boxes outside the doors of the unoccupied apartments. Lisa felt instantly relieved; she’d been unable to help imagining a new family moving in and bringing a pack of noisy children with them.
“It must have been a neighborhood kid,” she told herself. “Probably it was just looking to see if I have any children to be friends with.” She spent the rest of the night humming to herself as she settled down in her living room with a book and listened to the deep silence, broken only by the creaking, popping, and cracking of the settling house.

The next day, Lisa began a new painting of the trees; she found herself unaccountably annoyed with the first one and the small invader that had planted him or herself in the shadows of the backyard. This time, she checked to make certain there was no-one beneath the trees and found the deep shadows were empty. Yet, when she started to fill out the darkness beneath the heavy, drooping branches, the figure was there again, painted in before she even realized she was looking at it. This time, a narrow, pale face was visible, little more than a blur amid the darkness, although Lisa thought she saw hair too long for any boy. She was unsettled to see that sharp face was tipped up, as if looking at her, although she knew she must be invisible behind her window. There was something almost angry in the way the child stood, as if it were a dog that had just spotted an intruder.

“Considering I’m the only person living here, why wouldn’t it be looking at me?” she challenged herself, trying to laugh; the child must have been able to see her after all and she was just letting her imagination get out of hand. Lisa stepped closer to the window, her arms folded over her chest. The skinny figure seemed somehow familiar as she stared down. Its stillness was almost eerie and she felt a hot spite growing in her chest. “I hate children,” she muttered, glaring, hating this one just a little extra for not behaving the way it ought to and for making her feel uncomfortable in the home she had been longing for all her life. The child didn’t move, although she half expected it to run off and, eventually, Lisa stepped away from the window.

She barely heard her professors and work was a blur. All Lisa could think about was the skinny kid in jeans and a white t-shirt that looked as if it had been washed so many times that its dirt stains had simply stopped coming out. When she got home, she was relieved to again find the house silent and still, but focusing on her book proved impossible; she could only think of the child and wonder if it would return again the next day.

Lisa didn’t sleep that night and, when the sun finally rose, she went to the spare room and looked down. There was no sign of the child. She began to paint with quick, sure strokes, dread growing heavy on her heart with each new slash of paint. She’s painted the trees twice already and barely had to look at them to get them right. This time, there was no figure under the trees and she was very nearly smiling as she put the finishing touches on the picture. Then she looked at what she had just painted and her heart sank. She had just put in the white corner where the bottom floor of the house came out at an odd angle. There was a smallish shadow beside it, a shadow cast by someone standing just around that corner where the morning sun was sure to hit the person on the back.

Exasperated, Lisa left her brushes to soak and went to another window, yet no matter how she twisted or turned, she couldn’t see the corner where the child – and she knew it was that same child that kept ruining her paintings – was standing. She went outside, determined to confront the trespasser, but there was no-one. She heard the rattle of the low, tattered bushes that grew between the trees and saw a flash of white that could have been a white t-shirt… or the neighbor’s fluffy white cat, which seemed very fond of the trees. She stood for a long time looking down at the shadow she cast, stretching out beyond the corner of the house in a dark stain, and listening to a light breeze rustling the treetops. She didn’t go anywhere that day.

Lisa sat at her window in the spare room and watched the shadow. It was back before she reached her easel again and always there, every time she looked out her window, yet it was always gone when she went to check. It didn’t move. Not once all day, not even a twitch. Lisa watched it and the black dread she had felt when painting the trees grew in her heart. Right up until the sun went down, she felt as though she were going mad. Then the sky darkened, the light softened, and it was as though some invisible hand unclenched from around her soul.
Days went by where Lisa didn’t see anything out of the ordinary. When she painted the trees, they were just trees with no-one caught in the shadows beneath. No movement at all, really. Yet Lisa was far from relieved. She could feel something. It was inside the house now, waiting silent and motionless in the dusty, empty rooms beneath her feet. She didn’t go to class. She phoned in sick to work, then just refused to answer the phone when they called for her three days later. She sat in the spare room, painting the trees and chewing her nails each day, waiting for the sun to go down so she could breathe again.

At night, she could move. At night, the house was just a house and nothing sinister lurked anywhere. She was oddly comfortable in the darkest hours of the night, as though the child, whatever it might be, was too afraid to come out when the sun was down. It made a crazy sort of sense, she thought; weren’t all children afraid of the dark? During the day, though, she could feel it below her, first in one room, then another. She began to paint the empty rooms, which looked almost exactly like her own, although some of their details were different. There was always something, some sign that the child was lurking within the room. There was a pale arm outside a doorway, the rest of the figure hidden by the wall. It could be a shadow, an elbow, or just the leg of a pair of worn jeans, but there was always something.

She painted the smallest bedroom, which was pale pink with carousel horses dancing around the upper edges of the walls on a peeling border. The room was twice the size of the one she used for her painting, but directly beneath her. She could almost feel the child looking up, as though it could see right through the floor. She painted the hallway, which turned more times than it would have in an ordinary apartment and the sharp edge of one corner was marred by a small, round bit that looked like the top of someone’s head just as it began to lean past the wall. Then came the kitchen, which had once been painted a cheerful yellow that had faded to a desperate, unhappy shade everywhere except where the refrigerator had once sat, which left Lisa with a distinct impression of a giant, towering beast, the sort which her own grandmother had once owned and called an ‘icebox’. There was a half open cabinet with small, dirty white fingers curled over the top corner and a glitter that could have been eyes from within. Then it was the front door, open just far enough for her to see the edge of a stained t-shirt. In her mind’s eye, the image of that door was so real that she even caught the slight fraying on the tail of the un-tucked shirt. Then it was on the stairs.

It was a week and a half since she’d seen its shadow at the corner of the house. She chained her door and slid a bookcase in front of it. She painted the stairs and caught a small hand on the balustrade, everything past the elbow lost beneath the turning of the staircase. Her barricade didn’t matter. The next day, the child was in her apartment. Lisa painted her living room. Here was the couch that her mother had dug out of the basement. It smelled a little musty and it was a hideous olive green, but it was comfortable. There was the matching chair and both pieces settled around an old coffee table that she and one sister had carved a little game of tic-tac-toe into with a bread knife. Their mother had beaten them both, the only time Lisa could ever remember the threat of being spanked having been carried out. And there, in one shadowy corner, she painted an indistinct form that was near invisible in the darkness cast by the trees and the walls, all except for the hand that had been on the bannister; dead gray and too small to belong to any adult. Above that, a couple feet higher, were a pair of eyes, pale and gleaming, like two white marbles. Lisa flung her brushes away and chewed her nails until she tasted blood.

At sundown, she was suddenly alone. She never felt it go. It was just gone and the relief was immediate. The phone rang and rang, but she ignored it. She thought about leaving, but she couldn’t quite convince herself to walk past the living room, full of darkness and, no matter how empty it might feel, she could only think of those eyes. The next morning she painted the hallway and there was a hand, arm, and shoulder to match the eyes, although the face was still just lost in darkness. There was a definite hunching to the way it stood, a sort of arrogant anger that reminded Lisa again of a guard dog getting ready to spring. She shut the door of the spare room and barricaded it with a chair, although she knew it would do no good. When the sun went down, she folded herself in a corner and promised herself she wouldn’t paint anything the next day.

When morning came, she felt it just outside the door, pressing itself against the wood, seeking a way in. For several hours, Lisa resisted the urge to paint, if only to see what it was doing. Then, by midafternoon, she could no longer deny it. She began to paint. In the painting, the door was open just behind Lisa’s shoulder. In the painting, the child was there, white t-shirt, jeans, dirty bare feet, and wild, dark hair. White eyes stared from a gray, starved, angry face. Lisa finished the painting and shivered, crying softly. She didn’t want to look, but it seemed impossible not to. She turned. Her screams frightened the neighbor’s cat and made it bolt for home, leaving the small bird it was chewing for the ants that had colonized the soft earth beneath the trees.

The fire department broke down Lisa’s door two days later, when the landlord’s key wouldn’t open it. They shoved the fallen bookcase aside and searched the apartment, fearing the worst. They did not find Lisa, though, only her final painting. The youngest fireman shook his head and looked at the landlord. “Is that your tenant?”

“That’s her,” the landlord said, staring. He was thinking about the empty rooms and all the people who refused to stay in the house or tell him why they would rather break their leases and pay him for it.

“She’s pretty good,” the younger man said, looking back at the painting. “That is one helluva self-portrait.”

“Yeah, too bad she felt the need to paint herself like that,” one of the older firefighters said. Lisa’s face filled the entire canvass. She was screaming as painted blood poured from her eyes, nose, and mouth.

The Storm

“Jon?” My jog becomes a walk and then a stop. The man in the driveway is achingly familiar, a thinner version of someone I knew before, when I lived in this small town in the middle of no-where, Illinois.

Cerulean eyes, sharp like daggers, look up from the gleaming black skin of a motorcycle that sits as dangerous as death on a flat concrete driveway. He doesn’t smile, but stares at me as though I’m some stranger with a gun in his face. I start to flush; I should have kept running because he doesn’t remember me and probably shouldn’t. I was just some sweaty, nervous girl who was only sure of her own lack of self-worth and nothing else. I wasn’t nearly as pretty as those girls he used to kiss in front of the bleachers in the gym or out behind the track before football practice. I used to know exactly what he would say to his friends as he passed them on the way to class. I knew the way he walked with a slow, lazy pace that always got him where he was going just in time. I even knew his laughter so well that I could tell anyone who asked if he was around the corner. Not that anyone ever asked me.

I never tried to get his attention; I knew the difference between my place and his in the hierarchy of high school hell. Whenever he looked at me, I wished I could sink right into the floor; I would have fits of embarrassment when he said ‘hi’ to me in the halls, and try to hide behind curtains of hair. He had no reason to remember me and I feel like that ugly little teenager again, not a woman full grown and sure of herself.

Then his face clears. Recognition dawns. “Leah Parker, is that you?” He still isn’t smiling, but he doesn’t look unfriendly either. He reaches up to push black hair out of his eyes. He even has the same haircut I remember, though his face has become thinner, and a little bit older. Still his shoulders are wide and his arms look like they were molded, just like I remember from back then.

“Yeah, it’s me.” I feel a twinge of curiosity; the house he’s in front of with that low, mean looking bike is the same one I know he grew up in. “How have you been?”

“All right, I guess. How about you?”

I smile and shrug. “Can’t complain.” For an instant, long years stretch out between us; I’ve been gone for too long to know much gossip. Still, it is a small town and my mother passes on a few things once in a while. “I heard you got married to Sarah Hopkins.”
He shoves his hands deep in worn jean pockets. I see the smudges under his eyes as if he’s been losing a lot of sleep. “Yeah, do you remember her?”

“Only a little.” That is a lie; I never remember those people that were behind us or before us in school. I only know the name through my mother’s information. “Two years behind us, right?”

“Yeah, that’s right.”

“So are you guys doing good?” I don’t really want to hear, but I ask anyway because he doesn’t need to know that I hate hearing about anyone else’s happy marriage when my own has fallen apart at the seams.

“Actually, she isn’t around anymore. She left me a while back for someone else.” His face twitches, just enough to let me know how much those words hurt. As if I didn’t already know.

Damn, this is worse. I hate these moments when I’m forced to bear witness to someone else’s naked pain without knowing them well enough to avoid the worst of it. I never know the right words of comfort. “That sucks,” I say, feeling like an idiot. “Do you have any children?”

“Two,” he says. A cold wind brushes my throat and bare thighs, reminding me how fast spring weather can change in this place. I shiver, wrapping pale arms over my chest. “She’s got them right now.”

I can smell a storm, wild rain and lightning rolling up over the flat corn fields like a tsunami out of the ocean, proof that the weather man is a liar; he promised me a hot day full of sun this morning. “So you have joint custody?” It makes me uncomfortable to be standing here in tight running clothes, talking about his tragedy as if I’m someone he would want to talk to in the first place.

“Yeah,” he nods, and then shrugs as if it doesn’t bother him that much. “So what are you doing back here? I heard you moved to Europe.”

“Italy,” I say instantly, reaching up to tug at my brown ponytail like I always do when I’m on the brink of admitting I was wrong or saying something I don’t want to. “For about five years now.” I hate this feeling on my chest, like a lead weight suffocating me.

“And you came back here?” His voice is incredulous, disbelieving that someone who got out and so far away would come back, even for a visit. As if this place is the worst that could happen to a person instead of a safe, stable haven to run to when everything else goes wrong.

“I’m just passing through. You know, going through a divorce myself, not sure where to
go next.” I shrug it off like he did, but I really do care and it is hurting me more than I want to admit to a familiar stranger.

“That’s terrible,” he says and the discomfort dissolves. We may never have been friends or even chosen the same paths, but now we are standing in the same pair of shoes and realizing it at the same time. I see it in his face and hear it in the quiet way he says the words. That chill wind bites at me again, making my skin prickle.

“So are you here visiting your parents?” I ask, imagining a mother not so different from my own watching out the blind windows behind him and frowning at the back of her son’s head in silent disapproval.

He shakes his head. “I live here. They moved away. Sort of backwards, I guess. I was supposed to leave, not them. The story of my life, I guess; nothing ever happens the way it is supposed to.”

“Where did they move to?” I ask, thinking it could have been worse.

“Down to Florida.” He eyes me, shivering in his driveway like a wet kitten as the last warmth of my run is stolen by the wind. “I thought it was supposed to be sunny and hot today, but it doesn’t look like it.”

I look up at the sky, at the clouds edging over the top of his house in blue-black drifts. The first drops of rain hit my skin, quarter sized splashes of icy cold. “Well, this is just wonderful,” I say, my voice dripping bitter sarcasm. “The man did say clear and sunny, but he must have been talking about another state.”

Jon smiles a little, though it only manages to get halfway through before it is cut off like some line inside him has been severed. “Why don’t you come in and wait it out?”

There is something more in his words, a sort of desperation that makes my heart break a little for him; I remember when he was all smiles and laughter and always had friends around him. “I wouldn’t want to bother you,” I say because I can hear the real question beneath the one he asked.

“Really, I don’t mind.” There it is again, the plea in his voice and his eyes, the echo of a lonely life, a solitary existence imposed by someone else’s desertion. I know the sound of it, I’ve tasted the bitter fruit it produces one too many times myself lately. I’ve come home, but I don’t really belong here anymore, if I ever did. I have no friends to call, no-one outside my family to talk to, and there is that constant emptiness of wondering where to begin again, or if I even can. Suddenly, I want to be convinced.

“Are you sure?” I ask and I’m really not; my mind is full of different places and suspicions of strangers, but it seems silly to question this man who I saw every school day since kindergarten.

“Yes, of course. Come in.” The rain starts falling a little harder and lightning licks the sky with bright, jagged tongues of electric white.

“All right,” I say and follow him as he pushes his bike into the garage, placing it carefully next to a gleaming gray Buick so pristine it might never have been driven. He opens the door and lets me into the shadowy interior of the house. I feel like a kid again, nervous and unsure of welcome by disapproving parents. I wonder if it will always be this way when I’m here in this town full of people who’ve always known me and still treat me like a child. There are no parents here, though, only him moving behind me.

I take off my shoes, full of mud from the river bottom I ran along, and pad barefoot into his kitchen. There are no dirty dishes in the sink and the counters are painfully neat and clean. The chrome on the stove shines with a glaring, hurtful brilliance. Even the windows are perfect, with no smudges or streaks to mar the flat, silken panes. I wonder if that is what he does when he’s home alone at night, moving from room to room cleaning even though nothing needs it until there is no evidence at all of the person that lives here. I wonder if it is like the way I flip channels on my parent’s basement T.V., obsessively searching for something that will make me all right again.

The carpet in the living room is spotless, soft caramel pile that looks as though it’s been groomed. Black leather couches sit like stranded ships on the expanse of some lonely beach. Two picture frames catch in the light, him with two children that have his ebony hair and his eyes, all smiling out of some happier moment. There are places on the wall where I can see the outline of other pictures that no longer hang there and a sense of sadness emanates from those bare spaces as if I’m seeing something beautiful lying in pieces.

The house has an empty, unlived in feel, as if it is just one of those models they show, full of furniture that has never been used and trinkets bought just for strangers to look at. There is no personality, no presence, just that genderless style that makes modern contemporary so bland.

It doesn’t seem like him at all with his sleek, dangerous looking motorcycle sitting in the driveway, waiting to be released on the road. An unsettled feeling washes over me, making me wonder if Jon is really behind me or if he is some sort of specter, dead a long time, seen only by me. Thunder crashes outside, making me jump. Hands, warm and rough with manual work, catch my bare shoulders, fingers brushing away my childish fears, warm breath touching my hair. I turn to look up into his face, which is wearing his years and his experiences openly. Lights flicker in time with the lightning. Outside it has grown as dark as night. The weird howl of the wind makes me shiver again, the hairs at the back of my neck trying to stand up. The light bulbs flicker once more and go black. “Just the circuit breaker,” he says in my ear as I jump again. Then he kisses me and I forget everything else.

In the dark there are no thoughts, only warm hands, strong arms, and lips that press together with a wild desperation born of being abandoned. It is nothing that means anything but bare comfort for two wounded, struggling souls. It is escape from the pain and all the damned questions I sit around and ask myself every night. Like ‘what did I do wrong’ and ‘what do I do now’. It is a momentary flight back to more innocent times when I really believed that love was kind and ‘I do’ meant forever. It is just a few hours of relief from being me, a brief time to stand outside my own life. I curl against the warmth of his body with his muscular arms wrapped around me and I don’t think about anything more important than the next kiss.

“Could you do me a favor?” Jon sits on the edge of his bed, bare, muscular back curved, elbows resting on his knees. His skin is tight and tanned, as if he works all day in the sun without a shirt, but I don’t ask about it. Thunder still mutters on the other side of the window, but the rain is no longer falling in sheets. I’m already pulling on my clothes, the mixed scent of his cologne and my sweat lying against my skin like some dead thing, the remains of what passed between us. I’m not ashamed, but I know it is time to be gone.

“What do you need?” I ask. He pulls me over, arms closing on my waist, face pressing against my ribcage. Then he looks up at me, eyes soft blue, mirrors of a clear sky full of some emotion I don’t recognize.

“Could you go down to the basement and check the circuit breakers while I check the main in the garage? The storm blew a fuse.”
I feel that same shiver of disquiet; I don’t like basements in the dark, but he’s smiling up at me softly and I don’t have a real reason to refuse. He pulls a flashlight from the bedside table and holds it out to me. I take it and watch him slide into his soft, faded jeans. Before I go, he embraces me again, brushing his lips over mine, large hands in the small of my back. My fingers run over the smooth skin of his naked chest, feeling the ripple of muscle that was not made in a gym, knowing I’ll be running a different path tomorrow because even if I see him, he’ll pretend I’m not there and that is all right, but I don’t want to see that empty look. I turn and leave the room, finding the door that opens on a stairway down. I shine the flashlight into the shadows, swallow my fears and step into the musty gloom.

The fuse box, light grey against the concrete wall, is right where he said it would be, proof he hasn’t sent me down in order to trap me in this place. I almost laugh at my own imagination, but suppress it; there will be time for laughter later, when I am safely out of the basement. I open the fuse box and see the one switch that has been tripped. I flip it up. The light above my head blazes. It is a bare bulb hanging down low, revealing old spider webs in the corners, fine as lace. I blink in the glare, squinting my watering eyes. I turn, my bare feet grinding on dusty tile floor. I freeze. I cannot scream. My shock and my horror have closed on my throat like hands choking me to death. Powerful hands that bruise pale flesh with purple stains that will not fade away. Upstairs I hear a loud, final bang and the thud of a heavy body falling loose and limp on the bedroom floor as I stare into the plastic covered, death dull eyes of his wife and children.

Atlas Shrugged Review

Atlas ShruggedAtlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I planned on reading Atlas Shrugged for roughly two years before finally picking it up. I was actually looking forward to it. I tried everything I knew to love this book and form a good opinion of it. I want everyone who reads this to know that. The reason I want everyone to understand this is simple. I could not finish this book. Simply could. Not. Finish. It wasn't the writing; that was easy to read and beautifully done. It wasn't the plot. That was actually engaging for all that it seemed that she wrote it out and then created the characters specifically for each event that she wanted to happen (which is not usually my cup of tea). It wasn't even the characters - which I loved - even though they tended to alternate between being mouthpeices to spout the author's opinions and then breaking character to further her plot, taking away the ability to see them as actual people. I didn't even mind that the author's political and economic veiws were expressed every other page. So why didn't I finish it?

Very simply, it came down to the length of the book. I don't normally mind long books, particularly when they are well written with an engaging plot and intelligent ideas. I certainly don't mind books that make me think about what kind of person I am or where I would stand if I were dropped into the story. What I do mind is being treated like a moron, like I am one of those people in the book that never thought to question the laws and directives they were being handed. The constant repeating of certain ideas made it seem as though Rand was trying to force me to see things her way. I knew her point by the third chapter of this book. By the tenth chapter, I was well versed in her personal opinions and actually agreed with some of them - and have much longer than I have known this book existed. Here's the thing. She did not need over a thousand pages to make me see her point. By the time I was halfway through the book, I was so bored with the constant repitions of the same theme that I threw the book across the room. No matter how beautiful she was stating her point, that didn't change the fact that, the third or fourth time she stated it or applied it to a situation, I rolled my eyes and had to stop reading for several minutes while I accepted that I was going to have to go through this AGAIN. It was, literally, a painful experience.

I started out hating this book for the first chapter or so. Then I loved it for a good five hundred pages. Then I just gave up. If anything new or different had happened, had the author given me something new to think about or even allowed some sort of physical altercation to happen, I would have kept on, despite those long pages when she felt the need to preach her ideas through the mouths of some random character.

On a few finer points of what I did read, I have to say a couple more things. First, Rand does not seem to understand the concept of poor. Every single person of importance in her novel is rich and she treats the rest of the population, those who work ordinary jobs and live ordinary lives, as if they are just useless backdrop, as if the voice of the masses is completely silent, like they are cows lined up for the slaughter and worth less than even that because they can't be used as meat. While that may be true in communist countries, it is my experience that my fellow Americans not only possess voices, but use them frequently and as loudly as they can. The first amendment is not just a written idea in America, it is a right that almost every person with an opinion in the country flaunts... even when they shouldn't. Yet Rand presents the American populace as stupid and eager to accept whatever they are told to do until it becomes such a stretch that they are forced to become criminals to survive. Furthermore, she gives the impression that any who are unable to rise above their common upbringing are just leeches who feed upon the good fortune of others. She suggests that they just aren't trying hard enough, never mind that they are the ones working to produce the very products that the millionaire is selling. As an American from a solidly middle class family - full of people who gave their all as a matter of pride and certainly never got rich off their work - I took offense to her portrayal of the American public. Granted, I did not live in this era, but both my parents did. If I was to base a guess on what I know of them, I would say that anyone trying to force them into slavery would have been eating the paper their ridiculous laws were printed on. I certainly wouldn't have walked out into the streets or into a factory if I had just told the workforce of America that they were now slaves who had to accept the meager pittiance I was paying them.

My second big issue with this book was Rand's insistence in using only black and white characters. They are either so incredibly intelligent that they create new and wonderful items/ideas that make them vast amounts of money. Or her characters are what she refers to - over and over and over again - as looters. My question is, how smart is a person that allows another to take everything from them, from business' to any ideas they might have to the inventions they have patented. How intelligent a person allows this to go on until most of the country is starving before doing anything in response? Americans fight. That is what we are known for all over the world. That is something our enemies point to when they want to put us down. Bring us to a barroom brawl and we won't just start trying to fight everyone at once, but we'll keep fighting even when it would be far more logical to just play dead. Yet Rand's protaganists - much like her workforce - just take it on the chin. Ridiculous and unbelievable. I know that, if I pulled myself up from nothing, spent years and uncountable hours working to create something more, something that I could be proud of, I would sacrifice everything I have, from friends to money to years of my life to keep some moron from taking it away and declaring it as his, not out of greed, but on principal. Part of the reason I liked her characters in the beginning was because they knew what was right and what was wrong. They held themselves up to a higher standard, even when everyone else around them was behaving as if it was a sin, as if mediocrity was not only expected, but laudable. Then, when faced with the moment of truth, the moment when, to make the very statement that HAD to be made for the book to come to its climax, they turned tail and ran or gave in to the very people they were fighting against. It makes no sense at all. Since she made it plain that, in the end, these people would stand up for themselves and their ideals, it made it look like she was just trying to extend the book. It leads one to think she was just in love with her own voice and that the book was written with this in mind rather than sharing her opinions and ideas.

It was sad that she did this since I would happily have given this book five stars if she had just treated me - and all her other readers over the years - as though she was not the only one on the planet that ever posessed a brain. Harsh? Maybe, but I hate being driven to throw away something that I might have greatly respected. I had to give up on this not because I didn't understand it, but because I understood it all too well and was threatened with insanity if I had to read the same ideas one more time.

Over all, I have to say that this is a book I will not return to again, despite the fact that it was the best horror novel I've ever read. At least, for about five hundred pages. I did read the last few chapters, skimming over the second half of the book to get there. I am a pretty fast reader anyway and I caught much of it, enough to know that all I was missing was more of the same, right up until the idiots of industry had destroyed, not just their competitors, but themselves, their city, and all the poor bastards that had the ill fortune to be too much like cows to stand up for their rights when they had the chance. It was a wholly depressing theme and, honestly, I don't feel like I missed much.

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The Red Cloak

I tried to post this on Amazon's Kindle store for free. They don't believe in free, so I decided to make this available to everyone via facebook and Live Journal. If you like it, pop on over to Amazon Kindle Store and buy my book, Getting Thin : A Ghost Story. Here you go, Happy Halloween!!!!!!!!!!!!!


It had no name, that meeting place on the hilltop where two dusty tracks interrupted each other. The roads themselves had once had names, but the crossing never did. We told John Berkshire it was an evil place, and always had been, but he laughed. Perhaps he was right to laugh; who can say that his bad luck had anything to do with what he found buried there? Still, we’d always known about that place, just as our parents and their parents had always known and even in this modern age it was a place with mysteries beyond science, a place of evil that had no religion and no name. It just was.

No grass grew on those roads. The earth was hard and brown and bare where they crossed, though no-one living ever set foot there. In high summer, the long grass would creep over the roads where they lay further down the hill, even though plenty of people walked their dogs there or rode their horses out, always circling the base of that strange hump, which rose up suddenly out of the flat landscape, rather than chancing any ill luck connected with the crown. The view might well have been beautiful and far reaching as the surrounding forests and fields had little elevation larger than a molehill, but none ever went to see it. I noticed, once, that most didn’t even look up at it, not as though they were avoiding it, but as though they never even saw it.

There used to be a sign up there, little wooden placards on a post pointing the way to the small towns nearby, but that is gone, long since rotted and fallen. Its remains may lie there still, rotting away in a tangle of weeds and grass, but no-one will be looking for it now. John sure didn’t find it, though he insisted it must still be there due to the local superstitions, and I know he looked for it; I saw him searching the grass with an gnarled, slender branch, the kind old men use to lean on when they are walking a good distance. His journal spoke of that first fruitless search of the hill and I know how he felt as he was searching, as though he was standing upon the tomb of King Arthur, about to prove the storied king had been a man of flesh and blood and bones. Half his journal was dedicated to our hill and our town and the history he thought he was going to make.

Local legend and history did not give that promontory the romance or long pages that John Berkshire did. It must have been manmade, I always thought; ours is a land of particular flatness left behind after some glacier or another ironed it out. That slope was perfectly round and all sides of it were too uniform to look natural. Now that I am older, I have seen the barrows in England, where they once buried their dead, and it always makes me think of that hill, so out of place in the flat plains of the fields, like the hump of a sand dune found where no beach or desert has ever existed. I never laugh when someone says that this barrow or that is haunted by a foul, vengeful spirit and I always have some sense of recognition, as if their campfire stories explain something that is all too real. Still, no-one in my town ever speaks of why it is there. Until the professor came, it was just a feature that, out of place as it might have been, was just there. Its only distinction was that its bad reputation survived even into this era of common sense, long removed from the days of burning witches and believing the phases of the moon could cause certain types of sickness.

As children, we used to dare each other to mount that grassy hill and stand upon it, but to my memory, none ever took the challenge and our parents would have beat us senseless if they had known our foolishness. Yet there were no cautionary tales to warn us off. There had never been any legends at all connected with the hill. There was no specter which swung lit lanterns on moonless nights, no tales of beasts hungry for the blood of children, no demon haunting the night, looking for souls to steal. In fact, adults tried to avoid mentioning the hill, if they could and, when asked about it, simply said, ‘don’t go there.’ And we didn’t, though why, I’m not really sure. If asked, I’d bet our parents would say the same thing; there was just something about that place, something so quietly sinister that even the most foolish or macho shrank in its presence. A house rumored to be haunted always draws in the curious and foolhardy looking for adventure, and one that truly is haunted tends to be repellent.

Town history offered only vague explanations, though no detail or evidence was ever presented to support what was recorded in the official documents. I went looking later, when I had grown up enough to want more information. What I found was less than helpful. A paper on property rights and ownership, had attached to it a small, handwritten note stating that the legal owner of Becker Farm had been ‘discovered a witch and burnt until dead upon a point high enough that all could see what came of those who turned to the devil’. No name or date was supplied, only that her remains were buried, as was customary with witches, above the land and beneath crossed roads, and since there is only one place that is both high and where two road cross, I suspect it must have been done on the hill. The poor woman’s name was not given, and it was marked out on the list of owners for Becker Farm. I suppose I could always go ask the farmer to see the deed for his property, but I doubt there would be much satisfaction in knowing the name of an old woman who was probably murdered by someone who only wanted to claim her farm for themselves. There is no other record of any sort of witch burning, and if there ever was, I doubt it survived long once people got their sense back.

The second story I found again offered no name, only that a woman was ‘accosted in the worst ways’ upon that hill and then buried there. The document stating this was part of a court proceeding against bandits being held to trial for murder. Despite a long and lengthy testimony on their own innocence, her attackers, several local men of lesser character, were ‘brought to justice’ in that very spot by ‘hanging until dead’.

The only common factor between these tales happens to be the ladies’ cloaks. In both cases its ‘wicked color’ is mentioned as the only description of the woman involved. In the first account, the burned remains of the witch were described as being ‘wrapped in her wicked cloak, which she wore even on the Lord’s day in pure mockery of Him, and thrown into a naked hole with naught else to protect her bones from the filth of dirt. In the second story, it was a small comment by a witness that he had seen the ‘wicked cloak of the young miss as she spoke to the ruffians and known it was her by it, for always she wore it.’ I know both those cloaks were red. Deep, deep, red which was not cheerful or pretty, but a most disturbing shade that would remind all who saw it of clotted blood. I know this not from the vague, written accounts of our history, but from sight; I have see her cloak, as John Berkshire saw it, though the sight of it has not done me the damage it did to him. Not yet, at any rate.

John Berkshire was a professor, of sorts, whose interests lay in history, but not the usual sort of history. He was chiefly concerned with fairytales, their origins, and proving that many of them had basis in fact. It shocked me to discover that; he was the most practical sort of man I think I have ever encountered, with a deep scorn for anything that looked like it wasn’t based on hard, solid fact. He came to our village, brought by a singular, chance encounter with our own version of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ which he thought a rather rare and curious twist on the old tale. It wasn’t really that rare, though it is curious when held in comparison with other versions of the tale. Similar versions to ours can be found in other villages, most of them in Europe. I’ve found them without much difficulty, although the locals won’t make much comment on why their versions are different. Charles Perault might well have known about Red Riding Hood and the reality of her cloak, though when he wrote it down, he changed a few things to make it more… palatable. Or maybe just to fit his own moral code. As children in my small village, it is the true version, as I have always thought of it, we all learned, never knowing until much later that the rest of the world tells it different. In our version, it is the wolf which is hunted and certainly Red Riding Hood is no angel bringing a basket to her grandmother, but a reason for both wolf and grandmother to hide in trembling fear at her knock. The moral of our story is that wolves might be natural dangers, but they cannot compare to the evil of humanity.

It was this odd tale, along with a dusty journal and a pack of yellowed letters chanced upon in a back room of a college library which led John Berkshire to our village and our hill. Imagine his despair when the town denied him the right to dig in the crossroads, despite his impassioned pleas and promises of fame. ‘No-one goes there,’ the mayor told him. ‘It’s best left undisturbed.’

John Berkshire just couldn’t leave it at that. Not when he was so close to proving that at least one fairytale character had basis in flesh and blood. It was the actual Little Red Riding Hood he thought he had found, though the tale first appeared in the 14th century and at that point no-one but Native Americans lived on our good land. Of course, the tales of Red Riding Hood as most of the world heard it then and the version that I know are oddly close, like twins born as mirrors of each other. One was told in the light, where little girls are sweet and the biggest threat to their well-being is the failure to listen to their mothers. The other version tells the dark truth, that there are some things that no amount of advice can save a girl from, no matter how sweet, obedient, or innocent she is. Both tales have cloaks in them, and there the similarities end. I think she brought her story with her, the way she brought the cloak, because it was as much a part of her as the red cape. I think that, both tales came to America, but hers came first. Maybe with the very first settlers that stepped off the ships into this land.

It was my friend, Eric, that pointed out the professor on the day I broke the rules and walked up that hill. He didn’t follow me when I went charging up after the professor, and it was the smartest thing that boy ever did, smarter than me, anyway, even though he was always the slow one in classes. We had noticed the professor up there before and had given each other frightened glances before running off to find more interesting things to do. That afternoon, though, I saw that the professor was holding a small shovel and my own curiosity drug me up to speak with him.

Why did I do it, after all those years of avoiding that hilltop? What made it so easy that day? Was it seeing the professor already up there, obviously in no distress, despite having spent three or four days walking around on it? Or is it as I suspect, that she was merely too distracted by one to bother with another? That she already had a hold on Professor John Berkshire is indisputable; I think she had reached right out of the dusty pages of a crumbling old journal and grabbed him by the throat. He was open to her influence, welcoming to her presence, too preoccupied with his own public image – which was always under attack from his peers – to know the sort of danger he was putting himself in. I can’t imagine what drove the man to the life he chose; he was always defending himself to those around him, trying to convince them that he was just as good as they, that his field should have just as much respect, all the while aware that the tales he studied were often illustrated in the pastel pinks and blues of nurseries and written in Mother Goose type rhyme. By the time I walked up that hill, the professor was already in a fever, blinded by his desire to prove how important his work really was and I think she was already inside his head.

He was digging when I got there. He was using a small, sharp-edged spade, but, from what I saw, he might as well have been using his fingers. His spade rang out with every strike of the earth, as if it hit pure rock or concrete, though the earth around our village was always soft and never littered with any sort of rock at all. The professor was already sweating heavily, despite the mild day, but there was barely a dent the size of a milk saucer beneath his shovel.

How should I explain my first impressions of that forbidden place with its bright wildflowers nodding in the fresh breeze? It was not wholesome, though it might have looked it at first glance; there was something in the air which seemed to spoil the color of the yellow flowers, leaving them tinged with some unspeakable sort of undertone which reminds me, when I think of them, of jaundiced flesh. The breeze, though cool and seemingly clear, crawled like cold fingers over my neck and cheeks until I was shivering in my neat, pleated school skirt like some kindergartner left for the first time by her mother. Even the sun falling out of the cloudless sky did not look or feel as pure as it had at the bottom of the hill; it felt darkened and false, as if all that it touched must wither and die in its horrid light.

The professor did not seem to notice me at first, so caught was he in his labor. Only when I cleared my throat did he look up from his labor, starting, as one might expect of the guilty, and reddening in the face. “So all that twaddle about no-one coming up here was just that,” he muttered, eyeing me like some foul insect he’d found beneath a rock.

I thought that a very queer way to introduce oneself and promptly told him so, then added, “besides, it’s true. I’ve never been up here. No-one I know of ever has. I only came because I saw you.”

He waved me off with an abrupt gesture and went back to hacking at the soil. “You’ll never get anywhere like that,” I stated. It was my habit, in those days, to speak with little respect for my elders, though my parents often reprimanded me for it.

“I suppose you know a better way, then?” he asked, peering at me over the fine, wire frames of his glasses, which were slipping slowly down his sweaty nose.

“My father always wets the dirt when he wants to dig a hole. He says it makes it easier.” The professor didn’t respond, but I think he must have gotten some water, somewhere because, by evening, the whole village knew about what he’d found, which wasn’t, I daresay, what anyone expected.

He didn’t find skeletal remains or anything else gruesome enough to back up the town history – which I knew nothing of until later. He found, instead, an old trunk containing a singular article of clothing. A red hooded cloak. He didn’t seem at all pleased with his discovery. At the time I thought he was only disappointed to have dug up someone’s old clothes. Now I know that his horror of the thing was already growing upon him. He couldn’t seem to tell us why there would be a cloak – and it was a magnificent, velvet thing with loads of ripples and a deep, deep hood – and no-one else seemed to know, nor have I ever discovered more than my own suspicions.

Everyone wanted to look at it, for all that no-one had wanted it dug up. There was talk of both the cloak and the chest it had been buried in being given to the museum, for both were wonderfully preserved. Indeed, the black lacquered wood of the trunk and its brass fittings were undamaged by the ground and untouched by rust. There was a little dirt caught in the hinges, but not much else to prove that the chest had to have been buried years and years before. The cloak could have been fresh from a seamstress, so neat and gleaming were its folds. The velvet was so rich and heavy and plush that everyone who touched it drew their hands back with a look of profound respect. I remember looking at it and thinking it was odd that it didn’t even have the smallest wrinkle, although it must have been in that chest since before I was born, at the very least. The professor had hung it upon a one of the decrepit museum dummies that they used for old costumes. Its hood was up, showing how deep it was; only darkness could be seen within, rather than the red of the material or the blank, white face of the mannequin.

“Is that what you wanted to find so bad?” I asked him, sniffing disdainfully at such a girlish waste of material – I was quite the tomboy in those days.

The professor merely shook his head. He looked strange. He was pale and worn, something that I only noticed because I remembered how full of determination he had been before. I think she was already feeding on him, draining him of any life that he had left the way a vampire might drain a body of blood. If he had been a girl, it would have been different, but he was no young virgin. I think that was what she needed, what things like her always need, but that didn’t stop her from eating him from the inside out and killing him when he was done. At that moment, I thought he was just tired and that I had struck him with my disdainful words because, even though it was just old clothes, it was also a great discovery, or so my parents said. In a rare moment of regret, I decided to make amends. “I could put it on,” I offered.

“You could see what it might have looked like on a real person.”

“No!” the professor shouted as I reached out to touch the rich velvet, loud enough that several people turned to look at him. He shrank from their gazes. “No,” he said in a softer, kinder tone. “Its best left where it is. I’d bury it again, if I hadn’t a horror of returning to that hilltop. He leaned closer to me and I saw his eyes glittered with something like madness. “It’s monstrous,” he whispered, “whatever lives within… Sometimes I think I see its eyes staring back at me…” He giggled a little and if I’d known a little more about the world or people, I’d have known how the professor would end up.

What I know of the following nights has been learned through secondary sources, including the professor’s own journal, which I managed to steal with the help of my school friends. Only one occasion is of my own memory and it is this incident which prompted me to go against my own honest upbringing in order to procure the rest of the story. I did not believe in ghosts or monsters then and sought a scientific explanation.

I was curious, after speaking to the professor and hearing his strange comments – which I didn’t fully understand if they were meant for the cloak or the hilltop. Either way, I was curious about what the professor would do next. I took to hovering outside his hotel, though he did not leave again until that fateful night when he left for good.

I watched his window and often thought I saw him pacing, though I wondered at his preference of dress; it seemed as though he wore a coat or night shirt long enough to serve as a very old fashioned dress. These very same nights, according to the testimonies of several hotel employees and the professor’s journal, it could not have been John Berkshire I saw at all; he was either in the hotel restaurant or hidden beneath his bed sheets, as his own writing put it.

What drove him to such a behavior began the very evening he found the trunk and its odd treasure, before he even spoke to me. In fact, it began even as he held up the cloak in the odd, dim sun on the hilltop, having just exhumed the chest. Opening the chest had been little trouble once he knocked the dirt from the shining brass clasps which held it closed. He had, of course, expected bones, but was not at first sight displeased with finding the cloak; it resembled that famous hood and cape so much that he felt sure he’d discovered definitive proof that the girl of fairytales had indeed been real. Certainly there was an odd sense of the macabre finding such a beautiful cloak, certainly not a product of our plastic era, buried in that chest. It was as though someone had went to great lengths – what with the obviously untrue stories of witches and murdered girls – to see that the cloak was never brought into the light again, that the thing was left to rot forever, entombed in the chest. It was only later, after I had read the professor’s journal and laid my own hands on that cloak that I understood the whole of the story. I can remember it now, even though I try not to, the weight of it in my arms. It was so heavy, heavier, even, than one would expect a thick, velvet cloak to be. It was as though I were holding a person in my arms.

Upon lifting the cloak out of the trunk, the professor began to get his first suspicions that Red Riding Hood was a far more sinister tale that he’d guessed. Perhaps more like our version than anything the Brothers Grimm had ever written. I think anyone who touched that cloak would know, as I know, that whatever infected those rich folds of soft velvet, it had been there for a long time, lingering like a sickness in the material, like a shadow of death beneath the edges of the hood.

‘Maybe it was only the way the sun drew down behind the cloak,’ he wrote, ‘but it gave me quite a start when I held it up; I perceived two lights, like feverishly bright, gimlet eyes in the darkness of the hood. I quickly let the thing drop into its coffin and had convinced myself it was but the dying sun peeping through rents in the cloth which I saw. However, upon my return to my room at the hotel, I could find a tear or snag of no kind. In fact, the material is lush and heavy as if new made, except for a queer, musty scent which clings to the velvet many hours after being aired. An experiment by lamps has not made my first perception repeatable. I think now that the gruesome version which I had lately read in Herr Swansen’s journal and the dusky twilight must have been preying on my mind.’

I can, of course, understand how his mind, with that story as its base, could create such a fanciful illusion; for our tale of the girl in the red cloak had given me such nightmares as a child – and I doubt I am the only one – that my mother had often spoken roughly to my father for being so insensitive as to tell it to me. I remember reading the kinder versions as I grew older, one of which was the Grimm’s account, and scoffing at their saccharine sweetness; no-one got rescued in our tale. It seemed but mere fancy and wishful thinking, too, that anyone, young girl or not, wearing such a wicked cloak could be anything but bad.

The professor expected (or perhaps only hoped) that his odd experience was to be simply an odd tale to laugh at later with his more sophisticated and educated friends in the city, yet, within a few hours of his discovery, he made another entry in his journal, perhaps after speaking with me or just before. It seemed he’d broken from the cluster of people eager to see what he’d found, now that it had proved more pleasant to look upon than a mass of moldering old bones.

‘I find myself disliking this strange cape more with every hour. Whenever I turn my back upon it, I feel a heavy weight upon my shoulders, as though I am being watched. Out of the corner of my eyes I seem too often to catch a pair of glimmers in the darkness of the hood, like malignant stars out of an alien night. The only comfort I can find is by either removing myself completely from its presence or staring directly at it, yet that comfort is less than is found by hiding one’s head beneath a pillow when strange men are heard talking in one’s house. When I am away from it, such a fear falls on me that someone – perhaps the maid for my room, one of the many who have insisted on seeing it, or, Lord forbid it, a child, shall take it into their head to try on this evil thing, and I know in my heart this would be a terrible event. Yet when I stay near, playing the unwilling guardian – as I must, since this is my doing – I must keep my eyes directly on it and even then, twice, in fact, there have been moments where I thought I saw something moving in the darkness of the hood, like a shadowed face. What a terrible face, though! It seems small and misshapen, like some sort of evil goblin. I tell myself this is but a trick of darkness, a common optical illusion, but I don’t really believe that to be true. I begin to wish I had never discovered the foul thing; I dread that worse is to come.’

The staff in the hotel restaurant, particularly the busboy, with whom I went to school, said that Professor Berkshire spent a good deal of that evening, after everyone had gone trailing home at last, sitting at a table and muttering over glasses of whiskey. I do believe that his choice of drink could have contributed to what happened next, though, as I said before, he had an unknowing witness in me.

His journal states that, to be free of the thing while he slept, he placed the cloak in its trunk, yet could not stand the thought of it ‘crouching there, waiting to spring out’ so he again hung it, though reluctantly, so he might ‘keep a close eye on its doings’. His journal continues on in this manner, becoming more and more obsessed with the idea that it was not just a piece of clothing he harbored, but something more. Some intelligent and horribly malevolent, creature of ill intent. It was at this point that he started to refer to whatever lurked within the cloak in the feminine. Most would have laughed and said that his mind had played a foul trick on him, that his obsession with Little Red Riding Hood had unhinged him. Those people never touched that horrible cloak, which, for all that the material was soft and plush, felt like something soft and rotting when I crushed it to me in my hurry to wrap it into a tight ball that would fit in the confines of the chest. I remember the scent beneath the mustiness, the soft, delicate perfume. I remember her voice, just a gentle whisper in my head, something that would have been inviting if I was more inclined toward girlish pursuits and hadn’t seen more horror movies than most. Even now, well beyond those years of scrambling up trees and fishing with my brothers, I am fiercely glad that I was so boyish. I think it was that alone which saved me from being the next girl in the red hood. I felt her reach out for me and try to latch on, like a leech or a tick. I shudder to think what would have happened then.

For the professor, it was worse at night, though things that scare us in such a manner always are. Still, I do not think that it was pure imagination on his part which drove him to hide like a child beneath his bed sheets. There are moments of clarity in his journal – usually found in the morning hours, when the night is furthest away – in which he accuses himself of becoming ‘infected with the simple beliefs of those with which he is forced to keep company while researching for information on his find’, as though such fancies are capable of jumping from one person to another like a flu virus. I think it was only desperation on his part which drove him to such unkindness. After all, he complains of such things that would have driven some men mad and it was easier to blame the small minded who were less than thrilled with his excavation than to accept that which haunted him as real. There were, in fact, many who did not see this uncovered thing as treasure, but as bad luck and bad business, most of them old men who sat outside the local corner store playing cards or chess.

“That fella ought to have left it alone,” said Mr. Jenkins. He’d been born and raised in our village, teaching mathematics at our school until her was eighty-one, a fact he always supplied to anyone willing to listen. I remember him chewing the end of his pipe with his naked gums and blinking up at us kids in the morning light with watery grey eyes. “Shoulda left it be. Nothin good can come of anything offen that hill. It’s always been that way. Always will be. When I was a lad, my pa’d tell me the most blood curdlin’ tales…”

“Pete, you just hush,” Mrs. Wilkins, the cashier at the corner store said, stepping outside. “They don’t need to hear none of that. You’ll give ‘em all nightmares.” Mrs. Wilkins was the sort that treated anyone younger than eighteen like they were five. I tried to get Mr. Jenkins to talk later, when I could get him alone and away from the other old men that used to play chess with him, but he just pressed his wrinkled, sunken mouth around his pipe and never would say another word. There were others, though, that told the professor what he had found, that begged him to put it back. He wrote about them in his journal, his tone half scathing and half defeated; I think he already had guessed it was too late to put it back, that the damage had been done.

The professor wrote little at night, but those are the passages which come closest to the heart of the thing. One of these was written the very night after he dug it up. I think when hiding didn’t work, he had to turn on the lights and write to get it out of his head. ‘Footsteps in the dark,’ he wrote, ‘up and down the floorboards at the foot of my bed until I feel like I’m going mad. It’s a light step, as if the person making them were quite small or barefoot or both, but it is not the step of anything… ordinary. I hear, after each step, a sort of scraping on the bare wood, like a dog’s claw. I turned on the light and searched the room thoroughly, even checking the dresser drawers and pulling furniture from the walls to see if there might be rat’s holes, though I knew I would not find any such thing. Yet the footsteps do not bother me near as much as the smell. The odd, musty scent which permeated the velvet cloak from the start has now filled my room so that I feel I am choking for want of fresh air. I have tried to open the windows, but either the wood is swollen or they are fixed in some manner I may not see; I cannot budge them a single inch. I shall speak with the manager in the morning; I doubt they get many guests in this God forsaken backwoods, thus it may have been many a season since the windows were opened at all. All the while, that cloying, rotted smell fills my room. It smells almost like flowers, but not the sort that any gentleman would send a lady. If perfume could go off, like milk, I think that is what I would define it as. A cheap, tawdry perfume that has gone long past its expiration date. The stink of it makes me feel so very tired, as if I could lie down and never move again.’

Every night, at nine, the professor went to bed, determined his mind was but playing tricks on him. Every night he complained of the same noises in his journal, which grew more distinct as time went on. At this same hour each night, I was standing across the street, watching the professor’s window. If not for that, I might have guessed him as insane as everyone else – with the exception of Mr. Jenkins and his friends, I’d wager. Yet each night, by the pale illumination of the moon and streetlamps, I saw someone pacing to and fro, and I guessed it to be the professor. Until that last night.

Professor Berkshire’s last journal entry was largely unintelligible, save two short paragraphs. ‘I spoke today with the Rev. Ben Shad. He wouldn’t say much, though I suspect he knows more than he is telling. He gave me one bit of advice and a small ounce of history which managed to escape him before he seemed to remember he shouldn’t speak of it. He reminded me that, in older times, witches and such were buried outside church grounds. He told me that, in his opinion, certain people and things which were buried away from consecrated ground, were the very things that needed to be buried there more than any other. In his mind, there would be a few less evils haunting the dark if our ancestors had been a bit less squeamish and trusted more to God.’

‘A week ago, I scoffed at God, tonight I feel it might be best to take the good Reverend’s advice. The cloak should be reburied, preferably where the eyes of a higher power can keep close watch on it. Tonight the pacing returned, though it sounded more like stomping, and the smell nearly suffocated me. The manager came to see about the windows and there was not one word I could utter when he lifted the windows with little more than a finger. I felt a fool, but it has only added to my terror that tonight they are again stuck fast. There was a rustling which came with the footsteps tonight, and that has frightened me most. With each step I heard the movement as of some dress or, Lord protect me, a cloak. Indeed, I could not relieve myself of the idea that the cloak was pacing near my bed, trying to decide what to do with me, for I know too well that I am of no use to it at all. I am weary beyond speaking with lack of sleep and fear, yet I could not stand another moment in the dark with the unknown hovering over my bed. When I fumbled for the light, the cloak hung where I’d left it, yet I could swear the hem was swaying and, for a moment, I perceived in the darkness of the hood the most horrible, twisted little face staring back at me…’

It was here that the professor began to gibber a little, going on endlessly about ‘putting it right,’ and ‘burying the evil thing in the church yard’. He thought himself quite mad. Others agreed when he fled down the hotel steps ten minutes later in his pajamas screaming about devils and demons. They had him committed to a nearby hospital for observation. He died there not an hour later, still screaming, inconsolable. Whatever it was that he saw after his last journal entry, it tore his mind right in two; the doctors swore he died of pure fright. I could have told them he wasn’t crazy, but who ever listens to a kid? I saw it, though, probably clearer than the professor ever did; after he turned on the dim bedside light and rose, I could see everything inside the room. I could see enough for my blood to run cold and my heart to freeze in my chest. I saw the cloak swirl away from its place on the old dummy the museum had lent him as he wrote his last entry in his journal. I saw it walk to the professor as he bent over the desk set under the window and, when he turned, bend closer so that his face would have been inside that hood. It makes me shiver, even now, to think of what he came nose to nose with, for a I caught a singular glimpse of a face, as it bent over him, beneath the rim of that blood colored hood, glowing with its own horrid light. It was a face which even now causes me to check that doors and windows are firmly locked and pull the curtains after dark for fear that it is lurking outside the glass. It was that face which made me take that cloak in my arms long enough to stuff it back into its trunk, even though my heart was beating so hard I thought it would burst right out of my chest; the only thing worse than what I saw would be knowing that it was still loose in the world.

It might have been the face of a young girl, no older than I was at that moment, but such a nasty girl she must have been; her face was hideously twisted with hatred and her dark eyes burned with an unnatural sort of light. The skin was maggot pale and her hair writhed about her sunken cheeks like a living snakes. It was the very face of evil incarnate. Thinking back on it, I know that she was not ever a human girl. I know that she has to be kept hidden, that the only safety that might be offered is to keep her imprisoned, something that anyone who knows the old stories – or who has held that cloak – must know. Whatever demon she might be, whatever might have spawned her, I haven’t any real ideas. What I do know is that she was hungry and that she remains so because I was not kind of girl she could seduce, nor was I coward enough to shrink from thievery in the name of protecting whoever might become her next victim.

After the professor was removed, I went to his room. I had seen her face and I knew that no-one would ever believe me. I knew – because I’d seen enough horror movies and read enough horror books – that the mayor would display that cloak or some such foolish thing, and someone’s daughter would become obsessed with it. I knew, because I was a girl, even if I did have boyish interests, that someone would be charmed into those gleaming velvet folds. They wouldn’t be able to help it and then something bad would happen because something bad had to happen. Such is the nature of all tales of this sort. The story that hung most vividly in my mind was our own version of Little Red Riding Hood. I was always the one that figured out the end of horror stories before they actually happened and I didn’t hesitate to question sanity or if I would get into trouble or if I had imagined her hideous little face in the shadows of the hood. I took the cloak and put it in its trunk and I got one of my brothers and Eric to help me steal it. Only Eric, my youngest brother, Reverend Shad, and I know where to look now and we won’t ever tell, not even in journals, for we are well warned against such foolishness.

What I saw that night, what the professor had set free on the world was a Little Red Riding Hood that only my village and a few, select others knew. I sometimes wonder where the girl is, where the bones of our Little Red might lie, but I don’t think about it too much; it isn’t safe to dwell on such things. She wasn’t human anymore when she was buried underground. No more human than the thing which lives within the cloak. Sometimes I wonder how many Little Red Riding Hood’s there have been, who they were, where they came from, but I know that doesn’t really matter. They are gone, eaten up and destroyed and discarded. I don’t know how the cloak was taken prisoner, just that it must have passed to a lot of girls before it was locked in that trunk. Sometimes at night I dream of them, all sweet and innocent until they wrapped themselves in those lush, heavy folds, pleased that their beauty would be displayed in such a rich frame. We buried that cloak, buried it deep and buried it well. Never shall another lay eyes upon it, never shall they find a single clue to where it lies, save that we did entrust it to God’s watchful eyes.

“My, my,” the wolf said, shrinking away from her burning gaze, “what fierce teeth you have.”

“The better to eat you right up,” Red Riding Hood snarled over Grandma’s lifeless body.


Living for Inspiration

Here is your warning. I am taking a break from my blog. Just a break. I am not abandoning it completely. I am starting to feel more inclined toward serious work on my trilogy and that means that I am not exactly living in this world at the moment. This blog is centered in my real life and, really, is just an exercise ground so that I can do my writing practices. Writing practice is an invaluable tool, especially for new writers, but for old ones as well. You could do worse than following my example by grabbing yourself a peice of Livejournal, Blogspot, or one of the many other blog sites out there and unleashing your opinion. Anywho, just a suggestion.

I decided that, since this is going to be my last little babble for a little while, I am going to talk about something that a lot of people don't understand. What inspires. It is a frequent question, one that, at times, I can answer with utter confidence. Other times I come up completely blank. The truth is, inspiration, for me, comes from a thousand and one different places and can be brought on by anything that catches my attention.

I used to think that inspiration had to be sought out from grand art. I used to think you had to be smart enough to understand the meaning behind a modern art peice, you know, like a blot of red paint in the middle of a white canvas called 'the sad clown', and thus decided early on that I was unworthy of such things because all I saw was a stupid red blob of paint. It was only after years of finding sudden inspiration in a drop of rain dangling from the pointed end of an oak leaf, in over hearing a single sentence of a conversation as I passed two old ladies in the street, in seeing a single bird floating through the sky with the sun on his wings that I realized that inspiration isn't just for brilliant people who know everything there is to know about Freud or the meaning of the Mona Lisa's smile, but for everyone. All you have to do to find it is open your mind. Reach out. Forget about appearing weird, insane, or just uncool. Inspiration doesn't give a damn that pop culture has spurned Ricky Martin or forgotten completely about M.C. Hammer, it will still be there, waiting to remind you of the time you danced the Macarena and fell down and broke your arm. Inspiration does not care that Dunken' Donuts is a chain or that the nearest coffee shop looks exactly like every other coffee shop on the planet, it is still there, waiting to remind you how different YOUR Dunken' Donuts is and why.

You can go out, buy black turtle neck sweaters and put a beanie on your head. You can go to every poetry reading in the state or pray at Hemingway's grave. Does this mean you will find inspiration? Maybe. Maybe not. It depends on how much time you spend reminding yourself of all the things you are not allowed to say, like, or do in order to avoid embarrassing yourself in front of all your cool friends. See, the more you close your mind and clutter it up with worry, the less inspiration likes you. Fitting in, fitting out, it doesn't matter to inspiration so long as you are paying attention to that mother bird feeding her babies. Go down to New Orleans and maybe you will discover a new vampire story within you. More than likely you will just sit around trying desperately to see everything at once and trying not to look like you just arrived from smalltown USA and inspiration will be denied... at least for a while.

There I go, rambling again. You are probably asking yourself how all this is supposed to help, what sort of advice I am trying to give. So let me get right to the point. Inspiration is actually very simple to find. All you have to do, besides keep an open mind, is open your eyes, your memory, and your imagination. Don't fly halfway around the world to Paris and expect that you will sit at cafes all day long writing. It won't happen. You'll find your story in Paris... after you get home. It is the familiar you need to love, no matter how ugly it is. See everything about the things and places around you, even if you hate them. Forget Paris. I've been there. I didn't write a single word while I was there and for years afterward all I could remember about it was sitting in a cafe, surrounded by the french, trying to order a plate of fries. That later became a detail in a story I wrote, but it took YEARS to fertilize and come back to me. It was literally forgetting everything BUT that clumsy attempt to communicate with a waiter that refused to speak English that brought Paris into a story of mine. Then, of course, I remembered sitting under the Eiffel Tower while someone tried to give me a fat, blood red rose, walking along the Seine to Notre Dame and standing in the shadow of its famous flying buttress', and trying to find a single train amid the confusion and din of Gare de L'est. Then, after all those years, Paris came alive for me and I wrote a story about my time there. But the inspiration was not Paris itself. The city, while I was there, was much like other large cities. Noisy, crowded, and gray. The inspiration for that story came from another time, another country, and another struggle to communicate with someone. You could say that inspiration takes pleasure in pouncing on you from behind while you are completely caught up doing something stupid. Like the dishes. It won't come so long as you are looking for it. You have to LIVE in it. You have to be willing to let it come each and every day from the most mundane, uncool things. That ugly pink sweater you loved when you were six has a story and it has a voice. That stupid plastic horse you slept with up until you were ten and rolled over on its leg, breaking it... after which you cried until your eyes felt swollen shut? Inspiration. The overgrown bushes in your yard, the dirty dishes piled on your counter, your struggle to write around your life, your children, your lack of children, your dog, your car, that bastard that cut your off yesterday, all of it is inspiration for those who keep an open, still mind, for those who know just how beneficial thinking nothing can be.

Let me define the still mind for you, as it is for me, because I know that is another of those phrases that only makes sense to the mad hatter muse inside me. I don't mean a perfect, zen-like peace because, well, that is something that is hard if you are a monk in Tibet who owns nothing, has no bills, and spends half his day staring at a blank wall. What I am talking about is your worry voice. We all have it. It sits there telling us all about the bills we have to pay, what time we need to pick the kids up from school, that vet appointment we don't have the money to cover, etc, etc, etc. Shut it off. If you need to remind yourself about bills, use that neat little reminder feature on your phone. Same for the kids. Stop looking at the clock. You don't have enough money in the bank for something? Well, you can't change that by driving yourself insane over it. At first, this will be an exercise in futility. You will tell yourself to ignore one thing just to have another nagging at you. Squash it. Again and again and again. Let it all go. You can't change some things, so worrying about them is taking up needless space in your head. For other problems, the only way to solve them is to push them away and let them bake. Appointments are easily relayed to a phone or PDA which will even tell you when to get up and get dressed for whatever you have to do. So let it earn that 200 dollar price tag and tell it everything that you have to remember so that it can do the remembering for you. Just be still. Be quiet. Listen to the birds, watch the cars on the road, breathe the fresh air. Mother Nature hates an empty space. Let your mind be empty of all its typical yammer and inspiration will likely come to fill the hole left behind. Don't think about finding it or waiting for it. Just go on watching and listening and being. Go on with your life with that still mind and see where it gets you.

Since this is my last blog for a while, I'm going to leave you with a little more than advice. I'm going to suggest you go pick up Natalie Goldberg's books on writing. Even seasoned writers will enjoy them, I think, because they aren't how-to books, but books about life and writing and how the two entertwine. Wild Mind, Writing Down the Bones, and Thunder and Lightning are what you are looking for. Go find them, read them, and write, write, write. I'll see you on the flipside, my pretties, if no one lands a house on my head before then.

Writer's Block: 9/11

Where were you?

On September 11, 2001, most people were hovered over their televisions, hands pressed to mouths, watching with tears in their eyes as Hell opened a gate on earth. I was not so lucky. I don't say that lightly, nor am I making a joke. No, television coverage, being able to hear the news from home and know what was happening to the second would have been a relief. I was hovering over an old radio straining to understand the german language and jumping forward each time I heard an American reporter, as if to grab the radio and shake it, demanding information. My heart was pounding and I felt so sick inside, like my intestines were knotting themselves into new and impressive shapes. I didn't know anyone that might be trapped inside the towers. I didn't even know someone who knew someone. Yet I felt like I knew every single soul fighting to survive in those towering infernos, choking on the black smoke rolling through every passage and room, felt like I could list the children, wives, mothers, husbands, brothers, and fathers that were praying that theirs had gotten out, that their loved one wasn't caught inside.

My husband had woken me from a groggy, jetlagged sleep. His words to me, both cryptic and forbidding, had given me a nasty jolt of fear. He didn't tell me what was going on. He wasn't allowed to speak of it over the phone; my husband is in the Air Force and, at that moment, he and his squadron were waiting to find out what the hell they were supposed to do, if we were at war or if this was all just some horrible misunderstanding... or the nightmare that all of America was praying it was. His words to me on that late afternoon were 'close the blinds. Now. Don't go outside. Just wait for me to come home.' I did what he told me. We were fairly new to the military, but I already knew that if he could tell me, he would have. It was my brother-in-law that told me what was happening. Ten minutes later he called from Chicago and told me to turn on the television. Of course, we didn't have television; my husband had just moved into this apartment after our marriage in May and hadn't bothered with such things since I was in the states and he was rarely home. 'The World Trade Center towers were hit by planes,' he told me. I didn't really have to ask if it was an accident of some sort; if it was, my husband would not be talking in cryptic orders. I probablly asked Jason just that question anyway; my mind was foggy and finding it difficult to grasp what I was being told. I had just flown into Germany the day before. I was actually supposed to be on a plane at that moment.

When my husband was arranging my flight through the travel office on base, he called me to make sure the dates were alright. I vetoed the flight that would have begun on the evening of the 10th and had me in the air over the Atlantic at about the time the first plane struck the towers, not because I wanted to come sooner - I had to shuffle an appointment so that I could take a flight that was a day or so earlier, one that landed on the 10th instead. I refused that flight because there was a short stop over in Amsterdam. They do not speak english in Amsterdam and I was struggling with even the shortest sentence in German nevermind any other language. Eventually I would learn to communicate semi-well, but that is a different story. Now I look back and realize how incredibly lucky I was that I was too frightened to take a chance landing in a different country. My husband argued the point at the time because he had already half set up the flight and it would be harder for him to come get me on an earlier day. I argued back that I would be expected to go through customs and recheck my bags, all in a place where they might not even recognize my broken german pleas for someone who spoke english. My husband caved because, well, it wasn't him that would have to navigate that strange airport (where I am sure they actually do speak english and quite well, but I'm not sorry I didn't guess that then).

So there I was, in a strange country, trying not to cry as I hovered over the radio, all the blinds closed so tight that it was midnight at two in the afternoon. I remember that feeling, that knowledge that, no matter who had done this, no matter what else happened, we were now at war. I hadn't bargained for this. I don't think any of us had. My husband went into the military because of the stability it provided. He didn't have a fascination with guns, didn't long to be a hero, didn't dream of being the fist our country used to attack other nations. Not then, anyway. Now he is a hero and I'm proud to call him my husband. We never even saw the footage of the towers falling until now, ten years after the fact. I only knew about those who jumped from the highest floors because I was calling my parents and best friend back home. We were in the dark and it seemed like we were completely isolated in a time when we wanted nothing more than to be home. After a day or two, the radio ceased to give me english speaking reporters, although I think Germany continued to cover the disaster. We were adrift in a world that could only speak of our pain, but not comfort us with shared grief. The base was nearly impossible to enter for the next six months. The line to get through security was a two hour wait and your entire car would be searched before you were allowed past the chainlink and razor wire and that was only to find yourself facing the massive canon of a tank. All these things just told me over and over that life as we had known it was over. Never again would I breeze through security in an airport, never again would I feel completely secure on a plane, and the face of New York was forever changed, a gaping hole where the towers used to be.

During that first hour of listening to the radio, of hearing about the Pentagon and the flight that had gone down thanks to the bravery of those onboard who refused to allow their plane to be used as a weapon so long as they breathed, I had one thought. Why? Why would anyone do this? That was all I could think then and it is all I can think now. What point could possibly be made by such a horrible, selfish action? Who would be willing to listen after thousands lay dead beneath the weight of steel and concrete? What god would demand such a heavy sacrifice and why would anyone worship him if he did? I'm a lot older now, a lot more mature. Back then I was feircly proud that my husband was in the military and I prayed - right or wrong - that he would help to flatten Bin Laden into a blood pool in the sand. I would like to say that, over the years, I've learned forgiveness. Yet I would be lying. I have television now and Britain has been replaying the tragedy from many different angles. Heroic, tragic, or just plain trying to survive, those who suffered through that day in New York are speaking and, for the first time, I get to see their faces and the terror that will always live with them. Seeing it has awakened that old horror and reminded me that there are children in this world who kissed their mom or dad goodbye ten years ago and never saw them again, expectant mothers who now try to explain to their ten year olds why Daddy isn't there. Yet there is a message of hope in the blood and dust and tears. The new transportation hub is rising, growing up from the destruction like a beacon, a symbol that tells anyone who thought they could beat us down that we will always rise again. Beneath it is the new subway station. I saw a special on the construction of this Path Station. I saw how it's soaring ribs drew light into the darkness and my heart swelled with pride. This is the thing that made America great in the past; we will not bow to evil. We have more heros than cowards and we have a multitude willing to die in order to protect the freedom of people they have never even met. We will find a light in the dark and we will overcome. Does that mean I have forgiven the foul beasts that stole the lives of thousands from every corner of the world for nothing more than a fanatical insistance that my nation kneel at their feet? No. I cannot help the anger that burns still in my heart, the anger that grows each time my husband is deployed to a country where the taliban continues to terrorize those unlucky enough to be born under their thumb. When I saw what was being built as a monument over the unmarked graves of thousands, I couldn't help but hope that there might be some healing to be found in the light flowing through the roof of the structure that has risen up, closing the gates of hell and opening those of heaven.