Out of the Smoke, by Matthew Wainwright [2020]

R. Tim Morris’ Rating: 8/10

Disclaimer: I’m not a regular reader of Historical Fiction or YA Fiction, and I really don’t know much about life in Victorian London ’cause I’m an uninformed schmoe. But that did not hinder my enjoyment of this title in ANY way.
What I enjoyed most about OUT OF THE SMOKE was the easiness of it all. Wainwright’s writing is clean and clear enough for anyone to get into the story. Chapters are the perfect length too, so that once you finish one, you can easily convince yourself to read just one more. And then another. The tale of Billy the chimneysweep is less of an obvious, linear plot and more of a string of mini-adventures, where Billy makes a series of questionable choices on his way to finding where he really belongs (although most of Billy’s “questionable” choices were often the only choice he had).
Characters come and go quickly in this story, and at times I was frustrated by not knowing which ones I should latch onto, and which (turns out most of them) were just passing moments on the journey.
I appreciate the inclusion of the actual 7th Earl of Shaftesbury, as it helped ground the tale in reality, as well as giving me a bit more insight into history, but his character was in no way presented as too heavy of a learning tool. There is also a strong message at the end of the book, but not preachy.
There is some violence and mild gore, but I can easily recommend Out of the Smoke for any young reader (or reader of Young Adult fiction), especially one who enjoys adventure and historical stories. 

The Fragile Keepers, by Natalie Pinter [2020]

R. Tim Morris’ Rating: 9/10

The moment had a personality. It was self-aware, poised, and graceful, a drifting soap bubble saying, “Look at me, remember this. Remember when everything changed.”

This is the kind of line, in the kind of book, that makes me want to read it all over again. There’s moments in The Fragile Keepers—quiet, innocuous moments—that could be glossed over without much thought, but actually mean everything.

Premise: Andre and her step-brother Ben witness a freak lightning storm of sorts in their California backyard, after which Shae—a beautiful winged creature, a faerie—appears in their shed. Unnerved at first, Andre and Ben eventually welcome Shae into their home. But Shae is no sweet little faerie. She has been sent to our world from another world by other faeries who, we can only assume, have a much bigger plan. In order to return to her world, Shae is tasked with giving gifts and collecting tithes, the details of which are shadowy and unknown even to her. When Shae starts developing a conscience and an affinity toward these humans—her fragile keepers—all of their lives, as well as the lives of their friends, spiral towards a haunting, transformative climax.

The Fragile Keepers is an incredible mix of real-world people and fantastical, otherworldly creatures. There are a lot of vivid descriptions of faerie lore and odd magic, but it never feels like too much. In fact, even in places where it doesn’t make any sense at all (to an unfamiliar reader, at least), we get the comforting feeling that either it will make sense at some point, or it was never meant to. It is ominous, like thunderclouds; the reader knows something bad is coming, perhaps only a page away.

The novel does run into moments of having too many characters hanging around, some of whom are arguably inconsequential to the story. Maybe it’s a personal preference, but these extra characters slowed me down a little in parts, especially around a very key scene to the whole story.

Natalie Pinter has crafted a wonderful debut. A dark, real-world fairy tale that is at once beautiful, ugly, haunting, dreamy, tragic, and thick with mood. It also has one of the most perfect endings I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. And by “perfect” I don’t necessarily mean “happy”.

The Fragile Keepers makes you look for the beauty in small things, and requires you to question the existence of something more.

The Great Rise

THE GREAT RISE is a short story I wrote for the Owl Canyon Press Winter 2018 Hackathon Contest. My story placed in the 24 Finalists, and was published in an Owl Canyon anthology collection. You can purchase your own copy HERE!

It’s a quirky, fantasy world tale about life, death, irreverency, hope, and the lack thereof, inspired predominantly by Neil Gaiman’s Stardust.

Enjoy!

The Great Rise

by R. Tim Morris

Beyond the cracked sidewalk, and the telephone pole with layers of flyers in a rainbow of colors, and the patch of dry brown grass there stood a ten-foot high concrete block wall, caked with dozens of coats of paint. There was a small shrine at the foot of it, with burnt out candles and dead flowers and a few soggy teddy bears. One word of graffiti filled the wall, red letters on a gold background: Rejoice!

The letters — as crimson as fresh blood from one angle, copper-brown like dried blood from another — had always been there in one hue or another. The enormity of the single word was near-overwhelming, looming over the surrounding scraps and vestiges of heavy hearted human regard. The town of Buffleton was filled with them. Photos of lost loved ones. Crumpled notes of melancholic thoughts, stuffed into coffee cans meant for donations. And yet, if one looked closer, one would see that the tiny, complex details within the surface of the wall — written in red and scribbled in gold — belied the word’s monolithic presence. Rejoice! The intricate details ranged from fine brush work to thick stabs of muted color. All of it added irony to the larger message: these were names of each and every citizen of Buffleton who had died. And how each one of them met their end.

From Alwyn EmberStone (natural causes) to Remi FrostBorne (lost at sea). From Tobias Brownbranch (eaten by goblins) to Her Highness Jaelynn Dew Rider (medical complications related to goblin bite). From the clumsy Bumper Marshburn (electrocution) to the brave Owl-Phoenix PhoenixBone (bee sting) to even the unfortunate Sir Ludwig FireScribe (bicycle accident).

On and on it went. Every moment that ended in tragedy was plastered to the surface of the wall; on what was known as The Great Rise. On and on. Were these meant as warning signs for the poor people of Buffleton? Lessons in the dangers that might present themselves to anyone at any time? A statement on the fragility of living? The trouble with goblins? Well, it was all of that. And none of that. On and on and on.

In all the annals of history, folklore, and wisdom, the word “hero” is not a word to be tossed about lightly. But for the sake of this tale of The Great Rise, young Jonathon Morningmist, by default, might be considered as such. To Jonathon, the wall was an enemy. It was a thief, having stolen his father from him years before. As his father would explain it — and just as all of Buffleton would carefully explain to every curious child — on the other side of that painted concrete wall was a whole other land. To even the most hopeful, it seemed virtually unattainable, like another universe entirely. The official belief, as Jonathon’s father first illustrated with his son on his knee, was that upon the grass on the other side there were no shrines. No candles or wilted flowers or stuffed bears. No names scribbled onto the surface of The Great Rise. Because there was one more thing that did not exist on the other side: death. There was no death by natural causes over there. No accidents. No goblins. There was only the possibility of ever more life and happiness. Ever more wonder and journeys of discovery. And always more love. A bottomless well overflowing with love. Jonathon Morningmist was both in awe of and afraid of this possibility.

But no one knew for certain what was over there. Over time, there had been a few who hopped the wall. Against town orders, they chose to leave everything in Buffleton behind in favor of the Forever-Life. They just wanted to know. They were so curious that they were willing to forget lovers, friends, and neighbors. Leaving vacant their blacksmith shops, janitorial supply stores, sushi bars, and generations old, family-run plumbing and heating businesses. Even young sons who once sat upon knees listening to fairy tales and legends of caution were abandoned with little more regard than day-old goldfish. All of the makings of these admittedly moderate lives were coldly, categorically dismissed in favor of what might be discovered beyond The Great Rise. For these were only ever temporary desires anyway, weren’t they? The hope for something more, shrouded by the unknown — that was the more powerful siren call, wasn’t it?

And yet, as the story goes, any and all who ever crossed over were never to be seen again. For whatever reason — whether it was the verisimilitude of the Forever-Life, or maybe something better, perhaps something worse — they never returned to the more hopeless and the less brave who continued to wait, and who continued to write ever more names on the wall.

Young Jonathon Morningmist did not know what to believe, only that his father chose hopping The Great Rise over the life he had in Buffleton. So Jonathon did not know much about heroes. He was just a kid — exactly as his father always called him: “a kid” — who wished for a day when the flames of hope might flicker. And one day they did, when a particularly curious wanderer found his way back to Buffleton again.

Jonathon had just finished his shift at Ye Olde Espresso, his aunt’s coffee shop, where he’d spent the majority of his day serving mintberry tea and cleaning the washrooms. Jonathon was not a terribly happy kid; he hadn’t felt much happiness since his father decided to make a spectacle of himself, catapulting over The Great Rise and disappearing forever. Unhappiness was not so uncommon a feeling around these parts, even for the majority of kids who hadn’t watched their fathers launch themselves into the unknown via a creaky contraption they’d cobbled together in their sheds the night before.

Truthfully, most kids were like Jonathon Morningmist. For one, they disliked school, because there was nothing worth learning at school that could possibly ever get them out of, and as far away as possible from Buffleton. To add further layers to their melancholy, there were a few more factors at play: boys were in love with girls and girls were in love with boys and all sorts of children were in love with all sorts of other children, but every last one of them was unable to show it. Also, the weather was always terrible in Buffleton, and no one is happy in terrible weather. Not to mention: there really wasn’t much in the way of hope for the children, since the grown-ups only ever seemed to care about what was or wasn’t on the other side of The Great Rise. Grown-ups, it seemed, were weak and afraid of everything. All of them. And all kids would become them eventually. And what is there about being weak and afraid that might ever be appealing enough to make a kid wish to become one of them? Better to simply make coffee but pour tea and be lonely until your aunt’s cafe is your cafe and you’re left with nothing but fleeting ruminations regarding what could have been had you not been so weak and afraid to be something better. And on and on it went.

On his way home, Jonathon Morningmist walked upon the crumbling sidewalk which ran alongside The Great Rise. Jonathon brushed his smooth, youthful hand along the rough bumps of the wall’s weathered concrete surface; generations of paint slapped on, layer after layer after layer. On and on and on.

Jonathon had just reached an aged, crooked telephone pole when he stopped. There was a new shrine that wasn’t there that morning, painted rocks were still drying. It appeared as though Finnigan Hambone met his demise sometime that afternoon (cause of death still unreported). Jonathon had heard distant sirens earlier and wondered who they might have been for.

It was then, as Jonathon contemplated the details of what might have taken Finnigan Hambone away, that Jonathon looked up. And it was as he looked up, that he spotted a pair of hands at the top of the wall; fingers from the other side, clutching the rim of The Great Rise. Jonathon gave his head a good hard shake, for no one had ever seen hands on the wall before. Never. It shouldn’t have been possible.

But those hands were definitely there. “Hello up there!” Jonathon called. The fingers were more gray than his own, but they were definitely human so the fear of another goblin attack was probably out of the question. For now, at least. “Hello?” he called again, perhaps with more emphasis on self-concern this time. After all, one never could know when one could definitively rule out another goblin attack. The fingers quivered a little; enough to make Jonathon quiver himself, and he stepped backward onto the road without even noticing. Then the fingers disappeared, sliding slowly from sight like slugs and snails might travel over a hilltop. And with that Jonathon shrugged to himself, believing the vision had to have been brought on by still-lingering death fumes in the air, and he stepped back up onto the sidewalk, and continued on his way.

To say something about his sheer indifference, Jonathon Morningmist had merely made it to the next twisted telephone pole by the time the whole occurrence was out of his mind; those gray fingers had slipped from his memory far swifter than they had from the wall. But Jonathon stopped immediately upon hearing a voice calling from behind him. He shook his head again, this time trying to recall what he’d seen mere moments before. “You, down there!” the voice called to the kid. It was a man’s voice. “Might you give me a hand?”

Jonathon turned. “Me?” he asked, and pointed limply at his heart. As though there had been any creatures around besides himself, a few scuttling sluice-newts, and piles of crusty, mud-soaked stuffed bears. Then he saw the fingers again, up on the cusp of the wall. The best he could do was continue to stare blankly, and while he was already at his most incompetent, Jonathon went ahead and gave his slipping pants a bit of a tug.

“Nevermind,” the man said, struggling to keep himself aloft. “I — I’ve got this.” Then, with every bit of strength he could muster, the man heaved himself up and onto the top of the wall. He sat down and wiped his brow with a cloth he’d plucked magically from his pants pocket. “Boy, you really aren’t very good help, are you? I’m not the man I used to be, but looks like I still got it. Don’t I? Not that you would know what it was I had before what it is I’ve got now.” This man, even from Jonathon Morningmist’s point of view ten feet below, was slight. His bare arms were taut and sinewy, but overall he was certainly small, like a branch that had fallen months ago and begun withering. He wore a vest, torn pants, a belt with many pockets, and no shoes. Jonathon found it difficult to not stare at the man’s gray feet and blackened toenails.

“Who are you?” the kid asked the man on The Great Rise. “And what brings you to Buffleton?” A good question, since not only has there never been a single soul who had ever crossed The Great Rise from the other side, but no soul had ever willingly come to Buffleton before now.

The stranger laughed an impish laugh. The kind of cackle that clattered unsatisfyingly off of everywhere and nowhere at once. “What you mean to ask is: What brings me back to Buffleton?” Jonathon wasn’t sure if that was what he’d intended to ask, so he chose to say nothing more instead. The man stood back up and stretched his wiry arms out wide. “I am Doyle Finncaster! Rejoice! I’m back!” Jonathon could not even be bothered to shake his head in transience. “You don’t know the name Doyle Finncaster? I owned the auto shop on Blocker Street!”

The auto shop on Blocker Street had been vacant for years, before finally being razed and replaced by yet another paint store. But Jonathon didn’t mention any of that. He asked, “So what brings you back to Buffleton? And is anyone else coming back with you? And also, why are you so gray?”

“Well, you see. As it turns out, I forgot my wrench. Did you know there’s no such thing as wrenches over there?” With a traveler’s thumb, Doyle Finncaster pointed behind him, back over to the other side of The Great Rise. “I don’t know how I’ve gone so long without a wrench.” The man scratched at his scalp for a few long seconds, then inspected his hands, first the fronts, then the backs, and then the fronts again. “And what do you mean I’m gray?”

“Your skin—” The grayness reminded Jonathon of the eldest mountain range or the freshest of ash. The shadow of a dark rain cloud or the brackish marshes in Buffleton Valley. “You appear to be…well. You look like an old tea bag. Are you certain no one else is coming back with you?”

Doyle just shrugged. He observed the ground below him, scanning the heaps of mementos and shrines. It was not long before his eyebrows jumped. “Well, what do you know. Boy, do you see that shiny object over there?” At the foot of the telephone pole and partially hidden beneath a cardboard poster with the picture of a woman who had recently been eaten by goblins, someone had left behind an open toolbox. Jonathon crouched to look, though he could not identify any of the tools within. “The contraption that looks like the anticipative claw of a hungry crab-bear. That’s a wrench! Toss it up here, would you?” With an unsure arm, Jonathon miraculously launched the tool upwards and into the slight gray hands of Doyle Finncaster. “You may seem a bit angsty and angry, but you’re not so unhelpful after all. Enjoy the rest of your walk, kid.” And with that, Doyle Finncaster leapt off the wall, disappearing back into the waiting, curious land of the Forever-Life.

Angry? Jonathon Morningmist did not know he was angry, just as Doyle Finncaster did not seem to realize he was gray. Sure, he was unhappy that his father left him. And he was unhappy that he couldn’t seem to admit his feelings toward Gisele Cloudskimmer, the toothiest girl in his class. And he was unhappy about the angle of the sun on most days. But angry? The kid thought about the whole peculiar exchange that had just transpired. He thought about it a bit harder than he usually thought about anything, for he knew the chances of its details fading from his mind were very good, and he did not wish to forget them. So he continued to think all night, and all the way into the next morning when he suddenly — and most surprisingly — had a plan: that he would be the next resident of Buffleton to cross over The Great Rise. If Jonathon’s feelings were becoming muddled, then maybe there would be answers on the other side. And like his father did before him, he sounded the town gong in the middle of the Square the next morning, and made certain a crowd would be there to witness his bravery. And there was a crowd indeed.

~~

The kid got up onto a milk crate and raised his hand. A murmur went through the crowd and then it fell silent, except for a few people shouting words of encouragement at him. The kid acknowledged them with a nod and a shy smile. In the full light of day, he looked less angry and more beautiful. He waited until people stopped shouting. A siren could be heard, maybe five or ten blocks away. The kid raised the bullhorn, pressed the button, and began to speak.

He started, “Yesterday—”, and then realized the junky bullhorn he’d scavenged from the garage wasn’t working. But he continued to speak into it nevertheless. “Yesterday, a gray man named Doyle Finncaster appeared over The Great Rise, like a neighbor might stick his head over the fence, and he asked me for a wrench.” Some of the oldest amongst the crowd muttered and whispered, recalling the name immediately, for Finncaster’s auto shop was not only reputable for great service, but also offered a complimentary mug of mintberry tea with every visit. “So I tossed him a wrench and then he simply disappeared again. Just like my father disappeared many years ago. And like people you’ve all loved have disappeared from your own lives. Even though the wall tells us to celebrate. Rejoice!”

“Rejoice!” the people repeated, as was Buffleton custom. Even Gisele Cloudskimmer, the object of Jonathon’s affections, was calling out amidst the crowd. And maybe it was just Jonathon’s imagination, but Gisele appeared incredibly invested in what he had to say.

Jonathon bumbled a little, but he would not be deterred from delivering his somewhat awkward and poorly-planned speech. “Rejoice? Why are we meant to take delight in their leaving? Living forever sounds like a terrible bit of burden, don’t you think? What do you imagine they find when they get there? Do they ever get where they think they’re going? Do they ever find what it was they hoped to find?” He thought about the possibilities of what he could say next and how he might say it. What words would hit Gisele Cloudskimmer just right, so he might catch that wonderful, toothy smile of hers? “Do they ever think of the people of Buffleton? Do they miss us? Doyle Finncaster missed his wrench — enough to come back for it — and yet no one has ever come back for us. No one has ever really been a hero.”

Jonathon paused; a hope in the front of his mind that someone in the crowd would ask if he might be that hero. If he would cross over the wall for the good folks of Buffleton, rather than escaping in the middle of the night like so many cowards, launching themselves from crudely constructed catapults. Aside from fear, what was stopping him from treading into the Forever-Life? But no one asked these questions. They were too afraid to ask. Maybe it wasn’t heroism, but Gisele Cloudskimmer seemed impressed nevertheless. And to prove it, there was that smile of hers.

Then, someone did call out from the tense crowd. He said, “So what are you going to do, Ditch-Nut?” Hmph. I am going to cross The Great Rise, Jonathon thought to himself in his most bravest of inside voices. I will be the hero you all need. Another asked, “Will you bring them more wrenches?” Jonathon shook his head. Still another worried, “If you’re not here, then there’s one less person for the goblins to eat before they eat me. I don’t like those odds!” Jonathon shrugged his shoulders.

The interim Mayor of Buffleton — who was only in power until next Tuesday, when the body of the late Queen Dew Rider would be ceremoniously sent down the slough into the waiting maw of ocean-wolves and her successor would then be plucked from a lottery system held at the bingo hall (the caste system in Buffleton was nightmarishly complicated) — was there with his royal entourage. He had a working bullhorn, and he himself asked, “Son of Morningmist, are you saying you spoke with Doyle Finncaster?” Jonathon nodded. “He just popped up over The Great Rise and asked for a wrench?” Jonathon nodded at this, too. “He didn’t say anything about my car, did he? It’s long due for a fuel injection cleaning, and once you find a mechanic you trust, it’s terribly hard to change!” It seemed Jonathon was all out of nods. The town didn’t care, or they were too scared to endorse or reinforce his decision. Even his aunt — who was initially at the forefront of the crowd — was silent at the very back. Did anyone in Buffleton have any encouragement at all for him? Did

“When do you leave, Jonathon Morningmist?” It was Gisele. “When does your hero’s journey commence?” More sirens clamoured off in the distance; nearly everyone scattered so they could do a head count in order to find who was missing this time. Jonathon and Gisele remained amid the chaos. The two of them locked eyes, as if each was just now noticing that the other had noticed all along.

Jonathon motioned behind him. “Just as soon as I cross this wall,” he said. The Great Rise had felt so imposing before, now it seemed as though he could simply hop over it. Alas, even on the single milk crate, he still couldn’t reach the top. “Looks like I may need a boost, however.” Jonathon held out a hand for Gisele to take and she ambled closer. “I do have but one request of you, after I cross over.” Gisele cocked her head a little in anticipation of his inquiry. Jonathon patted the wall and said, “When I’m gone, please do not add my name to The Great Rise. Because I plan on coming back.”

From the milk crate to Gisele’s surprisingly sturdy shoulders, the kid lifted himself to the top of the wall. He had some difficulty balancing, but managed to stand on his two awkward feet. Bisecting the two lands, Jonathon could see the town of Buffleton behind him Gisele Cloudskimmer below him but he could not see anything before him but thick vegetation on the other side. With a deep gulp and a big breath, Jonathon Morningmist leapt off, eventually landing into the plushy palm of some still-dewey, exotic shrub.

Planting his feet in the unknown dirt, Jonathon immediately saw the other side of wall, covered in thick fingers of ivy and other similar vines; some blooming flowers of fuschia, cerulean, and ivory; others full of prickly though harmless-looking spines. Every spine and thorn on every plant in Buffleton looked like it would kill someone instantly. And though everything on the other side was as green as the greenest of poster paints made from the freshest of harvested mountainside joonee fruits, Jonathon did stop for a moment and wondered if there might be any beaches over here. He’d always wanted to see a beach, feel the ocean breeze, and smell the surf. He may have even had dreams of taking Gisele Cloudskimmer there one day.

When considering if she might enjoy that dream too, he turned back to the wall and called out for her. “Gisele!” he called, but was answered by silence. “Gisele Cloudskimmer!” he yelled louder. But there was no answer. Already he was having misgivings about crossing over. Should he turn back now? He asked himself aloud: “Did I just make a grave mistake?”

This time he expected silence as an answer. But then, a woman’s words startled him: “Of course ye made a mistake, ye bloated fool!” The words were spit from some knee-high bush. Its leaves rattled harshly, though none came dislodged. But Jonathon did not even step back. He actually leaned in and dipped his face of burgeoning courage even closer to the foliage.

The leaves parted in a kind of indescribable exoticism, like a magician might reveal some sleight of hand, uncovering what Jonathon could only describe as: “A goblin!?” Indeed, this scraggly woman was merely knee-high; her skin a green-gray sort of worn leather; her mouth a toothless cavern of echoing, virulent hisses.

“Nay!” she yelped. “I’d have eaten ye whole t’were I a goblin!” Jonathon wasn’t sure how that would have worked exactly — the eating-him-whole bit — considering how much bigger than her the kid was. “I crossed that wall, just like ye! Buffleton gave me the ol’ scaly hoof too, be knowin’ it.” She scuttled closer, seemingly unafraid of this new traveler in her midst. Jonathon steeled himself, determined to remain fearless. One of her eyes twitched so fervently it almost appeared shut. “Name’s Barbara. Barbo, I calls meself here. Use’ta teach kids like ye — smaller kids, mind ye — over in Buffleton.” Barbo spit into the dirt so hard some grubs wriggled loose from the earth. “Teacher?! Shoulda owned the paint supply store on account fer all the coats there’ve been put on that blasted wall. Wouldst have made a killin’. And then…well, then I go and find meself here.” She seemed to transform from indignant to dispirited faster than Jonathon could process. “Well?”

“Well, indeed.” Jonathon confirmed, though he was not certain what it was she was welling about. With hands in his pockets, the kid caught sight of a glint of something within a patch of long grass. It was a wrench. But this wasn’t the same wrench that Doyle Finncaster had brought back over the wall with him the day before. No, his wrench was an adjustable wrench and this was most definitely of the socket variety. Jonathon wondered if this was the woman’s home, here in the overgrown but wonderfully alive vegetation. He wondered if she realized that he was not a bloated giant, but she was likely just a shrunken, grayed version of her old self. He wondered many things. But instead, he asked Barbo: “You have wrenches here?”

Barbo tried to spot where the kid was eyeing, but she could not see anything of the sort. “Wrenches? Everyone perceives this cursed land differently. Be it the size of interlopers or the stink of a gringemeat sandwich. Some folks think they’ve come here to live, whilst others only remain for the hope of death. Some fools see wrenches, some don’t. But surely ye have better questions than this?”

Jonathon Morningmist thought about the perceptions of others. And a little bit about his own. He did not know if the wrench even mattered or why Doyle Finncaster must have stuck his head over The Great Rise in the first place. He did not care to wonder why the denizens of this side of the wall were apparently shrinking, nor did he have a clue what gringemeat was. In fact, for the moment, he was not even concerned about Gisele Cloudskimmer. Instead he asked: “Have you seen my father?” And he took a moment to try to recall the man from memory. “He had one eye of green and another of a color I could never place. He had arms like the mountains in fables. He had a beard so virile and thick it took it him four days to shave and one day for it to grow back. He was a wonderful man but a terrible dad, and he hastily shot himself over The Great Rise from a catapult without even a word. His name was Morningmist.”

“Doesn’t sound familiar. But everyone perceives this cursed land differently,” Barbo repeated. She plucked two grubs from the dirt and swallowed one whole, offering the other to the kid. “Would ye care? Methinks they taste like the pit of arm, but ye might find they taste like fancies.”

Jonathon declined the grub, and Barbo gulped it down. Thoughts of what might be found on the other side kept firing through his mind; crissing and crossing like dozens of zapper bugs in a jar under the moon. How far could his father have gotten on his journey? Perhaps it’s true: that those on this side don’t know death. But are they shrinking and shriveling into crazed goblin-folk and discolored wrench-hunters instead? Do they regret their choices in coming here? Do they ever miss the good people of Buffleton? “I have one question for you, Barbo. Do people here live forever?”

“Tis true we know not of death. But that don’t mean we don’t ever hope to meet her.” Barbo looked skyward; through the overlapping leaves and fronds and stalks and folioles, there remained a pinhole of sky above. She took it in, as though it were sustenance far, far more nourishing than a handful of grubs or gringemeat sandwiches. “Still, ye decided to come here too. But ye have yet to decide if ye be staying.”

It was then that Jonathon Morningmist first concerned himself with what must be the truth. “Once I’ve decided to stay there is no return, is there? This is why no one has ever crossed The Great Rise and come back to Buffleton?”

“Some decisions are our own. Some are not. But rejoice in the decision ye shall make, son of Morningmist. And I will rejoice for ye. But make it soon.” Barbo shuffled back into the vegetation, soon fully faded from both sight and memory. Perceptions of what is, what was, and what might have been, were indeed very much skewed in the land of the Forever-Life.

Jonathon stepped further into the foliage, though he stopped himself before he felt it was too far, or far too late to turn back. Somehow he knew he would know when. There was a luring call from the vegetation; what it was saying, Jonathon could not tell.

Turning back to The Great Rise, he now realized the ivy for what it was. The distance from it proved to be important, for he could not have read the message from any closer: the ivy and vines grew together, forming the words “Never Is Forever.” On and on and on.

Taking hold of the sturdy branch of a mossy and scaly-barked tree, the kid heaved himself upwards. He held tight; the branch seemed to pulse in his grip, like it had a heart of its own. Perhaps regrets of its own as well, if that was even a possibility. Likely it was. He carefully maneuvered along the trusty tree arm, before finally stepping off and returning to the top of The Great Rise. He could still see Buffleton there, but Gisele’s whereabouts were cloudy. He sensed the worry and fear within the town, but also, he could simultaneously sense the misgivings and wantings within the green land of the Forever-Life. And just as a hero would do, Jonathon Morningmist made his decision.

The First Degree

I was given the following short story prompt: “Write a scene that incorporates the following three things: espionage, a bagpipe player, and bacon.” (1000 words or less)

It’s a little unorthodox, and fairly preposterous, but here it is.

 

THE FIRST DEGREE

“You’re crazy, you know that?”

“I know that. You’ve been telling me for years now. But shut up, okay? The scene’s about to start.”

“Fine. I’ll whisper. How about that?”

“Better. I’d still prefer if you just shut up though.”

“You know, I told myself the last time I helped you that it was going to be for the last time. And now? I’ve snuck onto a movie set with you, and we’re wearing kilts and carrying bagpipes.”

“Honestly? If you truly want to never help me again, you’ve got to start making some better excuses.”

“Define ‘better.’”

“Come on. You were clearly giving me the first — and worst — excuse that popped into that tiny head of yours.”

“I was not!”

“You told me you were bedazzling your grandma’s purse today. Now, granted, that’s maybe not the worst excuse you could have come up with, but it’s got to be pretty close.”

“Shut up.”

“No, you shut up. And you’re holding that bagpipe the wrong way again. Don’t you remember anything I told you?”

“What makes you the bagpipe authority anyway?”

“My cousin played the bagpipes. He was in a marching band and everything.”

“So he knows how to play the bagpipe song?”

“Which one?”

Every song on the bagpipe sounds exactly the same. I thought there was only one song. Isn’t it just called ‘The Bagpipe Song’?”

“Definitely not.”

“How do you know?”

“Because that would be a stupid name.”

“My feet hurt. How long do we have to stand here for anyway?”

“Didn’t you log the plan away the last two times I told you?”

“I just like the reminders. And really, I still have no idea why you need to do this so badly. What’s with you and Kevin Bacon anyway?”

“Listen to me. Kevin Bacon is the center of the Hollywood universe! And the ‘Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon’ defines how close you are to the center of that universe. If you’re a First Degree, it means you’ve made it.”

“Wouldn’t a Zero Degree be even closer though?”

“Well, yeah. I guess technically Zero would be closer than One. But that would mean I’d have to basically become Kevin Bacon.”

“Like John Travolta did in ‘Face Off’?”

“Kevin Bacon wasn’t in Face Off. That was Nicholas Cage.”

“What’s his Bacon Number?”

“Two. Same as Travolta, actually.”

“So you’re better than the both of them?”

“Not yet, I’m not. But once you start shutting up, I’ll be one step closer.”

“Can we go over the plan again?”

“It’s simple, really. We already paid off the guys whose parts we’re taking, and we paid them more than they were getting for this gig in the first place. So everyone wins, right?”

“I don’t see how I win in this scenario. That was my money.”

“You know I’m good for it.”

“Do I?”

“Of course you do. But can we please just focus here?”

“What’s this scene we’re in, anyway?”

“Kevin Bacon is the President of the United States, right?”

“No he isn’t.”

“In the film, dummy. Are you telling me you didn’t even read the synopsis?”

“I’d say that’s rather obvious at this point.”

“Okay, so he’s the President, and he’s tasked with stopping a nuclear war before it happens.”

“What year is this? That sounds like every action movie from the 80s. And we’re wearing kilts, because?”

“Because he’s on a Hail Mary mission to Scotland and needs to diffuse a bomb in the middle of the Highland games.”

“The President diffuses bombs now?”

“The details of the thing don’t matter. The fact is that I’m playing an undercover Scottish intelligence officer who happens to be a bomb expert and I help the Leader of the Free World decide which wire to cut.”

“I thought you only had one line?”

“It is only one line. I say, ‘Snip the blue one, me laddie.”

“I don’t know the first thing about writing, but that is terrible writing.”

“I’m not going for an IMDB screenwriter credit here! It’s a minor character role with only the one line. And I’ll get my name in the credits and a First Degree Bacon Number.”

“I don’t think you can stop a nuclear bomb simply by snipping a wire.”

“I didn’t know you were the expert on the subject. Now shut up, we’re almost on.”

(Director) “PLACES EVERYONE! AND…ACTION!!”

“Oh my god. Here he comes!”

“Shh!”

PRESIDENT OF THE U.S.A.

“You fellers play some mighty fine pipes there.

Now what can you tell me about this bomb?

And hurry now, we don’t have much time!”

BAGPIPE PLAYER #1

“Snip the blue one, me laddie.”

 

(Director) “AND….CUT! THAT’S SCENE EVERYONE!”

“Is that it?”

“That’s it. Mission accomplished.”

“Hey, I think Kevin Bacon’s waving you over. I think he wants to talk to you.”

“Probably congratulating me for making it to the center of the universe.”

“Probably.”

“Hi, Mr. Bacon. It was an honor to play that scene with you.”

“Listen to me carefully, kid. I’m going to personally make sure this scene hits the cutting room floor. Nobody gets within one degree of me without my authorization. You hear me?”

“Yes, Mr. Bacon.”

“So what did he say to you?”

“He told me I look good in a kilt.”

“Really? What about me?”

“Sorry. He didn’t mention you.”

“Say, why are those security guards charging towards us?”

“I think it’s best if we got the hell out of here. And fast. Run!”

END.

I Am A Writer (or, An Oral History of a Writer Trying His Best to Pretend He Isn’t)

I recently found a copy of (what I think was) the very first book I ever wrote. It is called “Hobo” and is a series of — well, two and half — short stories about a man named Hobo. He apparently had a home, because when he bought a dog it clearly states he went back to his house, so I guess he wasn’t really homeless. Still, he sure looked like a homeless person, because my younger self had drawn a title page (as well as accompanying pictures within), and we can plainly see that Hobo has ragged clothing, an unshaven face, and very messy hair. He even wore a rope belt too, a sure sign of true hobo-ness. I suppose he must have had some finances too, because he did buy that dog from the pet store (after he bought a mouse, which was after he’d been to the ear doctor and the butcher’s).

What is most unfortunate, is Hobo’s vacuous depth of character, and there really isn’t anything remotely close to a story arc presented in this volume. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but it appears as though I was making the thing up as I went, and then it ends abruptly in the middle of the third story (entitled “Tumblefoot Tobby,” which is the name he gives his clumsy dog).

I’m not certain why my younger self was so fascinated by the idea of a book about a Hobo, but I guess we all have to start somewhere.

It’s funny how I’ve only recently come to the conclusion that I am a writer. Because when I think about it now, I’ve been writing my whole life.

After the single volume of Hobo, I can recall attempting to make my own comic books, a hobby I’d always been interested in as a kid. There was the “Beaker & Nosey” period, a series about a purple cat with a bird beak for a head (this was Beaker, if you couldn’t guess) and his goofy best bud who had a bird body with an elephant trunk for a head (Nosey, if you’re having trouble keeping track here). After this, we had the “Bean Tales” period, which was basically a blatant rip-off of the Smurfs, but with a village full of tiny, bouncing, brown kidney beans instead. The Beans probably went on far longer than they should have — I even drew them on my wall and designed my own Bean World RPG system. Upon exhausting the limits of bean-related jokey characters (I’m looking at you, Bumblebean), I did my own comical superhero series called “Mutant Force”. If it’s not apparent by now, I did not have much luck with the girls through high school.

As ridiculous and childish as these ideas all sound, there was a definite progression in my storytelling; not apparent to me at the time, but obvious now in retrospect. I was becoming far more serious about world-creating, and how I would tell my stories. Character development — though still a foreign concept in my mind — was slowly happening.

A few years later, I was juggling the creation of two different comic book series: “Captain Parka” and “The Breakfast Special Comes With Toast”. Very much inspired by Ben Edlund’s “The Tick,” Captain Parka was a goofy superhero adventure starring mild-mannered hot dog vendor Ernie Milkdud, who had been traded a magical parka by some Eskimos in exchange for a few smokies. Much darker in tone, Breakfast Special had cartoony characters and a catchy title, but was really masking a tale about a lonely guy trying to be not so lonely.

Still, I was discovering that drawing — which, at the time, was the one thing I thought I could do — was not enough to say what I wanted to say. I decided I wanted to write, but presumed one could not just sit down and write. Especially if one had no previous interest in writing. I was an artist, right? Not a writer. I would have to delve into something I was familiar with, wouldn’t I?

Because I was now working in the film industry, I decided to try my hand at screenwriting. I wrote a couple of pretty depressing dramas before arbitrarily deciding to write a gag-filled, highly-offensive teen comedy. I called this one “Two Bucks,” which was a ludicrous story about a highschool kid named Scott whose dad is murdered by the mob, but still with an outstanding debt of two dollars. Now Scott’s got a weekend to scrounge up two bucks and pay back the mob! No really, it was actually pretty funny.

I’d hit my first bout of writer’s block not long after this (though I wasn’t really stuck on something; I simply wasn’t writing), and I was looking for some kind of jump start. I came across an ad in the paper for a 3-day novel writing contest, which sounded absolutely preposterous but also maybe exactly what I needed. So I did it. I prepared myself by roughly outlining my story for a couple of weeks and then I stayed up for those three days just writing. I think I had a 4-to-6-hour nap in there somewhere, and maybe went for a walk at some point, but basically I consumed iced coffees and Twinkies at a regrettable rate and wrote for three days. “Barber Chair Prophets” turned into a pretty good little 60-page story. I don’t think I came anywhere close to winning the contest, but I rediscovered how to be proud of myself and my work.

And then came the point where I go and get another big idea in my head. This time it was: “Well, if I can write a novella, then I should try writing a novel!” Most — including myself — assumed I was naive and didn’t think it was within the realm of possibility, but after the right idea came to me in the form of a seagull diving off the rooftop of a Vancouver condo, I dove right in myself.

Molt

In the midst of writing “Molt” — the tale of a young ornithologist who was only ever comfortable resisting change — I was also working on pitching the idea for a cartoon series with a group of friends and co-workers. I would take the lead as head scriptwriter for “8 Guys in the Head,” which told the story of Heath, who was a bumbling college kid, unlucky with the ladies, mostly due to having eight tiny, pink brainy guys working in the spacious office of his cranium, each guy representing different personality traits and emotions. If it sounds familiar, that’s because Pixar released an eerily similar idea years later called “Inside Out”. We were in love with our concept — and had a handful of scripts penned — but pretty much scrapped it after that, and I focused again on my solitary endeavours: writing novels.

8 Guys Image

I completed Molt and immediately self-published it so I could have it on my shelf as another notch in my belt of completed — though ultimately, still unnoticed by the world — projects.

The Falling

But the novel-writing bug had officially bitten me now, and I was eager to start another. I jumped right into what I would call my ode to New York: a book called “The Falling”. This one was about four childhood friends who had grown up together in New York City, and it dealt with relationships, careers, dreams, love, and loss. I completed it in three years — while juggling a career change, going back to school, and having a baby — and it remains probably my favorite work to date. The Falling was sent out to literary agents, but after getting next to no interest, I was determined to not let it get me down. I jumped into writing a third novel: “This Never Happened,” a story about a young man trying to discover his place in the world. A young man who dreams about his life taking a much different path.

TNH COVER FINAL

With a renewed enthusiasm, and a much better grasp on how the publishing industry really works, I shopped the heck out of This Never Happened. And then I shopped it some more. There was a part of me that was beginning to think I was perhaps only pretending to be a writer. But I was old enough now to identify when I should move on (ergo, quit) and when I should keep going.

Pretending to be a writer meant I was always seeking ways to connect with someone who actually was a writer. When I discovered that an established Young Adult author lived in my own quaint little neighborhood, I made a connection. The first time I sat down with Darren Groth, he asked me, “So, you’re a writer?”

I said, “No, I’m not a writer. I’m this and I’m that, and I’m trying to get published, but I’m not a writer.”

“Yes you are,” he said. “You are a writer.”

It took me a while to understand what he was saying. In fact, it wasn’t too long after one of our chats that I discovered Endever Publishing Studios, and before I knew it, I had signed a publishing contract and was collaborating with other authors.

And now my first book is out in a matter of days. Upon reflection of all my previous artistic endeavors — all of those projects I’d created for very little notice or recognition — I’ve finally acknowledged it myself: I am a writer.

If only Hobo could see me now.

“Splash”

prompt

I was given the following story prompt “write about blue without using the word COLOR”.

Here’s my attempt. Enjoy!

bridge

SPLASH

Sometimes Blue wishes he could jump. He figures when the time comes, it will be when he’s not considering jumping at all. When he’s not thinking about it. Will he take a deep breath and see how long he might last? See how deep he might go before blacking out? Or will he let the water fill him immediately, like a pasta strainer submerged in the kitchen sink?

The fog has moved in quickly, as it often does on nights like this. The old, wooden footbridge over the creek is his favorite spot to sit when he doesn’t wish to be anywhere else. To his left is everything that pisses him off. But to his right lies the unknown. Surely there must be something in the unknown, or there wouldn’t be a bridge in the first place, would there?

But nothing is ever really for sure in Blue’s world. When something feels obvious to him, he couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s fine though, all things considered; terrible instincts have probably killed billions of men throughout history.

Of course, Blue may as well be dead. He has no car, no real friends, and no relationship to speak of outside of those he has with video games and his fantasy baseball league.

Blue muses over the sound his body might make upon contact with the water. He’s never learned to swim, and has never so much as jumped into the town’s wading pool. In the game Big Stolen Vehicle (Number Five),of the countless times he’s driven the misappropriated sedan off the pier, the sound effect is always strangely similar to breaking glass. It’s the same melody when he drives the delivery van off the pier too. How accurate are these things, really?

There’s an empty beer bottle just out of reach, and Blue stretches for it. The bottle is dry but sticky in his palm. He takes a curious whiff before putting it to his mouth in the hope that there might still be something salvageable at the bottom.

Nothing.

Blue tosses the bottle out towards the murky water, but a tugboat’s fog horn interrupts the splash. What a waste.

His mom and dad were both home tonight, unusual in the way that two leaders of warring nations might spend a cordial evening together. Their arguing had driven Blue out of the house, and where else would he think to go but here? To the wooden bridge.

Blue hears a shuffling off to his right. Not as far away as the unknown; no more than ten yards away. The fog tries its best to obscure the figure, though Blue can make out someone standing atop the guard rail. Blue doesn’t react at all as this unknown person jumps, but listens closely for the sound the body makes as it hits the water.

It’s a lovely crash; a beautiful splash. It’s perfect.

And then, without thinking, Blue jumps; plummeting into the fog himself. Maybe someone can still be saved tonight?

Lacuna Misplaced

In Lacuna Misplaced, I wanted to explore the ends of relationships, and whether there’s the possibility of a supernatural force that predetermines whether a relationship will end amicably or not.

But there’s plenty more to dissect within the story, and it’s only ~2300 words, so I’ve tried to leave enough outside the story to dwell upon after a reading.

Lacuna Misplaced was published in 2017 by a now-defunct indie publisher, and in 2020 it was included in an indie author anthology of short stores; a collection compiled and edited by yours truly.