Well that was fast

I just signed the contract, so now am happy to announce that I found a home for my short story “In a Better Place”. It will be published this summer in an anthology called Fornever After, a collection of tales of tragic love and horror.

As I alluded to in the previous post, “In a Better Place” was a story occupying some of my brainspace for years, never quite coming together after numerous stabs at it, and only recently emerging as a finished story. I had expressed hope that I would sell it more quickly than I wrote it, and as luck would have it I managed to place it straightaway. I feel very fortunate that an open anthology call on the very theme that the story was always meant to address happened to be out there at this exact moment. Very right place, right time, lucky me.

Incidentally, it was particularly gratifying to receive the acceptance for “In a Better Place” because it’s been a little while since I sold a story outright. I had eight stories published in 2020, but three of those were drabbles at Trembling With Fear, which is a non-paying venue. One was self-published on this very blog. One was written especially for the Lycan Valley Halloween Special, a volunteer effort I was happy to participate in because I love Halloween and I love Lycan Valley, but again, non-paying. And the other three were in royalty-sharing anthologies, which … I have nothing against, I got started in back in the day and have contributed to many times over the years and no doubt will again in the future. But, whether factually or just in my mind, it seems that getting paid up front for a story is a higher bar to clear. And it had been a couple years, at least, since I had submitted to an open call with a pre-publication pay rate and been notified in return that the editor liked my story enough to buy it. I’ve missed that validation.

More to come this summer when the anthology becomes available to buy!

Long term effects

Yesterday I finally finished the first draft of a short story that I’ve been working on a for a while, which came as a tremendous relief. It still needs some reworking and final polish, but having a completed version to tinker with feels like a major accomplishment. This particular story, entitled “In a Better Place”, is one that I have had rattling around in my head for a while and yet was extremely difficult for me to pin down and get written. I can illustrate this with a couple of quantitative points:

1. Because I use Google Drive, I have access to data about almost all of my various pieces of ficition, finished and unfinished. That includes the date that I created the file where I first started writing “In a Better Place”, the same file I would open as I tried to add to it, revise it, rework it, and so on. This file was created on April 3, 2014, in other words just shy of seven years ago. I think that might be a new personal superlative for me. Usually selling a story takes as long or longer than writing it, but I hope in this case I can make an exception.

2. Often I don’t start writing a story until I can think of a good beginning, an opening and a way into the narrative. I rarely have false starts, and a much more common problem for me is starting strong, then going astray somewhere in the middle, then having to back up slightly, undoing some of the work, and pushing on again after course corrections have been made. But “In a Better Place” suffered from numerous false starts, which probably goes some way toward explaining why it took so long to finally write. I started the entire thing over from scratch more than once, and I did this by simply going to the top of the document file, hitting Enter a dozen or so times to push down what I had already written, then returning to the top and starting fresh. I didn’t want to delete the bad starts, just in case there was anything salvageable in any of them, though as it turned out there wasn’t much. When the first draft was finally done, I excised all of those previous attempts and saved them off in a separate file for posterity. The first draft of “In a Better Place” came to about 5100 words. The abandoned fragments combined for a total of about 4000 words.

As crazy as all of the above may seem, one of my writing goals for this year is to do all of the above several times over. Because the truth is that “In a Better Place” is not the only story that’s been rattling around in my brain and partially written in an aging Google Docs file for many and many a moon. I’d really like to cross the finish line on as many of them as possible. Updates to come!

“All She Wants For Christmas” (3)

Lizz saw a door standing slightly ajar, and heard a metallic clang again, definitely coming from beyond the doorway. Tentatively she pushed the door open further, revealing stairs leading down into darkness. At the bottom of the stairs, a faint, flickering light was visible.

Lizz was no longer calling for Trott, as a host of possibilities raced through her mind. What if the old man was the sort who, having no social life or interests besides his money-making enterprises, took a sleeping pill and went to bed early every evening? What if thieves knew as much, and decided that Christmas Eve was the perfect opportunity to rob him, while the entire town of Peartree was absorbed in the very celebrations that the crooked tightwad rejected? What if Lizz didn’t need to impress Trott with a cost-benefit analysis of foreclosing on Steve’s properties because she could claim, “I stopped some jerks from stealing the contents of your basement safe, how about you forgive Steve’s debts and we call it even?”

She was already quietly descending the staircase, keeping one hand against the rough stone wall as she gently lowered her weight from step to step. What if Steve took his second chance, and the opportunity of the new year, and sold The Partridge on his own terms, paid off his parents’ mortgage, and started over? What if he struck a deal with Nuvel and moved to the city to be close to Lizz? She paused on the stairs, wondering if she really wanted that, and in that moment realized that she had expected to have reached the basement already. These stairs were long, taking her deep below the mansion, deeper than any basement would normally be dug. The thought of so much bleak, frost-rimed earth swallowing her up made Lizz deeply uneasy, but there was nothing for it. She had to know what was happening in Trott’s basement. If it was a problem she could solve, she couldn’t pass up the opportunity to gain that leverage. If it was nothing, at least she would know that for sure, and she could return to the house’s upper floors to continue her search for the irascible old moneybags.

Finally, Lizz arrived at the end of the staircase, where a solid stone wall ran off into the dark to her right. She turned around and spied the source of the feeble, juddering light, not the flashlights of burglars but candles set on a table some yards away. The basement was cavernous, Lizz sensed, and she approached the small island of candlelight in the heart of the impenetrable void.

The closer Lizz drew to the table, the more details she could make out in the objects atop it. Flames, wavering in the basement’s air currents, topped the wicks of four black candles, arrayed at the table’s corners, each bleeding black wax onto candlesticks carved with ornate serpents. Bisecting the table’s surface was a linen runner that might have once been white but was now a dingy ochre with stains of red, brown and black. At either end of the runner was embroidered the same family crest that adorned the foyer floor above. A wide yet shallow bronze bowl sat in the center, the focus of what might have been a place setting, with a bronze goblet above it. To the left, rather than a napkin and fork, was a black leather book supporting a handbell. A knife rested in the customary place to the right, or more precisely a wicked dagger with a horn and bone handle. Arrayed along the far edge of the table was a statue, perhaps a foot tall and carved in ebony, a seated figure with a goat’s head and bat’s wings, and on either side of the statue, human skulls, three to its left and two to its right. They were small, child-sized, and incredibly realistic reproductions, Lizz’s rational mind insisted, even though in her gut she knew they were genuine human remains, just as she knew the table wasn’t a table at all, but an altar.

Image by Nico Franz from Pixabay

Lizz had stopped a little more than an arm’s length away from the altar; had she come close enough to touch it, she would have been overwhelmed with terror at the thought that the altar would somehow reach out and grab her. This was wrong, so very very wrong, and Lizz had no more business being witness to it than she had believing she could negotiate with someone like Hans Trott. She turned on her heel, ready to return to the stairs, climb them as quickly as she could, sprint out the Trott mansion’s front door and never look back. Instead she nearly collided with Trott himself.

She gasped, hand flying to her mouth, and took a reflexive step backwards. She had never been quite so close to the man before and realized she had never seen anyone else near him for comparison, as he kept to himself and others gave him a wide berth. He was more than a foot taller than Lizz, and his face seemed to float in the darkness above and below his black attire, not his customary overcoat and hat but a hooded robe. His skin was pale and rough, like bleached burlap pulled taut and barely containing the sharp planes of his skull, while his eyes were pits of coal. His long, pointed beard appeared to have some twigs caught in it, until Lizz discerned that the entire beard was made of long, scraggly branches of white birch. There was a stench wreathed about him, like scorched fat, like drippings burned to the bottom of the oven, cut through with acrid ozone.

Trott brought up a hand, more birch twigs fanning out from the robe’s sleeve around his wrist, and pointed a bony finger at Lizz. “You,” he said, “are a naughty … little … girl.”

Lizz backed away another step, babbling, “Mr. Trott, I am so, so sorry. I knocked, you didn’t answer. I came in, called your name. I heard something in the basement, thought you were being robbed, I’m sorry!”

“You should have asked forgiveness of Ashley Rowell,” Trott said. “Or Julianna Pitta.”

“Whahh?” Lizz reeled, her breath leaving her. How did Hans Trott know either of those names? Lizz hadn’t thought of Ashley or Julianna in years. Ashley had been an acquaintance who lived in the same dorm as Lizz their sophomore year in college, but they had drifted apart. Julianna had been hired at Nuvel around the same time as Lizz, and tragically had died in a car accident a few months later.

“One friend raped, the other pushed to her death,” Trott continued. “Thanks to you.”

Lizz backed into the altar and yelped, as much surprised by the solid edge striking the backs of her thighs as unnerved by Trott’s words. It was true that Lizz had begged Ashley to come along to a fraternity party so that Lizz wouldn’t have to walk in alone, only to ditch Ashley the moment they arrived. Ashley had given Lizz the coldest of silent treatments from then until graduation, and eventually Lizz had heard rumors that something regrettable had happened to Ashley at that party, but she heard lots of rumors, everyone did. Julianna and Lizz had gone out drinking after work one Friday night with several other colleagues, wound up being the last two to close the bar down, and as Lizz had headed for the subway that would take her to her apartment, Julianna had asked if she could crash there, too. Lizz had said no, her studio was really too small, and besides Julianna was probably fine to drive back out to the suburbs where she lived with her parents. Only Julianna had never made it home.

Lizz felt a flash of hot anger rise in her. Just because she was a small part of chains of events that ended in tragedies, that did not make her responsible. Just because Lizz had looked out for herself and gotten what she wanted, when Ashley and Julianna could have done the same for themselves, didn’t mean she deserved to be terrorized like this. Lizz felt around on the altar behind her and grabbed the wrought horn of the dagger’s hilt. She slashed it upwards and aimed it threateningly at Trott’s heart. “Listen, you geezer psycho, I don’t know what you’re playing at, digging up old dirt from my past, but back off right now or else …”

Trott’s hand shot out and caught Lizz’s wrist in a viselike grip. She shrieked as her fingers went numb and the dagger fell uselessly to the floor. “Naughty … little … girl …” he repeated.

Lizz’s thoughts were a wild riot of anger, fear and disbelief, and from that confusion came her protest, “I’m twenty-seven!”

“No husband,” Trott said, squeezing her wrist tighter and sending fresh jolts of agony through her arm. “No children,” he added, twisting her arm so that she bent over at the waist, moaning like a stricken animal. “Not a maiden, perhaps, but still a callow youth. A naughty little girl. A wayward urchin upon my doorstep at the very time of year for the naughty to be punished.”

With all the strength she could muster, and whatever memories of self-defense class she could summon, Lizz kicked at Trott’s leg, aiming where she hoped his knee was. His leg buckled, and he released her wrist. Lizz lurched away and scrambled toward the stairs, hunched and ungainly, cursing herself for not bringing Steve, promising herself that if she could make it to the stairs, just a few more feet …

Trott seized a handful of her leather jacket. Lizz clutched at the zipper, ready to throw the jacket open and squirm out of it, but Trott hurled her backwards with staggering force. Lizz flew a short distance through the air and landed awkwardly. The back of her skull connected sharply with the hard floor, and she saw stars swimming across her vision.

When she blinked the phantom lights away, she saw Trott’s malevolent visage, and for the first time, she saw the old man smile. It was a wretched, murderous expression, his crowded teeth bared like a predator’s glimpsed through the thicket of birch. He raised a hand which now held a hatchet, its silver blade gleaming in the candlelight. Lizz raised her hands as if they could ward Trott off, only for the hatchet’s first bite to sink deep into her palm. She was aware mostly of the pain, bright and hot as a bolt of lightning through her flesh, and much more distantly of the hot blood coursing down her hand, her wrist, scarlet soaking into the cuff of her cheap holiday sweater.

Lizz’s arms collapsed, crossing to shield her head ineffectually, as Trott attacked her with the hatchet again. She felt the blow that landed on her chest near the shoulder, and the exquisite blossom of agony that was her collarbone cracking, just as she felt the next incision in her side above her hip, a horrible red howl echoing through skin and muscle. But she was less and less aware of each subsequent strike of the insatiable weapon, as if the savagery were being visited on some other body, as if this were all someone else’s nightmare. Lizz’s thoughts turned to Steve, and whether he would come looking for her, whether he would even know where to look, or if he would just assume the city girl who rolled her eyes at his holiday hyperactivity had left town in the night without so much as a “Merry Christmas.” Lizz thought about what might have been if some things, maybe everything, had been different. And then Lizz Gaspar thought no more.

END

“All She Wants For Christmas” (2)

Lizz was nearly to the house’s front steps, and recalled her earlier meetings with Mr. Trott. His fringe of white hair and long, pointed white beard had at first made Lizz think of Santa Claus (everything in Peartree evoked St. Nick sooner or later) but it became manifestly clear in short order that, if Trott were the embodiment of any Christmas character, he was Ebenezer Scrooge.

That first night she had visited The Partridge, Lizz’s shock at Steve’s breezy dismissal of her partnership overtures had led to her following him around the dining room near midnight, discombobulated and speechless, distributing the cinnamon sticks he had pushed into her hands, while Steve poured out mulled wine for a rowdy clutch of wassailers. She had turned away from a table, looking for Steve, and nearly yelped in alarm at the sight of the man she would later learn was Hans Trott, a grim spectre shrouded in a long black overcoat.

“Hey, Hans,” Steve had greeted him. “Take your coat off, stay a while. Mulled wine?”

“No,” Trott had rebuffed, his gravelly voice loading the single word with scornful condemnation.

“Then what can I do for you?” Steve had asked, pouring cups for the next table.

“Start packing,” Trott had growled. “Unless you remit all past due payments and late fees, you should be ready to vacate the premises. I assure you Sheriff Douglass will be ready with the eviction notice and chains for your front door, per my request.”

“Well, we’ll see,” Steve had shrugged and smiled. “Maybe someone will leave a few grand in my stocking. It’s usually in chocolate coins, though, do you take those?”

Trott had sneered and stormed off without another word. Steve glanced to Lizz, winked, and continued serving the wine.

Lizz climbed the front steps, thick slabs of dark gray slate mounted between brick columns topped with gargoyles. She had to give Trott credit for his deep devotion to the gothic aesthetic. She knocked on the front door and wondered not for the first time if she should have insisted that Steve accompany her, despite his obvious reluctance.

It wasn’t that Steve feared Trott, Lizz knew. Her second afternoon in town, she had watched from The Partridge’s front porch as Steve, Samantha and several other children had run around the snowy lawn of the restaurant, reveling in a snowball fight. Steve was a natural, overreacting when any kid scored a direct hit, returning volleys with gusto but only ever hitting his smaller opponents in the most padded, waterproof parts of their parkas and ski pants. Lizz had felt herself smiling at it all, then suddenly her breath had caught in her chest as she saw Trott, rooted to a spot on the sidewalk that Lizz would have sworn was empty a moment before.

Steve and the children had continued to squeal and cavort, unmindful of the newly arrived observer, until Trott had bellowed, “Be mindful not to wreck the landscaping of my investment!”

That had frozen everyone in place, dozens of wide eyes turning to the black-draped elder glowering disapproval. Steve, unflappable as always, had called back, “Come on, Hans, it’s just a snowball fight. Haven’t you ever had one of those?”

Photo by Stepan Babanin on Unsplash

“No,” Trott had answered.

“Oh,” Steve had said. “Well, we can fix that, right, guys?” With that Steve had launched a snowball at Trott, aimed directly at the black Tyrolean hat atop the old man’s head. Trott had pivoted with surprising grace and quickness, letting the snowball sail wide, and continued the turn to offer his back to Steve as he stalked away. The children had whooped and tossed their own snowballs towards Trott, though most of the slushy projectiles fell well short of the knee-high picket fence that ran around The Partridge’s lot.

“Mr. Trott?” Lizz called out, rapping on the front door again. “Mr. Trott, it’s Lizz Gaspar!” It occurred to Lizz that she had never been introduced to the old man, and he had no idea who she was. “I need to speak to you about Steven Wren, and The Partridge. Please?”

No answer came. Steve had warned Lizz that trying to talk to Trott was pointless when she had finally managed to coax some information out of him. Part of Steve’s reluctance to confront the issue directly was his earnest belief that his time was better spent celebrating Christmas with his family, neighbors and loved ones. There was so much food to prepare, so many parties to attend, gifts to deliver, ceremonies to preside over and rituals to play out. But an equally important element in his decision, Steve maintained, was that Trott was single-minded in his ruthless campaign to buy up as much of Peartree as he could. Trott’s expertise was unparalleled in the realms of finance, the law was on his side, and Steve could only hope to prevail on Trott’s mercy and good will, qualities which the old man had never evinced in living memory.

All of which left Lizz convinced that Steve was as soft-headed as he was big-hearted. Nothing was ever as simple as that. She believed that Trott had Steve dead to rights legally, and she believed he was exactly as cold-hearted and misanthropic as he seemed. But unlike Steve, she did not believe just because it was December 24th that she should simply dance to Jingle Bell Rock and wait for a Christmas miracle. There were other persuasive arguments she could make that had nothing to do with sentimentality, seasonal or otherwise. Surely even a Dickensian archvillain like Hans Trott was familiar with the concept of cancel culture, and just as surely he was aware that foreclosing on a popular local figure like Steven Wren would spark a backlash from negative press coverage to outright boycotts of whatever business interests Trott hoped to maintain. Lizz thought he would weigh tomorrow’s earnings against a point of pride today and make the right decision from a bottom-line perspective. Heaven knew she had done the same time and again in her career.

However, delivering those arguments required an audience with Trott. Lizz had not taken Steve’s protestations of pointlessness to mean that Trott would not even come to the door and acknowledge that he had a visitor. Lizz pounded the front door with the side of her fist, called out “Mr. Trott? MR. TROTT!” several times, and finally in desperation tried the door handle.

The door opened.

Lizz crossed the threshold into a spacious foyer and shivered, only realizing as she stepped out of the cold wind just how frigid the night had become. She closed the door behind her, rubbed her palms together and exhaled a warming breath through them. The atmosphere in the house was musty and faintly sour, and Lizz realized that the unpleasantness was even more pronounced in comparison to the bright fragrance of fresh-cut evergreens and sweet tang of cinnamon and nutmeg she had been immersed in for the past three days. Even the peppermint antacid flavoring had faded from her tongue during the long climb up Trott’s driveway, allowing the affront to her sense of smell to proceed unchallenged.

She looked around. The foyer was illuminated, slightly, by a chandelier which revealed a bare sidetable to her left and grandfather clock to her right. A large portrait, too darkened by age for her to make out details, was mounted on the wall above the side table, and two similar frames flanked either side of the clock. A sweeping grand staircase led to an upper hall, the dark polished wood of its treads and balusters the same severe brown as the furniture and the walls. The only color in the room was a large mosaic of heraldry taking up nearly the entire floor: a black shield covered in gold leafwork, with a red fox standing atop a steely gauntlet above another, smaller shield which depicted a green hill, blue sky, and black raven holding a golden ring in its beak.

“Hello?” Lizz announced herself. “Mr. Trott? Are you home?” He must be home, Lizz concluded, or else why leave the front door unlocked? “Are you all right?” she asked as the thought occurred to her.

She fought the urge to continue calling out, to fill the eerie silence of the lifeless house. She listened for any response, reasoning that if the old man had injured himself or had a stroke or something, his cries for help might be weak and hard to hear. The mansion creaked as the bitter wind outside scraped through its eaves, and the grandfather clock inexorably ticked, but no human sounds reached Lizz’s ears. Then she heard a distant clatter of metal, and her eyes instinctively darted to the shadows on the foyer’s opposite side, beyond the grand staircase. She edged around the left-hand newel, heading in the direction she believed the sound had come from.

To be concluded …

“All She Wants For Christmas” (1)

Lizz Gaspar nosed her rental Elantra up to the gates barricading the entrance to Mr. Trott’s estate and killed the engine. She grabbed the bottle of antacids from the cup holder and tipped a couple into her mouth, distractedly, while she looked up the steep drive towards the dark gabled house. She crunched the tablets and was momentarily shocked as peppermint flooded her mouth. Normally Lizz preferred fruit-flavored antacids, and above all Lizz was a woman accustomed to getting what she wanted. But none of the local stores carried anything but the so much more Christmas-y peppermint flavored, because everything in the village of Peartree was Christmas-y as could be.

Everything except Trott’s estate, Lizz mentally amended, although it was debatable whether the remote dwelling was part of Peartree, or just outside it. Either way, the contrast was striking. Behind her, along the town’s quaint lanes, every streetlight was festooned with evergreen garlands, cheery red bows and strands of twinkling white lights, every shop window was frosted with artificial snow and populated with wide-eyed nutcrackers or gamboling toys, and every house’s front yard was a multicolored riot of inflatable, animated elves and gingerbread houses. Three nights earlier, when Lizz had arrived in the village and gotten out of the car at the bed and breakfast, she had been startled by a pair of monstrous leering eyes above a ravenous gnashing mouth, only to realize a moment later that it was an anthropomorphic gift box of red and yellow tinsel, lip-syncing (or was it lid-syncing, Lizz wondered) to an endlessly looping recording of “Feliz Navidad”.

Trott’s house, on the other hand, was a funereal silhouette against the cloudy silver sky. No lights, neither tasteful nor tacky, no plastic candy canes or plywood sleighs, no outward acknowledgement whatsoever that tonight was Christmas Eve. Not that Lizz was surprised. She had encountered Hans Trott in person twice before, and neither run-in had provided a shred of evidence that the old recluse cared about the holiday season, or anything else in the world besides his solitude and his wealth. Lizz very much hoped that this meeting would be the last.

She tilted the rear-view mirror down and checked her appearance. Her lip gloss was still shiny, her eyeliner unsmudged, which was good, but she realized she still had a sprig of green leaves and white berries in her long blonde hair, tucked behind one ear. Lizz pulled it out, remembering how Steve’s niece Samantha had ambushed her with it. The nine-year-old girl had pounced on her so quickly Lizz hadn’t been able to see what kind of flower Samantha was decorating her with, and next thing she knew Sam was dragging her over to Uncle Steve. Only when Steve had gently kissed her cheek did Lizz realize it was mistletoe. She dropped the sprig on the passenger seat and climbed out.

The night was bracingly cold, immediately bringing a flush to Lizz’s cheeks even though she wore a heavy sweater under her leather jacket. The jacket had been part of her signature look for years, while the sweater was brand new, purchased in Peartree upon realizing she hadn’t packed sufficient layers for early winter in northern Vermont, and of course made of itchy polyester decorated in a gaudy pattern of ornaments and ribbons. Lizz approached the gates skeptically, determined to reach the estate house and speak to Trott but not sure that she would be able to scale ten feet of iron in her tight jeans and heeled boots. Fortunately, the gate was only secured by a steel pin that Lizz was able to reach through the bars and undo herself. She passed through and began the hike up the driveway, relieved that despite the snow blanketing the grounds the shoveled asphalt was perfectly clear and dry.

Lizz was glad of one thing, at least: it was unlikely that she was about to interrupt an intimate Trott family gathering, since the old man paid the holidays no mind. They could talk, just the two of them, and she would simply refuse to leave until they came to an understanding, and Lizz got what she wanted. She felt she could stake out some common ground with Hans Trott based on not being as Christmas-crazy as Peartree’s denizens. Lizz didn’t hate Christmas, she simply could take it or leave it most years. After three days in Peartree, where yuletide greetings were shoved down her throat non-stop, she felt a certain affinity for an abstainer like Trott.

Her general indifference towards Christmas was, perhaps ironically, the reason she had been sent to Peartree in the first place. She had been working in the market research division of Nuvel Prepared Foods for a couple years, distinguishing herself with a dedicated work ethic, angling for promotion to senior director. Two weeks earlier, Lizz had been called into executive director Rhonda Ferrante’s office.

“Do you know what the most influential food trend is going to be next year?” Rhonda had asked.

“Classic French cuisine,” Lizz had answered without hesitation.

Rhonda had nodded approvingly. “More specifically, Alsace-Lorraine.” The ED had held up a slender hand exquisitely bedecked with golden rings and bracelets. “That wasn’t a test, you’d have no way of knowing, it’s an inside tip I’ve gotten from an old friend. I didn’t ask you in so I could quiz you, dear, I needed to know if you’d be willing to take on some field research on short notice.”

Of course Lizz had agreed, not only to avoid career suicide but also because she had been dreading another Christmas at her parents’ house, and all the attendant interrogations about when she was going to move out of the city and settle down and did she even have a boyfriend? Traveling to Peartree in order to visit a restaurant called The Partridge, and pick the brain of chef Steven Wren, Gourmand Magazine’s hottest rising star specializing in Alsace-Lorraine cuisine, was far preferable to the familial third degree.

Image by Michelle Maria from Pixabay

Lizz was halfway up Trott’s driveway now, and reflexively turned around to look back at Peartree, twinkling like a bowl of sugarplums. She was nearly convinced that she could hear the Crystals harmonizing about Santa, as relayed by the PA speakers at the town square’s skating rink. Steve was probably there, holding hands with Samantha as they made wobbly circuits around the ice, putting on a brave face for his niece on Christmas Eve despite everything wrong waiting for the year to wind down.

A chilly gust broke Lizz’s reverie, reminding her that she needed to either keep moving or freeze to death on Trott’s property. She resumed climbing the driveway, annoyed. Annoyance had been the major emotional hue of her early acquaintanceship with Steve Wren, as no sooner had she dropped her bags at the holly and ivy strewn B&B and made her way to the Partridge than she had learned the chef was not only uninterested in talking about a synergistic business relationship with Nuvel but unhelpfully not cooking a single recipe from Alsace-Lorraine which Lizz could observe from a distance and take notes on. Apparently, every year in the run-up to Christmas, the dining room at the Partridge featured nothing but down-home American Christmas comfort food, from ham and turkey to cookies and cocoa. Lizz had been unable to redirect Steve’s attention, and the few times she had managed to get him away from the Partridge in hopes of making conversational progress, it had always turned into him dragging her through some madcap holiday activity, refereeing a sled race between Samantha and her fourth-grade friends and some mean high school boys, or gift-wrapping a full-sized farm tractor as part of some guessing game fundraiser for the local hospital.

The more Lizz considered it, the less apt the word ‘annoying’ seemed to be. Steve Wren was aggravating, exasperating, infuriating … and yet, Lizz did not find herself hating him. He was charming, with an amiable, easygoing appeal that was so constant and overt that it called attention to itself and should have been off-putting, except that it somehow managed to persist and find new ways to fascinate and enthrall. It didn’t hurt that he was gorgeous, either, blue eyes that were simultaneously deep and boyishly twinkling, perfect smile, tall and broad-shouldered. Plus he could cook, and despite his refusal to so much as throw together a flammkuchen to justify Lizz’s professional expedition, she had savored everything from his Christmas pancakes to his Yankee pot roast.

Lizz tried to tell herself that the food was the thing. It was her job to complete the research on northeastern French cuisine, and if that meant waiting out the Christmas menu at The Partridge until the time arrived when Steve returned his attention to cervelas and choucroute, so be it. Apparently that also meant that if the local miser was preparing to foreclose on both The Partridge and Steve’s childhood home, while Steve was too busy making the residents of Peartree merry by cooking all night and organizing holiday pageants all day to even plead his case, let alone raise the funds to pull himself out of arrears, then Lizz would have to confront Trott herself.

To be continued …

Tis better to give

Quick anecdote: in the middle of November, an open call for submissions was announced with a very tight turnaround of about two weeks. The reason for the short runway was because the idea for the anthology had just been conceived, and it was Christmas-related, and the publisher wanted it to come out this year rather than next, so they needed to start assembling the stories asap. The high concept was to mash up the tropes of the Hallmark holiday movie (sweet romance in a small town against a backdrop of heartwarming seasonal signifiers) with the tropes of supernatural horror (monsters and violently unhappy endings). As someone who loves Christmas and loves horror, this seemed right up my alley. The pay rates being offered were professional and I knew the competition would be fierce, but I hit upon what I thought was a good twist on the theme, and I managed to crank out the story, polish it up a bit, and submit it before the deadline.

I had heard through the grapevine that this particular publisher tended to operate under the no-news-means-no-thanks model, meaning that if a story was accepted the author would receive an email to that effect and a contract to sign, etc., whereas if the author never heard back after submitting then that meant the story was rejected. I was therefore very pleasantly surprised when the anthology’s editor emailed me my rejection, and even moreso when the rejection was both personal and supportive, rather than a boilerplate “does not meet our needs at this time”. A Christmas miracle!

Normally such a kindly outcome would be the greenlight to turn around and try to sell the story somewhere else, particularly given that someone thought it had at least some merit. However, I feel that the strange hybrid of festive froth and warped darkness makes it an odd fit in anything other than the very specifically themed anthology it was originally intended for. Plus, I find myself wanting to be generous in keeping with the holiday spirit. So watch this space, as I will release the story “All She Wants For Christmas” in parts between now and Christmas. Enjoy it as my gift to all of you!

“All She Wants For Christmas” part one – click HERE

“All She Wants For Christmas” part two – click HERE

“All She Wants For Christmas” part three – click HERE

Image by anncapictures from Pixabay

Personal firsts

As the year 2020 draws to a merciful close, I wanted to take a look back and acknowledge a couple of accomplishments.

This was not my most productive year, neither in terms of pure writing word count nor in number of stories published, but nevertheless I was able to cross a few things off the never-have-I-ever list.

This past Halloween saw the first time one of my short stories was performed and recorded as an audio, and that was exciting. I had nothing to do with the making-of beyond writing and submitting the tale, Old Cobwebs For New, but I was very fortunate that it turned out to be a very high-quality production. It is still available online, here: Lycan Valley Halloween. Additionally, the entire Halloween special that Old Cobwebs For New was a part of was apparently so well-received that it will likely become an annual event, so look for another spooky audio story from me in 2021!

I also had a story published in the summer, HORNANTULA (available here), which was the first time any of my fiction has appeared in a book set in white typeface on black pages:

And given my predilection for penning horror shorts, you’d think I would have already ticked that box. Still, a first is a first. And if that one seems a bit arbitrary or lacking in worthy significance, I will also point out that HORNANTULA was one of my hardest sells, by which I mean it just about holds the record for the amount of time elapsed between first submission and ultimate acceptance. I wrote the story for a very specific anthology call, way back in September of 2015, but it was rejected. The fact that it was already a niche piece therefore presented a challenge in trying to find another home for it, but I’d been down that road before, usually finding a suitable venue within a year or so after three or four submission attempts. HORNANTULA was sent to ten different markets after the first try, earning rejection after rejection, until it was finally accepted in March of 2020.

The only other story in my portfolio that rivals it is Scent, which also happened to be published this year (and can be yours, here) and also, I just realized, is another 2020 Personal First as I noted at the time in this blog post. Scent was written much longer ago, maybe back around 2009 – I say “maybe” because I didn’t start formally tracking my submission outcomes until 2014. Scent wasn’t written for any particular open call, and was really just a lark for me, which as I recall I submitted to exactly one market, got rejected, and gave up on. It stayed in the bottom of a drawer (or the electronic equivalent) until mid-2018, when I decided I’d try sending it around again. Eighteen months and three rejections later, I got a hit on the fourth try. HORNANTULA ran a much longer gauntlet of both submissions and time, once you take out the huge gap for Scent. Call it, first story I finally managed to sell after 4+ years of non-stop trying.

So those were a few bright spots in an otherwise trying year, but here’s to 2021, and may it exceed all of our wildest hopes. Or at least not be quite as dire as the past twelve months.

As the witching hour approaches

Now seems like an ideal time to remind people that your humble scribe really, really loves Halloween. If you’re familiar with my work you’re aware that a sizable portion of my output falls into the horror genre, which tracks with that particular holiday obsession. But it also bears pointing out that I’ve written several stories which specifically take place on All Hallow’s Eve.

Creepy Campfire Quarterly

I’ve always had a soft spot for The Trap, which appeared in Creepy Campfire Quarterly #2. It’s got a haunted house, a costume party, and weird forces at work, pretty much everything I love about Halloween. You can still get a copy of CCQ at Amazon, which makes for excellent seasonal reading!

And of course, Kellan Oakes, my son-of-a-druid private investigator, was introduced as part of a Christmas anthology series, which eventually morphed into a Halloween anthology for a couple of years, so he has a pair of Halloween adventures to his credit as well. The best part about the two Pulpwork Halloween Specials pictured above is that you can find them at Amazon (here and here) AND if you already have Kindle Unlimited you can read them for free!

If you are looking for some quick hits of spooky stories, I recommend checking any of those collections out … IF YOU DARE!!!