Struggling with the Snow Queen

I am not dead! I am busy, very wretchedly busy, but not yet dead.

Among the many irons I have jammed in the fire, I have lately been working on a retelling of the Snow Queen. I thought it was a novella, but we have made 11K without getting Gerta more than a few days down the road, so I may be wrong. We’ll find out, I suppose.

This is a hard story to work with, mostly because after about ten minutes, I want to drop-kick Kay into the sun. He’s about as sympathetic as dirt. Theoretically we should feel sorry for him because…uh…he’s a kid who had something bad happen to him that wasn’t his fault, I guess, except I kinda ditched the magic mirror bit as unworkably weird, so basically Kay is now a totally normal self-centered obnoxious angsty teenage boy, and I have no patience with him whatsoever and as far as I am concerned, the Snow Queen can have him and good riddance.

(In my own defense, Hans Christian Anderson did NOT give his much later retellers a lot to go on. Kay does nothing in the entire story except get kissed and be a jerk.)

God help me, Kay is basically a somewhat malicious McGuffin. You could change the whole story so that Gerta is trying to get back a rug that ties the room together and it would make just as much sense and also you probably wouldn’t want to punch the rug.

Obviously I am shipping the hell outta Gerta and the robber girl, but I am running into the problem where Kay is so profoundly worthless that I am starting to get impatient with Gerta for going after him in the first place. And while I am very sympathetic to “loyal and broken” as a character type, the whole story sort of hinges on them both being so damn young, and I am old and grumpy and sort of just want Gerta to stay home.

(Also, hoo boy, but this is a weird one. “Oh, yeah, your buddy the raven? Dropped dead off-screen, very sad.” “I’m outta paper, let me write this note on a fish. LIKE YOU DO.” I am having fun with some of it, like the plant dreams, but kind of worried that no one who isn’t familiar with the source material will find this story even remotely readable…)

Toad Words Launch Day!

And we are live, gang!

toadcoverblog

(I’m including the cover again so we all remember what I’m talking about…)

Smashwords

An ePub version only is available via Smashwords.

Amazon Kindle

It’s Kindley!

Kobo

Impressively fast turnaround from Draft2Digital for this one. (If anybody grabs this one, please let me know if the formatting transferred okay–I checked the D2D draft, but it’s not quite the same as having an e-reader of that type!)

Barnes&Noble/Nook

One day turnaround for Draft2Digital here–still impressed!

iTunes

Okay, Draft2Digital is getting a tentative mega-thumbs-up from me. We’ll see how they do on the payouts, but so far…holy mackerel.

PDF version

If you can only read PDFs, don’t despair! I will happily sell you one directly for 3.99 via Paypal! E-mail me at ursulav (at) gmail.com or use the contact form on the site and we will make it happen!

Review Copies

If you’re a book reviewer and would like a free copy of Toad Words, shoot me an e-mail at ursulav (at) gmail.com with a link to your site and the format you’d prefer, and I am delighted to send one out!

But Where Do You Get The Most Money?

I love you guys. I get the most money via Smashwords, at the moment, followed by Amazon, though Amazon pays it out a LOT faster. However, we’re talking a matter of a couple cents and I really want you to get it in the format that is most convenient to you. If you’d like to support me, the best thing you can do is leave an honest review (and by that I actually really mean “honest” because I don’t read my reviews, so you can say anything you want and my feelings won’t be hurt) on whatever platform you like to read on. Reviews may lead other people to buy the book, and that’s worth way more than the nickel or so between various platforms.

I Found A Problem

Thank you for letting me know! Comment here and let’s see if it’s something I can fix. (Formatting between devices is occasionally wonky and not always within my control, but I will do my best!)

Will There Be A Print Volume?

Not at the moment. If somebody in the small-press world wanted to make me an offer, I’m totally willing to entertain the option, but it’s not something I’m currently set up to do myself, and I’d rather not do it than do it badly (and oh, but the internet has made it easy for someone like me to do it very, very badly!) I could (and may be forced to!) learn the pre-press ropes to do a POD version, but I suspect it would cost a lot more than 3.99.

Toad Words

Frogs fall out of my mouth when I talk. Toads, too.

It used to be a problem.

There was an incident when I was young and cross and fed up with parental expectations. My sister, who is the Good One, has gold and gems fall from her lips, and since I could not be her, I had to go a different way.

So I got frogs. It happens.

“You’ll grow into it,” the fairy godmother said. “Some curses have cloth-of-gold linings.” She considered this, and her finger drifted to her lower lip, the way it did when she was forgetting things. “Mind you, some curses just grind you down and leave you broken. Some blessings do that too, though. Hmm. What was I saying?”

I spent a lot of time not talking. I got a slate and wrote things down. It was hard at first, but I hated to drop the frogs in the middle of the road. They got hit by cars, or dried out, miles away from their damp little homes.

Toads were easier. Toads are tough. After awhile, I learned to feel when a word was a toad and not a frog. I could roll the word around on my tongue and get the flavor before I spoke it. Toad words were drier. Desiccated is a toad word. So is crisp and crisis and obligation. So are elegant and matchstick.

Frog words were a bit more varied. Murky. Purple. Swinging. Jazz.

I practiced in the field behind the house, speaking words over and over, sending small creatures hopping into the evening.  I learned to speak some words as either toads or frogs. It’s all in the delivery.

Love is a frog word, if spoken earnestly, and a toad word if spoken sarcastically. Frogs are not good at sarcasm.

Toads are masters of it.

I learned one day that the amphibians are going extinct all over the world, that some of them are vanishing. You go to ponds that should be full of frogs and find them silent. There are a hundred things responsible—fungus and pesticides and acid rain.

When I heard this, I cried “What!?” so loudly that an adult African bullfrog fell from my lips and I had to catch it. It weighed as much as a small cat. I took it to the pet store and spun them a lie in writing about my cousin going off to college and leaving the frog behind.

I brooded about frogs for weeks after that, and then eventually, I decided to do something about it.

I cannot fix the things that kill them. It would take an army of fairy godmothers, and mine retired long ago. Now she goes on long cruises and spreads her wings out across the deck chairs.

But I can make more.

I had to get a field guide at first. It was a long process. Say a word and catch it, check the field marks. Most words turn to bronze frogs if I am not paying attention.

Poison arrow frogs make my lips go numb. I can only do a few of those a day. I go through a lot of chapstick.

It is a holding action I am fighting, nothing more. I go to vernal pools and whisper sonnets that turn into wood frogs. I say the words squeak and squill and spring peepers skitter away into the trees. They begin singing almost the moment they emerge.

I read long legal documents to a growing audience of Fowler’s toads, who blink their goggling eyes up at me. (I wish I could do salamanders. I would read Clive Barker novels aloud and seed the streams with efts and hellbenders. I would fly to Mexico and read love poems in another language to restore the axolotl. Alas, it’s frogs and toads and nothing more. We make do.)

The woods behind my house are full of singing. The neighbors either learn to love it or move away.

My sister—the one who speaks gold and diamonds—funds my travels. She speaks less than I do, but for me and my amphibian friends, she will vomit rubies and sapphires. I am grateful.

I am practicing reading modernist revolutionary poetry aloud. My accent is atrocious. Still, a day will come when the Panamanian golden frog will tumble from my lips, and I will catch it and hold it, and whatever word I spoke, I’ll say again and again, until I stand at the center of a sea of yellow skins, and make from my curse at last a cloth of gold.

Terri Windling posted recently about the old fairy tale of frogs falling from a girl’s lips, and I started thinking about what I’d do if that happened to me, and…well…

Angel Hunter

(I have absolutely no idea where this little vignette came from or where it’s going, if anywhere…)

Stan Blackwell hunted angels.

It wasn’t a bad job, not in this economy. The logistics were hard to set up sometimes, but the market for angelhide was always enormous, and no one could send you to jail for harvesting creatures that the government didn’t think existed.

And it wasn’t like ivory or tiger skins, which Stan considered morally repugnant. Only a right bastard would kill an endangered species, so far as he was concerned. There were always more angels. Every time a human got born, another angel popped out of the aether to guard them.

Guardian angels were his bread and butter. His system, which he had perfected over the years, was to take a toddler to a high mountain road with no guardrails and set it loose. As soon as the kid got anywhere near the edge, the kid’s guardian angel would come flailing in, pushing it back from the edge with ethereal hands.

All Stan had to do was hit it with the harpoon gun, pull the kid back, dump the angel in the back of the truck and throw a tarp over it. The harpoon line was tied to the bumper of the truck, so pulling it up was usually easy, and angels were helpless against the devilwood bolts.

He always took the kid out for ice cream before returning them to the street or the daycare. Daycares made him uneasy. When he had run through all the guardian angels in any particular place, he generally called an anonymous tip in to the authorities. Any daycare shady enough to let a grown man make off with one of their charges, day after day, needed to be closed down. Stan was harmless–at least to humans–but there were some real weirdoes out there.

He’d run one or two of the kids over to Social Services, written a note that said their home was in an unsafe place, and dropped them off outside. Those kids got two scoops of ice cream and a Beanie Baby, which was pitifully inadequate, but you did what you could.

Kids like that were the reason that Stan never felt any guilt about killing guardian angels. If the damn things did any good, those kids wouldn’t have been in the mess they were in to begin with.

They sure weren’t very bright. You’d think that the angels would notice that a guy in a truck took the kids out for ice cream, one by one, and when they came back, their angels were missing.  You’d think they’d get wise to the fact that something was happening. But they never did. Swoop, panic, flail, harpoon, tarp, ice cream.

(He occasionally thought of just getting an ice cream truck, but he hadn’t worked out the logistics of shooting harpoon guns over the heads of a crowd of children.)

Some of the higher orders of angels were different. He’d heard that thrones could tear you in half if you slipped up, and cherubs were downright nasty. You could tell cherub-hunters by how many limbs they were missing. Presumably they had to quit when they ran out of parts, although powdered cherub feathers would cause flesh to regrow, so if a hunter had a high pain tolerance and reasonable luck, they could probably keep going indefinitely.

Seraphim were easy by comparison. You could always hear them coming because they kept shouting in dead languages.

Stan mostly limited himself to guardian angels. Depending on which translation of which scholar you read, the other kinds might have limited numbers. You couldn’t just go around clubbing archangels like they were dodos, now could you? You’d run out and then nobody’d have any archangels and whatever ate them or relied on them to spread manna about or whatever would be out of luck. It would have been downright irresponsible to hunt archangels.

Plus they might be smart. Like elephants. They were smart. He’d heard that elephants would handle the bones of their dead, for all the world like they were mourning over them. Stan could believe it. He’d read an article that said they communicated through super low frequency sounds, practically a language, and once you go shooting things that had a language, what were you?

Angels, though–you could shoot a guardian angel full of devilwood and the angel standing next to it would look vaguely pained, as if the dead one had done something crass. It wouldn’t try to run. It’d look through you while you set up the next shot.

Stan would have shot a hundred guardian angels before saying so much an unkind word to an elephant.

Strategic Sympathy Reserves

So a few months back, I wrote a blog-post about being tired of Fantasyland.

It’s all still true. I can count the fantasies I have read in the last six months on the fingers of one hand.

That said, ZOMG, The Goblin Emperor is amazing, go read it, I stayed up until three in the morning last night reading it, it is SO GOOD.

The main character, Maia, is just incredibly sympathetic. He is nice. I ached for this character, the way I ached for Aerin back in the day, the yes-I-would-be-this-person ache.

And this made me think that maybe, in my initial post about being jaded to so much fantasy as a setting, I had overlooked something.

Maybe part of my problem is that I am having a hard time finding fantasy characters I like.

It’s not like the old days, when all you needed was a bookish heroine and/or one who was not interested in pretty dresses and you had my immediate unswerving loyalty for the rest of the book. I am now past the point where any given persecuted teenage girl is automatically my soul-sister,* where the fact that your family/village/tribe just doesn’t understand you gives you a free pass to my sympathies.

I have not been willing to read books about awful people for a long time, because their awfulness is not the least bit interesting to me, but I am also starting to lose patience with standard fantasy people. All the interchangeable protagonists with interchangeable names. Yes, you’re scared, yes, your suffering is very important to YOU, but it’s not enough to suffer at me any more. You must be interesting while you are doing it.

Furthermore, god help you, I must like you. If I do not like you–not merely pity you, but like you–you are done.

(There are plenty of people who will argue for unlikeable protagonists, and that is great. I am not decreeing what future writing should be for all. I am saying, I don’t read those books. Because if I don’t like the character, I will not spend time with them. This is not to say that they are not valuable. Phillip K. Dick wrote some valuable stuff that should be appreciated. By people other than me. Because I hate all the characters in his books. A lot.**)

For this, I could be accused of a failure of empathy (and go ahead, feel free, I offer you my admission of my failure of empathy as a gift.) If I were a good person, or at least a sophisticated reader, undoubtedly I could relate to anyone. Any old barbarian warlord would do. I could put myself in the shoes of the entire cast of Game of Thrones instead of “On a good day Tyrion but generally nobody and actually I stopped reading awhile ago because I could not care less what happens to any of these awful, awful people.”*** I would pour myself into the personas of wise-cracking urban fantasy heroines with their hidden faerie underworlds and their nifty super-powers and their on-again off-again relationships with hunky muscled fill-in-the-blanks. I would play Angst Along With Elric. (Follow the bouncing Stormbringer!)

But I can’t, and I don’t. I have dumped out too much of my sympathy on whiny heroes and farmboys with destinies who throw stupid temper tantrums for no apparent reason. The Strategic Sympathy Reserves are running low and I do not consider it worth the environmental damage to start cracking open the Sympathetic Shale. I am just…tired of all these people.

It’s not that characters have to be me. I do not require thirty-seven-year-old divorced and remarried writer protagonists with a gardening bent, and if I did, I would be pretty disappointed by now.

But I would like to read more about people who are kind.

Not…y’know…not the lady-of-the-manor kindness you find in a lot of Regencies, not Tireless Social Reformer archetype, or Look How Selfless I Am, but just…kind.

I know it when I see it, anyhow.

You can do any horrible thing you want to them, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying “Write me a nice book without conflict!”  Just…I look back at all the characters that I loved, really truly loved and who mattered–Aerin and Dr. Evan Wilson and Number Ten Ox and Brutha and Granny Weatherwax and Brother Cadfael and all the rest, and they were all good and most of them were kind (although it was a rather pointy kindness, at least in the case of Weatherwax.)

(Polite is also sadly lacking in many cases, as I may have lamented before.)

I am saying this badly, I think. I read back and there are huge holes where someone could shout things through, if they were so inclined. Perhaps I don’t know what I’m trying to say well enough to say it. I am not trying to shut up any character who is hard or angry, or tell any author that their characters have to be nice. No. If you need to write an angry and defiant character, write her. Someone will need that book, even if it isn’t me, or at least, isn’t me today.

Maybe what I’m trying to say is that I didn’t actually realize, until reading The Goblin Emperor, how much I was still willing to give to a book where the main character was so intensely sympathetic.

And it pointed up, in such sharp relief, how little I’ve been willing to give to a lot of fantasy books I’ve tried to read for a long time.

 

 

*Except at certain times of month for certain forms of comfort reading.

**Someone said to me once “They’re very human.” No, they’re very asshole. I know lots and lots of humans, and none of them behave like that. If they did, I would not hang around with them.

*Fine, I would prefer Arya not die, but given the series, the only way to do that is to stop reading.

The Vision of Crazy-Wool

There has been a crazy awesome turn-out on the Patreon thing. You guys blow my mind. It pays for KUEC AND my antacids AND my coffee. I don’t know how to thank you.

So, err…have a story! For those of you who’ve played CrypticStitching, here’s a small prequel for your amusement. (And if you haven’t played it, Crazy-Wool is the stuffed Sheep shaman of Wool-Tribe, Quippet is his apprentice, and the (probably) Chosen of the Spirits…well, that’s the point of the game, after all.)

The Vision of Crazy Wool

It was dawn, or a little past it, and Crazy-Wool the shaman felt the urge to go into the forest.

He didn’t like the urge very much. Shamans get urges, same as the rest of us, mostly for naps and tea with extra honey in it. But they also get deep dark shamanistic urges, when the Unpatterned Land reaches out and pokes them.

The Unpatterned Land was poking Crazy-Wool now.

“Really?” said the Sheep aloud, glaring up at the smoke-hole with his one good eye. (His other eye was also perfectly good, but it saw into the world of the spirits, so it tended to be a little wild and rolling and not so good for mundane tasks, like glaring at the ceiling.)

“Really?”

The Unpatterned Land poked him again, in the urges.

Crazy-Wool swore. He swore with passion and depth and extraordinary breadth of knowledge. A moth that had gotten into the tent wandered within range of the shaman’s voice, which turned its wings soot-black and sent it crashing to the floor.

He swore some more.

Then he climbed to his feet and shook himself off. Bits of lint flew from his matted wool.

“Quippet! Quippet!”

Crazy-Wool reached into the aether a very short way and jabbed his apprentice’s brain.

There was a bleat of dismay from the tent that adjoined his. A moment later, his apprentice was fumbling at the tent flap.

“Master Crazy-Wool?”

“Make some tea, Quippet,” said the shaman. “There’s spirit work on the hoof.”

Quippet scurried into the tent as well as a small blue Sheep can scurry, and poked up the fire. He dumped a hoof-full of herbs into the mammoth bladder that served as a teapot and went rummaging for the honey jar.

“What sort of spirit work, master?”

“Haven’t the foggiest,” said Crazy-Wool. “The usual sort, I expect. Somebody needs a pebble moved six inches to the right so that the world doesn’t come crashing down around our ears. Some old spirit wants somebody to pay attention to them. Rains of fire and yams. You know the kind.”

Crazy-Wool grumbled his way through the tent, found his walking stick–bipedalism was harder than it used to be, the seams at his hips were stiff–and took down a sack in case whatever the Unpatterned Land was dumping on him required transport.

Quippet poured tea into one of the broad, shallow mugs favored by Sheep. Crazy-Wool lowered his head and drank deeply. Sharp herbs, sweet honey. He sighed. His mind was as alert as it had ever been, but his senses occasionally needed joggling.

“I hope you live to a ripe old age, Quippet. But not this old. Someday I’ll find the secret of my longevity, and when I do, I’m going to kick its stuffing out through its ears.”

“Yes, Master,” said Quippet dutifully. Quippet was always dutiful. Crazy-Wool didn’t know what he’d done, at his time of life, to deserve a conscientious and thoughtful apprentice. It was more than mortal fabric could bear.

He started for the tent flap and stopped.

His seams creaked as he reached down, picked up the stunned moth, and breathed life back into it. Its tattered wings flexed outward, suddenly the color of honeyed amber, and it turned its tiny, fuzzy antennae toward him.

Crazy-Wool grumbled and set it on top of his head, where it would be out of the way.

Then he stomped out of his tent and off toward the woods and whatever damnable destiny the universe had in store for him today.

He went into Withyjack Forest as deep as he cared to go, and then he stopped. One of the secrets that shamans know is that any place can be made sacred, if you’re willing to put your back into it. Some places are just more responsive than others.

The Withyjack Forest was occasionally a little too responsive. Gods had walked its rootbound halls in ages past, and it liked to wallow in nostalgia. Crazy-Wool thumped his cane on a tree trunk and Quippet jumped.

“You! Pay attention. No, not you, Quippet.” He cleared his throat. “I’m going to sit down here and try and get some work done. Make sure nothing terrible jumps down my throat while I’m doing it, eh?”

“Certainly, Master–“

“Not you, boy.”

The Sheep waited.

The wind overhead washed the leaves and set them rustling. One fell, fluttering, to the ground between Crazy-Wool’s front hooves.

“Good enough,” said the shaman. He sank down to all fours and stretched, then, regretfully, sat back up. It didn’t do to get too comfortable at his age. You laid down to do a little spirit work and you wound up taking an afternoon nap while the universe unraveled around you.

There, that was good. Nothing painful, nothing jabbing into him, but not in danger of going to sleep. He wiggled a bit to make sure his tail wasn’t getting pinched. There.

He closed his good eye and focused his spirit eye on the world.

It looked more or less the same, at least at first.

Same trees, same stones. The leaves glittered with a tracery of energy, and the fire at the heart of mountains burned inside the stones. The beech trees sang with golden light and the aspens shattered silver around him.

Same as it always was.

Quippet was surrounded by spirits, as usual. They danced around him like a gentle, permanent snowfall. The little Sheep was making discreet shooing motions, trying to get the spirits to leave while Crazy-Wool was spiritwalking. For some reason, his apprentice still thought that his spirits were a secret. Crazy-Wool was waiting for a properly dramatic moment to disillusion him.

Other than that, nothing.

The leaves rustled with green fire overhead.

“All right,” said Crazy-Wool, annoyed. “You’re the ones poking me. What’s so blasted urgent that I had to get up at the whalloping crack of dawn for it?”

A few minutes slid by, and then Crazy-Wool turned his head and there was a hare watching him.

The hare was as blue as a summer sky and had silver button eyes.

Well, these things happened.

It was watching Crazy-Wool in a way that an ordinary hare would find quite unnatural.

Crazy-Wool narrowed his spirit eye and stared at the hare.

The hare narrowed its silver button eyes and stared back.

Unhurriedly, almost reflexively, Crazy-Wool assessed the spirit world around him. The trees would help him if he asked–trees loved to be asked to do something. They were giving in ways that would be quite self-destructive in a mammal.

The stones might or might not help him. He could generally wake a stone from its slumber and make it pay attention to the here-and-now, but it took time that he might not have.

He spun his consciousness out, farther, farther, and there was Wool-Tribe’s meadow and the familiar gods of his people. None of them were actually paying attention, but he could call them up quick enough if he had to. The Snowfleece Maiden was positively soppy about Quippet, She’d be there in a heartbeat if She thought he was in trouble. That had to be worth something.

Farther out, across the steppes, roamed the Great Spirits, Tiger and Mammoth, Hyena and Bat–they would come to his aid if he called. Mammoth was almost as bad as a tree, and Hyena always liked it when a shaman owed Her favors.

Very well. He was not without protection. He turned his attention back to the silver-eyed hare.

“All right,” he said. “Show me.”

The hare leaped

It charged down the embankment toward him, doubling and tripling and quadrupling in size. It was larger than a mammoth when it landed before him, kicking up a fountain of leaves.

Crazy-Wool didn’t flinch. It was a point of professional pride.

The hare jumped over him.

As it passed over him, it grew again, until its body was the entire sky, the blazing blue of a summer afternoon. Its final leap seemed to have kicked the world away underneath it, for Crazy-Wool was no longer surrounded by forest, but by sky. If he looked closely, he could see the pale lines where the hare’s legs curved and trace the long sweep of its ears.

It was a neat trick. As visions went, this one was pretty good.

He appeared to be a small black cloud in the hare-belly sky. Crazy-Wool turned his head–best not to think too closely about his cloud anatomy–and gazed down.

The vast steppes stretched out beneath him, running to the ice wall in the north and the forests to the south. The glacier was a blinding rim of white around the world.

But what was this, to the south?

It was as if the glacier had developed an unnatural twin, dark instead of light. Shadow lay around the southern edge of the world, shadow as far as he could see.

Shamans do not fear darkness. Darkness is their element. Crazy-Wool preferred night to day, if only because you couldn’t see the stray bits of lint so clearly in daylight.

This was different.

Crazy-Wool scowled as fiercely as a cloud can scowl.

The light faded. The moon came up in the hare’s eye. Stars spangled its darkening fur.

The glacier blazed in the moonlight. Grass rippled on the steppes.

And the darkness to the south reared up and crashed like a wave, pouring over the world.

Crazy-Wool would have given a great deal to look away, but he did not.  His vision of himself would not allow it.

So he bore witness as the blackness reached his valley, pooling in the depths of Withyjack, then reached out to extinguish the campfires of Wool-Tribe. He watched the wave pour over the steppes, saw great mammoths pulled down by a shadow that seemed to have a thousand mouths and a thousand grasping claws.

At last the shadow reached the glacier, and there, at last, it broke. Crazy-Wool had only seen the sea in visions, but that was what it looked like–the sea smashing against stone, and the stone resisting.

He hung alone in the sky, while the world under him turned black.

After what felt like a long time, he turned his head. The sky-hare blinked the moon at him.

“Very well,” he said. “Very well. This is the shadow I’ve seen coming, then. The darkness at the edge of my mind. I was hoping I was just going senile, you know.”

The sky looked faintly abashed.

“You’re not telling me anything I didn’t expect. Not,” he amended, sighing, “that I wanted to be alive to see it.  I was rather hoping to pass along the word to young Quippet, gasp out something like “Believe in yourself. The fate of the world depends upon you,” and then slip gracefully into the Unpatterned Land.”

The moon blinked at him again.

“I suppose you’re right,” muttered Crazy-Wool. “If you want the world saved, you can’t leave it to spring lambs.”

He looked down at the crawling darkness and felt his lips pull back from his teeth, or whatever passed for teeth and lips in this body. “Nasty business.”

The moon closed in assent.

“You’re giving me some help, though,” said Crazy-Wool.

The sky-hare considered this.

“That wasn’t a request,” said Crazy-Wool testily. “I may be a cloud right now, but I’ll kick your pole star halfway to the equator if you think you’re leaving this all on me and Quippet.”

The sky moved. The moon swung close, and then Crazy-Wool was standing on the sky’s shoulder, looking down at the darkened earth.

The shadow had retreated. The terrible night of his vision had not yet come to pass. The darkness only lapped at the edge of the world, instead of consuming it, and yet Crazy-Wool could see it creeping closer.

And then there was a spark.

It had something of the silver shiver of aspen light. It was on the very edge of the shadow, shockingly bright against it.

“That better not be a chosen anything,” said Crazy-Wool. “I’m not kidding. I am way too old to deal with a–oh, son of a–“

The earth spun dizzily as the sky-hare bent down toward the light.

The light was moving closer. So was the shadow. It hardly seemed as if the light could outpace it, and yet it did, just a little.

Light and dark crawled with agonizing slowness along the bottom of the world.

It was a single figure, walking alone.

Crazy-Wool leaned forward and strained his spirit vision. He could not make out anything about the figure–young or old, Mouse or Sheep, Wolf or Bear. It could have been anyone.

It was very small, and the shadow behind it was very large.

He lifted his spirit eye to the darkness. For a moment, something seemed to flicker, like the movement of a fish just under the surface of the water.

Something gazed out of the dark at the shaman.

Crazy-Wool threw himself backward, off the shoulder of the sky.

Immediately he was falling. This was unsettling, but not nearly so unsettling as the thing that had looked at him from the shadow.

The sky-hare turned its head and caught his fabric in its teeth. It jerked its head and flung him sideways, out of the Unpatterned Land.

The shaman’s vision filled with shapes, going by too fast to see. He grasped for them but they turned to fragments and fled away from him as he fell–the flash of fireflies, a twisted tree, sunlight shining on the glacier’s edge.

Crazy-Wool was starting to worry that that he was going to fall forever in the spirit world, and just thinking that he should do something about that, when he fell back into his body and face-planted into the forest floor.

“Master!” gasped Quippet. “Are you all right?”

“I am fine,” said Crazy-Wool with dignity. “The world is most likely going to be destroyed and we are the last line of defense, except for some plush who is probably going to die before they get here. Other than that, completely fine. I hope you brought more tea.”

Quippet stared at him in abject horror.

“Tea,” said Crazy-Wool patiently, still chin-deep in leaf litter. “It is a beverage. You make it with hot water and herbs. You’re very good at it, which is the primary reason why you’re still my apprentice. That and your misplaced sense of duty.”

“The world is going to be destroyed?” whispered Quippet.

“Trust you to seize on the least important aspect of the whole thing. Yes. The world is going to be destroyed. That was always inevitable. We are merely forestalling the inevitable, which is what shamans do.” He considered this. “Also heroes. Also tea.”

He gave Quippet a very pointed look.

It took his apprentice a few minutes to cobble together a small fire. In the end, the little blue Sheep mumbled a request under his breath and a spark leapt up and danced between his hooves.

Sure, thought Crazy-Wool, half amused and half annoyed. Sure, the spirits love him. Well, that’s just how it is. Quippet was lovable. Crazy-Wool had been cynical even as a lamb, and the spirits respected him, but they didn’t fall all over themselves to smooth his path down, either.

Whether they’d fall all over themselves to smooth the way for that unknown plush out there…

Crazy-Wool closed his eyes and groaned.

“Are you all right, Master Crazy-Wool?”

“I am being crushed by the weight of an unkind universe. Other than that, fine. How’s the tea coming?”

By the time the tea was ready, he was just about ready to get up. Quippet hurried to brace him up.

He slurped up a few mouthfuls of tea and exhaled.

“Better–“ he said, and the world was engulfed in shadow.

He had only a heartbeat worth of warning. He flung himself over Quippet, knocking the smaller Sheep down, while blackness flowed over the forest.

Everything became muffled and flat. He could not see. The trees let out long, wordless vowels of pain.

“Master?” whispered Quippet.

“Hush.”

Crazy-Wool was reasonably certain that he wasn’t in the Unpatterned Land, for the simple reason that his joints didn’t ache when he was in the Unpatterned Land. Whatever was happening was not quite real, but a long way from a hallucination.

A wind struck them, smelling of cold earth. Things rustled. In the dark, something was searching for them, making wet, snuffling sounds.

Crazy-Wool reached out to the trees. They shuddered with fear, as much as trees can be frightened.

Under his touch, they quieted and listened.

Hide us, he said. Please.

The trees leaned together, whispering. The wet, searching noises came nearer.

A pile of leaves as large as a grown Sheep dropped onto them.

Quippet let out a thin bleat of terror. Crazy-Wool stifled a laugh. Ask trees for help, and get leaves. Well, what had he expected?

They lay in silence, hidden under the leaves.

Whatever the thing was, it came closer. Assuming that they were still in the same clearing—and Crazy-Wool wasn’t sure that was a safe assumption—it was just on the other side of a line of trees.

Nasty sound. Like a pig with a head cold.

The snuffling came closer—tried—and to judge by the noises, ran into a wall of branches. Crazy-Wool strained his ears and heard the crack of wood and a muffled squeal of pain.

Just so long as we don’t make a sound, the trees will keep it out. If it knows we’re in here, trees might not be enough.

He didn’t dare poke Quippet, either physically or with his mind, for fear of startling his apprentice. He prayed the little Sheep would stay quiet.

Either he had chosen his apprentice wisely, or a spirit had whispered wisdom into Quippet’s ear. There were no sounds.

It was enough.

The thing that searched for them searched in vain.

A long time later, he heard it howling, far away, a howl of failure and despair. Its master would not be pleased.

Crazy-Wool exhaled and rolled off Quippet.

“Ow,” said his somewhat flattened apprentice. “Is it safe now?”

“Safe,” said Crazy-Wool, rolling the word around. “Safe. Interesting question. It’s not quite as dangerous as it was, how’s that?”

“It’s still dark,” said Quippet. “And I can’t hear the–“

He stopped.

Can’t hear the spirits, finished Crazy-Wool internally. No, because they’re smarter than the rest of us, and they didn’t want to call attention to you, so they cleared out and didn’t get stuck in here with us. Very sensible of them. I wonder what would have happened if that thing found us? Would the Snowfleece Maiden have come in like a blizzard and frozen it in its tracks, or are we beyond Her sight as well?

It was an interesting thought. He hoped he wouldn’t have to put it to the test.

He looked around, which was a pointless endeavor, because the world was still as black as pitch.

“What’s happening?” asked Quippet.

“Someone appears to have torn a hole in the world,” said Crazy-Wool.

“That sounds bad.”

“Trust that feeling.”

“Does it have something to do with the end of the world?”

Crazy-Wool snorted. “No, it’s because I was a damn fool and tried to make eye contact with a nightmare. Stupid. You’d think at my age I’d know better.”

“I’m sure no one could have done better,” said Quippet loyally.  Crazy-Wool gritted his teeth.

He turned around in a circle, or what felt like one. It was difficult to tell.

“Are we stuck?” asked Quippet.

“Not if we can find our way out. If we can’t, the world will sew itself up–it doesn’t like holes–and we’ll be stuck on the wrong side of it.”

He considered an eternity stuck in a pocket universe with Quippet’s earnest good nature. It did not bear contemplating.

“You never told me that was possible,” said Quippet.

“I didn’t want to worry you,” said Crazy-Wool. “You might have stopped making tea.”

Quippet gave him a betrayed look.

“All shamans lie to their apprentices. Nobody would ever become a shaman if they knew what it was really like. Incidentally, I saw that look you just gave me, so something’s happening.”

The light was very faint, but growing stronger. Crazy-Wool could see tiny reflections in Quippet’s eyes.

“It’s coming from your head,” said Quippet, staring at him.

Crazy-Wool tried to see through the top of his own head, which was impossible even for shamans.

The light moved.

The honey-amber moth spread its wings and flew.

It circled Quippet’s head twice and landed, very briefly, on his nose. The little Sheep’s eyes crossed trying to look at it. It waved its antennae at him.

Then it lifted off and flew away.

“Follow that moth!” cried Crazy-Wool.

The two Sheep staggered after it. Crazy-Wool’s right side was not happy with the way it had been treated, and Quippet had to shore him on that side. Like three-legged lambs, like drunks, like shamans, they wobbled after it, threading between the dark lines of trees, and emerged suddenly into the sunlight.

Crazy-Wool fell down and took Quippet with him.

“Are we safe now?” asked Quippet.

“You keep asking that…” He closed his eyes. His wool was full of leaves. In a few hours, he was going to have to get up and dig around until he found that pocket universe and turn it inside out. The trees didn’t deserve to be stuck in there.

And after that, the end of the world, sole savior of plushkind, all that crap.

After a minute, he said “You know, I could really go for a cup of tea.”

Quippet sighed and got to his feet.

The amber moth spiraled upward, into the daylight, and was lost against a sky as blue as the belly of a hare.

Growing Tired of Fantasyland

I was at the bookstore today, and my buddy Mur (who is awesome and also just got interviewed by USA Today, and has a new book coming out which includes many things that really truly happened to us in New Orleans) gave a book a vague recommendation. “It’s okay,” she said. “It didn’t work for me, but it might for you. I’ll loan it to you.”

“Eh,” I said, realizing that there was no chance I would read this book. “I’m just not reading very much genre fiction these days. Well, our genre, anyway.”

And this is the truth. My genre–my great love and the one that everything I write wanders into–is fantasy. I love fantasy. I love it dearly and I believe it is terribly important and it was the one thing I wanted to read as a kid and god help me, I am so very sick of nearly all of it.

There are still a few authors that I will buy instantly, immediately, without checking my bank balance. Most of them are fantasy, though a couple of mystery/horror have slunk in there. And I read them. And I enjoy them.

And I go on jags where what I want is Miss Marple or Brother Cadfael (and the nice thing about being me is that my memory is not what it used to be and I can’t always remember who the bad guy is.) or Georgette Heyer, and I re-read them with great love. And there are times when I re-read fantasy I love, and I still love it very much. It is a visit to an old and much-loved friend’s house.

But I scan the new book section of Barnes & Noble and go “Cloak-guy, Cloak-guy, Steampunk Guy, Cloak-guy, Tiger, Cloak-guy, John Jude Palencar That I Would Buy A Print Of But Not The Book, Tough Urban Fantasy Woman, Cloak-guy.*”

None of it excites me. It’s the setting, I think. Has to be. I picked up The Ghost Bride and read it in two fascinated days. When I discovered Sarah Addison Allen’s magical realism books, I devoured every single one, one after another.

I think I am tired of Fantasyland.

You know where it is. It’s the vague European city and countryside that has no sense of place to it. (Chocolat, for example, was magical realism set in a European city, but it by god had a sense of place to it that is not remotely found in most fantasy. I would not cry if most of these cities were half so clearly rendered as Chocolat.) There are no plants in it that are not darkly dripping trees, healing herbs, cloak-catching brambles or grass suitable for feeding horses/rolling around in. Oh, and heather. You can order a DLC pack with heather in it, if you’re trying to write a vaguely Celtic fantasy. Angry carnivorous vines cost extra.

The only birds are crows, swans, eagles, and vultures, forming a somewhat improbable aerial food-chain.

This is not, however, a call for more non-Eurocentric fantasy, because people have made that call better than I will, and anyway, I write many things set in vaguely European fantasy worlds and so I have no moral high-ground whatsoever.

(Perhaps that’s part of the problem. A book set in Fantasyland is not escapism for me anymore, it’s attending a party at work. Reading most fantasy novels now is pretty much a staycation.)

Perhaps it’s just a call for books to take me someplace that I haven’t been already. Many, many times.

Most of the books I read and love now are set in places, when I think of it, some of them real-ish, like–McCall’s Botswana or Peters’ England, some of them not, like McKinley’s Damar and Pratchett’s Discworld. (The rest seem to have grisly murders. Suitably grisly murders will stand in just fine for a sense of place, apparently.)

I cannot bear what China Mieville does to his characters most times, and I will still buy any Bas-Lag book he puts out, even if Iron Council did make me want to yell “Yes, we get it, you’re a communist, that’s fine, you’re among friends.”  Because his books will take me somewhere I have not been.

And I return to LeGuin’s Kesh whenever I am reminded, because that is a place, a real and true place, that merely happens not to exist. Gont and Atuan too, though not quite so starkly.

Hand in hand with my increasing ennui toward Fantasyland is a great boredom with its denizens. You will have to do something truly extraordinary with fairies to impress me these days. Otherwise they are just more people from work. “This is Oberon, from Accounting.” (Do not even talk to me about vampires.) Dragons have been done and dragons that are friendly characters have been done and I have witnessed many states of their done-ness and about the only one that I still find interesting is the one where they are a not-particularly-exciting form of vermin, because very few people do that yet.

I am desperately tired of farmboys in search of their lonely destiny, and if you are going to introduce yourself as a ranger, you goddamn well be putting out fires and fretting over declining woodpecker populations in the next paragraph.

If you are plucky or spunky or feisty, I come pre-tired of you.

If you are from the Kingdom of Blah, ruled by blah, and must awaken the blah within yourself, with the aid of a rag-tag band of misfit blahs, in a desperate race against time before the terrible Blah occurs, we are done here.

(And yet I still love fairy tales. They still work for me. I do not know why this should be, but it is. I could read fairy tales and fairy-tale retellings all day, and sometimes I do.)

This is not, believe it or not, a call for recommendations. I am actually pretty okay with my ennui. It is as if I have acquired a weird and genre-specific form of depression–no, I don’t care, I don’t even care that I don’t care, there are days when I care very much but not many and mostly there is simply no reason to get out of the fantasy bed in the morning if the day is only going to be more dragons and heroes and vampires and nobody is going to bother to grow peas.

Sadly, while I have dealt with depression as it applies to life, I am not sure how one deals with it when it comes to a genre. They do not make fantasy-specific Zoloft. There are no therapies available for when you have burned out your sense of literary wonder.

So I flail away at my books set in deserts and my gardener heroes, I throw saints into everything because fantasy is sadly bereft of saints, and I try not to feel too much guilt about that thing I just finished that was set in a vaguely European forest or that other thing with the castle. I write about priests and grandmothers and hoopoes in waistcoats.

But mostly I just scan over the new releases and feel no desire to read any of them.

(And some of them are by friends! Who are good people! Who I want to support, and who I KNOW are doing exciting things with the genre, and I just…got nuthin’. Mind you, I still buy the books, because I want to be supportive. And Kevin reads them.)

So I sit in the tub with gardening books. And mysteries. And Gothics. There is no shortage of reading material out there. And except for the vague feeling of guilt that I should be reading this because I’m writing it, and if I don’t love it enough to read it, why the hell am I writing it?–I’m fine with that.

I have no desire to write mysteries. If I try, the protagonist turns into a were-bear. (I tried. It happened.) Fantasy is the thing I do.

I just find, increasingly, that when I’m off work, I want to leave Fantasyland and go someplace else for awhile. And so few books in my genre seem able to do that.

 

 

*Seriously, Cloak-guy is getting around. Mur and I counted sixteen hooded figures in flowy cloaks on covers last week, and only two of them were on Assassin’s Creed novelizations.

No Idea What I’m Doing

I used to post first drafts of first chapters here all the time and then I stopped for some reason–I guess I got afraid that I would post something that sucked so badly that you would all decide to never read any real book I wrote ever again. Or something like that.

But hell, if you can’t suck on your blog for free, there is no point to anything, so here are the first two chapters of a thing that is probably not going to be a thing but it was the thing I wrote and it’s sort of started at chick list but I see no way this will not end with jackalopes, which maybe makes it magical realism or something, except possibly it’s part dystopia, except that bit doesn’t matter very much, but hell if I know anymore.

I do not yet know if the character is sympathetic or merely miserable, because being miserable is not enough to make people like you (quite the opposite, in fact.) Whereas I am usually reasonably confident in The Thing I Am Doing, this one is out of my usual range and comfort zone and I am floundering around like a penguin in a life vest.

It has no title, because we have not gotten that far yet.

She picked her new home for no better reason than the dog laid down on the porch.

            The dog was an old black lab bitch named Copper, which was a stupid name because there was nothing copper-colored about her. Selena felt guilty when her boyfriend pointed that out, but Copper had already learned her name, so she put a collar on the dog with bright copper tags. Her boyfriend rolled his eyes, but Selena was proud of herself for having set things right again.

The dog never seemed to mind either way.

            Selena had ridden out on the train, three days to get there, and she’d been afraid the whole time that somebody’d tell her she couldn’t have dogs. She didn’t know what she’d have done. Copper lay under her seat and let out old-dog moans and sighs, but the rocking of the train seemed to agree with her. She squatted obediently at every stop and shared the sandwiches that Selena passed down to her.

At the second to last stop, the conductor bent down and scratched Copper behind the ears, and Selena was so relieved that she nearly cried.

When she reached her stop, Copper stood up and stretched. Her muzzle was nearly white, but her eyes were clear. She glanced around the train platform and then up at Selena, as if expecting orders.

Quartz Creek was painted on the platform wall, in faded blue paint. The train platform was cinderblock and adobe. It could have been ten years old or two hundred.

There were no gates or turnstiles, no ticket takers. Certainly no taxis.

“I guess we just go,” said Selena. She wrapped the leash around her right hand and gripped her suitcase handle in her right.

The station was nearly deserted. Two men in faded jeans unloaded several boxes from one of the cars, into the back of a battered pickup truck. The conductor went over to them and had them sign a sheet of paper, then he said something and all three men laughed.

Selena stole a glance to make sure that they weren’t laughing at her. They didn’t seem to be.

There was a drinking fountain against one wall. She push the lever and the water came out, lukewarm and tasting of metal. She filled her water bottle and let Copper drink her fill from the little metal dish in her backpack.

There was hardly anything else to the station. Two little shelters with benches, the drinking fountain, and a list of time tables under glass. The stairs down from the platform ran directly to a rutted dirt road.

The town was visible, a long way in the distance. There was a hill behind it, or a mountain. Between town and station stood two or three miles of desert, full of scrubby little bushes and big gray-green saguaro. She did not know the names of most of the plants there. One long, serpentine thing might be ocotillo, but then again, it might not.

The dirt was bone white and the sky was hard blue. It was only mid-morning, but heat was already making long squiggles in the air.

Selena picked up her suitcase and let the dog lead the way.

Behind them, the train let out a long whistle and began to chug away.

The black dog kicked up little puffs of dust as she trotted along. Selena studied the verge of the road. She had expected deserts to be full of sand, but the earth here looked more like dust or talcum powder. The shrubs along the road had grey bark and grew sideways, split, grew sideways again.

There was so much sky that it was hard to think. In the city, there were walls you could put your back against, doors to shut, places to hide. To hide out here, you’d have to crouch down and worm your way under one of the scrubby little bushes. Probably there would be snakes. 

Selena wiped her forehead, where beads of sweat were beginning to form. She was very tired. She had not slept well on the train, and she had not expected to have to walk for miles when she got off.

I didn’t think she’d be here to meet me, but I guess I thought she’d be closer. That the town would be closer. I don’t know why I’d think that. Stupid.

They walked perhaps a quarter of a mile, and the battered pickup rumbled up behind them. It stopped by the side of the road.

“Need a ride in?” asked one of the men. He was very old, which was oddly reassuring. “It’s a short drive but a long walk.”

Selena’s first instinct was to refuse. You didn’t take rides from strange men—that was asking for Bad Things to happen.

Then she had to laugh at herself. There were no other people. There was nowhere to hide. If they were planning on kidnapping her, it didn’t matter whether she climbed into the truck or not.

“Thank you,” she said. Was that enough? Probably not—“I’d appreciate that a lot.” There, that should be good. Just enough, not too much.

“Hop in,” said the old man, jerking his thumb toward the back.

The other man was riding in the back. He lowered the tailgate and Copper leapt up. “Hey girl,” he said to the dog, and she thumped her tail twice, then settled at Selena’s feet. “Ma’am,” he added, dipping his head to Selena.

It was too loud in the back of the truck to talk, for which Selena was grateful. She gave the man a quick smile and then looked away, at the desert. Copper was a reassuring weight against her shins.

She wondered if the men knew her aunt. She could ask–but no, she’d already gone over what to say, and she had to say it to the right person. Someone at the post office, or a city clerk at town hall. Someone in authority.

What little she could see of Quartz Creek across the desert made her question whether there was anything so grandiose as a town hall, but she’d worry about that when she got there.

Was the desert beautiful? It would be hard to tell. It was hard and dry, which Selena had expected, and intricate, which she hadn’t. She’d been picturing sand and stone and scouring winds. Not the little bushes fitted all together, with strips of dust in between, not the stacked paddles of prickly pear. It looked like a complicated mosaic with white mortar, or one of those paintings made out of hundreds of dots. If she were far up in the hard blue sky, would the desert resolve into a picture?

The truck rattled and cracked down the dry road, the wheels fitted into the ruts like train tracks. Dust roiled up behind them.

A flurry of fat gray bodies whirred into the air suddenly. Selena jumped, surprised—plump little birds with black topknots and stubby wings.

Are those quail? Really quail?

She supposed that she knew that quail existed somewhere, but she’d never expected to see them. They were a creature out of children’s books, more like stuffed animals than real flesh and feather and bone.

Selena realized that she was grinning foolishly. She darted a glance at the other passenger, and saw him smiling. He said something, but she couldn’t hear it over the roar of the engine. She shook her head.

He was middle aged, probably the driver’s son. He wore a bandanna over his hair and his skin was deeply tanned. There were thick silver rings on three of his fingers and black rings of grease under the nails.

When the truck slowed, entering the town, and the wind died down, he leaned forward. “What brings you to town?” he asked.

Selena felt the little muscles along the back of her neck go wire tense. It’s a normal question. It’s perfectly normal. You know what to say. You practiced this.

She reached into her chest and the words were there, just as she’d practiced them. “I’m looking for my aunt,” she said. “She lives out here.”

I hope.

To her intense relief, he nodded, as if this wasn’t strange at all. “Go up to the post office,” he suggested. “It’s right across the street. If you’ve got people here, Miss Jenny will know where they’re at.”

“Thank you,” said Selena, although she had already planned to try the post office. “That’s a great idea.” Compliments were good, though not flattery. She thought she’d done it right. She praised the idea, not him, and not extravagantly. She dropped her hand to Copper’s collar, and the old dog thumped her tail.

The town wasn’t very large, a few dozen houses. They stood wide apart with ditches between them, and small roads arranged like the spokes of a wheel. The buildings were pale adobe, with flat roofs, wide porches, and what looked like whole logs sticking out the sides. It was a very strange look, as if they’d built the rafters too long for the walls. One of the buildings was taller, an old mission style church, with double doors thrown wide.

Most of the houses had solar panels on the roof or the garage, the old, ugly kind, cheap and nearly indestructible. The sort that Selena associated with poverty one step up from corrugated steel siding.

I’ve got twenty-seven dollars to my name. I don’t get to talk to anybody about poverty, I guess.

Did one of the houses belong to her aunt? Was one of those scruffy speckled chickens hers?

Somehow Selena had never thought of her aunt as poor. She has a house! People with houses aren’t poor.

At least…not in the city…

They passed an old garage, a temple to cars where mechanic-priests sat around in their overalls. Chickens scattered along the road as the truck passed, and dogs lay panting in the shade.  There were a couple of scruffy pine trees, and some strange trees that Selena didn’t know—one that was all green, even the trunk, with fine slender needles, and one with slick red bark that peeled like a burn. 

The truck stopped.

Her companion unhooked the tailgate and jumped out. He reached up a hand to her.

            Do I take his hand/you’re not supposed to touch strangers/but he offered first and now it would be rude/no, it’s like a handshake, that’s okay, handshakes are okay—

            She took it with, she hoped, no obvious hesitation. His fingers were dry and hard and had calluses like bits of gravel.

            He helped her down from the truck and handed down her suitcase. “Thank you,” said Selena.

            “No problem. Post office is right over there.”

            Selena took a step toward it, then stopped. She was forgetting. She walked up to the cab of the truck and said, carefully, “Thank you for the ride. It was much shorter than walking.”

            “Any time,” said the old man. “It’s a long walk.” He lifted a hand in half a wave, and Selena waved back.

            She felt a bit giddy as she approached the post office. She’d done it right. She hadn’t practiced it at all, but she hadn’t said anything stupid. It was an unexpected victory.

            The post office stood in the center of town.  It was the same square adobe style as the rest of the buildings, but there was a metal sign over the door that said “Post Office.” Two of the strange green trees grew out in front, their leaves buzzing with cicadas.

            Selena tied Copper’s leash to one of the porch posts and said “Stay.” Copper flopped down with a loud hwuff.

            Next to the door was a little wooden sign with letters burned into it that said “Burnt Branch House.”

            Selena paused for a moment with her hand on the door. Was that the name of the building? She’d seen named buildings in the city, but mostly they were named for historical figures. Burnt Branch House. Hmm.

            She pulled the door open.

            It was all tile inside, red clay tiled floor, bright blue tile counter. A line of painted sunflower tiles circled the wall. Even in the dim light, the room glowed.

            A stout woman sat behind the counter. She looked up and raised her eyebrows as Selena came in.

            “Can I help you?”

            Say it. Say it just like you practiced. It’ll be okay.

            “I’m sorry to bother you…” Selena reached into her backpack and pulled out the old postcard. The ink had blurred in a couple of places and the stamp was half gone, but the name on the return was clear. Amelia Walker.

There was no street address, just the name of the town, which Selena had thought was odd, until she came to Quartz Creek and saw how small it was.

            “I’m looking for my aunt,” she said, and slid the postcard across the tiles.

            The woman behind the counter picked it up, flipped it to the back. A line formed between her eyes and she looked up.

            Her broad face was sympathetic, and even before she spoke, Selena knew.

            No. No. She hasn’t said anything, you’re wrong, she hasn’t said anything so it isn’t real–

            “Oh, honey,” said the woman. “I’m sorry. She passed away—only about a year ago. We didn’t know she had any next of kin, or we would’ve tried to get out a letter.”

            Selena was aware that she was staring straight ahead. Heat was rising up her face, to her eyes, and when it hit, she was going to burst into tears.

            No no she can’t be—I came all this way—I can’t afford a ticket back—I can’t afford to go anywhere—even if I go back, I’ve got no place and I can’t go back to Robert and what if I go back and he sees me—

            And then the old anxiety came back and she realized she’d been standing there for much too long and the woman was looking at her.

            “Thank you,” she said, in a high, strangled voice. She might have said more, but she knew that it sounded like she was going to cry, and you did not cry in public, that was something you definitely did not do. You might as well wet your pants on the street corner.

            She turned away and practically ran out the door.

            Copper was waiting there. Copper who was big and solid and made of fur and bone and muscle, Copper who loved her even though she didn’t deserve it. Selena crouched down and put her face in the black lab’s shoulder.

            A year ago. A year ago. The phrase beat in her head like a pulse. A year ago.

            Oh god, only a year. If she’d found her courage just a little bit sooner, if she’d gone nine years instead of ten, she would have come out and found her aunt alive.

            Whether her aunt wanted to see her—whether her aunt had any fond memories of the city or had sent a postcard purely out of loneliness and duty—those were hurdles she could have faced.

            Now she couldn’t.

            Now she was in the desert a thousand miles away from the city and there was nothing but strangers and heat and dead white dust.

            Copper licked her face and wagged her tail, concerned that her human was making upset noises. That was okay. She could wipe dog slobber off her face and nobody would know she was wiping off tears.

            The door creaked behind her.

            “Oh, honey,” said the post office woman. “I’m sorry.” She sat down on the porch next to Selena, not touching, but close by. “Guess you were hoping for better news.”

            Selena had no scripts at all now, and only nodded.

            Stupid, stupid, should have thought what you’d do if she was dead or even had moved, didn’t think, didn’t plan…

            What she knew, down in her heart of hearts, was that she couldn’t have planned. This had been her last thrash towards self-preservation. She might as well go lie down in the desert now and let the sun bleach her bones.

            “I’m sorry,” she croaked. Copper licked her chin again, worried.

            “Nothing to be sorry about,” said the post office woman. “We all ought to have somebody to cry when we pass on.”

            She held out her hand to Copper, who sniffed it and gave it a vague, meditative lick. The dog was half-sitting, half standing over Selena’s lap. Selena rested her cheek on the warm, furry back and tried to think of nothing at all.

            “What’s her name?” asked the woman.

            “Copper,” said Selena. Her voice was still shaky, but that was a safe question and a safe answer.

            “Good name.” She scratched Copper behind the ears and was rewarded with an enthusiastic tail wag. Copper did not believe in disguising her emotions.

The woman studied the postcard again. “Tell you what. The house is still there, you know. Her house.”

            Selena looked at her blankly, one hand hooked under the dog’s collar.

            “Nobody’s claimed it,” said the woman. “She’s got no kin around here, and it’s not a big house. No reason you can’t go up and take a look at it.”

            Selena had to think for a minute, to put words together. She tried them out in her head a few times, then said “Is that be allowed?”

            “Sure,” said the post office woman. “I said it was fine, didn’t I?” She grinned. “I’m the mayor, you know. Also the postmaster, fire marshal, and the chief of police. My name’s Jenny.”

            She stuck out a hand.

            Selena shook it. Shaking hands is polite.

She didn’t want to babble or dominate the conversation, but surely she could ask one more question. “You’re sure no one will mind if I look?”

            “Nobody around to mind,” said Jenny. “Lotta places standing empty these days. Can’t keep people in ‘em. You know how it is.”

            Selena didn’t have the least idea how it was, and didn’t know where to start asking.

            “You’re next door to Grandma Billy, out past the old well, and then there’s nothing for a mile on. You’ll have to check the old solars, but they should be working well enough to make tea, and you ain’t gonna need heat for a couple of months yet.” She leaned back on her hands. “Give it a look over. If you’re inclined to stay, just come by the post office and let me know, I’ll make you out an address form.”

            An address form? For what? Is she suggesting I move in? I can’t do that. Houses are expensive. People with houses are always complaining about it. You can’t buy a house with twenty-seven dollars. Even if they gave it to me, I couldn’t keep it. The roof will fall off and the walls will fall down and I’ll have no money and they’ll hate me for not taking care of it. And it’s stupid anyway, because nobody gives away houses.

            “I can’t stay,” said Selena. She had no money and apparently no family either. She’d have to leave, go back, deal with what she found in the city. Running away hadn’t solved anything.

            “Up to you,” said Jenny. “Train won’t be back ‘til tomorrow, though, so you might as well walk over and take a look.” She pointed down one of the roads. “’Bout half a mile that way. Grandma Billy’s the one with the blue door, and you’re the one just past it.”

            “Thank you,” whispered Selena, her store of words exhausted.

            Jenny, the mayor and the postmistress and the fire marshal and the chief of police, smiled at her and said “It’s called Jackrabbit Hole House. You can’t miss it.” 

            In the end, she went because the alternative was to sit on the post office porch until the sun went down. She had no hope for Jackrabbit Hole House (and what kind of outlandish name was that, anyway?)

            Truth was, she had only met her aunt a handful of times, mostly as a teenager. She remembered a thin woman with a seamed face, wearing clothes that were too big for her, as if she was afraid that someone might grab her and she’d have wriggle away. But she had a sharp, cutting sense of humor that delighted the teenage Selena, and over the years, postcards had come from a dozen places. It was only the last few that had been in the same place, as if she had finally been caught at last.

            The last postcard was nearly ten years old. It had ended with “I hope you can come out and visit me sometime.”

            Selena had been putting all her faith in those ten words.

How am I going to get back to the city?

The train won’t come back until tomorrow. I can’t afford a ticket, but even if I convince them to let me on, where will I sleep tonight?

There were no answers on the post office porch, and if she kept sitting there, Jenny was going to sit with her. Someone who had so many jobs was undoubtedly busy, even in a town as small as Quartz Creek, and Selena had taken enough of her time.

“Straight down that road,” said Jenny, pointing again. “If you don’t see anything you like, come on back. There’s a big lunch up at the church this afternoon, everybody welcome.”

Selena nodded. “Thank you,” she said. That was about all that she could trust herself to say.

People are telling me where I can get free food. Oh god, how much farther can I fall? I had a job, I always had jobs, I never took any handouts…

There really ought to be some kind of card, Selena decided, something you could carry to prove that you weren’t a freeloader. It could say something like “Hard Worker, Temporarily Fallen On Bad Times.” And on the reverse it would say “Not In The Habit Of Mooching.”

Otherwise all it took was one bad run of luck and it didn’t matter how hard you’d worked your whole life, you were down in the gutter with the lunatics and the unlucky and the professionally helpless.

“Definitely a card,” she muttered, as she walked down the bleached road. Then she stopped, because if you talked to yourself, you looked crazy and even though she was crazy, she was still hoping that nobody else would notice.

Jackrabbit Hole House. What a name.

As Selena walked through the middle of town, she could see that it wasn’t the only named house. There were no numbers on any of the buildings, but they all had little plaques. Some of them were set too far back from the road to read, but most of them had big, bold letters, as if the house names were something that people were proud of.

Pocket Gopher House. South Porch House. Tortoise On Its Shell House. House With Its Back To the Desert.

Some of them were self-explanatory—Under The Olive Tree House had a low wing tucked up under gnarled branches, and Three Saguaro House had three tall cactus growing in the front. Others didn’t make any sense at all—the House With Its Back To The Desert was actually backed against the mechanic’s, and It Fell Down House appeared to be in good repair.

No wonder Aunt Amelia’s postcard was simply from Quartz Creek.

Selena passed the church. The plaque beside the door was brass instead of wood. House of Our Lady of the Palo Verdes.

            That makes more sense. That’s a church sort of name. You name churches. Houses get numbers, though, not names.

            Apparently the people of Quartz Creek disagreed.

            The house to the left of the church was Left-of-the-Church House, which made sense, but the house on the right was Bougainvillea House, so not even that was consistent. Selena sighed. 

            There were only two rings of houses on this side, although Selena could see a few straggling buildings off in either direction. Many of the houses had back gardens fenced with chicken wire, which did nothing to contain the roving chickens. A few were standing empty, with boards up over the windows. 

            Can’t keep people in ‘em. You know how it is.

            She wished she did.

The road curved along the base of the hill that she had seen from the train platform. There were more trees than she had expected, although she couldn’t be sure if they were real trees or just more of the scrubby desert plants, grown unexpectedly tall in the shadow of the hillside. They rose up ten and twelve feet high, so that she and the dog walked together through a strange dry forest.

Scrub, she thought. Brush. I have been using the words all my life and this is what they mean and I had no idea.

            Copper meandering along the edge of the road, stopping occasionally to sniff. Selena watched her exploring all the little canine mysteries—why this twig was more interesting than those others, why this patch of ground needed to be peed on, why this rock was much more fascinating than all the other available rocks.

            That last question was answered when the rock unfolded long legs and bounded away. Copper jumped back, startled, and the jackrabbit shot into the desert.

            The dog gave half-hearted chase–it was running, and that’s what you were supposed to do–but she stopped at the end of the leash.

            Selena laughed. It wasn’t much of a laugh, but it was there. She scrubbed at her cheeks with the heel of her hand. “Didn’t expect that, did you?”

            Copper looked vaguely offended. Rocks did not run away.

            “You’re a city dog, aren’t you, girl?” She scratched behind the ears, in the good spot, and Copper thumped against her leg. “Not used to jackrabbits.”

            Not that I am either. Jackrabbit Hole House. Huh.

A house appeared on the left side of the road, around the curve of the hill. It looked old and there were cracks in the adobe. A low stone wall ran alongside the road, and trees crowded over it, dappling the dry earth with shadow.

There was a peacock on the wall.

Copper stopped and stared at it with deep mistrust. So did Selena.

It was definitely a peacock. There was nothing else it could be. It was bright blue and had a tail made for strutting and it was wildly out of place.

Peacocks don’t live in the desert. Peacocks are, like…jungle birds, right?

The misplaced peacock turned its head and said “Ai-yowp! Ai-yowp!”

The door of the old adobe banged open, and a person came out.

The person was a little taller than Selena, wearing a faded cotton skirt and an open leather vest. Silver and turquoise bangles clattered on thick, bony wrists.

“Goddamn bird!” The person charged at the peacock, arms waving. “Git! Go back home! Swear to the lord, I’m gonna go down there and tell Jack to put you in a stew!”

“Ai-yowp!” shrieked the peacock, pacing down the wall toward Selena.

Selena took a deep breath. “Excuse me…”

“Sweet Jesus!” The person reeled back, hand to heart. “Sorry, didn’t see you there. I was yelling at the bird, not you.”

“No, it’s okay. I figured that.” Selena glanced to the adobe, saw it had a blue door. “Um. I’m looking for…uh…Jackrabbit Hole House?”

“Sure, it’s just a little bit up the way. Follow the road. You can almost see it, but there’s trees in the way.” The person stuck out a hand. “I’m Grandma Billy.”

“Selena.” Selena shook. She had shaken a lot of hands today.

“Billy…?” she asked tentatively, searching the face in front of her.

“Grandma,” said Grandma Billy firmly. “Billy was my second husband and I’m too old to change it now.” Selena nodded.

That’s easy, then. Okay.

The peacock, apparently annoyed that it wasn’t the center of attention, shrieked next to Selena’s ear. She jumped away, startled, and Copper let out a warning bark.

“Damn bird, you’re causing nothing but trouble. Go on! Git!” Grandma flapped her skirt at the bird. It stuck its beak in the air and stalked away down the road, back toward town.

“It’s Jack Houndsmith’s bird,” said Grandma. “Mail-ordered some chicks from the city, had all these ideas about breeding better chickens. Half of ‘em didn’t hatch and the other half were peacocks, but he’s never been able to admit he was had.” She glared down the road after the retreating peacock. “Stupid bird comes around and my old rooster looses his damn mind. I tell him he can’t compete with a peacock, but he about kills himself trying.”

“Well, they’re very pretty,” said Selena, carefully. Was that a stupid thing to say? That was probably stupid. Obviously they’re pretty. Damn.

“Sure are,” said Grandma. “Up on the mesa, they call ‘em ‘sun turkeys,’ or so I’m told. Pretty sort of name. Shame about the personality. Can I get you something to drink?”

Fortunately Selena had lots of scripts for this sort of thing. “That would be lovely,” she said, “if it’s not too much trouble.”

“No trouble,” said Grandma. “You must be about parched. This lady too.” She crouched down on her heels, skirt making a broad circle in the dust. Silver chimed as she held out a hand to Copper.

Copper, who knew that she was being approached correctly, perked her ears forward and gave Grandma’s hand an emphatic lick, then thumped her broad skull into the waiting fingers. Grandma petted the lab’s ears gravely.

“She a chicken killer?”

Selena blinked. “I don’t think she’s ever met a chicken.”

“We’ll play it safe, then. Some good dogs out there that can’t be around chickens. Stay out here on the front porch, I’ll be right back.”

She swept through the blue door. Selena wasn’t sure if it was okay to sit down on the porch, even though there were rocking chairs with woven blankets thrown over them.

She leaned against one of the porch pillars instead. Copper, who had no such compunctions, flopped down on the boards.

There was a little wooden plaque next to the door that said “Blue Horned Toad House,” with a little drawing of a lizard under it, painted bright blue.

It was very quiet in the desert. The cicadas were buzzing, but you didn’t notice the sound until they stopped. It didn’t seem like noise as much as a manifestation of the heat, like the ripples coming off the road.

All she could hear was Copper panting and the sounds of Grandma banging around inside the house. A muffled “Ah-yowp!” came from down the road and then was silent.

A bird skittered to the top of a nearby saguaro and looked around. It was brown and had a sharply downcurved beak. It looked annoyed about something.

Grandma shoved the door open with her shoulder and one foot hooked around the edge of the door. She had two jars in one hand and a shallow clay dish of water in the other. Selena jumped to take the dish from her.

“There you go,” said Grandma. “That’s for Copper and this one’s for you.”

The jar was full of tea, something green-tasting and faintly sweet. There was no ice. The glass sweated in the heat, and water rolled over Selena’s fingers as she drank.

“Thank you,” she said. She hadn’t realized how thirsty she’d been. Copper slurped thirstily from the pottery bowl.

“No worries,” said Grandma. “It’s the desert. You get dried out before you know it.”

An awkward silence fell, or perhaps Selena only thought it was awkward. She reached for a script that had served her well–“So what is it you do?”

Grandma snorted. “Do? Well, I get older, mostly. And dig around in the garden and keep chickens. And chase off peacocks.” She fixed Selena with a bright eye over the rim of her jar. “And what do you do?”

“I’m a night manager at a deli.”

The words came out and then stood there in the blazing desert light and looked faintly ridiculous, as out of place as peacocks. Surely it was not possible that the world had both saguaros and all-night delis in it. No one would believe that.

“Was,” said Selena, in an effort to shepherd the lost words away. “Was a manager. I’m not now, I mean.”

“Uh-huh. So what do you want with Jackrabbit Hole House?”

Selena took a large gulp of tea while she sorted through the words in her head. “My aunt used to live there,” she said carefully. “I know she passed away. The post mistress said to come look at it.”

Grandma nodded. “All right, then. If Miss Jenny sent you, I ain’t gonna say no. Your aunt was a friend of mine.”

“I’m sorry,” said Selena. No, that was wrong, shit! “Not, I mean, sorry that she was your friend. Sorry she passed away. For your loss. Because she was your friend.” She could hear herself starting to panic and shoved the rim of the jar into her mouth to stop the flow of words.

“I got the gist,” said Grandma, looking faintly amused. “Didn’t know she had a niece. Would have tried to get a letter out if I did, but Amelia didn’t talk about her family much. Said she had a sister who passed, but that’s all I knew.”

“My mom,” said Selena. Did she had to say anything more? Hopefully not. She didn’t think she had the energy.

Grandma took a sip of tea.

“I haven’t seen her in a long time. I didn’t know. She sent me a postcard–“ The panic was bubbling up again. Selena dug out the postcard and held it out. Her hand was shaking a little.

Grandma took it, flipped it over. After a moment, she smiled. “Sounds like her, all right. She always wrote just like she talked.” She handed the postcard back.

“I should have come sooner,” said Selena hopelessly. “A year–I couldn’t. I should have. I’m sorry.”

Grandma’s face softened, or maybe the hardness had been in Selena’s imagination. “It’s all right. Things show up when they’re needed.”

Not me, thought Selena. I screwed that up, too. I shouldn’t have come out this way. I should have stayed at the post office. What good is looking at a dead woman’s house going to do?

“Jackrabbit Hole House should be fine,” said Grandma. “I made sure everything was cleaned out. Probably got mice in it, and I’d check under the stove for snakes, but the roof is good. Door’s unlocked.”

It had not occurred to Selena until that moment that she might actually go inside the house. She had finished her tea some time ago, but she gripped the jar until the words Ball Canning were imprinted on the pads of her fingers.

“You look like you’ve seen a ghost,” said Grandma. “It ain’t haunted. Amelia hung around her garden ‘til everything died back for summer, then she went on her way. Nothing there now.” She took a slug of tea. “Well, except the usual run of desert ghosts, I guess. But they’re no bother.”

Selena set the jar down and picked up Copper’s leash. She had no scripts at all for this situation.

“I’ll just go look at the house,” she said. “I wasn’t going to go in. Thank you for the tea.”

“If you change your mind, come on back by,” said Grandma. “I’ve still got the sheets for the bed and a couple of Amelia’s old things. No sense roughing it if you don’t have to.”

“Thank you,” said Selena, who wanted nothing more than to bolt back to town. But the postmistress would still be there–she’d left her suitcase at the post office, for god’s sake–and she was bound to ask what Selena had thought and she had to have something to say.

            Grandma Billy saw her to the edge of the road and leaned on the drystone wall. “The funny thing,” she said “is that jackrabbits don’t live in holes.”

            “They don’t?” Copper was tugging at the leash and Selena was only half listening.

Grandma sniffed. “Nope. Live in little scrapes. Odd sort of name for a house. When you turn the water on, it’ll spit. Let it run for a few minutes. The pump’s nearly new, but it ain’t been on for awhile.”

Everyone thinks I’m staying. I’m not staying. Why are they talking as if I am? “Thank you for the tea,” she said.

“Glad to do it. You take care.”

She followed the road around the curve of the hill, past the trees, until Grandma Billy was lost from sight.

She came around the corner, and there was the house, tucked up in scruffy green shrubs. An impressively multi-armed saguaro grew directly across the road, and an impressively dead one lay slumped beside it. Another low stone wall, like the one at Grandma Billy’s, ran along the road here, though this one was devoid of peacocks.

It was a small house.

Well, the postmistress said it would be…

It might be two rooms, possibly three. Certainly no more than that. It was tea-colored adobe with two windows in the front, and a wraparound porch that sagged in the middle. Some aggressive vine had eaten two of the porch posts and was making threatening gestures toward a third. There was a rocking chair on the porch that had been cobwebbed into place and glazed in pale white dust.

There was a dirt path up to the house. White stones, like blocky skulls, picked out the edges of…well, you couldn’t call them flowerbeds. Scrub beds, maybe. Whatever the difference was between bare dirt and dirt with gray-green spiky things in it.

This is it. This is where Aunt Amelia lived, until a year ago.

A year ago. A year ago. A year too late.

She set that thought aside, for all the good it did her.

Once upon a time, Selena would have gone up to the house, walked around it, looking in the windows.

Once upon a time, she could talk without worrying about it, and didn’t run every sentence through her head a dozen times first. Once upon a time had come and gone and there were no happily ever afters. She put her hand on the drystone wall.

It was hard under her fingers, the stones rough, the edges sharp. She closed her eyes. She could believe that the peacock and Grandma Billy were part of a dream, but the stone wall was too clearly a real thing. If the wall was real then everything else was real. All right. Not a dream, then. It was all really happening and her aunt was really dead and she was really broke and in a town called Quartz Creek and the dead woman’s house was really in front of her.

It looked…friendly.

If the two windows were eyes, then the left one was half closed into a wink by the rioting vine. The porch sagged into a smile. The desert was enormous and the house was very small, but it looked brave and rather hopeful.

It reminded her of Copper when she was a puppy, deeply convinced that the world was full of kind giants who loved her, and if she only waited long enough, one would come and play.

I am losing my mind. I mean, I already lost it, I know, but now I am getting maudlin and reading things into a falling-down porch. It is probably heat stroke. I should sit down.

If I go up to the house, I could sit down on the porch. I could even open up the door and go inside. It might be cooler in there.

Selena stood by the wall and didn’t move.  

It was a nice house. She could see why her aunt might have lived there. But it wasn’t hers.

If I went in, I might start to like it and if I do, somebody will take it away from me. You can’t just walk up and lay claim to a house. That’s not how it works.

She remembered the empty houses in the middle of town, with the boarded up windows. The postmistress told me–she said they can’t keep people in them–but it can’t be like that, not really…

It was too easy, too unearned. You did not get things handed to you.

And yet there was a nagging little grain of hope there. She was the next of kin, wasn’t she? Her mother was dead, thank the merciful gods. If the house was abandoned and nobody wanted it…

It wouldn’t be that way in the city, where everybody lived on top of each other, but maybe out here, in the margins…

Why would anyone want to live out here? It’s hot and weird and there’s hardly anybody here and you can’t go anywhere and the train only comes once a day…

Dear god, she was tired. The hard light was giving her a headache.

Copper got up.

She gave the leash a practiced tug, pulling it out of Selena’s lax fingers, and trotted up the walk to the sagging porch.

“Copper–!”

The lab ignored her. Three steps up, and she flopped down on the porch–really flopped, not her polite Sphinx-pose while she waited for Selena to finish what she was doing. A full-body, over on her side, legs-stretched-out flop, accompanied by a deep old-dog sigh of contentment.

And that was that.

Selena left the wall. Her feet dragged as she approached the porch. She had no energy left to argue, not even with the dog.

She sat down on the porch and put her head in her hands, and that, more or less, was that.

The Agony and the Ecstasy

Or at least the, y’know, mild enthusiasm.

I pick up this old manuscript and remember how much I love it. And I could finish it! And self-publish it, even, since no publisher will ever buy “Four Extremely Broken People Have An Adventure!” But I am convinced on some level that it must suck because I started it in 2006 and I must be much better now and so it must really be awful and I must be feeling some kind of weird starry-eyed nostalgia.

I carried this feeling around for years and then sometime today I went “Hang on, I started a comic in 2004 that won a Hugo, and I couldn’t go back and edit it.”

Hmm.

The brain makes a valid point there.

Actually, I started the goblin thing around the same time.

Hmmmmm.

And then I think a bit more and think “How often do I look back at my super old art and go think anything other than “Urrrgh?”

Mm. Well, occasionally. Certainly not by default. Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s any good, either. Half of this book is Serious Business, trail of bodies, the horror, the horror and then the rest is snark. The snark is great but I don’t know if it grafts gracefully on top of the rest.

And there’s a romance–it’s the one with the paladin and the ninja accountant–and I am just ass at writing romance. I start to feel all giddy and weird like I’m writing fan fic and what comes out is probably not romantic at all and goddamn these people are broken and if I have to write a sex scene I will probably drop dead.

I think I’m afraid I love them too much. It’s dangerous to love a character. I attempted to explain this to Kevin…

KEVIN: Huh?

ME: It can be a problem. It’s like Dobby the house-elf.

KEVIN: …

ME: You’re all “Yay! I love this character sooooo much!” and the readers are all “OH MY GOD KILL IT WITH FIRE NO ONE LIKES YOU DOBBY JUST DIE ALREADY.”

KEVIN: Meesa undastanda, Anakin!

ME: AAAAUGHGHGH YES LIKE THAT EXACTLY JESUS CHRIST YES

KEVIN: Gotcha.

I will make him read it. And try not to hover over him twitching while he does, because 75K is a lot to read while someone hovers and twitches.

And then I’d probably have to finish the book anyway.

Editing

I must remind myself–

they can’t tell that I didn’t write this bit immediately after that one

the six months where I ignored the manuscript are not visible to the naked eye

the bit where I put my head in my hands and muttered “I have no idea what I’m doing” takes place in the single space between the period and the next capital letter.

As soon as I shove that character in, she has always been there

and someone will probably say that she’s the emotional center

and the book couldn’t have been written without her

and nobody will know that I thought of her three thousand words from the end and scrolled up and shoehorned in a couple of paragraphs near the beginning because, for whatever reason, the story needed an elderly nun

she was almost the cook

and for about ten minutes she was the earnest young village priest

and now she has been there since you started reading.

I am sanding down the places where my editor found splinters

kicking up a fine dust of adjectives and dropped phrases

(Wear a breath mask. Work in a well-ventilated area. Have you seen what excess commas can do to your lungs?)

and eventually it will all be polished to a high shine

and hopefully when someone looks into it

they’ll see their own face reflected back

instead of mine.