Merging Similar Characters [character development]

Changes, Part 6

During a break from writing, I continue discussing the changes I have made to my Ridgewood characters.

Sometimes it is necessary for authors to reduce the number of characters entering and exiting their story’s scenes. This is a good time to look for characters with similar personalities.

If two characters have similar personalities, and if they serve the same function in a story, merging them into one character often gives me a richer character. By merging characters, I do not mean throwing all their traits into one stew. Otherwise, the result will be a blurry character.

Dave and Kenny

Dave began as my first and major protagonist. My stories were about him and his growth. Then Kenny came who became Lenny; he and Dave shared similar stories, personalities, and looks. They are interchangeable characters. Look at their personalities.

  • Dave lives a fast-paced lifestyle of extracurricular activities during the school seasons. He is sports active, outdoorsy and loves to hunt. He likes playing baseball, bicycling, and riding motorcycles and 4-wheelers. He is mechanically inclined and is handy at fixing small engines. Since he is the only boy in the family, he seeks out other boys with similar interests.
  • Kenny is a combination of athletic and rugged, curious and adventurous, and thoughtful and artistic. His favorite activity is fishing. He, too, is the only boy in the family.
Dave and Lenny/Kenny

Dave and Kenny are from similar molds. They are the same age, in the same grade at the same school, and both believe in the supernatural. They rarely disagree on anything.

They may as well be identical twins.

Boring.

So, I combined them into one character, found a name for him that suited him well, and set about giving him a purpose for future stories.

Amy and Trina

Amy became a main character in my stories when I challenged myself to write from a girl’s perspective. She and Trina were as easily interchangeable as Dave and Kenny were.

Amy

Vree’s older sister, Trina Erickson, was a minor character for many years. When she was on stage in my stories, she had interests similar to Amy’s and was a member of Amy’s all-girl rock group ARC. Like Amy, she played guitar and keyboards, so I combined the two characters and made her Amy Erickson, Vree’s musically inclined sister for my 2012 novel Night of the Hellhounds, which I retitled Margga’s Curse in 2014 and Mergelda’s Curse in 2015.

Vree [fiction]

Changes, Part 4

Verawenda “Vree” Renee Erickson, 13

Vree

Upon her creation in the 1970s, Verawenda Erickson was the same age as my other teen characters. She was an only child, nicknamed Vree, and lived with her parents down the road from Dave and Amy. Years later, when I decided to write about Vree again, I made Dave and Amy her triplet siblings and had them move into their grandparents’ home after lightning killed their father. It was fun giving her a pair of siblings to act with and react to, but I didn’t like that they were the same age. So, after revisiting my manuscripts last year, I changed her age to 13 and made her the youngest sibling of a 17-year-old brother and a 15-year-old sister. As the youngest member of the group of teens on Myers Ridge, she is more like an outsider who wants to be part of the older group.

She is Dave and Amy’s cousin—their mothers are sisters. Her nickname Vree comes from her initials VRE. Her first name is a combination of Vera and Wenda—her mom’s paternal grandmother was Vera Lewis and maternal grandmother was Wenda Walsh. Her middle name Renee is her maternal grandmother’s middle name.

*

Night of the Hellhounds (A short story featuring Vree)

*** One of my better known stories, changed to feature Vree as a main character. ***

Vree Erickson needed to get out of the house.

It was unseasonably cool that July Friday night when she walked up the road from her house on Myers Ridge. She stopped at her Aunt Michelle and Uncle Parker’s wide driveway. Her cousin Dave had told her that he and Amy would be at their tents behind the house. She aimed her flashlight at the front lawn and followed the beam to the narrow strip of yard left of the house. A breeze blew past her ponytail and prickled the back of her neck. She shivered and steadied herself with her right hand against the house’s brick siding as she made her way past the three dark dining room windows, then finally past her aunt’s soft-lit kitchen window. Her aunt and uncle were likely in the family room at the back of the house, watching TV.

Something moved in the evergreen shrubbery on her left. The sound quickened her pace to the firelight in the backyard. She came to a circle of seven lawn chairs around a square fire pit. Dave sat in a chair in front of his dome tent and cooked two hot dogs speared to a long roasting fork. His twin sister Amy had her own tent behind her. She sat cross-legged in a chair across the fire from Dave, whispering and giggling with Kenny Douglas next to her. Vree’s heart pattered while her gaze caressed Kenny’s brown bushy hair looking golden in the firelight. She tucked her flashlight under an armpit, rolled up her sweatshirt sleeves, and warmed her hands over the fire.

“Hey,” Dave said. “Take a look at the old Myers place and tell me what you see.” He pointed with his fork.

A thicket of property almost a hundred yards away was to Vree’s right and at the bottom of a hill. No moonlight broke the cloud cover then, so she squinted to see the abandoned Victorian home inside a thicket of trees.

“I just saw some ghosts,” Dave said. “Dogs. Three of them as plain as day. They were there until a moment ago.”

Amy groaned. “There’s no such thing as ghosts.” She looked at Kenny. “Tell him there’s no such thing.”

“Never mind,” Dave said. Then, “Why shouldn’t I believe in ghosts?” he asked. “All our ancient civilizations had them in their art and writing. Just like dragons and vampires and other strange creatures. Each culture portrayed them, including the Aztecs. How could so many different cultures have the same beliefs?”

“Don’t tell me you believe that dumb urban legend about Ben Myers and his hunting dogs freezing to death inside the house,” Amy said.

“Anything’s possible.”

“On a hot summer day?” Amy patted the arm of a chair next to her and told Vree to sit. Vree did, putting her flashlight on the ground and smelling hot dogs, wood smoke, and Amy’s citrus perfume. But her attention was on Kenny’s blue and gold athlete’s jacket that made him look more like a senior high student than a boy heading to tenth grade next month. Not many junior varsity students earned jackets at Ridgewood High. And Kenny’s made him look all the more handsome.

He smiled and nodded at Vree but remained silent while Amy scolded Dave.

“After they disappeared, the police concluded that Ben and Kate Myers died in a plane crash during a trip to the Caribbean.”

“Which isn’t official,” Dave said. “Myers and his wife always flew using pseudonyms, and no bodies or substantial wreckage were ever found, which means there’s no confirmation that they died at sea.”

Amy groaned again. “It makes more sense than believing that he and his dogs froze to death, or that Kate jumped to her death at the bottom of Widow’s Ravine.”

Vree looked again at the old, long ago abandoned property. The house did have a spooky history, after all, though no one she knew claimed to have seen anything out of the ordinary there. Until now.

But every community had an old house that people said was haunted. This was theirs.

The large Victorian house had belonged to a once-famous Broadway playwright named Benjamin Myers who became even more popular writing blockbuster screenplays for Hollywood before he and his wife mysteriously disappeared seventy years ago.

Vree glanced at where a trickling stream separated the back portion of the two properties and ran a half-mile behind them to the cliffs of Myers Ridge. There, the stream fell into a steep-sided gorge called Widow’s Ravine, where, according to the legend, Kate Myers jumped to her death after she found her husband and his dogs frozen.

A stick snapped behind Amy’s tent and caused Vree to turn. A tall woman stepped around the tent and approached the fire, which glinted fiery hues from her long black hair, bronze face, and long, sweeping black dress tied off at the waist. A white lace collar hung around her neck and pearl buttons sparkled in a row between her breasts. She looked at the four teenagers with mesmerizing and penetrating eyes—blacker than either her hair or dress, or the rubies set in the gold rings that she wore on eight fingers and two thumbs.

“Who are you?” Dave asked, almost shouting. Lowering his voice, he added, “This is private property.”

“This parcel of land is owned by Margaret Myers,” the woman replied as she held her hands over the fire.

“That’s my great-grandmother,” Kenny said. “But she doesn’t own this property anymore. My friends’ parents do.”

The woman looked at him and lingered with a puzzled, yet bewitching gaze. “You wear Mergelda’s curse,” she said.

“Huh?” Kenny scowled at Dave.

“What are you talking about, lady?” Dave asked. “Who’s Mergelda?”

“Mergelda Dekownik,” the woman said to him. Then, “May I rest a moment?” she asked. “The journey here has tired me.”

Dave gestured an open palm to the chair in front of her. She pulled the chair away and sat on the ground with a grace that made her seem to glide to the grass. There, she tucked her legs delicately beside herself and covered her bare feet beneath her dress. Her gaze shifted back to Kenny, then to Vree, and then to Dave.

“I am Kaethe Ramona Ademia Consuela Savakis,” she said. “But you can call me Ademia. That’s what my papa called me.” She looked back at Kenny. Then her charcoal eyes narrowed and the corners of her mouth lifted for a moment as she smiled at Vree. “You are the prevision I saw in my dreams,” she said. “You must be with him when the curse begins to effloresce. Stay with him and protect him always.”

Vree frowned and drew her knees under her chin. She hugged her legs and asked, “Are you talking to me?”

“I am.” Ademia turned and looked at Dave. “And why do you mistake me for—” she leaned closer “—a gypsy … no … a witch?”

Dave stiffened and said, “I don’t.”

“I suppose I do look like a gypsy. My mama was Brazilian, my papa Greek. But I’m neither gypsy nor witch, although—”

She paused and looked thoughtful. Then she glanced in the direction of the old mansion and said rather sadly, “I must go now.”

She stood as easily and gracefully as she had sat.

“Heed the white bird,” she said to Vree before turning and heading toward the Myers property.

The four watched her stroll down the hill and past the old Myers property until the night made her invisible. Then Dave stood and jabbed the air with a finger. “That was her. That was Kate Myers.”

Amy groaned. “The woman may have been crazy, but she was no ghost.”

“Do the math,” Dave said, sitting. “Kate Myers. Kaethe Ramona Ademia blah-blah-blah Savakis. She said her father was Greek. Ben Myers married a Greek woman. It all adds up.”

“That was no ghost,” Amy said.

“I agree,” Kenny said. “She looked pretty solid to me.” He stood and held up his illuminated cellphone. “Sorry, guys. I gotta head home.” He said goodbye and mounted his blue bicycle that lay behind his chair. A headlight came on as he pedaled to the side of the house, opposite of where Vree had come.

Amy stood and said she was making popcorn. Vree checked her phone. It was 11:52. “Dave and Amy say hi,” she texted to her mom. “Be home soon.” She grimaced from the cold when she put her phone back in the front of her bra.

“So, what do you think that woman meant when she said to heed the white bird?” she asked. “And that bit about ‘be with him when the curse begins’ and to ‘protect him always.’ What the heck?”

Dave pointed his roasting fork at the old Myers property and said, “Look.” His voice rose as he said, “See it? It’s a ghost. And I’ll bet you it’s Ben Myers’s ghost.”

Vree squinted. A faint glowing apparition of a man in a white shirt and dark pants walked outside the thicket at the Myers property. It wavered and disappeared.

“Tell me you saw that,” Dave said. “He was there. Just like the dogs I saw earlier.” As if cued by his words, dogs barked from the house. “Legend says that when Myers’s dogs died, their spirits came back as hellhounds to guard the house from trespassers.”

A pack of dogs charged from the darkness and lined at the bottom of the hill. All but one glowed with an aura of green light. The dogs snarled and bared their teeth at them. And their eyes glowed red.

Vree hurried to stand behind Dave’s chair. There were five white hounds with black and brown patches on the left, four rough-coated terriers on the right, and a brown Rottweiler that stood in the middle and slobbered white foam from its mouth. It glowed red and growled deep and guttural. And the red ember of fire in its eyes caused Vree to pull at Dave.

“Let’s go inside the house,” she said. Then she said it again, louder, as the other dogs joined in growling at them. As the growls rose in both pitch and volume, Dave agreed with Vree’s suggestion. He tugged Vree’s grasp away from his left forearm and took her by the hand. Vree started to follow him when three of the dogs vanished, including the Rottweiler.

Horrible howls from below the hill filled the air. The remaining dogs charged the hillside, coming at them.

“Run,” Dave said.

Vree followed at his heels as they raced toward the house.

In a puff of green smoke, a hound appeared in front of them, blocking the way.

Dave skidded to a stop and stared wildly at the green glowing dog. Then he bolted to his left and vanished into the field and darkness there. The hound chased after him, joined by a terrier that appeared at the hound’s side.

In a puff of red smoke, the Rottweiler appeared in front of Vree.

She turned her back and pleaded with the dog not to hurt her.

“Look at me,” the Rottweiler said, its voice deep and guttural.

Vree did, avoiding staring at its demonic eyes.

“You see Blood. You hear Blood.”

Vree trembled and said, “Please, don’t hurt me.”

The dog said nothing for a moment. Then it turned, almost flying across the ground as it too vanished in the dark after Dave.

Vree jumped and almost screamed when an unfamiliar voice cried out above her, “They’re heading toward Widow’s Ravine. You have to help him before they kill him.”

A white crow sat atop the roof above the backdoor. Had it really talked to her? She almost fell to her knees from the fright coursing through her body.

“Go, girl. Hurry.”

“But—” The remaining dogs milled around the campfire and watched her. She had left her flashlight on the ground by her chair. “I can’t see in the dark.”

“Hurry,” the crow said. “You’re not insane. Trust me. Now go, before the boy dies.” The crow spread its wings and vanished.

Vree shook her hands as though she had burned her fingers on something hot, looked at the door, and then hurried after Dave as the remaining dogs—ghosts—hellhounds—whatever they were—started after her.

She plowed blindly into brambles and thorny weeds that slapped and poked and grabbed her, scratched her hands, and scarred her clothes and shoes.

The hellhounds closed their distance behind her quickly. Her drumming heart climbed into her throat when she realized she could not outrun them for long. Still, she pushed on for Dave’s sake. Her inhales and exhales sounded like whimpers and moans.

She stumbled and almost fell before the way lit up, as though the moonlight had broken through the clouds. Although she was on a well-traveled deer trail, she had to dodge uneven and dangerous terrain as she followed the sound of the Rottweiler ahead of her.

She cried Dave’s name when she entered a clearing atop a steep cliff of Myers Ridge. He was there, at the edge but safe for the moment, doubled over and breathing hard. The hellhounds that had followed him had their heads lowered and their rear ends in the air like wolves that had just pinned their prey.

Vree hurried and kicked at the Rottweiler’s backside, hoping to punt it over the cliff. Instead, her foot went through the dog and she landed on her backside.

Quick to get up, she hurried to Dave’s side as the rest of the pack caught up and formed a line, boxing her and Dave at the edge of the cliff. The hellhounds glared with red eyes and growled with slobbering mouths. One of the hellhounds howled and Vree lashed out at it, this time with words.

“Leave us alone, you lousy piece of—”

The Rottweiler growled and leaped at her. Its forepaws struck her chest and sent her backwards, her arms flailing, her feet stumbling over the steep precipice of Widows Ravine.

She plummeted on her back one hundred feet through cold air to the colder waters of Myers Creek. When she entered the T of the tributary and creek, her aching throat released a yelp of surprise as the water enveloped her like an icy blast.

She sank into darkness until her backside struck the rocky creek bottom. She rested there a moment, dazed, unable to move. A thousand drums beat inside her skull and made thinking almost impossible. Then by instinct, she pushed off and struggled toward a sliver of moonlight barely rippling on the water’s surface far above her. Her lungs ached to release the little breath she held. She fought an intense, overwhelming urge to breathe.

She was halfway to the surface when she knew she could hold her breath no longer.

Shimmering outstretched hands broke through the water’s surface and came for her. The nearest hand bore five black ruby rings, blistering from the gold of each ring. It grabbed the front of her sweatshirt and pulled her from the depths of Myers Creek.

Her lungs sucked in air and bits of water. She coughed and sputtered while her rescuer managed to pull her to shore. There, lying on her stomach, she vomited creek water on the bank of Myers Creek until she caught her breath.

“Your friend David is safe,” Ademia said, helping her to stand.

“He’s … my … cousin.”

“All the same, I stopped the dogs from attacking him. But I was too late to keep you from falling.”

Still weak and exhausted, Vree fell to her knees.

“Who are you?” She shivered wet and cold at Ademia’s bare feet, and looked at her, puzzled. The woman was as dry as when she had sat at the fire earlier.

“I am someone cursed,” she said. “Now I ask the same of you, young lady. Who are you?”

Vree paused and wondered what she meant. And while she wondered, she said, “Dave says … you’re Kate Myers.” She forced the words through a clenched mouth that trembled from the cold that burned at her bones. “He’s right. You’re a ghost.”

“Call me Ademia.”

“And … it’s true. Your husband … and his dogs … froze to death.”

Ademia was quiet while she studied Vree with darkened eyes below a troubled scowl.

Finally, “I am what’s left of Mergelda’s wrath. My husband suffered a hunting accident that killed her father. It was she who called forth an ancient, evil power from Myers Ridge. A power that froze to death my husband and cruelly cast me to my grave among these waters. A power that devastated most magic from these lands. A power that curses us still.”

Dave cried out Vree’s name from atop the ridge. Vree trembled too much to holler back. Ademia placed her hands atop Vree’s head and filled her mind and body with warmth.

“Answer your friend and cousin,” she said; “you’re safe now.”

“Thank you,” Vree said to her. Then she called out and told Dave that she was okay. Dave told her to go to the bridge on Russell Road and to wait for him.

“I owe you my life,” she said to Ademia.

The rubies of Ademia’s rings glowed, turning from dark to bright white light. She held her hands to her face.

“I am with you always,” she said, touching Vree’s forehead before the light from her rings engulfed her and she vanished.

The light engulfed Vree but didn’t blind her. She stumbled upright. Ice water fell from her clothes but she was not cold. She examined her waterlogged phone and hoped the white rice at home could bring it back to life. The phone powered on with a text from her mom: Be home soon. Your dad and I are ready for bed.

As she headed toward Russell Road, the light around her faded but didn’t vanish. Her clothes were dry. So was her hair.

“I am with you always,” Ademia had said. Vree wondered about her rescuer and the ancient power Mergelda had called from Myers Ridge—“A power that curses us still.”

When Vree reached the road, the light vanished. The way home lay in darkness but she knew the way. And she knew the way led her on a journey to something important in her life. Something life changing and dangerous.

She swallowed, took a deep breath, and started up the hill.

*–*–*

Kenny [fiction]

Changes, Part 2

Lenny Stevens has a new name and personality.

Kenneth “Kenny” Jeffrey Douglas, 15

Kenny

He, as Lenny Stevens, is the second person I created. He buddied with Dave Evans (now, Dave Conrad) in high school until I wrote him as an adult for a short story called “Dragon Slayer.” He went through some name changes before I settled for Leo Nash, a tall and lanky schoolteacher at Ridgewood High. I changed his name back to Lenny Stevens when I rewrote the story for The Green Crystal Stories, an episodic book about Vree Erickson. Now, I have changed his name to Kenny Douglas for no other reason than I grew tired of his name.

*

Looking For Gold (A short story featuring Kenny)

On a July Saturday, Dave Conrad rode his green 10-speed Schwinn Super Sport bicycle ahead of Kenny Douglas’s blue one as he led the way to a place where he believed they could find gold. They both wore white T-shirts, blue jeans and tennis shoes, and Dave wore his blue high school baseball cap. Kenny caught glimpses of the white letters FE letters on the cap every time Dave turned to see if Kenny was still behind him.

They headed north on Ridge Road, uphill and down, and then uphill and steep for almost a half-mile. The one o’clock sun was hot on Kenny’s back and shoulders while he pumped his bicycle’s pedals to keep up. Near the top, Dave crossed the road, dismounted his bike, and carried it over a large ditch and into a hayfield. Kenny followed along a path that looked like a deer trail, walking his bike behind Dave until they came to some woods. They left their bikes there after Dave removed coiled rope from his bike, and went the rest of the way on foot, into the cool shade and a swampy outcropping to the edge of a rocky cliff. Twenty feet below, water trickled from the hillside, fell and splattered on rock, and fell again to Myers Creek far below.

“If there’s gold,” Dave said, “this’ll be a good place to look.”

Kenny helped Dave with the rope, tying his end to a young hornbeam tree that Dave had called an ironwood. Dave harnessed his end to his legs and shoulders. Then, when both boys were certain the knots were good, Kenny helped lower him to where water trickled from the side of Myers Ridge. Dave dug around at the wet ground, pulled up rocks, examined them closely, and tossed them away. After ten minutes, the process became boring to watch, so Kenny returned to the hornbeam tree to make sure his knot held strong.

Past the tree where the ground turned swampy and muddy, a red squirrel inspected the inedible raw leaves of a small patch of skunk cabbage, likely looking for the plants’ hard, pea-sized seeds to carry back to its nest. That’s when Dave called Kenny back.

He hoisted a grinning Dave who proudly displayed a three-inch chunk of bright yellow rock. It was cold and heavy when Kenny held it.

“Do you think it’s real?” he asked.

“My dad’s tester at home will tell us for sure,” Dave said before he blew into his bright red hands. His eyes were wide as he looked at the gold, then down at the cliff and back at the gold. “Should’ve brought gloves,” he said before taking the rock away from Kenny.

“What are you gonna do with it?” Kenny asked.

“Melt it and maybe make a bracelet for my mom. I’ve been reading up on how to make jewelry.”

Dave pocketed the rock, then took off the rope harness and helped Kenny into it. Kenny kept his feet against the cliff wall while Dave lowered him to the trickling streams of falling water. The water’s icy bite kept Kenny from digging long. Within minutes, he held his cold, red hands to his mouth.

“Pull me up,” he called out. Then, “Wait.”

He reached into the farthest stream on his right and extracted a long, conical piece of green crystal rock from the soft erosion. It was as long as his forearm and shaped like an icicle. He held it by the thick end and brushed away sediment from its smooth, glassy surface, rubbing his hand over the polished object and enjoying the warmth where it tapered to a point. He waved it like an orchestra conductor’s baton at the air next to him.

“Whatever it is, it’s manmade,” he said when Dave pulled him up.

“How do you think it got down there?” Dave asked, taking it by the narrow end and swinging it like a baseball bat.

“It must be old to have passed through the ground.”

“Tomorrow,” Dave said, looking determined, “I’m going down there and look for more gold.”

Kenny frowned. “Wouldn’t it be better to look in Myers Creek? The gold’s high density will have caused most of it to sink to lower ground.”

“The creek is pretty deep. We’d need a way to stay at the bottom and dig. We could rent some tanks at Myers Lake, but I’m really low on cash right now.”

“Maybe we could inspect some of the sinkholes around here.”

Dave’s eyes widened again, but not in a good way. “Are you crazy? Some of those holes are infested with rattlesnakes.”

“I’m not saying we go inside. I’m saying that the ground around the hole may reveal more gold. After all,” Kenny puffed his chest while he displayed his retained knowledge from science class, “virtually all the gold discovered so far is considered to have been deposited by meteorites which contained it. And since gold was found inside Myers Ridge, don’t you think there’d be more of it showing where the ground has broken away?”

“Well, I’m staying away from sinkholes. You never know when the ground’s gonna collapse.”

Kenny agreed.

Dave gave back the long stone, then undid his end of the rope and began wrapping it around his left elbow and shoulder. Kenny untied the other end from the hornbeam tree.

Later, back on their bikes and on the road, they rode toward Dave’s house, picking up speed past a couple of dairy farms, some cow and horse pastures, and an abandoned barn in a field of teasels, wild grasses and ragweed. A vehicle had indented the grasses there. Dave stopped.

“My Spidey sense is tingling,” he said when Kenny pulled up alongside him. Kenny chuckled at the comic book reference, and then stopped short when the long stone he held vibrated.

He dropped the stone and rubbed his hands together.

“That was so weird,” he said. But Dave’s attention was still on the barn.

There, a blue sedan at the barn backed up and turned around.

“Hit the deck,” Dave said. “Don’t let these guys see us.”

The boys jumped off their bikes, threw them into the field, and then dived for cover among daisy fleabane and a large clump of purple and yellow New England Astor. Kenny pressed close to the ground and hoped the handlebar of his bike would go unnoticed by whoever was inside that car.

The driver stopped the car for nearly a minute when it reached Ridge Road. Dave and Kenny were ten yards away and a horsefly had found the back of Kenny’s sweaty neck. He clenched his jaw as it bit into his skin and sucked his blood. He waited no more than thirty seconds after the car pulled away to slap at the fly and rub at the welt it left there.

“Where are you going?” he asked when Dave scrambled up and headed toward the barn.

“This doesn’t feel right,” Dave said. “Come on. And hurry.”

Kenny returned to the road and fetched the long stone. It looked lighter in color and no longer vibrated. He caught up to Dave at the boarded up double doors of the barn.

“No one does this unless they have something to hide,” Dave said.

They pulled the boards away and entered a musty smelling barn that changed quickly to cool dampness and became darker the farther in they went. They passed an old manure cart covered with burlap. The stone seemed to pull at Kenny’s hand toward the cart. A thought came to him that he should look inside it. Then, as though he had read Kenny’s mind, Dave returned to it and pulled away the empty burlap sacks.

A young girl was inside, bound, gagged, and very frightened. When she was out of the cart and her restraints and convinced that Dave and Kenny weren’t going to harm her, she let Dave carry her to his bike where she rode on the handlebars to his house.

She was 7-year-old Laurie Burnett, last seen at a soccer game at the city park, kidnapped from Dr. and Mrs. Timothy Burnett. Her parents had received a ransom note earlier that week asking for $250,000 in exchange for the girl’s safe return.

Three days later, the police caught the criminals after Laurie identified them as associates at her father’s medical office.

Dave and Kenny became town heroes and received a thousand dollars each from Dr. Burnett. Dave melted his gold and made his mom a pendant shaped in the initial of her first name. And Kenny put the long stone on top of his tall bedroom dresser with his collection of other stones and old coins, forgetting about it until the day lightning almost killed Dave’s uncle and cousin.

*–*–*

Into the New [fiction]

Changes, Part 1

January has been a month of stepping back and observing the past, seeing what I can take with me into the new year and what to leave behind. As an artist and writer, it is also a time when I look at the parts of my art and writing I can change for the better. I write more often than I make artwork, so I spend much of my time in that area of my life. And that brings changes that I feel are necessary to make my characters strong.

David “Dave” Nicholas Conrad, 15

Dave

He is the first person I created—I wrote many baseball stories about Dave before his first encounter with ghosts, fairies and talking woodland creatures. I changed his last name to Evans for many years. But now, he’s back to his original name. Note: My Bruce Conroy comic strip character was Bruce Conrad before I changed it.

Dave is a risk-taker who lives a fast-paced lifestyle of extracurricular activities during the school seasons. He is sports active, outdoorsy and loves to hunt. He likes playing baseball, bicycling, and riding motorcycles and 4-wheelers. He is mechanically inclined and is handy at fixing small engines. Since he is the only boy in the family, he seeks out other boys with similar interests. His best friend is Kenny Douglas.

*

Holly and the Tattoo (A short story featuring Dave)

Dave Conrad’s pleasant expression changed to one of wildness mixed with flight. The air around him had become thin and dry, as though an unseen storm had sucked the oxygen from June’s cerulean sky over Ridgewood High School’s baseball field.

The five o’clock sun seemed to spark Holly Sorenson’s long, soft blonde hair. A halo of white surrounded her from the funeral dress she wore. Some of Dave’s classmates had said that she’d been buried in a white dress.

A chill entered his blue and white pinstriped uniform and gripped his back. Would telling his teammates about seeing Holly do any good? He quashed the idea when she glared at him.

The doorway at the far right end of the dugout framed Coach Walker’s short and heavy body. “Pray we all make contact with our bats this inning and score some runs,” he said around the customary empty tobacco pipe clamped between his teeth. He chewed on the stem and looked out at the visiting team. His Ridgewood Fighting Eagles were undefeated this year. But this evening they were two runs behind the New Cambridge Yellow Jackets as the bottom of the seventh—the final inning of the final game of the season—awaited the Fighting Eagles.

He removed his pipe and Navy blue ball cap and bowed his baldhead. Dave and his teammates waited at their seats on the long wooden bench inside the dugout until Coach Walker said “amen” and took his spot along third base.

“We can hit this pitcher,” someone said.

“Yeah! We can hit this guy,” another player said. “We’ve done it before. Come on.”

“That was before the seniors graduated.” Dave shuffled his feet, scraping the concrete floor with his rubber cleats. The twelfth graders were gone, doing whatever twelfth graders do after graduating high school.

Assistant Coach Andrews cleared his throat from the shadows at the dugout’s far end. “Stay focused,” he said. “This is your team now. This is your game. Never give up.” He called out three names of the players scheduled to bat. Dave stood, responding to the third name called. The players clapped loud and in unison for a moment as their assistant coach loped to his spot along first base.

The cheering came to a slow end and Dave’s gaze wandered again through the wire mesh of a window behind him, to the fifth row bench behind home plate, and the girl sitting there.

He looked away when Holly glared again.

“No such things as ghosts,” he whispered. It became his mantra until a baseball cracked off a bat. The Ridgewood fans and players jumped to their feet and cheered as Danny Ryan’s base hit shot between the first and second basemen.

Dave put on his batter’s helmet and took his place inside the on-deck circle outside the dugout’s doorway.

Holly glowed with a heavenly whiteness … and chilled him from the hellish anger on her face.

She vanished from view when the fans in front of her jumped to their feet.

Tyler Jones had laced a hot bouncing double between left field and center field. The centerfielder caught up to the ball and threw it to his shortstop, keeping Danny Ryan from rounding third base and scoring.

The Yellow Jackets’ coach called for a pitcher change and Coach Walker lumbered over to Dave’s side.

“Rally time,” he said, huddling close to Dave. “Get the ball into the outfield. We need you to score Danny from third.”

Dave nodded and thought about Holly watching him. He had stayed away from her funeral and her gravesite. And now she was here, giving him the stink eye. She hated him. He looked down at the grass, ashamed.

“Hit to the outfield,” Coach Walker repeated. “You can do it. The new pitcher throws nothing but heat. Take the first pitch and study its speed. Then swing away.”

Dave nodded again.

Coach Walker slapped Dave’s helmet before he returned to his coaching spot.

“No such things as ghosts,” Dave said after the home plate umpire bellowed “Batter up.”

He shuffled his way inside the batter’s box. The catcher taunted him with “No batter no batter no batter.” Then he stumbled from the batter’s box, certain he had lost his mind.

The pitcher’s face looked like Holly’s.

“Batter up,” the umpire bellowed again.

Dave trembled as he stepped to the plate. Holly spat and glowered darkly at him from the pitcher’s mound.

The catcher taunted him again. A Yellow Jackets player demanded that the pitcher strike him out. Dave’s teammates countered with a plea for him to get a hit.

Dave swung his bat a couple of times to loosen up, then shot to the ground as a fastball raced at him and missed his head.

He choked on a scream as Holly flew at him and entered his body in a blast of wintry air.

“You killed me,” she screamed in his head.

Dave shut his eyes and grimaced from the pain. When it stopped, he and Holly stood at the downtown playground where she had pitched the murderous baseball to him last month. It had been a gloating demonstration on his part of how far he could hit the ball. But the ball had gone straight off his bat instead of lifting and sailing over the trees by the banks of Myers Creek. The ball struck her sternum and stopped her heart. His foolish showboating killed the girl he loved.

He recalled the old woman telling him to pray for the girl lying unconscious in the dirt.

I did pray. I prayed all night. But it did no good.

Darkness consumed him.

“You never came to my funeral,” Holly said from within the void. “You’ve never visited my grave.”

Dave turned in circles, trying to see Holly and pinpoint the direction of her voice. “I know,” he said. “I’m truly, truly sorry. I couldn’t bear to see you dead. Please forgive me.”

Another icy blast hit him.

“I cannot forgive a coward,” Holly said. Her voice was as painful as the chill knifing his bones.

His heart fluttered and stopped beating. He plummeted through the void and tried hard to inhale. He pushed the fear of death from his mind.

“You were everything to me. That’s why I got the tattoo.” He lifted his right arm. “Your name is inside the heart … my heart. I love you, Holly. I always will … forever.”

He struggled to tell her of when the tattoo became infected.

“I had to go to the ER. My parents were mad, but I’d do it again.”

His falling stopped. Warmth blanketed him and sweet air filled his lungs. He drank it in and gasped from the sudden euphoria he felt.

A hand gripped his left arm and pulled him from the darkness.

“Are you okay?” Coach Walker asked as he brought Dave to his feet.

Dave’s vision cleared but a headache pounded. Something like fingers massaged the inside of his skull until the headache eased to a dull throb.

“I’m good.” He dusted dirt from his uniform and picked up his bat. Then he waited for his coach to settle in the coach’s box before he stepped to the plate.

“You can do this.” Holly’s voice swirled like a gentle breeze around his head.

He grinned at the pitcher who no longer looked like Holly as he readied himself for the next pitch.

It came, large and white toward the center of his strike zone.

The Ridgewood dugout and bleachers erupted with cheers moments after he swung his bat at the pitch.

“Run,” Holly said. Again, her voice swirled like a gentle breeze around his head.

Dave dropped the bat and started toward first base, all the while watching the ball until it cleared the leftfield fence. Then he found his stride and circled the bases. His teammates mobbed him as soon as his feet touched home plate with the winning run.

An hour later, he sat at Holly’s grave and talked—mortal and spirit—until the sun slipped beneath the tree-lined slopes of Ridgewood Cemetery. A breeze stirred through the trees when he placed the homerun ball at the foot of Holly’s headstone. When it stopped, he headed home and embraced the memory of Holly’s love, knowing it would be with him … always.

*–*–*