Free Book Offer

My short story e-book “A Night of Hellhounds” is free at Amazon until midnight Pacific time. (Click this link.) It’s a fantasy tale because I enjoy writing fantasy stories. It’s at the top of my list of favorite things to do. Writing fantasy has been a passion for many years because it involves world building. I can get engaged in the creative development until the worlds appear in my dreams. The same is true about my characters. I have even dreamed new ones into my stories.

Over the years, people have asked me about my process of writing a story. I answer with: “I get an idea for a story, it festers in my mind with all sorts of situations, I dwell on my favorites and begin scheming a plot with a look on my face equal to the Grinch ready to steal Christmas from Whoville, and then start writing.” That’s it. No magic. Just an idea that I put into words that become a story.

In all its simplicity, I structure my stories no different than most other writers. I divide my stories into four parts as Act 1, Act 2 first half, Act 2 second half, and Act 3. Each story has a beginning event, an ending event, and a series of high and low events in between the two. Writing those in-between events is the adventure I enjoy the most, though staying on track to reach a good ending can add difficulty to the process. An ending should come naturally—a final piece to the story puzzle that fits nicely with the rest of the pieces, giving us an aesthetic composite. Some writers call this a “perfect ending” and stress over getting it “right.” Writing a “perfect ending” is not something I let ruin the joy I get from writing, though I do take it more seriously than the other parts of story writing.

All story writing involves getting the words written, editing them, and revising the parts until they work together as a whole. I love marrying those parts into a finished story. And I like calling the process a marriage instead of that old military standby: polishing. Polishing is some drill sergeant’s way of saying, “Write, write, write, every day, over and over ad nauseum until you can do it blindfolded, standing on your head.” I don’t do that. And I don’t “polish” my stories as if they were a pair of leather dress shoes. But I do write several drafts—sometimes as many as 10 or more—marrying my story elements into an enjoyable read.

Of course, not only am I marrying the elements to each other, I’m marrying me to the story. I do the same when I read stories by other writers and find I can’t put the stories down until I reach the end. There are others like me—we call ourselves “book lovers” and “author fans.” We love libraries and bookstores, and we collect our favorite stories and hold our favorite writers in high regard. And we dream of someday being a favorite writer to other writers, book lovers, and author fans.

If you read my stories, drop me a line. Tell me what you like and don’t like about my stories. I’d love hearing from you.

Margga’s Curse, revised: Chapter 10 [fiction]

“Vree?” Grandma released my hand. “Are you okay?” She waved her other hand in front of my eyes as the remnants of the vision faded. “I seemed to have lost your attention for a moment.” Her face bore a concerned look.

“Tired,” I said, blinking and taking in the room that was my new bedroom.

“I need to finish supper and you should shower now,” Grandma said to me, standing. “We’ll eat as soon as everyone gets back.”

“Did everyone else go to the ER?” I asked, “Lenny, too?”

“No. He and Amy are in the kitchen. And I need to get back down there and make sure they haven’t burned anything. You, however, relax … take a nap after your shower. I’ll call you when it’s time to eat.”

Grandma picked up a gallon-size yellow plastic bucket that sat on my desk. She had cleaned up my vomit, probably when I’d been bawling into my pillow. Her shoes were soft against the stairs as she left me alone with my thoughts.

Bits of the vision still played in my mind. Had I glimpsed at a small piece of Grandpa and Grandma’s past? And what were all those references to magic and a child?

I needed to keep people from touching me.

A knock at the door interrupted my thoughts.

Lenny again.

I wiped my mouth with the backs of my hands in case any vomit lingered there, then told him to come up.

“I wanna give you something,” he said when he reached the top of the stairs. He faced me from the far side of the three-sided safety banister. “I was gonna do it earlier, but your grandmother…” He shrugged. “Well, you know.” He went to where his treasure lay buried and practically dived to the floor.

I stayed on my bed and watched him on the other side of the wooden banister. “What is it? You already gave me that weird book.”

“Things are gonna get weirder before this day is over.”

Weirder?

“What do you mean?” I asked.

Lenny took a small, brown paper sack from inside the floor and emptied its contents in his left hand. Then he returned the sack and floorboard, came to me, and dangled a necklace in front of my face. An arrowhead carved from gray flint hung from a delicate gold chain.

“It’s real,” he said, unclasping the chain. “I got it when I visited a Seneca Indian reservation in New York. Turn around so I can put it on you.”

“Why?”

“Arrowheads are powerful forces against witches,” he said. “It won’t protect me because I’ve been cursed. But it will protect you … just in case.”

“In case of what?”

“Margga likes hurting the people we…”

“Love?”

“Yes.”

My heart quickened. Lenny did not show any embarrassment about his admission. I turned away from him and he fastened the necklace around my neck after he brushed my hair out of the way.

“Just keep that arrowhead on you at all times today … especially tonight,” he said, going to the stairs.

“What happens tonight?” I hurried from my bed and practically pinned him against the banister. “What kind of danger are we in, Lenny? You need to tell me.”

“I don’t have time. My dad’s picking me up in a few minutes.”

“You’re leaving?”

“I have to. It’s almost six o’clock. She’ll kill me if I’m anywhere near Myers Ridge.” Lenny took my shoulders and gently pushed me away from him. White light glowed between us when he did.

It vanished when he released me.

He looked at his hands, stunned.

“Did you see that?” he asked.

I had, but one of my DVD cases fell over on my desk and interrupted my reply. At first, I saw nothing amidst the boxes and movies there. Then, a white crow materialized and perched on one of the brown cardboard boxes on my desk. I yelped, surprised and worried as its eyes glowed as red as burning ember.

“You’re him,” Lenny said.

I stepped away from my desk and pointed an accusing finger at the crow. “You can see that?” I asked Lenny.

“Enit Huw.” He drew closer to my desk. “Gam Gam told me about you,” he said, addressing the crow and growing more excited. “You’re the soul of time—past, present, and future. You appeared twice to Gam Gam. This is your third appearance. Now you bring hope for healing and new beginnings in life. You’re the sign of Margga’s end.”

“Someone has released the book of enchantment and opened it,” the crow said in a raspy voice. It cocked its head at me. “You! You have begun freeing the dancers of truth. You must continue so that you may know their poetry.”

Free the dancers of truth so that you may know their poetry. “That was in the book,” I said to Lenny.

“The sentries are watching you,” the crow said, its head still cocked at me. “They smell and taste your energy. They will report their findings and she will try to destroy you.”

“Are you talking about Margga?” I asked. “Margga and me?”

The crow cocked its head at Lenny and said, “The girl’s energy is unharnessed, chaotic, and exciting the witch’s spirit even now in the depths of Yalendora. The spirit feeds off chaos and will grow stronger when she returns. The girl must harness her energy or the spirit will consume it and turn this place to darkness again. If this comes to pass, her curse will include many, if not the whole world.”

“What can we do?” Lenny asked.

The crow turned an eye at me. “Harness your energy and free the dancers of truth.”

“Dancers?” I recalled how the numbers and symbols in the book had moved—danced—when they changed into words. “You want me to read that book of poetry Lenny gave me?”

Lenny lifted the weird black book from my desk. “This book?”

“Yes, the book of enchantment. The girl and the book are one. She must unlock the spell that will save us all.” The crow cocked its head at me. “You have been warned, Verawenda Erickson. Take heed. You must choose whether to live or die.”

Wait! “Choose whether to live or die? What does that mean?”

“I shall return soon for your answer.”

I started to protest more but the crow vanished.

Lenny sucked in a breath and picked up a long tail feather from atop the box. “A feather from Enit Huw.” His eyes were wide with amazement.

“What did it mean I must choose whether to live or die?” I asked.

Lenny went to my bed and sat, holding the book and feather on his lap.

“What did it mean I must choose whether to live or die?” I asked again.

“What?” He looked up at me. His eyes glistened. The amazement had left his face, replaced by one I knew well every time I looked in a mirror. “They could’ve lived. My Gumpa, Mom, Gam Gam. It’s all my fault. The enchantment Gam Gam looked for to end Margga’s curse was this book. And I had it all along.”

A car horn outside my window stopped me from asking any more questions.

Lenny stood and placed the book and feather on my bed. “This changes everything. I have to tell my family about it. In the meantime, read the book, Vree. I’ll be back before sundown.” He hurried past me, then stopped and came to me and planted a kiss on my forehead. “This is wonderful,” he said before he turned and hurried downstairs.

Wonderful? How?

I stood at the top of the stairs for several minutes before I resigned trying to make sense of what had happened.

A shower would relax me, so I went downstairs to the large bathroom next to Dave’s bedroom. The light switch revealed a roomy place painted gold, which added to the bright illumination from a makeup mirror above a black porcelain sink to the left of the door. I found an unpacked box of our toiletries on the sink’s black porcelain counter. Mom’s creams, lotions, powders, makeup, and bath oils and salts were inside, along with Amy’s and my less expensive ones. My purple T-shirt pajamas of Snoopy was there, too, which had somehow survived the fire and smelled of Mom’s sunflower and sunshine laundry detergent … and Daddy’s cologne. I found his bottle of Polo Black at the bottom of the box and held it close to my nose, remembering him before the lightning killed him and changed me.

Out of my shoes and socks, my feet welcomed the cool relief of the cream tiled floor. I locked the door and crossed the room to a black bathtub with two sliding frosted glass doors. I turned on the water via the two ivory handles and adjusted the temperature to my liking. There, I stripped, found shampoo and two fluffy towels next to the tub, stepped inside, closed the sliding doors, and plunged my head beneath the shower’s pulsating stream of warm water. When I stood up straight, something cold touched between my breasts and caused me to yelp.

Lenny’s arrowhead necklace—I still wore it.

I thought about removing it, then changed my mind and let as many memories and thoughts fade from the foreground of my mind. Coconut scented shampoo and soap that smelled like cocoa butter washed away sweat and left me feeling cleaner than I had since waking from my coma.

The arrowhead thumped cold against my chest again. I took a closer look at it. It didn’t look special, other than it was obviously handmade. I considered again removing it as I slid open the shower door and stepped from the tub. When I reached for a towel, they were gone. So were my clothes. White cabinets had replaced the dark oak ones above the toilet that had been black, and green linoleum with white and yellow daisies covered the floor.

Daddy opened the door and stuck his head inside.

“How bad is the cut?” he asked me. “Have you stopped the bleeding?”

I stumbled backwards and put my arms around myself to hide my nakedness. Only, I wasn’t naked. I wore a dry white T-shirt and a pair of blue jeans. Green tennis shoes with yellow shoestrings covered my feet. They and my clothes were covered with splatters of light blue paint. So were my arms.

“You’re gonna get infected if you don’t clean that wound,” Daddy said as he entered. He wore a white dress shirt open at the collar and black slacks held up with thin, black suspenders. I stumbled when he took me by an arm and led me to an ordinary-looking white sink and counter where pieces of broken glass littered the water-stained basin.

“Open your hand and let me have a look,” he said. He held my right hand, pulled open my fingers, took away a piece of glass, and dropped it in the basin. Blood dripped from where the glass had sliced my palm and fingers. I felt no pain.

I looked up at the mirror. I had no reflection and it startled me.

“What’s happening?” I asked. “You said you were leaving. Where are we?”

“Come,” he said.

“Where to?”

“I’ll fix you up.” He led me to the bathtub as plain as the sink. We knelt together and he ran warm water over the cut. I felt sickened as I watched my blood swirl down the drain. I pulled away.

“Relax,” Daddy said, taking my injured hand again.

“What happened to me?” I asked. “Why am I bleeding?”

He made hushing sounds and said, “Stop talking nonsense, Becca. I’m trying to look at your cut.”

I looked across the room and saw that I had a reflection now. The short-haired, brown-haired woman in the mirror had a round, pleasant face. She looked at me with dark but kind-looking eyes.

I turned my head slowly from side to side. So did the woman in the mirror, matching every move. Then she looked away while my gaze remained fixed on her image in the mirror.

“I was trying to hurry before the first storm,” she said. “You know how much I hate lightning … and being in this house, so close to the property next door.”

“The weatherman says sixty percent chance of clear skies tonight,” Daddy said, though his voice’s pitch seemed to change before he finished the sentence.

“We never have clear skies on Myers Ridge during Margga’s curse,” the woman said. “Let’s take the kids out of town tonight. We can stay at my parents’ camp overnight.”

Daddy’s grip tightened around my hand beneath the tub’s faucet. A man’s voice I didn’t recognize came from him.

“I’ll try to convince my mom to come along,” he said. “But you know she won’t wanna go. And I won’t leave her by herself.”

“Then I’ll take the kids and leave you two here.”

“Or you could stay and help us find the enchantment.”

“Please, Howard … we don’t know what the enchantment is.”

“The crow told Mom that we’d know it when we found it. I won’t give up helping her look. She says the special one is almost here … that she could come tonight. If so, and without the enchantment, Margga’s curse will continue.”

This time, the woman said nothing.

I looked away from the mirror and tried to pull my hand away, but the man’s grip held fast.

“You’re not my daddy,” I said to the man who looked like my father, “so I’m gonna leave now.”

His grip continued to hold tight, so I pushed him hard and yanked my hand from his. As he fell inside the tub, I pushed away and ran.

Outside the bathroom, I hurried down the hall, found the stairs, and flew down them, my feet barely touching the steps.

Downstairs, my feet found a solid floor of unfamiliar carpet. I tore through the living room filled with furniture that must have belonged to the people in the framed photographs I passed. I saw the woman in two of the photos—large studio shots done professionally. She stood next to an unknown man behind three girls and a boy in the last one. The boy looked like Lenny, but several years younger.

I called for my mom and grandparents as I ran through the dining room, to the kitchen that looked unchanged from Grandma Evelyn’s. No one was there.

I fled to the backdoor and entered a white blank sea of nothingness. I stood on the nothingness and saw nothing. I turned around and saw the house was gone.

Something cold touched the center of my chest. I almost screamed until Grandma and Grandpa’s bathroom appeared around me. I stood outside the shower. My reflection in the mirror showed my true self: frightened, naked and cold.

Had I had another vision? If so, it’d been a lot weirder than the others.

Water from the showerhead struck the bathtub behind me. I turned off the shower, wrapped my body in a fluffy towel from the rack, wrapped my wet hair in the other towel, and hurried to the locked door. The fancy sink next to me held no broken glass, which sent a shiver across my back before I unlocked the door and headed to my bedroom.

*.*.*

Margga’s Curse, revised: Chapter 9 [fiction]

The woman’s scream in my head diminished. The sickness in my stomach did not.

“I need to lie down,” I said, bolting from the porch swing and charging into the house.

The soles of my tennis shoes pounded against the steps as I hurried up the two flights of stairs to my bedroom.

I would have screamed when I entered the room had I not been out of breath.

My father stood next to my empty easel. A white glow surrounded him. Only his face was definite; it smiled out at me.

How could this be? He was dead.

“You’re a ghost,” I said.

“You haven’t painted anything new since your coma,” he said.

I swiped at hot tears blurring his image. I wasn’t ready for any more strangeness. “NonononononoNO.” I staggered to the edge of my bed and sat.

Daddy reappeared at my bedside, looking down at me. His head nearly grazed the slanted ceiling. His Nordic DNA had made him very tall.

“Are you really a ghost?” I asked, trying to make sense of what I saw. “Or am I having another vision?”

“I’m spirit, Vree, honey, just like when we talked when you were comatose. Your mind has connected to the astral plane and the vibrations of my energy again. But this time you have not projected like you did in your coma. This time, you have called me.”

“Why?”

“You wanted to tell me goodbye.”

“You’re leaving?”

“I am. I have gone to the light and came back to say goodbye. But returning to this plane takes a lot of energy. I cannot stay.”

“Where are you going? Heaven?”

“If that is what you want to call it.” The light around him began to fade. “I have to go. But before I do, I want you to remember to stay with the light.”

“What light?”

“Your light. You’re psychic. You can see and hear and do things no one else can. And so much more.”

“I don’t wanna be psychic. I wanna be normal. I want things the way they used to before lightning changed everything.”

“When you’re feeling down and unsure about your path, see the light and let it come to you. The light will strengthen you when things are darkest.”

“Wait,” I cried out as Daddy’s spirit dulled and vanished.

“Come back,” I said, wishing I could have hugged him.

Large tears rolled down my cheeks and dripped on my hands clenched in my lap. I fell back on my bed, not wanting to face the weird and creepy world beyond my bedroom. Not ever.

Dave called from the bottom landing and told me to come downstairs to eat.

“I’m not hungry.” I stared at the ceiling. Daddy was gone. I never told him how sorry I was for causing his death. Was that why he’d left without saying he loved me?

“Hurry up,” Dave called, his voice closer. “We’re hungry.”

Pushing from the bed, I rose to all my height and shouted at the ceiling. “YOU NEVER SAID YOU LOVE ME.”

Without warning, my stomach buckled. I needed to vomit.

I charged the stairs and into my brother who had climbed the stairs and stood at the top step.

I halted but Dave lost his balance. He grabbed hold of the railing on his right to keep from tumbling down the steps. His momentum swung his body and slammed his right shoulder into the wall. There was loud cracking sound before he lost his grip and thudded to a stop halfway down the steps.

“Why can’t you watch where you’re going?” he cried out. He touched his shoulder and cried out more, using some offending words to describe me and my clumsiness.

I turned, fell to my hands and knees, and vomited on the floor.

Bile rose in my throat a second time but I held the sour liquid down.

My hair mingled in the vomit; its ends painted wet streaks across the wood when I moved my head.

Someone touched my back—my mother—and asked if I was okay.

I nodded and hid my face. I wished to be whisked through time and space to when my childhood had been happiest, to when Dave, Amy and I were happy together, to when Daddy gave us piggyback rides, read Harry Potter and Lyra Belacqua books to us, tucked us in bed at night and told us how much he loved us.

“We’re taking your brother to the hospital for x-rays,” Mom said. “Clean up your mess and take a shower. Make sure you wash your hair. Okay?”

I nodded again.

“She pushed me,” Dave said at the bottom of the stairs.

“I’m sure it was an accident,” Grandpa said.

“I don’t know what happened to cause this,” Mom said to me in her I’m-angry-but-can’t-show-it-right-now voice, “but you can’t let your emotions control your actions.”

“It wasn’t like that.”

“You can tell me about it when we get back … after you shower, and after we eat and have time to relax from our long day.” Mom started down the stairs. She stopped and turned around. “I know it’s been a big change for all of us, but you need to accept the fact that although change is scary, it’s important to adapt to it.”

“I know,” I said. “But sometimes I need a hug and … well, you’ve been so busy lately, and Dave and Amy treat me like I have cooties.”

“Cooties? Really, Vree, you’re not a little girl.”

“You know what I mean.”

“We’ll talk about this later.”

Mom descended the stairs. Somewhere downstairs, a door closed. Outside, three doors of a vehicle closed. The vehicle drove away and the house, inside and out, grew silent. I went to my bed and collapsed, bawling into my pillow until my sobs became dry heaves.

I sensed someone in the room, smelled Grandma Evelyn’s perfume before she sat on the bed, put an arm around my shoulders, and hugged me. Her affection quieted my sobs.

“If you need to talk,” she said, “you can come to me anytime, day or night.”

I sat up and leaned into her embrace. “You asked earlier if I’d had any visions,” I said between my sniffles. “Why is that?”

“Because lightning struck me too.”

Whoa! “Really? When?”

“I was nine years old, down on the backside of Alice Lake, fishing with my dad one summer day. I never knew what happened until after I awoke in his arms. He was crying, and he nearly broke me in half when he hugged me.” Grandma tightened her embrace around my shoulders. “I still remember my confusion and the pain after I was struck. The lightning had burned my back where it hit me. I was numb and couldn’t walk, so my dad carried me to his truck and drove me home. For several weeks, I had strange dreams and I thought I saw ghosts. I even saw strange-looking dogs prowling the grounds.”

“Were they big and black with red eyes and bull horns on their heads?”

Grandma loosened her embrace. “You too, huh? Well, they’re not real. They’re visions caused by your brain healing from the lightning. You’ll stop seeing them after a while, just like I stopped seeing them.”

“Don’t you find it odd that we’ve both seen them?” I asked.

“It’s all part of the healing process.” Grandma took my right hand in her left one.

That’s when she and my bed and the bedroom vanished

I tried to be my quietest when I closed the apartment’s front door, but the click of the latch seemed like a gunshot. I held my breath as I leaned my forehead against the door’s cool wood. Would Trevor awaken this very moment and find me gone? Or would Balen awaken in his crib and alert his father that I had abandoned them?

What sort of mother abandons their baby?

I held the doorknob in my grip and willed myself not to cry. Not now. There would be plenty of time to cry later. Now was a time to be levelheaded and leave before I changed my mind.

All my young adult life had been spent running away from my past, searching for the real me. Trevor had been certain living a life of magic would be best for me. But when Balen levitated the lamp last night, I knew I would never be comfortable with that kind of life.

I released the knob, crept down the stairs to the double glass doors of the vestibule, and entered the seven a.m. crawl of college students, professors, and campus workers along Maple Boulevard. I turned away from faces and automobiles that looked familiar and hurried to and out the black iron front gate of New Cambridge University. I buttoned my green wool coat to keep out the March wind blowing at me while I pressed on toward the bus station two blocks away. Once I made it to the bus station and had my ticket to Bakers View, I would call Sara and let her know I was on my way. Going home was out of the question. Would father ever forgive me for leaving our faith, falling in the traps of magic, becoming pregnant out-of-wedlock, and dropping out of the religion classes that he had paid for?

The Greyhound bus station was dimly lit but warm. My bus was scheduled to leave in fifteen minutes. Would Trevor know I was here?

I sat in the hard plastic seat near the loading doors, stared at the snack vending machine next to the cigarette machine, and wished I had brought some nickels and dimes with me. But I had put all my coins in Balen’s piggy bank last night, and the billfold in my purse contained only a few bills left from my last paycheck from O’Brien’s Bar.

A tall young man exited the phone booth next to the cigarette machine and dropped a white piece of folded paper. He seemed unaware of the paper on the dark tile floor. Was it important?

“You dropped something,” I said to him.

He looked at me with pleasant eyes that seemed as black as the long, wool duffel coat he wore. Unlike other men his age, his dark brown hair was short and he sported no sideburns or beard of any kind.

I pointed a forefinger at the paper. He held his gaze on me and his expression turned to curiosity and then to recognition.

“Evelyn Doyle. Hey, it’s me, Jack Lybrook.”

I flinched at the mention of my name. “Do I know you?”

“We went to Ridgewood High, though you were a grade behind me. And my parents and I used to go to your dad’s church for a while when you and I were kids. I was Jonathan … or Johnny back then.”

I nodded as recognition sunk in. Many boys had gone to my father’s Pentecostal church, but only Johnny Lybrook and few others had ever whispered to their friends how pretty I was.

“I go by Jack now,” he said. “You know, like JFK did.”

The clock above the loading doors told me that only five minutes had passed since my arrival. I looked again at the folded paper on the floor.

“You dropped that,” I said, pointing again.

“My notes. Thank you.” Jack fetched the paper and sat next to me. “Just got back from Ridgewood. I’m looking to buy some farm property there … maybe start a dairy farm.”

“Are you a student at New Cambridge?” I had never seen him there, but most of my time was spent with Trevor, and now Balen.

“I was,” Jack said. “Graduated last year … agriculture with a minor in business. I’m on my way to my parents’ place. My car’s in the garage.” He raised an eyebrow. “You?”

I looked around. Except for the man at the ticket window, it was just the two of us. I broke down and wept. I felt Jack’s arms around me. I welcomed his comfort and tried to hide inside his embrace. He hushed my sobs, wiped away my tears with a handkerchief, and held me until a man’s voice announced over the intercom that it was time to board the bus to Bakers View and points east of New Cambridge. Once aboard, I would forever leave behind the wizard and the thirteen-month-old son whose magic was stronger than mine and Trevor’s combined.

“That’s me,” I said, pointing at the loading doors.

Jack stood when I did. “You’re not a student?”

“I dropped out. On my way to my sister’s. Her husband doesn’t like me much.”

I don’t know why I told him that.

“Wait,” he said. “Join me for a cup of coffee.”

I shook my head.

“Cash in your ticket,” he said, “have coffee with me, and I’ll drive you anywhere you need to go.”

“Your car’s in the garage.”

He checked his wristwatch. “For another hour. Come on. It’ll save you some bread and give us a chance to catch up on old times.”

There was honesty and safety with this man’s kindness. I took his hand and let him lead me to the ticket window. Then, with the refunded cash in my purse, I went with him for coffee, vowing to myself to never involve myself with magic again.

*.*.*

Click to read the next chapter

Margga’s Curse, revised: Chapter 8 [fiction]

The air tasted sweet and was warm as I sat on the front porch swing and rocked. Past a small rise in the road, a dark blue house across the road sat on a large hill almost two hundred yards up the road. It was a pretty house, more modern looking than the one I was at, surrounded by evergreen hedges by what I could see through the foliage between us.

Lenny entered the porch from the living room and stood at the front door. I ignored him, wishing to be alone with my thoughts.

He pointed at the house I looked at. “My dad and sisters and I live there,” he said. “My Gam Gam owned that house—this one too—until she died and willed them both to my dad.”

I sighed and halted the swing. “Why are you following me?” I asked.

“It wasn’t intentional. After I helped your grandfather, I kept getting in the way inside the kitchen, so I left. But I didn’t wanna be by myself.”

“So it was intentional.”

Lenny shrugged. “Is it okay if I sit with you?”

I scooted over. “I notice you never talk about your family,” I said.

As he sat to my right, the wistful look returned for a moment. He shrugged and said, “My dad’s the high school art teacher, my big sister lives at the lake, and my two little sisters are over there now, helping her run our mom’s restaurant.”

“Your mom owns a restaurant. How cool is that? Does she give you free food?”

“She’s dead.”

Crap!

“I’m so sorry,” I said.

“It’s okay. Everyone has something lousy in their lives to deal with. It’s just nice to have friends around when we do.” Lenny stood up and took a box of chewing gum from a back pocket.

I accepted one of the sticks of Juicy Fruit from him. It was the original flavor, not strawberry or cherry or bubble gum, which are my favorites.

He sat down closer to me, and we chewed in silence. I played with my gum’s wrapper until I couldn’t stand the silence.

“Sorry about my behavior out back, but…” How could I tell him what I’d seen and heard without coming across as a lunatic?

“I get it,” he said. “When you gotta go, you gotta go.”

“Go?” What was he talking about?

“To the bathroom.”

Oh. Yeah. “No. I saw something … been seeing something I can’t explain.”

“A big black dog with horns and red eyes?”

I shivered. “You too?” I wasn’t crazy. “What is it? How can it disappear like that?”

“Margga.”

There was that name again. I raised an eyebrow. “The dog’s name is Margga?”

Lenny leaned forward, put his forearms across his knees, and stared ahead. His muscular back and shoulders seemed to harden. “I hate her,” he said, his voice low and growling. He sat up straight and said, “You’re gonna find out about Margga’s curse sooner or later, so I may as well tell you a few things.”

Curse?

“It started at the property behind us, a long time ago when my great-grandparents mysteriously died.”

I turned to look at the property behind us, but changed my mind when Lenny began swinging the swing by pushing his feet off the porch floor.

“My great-grandfather, Reginald Myers, was a famous Broadway playwright and Hollywood screenwriter. He and his wife lived in a big Victorian house at the property next door, before my Gumpa and Gam Gam had it razed.” Lenny put an arm across the back of the swing, which placed me in a faux embrace with his arm behind me. I thought about moving closer to him but he took his arm away, stopped swinging the swing, and sat forward with his forearms across his knees and his gaze fixed ahead again. “Gam Gam claimed she destroyed the house because she found my great-grandfather and his two hunting dogs frozen inside the house on a sweltering July evening. She also said she found my great-grandmother dead at the bottom of the cliffs on Myers Ridge, at a place called Widow’s Ravine. A witch named Margga killed them.

“Since then, my great-grandfather’s ghost returns on this night. So do the ghosts of his two hunting dogs. But the creepy part is people have seen a third dog—sometimes a fourth and more—all of them black, with horns and red eyes. Gam Gam called them Margga’s hellhounds and told me to always stay away from them.”

Lenny turned and looked at me. His gaze was hard and serious. The air around me felt chilly.

“There’s more,” he said, lowering his voice to almost a whisper.

“More?” The air seemed to get colder. I shivered.

“Yes.” He leaned close and took my right hand in his. Dizziness and the sound of bees buzzing everywhere overwhelmed me. The world around me changed and—

I ran. I ran from the house where I had discovered my husband and his hunting dogs frozen inside the living room. I tried to block the image of how surprised his dead face looked, as though he had realized seconds before his death that he was dying.

I ran across the front lawn, toward Myers Road, stumbling where it connected to the blacktopped driveway, and falling when I entered the old country highway scarred with long grooves made by the metal wheels of Amish buggies. Blood from my nose dripped into one of the tracks and reflected the backlit clouds in a sky that had once been sunny and promising a pleasant night.

The witch’s curse was upon me.

I stood and ran again for my life.

Rolling gray clouds blocked the sunlight when I entered the angry field of brambles and thorny weeds that slapped and poked and grabbed at me, scratched my face and forearms, tore away long, black strands of my hair, and slashed my brand new Rayon dress—the blue gray one with lace collar and ivory buttons. The tangled growth grabbed and stole my chunky non-strap pumps from my feet, causing me to fall. I hurried upright, glanced back only once at the house, and left my shoes as I continued to flee from the witch who lived next door.

I found the path that led to and past the rocky cliffs above Myers Creek. Once I made it beyond Lovers Leap and Widow’s Ravine, the hill would become less steep and lead me to Russell Road and the sheriff’s house. I prayed he would be home. There, I would call my daughter, Adrienne, at New Cambridge’s college campus to come get me and take me away from Ridgewood and Myers Ridge for good.

I was glad Reginald had taught Adrienne how to drive an automobile.

As I approached Lover’s Leap, I saw that it was still fenced in with bars of iron piping; there was little chance of falling. But someone had removed the pipes at the section overlooking Widow’s Ravine. The path came so dangerously close to the edge there. One little slip and I could tumble over the side and fall to the rocky creek below.

That’s when I felt the witch’s presence behind me, and felt the sudden push from right to left, as though a giant invisible hand had brushed me aside like an insect, veering me off course and sweeping me over the edge of Widow’s Ravine.

*.*.*

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Margga’s Curse, revised: Chapter 7 [fiction]

I stayed close to Lenny, who guided me across the backyard. Along the way, I stopped at a line of three large, bleached canvas camp tents in front of a square fire pit made of cement blocks.

“Some of the bedrooms aren’t done yet, so your grandfather thought everyone would enjoy sleeping outside,” Lenny explained next to me.

“A campout. Sweet,” I said, recalling times of camping with Daddy. “But I’ve never slept in a tent before. We always rented cabins.” Then, “Are you gonna spend the night with us?”

Lenny shrugged in the sunshine and looked wistful, as if something troubled him. “I can’t tonight,” he said, leading me from the tents. “It’s gonna rain. Plus, it’s my birthday … my dad has other plans.”

I wished him a happy birthday and asked, “How old?”

“Fifteen.”

“Me too.”

“I know. Your grandparents told me.”

“So, fifteen and tenth grade,” I said, fishing for more information about him.

“Yep.”

“Maybe we’ll have classes together.”

“Probably.”

“That’d be nice,” I almost said. I bit my lower lip to keep from showing my excitement of knowing that we’d be together at school.

“Here we are,” he said as we entered the ordinary looking field of wild grasses and flowers.

“Where are the blueberries?” I asked, looking around.

“We’re standing in them.”

I bent over. Short clumps of both ripe, plump, light-blue blueberries, and unripe, tiny green and white ones grew among the weeds at my feet. I had expected to see even rows of large, cultivated bushes with fat berries and no weeds anywhere, like at the berry picking farms in Pittsburgh.

“I’ll getcha started,” Lenny said.

Following his instructions, I knelt low to the ground and picked the bluest berries. Lenny headed right, so I went left, pushing weeds aside in search of the ripest berries for Grandma’s pies.

I had my bowl halfway filled when I heard a cat meowing nearby. An orange, mangy tabby ran to me when I looked up and rubbed its body back and forth against my knees, purring loudly. I hesitated to pet the cat. Pus oozed from its closed right eye, which the cat rubbed repeatedly against my pants.

The cat was definitely malnourished and sick, and its cries were steady and weak. Its body trembled.

“You poor thing,” I said, still hesitant to touch the animal. “Would you like me to get you some milk? My cat loved milk. His name was Perry Mason, but he died when lightning burned down our home.”

The cat had quit rubbing its sore eye and now looked at me with its healthy yellow-green one. It still trembled and meowed pitifully.

“I’m sorry you’re so sick. I wish there was something I could do to make you better.”

I turned to Lenny who stooped low and picked berries at the far edge of the patch, thirty yards away. I wanted to ask him if there was a vet on Myers Ridge, but the cat hissed and ran off, disappearing into the taller field grass at the edge of the woods.

I decided that if the cat returned, I would use the rest of my birthday money to get it to a veterinarian. Then I returned to picking berries until my bowl was full. When I stood, the sound of buzzing bees filled my head and made me dizzy. I dropped to my knees as nausea fell over me. The air rippled around me. Across the way, a black beast the size of a pony stood a few feet behind Lenny and watched him pick berries.

My weakened state kept me from calling out, to warn Lenny of the Rottweiler I had seen in my vision.

Was that what this was? Another vision?

The air stopped rippling. The buzzing continued but my head and stomach settled. The dog turned and faced me with flaming red eyes like the ones I had seen across the road and downtown. An inch or two above its eyes were two long and sharp ivory horns that reminded me of cow horns, though they pointed out, not up. A shorter horn poked straight down from the center of its chin. It bared sharp teeth at me, and I emitted a small yelp as I recoiled backwards, both startled and frightened. Berries from my bowl scattered to my lap and the ground. I looked up at the dog’s grotesque face, its stare still focused on me. My breath and the voice I tried using to call out to Lenny for help felt locked in my throat.

The buzzing in my head turned into a sudden scream for a second. Then it quieted, but not completely. A masculine voice similar to the one downtown entered my mind.

Can it see?

I swallowed and caught my breath, but otherwise remained still.

Do you see?

I winced from the anger in the dog’s tone. Then I nodded when I realized it had spoken to me. “Yes. I see.” My voice cracked. I cleared my throat and caught my breath again. “I see you. Yes.” My voice was barely above a whisper.

You see blood?

Blood? I looked hard at the creature. It didn’t appear to be bleeding. “Please don’t hurt me,” I managed to say.

You see blood!

“No. No blood.”

I thought I heard it squeal as it vanished.

The buzzing stopped. I scooped up my bowl and hurried past Lenny. “I’m going in now,” I said when he called for me to wait for him. I walked as fast as I could with legs that felt rubbery and shaky, and I let the wooden screen door slam shut behind me as I rushed indoors to Grandma’s bright yellow kitchen.

“Lenny’s bringing the rest of the berries,” I said out of breath to the quizzical looks I received when I passed Mom at the refrigerator and handed Grandma my bowl. “I’m taking a shower,” I added and held up my stained hands, “if that’s okay.”

“That’s fine, honey,” Grandma said from in front of her large white stove. “But you’ll want to wait about fifteen minutes until the last load of laundry is done washing. Our pump can handle only one job at a time.”

I looked at my blue fingers. “But what about my hands?”

“I already have a solution for that.” Grandma put an arm around me and led me to the kitchen’s aluminum sink. “Cornmeal, toothpaste and lemon juice works wonders on blueberry stains.” She put my bowl of berries in the sink, then scooped her fingers in a yellowish paste in a ceramic cereal bowl on the windowsill and rubbed it on my hands. “Just let this sit for a few minutes, then wash it off with warm water.”

She wiped the paste from her own hands with a dishtowel and returned to the stove where silver pots of cubed potatoes boiled, kernels of corn stewed, and leafy spinach simmered in butter. Mom went to the right of her and stirred the corn with a wooden spoon. Her shoulders slouched and I knew she was exhausted after our long drive. I turned on the water to wash my hands so I could relieve her. It would take my mind off what had happened outside, and it would put me in good graces with her and Grandma. That’s when Amy stepped from the washroom at the right of the stove and stopped at Mom’s side.

“I can do that, Mom,” she said. “You should sit and relax … maybe take a nap.” She embraced Mom for a moment, then took the stirring spoon from her and turned her attention to the pots on the stove.

“Thank you, sweetie,” Mom said. She stretched and released a yawn before heading in the direction of the living room.

“You’re such a dear,” Grandma said to Amy.

“With Daddy not around, I do what I can to help,” my sister said in that falsetto voice she uses when she tries to be better than the rest of us.

Whatever.

I quietly mimicked her words about helping while I scowled out the window above the sink and watched Lenny trudge from the blueberry patch, carrying his bowls of berries. There was no sign of any ugly, pony-size Rottweilers around.

He looked unhappy, so I washed the paste from my hands, dried them on Grandma’s dishtowel, and hurried and met him at the screen door.

“Sorry I didn’t wait for you,” I said through the screen while I thought of a fib that could make things better between us. “I had to use the bathroom.”

His expression softened, but a frown remained on his forehead.

“Are you gonna let me in?” he asked as he held up the two bowls of blueberries.

I started to open the door when Grandpa stepped into view and stood beside Lenny. He carried a coil of white clothesline around a shoulder and held a half-eaten sandwich on wheat bread. The smell of mustard and onion wafted through the screen.

“Help me string this clothesline when you’re done with those berries,” he said to Lenny before proceeding to the side yard and the nearest T-post of clothesline. Someone had hung a colorful display of shirts and pants to dry on the two lines there.

I opened the door and let Lenny inside. He brushed past me and entered the kitchen.

Before the door closed, I caught a glimpse of a large animal standing at the edge of the woods beyond the blueberry patch. I pressed my face to the screen and stared long at the large black dog that stared back at me with its fiery eyes.

You see blood!

The words came like thunder and sent me sprawling on my backside. I hurried upright but the dog was gone again when I looked through the screen.

“And stay gone,” I said. “I don’t ever want to see you again.”

*.*.*

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Margga’s Curse, revised: Chapter 6 [fiction]

I opened my eyes to Mom’s concerned face looking down at me. A warm hand and soft fingers pushed hair from my forehead. I lay on the living room sofa and I felt like I floated. I put a foot to the floor to keep myself anchored.

My shoulder, back and leg muscles ached, but not as bad as my head and eyes; I’d had a seizure.

“How do you feel?” Mom asked.

“I’m fine,” I said and smiled to hide the pain I knew was evident on my face. I reached out and touched one of the silky short sleeves of Mom’s blouse. She wore a cerulean one now with dark blue buttons. I frowned. “Going somewhere?”

“No.” She kissed my forehead before she stood and left the room.

I pushed myself up, waited for the dizziness to clear, then staggered on wobbly legs to the hallway. I thought about splashing my face with cold water in the little bathroom across the hall, but the sound of an electric drill in Mom and Daddy’s old bedroom sent me that direction. Curious, I stepped inside. It still had Mom’s cream-colored wallpaper with blue floral and butterfly patterns on the walls. But a different king-size bed sat where my parents’ bed had been. This one had a rose-colored spread on it.

I took another step on the cream-colored carpet. A tall, sinewy man wearing brown coveralls and a black sweatshirt with rolled up sleeves stood at the walk-in closet with a screwdriver. Grandpa Lybrook was brown, leathery and fit, which came from working long hours outdoors. He lifted his head of well-groomed dark hair and studied me with serious looking brown eyes below frowning brown eyebrows. Then his upturned nose twitched as a slight smile moved the corners of a pinched mouth on a clean-shaven face.

He stopped working a screw in the doorframe and asked, “Will you help me lift this door?” His voice was strong and deep.

“Is it heavy?” I took a step back. “I really shouldn’t lift anything right now.”

“Nonsense. You’ll be fine.”

I looked at the wooden door, then walked over to it and lifted it. It was light. I lifted it higher until Grandpa told me to stop.

“Thank you, Verawenda.”

“Everyone calls me Vree,” I reminded him.

The old man squinted at me a moment while he turned another screw to adjust the track of the closet door. “How are you feeling, Vree? Good as new, I hope.”

“I called you and Grandma from the hospital but you didn’t answer,” I said.

Grandpa grunted. “Phone reception is lousy here. All of Myers Ridge, for that matter, depending how the wind blows, ever since those new sinkholes appeared at my farm and forced your grandmother and me to finally move.”

A noise at the open window across the room kept me from asking what a sinkhole had anything to do with phone reception. Someone in a Navy blue sweatshirt and jeans stood on a stepladder and caulked the top of the window. His face was almost featureless behind the gossamer film of dust on the glass, but I could tell he was good looking.

Grandpa went to the window screen and said, “I’ll pay you an extra twenty if you wash all the dirt off these windows when you’re done caulking. I have glass cleaner and towels in a box on the workbench in the garage.”

The person rubbed dirt from the glass with a cloth and peered in at us. Lenny Stevens had an unclouded, intelligent looking face, although caulk marked his high forehead and the left side of his slender nose. His full lips thinned as he smiled at me from beneath a head of thick, burnt sienna hair before he descended the ladder and said, “Yes sir, right away,” through the screen.

Grandpa returned to the closet door, finished turning the screw, then rolled the door back and forth on its track before he excused himself and headed for the door. He stopped and turned back. A thoughtful look crossed his dark brown eyes.

“I got you some canvases so you can paint some pictures while you’re recuperating,” he said. “I got you an easel too, along with some paint and other things. You’ll find them in your bedroom.” He turned and headed out.

“Thank you,” I called out.

I turned back, but Lenny was gone. I vowed to call Zoey later as I headed to the door.

That’s when I noticed a corner of Mom’s carpet lay rolled away from the floor and some of the floorboards were gone. Grandpa must have decided to fix the section that always squeaked.

I went to it and peered at the darkness, then squealed and backpedaled, dropping my handbag into the hole when a gray mouse scurried from it and ran out the door.

“Ew,” I said, peering down the hall and hoping Mr. Whiskers would find it before it nested in the house. I barely saw its tail vanish around the corner as it entered the morning room.

Back at the hole, I convinced myself that there were no more mice in it before I reached for my bag. The space was deep enough to swallow my entire arm as I felt around the basement’s ceiling and the cement foundation.

I touched something large and leathery. It felt like a book. My bag lay on top.

I retrieved my bag, then lifted a dust-covered book from the floor. It was heavy and as large as one of my coffee table art books. Its dusty cover was black, hard leather, and its pages were askew.

There was no title, even after I blew away some of the dust, which made me sneeze.

I pulled a loose page from the book. Someone had written numbers and figures on the thick and yellow page with a quill pen. I ran a finger over the brittle page. Parts of it crumbled at the edges. The numbers and figures on it shifted and coalesced into letters that became words.

“Free the dancers of truth so that you may know their poetry,” I read aloud.

More words formed from the numbers and figures across the page, which made me dizzy to watch, so I closed my eyes. But I peeked at the book. More brittle pages revealed more numbers and figures that turned into words. More poetry. When the numbers and figures finished turning into words on the pages in front of me, I sat cross-legged, rested the book on my lap, and read silently. Like most poems, none made sense. There was talk about war and captains and kings. There were Greeks and Romans, gods and goddesses, and lords and princesses. Was this history or fable? I couldn’t tell, so I skimmed the verses until one poem stood out from the others because of its shortness and the large size of its letters.

Born from lightning’s flame,
She lives in the heat of shame
Until gone from her life of false existence
She travels the distance, enlightened
And brightened by the flame.

Whatever it meant, I found it rhythmic and catchy.

I closed the book and started to put it back, then changed my mind and headed to my room, the book in hand and weighing down my left side.

I passed framed photographs of Daddy and ignored them. Up the squeaky wooden stairs, I passed more photos. The smell of fresh paint filled my nose. Someone—probably Grandma—had recently painted the upstairs hall a fresh coat of white. More photographs adorned the walls. I went to my room. My single bed with a pink cover with small purple butterflies printed on it sat to the left of the door and my dresser to the left of my bed. A box of oil paints and brushes sat on my bed, and a new painter’s palette sat on the dresser. The easel grandpa had mentioned sat next to my window.

My room was different, but not because of the gifts inside it.

I placed the book and my handbag next to the paints and brushes, then went to my window and pulled the blinds so I wouldn’t have to look at the oak tree in the backyard. Before the blinds closed, the white crow appeared at my window.

I shrieked and stepped away, bumping the easel and knocking a blank canvas from its perch. I caught it and stood it up again, then peeked out my window blinds. If the crow was there, I didn’t see it.

What I saw, however, caused me to drop the blinds and back away from the window.

“Eyes,” I said when Lenny came to my door and knocked on the frame. “Red eyes.”

That’s all I remember before waking up on my bedroom carpet.

*.*.*

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Margga’s Curse, revised: Chapter 5 [fiction]

“So, Grandma and Grandpa are staying with us, huh?” I said, looking back at the red Dodge pickup truck in the driveway. “Things are gonna be different.” I lowered my voice. “A lot.”

I unbuckled my seatbelt, slid from my seat and out my door, and stood like a newborn foal on concrete next to the sweet smell of country grass coming from an open window. A memory charged at me, but I hurried away from it and followed Mom to the back door.

The door opened and a shorthaired, red-haired woman wearing a green sweatshirt, blue jeans and pink tennis shoes, stepped out and greeted us. Then she hurried to me and hugged me.

“I’m so glad you’re okay,” Grandma Evelyn said, stepping back and appraising me with a smile. “How do you feel? Can I get you anything?”

“I’m … better,” I said. “I have to have more tests, but….”

Grandma raised an eyebrow.

“It’s true,” Mom said. “It’s all about getting to the bottom of this tumor and getting it taken care of.”

“Which isn’t going to happen with us standing in the garage, talking about it.” Grandma put an arm across the back of my shoulders.

Everything vanished.

The young woman tried to be her quietest when she closed the apartment’s front door, but the click of the latch seemed like a gunshot to her. She held her breath as she leaned her forehead against the door’s cool wood. Would Trevor awaken and find her gone? Or would Balen awaken in his crib and alert his father that she had abandoned them?

What sort of mother abandons their baby?

She held the doorknob in her grip and willed herself not to cry. Not now. There would be plenty of time to cry later. Now was a time to be levelheaded and leave before she changed her mind.

All her young adult life had been spent running away from her past, searching for the real her. Trevor had been certain getting married next month and living a life of magic would be best for her. But when Balen had levitated the lamp last night, she knew she would never be comfortable with that kind of life.

She released the knob, crept down the stairs to the double glass doors of the vestibule, and entered the seven a.m. crawl of college students, professors, and campus workers along Maple Boulevard. She turned away from faces and automobiles that looked familiar and hurried to and out the black iron front gate of New Cambridge University. She buttoned her green wool coat to keep out the March wind blowing at her while she pressed on.

The Greyhound bus station was dimly lit but warm. Her bus left in a half-hour. Would Trevor know she was here?

She sat in the hard plastic seat near the loading doors, stared at the snack vending machine next to the cigarette machine, and wished she had brought some nickels and dimes with her. But she had put all her coins in Balen’s piggy bank last night, and the billfold in her purse contained only a few dollars left from her last paycheck from O’Brien’s Bar.

A tall young man exited the phone booth next to the cigarette machine and dropped a white piece of folded paper. He sat two chairs to her right and seemed unaware of the paper on the dark tile floor. Was it important?

“You dropped something,” she said to him.

He looked at her with pleasant eyes that seemed as black as the long, wool duffel coat he wore. Unlike other men his age, his dark brown hair was short and he sported no sideburns or beard of any kind.

She pointed a forefinger at the paper. He held his gaze on her and his expression turned to curiosity and then to recognition.

“Evelyn Doyle. Hey, it’s me, Jack Lybrook.”

She flinched at the mention of her name. “Do I know you?”

“We went to Ridgewood High, though you were a grade behind me. And my parents and I used to go to your dad’s church when you and I were kids. I was Jonathan … or Johnny back then.”

Evelyn nodded as complete recognition sunk in. Many boys had gone to her father’s Pentecostal church, but only Johnny Lybrook and few others had ever whispered to their friends how pretty Evelyn was.

“I go by Jack now,” he said. “Like JFK did.”

Evelyn glanced at the clock above the loading doors. Five minutes had passed. She looked again at the folded paper on the floor.

“You dropped that,” she said, pointing again.

“My notes. Thank you.” Jack fetched the paper and returned to his seat. “I’m looking to buy some farm property in Ridgewood … maybe start a dairy farm after I graduate college.”

“Are you a student at New Cambridge?”

“No. I go to Penn State. It has a first-class agriculture program and excellent business courses. Our Spring Break is over and I’m catching the next bus.” He raised an eyebrow. “You?”

Evelyn looked around. Except for the man at the ticket window, it was just the two of them. If Trevor found her before her bus left, would Jack try to protect her? She didn’t want anyone getting hurt because of her. But that’s what she did: hurt the ones she loved.

She broke down and wept. She felt Jack’s arms around her before she saw that he now sat next to her. She welcomed his comfort and tried to hide inside his embrace. He hushed her sobs and wiped away her tears with a handkerchief.

He held her until a man’s voice announced over the intercom that it was time to board the bus heading east.

Evelyn took Jack’s hand and let him lead her through the loading doors, away from the man who claimed to be a wizard, and a thirteen-month-old son who could perform magic stronger than hers. As she boarded the bus, she vowed to leave magic forever.

*.*.*

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Margga’s Curse, revised: Chapter 4 [fiction]

CT scans, MRIs, PET scans, x-rays, all in five days … “I’m gonna glow in the dark,” I said to Mom while I looked out at the rain and soggy countryside zooming past us. It was 4:30 p.m. and New Cambridge was behind us. Ridgewood and home was less than an hour away.

Mom asked if I wanted to see Daddy’s grave. I shook my head, then sighed, leaned the side of my head against the window’s cool glass, and hoped the temperature change wouldn’t cause a seizure.

Stupid tumor.

I shut my eyes from a patch of brighter daylight that picked at my headache, and listened to the SUV’s wipers travel at full speed across the windshield. Mom turned on instrumental music from her favorite New Age CD and said, “I told you that Grandma and Grandpa are living with us now. The sinkholes are swallowing more of their farm and we have the room, so…. Grandpa bought you some new canvases. And Grandma is fixing that Greek dinner you like.”

My stomach gurgled at the mention of Greek food. Though Mom and I had eaten before leaving New Cambridge—a fish sandwich for her and hotdogs and fries for me—my mouth watered at the thought of Grandma’s scrumptious moussaka casserole for supper and her melt-in-your-mouth kourabiethes for dessert.

I undid my ponytail and let my hair fall down my back. The rain let up then, and most of the trip was a peaceful one with soothing music playing inside Mom’s silver Sorento.

Then the SUV’s transmission made rattling noises. Ahead, a large, weather-beaten billboard sign read WELCOME TO RIDGEWOOD in large, black letters.

I clutched my new Dior handbag and swallowed at the panic rising in my throat. I pressed the bag to my chest. The multihued embroidered bag contained a new smart phone, a tablet, a wallet with one hundred dollars in it, some makeup, and medicine for headaches and nausea—everything I needed to keep from falling apart.

I inhaled and tried to look happy.

I really wanted to go home. But that would mean being where Daddy had died. Lightning had killed him because … because I was unable to push the lawnmower to the shed.

The road gave way to three sets of bone jarring railroad tracks. The tracks passed by a defunct steel making factory with lots of broken windows facing me. The broken glass looked like sharp teeth and the windows were like mouths wanting to devour anyone passing by. Below them, names and obscenities spray-painted on the concrete walls in a convoluted mess reminded me of Ridgewood’s seedy underbelly.

Past the factory and a block of typical, residential clapboard houses, the town came into view. Chipped and faded brick and cement storefronts pressed tight against each other on both sides of the street. Their big windows with names like Suzie’s Styles & Cuts, Jerry’s Discount Shop, and Coleman’s Sporting Goods in large fonts revealed no one shopping inside the stores. Even the wide, downtown street lacked cars and foot traffic.

New Cambridge had teemed with traffic. As usual, Ridgewood looked like a ghost town.

Mom stopped at a red light. Outside my window, a nondescript brick and mortar building with a green steel door belched two ragged looking men onto the uneven sidewalk. The men staggered past the building’s two grimy windows that had neon signs advertising ice-cold beer inside. The last window sported a black and white sign in it that announced fifty-cent wings on Saturday nights only.

The men disappeared around the building’s corner and a moment later, three girls on bicycles turned up the street. They shrilled and shrieked obscenities at each other as they raced by. Then the green door belched again and a dark-complexioned, white-haired woman exited. She leaned against the front wall of the two-story building and smoked a cigarette. She seemed to pay no attention to the chugging Sorento, or anything else around her for that matter while she inhaled deeply from her cigarette. Her lined face looked ancient and her plump body had on a tattered green Army jacket, a red sweatshirt, and blue jeans that looked brand-new.

A chill crossed over me as the beer joint’s exposed inner darkness pulled my attention to it. Past the door that the woman had propped open with a broken cement block, two large red eyes peered from within.

DOES IT SEE ME?

The words came to me in a shout.

CAN IT SEE BLOOD?

I turned away from the spooky eyes and shuddered from the voice’s ferocity.

Buzzing sounds followed, as though thousands of bees had flown inside the SUV and were now inside my head.

The air rippled around me like disturbed pond water and made me nauseous. I fell back against my seat, worried that I was going to lose my hotdogs and fries all over my lap, and closed my eyes.

“Wait,” I cried out when Mom started through the intersection. Something terrible was going to happen. A chill ran between my shoulder blades. “Stop the car. Please stop the car.”

Mom brought the SUV to a quick and white-knuckle stop, then turned in her seat. “What’s wrong?” Worry mixed with the exhaustion and sweat on her face.

The rippling air and buzzing noise stopped.

Beyond the hammering of blood rushing past my eardrums, the ticking and rattle of the Sorento’s engine relieved my anxiety with their familiarity.

“Are you okay?” Mom asked.

Outside the window, the white-haired woman still leaned against the wall and smoked her cigarette. The red eyes inside were gone.

“I got really sick for a moment,” I said, which wasn’t a lie.

“Do you feel like you need to vomit?”

“I’m feeling better.” I closed my eyes and tried to make sense of what had happened. “But I’m not fine.” I fumbled in my bag and found my pills for nausea.

The Sorento’s engine stalled for a moment before it roared to life and the SUV leaped through the intersection.

I grabbed the bottled water in my cup holder and washed down the pill. As I closed my eyes and tried to relax, my mind replayed the red eyes I saw and the words I heard. Does it see me? Can it see blood? What did that mean? What blood? Whose blood? Who had said those words?

Had something tragic happened back at the beer joint?

“Almost home,” Mom said after striking an open palm against the dashboard. The AC’s fan started working again.

The scenery outdoors became country again. Acres of second growth fields and pastures with old fences rolled past us. I wondered about my grandparents and if living with them would be a happy arrangement, or if they’d bicker as usual when they disagreed about something, which was most of the time.

Storm clouds remained threatening over Myers Ridge as we drove past fields of tall grass, barley and corn, and turned up a long gravel driveway that took us to our white Colonial house and two-car garage painted to match the house. Mom’s lush flowerbeds and rosebushes around the house were overgrown a little and needed pruning.

I looked up at the garage roof and thought I saw a white crow there. I blinked, but Mom pulled inside the garage. A chill ran down my spine. Something dark and unsettling lingered in the darkness when Mom opened the door and said, “Come on, Vree honey, we’re home.”

*.*.*

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Margga’s Curse, revised: Chapter 3 [fiction]

Storms have a way of looking worse through windows.

It was a sudden thought as a torrent of rain outside the hospital drummed like a carwash rinse down the long and narrow plate glass windows at my left. Outside, the streets were probably empty, everyone indoors, cursing the rain, but celebrating the Fourth of July Weekend, all the same.

The stormy Sunday afternoon skylight over New Cambridge had darkened to a faux twilight that exaggerated the artificial lighting inside the anteroom of the hospital’s Radiology/Nuclear Imaging floor, which made the sterile white walls glow almost ghostlike.

Next to me, Mom sighed from a matching green, plush chair. She leaned against the chair’s left arm and pushed at the keypad on her smartphone. Worry lines still creased her brow where strands of auburn hair curled and rested against her forehead. She wore a red blouse, black slacks, and black pumps—her usual “business casual” outfit.

“It shouldn’t be much longer,” I said. The digital clock behind the empty receptionist area read 3:49. I was the last patient after seven hours of body scans, and I was out of the hospital gown and in my street clothes after residing at New Cambridge Mercy Hospital for fifteen days.

Worry that there was something life-threatening wrong with me crept into my thoughts. Thinking about eating Chicago-style hotdogs and fries afterwards provided a form of anesthesia that helped me relax. I sat back and closed my eyes, my hands folded on my lap until

“Hello, Karrie,” Dr. Carlyle said. Then, “How do you feel, Verawenda?”

I put my hands to my side and sat up straight. This was it. Soon I would know why I had developed seizures and severe migraine headaches after waking from my coma.

The doctor stood next to Mom’s chair and peered down at me. Even though Dr. Carlyle was probably Mom’s age, I found myself attracted to his handsome, good-natured face.

“I’m good,” I lied at the same time Mom said, “What have you found out?” The strain in her voice made its pitch sound higher than normal.

Dr. Carlyle sat next to her, away from me.

Silence fell and I found the sound of rain disturbing. With each breath, I waited for Dr. Carlyle’s revelation. A long moment passed before he leaned forward and peered at me. His expression no longer held the good nature from a moment ago.

“The tumor pressing against your brain is inoperable but likely treatable with stereotactic laser ablation.”

“What’s stereotactic laser ablation?” Mom asked.

Dr. Carlyle turned back to her. He answered but his voice sounded far away and muffled as though he were underwater. Had the lightning that struck me and put me in a coma caused the tumor? Or had the tumor already been there?

I focused again on Dr. Carlyle.

“The procedure concentrates on the tumor itself,” he said, “while preserving neighboring healthy tissue.” He looked at me, which caused me to lean toward him. “Some patients have seizures afterwards, but they’re mild and happen less often than if you were to have surgery.”

“Do you do the ablation?” I asked. “And how soon can I have it done?”

Dr. Carlyle smiled and shook his head. “No. Our hospital’s not equipped for that.” Then to Mom, he said, “It will mean traveling to New York City or Philadelphia. Both have excellent hospitals.”

“She will get better,” Mom said. “Right?” Hope flickered around the sadness that etched her eyes and mouth.

“That’s what we’re aiming for. Meanwhile, Verawenda can continue her meds for now.”

Mom nodded but the glimmer of hope in her eyes vanished. She said, “You mentioned yesterday that brain tumors are commonly caused by cancers elsewhere in the body that later spread to the brain.”

“Yes. But let’s take care of the tumor first. Get Verawenda feeling better.”

“So you haven’t ruled out cancer?”

“Your daughter is young. Secondary brain tumors usually occur in patients with a history of cancer. We’ve checked her kidney, colon, skin and lungs, and all her tests have come back negative. If you’d like, we can schedule her to have a breast exam tomorrow.”

“Yes. That would be best.”

“I agree.” Dr. Carlyle looked sorry when he looked at me, but he looked back at Mom and returned talking about me as though I were invisible.

I left my chair, walked to one of the narrow windows, and stared out at the rain, down at the headlights of cars driving past on the street five stories below. The people in those cars weren’t celebrating the Fourth of July like I thought they were.

What’s wrong with them?

What’s wrong with the world?

A white crow walked into view. It stood on the concrete ledge and peered at me with black eyes. It cawed from a black beak, though the rain striking the glass muffled its sound. It cawed again, then vanished as though it had never been there.

What’s wrong with me?

“It may take three or four months. It all depends on what we find.” Dr. Carlyle stood and said goodbye. I watched his reflection in the glass leave the room.

Life has a way of looking worse when you start poking at it.

I turned and followed Mom to the elevator bay. I prayed I wouldn’t faint or have a seizure on the way down.

I didn’t.

*.*.*

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Margga’s Curse, revised: Chapter 2 [fiction]

Wherever I was, I could not see much, just gray darkness similar to the warm and safe kind beneath my blankets when Zoey and I used them for tents in my bedroom. But I was not beneath my blankets. The grayness was infinite here, wherever here was, and I floated and rolled and swam in it, which made me certain I was dreaming.

There was nothing to look at, only my hands and arms and the rest of my body below my head, though they were almost impossible to see in the grayness. I wore a gown—no. Not a gown. It was a long T-shirt—the kind I wore as pajamas. I also had a pair of white ankle socks on feet that seemed far away. They floated in and out of sight.

I soon grew bored with floating, so I sat, surprised to find a plush seat beneath me—a sofa by its size and shape when I stretched out my arms on either side.

“Nice,” I said.

The sofa made a comfortable bed.

“Very nice.”

I floated alone. And I liked it.

I floated with my sofa, going nowhere.

There was no sense of emergency here—no alarm to awaken me to another day of chores, no schedules to follow and adhere to, and no places to be at, like Chase’s baseball games and Trina’s piano recitals.

I liked that, too.

Except for the infinite grayness. It was like being underwater. I searched for color. I had seen plenty of colorful underwater worlds of coral reefs and tropical fish.

But this was not the ocean.

“Where am I?” I asked a pinpoint of white light far above me, shining like a solitary star a billion miles away.

An urgent need to go to it overwhelmed me. Whatever was there was important. Perhaps color was there. I sat up.

“Hurry,” I said to my sofa, which floated and ignored my requests for it to speed to the light. “I need to go there. Now.”

“Let it come to you,” a familiar voice said from the sofa seat to my right.

“Daddy?” I squealed, delighted to hear his voice.

“Be patient,” he said from the grayness, his thin body an almost featureless shape next to me. I scrambled into his embrace of long arms that wrapped around me and held me close. His Aqua Velva cologne made me grin wide while I snuggled against him.

Sudden white light bathed us as though someone had flicked on a light switch. I fell from Daddy’s embrace but remained snuggled against him. He wore his usual dark work suit and polished, black leather Florsheim wingtip oxfords—all business. And my T-shirt was the Bugs Bunny one from last Christmas.

I felt a change in the cloth against my left cheek. Daddy now wore his blue silk robe and matching pajamas and slippers from the same Christmas.

“How did you change clothes so fast?” I asked.

“It’s Christmas,” he said, pointing a long finger at the infinite white space in front of us. I looked, wanting to see a Christmas tree and decorations there, but there was none. No Christmas smells of cookies and cake, and no carols playing in the background. No noise at all.

Someone coughed. A quick, soft cough loud enough that it sent my attention to an armchair that descended from above us. It stopped in front of the sofa and a girl looked up from an open, oversized hardcover book.

“You look like me,” I said.

The doppelganger smiled at me, then closed the book softly and laid it in her lap of skinny leg jeans—my favorite pair from last Christmas. She even wore my oversized tank top with a print of Vincent van Gogh’s The Starry Night on the front, which had also been a Christmas gift. Her blonde hair—either fastened in a bun or a ponytail in the back—was pulled tight from her face.

I brushed a hand against my hair. It was loose and draped around my neck and shoulders.

“Who is she?” I asked Daddy. “Why does she look like me?”

“I am you,” the doppelganger said.

“This is such a weird dream,” I said to Daddy. “I don’t think I’ve ever dreamed about me before.”

“’Tis no dream, girlfriend,” the other me said. “Welcome to one of death’s many realities … home away from home … the land of repetition and boredom.” She yawned audibly.

“Hush,” Daddy said to her. Then, to me, he said, “She’s your subconscious. She needs to be a part of you, not floating here without you. You must pull her in so you can recover. The two of you need to be one again.”

Recover? I clutched Daddy’s arm in a tight embrace. “Recover from what?”

“A coma,” the other me called out. “Lightning struck us. It killed Daddy and put us in the hospital, dying.”

I scowled at the girl. “I don’t like this dream. I wish you’d go away.”

“You’re in denial, girlfriend. But that doesn’t change the facts. You need to wake from this coma.”

“I don’t believe you,” I said. “Daddy’s right here. This is just a dream trying to go bad.” I searched Daddy’s solemn face. “Tell her she’s crazy.”

Daddy met my gaze. “To awaken from your coma, you need to be one with your subconscious and create order in your mind. You need to embrace your subconscious again.”

“What are you saying?” I shook my head.

“You can do this, Vree, honey,” Daddy said. “The lightning separated you from your subconscious, but it also triggered special abilities in you. You need your subconscious so you can live.”

I let go of his arm, scooted away, then crossed my arms over my chest and said, “This is just a dream. Nothing more. Just a dream.”

No one said anything.

My clothes felt damp and cool. I uncrossed my arms and looked down at myself. I no longer wore the Bugs Bunny shirt. My red KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON T-shirt made me think of rain, thunder, and—

“If this isn’t a dream, then where am I?”

“Somewhere between life and death,” the other me said.

I moaned and shook my head. “Stop talking about death.”

“Hey-hey, girlfriend,” she called out, “where’s the love?”

“I don’t love you!”

“Without her, you cannot live,” Daddy said.

“If all this is true and you’re dead but I’m not, I don’t wanna live without you.”

“Hush your nonsense, Verawenda Renee. You need to continue living. You need to do important things where you’re going. Now, sit up straight, chin out, and bring your subconscious to you. Think it and it will happen. Accept her and she will come. Let it happen.”

I frowned at him. He had moved closer to me. He reached out and took my left hand, lifted it to his mouth and kissed the back of it. Then he released it. A white light glowed from my hand, spread up my arm, then over me until the light bathed me.

Across the short distance, white light bathed the other me.

“Now that you’re awakening, it’s time for me to go.” Daddy’s form grew translucent. “The path of your new life will be difficult, especially where you are headed. But your subconscious will be with you to help.” He raised a finger to hush my interruption. “You can do this.”

He vanished.

The light hurt my eyes, so I covered them with my hands.

“Breathe,” the other me said, her voice coming from all directions.

“I am breathing,” I said.

“Breathe,” she said again.

I sucked in a breath. “See? Breathing.”

“Deeper. I want you to take a deep breath this time. A really big breath.”

“Why?”

“You know why.”

I wanted to tell her I didn’t, but she was right.

I uncovered my eyes. Then I took in a deep breath. The pinpoint of white light far above me, shining like a solitary star a billion miles away, rushed at me and consumed me in blazing light.

*.*.*

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Kismet eBook Is Free Till Halloween [book news]

A reminder that my 99-cent sci-fi adventure novella Kismet: A Ridgewood Tale is still free at Smashwords, which ends Halloween (10/31/2016). To get yours, go to my Smashwords page and enter coupon code AR96Q (not case-sensitive) when ordering. You can download the book in the following formats for your tablet, e-reader and /or computer: epub, mobi, pdf, lrf, pdb, txt, and html.

For more information about Kismet, click on my bookstore page tab at my blog’s header.

Thank you.

Margga’s Curse, revised: Chapter 1 [fiction]

Intro

I know, most of you would rather see my artwork and photography than read my writing. But for the handful of followers who enjoy my writing segments, here’s the continuation of my attempt to rewrite Night of the Hellhounds, or accurately, Margga’s Curse.

After I published Night of the Hellhounds with its new title and felt done with it, ready to work out the kinks in the second novel, a fan of my stories—and probably my only fan—admitted that he liked my short story better than the novel.

“What’s wrong with the novel?” I asked.

“I don’t like the parts with Vree being a wimp and running away from her problems. Or the Roualens—they don’t seem important to the story. You should get rid of them and the spaceship … Lenny too. His parts in the story were boring when it was about him at the dinner table and the restaurant. This is Vree’s story and her problems with magic and dealing with Margga who wants to take away her magic. You should have told it only from her perspective.”

Finally! Some honest criticism, albeit late in the game.

“Would you like to read an earlier draft of Margga’s Curse?” I asked, pulling an ace from my sleeve. I have a habit of writing in first person point of view when I write a first draft, then change everything to third person point of view by the final draft. I still had the draft with everything told from Vree’s point of view.

He said he did, so I gave him a copy. Weeks later, he said it was as good as the original short story and a lot better than the novel, though he still didn’t care about the Roualens.

But was it better? I had my doubts, but I read the first-person draft again. I liked it. Its pace was quicker than the draft I published. Other reasons I liked it are

  1. The introduction of Vree extends a friendly hand to the reader—a much warmer intro than when she was introduced in third person point of view.
  2. Because first person point of view is a limited scope to work with, Vree cannot tell the reader things that happen offstage. She and the reader are kept in the dark and must rely on revelations. Revealing actions create suspense or foreboding, and empathetic curiosity. A little mystery keeps everyone wanting to find out more.
  3. Vree’s voice makes her identifiable and adds to her personality from the start, which was something I had to build when I wrote her as a third-person-point-of-view character. And because she’s a constant active character, we have a stronger sense of her as a real person who has choices and can make decisions of her own free will. We see the experience from her immediate perspective.
  4. Vree can confide in the reader with secrets and intimate revelations, creating curiosity and making the reader invest in the story.
  5. Writing in first person point of view allows me, unfortunately, to use filter words. Filter words are I saw, I heard, I smelled, I thought, etc. I find it necessary to reread my first-person stories and eliminate filter words, to let the reader see the action through Vree’s eyes. “I saw the brown and shaggy dog,” makes the reader watch Vree see the dog. “The dog was brown and shaggy,” lets the reader see what Vree sees, and closes the distance between the reader and her. “I heard the music, tinny and spooky and weird,” vs. “The music was tinny and spooky and weird.” One is outside, watching Vree listen; the other is inside her head, hearing it with her. Filter words aren’t always bad. “I see the shelves, and I see the counter, but I don’t see the magic potion.” This is describing the act of seeing explicitly and conveys Vree’s frustration at not finding what she’s looking for.

So, for the sake of experiment, I’m publishing here the first-person story with changes. I hope you like it.

The Story

I yanked the steering wheel of Daddy’s John Deere riding mower and dodged mowing over my brother’s black leather baseball glove. Surface roots of the old oak tree in our backyard jostled me while I tried steering away from them. The lawnmower pitched left, right, left again, tossing me like yesterday’s roller coaster ride on Old Shaky, and then… BAM. The deck slammed down on a root. The blade stopped. The motor whined. I took my foot from the gas pedal and groaned. I had promised Daddy I would be careful mowing the lawn this time.

But this was not my fault. Chase promised that he had picked up his sports equipment before he, Trina and Mom left to shop at Ridgewood Village Mall an hour ago.

I pondered what to do about the mower. All I knew was how to check and fill the gas tank and oil, and how to start it and turn it off. Driving the thing over the hilly terrain without killing myself was a plus.

“Hello? Vree? Are you there?” Zoey’s voice brought me back.

“Let me call you back,” I said to the voice in my pink and black headphones over my ears. I shut off the mower’s engine.

“Are you okay?” Zoey asked. “It sounded like you were in an accident.”

“My stupid brother left his glove in the yard, which caused me to get the lawnmower stuck on some tree roots. My dad’s gonna kill me if I broke anything.”

“Do you need me to come over?” Zoey asked.

I sat forward, tugged my red KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON T-shirt from my sweaty back, then wiped my palms on the knees of my blue jeans. “I’m okay,” I answered. A wet breeze blew the ends of my long blonde hair across my face, covering my eyes for a moment. I pushed my hair away and shivered from another breeze. The sunny day had turned gray in an instant.

“You get ready for my birthday party,” I said. “I’ll push the mower into the shed and finish cleaning the kitchen and living room.”

“I’m so excited for you,” Zoey said before she squealed. “You’re a teenager now.”

I shrugged. I didn’t feel any different.

“See you at six, birthday girl,” Zoey said before she ended the call.

I removed the Bluetooth headphones and put them over the steering wheel. Then I jumped from the tractor, pulled my hair back, twirled it into a bun, and hurried to the rear of the lawnmower. I needed to finish my chores by four o’clock and shower before Mom got home from shopping.

I placed both hands on the back of the seat and rocked the mower, grunting and pushing it until it was away from the roots. The damaged root exposed a white, wet wound where the lawnmower blade had cut it. Daddy would be disappointed in me for damaging his grandfather’s oak tree—again. Luckily, there was a can of tree wound sealer in the shed left over from last year.

I leapt into my seat and tried starting the mower. The engine coughed but did not jump to life as it was supposed to do.

If the lawnmower was broken…. I groaned at the thought. This was different from staying out past curfew, or cutting my hair uneven with Mom’s good scrapbook scissors, or vomiting corndogs on Daddy at Alice Lake’s rollercoaster ride yesterday.

“Come on,” I begged as I tried the engine again. Things had to start going my way.

Thunder banged from a sky that had grown darker with bruised looking clouds. My phone’s weather app had said it would rain today. If only my phone had an app to let me know when I was about to screw up my life.

I could dodge life’s embarrassments and stay out of trouble.

More thunder banged, vibrating its way into me. The sky seemed to open and drop a flood of rain past the umbrella of leafy branches, drenching me. I scampered to the tree trunk and shivered from the chill beneath heavy branches. Thirty yards away, my parents’ spacious Colonial home beckoned me inside where it was dry and warm. My orange tabby cat sat at the living room’s middle bay window, watching from behind the rain-streaked glass, and meowing for his three o’clock meal.

I looked away. Rain fell hard on the lawnmower and my good pair of headphones, so I darted to the left side of the green and yellow mower and pushed, losing my footing twice on the wet grass after three steps. I hurried to the back of the mower and pushed.

After losing my footing again, I looked up. Daddy’s black Escalade pulled in the driveway. I groaned. It wasn’t five o’clock. He wasn’t supposed to be home yet.

Daddy hurried from his vehicle, leaving its headlights on, the engine running, and frantic wipers slapping rain from the windshield. He juggled his opened umbrella while he took to the right side of the mower and helped me push the tractor across the soggy ground, closer to the shed behind the garage.

A flash of bright white light and tremendous heat engulfed me. Something popped in my head. I smelled freshly mowed grass close to my nose before I realized I lay on my stomach in the wet grass. Rain fell on my back.

I tried to get up, but my body refused to cooperate. Even my head refused to turn.

That’s all I remember before

*.*.*

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