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.

A Story In Two Styles, part 2 [fiction]

The majority of the people I write about have normal lives, oblivious to the magical all around them, hidden in plain sight. Dave Evans is one of them. He is part of my small-town urban fantasy world.

I believe the urban fantasy story does not have to be rooted in the city. Urban fantasy can also roam into small towns, villages, and the countryside. There, the magic and weird stuff creep in at the edges of a world in which magic is not the norm but hidden in plain sight. Everything appears normal. The people who live there have normal lives, oblivious to the magic around them.

I know it’s a trope that has become cliché, but small-town urban fantasy is my favorite cliché and I do not plan to ever stop using it in my stories.

In this story, which is another draft of yesterday’s story, Dave’s last name is Conrad.

He is one of the first characters I created—I wrote many baseball stories about him before he had his first encounter with ghosts.

Bottom of the Seventh

Subtitled, “Keeping Love Alive”

Dave Conrad’s pleasant expression changed to one of wildness mixed with flight. The air in the dugout 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 six 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. But she was no angel. Anger and hatred burned in her eyes.

A chill entered Dave’s blue and white pinstriped uniform and gripped his back. Did anyone else see her? He quashed the idea of asking his teammates when she glared at him.

Coach Walker drew Dave’s attention when he cleared his throat and spat. The doorway at the far right end of the dugout framed his short and heavy body. “Pray we all make contact with our bats this inning and score some runs,” he said as he looked out at the visiting team on the ballfield. His Ridgewood Junior Varsity Fighting Eagles were undefeated this year. But tonight 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 Navy blue ball cap and bowed his baldhead.

The team was quiet at their seats on the long wooden bench inside the dugout until he said “amen” and took his spot along third base.

“We can hit this pitcher,” Miles Kibler said, three players down from Dave. “My fastball and curve are a lot better than his.”

“Yeah! We can hit this guy,” Jimmy Franklin, their catcher, said. He sat next to Miles and champed his bubblegum between sentences. “We’ve done it before. Come on.”

Assistant Coach Andrews stepped from the shadows at the dugout’s far end. “Stay focused,” he said. “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.

He had to focus on the game

“Stay in the zone,” he whispered.

A baseball cracked off a bat. The Ridgewood fans and players jumped to their feet and cheered as Jimmy Franklin’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 Jimmy from rounding third base and scoring.

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

“Keep the rally going,” he said, huddling close to Dave. “Get the ball into the outfield. We need you to score Jimmy from third.”

He slapped the top of Dave’s helmet before he returned to his coaching spot.

The new pitcher threw nothing but heat during his warmup pitches.

Dave’s attention waned. Where had Holly gone?

“Focus,” Dave told himself.

He had stayed away from her funeral and her gravesite. And now she had been here, giving him the stink eye. She hated him.

The home plate umpire bellowed “Batter up.”

Dave hurried into the batter’s box, dug his cleats into the dirt, and swung his bat menacingly at the pitcher.

The catcher taunted him with “No batter no batter no batter” and the pitcher nodded to his catcher.

Dave stumbled from the batter’s box, certain he had lost his mind.

The pitcher looked like Holly wearing a black and gold baseball uniform. She spat and glowered darkly at Dave from the pitcher’s mound.

“Batter up,” the umpire bellowed again.

Dave returned to the batter’s box and tried to stand tall on wobbly legs. “This isn’t real,” he whispered, then shot to the ground as a fastball raced at him and missed his head.

He glared back at Holly. “Are you trying to kill me?”

She vanished from the pitcher.

“You killed me,” she screamed in Dave’s head.

He grimaced from the blast of pain there.

He and Holly stood at the downtown playground and park 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 calling 911 on his phone and weeping over Holly lying dead in the dirt.

“I prayed for you not to be dead. But it did no good.”

“You never came to my funeral,” Holly said. “You’ve never visited my grave. You do not love me.”

“I do. It’s just that I could not bear to see you dead. Please forgive me.”

“I cannot forgive a coward,” Holly said. Her declaration was as painful to his heart as the pain knifing through his head.

His heart stopped beating. He pushed the fear of death from his mind and tried hard to keep breathing.

“You were everything to me. That is why I fell apart when you died. I stopped going to school until my parents made me.”

Darkness swallowed him. He struggled to continue.

“I love you. Always will. I’d do anything to bring you back. Even trade places if it meant you could live again.”

“You would die for me?”

“Yes.”

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 became 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 said. Her voice was like a gentle breeze to his ears.

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

It came fast, but seemed to loom large and white.

He swung his bat and the Ridgewood dugout and bleachers erupted with cheers as the ball flew from his bat and headed into leftfield, lifting high until it passed over the fence.

“Run,” Holly said. Again, her voice was like a gentle breeze.

Dave dropped the bat and hurried around the bases, meeting his teammates at home plate where they mobbed him as soon as his feet touched home with the winning run.

As the sun slipped beneath the tree-lined slopes of Ridgewood Cemetery an hour later, he sat at Holly’s grave and talked to her—mortal to spirit. He promised to visit her every day. And she promised to be there for him … always.

#

A Story In Two Styles, part 1 [fiction]

I love writing stories. I began when I was around eight or nine years old and I have not stopped.

I wrote the first draft of the following short story during 1972/73. It is an untypical baseball story featuring Dave Evans. When I wrote later drafts, I ended up with two that I liked. The first is below and is closer to the original draft, presented in Now and Then parts. The second story is darker—a bit menacing, which I will post tomorrow.

I like the first one for its light innocence, but the second one has a bite to it that makes it exciting to read.

Bottom of the Seventh

Subtitled, “Soft Like Butter”

Now

He is Dave Evans, a tenth-grader at Ridgewood High School. He has on his white baseball uniform with blue pinstripes. Today is the first Thursday in June and the last day of school. It is also the last regulation Junior Varsity baseball game of the season.

His team huddles at the bench inside their dugout. It is the bottom of the seventh inning, the team’s last chance to score two runs and win the game. Coach Walker reminds the players of that when Dave peeks past the wire mesh next to him, out at the blonde-haired girl sitting in the third row bleachers behind the dugout. The evening sun seems to spark a halo around her hair and white dress, making her look like an angel.

She lifts her face and he looks away to avoid making eye contact.

“Is it really her?” his friend Lenny Stevens asks from his seat next to Dave. He twists and cranes his head to get a better look at her.

“You see her too,” Dave says, glad he has not lost his sanity.

Coach Walker’s pep talk ends with, “No matter how this game ends, it’s been a great year.”

Has it? Dave sneaks another glance at Julie Sommers, then looks away and tries to focus on the game. Coach Walker, a short, heavy man who has a passion for pepperoni pizza, ambles to his spot at the third base coach’s box and gives his first batter, Alan Richards, signals. Alan watches attentively from home plate, then hurries into the batter’s box, looking eager to start a rally.

Dave leans against Lenny and whispers, “I wish this was over.”

“Do you think she still loves you?” Lenny asks.

Dave closes his eyes. “I wasn’t a very good boyfriend.”

Then

“She was the prettiest girl at that party,” Dave said to Lenny in the lunchroom at school almost a month ago. They sat across from each other and kept their voices low. “Remember? It was at my snooty cousin Lisa’s house, during a party for her fourteenth birthday. You were already there, in my Aunt Debbie’s indoor swimming pool, when I got there. She yelled at me when I cannonballed into the deep end. Lisa and some other girls were playing Blind Man’s Bluff there and they surrounded Julie who was blindfolded. She was trying to tag them.”

“Is that when I hit you with the beach ball?” Lenny asked.

“Yeah. I turned around and saw you laughing over at the shallow end. That’s when Julie stumbled into me. She fell and pulled me underwater with her. I squirmed around and the next thing I knew, we were arm in arm and face to face. She took off her blindfold, smiled at me, then pushed away and returned to her game.

“I could have kissed her—our faces were less than an inch apart.”

Lenny nodded. “You should have kissed her.”

Now

The Ridgewood fans cheer and some of them jump to their feet when Alan laces a single over the second baseman’s head. The New Cambridge Yellow Jackets shout encouragement to their pitcher.

Dave glances again at Julie. Staying focused on anything has been difficult. His grades have taken a turn for the worse. And that is when his hitting slump started, when—

“Fire in the hole,” someone shouts as players in the dugout dodge and dive around Dave and bring him out of his reverie.

The foul ball skirts past his knees, ricochets off the bench, and sails back onto the field. He sneaks another glance at Julie. Her face and hair glow more luxurious as the evening sun sinks toward the horizon.

Then

The evening sun glowed through a window inside the Pizza Hut and lit up Julie’s perfect face. She was like an artist’s finest creation. To be in her presence made Dave a nervous wreck.

He stood at the counter, gnawed on his chewing gum, and urged Lenny to hurry and pay for their pizza and go.

“You should say hi before we leave,” Lenny said.

“She’s working.”

“So?”

“I don’t want her to get fired.”

Julie picked up her tray from the table she had just bussed and headed toward Dave. Lenny had to hammer him on the back to dislodge the gum wedged against his windpipe.

When Dave could breathe again, he stepped in front of Julie before she could enter the kitchen and bumped her tray, knocking over a glass of half-finished iced tea. It spilled down the front of Julie’s uniform.

She shrieked, then hurried into the kitchen and left behind a dumbfounded Dave.

Now

Lenny pokes him in the ribs with a bony elbow and tells him he is on deck. Dave seems to float from his seat and to the on-deck circle in foul territory. He swings a weighted bat and dreams of hitting another home run for beautiful Julie Sommers.

Then

After that horrible event at Pizza Hut, Dave entered a funk and spent some time at a safe distance from Julie.

When baseball season started at school, she came to his first game. He did not know she was there until after he hit a homerun to end a tie game. She came to the dugout and asked, “What’s it like to hit a game-winning homerun?”

Dave was speechless. His mouth seemed to petrify.

Why was she here, talking to him?

“I’m the sports reporter for the school paper,” she said.

It felt like several long minutes had passed before he could work his voice again. Julie had turned away and was speaking to Coach Walker when Dave blurted, “It’s such a wonderful feeling when a batter connects with the ball and hits the perfect hit.”

“And what is the perfect hit?” she asked, turning back to him.

“It’s when the ball feels soft against the bat when a batter makes contact. Sometimes there is barely a feeling at all.”

“How soft does it feel?”

“Really soft, like the ball is made of…” His mind scrambled to think of the right word.

“Soft like rubber?” she asked.

“Softer. Creamier. Smoother.”

“Like butter?”

Yes. Like hitting butter. She was perfect.

“Would you like to go on a date?” she asked.

Again, Dave’s mouth seemed to petrify.

“You can let me know at school tomorrow,” she said with a smile before walking away.

Now

Dave puts on a batter’s helmet. The scoreboard behind the centerfield fence shows two outs. He wonders if Petey Jackson, his teammate at bat, will be the final out. Petey answers his question by placing a hot bouncing double between leftfield and centerfield. The center fielder is quick to get to the ball. He throws it to his shortstop, keeping Alan Richards from rounding third base and scoring the tying run.

The Yellow Jackets’ coach calls for a pitcher change and Coach Walker is quick to get to Dave.

“Forget about those last two strikeouts,” he says, which causes those last two strikeouts to loom large in Dave’s mind. “Just relax and make contact. Like hitting butter.”

Dave steals a glance at Julie. Coach Walker places a beefy hand on Dave’s thin shoulder. “You can do this. Empty your mind of everything around you and focus only on the ball.”

Dave nods and tries to ignore the anxiety dancing across his back.

“Like hitting butter.”

Then

“A loaf of bread, a container of milk, and a stick of butter,” Dave and Lenny sang out as they walked beneath the gentle May sun to Maynard’s grocery store downtown. Lenny held out his mom’s shopping list of bread, milk and butter, which the boys found hilarious since it mimicked one of their favorite segments from television’s Sesame Street.

“You should go out with her,” Lenny said.

“Who? Julie?”

Lenny laughed. “Of course. I hear she’s really into you.”

Dave forced his fists into his jeans front pockets. “I don’t know. Maybe.”

“Come on, you have to do this while she still has feelings for you. But if you keep turning her down, you’re going to lose her.”

Dave shook his head and Lenny continued his campaign.

They carried on for several blocks to downtown until an ambulance screamed past them toward the hospital. A female police officer guided them across the street at Main and Elm intersection where broken glass from an accident still littered the street. A tow truck drove away with one of the cars from the accident. Another police officer directed traffic around the other damaged car still in the intersection.

An elderly woman at Maynard’s told them that a car had run a red light and hit another car broadside. The drivers from the cars were okay, she said. However, a young girl in the second car was in critical condition.

Dave and Lenny reflected on their own mortality. It frightened them to think about death coming suddenly and taking one of them away.

Now

Dave looks one more time at Julie, enters the batter’s box, digs his cleats into the dirt, and swings his bat menacingly at the replacement pitcher.

“No batter no batter no batter,” the Yellow Jackets’ catcher taunts.

The pitcher nods to his catcher, checks Alan Richards taking a big lead from third base, glances at Petey Jackson stepping away from second base, then delivers a letter high fastball that blows past Dave.

“Stee-rike one!” the umpire bellows.

Coach Walker gives Dave a nod and raises his thumbs.

Dave steps back in the batter’s box. The pitcher eyeballs Alan who steps off the bag as the third baseman leans toward third base. Nothing happens, so Dave steps out of the batter’s box and sniff at the dust in the air. And Julie’s rosy perfume.

She has vanished from her seat.

“Butter pitch,” she says; her voice is like a small echo in Dave’s ears. “Let’s hit the ball and end this game.”

Dave shivers from the strange sensation of Julie’s soul inside him.

“Batter up,” the umpire says.

Dave gulps, nods, and enters the batter’s box on wobbly legs. The pitcher nods to his catcher and throws a chin-high fastball. He knows not to swing at it, but an unfamiliar urge forces him to swing anyway.

The bat strikes the baseball.

“Like hitting butter,” Julie says.

The ball shoots high above leftfield and clears the fence.

Dave circles the bases, a hero who is unsure of what happened. His teammates mob him at home plate.

He retrieves his baseball glove from the dugout and slips away from Lenny and the others as he heads away from the high school. Ridgewood Cemetery sits across the street. The sinking sun plays shadows across the gentle hills of tombs and headstones. He stops at a large, pink marble headstone at a fresh grave. A breeze stirs through the trees and he enjoys its warmth, which is so like Julie’s love.

He speaks quietly to her soul still inside him. They talk—boy and girl, mortal and spirit—until, in the final moments of twilight, a cool breeze stirs through the trees of the cemetery and he leaves Julie behind.

But before he goes, he embraces her love one last time.

#

Finding Gems in Backstory [character development]

Before Ravenwood became a place in my stories, there was Myers Lake, named after Alice Myers, an old woman who lived alone in an ancient Victorian mansion at the lake. She had no living relatives and was always alone—well, she had several cats to keep her company and there was the local pastor who mowed her lawn and trimmed her hedges in the summer, but no other person ever visited. And so, rumors and stories sprang up among the kids in the neighborhood that her house was haunted and that she kept to herself because she was a witch. One of those kids was 9-year-old Owen Burkhart who lived across the street from the “witch’s house.” He had heard about missing pets ending up as stews in Old Lady Myers’s kitchen, so he was cautious not to let Max, his Toy Fox Terrier, off its leash. Every day he had to deal with the suspicion that his neighbor was evil and to trespass on her property was a serious omen that something terrible would happen to him, which is why he played in the backyard behind his house out of sight of Old Lady Myers and her evil house.

It was the last day of school when he came running home, excited to start summer vacation, and saw the coroner’s hearse leaving the driveway at the witch’s house. Old Lady Myers had died. But the bad omen he felt about the property never left him. Someone threw a rock and broke a front window at the old house. The lawn grew into brambles and weeds. By the time Fourth of July came, the place looked spookier than ever before, and rumors had started that Old Lady Myers’s ghost now haunted the place.

Owen wanted to move far away from that creepy house. But a pretty girl changed his mind when she and her family moved into the place and fixed it up.

Over the years, Owen’s story grew in breadth and depth. A town sprang up from my imagination and surrounded Myers Lake—first called White Raven, then Ravenwood, and eventually Ridgewood. Myers Lake became Alice Lake. The pretty girl became Vree Erikson. And Owen Burkhart became Kenny Douglas for a while, then Liam Burkhart, and then Lenny Stevens—same boy, different names. Those versions of Owen have him 15 years old and living on Myers Ridge when Vree and her family move into that haunted house and he comes to her aid. You can read a published version of that story idea, which features Lenny, still available to download free at Smashwords in a stand-alone book called Margga’s Curse.

A gem in that story is two strangers—boy and girl—bonding and working toward a common goal. When I was nine, this was easy for me to do. I saw a boy or girl around my age, I talked to them and made their acquaintance unless the other kid was super shy. But I don’t recall any 9-year-old being shy. That came later, especially at age 15 when hormones had kicked in and we knew without sitting through those tortuous Human Health classes that we had sexual organs for the sole purpose of reproducing our species. At 15, it wasn’t easy anymore for boys to make the acquaintance of the new girl next door. And I know it wasn’t easy for girls to be comfortable around boys, either. Every day, we fought the Call of the Wild to talk to each other. Honesty went out the window and we pretended nothing was amiss.

I wrote earlier this month that I have grown weary of writing about teens. A more accurate statement would have been, “I have grown weary of publishers wanting me to give my teen characters positive sexual relationships.”

I know today’s teenagers live differently than when I was a teen. Even their parents lived differently. I was 18 when Judy Blume’s controversial young adult book Forever was published. The main character, Katherine, has a positive sexual relationship described in detail. Since then, sexual descriptions in YA books is relatively commonplace these days. And some books focus squarely on sex as a theme.

But I don’t want sex to promote the sales of my books. And it shouldn’t be used to sell anything else, either.

When I write a story, I may touch on that teenage angst and awkwardness that I mentioned earlier, but I’m not going to have scenes with my characters copulating. And that includes my adult characters.

The gems of my stories are how well people get along and work together for a common goal. For Owen and Vree (and Kenny, Liam, and Lenny) when they are 9, 15, or any age, that common goal is having each other’s back through the thick and thin of it.

And if they have sex, let it happen offstage.

A Fantasy Trip [fiction]

Hello, my loyal followers. It’s story time. A fantasy tale about a teenage boy and magic.


The trip home to Myers Ridge was longer than Danny Sutton remembered. He sat in the backseat of his father’s Taurus, a bit motion sick, and surrounded by brand-new fantasy novels and superhero comics. His parents, George and Michelle, stared straightaway at the interstate, silent.

Country music—his mother’s favorite—played low from the radio. Their three-day stay in Chicago for the Fantasy Writers and Artists Halloween Weekend Fair was over and Danny had plenty of new reading material. However, reading in a moving vehicle had not set well with his stomach. Now, neither did watching the countryside pass by at 70 miles an hour.

The day had turned to evening and his stomach had gone from feeling lousy to feeling downright rotten. He fished some chewable antacids from his backpack, and then took out his spiral bound sketchpad and an HB drawing pencil. Drawing in a moving vehicle was different from reading in one. Drawing took him deep into imaginary worlds, which would take his mind off being ill.

He found a blank page and scribbled some circles. A clearer image emerged as the circles connected and they transformed into … a … giant … lizard.

No. Keep drawing.

A Tyrannosaurus rex.

No.

A fire-breathing dragon with long, batlike wings.

Yes.

Chills crept up Danny’s arms.

A black night sky surrounded the dragon. He imagined it flying in and out of moonlit clouds above Myers Ridge, swooping down where the woods met the cliffs near the portion that broke off thousands of years ago during an ice age, making the cliffs steep and dangerous … or so Mrs. Erickson, his ninth grade science teacher, said.

He drew his parents’ house on the other side of the woods while imagining that he flew with the dragon—a girl dragon.

He drew another dragon just above the first. He was the second dragon. He and the girl dragon were boyfriend and girlfriend. He liked that.

He imagined that he, the boy dragon, followed the girl dragon through the night sky, racing with her and frolicking amidst the air currents and clouds. They flew over his parents’ house and a pickup truck parked along the road. A man stood outside the truck, looking up at them. The man lifted a long object to his shoulder. It looked like a rifle.

A shot from a high-powered rifle broke the low sound of wind and the lazy flapping of their wings. The girl dragon twisted, then fell to the earth on her back, landing with a thud in Danny’s front yard, dead from a well-placed bullet between the protective plating over her heart.

Danny stopped drawing. He tapped the backend of the pencil against his forehead, contemplating what he had imagined. Who was the man and why had he killed the girl dragon?

In his drawing, the two dragons still flew together in the night sky. Below them, a man stood outside a pickup truck. In his arms, he carried a high-powered rifle with a scope.

Danny shuddered and slammed shut the pad.

“Well, I’m done,” he announced.

His mother half turned in her seat. “Done with what, dear?”

“Fantasy, magic, dungeons and dragons … the whole nine yards.”

“I thought you had a good time,” his mother said. “Didn’t you have fun at the fair?” A frown scrunched up her nose.

“I don’t know. I thought so. But…” Danny ran his fingers across the spiral wire that held his Magic Brand drawing pad together. Magic Brand Art Supplies had made his pencil too.

“Not many people have the talent you have,” the man at the gift shop had told him at last year’s fair.

It was true. He had to be careful what he drew.

“You’ll feel better when we get something to eat,” his mother said as his father exited the interstate. Soon, they ordered food at a Wendy’s drive thru.

Back on the interstate, Danny ate and thought about his drawing. Surely, he had drawn the man with the rifle and pickup truck. He must have been so deep in his imagination that he was not aware of what he drew.

The triple cheeseburger, large fries, and huge soft drink actually settled his stomach as well as his nerves. He thought about drawing more but the evening sun had slipped below the horizon behind them and home was less than fifty miles away.

Danny put his head back against the seat and dozed. He flew again with the girl dragon. Her name was Tavreth and she was nine hundred years old, barely a teenager in dragon years.

In his dream, he made friends with her, which left him feeling good when he awoke.

He recognized Ridge Road. He and his parents were less than a half-mile from home.

As his father rounded a bend, the rear lights of a pickup truck alerted them of someone parked on the road in front of their home. Mr. Langford stood at the driver’s door, bathed in George Sutton’s headlights.

Mr. Langford turned and hurried toward their car as George stopped.

“What’s going on?” Michelle asked as George rolled down his window.

A sickening feeling of dread came over Danny as Mr. Langford told them a fantastic tale. Danny’s aching heart went out to the black lump of a dead dragon in the front yard.

He had to undo this. But how?

He rummaged in the backpack for his Magic Brand eraser. He had never used it before, so he hoped his idea would work. If it did, he had a lot of fixing to do.

He opened his pad to the drawing of him as a dragon flying with Tavreth, and Mr. Langford ready to shoot. Then he erased the old man, his rifle, and the pickup truck.

Outside, each one vanished. He erased Tavreth and she vanished from the front yard.

His mother was quick to turn on him.

He pulled from her grasp.

“It’s better this way,” George said, pulling her away from the boy.

“We’ll start over afresh,” Danny promised as he found the first drawing he had drawn the day after his real parents bought him the pad and pencil.

He erased his pretend parents, the ones who liked taking him places. He erased their pretend car, which left him standing alone on the road in front of his home. He flipped to the second page and erased the locked cell in the basement where his real parents were.

Picking up his backpack, he headed up the driveway and toward the front door. He paused only once, trying to figure a way to turn himself into a dragon. But he cast away the idea. His fantasy life had gone too far. It was time to face reality.

He took a deep breath, opened the front door, and entered.

# # #

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.

Julie [fiction]

Changes, Part 5

Today is my birthday. I find it fitting to feature a character I created on my birthday many years ago when I was a teenager.

Julianna “Julie” Michelle Douglas, 13

Julie

In the beginning, I named her Lucinda after an older sister I almost had. She was big sister to Kenny (named Lenny back then) and was a schoolteacher. Years later, I renamed her Susan and moved her to Pittsburgh. She remained a teacher.

She became the younger sister in 1999 when I started a work-in-progress with the working title Let There Be Dragons. I spent three years writing Let There Be Dragons until I shelved it in favor of another story called Kismet. The short story below is a reworked chapter of Let There Be Dragons. Faithful followers of my blog will recognize it as The Pink Fairy WIP featured here, beginning October 20, 2012 and running for five chapters.

Julie went through several name changes over the years before I chose Julianna as a keeper last year.

*

Green Fairy (A work-in-progress chapter featuring Julie)

A splash came from Alice Lake. Julie Douglas sat up on her beach towel, lifted her binoculars from her satchel bag, and scanned the lake. Her tanned, bare-chested brother Kenny fell to his oars to control the rocking red rowboat. Someone had jumped overboard and now swam toward her. Once the rocking stopped, Kenny started the outboard engine and followed the swimmer. Amy Conrad stood and hurried out of the water and onto the beach, then waited next to Julie while Kenny anchored the boat in the shallow water.

“Doesn’t he look sexy in those blue swim trunks I bought him for his birthday?” Amy asked.

“Ew.” Julie made a face.

“Hey, sis,” Kenny said with a grin as he approached. He was barefoot, like Amy. “Have you been spying on Mr. and Mrs. Jackson’s nephew again?” He pointed at the black binoculars hanging from a black leather strap around Julie’s neck.

Julie sighed and removed the field glasses. “Ha ha, very funny.” She grabbed a tube of suntan lotion from her bag and squeezed some on her reddened forearms. Unlike her older brother, she had to suffer through several sunburns before her skin tanned.

“Isn’t that him spying on you from his bedroom?”

“What?” Julie twisted to look at Mr. and Mrs. Jackson’s red and white two-story cottage next door.

“Relax. He’s with the Jacksons in New Cambridge for the weekend.” Kenny chuckled. “He’ll be disappointed he missed seeing you half naked in that hot pink boy-tease micro mini dress.”

“I’m not half naked. And this isn’t a micro mini dress, moron. It’s my new strapless sundress.”

Kenny held his palms out. “Okay. Jeez. Sorry.”

“I think it’s adorable,” Amy said, sitting on the foot end of Julie’s towel. Water dripped from her golden hair and red, one-piece swimsuit. She was careful not to drip any water on Julie’s sketchpad of various bird drawings. She lifted the binoculars to her eyes and scanned the lake. “Seen anything interesting?”

Julie flipped her long dark hair from her shoulders and rubbed lotion on her upper arms. “Mostly robins and chickadees. Some cardinals and blue jays. Nothing exciting.”

“My favorite bird’s the Steller’s Jay,” Kenny said. He removed a yellow T-shirt draped over his right shoulder, put it on, and ran a hand through his shaggy brown hair. “Seen any around?”

“Ha ha, very droll, big brother.” Then Julie added under her breath, “Dork.”

Kenny’s grin widened. “So I like the Steller’s Jay,” he said. “Sue me.”

“And I like penguins. But anyone with a brain knows they’re not native to Pennsylvania.”

“It’s not my fault they don’t live in Pennsylvania.”

“You two remind me of Dave and me on those boring family vacations we get dragged on every August,” Amy said. She placed the binoculars next to Julie’s sketchbook. “We’re going to Yellowstone next month.” She pretended to stick a finger down her throat and regurgitate.

“I love Yellowstone,” Julie said. “All the wildlife and geysers and Lewis and Clark Caverns. Awesome.”

Amy rolled her eyes and shook her head. “Yeah. Awesome.”

A green birdlike creature zipped from the sky and circled Kenny’s head. He swatted at it as if it was a bee trying to sting him. Julie laughed when he stumbled and fell on his backside before it flew away.

“Was that a hummingbird?” he asked, peering at the sky.

“I don’t think that was a bird,” Julie said.

“What?” Amy asked. “Why not?”

“Um … well…”

Amy frowned. Then, “Of course it was a hummingbird,” she said and laughed. “What else could it be?”

“A fairy,” Julie said. “She dropped this.” She plucked a twig from the sand. “I think it’s her wand.”

“Whoa.” Kenny sat forward to get a closer look.

“She was very beautiful, with a girlish humanoid body all covered in green hair from head to toe,” Julie said.

Kenny nodded. “Makes sense. It seems silly to think they live outdoors and are bare skinned like us. I never bought into the idea that they make tiny fairy dresses on tiny looms and sewing machines to keep warm and dry.”

“Whoa, wait a minute,” Amy said. “Are you two serious?”

“Well, what did you see?” Julie asked.

“But fairies aren’t real.”

“But you saw one.”

“But…”

“It’s okay. I never believed in fairies either, even after seeing my third one up close,” Julie said. “But they’re real.”

“Wait. Time out.” Amy looked up at Kenny who still studied the sky. “It was a trick of the light. Fairies are not real.”

“It’s cool,” Kenny said. He scooted across the sand until he sat next to Amy and faced her. “And nothing to be afraid of.”

“I didn’t say I was afraid. I said they’re not real.”

Kenny shrugged. “Some people believe fairies are real and some people don’t. Some people believe all fairies are female. Some say leprechauns are real but trolls aren’t. And some people believe in vampires but not werewolves. It’s how things are until we see them with our own eyes.”

“This is nuts,” Amy said. She closed her eyes and sighed.

Julie pointed at the elm and maple trees separating her parents’ cabin property from Mr. and Mrs. Jackson’s property. “There are probably more of them, all of them living in the trees, blending with the leaves so we can’t see them. I’ve read that they only appear at dawn and twilight, but I think we’ve proved that theory wrong.”

Amy snorted. “Yeah, well, I think I’m gonna go to the amusement park where the sane people are,” she announced. She hurried to stand up but her feet shifted in the sand and she fell back to her spot on Julie’s towel. Kenny caught her by the upper arm and kept her from falling against him.

She pulled from his grasp. “Ouch. You scratched me.” She pushed him away and inspected her arm.

While Kenny peered at Amy’s scratch, Julie said, “I wonder why the fairy buzzed your head, Kenny. They don’t usually show themselves to humans unless they have something to say.”

“She did make a noise that could have been her talking to me.” Kenny looked up and shrugged. “It sounded like she said yellow stone, but I couldn’t make it out too well.”

“We were talking about Amy going to Yellowstone,” Julie said, excited. “Yellowstone. Say it. Yellowstone.”

“Why?”

“Just say it. I wanna see if she returns.”

“Yellowstone,” Kenny said, looking at the sky.

The fairy flew from a maple tree next to Mr. and Mrs. Jackson’s cabin and circled Kenny’s head. He kept still and closed his eyes.

“What is she saying to you?” Julie asked a moment later when the fairy circled Kenny’s head faster and became a green streak.

“Yellow,” Kenny said. Then, “No … not yellow. Arrow. Arrow stone.”

“This … is too freaky,” Amy said. She licked her lips, then stood and stumbled when she backed away from Kenny and the fairy. “I-I … I need to get out of here.” She turned, took a step, then yelped when her feet left the ground and her body lifted a foot into the air.

“Don’t move,” Kenny called out. “Nobody do or say anything

“Let me down,” Amy cried out. She kicked her legs. “Let me down right now.”

Julie jumped to her feet and hurried to Amy’s left side. “Don’t be afraid,” she said, encircling her arms around Amy’s upper legs. “And stop kicking.” She pulled Amy down.

As soon as Amy’s feet touched ground, she fell forward and took Julie with her. The girls landed on a damp, hardwood floor. Julie rolled to her back, sat up and picked up the twig she was certain was a fairy wand.

The large, rectangular room was dingy and musty smelling in the dim light that entered three broken windows and a missing slat along the wall closest to Julie. A red squirrel scampered across the floor and disappeared through the missing slat. Rodents squealed and scurried in the ceiling where a labyrinth of cobwebs festooned from it. Thick dust covered the floor, and Julie’s bare feet stirred it into the light as she went to the nearest window and looked out at a jungle of trees.

“Is this someone’s house in the middle of the woods?” she asked.

“We’re in Myers Mansion.” Amy stood and shivered.

“You mean the creepy place next to your house?” Julie turned and grinned at Amy. “Awesome.”

Amy started toward Julie, then stopped and threw her arms in the air. “Something weird just happened to us and you think it’s awesome. How is this awesome, Julie? Explain it to me.”

“We just teleported. How many people do you know can say that?” Julie peered at the sky. “We seem to be in the same time period, so that’s good. I wish I had my phone to find out for sure.  And we could find out what the fairy is doing.” Julie turned and faced Amy. “She said arrow stone to Kenny. She was telling him about a compass.”

Amy crossed her arms. “You speak fairy now, do you?”

“Please don’t make fun of me.”

“No. Seriously. What if arrow stone means flint or any of the other stones people used to make arrowheads?”

“Because the fairy didn’t say arrowhead.”

“So what’s the difference? Huh? Tell me, Miss Smarty Know-It-All.”

“I…” Julie turned and looked out the broken window again. “I can’t tell you how I know.”

“Fine. I’m going home and do my best to forget this ever happened.”

“You’ll make fun of me.” Julie swiped at a tear crawling down a cheek.

“What do you mean I’ll make fun of you?”

“Because you don’t believe in magic.”

Amy was silent for a moment. Then, “I was transported from Myers Lake to Myers Mansion by a fairy who talks to my best friend and his kid sister,” she said, walking up to Julie and putting an arm around her shoulders. “I’ll believe anything you tell me as honest to goodness truth.”

“Promise you won’t tell Kenny or anyone else what I’m going to tell you.”

“I promise.”

“It begins with my mom’s grandmother and great-grandmother. I found an old diary in the attic last month inside a secret bottom of an old storage chest. My mom’s grandmother wrote it, and she talks about a time when fairies became afraid of showy mortal humans. That’s what she called them, and she said hunting parties went into the woods and captured and killed any fairy they found.”

“I thought fairies were … I mean, are immortal.”

“Only the good ones are immortal. The dark ones can be killed with silver.”

“What is a dark fairy?”

“Most of the time it’s a fairy who is changed by dark magic, either by accident or on purpose. And sometimes it can be a mortal human turned into a dark fairy by evil magic.

“But not everyone was afraid of fairies. People like my mom’s grandmother and great-grandmother accepted their differences and were kind to them. The fairies often took these people to their world. The last time my mom’s great-grandmother visited, she returned pregnant and was accused by her neighbors of having sex with a fairy.”

“Did she?”

“The book doesn’t say. The village doctor and judge found her guilty and burned her alive like they did to witches back then. My mom’s grandmother was so angry and frightened that she lived in the fairy realm for a long time until she returned at the request of her brother to die of old age and be buried on her family’s homestead. She wrote in her diary that all of her children were fathered by a fairy prince.”

“Wow. That means—”

“Crazy. I know.”

Amy let go of Julie. “That’s how you knew the fairy meant compass when she said arrow stone.”

“It’s like she and I are connected. Her words formed a picture in my mind. She was doing the same to Kenny before she sent us here.”

“Do you think she really lives in the trees at Alice Lake?” Amy asked. “Or in a fairy realm, like the one you spoke of?”

“Probably both. The realm’s entrance would likely be someplace where there are rings of toadstools or rock circles. Fairies like to live under hills that have old trees, or under willow trees near lakes.”

“Like Alice Lake.” The words were barely out of Amy’s mouth when heavy footsteps below the room caused her to look at the door. “Listen,” she said in a loud whisper. “Someone’s down there!”

The footsteps started up the creaky old stairs.

Julie followed Amy to the doorway and peered down a dingy hallway that led past three closed doors on the left and two closed doors on the right. The only light came from a few holes in the roof. It lit the monster’s yellow massive face when it turned at the top of the stairs. Julie fell back into the room and held a hand to her mouth to muffle a scream.

The only exit was through a window. If she and Amy hurried, they could crawl across the branches there and escape before the monster reached their room.

“Come on,” she commanded. “Follow me.”

But Amy remained at the door, peering down the hallway.

The muscle-bound, apelike monster brushed past her. Red eyes locked on Julie. In two strides, the monster was nose to nose with her. Startled by the sudden approach and the rotten stench that came with it, Julie stepped back, but not far enough as a right hand shot out in a fist. Pain shot through her abdomen. She sat down hard, fell on her side, then brought her knees to her chest and gasped for air.

“Julie, what’s wrong?” Amy hurried into the room and smacked off the monster’s back that sent her staggering backwards against the wall.

“Go.” Julie sucked at the stale air, breathing hard, in and out, almost panting while she tried to catch her breath. “Go. Save … your … self.”

“What happened?” Amy asked, crying out alarmed.

The monster glared at Julie. “You’re trespassing. You need to leave.” It stepped closer. “Give me the magic stick. Or do I have to get mean with you again?”

“Yes,” Julie said, still breathing hard, “I mean … here.” She handed it the twig. “We’re going.”

“Quickly,” the monster demanded, sending spittle onto Julie. It pointed a long, thick forefinger at her. “You have to the count of ten to leave this place, or face my wrath.”

“Fine.” Julie sat up.

“One.”

She stumbled to her feet.

“Two.”

She went to Amy and took her by an arm.

“Three.”

“Come on. We’re not welcome here.”

“Four.”

“Why?”

“Trust me. We have to go.”

“Five. You’re almost out of time.”

She pulled Amy into the hall.

“Six.”

She cursed and hurried to the stairs, almost missing a step on the way down. Amy’s quick reflexes kept her from falling.

The front door groaned and tried to resist their exit. Outside, daylight barely penetrated the thicket there. Vines of ivy ran wild, choking life from the trees and gripping the house in a spooky death hold.

Amy pulled at Julie and stopped her from running onto the path of spongy lichen that led to the front gate.

“What’s going on?” she asked.

Julie rubbed her sore stomach and looked at the house.

“The monster didn’t want us there,” she said before the ground trembled beneath their feet. A white flash came from the front of the old house, followed by a hot wind that pushed at them and knocked them on their backs. Julie reached out against the wind and found Amy. They embraced as debris of wood, leaves and grass flew over them. For several seconds, Julie thought the world had ended in an atomic blast.

When the wind stopped, she sat up. Then she jumped to her feet and raced to where the old house had stood.

Amy caught up to her, turned in a circle next to the lot filled with the house’s charred debris. “How is this possible?” She sounded stunned. The white flash and hot wind had uprooted the nearest trees and stripped them of their leaves, branches, and bark

“I don’t know,” Julie said. “It’s like magic happened here. Big magic.” She sat on the ground, drew up her legs and wrapped her arms around them. She said nothing for several minutes. Amy sat next her and hugged her own legs. By the time the birds and squirrels and other animals returned from wherever they had gone during the disturbance, she stood, offered Amy a hand, and helped her to her feet. Both girls brushed dirt from their backsides. When Julie turned back, a green fairy hovered in front of her.

“You gave Gulbrier the wand. He has crossed dimensions to change the past. You and your brother must use the arrow stone to find and stop him before he destroys us.”

Both girls stared wide-eyed as the fairy flew away.

“I heard her,” Amy said. “I heard the fairy speak to you.”

“I caused this to happen,” Julie said. “I have to fix it. But I’m just a girl.” She turned and faced Amy. “What am I gonna do?”

Amy took her by the shoulders and said, “We go to my house, call Kenny, and make plans to get that wand away from Gulbrier. I know some people who are pretty savvy about magic and the supernatural.”

“You’ll do that for me?”

Amy looked at the destroyed house. “I’m doing it for us.” She took Julie by the hand and hurried her onto the path.

*–*–*

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.

*–*–*

Amy [fiction]

Changes, Part 3

Another change (and more to come) to strengthen my characters.

Amy Elizabeth Conrad, 15

Amy

As a teenage male in the 1970s, the hardest part of writing was understanding my female characters. I had plenty of girl cousins to study, but I grew up in a household of six males and one female, which was my mom. Other than her, I had no one of the opposite sex to study at home. I had books like Little Women and Nancy Drew to refer to, but they were dated. It wasn’t until I married and had daughters did I get to observe females up close. And for the most part, they weren’t as different from males than I thought they were. Unlike my mom and my cousins, as well as the March sisters and Nancy Drew, my wife enjoyed roughing it outdoors and watching football. And my daughters played sports and were as competitive as my son and I. The female gender personifications from the pre-1980 literature I had read and the movies and TV shows I’d watched were unrealistic. It was then that Amy Conrad and the other female characters I wrote about came alive.

She strives to excel at music for self-expression; music means everything to her. When she’s down, she recharges by swimming. Free time is spent “jamming” with her band ARC, or “hanging” with friends.

She is gentle, compassionate, kind and charming too. Generally an easygoing person—most of the time, she is slow to anger, but she has a ferocious temper once it is roused.

Strangely (but typical in brother-sister relationships), twin brother Dave—he’s younger by almost ten minutes—seldom resents her. In fact, he “defends her honor” more ferociously than his own. Any potential boyfriends are in for a hard time.

Sometimes, Amy is funnier, more gregarious, and more talented than Dave is, making her stand out and seem like “the favorite child” to their parents. Often, she is sweetness and light to everyone else, but the Devil to Dave.

Dave, who is the musically untalented child, resents the admiration Amy receives, and views it as favoritism. And Amy views Dave’s accolades in football, baseball and other sports as favoritism. Cue sibling rivalry, and lots of it.

*

Beyond the Music (A short story featuring Amy)

Amy Conrad hefted her black acoustic guitar over a shoulder and started down the knoll of her backyard, pushing through a tangle of waist-high weeds and into timberland surrounding Myers Mansion. The old Victorian house sat vacant and ignored behind its rusty gates, invisible to anyone passing by on Ridge Road’s country blacktop. It was the perfect place for Amy to be alone and work on her music.

The overcast daylight barely penetrated the thicket that swallowed her from view. Inside, ivy ran wild everywhere, choking life from the trees and gripping the house’s exterior walls in a death hold.

Amy made her way across a rear porch of spongy boards and through a doorway that no longer held a door. She lit several scented candles inside the largest room downstairs—a musty sitting room with run-down walls of yellowed and peeling wallpaper. She swept a straw broom across the warped and rotted floor and pushed empty beer cans and cigarette butts into a pile near a window of mold encrusted red drapes. Someone had lost a ten-dollar bill there. It was probably Craig Dunn or one of his brainless toadies who sometimes used the place on Saturday nights to get drunk and high at and have sex with underage sluts.

The police had raided the place many times over the past five years. Here was proof that Dunn and his toadies weren’t going to stop. She pocketed the bill and continued sweeping.

Once the broom was propped again in the corner, she took up her guitar and sat on a wood ottoman—the only piece of intact furniture. She flipped away a strand of her long blonde hair and whispered lyrics while she lightly fingered the steel strings and turned their quiesced sounds into song.

For almost ten minutes, she concentrated on chords and words before she set the guitar aside and went to the cobwebby bookcase with ancient, mold-encrusted books. She dared not touch the books as she got on her hands and knees and fetched her portable DVD player from underneath the bookcase. With a press of the PLAY button, the player started up. Her favorite movie, Go, Johnny Go! still in the machine, came on, so she returned to the ottoman and watched the dim flickering of social differences play to the scores of many dead composers. Soon, she drifted on the music, playing it loud to keep her mind from settling on her usual isle of loneliness, put there because no one her age, it seemed, shared her interest in 1950s and ’60s jump blues, rock-n-roll, and hopped-up country.

Sure, she had a brother, cousins, and friends who talked about and got excited over the rapping remakes of some of those old songs, but no one wanted to listen to the raw energy of the original recordings. And for that reason, she existed alone on Myers Ridge in the rural small-town of twenty-first century Ridgewood, Pennsylvania.

Well, not truly alone. Myers Mansion—named after the long ago playwright who had built it one summer ninety years ago—had managed to keep some of its ghosts. Others had come from town and places nearby, attracted to the old mansion’s size and neglect. They watched and conversed from the shadows of the house, though Amy did not see or hear them. She did not believe in ghosts. Only music.

At the same time, Craig Dunn drove his black Triumph motorcycle across the weeds of what he believed was the driveway of Myers Mansion. He pushed his heavy body from the bike and fought gravity to maintain his balance. Day had become night inside the thicket of trees, and he managed to hold onto the six-pack of Budweiser as he stumbled over roots and branches toward the house. He managed a firm grasp of the beer when he squeezed through the gate’s doorway where a fallen heavy limb kept the door from opening far. But when he headed along the footpath through brambles on the left side of the house, he dropped his favorite beverage three times.

The leaves above him hissed from the treetops swaying in the breeze, as if disapproving his decision to come here.

“I’ll do what I damn well please,” he told them. And although the leaves kept hissing, he felt better for telling them off.

A raindrop smacked him on top of the head. He looked up as the sky jarred him with a deafening boom of thunder. Icy rain crashed through the tree branches and slammed against his face. He held onto his beer and managed to stay upright, staggering backward several steps as though an invisible wrestler tried bringing him to his knees.

He tucked his beer under his jean jacket as faded and worn as his jean shirt and pants and brown leather boots. By the time he reached the same door that Amy had entered, he stepped into a hole in the floor but managed to keep his boot from going all the way through it. With an awkward skip, he stayed upright and cursed the rain and house.

He started toward the kitchen where he had stashed his marijuana three nights ago, then turned around and followed the tinny sound of guitar music to the old living room. He stopped as he entered.

“Um … Hi.” He brought an arm to his brow. Her eyes were like cloudless summer skies, so bright in the candlelight that he was glad he wasn’t colorblind like his old man. “Um … I didn’t know you would be here during the daytime.”

She reached out to him, her arms open and inviting like invisible pulleys attached to his heart. He dropped his beer and hurried to her, pressing his body against hers, feeling her strength and hating how soft and weak he’d become.

She moved her head to look at him. He kissed her hard on the lips, not letting her see the lust pushing away the fear in his eyes.

His breath was heavy and ragged around her mouth; his battered hands explored every inch of her. Her heat drove him to the edge. A swing of her hips pushed him over it.

He fell like before, wrapped in the clutches of what she was. Her fire would become ice now. She would want him to stay with her forever.

He untangled his arms and legs from hers and ran from her and the house’

Inside, Amy awoke from her nap when Craig brought his motorcycle’s engine to a roaring start. As he accelerated into the rain and onto the country road, she lifted her head from the ottoman, looked around from where she sat on the floor, and wondered where the six-pack of beer had come from.

She did not see the ghost girl who stood over the beer, watching the door and waiting for her lover to return.

*–*–*

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.

*–*–*

New Ridgewood, 2 [fiction]

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

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

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

“Nice,” she said.

The sofa made a comfortable bed.

“Very nice.”

She floated alone. And she liked it.

She floated with her sofa, going nowhere.

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

She liked that, too.

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

But this was not the ocean.

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

An urgent need to go to it overwhelmed her. Whatever was there was important. Perhaps color was there.

“Hurry,” she said to her sofa, which floated and ignored her 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 seat to her right.

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

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

Sudden white light bathed them as though someone had flicked on a light switch. Vree fell from her father’s embrace but remained snuggled against him. He wore his usual dark work suit and shoes—all business. And her T-shirt was the Bugs Bunny one from last Christmas.

She smiled a short-lived grin at her father who now wore his blue silk robe and matching pajamas and slippers from the same Christmas.

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

“It’s Christmas,” he said, pointing a long finger at the infinite white space in front of them. Vree looked. She wanted 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 her attention to an armchair that descended from above them. It stopped in front of the sofa and a girl looked up from an open, oversized hardcover book.

“You look like me,” Vree said.

The doppelganger smiled at her, then closed the book softly and laid it in her lap of skinny leg jeans—Vree’s favorite pair from last Christmas. She even wore Vree’s 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.

Vree noticed her own hair was loose and draped around her neck and shoulders.

“Who is she?” Vree asked her father.

“I’m you,” the doppelganger said.

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

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

“Hush,” Charles said to her. Then, to Vree, 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.”

Vree clutched her father’s arm in a tight embrace. “Recover from what?”

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

Vree 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,” Vree said. “Daddy’s right here. This is just a dream trying to go bad.” She searched her father’s solemn face. “Tell her she’s crazy.”

Charles met her 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.”

Vree shook her head.

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

Vree let go of his arm and scooted away. She crossed her arms over her chest and said, “This is just a dream.”

No one said anything.

Vree uncrossed her arms and looked down at herself. She no longer wore the Bugs Bunny shirt. Her red KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON T-shirt made her think of rain, thunder, and—

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

“Somewhere between life and death.”

Vree moaned and shook her head.

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

“I don’t love you!”

“Without her, you cannot live,” Charles 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.”

Vree frowned at him. He had moved closer to her. She reached out and took one of his hands in hers. He lifted it to his mouth and kissed the back of it. Then he released it. A white light glowed from her hand, spread up her arm, then over her body until the light bathed her.

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

“Now that you’re awakening, it’s time for me to go.” Charles’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 her interruption. “You can do this.”

He vanished.

The light hurt Vree’s eyes, so she covered them with her hands. She did not see the lights from each body connect and become one.

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

“I am breathing.” Vree sucked in a breath. “See?”

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

“Why?”

“You know why.”

Vree uncovered her eyes but kept them closed. Then she took in a deep breath.

The light vanished. So did Vree.

*.*.*