Vignette: A promise

I promised you that the minute you needed to jet, I’d meet you outside in Coraline’s truck and we’d bolt down to Mexico — after all, I can speak Italian with a Spanish accent, so we would be just fine. The first time I said this, you laughed and replied, “God, you’re great.”

We were about two months into sleeping with each other at that point, five months into just knowing each other. 

The second time I reminded you I was willing to commit grand theft auto — though I’m not sure it’s truly GTA when it’s my own divorced sister-in-law’s truck I’m stealing, especially when she swindled my brother out of seeing the kids for 50 weeks out of the year — you kissed me on the forehead with a smile and said “But they don’t pay that much in Mexico.”

Canada, then, I said. They have Mounties and great healthcare. Or cheap pills, at least.

“And mountains!” you added. “I like mountains.” 

So it was settled, that we’d drive up to Canada in my ex-sister-in-law’s truck after I had swung by to pick up your dog and camping gear on my way to collect you from what I was sure would be a very bloody murder scene. You could hide in the back alley while the cops assessed the body count. Just one, as planned. Maybe more if there were annoying witnesses. Be sure to bash his head in with a block of ice so it would melt and none of your fingerprints would be found. 

“Feels….cold,” you said when I recommended this.

“Yeah, but the son-of-a-bitch deserves it.”

“No, the ice,” you said. “I lose feeling in my fingers really quickly when the temperature drops, so I’m not sure how long I can hold an ice block.”

“And you want to go to Canada?”

So now we’re back to Mexico as our escape destination, and I’m still waiting for the call telling me to hotwire that bitch Coraline’s truck, swing by to get Rufus the mutt and some camping gear, pick up you and your numb fingers, and high tail it to a beach south of the border. Just so happens I look great in a bikini.

Oh, you think I’m joking? Check out these abs. And this ass. I’m fucking Raquel Welch. Bette Page. Halle Berry walking up on the beach in Die Another Day.

Oh, you mean about driving to Mexico. Baby, just hand me the map and you can doze shotgun the whole way down.

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#NaNoWriMo2018 Day 9: The Hitman’s Son

Countless children’s stories told the tales of sons and daughters overcoming their parents’ sins. A robber’s son catches a thief. A killer’s daughter saves a life. Everyone learns to love the little hero or heroine, and the past holds no impact. That wasn’t the case for young Hamish.

At 10 Hamish and his mother learned of his father’s side-job as a hitman for the mob. At 10 and a half, he watched her leave on a crisp autumn day. The sun was so blinding that he could barely see the car pull out of the driveway, but the important thing was that he wasn’t in the passenger seat. His uncle said he looked too much like his father, and that was why she didn’t want to take him with her. He was like the ugly t-shirt no one buys at the airport gift shop in Tulsa, Oklahoma because it would remind them too much of having to spend time in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

And so Hamish stayed with his father for two years before the feds caught up to him, and then was transferred to his high school janitor uncle three hundred miles away. His mother still wouldn’t talk to him, or even see him.

The same went for his schoolmates when they learned of his dark past. Unlike all the heroes in the books who have two or three close allies, he had none. Eventually, he became accustomed to being alone. Then college came.

Hamish made the same move that most 18-year-olds make at the time they leave home for the unknown of university life. He reinvented himself, armed with a new suit purchased for him by his uncle and a stack of 1960s sci-fi fiction.

And that’s where his story begins.

#NaNoWriMo2018 Day 3: How to escape monotony through a skyscraper window

Jennifer and Felix were never in love. There was a time when Jennifer was slightly enamored and even more desperate enough to think she’d just grab and kiss him so she could say she had locked lips with a boy who wasn’t doing it on a dare. She was 15 at the time.

But almost 15 years later, both Jennifer and Felix were sure they would have a relationship very much like the one described by Albert Brooks in Broadcast News; they’d have dinner once in a while, get hot for each other on occasion but never act on it, and go on with their separate lives. He was living the monotonous life of an already-retired Hollywood stunt man living in a quaint Missouri town, and she was surviving day-to-day chained to a desk.

Until she wasn’t anymore.

Jennifer’s boss kept talking, but her mind wasn’t listening. She just looked at the pictures on the walls. Him with his kids. Him with his wife. Him with the president of the company. Him with the president of the country. He really thought he was a big fucking deal.

She had pictures, too. Her with friends from college, whom she never talked to anymore or even cared about enough to read their social media updates. She didn’t know why she kept those pictures up, except to remind others that at one point, she was a likable person — a popular person, in fact — who went by Jenni and sketched incredibly lifelike roses on all her notebooks. But since college, nothing had changed for her, apart from her demeanor. All the ugly she bottled up hadn’t magically drained out of her upon graduation, and she still suffered the constant feeling she was letting a professor (or boss) down, the constant need for sexual and alcoholic satisfaction, the constant lack of sexual and alcoholic satisfaction.

Maybe it was the fact nothing about her had changed that pissed her off the most and made her so irritable. Nothing made her happy anymore; even a promotion and raise would irk her because it meant that someone couldn’t see through her outer good-worker appearance to understand her underneath. They either couldn’t or wouldn’t. The first was frustrating; the second hurtful.

So maybe all the pent-up frustration that she still hadn’t gotten out, even after her rampage through the office, was what made it not just unsurprising but also welcome when Felix crashed through the boss’ door, grabbed her arm and dragged her to and through the 29th-story window.

#NaNoWriMo Day 1: Giraffe through Jell-O

Pru climbed the marble stairs to the lobby, flashed her badge at the gate scanner, and headed to the elevator bank. Any time she had to come to this building, she took full advantage of the sound of her stiletto heels click-clacking across the marble floor.

“Remember, making it look easy makes you look more talented,” her mother had said about wearing heels, playing guitar and cooking a perfect soufflé. “Glide, don’t clomp.”

In the 111 East lobby, she walked heel-to-toe quick and fast, with giant strides that made her look like a giraffe trying to wade through Jell-o. She didn’t care how it looked: it was the sound that she loved and that made people scatter out of her way.

Writespiration: Sleigh Bells at The Metro

Late last year I started a project working-titled Sparklers that crosses post-apocalyptic dystopia with teenage angst. Think Mad Max: Fury Road meets Mean Girls.

I’m still shocked no one has thought of this yet. If you know about something like it out there, let me know in the comments.

Anyway, projects I work on always have a musical element behind them. Most of the time, it’s a set of movie and TV scores — Omaha was written to selections from Westworld, Man of Steel, Penny Dreadful and Interstellar, for example. Currently I’m penning Nobody’s Hero to a mix of A Tribe Called Quest and the Legion series soundtrack (as well as The Heavy’s song, “Nobody’s Hero,” of course).

But Sparklers is the first project I’ve worked on to only one artist: noise-pop powerhouse Sleigh Bells. The attitude and volume of their music fits the demolition diva derby vibe I’m going for with the characters and environment, so they provide perfect audio inspiration.

But then I saw them live.

I’m a concert-going animal, but I usually stay out of the fray. Thanks to getting to Chicago’s Metro early, we had third-row standing spots for the show, which quickly became third- to first-row moshing spots, as the crowd never stood still. (I did capture this video of “Rainmaker.” And this one of “Blue Trash Mattress Fire.”)

Like I said, I usually refrain from getting too up-close-and-personal because I enjoy listening and watching bands more than participating in hand-to-hand combat with those around me. But this show was different, in that the sweat, screams and jumps fit perfectly into the mania of the world that Sleigh Bells’ music has helped me begin to create. You better believe that when the end of the world comes and the majority of survivors are teenage girls, there will be raves like these.

There will be neck-breaking headbanging to “Infinity Guitars.”

There will be group-hug swaying to “Rill Rill.”

And “Rule Number One” will be that pop rocks and coke make your head explode.

Alexis Krauss, lead singer of Sleigh Bells, gets down with the audience at Chicago's Metro on Aug. 17, 2018.

Alexis Krauss, lead singer of Sleigh Bells, gets down with the audience at Chicago’s Metro on Aug. 17, 2018.

Excerpt: Finding Agatha

I recognize the back of Agatha’s head from the tangled hair falling out of its ponytail. But as I take a seat next to her in a metal chair built to keep visitors from outstaying their welcome, I find that this isn’t the same woman who had sat in my office just weeks before.

“They called me this morning,” I say, hoping to pull her glazed eyes away from the obvious one-way mirror on the opposite wall. The chair is bolted to the floor, so instead of turning to face her, I settle for looking at her reflection.

“Can I get you anything?” the nurse asks.

I nod, “Water, thanks.” Agatha doesn’t move.

Too many things to say mean I say nothing, just stare at the linoleum floor. The tiles’ yellow edges glow in the shadows, and I wonder how many of Moundsville’s mental patients have pissed, shat or vomited on the exact spot between my feet.

I’m shaken from my thoughts when the door shuts behind the nurse. Lifting my head, I come nose-to-nose with Agatha. She’s turned to face me, her ear resting against the recliner’s back.

This close, I can see her cheeks are no longer flecked with crumbling drugstore mascara. Now they’re pale with exhaustion and resignation. She smells strongly of shampoo. The nurses hadn’t given her a thorough rinse.

Unable to tolerate being this close to her — the period at the end of my failure — I strain my eyes against the mirror and try to catch a hint of movement on the other side. All I see, however, is how much older I look since Agatha disappeared.

I turn back to the breathing corpse still gaping at me.

“I feel like this is where I’m supposed to say this is my fault,” I say. “But I don’t think it is. I think it was those two — or maybe it was something else. I think you were overwhelmed.”

To avoid saying anything more, I sip the water. It’s sour from the Styrofoam, and I put the cup back on the table in disgust. Agatha’s empty eyes don’t leave me the entire time.

“Tell the nurse to call me if you want to talk,” I say as I rise, sensing that there isn’t more to say and even less to hear. Agatha’s head slowly turns back to the mirror, and I meet her gaze in the glass before admitting, “I want to know what happened to you.”

The words have left my mouth so dry that I take a second bitter sip of water and start to leave. At the door I turn around one last time to find Agatha staring at my reflection. Maybe it’s just the dark glass, but I swear something black — like ink or smoke — curls from her lips.

Writespiration: Birthing a story

Maybe I heard this somewhere else before and am just stealing it now. If that’s the case, please tell me. If not, read me out:

Writing a story is like giving birth.

I say this having never given birth myself, but knowing several people who have. No birth is the same. Some are somewhat easy — Mom says she practically sneezed my sister out — and others require scalpels and spinal injections. But in the end, writing anything leaves you feeling tired, accomplished and relieved, with a beautiful future of shepherding the work throughout the rest of its (and possibly your) life.

The same goes for writing. Some stories and poems exit fairly smoothly: Not too smoothly. That means they’re not done being told yet: And these premie stories require a lot of nurturing before they can stand on their own. That’s not to say they’re bad or nonviable. Most National Novel Writing Month stories are this way, sliding out tactlessly only to mature on the outside when an editor’s pen goes to them. They’re just deceptively slippery and too anxious to land on a page.

Then there are the 12-hour labors, the stories that leave you sweaty and exhausted but proud when they’re done. They can be reluctant to leave the warmth of the womb-like imagination, grappling at the walls with their little fingernails to stay inside just a little longer, using plot holes and unclear transitions like handholds. But eventually they, too, squeeze themselves onto a page.

And then there are the Cesarean sections of stories — the ones that a writer has to cut themselves open to extract because of a deadline or misguided promise or pressure from readers. I’ve read too many books by authors that took a knife to their brain, ripped it open and plopped the story onto a page without much more care, Sadly, the stitches used to close their brains back up often heal wrong, making it impossible for them to ever write another thing that doesn’t read forced.

If I’m being honest, Omaha was a C-Section of a book because I had a literary agent waiting to read it. But my newest project goes from easy to laborious and back again — completely enjoyable the entire time as I leisurely let it make its way from brain to page.