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NYC Midnight: Waiting in the Dark

NYC Midnight:  Waiting in the Dark

Tomorrow is the deadline for the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge. I received my assignment last weekend and was somewhat dismayed.  I’ll just say that it was a genre, character, and subject I thought I had absolutely no interested in whatsoever.  But I surprised myself by sitting down the other evening and knocking out a story I think is pretty clever.  This is the magic of NYC Midnight.

This week I’ve been sharing some of my previous entries to NYC Midnight challenges of the past, along with the judges’ feedback.  (See Extremely Rare and Pudding.)

Today I’ll share the story I wrote for Round 1 of the Flash Fiction Challenge 2013, which won 4th place and advanced me to the second round.  The genre was romance, the location was a haunted house, and the story had to contain marshmallows.  It could only be 1000 words.  Later I ended up getting this story published in an online journal. Thank you, NYC Midnight, for making me write it!

 

 

WAITING IN THE DARK

 

Claire has been lying inside the coffin for what feels like forever. It’s so dark it doesn’t matter if her eyes are open or closed, and to keep herself awake she is eating jumbo marshmallows and thinking about Ben. Before their shift he asked her if she would do his make-up, and she said sure, even though he usually does it himself.

So she used a foam sponge to make dark smudges around his eyes, trying not to stare into them as she worked. She pressed flesh-colored putty onto his cheeks to look like open sores and combed gel through his dark hair. As she dabbed fake blood around his mouth, her fingertips grazed his lips, and her body flushed, the heat burning hottest in the outer curls of her ears.

She thought maybe something was finally going to happen — they were standing so close to each other, her hands still lingering on his face — but then one of the other zombies burst in, laughing about how he’d made some kid pee in his pants the night before, and the moment was lost.

Now, inside her coffin, Claire sighs. Soon Scream Manor will be closed for the season, and she’ll never see Ben again.

She hears the clomping of shoes on the old staircase, followed by a few echoing shrieks. Claire pulls on her mask and waits. The group enters her room, the floorboards creaking underneath their feet.

She waits a moment then pushes the coffin lid open and bolts upright. “Blaaaahhhhh!” She reaches towards a chubby kid with a shaved head.

Everyone squeals, clutching at each other, and Claire is glad. She hates when older guys come through and try to prove how not scared they are by laughing in her face.

The group disappears into the spider room, and Claire pulls off her mask. She’s worried it might be giving her pimples. She twists to the left and right a few times, her spine cracking, before lying back down.

She has just begun another Ben daydream when the coffin lid opens and an arm reaches in towards her. “Hey, what are you doing?” she says. But as her eyes adjust, she sees with a jolt that it’s Ben standing over her.

“Claire? Sorry, I didn’t realize anybody was in this thing.”

In the dimness, Ben’s eyes disappear into his darkly-painted sockets. “Do you mind?” And before she can say anything, he climbs inside the coffin and squeezes down next to her.

“If we close this thing, will we still be able to breathe?” he asks.

“Yeah. There are air holes,” Claire says, although she feels breathless at the moment. The entire left side of her body is touching his, making it hard to concentrate on anything else.

He pulls the lid shut, and the dimness turns to black.

“What’s going on?” She tries to sound casual.

“Shh!” he says, and for a few moments neither of them speak. Claire can hear Ben breathing next to her and feel the heat of his arm against hers.

“I was chasing this dude,” Ben whispers. “Right? That’s my job. And then he turned around and was like ‘zombie wanna fight?’ and he punched me right here.” Ben gropes for Claire’s hand and placed it on top of his stomach.

“That’s crazy!”  Clarie feels as if her heart is beating inside her hand, and she wonders if Ben can feel her pulse through his ripped-up shirt.

“I know. He was like three hundred pounds and psychotic or something. He started chasing me and threatening to kill me, so I ran up here to get away from him.”

“That’s really crazy.  You can hide in here if you want.”

“Thanks.”

They’re both silent for a moment, the darkness settling like a blanket around them. Claire wonders if she should take her hand away from his stomach. Her palm is starting to sweat.

“It smells good in here,” Ben says finally.

“Really? I think it smells like rubber from the mask.”

“No. It smells sweet, like vanilla or something. Is it your hair?” He turns slightly and sniffs the side of her head, sending prickles along her scalp. “No. Your hair smells like flowers. I mean, it smells good, but there’s something else that’s, like, sugary.”

“It’s probably my marshmallows,” Claire realizes. She takes her hand away from Ben’s stomach and feels around above her head for the bag. “You want one?”

“Yeah. Will you get it out for me, though? My hands are dirty.”

Claire pulls out a marshmallow and holds it towards him. “How should I, umm…” She can’t see his face, even though he is only a few inches away.

“Here… Can you feed it to me?” Ben laughs awkwardly.

Claire moved the marshmallow in his direction. Her hand bumps into his chin. “Oh, sorry.”

“It’s OK,” he says softly.

She pushes the marshmallow into his open mouth, her fingers touching his bottom lip, then she pops one into her own mouth. They lay there in silence, chewing.

“Are you doing anything after this?” Ben asks. “Matt’s having people over. I was thinking… If you wanted to go, I could give you a ride.”

“Maybe…” She doesn’t want to seem too eager.

“Or we could go do something on our own, if you want.”

“Yeah, OK.” A stupid grin spreads across Claire’s face, and she’s glad Ben can’t see her in the dark.

“Cool. I’ll see you after, then.” Ben pushes open the lid and staggers his way out of the coffin. A piece of putty drops from his face onto Claire’s neck.

“What about the crazy guy?” she asks.

“What crazy guy?” Ben tilts his head. “I’ll see you at twelve in the break room, OK?” He smiles at her and lowers the lid, and she listens to his footsteps as he descended the stairs.

Slowly, Claire’s heartbeat returns to normal, and she stretches out in her coffin, waiting for midnight and whatever will happen next.

 THE END

 

011

JUDGES’ FEEDBACK:  

WHAT THE JUDGE(S) LIKED ABOUT YOUR STORY –

The entire premise of the story — the characters working at Scream Manor as a vampire and zombie — is humorous and funny. These characters collide, and the action is fun to watch (their conversations, their work, etc.). …This was a sweet piece. The details you incorporated into the text were evocative and engaging, and the character development was strong. Nice job……………………………………………………………….

WHAT THE JUDGES FEEL NEEDS WORK –

The writer could take more time to flesh out the power of this connection. Why do these characters like one another? How does the setting affect this? Similarly, the title seems too basic for such a sharp story….The ending here was a trifle abrupt. I would see if you could flesh it out, so that it didn’t feel so rushed

 

NYC Midnight Challenge: Pudding

NYC Midnight Challenge: Pudding

This week I am participating in the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge. Since this is my third time competing, I thought I’d share some of my previous entries, along with the judges’ feedback.

Last week I shared the story that got me advanced to Round 2 in the 2013 challenge. Today I’ll share the story I submitted for Round 2, which won an honorable mention but did not advance me to Round 3. The genre was ghost story, the character was electrician, and the subject was love.

 

PUDDING

Brenda Simpson sat on her couch in the dark, clutching the remote control and staring at the place where the TV screen had just blinked out of existence. Now all she could hear was the clicking of the radiator behind her head and the rustle of wind through the tree branches outside.

She put down the remote, grabbed her phone from the coffee table, and dialed. “Jimmy, my damn lights’ve gone out again,” she said when her son picked up.

Jimmy sighed heavily.

“You hear me?” Brenda demanded. Her voice sounded loud in the suddenly-silent house.

“I hear you, Ma,” he said. “Did you trip the circuit?”

“I don’t even know what that means.”

“That’s what happened last time. All we had to do was flip the breaker switch, you remember?”

“No, I do not remember.” Brenda was scared, which made her irritable. She thought she heard the far-off mewl of a cat coming from somewhere outside, and the hair rose on the back of her neck.

“It’s ten o’clock at night, Ma. Just go to bed.”

“I can’t see a damn thing! What if I get up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, and I fall and break my neck?” She didn’t like the darkness. It transformed everything she’d thought was familiar. The floor lamp was now a strange man in a hat, lurking in the corner. The armchair across the room crouched like an animal, waiting to attack.

“Why don’t you call your neighbor, what’s-his-name?” Jimmy suggested.

He’s not an electrician. I don’t want him messing around when you could come over and do it right.”

“Well…”

“And anyway, I can’t let him see me like this. I’m in my curlers!”

Just then Brenda heard a scratching sound coming from the other side of the back door. Her heart seized, and she stared in the direction of the door. It sounded like the way her cat, Pudding, used to scratch to be let in. But Pudding had died two weeks ago. Jimmy had buried him in the back yard.

The scratching sound came again, and goose bumps ran up and down Brenda’s arms. “Jimmy,” she hissed into the phone. “Somebody’s here. Somebody’s standing on my back porch, looking in the window.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Somebody’s outside scratching on my door.”

“It’s probably a tree branch scraping the side of the house,” Jimmy said. “It’s windy out.”

“I need you to come over here right now, and I mean it.” Brenda tried to sound authoritative, but her voice trembled.

“Look, I’m not driving forty-five minutes over there just to find out it was something you could’ve fixed on your own.”

Brenda didn’t say anything.

“Why don’t you go down in the basement and flip all the switches off and on, and if that doesn’t solve the problem you can call me back, OK?”

Now that she was thinking about Pudding, Brenda felt tears prick behind her eyes. Lord, she had loved that cat. He’d shown up on Brenda’s doorstep the month after her husband, Karl, had died, as if the cat had somehow known there was a vacancy. Brenda had opened the door, and there was this skinny orange cat with big yellow eyes and a stubbed tail. No collar. That had been seven years ago now.

“Ma?” Jimmy said. “You understand? I put a flashlight for you in the junk drawer in the kitchen. So get that and go down to the basement. I know you know where the breaker box is because I showed you.”

“Fine,” Brenda grumbled. “But if I get murdered, I’m blaming you.”

“You do that.”

Brenda said good-bye and hung up the phone. All she had to do was make it into the kitchen and find the flashlight. Everything would be better once she could see.

She pushed herself up from the couch, bumping her shin on the coffee table. “Dammit,” she muttered. She began to shuffle towards the kitchen when she heard the scratching sound again. And, this time, she thought she heard a meow.

“Pudding?” she whispered. There was a slight thumping sound, and then silence. Brenda felt like her heart had dropped into her gut.

She moved towards the door, her arms and legs prickling. She could barely see, and she reached out her hands to feel her way. Finally she found the doorknob, turned it slowly, and pulled open the heavy, wooden door.

But no one was there. The porch was empty except for a few scattered leaves. The wind howled, whipping the tree branches in the back yard, and she shivered.

Then Brenda looked down. There, in the middle of the doormat, was a vole, dead on its back with its tiny legs stuck up stiff in the air.

She shut the door tight and locked it. She was starting to get scared now. Pudding had caught voles – he was a good hunter. And he’d leave them on the porch for her as presents. But Pudding was gone. Dead and buried. So who had left the vole?

Brenda moved towards the kitchen, anxious to get the lights back. But she didn’t want to go down in the basement all alone, in the pitch black. She considered waiting a few minutes and then calling Jimmy. She could say she had tried it, the thing with the breakers, and it hadn’t worked. But if he ended up driving over, and that was all it was, he’d be furious. Like the time she’d made him come over because she had thought the dryer wasn’t working, but it had turned out it was just unplugged. He hadn’t answered her phone calls for days after that.

In the kitchen, Brenda reached out, feeling for the drawer handle. The darkness formed a thick veil over her face, making it hard to breathe. She worried about reaching out and touching something horrible and unexpected. Like the hard shell of a cockroach. Or the plump, furry body of a rat.

She thought again about the vole outside on the porch.

In some ways, it was a relief that Pudding was gone. The damn cat had woken her up at six o’clock every morning, meowing pitifully. He’d beg to go in and out all day long, and if she didn’t open the door to let him out, he’d scratch the hell out of the furniture. But he’d sit on her lap when she watched TV and curl up purring at the foot of her bed when she went to sleep at night. She talked to him, too. Told him about her day, complained to him that her children never called. He was good at listening.

Brenda rifled through the junk drawer and found the flashlight. She clicked it on, and it worked, thank god.

She walked towards the door that led to the basement. The thin beam of light made it so she could see straight in front of her, but that just emphasized the darkness everywhere else.

She reached the basement steps, and out of habit she reached over to flip on the lights. Of course, nothing happened. She gripped the handrail and made her way down as the light from the flashlight bobbed eerily with each step.

“Ain’t nothing to be scared of, Bren,” she whispered to herself, but her heart was beating faster. Hell, she was scared of the basement during the day, when the lights were on. It was cold and damp and windowless, piled with boxes of old things – things that were too sad to look at and too sad to be thrown away.

She got to the bottom of the stairs. Now the light from the flashlight seemed to be absorbed by the blackness of the basement, and she squinted to see where she was going. She shuffled along the concrete floor towards the breaker box.

And that’s when she heard a meow.

She swung her flashlight back and forth. “Here, kitty,” she whispered hoarsely. Her voice echoed.

Another meow. She couldn’t tell where the noise was coming from, whether it was in the basement, or coming from upstairs, or outside.

The top of her head tingled, and tears smarted in the corners of her eyes. Damn Karl. Why’d he have to leave her all alone in this old house with its shoddy wiring?

She moved her flashlight back and forth. And then she saw something. In the shadows an orange cat with yellow eyes crouched between two boxes. She took a step closer, but then, just as suddenly as she’d seen it, it was gone.

She stood frozen, staring at the spot with her heart going wild.  Had she just seen a ghost?  After Karl had died, she’d thought for sure the house was haunted. She’d walk into a room and smell him – that smoky, moldy smell he had. And sometimes she’d sensed him lying next to her in bed. She’d been scared until Pudding had come along to keep her company.

“Pudding?” she called, looking in the place where she’d seen the cat. “Here, Pud,” she whispered. “I love you, little Pudding.” She’d always told Pudding how much she loved him. Something she had hardly ever said to Karl, or her kids even.

She shone her flashlight all around, but whatever it had been, it was gone now.

Brenda made her way to the breaker box. She hated this electrical stuff, was always worried Jimmy would get electrocuted one of these days. She reached out and flipped the first switch back and forth. Nothing. She tried another.  On the third switch, the basement flooded with light.

“Oh!” Brenda realized she’d been holding her breath. She did the rest of the switches, just to be sure, then hurried back upstairs. The TV blared in the den. She walked over and turned it off.

And then she heard the noise again. A loud, insistent meow.

“What the hell is going on?” She had more confidence in the light. She marched over to the back door. “When I open up this door,” she said, “there best be a cat standing there, or else I’m going to think I’m going crazy!”

She yanked open the door. And sitting there on the porch, next to the dead vole, was a half-starved-looking cat, gray and white, with no collar.

“Well, hey there.” Brenda opened the screen door and stepped out into wind. The cat meowed and rubbed against her leg. “Hey there,” she said again. “Whatcha doing, huh? You hungry?” The cat began to purr.

“I don’t know why you don’t just eat this vole,” she said. “You gone through the trouble of catching it.”

The cat looked up at her and meowed again, and Brenda had the strange thought that this puny thing wasn’t the hunter. Maybe the vole was one last present from Pudding. But, of course, that was crazy.

“I think I got some tuna fish,” Brenda said. She bent over as best she could and rubbed the cat’s head with her fingers. Jimmy would yell at her about taking in a stray, but it didn’t look like this one had rabies or anything. It was just a creature needing a home.

She opened the door, and the cat trotted in. Like it knew there was a vacancy. Brenda made her way to the kitchen and opened a can of tuna. Just then the phone rang. She picked it up and cradled it against her ear while she drained the can over the sink. The cat weaved around her legs, purring loudly.

“Ma?” Jimmy said. “I’m sorry I was short with you. You want me to come over and see what the problem is?”

“No, I figured it out on my own,” Brenda said. “But I appreciate you, son. And I love you.”

“I love you, too, Ma,” he said gruffly.

She hung up the phone and looked down at her new cat, who was waiting expectantly for its dinner.

 

THE END

 

JUDGES’ FEEDBACK:

WHAT THE JUDGE(S) LIKED:

A well put together little piece — nothing we don’t need to know, tight dialogue, good grounding, clear character/conflict/crisis/change structure.  What’s particularly done well here is the sketching of what it must be like to be a widow alone in the world, save for her son; I felt badly for this woman in her predicament, but she wasn’t painted in such a way that it was pathetic: she wasn’t whiny or stereotyped.

In addition, there are several nice lines in here; the paragraph about the shapes changing in the dark, in particular, is not only vividly rendered but is accessible (most readers, I think, can identify with what’s happening in that moment): “She didn’t like the darkness. It transformed everything she’d thought was familiar. The floor lamp was now a strange man in a hat, lurking in the corner. The armchair across the room crouched like an animal, waiting to attack.”//I also loved the line “–things that were too sad to look at and too sad to be thrown away.” That says it all about the junk we all have in our basements, and I think readers can make an instant connection to it.

There were also, I’d like to point out, no typos or misspellings. In my opinion, this is ready to submit to a magazine…….This was a very creepy story, and the atmosphere was well done. I loved the building of suspense!……

 

WHAT THE JUDGES FEEL NEEDS WORK:

I might suggest fleshing out, with a paragraph or two, her relationship with her husband — it was the one thing I felt was missing. Just one paragraph or so, done in similar fashion to the one about her son (for your reference: the one that mentions “Like the time she’d made him come over because she had thought the dryer wasn’t working, but it had turned out it was just unplugged. He hadn’t answered her phone calls for days after that.”) Something like that would give us just a tad more detail about Brenda and add a layer of depth; perhaps even play off the one line that’s already in there, the line that discusses her frustration at his leaving her with a house full of shoddy wiring…….

I found myself hoping for more of a surprise at the end… I hoped all the foreshadowing of a cat’s arrival was a red herring for something more sinister. I also don’t understand her relationship to her children; why is it that they don’t call? Just that she needs them to help her out around the house, or that she’s lonely? It’s nice that you give her a cat at the end, but I would’ve liked more of a solid build-up, more at stake in her relationships to herself and others…………………………….………………………

NYC Midnight Challenge: Extremely Rare

NYC Midnight Challenge: Extremely Rare

For the third time I will be participating in an NYC Midnight writing challenge. It’s the Short Story challenge, and the first round starts tomorrow at midnight.

The way it works is this:  For the first round, writers are assigned a genre, subject, and character. We have 8 days to write an original story no longer than 2,500 words. The judges choose a top 5 in each group to advance to the 2nd Round, in which we receive new assignments, only this time we have 3 days to write a 2,000 word story.

Judges will choose finalists from the 2nd Round to advance to the 3rd and final round, in which we must write a 1,500 word (maximum) story in just 24 hours (April 24-25, 2015).

This means, if I make it to the third round, I will be writing a short story on the day of my wedding…  Luckily (?) I have never made it to the third round.

Uh oh.  When will I write my short story?

Uh oh. When will I write my short story?

It’s a really fun contest, even though I’ve never won. It gets you writing — and often writing things you wouldn’t write normally. From doing the contest twice, I’ve produced four short stories, one of which I submitted to a literary magazine and got published! Also, the judges give you thorough feedback on each story, which, to me, is worth the money you pay to enter.

Since I need time to work on my novel and pound out a short story, I thought that this week and next I might share some of the pieces I’ve written for NYC Midnight challenges in the past, as well as the feedback I received from the judges.

Here’s the first one, which won 4th place in the 1st round of the Short Story Challenge 2013 and got me advanced to Round 2. If I remember correctly, the genre was romance, the subject was steak, and the character was an architect.

 

EXTREMELY RARE

 All I know is that his name is Rich and he’s an architect.

As I park my car on a side street in downtown New Orleans, the thought shoots through me that Rich might not exist. He’s probably a robot. I’ve heard about robots in the online dating systems, tricking lonely men into thinking beautiful Russians with poor grammar are in love with them. I’ve never heard of male robots, but a tall, handsome architect named Rich isn’t likely to be a real person. I should just go home.

And yet I’m here, and I’m hungry. If he doesn’t show up, I’ll treat myself to a baked potato. I step out of the car into the balmy, spring night and smooth my skirt over my butt. I’m wearing something my mother picked out for me: a flimsy, flowered skirt and a low-cut top. It’s not at all like the clothes I normally wear, but tonight I’m not trying to be me.

 *   *   *

 

A few weeks ago, just after my thirtieth birthday, my mother created a dating profile for me and started messaging men on my behalf. The profile says a lot of things that are untrue – that I’m an office manager and I enjoy playing volleyball, for example – but the men of the Internet seem to like the fake me.

Most people would have been annoyed if their mothers did this, but I’ve decided to give it a try. I’ve done a very bad job of meeting men on my own. It might be worth acting like someone else, to have a person to snuggle with at night.  We spend a third of our lives asleep, and in those hours does it really matter who you are?

 *   *   *

 

I step inside the ritzy steakhouse and look around. The restaurant is dim, except for the bar, where tiny lights illuminate liquor bottles on mirrored shelves.

“Kate?”

A man approaches me, and it’s Rich. He has dark hair and blue eyes, just like his picture, and yet there’s something awkward about him in person. His height is gangly instead of dapper; his shoulders and elbows make sharp corners in his clothes. And when he smiles I see that his bottom teeth are crammed and crooked. I’m glad. His imperfections make me feel more relaxed.

“I hope this restaurant is okay,” he says as the waitress leads us to a small table.

“It’s great,” I tell him. “I love steak.” This isn’t true at all. I’m a vegetarian. But my mother told me that men like it when skinny women eat big, meaty meals.

We sit down, and I rack my brains for something to say.

“So you’re an office manager?” Rich asks.

“Yes.”

“How do you like it?”

“I love it.” I smile widely. “I love every minute of it.” My mother told me to be positive. She said my normal attitude is too dark and strange for most people’s tastes.

Rich tilts his head to one side, considering me. “There must be some things you don’t love.”

I’m sure there would be many things I wouldn’t love about managing an office, like answering the phone and making spreadsheets and sending memos, but I don’t want to sound negative.

“Well,” I say finally, “I wish I had more time to work on my art.” This, at least, is true. No matter what job I’m doing, whether it’s pet-sitting, (which is what I do now), or face-painting at City Park (I got fired because some parents complained I made their children’s faces too “scary”), I’m always thinking about my unfinished paintings back home. They’re like my children. Or my pets, at least. I feel guilty when I don’t spend enough time with them.

“You’re an artist?” Rich asks. “You didn’t tell me that.”

I shrug. “I’m not a real artist. I don’t sell my paintings or anything.” In fact, I don’t even show them to anyone except my mother, and that’s only out of necessity, because I store the finished ones in her basement.

“I think if you make art, you’re an artist,” Rich says, and that’s very sweet of him. But he doesn’t understand. He has a real job (an architect!) and a real life (he rock climbs!) Sometimes I’m not even sure that I exist.

The waiter comes, and I order a glass of wine. Rich orders a beer.

When the waiter is gone, Rich asks me about volleyball.

“It’s fun,” I say. “I like to jump.”

“Me, too,” Rich tells me. “I’m thinking about buying a trampoline.” As soon as he says this, he seems to wish he hadn’t. “Tell me more about your hobbies,” he adds quickly. “What else do you do besides volleyball?”

His eyes are large, and in the dimness of the restaurant they swim from blue to brown, like Lake Pontchartrain at dusk. I want to paint his eyes, each one the size of a watermelon, on a huge canvas, with tiny sailboats heading towards the pupils, and flying fish leaping from the irises.

“Kate?” Rich asks. “What else do you do in your free time?”

I’m having a hard time seeing his face as a whole. It’s broken up into different geographical locations: two lakes for his eyes, the mountain range of his nose, the vast cavern of his mouth.  “What do you do?” I manage to say.

“Fair enough.” Rich smiles, and his teeth are rocks to scramble over. “Uh, I play golf. And…What else did I say on my profile?”

“You rock climb, don’t you?” I ask, still looking at his teeth.

“Oh, yes. I rock climb all the time.”

“And what about your job as an architect? What do you design?”

“You know, normal stuff. Office buildings mostly.”

“Anything in New Orleans?”

“A few places.”

Our drinks arrive, and we both sip from them eagerly.

“Are you ready to order?” the waiter asks.

“Sure.” I scan the menu. “I’ll have the house salad and this.” I point at one of the entrées at random.

“Excellent choice,” the waiter says. “How would you like your steak?”

I stare at him, my mind suddenly blank.

“Well-done, medium, rare?” the waiter prompts.

“Rare,” I say, because I like the sound of it. Rare means uncommon, maybe even excellent. She was a rare sort of girl. Maybe that’s what Rich will say about me tomorrow when his friends ask him about the date. “Extremely rare,” I add.

Rich orders a steak, medium, and he asks for extra sour cream on his baked potato.

We talk for a while, haltingly. Rich asks me about the interests listed on my profile, and I try to talk about these things I know nothing and care nothing about. When he asks me more about painting, I’m excited, but I try to talk about it in a normal way. I say things like, “it’s fun,” and “I don’t take it too seriously.” I don’t say, “it’s the only thing that makes me feel real.” And yet, some of my own thoughts seep out through the cracks in my façade.

“I like thinking about size,” I tell him. “Because, really, what does it mean to say something is big?”

I could have gone on to say that “big” and “small” are only important when compared to other things. And distance really screws with size. Something huge can seem tiny when you are far enough away. I always feel so far away. This is one of the reasons why I have trouble with reality sometimes. Everything is relative.

But I don’t say any of this because my mother’s voice is in my head, warning me not to sound weird.

Rich surprises me by nodding and telling me he’s interested in size, too. “I was always fascinated by models as a kid,” he says. “And I have a collection of miniature toilets.” Then he laughs strangely and says he’s just kidding about the toilets.

After a while, I excuse myself to the bathroom and stand in the stall, mopping the sweat from my underarms with a wad of toilet paper.

When I get back to the table, our food has arrived, and I’m horrified to see that the hunk of meat on my plate sits in a pool of oily blood. I push the plate away from me discreetly and concentrate on the salad, which is covered in shaved carrot and has two radish roses at the edge of the bowl.

“You know what’s strange to think about,” Rich says, as he cuts a piece of his steak and puts it to his mouth. “This meat that I’m eating came from a cow. And that cow ate nothing but grass and hay, and that grass and hay grew from nothing but sunlight and water and soil. I’m just a part of the cycle.”

I look up at him. These are the sorts of thoughts I have sometimes. That’s when I remember that “rich” doesn’t only mean wealthy. It can mean deep and strong.

“I’m sorry,” Rich waves his fork in front of his face as if to erase what he said. “That was a weird thing for me to say. I know people don’t like being reminded of where their food comes from.” He glances at my untouched steak.

“That’s OK,” I tell him. “It’s interesting to think about. I always think about how nothing is created and nothing is destroyed. It just changes form. So maybe an atom from that cow you’re eating, and an atom from your own body used to be atoms together in a dinosaur, or a rock, or a…a…”

“Or a star?” Rich says.

“Yeah. Or a star.” I smile at him. I love stars. They look like innocent pin-pricks to us humans, but up close they’re fiery giants. In fact, some of the stars we see in the sky don’t even exist anymore. They are ghosts. They are cosmic memories in light. This is what my latest series of paintings is trying to illustrate.

“Kate, can I ask you something?” Rich says.

“Sure.”

“You seem different from your profile.”

“That’s not a question,” I say faintly, staring down at my hunk of meat.

“I think we should both stop pretending.”

I look up. His eyes are big and bright. “I’m not pretending,” I say unconvincingly.

Rich sighs. “Are you going to eat that steak?”

“Probably not.”

“Do you want to see something I designed?”

I tell him I do. I’m not sure what he thinks of me right now, but I’m glad for the date to continue. Maybe I can try to act normal and get things back on track.

“OK,” he says. “Let’s get a doggie bag for that steak. We’re going to need it.”

 

*  *  *

 

Fifteen minutes later, we’re driving up Saint Charles Avenue in Rich’s car with the steak in a tinfoil swan on my lap.

Rich parks on a side street near Audubon Park. “Bring that meat with you,” he instructs as we get out of the car. We walk down the sidewalk, past giant homes with Roman columns and stone mansions with castle-like turrets.

“Is it one of these houses?”

“Sort of,” Rich whispers. I suddenly wonder if we’re going to steal something, or kill someone.

We move silently down the softly-lit street, boughs of massive oak trees above our heads. We reach a particularly opulent home with lights studded in the manicured yard, illuminating flowering bushes and neatly pruned trees. Rich stops in front of the house.

“It’s beautiful,” I say.

“I didn’t design it.”

“You didn’t?”

“No.” Rich turns to me. “I’m not an architect. Not really.”

What is he then? A robot? “What are you?” I ask.

“I make dog houses.”

“You make dog houses?” I repeat.

“Luxury dog homes, really,” he says. “Plus a few kitty condos. And once I designed a ferret playground for a woman in Florida.”

“Wow,” I say. That’s a lot more interesting than designing office buildings.

Rich shrugs his bony shoulders. “I know it’s weird, but I love to take something large and make it small.”

Funny. I like to take something small and paint it large.

“The one I made for these people,” Rich says, “is the one I’m most proud of. Want to go see it?”

“Sure.”

We creep through the lighted yard. The grass is like a sponge. “They have a Mastiff,” he whispers as we approach a tall, wooden gate. “But I think we can distract him with the steak.”

I hand Rich the tinfoil swan, and he unwraps it. He opens the gate slowly and waves the meat back and forth. “Here boy,” he calls softly. “Look what I’ve got for you.”

A giant, wrinkle-faced dog comes trotting curiously towards us. Rich tosses the steak into the corner of the backyard, and the dog bounds after it. A moment later, he’s settled in the dark grass, gnawing happily.

“That should keep him busy for a while.” Rich reaches out, grabs my hand, and leads me through the gate. His fingers are damp, probably from meat juice, but I don’t care. It’s nice to be connected to another person.

In the middle of the yard, I see a small, circular structure. It’s gleaming white and looks like a miniature observatory, complete with a domed roof and a protruding telescope.

“You want to go in?” Rich asks, and I nod. We duck our heads and stand stooped inside the dog house. The dome has skylights, and I can see a flush of stars through the glass. There is a dog bed in one corner, and the telescope comes down through the ceiling, ending in front of a bowl filled with water.

Rich sits down cross-legged, and I sit down, too, feeling cozy in our round den. I stare up through the skylight. “Do you think the dog looks at the stars?” I ask.

“Maybe. What do you think he thinks they are?”

“Maybe he doesn’t think they’re anything,” I say. “They’re too small for him to notice.”

We are still holding hands. Rich squeezes my fingers.

“This is a beautiful dog house,” I say. “You really designed it?”

“And built it, too.” Rich looks at me, and I feel like we are inside his right eye, looking out through his pupil at the night sky.

“It’s beautiful,” I say again, not really talking about the dog house anymore, but talking about many things, both big and small.

“I really do have a miniature toilet collection,” Rich says after a moment.

“I’m not really an office manager.” I say.

“I’d love to see your paintings some time.”  His breath is warm and damp against my ear.

“I’ll show them to you next time.”

Rich puts his lips to mine, and it’s a rare sort of kiss. One that is only interrupted when the dog comes snuffling in, his breath smelling of meat.

Rich squeezes my hand, and together we leave the observatory, venturing out into the real, human world.

 

THE END

 

FEEDBACK FROM JUDGES:

WHAT THE JUDGE(S) LIKED ABOUT YOUR SCRIPT:

Kate’s voice and perspective are fun to follow (i.e. when she thinks her blind date is going to be a robot because all she knows about him is his name and that he’s an architect). The descriptions of the observatory are beautiful. The moment where these characters put away their facades is meaningful. ……………………This story has such a sweet and unique sense of romance to it. It’s almost sad and hopeful all at the same time, and very enjoyable……………….

WHAT THE JUDGES FEEL NEEDS WORK:

Rich’s voice isn’t as refined as Kate’s — the writer could work on developing the word choices and syntax to make this character three-dimensional. The romance unfolds rather quickly and doesn’t seem realistic — maybe adding more of Kate’s insights would make it easier to swallow. ……………………The only critique I have is to have more back story on Kate. What are some small scenes from her past that make her feel like she needs to be someone else to meet someone?……………

Cross-Country Skiing & Following the Tracks of Writers Before Me

Cross-Country Skiing & Following the Tracks of Writers Before Me

On Saturday it was five degrees here in Minneapolis. “That’s warm enough to go cross-country skiing, right?” I asked my fiance, Paul. We’re both from the south, and we’ve only been living in Minnesota since September, but already we’ve learned that if you wait until temperatures are above freezing to go outside, you’ll be a hermit until mid-April. And it turns out that anything above zero is “not that bad” as long as you’re wearing a couple pounds of clothing and some really good boots.

So we suited up in long underwear, snow pants, double socks, double gloves, parkas, and hand warmers. Underneath our hats we wore these ridiculous babushka things that were given to us by family and friends, and which I thought I would never wear until I realized that they do a good job of keeping the skin from freezing off my face.

And so we were ready to spend a few hours outdoors.

Wearing layers 1 and 2 and our crazy babushka things under our (matching) hats.

Wearing layers 1 and 2 and our crazy babushka things under our (matching) hats.

We’d been told that we didn’t need cross-country skiing lessons. “You’ll figure it out,” people said. And yeah, I’d seen people on TV do it. It looked pretty easy. I thought it would be serene, gliding around on woodsy winter trails.

Um. Wrong. It is not easy, nor is it serene. It is an intense workout, and to the people around here, it’s more like competitive racing than a stroll through the woods.

Anyway, Paul and I went outside with our rented skis. Already my toes felt numb, which I felt was a bad sign. We put on our skis and got in the pre-formed tracks (the deep grooves created by other people’s skiis) because we’d been told this was easiest for beginners.

Once we got in the tracks, Paul and I were able to shuffle along at a pace that was obviously annoying to the many people who passed us. When we tried to get out of the tracks and glide on the smooth snow, however, we flailed around like rag dolls on ice. Paul fell, then I fell. Then Paul fell again. We got back on the tracks. At least the tracks helped keep us somewhat stable and heading in the right direction.

Then we started going uphill. All around us, native Minnesotans were practically sprinting up the hill on their skis. Paul and I, in the pre-made grooves, were scooting forward inch by inch, trying not to slide backwards.

“I must be doing something wrong,” I huffed. I felt awkward and winded and my legs were already sore. I kept watching other people, trying to learn their technique. They made it look so effortless!

As I was huffing up the hill, I thought, as I always do, about writing. Despite the fact that I have my MFA and I now have an agent, I still consider myself somewhat of a beginner. Sometimes I still feel like I’m doing something wrong.  Like I’m shuffling inch by inch up the hill, trying not to slide backwards.

And I realize that as a beginner, as much as I want to ski off on my own path when it comes to writing, it’s often easier to follow in the tracks that others have left for me. That’s why I try to read craft books and look at author blogs. That’s why I go to conferences and listen to the advice of published authors. These are the pre-made tracks that can help beginning writers like me stay stable and headed in the right direction.

After an exhausting hour of skiing the trails, Paul and I went inside to get warm and to meet up with two friends who are old pros at cross-country skiing. When the four of us went back outside, I asked them to watch my technique and tell me what I was doing wrong.

“Nothing,” they said. “You’re getting the hang of it.”

“But I’m so slow.”

“It just takes practice,” they said.

“And when I get off the tracks, all bets are off,” I said. “Paul and I have fallen a couple times.”

“It’s good to fall,” they said. “That means you’re giving it your all.”

After another hour, I was done. Paul went on to try the “double black diamond” trail, but my butt and thighs were sore, my nose was a snot factory, and my throat was raw from gulping in freezing cold air. But I felt good over all.  I had gotten some strenuous exercise in the outdoors. I knew that like anything, cross-country skiing would take practice, and I was excited to go back another day and try it again.

And as for writing, the same thing goes. Some days I might feel like things are going frustratingly slow.  Sometimes I feel like I don’t know what I’m doing.  Like I’m barely making any progress. But most days I’m practicing, and I think I’m getting better. I’m learning from others who have taken this trail before me. When I fall, I get up, brush off the snow, and congratulate myself for giving it my all.

And one of these days, when I’m strong enough, I’ll be able to step out of the tracks and start gliding up my own path.  Until then, I’ll make my way inch by inch.

After 2-plus hours of cross-country skiing.  By 1pm it had warmed up to a balmy 18 degrees!

After 2-plus hours of cross-country skiing. By 1pm it had warmed up to a balmy 18 degrees!

Reading, Writing, & Eating: Things I Shouldn’t Stress About

Reading, Writing, & Eating:  Things I Shouldn’t Stress About

Sometimes the contents of my refrigerator stresses me out. I lie in bed at night thinking, “oh god, all that spinach is getting old. I’d better make a quiche ASAP.” Or, “oh no, I thawed out that ground beef yesterday… I have to use it tomorrow!” I hate waste, so anything perishable makes me nervous. I base my lunches not on what I particularly want to eat, but on what needs to be eaten before it goes bad.

Similarly, I get stressed out sometimes about all the books I “need” to read. Since I’m part of a literary community, friends and acquaintances have new books out that I want to read to support them. For example, Joseph Boyden’s recent The Orenda, Lish McBride’s Firebug, Tawni Waters’s Siren Song, and Kevin Fortuna’s The Dunning Man.

There’s also all the books people have recommended to me, classics I have shamefully never read, new releases I should read to see what’s going on in the publishing world, recent blogs and articles, and the books I need to read for book club.

Right now I’ve got a towering stack of books on my desk, and it’s sort of stressing me out. But Eva, you might say, books don’t go bad like vegetables do. But you would be wrong.  Many of these books are from the library. I had to wait for a long time on a hold list to get them, and I’m not allowed to renew them. Besides, I worry about running into a friend and not having read his/her book yet. Or that by the time I get around to reading the new releases they won’t be new releases anymore, and I still won’t know what’s up in the publishing world.

books

 

Unfortunately, I can’t just toss all the books into a bowl with some eggs and cheese and make a quiche, which is what I do when I have a bunch of vegetables that need to be eaten.

Instead I have to remind myself to enjoy reading whatever book it is I’m reading at the moment. Don’t worry so much about the stack of “need-to-reads.”  And I have to tell myself that it’s okay to abandon a book. If I’ve given it a fair shot — 20 pages, the first chapter or two — and I really don’t want to continue reading it (for whatever reason), why force myself? There are a million other books I could be reading instead.

Same goes for my writing. Sometimes I get stressed about all the books and stories I want to write, all the ideas I’ve tucked away for later. I feel the same anxiety I do about the vegetables and the library books. I’ve got to write them all now!

But the great thing about ideas is that they never spoil. In fact, they might get better over time, the longer I let them percolate.

The point is, I should chill out. Because there’s always going to be food in my refrigerator that needs to be eaten. That’s unavoidable unless I stop buying fresh produce (which I won’t). And there will always be a pile of books for me to read.

I’m lucky enough to have fresh food in my fridge and a stack of books on my desk. I’m lucky enough to have a notebook full of ideas for future novels. I get to eat and read and write. This is not something to stress about. It’s something to be thankful for. The food will get eaten (or most of it anyway). Some of the books will be read (and some won’t). And I will write as many books as I can in this lifetime that I have. The important thing is that I enjoy what I’m eating, reading, or writing in the moment and not worry so much about what’s next on the plate.

I get to eat and read and write -- what a life!

I get to eat and read and write — what a life!

Wedding Dress Shopping & the Most Ridiculous Dress in the World

Wedding Dress Shopping & the Most Ridiculous Dress in the World

I’m getting married on April 25th, and I’ve been dabbling in wedding dress shopping for a while now. At first I wanted a short, sparkly dress that I could wear again for other functions. I went to places at the mall like Cache and BCBG and perused the cocktail dresses. When the salesclerks asked me “are you shopping for a particular occasion?” I’d say, “uh, yeah, my wedding, actually.” I could see their faces straining to hold back the surprise.

But as much as I like to be unique and surprise people, I couldn’t find anything I loved in the short, non-traditional category. Plus, I started to think that a long dress is going to look better in pictures. A wedding is only for one day, but the pictures last a lifetime (and that’s exactly what I’ll remind myself when we write the check to the photographer). So I started edging towards the idea of a more “bridal” looking dress.

I’d been avoiding going into an actual bridal shop, though, because I was afraid of the big, extravagant dresses and their big, extravagant price tags. But over the holidays I went with my soon-to-be-mother-in-law to a discount bridal store in North Carolina and tried on some bridesmaids dresses that could be ordered in ivory. I took an interest in a long dress with lacy cap sleeves. They didn’t have it in my size or color, and the neckline was too high, but my vision had now totally changed from something short and sparkly to something long and lacy.

My awesome friend Jeni just got married!

My awesome friend Jeni just got married!

My friends Jeni and Daniel (who are both writers) just got married, and Jeni (who thought she didn’t want a traditional dress) wore something long and white. They had a small ceremony for friends and family over the weekend, so I came to New Orleans (that’s where I am now!) to attend. It was great to see some of my writing professors from UNO and my writer friends from my MFA program and beyond.

It’s been great being back in New Orleans in general, and yesterday my friend Chana and I got eggnog daiquiris and then headed over to David’s Bridal so she could help me look for a dress. (The only way to wedding dress shop, I’m now convinced, is with a friend and a daiquiri.)

While Chana and I were waiting for someone to help us, we checked out the clearance rack. I pulled out a pink and leopard print number with lots of rhinestones that was basically the most insanely ridiculous dress I’d ever seen. Chana and I laughed about it, and I decided to try it on just for fun. In absolutely no way did I think it was something I would want to own.

And with the crazy dress draped over one arm, I described to the salesclerk my new vision: a long bridesmaid dress with lacy cap sleeves that can be ordered in ivory. They had two dresses that fit this description, so I tried them both on, and one of them I really liked and might end up ordering as my wedding dress.

“Okay,” I called to Chana from the dressing room. “I’m trying on the crazy dress now.”

It was absolutely the craziest dress I’d ever seen, but it fit pretty well and was… sort of awesome. Maybe the “so bad it’s good” type of awesome, but I stepped out of the dressing room, laughing, and said, “I kind of love it.”

“Oh my god, so do I!” Chana was laughing, too.

“Where would I wear this, though?”

“Anywhere,” a salesclerk said. “Absolutely anywhere.”

I was almost more excited about this crazy-tacky dress than my possible wedding dress. I had thought I was trying it on as a joke, but now… “It’s so amazing, I almost don’t want to take it off,” I said. Some of the other girls in the store, wearing their poofy white dresses, stared at me.

And guess what:  I bought the crazy dress. It was on super clearance, and I will find something to wear it to. Maybe with a leopard mask to next year’s Burlesque Press News Years Eve Masquerade Ball (organized by my newly-wed friend Jeni). Or maybe I’ll just wear it around the house when I need a little excitement. I’ll find a way to make it work. And hopefully today I’ll make a decision about my real wedding dress, too.

IMG_0308

I told Chana (who is kindly letting me stay at her house) that I was going to write about dress shopping, but I was going to find a way to tie it in to writing, so here goes…

First of all, when you start writing a story or a novel, you might have a specific vision, like I did with the short, sparkly dress. But over time, especially if you’re writing something long, the vision may change, sometimes dramatically. And that’s ok. It’s part of the process. Don’t hold on too tightly to what you initially thought the story (or dress) would be, and stay open-minded.

Secondly, sometimes it’s good to pursue a really crazy, ridiculous, pink and leopard print idea, even if it has nothing to do with what you’re currently working on. Follow your intuition. Have fun. Laugh a little. Let yourself get sidetracked creatively. Take a break from your novel to write a short story or a poem or to do something unusual that might inspire your writing later. Like love and life, you just never know where it might go.

Eva performing in the musical "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change" at the Actor's Theater of New Orleans.

Eva performing in the musical “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change” at the Actor’s Theater of New Orleans.

New Years Congratulations

New Years Congratulations

Happy New Year!

New Years is traditionally a time for resolutions, which means you wag your finger at yourself and examine your flaws and look for ways you can do better this year.  “No more double deserts,” for example.  (A resolution I’ve made and quickly broken.)  Or, “write every day or else, you lazy bum!”

I like to make resolutions, but for the past couple years I’ve started by first looking back at what I’ve accomplished in the year and patting myself on the back for a minute.  I don’t know about you, but I tend to be hard on myself.  A little positive reinforcement goes a long way, and if we don’t take the time to appreciate ourselves and marvel at the things we’ve managed to achieve, then what exactly is the point of achieving them?

So here are 10 of my accomplishments from 2014:

  1. Wrote a first draft of a YA novel.
  2. Revised a different YA novel.
  3. Got an awesome agent and worked with him on editing yet another YA novel.
  4. Got engaged to a wonderful man and worked with him on strengthening our relationship.
  5. Relearned Calculus
  6. Read 50 books.
  7. Successfully moved from Seattle, Washington to Minneapolis, MN.
  8. Managed to get a good job in Minneapolis and start working less than 48 hours after arriving in town.
  9. Learned how to do a yoga handstand, headstand, and forearm stand.
  10. Wrote two blog posts a week and was featured on “Freshly Pressed.”

Congratulations, to me!  I did a lot in 2014, and I should be proud of myself.

This is how I will celebrate.

This is how I will celebrate.

And now here are some things I am going to work on in 2015:

  1. Work on being more light-hearted and kind (which includes being kind to myself).
  2. Work on being more present in the moment.
  3. Revise my two YA novels.
  4. Finish writing the adult novel I started in 2014.
  5. Finish planning the wedding and successfully get married.
  6. Learn how to do something new in yoga.

I hope everyone is having a wonderful New Years Day.  Go eat your black eyed peas and say congratulations to yourself for completing another year.

Paul and Eva from New Years 2014.

Paul and Eva from New Years 2014.

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