Posted in Fiction

Q&A: A Horror Short Story

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Q&A

By Brian Rowe

Theo Hauser sat in a stalled limousine, his left hand wrapped around a cold glass of bourbon, his right hand pressing his phone against his ear. He looked up at the theatre marquee to see his name in big, bright letters. Thirty years ago, this sight may have excited him, even astounded him. Today it made him want to slam his fist against a wall.

“Val, I’ve already told you,” he said. “The script isn’t working. We can’t make this movie if I don’t have a third act, do you understand that?”

Theo heard a loud roar from inside the theatre. Either the murderer had finally received his grisly death by chainsaw, or the end credits had begun. Either way, Theo’s time in the limo was limited.

“I’m aware I haven’t made a movie in ten years. You think I don’t know that? You think it doesn’t haunt me every single day?” He sighed and finished his drink in one large gulp. “I don’t know. I just… I can’t finish it. Maybe what they say is true. Maybe Chainsaw Murders was always meant to be my legacy. Maybe there’s nothing else I have to say.”

The limo door opened, revealing his driver, a man even older than he, his face covered in a thick Santa Claus beard. “Mr. Hauser? They’re ready for you.”

Theo set his drink down on the seat next to him. “Already? We just got here.”

“The credits are rolling. They’re asking for you to come inside.”

Theo sighed and waved his driver away. He shoved his phone up against his ear again and said, “Listen, I’ve got to get going, they’re calling me into the screening. I’d ask you for one more month but I understand if you can’t wait that long. I want to make my next film with you, I do — but I just can’t make any promises — ”

“Mr. Hauser?” The driver tapped his fingers loudly against the top of the limo. “It’s time.”

Theo nodded to his driver, then said into the phone, “I’ll talk to you later, OK?”

He slipped his phone into his pocket and stepped out under the blinding lights of the historic Aero Theatre in Santa Monica. He readjusted his sports coat and tie and glanced at his reflection in the vehicle window; his goatee was uneven, and his face was noticeably gaunt. He looked up at the marquee to see not his name this time but the title of his movie. He had been so proud of those three words for so many years, but lately they had turned into a slow-acting poison clouding up his creative mind. He was grateful for the film’s legacy, but he didn’t know if he’d ever be able to step out of its shadow.

Theo shook his head and walked to the theatre’s side entrance. He only had to take five steps forward for the thunderous cheers to begin. The fans in the front waved their memorabilia up into the air, and nearly half of the crowd leaped to their feet to give him an overjoyed standing ovation.

The horror director waved to the crowd, shook the young moderator’s hand, and took a seat on the large, sticky stage. The freezing auditorium was at full capacity.

He crossed his right leg over his left and settled in for another night with fans remembering his 1977 slasher classic, the only film on his resume that was still being shown anywhere in the new century. It was his third Q&A of the month, following his appearances in Hollywood and Century City. It was a busy time for Theo Hauser. It was October, after all.

The moderator for the evening wasn’t a significant film director or personality; the kid before him looked more suited to be working the concession stand.

“Mr. Hauser,” the moderator began, “we are so happy to welcome you to our screening tonight, and to give the audience an opportunity to meet one of their favorite filmmakers. How does it feel to be here talking about a motion picture you made thirty-five years ago?”

The director laughed and scratched his bald head. “You really want to know? It makes me feel old.”

Most of the audience laughed. The crowd was a mix of all ages, from ten-year-olds to centenarians.

“No, honestly, it’s a joy and a privilege,” the director said. “When we made The Chainsaw Murders back in ’76, we shot it in sixteen days. We had no money, no experience. The enthusiasm got us through.”

“And the film took a while to catch on with audiences, is that correct? It wasn’t a success right away?”

“Yes,” the director continued. “It took a few years for the film to develop a cult following. It wasn’t until it played in drive-ins did people start discovering it, and it wasn’t until critics began praising it in the early eighties did people start approaching me about it…”

And on and on they went, the director trying not to bore himself with the same old stories, jokes, and life lessons concerning his ancient horror masterpiece. He went on to make five more movies after The Chainsaw Murders, but nothing had made a dent at the box office, or in viewers’ imaginations. When his controversial 2002 feature about the Columbine massacre went straight-to-DVD, only to be pulled from shelves days later due to customer complaints, he knew his days as a horror director were numbered. The older he became, the more he wondered if he’d ever be able to get another film off the ground. He had been working on a new screenplay on and off for nearly three years, with promise of funding from a fledgling New York-based distributor. But he’d struggled to finish it. He didn’t know if he’d ever finish it.

And so Theo Hauser spent the latter part of his career traveling the country attending horror conventions, film festivals, and small town screenings. And everywhere he went, nobody ever wanted to talk about his other movies. They all wanted to talk about Chainsaw Murders. Sometimes he felt like a one-trick pony, a creative visionary who once had a shot at a memorable career but failed miserably.

But then he remembered that it could have been worse.

Better one classic than nothing, he thought.

“All right,” the moderator said. “Now we’re going to open up the floor to questions. If anyone with a question for Mr. Hauser would just raise their hand.”

At least twenty hands shot up in the air. Theo took a deep breath and settled into his chair.

“Yes,” the moderator said, pointing to the center of the crowd. “You, with the orange shirt.”

The young, obese man, wearing a Chainsaw Murders t-shirt, sat in the second row. “Yes, hi, Mr. Hauser, this is a real honor,” he said. “I’m sure you get this question a lot, but I was curious if you’re ever going to make a sequel to The Chainsaw Murders.”

The director had been posed this question so many times that he had exhausted his toolbox of answers. Sometimes he responded with something funny and witty; other times, cold and bitter. Occasionally he delved into a long story regarding the years he spent writing a second installment that in the end proved to have too high a budget for any studio head to sign off on.

“Not a chance,” was all Theo said.

The second question concerned the casting of the supporting roles, the third concentrated on his use of synthesized music, and the fourth dealt with his rumored romantic relationship with the film’s leading lady.

“It wasn’t much of a relationship,” the director said. “We slept together once. But that was it.”

Some mild laughter scattered throughout the audience.

“OK, fine, twice. She was hot. What can I say?”

A lot of the younger men in the audience applauded. Even the moderator shared in their enthusiasm.

“Thanks for clearing that up, Mr. Hauser,” he said, then gazed back out into the crowd. “Another question?”

A few timid hands popped up, but it was a man sitting in an aisle seat who raised his hand highest of all.

“Yes, you,” the moderator said. “With the black jacket.”

The man nodded and rose to his feet. He had short black hair and a pale, pedestrian face. He flaunted a prominent smile that would’ve been more noticeable if it weren’t for the tears in his eyes.

“Mr. Hauser, I just wanted to thank you so much for gracing us with your remarkable presence this evening, and I wanted to congratulate you on this, the thirty-fifth anniversary of not just one of the finest horror films ever made, but one of the greatest motion pictures of all time.”

The fan had a weird voice and an even weirder rhythm to his speaking. He enunciated specific words and phrases, giving the room an instant aura of awkwardness, so much so that the director wanted to immediately bolt for the emergency exit.

“I have seen this film well over two hundred times, and each time I find myself totally captivated, by every scene, every shot, every moment, that resulted from that incomparable, creative wonderland that is your brain.”

The guy wasn’t stopping. Worse, there didn’t seem to be a question in sight.

The director glanced briefly at the moderator, who seemed at a loss for what to do.

“And you are so well-regarded for The Chainsaw Murders,” the man continued,that many neglect your other truly terrific films that include Row Boat, The Millennium Killers, Evil Has A Name, and Columbine: A Day in History, the latter of which may be one of the most underrated films of the last decade.”

“Question!” a young woman coughed behind the man.

“Ask a goddamn question!” an older guy screamed from the back of the theatre.

The moderator forced a smile and turned to his left. “All right, let’s open the floor to someone else — ”

“And in conclusion,” the man said, “I think I speak for everyone in this room in saying that we could not have been treated tonight to a more talented, more giving, more spectacular filmmaker than our very own Theo Hauser, a man who will forever be remembered in the centuries to come as the ultimate icon of horror cinema. Mr. Hauser, I would like to take this opportunity to consider you… my friend. Thank you.”

The man finally took a seat, making for much applause in the room.

“He’s making me sound like I’m already dead,” Theo said to the moderator, but he didn’t hear him. The moderator immediately took the next available question.

Somebody else in the audience started talking, but the director stayed focused on the strange pale figure. The guy had a brown briefcase resting on his knees, as well as what looked to be a guitar case on the aisle next to his seat. The director wondered if this bizarre individual expressed his brand of irrational behavior with lots of directors at a multitude of venues, or just with him.

“Mr. Hauser? Did you get that?”

The director glanced at the moderator. “I’m sorry?”

“This young woman to your left just asked if you had any projects in development.”

He looked down to see a pretty girl no older than twenty waving at him.

“Oh, yes, hi there,” the director said, trying to blink himself out of his daze. “Nothing concrete at the moment. But I am working on a script.”

“So we could potentially be seeing a new film of yours soon?” the girl asked in a genuinely hopeful tone.

“Honey, as soon as I can find my ending.”

Laughter erupted throughout the audience, clearly from many jaded L.A. screenwriters.

“Well, on that note,” the moderator said, “I wanted to thank you all for coming out tonight for this special thirty-fifth anniversary screening of The Chainsaw Murders!”

Everyone started clapping, and the director stood up from his chair, nodding and waving at everyone.

“And I especially want to thank Mr. Hauser for making his way out to Santa Monica tonight,” the moderator concluded. “Sir, this was a real treat.”

The director shook the moderator’s sweaty hand and darted his eyes to the side exit where his limousine awaited him. He was halfway to the door when a group of fans charged up to him with so much enthusiasm that he momentarily feared for his life.

“One at a time, please,” the director said. “I’ll get to all of you. Don’t push, don’t push.”

Fans shoved items at him to sign that were, as expected, mostly related to The Chainsaw Murders, but a VHS of Row Boat happily surprised him and one of the masks from The Millennium Killers made him smile.

After ten minutes, the group in front of him finally receded. He was almost done.

“Mr. Hauser, sir.”

Somebody pushed an old laserdisc box set of Chainsaw Murders against the director’s chest. He did a double take.

“Oh, wow,” the director said. “The three-disc set. I didn’t think any of these were in existence anymore. Where did you find this — ”

He looked up to see the pale man with the briefcase. The figure stood completely still, a dopey grin on his face, his eyes staring into the director’s like a puppy in love. “I’ve had it for years, Mr. Hauser. Still in its original wrapping. I’ve never allowed myself to open it.”

“Oh,” the director said. “I see.” He glanced behind the man to see that he was the last of the autograph hounds.

Theo signed his name in the center of the box, nodded with a polite smile, and started making his way to the exit.

“Oh, Mr. Hauser! Can you sign another?”

Theo didn’t stop walking. “No, I’d like to,” he said, not making eye contact with the fan, “but I’m late for another function. I hope you’ll understand.”

“Pleeeeeeease?” The man rushed past him and stuck his arm out, blocking Theo’s exit to the limo.

The director sighed and tried not to call out this aggressive fan for what he was: a whiny child. “OK, OK. For Christ’s sake. But only one more.”

The man opened up his briefcase and handed the director a screenplay. But it wasn’t just any screenplay.

“You have got to be joking,” the director said, flipping through the eighty-eight pages, which were covered in mostly ineligible writing. “This is my script.”

“Yes, sir. That’s your personal screenplay from the 1976 shoot. Some guy in New York auctioned it off in the late nineties. I paid top dollar for it.”

The director nodded and signed his name above the title on the script’s cover. He appreciated the guy’s enthusiasm but couldn’t ignore the creepiness factor. “Well, thanks again for the support.”

He brushed past the man’s arm and walked out under the night sky.

“But wait,” the man said. “I just have one more thing.”

The director turned the corner to find his limo driver enjoying a cigarette. “Please get in the vehicle,” he said, pushing past him. “I need to get out of here.”

“Sure thing.”

The driver hurried to the left side of the limo. The director pulled on the door handle, but the door was locked.

“Mr. Hauser! Wait!”

The man with the briefcase charged up to the director, holding up his guitar case. He wasn’t going to take no for an answer.

“I’m sorry,” the director said. “I have to go.”

“I just have one more thing for you to sign, I promise.”

He put his briefcase down and pulled up the guitar case. He started to click it open when the side door of the limo unlocked.

“Goodbye,” the director said.

He opened and shut his door before the man could stop him.

“No! Not yet — ”

“Go!” the director shouted at his driver. “Go, go, go!”

As the limousine pulled forward, the man started chasing after it. He pressed the palm of his left hand against the side window and dragged his heavy guitar case with the fingers of his right. He lost his grip when the limousine made a right on busy San Vicente Boulevard and started speeding down the center lane.

The director closed his eyes and didn’t open them again until he was back on the freeway and out of Santa Monica, heading toward his home in the San Fernando Valley.

Another crazy fan evaded, he thought.

The director arrived at his upscale Studio City home a half hour later to find it dark and abandoned. He tipped the driver and walked up the winding driveway, hoping by some miracle that when he entered he’d have his family there to greet him — but he didn’t want to get lost in wishful thinking.

Theo headed straight for the kitchen. Some whiskey on the rocks helped ease his pain. His third wife had left him barely a month ago, and his only child was grown up and married and teaching chemistry across the country. He was alone in his big house for the first time in twenty years. He didn’t mind the quiet, but nothing had prepared him for the loneliness.

He finished his drink and grabbed the bottle of whiskey. He wanted to pour himself another. He held the bottle over his glass, watching as a small amount dripped out and splashed against the ice. But then he looked past the glass, and past the kitchen, to the adjacent family room, where a giant poster of The Chainsaw Murders was framed above the fireplace.

Theo set the bottle down and extended his middle finger.

Enough,” he said, and raced out of the kitchen.

Theo entered his study and sat down on his comfy blue chair. He turned on his laptop screen and clicked open his screenplay. The words stopped on page 77.

He tapped his fingers on his desk and rested his thumb against his chin. He pursed his lips. He studied the monitor.

“Come on,” he said. “Come on, you fucking hack. Think.”

His screenplay was about a serial killer picking off members of a popular Houston-based band one by one. He was almost done. But he hadn’t been able to pin down the killer’s identity.

Theo closed his eyes. He thought of tonight’s Q&A.

“Oh my God,” he whispered. “How could I be so stupid?” His eyes opened so wide he thought a blood vessel might have burst. “The killer should be their biggest fan!”

He didn’t even take the time to sort through all his thoughts. His fingers just started typing. Theo sat there for more than an hour, stopping his typing only once to scratch his back. He reached page 109 and typed in big, bold letters: THE END.

The director sat back and grinned. “Thanks, creep. You just saved my career.” He hit PRINT, grabbed his cell phone, and sped out of the room.

Theo walked to the kitchen and brought his phone up to his ear. Now was the time for that second drink. Now was truly the time to celebrate.

The call went to voice-mail. “Val, it’s done. I don’t know what just came over me, but… I did it. I’m printing out the pages and will have it to you first thing in the morning. Oh my God, I can’t believe it. I think it’s actually good.” Theo poured himself more whiskey, enjoyed a savory sip, and wiped an unexpected tear from his left cheek. “Call me when you can, OK? Thanks.”

He slipped the phone into his pocket, then brought the glass back up to his lips. He took another sip. He heard the pages printing in his study. He set the glass down and rubbed his hands together in anticipation.

He stopped the rubbing when he noticed the strange sight on the kitchen island, on the opposite side of the room.

He stepped forward and peered down, confused to see, of all things, an open guitar case.

“What the hell — ”

An earth-shattering noise roared to life behind him. Before he could turn around, a shooting pain struck his back.

The director started screaming.

What is it what is it what is it!

A running chainsaw smashed all the way through his stomach and protruded out the place where his belly button was supposed to be. The director looked down, horrified, before belting out another succession of violent screams.

As his blood and guts spilled against the kitchen floor, the chainsaw turned off. Theo remained standing, still conscious but fading.

“Mr. Hauser, here’s my pen.”

His body shaking, his mouth filled with blood, his vision turning to a fuzzy blackness, the director looked to his left to see his own biggest fan.

“As I was trying to tell you at the theatre, I have in my possession the last known chainsaw used in your film. It appears at the end when the sadistic killer finally meets his match. Can you believe, Mr. Hauser, that the chainsaw still works after all these years?”

The director slumped down to the ground, and as he faded into nothing, his final glimpse was of the man putting a black sharpie in his hand and assisting him with his signature.

“Just here.”

Theo finished signing his name at the top of the chainsaw’s blade, and as he released his final breath, the chainsaw roared to life again, this time moving up from his intestines toward his throat, ripping through his brain and out the top of his head.

Posted in Fiction

Get Off the Phone: A Horror Short Story

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“ — And then Danny talked to Billy and Billy talked to Sarah and Sarah talked to me about it and you won’t believe how Austin was acting when he walked by Laura at recess it was like super awkward and she didn’t even have time to… hey Cass… Cassandra… are you still there… Cass… oh you have to be kidding me… Mom!”

“What?” Wendy’s mother was lost in her own little world of pop-infused Top 40.

“It cut out again.” Wendy banged her new iPhone on her mother’s right shoulder. “Why does it do that?”

Her mother smiled. “We’re driving over the hill, sweetie. The signal’s no good here. You can try calling your friend in a minute or two.”

“But Mom!”

“Sweetie, relax. Listen to some music.” She turned the volume up on the car radio, but Wendy was already slamming her headphones against her ears.

Wendy peered out the window and tried not to scream as she waited for the bottom of the hill. She had been asking her mother since she was ten for her own cell phone — “Everyone at school has one, Mom, even the poor kids,” she’d say — and last Saturday, on her twelfth birthday, her mother handed her the final birthday present of the evening — the iPhone 6 Plus. Wendy danced around the room, even though no music was playing, and didn’t wait ten seconds before she ripped the phone out of its box.

Please, she thought, dialing her friend again from the back of her mother’s Subaru. Please work. I haven’t finished telling the story. I need to finish telling my story.

It took more than a minute for the phone to start ringing, but once it did, Wendy waited with great expectation, the next sentence ready to spill out of her mouth. One ring became six, and the call went to Cassandra’s voice-mail.

Before Wendy could leave a message, however, another call came in. She smiled, dipped down in her seat, and answered: “Hello?”

Instead of rapid-fire chitchat starting in mid-sentence on the other end, she was only met with silence.

“Cassandra?” Wendy asked. “That you on the — ”

“WEEEEENNNNDEEEEEY!”

The shrill scream caught Wendy off guard, making her drop the phone. She watched as it bounced neatly into the cup-holder underneath her mother’s right arm.

“What — ”

Wendy picked up the phone and looked at the Caller ID. It said, conveniently, BLOCKED CALL.

She shook her head and started laughing at a low volume, rubbing her pinky violently around her aching right ear. “Billy… I know that was you.”

“What was that, sweetie?” Wendy’s mother asked, pulling off the freeway and turning into a quiet shopping center.

“Nothing, Mom.”

Wendy’s mother parked the car in front of what appeared to be a Halloween store. Drawings and paintings of pumpkins, witches, ghosts, and black cats draped the windows and the entrance door from top to bottom.

“What are we doing here? I already got my costume. I’m gonna be Elsa.”

Her mother opened her door and said, “This isn’t a costume store, Wendy. We’re here to pick out a present for Mary.”

A surge of disappointment rushed through her veins. I’m not here to pick out a present for me? she thought. I’m here to pick out some idiotic toy for my cousin’s dumb two-year-old?

“Can I just stay in the car?”

“No,” her mother said. “You need to help me. The party’s tomorrow night, and we need to get her something nice.”

“She’s two!” Wendy shouted. She grabbed her phone, jumped out of the car, and slammed the door.

“I bought you presents when you were two,” her mother said, closing her door much softer before walking to the front of the toy shop. “Trust me. You would’ve gone nuts if I hadn’t bought you your Disney Princess Shopping Cart.”

Wendy glared at her mother, before dialing her friend back and bringing the phone up to her ear. Cassandra answered after the first ring. “Sorry about that,” Wendy said. “Now, as I was saying, when Laura talked to me yesterday after class she said Austin seemed way too scared to even say hi to her…”

Wendy kept on yakking as she entered the mostly desolate toy store, and she almost tripped, against what looked like an elderly man.

“Oh my God!” she shouted. She brought her hand to her mouth and leaped back. “What the hell is that?”

“Wendy! Language!” Her mother was near the back, pacing through the aisles for children’s toys. Wendy knew her mother, but especially her stepfather, hated when she used language, but she liked to see how much profanity she could get away with. She figured by middle school she could get away with anything.

“Sorry, Cass,” Wendy said over the phone, looking at the figure before her. “I just stepped into this stupid store and this weird thing in front of me almost made me fall. Anyway, I can’t believe it if Austin likes Laura, because I thought he knew she only liked Billy, even though he claims he already has a girlfriend…”

Wendy kept talking as she stared into the eyes of the male costumed mannequin, dressed in nineteenth century attire, with a white cloak surrounding his vest and a red hat on top of his head. His face was painted a sickly yellow, his eye sockets shaded in dangerous black. Behind the mannequin were dolls, picture books, the ninety-nine cent bin — all in boxes painted pink. The figure didn’t belong here, and Wendy didn’t like that it seemed to be staring at her, giving her a dirty look.

She shuddered, shaking from head to toe, before bypassing the mannequin and making her way toward the back.

“Wendy!” her mother shouted from the front counter.

“What?” She spun around.

“Get off the phone, please!”

“Oh, come on, Mom…”

“Not in the store. You can talk to your friend when we get home, okay?”

Wendy shook her head and slammed the phone against her ear. “Sorry, Cass, I’ve got to call you back but I want to hear more about Austin and why you think he isn’t good for Laura even though she has never really even had a…”

She looked back at her mother. She was shaking her head, clearly upset. “Do you want me to take that phone away, missy?”

Wendy narrowed her eyes. “I’ll call you back.” She hung up and dropped the phone in her jeans pocket. She walked up to her mother, trying to feign interest in the search for a toy. “You find something yet?”

Her mother had a few items tucked under her arm. “Goodnight Moon, a magic ball, a baby doll…” She pointed to a large box in the corner. “…or a cooking utensils play kit.”

“You might as well give her a box of poop.” Wendy laughed.

“If you don’t want to help me, fine,” was all her mother said, before choosing the doll and heading back the other way to drop off the other toys.

“Sorry,” Wendy said sarcastically, before sauntering to the other side of the toy store.

She made sure she was out of sight from her mother, then dialed Cassandra back. She ran her fingers along the spines of books for toddlers, clucking her tongue in annoyance as two rings became four, and then six. Wendy waited for the voice-mail, but none came.

Instead, she looked down at her phone to see it shutting off.

“Wait, what? No.”

She hadn’t been paying attention in the car, but her phone had been losing its battery at an alarming rate that afternoon. She glanced at the top of the phone to see the dreaded 2% icon disappear, the phone going completely dead.

“Nooooo,” she said. “Oh, come on, come on.”

Wendy tapped the phone against her leg and looked across the way to see her mother heading to the register.

But she didn’t stay looking at her mother for long. Something else caught her eye.

The nineteenth century mannequin was no longer staring out the entrance door to all the incoming customers. It was turned around, facing her again, staring at Wendy with a cold smile.

Wendy screamed, but she slammed her hand against her mouth before any sound could escape. She looked at her mother, and the young male employee at the register. Nobody seemed to notice that the inanimate mannequin had shifted position.

She shook her head, and escaped the eye-line of the frightening figure. “Try to stare at me back here, you creep,” Wendy whispered, before she entered the storage room behind her.

Wendy looked around. She was alone in a crowded room packed with books and toys and stuffed animals, and not a single scary mannequin.

She knew she only had a minute or two before her mother would start calling for her. Wendy kneeled down on the hardwood floor and pressed on her phone. She thought maybe, just maybe, pushing her thumb against it hard enough would bring it back to life.

“Work, damn it,” Wendy said.

She pressed for thirty seconds. Nothing was happening.

But then: “Oh my God,” Wendy said. “No way!”

The phone lit up with life.

“Yes,” she said. “I did it! I — ”

When the main menu appeared, all the lights in the storage room turned off. But Wendy didn’t scream; her jaw dropped.

Somebody was calling her again. The number with the BLOCKED CALL.

Wendy didn’t want to answer it. But she had to. She always had to.

She pushed the phone against her ear. “Billy, is this you, again? Stop calling me! I know you like me but I don’t like you and I already told Cassandra that you’re just a stupid…”

“WEEEEENNNNDEEEEEY!”

Wendy stayed put, realizing for the first time she was in total darkness.

She heard a footstep from behind.

“Billy?” she said. “Is that you? This isn’t funny…”

Another footstep. She could hear someone snickering.

“I’m outta here,” Wendy said.

She grabbed the door handle and pushed forward. It didn’t budge. She pushed again. The door was locked tight.

What?” Wendy started pounding on the door. “Mom? Are you there? Let me out!”

She hit her fist again and again. Where is she? she thought. Why isn’t she saving me?

Wendy tried to find a light switch. Nothing. She looked down at her phone and tried to dial her mother. But she couldn’t. She still hadn’t entered her mother’s number.

The footsteps came closer and closer. Warm breath wafted against her face.

“Mom, please!” Wendy shoved her face against the door. “Somebody! Anybody!”

Her phone started vibrating. She looked down to see an incoming call, this one not from a blocked caller, but from her best friend, Cassandra.

Wendy answered and shouted, “Cass!”

“Wendy, hey. What happened back there?”

“Cass, you’ve got to get help — ”

“Wendy, that was so rude when I was trying to tell you when Austin and Laura were over near the basketball court and Austin was like trying to hit on her even though he’s pathetic and Sarah said he wanted to kiss her but I wasn’t even close to finding out the real truth until…”

Wendy was trying to find an opening in her friend’s rant, somewhere she could get a word in, but she couldn’t find one. She listened, intently, waiting for some kind of hesitation on her friend’s part, when a hand grabbed her shoulder.

Wendy turned around and shined the light on her phone into the mannequin’s face, right at his big yellow smile, his red hat tipping her way, his eyes turning a bright, fiery orange.

“GETTTTTTTT OFFFFFFFFFF THEEEEEEE PHONNNNNNNNNE!” he screamed, and slapped the phone out of her hands, down onto the cold ground.

His mouth opened wide, and the first shooting pain she felt was teeth biting her left ear off the side of her head.

“Noooooo!” Wendy screamed. “Oh God oh God oh God!”

The last thing Wendy heard from her right ear, before that one was bitten off, was her friend yakking at her from her brand new phone, the screen now broken, the speaker volume turned all the way up.

“Wendy I’m trying to tell you a story and now I’m starting to think you don’t even want to talk to me anymore I thought we were best friends where did you go can’t you hear me can’t you hear me can’t you h — ”

Posted in Fiction

The Perfect Ending: A Short Story

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“That was perfect. Let’s try it one more time.”

Jasmine Spencer stood in the corner of a white room that resembled a giant box. She quietly coughed, as she stared at the page in front of her.

She stopped thinking and started again.

“Please,” she said. “Please don’t hurt me. I’ll do anything.”

Jasmine knew that she was trying out for a potentially horrible student film, but she didn’t care. She was finally in Los Angeles. Finally living the dream.

She let out her final scream.

The director Clive, a pale guy who Jasmine figured was close to thirty, stood up and clapped as if he had just attended a Broadway show.

“Wow!” he said. “You have a really special quality about you. I’ve been auditioning girls for months, and I must say I haven’t found anyone like you. Have you been in a film before?”

“Never.”

“Never? Really?” He put his hand out in the air. “Congratulations, Ms. Spencer. I’m giving you your first movie role.”

Jasmine screamed again, this time not as part of the scene, and shook his hand.

“Oh my God,” she said. “You have no idea what this means to me!”

He chuckled. “Believe me, I do.”

He grabbed her by the throat and stuck a needle in her neck. The sedative effect took only five seconds. Jasmine’s eyelids became droopy, and she slumped down to the floor.

When she opened her eyes, she looked up to see a blonde woman, fifty to sixty, a cigarette in her hand. Clive was filming a close-up of her.

Jasmine sat up on a wood table. “What the hell?”

Clive slammed his fist against the wall. “Cut! Damn it, cut!” He rushed over to Jasmine and slapped her, hard, against her cheek. “Did I say you could look at the camera? It’s the number one rule of acting. Never ever look into the camera! It’s breaking the fourth wall, don’t you know anything?”

He stormed out of the room, jutting his arms wildly in the air. The blonde woman sighed and sat next to Jasmine. “Hello, dear. My name’s Betty. The other actor in the film.”

“Excuse me?” Jasmine tried to stand, her head woozy, her eyes blurry.

Betty stopped her. “Now, now, you’re supposed to be catatonic in this scene. Just wait a moment. Let Clive do all the work.”

“But…” Jasmine blinked rapidly. “Why am I here?”

“Our director, of course,” she said. “He wanted the perfect look for the dead girl in our newest movie. He searched for weeks, and then… there you were. Long black hair, tan, beautiful. You were perfect.”

Betty crouched down and tapped her fingernails against Jasmine’s bruised cheek.

“Is that so?” Jasmine leaned back, and head-butted Betty in the nose.

“Oww! Goddammit!” she shouted. She put one hand on her nose, and one hand on Jasmine’s neck. “Clive, bring it now!”

He rushed in, holding the camera in one hand and the needle in the other. “I forgot to get the batteries. Hold on.”

“No, now,” Betty said. Jasmine tried to fight her way off the table, but the woman had too strong a grip on her. “The sedative’s wearing off!”

She grabbed the needle from Clive, and re-approached Jasmine, as he walked back out of the room. She held up the needle. “This will only hurt for a second.”

Betty grabbed Jasmine’s arm. Brought the needle down, fast, too fast.

Jasmine didn’t take a second to think. She leaned her head back and kicked the needle out of Betty’s hand.

Hey!” Betty shouted. “You little shit!”

She reached toward the hardwood floor but Jasmine jumped off the table, grabbed the needle first, and plunged it deep into Betty’s chest. Her eyes bulged from their sockets as her body fell limp to the floor, foam erupting from her mouth.

Jasmine stood up, went through the open door, and found herself in the middle of a bright room, painted mostly in red, a computer setup on one side, a tiny kitchen on the other. She looked down to see Clive underneath his computer desk, removing a battery from a charger. When he noticed her, he sat up like a vampire rising from his coffin.

“Whoa, what?” he said. “This isn’t part of the movie.”

Jasmine ran to the door, but it was locked. She tried to kick it down. Clive came up from behind her and grabbed her by her hair.

“Oww!” Jasmine screamed. “Stop it, stop it!”

“Your character is supposed to be dead!” he shouted.

Jasmine spun around and spit in his face. She kicked him in the stomach, then grabbed the computer monitor and threw it on top of Clive. He pushed it away. Grabbed her foot. Jasmine tripped and fell to the ground. He got on top of her and pinned her hands down.

“Betty, get in here!” he shouted. No response. “Betty?” Still nothing.

Jasmine shook her head. “I think she’s taking a nap.”

He narrowed his eyes. “What the hell did you do to her?” He slapped her again, this time even harder. “Am I gonna have to kill you for real? I didn’t want to, but now I just might you stupid little bitch — ”

She kicked him in the crotch, and when he let out a loud wail, she punched him in the ear.

He let go of her, only for a second, just enough time for her to get away. She ran across the room. Pulled a knife from one of the kitchen drawers.

Clive stood up, and marched right toward her. “I… am going… to finish… my movie!”

Jasmine jumped behind him, pulled his greasy hair back, and slit his throat. He fell down face first, blood gushing out onto the dirty kitchen floor.

She grabbed a set of keys from his pocket and unlocked the door in front of her.

“There’s an ending for you,” she said, and walked into the morning sunlight.

Posted in Fiction

Producers & Directors: A Short Story

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Charlotte sat on the wooden bench and slumped forward, her cold hands clasped so tightly together that a sharp pain radiated down her wrists. She bit down on her bottom lip and shook her head as she fought back tears.

“Please, God,” she said, her breath visible in the freezing air, “please let my friend Timothy rest in peace and feel no more pain. He had enough pain. Let him be free.”

Charlotte looked up at the gray sky and saw, for only a second, two clouds pull apart, allowing the sun to shine down on her cold face. A pleasant warmth circulated her body, as if someone had struck up a campfire a couple feet away. She smiled. Closed her eyes.

“Screw you!” someone shouted to her right.

Charlotte opened her eyes and gazed toward the front door of the church. A man wearing a large black coat was smoking a cigarette, his huge iPhone resting against his ear.

“I’m tired of it!” he shouted, his voice loud and abrasive. “You make these promises, Patrick, and then you break them. If she doesn’t want to be in my movie, I’ll find someone better, someone hotter, someone with tits! Your client couldn’t open a movie if she gave every paying customer hand jobs on opening night!”

Charlotte’s stomach started to hurt. She hadn’t eaten anything since last night, but as the man kept screaming into his phone, spewing out one inanity after another, an unexpected nausea took hold of her, the kind she felt last spring when a stomach flu knocked her out for an entire week. She scooted to the other side of the bench.

The man walked toward her, still yapping away, and she hoped he would keep marching on by, never to be heard from again.

But then he stopped, right in front of her. “Patrick?” he said. “Patrick, you there?” He pulled his phone down, then pounded his fist against it. “This goddamn service out here is shit!” He turned to Charlotte, who was doing her best to look in any other direction. “Excuse me, are you getting reception? I’ve been having problems ever since I got here.”

“Sorry, I don’t know. I’ve had my phone turned off all day.”

“What? Turned off?” He laughed, and sat next to her on the bench, close, way too close. “That’s pretty stupid. What if someone needs to get a hold of you? You want to be unemployed forever?”

“I’m not unemployed,” Charlotte said.

“Oh yeah? Then what do you do?” He pulled his phone back up. Started tapping on the screen with his untrimmed fingernails, so hard she thought he might break it.

She grinned. “I’m a director actually.”

“A director?” He laughed loudly, a cackle Charlotte assumed more suitable for a female witch with a wart on her nose. “Of what? Community theater?”

“No. I’m a filmmaker.”

“No shit.” He ran his fingers through his goatee, which had a noticeable piece of shredded cheese sticking out from the side. “What have you made? Anything I’ve heard of?”

“I have a short film series on Youtube. Documentaries about the homeless.”

His eyebrows rose at least an inch. “Documentaries about what?”

“I’ve received grants from Oregon State. My films are bringing an awareness to what is now more than ever a widespread epidemic. Did you know there are currently more than 630,000 homeless men, women, and children in the United States alone?”

She was going to keep talking, but the man had focused his eyes back on his phone, picking his back teeth with his right pinky. “That’s… that’s just fascinating, honey. Sorry. I thought you were a real filmmaker.”

“A real one? But… I am.”

“Your movies make any money? For anybody?”

She shifted her body away from him and said, “Well, not exactly — ”

“The people who raise the money for you to make these documentaries. Do they at least see a return on their investment?”

Charlotte took off her jacket. Either it had become significantly warmer outside, or her blood had started boiling. “That’s not how it works, sir.”

“Listen. My name’s Paul Brockmeier. That name mean anything to you?”

She shrugged.

“Didn’t think so,” he said. “If you were an actual filmmaker, you would know the name, and you would bow at my feet. My films have grossed more than five billion dollars worldwide, and that’s just in the last ten years. Who knows what the next decade will bring? I keep telling my wife it’s gonna be eight billion, but she thinks I’m too optimistic.”

His voice grated on her so much that she moved to the edge of the bench. Her sister wasn’t supposed to pick her up for another twenty minutes, but she was ready to make the five-mile walk home.

“Aren’t you gonna ask me what my movies are?” the producer asked.

She sighed. “What are your movies?”

“Well, Pirates of the Caribbean 10 opened in July. That’s going to be the first of a new trilogy that truly revolutionizes the series. Then in October we have Fast and the Furious 17, which I expect to make the most money of the franchise yet. My last film of the year opens Christmas Day. Titanic 2.”

“Really? Titanic 2?”

“That’s right. It took me three years but I finally got Kim Kardashian and Justin Bieber to commit. I think Justin’s going to make the most wonderful zombie Jack Dawson.” He stroked his hands through his graying hair and added, “Did you know the original movie made 2.8 billion at the worldwide box office? I plan to double that this Christmas.”

She couldn’t take it anymore. Charlotte stood up and headed toward the front of the church. But before she reached the front door, she stopped and turned around.

“Wait a second,” she said. “If you’re some hotshot producer, what are you doing here?”

He squinted, even though no sun was blinding him. As soon as he had walked outside, the clouds had stayed put overhead. “Excuse me?”

“Why are you in Corvallis, Oregon? Why are you at my friend’s funeral?”

He lit up another cigarette, and smiled with his dark yellow teeth. “We’re shooting an action flick up here, honey. With Denzel. Tomorrow’s car chase scene calls for corpses to be dumped on the freeway, and the director wanted real ones.”

The door opened, and Charlotte fell toward the ground. Her head missed the cement by mere centimeters.

She pushed her back against the wall as two men wearing all black hauled a body out of the church and tossed it into the back of a red truck. “Got another one!” the taller one shouted.

“Nice work, boys,” the producer said, and he walked toward the truck’s driver seat, smoke spilling out of his mouth. He turned back to Charlotte one last time and said, “All right, I’m off. Good luck with your documentaries. Have fun living out the rest of your days in your parents’ basement while I live on my pad up in the Hollywood Hills!”

She kept her mouth shut as he jumped into the truck and pulled out of the parking lot.

“Stop them!” a woman cried to the left of Charlotte, and then about a dozen people spilled out of the church and started chasing the truck down.

As soon as everyone disappeared around the corner, Charlotte returned to the bench and took her phone out of her pocket. That producer had been like a cancer in human form, but he had been right about one thing: she needed to turn her phone back on.

When the screen lit up, she opened her e-mail inbox. She had one unread message. She clicked it.

“Hello, Charlotte,” she read aloud, “my name is Aaron, and I wanted to say how much your documentaries have meant to me. I was a homeless gay teen for two years, before someone inspired by your films brought me to a shelter and helped me out. Now I work at the shelter as a counselor for homeless youth. Without your films, without your selfless commitment to helping others, I would be dead, no doubt about it. Thank you for this second chance.”

Charlotte set her phone down, then leaned against the wall and stared up at the sky.

The sun was out again.

Posted in Books, Fiction, Writing

Why is Stephen King So Influential?

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No other author has influenced me more, made me fall in love with reading more, made me want to be a writer more, than the great Stephen King. I’ve been reading his work since I was an impressionable eleven-year-old in fifth grade, and here I am, twenty years later, still avidly collecting his newest works and re-reading his classics for pleasure. Recently I read The Dead Zone again for the first time since high school and got so swept up in it from page one on, I decided I would try to re-read all of his older books I haven’t read in years. Some of his plots are predictable. A few of his ticks can be annoying (the parentheses with thoughts in italics are starting to get a bit old right now). But in a world of uncertainties and anxieties, I can always count on King to spin me a worthwhile yarn.

Somehow a paperback copy of Carrie ended up in my hands about halfway through fifth grade. How it got there, I don’t remember. I asked my parents recently if it was their idea to have me read one of his books, and they couldn’t remember, which makes me think I probably read about King in a magazine or something and asked my mom for one of his books. For any young reader, Carrie is probably the best one to start with. Not only is it his first published novel, but it’s also one of his shortest, at about 200 pages.

One of my earliest memories involving the work of King is getting up in front of my fifth grade class and delivering a book report about Carrie where I discussed Carrie’s menstrual cycle and also how her mother Margaret gave birth at home and had to cut the umbilical cord herself. When I finished, Mrs. Frodahl pulled me aside and told me how inappropriate the book choice had been, that there were young fourth graders in our fourth/fifth combo class, and that I needed to screen my titles for upcoming book reports to her from then on. An adult figure who I respected told me no about Stephen King, so naturally, that no made me want to read even more.

The other King title I read in fifth grade was ‘Salem’s Lot, and I still, like my Carrie paperback, still have it at the back of my bedroom bookshelf. The book’s cover is about to fall off, with crinkled pages throughout, and an amazing homemade bookmark I made with ’95 Windows that has lasted twenty-three years. I remember getting in trouble for reading this book, too, this time from the math teacher our class met with one or two times a week. She caught me reading it and said that was inappropriate for a child my age.

So… yep, once again, I sought out more of his books. In 1996 I read each installment as they were published of his newest novel, The Green Mile, and I bought a used copy of The Stand at a garage sale, which scared me a bit with its 1100 pages — it took me until 2010 to finally break open this fantastic book and read it from beginning to end.

For my twelfth birthday I received one of my favorite presents ever — a membership in the Stephen King book club. If my parents hadn’t signed me up for this, I often wonder if I would be as big of a mega-fan of King’s today. From 1996 to 2002 or 2003, I received in the mail at the beginning of every month a Stephen King hardback, sometimes his latest bestseller, often his classics. In middle school and high school I poured through each book I received, speeding through Cujo one month, testing out the fantasy genre with The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger in another, falling in love with Misery over and over again. In these six prime years of my life, when I was writing stories practically every day and always looking forward to English more than math and science, King felt like a close friend of mine, there for me when I needed him. I read books by other authors for pleasure at this time — the Harry Potter series of course, as well as books by Dean Koontz, John Saul, and Robert McCammon. But I always read King more than anyone else, and when I left for college in 2003, most of the books I took with me were the King classics.

My membership in the King book club changed a little once I received his last older hardback title. The heads of the organization could have just continued sending me old King books I already owned and neither me nor my parents probably would have noticed or cared, but one month, after I had left for film school in L.A., the books stopped coming. I remember asking my mom on the phone one Sunday if anything had arrived that month, and she said there hadn’t been anything from the book club in some time. I had been hoping they’d send the last three novels in King’s Dark Tower series, and when my mom said she hadn’t ever canceled the membership, I held out some hope.

Finally, book five, The Wolves of the Calla, arrived on my parents’ doorstep over one of the holiday breaks, and I realized what the book club consisted of now — they were only going to send me King’s new books, as long as he continued to churn them out. Over the next five years I received Duma Key, Lisey’s Story, Cell. And then in 2007, the year I graduated, the unthinkable happened: my mother told me she had canceled the membership. “Why would you do that?” I said. “He’s still alive! He’s still writing books!” She said now that I didn’t live at home anymore, I needed to buy his books myself.

And buy them I still do. King had a phase in the 2000s where many of his titles disappointed, but his creativity and talent has shone through in the last seven years with a handful of great books that I love. While nothing he writes these days has bested his work from the ’70s and ’80s, and although his semi-sequel to The Shining, Doctor Sleep, left me a little cold, I’ve been a fan of a few of his new, notable works. His 2008 short story collection Just After Sunset is fantastic, with one particular horror story set in a rest stop that has stuck with me for years. Under the Dome has its flaws, but I found it a great return to the big novel form for King, who for at least ten years had put his efforts into slimmer novels. Full Dark, No Stars, is lean and mean King, with a story about rape and revenge that is especially good. Joyland was a blast, and I admired his rare use of the present tense in the Bill Hodges trilogy. The man’s in his seventies and he’s still cranking out two a year. I honestly can’t imagine the day Mr. King dies. It will hurt, I know it will, but thank God his canon is so large that I will continue to discover both his new and old titles for many years to come.

I’ve read at least seventy to eighty percent of his books, so which have them have stayed important to me over the years, and which ones do I keep nearby as I continue to work on my own fiction? Of course Carrie will always be one of the essential Kings for me, not just because it’s the first one I read, but because its themes of bullying and depictions of a social outcast have played major roles in my work as a writer. It’s also one of the few King titles — The Long Walk could be considered another — that can be considered a young adult novel.

Another big one is The Shining, which I’ve read three times and which is my go-to for studying how horror fiction should read. When I re-read it again in 2014 for my annotated bibliography for my MA thesis, I paid close attention to how five-year-old Danny was depicted, and it’s pure genius how well he was able to write third person limited for a child character in such an ambitious novel that blends horror with literary writing.

Misery would have to be my third favorite King, mainly because the story is so damn good, and Annie Wilkes is one of the most original literary creations I’ve come across in twentieth century fiction.

Of his recent works, 11/22/63, a tome of a novel about an English teacher who travels back in time to stop the Kennedy assassination, is the best, with a fascinating storyline and an endlessly propulsive narrative.

And of couse there’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, which I try to read once a year, and which always helps me in my writing.

I’ve been reading the work of Stephen King for more than half of my life, and I look forward to many more decades loving the hell out of everything he does. New books, old books, I don’t care. To me, he’s the great storyteller of them all, and I will never tire of him. Now excuse me — The Dark Half is cracked open on my nightstand, and it’s calling my name…

Posted in Fiction, Film, Video Games

Do you know the seven ways to experience Harry Potter?

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Who doesn’t love the first Harry Potter novel? I’ve read it at least three times, and I’ve enjoyed this story in all sorts of ways… seven ways, to be exact!

1. The Novel

The first time I paid attention to the two words, “Harry Potter,” was in July of 2000. I was staying in a cabin in Tahoe, and my grandfather Ralph, of all people, showed me a copy of a new book he had picked up a few days ago, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. He said it’s more geared toward younger readers but that “it opens with a double murder.” That week I also remember turning on the news to see a story about the midnight madness of the release of Book 4. I didn’t rush out and buy the first four books that week (I didn’t do so the rest of the summer, even) but the J.K. Rowling books about a boy wizard who goes to a magical school had finally caught my attention.

In September I finally stumbled upon a copy in my brother’s room and asked to check it out. You want a confession here and now? I read the first chapter, strongly disliked it, and gave it back. To this day I still think the greatest book series of all time opens on a mediocre note, telling of Uncle Vernon’s trip to work as he sees strange sights in the London streets. I remember at that time having no interest in going on to Chapter 2.

Thankfully, come November, I had Accelerated Reading points I needed to accumulate for my sophomore year English class, and the first three Harry Potter books at the time counted. I could read all of Harry Potter 1 and take an easy ten-question test to receive my points in full for AR. So I moved on to Chapter 2. By the end of that chapter, I was hooked. By the end of Chapter 3, I was enraptured. I read the book over a weekend and fell in love. My Harry Potter obsession had begun.

2. The Film

One of my most highly anticipated films of 2001 was not The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, the movie on seemingly every book lover’s mind, but Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. I saw it opening night at the Century Park Lane movie theater in Reno and fell in love. I ended up seeing the movie three times in theaters and put it #3 on my Top Ten Films of the Year list of 2001, just behind Memento and Mulholland Drive.

Of all the eight Harry Potter movies, the one that has probably held up the least is the first one, which is a little clunky at times, overlong, with child actors still trying to find their groove, and special effects that needed an extra six months to get right. But I still adore this movie because it worked as the introduction to the Harry Potter world, and I’m still amazed that, except for Richard Harris, the entire cast stayed in tact throughout all eight movies. Fantastic!

3. The Video Game

How long has it been since the first Harry Potter video game came out? I played Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, in full, from beginning to end, on the Playstation 1. You read that right. Not the Playstation 2, even. The Playstation 1! The graphics left a lot to be desired, but I had a blast with this game, which at the time offered the video game player the chance to roam the halls of Hogwarts as much as he or she wanted.

The music was great, and there was plenty amount of cute little cut scenes, where Harry, Ron, and Hermione (which on the Playstation 1 consisted of mostly blank faces with either brown or red hair), would interact with each other and stick together on their next adventure. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was released a year later for the Playstation 2, and even eventually came out for the XBOX, but my experience was on the PS1. And while the game didn’t necessarily look its best, I had a blast with it.

4. The DVD

Remember the initial DVD? The one that made you spend hours solving puzzles and going through various loopholes just to get to the ten deleted scenes from the movie? Ahhh, those were the days. (The ultimate puzzle of a DVD bonus disc remains that strange eighth disc on the Nightmare on Elm Street box set.) The picture quality wasn’t its best, and the audio — eh — but I remember buying the DVD opening day and watching the film an additional three times, the first two soon after I bought it, and the third in preparation of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, which came out less than a year before the first movie (one day early, but still)!

I watched this DVD on and off throughout the years, as recently as May 2011 when I started, with my brother, watching one Harry Potter movie a week in preparation for the final film in mid-July of 2011. But in addition I picked up the Blu Ray extended edition a few years back, which included not only a cut of the film that incorporated many of those deleted scenes seen on the initial release of the DVD, but also a scene-specific video commentary from the first film’s director, Chris Columbus. Love it!

5. The eBook

So what do I think of J.K. Rowling’s book now? I hadn’t re-read the book over the years. I just read it that one time in the fall of 2000 and have never touched it since. Therefore, I was excited to download the eBook of Sorcerer’s Stone when the eBooks of the entire series finally were released to the public. I had just recently gotten a Kindle, and while I still prefer physical books any day of the week, I’ve been reading the occasional eBook, and I knew one that I would love to revisit would be Sorcerer’s Stone. I thought I’d start with that one.

And I had a fabulous time. I loved re-visiting the intro story, especially spending time in Diagon Alley again, and seeing Quidditch through the eyes of Harry Potter for the first time again. While the first book of Rowling’s series is clearly more aimed at kids than later books in the series, I kind of enjoyed that aspect this time around. I liked that the main trio were never really in any mortal danger that made me want to start weeping. That first book is more an action adventure for the middle-school set, and I really enjoyed it on that level. My favorite of the book remains Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the massive tome that works as the bridge between the Harry Potter for kids and the Harry Potter for older teens. But I’ll always love Sorcerer’s Stone. It’s a lot of fun, and I had a blast revisiting Rowling’s awesome world again.

6. The Audiobook

One way I had left to experience Rowling’s novel was through the audiobook, read by Jim Dale. It took me forever to get a copy of this. If you just buy a brand new copy on Amazon, it’s 35 to 50 bucks, and I wasn’t prepared to spend that much. Therefore I spent a good three or four months trying to borrow it from the local library. It seemed like every time I asked for it, it was reserved or checked out by someone.

Finally I managed to reserve a copy for myself. I’ve never been one to enjoy audiobooks, but I sure enjoyed this one. I didn’t know who Jim Dale was when the reading began, and I was overjoyed to discover this guy wasn’t a total stranger: he was the narrator to Pushing Daisies! I was in awe of how he could inhabit each character, from smart, plucky Hermione, to big, booming Hagrid, to eerie Voldemort. And I love the warm, whimsical quality to his voice. Dale’s the kind of guy you’d want to sit around a campfire with and have him tell you a story. He was the perfect choice to read aloud the Harry Potter series, although I’m curious how he’ll do with the later, darker chapters.

7. The Pottermore Experience

Finally, Pottermore. I had two reasons for buying the eBook and borrowing the audiobook from the library. One was that after watching Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 on Blu Ray I realized that the journey was officially over. The books, the movies, the DVDs, DONE. And I didn’t like that feeling. I don’t want the Harry Potter experience to ever end.

And so I was thrilled to discover the online Pottermore, which brings most of the scenes of Sorcerer’s Stone to life, in a new illustrated fashion that doesn’t necessarily follow the look of the films. There’s been a lot of disappointment and chagrin over Pottermore, and I agree there could be a little more interactivity (Quidditch matches, classroom sessions, etc), but I still had a lot of fun with it. I loved seeing new takes on all the innovative rooms of Hogwarts castle, and the illustration of the dark dungeon room with Quirrell and Voldemort was legitimately creepy. Pottermore isn’t perfect, but it’s a great new way to re-experience our favorite books in a whole new way.

OVERALL

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone isn’t the best book, or the best movie, in the series, but it’s still a favorite among Potterphiles. It’s where the saga began after all, and it’s in the introduction to this magical world that we had our first flirtations with J.K. Rowling’s genius.

So what about you? How do you rank Sorcerer’s Stone among the other books and films? And have you tried to experience the first book in all seven ways as I have?

Posted in Books, Fiction

What are some of your favorite short stories?

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“Little Frogs in a Ditch” by Tim Gautreaux

Tim Gautreaux’s short story “Little Frogs in a Ditch,” from his book of short stories entitled Same Place, Same Things, is entertaining, darkly funny, smart, and life-affirming, all at the same time. I was astonished at what Gautreaux was able to do with such few pages. He not only tells a fascinating story and develops a setting that truly feels lived in, but he created a string of well-drawn, memorable characters. Even though we’ve all met somebody like the grandfather, and certainly like Lenny — the car salesman comparison mentioned in the last scene is apt — the characters never feel like stereotypes. Lenny’s parents have abandoned him, leaving his cranky grandfather to take care of him — and the old man is rightfully angry about his grandson’s new business venture. The dynamic between the two characters is fascinating, because obviously the grandfather isn’t a bad guy — he wants Lenny to succeed — but in the end he knows that Lenny is going to struggle for many years to come. Lenny likes to find the easy answer to every question, and his business idea selling birds to those who don’t know any better, is something he understands is not the brightest idea in the world, but it’s something that will make him money, and in the short term, that’s what’s most important

An element of language that Gautreaux handles well throughout the piece is his extraordinary ear for dialogue. The pacing of the short story zips along by the scenes that are heavy with dialogue, and they are all a delight to read. He not only creates dialogue that feels authentic to the characters themselves — there’s a higher sense of intelligence and thoughtfulness to the grandfather, for instance, than Lenny — but the dialogue also feels authentic to the time and place, which is a very difficult task to capture as a writer. But Gautreaux succeeds in this aspect, transporting us to a small town where many aren’t as educated as they could be, and many say “ain’t” instead of “isn’t,” and have a habit of leaving the “n” off the end of many words when they speak. Take for example some of the dialogue on page 138 between Lenny and Mr. Meyer. “Whatcha got in the suitcase, boy?” “The old man and me, we had a discussion.” “You mean, he throwed your ass on the street.” And then later: “Naw, Lenny.” All of this use of language in the dialogue is not accidental; Gautreaux understands that to bring this town to life, to make these characters ring one hundred percent true, he has to make the dialogue as authentic to this place as possible. And in this respect, the author succeeds tremendously.

Lastly, I appreciated that, while the POV was technically third person, the author told the majority of this story from the point of view of the grandfather. While Lenny might be the more flawed, desperate, let’s-keep-reading-and-wait-for-a-train-wreck character, the grandfather is really the heard and soul of the piece. It wouldn’t have worked to have to have the story told from the first person perspective of the grandfather, because there need to be moments with Lenny by himself or off with other people, to bring more of his character and his plights to life. But Gautreux is smart to go more into the head of the old man than anyone else, because he is by far the most down-to-earth and common sense eyes in this story. I love the scenes when he tells Lenny exactly what’s on his mind, and what Lenny needs to do to make up for his wrongs — even though he’s old, he’s a strong and confident. And he provides the perfect eyes as a way into this great tale.

“Grounded” by Claire Davis

Claire Davis’s short story “Grounded,” from her book of short stories entitled Labors of the Heart, is a very successful piece that includes a sharply drawn protagonist, successful and subtle transitions into backstory, sparkling prose, true-to-life dialogue, and laces of deft humor. The story opens fairly routinely, with a mother stopping her work to run after her rebellious son in the driveway and remind him to go back inside the house, that he’s grounded, apparently forever. But author Davis isn’t interested in heading into typical maudlin territory, having the son and mother duke it out behind closed doors. Instead, she’s interested in telling a story of a wounded woman, who’s flawed and confused and tired, with no clue how to connect to her fifteen-year-old son.

One element I enjoyed in this twenty-five-page story was the interweaving of backstory into the current narrative to serve the character development. It can be difficult for an author to add in elements of a character’s backstory in a way that doesn’t feel contrived or forced, especially in a short story, but Davis is effective in this manner. Take for example the way Davis tells the reader that the main character Wava’s parents died in a car accident. She asks her son Kyle if he’s ever seen something sizable die up close, and he asks if roadkills count. In the beginning of the next paragraph, Davis writes, “She nodded and thought about her parents, but that was unfair. They had been in the car.” In these two sentences we’re told in an unusual, creative way that Wava’s parents were killed tragically, and are no longer part of her life. Davis gives the reader nuggets of information about Wava’s unhappy state in life, not in the way we expect her to, but in a way that surprises us: such makes for a richer reading experience.

Davis’s prose throughout the story are well thought out and constructed, with startling use of language. Take for example this sentence, which includes various rhymes: “A flock of peacocks roasted on roofs, shat on windshields and dismembered fenders.” Take away story, character, tension, pacing, and the reader still would have sentences to grin over. But even more rewarding than her choice of words is her gift for putting the reader in a time and place. The author clearly knows Montana well, and through her language, we are transported to all the places Wava and Kyle travel to. From the True Value Hardware store, to the expansive island with the millionaire who killed himself, to the elk and wildlife preserve, the reader gets a quality glimpse into the back-roads of Montana. Furthermore, the constant references to Wava’s sweat reminds the reader that the characters are traveling by car and foot not in winter or fall, but in warm, sticky July.

In addition, I was surprised and elated to find humor sprinkled throughout what in another author’s hands could have been a melodramatic tale. I love that Wava and Kyle both have goals in mind but neither has very much interest in reaching them; Kyle’s goal is to run away, but he lets his mother stay close behind, and Wava’s goal is to ground her son, yet she doesn’t go out of her way to keep her son from escaping her grasp. At one point an unnamed woman in the hardware store nods to Wava and tells her, “It’s a hard road.” Wava’s response: “You got something to do?” Davis does a fine job building Wava as a wounded soul still trying to find her path in life, and sticking in these moments of humor only enhance the three-dimensional aspects of this complex character.

“Fire Watch” by Connie Willis

Connie Willis’s short story “Fire Watch,” from her book of short stories entitled The Winds of Marble Arch, and Other Stories, is a fascinating period piece that truly astounded me with its great details, sense of place, and amazing, thought-provoking language. I love reading fiction that transports you to another time and place, and “Fire Watch” did that for me. Willis has an incredibly engaging voice, which she gives to the protagonist of this unique piece, aptly named Bartholomew, who is not shy in his thoughts about the people he encounters and is confident and courageous in his various adventures. I loved the way Willis really puts you inside his head. Take, for example, the two bottom paragraphs on page 230, in which Bartholomew explains to the reader in specific and fascination fashion the problems with memory-assistance drugs. This material could feel too expository or overbearing, but not here, as she has already at this point developed a voice and point of view for the character. Similarly, the details that set the time and place are so extraordinary, that one has to imagine the great research Willis had to do to fully take charge of a story like this. Take page 232 for example, which references British money and the Tube, names like Kivrin and Langby, the Verger of the Pillow, hoity-toity, the losing of a stone, and the following sentence: “You made us miss our tea, luv.” For a story like this to work, we need to believe in the setting, and rarely before have I seen an author so fully immerse the reader in a time and place.

I also appreciated the diary format of the story, which in the wrong hands can make a tale monotonous and too episodic, with a tendency not to tie a story together but to show specific moments of a character’s life and journey. Such is not the case with Willis. She uses the journal entry format — the dates of which span from September 20, all the way to January 3 — to increase the stakes and tension of Bartholomew’s mission. It reminded me in a way of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which also used a similar format. Another way Willis uses the diary entry format to great effect is in the way she expands on certain sections, then breezes over other ones. There will be an entry that spans several pages, like December 30, which starts on page 253 and ends on page 258. And then there will be others, like October 25, which is a mere three sentences at the top of page 244. This method engages us to its greatest extent. Instead of having a mere five long passages, or a hundred short paragraphs that would make the story feel too much like quick anecdotes, Willis blends the two and manages to constantly surprise us, both in Bartholomew’s adventures and in the very lengths of the various passages. She knows how to hold out attention from beginning to end, and such a gift is necessary, especially in telling a dense, thought-provoking story like this one.

Lastly, I loved the humor spread out throughout the story. The material with the cat made me laugh out loud. The whimsical nature of this story I found very effective and engaging. I loved the diary entry on October 4, about Bartholomew’s struggle to catch the cat, as he desperately tries to swing a bucket but ends up merely dropping it and watching as it rolls against the pillars. Langby’s dry response to Bartholomew’s attempt — “That’s no way to catch a cat” — was perfect. Willis has a tremendous gift with comedy, and she brought this element of her writing out to great effect in “Fire Watch.”

The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains, by Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman’s short story “The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains” is a fascinating fantasy story that in just a short amount of pages takes us on a compelling, surprising journey, and gives us a glimpse into an unusual relationship between two very different men. I have been interested in reading more of Gaiman’s work ever since I read The Graveyard Book — both Coraline and American Gods sit on my shelf — and I was ecstatic to have the opportunity to read a short story from him, one that I had never even heard of before. I was thrilled to be dropped into another magical Gaiman world, with this one rich enough to be worthy of a novel all its own. I really enjoyed this story!

The first element I enjoyed in this story was the gorgeous use of setting throughout, making the duo’s adventure feel similar to a sweeping fantasy tale like J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Gaiman’s descriptions of setting throughout the story are beautiful, and really set the scene for the turbulent adventure. I especially loved the details of the surrounding mountains right after the duo set off on their journey by foot: “The mountains between the rest of the world and the coast are gradual hills, visible from a distance as gentle, purple, hazy things, like clouds. They seem inviting.” His descriptions of snow on the peaks and the long jetty of black stones in the Misty Isle and low scudding clouds of gray and white and black, all give you a great sense of each place they visit. One of the hardest things to do in a short story is to give just the right amount of setting description, and Gaiman does an excellent job here in this respect.

I also fell immediately in love with the main character, and my favorite aspect of him was his short stature. I haven’t read very much fiction told from the first person perspective of an unusually short older man, and I found this character trait unique and at times very funny. It’s not like he tries to ignore his height, after all; it comes up time and time again. He makes mention of it in the very first scene: “I am a small man. But a man, nonetheless.” And then it’s referred to multiple times throughout the journey, like on page 51, when he says, “You, with your hand, and me, only a little man,” and then later on that page, with the very funny, “I am but a little man, good lady, no bigger than a child, you could send me flying with a blow.” This aspect to his character makes him relatable, and it brings the reader closer to his character and his motivations. It also makes us wonder if he will survive the perilous journey; he’s not a strong, seven-foot tall burly man, after all. He’s our eyes and ears to this story, and we worry for him throughout pages. We want him to find the cave, find exactly what he’s looking for.

The last element I appreciated in the story was the reveal of the cave itself. A journey to a cave has been devices in stories I’ve read and films I’ve seen before, and for good reason — there’s very few things in this world more mysterious than dark, ancient caves. Gaiman sets up the cave to be something integral to the story and to the main character’s journey, and he brings the setting to life beautifully. For a long time we think we’ll see a room filled with bars of gold, but we get something else entirely, and Gaiman must be applauded for being unpredictable. It’s so creepy in there: the dripping of water, the whispers that float across the damp, darkened area. Gaiman has crafted a stunning story here and makes us want to seek out more of his work. What a brilliant writer!

Posted in Fiction

Check out my new short story, “Return to Pride,” now available online!

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“Return to Pride” began as an idea for a short story when I participated in the local Reno Pride event two years ago, in July 2016. Marching in the parade, looking around at all the couples surrounding me, I started to develop the characters of Colin and Jordan and where their journey would take them.

I workshopped the piece back in September 2016 and got lots of great feedback for revision. I started sending the story out to literary magazines by the end of that year, and then I kept revising it, kept sending it out, for close to a year and a half. At one point I thought about giving up with this story, but I pressed on earlier this year and send it to about ten more places.

Last month I received a warm acceptance letter from Chelsea Station Magazine, and this weekend my piece was published online! Check it out, if you’d like. It’s one of the sweetest, most romantic tales I’ve ever written, certainly different than the works of horror and suspense I usually write.

Return to Pride

Thanks for reading, and please do let me know what you think!

Posted in Fiction

Candy Craving: A Short Story

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I sat in the downstairs family room, not watching A Nightmare on Elm Street, but My Best Friend’s Wedding. I wanted to protest all the teens worldwide who were taking in one stupid horror movie after another, just because it happened to be Halloween night.

“What are you doing down here?” my little sister Kendra asked, jumping down the staircase two steps at a time. Dressed in a ballerina costume, she held a large Jack-o-Lantern bucket filled to the brim with mini chocolate bars.

“Go away,” I said. “I’m watching a movie.”

“What movie are you — ”

Kendra tripped on the last stair and slammed her forehead against the floor, the candy spilling all over the carpet. She started weeping uncontrollably, and immediately ran back upstairs, shouting for our mother.

I watched Cameron Diaz fail her way through karaoke, but I eventually lost interest in the movie: my attention veered to the pile of sweets to the right of me.

I saw all my childhood favorites: Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, Milky Ways, Twix, even a NutRageous bar that appeared big enough to feed a whole family. I’d been on a diet for the last eight months — my boyfriend Jake insisted I lose twenty pounds — and I hadn’t enjoyed a dessert since the end of sophomore year. I yearned for chocolate, for the sugar my body so desperately craved. I listened for my sister, but only silence emanated from the top of the staircase.

I dove off the La-Z-Boy chair, spread out on my stomach, and started tearing through every piece of Halloween candy I could find. I started with the Reese’s cup — my favorite — then ate the giant NutRageous bar in a mere five seconds. I went berserk.

The soundtrack of the movie went mute in my mind, as the theme song from Chariots of Fire echoed at me out of nowhere. I took a big bite of a Payday, then broke off a piece of a Kit Kat. I ate Smarties, Starburst, Sour Pitch Kids — and enough Snickers bars to satiate me long into November.

I only stopped eating the candy because I got exhausted from opening all those wrappers. I licked my lips, sprawled out on my back, and fell asleep.

I woke up refreshed the following morning. I didn’t feel sick to my stomach at all — instead, I felt rejuvenated, like my body was pleased with all that chocolate nourishment. I wasn’t tired or moody in my first period class. Best of all: Kendra didn’t mind that I had devoured all her candy.

I had M&Ms for breakfast, Nutella on toast for lunch. It was glorious.

A few weeks have passed. I’m single now. I have no qualms about it, though.

I’m the one who dumped him.

Posted in Fiction, Writing

I’m Starting a New Series About Writing!

This week I’m excited to start a new series, in which I’ll be pulling quotes from a craft book about writing. I’ve got at least ten craft books on the shelf, many of which I’ve read front to back many times, others I’ve only read once. I’ll be starting with my all-time favorite craft book, Stephen King’s On Writing, which I read about once a year!

There’s so much wisdom in this book. So many inspirational tidbits. I want to spend the next few weeks sharing my favorite quotes from this essential 2000 craft book and then discuss the quote in depth, what I think it means, how it relates to my own work, how it might relate to yours. Let’s explore what King discusses in this book and utilize his advice in our fiction!

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft is a non-fiction book that offers true stories, clear advice, and important strategies any person can take with him in his own writing practices. King’s book is split into four sections: “C.V.,” “Toolbox,” “On Writing,” and “On Living: A Postscript.”

“C.V.” is a memoir of his early life that discusses how he got involved in writing and all the mistakes he made before he finally sold his first novel, Carrie.

The “Toolbox” that he describes is the workbox a writer needs on his shelf before he puts down a single word. Elements of his toolbox include vocabulary, grammar, paragraph form, and sentence structure.

“On Writing” is the heart of the book. He explains that with a lot of hard work and dedication, a good writer can be made out of a competent one. He goes on to discuss important writing issues like character building, dialogue, revision, theme, revision, and submitting work to agents and publishers.

Finally, “On Living: A Postscript” details the 1999 van accident that nearly took his life. He was taking one of his daily walks along a highway near his house, when a van slammed into him and knocked him to the side of the road. The accident left him severely injured and in dire pain for months, and it was writing that slowly healed him back to health.

King’s book, with its fascinating childhood memoir, helpful how-to sections, and closing true story of how writing saved his life, is about inspiring its readers to get drunk on the love of storytelling, and ways they can make competent writing into good writing. There’s no cynicism to be found here, no inkling that King wrote this book to make a quick buck. He wrote this to discuss everything he knows about writing, and to tell every aspiring author out there that it’s okay to devote his life to art of writing, just as long as he takes it seriously, and that he puts the effort in every day, both to read and write.

On Writing is my favorite book about writing, and I try to read it once a year. It is something King was clearly not just compelled to write but felt he had to write, and it’s his lack of pretentiousness, his direct and concise style, that makes this a must-have on every writer’s bookshelf.

I love the section on his childhood, which offers memorable anecdotes about his copying other people’s stories word for word and passing them around as if they were his own, and writing his wicked teachers into a story that he passed around to students — for a fee. Of course this is also the section that details the legendary story of when his wife Tabitha un-crumpled the first few pages of Carrie from the trash can and told him he should continue, that he had something there; months later he sold the novel for an advance of five thousand dollars — small even in the early ‘70s — but then sold the paperback rights for an astronomical four-hundred thousand dollars.

The beauty of the “On Writing” section is that King doesn’t only say what needs to be done to make one’s writing better. Instead of just supplying bullet points for how to write better scenes, dialogue, characters, etc, he uses examples from his own work, allowing the reader to see his advice utilized in actual scenarios that produced great books.

Lastly, what I love about On Writing is its perfect symmetry, with its section on writing advice book-ended by the childhood memoir, and the inspirational story of King’s near death — which took place while he was writing this actual book — and his rebirth with the aide of the ultimate healer: writing.

So join me, will you? I will be writing new pieces in this series three times a week — Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays. I hope you’ll come along.