Oh X (Ten years on)

Two lives

alike in many ways

gently merge to side by side

A steady glow, reflections cast

across the waters of our souls

Along the path, this light brings joy

and warms the chill of false starts passed

A comfort shared, this magic gift

thoughts intertwine when given time

When hearts are clear the beauty lasts

with a grace that’s near sublime.

Posted in #SampleSunday | 10 Comments

An interview with Tess Hardwick

Today I have the distinct privilege of interviewing Tess Hardwick, author of the best-seller Riversong and co-author of a book of essays called Write for the Fight. The proceeds from W.F.T.F. are being donated to organizations that help fight cancer.

Tess, When and why did you decide to start writing?

I always wanted to write, however, in my twenties I was too busy being stupid, mostly about men, to fully engage in learning the craft of fiction. When I married at age 31, I wrote my first full-length play. It took me another five years start Riversong because I had two babies in between that time and an intense career in business.

I studied theatre in college and my hope was to have a life in the theatre as an actress, director and playwright. However, after a time it became quite obvious to me that I was actually a novelist disguised in a theatre geek’s body. Once I started pursuing a career as a novelist with ferocious intensity, things fell into place for me.

What life experiences have best prepared you for being a writer?

Certainly being an obsessive reader from the age of five combined with my innate and insatiable curiosity about other people, their stories and what motivates them to do the things they do made it so there was no other choice for me than to write.

Please tell us about your latest work and what genre it falls into.

Currently I have Riversong still going strong on the ebook charts.  Several months ago, Tracey Hansen and I launched a book of essays exploring life’s seasons called Write for the Fight. We, along with 11 other writers, open our hearts, some with humor, some serious, about life’s lessons, and our dreams and hopes for the future. All the writer’s proceeds go to organizations fighting for the cure to cancer.

I’d appreciate it if you could describe your writing process for our readers.

I’m usually struck with an idea for a character or characters first. The plot develops around them, usually as I’m writing, although I almost always know the beginning and end. To me, it’s somewhat simple, in concept – I create the characters and give them something they each want desperately and then spend 400 pages making it further and further complicated for them to achieve said goal. They usually help me out quite a bit by mucking it up for themselves and one another. So, basically, I start with concrete characters and go from there.

Tess, to what degree are your fictional characters based in reality?

None whatsoever. I say that, however, and then when I read the first draft of my work I usually pick out characteristics of people I know and of myself. Mamet says that every character in fictional work are really just elements of the writer’s own personality. I believe this is true for me. Yes, even the antagonists.

Can you tell us about your any upcoming projects?

My current work in process is called “Duet for Three Hands”, a novel set in the 1930’s that falls squarely in the Women’s Fiction genre.

Would you like to experiment with a different genre?

My daughters want me to write a story about Princess Oompa that I started telling them at the beach one night. It would be a young adult book, however, I have no idea what to do with it after the first chapter.

Describe your ideal surroundings or conditions for writing if you would.

Morning. Quiet. In my home office or sometimes, sitting on my bed with my crazy ergonomic keyboard on my lap.

Do you have any writing idiosyncrasies?

I have a cozy red sweater I like to wear. Sometimes I light a candle. I always say a prayer before I start, asking for the words and thanking God for the time to write, which is such a gift.

Briefly share your thoughts on traditional publishing vs. indie.

I think there are merits to both. I believe it comes down to, ultimately, what your personal goals are as a writer.

What advice can you share with first-time writers?

Share your first draft with as many trusted writers as you can, listen carefully to feedback and then write three or four more drafts. If you’re serious about craft, either enroll in writing courses or do a self-study method like I did. There are some wonderful books out there for fiction writers. The Making of a Story, The Weekend Novelist, Writing Fiction and A Guide to Narrative Craft are some of my favorites. And, of course, write and read as much as you can.

Thank you so much, Tess. It’s been a real pleasure to learn more about you and your fabulous work.

                                                                      ***

Tess Hardwick and her work can be found at the following online locations:

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Tess-Hardwick/141591029237536

Twitter: @tesshardwick

Web Site: http://www.tesshardwick.com

Amazon Link: http://amzn.com/1935961438

Posted in #SampleSunday | 4 Comments

An interview with Joe Schmidt

I’d like to congratulate Joe Schmidt on his win in “Fantasy/Horror in the Cage” with his short story entitled ~MEAT~.  I asked Joe a number of  questions about writing, and got some great answers.

Kick back with a beverage and enjoy getting to know this wonderful writer of horror and noire.

When and why did you decide to start writing, Joe?

I started writing in ninth grade. Most kids were paying attention to the teacher; I was busy trying to write short stories that entertained everyone. Edgar Allan Poe was the guy that made me say, “I really want to do this.” His writing entertained the hell out of me. The Cask of Amontillado is hands down one of my faves.

What life experiences best prepared you for being a writer?

I’m not sure how to answer this, my love of reading helped motivate me to want to write—but that’s a general statement to make I suppose.

Please tell us about your latest work and what genre it falls into.

I’ve been writing quite a bit of horror lately, mostly short stories. I am kicking around the idea of a novel, but I’m not sure what genre I would like to take on yet.

What were your inspirations for writing these short stories?

To be honest, the last two stories I wrote, “The Hobby” and “Meat” were a blast to bang out on my lap top. Writing those stories lit a very large fire under my ass.

Excellent!  Joe, can you please describe your writing process for our readers.

I know of many authors who usually map out what they are going to write, via note cards, etc.

I just dive in head first and hope the splash is entertaining enough.

To what degree are your fictional characters based in reality?

I try to make my fictional characters VERY believable. I would love my readers to think, “I know a woman/man etc. that’s just like that!” The more believable the character, the easier it becomes for the reader to immerse themselves in your writing.

Can you tell us about any upcoming projects you have in the pipeline?

I’ve been working with Mr. Jesse James Freeman developing his character Billy Purgatory into a three panel comic strip. I’ve also started working on my own strip entitled “Lewis” that has been coming along. Obviously, I have been writing as much as I can—and the idea of starting a book has really been bouncing around in my dome piece lately.

Would you like to experiment with a different genre?

Absolutely! I think it only helps a writer to move outside his/her comfort zone. However, the idea of trying to write a romance novel scares the shit out of me. But I would definitely give it a shot.

Describe your ideal surroundings or conditions for writing for our readers.

In front of the TV, in bed, really anywhere. I can listen to music or podcasts. Noise usually is not an issue.

Do you have any writing idiosyncrasies?

I have to write while wearing a fez. Of course I’m joking—it’s a Viking helmet.

Briefly share your thoughts on traditional publishing vs. indie.

While I would relish the idea of an agent or publisher, it amazes me how simple it is to just hop on Word Press and share your work. Social media has been a HUGE help in getting the word out concerning any of my creative endeavors.

What advice can you share with first-time writers?

WRITE.  Do this as much as you can, whenever you can.

Thank you, Joe. It has been a pleasure getting to know you.

Joe’s Bio and Contact Information:

I’ve broken it down into a list of ten items that best represent my personality and essence.

 

  1. Magic-man
  2. Cartoonist
  3. Consumer of pop culture
  4. Rodeo clown
  5. Destroyer of worlds
  6. Graphic designer
  7. Video game junkie
  8. Lover not a fighter
  9. Church’s worst nightmare
  10. Writer

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=553609771

Twitter: https://twitter.com/#!/shaolinmonk_808

Web Site: http://coroflot.com/schmidtj

                 http://blogofamadcaucassiancartoonist.wordpress.com

Posted in #SampleSunday | 5 Comments

A reason to celebrate with Haley Whitehall

Thank you, Al for hosting me and helping me to launch the official release of my debut novel.

I have been looking forward to this day since I was four years old. No, I’m not getting married. Today my novel LIVING HALF FREE is officially released. I am a published author.

Thanks to Al’s encouragement, and prodding from many of my other friends, I have joined the ranks of indie authors. I was able to bring my vision to life — including the hand drawn cover. In the 19th century there was no color photography. While ambrotypes and tintypes were a big advancement, you still needed a painting or some other form of artwork to capture a person’s likeness in color.

It took me four months to write the first draft of LIVING HALF FREE. It took many more months to revise and edit and polish. So many hours went into those months that they all blur together. I kept myself going with countless cups of coffee and bowls of M&Ms.

Writing a novel is a labor of love. Many people give up the idea before finishing the first draft. My protagonist Zachariah wouldn’t let me give up. You know what an ear worm is? A song that gets stuck in your head and drives you crazy. Well, Zachariah was worse than an ear worm. He wouldn’t stop talking. The only way I could get peace was to write down what he was saying.

LIVING HALF FREE is Zachariah’s life story. Zachariah is a mulatto slave. During the antebellum era, he would have been called high yellow or imitation white because his skin is so pale. With this kernel of an idea, I explore the meaning of whiteness.

Despite the parameters of slavery, in the antebellum era, free people of mixed race could have up to one-eighth or one-quarter African ancestry (depending on the state) and be considered legally white. However, despite this legal definition, it did not always happen in practice. A famous example was Thomas Jefferson’s four surviving “natural” children by his mulatto slave Sally Hemings. These children were seven-eighths European in ancestry and thus legally white although they were born into slavery.

Zachariah is in the same precarious position as Sally Hemings’ children with Thomas Jefferson. Despite the whiteness of his skin, he is labeled a slave.

Slavery was more about the power over another individual than it was about the color of a man’s skin. Zachariah gets caught in that power trap numerous times.

What would Zachariah need to escape the chains of slavery? Pass as white. But what would he need to fool and be accepted by the masses? — Money, education, plenty of courage, and strong faith.

Book blurb:

When Zachariah, a naïve mulatto slave, is sold to a Kentucky slave trader, and separated from his ma and sister, he realizes the true meaning of not having rights. Singled out for abuse by his new master’s sadistic son, he dreams of only one thing: escape. He thinks he’s found it when he falls in love with a Cherokee woman from a powerful family, under whose direction he learns to pass as white. But it’s not long before he discovers that freedom that’s based on a lie will only get him so far. While struggling to find his place in the world, he also wrestles within his heart to realize his faith. This faith is tested when his slave past catches up with him, and threatens everyone he cares for. He must decide whether slavery is the price he’s willing to pay for his family’s freedom.

Bio:

HALEY WHITEHALL has a B.A in history and has been studying the Civil War era since the 5th grade. Her writing style is Mark Twain with a little more faith. She likes to write out of the box stories that feature an underdog. LIVING HALF FREE is her debut novel. Released February 29, the ebook can be found at Amazon, B&N, and Smashwords. Find out more about Haley through her website or connect with her on Twitter @HaleyWhitehall or Facebook.

Posted in #SampleSunday | 13 Comments

“Fantasy/Horror in the Cage” ~the battle begins~

It’s on … Rik and Joe have delivered a pair of short stories that have rattled the cage in a big way. Congratulations, and best of luck to both combatants.

Please read the following pair of stories then cast a vote for your favorite. The stories are shown without writer attribution to keep this competition as fair and unbiased as possible. The poll will be open until 6 PM on Wednesday, February 29th; a winner will be announced at that time. The winner will be featured in an interview on this blog, Monday, March 5th.

I’ve included the prompt below, with the stories to follow. The poll is located at the end of the second story. Thank you in advance for reading and voting for your favorite.

* * * * *

~The prompt~

Lincoln Towers, a steel-framed, residential high-rise development under construction along the lakefront of Chicago’s North Side, has a growing problem. Built atop land once occupied by a relocated, nineteenth century burial ground, the project has recently been fraught with danger. A total of three night watchmen have fallen to their deaths within a six week time frame, strongly suggesting that these incidents were more than just accidental in nature.

* * * * *

MEAT

 -ONE-

It was two in the morning and they were almost out of eggs.

The back alley of Lincoln Towers was just as clean and sterile as the inside. There were recycling bins, and dumpsters neatly packed with trash. The walls of the complex were washed three times a week, and an outside company had been hired to sweep up any leaves or refuse near the parking garage.

No graffiti.

No winos living in cardboard boxes.

No urine stains on the walls.

Josh and Eddie were about to change that.

“I told you we should have bought another dozen.” Josh said as he cranked his arm back.

Eddie opened the plastic bag from the grocery store, and shoved his hand inside.

“You sure man? Because I could have sworn we picked up enough.” He replied.

A car was heading in their direction, they both quickly hid behind a dumpster. The last thing either one of them needed was someone calling the cops. Eddie had just gotten out of Juvie Hall last summer, and was on probation for at least six more months.

Eddie’s dad left shortly after that.

When the trouble with Eddie had first surfaced his mom tried a soft touch. She assumed all of the bad behavior had been Eddie dealing with all the arguing and abuse.

His dad had been a military man, strict, no bullshit.

During a routine patrol he was shot in the back. Somehow, during the firefight that had taken place afterwards—he managed to save three of his fellow soldiers. Coming home to Chicago decorated made him a legend.

So did the black eyes on his wife’s face.

Eddie started small at first. He lit alley cats on fire, stole comic books and candy from grocery stores. It wasn’t long before he was getting into fist fights at school and pocketing money out of his mom’s purse. He had gone from being a straight laced seventh grader with a promising athletic career to a teenager that just did not give a shit anymore.

His mom had problems coping and turned to the bottle, his dad who held a very lucrative job with a private security firm started missing work. His dad disciplined Eddie the only way he knew how; and when Eddie would go swimming inside their apartment complex his back would often be decorated with a patchwork of bruises. Everyone on their floor knew what a monster his dad could be, and once someone had even called Child Protective Services. Afterwards, nothing happened. His dad simply explained Eddie’s injuries as “rough-housing” and made sure that Eddie’s mom put on her best Donna Reed smile.

“I really wish this was Clancy’s door. Gawd damn does that old man give me the creeps.” Eddie threw his egg against the cement wall of the high rise.

Edgar Clancy was one of the first tenants of Lincoln Towers.

Confined to a wheel chair and his age hovering right around ninety he ruled their floor with fear. Anything that happened inside Lincoln Towers he didn’t approve of was consistently reported, and there had been instances of the watchmen on duty having to call the police per his request. Nobody on Josh and Eddie’s floor liked the guy, and avoided contact with Clancy at all costs. When Josh and his family first moved into the Towers, he had had the misfortune of riding down in the elevator with Clancy.

Clancy had looked him over as entered the elevator, his wrinkled forehead almost consumed by some of the whitest and out of control eyebrows he had ever seen. The electric motor on his wheel chair had been humming slightly as Josh slinked inside, and the blanket covering his legs had been faded and covered in pet hair.

The stench surrounding Clancy was an odd mix of medicated gels and full adult diapers. Josh had to breathe through his mouth the whole way down.

The only verbal exchange that took place was Clancy asking in a very hoarse voice,

“How old are you?”

And Josh replying,

“I’m sixteen.”

Luckily Clancy exited before the lobby.

“Clancy’s only pissed off because he can’t get it up anymore.” Josh threw his egg against the wall.

“Hey man, aren’t there cameras?” He asked.

“Who gives a shit? I’m sure Clancy has the new watchman running all over the place. We’ve been out here for the last hour pasting the wall—and not a peep.” Eddie replied.

Of course there were cameras.

Using the cameras, they kept a very close eye on all activities that occurred within Lincoln Towers. Portions of the Towers were still under construction, and the owners wanted to make sure that their tenants felt secure. The watchmen were hired through the same company that Eddie’s dad had worked for, and became a constant reminder for Eddie’s mom of what once was.

Too bad the cameras had malfunctioned during the “accidents”.

Over the last few months three night watchmen had plummeted to their deaths. All had apparently leapt through windows on the twenty-third floor, which was still under construction—and collided with the pavement below. When the security company went back to look over what they had digitally recorded, the only thing they knew for sure was that all three employees could be seen getting off the elevator—but then anything after that was lost.

“My dad said that all three of those guys that jumped out of the window were high.” Josh said as he grabbed the last of the eggs.

“Bullshit man, they were suicidal. I mean have you seen these guys? They are overweight, balding, and can barely walk around this place without dying of a heart attack. They probably had a huge life insurance policy and figured this way it’ll pay double if they died on the job.”

Another car made its way up the alley, and they ducked behind the dumpster again.

“You know what I think?” Eddie said.

The headlights of the car skated past them and bounced off the side of the Tower building.

“I say we go mess with Clancy anyways.”

-TWO-

Sure enough as they walked back inside the complex they watched the new night watchmen scramble in their direction. He was talking on his phone and had a very frantic look on his face.

“See? I told you. Clancy has this guy running. We could have pissed all over the recycle bins and nobody would have been the wiser.” Eddie said.

“Plus, with the Gawd damn cameras malfunctioning, we could have really done some damage.”

Eddie reached inside his pocket for the card to the elevator.

“So what I’m thinking is this, you and I are going to break into Clancy’s apartment and scare the shit out of him. I know for a fact that old bastard leaves later on tonight and heads for the track. We get in, mess his place up, maybe shit in his sink—and then for the topper? We head down to the basement. The exterminators haven’t emptied the rat traps yet.”

“Sounds like a plan.” Josh was a little concerned. If for any reason this could be traced back to himself or Eddie?

They would be screwed.

Josh’s mom thought Eddie was a bad influence to begin with. This little adventure would probably cause them to move.

“So how in the hell do you plan on getting into Clancy’s apartment anyways? Everything is electronically locked.” He said, his voice cracking from being nervous.

“Let’s worry about that after we pick-up a few friends. I think it’s about time somebody gave that sumbitch a message.”

The elevator opened and they stepped inside.

The basement of the Towers held tenant personal possessions that were tightly locked away in separate rooms. The majority of the holiday decor that would be used for the building and lobby were also stored here. As clean as the majority of the building was, for some reason the basement would always be an issue.

Rats had made their home in the basement and the last thing the owners of Lincoln Towers needed was a tenant getting bit, and there were small children everywhere.

“Hey Eddie, did you ever hear the rumor that this place was built on top of some cemetery?”

Eddie looked over at Josh, a grin spread across his face.

“Give me a fucking break man.” He replied.

“No seriously! I heard my parents talking about it when we first moved in here.”

“I never heard anything like that. Your parents were jerking your chain.”

The elevator finally stopped and the doors slid open.

As soon as they stepped out the automatic lights clicked on to reveal storage rooms and plastic reindeer. Josh noticed that the path they were standing on seemed to stretch a considerable distance before finally veering off to the left. There were no windows to the outside, and the lack of any real natural light made Josh a little uncomfortable.

“I would think that the traps would be near the back. Let’s do this shit, Clancy is about to leave soon, and I want as much time as possible in that assholes apartment.”

They walked the length of the path and then turned.

“Clancy was the reason my dad hit me the first time, did I ever tell you that?”

“Get out of here! What did you do?” Josh replied.

“He said I was playing my music to loud. My dad didn’t even bother to take a moment and consider who was doing the bitching—just started swinging.”

They came to the first trap. Eddie reached down and shook it.

“Thing’s empty.” He said puzzled.

Josh looked to his right towards the wall and noticed something hanging. It was a very large piece of tarp and it covered what looked like a hole in the wall.

“Eddie.” He pointed over in the tarp’s direction.

“Maybe that’s where their coming in from.”

Eddie shrugged his shoulders and replied,

“Let’s check it out.”

They pulled the tarp back and disappeared inside.

What they witnessed next was a surprise to everyone.

Edgar Clancy was standing in an open grave.

Edgar Clancy was walking.

Edgar Clancy was also eating what looked like a corpse.

“What…the…fuck?” Was all Eddie managed to get out before two hands grabbed both of their shoulders. They were spun around, and came face to face with the new night watchman.

“Good, good.” Edgar said as he wiped his blood soaked mouth with the sleeve of his coat.

“I wasn’t sure if I needed to send another idiot out tonight or not.”

“Let go asshole!” Josh tried to free himself, it was no use.

They noticed that the night watchmen had a very vacant look in his eyes, and his grip was incredibly strong. They were spun back in Edgar’s direction, and both could see him waving his arms and signing with his hands. Then he spoke in a language that either Eddie or Josh could understand.

“There. Now, that takes care of our friend. The incantation also binds you in place so I won’t have to worry about you moving.”

The night watchman released his grip and started the long walk back towards the elevator.

“Good, good. He’s on his way.” Edgar said.

“I don’t mind digging up all these graves, aged meat is divine.” He licked his lips.

“Clancy I’m not buying this shit for a minute!” Eddie screamed.

Josh tried to move but for some reason was anchored in place. He noticed Eddie was struggling.

“Josh, do you remember what I asked you the first time we met?” He watched as Edgar’s fingernails stretched, became elongated—changing his hands into claws.

“How old I was?” Josh looked around the room and counted twenty open graves. He noticed a very large wet spot on the crotch of his jeans.

“Sixteen is a very good year.”

* * * * *

AN OLDER, GREATER POWER

The chipboard hoarding of the building site keeps the worst of the wind off you, in exchange for leaving you in the harsh-edged shadow of the February twilight. Above, the sky is shading past royal blue to purple, the blinking lights of distant planes shepherding a half-moon already bright and clear. Not the best time to find your phone battery dead when you need a lift home.

A sharp bang and rattle of wood on wood jerks your head up, thoughts of muggers and street gangs tightening your chest. The reality is less dramatic; an elderly man is leaning against the boards ahead of you, short of breath and patting his pockets. He’s wearing an actual bowler hat to match his absurdly old-fashioned suit – complete with waistcoat and cravat! – and the tails of his coat are worn ragged.

Nothing to worry about. Just a weird hobo having an episode. You hunch forward, trying not to make eye contact in case he wants to tell you about whatever it is the ‘Guv’mint’ have been putting in all our food or beaming into our minds. It’s too damn cold to stop and listen, and the old guy will probably follow you down the street shouting if you don’t.

He really does sound like he’s struggling, though. His breath rasps too loud to ignore as you walk past, so you stop on reflex when he says, “Excuse me, kid. Could you lend me a hand?” He doesn’t sound like a hobo so much as a kindly grandpa. His voice is a little unsteady, but a far cry from the tobacco-ravaged croak of the average street crazy.

You turn to face him, because walking on now would just be rude. Actually, you might have overestimated his age a bit; his face is lined, certainly not young, but his eyebrows are dark, his eyes piercing and alert despite the fading panic. You ask what the matter is.

“I was just cutting through the site,” he nods towards the panel beside him; a gate, you realise, “but there was a dog. Probably a stray, I suppose. Went right for me. Gave me quite a fright, I’ll tell you!”

There’s cheer in the old guy’s eyes now, some colour in his cheeks. More out of politeness than concern, you ask if he’s alright.

“Apart from being old, you mean?” He laughs, a wheezing, irresistible chuckle. “I’ll live. But I think my wallet must have fallen out of my pocket while I was running away.”

Ah, here it comes. You get ready to tell him sorry, you’ve no cash on you-

He holds up a hand, “Don’t worry, I’m not asking for money. I can get back home well enough. I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind going to speak to the security guard for me.”

Confused, you ask what he means.

“You know, to ask him to let the builders know to look out for it. How to get in touch with me, and so forth. I’d do it myself, but I’m not sure my heart’s up to another fright like that, not with the weather so cold.” He smiles, “Some brave veteran I make, huh? Do you mind?”

You eye the door warily. There’s enough daylight left to see by, but not for much longer. Still, it doesn’t look like a big site. At most, you’re only a few hundred feet from the lakeshore. You agree. He tells you where the site office is, fumbles a pen and a scrap of paper out of a hidden coat pocket and writes down his address. As you step from the sidewalk into the churned-up dirt round the edges of the scaffold, you hear him whistling an old jazz tune.

The steel frame of the building welcomes you with silence, its shapes too regular to be really spooky. A little part of you is secretly sort of disappointed. The rickety site office is right on the far side, almost hidden by the jungle of girders poking up from the flat concrete of the floor. You hop over the low first courses of bricks, wondering if the dog is still around.

There’s a light in the poky, plexiglass window of the office shed. You knock on the door, only to have it spring open under the contact. Somehow, the wind manages to catch it, and you get a sharp rap across the back of your hand. Cold makes it sting like a salted wound, and you curse, but there’s no response from inside.

There’s no-one inside at all. A thermos stands on the table next to its cup, empty but for coffee dregs. There’s a paper on the floor, flopped half-open as if dropped in a hurry. A mostly-empty pin-board opposite the window stares down at the old-school landline phone. Maybe the guard went out to chase off the dog?

You scribble ‘Lost wallet on-site, please contact:’ above the address on the old man’s piece of paper and pin it to the board. Turning, you walk out of the office, careful to push the flimsy door shut behind you, and that’s when you see the body. It lies close to the beginnings of the outer wall, a beer-bellied man in a brown shirt, dark thermal vest and pants; it has to be the security guard. Even at this distance, the way he’s lying tells you he’s not in a good way.

Something uncomfortable shifts in your gut as you walk over to the guy. Your coat doesn’t feel terribly warm anymore. The guard looks as if he’s fallen from somewhere up in the scaffold nearby, his limbs splayed at all kinds of uncomfortable angles, his neck obviously broken. Your throat tightens with a hint of nausea at the sight.

There’s no blood. While your shoulders tense and a prickle runs down your spine, your brain seems to detach from the physical sensations, unable to turn away from the unsettling logic. The ground here is concrete. Any fall high enough to break a man’s neck should also have smashed his skull. But there’s no blood to be seen. The Guard’s clothes aren’t even scuffed.

And there was that story, half-remembered from a paper last week, about an apartment block they were building where there’d been a bunch of deaths.

The wind chooses that moment to slam the gate that you were just about to run for. The blood pounding in your ears drowns out the thought that this has to be a prank or something. There’s nothing fake about the corpse at your feet. You turn to make for the phone in the office, and stop dead.

There’s a girl in the middle of the site, tall and willowy, wearing gauzy hippie clothes that flutter in the wind and will probably leave her hypothermic in under an hour. If she’s been there all along, then you walked past her twice without noticing, and given the gruesome clash between her violet shirt and yellow pants, that seems unlikely. Her eyes are closed, her face peaceful, but she’s facing straight at you and the crawling sensation between your shoulder-blades tells you she knows exactly where you are.

“This is our land. You don’t belong here.” Her face doesn’t move, but the air itself seems to whisper to you. The last gold of daylight bathes her skin, showing off an enviable set of high, wide cheekbones. There’d been something in the news story about Native Americans, and the girl more or less fits the bill.

You swallow, opening your mouth to reply. A rattle from the gate distracts you; someone banging on the other side, as if it’s locked. The old man’s frail shout carries to you, too weak for you to make out the words. You understand all too well, though. Angry Indian ghost. Way out locked. It’s unlikely a 911 call is going to help.

The girl still hasn’t moved, but you can see a shadow over her shoulder, floating in mid-air. A shadow with glaring red eyes, the kind of thing that only escapes looking hokey because it’s not on a movie screen. You swallow again, and a shudder runs through you. Would it help to put on a brave face? Or is it better to act scared?

You realise you’re shuffling backwards. Your foot bumps against something that moves and for a moment your heart leaps into your throat. No, hang on, it’s just the guard’s body. Trying not to take your eyes off the ghost, you kneel down, scrabbling backwards towards the dead man’s belt. He must be carrying something you can use as a weapon. A gun’s too much to hope for – maybe a taser?

Maybe it’s a bad idea to reach for a taser without looking. If it would even hurt the girl. She looks solid enough, but… Your hand finds what feels like a nightstick. No, one of those long, heavy torches that are pretty much just as good. Reflexively, you glance down at it, and realise that you’re kneeling right over the guard’s hand.

There’s a small mark in the middle of his palm. It looks like a stylised animal, high pointed ears and round, staring cartoon eyes. You glance up and see the same face, rendered in shadow and fire, behind the girl’s shoulder. The fox-like shape goes some way to explaining the dog that the old guy saw. The torch feels thick and heavy in your grip, but there’s no way it’s going to hurt the spirit guide. Or whatever the hell it is.

Still, you’ve got to do something, before you go the way of the guard. It takes all the desperate strength you can muster to push to your feet, transfixed by the shadow’s glare. Walking towards it is like pushing against a gale blowing four centuries of hatred. You grit your teeth, eyes squeezed narrow and watering until you can barely see.

It takes a long time to reach the girl, but besides the vicious sting of the wind – your scraped hand throbs – she does nothing. Nor does the shadow behind her, but there’s only one way you’re getting out of here alive. Her hair, long and black and fine, floats in the air, flicking out almost close enough to brush your jaw and throat.

You lift the torch, bring it down hard across her face. There’s a sickly crunch as one of those perfect cheekbones gives way. She crumples to the floor. The wind dies, and the shadow behind her vanishes. As you sink to your knees, dropping the torch in relief, the gate bangs open. The old man steps into the site.

The girl’s face is a mess, bleeding blood that looks entirely human. With a trembling hand, you push sticky strands of black hair back behind her ear. She’s wearing a feather earring, its white down now flecked red.

“Fucking squaw.” The old man’s voice is richer and deeper than it sounded before. “I finally get this place away from the redskins, and they find her to keep me out.” His shoe, polished to a high shine, slides into your field of vision, poking the girl in the shoulder. Then a rough hand grabs your hair, pulls your head round to look at him. His face looks darker, somehow, as if it’s fading from reality now he doesn’t need it anymore.

Still, you can make out the surprise in his raised eyebrow. “What’s this? Might be you do have some use left in you.” He releases you. “Kill her.”

As your hands reach out to encircle the girl’s throat, you realise there’s a mark on the back of your hand, where you scraped it on the office door. Triangles for ears, circles for eyes, just like on the guard’s palm. The girl doesn’t struggle, makes no sound as you finish your new master’s bidding.

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“Fantasy/Horror in the Cage” ~the prompt~

Rik, and Joe … welcome to “Fantasy/Horror in the Cage.” As you know, this is a no-holds-barred competition, so I’m certain you’ll deliver a pair of short stories that will rattle our readers to the core. You’ll be allowed a maximum of 2,ooo words and will have 24 hrs. to complete this challenge. The deadline is 12 pm EDT tomorrow, Sunday, Feb. 26th. Good luck to both of you.

~The prompt~

Lincoln Towers, a steel-framed, residential high-rise development under construction along the lakefront of Chicago’s North Side, has a growing problem. Built atop land once occupied by a relocated, nineteenth century burial ground, the project has recently been fraught with danger. A total of three night watchmen have fallen to their deaths within a six week time frame, strongly suggesting that these incidents were more than just accidental in nature.

* * *

There you go, mighty combatants. Take this scenario and blow us away with your best work. There can only be one winner, so give us the most jarring short stories you can come up with.

Again, best of luck to both Rik, and Joe. This much-anticipated pair of stories will post mid-afternoon on Sunday, Feb. 26th and will be shown without author attribution to make the voting as unbiased as possible. Readers will be able to vote until 6pm EDT on Wednesday, February 29th.

Let this ~Fantasy/Horror Cage Match~ begin.

All the best,  AB

Posted in #SampleSunday | 98 Comments

Poetry ~ the work of Joe Hesch

Joe Hesch is a writer and poet friend of mine who lives near Albany, New York. Joe’s poems and stories are often inspired by his 350 year old hometown, and his work has appeared in Boston Literary Magazine, Wanderings Magazine, With Painted Words, Foliate Oak, Falling Star Magazine and other publications. He posts poems and stories-in-progress on his blog, http://athingforwordsjahesch.wordpress.com  He is a member of the staff at dVerse Poets Pub website and community and was named one of Writers Digest Editor Robert Lee Brewer’s “2011 Best Tweeps for Writers to Follow.”

I’m thrilled to help celebrate this particular day with Joe, as he has been blogging for one year now. And in that 365 days, I’ve read some amazing works he has posted.

I sincerely hope you enjoy Joe’s work as much as I do; it’s a privilege to share this talented individual’s work with all of you.  In addition to being a wonderful wordsmith, Joe is also a fantastic Twitteratti. Follow him and gain a great friend. His Twitter handle is @JAHesch.

My Island

The autumn rain lifted overnight,
and in the morning our road

seemed a seascape as I looked East,
a long black beach curving ahead of me.
The puddles were sun-mirrored tidal pools
surrounded by the final tossing
of russet shells from the oaks.
Above, a grand artist,
with wind-blown flourish,
had dry-brushed strokes of gray
over the white impastos He scattered
across a canvas of palest blue infinity.
And I, the sleepy suburban Crusoe,
breathed the sweet breeze of morning.

Rivertown Rapture

With January’s ice-scrim mist,
this riverside neighborhood
turns back to photo proof
black, white and gauzy gray.
Holiday colors have faded
like mid-September memories.
Tinder-dry evergreens,
erstwhile harlequin-lit window beacons
for passing ice-breakers,
now lay prostrate on streetside,
snow-dusted Christmas gravestones,
waiting for the herald crash
of the trash collecting Rapture.
And the perennial trees
standing sentinel nearby
at snow-footed attention,
look like lean black guardsmen,
their uniforms on backorder
until a too faraway Spring.

Backstage At The Firmament

Come the Fall, the sky grows wider,
blacker, starrier as each night
the trees undress and become skinnier,
like movie starlets
trying to make a name for themselves
above some blockbuster’s title.
I become smaller now, a bit less significant
against the ever more vast darkness.
If that net of stars should drop
upon the now-drowsy Earth,
I bet I could slip through it and
peek backstage at The Firmament,
catching angels and gods in dishabille,
like the maples and starlets,
their wings and auras hanging from hooks
fashioned from mortal prayers
for another good harvest
or more nights like this.
Posted in #SampleSunday | 6 Comments