First Night Out

Posted: May 18, 2017 in Uncategorized

(This was originally written on April 11th, 2016, the day after.  No reason I sat on it for so long, that’s just the way I be. — S)

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To everyone I encountered on my first night Out,

You were there on one of the most nerve-wracking nights of my life. I went to a concert, a night out I’d been planning for almost two months. It was going to be a night for me; a night to forget the tragic life event I’d recently endured, to reward myself for landing my new job, and a night to leave all my stress behind me and finally be who I wanted to be. I had planned my outfit and psyched myself up for weeks. I was going to do this, for myself.

Despite all my planning, the night was nearly a disaster.

I almost didn’t get my ticket. I spent way too long on the phone convincing them that I had purchased it weeks ago but never got the actual ticket. I was told it would be redelivered but it never was. I tried again the night before the concert, but I got home just after they closed.

The morning of the concert, I had a killer migraine and still no ticket. I fought through it anyway and got on the phone, where I stayed until I got my ticket changed to will call.  With that done, I still had to pick up a few more things for the evening, and of course get ready for it. I gave myself plenty of time to get ready, but I made all the rookie mistakes–too much foundation, wrong brushes for the eyeshadow, smeared my lipstick twice, broke a hair comb, tangled my jewelry, ripped a stocking, had to spot-clean my top, not enough glue for my nails and the polish was still tacky on my way out the door. But at least I got out the door.

It didn’t end at the front door, though. Someone from the neighborhood that I didn’t know looked at me like I was a freak and I lost some of my nerve. I took a wrong turn on the Interstate and had to take a longer route. About halfway there, I had a crippling moment of doubt that almost made me turn around and forget the whole stupid thing. I almost got into an accident about halfway there. I had to park three blocks away from the venue and trudge through the rain in a partly-broken umbrella.

I can only imagine what I looked like to you. You probably thought I was a walking stereotype. I do know it was far from pretty. I know it looked rushed, even though it took me hours. I know I was a dumpy blob in black-on-black-on-black. I’d lost five nails, three before the end of the opening act. By the time I got home, despite having done nothing but sit in one spot for most of the night, I was a wreck. I know you saw it, too. Honestly, what I saw in the mirror when I got home was a freak show. It was a night doomed from the start, yet I pressed on because dammit, this is what I wanted. I expected disappointment. I expected discouragement. I expected disaster.

But this letter to you isn’t about any of that. It’s not even about me, really. It’s actually about you.

To the ticket clerk that took my ID and handed me my ticket without hassle, thank you.

To the usher who directed me to my section with a friendly smile, thank you.

To the pair of young women who politely asked if the seats next to me were taken, and later included me in their conversation of a funny moment happening below us, thank you.

To the bartender who served me my drink with a “ma’am”, thank you.

It was because of you that the night wasn’t a disaster. It was because of you I could look in that mirror after midnight and think, despite all that had gone wrong, this was right for me. It was because of you I decided that this would happen again. I don’t know when, I don’t know where, but someday I will be Out again, and for good.

I know I will probably never see any of you again. But because you put aside your prejudice, lived and let live, what seemed destined to be a disaster became one of the best nights in a long, long time. For that, I will never forget you.

Thank you.


A Year to the Day

Posted: February 20, 2017 in Uncategorized

“I wasn’t there that morning, when my father passed away

I didn’t get to tell him all the things I had to say…”

—Mike & The Mechanics, The Living Years

On February 20th, 2016, a man was taken from us. He wasn’t a great man, but he was a good one. To me, he was everything. Stephen Anselm Johnson was my father, my guardian and my best friend. He was there for me when no one else was. He took me in when I had nowhere to go. He provided for me even when it meant sacrificing what he wanted. He listened to what I had to say, and imparted what knowledge he had in return. We shared many of the same attitudes, humor, likes and dislikes. I could not have asked for a better man.

Then he was taken from me. This was the moment when the world said, “It’s time to stop being a child. You’ve had 39 years, now be an adult.” Even when he was sick, even when I was the one taking care of him, I hadn’t truly “grown up.” There was still a large part of me that refused responsibility, a part that believed  everything would go back to the way it had been: Dad would take care of me. He always had, he always would.

In retrospect, he did take care of me in his final months. Even as my depression, anxiety and stress reached new heights, he stayed optimistic. When we were facing eviction, he trusted that I would find a solution–and with one simple suggestion from him, I did. When the medical bills piled as high as a mountain, he trusted me to manage the finances–and I did. And his final gift to me is the home we shared ever so briefly. He insisted it be in my name. He said it was in way of thanks for all the care I’d given him, but I believe he knew deep down that he didn’t have long. He was looking after me and my future.

So when the time came, his optimism and patience had paid off. He had helped me become the adult he always believed I could be.

~ ~ ~

“The closer you come to death, the harder it gets.”

These were my father’s final words to me. He wasn’t able to speak them, and barely able to write them. I’ll never know exactly the true meaning behind them. The best I can assume was that Dad was talking about letting go. It was the only thing the doctors and I could seem to communicate with him about in those final days. He was going, and he knew it, but never was he ready to let go.

Dad fought for every minute. When he was still able to talk, all we talked about was what he would do once he was finally home: wonderful meals were planned, home improvements were discussed, and all of our conversation points about life, the universe and everything were bantered about. We talked about these things as if they were fact, inevitable. Dad was coming home, he was going to get better and we were going to have many years to come in our new home. Up until those last few days, we had no reason to believe any different.

I’m thankful for the extra days I was given to spend with Dad. Earlier that week I had the heart-to-heart with Dad about these things we should have talked about months ago, but never had the courage for.  But we finally got everything sorted out… almost everything. There was one very important thing left in the hospital’s hands, and they literally lost it. I was angry with them, but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise; it gave me a few extra days to say goodbye. He was revived against our wishes, but I was told he wouldn’t survive the weekend. As I said, though, Dad wasn’t about to give up. The weekend became a week.

Sadly, I was unable to spend all that time with Dad. My compound stress reached breaking point at Dad’s near death, and me out extremely sick for two days and bedridden for a third. Luckily the nurses were keeping me up-to-date with  his condition and his prognosis was slowly improving. Which is why it was such a shock when I got the call that he was fading quickly. I didn’t even have time to get to the hospital.

There was little grieving to be done. Not that there wasn’t time, but rather most of it had already been done. What I felt most was relief that his suffering was finally over. There were tears, of course, I am still human. But time moved on, and I had to go with it.

The worst part of it all was the first few months after. I had accepted his death, as harsh a reality as it was. But there was a part of me, so conditioned to him coming in and out of hospitals for over two years, that expected to get a phone call any day telling me my father was stable enough to come home, to come pick him up.  In some ways, it was worse than the initial grief.

But as I said, time did not stand still. I had to be the adult. Bills to pay, mouths to feed and a furry friend to take care of. It hasn’t been easy, but I knew it wouldn’t be. I’m in a good place, but I still have episodes from time to time, and I haven’t done anything writing-wise in almost a year. But these are the wages of a soul-crushing, go-nowhere job.

One day at a time, it is getting better. There’s been some seriously tight scrapes, but I’ve kept my head and gotten through them. I’ve changed a lot in the last year, and I like to think for the better. Whenever I falter, I think of how there was one person who was always there, always believed in me, and helped me become the person I am now, able to face the future with the confidence that I can get through it.

I miss you, Dad. And I love you. Always and forever.

And It Feels Like Home

Posted: March 27, 2015 in Uncategorized
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It feels like forever since I’ve sat down to write something that wasn’t bad news. But finally, after months of torment, I can do just that again.

For most of you, the last words from me that you saw was that despite everything, I’d failed. March 1st came and we still had nowhere to go. It all seemed hopeless. I was convinced that we would be out on the street. It was a long, hard, soul-crushing Sunday. Then Monday came, and with it, the light at the end of the tunnel.

With time running out, Dad suggested looking into mobile homes. I did just that but I was running into the same obstacles as before. We got Dad’s credit debt taken care of, but no one seemed to have anything available before the end of the month—and by this point I was convinced Volunteers of America would sic the sheriff on us first thing March 1st. Then, unexpectedly, one of the communities got back to me.

Both of the managers had family medical emergencies that last week and didn’t have anyone else to handle paperwork. But they both understood that our clock had run out with VoA, and they went above and beyond to get us in as soon as humanly possible. I was still a nervous wreck at this point, convinced that they’d find something to justify turning us away (or VoA somehow screwing us over) despite Dad’s confidence that there was absolutely no reason for us to not be approved.

(As it turned out, he was right. Deep down I knew he was, but after three and a half months of hell, can you really blame me for being paranoid? :))

I got the text from the broker on the afternoon of the 3rd, saying the community had approved us for residency. We made an appointment to sign over the home title the next day, but we hadn’t yet signed the rental agreement for the lot. At first it didn’t look like that would happen until the 5th, but they managed to squeeze us in on the same day. Dad couldn’t be there to sign, but again the community managers understood our situation, and I dropped off all the signed papers the morning of the 4th. I took Dad to the dialysis center afterwards, and when I picked him up that afternoon, I took him home. Moving all of our stuff took me the entire weekend, but we were safe and well. The property was surrendered to VoA, and there was nothing more between us. The nightmare was over.

The house is just about perfect for us. Two beds, two baths, a spacious kitchen and living room, laundry nook (hooray no more laundromat trips!) and a yard big enough to make our little Sheldon happy. The most humbling part of it all is that it’s not in Dad’s name. It’s in my name, bought and paid. It was his savings, but it had been his plan from the start to make it a gift to me, for everything I’d done over the past year. Again, my mind can conjure up a score of reasons why I don’t deserve it, but I know better than to argue. 🙂

There’s still a few things to sort out on Dad’s end, and a long road to recovery still ahead, but we have all the time we need in getting our lives to what it used to be. I can’t say this enough: this wouldn’t have been possible without your kindness, your love and your support. There were so many times I was ready to give it all up, but there were always the right words at the right moments to keep me going. Thanks to you, my friends and family, we are safe and well, far removed from the past horrors. I can finally relax and pick things up where I left off.

And for the first time since I was nineteen, it really feels like Home.

Brushing Off the Dust

Posted: August 1, 2014 in Uncategorized

It’s certainly been quite some time since I’ve put anything out into the social media world. In the time since my last post, I’ve gotten a few more followers both here and on Twitter, and none of you have seen a word from me. A lot has happened in that time, some good, some not so good. I’ll get into the not so good stuff later on, maybe. For now I’ll say that it’s been a rough year so far.

That being said, on to the good stuff.

You’ve probably heard a lot of words of mine, thanks to the hard work of Veronica. She single-handedly brought our book to a new audience, recording those words with as much love as we put into writing them. That’s just how she rolls. And thanks to that labor of love, V has brought us to an unexpected place: finalists in the 2014 Parsec Awards. In the immortal words of Anton Jackson, “I’m just as surprised as you!”

Whatever the results, I am honored to be in the running with a great partner in crime.

As for myself, I’m continuing along at a glacial pace but seeds have been planted. One that’s already come to fruit is a piece in an upcoming anthology for Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar universe. Going back to fantasy was a refreshing change of pace from primarily technology-driven genres over the last several years, and this was a project where I wanted to do my best in a richly-established world. If you happen to check out the anthology when it’s released, I hope you enjoy my offering.

There really isn’t a whole lot left to fill you in on without going into the not so good stuff I mentioned above. So to the new followers who have not yet met me, welcome! Other projects are beginning to sprout, and I plan on keeping folks more up-to-date with those. Read on if you wish to know the gory details, otherwise I bid you farewell until next time.






Okay then, what’s all this I’ve been alluding to?

At the end of January, my dad was taken from his work to ER in terminal condition. He was stabilized over the course of the next few weeks, suffering from Fournier’s gangrene (do not do an image search, trust me on this one), MRSA and renal failure. The doctors later informed us that if he had called in sick that day (Friday), he wouldn’t have made it through the weekend. So his unwavering work ethic ended up saving his life.

Though he’d been stabilized relatively quickly, the damage was significant. Several rounds of skin grafts and reconstructive surgery were required, and it was almost 5 months before he’d recovered enough for home care. He is home now, although we’re still dealing with several weekly appointments and the final ostomy reversals, which are on hold until a nasty decubitus ulcer heals up (and is reluctant to do so). On top of all that, the doctors are now making noises about chronic kidney disease and thyroid problems. So we’re not quite out of the woods yet, but we can see the clearing.

If there are any of my new readers at this point, I’d like to make it perfectly clear that I’m not asking for any kind of aid or assistance. This was to let my family and friends know how things are going. We’re on shaky ground but we are getting by. If you really would like to help out somehow, the most I could ask is to tell your friends to check out this new book you’ve heard about—or if reading is for nerds, they can listen to it instead. Fun for the whole post-nuclear family!

I’ll do my best to stay in better touch. Until next time, I’ll be searchin’ for my bootstraps.

— Cedric

Moving the Spirit

Posted: October 30, 2013 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , ,

It’s been a good five weeks since I’ve done any writing, and closer to two months since writing anything meaningful. I can’t attribute this span of nothingness to any one thing. Several things all happened in a series of events that led to a long withdrawal from all but the most necessary social interactions.

I can definitely say it started with the completion of Broken. Not the novel itself, that I’m still proud of. If I ever had a bucket list, “write a novel” would be at the top. The editing process, however, was a grind. It left me feeling nothing much beyond, “Damn, I’m glad that’s done.” Once the novel was done and in the process of getting published, I did my level best not to rest on my meager laurels. Being a writer had become a real thing and I didn’t want to stop. But I know me too well.

There were other projects to work on, and for the first couple of weeks I picked up the one I most wanted to do. I drafted an outline, worked out some background and bio information, opened up what I’d already written for the project and… hit a wall. The plan was to expand on what I had previously written as a short into a full novel. And while I was pleased with the short (as were several others, who wanted to me to expand on it as well) every attempt I made at expanding the short into a full chapter I was just plain unhappy with. I made the decision to start over from scratch.

But before I could get going on that, V brought up the possibility of picking up one of our back-burner projects for another collaborative. I was all for the idea. We had a nice, long conversation about it, drafted an outline, took copious notes, and…

And I’m still not sure what happened. I just lost all ambition to write. I kept at it for awhile, but the drive was gone. Not even the Magic Spreadsheet (All Hail the Magic Spreadsheet) could keep the fire burning. That’s when I all but fell off the face of the Internet. I wanted almost nothing to do with social media. I did my ‘day job’, then spent the rest of the time doing anything but writing. Yes, I had broken the number one rule of writing, and I simply didn’t care.

A couple of weeks into this, I got sick as a dog. I’ll spare you the details. It wasn’t pretty.

Then, slowly but surely, I started to de-hermit. I got back in touch with folks that I needed to get in touch with.  I put out a single twit to let people know I wasn’t dead. But my head wasn’t quite back in the game. It’s still not 100% there, but it’s a lot further that it was.

There’s a few things that contributed to this. First, there was V. The first thing she did, after assuring me that she was only concerned that I was all right, was ask, “What can I do to help?” Just asking was enough to give me a boost in the right direction. Second is the guy I know as Wilhelm. I’ve know him and the rest of the MOOMellow crew almost my entire adult life. A few days ago, the conversation drifted towards my writing. Wilhelm commented that he’d read all of my published works, and then added, “You should write more.” And you know what? He’s right. I totally should.

The third boost, believe it or not, was the approach of NaNoWriMo. I’ve made a couple of aborted attempts at it before, and I still don’t know if it’s something I can accomplish. But there’s still that little voice in the back of my head that says, “You can’t do it if you don’t try.” That little voice is absolutely right, too. I am going to try it again, and regardless of whether or not I succeed at 100,000 words, every word I do get down is one more word I didn’t have before.

The latest boost came just a couple of days ago, in the form of another invitation to contribute to an anthology. The editor and primary author/creator have both been a joy to work with in the past, and I gladly accepted. This will be a short I’ll have to do some heavy research for, but I want to give it my absolute best.

I sat back and tried to glean something from all of this, weighing my past performances and self-expectations against this new path as a “real” writer. I realize that I don’t owe anyone another word. I have nothing that says one novel isn’t enough. It’s not mandatory for me try to get back into my lost groove. But I know I would disappoint a lot of people if I didn’t. More importantly, I want to do it. Even if it’s not something I want to do every day.

Many years ago, someone shared with me a quote about writing attributed to Terry C. Johnston: “You can’t always wait for the spirit to move you. Sometimes you have to move the spirit.” I’ve held onto that over the years, and while I do still hold to it most of the time, it’s been my experience that sometimes you can’t move the spirit no matter how hard you try. Sometimes it behaves like a stubborn child that refuses to pick itself up off the floor; all you can do is sit there and wait for it to get the tantrum out of its system and start moving again. Still other times call for a ‘stone soup’ approach, coaxing it into life with a little bit of this and a touch of that. That’s where all of those ‘boosts’ above came in. Any one by itself wouldn’t have been enough to get me to want to start writing again.  But they added up, and now I’m well on my way to getting back into doing what I love doing.

     There are places in the world where it’s hard to imagine anything is wrong.  It’s merely an illusion and only the foolish would think otherwise.  But even more foolish are the people that cling to that illusion as if it were reality. They are the ones that stand to lose the most when the illusion fades, like so many stars in the morning sky.

When I think back on it, these words were the catalyst for everything that’s happened in the past year. They’re not from some lofty intellectual or philosopher or anyone famous in any way. They’re my own, written in a burst of… well, I really can’t call it creativity or inspiration. They just kind of happened. And for a long time afterward, nothing happened at all after them.

Veronica has been one of my biggest fans for some time now. I’m not exaggerating when I say that everything I’ve done creatively for at least the past three years (and a good deal before that) was because of her. She has this ‘push without pushing’ way about her when it comes to motivation. Anyway, up until two years ago, we’d talked about doing various real—and by real, I mean published, non fan fiction—writing projects together. We even got started on one, which is sitting on a back burner. But it got put on the back burner for a project we got more enthusiastic about pursuing.  If you have been following Veronica at all, you’ll know that the work is titled Broken, a full-length novel we’ve been laboring on.

But for a good deal of time, V was doing most of the laboring. We’d talk about what we wanted to do, had an outline partially drafted, and experimented with different software platforms for collaborative writing. V had two or three chapters written. I had nothing. I procrastinated all day every day, but V never pushed. She waited patiently for me to do what she believes I can do, which is be a brilliant writer.

When I finally decided to make an attempt at Broken, I got as far as the paragraph at the top and got completely, thoroughly stuck. I knew where I wanted to go with the thought, but I’d blown all four tires as soon as I’d hopped in. But it wasn’t all for nothing. I showed them to V anyway.  For whatever combinations of reasons that day, those four sentences made her day.  This was, as I said, the catalyst for things to come. That catalyst would remain dormant for some time to come, though.

In the mean time, I put out a short story. I’ve been friends with Mercedes Lackey for a few years now, and she invited me to write for an Elemental Masters anthology she was putting together. It was a bit of a risk, including a complete unknown, but in the end I like to think I didn’t disappoint. My piece was accepted, the book went to print in December of last year, and there hasn’t been any overtly negative reviews of my contribution.

But getting back to Broken. It was still going nowhere fast. Then V introduced me to the Magic Spreadsheet. I’ve talked about it before, so I won’t go into it in detail here. Suffice it to say, it has worked its magic. I got started on the Magic Spreadsheet, and the first thing I did was go back to that paragraph and knuckle down. Three months and change later, what had been nothing more than a couple of chapters from V’s hand and my one paragraph has become twenty-ish chapters and over 60,000 words… and we’re only just now starting on the final chapters. Last night, we had a two-hour Skype call (the first we’ve talked directly in a long, long time) about the direction we wanted to take the finale in. I won’t go so far as to call it epic or groundbreaking, but it’s definitely something we will both be sinking our teeth into.

Yesterday (June 8th) also marked a huge milestone. Because of the Magic Spreadsheet, I have written something every day for the past 100 days. 57,600 words, over twice of the minimum word count that the Magic Spreadsheet encourages for that amount of time. Over 30,000 of those have gone into Broken. It wasn’t easy; the last half of May I was dragging myself along, most days just barely getting the minimum. But I did it.

And this is just the beginning. There’s a lot more to come. In those 100 days, I’ve written for and been accepted for a second Elemental Masters anthology. That should be out sometime in November or early December. I’ve also joined a writer’s community called Writer’s Carnival, and entered into a sponsored contest for Dark Futures. The response I got from that piece was unexpected, and has inspired me to expand it into a full series. I’m still working on the details, but there will more than likely be a podcast to go along with it. Then there’s the back burner project I mentioned. V has been busy starting some novels that will serve as a backbone for that ‘verse, and I’ve got the seeds planted for my own as well. There’s also the seeds for another novel in my head, also thanks to years of collaboration with V, that will take place in the same ‘verse as Broken.

I have no idea what will happen after that, but these alone is enough to keep me busy for some time to come. I can’t guarantee when you’ll actually get to see any of it, but you will get to see it. As Magic Spreadsheet as my witness, you will see it.


I’d like to talk for a moment about J.R.R. Tolkien. If you don’t know who he is, what planet are you from and are you the vanguard of an invasion? Because that would be totally awesome. Not the death and suffering at the hands of our new alien overlords part, just the part that there are alien overlords.

Anyway, like many people, Tolkien was an inspiration. When he created Middle Earth, he didn’t do it half- assed. Not only did he pen a very complex history, the dude invented a couple of languages along the way. Now that’s dedication.

There’s been much debate over the years as to what Tolkien’s intentions were for creating The Lord of the Rings. Some say that it was a tribute to brothers-in-arms of the Great War. Other contend that he was trying to create a mythology for England. Still others insist that he was secretly gay and that he laid the groundwork for future generations of elf-on-dwarf manlove fiction. All I know for certain is that I totally made that last one up.

Regardless of what people think his intentions were, there’s no denying that what Tolkien did do was create a lush and vivid world. He used his words to paint a picture of a world and its people so detailed that it has inspired generations of authors and nerds with dice to create their own worlds, and essentially created the fantasy genre.

Reading his words for the first time, you instantly have a clear picture in your head of what Middle Earth is. You can see the hills of Hobbiton, the plains of Rohan, the ethereal beauty of Lothlorien and the twisted hellscape of Mordor as if you’ve been there yourself. You get a clear and distinct idea of what elves, dwarves, hobbits and orcs look like (the last three being words he even invented himself—the plural of dwarf is dwarfs. Tolkien used a v to differentiate them from human dwarfs).

This serves to illustrate my point. Tolkien never skimped on the details, and the details are what drove the narrative. When it comes time for the characters to actually do something, it doesn’t take long for them, in terms of word count, to get it done. The example of this that I often use is this: in The Fellowship of the Ring, there’s a good half a chapter devoted to describing the town of Bree, the hobbits entering it and getting into the Prancing Pony inn before they even meet Aragorn.   Skip ahead a few chapters to Moria and the iconic fight with the goblins and troll in the Tomb of Balin, beginning to end, takes a total of two and a half pages.

This is what I have come to call the Tolkien Effect. So far, everyone knows exactly what I mean when I use that term. It’s also how I describe my own writing style. Now, I’m not trying to be conceited and say that my writing is as good as Tolkien’s—just ask anyone I’ve ever worked with on a writing project, I’m the first (and usually only) person to say what I do sucks. I’m simply using ‘the Tolkien Effect’ to describe how I write, because in many ways it’s the same. I’ll take a huge paragraph or three to describe someone entering a room, the reaction of his senses, the way he holds himself and the thoughts going through his head… and then end it with ‘and then he pulled out a gun and shot someone.’

I’m not saying this is necessarily a bad thing, but it’s a huge challenge to me as a writer to write actions scenes that I’m 100% satisfied with. I always feel like there’s something lacking. My partner in crime V recently told me that she absolutely adores the way that I write introspective narrative, and that I “make it look so effortless.” I’ll agree with that last part. It is pretty effortless for me but I often worry that it borders on purple prose and the reader is saying, “Get on with it!”  In contrast, I’ve been working on a fight scene for our collaborative novel for almost a week now. I’ve reached a point where I’m so close to the end but nothing I get out satisfies me. If I were doing this with a typewriter, I’d have an overflowing wastebasket of paper balls.

I also hit this stumbling block rather recently on my latest short story. There was a 6,000-word limit, and I spent a good 5,000 of those leading up to the climactic scene. I would have been crushed by my editor’s first response of, “The ending feels very rushed” if I hadn’t completely agreed with him. I spent a good two days going back and trying to trim up my word count so I could squeeze in even a few more paragraphs to the ending before I even sent in the first draft. I succeeded in that, but I wasn’t satisfied with it and in the end fired it off to the editor in the hopes he could help (he did, by the way. His red pen is mighty vicious, but his suggestions were simple yet amazing in getting the story I wanted to tell onto paper).

At the very least, I recognize my shortcomings of the Tolkien Effect on my style of writing and strive to make it better. It’s something I know I can improve upon and not just a self-criticism of a problem that doesn’t really exist. I have a healthy respect—and just a hint of jealousy—for writers that can seamlessly blend description and action. And I hope that some day I can find a balance between the two in my writing style that satisfies both the reader and me.

Sometimes When We Awaken

Posted: April 8, 2013 in Fiction
Tags: ,

The first thing that registered in my fuzzy brain was the sunlight. It streamed in through the window instead of the skylight, which told me I hadn’t wasted too much of the day. Not that I had terribly much to do these days. Sleeping through one still felt like a waste. Just one of those things that stuck with me after I stopped listening to my parents.

It also prompted me to lay there for a few more minutes. This usually led to me dozing off for twenty or thirty minutes, sometimes an hour or more. Not this morning. My eyelids still felt heavy with sleep, but I knew they weren’t going to fully close again. Instead I lay there unmoving, watching the little slice of the sky through the bedroom nook window and listening to the sounds of the morning on the street below and futilely trying to cling to scraps of the dream that I’d been having. It was an unusually long one, as far as dreams go. I was trying to collect something from inside of people, some kind of energy or essence, so that I could escape…

I was already too awake for too long. It had all but  slipping away completely.  Just the basic idea remained.

As consciousness firmly wormed its way into my head for good, I realized that the fuzziness I felt  wasn’t confined to my brain. It felt like my entire body had “fallen asleep” but without the tingling, just the numbness. Maybe it has something to do with me being on my stomach. I rarely slept that way. Usually I curled up into a fetal position. Not this morning. On my stomach, arms underneath my pillow, tangled up in the sheets and the nightshirt I’d been wearing.

Funny, didn’t feel like my sleep had been that restless. Except for the numbness, I felt like I’d gotten a pretty solid sleep, even if it was only a few hours.

Now that I was 100% certain I wouldn’t be going back to sleep, it was pointless to stay in bed any longer. I rolled over on to my side and swung my legs around and over the edge of the bed. I sat up and stretched, feeling around the floor with my feet for my slippers. Couldn’t find them. No big deal, probably on the other side. They weren’t a regular habit for me. I prefer to go barefoot, anyway.

I shuffled over to the window and stretched again, joints popping in their familiar ways. The weird feeling in my body lingered. Now that I was more or less fully awake, it didn’t feel like a numbness. More like a slight temperature, even though I otherwise felt fine.  My skin wasn’t warm or clammy, just felt like skin. A slight headache too, but those are so normal for me that I put them off almost immediately.

There was something else I couldn’t put my finger on. A feeling I had in the back of my head plus the sensation of my body added up to something I just couldn’t put my finger on. I tried to dismiss it with the usual excuse of not enough sleep, but that didn’t feel right. And it only got worse as I looked out the window and onto the morning traffic below. Everything looked like it ought to, like just another day. Cars and people off to do whatever it is they did in the morning. But the more I looked…

“Something doesn’t feel right,” I announced to the world.

“What doesn’t feel right?”

I turned around to see her sticking her head out of the bathroom, running a brush through her hair. I shook my head.

“Dunno. Kinda what I meant by ‘something’,” I said, walking back over towards the bed. “I sleep okay?”

She shrugged and continued brushing her hair, stepping out of the bathroom. “Sure, far as I could tell. Maybe something you ate?”

I shook my head again. “Not a stomach thing, or a head thing. More like a body thing. Can’t really describe it.”

She nodded absently and brushed her hair out some more. I watched her for awhile; brushing her hair, walking over to the nightstand for her scrunchie, putting her hair up in a loose ponytail and softly humming the whole  time. Even in her self-styled Laundry Day clothes, she had a quiet grace to her that I’d never thought much about before.

That thought irritated me for some reason. What irritated me more was that I don’t know why that irritated me. When she’d finished with her hair, I looked up at her and asked, “How long have we been together?”

She looked at me over her shoulder with a smirk. “Long enough for you to forget, apparently. Why?”

That answer perturbed me more. The odd numbness in my whole body flared up some. I stood up, and was greeted by a low buzzing in my head. No worse than the small headache, but definitely not helping my overall mood.

“I need a cigarette,” I announce to no one in particular, walking out of the bedroom nook and into the living room.

“Since when do you smoke?”

I stooped in my tracks and threw her a scowl. The look on her face wasn’t accusatorial, nor was it playful. It was genuine curiosity. Calm, non-judgmental curiosity. And for no good reason, it made me that much more out of sorts.

“What do you mean, since when?” I asked, not bothering to keep the edge out of my voice. “Since I was a kid, but now only when I really feel like having one. And I really feel like having one, okay?”

She frowned slightly, but not in any way that made me feel like she disapproved of my answer. “Well, it’s been awhile since then, I guess. Want me to run downstairs and get you a pack?”

I took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. It didn’t help whatever I was feeling in my body, but it took the edge off of my emotional outburst. “Yeah, sure,” I said, adding a faint smile to my words to let her know I wasn’t angry. “Wallet should be in my pants.”

She nodded and found them at the edge of the bed. She took out a ten and shoved it in her pocket, stepped down from the nook and over to me. She slipped a hand around my waist and kissed me on the cheek.

“Don’t wait up for me, okay?” she said with a grin.

I grinned back and shook my head as she walked out. The corner store was right across the street. I’d have to worry about going to bed without her for quite a bit longer, longer than it would take her to get back. But it did give me enough time to myself to try and sort things out.

I walked over to the kitchen area in search of something to shove into my face. There was no coffee made, but that wasn’t shocking. I rarely drank it and she usually only made enough for herself. Opened the fridge and found a soda. No diet, though. Must’ve had the last of it last night. Oh well. Maybe the caffeine-sugar bomb would be enough to jolt my system out of whatever funk I was in. Found a granola bar, wolfed down half of it in two bites and washed it down with a healthy swig of soda. It rumbled a bit on my empty stomach, but it didn’t feel like there was any danger of it coming back up.

With something resembling food in my stomach, I walked back into the living room. The sun hadn’t hit the skylight yet, which was nice. Gave the one-room apartment a bright light without the added heat. Perfect working time in Summer, and the perfect excuse in Winter to stay snuggled up beneath the covers for a couple extra hours.

Thinking of work, I shoved the rest of the granola bar in my mouth and shuffled over to the canvas set up in what was supposed to be the dining nook. Neither of us were the type for a traditional sit down meal, and this saved me from having to rent out a studio somewhere.

At first I’d come over to stare at the half-finished piece and perhaps gather up the mental capacity to whack at it some more with my brushes. But the longer I stared, the worse I felt. And it wasn’t the sugar overdose ‘breakfast’. What started out as a mild numbness had become something akin to a hangover without the nasty headache that usually came with it.

Then it finally hit me full force. I had no idea what I was looking at. I didn’t recognize a single stroke on the canvas. I couldn’t remember putting a single one down. I couldn’t even remember being an artist.

Confusion was having its way with my brain and panic was not far behind when the front door opened and closed behind me.  I turned around and watched her put the change on the kitchen island I suddenly couldn’t remember having ever made a single meal on and then walk over and sit down on the couch I couldn’t remember having ever sat on.

“What… the hell is going on?” I asked, not sure if the shakiness in my voice was just in my head or not.

She gave me a quizzical look and answered, “I went to the store to get you smokes, remember? I wasn’t gone that long, was I?”

I was standing on the other end of the couch from her now, looking down at her and the cigarettes in her hand. Another wave of confusion and numbness washed over me. I’d never seen that brand before. I was far from an aficionado of cigarettes, but I recognize most of the brands available and I had never seen this one before.

“What the hell are those?” I demanded.

She furrowed her brow, looking confused herself now. “You want me to get you something else?” she asked, genuinely worried.

“No!” I shouted, making her cringe a little. I instantly felt like shit for doing it. I sat down, tilted my head all the way back against the top of the seat and covered my face with my hands.  “I just… want to know… what the hell… is going on….”

She didn’t answer right away. I took several deep breaths and the numbness subsided a little. I slid my hands away from my face and finally looked her in the eye. She was looking back at me with the same calmness as when I first snapped at her about my smoking.

“What do you want me to tell you?” she asked just as calmly.

I scowled again and said, “Just tell me the damned truth. Like, who the hell are you?”

There was a pregnant pause before she answered,  “Who do you want me to be?”

I finally lost it. With a hoarse shout that filled the apartment, I flung the cushion across the room and into the painting. I stood up and stomped over to the step up to the bedroom nook and clutched at my hair with both hands, hyperventilating.

I don’t know how long I stood there like that. All I knew was that I couldn’t face her in that fit of rage. Whoever she was, whatever all of this was, I knew deep down that she wasn’t the cause and didn’t deserve my anger. When I finally calmed down enough, I turned around. She was still sitting at the end of the couch, looking back at me. She hadn’t been crying and there was no moisture in her eyes, but her expression was one of infinite sadness that damn near broke my heart.

Slowly, I walked back over to the far end of the couch and just stood there, my body as numb as ever. “I’m sorry,” I said. “Just… you can start by being someone who doesn’t answer my questions with more damn questions.  Who. Are. You?”

She didn’t answer right away, simply looking at me past my eyes and into my soul. Finally, she spoke in just above a whisper, “I don’t know.”

Her answer shocked me more than any other thing she could have said, I think. All I could do right then was sit down on the far end of the couch, looking at her watching me.

When I found my voice, I asked, “What do you mean, you don’t know? How can you not know who you are?”

“Because you never told me.”

Her answer made my head spin. A firm grip on the top of the seat kept me from standing up and stomping off again in confusion. “Just tell me…” I said through gritted teeth.

“I’ve been with you from the start,” she answered in a quiet but steady voice. Almost soothing. “Whenever you had an idea that needed me, I was there. Sometimes to play a part, sometimes to be the lead. But it was always me. Speaking the words you wanted me to speak. Doing whatever it was you wanted me to do. Being the girl you needed me to be.”

She looked down at her hands, now clasped over her stomach. “You used to talk back to me, when you were younger. Play out your ideas together. And sometimes when you just needed someone who would listen. You rarely do that anymore. I don’t mind. Like I said, I’m what you need me to be.”

I stared at her for quite some time in silence. I knew everything she said to be true, even though  I’d never heard it before. I looked around the apartment, then back to her. “So where are we?”

She shook her head. “I don’t know that, either.”

“Because I never told you…”

“No, that’s not it,” she replied. “I’ve always known before. It was always somewhere inside of you, no matter where we were. Not this time.  I was with you here, so as far as I knew that’s where we were.”

I furrowed my brow. “When did you figure out…”

“That it wasn’t inside you?” she finished. “When I stepped outside. Because there was an outside. Not just an abstract idea of what outside would be wherever we were, but a real outside. At first I thought it was something new you were trying…” she looked back up at me,  a hint of sadness still in her eyes . “…now I know you’re as lost as I am.”

The numbness in my body had mellowed to a mellow buzz, like a caffeine high without the energy. Whoever she was, I knew she was telling the truth. I trusted her.  But there was one more question I had to ask. “Am I still asleep?”

Again, she shook her head. “No, you’re awake. I know that much. Do you… remember anything about before you went to sleep?”

I leaned my head back and thought for a moment. “Nothing especial. I’d been up all night, trying to get something out but nothing was coming to me. It was morning when I finally laid down and still morning.” I looked up at the skylight, and the sun was just starting to peek through it. “Still morning here, so I figured I was only out for a couple of hours…”

“Try twenty-four.”

I looked back down at her and blinked. She had a faint smile on her face, but I could tell she wasn’t joking. “A whole day?” I asked, and she nodded. “That’s… never happened to me before. But you said I’m not still dreaming, so that still raises the question as to where the hell I am.”

“We are,” the two of us corrected simultaneously, making us both laugh and ease some of the tension.

She sighed and looked around the apartment. “I really have no idea. But it is nice, wherever it is. I wouldn’t mind staying here as long as we can.”

I nodded and smiled my first genuine happy smile since waking up. I had no idea how any of this had happened, how long it would last or if it would ever happen again. I had been given a gift, and I intended to enjoy it for as long as I could, and enjoy the memory of it for much longer.

I never did give her a name. Didn’t feel the need to.

This is a story of a children’s magazine. It may not seem like it at first, but as always, I get there eventually.

I can still remember much of my hometown’s main public library. All I have to do is close my eyes and I’m flooded with so many minor details that went completely unnoticed in all the days of my youth spent there—obviously not completely so, since my brain picked up on them even if my conscious mind didn’t.

It’s a four story building that was what I would call then a ‘square doughnut’. The first two floors surrounded a middle area which held an enclosed garden that open to the sky. There were windows on looking in on it from all sides so you never felt enclosed. Even the slow but serviceable elevator had a glass side to look out over it as you went up and down. The decor was very much a 60s style: sharp lines and curves shapes combined and colored in muted tones that I’d only ever seen in magazines and visiting my older relatives.

The periodicals were kept in the basement. It was only two large rooms, one for the archives and one for viewing them. The smell of aging newsprint permeated everything, but not in an unpleasant way. I like to think it added to the ambiance. The microfiche machines were an endless fascination to me, reading through old newspapers and picking up bits and pieces of history. I once thought they were just humoring me when I would ask for random dates that I’d pulled from the catalog, but now I think that their smiles were more genuine, that a kid would actually be interested in that kind of stuff was a pleasant surprise.

Then there were the two main floors. The first floor was mainly fiction, with a small section for reference books (of the ‘how to’ sort), the main checkout desk and card catalogs. Tucked away in a corner next to the stairwell going to the basement was a film archive, both reel-to-reel and VHS, with private viewing stations. Being a kid I mostly watched the cartoons. But one of those ‘cartoons’ was The Snowman, a hauntingly beautiful short film that beautifully haunts me to this day (if you haven’t seen it, watch it. Don’t argue. Go, watch. I’ll be here when you get back).

The second floor held almost everything else. More fiction (including the comic strip collections, which I never got tired of reading), nonfiction and the audio section, which had both audio books and music albums both modern and classical. There was even an art gallery. Yes, they lent you prints. You could take home art with a library card. That still blows my mind.

The third and fourth floors… to this day, I’m still not sure what all really went on up there. They didn’t go all the way around like the first two floors, squatting there on the far corner from the street. The windows looking out were tinted, and the main area was never brightly lit. On the third floor there was a small room dedicated to authors from Nebraska, another room that was only open whenever there was a book sale and the rest was a complete mystery. The elevator doors opening onto the third floor (the fourth needed a key) was like opening up into a different world. As an adult, I realize now that it was probably where the library offices are, partially open to the public but by and large not meant for it. I’d probably be gravely disappointed if I were to return today, so I’ll keep that little bit of memory as a memory because it’s more fun my way.

The enclosed garden was also a little world unto itself, though a much more terrestrial one. Stepping stones were scattered throughout clusters of plants that had little plaques with plant names and their genus species, a couple of small trees, a pump-fed stream and two small ponds on either side. It was open to the public most days of Spring and Summer, even to the kids. Though not very many besides myself would go out there. They did what maintenance had to be done, but mostly let Nature do its thing, which for me added to its appeal.

You’re probably getting bored by now. We’re almost there, I promise. Just a little more rambling.

Finally, we come to the children’s section. Counting the Young Adult shelves, it took up almost a third of the first floor—and this was no small building. It was a full quarter of a city block. One side was a glass-enclosed area where the bulk of the children’s books were kept. This is where I got to sit on beanbag chairs and get to know the works of Dr. Seuss, Shel Silverstein, Mercer Mayer, Beatrix Potter and countless other names that I can’t think of but would recognize instantly. The main area held the aforementioned Young Adult books, plus a little spillover from the previous room, more traditional tables and chairs for reading and a listening station for children’s albums. It even had a door directly to the garden area and out to the street. It was its own small library inside of the big library instead of just a section where it all got dumped.

And then there was the magazine rack. It took up a good-sized portion of a wall all to itself and was filled with every kid’s magazine imaginable—though as an adult, I have to raise an eyebrow at their inclusion of both Mad Magazine and Cracked. While not adult in the National Lampoon way, they certainly weren’t humor geared towards kids. But then again it’s not like they had a separate ‘teen’ section so you take what you can get.

All of these magazines had another thing in common: passed around dozens of grubby, clumsy hands on any given day, they were naturally mauled pretty heavily. Loose or missing covers, torn or missing pages, no thought put into where they were supposed to be placed on the rack. It was always a chaotic riot of colors and print. But again, these are kids we’re talking about, so it’s to be expected. You takes your magazine and takes your chances that some big selfish dummy hasn’t ruined this month’s issue of Highlights by circling all the differences or giving Goofus and Gallant an ink makeover.

But there was one magazine that was always untouched. One magazine that sat in a corner of the rack all but neglected. There was nothing fancy about it. It didn’t have pictures on every page. It didn’t have any bright, flashy attention-grabbing glossy covers. It was mostly page after page of words with little doodles throughout. It was the most boring kid’s magazine you could give to your average kid.

I wasn’t your average kid.

And that magazine was Cricket Magazine.

TCricket Magazinehis little publication was a hidden gem that I’ve only come to fully appreciate as an adult. For those of you unfamiliar with it, it’s a literary publication for children, with every story and work of art submitted by children. The ‘doodles’ were a cast of insects— including the eponymous Cricket— and other little critters kibitzing on the submission in fun yet constructive ways. It also had book reviews submitted by children, so these weren’t the books the grown-ups said were “recommended reading”, these were true peer reviewed books. It was these reviews that steered me towards the likes of Redwall, A Wrinkle In Time, A Wizard of Earthsea and many more like it, books I could sink my teeth into and expand my mind instead of simply entertaining it.

But the most important part of Cricket Magazine to my childhood was its inspiration. I wanted to be in it someday. I wanted to write a story that would be read by everyone who knew the magazine existed. I wanted to open up an issue and see my name on the Table of Contents.

Cricket Magazine planted the seed that made me want to be a writer before my age was even in double digits. Sadly, I never got to make that dream a reality. The ambition never went away, but I was too busy being a kid to focus on the task.

Now, I’m an adult trying to make it as a writer. The ambition that was born from a neglected literary publication for children remains with me in a likewise grown up but still largely unchanged way: I’m gonna do it someday.

And just like then, there’s still a part of me too busy trying to be a kid to fully focus on the task. That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it.

I’ve had a very active imagination from a young age. I started playing Dungeons & Dragons while still in single digits, along with a plethora of other  role playing games between then and now.  I would go to my best friend’s house and the two of us would take turn making ‘movies’ with his ridiculously huge collection of action figures, vehicles and play sets.

As I entered my teenage years, my characters began to become much more developed. I finally understood the concepts of personalities and back stories. Every single last one of them, from ones I’d had since I first started playing to the most disposable character created for a one-shot game session, got the same treatment and became ‘real people’.  As a result, they began to get their own ‘movies’ as well. I would have a gaming session, and in the time until the next one I would act out the characters—what they would do and say in situations that had arisen or might arise from the developments of the previous session.

All of this took place, as Eddie Izzard once said, in my mind (if you’ve seen the routine, you’ll know why it’s italicized).

My interest in becoming a writer also developed in my teens. Being a voracious reader as well, I began to get a better grasp of sentence structure (with a generous amount of help from my English classes, of course) and got a general idea as to how to tell a story. I finally had both the knowledge and opportunity to present the ‘movies’ I was making in a format that was easier to follow—and arguably a lot more interesting—than simply telling people the elaborate stories I had created in my mind.

I didn’t stop with just tabletop characters either. I had several characters that were never put down onto a character sheet. Some were characters that I never got around to making, others were ‘personas’ I had adopted when playing with friends that stuck in my memory and some were simply ideas that had popped into my head.

Anyway, the point to all of this is that I’ve had a problem ever since I began putting these thoughts to paper that persists to this very day. I will create these elaborate scenes in my mind, complete with entire conversations, actions, reactions et cetera. Most of the time I had plans to put them down into words, to create a story for others to read (some people out there insist I’m good at that sort of thing). The problem is one of a huge mental block on my part. I’ll create these scenes and then never put them to paper. Why? Because there’s a voice in the back of my head that says, “You already know how this story plays out, you have it memorized. Why would you need to write it out?”

And then I stupidly listen to that voice and never write it out.

There's barely enough room in here for me!

Now we come to the Magic Spreadsheet. I’ve only been going at it for two weeks now, but it has been a tremendous help to my writing. I’m getting something down every day, even if it’s only a few paragraph. However, I must confess that the last few days, I’ve been flagging. Where I started out strong, pumping out three to five times the minimum word count for the day, the past few days have seen barely over the minimum. The worst part is, I knew this was going to happen. I’m falling into my predictable pattern of early enthusiasm followed by lethargy that sits there staring back at me and only muttering a “meh” when confronted.

I recognize that part of this is the problem mentioned above. I have lots and lots of words crammed in my head and a self-defeating ability to never get rid of them in a useful manner. I hate it. I really do. It only leads to disappointment for everyone involved and only I can change that. Well, I’ve decided to try a new tactic to combat this problem.

The idea came to me two nights ago as I sat around surfing the Internet and suddenly realizing it was 10 minutes to midnight and I hadn’t written a single word. Before the Magic Spreadsheet, I would have just said screw it and completely written off the day.  But no, I had to get something down. Not only for myself, not only to keep the streak going and maintain my ‘score’, but for the person that introduced me to it and more importantly, believes in me. I didn’t want to let her down. I’ve done it too much already, no matter how much she may deny it.

So I just started writing. But not just random thoughts that tumbled around in my head. I focused on getting just the conversations down. I figured once I got those out of the way, I could go back and flesh out the rest when I wasn’t in a slump. Lo and behold, it worked like a charm. I let the dialogue spill out onto the page and the minimum word count came and went without even noticing it.

I’ll be trying this tactic from now on whenever I feel like I’m in a slump.  It’s really only a minor variation of the mantra, “Write it down, make it pretty later.” And it feels like something I can manage.