Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Talking Shop

Op-ed • "It's Time to Retire Writer's Block," By Eric Dontigney 


So let’s talk about the much-feared affliction called writer’s block. Rather, let’s talk about why I don’t give much credence to it. Here’s my problem. Virtually every discussion of it I’ve ever seen points to some cause that doesn’t have anything to do with writing. There’s a tragedy in the family. Financial stress. A marriage breaks up. Illness. I might even lend some credence to these claims if writing were some ephemeral process that we don’t understand. It isn’t.

Writing is primarily a skill. It’s the organization of ideas within the accepted rules of grammar, and we can even fudge the grammar a little. There are accepted structures in writing. The 5-paragraph essay was popular when I rolled through college and most academic papers follow the same structure, just bigger. Journalists use the inverted pyramid. Screenwriters and even some novelists use 3-act or 5-act structures.  A recent trend in blogging holds that paragraphs shouldn’t go over 3 sentences because it’s easier to read on screen. Once you know the rules of grammar and get a handle on structure, you don’t lose that knowledge because life goes in the toilet.

I’m sure someone is thinking something like, “But what about ideation? I can’t write until I have a great idea.” Not true. That’s not even kind of true. The vast majority of fiction doesn’t stem from some single, original idea. Here’s the idea behind nearly every detective novel ever written: A crime or moral outrage occurs and a detective investigates. Sure, an idea can be original or groundbreaking, but most originality stems from careful and clever details.

Consider American Gods, one of the more beloved modern fantasy novels. The core idea is that gods walk among us with their own, sometimes alien, agendas. It’s not a new idea. Diana Wynne Jones used it. John James used it. Harlan Ellison used it. What makes American Gods special is all of the details layered over the base idea…well, that and Neil Gaiman’s nigh-uncanny talent.

Plus, there are lots of reliable techniques for generating story ideas. There’s the classic brainstorming approach. It’s not my favorite, but it works for some people. You can go somewhere people gather and create imaginary lives for the people you see. Restaurants, stores, bars, zoos, and parks are all good for that. Check out the latest news. There’s almost always something bizarre happening that can serve as fodder for a story.

Ask “Why” about things you see. For example, there’s an older gentleman who lives in my neighborhood. He walks up and down the street a few times a day when the weather is good. Why? I write urban fantasy, so my answers lean that direction. Maybe he’s an aging sorcerer checking on his wards. Maybe he’s protecting us from restless spirits. Maybe he was a rogue Vodou priest 30 years ago, and he’s watching for signs of vengeful Loa. When you get right down to it, ideas are everywhere.

“But, but what about plotting?” There’s nothing magical about plotting. Academics argue about how many plots there are, but it’s probably in the neighborhood of six. If you can argue the minutia of Game of Thrones episodes, you can master the basics of the six essential plots. Besides, a lot of stories unconsciously fall back onto Joseph Campbell’s monomyth or some part of it. George Lucas quite intentionally and shamelessly built the original Star Wars movies around the monomyth. For those writing women protagonists, Maureen Murdock lays out an alternative myth structure centered on the feminine journey.

In other words, if you’re struggling to plot your novel, there’s plenty of resources out there to help you find your way. Plot is a known quantity. The specific plot you choose for a story is more about personal style and any native genre restrictions. In capital-L literature, your protagonist can fail or die. It’s almost expected. In genre fiction, there’s a general expectation that your protagonist will triumph in the end.

You can, however, subvert those expectations to excellent results. Charles Stross’ Laundry Files novels are a great example. Every seeming victory on the part of Bob Howard, the usual protagonist, peels away his humanity a bit at a time. All of which happens on the way toward an unavoidable, Lovecraftian apocalypse. Granted, that kind of meta-plotting isn’t for beginners, but it can be done.

So what does all of this have to do with writer’s block and my disbelief in it?

If writing were some ephemeral process, guided entirely by the invisible hands of some mercurial spirit, then writer’s block might seem plausible. The reality is far more mundane. Writing is a skill, guided by known rules, structures, and techniques. You can learn them. You can apply them. You can write every single day. Saying you’ve got writer’s block is a less blatant way of saying, “I don’t want to.” Here’s how I know this.

Doctors, lawyers, and engineers are also in jobs that require creativity and higher-order thinking within accepted rules, structures and techniques. When their lives go sideways, they take a little time off to put things in order as well as they can. Then, they go back to work. People undergoing chemotherapy still go to work. They may not be 100%, but they show up and do their jobs. You’ve got an uphill battle to convince me that writing is more demanding than performing surgery, or designing a building, or defending a client in court. You’ve got an impossible battle to convince me that writing is harder than showing up to a job while battling a life-threatening condition.

Think about it. How would you react if someone said they couldn’t work because they had “doctor’s block,” or “engineer’s block,” or “lawyer’s block?” You’d roll your eyes at them. Writers get away with it only because dubious ideas about inspiration as an external force have filtered into the public consciousness. People let it slide because everyone knows those pesky muses are fickle. The truth is that it’s time to retire the term writer’s block. If Brandon Sanderson can write 20+ books in 12 years, the rest of us ought to be able to muster the discipline to write a few hundred words a day.


Eric Dontigney is the author of the Samuel Branch urban fantasy series and the short story collection, Contingency Jones: The Complete Season One.  Raised in Western New York, he currently resides in Memphis, TN. You can find him haunting obscure sections of libraries, in Chinese restaurants or occasionally at ericdontigney.com.

Eric’s last appearance in our pages was “Memory Makes Liars of Us All,” in Stupefying Stories #13, his next will be “Lenses,” in Stupefying Stories #21, and later this year we’ll be releasing his paranormal mystery novel, The Midnight Ground. Watch for it! 


Saturday, May 19, 2018

SHOWCASE: “Our Range in Time,” by Jennifer R. Povey

In some ways, what I remember are the least important things. The first dance at the wedding. The...

Yeah. Things like that, the flotsam and jetsam of a life lived, if not well, then at least without complications.

Which might be why I’m hesitating now. They say they can give me another life. More time, to live over, to try everything again. I just don’t know whether I should. Whether I really need that time.

That’s what we don’t realize, any of us. We have so much space and we have so much time. They’re the same thing and...eh. I ramble. I think it’s because I’m old. Still reasonably healthy, but old. The brain goes last, they claim, unless you have something wrong with it.

Pheh. It goes first, or maybe it’s the mind that goes, the mind that flows into new patterns. It’s the weight of memory, and they can’t take that from me. Well, they could, but then it wouldn’t be me. No continuity. No difference from dying.

I stand up. I can still do that, although it’s harder than it used to be. I walk out onto the balcony, stiffly. Four legs in the morning, two in the day. I’m in the evening and I need my third leg, the cane. But at least I don’t float in a chair like most people my age.

I know I’m going to do it. I don’t actually want to die. Nobody does. Even somebody who’s over a hundred, well over a hundred. Who has had most of his organs replaced, with plastic and metal.

They have better now. They can regrow everything, rejuvenate it. Now even us old farts can be brought back to a semblance of youth. Old eyes in young heads. Used to know an actor like that. Young guy, but his eyes always looked like he’d got them from his grandfather. I don’t remember his name.

Will I get those fragmented memories back? That would be getting more time too, and the decision is made. I might get them back, I might lose them, but I choose life. I choose time. I choose not to die. With this, I can start again. Do something different. Do something new.

Maura stopped reading the note and shook her head. Her grandfather. He’d tried the most experimental rejuvenation.

It had wiped his memory. They were retraining him now, putting him through school again. It was better, she supposed, than being dead, but reading his notes and his journals made her wonder. Made her think about it. Would she have done the same thing?

If they were right about how it worked, then she would not have to. She had visited him again that morning. At least now he believed her when she told him who she was. At first he had looked at his face in the mirror and insisted he could not be anyone’s grandfather. And flirted with her, which had been so embarrassing.

Time. He had put it down to increasing the time you occupied. An interesting theory and thought. Everything she did at the clinic was about that. And it had been she who had got him into the trials, when he was finally dying, when replacement parts weren’t enough. She still was not sure, reading the last note again, whether it had been the right thing.

No. It had been his choice. Doctor Morson was in the doorway.

“We’ll get the kinks aired out, you know.”

She nodded. “How about mechanical augmentation? Maybe we can store the memories...”

“They haven’t lost their memories. They’ve lost the indexing system.”

She frowned. “Which would mean they might still be accessible. Have we tried dream therapy?”

“Working on it now. I have all the patients who will cooperate keeping diaries.” He frowned. “I still think it beats being dead.”

“Oh, definitely, but it feels as if we gave them more time in one direction whilst robbing them of what they already had.”

“You read his note again. About time and space.”

Maura nodded. “Yeah. He was a smart guy. Heck, he still is. And maybe this time he’ll go into something completely different.”

Even if he had his memories, the time they had given him would be more than enough to get another PhD. Heck, with the way lifespans were going, one wouldn’t be enough to do interesting work any more. She frowned at that. Not everyone was smart enough to get a PhD, and what would they do? Robots did most of the menial work. Except waiting tables. People had never really warmed to robot waiters and only fast food joints used them. Well, she had seen them bus tables in higher quality places.

“That...hrm. Wait.” He paused. “I think you have something.”

“Have what?”

“Why some subjects are retaining memories and others aren’t. It may not just be a factor of physical brain age after all. Did your grandfather ever talk about wanting to do something different?”

“All the time. I think it’s why he agreed to the rejuvenation. He said he wanted to get another degree, in a different field.”

Morson nodded, then abruptly grinned and fled the room. He did that...he was a brilliant man and brilliant men went off on their little tangents. Not much could be done about it. Maura was just left wondering what his idea was.

No. She understood it. He was implying that the people who had lost their memories somehow, subconsciously, wanted to.

For her, it would not be an issue. She was young, and would never need the kind of wholesale cellular regeneration her grandfather had gone through. Well, unless she was in some kind of bad accident.

Accident victims almost always lost chunks of their memories, mind, although not generally all of them. They had put that down to trauma. And some of the very old had already lost their memories. There was an ethical twist. If somebody was far gone into senility, did they have the right to rejuvenate them anyway? Most of the ones they had done had lost their memory. Of those who kept it, one had committed suicide. It had felt like a slap in the face to her family.

Maura just thought that maybe she hadn’t wanted to live. There were actually people arguing that suicide should become a human right, at least if you were over a certain age. She wasn’t sure how she felt about it.

Was losing one’s memory a form of suicide? She swiped a hand across the smart desk to sleep the computer and went to see her grandfather.

He was staying in a sort of student dorm right now. Not that he couldn’t survive on his own per se, so much as he had to relearn everything academically. Basic skills like tying shoelaces had survived.

She didn’t call him grandfather. “Clark?” she called as she knocked on the door. He didn’t want to be called grandfather. She didn’t blame him, not when he looked no older than she did. It might be that generational terms would fade out.

“Come in!”

When she did, she found him in his living room doing an old fashioned, cut cardboard jigsaw puzzle. Of just the kind he had once loved. “You still like puzzles.”

“They feel right, somehow.”

“Clark. You wanted to change. Before. You wanted to try something new. And you weren’t sure about living longer.”

He turned to face her, puzzled. “And I lost...”

“I don’t think you lost your memories at all. I think you blocked them. And I wanted you to know that if you want a fresh start, then it’s fine.”

His face broke into a smile. “Maura...”

“It’s fine. You’re alive, and that’s what matters.”

“...and is it okay if I want to get my MD and work in the clinic?”

She laughed. And then she stepped over and hugged the most brilliant physicist of his generation. “You’ll be the best.”

And from then on, she did not even call him grandfather in her mind. But at the same time she remembered who he was deep in her heart.

Jennifer R. Povey is in her early forties, and lives in Northern Virginia with her husband. She writes a variety of speculative fiction, whilst following current affairs and occasionally indulging in horse riding and role playing games. She has sold fiction to a number of markets including Analog and written RPG supplements for several companies. She is currently working on an urban fantasy series, Lost Guardians.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Talking Shop

Op-ed • "Managing Magic in Your Novels, Part 2," By Eric Dontigney 


In Part 1, I laid out some of the questions that you need to answer before you launch into writing a fantasy novel. Now let’s turn our attention to some of the problems you’ll face once you start putting words to the page.

Every Last Detail

You’ve put a lot of effort into working out all of the ins and outs of your magical system. You know how it works, what its limits are, whether it’s a secret, and whether its limits can be transcended. Depending on how much time you spend on this part of things, you may have a pretty substantial amount of writing on the page already. Your first impulse is probably to get every last one of those details on the page.

It’s a mistake you commonly see in historical fiction and alt-history. Someone pours a lot of effort into learning all about a given time period. Then, they want you to know that they know just about every little thing about the era. So, they lovingly describe the food, the clothes, the architecture, the government, the monetary system, the state of trade, and so on and so forth ad nauseam. The problem is that this loving attention to detail is often secondary to, if not irrelevant to, the plot.

For example, I’ve read enough about Medieval/Renaissance Florence and the Medici family that I could probably write a novel set in the period. In doing so, I could talk extensively about how many of the Medici suffered from gout. That opens the door for a delightful little field trip into Renaissance medical practices. The only problem here is that I can’t think of a single meaningful reason to do that, except as a brief aside for why one of the Medici might not appear in public on a given day. At which point, there isn’t a particularly compelling reason to go into it.

A similar argument applies to the construction techniques used on Brunelleschi's Dome at the Florence Cathedral. While it’s fascinating, there aren’t many good reasons to talk about it on the page. So, what’s the takeaway here? Just because you know it, it doesn’t mean the reader needs to know it.

Relevance Before All Other Masters

A caveat here. Your first draft is all about getting the story down on the page. If you need to fill an extra 50 pages with all those details about your magical system to get the story down, then do it. Your first draft isn’t for public consumption, so it can be as bloated, disorganized, and inelegant as finishing requires. Once you turn to revisions and editing, though, things change.

The question you must always ask yourself while revising and editing is this: Does this detail about magic matter to the reader?

Another way of asking the question is: Does this detail forward the story in a meaningful way?

The sad truth is that, more often than not, the answer will be that it doesn’t matter. You might very well find that 95% of the information you generated about your magical system won’t end up in the novel. That extensive history of magic can end up being one or two lines because it doesn’t forward the story you’re working on. The cost you put on magic, on the other hand, may take up pages and pages of consideration because it’s central to a character’s decision-making. That information matters to the reader and the plot.

So, Why Bother?

If all that information isn’t going to end up on the page, why bother with generating it in the first place?

First, we’re back to the law of narrative consistency. You must do all that legwork so that when you’re writing, you know what magic can do and how it happens. That keeps your descriptions consistent across the length of the novel. Consider how often writers change a central character’s name halfway through a novel’s first draft. They’ve probably written that name dozens of times and they still end up changing it. How hard is it to imagine that you’ll change how magic is done halfway through if you didn’t do all that legwork?

Second, it actually speeds things up in the long run. Knowing exactly how magic works in your book means you aren’t figuring it out on the fly every time your wizard/mage/sorceress/witch violates the natural order. It's more like a fill in the blank problem.

Magic user does (blank) and then the bad guy (blanks). Afterward, the magic suffers (blank) because the cost of magic is (blank).

It’s really the same logic that applies to building character profiles. You figure out all of those character details so you can apply consistent reactions across the novel. It makes your life easier in the first draft and the revisions. Let’s face it, writing novels is hard enough. Anything that makes the process easier is a boon.


Eric Dontigney is the author of the Samuel Branch urban fantasy series and the short story collection, Contingency Jones: The Complete Season One.  Raised in Western New York, he currently resides in Memphis, TN. You can find him haunting obscure sections of libraries, in Chinese restaurants or occasionally at ericdontigney.com.

Eric’s last appearance in our pages was “Memory Makes Liars of Us All,” in Stupefying Stories #13, his next will be “Lenses,” in Stupefying Stories #21, and later this year we’ll be releasing his paranormal mystery novel, The Midnight Ground. Watch for it! 


Thursday, May 10, 2018

Talking Shop

Op-ed • "Managing Magic in Your Novels, Part 1," By Eric Dontigney 


Magic is a staple of all fantasy literature. At first blush, this sounds like a recipe for anything goes. Magic is, by definition, outside the bounds of natural law. It’s irrational. That means that are no rules, right? It means exactly that, right up until you have a character use it. Once a character uses it, you become bound by the rule of narrative consistency.

Say you have a character cast a spell in the first chapter. They wave their hands significantly and utter some kind of nonsense word while casting that spell. For better or worse, you’re stuck with significant hand waving and nonsense words as key components of using magic. If not a rule for everyone in the book, it’s a rule for that character. If that character’s mode of casting spells changes every time without a very good in-universe explanation for why, it’ll shatter suspension of disbelief.

So, how do you, the stalwart writer of fantasy fiction, avoid that and other pesky pitfalls in your novels? The goal here is to lay out some general guidelines that should work across any version of fantasy you happen to write. So, let’s begin at the beginning.

How Does It Work?

Even if you plot by the seat of your pants, you need to know how magic works in your fictional universe from the outset. I’m not suggesting that you must figure out every possible permutation of every possible application of magic that could conceivably appear in your novel. What you do need is a solid foundational understanding of it. Here are a few starter questions that I believe must be answered from the get-go:

Is magical ability inherited, bestowed, or does it appear randomly?

Does using magic require any special equipment or training?

What, if any, cost is involved with using magic?

What are the limitations on magic?

Can the limits be transcended? If so, how, by whom, and under what conditions?

Is magic openly acknowledged or a functional secret?

So what makes these questions, as opposed to all the other potential questions, so critical? The answers to those questions will fundamentally shape what can and cannot happen on the page.

Take question 1. If magical ability is inherited, your magical characters will be born into family traditions and all the baggage that entails. If it’s bestowed, that has implications for the cosmology of your fictional universe. Someone must do that bestowing? Is it a god? A powerful nature spirit? An angel? If magical ability appears randomly, that sets up your character to be ostracized by friends or family. How do they cope? Who do they look to for guidance, and how do they find those guides?

So what about question 2? Why does that matter? If using magic requires special equipment, odds are good that it’s difficult to come by. Unless magic is an open practice in your universe, it’s not like your hero can swing by Ye Olde Magick Shoppe for some Eye of Psychedelic Tree Frog. Where do they get that equipment? What’s the price? How does the loss of equipment impair them? If it requires specialized training, who does the training and where do they do it? What’s the training regimen look like? You’ll get very different results depending on whether the training is more like Hogwarts or more like the Spartan agoge.

As to question 3, it’s almost a trope in fantasy that all magic comes at a price. Hence, you must figure out what that price looks like. Don’t be afraid to get creative here. It’s not a cost if it’s not something people value. It doesn’t even need to be an obvious cost. Maybe the price is memory. The more powerful the magic, the more memories or more important the memory you lose. How cautious would that make magic users? Yeah, maybe your character could bring down those castle walls, but it might cost them the memory of their child. Most of them would say no, unless it was literal life or death.

Question 4 is partially tied up with question 3. There can be psychological limits to magic, in that someone isn’t willing to pay the price to get something done. That said, you also need to know what inherent limits there are on using magic in your universe. What things are not allowed or impossible? Maybe magic can only influence inanimate matter. So, you can’t just hurl a fireball at someone to kill them. You need to trap them inside a wooden structure and then set that structure on fire. These kinds of limits are a good way to avoid using magic as a deus ex machina for every problem.

As to question 5, if you are going to allow those inherent limits to be transcended, what are the conditions? Who can do it, and why can they do it? Did they cut a deal with something? Are they using some other kind of magic? If so, why does that magic allow them to transcend those limits?

The answer to question 6 will define what kind of problems your character can face. If magic is an open part of the world, it’s not really a big deal if your character is hunting a demon. They won’t have to lie to friends about it. They won’t need to explain why those bones look so weird or how they seemed to pull lightning out of the sky. One potential annoyance they’ll face is one faced by many doctors or lawyers, which is people trying to get free advice from them. Your wizard is just trying to have a quiet pint at the pub and Yarg wanders up with a hypothetical question about removing a curse “for a friend.”

In Part 2 of Managing Magic in Your Novels, we’ll take a look at some of the on-the-page problems you’ll face as you write and edit.


Eric Dontigney is the author of the Samuel Branch urban fantasy series and the short story collection, Contingency Jones: The Complete Season One.  Raised in Western New York, he currently resides in Memphis, TN. You can find him haunting obscure sections of libraries, in Chinese restaurants or occasionally at ericdontigney.com.

Eric’s last appearance in our pages was “Memory Makes Liars of Us All,” in Stupefying Stories #13, his next will be “Lenses,” in Stupefying Stories #21, and later this year we’ll be releasing his paranormal mystery novel, The Midnight Ground. Watch for it! 


Saturday, May 5, 2018

SHOWCASE: “How Lurlene Learned to Love Herself,” by R.W.W. Greene

Lurlene had almost thrown it out when she hauled Buddy’s things to the curb after their last big fight, and came closer yet when he called a year later to ask her to take him back and, by the way, bail him out of jail.

The SuperDupe-R™ had been on the market for barely three months two decades ago, before the world’s governments had raced in with their lobbyists and laws. Buddy had found one, still in the box, during a demolition job when times were good, and hauled it home. Lurlene might have been able to sell it to buy her mother some of the pricey pain pills that were the only thing that gave her any peace at the end, but fear kept her from putting it on Craigslist. Possession of forbidden tech was a felony, and although she’d cleaned up her act quite a bit since her bad old days, Lurlene couldn’t afford another one of those.

Now she stood over it and picked packing peanuts off the cheap, white plastic. It was a dead end, just like her. Lurlene's father had left when she was a baby, and, even though Lurlene had come home to take care of her, her mother had died cursing her failure to measure up. She’d wasted far too much time on Buddy, too, who had proved himself to be a first-class peckerwood. Enough was enough. Lurlene connected the SuperDupe-R to her kitchen tap and poured the sacks of pre-mixed nutrients into the dispenser. She ran the sterile cotton swab around the inside of her mouth, dropped the swab into the analyzer, and pushed the big red button.

A week later the “done” bell sounded. Lurlene opened the hatch gingerly, half expecting to see one of the abominations the preachers had warned about—two heads, maybe a tail and horns, heart pumping arrhythmically outside of its body. Instead, the little girl inside the machine was pink and perfect, biologically five-years-old, with a preloaded, state-approved education.

The girl blinked as her eyes tested the light for the first time. “Are you my mommy?” Her accent was American standard, just like the actors on the soaps Lurlene watched every day.

“I’m your mama,” Lurlene said. “And you’re my little girl.”

The girl’s head had been pumped full of oxytocin to enhance the likelihood of a solid bond. She beamed like sunlight. “What are you going to call me, Mama?”

“Delia. That was my grandma’s name. Delia Lambeaux.”

Little Delia held her arms out. “Pick me up.”

Lurlene wrapped the girl in a warm, dry towel, and they rocked in her mother’s chair until it was time to make lunch. She dressed Delia in hand-me-downs and made them each a fried-bologna sandwich.

“This is good, Mama!” Delia said.

“I made it just like my mama used to. She taught me everything I know about…” She frowned. “About everything, I guess.”

Delia took a nap after lunch, waking in time to watch the soaps. Lurlene explained who all the characters were, and who loved whom and who hated what. The next morning, she made liver mush and grits, and they walked hand in hand to the trailer-park swimming pool.

“I love it, Mama!” Delia splashed in the pool for hours, blow-up water wings forcing her into an awkward dog paddle.

“Who is she?” a neighbor said, her soft arms rippling like vanilla pudding as she fanned herself with a magazine.

“My cousin’s daughter,” Lurlene said. “Daddy’s side. You never met her. She’s from up north.”

The neighbor nodded sagely. “She favors your pa.”

Lurlene and Delia stopped for a Moon Pie and an RC Cola on the way home, took a nap together, and spent the afternoon watching the soaps.

The machine’s instructions had warned that Delia’s growth hormones would take a while to stabilize, so Lurlene took it in stride when the girl was ready for her tenth birthday party a week later. Lurlene made the cake herself, and they ate half of it while sitting on the trailer’s small porch watching insects fry on the zapper.

“Where’s my daddy?” Delia said.

Lurlene had avoided the word “clone” around the girl. “He died before you were born, baby girl.” She fought back tears so real she almost believed them. “He would have loved you so much.”

Delia’s bottom lip stuck out. “Why don’t we have any pictures?”

“Looking at them made me sad, so I burned them all up.” A character on their favorite soap had done something similar the day before, so the answer made sense, dramatically speaking.

“Did you love him?”

Lurlene pulled the girl into her arms and breathed in the clean smell of her hair. “Not as much as I love you.”

The next day they went to the pool to cool off. “Who is she?” said the soft-armed neighbor.

“Another cousin,” Lurlene said. “T’other one’s older sister.”

“Alike as two peas,” the neighbor said. The women around her nodded.

That weekend, Delia snuck out. Her body was fifteen, her features hinting at the good-looking woman she would grow into. Lurlene found her necking with a neighbor boy in a tree house. They had their hands up each other’s shirts and blinked wide-eyed and wild at the sudden illumination Lurlene cast into their secret space. The next night, Lurlene fired up her stun gun to rescue Delia from Woody Wilson, a middle-aged n’er-do-well who plied the girl with booze and cigarettes. Lurlene left Woody unconscious, his britches around his ankles, and took her daughter home to mend. She spent the night covering the girl’s forehead with cold washcloths and holding her hair back while she emptied her stomach in the trailer’s tiny bathroom.

“I love you, Mama,” Delia said, finally sober and pain-free enough to sleep.

Lurlene sat up all night to keep their nightmares away.

The next week, Delia ran away with an older boy. He had a car and rolled packs of cigarettes into his T-shirt sleeves. Delia was biologically seventeen years old and had “Wild Thing” tattooed on the back of her neck. They stole all the money Lurlene had in the trailer and left a cloud of dust in their wake. Lurlene was dry-eyed as she watched them drive away. She’d left home about the same age, about the same way. She cleaned the trailer from top to bottom, pushed the self-destruct button on the SuperDupe-R, and hauled the ashes to the curb. She watched the soaps alone and cried. The next day Delia sent an electronic postcard from Las Vegas.

She came back two weeks later, tall, skinny, twenty-something, and chain-smoking. Her halter top and cut-off shorts revealed several more visits to the tattoo parlor. “He left me,” she said. “Said I was getting too old for him.”

“They do that.” Lurlene’s mother had given her an earful when she had come back from running off, claimed she’d shamed the family and would never amount to a jar of spit. “You want something to eat?”

Delia turned and beckoned to the third-hand car parked on the roadway. The passenger door creaked open. “Come out meet your grandma!”

Tears stacked up in Lurlene’s eyes as she watched the little girl skip across the hard, red dirt. The girl stopped about halfway and put her finger in her ear.

“She’s come over shy,” Delia said. She patted her leg. “Get on over here!”

The little girl walked the rest of the way, giving Lurlene a good look at her. She was skinny, her hair needed a wash, and her elbows and knees were scabby and bruised.

“She likes to run,” Delia said. “Climbs and jumps on everything.”

“Come here and give me a hug.” Lurlene held her arms out. “I’m your grandma.”

The girl stopped just out of range. “You look like my mommy,” she said.

With little more than ten biological years separating them, Lurlene supposed she did. “Your mama was my little girl,” she said. “What’s your name?”

“Ashley.” The girl kicked at a rock. “I’m five.”

Lurlene pulled her eyes off the little girl and found Delia’s face. “She’s beautiful.”

Delia nodded. “Lucky she don’t take after her daddy.  Guess I don’t take after mine, neither.”

“You know ‘bout that.”

Delia scratched the faded needle scars inside her elbow. “Doctor says my growth hormones have settled. I'll age normal from here on out.” She nodded at the girl. “She grew quick at first, too.”

“I couldn’t have my own child, and—”

 “Don’t much matter how it happened.” Delia took a final drag of the cigarette and ground it out under her flip-flop. “Need you to watch her while I go to college upstate. She needs to go to school. Make friends.”

A normal life. “I can do that.”

Delia dropped to her knees in front of her daughter and pulled her into a rough hug. “You stay with your grandma.”

“How long?” the girl said.

Delia wiped at her eyes with the palms of her hands. “Until I get back. But I’ll come visit.” She stood up. “You mind your grandma, hear? Be a good girl.”

The girl nodded.

Lurlene bent to take her granddaughter’s hand and with the other she took Delia’s. “I love both of you,” she said. “I’m proud of you, too.”

“I love you, too, Mama,” Delia said. “I’m sorry I left the way I did.”

“It don’t matter. Just make it count for something. Don’t be like me.”

Lurlene and the little girl watched Delia drive away. This time there were no clouds of dust.

“You hungry?” Lurlene said.

The girl nodded.

“Let’s go inside and I’ll make you something. We can put the TV on. My soaps are about due.”

The little girl took her hand and followed her into the trailer. “Don’t you have any books?”

The soaps had never been much comfort anyway. Watching people whose lives looked better and brighter than hers. They seemed dimmer now. “There’s a library in town. Let’s eat, then you and me will go see.”

R.W.W. Greene is a New Hampshire writer with an MFA he exorcises vigorously in dive bars and damp coffee shops. His work has seen daylight in Near to the Knuckle, Jersey Devil Press, and Daily Science Fiction, among other places. Greene keeps bees, collects manual typewriters, and Tweets about things @rwwgreene. He maintains a website at rwwgreene.com

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

A little something for the weekend...

Public Service Announcement • “Avengers: Infinity War,” by Bruce Bethke •

This is not a movie review. It’s a warning. If you’re determined to see this movie without any preconceptions, stop reading right now—but don’t say you weren’t forewarned.