In honour of today being World Storytelling Day, I thought I would offer up something new. The idea behind Stories from the Dark has been on the list of things to do for almost a year now. I’m excited to put it out into the world, and to see how it changes and evolves with each instalment. I hope you like it spooky, because that’s what you’re gonna get…
Today is the second birthday of my first book, a collection of short stories titled This and That but Mostly the Other. The process of publishing This and That was me jumping into the unknown with both feet, something up to that point I wasn’t necessarily used to doing. It is a history of where I’ve come from as a writer, but more important than that, a sense of what the future would bring.
That future continues to unfold, and as far as author Shane goes, nothing looks the same as it did before I pressed the publish button for the first time. Starting a business, growing that business with a human being more like me than anyone I’ve ever met (yes, that should scare all of you, Wonder Twins power activate!). I suspect that very little will look the same in two years time, and I look forward to it.
Today is also my birthday. Let’s not worry about the number. It’s not important, is it? What’s important is that even though I’m so old and tired, I’m still moving forward, and as hard as it can be sometimes I’m still trying to do better. I have a lot of better to do, at least in my opinion. While I’ve been on this amazing writing journey, much of what’s going on in the background hasn’t been much fun. Jobs and relationships and pandemics. In this space as well, I suspect very little will look the same in two years time, and once again, I very much look forward to it.
As much as I wanted to, I don’t have a new book for you today. The release date of the current work in progress has been pushed to July because, well, 2020 happened. Hopefully I don’t need to explain. If you would like a little insight, check out my blog post from December, Keep Moving Forward. What I do have is a completed manuscript for Chasing the Storm, the third instalment of The Storm series. I won’t use the word final, because as much as I want to move on to other things, I can see that one day I might pick it back up. I’m proud of it, both for the quality of the story and how well it’s coming together. You may not believe it when you see the first page of edits, but I promise it’s true.
The opening scene is old, one cut from Surviving the Storm that went through a perspective change and was in need of some general tidying up. While it’s just entering the first round of edits, I’m happy with it. This is not a feeling I get very often, so one I’m grateful to be able to share. I can’t wait for you to see it!
The last two years have been a whirlwind. I want this year for me to be not so much about redefining myself, as finding a way to be myself that is sustainable. I want to be more responsible with my time and energy. To be more realistic with my goals and workload. The freight train is still rolling, but at a speed that means it will continue to do so for a long, long time.
So, happy birthday to This and That. Happy birthday to me. Here’s to a year filled with amazing opportunities. Now, bring on the cake, and the pie, and then some more cake.
I check my watch. She’s late. I was really hoping she wouldn’t be late.
Gaetan strides up beside me and flicks the butt of his cigarette into the dark. He blows smoke and watches me from the corner of his eye. “Relax. This will all be over soon.”
I chew on my lip and watch the crest of the hill. The cast iron park bench. The Victorian lamp post beside. A silhouette emerges from the shadows and Angelica stops under the bland electric light. Her coat is buttoned to her chin. Dark bangs cover her eyes. Her fiery red lips stand out like the ‘x’ on a treasure map.
My heartbeat hammers in my temples. “Okay. She’s here.”
“I see that.”
“Are you sure this is going to work?”
Gaetan frowns. “Of course. You need to trust me.”
“Right. Trust you.” My hand tightens around the handle of the cloth bag resting against my thigh. “Okay. Be right back.”
Gaetan steps away. “Remember to breathe.”
The click of my heels echo around me as I climb the path. Angelica is still as I approach, showing no recognition, until I stop next to her.
“Hello, Angelica. Thank you for meeting me.”
“It is confusing. Being told that we should not see each other. Then you ask me to meet you here, of all places.”
“I’m sorry, it’s just… I have something for you.” Her eyes follow as I hold the bag out. I swallow against the lump in my throat. “A gift. To say thank you.”
Her shoulders relax and she faces the darkness. One hand rises and pulls the top two buttons of her coat open. The lace fringe of her bra matches her lips. “You know how I prefer to be thanked, and how I show my gratitude in return.”
My intention to maintain eye contact fails. “I can’t. We can’t. You know that.” I stretch my arm. “Please.”
Angelica sighs and takes the bag. With the handles spread wide, she peers in, then for the first time to me. “What is this?”
“It’s, well, it’s a doll.”
She reaches in for the doll and lets the bag fall. When she squeezes the body, it crinkles. “It is made from?”
“Dried grass. I think.”
Angelica scowls. “Thomas, what have you—”
Her breath catches. What little colour her skin held evaporates. The whites of her eyes show, and she folds to the ground.
“Angelica?” I rush forward and take her free hand. The doll is clutched tight in the other. “Angelica, are you okay?” Her skin is cold, lips twisted in a permanent sneer.
I scramble away and run down the hill. Gaetan steps onto the path to join me. “So?”
“Gaetan, I think she’s dead. What did you do?”
“You asked me to take care of your situation. So, I did.”
I lace my hands over my head. “That… that wasn’t supposed to happen.”
“Perhaps next time you should clarify your expectations.” He leans out and looks along the path. “Besides, she is not dead. Only, incapacitated.”
“Next time? Wait… she’s okay?”
Gaetan puts his hands in his pockets. “We can discuss details another time, since you now find them of interest.” He walks the path toward the hill. “In the meantime, it would be best if we collect your girlfriend and leave.”
Image courtesy of the AM/FM 2020 Xmas Dumpster Fire Channel. I’m not kidding, check it out.
Hello, friends. Isn’t the world a strange and terrifying place? For me, it really has turned out to be a rough few weeks in what’s been a difficult couple of years dealing with this stupid pandemic.
What’s that? It’s only been nine months?
Anyway. In March I included a picture on a blog post that reads, “I wanted zombies, this virus sucks”. As we enter another round of lockdowns, I find myself wondering if the zombies might have been the better choice. Every day a new bucket of sewage is dumped onto the burning pile that is 2020. The smell gets worse and it’s harder to see through the smoke. It’s like someone cancelled all the good news. What I’ve been left with is that life is hard, and everything sucks.
This may be true, but we have to keep moving forward.
As one half of Pencil on Paper, I spent most of November preparing for our first in-person market. Not only was it a distraction from the garbage fire this year has turned out to be, it represented a great opportunity to launch our business into the world. A lot of time and energy was put into building a display and getting product ready.
Little of it was easy but seeing it all come together gave me something I hadn’t felt in a while. Joy in a creative endeavour. Pride. It was going to be amazing. Three days before the market, in response to growing COVID infection numbers in Alberta, new restrictions on gatherings were put in place. Because the organizers weren’t able to pivot in time, the event was cancelled. Disappointing doesn’t begin to describe the situation.
But we decided to keep moving.
All of our focus was put into finishing the updated pencilonpaper.ca and turning the new online store live. More time, more energy, more stress. Let me tell you, though, I had a big, stupid grin on my face processing that first order. We did a thing! We did an amazing thing!
Having something positive to focus on in these times is important because the pressure that the world puts on us and the fear of what darkness hides around the corner doesn’t seem to go away. The stress for some has become overwhelming. I’ve never seen my friends, family, and community struggle as much as they have over the last few months. Everyone I know is tired. I feel it too. Just when you think you’ve hit bottom, that you’re as broken as you can be, you find another level to fall. That brings us nicely to what happened this past Tuesday.
Another round of even harsher restrictions has been announced. For the next four weeks, no social gatherings are allowed, inside or outside. Businesses are forced to run with little or no capacity, at least those that weren’t told to close, or have no way of staying open under the current rules. People will be even more isolated. People will lose their incomes in what should be one of the happiest times of the year. We’re already in a place where people are fighting back. Enemies have been created where none exist. Opinions and privilege have become more important than facts. If facts even exist anymore, it’s become increasingly difficult to tell. Life at the moment is confusing and scary.
But it’s how we face it that matters. Now more than ever, it’s important we keep moving forward.
How we do that is with kindness, for ourselves, and for others. We have to reach out for help as much as we can and be there to help as much as we have the energy for. We need to keep in touch more (this I’m not so good at, so here’s a reminder to myself to do better). It’s especially important that we support creators and small businesses. That means buying a painting or book direct from the person who made it, streaming a live concert until we can gather for one in person, and stopping in at the store up the street run by one of your neighbours instead of the nationwide big box that won’t go anywhere, no matter how bad this pandemic gets. If anything good has come from this mess, it’s the focus on buying local. I hope that doesn’t change.
Yes, we will get through this. No, it won’t be easy. I like to think it won’t be quite as hard if we remember what being part of a community really means. And hey, at least it’s not really zombies. Not yet, anyway…
“Close your eyes. Pretend I’m not here.”
The woman shifted her position and lifted her head to flip the pillow to the cool side. Her focus on the white ceiling panels faded as her eyes shut. She folded her hands over her torso and settled. “I can hear you breathing.”
The man cleared his throat. His moist lips smacked when he opened his mouth.
“That’s not helping.” The woman cracked one eye. She wondered why it was so popular, this place, and its promises of miracle cures.
“Let’s begin with a count down from ten. Ten, nine, eight. Breath in from your diaphragm. Five, four, three. Good…” His voice flowed like cold oil. “Now, imagine a calm ocean. The sun is warm and inviting. No wind, no sound but the gentle undulation of the waves.” The man slunk forward in his seat. “Can you see it?”
Under closed lids, the woman rolled her eyes. “I see it.”
The man smiled. “Good.” He laid a metal pen along the spine of his notebook and set it on the arm of his chair. “Now, the sun begins to dim. It’s place in the sky is taken by a great blue orb. It radiates calm. It invites you to peace.”
The woman held her tongue.
“You are alone, but content. Feel your body relax. No sensation. No fear. Only the loving glow of the orb.” The man paused, watching the woman’s breath ease, as his own heartbeat increased. “It reflects off of the water. It is the only object in a great void.” He leaned forward on one knee. “The world is fading, but it’s okay. You are safe. You have no responsibilities, no cares.”
The man shifted forward and perched on the edge of his chair. As he scanned the woman, head to toe, the movement of a clock across the room was the only thing to interrupt the silence. The tone of his voice deepened, his paced slowed. “Embrace this new world. Leave the old behind. Can you do that?”
The woman did not respond.
The man swallowed with a click. “Good.” One hand reached out. A tremor emerged as the tips of his fingers grazed the soft fabric of the woman’s blouse, starting near her belt, and moving up.
The woman’s eyes sprang open and locked onto the man. They changed from soft and green to muddied and swirling like a storm cloud. The man froze.
She spoke in a whisper. “Change of plans, you don’t get your jollies today. Hand back.”
The man sat up straight and rested his hand on his knee.
The woman rose up without averting her attention. She ran a hand over her head and pulled her amber hair to one side. “I’m surprised you were brave enough on day one. Maybe brave isn’t the right word. If you’re this careless, I figured someone would have spoken up before they did. Lucky me…” The woman crossed her legs and smoothed one hand over her knee. “I’m going to give you a little control back. Pick up your book. I want you to write something out for me.”
The man sat, unmoving, his eyes wide.
The woman motioned to the arm of the chair. “Go on.”
The man’s hand shook as he lifted the pen and set the tip down on a blank page. His lower lip pushed away from his bottom teeth. Small dark eyes, below the slicked back widows peak and unkempt eyebrows, watched everywhere but the woman’s face.
“I want dates and names. As much detail as you can remember.” She tilted her head. “I’d say you could check the little leather diary you keep in the hidden compartment at the back of your bottom desk drawer, but I’m sure you’ve read back over it enough to remember what I need.”
After a moment of hesitation, the pen scratched in fits and starts. One page filled, then two. As he started the third, the pace faltered. His eye twitched.
The woman smiled. “You just figured out who told me, didn’t you? She probably made a slight movement, or blinked, but you’re so sure of yourself, even as you’ve become so careless. It’s good. Remember her face. Remember who set this in motion.”
The man’s jaw clenched. His body seized as he fought for control.
The woman drew in a deep breath and refocused her attention.
A small noise escaped the man’s pursed lips. The scratching of the pen started once again, slow at first, but soon became frantic. With four pages filled, the man licked at his lips with the tip of his tongue and set the notepad down beside him.
“Good.” The woman snuck a glance to the large horizontal window along the far wall, and the empty air past it. “You know, it’s such a nice day.” She turned her turbulent eyes back to the man. “Wouldn’t it be nice to get some fresh air?”
The man turned his head. He stood and took slow, uneven steps toward the clear pane of glass. A few paces away, he stopped and stared, before looking back to the woman.
She stretched her arms out along the back of the couch and leaned into it. “You’re smart. Figure it out.”
The man’s eyes homed in on the oversized executive desk in the middle of the room, and the marble carving of an ancient fertility god perched on one corner. He shuffled next to the statue, hefted it in one hand, then spun and threw it at the window. As the glass cascaded down, the man was already running. With his arms raised over his head, he dove through the bare frame. He made no sound, until the dull thud of his body impacted on the concrete walk below. In the distance, someone screamed.
The woman stood and her eyes cleared. She mussed her hair and undid the top two buttons of her blouse. With a deep breath in, she wrenched her lips and cried out. “Oh my God, someone please help!”
Through the wisps of smoke from the fire, the first sliver of the full moon rises above the hills. She illuminates the clouds breaking overhead until they disappear altogether and stands alone in the autumn sky. I wish her tidings for All Hallows Eve, speak of the time since I’ve seen her last, and how a handful of weeks can feel like a lifetime.
With one hand tracing the intricate lace pattern of my dress, I remind her of my once pending wedding ceremony. How Aldus and I would have set out for the south the next day to start our new life. I tell her how those days were filled with tears of sorrow instead of joy. My voice is low as I speak of Aldus, his final trip through the valley with a bounty from the markets strapped to his small boat, the storm, and how the black water chose to embrace him.
I compose myself and focus off into the night, a night where the veil between worlds may be as thin as the one that should have covered my face. I search for more to say, but the words do not come. I turn back to the fire. My fingers graze the folded paper on my lap. I clear my throat, make a silent request, then lean forward.
The letter drifts away from my hand and settles on the glowing coals. The corners of the paper curl and blacken. Soon it flares and shrivels, casting light into the eerie calm. As the light fades, my eyes adjust once again to the darkness. A slumped shadow stands across the fire. Long hair stuck to their face. A tattered overcoat, once crisp and new, now dark and heavy with the scent of stale water and earth.
I do not look away as a piece of ashen paper floats away on the breeze. A smile fights for space as sadness flows from my eyes. “Hello, my love.”