Short Story: Of Parks and Plots

This short story is a sequel to “New Tricks” and “Of Cookies and Comprehension“.  Enjoy!

golden retriever

“AND WHAT,” the dog said, “exactly, is the purpose of this…thing you’re doing?”

“Swinging,” the little girl answered.  “It’s fun.”

The dog’s head bobbed back and forth in time with the bright yellow kiddie swing.  “I don’t think that you and I have the same definition of fun.”

“That’s silly,” the girl said.  “What’s not to like?  First you go this way—“ as she swung forward “—and then you go THIS way!”  She let out a giggle, and shifted in her seat.

“Marley!”  the girl’s mother shouted from her bench.  She started to get up, then settled back down.  “You stay still!  You’ll fall out!”

“She’s so protective,” Marley confided to the dog.  “It’s cute.  I let her get by with it because I like her so much.”

“I don’t think we have the same definition of cute, either.  She thinks she’s cute when she calls me the wrong name.”  The dog shook his head and huffed in embarrassment.

“What’s wrong with ‘Goldie’? Your fur is gold.”

“That’s because I’m a golden retriever,” the dog said, annoyed.  “I didn’t pick it.  And my name is Buster, not Goldie.  I didn’t pick that either,” he added as an afterthought.  “But I like it.”

“So why don’t you just tell her?” Marley said.

Buster gave it a nanosecond of thought.  “Marley, I know you’re only two, but you’re old enough to understand that grownups think dogs can’t talk.  Every time your mother hears me, she ends up on the floor with a bump on her head.  YOU tell her.”

“I tried.  A bunch of times!  She doesn’t understand me.  It’s like daycare.”  She dropped her legs straight, making the swing slow down, and gave Buster an intense look.  “Every day she picks me up from daycare, and she asks me what I learned, and I tell her.  But when I say “Cack… cackl… uh… cack’lus—“

“Calculus?” the dog supplied.

“Right!  Cack’lus.”  She nodded.  “If I tell her that, she just laughs like a moron.  Like she doesn’t take me seriously at all!”  She grew thoughtful.  “But if I sing the Farmer in the Dell, she understands that!  Maybe,” she added, “I should sing to her about cack’lus.”

“That would be fun to watch.”

She frowned at him, her nose wrinkling.  “Yeah, we have different ideas about fun.  Anyway, if she can’t understand something as simple as cack’lus, how will I ever tell her about your name?  That’s IMPORTANT stuff, you know.”

The dog dipped his head in a doggy bow.  “Your logic is unassailable, my friend.”

Abruptly, Marley grabbed the chains of the swing in both hands, making it glide more or less to a halt.  “Well, look at that.  SHE’S nose deep in a book.  Guess I’ll get myself down.”  Expertly, she undid the safety belt and worked her feet out of the holes in the plastic swing, then stood up.

Buster looked up in consternation.  “Ah, Marley, I don’t think you should—“

“—CATCH!”  She leaped from the swing, sending it bucking, and landed on the dog, sending them both sprawling in a heap.  Several other children in the vicinity looked around in alarm.

“Now THAT,” she said, picking herself up and dusting herself off, “was FUN!”  Buster bared his teeth in irritation, and let out a sigh.

Marley checked to see that her mother hadn’t noticed, then made her way to the sandbox on the other side of the swingset.  Buster followed, but sat down primly at the edge of the sandbox.  She paused and looked back at him.  “Aren’t you coming in?”

“I’ll pass,” he said.  “I’m not big on sand.  It gets down in my fur and won’t come out.”

“Suit yourself,” she said, “more for me.”  Sitting down, she grabbed a handful of sand.

“More for…what?”  Marley studied the sand for a moment, then abruptly licked it.  “Oh.”

“Blech,” she said, spitting it out.  “This is a bad vintage.  I liked the 2015 better.  I’ll have to have a word with the maintenance guys.  Except THEY probably won’t understand me either.”

“I saw a cat using that as a litter box a while ago,” Buster observed.  “I suppose it’s a little late now, but I thought you should know anyway.”

“Well, that explains it!  Silly cat.”  She stood up again.  “But I’m still hungry.  Hey…mom has some treats in her purse!  Maybe we can get those.”  She scratched her chin thoughtfully, looking for all the world like a pint-sized supervillain.  “Now, how to get them…”

“You know, you COULD just ask her for them.  I’m sure she’d give them to you.”

She arched an eyebrow at him.  “Don’t be silly!  OF course we need a plan.  Work with me here!”

“You’re the boss.”  He gave her a doggy shrug.

“We need…” She glanced around.  “We need…a distraction!  That’s it!”  She patted Buster on the head.  “How do you feel about biting someone?”

“What?!”

“Not too hard!  Just, you know, enough to make them cry.  It would be perfect!”

“Marley, if I did that, they would send me back to the pound.  Is that what you want?”  He drew himself up.  “And besides, I am a lover, not a biter.”

“Fine,” she grumbled.  “Well, maybe…okay, I got it!  Go over to my mom, and get the edge of her shirt, and start pulling on it.  She’ll wonder what you want, and then she’ll get up and follow you, and I’ll snatch the treats.  Then you let go, and run around the back way, and meet me over by that tree—“ she pointed “—and we’ll see what we have.  Does that sound good?”

He pondered for a moment.  “Just one question.”

“What?”

“What’s in it for me?”

She put her hands on her hips and gave him an impatient look.  “She keeps dog treats too.”

“Sold!”  Buster jumped up and trotted off to the bench.  Marley watched as he grabbed the tail of her mother’s shirt and started tugging.  He was very good—he made sure not to rip the material, and he never growled.  She tried to push him away, and when that didn’t work, at last she stood up.  She gave Marley a look—frowned, glanced at the empty swing, then back at the toddler—and then gave in and followed the dog in the other direction.

Marley leapt to her feet and scampered over to the bench, where her mother’s purse sat open.  She pawed through the top and pulled out two plastic pouches—one of gummy fruit snacks, one of bacon dog treats.  “Jackpot!”  Clutching the pouches, she ran back past the sandbox to the shade of the big oak tree, and sat down, hiding the pouches between her legs.

“Dumb dog!” Marley’s mom made her way back to the bench, brushing dust from her clothes, as Buster came running back to Marley.  “Honestly, that dog is so weird sometimes.  I don’t know what he’s thinking.”  She gave Marley a glance, then sat down and picked up her book.

“Mission accomplished!” Marley said as Buster lay down on the grass beside her.  With two-year-old skill, she tore the packets open and tossed a bacon strip to the dog, then turned her attention to the fruit snacks.  “Kinda makes up for those cookies we never got.  Don’t you think so?”

The dog swallowed the treat.  “Something about ‘ill-gotten gains’ comes to mind,” he said, and looked longingly at the bag.  “But right now, I’m okay with that.”

“Yeah,” she said between bites.  “They do taste pretty good.  But you know, this was a lot of work.  Maybe next time we should just ask.”

The dog gave her a look, then shook his head and snorted.  “I have a funny feeling I’ve heard something like that before.”

“See?! I knew you’d understand!”

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Short Story: Of Cookies and Comprehension

I’ve written a number of stories for specific people before, including my children and some friends.  It’s not often, though, that someone has asked to be the target inspiration for one of my stories; and so, when presented with a request recently, I had to give it a shot.  The child in this story is based on a friend’s child, who just so happens to love cookies, and coincidentally happens to believe she knows everything (don’t they all?).  She was a prime model for the main character here; and yet that wasn’t the full puzzle.  After some thought, I decided that one of my favorite short story creations–Buster, the talking dog from my earlier story, “New Tricks“–had another story to tell.  This story, “Of Cookies and Comprehension”, is the result, and I hope you’ll have as much fun reading it as I did writing it.

All stories posted in this capacity may also be found under the “Stories” heading in the menu. Thanks for reading!

retrievers

She broke her concentration long enough to go to the front door.  She may have only been one year old, but she could multitask.

The door wasn’t quite latched, so she worked her fingers around the edge and hauled it open.  The screen door was firmly closed, but the glass was up, and she looked through the bare screen at the golden retriever sitting on the stoop.  It was he that had made the scratching that attracted her.  “Hi,” she said.

“Hi,” the dog said.  “I was walking by, and I smelled bacon…would you care to part with any?  I’m quite hungry…”

“No,” she said.  The oddity of a talking dog didn’t register with her; she was, after all, only one.

“Oh, well then, I suppose I’ll be on my way.  Good day—“

“You can’t have any,” she said, “because we ate it all already.  My mom only made enough for the two of us.”  She paused.  “It was very good.”

“Splendid,” the dog said, “It’s a crime when bacon is no good.  Say, I suppose—“

“But you can have a cookie,” she interrupted.

“Cookies are my next favorite food,” the dog said, smooth as butter, “after bacon of course.”

“You have to help me get the cookies, though,” the girl said.  “My mom is in the shower.”

“Certainly!  Ah, now, if you could just let me in…see, I haven’t any thumbs…”

“No,” the girl said.  “Mom says I’m not supposed to let strangers in the house.”

“Oh, really?” the dog said.  “My name is Buster.  What’s yours?”

“Marley,” she said.

“See?  There.  We’re not strangers anymore!”  That seemed like very sound logic to Marley, and so she obliged the dog by reaching up and flipping the tiny lock switch behind the door handle, and then opened the door.  Buster gave her a nod and a toothy, tongue-filled, doggy grin, and then nosed the door open far enough to slip inside.  He was small for a retriever, but tall enough to lick the little girl’s nose, which he did, and very appreciatively.  She frowned and wrinkled it, then smiled and toddled past the dog, toward the kitchen.

“This way,” Marley said, and the dog padded after her.  “The cookies are on the top shelf.”

“Doesn’t it bother you,” Buster said, “that you’re holding a conversation with a dog?”

“No.  Why?”  She tugged on a kitchen chair, inching it across the floor.

“Oh, no reason.”  Buster nosed the chair from behind, moving it a little faster, and together they edged it toward the cabinets. “Just that my last master thought it was odd.  He got rather worked up about it, actually.”

“But did he listen to you?”  Marley paused and looked at Buster before turning back to the chair.

“Ohh, that he did,” Buster said.  “It didn’t go so well.”

“My mom listens to me, kind of.”  Marley climbed up on the seat of the chair, then looked back.  “But I think she needs her ears checked.  She doesn’t seem to understand what I’m saying.”

“You don’t say,” Buster said.

“Right?  It’s like she only hears babbling.  It’s so annoying.  I have so many cool things to say!  After all, I know everything.  But she doesn’t get it at all.”  She looked down at him.  “One night, I even woke her up to give her my insights into string theory—she keeps the ink pens, you know, so I needed her to write them down—and she just kept shaking her head and saying “no pattycake, no pattycake.”  Sometimes I think her mind may be going soft.”

“So what did you do?”

“What COULD I do?  I played pattycake with her until she fell asleep again.  She seemed to like it.”

“Of course,” the dog said, and put his paws up on the seat to steady it.

“Thanks,” Marley said, and turned back to the cabinet.

“Don’t mention it,” he said.  “So, what is your mother’s name?  I’ll have to introduce myself, I suppose.”

“Mom,” she said.

“Oh…well…yes, but…well, does she have another name?”

She stopped reaching for the door, and gave him a look.  “Mama?”

“Oh, but she should have another…”

“You’re not making any sense,” she said, “why would she need another name?”

“Of course,” the dog said, “just how old did you say you are?”

“I didn’t,” she said, and turned back to the cabinet.  She had the door open in a flash.  “Bazinga!  Cookies, incoming!”  The package sat on the top shelf, one corner stretching tantalizingly over the edge.  “Just…gotta…reach…”

“MARLEY!”  The girl flinched, and so did the dog, who somehow managed to look guilty even while panting. The package of cookies tipped and fell to the countertop, then bounced to the floor.  Buster gave them a longing look, but didn’t move.  The woman in the doorway glared at both of them.  “Just WHAT do you think you’re doing?!”

“We’re busted,” Buster whispered.

“I know!” Marley whispered back.  “What do we do?”

“Don’t look at me,” he whispered, “I’m a dog.”

“I guess I’ll have to talk her out of getting us in trouble,” Marley whispered.  “I’ll give her my most logical and reasoned arguments.  She’ll never be able to resist my rhetorical skills.  Watch!”  She looked up at her mother, who was standing over her now, hands on hips, waiting.

“Well,” the woman said, “what do you have to say for yourself?”

Marley glanced back at Buster one last time for courage.  She turned back to her mother, and gathered her wits about her.  Then she raised a hand, and stretched out a finger, and opened her mouth; and in her best and most authoritative voice, she said…

“Cookie, mama?”

The woman laughed, and bent down to hug the girl.  “You know, if you weren’t so darned cute…”  Then she straightened up, and looked down at the dog, and frowned.  “But where did the dog come from?  And how did he get in?”

Buster dipped his head in a doggy shrug.  “What can I say?  I borrowed your daughter’s thumbs.  She’s very helpful, by the way.”

Marley watched as her mother’s eyes rolled back in her head, and she slipped to the floor in a dead faint.  “See?” she said.  “I TOLD you she doesn’t understand me!”

Short Story: Storytime Is Hell

Lately I seem to be lacking in topical posts.  That’s bad for me; but it’s good for you, readers, as you get more stories this way.  (I hope that’s a good thing, at any rate!)

The story that follows, “Storytime Is Hell”, is another prompt-inspired story, prompted by the good folks over at Reddit’s Writing Prompts community.  The prompt reads “You are reading the grittiest, manliest, most testosterone-filled bedtime story to your daughter. She’s adding in bits.”  I also feel like I should give an acknowledgement to Matthew Reilly’s “Jack West Jr.” trilogy of novels here; the names “Wolf” and “Huntsman”, while fitting perfectly in this story (for reasons that will be obvious) are also the callsigns of his characters, Jack West Jr. and his father and rival, Jack West Sr.  The books are some of my favorites, so credit is definitely due.

And now, an audience participation moment:  Rename this story!  I hate titling stories.  If a title doesn’t present itself during the writing, I find it very hard to come up with one that satisfies me.  So, I’m taking suggestions to rename this one!  If you have an idea that you think is perfect, post it in the comments.  For the winner, I’ll rename the story.  (Not much of a prize, but hey, it works, right?)  Thanks!

All stories posted in this capacity may also be found under the “Stories” heading in the menu. Thanks for reading!

source unknown

source unknown

“Read this one!” Casey squealed, and pressed the book into my hands. It wasn’t thin, and I tried to switch it for another one, but she pushed my hands back with all her five-year-old strength. “No, Daddy! I said THIS one!” Well, alright. I opened it and leafed through; at least the stories in it were short. I flipped to a random one and sat back on the bed; looking cute as ever, Casey sat back against her pillow, pulled the blanket up over her knees, and folded her hands on them in prim anticipation. Her eyes glowed as she waited for the story to begin.

“Alright,” I said. “Once upon a time, there was a minor Central American country. In this country lay a small jungle, and in that jungle lay a tiny, reinforced compound. In that compound lived an old matriarch, and her granddaughter, Red.”

I paused. “Wait, just what kind of book is this, anyway, Casey?” I flipped it over and read the title. “Roundhouse Kick The Wicked Witch: Manly Fairy Tales For Manly Men. Well, that explains it!” I looked up. “Casey, where did you get this book?”

“Kindergarten!”

“Uh…”

“READ!” she shouted.

“Alright, alright, if you insist.” I flipped it back over. “But you might not like it!”

She giggled. I rolled my eyes, and started again. “Now, unknown to Grandma and Red, their simple life was about to change. For on that very day, their little compound, and their minor country, was about to be invaded by another country’s general. They called him…The Wolf.”

“How big was his army?”

Now the Wolf—I, uh, excuse me?” I looked up. She was still sitting with her fingers laced on her knees, but her eyes were wide, waiting for an answer.

“I said, how big was the Wolf’s army?”

“I, uh…well, it doesn’t really…Casey, it’s a bedtime story, I don’t think—“

“Well, that’s no good. For a minor Central American country, I think you need at least fifty thousand ground troops, plus twenty air support units. And sufficient naval forces to secure the shoreline.” She frowned. “What?”

I opened my mouth a few times before any words would come out. “Did you just—“

She sighed. “Come on, Daddy, I want to hear the rest!”

Yeah, sure. Never mind all that. I resumed. “Now the Wolf came rolling into the country on a wave of blood and bullets…oh my…and no one could stop him. He rolled up to the gate of the little compound, and got out his loudspeaker, and announced to everyone, ‘GRANDMA AND RED! LET ME IN!’ And the compound’s guards shouted ‘NOT BY THE HAIR ON OUR CHINNY CHIN CHINS!’…Hey, I think there’s some plagiarism going on here, not to mention some story confusion…”

“Da-DDY!”

Alright! So the Wolf huffed, and he puffed, and he…oh, come on…and he fired a rocket-propelled grenade into the gates, and the guards scattered everywhere!”

“Hmpf.”

I arched an eyebrow at her. “Hmpf?”

“Shoulda reinforced the gate.”

“Where did you even learn that word?”

“Just saying. Then it would have taken more than an RPG.” She gave me a triumphant look.

“Right…” I cleared my throat. “So the Wolf and his men took charge of the compound, and Grandma and Red found themselves locked in the cellar. But, unknown to the Wolf, the CIA had many connections in this minor country, and they knew they would need to protect their interests. By nightfall, they had their best operative on a plane, and by midnight he was parachuting into the jungle. His codename: The Huntsman.”

“One man?” Casey shouted. “THAT’s the best they can do? One man? How about a slash-and-burn team to clear the area, followed by a four-man squad of Navy SEALS—“

I cut her off with a look. “Are you going to let me read this?” She subsided, but her eyes were still flashing. “Thank you. So the Huntsman parachuted in under cover of darkness, and landed in the jungle. Quickly he made his way to the perimeter, and one by one he subdued the guards, using his knife and his hand-to-hand combat skills. He hid the bodies as he created them, and made his way to the fence. Once there, he used his knife to scrape a dugout beneath the fence, and crawled under.”

“Uh, motion detectors? Ever heard of those? Or vibration sensors on the fence?”

“Casey—“

“Well, it’s like they’re not even TRYING!” she exploded, then subsided, with her arms crossed.

“We’re almost done, if you’ll let me go on.” She nodded glumly. “Alright. Now where was I…oh yeah. The Huntsman made his way to the main house, intending to rescue the hostages before confronting the Wolf. He had no way to know that the hostages were rescuing themselves.” I turned the page. “Grandma knew about the years Red had spent in the local juvenile detention center, but she didn’t know about the recruiter for the CIA that had met her there. She didn’t know about Red’s secret training, or her mission to further America’s interests in the country; and of course she didn’t know about the hidden knife that Red was using right now to cut herself free of her bonds. So, when Red sprang to her feet, she only had time to duck as Red threw the knife over Grandma’s shoulder and took out the one guard on the door. Right between the eyes.”

“Doesn’t matter,” Casey muttered, “he won’t have the keys anyway.”

“Well, I know that, but how did you…?”

“I’m getting sleepy,” she said with a yawn, “can we hurry?”

“Right. So Red cut Grandma free, then began to pick the lock whle Grandma pressed her ear to the door. But the next sound she heard made them stop—for they knew it was the sound of bodies hitting the floor upstairs. The Huntsman had come!” I looked at her; she tapped her fingers on her arm, impatiently waiting. “When the Huntsman popped the lock with a bit of C4, Red burst out and nearly put her knife in him. Only his quick training and martial reflexes saved him, as he caught her arm and disarmed her, and flipped her onto the floor!”

“BOOOO-ring!” Casey announced. “No CIA-trained sleeper operative would have charged through the door without looking!”

I ignored that. “’Well done,’ a voice said behind them. It was the Wolf! He had come down from the second floor during the fight, and now he stood at the foot of the stairs, watching the three of them. ‘I didn’t expect you to escape, but here you are. Grandma, the woman who used to be in charge here. Red, the little girl with the big secret. And you…the Huntsman. My old enemy.’”

“’So you remember,’ the Huntsman said. ‘I thought you would forget.’”

“’I could never forget the man…who murdered my father!’ he shouted. ‘And now, that debt will be repaid! Die, Huntsman!’ And he drew his gun and fired!”

“Oh come on!” She was waving her arms in five-year-old fury. “Body armor, people! He’s wearing body armor!”

“Well, as it turns out,” I said, “you are wrong. Listen. ‘Suddenly, out of nowhere, Grandma leaped in front of the bullet! And as she lay dying a bloody and dramatic death, Red and the Huntsman leaned over her and heard her final words. ‘Huntsman,’ she wheezed, ‘I want you to take my granddaughter far away from here, to someplace safe, where she can have a life.’”

“’I will,’ the Huntsman promised.”

“’And marry her,’ the old woman gasped.”

“’Grandma, I’m eleven!’ Red exclaimed.”

“’Don’t disobey your grandmother, now,’ she said, and then she died. Red and the Huntsman looked at each other.”

“’We’ll talk about this later,’ he said. She nodded. Then he stood up. ‘Wolf,’ he declared, ‘I’ve come to end your suffering once and for all.’”

“’Are you going to give me back my father?’”

“’No,’ the Huntsman said, ‘but I will send you to join him!’”

“What followed was a battle too epic for words. It raged over the compound for a night and a day; and in the end, the Huntsman was victorious. He stood over his fallen foe, watching as the final moments came. ‘You can’t think this is over, Huntsman,’ the Wolf growled. ‘I may die, but someone will avenge me! You’ll never be safe again!”

“The Huntsman pointed his gun at the Wolf. ‘Wrong,’ he said. ‘I’ll tell you how this ends.’ He tightened his finger on the trigger. ‘And they lived happily ever after.’ The gunshot was the last sound the Wolf heard.” I lowered the book. “The End.”

“WHAT?” Casey exploded. “That’s IT?? What about the resulting power vacuum and the reestablishment of government? What about the inevitable puppet state? What about the rest of the military? What about the Huntsman and Red? I need to know–!”

“Goodnight, Casey,” I said, and turned off the light and left the room.

I took the book with me. Strange as it was, I didn’t want to leave it with her. In my own bedroom, I took a last look at the cover, and then tossed the book on the nightstand. “That’s what you get,” I said to myself as I turned out the light, “when a military school opens up a preschool.”

Past and Future Tense

In my spare time, I made the decision to try my hand at single fatherhood. Everyone needs a hobby in the evenings, right? The experiment has gone well; thus far no one in my household has killed anyone else, and most days my kids wear clothing that matches (by which I mean that each child’s clothing matches, not that they match each other. I believe that their collective humiliation would collapse the galaxy in on itself if they matched each other). The only casualties in this family-sized POW camp were last year’s goldfish, who sadly did not make it. We suck at raising pets.

In the wake of the divorce that established this situation, however, I found that I had some baggage to deal with. I dealt with it by letting the physical baggage pile up. When it reached the point that navigating the house required a map, a compass, and climbing gear, I had to take action! That is what has occupied the last several days.

I thought I would start small and simple, by sorting out the kiddie clothes and eliminating the outgrown items (and the damages—my kids can destroy a pair of jeans with the skill of an artisan). It took approximately 45 seconds to discover that the word “small” has fled the premises. The final count stands at nineteen (19!!!) garbage bags of clothes, fifteen of which are going away—Goodwill or garbage, I don’t care, it’s leaving. I found items dating back to 2009, which is approximately eternity in kiddie years.

If I may set the jokes aside for a moment: That’s where things got hard. In 2009 my little girl was three years old, and my son was still in diapers. In 2009, my ex-wife was still my wife, and we were raising these children together. In 2009, things were falling apart—but there were still good moments. In 2009 we lost our home and moved in with family, three hundred miles away. That year, and the ones since, held some of the worst memories of my life, but also some of the best.

Finding those old clothes—the pajamas Emma wore when I first started reading bedtime stories to her, the first Hawaiian shirt my son wore at the beach, and so on—was like a long, sometimes aching look into the past. Those years seem frozen to me now, a time when I didn’t know how things were going to turn out, when they could have gone any direction, and we were both exhilarated at the opportunity and terrified at the possibilities. I wouldn’t give up the memories, even while I wish it could have been better.

And what, you may ask, does this have to do with writing?

Everything. The short answer is, it has everything to do with writing. It’s a question of motivation versus operation. You see, I’m motivated by that past. The memories of times with my wife and children, of the way things were, of the hopefulness that we had (and still do)—those things fuel my writing. Ten years ago, I couldn’t have done what I do now. Oh, I possessed the technical skills even then; if you want confirmation, go to the Fanfiction section of this site and take a look at some of my older (albeit incomplete) work. The difference is, I hadn’t lived enough to have something to say. My motivation comes from the life I’ve lived and the things I’ve experienced.

That’s the motivation; what about the operation? I may write from the past, but I write for the future. I write with an eye toward having my stories outlive me. I’m not so proud as to think that my writing is grand or epic, or even worthy of memory; but I write in an attempt to become those things. My children understand that, in simplistic form; they understand that I write stories, and that they can’t read them now, but that some part of it is based on them, and it will be theirs when they are older. I write for their future as much as my own.

I call those years frozen, but they taught me how to deal with cold times in the future. I just came off of such a time, when my ability to write at all seemed frozen to me. The ideas were there, but they wouldn’t surrender to the page. And, ironically—or perhaps poetically—it was my children who marked the end of that winter. The first thing I was able to put down on paper was the beginning of a new story, one that’s written for them to read now, while they’re young, written with them in mind. It may not go anywhere—my list of unfinished projects is much longer than my list of finished works—but it was a start, and a change, and so I’ll take it. And who knows? Maybe the past will become the future, and turn out well after all.

Thankfulness in Dark Places

It’s hard to be thankful.

Really it is. Of course, if you live in America today, or any modern country, then that statement is counterintuitive; we have so much to be thankful for! It’s like asking a fish if it is wet; it’s so surrounded with water, so unaccustomed to anything else, that it has no idea what you’re talking about (or anything else, because this is a fish we’re talking about, but I digress). We are so surrounded by things for which we should be thankful, that we just don’t even see them.

But being thankful is hard, because the things that go wrong, the dark places in our lives, take up so much attention. It becomes hard to keep our eyes on the myriad of small, good things when there’s one big, bad thing screaming for our attention. And it does, doesn’t it? It screams for our attention constantly, until everything else fades out.

Here’s the catch: Those are the times when we are meant to be most grateful. You see, gratitude is tied to another, much more subtle character trait: humility. And humility is built—you knew this was coming—through hard times. Through suffering. Through pain and weakness. It’s why we have so many clichés about growing when the rain falls.

I’ve been doing some suffering myself lately. I’ve mentioned it openly on here that I have Crohn’s Disease, and that for the past few months I’ve been fighting off a flareup. I want to say that I stayed strong the whole time, never became discouraged, never stopped being thankful…but that would be a lie. The trees got to be so big that I couldn’t see the forest. It was hard, one of the hardest things I’ve experienced—and of course it could, and probably will, happen again, because that’s the nature of the disease.

It was debilitating. I had no choice but to be humble in every sense of the word. But then I realized, that humility helped me see the things I still had to be thankful for.

I still had my family.

I still had my children, and I count them separately because without their help around the house, everything would have collapsed.

I still had my friends, without whom I would have given up completely.

I still had things to occupy my mind, even when my body wasn’t cooperating. (Shameless Plug for a Friend time: Cyndera’s novel, Rivers of the Mind, kept me going on a few long nights, and you should absolutely read it when it is published. Also follow her blog!)

More than that, all of my needs were met, and I had nothing to worry about except fighting the illness. So, by the end of the ordeal, I found myself counting my blessings over and over.

Easy? No. Good for the soul? Absolutely.

So, as you sit down for your own Thanksgiving dinner tomorrow, remember that your hard times are signposts. Remember that there are people who love you, and without whom your life would not be the same. Remember that we have blessings we will never even see, let alone acknowledge. And remember that Thanksgiving is both a day and a state of mind…no, a state of heart.

Happy Thanksgiving!

 

*This post was also published on my other blog at Thoughts of a Formerly Dead Man.

Back On Track!

I thought this day would never come!

No, unfortunately, it’s not the day I publish my first book.  Nor is it the day I find an agent.  Those things are still firmly entrenched in the “In Progress” column.  No, it’s something less than that, but still exciting to me (and if I’ve learned anything, it’s that you take your good news where you can get it) :

It’s the first day of school!

Now, anyone who was with me in May will recall that I split off the family-related content into a separate blog (which you can find here), reserving this one for topics relating to my writing.  I haven’t gone back on that decision; and I promise you that this is not a family-related post.  Rather, I’m as excited about the first day of school as a writer as I am excited about it as a father.  Because now, it’s time!

Time to get back on track!

Time to get some work done!

Summertime, with the kids at home, is a great time—but let’s admit it, things fall by the wayside.  With forty-plus hours a week in the office, and all of the remaining daylight hours spent with the kids (who aren’t old enough to be trusted unattended yet), it’s hard to keep writing, though I made an effort at it (as seen in some of the short stories on this site).  Now, today, it’s time to set things back in order, and I am looking forward to it.  I hope you are, too!

So, with that said, here are some projects I have in the works, and where I stand on them:

  • My novel, The Last Shot, is complete in its third draft. I’m in the process of searching for an agent, which requires preparing and sending query letters—dozens of them, most likely.  I started this before the summer began, but was forced to set it aside for a few months.  The next round of letters will go out in the upcoming 1-2 weeks.  Stay tuned—as things progress, I will post excerpts and other news here!
  • Cyndera and I have a joint project in the works—a volume to be published jointly via Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing, in which we will each contribute a novella. These novellas will be works of science-fiction, and are the projects upon which we are each currently working.  More details will be forthcoming as we have them—keep watching!
  • I have a new Facebook page! For up-to-date information about my fiction, check it out at https://www.facebook.com/Timewalkerauthor.
  • I’ll be expanding my posts on Twitter soon as well (after much persuasion—you know who you are). You can follow me on twitter @Timewalkerautho (and curse you, Twitter, for allowing one less character on usernames than I needed!).
  • New stories and posts will continue to be posted here at Timewalkerauthor. As well, for family and spiritual content, you can check out my second blog at Thoughts of a Formerly Dead Man.
  • In addition to the items above, I always have several other projects in the background. As I complete more urgent items, those will make their way to the surface.  I’ll post more as they arrive!

Thanks for reading!

Divide and Conquer!

A year and a half ago, I established this blog to promote my efforts to write on a professional level and be published.  It was my first foray into the world of blogging, and I have to say that the sensation went to my head.  There is so much flexibility in the blogosphere!  A blogger can, within reason, say anything he or she wants to say.  As a single father, it didn’t take long for my blog to become overrun with posts about my children and my personal life, and especially my faith–and while those are pleasant topics, they’re far afield from the original purpose of the blog.

With that in mind, I’ve started a second blog!  Going forward, posts about family, faith, and other life topics may be found at “Thoughts of a Formerly Dead Man“, which is up and running with a half-dozen or so posts at this time.  You’ll also find links to family-, spiritual-, and life-oriented blogs and sites there, some of which have previously been linked from here.  Although I will not delete previous posts of that nature from this blog, I want to narrow the focus of this blog and return it to its original purpose of supporting and publicizing my written work.  Posts here will include–as I originally planned–progress toward publication of my first and subsequent novels; observations on the art and craft of writing; and entries into my short-story series.

Readers of one blog are welcome at both, and I hope you’ll take the time to check it out.  Happy reading! ~Timewalkerauthor

Out of the Mouths of Babes

I was making the regular Sunday morning post-church trip to Wal-Mart (an unintentional tradition, but one that stubbornly refuses to go away, possibly because payday is only two days prior and I never have time to shop for anything on Saturday) when I popped in a Phillips, Craig, and Dean cd. Two minutes later, I was pleasantly surprised to hear my six-year-old son, Ethan, singing along in the backseat to “This Is How It Feels To Be Free”. Such a great song! It was gratifying to hear those words coming from his mouth, at the same time that it was surprising—not because he doesn’t like the music, but because I didn’t think I had played that song often enough for him to have learned the words.

It didn’t take long for a hole to be poked in that particular bubble of pride, though, as I shortly realized that he doesn’t understand the words. He can recite them, but he doesn’t grasp them. Did I mention he’s only six? I’d like to think my children are geniuses and prodigies, but alas, it is not so. They’re smart, very much so—I have test scores to prove it—but they still have a lot to learn.

Music is a very powerful force for people in general, and it’s no less true—perhaps even more true—for us Christians. For the world at large, music is an expression of what is inside us, a way of not only telling the world how we think and feel, what we value and what we hate, but also of determining those things. How often has a song changed your opinion? Perhaps not on something large, but in small ways, I would guess that you’ve had that experience. Music influences our emotions, our state of mind, even some aspects of our physical wellbeing. As a believer in Christ, I have the same experiences, but with the added dimension of viewing the music in which I engage as a form of service to the Lord. Christians, as well, use godly music as a method of teaching and passing on our faith; it’s no great surprise that the creeds of the past were often set to music, or that the old hymns are rich in theology.

I listen to a great variety of music, both secular and sacred. I’ve found over the course of my life that I love music which has a grand feel to it; songs which are inspirational because they grapple with great and majestic themes, and because their musical presentation is uplifiting and powerful. I like nobility in music. I like precision in the choice of words, I like powerful imagery, I like strong and bold lyrics and bright, vibrant chords. I want to be moved, but I don’t want it to be simply an emotional response; I want the concepts and truths in the music to resonate with me for what they say as much as for how they are presented.

My six-year-old and my eight-year-old? They don’t care about any of that.

Tonight, while driving home, I played another song that resonates with me, especially on this Easter holiday: Steve Green’s classic, “He Holds The Keys”. I was singing along, as I often do in the car (the kids haven’t reached the eye-rolling stage yet), and then in the background I could hear them trying to do the same, feeling out the unfamiliar words, trying to piece together this new song. Suddenly the realization hit me: They aren’t singing because the song resonates with them. No, they’re singing because they like to sing. We play a lot of music in the car; I sing all the time, and it’s clear that they’ve picked up the habit. Which leads me to think that, possibly, deep down, they’re singing to be like me, which is entirely another form of gratification. Still, it gave me pause.

I feel as I do about “He Holds The Keys” and “This Is How It Feels To Be Free” because I’ve spent half my life gaining the knowledge and experience it takes to understand those songs in a deep and abiding way. I studied theology in college; I had excellent teachers for years in church (in addition to my school life); and I’ve studied on my own. As well, I’ve had the kind of life experiences, both good and bad, that only come with adulthood. When the song says, referring to Jesus, “You spared no expense for my pardon—You were used up and wasted for me,” I know what it means. I’ve been an adult, and I know what sin is, what forgiveness is. The same is true when the songs I play talk about suffering and hardship and difficult choices and need and pain and regret and all the other evils of life—it takes having lived life in order to truly understand.

My kids? They don’t understand it, not yet. When they hear and sing those words, they’re just that—words. That is as it should be right now. But they won’t be children forever, and that is where I come in—where each and every parent comes in. Parents, it’s our job to bring our children safely to adulthood, and that doesn’t mean preventing every bruised knee, or even every broken bone; it means giving them a foundation for maturity. It means that, although they will learn some of those evils of life through their own experience, we’re responsible for teaching them how to handle those things—and moreover, we’re responsible for teaching them the meaning of those things.

I want my children to hear these songs, someday, and feel what I feel, or something like it. I want them, ultimately, to grasp what I grasp, and perhaps more. I want them to know what the song means when it says:

And from death’s barren womb, the captives cry,
“Arise, for our redemption draweth nigh!
For He holds the keys,
He holds the keys;
And though we’ve been held captive,
At long last we are free,
For He holds the keys!”

But for now, that’s beyond them. They need direct statements. They need facts. Abstract concepts are still a stretch for them. There’s a reason why bible lessons for children usually consist of narratives rather than topical lessons; they can’t think that way yet. The stories teach character and other lessons as by example, rather than directly; and it’s the same with music.

But that will change. It’s up to me to prepare them for that change. Because, of course, it isn’t solely about music, but about life. It’s about truth. Music is one way of presenting it; there are others. In every way that comes to hand, be it music or something else, it’s my job to teach them the meanings behind what they face. It’s up to me to make the words make sense.

Slow-Motion Avalanche

For any readers who were wondering, I haven’t died, or become a leper and lost my typing fingers, or any other colorful fate.  I had decided, some time ago, that I would only be posting when I actually have something to say; and that has proven to be “not that often” over the past several months.  As well, this thing called life keeps intruding, pesky thing that it is.  This is not an apology, but perhaps an explanation; and unless further intermissions are the result of some dramatic cause (which would get its own post), this explanation will be the last of its kind.  Moving on!

I went to work yesterday to cloudy skies and clear streets.  Silly guy that I am, I had paid no attention to the incoming weather reports—I long ago turned off the notifications for the weather app on my phone, and the last time I watched a weather report on television, they were giving alerts for an incoming comet that was scaring the dinosaurs.  No, scratch that joke; I have long since made it clear that I’m not an evolutionist, so I should be joking about the Flood instead.

I knew something was up when coworkers started bailing out of the office at an alarming rate.  It wasn’t until after the boss told me to leave early if it got bad out, that I looked out the window and saw snow.  Lots of snow.  It wasn’t falling fast, but it was relentless.  Within an hour, every visible surface was covered, and the 24-hour staff who nominally work under me (I’m not the supervisor, but I was the closest thing on duty) were refusing to drive anywhere, so I took the boss up on the offer.  Throughout the night, it was like an avalanche in slow motion, burying everything, but so politely that you could hardly be angry about it.

We topped out at about fourteen inches today.  That isn’t much for places like Minnesota or Maine, but it’s quite respectable for West Virginia.  The last time I saw a foot of snow here, it brought four of its friends with it, all in one night, and collapsed twenty-three buildings around town.  That was in 1998, and if I may say so, we’ve had an easy time of it since.  As a consequence, no one is particularly happy with the current state of affairs, if the level of complaining to be seen on Facebook is any indicator.  Most of the complaining, of course, is about that perennial fan favorite:  School closures.

Confession Time:  Some of the complaining was me.

Confession Time: Some of the complaining was me.

Is it really that bad?  With apologies to every parent I know, I don’t think it is.  If they were out for weeks on end, I might think so, but so far this year my kids have only missed one complete week of school, plus a smattering of other days.  In a mountainous state, that’s a fair bargain.

The problem that we parents, all of us, have with snow days is not the slow-motion avalanche I mentioned.  It’s the second slow-motion avalanche:  that gradual accumulation of cabin fever in the kids, and sometimes in ourselves.  It threatens to bury us, too.

I knew I was in trouble today when I found myself sending the kids out of the room for the simple crime of being bouncy.  It’s not always wrong to take a breather; sometimes it’s necessary.  I knew, though, that I wasn’t at that point; I knew I was only doing it because I was short-tempered.   I was the one who was in the wrong this time.

That’s what happens, isn’t it?

When you’re a parent, you’re in the business of being right.  You have to be.  You are the authority figure, and what you do is going to shape your child’s view on right and wrong.  The sad side effect is that when you’re always right, you’re always right.  You come to a place where you don’t stop to question whether there’s a better way.

I don’t know what decisions you might have to face as a parent.  There are enough pitfalls to go around, so I couldn’t deign to advise you on yours, because I don’t know which ones you have to navigate.  For me, today it was the choice between pushing my kids away, or spending valuable time with them.  I started to push, but then I stopped, thought about it, and pulled them back.  After all, they aren’t getting any younger, and I have precious little time to shape their lives.  This is something I’ve been challenging myself to work on.  I still have my own ambitions, and still chase them, but for the moment, I’ll live with the reality that my time is divided, and that they deserve their share of it.  They only have one father, and that’s me.

But, you, Other Parents, I will offer you one piece of advice tonight:  Stop and think.  In whatever situation you are, stop and think.  Think about the decision you have in front of you, and what each option will mean.  Before you act, think.  How will your choices affect your child, affect you, affect the world around you?  When you deal with your children, you deal directly with the future.  Choose wisely!

Maybe that advice isn’t for you, because you already live it.  Good for you!  Pass that wisdom on to someone who needs it.  And if you are the one who needs it, then, there is no time like now to start.  Then, maybe, your own avalanches won’t have a chance to bury you.

Coming Back to Christmas

Christmas is here again.  It feels like it’s been so long!  I feel that way every year, to some degree, because it’s my favorite holiday.  This year, though, you’ll have to forgive me if I seem more excited than usual—you see, I skipped Christmas last year.

No, it wasn’t like that John Grisham novel-turned-Tim Allen movie.  Great story, though, in both forms.  I laughed my way through both.  No, I didn’t skip Christmas by choice.  You see, I was sick.  Very sick.  Nearly the sickest (is that a word?) I have ever been in my life, topped only by the misdiagnosed and life-threatening infection in the sixth grade, and the insanely violent case of the flu in 2009 and strep throat in 2011.  Yeah.  Not fun on any count.  Apparently when I get a common illness, I do it in uncommon ways.  At any rate, in this case I spent ten days lying on the couch, interspersed with painful and dramatic trips to the restroom.  So sorry, Internet; sometimes the truth hurts.  In this case, it hurt me.  I won’t give you more of the disgusting and humiliating details, but I will say that even sitting up was out of the question.

But, here’s a secret for you:  If I had had a choice, I might have skipped Christmas anyway.  2012 was not a good year for me.  I haven’t made any secret of the fact that my wife and I divorced in 2012—or rather, we separated, and initiated the divorce; it wasn’t final until April of this year (adding insult to injury, it was final on tax day).  The separation happened just before Thanksgiving, thus coloring the entire holiday season.  There were other things, but none of them can top that.

I wrote my proposed version of the custody agreement—the version that we used until we had our preliminary hearing, and upon which we eventually based our final agreement—to give us alternating holidays with the kids.  It only seemed fair, since I was pushing for primary custody, which I did ultimately receive—that is, they live with me.  Trying to be gracious, I gave her custody of them for our next upcoming holiday, which was Christmas (and just as well, since I ended up incapacitated).  So, it was my first holiday in six years without Emma, Ethan, or their mother.

Somewhere along the way, someone asked me, “How do you do it?”  I don’t know what I said, but the truth is, I didn’t know.  I still don’t.  Now, Stephanie and I—have I said her name here before? I can’t remember—are lucky enough to have worked out our differences after the fact.  For certain reasons, we won’t be putting our marriage back together, but we get along.  We can talk, and even spend time together now, and it’s okay.  None of that makes the holidays any easier when we spend them apart, passing our children back and forth like packages.

So, I was glad to get back to celebrating this year.  There were obstacles, of course.  My Christmas lights, after two years in storage (I was too sick to decorate last year), don’t work properly, except the white lights that are preattached to the tree and one string of blue lights that could wrap around my house three times and still line the tree.  Most of my glass ornaments were broken and had to be replaced.  Most irritating of all, sixteen years of collectible ornaments have disappeared, leaving their boxes behind (and despite suggestions by family to the contrary, the ex-wife did not take them; I’ve seen her fully decorated tree this year).  But it was worth it anyway.  Best of all, the children are with me this year, and though I don’t begrudge their mother her time with them, I’m glad to have them home.  So, we decorated the tree (with all-new decorations), and we went Christmas shopping, and we wrapped gifts, and we made hot cocoa, and we put out milk and cookies for Santa.  Tomorrow we’ll open gifts, and we’ll visit family, and we’ll read the Christmas story together.  Life is good.

That’s the thing, of course.  Life is good.  It isn’t perfect.  Did you expect it to be?  I think I did.  Certainly I wanted it to be.  I had a picture in my mind for years, a carefully-drawn picture, of what life should be like.  It wasn’t a pipe dream; it wasn’t some fantasy about how life should magically come together.  No, it was a blueprint for something I wanted to build, and I did my best to build it.  No, perhaps not my best; but I tried.  I made no excuses for myself, and I gave it my all for years.  It wasn’t enough in the end; we were defeated by something I never could have anticipated or prevented—my wife’s mental health issues.

I’ve had a picture in my mind of what Christmas should be like, too.  I like the Hallmark version.  I want the big, handsome, warm, inviting house with the big picture windows.  I want the perfectly decorated tree where it can be seen through those windows.  I want the lights outside, and the snow, and the big meal at a beautifully set table.  I want my family around, all in one place, all getting along.  I could go on…you’ve seen it in so many movies, so you know what I mean.  I want it  storybook perfect, every year.

It doesn’t work out that way.  My family is big and scattered, and they fight with each other.  I live in a rented trailer.  My tree is four feet tall.  I don’t cook turkey well enough to do the holiday meal (thank you, Mom and Dad, I’ll keep buying if you keep cooking!).  It rarely snows on Christmas here, even in the mountains.

It’s not perfect, but that’s okay.  Perfect gets in the way of good enough.  The tree may be short, but I decorated it with my kids.  They don’t care if all the lights are white, as long as they illuminate presents underneath.  We don’t eat around my table on Christmas day, but I get to see my daughter, my son, and my two nephews have Christmas dinner together, and enjoy each other’s company.  There may not be snow (though I hope there will!) but it’s still December 25th, with all that it means.

Christmas isn’t all that’s okay.  My life is not perfect, but it’s okay.  I’ll never say “it’s good enough” in the sense that it needs no more work, but I can say that it’s good enough for me to be content where I am, even while I work on improving.  I have two beautiful children.  I have parents who are there for me.  I have one grandmother remaining, and she still has her mind, which I have discovered is an invaluable thing.  I have a brother and sister whom I love, even when we don’t see eye to eye.  I have aunts and uncles and cousins who make my life colorful.  I have a good relationship with my ex-wife, who also loves our children.  I have the best friends any man could ask for—you know who you are.  I have a good job, sufficient to my needs.  I have a home and a vehicle and everything I need.  I have a God Who doesn’t just love me, but everyone, equally and with intensity.  And I have today.  Every day is a blessing, and Christmas is one of the best.

I know there are people out there who are suffering, or lacking, in some way.  Maybe it’s you.  I hope you understand that I would never say these things to hurt anyone, or to be arrogant or presumptuous.  The topic of how to graciously respond to suffering is complex and lengthy, though it can be summed up in “love your neighbor as yourself”.  That’s what I want to do.  But here, now, I say these things just to say that I’m thankful for what I have.  I  know I may not have it forever—next Christmas, when the kids are away, you may see a different side of me—but I have it now, and I’m thankful.

So, have a good Christmas.  Sleep well on Christmas Eve.  Hold your wife or husband, if you have one.  Hug your children, and watch them open any gifts they receive.  Sip some egg nog or hot cocoa, as I’m about to do.  Eat some turkey or ham tomorrow.  Watch “A Christmas Story” for 24 straight hours, if you like.  Sit by the tree and think.  Remember a baby who was born in a desert country, with no snow on the ground, and no star on a tree, but one in the sky.  Remember that He’s still alive today.  And be thankful.  In all of it, for whatever thing you choose, whatever you value, be thankful.

Merry Christmas, my friends.

Some feelings, you can't buy.  Emma and Ethan under the tree.

Some feelings, you can’t buy. Emma and Ethan under the tree.