DP Fiction #14: “The Blood Tree War” by Daniel Ausema

My roots felt only earth. Thin, and good for nothing but wild grass. As I stretched under the ground, I caught the tang of metal, something sharp and not yet rusted. Clean metal, likely dropped when this patch of land was well behind the battle line. Still, the promise it made helped me exert all my energy into those roots, willing them deeper and farther out.

Sunlight glistened off my barbed leaves, feeding its pale energy to my efforts.

I was not the only blood tree growing on the battlefield, and my concentration broke when my sister began chanting. She was double my height already, as if she’d focused her efforts on leaves and branches instead of roots, but her chanting told me she hadn’t needed to work hard below ground. By instinct I recognized the nature of her words, the cadence of syllables sighing from the pores in her leaves. She chanted the lives of those whose blood she drank.

I sent a root toward her, running just beneath the surface. There was blood, battle-spilled blood. My purpose, my need, a far greater energy than the sun’s.

Her roots fought back. They sliced the tip off my root, so I branched out to either side, but they bludgeoned those runners into a pulp. Already, the blood had made her strong.

Over the silent warfare of our roots, my sister’s voice kept chanting the lives of the fallen.

She grew taller, and her leaves turned a green so dark it was nearly black.

I needed a different approach. For several days I tried focusing nearby, redoubling my efforts to dig deep, to widen my circumference. I found one patch of blood, but it was old, no part of the recent battle. It fed me, but its energy was gone too soon, and my voice had no life to chant. The nutrient-poor soil kept me small. Too long of this, and my sister would be able to block the sun from my leaves, as well as the blood from my roots.

My first break came when I discovered I could send a root over the ground. I sent a dozen one night, sipping at the earth as they went deep into her territory. Ah, the blood. She had no defense, since she wasn’t even aware of my presence. I kept them moving, never letting them sink too deeply into the patches of blood, so I might keep their presence a secret.

But my voice I could not keep silent. When the sun rose, I had no choice but to chant. Harsh lives and brief, I sent their deeds into the air. A child who’d lied about his age. A peasant unsure what to do with the weapon in his hands. A woman in disguise who brought down a dozen enemies before she finally fell. One of her victims a veteran of earlier wars who should have been allowed to rest at home.

The words tumbled out into the dawn, and my sister broke off her chanting to counterattack. By noon my runners were dead, spilling no blood by which they might be remembered. My sister’s chants went on.

As the last of the stolen blood passed up to the buds on my twigs, I discovered that even when it was gone I didn’t have to be silent. I had no more lives to chant, but I could sing a strange cry. The blood-fed buds rang out my voice. I imitated my sister’s chants, made up lives to speak. She wasted energy pursuing my roots, trying to find the blood she thought I drank.

She would discover the truth soon. My words wouldn’t fool her forever.

I played with the sounds of my voice, trying other noises that didn’t resemble our usual chants, and a bird came near to investigate. Birds avoid our kind, but my song overcame its instinct. I strangled the bird with a vine and added its blood to my song.

What else might I attempt? I changed the patterns, and squirrels came to see. Their blood tasted of hard nuts and high leaps, and their fur made my leaves droop in distaste. They made my song wilder and louder.

My sister’s trunk twisted in her desperation to find the source of my song. Her own chants continued, of warriors and the many lives lost to blade and spear, but less sure as the days went on. Doubt bled her, even though the blood of birds and rodents couldn’t give me the strength of her soldiers.

Larger animals came to my call, in the days and months that followed. An elk’s blood is strong, but the animals are wary. Wolf blood is rarer still, but when I managed to catch one, it gave me a fierce strength to rival my sister at her greatest. Deer and feral pigs and jittery pronghorns made me grow, made my bark thick.

My sister grew taller than me, though. She tended the battlefield’s blood with care so it aged beneath her without its strength leaching away. We were no longer saplings when she gave up trying to find my secret source of blood and took to attacking me directly. We know the many ways animals hunt, we trees–slow or fast, in darkness or from hiding–and we’ve chanted enough human lives to know the ways of war. When trees hunt, it is like and unlike those. Slower, no doubt. A gradual advance where each of us aims for a sense of the inevitable. But just as bloodthirsty and mindless, a single focus of angry contempt. I wondered if her sap would taste of blood when I defeated her, wondered if I would someday chant her life as I drank all that remained of her. I imagined ruling the entire plain of the battlefield on my own. But most of the time I knew well that I wouldn’t win. Eventually she would drink my sap-blood, would chant my sorry life, would rule alone.

If it was to be a battle, I would need more blood.

I wasted no energy on defense. Nor on attacking. Instead I crafted a new song, put every dram of blood into a summoning.

Humans. They are always ready for war. A simple push, a siren’s call, and they will march. Two armies drew toward me.

As my sister’s branches reached toward me to block the sun, the armies closed in. With my roots I pulled at the ground, channeling their charges toward my meager shade, where I waited to drink. Their clamor tasted of the brightest sunlight any tree has known. I drank and chanted their lives and grew strong.

My sister’s branches shrunk back, and her roots tried desperately to break through to the fresh blood. My chanting became laughter as I beat back every attack she sent. My unlikely dreams of ruling the field might even come true.

Then the humans did something new. Was it simply a flight of fire arrows? An arcane spell? New and explosive technology? I didn’t know, but my sister and I both burst into flame. No amount of blood could put out the fire.

By the time the flames were out, I was reduced to charred roots and a single spire of dead wood. I had no buds to sing even a simple summoning. My sister was similarly broken, her proud strength now nothing.

Every drop of blood in the field was gone, drunk by flames even more greedy than I.


© 2016 by Daniel Ausema

 

Author’s Note:  This one started as a writing exercise. An online writing group I’m part of meets together, roughly once a week, as many as can manage. Someone will post a topic, and we’ll have an hour to come up with whatever we can manage. It’s a great exercise for simply getting used to turning off that questioning voice inside and just writing, so even if none of the exercises turn into viable stories, I recommend it strongly. But given how frequently the members of the group manage to turn those one-hour starts into complete short stories that sell to a variety of places or key character development pieces for their novels, it’s even better than just an exercise, but a great way to get a story down on paper. I can’t even recall the exact prompt for this one, and I’m sure I hadn’t completely finished it when the hour was done, but that was where the story began. Besides, I love trees, and carnivorous plants are simply cool, so the idea of cruel and carnivorous trees that feast on spilled blood was one I knew I had to finish as soon as it occurred to me!

 

Daniel Ausema headshotA runner, writer, reader, teacher, and parent, Daniel Ausema has had fiction and poetry appear in many publications, including Strange Horizons and Daily Science Fiction. He is also the creator of a steampunk-fantasy, serial-fiction project, Spire City, which is now entering its third and final season. He lives in Colorado, at the foot of the Rocky Mountains.

 

 

 

 


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DP FICTION #13: “One’s Company” by Davian Aw

He finds a forest clearing on a planet of perpetual night in the two hours out of a thousand years that stars spread twinkling across its sky. It’s pure luck that he lands there on his random planet sampling. It’s the most beautiful, peaceful, ethereal place that he has ever seen.

There are no people on this planet. It will never be inhabited. Life evolved to little more than trees (if they are trees, those branching things) that get their food from the soil beneath and what sun that struggles through the clouds. Rocky outcrops ring the clearing in sharp relief against the sky. Beneath the starlight, he forgets about his life and loneliness.

He’s still alone here, but it’s different in the fresh unsullied alien air that fills his lungs as he rests between untrodden grass and unwitnessed skies, different from spending each evening alone in a busy, crowded city, full of strangers he’s too shy to talk to and too scared to try and understand.

Clouds crowd back across the gap, shrouding starlight behind their familiar shield. Darkness falls to rule the clearing. Peter knows it’s time to leave.

He logs the coordinates on his device.

This place would be perfect.

***

Excursion Two

The next evening, he tweaks the saved coordinates to arrive some distance away. His office cubicle fades from view. And there he is, his younger self: gazing spellbound at the stars. There’s no need to bother him. It might risk a paradox thing. But it’s nicer, all the same, having someone else around. He smiles.

***

Excursion Three

He pops up near the tree line. Work-exhaustion pains his face. He sees his two selves in the distance and thinks it might be nice to greet them: just to have someone else to chat to, because people do that after work. But nervousness still stays his feet. Tricky things, paradoxes, and knowing how to talk to people.

He looks around for the fourth. There’s no one else there. Yet.

***

Excursion Four

“Hi,” says Peter shyly to the third when the latter turns to search for him. “Tough day at work?”

His other self blinks, and tries a smile. “Yeah.”

His memory warps and changes. He remembers this exchange from the other end. It feels exceedingly, self-consciously redundant. They stop talking, and rest in the quiet. Each other’s company is enough.

***

Excursions Five to Forty-Seven

But the silence has been broken, and each time he gets more daring. Tentative greetings turn to conversations, uneasy handshakes to awkward hugs. It’s been so long since he’s talked to someone, too long since he’s touched another person. They’re not quite other people, here, but he can still pretend. If they close their eyes, they can all pretend.

They don’t talk about their lives because they’re all of them living the same one. Futures talking to pasts and sharing tales… that makes bad things happen.

But they can talk about this place that they have taken for their own. They map out constellations, invent stories to explain them. They study the alien trees and shrubs and give them cool scientific names. They gather piles of broken rocks and build rough forts upon the grass, then split into teams and play at sieges, fighting off invasions of themselves.

His memory rewrites itself in overused palimpsest till there’s nothing left he knows for sure and all his past becomes a blur. Events back home grow indistinct in the dullness of their repetition. His one surety is this place, his one joy each night’s respite in the comfort of its familiar faces.

He never steps into the same crowd twice.

***

Excursions Forty-Eight to Three Hundred and Thirty-Six

Someone brings fireworks – he can’t remember who, but he recalls setting them alight and shooting colour into the sky in bursts of fire that draw applause from the homogeneous crowd below.

He can barely remember his original visit: the darkness, the quiet, the mystified awe. He recalls stepping instead for the first time into the midst of a roaring party, music blaring and people dancing beneath strings of lights and hanging lanterns: people like him, who welcomed him warmly and made him feel like he belonged, people who understood him, people who liked him, people who knew and bore his name.

He brings a guitar and an amplifier and starts strumming a favourite song. The next day he brings a keyboard; then a drumset, bass guitar, mikes for singing and backup singing.

He doesn’t sing very well. It’s okay. No one in the audience sings any better.

***

Excursion Three Hundred and Thirty-Seven

The live band is belting out upbeat covers of emo band The Cutting Age. The audience loves it: jumping and screaming lyrics, and he smiles at their energy as he stands at the edge of the crowd with a sandwich in his hand.

A drunk bumps into him and slurs out an apology. As he stumbles away, he remembers doing that.

He’s been everyone at the party. He’s been everyone in the crowd. He’s been part of every conversation, part of every quarrel, part of every friendly hug and every drunken brawl. It’s easy to forget that if he doesn’t look at their faces. It lets them seem like any other people. It’s better to think that he’s managed to find an entire crowd of willing friends; better than it being just himself pitifully entertaining himself on an empty planet.

But it’s all a fragile, delicate balance. It’s a miracle they have lasted here this long. His memories are a blur, his pasts a confusion, his body a shifting, changing thing of scars and bites and injuries as his selves change each other’s histories and history changes them.

He thinks it’s enough proof of how this time travel works, and the clearing is now too full of him. The party can never get bigger than this. There’s no more space. The forest is impenetrable. He doesn’t know what lies beyond. His next week here might be the last; perhaps this night might be the last.

He thinks of once more spending each night in the void of his room with that void in his heart, and despair drives his feet to walk him to the spot where he made his first excursions.

He doesn’t waste time thinking when his fourth self materialises. He tackles him, grabs the space-time device, and crunches it firmly beneath his shoe and the open-mouthed horror of his younger face.

The music cuts silent. The multitude winks out. He feels the relief of a thousand memories erased from the worn-out tape of his mind. He vanishes too, with his final act of destruction, and a cold wind sweeps the empty grass.

***

Excursion Four

There are four people in a clearing that has not yet known a crowd.

“Hi,” one says shyly to another when the latter turns to search for him. “Tough day at work?”

The other blinks, and tries a smile. “Yeah.”

He doesn’t know it yet.

But he will never be lonely again.


© 2016 by Davian Aw

 

Author’s Note: Back when I was working in NYC, I attended a free concert in Central Park by the New York Philharmonic. It was crowded, lively and slightly surreal with the field full of shadowed human figures moving around to music beneath the night sky. I had the stray thought – what if all of them were the same person? Whereupon I went home and wrote out the first draft of this all in one go.

 


davianaw_dp
Davian Aw’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Daily Science Fiction, Stone Telling, LampLight and Star*Line. He also wrote roughly 240,000 words of Back to the Future fan fiction as a teenager and has never been that prolific since. Davian is a double alumni of the Creative Arts Programme for selected young writers in Singapore, where he currently lives with his family and a bunch of small plants.

 

 

 

 

 

 


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DP FICTION #11: “The Osteomancer’s Husband” by Henry Szabranski

He warned his wife the villagers would come. With their pitchforks, their fire. Their hateful ignorance.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “We have to leave. They saw beneath my mask.”

She did not listen. This was their home. Their little cottage by the burbling mountain stream. Their hard-won resting place after years of rootless travel, where they kept their lovingly tended garden with its fragrant roses and flowering vines, where she eschewed her strange abilities and practiced only mortal skill. An ideal place for a family, though they knew they could never have children now.

When he began to protest her lack of urgency she forced him into stillness and silence. She had that power.

“We’ve made friends in town,” she said. “They’ve no reason to harm us.”

Always prepared to believe the best of people. Always willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. That was his wife. Too trusting. Too optimistic. One of the many reasons he loved her.

Struck mute by her spell, he could not share his thoughts. Or warn her of the fear and revulsion he had witnessed on the townsfolk’s faces when his mask slipped and they glimpsed his true nature.

“We mean you no harm,” she cried as the mob at last turned up at their rose-entwined gate. “Can’t you leave us in peace?”

No. They could not. They died even as she tried to spare them.

Banished into the deepest shadows of the house by her unbreakable command, he could only watch as the slaughter unfolded. In the end, the townsfolk’s bloody determination and sheer numbers overpowered her best defenses. Only when she fell and uttered her final spell was he at last free to move, but by then it was too late. Countless bodies littered the garden, their bones dissolved or stretched into gruesome, unsurvivable shapes. Hers lay at the center.

He ran to pick her up. He hugged her close, kissed her cooling skin, rocked her back and forth as if she were a child in need of comfort, as if holding her tight could prevent any further life force from escaping. But it was already gone. No power he possessed could bring it back.

More people from the town approached the house, stragglers to the promise of violence or perhaps those simply curious of the outcome. They darted away again when they saw the scale of the devastation. The true cost of their mindless intolerance. The osteomancer’s husband didn’t look up. He no longer cared if they returned.

On sudden impulse he laid down her body. He tore off his carefully painted mask, his human skin gloves, the cloak and thick clothes that padded and hid his body. He stood and walked to the potting shed — leaning precariously but otherwise undamaged by the violence — and retrieved a rusty but serviceable spade from inside. He stabbed the blade into the trampled lawn and carved out a shallow grave. No longer encumbered by his public disguise it did not take him long to bury his wife, his motions swift and efficient. Afterwards he sat down beside the freshly piled earth. He felt numb and hollow, unable to think of what else he should do.

He expected to die soon. To wind down. His fate was tied to hers, wasn’t that how it worked? Spells faded with their caster. But he had never really known much about her strange magic. He had always been more physical than cerebral, a doer rather than a thinker. Her perfect complement. Of her magic, he knew only that she used it to heal and to help. The children with their broken limbs. The horses and the cattle in the field when they stumbled and shattered their legs. Even the loudmouth drunkards who smashed their skulls fighting each other every payday night.

And he himself. He had felt her power, too, those years ago. Darkness one moment. Then back again, as if the fall had never happened. Except he had felt that terrible crack, that shooting final pain as his neck snapped. His lungs become so heavy he was unable to draw breath. He would never forget that.

After her magic touch he moved and spoke and did so many things as he could before. But her power was only over his bones, not his flesh. It soon began to decay. All the ointments and bindings she so desperately tried to apply could not hide the truth or stop his skin and muscles and sinew from unraveling. All too soon he was nothing but bones. Bones, and an indomitable animating spirit.

For her it was enough. “I see my memory of you,” she said. “Not the reality.” And when he got used to the strange practicalities, it was enough for him too.

The sound of shifting earth disturbed him from his thoughts. At first he feared some scavenger had slunk behind his back to disturb her grave, but when he turned he found no dog or cat or rat foraging in the freshly turned earth. Instead, he saw a creamy white stalk snaking up from the soil.

The growing bloom swayed gently, almost imperceptibly, like some undersea coral agitated by the slow tides and currents of an invisible ocean. It slowly rotated towards him.

He fell to his knees and said, “My dearest, I knew it! Have you returned?”

There was no reply.

As night descended and the townsfolk gathered again with their newly lit torches, he watched the ivory flower grow taller and sturdier and more intricate. It grew despite the sun having escaped the sky–a night bloom. Before long it was twice his height. Roots like femurs twisted through the soil, sprouting into a crescent of pelvic bones, exploding into a bloom of ribs and tibias and a crowning display of skulls and grinning teeth. Despite its grisly nature, he thought it beautiful.

For he saw the memory of her, not the reality.

The night deepened and the bone flower grew more complex, more intricate, sprouting a thousand petals, each like a curled finger bone. And clustered deep within, growing larger every moment, tiny seed-like structures.

A hot wind swirled around the devastated garden. The amassing villagers grew more bold. More belligerent. They jeered and shouted of vengeance and justice and burning out evil. A daring few drew closer, retreating as he made a move, but never quite far back as before. It would not be much longer before they realized he posed no real threat to them. His hands were stiffening, his joints seizing. Every move more difficult than the last. Eventually he knew he would simply tumble apart.

The villagers let out a roar and broke towards the house. He reached up and snapped off a handful of enameled seedlings. Like tiny teeth, tiny skulls, tiny snowflake vertebrae. The rising wind swept them from his cupped fingers, up and out, far and wide. Escaping like willful, eager children. Like dreams and hopes of what could have been.

What strange flowers they might grow.


© 2016 by Henry Szabranski

 

Author’s Note: The inspiration for this story were a couple of photographs used for a writing group prompt challenge. One image was of flowing water (“…the burbling mountain stream…”), the second was of a hand tossing what looked like tiny bones to the wind (“Like…tiny snowflake vertebrae…”). To me the bones looked like seedlings, so I immediately began to wonder what their origin might be.

 

usxOOoT1Henry Szabranski was born in Birmingham, UK, and studied Astronomy & Astrophysics at Newcastle upon Tyne University, graduating with a degree in Theoretical Physics. His stories have previously been published in Beneath Ceaseless SkiesDaily Science FictionLakeside CircusFantasy Scroll MagazineKaleidotrope and in Fantasy For Good: A Charitable Anthology, amongst other places. He lives in Buckinghamshire with his wife and two young sons. Visit his blog at http://www.henryszabranski.com or follow him on Twitter @henryszabranski

 

 


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DP FICTION #8: “The Grave Can Wait” by Thomas Berubeg

Old James McGrath was widely held to be the orneriest man on the frontier. They say he glared down a rattler so bad the critter’s great-great grandkids were afeared of venturing onto his land. They say that, once, a real big twister, one of them mean old suckers only found in the frontier lands, was sent packing straight back into its girlfriend’s arms by his bilious vitriol. They even say that tricky Coyote tried to swindle him out of his ranch, but ended up walking away missing thirty acres of prime real estate. It came as no surprise, then, that when Death came for McGrath in the shape of a late spring cold, he sent Old Boney packing with pant bottoms full of lead.

For a time, McGrath kept on with his ranching and riding and drinking and shooting and thought little of his close call. “Goddamned solicitors,” was the only thing he said about the incident, muttered between two slugs of whiskey and a cigarette.

Death was kept occupied by the rigors of the frontier. It was a busy time for the man, and he put old James McGrath out of his skull. Truth be told, no cowboy old or young came willingly, and Death had gotten used to dodging bullets and Indian curses. But they all came eventually, and so would McGrath.

A week passed in a hurry, and then another, and Death heard nothing. Surprised and not a little confused, Death went back to Tombstone, Arizona, where he kept his office. He usually tried to avoid it, if he could, preferring the open range and the starry sky, but these were peculiar circumstances.

Both Old Smokey and the Holy Gatekeeper kept regional offices nearby. Death checked in with them, just to make sure the old man hadn’t snuck through unnoticed. Peter, a mousy, bookish man, hemmed and hawed and checked a bunch of dusty ledgers and kept Death waiting, which is the main job of government men everywhere, but eventually admitted that, no, James McGrath hadn’t snuck in through the Pearlies. The offices of Mammon, Lucifer & Asmodeus, Attorneys at Law, were not really any better in Death’s opinion. He never left the place without the vague feeling of having been swindled.

Meanwhile, James McGrath had taken to being dead like a fish takes to water or fire to the scrublands of California. Even before his death he could drink anyone under the table, but now he could do that without breaking a sweat, and any young buck who challenged him to a gunfight had best have already sent his Ma some flowers and bought a plot at the church. In the two weeks after his death, Old James sent more people packing than the Union Pacific. Everyone but young McCauley, one of the old man’s drinking partners, had taken to avoiding him. While that suited McGrath just fine, even McCauley had been rather scarce in recent days.

And so he was surprised when one Sunday morning there came a knock at his door. Old James put down the bottle of watery and weak whiskey he had had the misfortune to have been cheated into buying, and cracked the door open, peaking out with gummy, unfocused eyes. There stood the Reaper himself, black robes draped over his skeletal frame, silver six shooter at his hip (Nobody on the frontier took you seriously unless you had a big old hand cannon strapped to your side, and Death thought the scythe was old fashioned anyhow: a symbol of the Old World he’d shed when he followed the masses seeking fortune in the New.)

“Now,” Old James said. “I know I sent you scurrying away not two weeks ago. What’re you doing here?”

“Well, Mr. McGrath, I’m afraid there must’ve been a mistake. See, you’re supposed to be dead. And, hmmm, while you are starting to look… smell… quite dead, I can see your body up and about and kicking. That leaves me with a bit of a problem.”

“Yeah? What d’you think you’re gonna do about it?”

“I was hoping to appeal to your better nature…” Death started.

The old man interrupted with a bark of laughter. “Haw, I ain’t got one of those.”

“I see that,” Death said pensively, riffling through the ream of papers shoved under one boney elbow. “How about a game? I see here you’re a deft hand at cards.”

A greedy gleam lit up the old man’s eyes. “Aww, hell. I ain’t that good, but I’ll play. What’re the stakes?”

“If I win, you come with me. If you win, I’ll make sure no one bothers you about this ever again.”

“Deal,” said McGrath.

Now you see, when Death’s papers said that the Old Man was a deft hand at cards, they weren’t lying. McGrath’s gimlet stare was known from Yukon to El Dorado, and in his youth he had left a trail of broken men, women, and ghosts in the saloons of the West. In fact, his ranch was financed by the honest winnings of half the frontier.

Not to say that the Great Equalizer was out of his depth: any game was old hat to Death. This method of dealing with the recalcitrant and the reticent was tried and true, and Death rarely, if ever, had to work hard to win. This, of course, led to a degree of indifference towards the game. Now, though, sitting across from Old Man McGrath, Death felt the same shiver as when he had sat across from old Methuselah, who had been adept at Sumerian dice back in his day.

What I mean to say is that Old McGrath and The Reaper himself were not unevenly matched. Billy McCauley, they agreed, would deal. They spit in their hands and shook on the terms. The sound of McGrath’s great phlegmy hock echoed off the mesas and started stampedes seven states over. When Death spit, fourteen stars and the spirits of the ghost riders in the sky blinked out of existence.

They sat at the table, pistols just out of arm’s reach. A solitary beam of sunlight bounced off the polished bone handle of Death’s pistol, then flicked the tip of McGrath’s greased up plugger, before stopping short and realizing exactly who it was in the room with. It respectfully tipped its cap and skedaddled outta there as quickly as it darn well could.

Death waved a skeletal hand, and a small heap of silver dollars, leering skulls embossed into both sides, rained into existence with a light jangle in front of Mcgrath. “These are the hours of your life, McGrath, and we’ll be playing for them.” With a second wave, a much smaller pile of coins appeared in front of Death. “These are the hours you owe me.”

“Bullshit. I don’t owe you nothing.” McGrath spit out. The Great Equalizer merely tilted his head to the side, looking at the decrepit old man curiously. McGrath glared stubbornly, but death remained impassive. Finally, he grumbled “Fine, if it’ll get you outta my house faster.”

The cards were dealt: five each, and the game was on. The cards did not favor McGrath on this day. Slowly, steadily, the pile of coins shifted towards Death, and soon both were equal. Barely suppressed rage glinted in McGrath’s eyes. He had never lost before, and he wasn’t about to start.

“All in.” He pushed his pile of coins to the middle of the table. Death responded in kind.

In McGrath’s hands were three aces and a queen, but Death was shooting for a straight flush. He had the queen and the jack and the nine and the ten of spades,but he needed the king or the eight to take the prize. He called for another card, and McCauley passed him an eight of clubs. McGrath grinned, and as McCauley queasily passed him another card, he slipped another ace from under his sleeve . He locked eyes with the shadowy chasms of his opponent, and nodded, once.

“It is time,” Death boomed, and one of the flies that had been buzzing around McGrath’s face shriveled up in a puff of smoke.

The cards were flipped.

“I win.” Old Man McGrath grinned. “Now get your sorry ass out of here, I never want to see you again. And take your damned chill, too.”

“That’s your prize and your right, but one day you’ll call to me and you will be mine,” a mighty peeved Death promised as he backed out of the shack. McGrath slammed the door in his face.

McGrath cracked open his best bottle of whiskey in celebration. “Come on, Billy, it’s not every day you pull a fast one over one of the manifested forces of nature. We’re gonna drink this ‘till there’s none left, and then we’re gonna drink some more.”

“I’d… uh, love to, boss, but I’ve got somewhere to be.” McCauley answered, a bit too quickly. He looked a bit green around the gills.

“When’s that ever stopped you?” McGrath asked.

McCauley looked anywhere but at McGrath. “I’ve just gotta be somewhere. Church.” He added, lying through his teeth.

“Suit yourself then, this here whiskey’s gonna be all mine then.” McCauley scurried out, and McGrath sat back down in his rocking chair by the fireplace. The cold held him tenderly in its embrace, like some soiled dove he had tipped handsomely.

He yanked the cork out between his teeth and spat it across the room. As he brought the bottle to his mouth, though, he saw the glint of something white lodged in the cork.

A tooth. His tooth. McGrath was no stranger to losing teeth, but this was the first time that it had happened without the taste of blood in his mouth, or the sharp pain of a knuckle to his face.

Not easily fazed, McGrath shrugged and brought the bottle to his mouth, taking a deep swig. In shock, he realized that there was nothing. He could feel the liquid pour down his throat, settle in a seething pool in his stomach, but there was no taste, no burn in his throat. “What the hell is this? Water?”

He opened a second bottle of whiskey and took a swig. Again, nothing.

Let it never be said that Old James McGrath was a coward, but, panicked, he ran from bottle to bottle, each time getting nothing. Finally, he skidded to a stop in front of the tarnished silver mirror hanging above his washbasin for the occasional shave.

The face looking back at him was not his own, of that he was sure. His own face was old, wrinkled, thin, and had hairs sprouting from where there shouldn’t have been hair. The face staring at him out from the mirror was bloated, green, and was peeling skin where skin shouldn’t have been peeling.

For the first time in a week, McGrath decided to make his way to town. He walked, ‘cause his horse was too scared to let him near. When he got to the village a little after noon on Sunday, as all kinds of respectable people were leaving church, the sight of him caused fourteen little old ladies to pass out, seven feared outlaws to turn themselves in to the sheriff, and one mortician to die of glee.

The real clincher, though, was that none of his friends wanted to sit with him in the saloon, and when he sat down to drink alone, the drink did nothing at all for him.

For, you see, when James McGrath had been supposed to die, his ornery soul had refused to leave the body he’d had for near on sixty years, even if it had followed the proper order of things. Resolving himself, McGrath made his way to the pastor.

“Father, I’m dead. I need me a grave.”

“Well, son, I’m sure I can help you.” The pastor said. “I’ve got some real nice plots, far up on the hill.” He pointed towards a distant lonely tree.

“That’ll do.” He handed the pastor a silver dollar and slowly shambled towards his grave.

“You can come with me, now, if you want.” James practically jumped out of his skin at the sound of the voice, before recognizing Death.

“I thought we had a deal,” McGrath fingered the gun at his side.

“Why are you here, then?” Death’s boney hand gestured at the cemetery.

“I’m dead. Dead people live in graves. This is my new home, and I’m certainly not going with you when I just got myself a new house.” Old Man McGrath’s tone was sure.

Death shrugged and disappeared with a sound like that of a thousand leathery wings beating once in the middle of a thunderstorm. Satisfied, McGrath sat in his grave, six shooter by his side and bottle of whiskey by the other.

Some say he went off with Death after a year, greeting him as an old friend, and others claim he got eaten by some coyotes, but I can’t believe that. Old Man McGrath, eaten by coyotes? Never.

Me? I’d be willing to bet my soul that he’s still sitting there in that old grave, rotten to the bone, waiting for Death to try to come and take him again.


© 2015 by Thomas Berubeg

 

Author’s Note:  The inspiration for this story was threefold. The character of James Mcgrath was one that I had been wanting to write for a while, lounging with a pistol and a scowl in my brain for months, the walking corpse simply refusing to die but not being malevolent came from a family member’s dream, and, finally, I’ve always found the concept of gambling with death an interesting one. In this case, the game of poker was inspired by the western setting (where poker felt more appropriate than the more traditional chess.)

 

5VZumXbThomas Berubeg is a twenty-three year old French-Canadian man currently living in these great United States. A recent graduate, he studied Archaeology and History, and is currently working on a number of short stories and a novel. This is his first published story.

 

 

 

 

 


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DP FICTION #7: “A Room for Lost Things” by Chloe N. Clark

“It’s not always there,” Kelly said.

Rose looked at her niece. “What isn’t always there?”

“The room next to mine. It’s not there all the time.”

Rose regretted her willingness to babysit that night. She had only said yes because her sister had finally decided to move closer to Rose. It would be a good thing to get to know Kelly who she hadn’t seen since Kelly was just a baby. Her sister had lived so far away for so long, moving not long after their parents’ death. This was Rose’s whole family now, after all.

Kelly was quiet, much less buoyant than how Rose expected a nine year old to act, rarely saying much more than a word. The three of them went out to dinner the first night after the move and the kid had just sat at the table staring at her plate of pasta. Perhaps, the move was tougher on her than she was letting on.

Rose assumed the night would be easy; the kind that every babysitter wants where the kid just keeps to herself. So this sudden unfathomable statement seemed extra odd. Was the girl going to start exhibiting stranger behavior? Or could this be leading to some sort of prank?

“You mean the guest room?” Rose asked. Kelly’s bedroom was on the outside of the house so it only had one room bordering it.

“No. Not the guest room. That’s always there.”

“Then, what room?” Rose tried not to sound annoyed. She didn’t like riddles. She’d never liked them. Her mother, a professor of mythology, had always told riddles to her and when Rose inevitably burst into exasperated tears, her mother would try to explain the answers. But the answers always made even less sense than the questions.

“The one on the other side. Sometimes there’s a door to it and sometimes there isn’t.”

Rose stared at Kelly. Kelly didn’t seem like the type to make up fantastical stories. She seemed almost too boring, neatly coloring within the lines of her drawings of tiny houses with curly-smoked chimneys. It was the kind of drawing children made in advertisements featuring perfect families.

“Is the room there now, Kelly?” Rose asked.

Kelly shrugged.

Rose peered up at the ceiling. They were in the living room which was directly underneath Kelly’s room. “Well, let’s go find out, then.”

It had to be some kind of odd game. Rose could never tell with children. She hadn’t had much experience with them. Not since she had been one at least. Kelly nodded and they walked up the stairs and then down the hall to Kelly’s door. Rose opened the door slowly. They both looked inside. The room was as it should be. Bed. Stuffed animals everywhere. No door. “No room today, huh?”

Kelly looked at the opposite wall with the window that looked out onto the garden. She shook her head, satisfied that there was nothing. They went back down and had ice cream, playing Monopoly until Kelly’s bedtime. Rose let Kelly win. She wasn’t a fan of Monopoly and so she rarely ever played it, but she knew that it was never fun to lose.

Rose sat reading in the living room. It was past ten and her sister would be back any minute. Then she heard something from upstairs. It sounded like music, the same type of music that her parents had played at Christmas when Rose and her sister were little. Her father had taught music and sometimes told the stories behind the songs. Rose used to imagine the musicians making songs blossom out of pieces of sound like the magic trick where a magician placed a seed in dirt and then it burst into a tree. So the stories of frustration and the time that it took to create music always disappointed her. She longed for music to be sudden in its creation.

Rose walked up the steps and then down the hall to Kelly’s room. She gently opened the door, peeking inside. Kelly was asleep in bed. On her wall was a door. Rose blinked. It was still there. She tiptoed up to it, a mahogany door with a golden knob. It looked a lot like the door in her grandmother’s house, the one that led into the cinnamon-scented kitchen. Her grandmother had been an amazing baker and Rose still remembered the taste of the pinwheel cookies that she made—the perfect blend of salty butter cookie with a ring of super sweet cinnamon and walnuts. She had stood on tiptoe to steal the cookies off the high shelf her grandmother kept them on. The music came from behind the door. Rose reached out, but heard her sister driving up. She turned away at the sound and then turned back quickly. The door was gone. She never thought that she was a suggestible person, but, maybe she was now.

Rose went downstairs and chatted with her sister for a few minutes. “Yes, everything was fine. I’d be happy to help again, anytime.”

A month passed and Rose began to forget about the door. It had been a silly trick of her mind. One night her sister called and asked her to babysit again. She agreed.

She spent the first part of the night helping Kelly with some math homework. Rose liked math. It always meant something and every problem could be solved. As she and Kelly were eating cookies and milk, as a reward for completing all of the questions, she asked, “Kelly, have you ever gone inside that other room?”

Kelly looked up. Her eyes were wide. She nodded. Once, quick.

“Why do you look so worried?”

Kelly looked down. “I don’t think I should have. I don’t think my mom would like it.”

“Well, it’s our secret.”

Kelly looked back up, smiling.

“What was it like in there? Was it nice?”

“Well…It was filled up with all these…Well, they were things I’d lost. A doll from years ago and my mouse that ran away. The room was so big; there was room for so much more. Shelves and shelves.”

“Was there music playing?”

Kelly looked surprised. “Yes. It, well, don’t tell my mom but it was this song that my dad used to play when we went for drives before…Before he left…It was so nice. But…” Kelly stopped to study her glass of milk, cookie crumbs floating up to the surface like dead fish.

“What, Kelly?”

“Well, I think the room, I think, it didn’t want me to leave, it wanted me to stay, to keep me safe and tucked away.”

Later, Rose tucked Kelly into bed. Then she read, only she wasn’t really reading. She was waiting. She listened but didn’t hear anything. She went up the stairs and then down the hall and opened Kelly’s door. Kelly was asleep. There was no other door. Rose sighed and went back downstairs.

Rose spent the next few days hoping that her sister would call and ask her to babysit again. She wanted to see the door again. She needed to know that it really existed or that it didn’t. She didn’t like the not knowing. She never had. When her father was in the hospital, the doctors didn’t know if he would wake up. Her mother was gone already and she overhead the police saying that he was the only surviving witness if he recovered to testify.  So much was contained in that “if”.  Rose kept wishing to know one way or the other–would he wake up or would he also be gone? Then she’d gotten her wish and hated herself for being foolish enough to make it.

One night the phone rang and she answered it on the first ring. She was already set to say yes.

It wasn’t her sister. It was the police. They spoke quietly, matter-of-factly, icily. There had been an accident. The curvy road and the rain and the moonless night.

Rose went to the station, to the morgue, and she looked at two tables. Cold tables. Two sheets pulled back. Two faces and she gave them each a name, saying the words aloud. She said the names without thinking and then couldn’t call them back. To name them made it real. They had been her whole family, she wanted to tell someone. The coroner or the police or anyone who would have understood. Can a family be reduced to one person? Was there a word for that?

Rose went to her sister’s house. She didn’t think about it. She just knew that was where she had to go. When she stepped in, she almost called out from habit. Then her voice caught in her throat and she thought that the words might be choking her.

She heard music. She went up the stairs and then down the hall and opened Kelly’s door. It wasn’t as it should be. There was no one asleep in the bed. The room was dark, drained of something that she couldn’t quite place.

There was the door. Rose walked up to it. She pressed her ear against it and could hear the faint sounds of music and voices and laughter. Rose reached out, closing her hand around the golden door knob. She gently turned it. Rose opened the door and stepped inside to see what she could find.


© 2015 by Chloe N. Clark

 

author_photo_4 (1)Chloe N. Clark is an MFA candidate, baker extraordinaire, and amateur folklorist. Her work has appeared in Abyss & Apex, Supernatural Tales, and more. She is currently at work on a novel about stage magic.

 

 

 

 

 

 


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DP FICTION #6: “The Superhero Registry” by Adam Gaylord

“What about ‘Copper Penny’?” Lois spread her hands out in front of her like the name was on an old Hollywood marquee.

The square-jawed applicant sitting across the desk arched an eyebrow. “Seriously?”

“Sure! Just think of the potential catch phrases. Your arch-nemesis monologues about how you’ve yet again foiled his or her plans and you say, ‘Of course. I’m Copper Penny. I always turn up.’”

She could tell he was tempted. She tried to sweeten the deal. “Plus, copper is very valuable right now.”

He frowned. “It’s just, it’s a little feminine, don’t you think?”

“No way! I think it’s very masculine.” She batted her eyelashes a little. Anything to get this guy to settle on a name so she could go to lunch. Copper Penny was a bit of a stretch as far as the rules went but she was pretty sure it would pass muster because of his natural red hair.

“Hmmm. No. I just don’t think it’s right for me.”

Lois sighed. They’d been at this all morning and he was no closer to making a decision. Working in the Registry was usually fun. She got to meet the new class of superheroes before they got famous and occasionally she’d even help one pick a name, which was usually a blast. A few of the more appreciative heroes even kept in touch. She was supposed to have lunch with The Valkyrie Sisters next week.

But every once in a while she got one of these fellas. No creativity, no initiative, just expected to have the work done for them. Pretty bad traits for a superhero, in her opinion.

He leaned back in his chair. “Can you go over the rules one more time?”

It was the third time he’d asked and she was tempted to shove her coffee cup down his throat, but the agency had been pushing customer service lately. “These are tomorrow’s superheroes,” the memo said. “We need to establish a strong working relationship from day one.”

So she smiled, brushed her curly blond hair aside, and explained again. “Your name has to have something to do with your super power and/or your look. But, you can only base your name off the latter if you already have a look established, not the other way around.”

“But why? Why can’t I pick a name and then build a look around it?”

She shrugged. “Honestly, it doesn’t come up that often. Most heroes base their costume off something pretty significant like a traumatic childhood memory or the blanket their foster parents found them in. And of course, many heroes are actually green or blue or made out of rock or whatever, so that’s easy.

“But I just look like I always have.”

“Right. So we have to pick a name based on your powers. Now, your fists turn into metal, right?”

“And my forearms.”

She resisted the urge to roll her eyes. “Right. And your forearms. Is that it?”

“What do you mean, ‘Is that it’?” He stood, rolling up his sleeves to show off his shiny metallic appendages. “I can crush cinder blocks with these things.”

“Of course,” she said with a smile. “They’re very impressive.”

He sat down, apparently placated.

“Let’s use that. What else smashes cinder blocks?”

His eyes lit up. “’The Sledge Hammer’!”

She checked the database. “Sorry, that’s taken.”

“What about just, ‘The Hammer’?”

“Nope. Taken.”

“Hmmm… ‘Iron Hammer’?”

“Are your fists actually iron?”

“I’m not sure. Still waiting on lab results. They said it might take two weeks, but I want to get started now!”

“Well, we don’t want to register you as iron if they turn out to be tin or aluminum, do we? I only suggested copper because of your hair color.”

He looked at his hands. “I don’t think they’re aluminum.”

She clicked away at her keyboard. “What about ‘Hard Hand’?”

“Hmmm…kinda catchy.”

“Or just ‘The Hand’?”

“Perfect!”

“Excellent!” She quickly entered the appropriate information into the database before he could change his mind.

“Talk about catch phrases!” He stood and pantomimed shaking someone’s hand. “No worries officer, I’m always happy to lend a hand.” He punched an invisible assailant. “Sorry, I guess I was a little heavy handed.” He thrust his chest out, hands on his hips. “No criminal can outrun the long hand of the law.”

“Arm”, she muttered.

“What?”

“Nothing.” She hit the enter button and the successful registration confirmation message flashed on the screen. “Congratulations Hand, you are now a registered superhero. I will forward your information to one of our case managers and he or she will contact you within seventy-two hours to discuss training opportunities and duty assignments.”

“Wait, aren’t you gonna help me with my look?”

She handed him a fistful of colorful pamphlets she had at the ready. “There are dozens of costume consultants that can craft you the perfect super-ensemble.”

“Oh, okay. So, a case manager will call me?”

“Within seventy-two hours.”

“Okay.” He sat looking at her for a long moment. “Okay, well thanks for your help. If you ever need a superhero, look me up.”

Lois waited a full five count after he left, then scurried for the break room. They had a running over/under board for what superheroes would make it past their first year and she wanted to be the first to lay money on “under” for The Hand.


© 2015 by Adam Gaylord

 

Author’s Note: I love epic action and harrowing plot twists as much as anyone, but often it’s the everyday interactions of the worlds we create that really fascinate me.

 

HeadShot_AGaylordAdam Gaylord lives with his beautiful wife, daughter, and less beautiful dog in Loveland, CO. When not at work as a biologist he’s usually hiking, drinking craft beer, drawing comics, writing short stories, or some combination thereof. Check out his stuff at http://adamsapple2day.blogspot.com/ and www.hopstories.com.

 

 

 

 

 


If you enjoyed the story you might also want to visit our Support Page, or read the earlier story offerings:
DP Fiction #1: “Taste the Whip” by Andy Dudak
DP Fiction #2: “Virtual Blues” by Lee Budar-Danoff
DP Fiction #3: “In Memoriam” by Rachel Reddick
DP Fiction #4: “The Princess in the Basement” by Hope Erica Schultz
DP Fiction #5: “Not a Bird” by H.E. Roulo

DP FICTION #4: “The Princess in the Basement” by Hope Erica Schultz

I woke when the boy came through the window. He looked about eight, all dark eyes in a brown face.

“Don’t touch the floor,” I said.

He startled. “Why not?”

“The monster under my bed will get you.”

He relaxed. “I’m too old to believe in monsters. You need a better lock for your window. And bars. Everybody in the neighborhood has bars.”

I tried to imagine bars on the window. Would it be more a prison?

“It’s not safe for you here. You need to go home.”

He shrugged, settling cross-legged on the dresser below the window. “My parents are fighting. I’ll go home in a few hours.”

It was dark outside. It was always dark when I woke. “What’s your name?”

“I’m Carlos. I’m the youngest. What’s yours?”

“I’m Jane. I’m the youngest, too.” Or I had been.

Carlos swung his legs. “You don’t talk like you’re from Boston.”

“I’m not, originally.” Was Boston even in England? Where had my curse taken me?

“What’s on your leg?” He hopped to the floor, and I cried out. Fürst rumbled from under my bed, and Carlos jumped back onto the dresser. “What was that?”

“I told you.” I swallowed hard. “You need to go, now, Carlos. This isn’t a safe place for you.”

He opened his mouth, and one green claw came out from under the bed. It could have encircled a cantaloupe, or a man’s head.

“Go,” I repeated, and he went, out into the night.

I slept.

**

I woke when the man entered the window. Moonlight glinted against a knife in his hand. He slipped to the floor and Fürst slid out from under the bed, scales glinting green. Fürst unhinged his jaw, grasped the intruder with his claws, and swallowed him whole. The knife clanged against the floor, but the man never had a chance to scream.

I slept.

***

I woke when the boy came through the window. It was Carlos, grown older.

“I thought perhaps I dreamed it all, but you’re still here. I don’t think you’re any older. Is the monster still here, too?”

There was a tiny rumble from Fürst under the bed, and I smiled reluctantly. “You shouldn’t have come back.” I hesitated, fighting curiosity. “How long has it been?”

“Four years.” He leaned forward, carefully. “There was something around your leg. I tried not to remember that, but I did.”

I shrugged. “There’s a monster under my bed, and you’re worried about my legs?”

He looked at me with the straight look I remembered. “It looked like a chain.”

I sighed. “It is a chain, Carlos. It’s mostly for show; I’m only awake when someone enters the room, and Fürst won’t let me leave the bed.”

His brow wrinkled. “Fürst?”

“It means Prince. My guardian, my jailor…my monster.”

He nodded as though that made sense.

“I’ll be back,” he said, turning to go.

“You sho—” I began, but he was gone.

I slept.

***

He was older again. He tossed me a small cloth bag.

“They’re lock picks. I’m going to teach you how to use them.”

I blinked. “Why?”

He shook his head. “Chica, it’s easier to get out if you’re not chained.”

I looked at the bag, at him. “How long?”

“Another four years. I had to learn how, so I could teach you.”

“Will you be hanged, if you’re caught with these?”

Carlos shook his head. “We’re not much on hanging people.”

He demonstrated the picks and I struggled to mimic him. The lock resisted my best efforts, but he only nodded. “I’ll be back,” he said again.

I slept.

***

The next few times he brought me locks to practice with. When I conquered the easiest, he replaced it with a harder one, and one harder still. I noted that his clothing changed—light clothing to heavy, then to light again. A mustache had grown in on his upper lip, then a small beard. He was man now, not boy.

The night that I opened my manacle he carried a leather bag. I stared at my free ankle. “Now what?”

“Will Fürst hurt you, if you touch the floor?”

“No, he’ll just carry me back to the bed.”

“Good.” He opened the bag, pulled out a hammer. “Catch.”

I caught it, then a box of nails. Last he sent the edge of a rope ladder. “You’ll need to nail this into the bed frame to anchor it.”

He demonstrated and I mimicked him, nail after nail. When I pushed against it, it held my weight.

Carlos waited as I pulled myself up onto it. A step, two—I slipped, and my foot brushed the floor.

Fürst erupted, tail lashing, and gathered me up in his great claws. I smelled carrion on his breath as he set me gently onto my bed. My prison.

I was angry, suddenly, and barely waited for Fürst to settle before starting again. One step, two, three, four. I slipped but held on grimly, regaining the rung with my bare foot. Five, six, seven…then Carlos caught my hand. I scrambled up beside him onto the dresser, then up, out, through the open window.

The night was cold but brilliantly lit with balls of fire perched on metal trees. Carlos closed the window behind us and led me to a strange low carriage without horses.

“Where are we going?” Should I have asked before? Did I even care?

“To my mother’s apartment. Mom always told me a woman didn’t need a prince to rescue her. She needed a friend, to help her rescue herself.” He grinned. “You already had a Prince, and he didn’t look like a keeper to me.”

No kiss, no guarantee that there would ever be one. No castle, no piles of gold. I sighed happily as he helped me into the carriage.


© 2015 by Hope Erica Schultz

 

Author’s Note: Boston is, to me, the natural setting for fairy tales in America.  The old brownstones look timeless, as though they have seen centuries pass.  (They have.)  Many have basement windows, and most of these have wrought iron bars across them.  To my younger mind, they looked like prison cells, sinister and strange.  It was the perfect place for Jane’s story to unfold.

 

Hope Ring 2 M.D.Hope Erica Schultz writes Science Fiction and Fantasy for teens and adults.  Her stories have appeared in Fireside Magazine Issue 18, Siren’s Call Issue 13, and the YA anthology Stepmothers and the Big Bad Wolf. When not reading, writing, tramping through the woods, or pretending to be someone else, she keeps busy at 1 1/2 jobs, a happily chaotic family, one dog, four cats, and a flock of wild turkeys who think they own the back yard. Follow her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/hope.schultz.14 and at her website.

 

 

 

 


If you enjoyed the story you might also want to visit our Support Page, or read the earlier story offerings:
DP Fiction #1: “Taste the Whip” by Andy Dudak
DP Fiction #2: “Virtual Blues” by Lee Budar-Danoff
DP Fiction #3: “In Memoriam” by Rachel Reddick

Interview: Literary Agent Amy Boggs

interviewed by Carl Slaughter

amy-boggs-photoLiterary agent Amy Boggs is a sci-fi/fantasy geek who has been professionally geeking out over books at Donald Maass agency since 2009. She specializes in speculative fiction and is especially interested in high fantasy, urban fantasy, steampunk (and its variations), YA, MG, and alternate history.

Her recent books include: Tom Pollock’s Our Lady of the Streets, the final book in the Skyscraper Throne series (urban fantasy); Thea Harrison’s Knight’s Honor, book #7 in the Elder Races series (paranormal romance); Jacey Bedford’s Empire of Dust, the first in space opera series.

 

CARL SLAUGHTER: Why get into agenting? Rather than writing or editing, or marketing or publicity, or publishing.

AMY BOGGS: I knew I wanted to get into the agenting side of the business after interning at an agency my sophomore year at college. Right out of college, I would have been very happy to have a job that touched publishing in any way, so I could have spent time in any division of a publishing house, but I knew agenting was my end goal because it combines many of my favorite things about the book business. You brainstorm with your authors and help them revise and negotiate fair contracts and fight bad covers and talk them into good covers they don’t particularly like and tell everyone you can about their fabulous books. I work solely for the author, because what benefits the author benefits the agency and me. I like that my job is purely championing my authors and their work.

 

How did you know as early as college that you wanted to be a literary agent?

Vassar College’s Career Development Office had a weekly newsletter they left in our mailboxes, and one day there was a notice for an internship at a literary agency. I had a vague idea of what agents did and thought it would be good experience. Once I got on the job, I knew it was what I wanted to do in my future.

 

How did you rise from intern to agent so quickly?

Did I? I think agent careers reflect author careers in that you can’t really say there is a typical timeline they’re supposed to follow. This varies by the agency, of course, but I did my first agency internship in 2005 and then interned at DMLA in 2008 (with jobs at two magazines in between) and then was hired as an agency assistant in 2009. Eight months later I found a brilliant author in my boss’s queries and he thought I should be the one to take him on. Two months later I signed my next client, and five months later I sold a three-book deal. I don’t know if that’s quick or slow or typical, but it happened very organically. I do know that I’m fortunate to work at an agency that encouraged my growth and has a few decades of experience to back me up.

 

Why so keen on sci-fi/fantasy?

I’ve always loved it. When I was three, I was obsessed with Scooby-Doo. Bruce Coville was my childhood. My pre-teen self couldn’t get enough of Unsolved Mysteries, but only the segments with aliens, UFOs, ghosts, and supernatural critters. The Princess Bride was my family’s first DVD. I played Legend of Zelda and read Harry Potter and wrote portal fantasy all through middle and high school. I’m not entirely sure why; I just find other worlds more interesting, and a better avenue for exploring the quandaries on our own world. Perhaps I’m the opposite of Drax from Guardians of the Galaxy; my mind works mostly in metaphors.

 

How do you size up whether an author is a good fit for you and a good fit for your agency?

99% of it is the manuscript; can’t do anything without a good manuscript. 1% is whether or not the author is a jerk. I have lots of authors and lots of excellent manuscripts coming my way and only a finite amount of time, so I’d prefer to spend it with cool people and not jerks. How do I determine if someone is a jerk? Well, if they’ve ever seriously blogged things like “I’m not racist, but†” or “I just happen to read only male authors.” then chances are I’m not the right agent for them.

 

When you read a manuscript, how do you tell when you’ve got a winner? Characters, plot, writing style? Current market? Or do you listen to your instinct?

All of the above. Intriguing characters fall flat with a monotone writing style, no amount of exciting plot can make up for characters that aren’t worth following, all the elements have to work together. All of those have to be doubly unique and amazing if it’s in a subgenre that’s recently been hot and now everyone’s sick of it. And instinct is really just a combination of all this and having read enough to know when something stands out. There is nothing quite like it when you’ve read 100 queries that day and one of them makes you sit up in your chair.

 

Do you get most of your new clients over the transom, through networking, or at conventions and workshop?

70% of my clients came to me through my queries. The rest are from recommendations from co-workers, clients, and even one from my mom (she is a children’s bookseller, so she knows her stuff).

 

How many manuscripts a year do you consider and what percentage do you accept?

I actually don’t have those numbers; when I check a manuscript off my list to read, I literally delete it off the list! But I would guess I consider about 100 manuscripts a year, and I end up signing about 2% of those. I wouldn’t say I accept them; when an agent offers representation, they are offering to partner with the author. So really what happens is both agent and author agree to a partnership.

 

Do you work with authors on revising?

Yes. I am pickier about the amount of revision I’m willing to take on (more clients equals less time for revising debut manuscripts), but I always want a manuscript to be as perfect as both the author and I can make it before it goes to editors.

 

Do you get involved on the publicity/marketing end?

I help where I can, but I am not a publicist. That’s a position that requires a particular set of skills, skills acquired over a very long career.

 

If you take on a new client, what kind of productivity do you expect? How many books a year?

That depends entirely on the client and the genre(s) they write in. In romance, anything less than one book a year isn’t enough. In literary fiction, one book every five years isn’t far out there. What I really want is for my authors not to feel overwhelmed and pushed into delivering inferior books. So far that hasn’t happened; publishing is more accommodating than one might fear.

 

Do you prefer an author stick with a series? Are stand alones trickier commercially? Or does it matter?

Again, depends on the author and genre(s). And really, it’s not about my preference, but what I advise to the author. It is their career and it is my job to make sure they are well-informed so that regardless of the choices they make, they won’t be sideswiped by the outcome.

 

Any subgenres you can’t get enough of? Any you get too much of?

High fantasy. Richly built, other-world high fantasy with fantastic characters I want to follow forever, like N.K. Jemisin, Megan Whalen Turner, Scott Lynch, Ellen Kushner. Most of the fantasy I get is tied to our world (historical, contemporary, urban, steampunk) and those are lovely, but I want more high fantasy. And it’s not so much that I get too much of any subgenre, but that I get things typical of a subgenre. Like portal fantasy where the protagonist is mystically taken to another land and the plot is their quest to get home. I want something new, regardless of subgenre.

 

What are the most common misconceptions new writers have about finding and working with literary agents?

1. Agents are gatekeepers. As cool and ominous as that sounds, it’s not true. An agent’s job isn’t to keep people out, it’s to find those they have the time and ability to help get published. Like I said above, it’s a partnership. Agents put out their information to say they’re looking for authors to partner with, writers pick which agents they want to reach out to partner with, agents decide which of those writers they think they could make a good partnership with, and writers decide whether or not they want to partner with the agent who offers. I know from a querying author’s perspective it can seem like agents have all the power here, but the thing is, we’re nothing without authors.

2. After you get an agent, things get easier. Ha. If only. No matter what level you’re at as an author, things are hard. Even that beloved author of multiple series has that major newspaper that trashes each book and faces the same blank page when they go to write their next book. It’s always hard, just different kinds of hard.

 

What are the most common manuscript mistakes new writers make?

1. Emulating books that aren’t debuts published within the last five years. Writing changes with society and readers have continually changing expectations for debut novels. Imitating Tolkien in a world that has had Tolkien’s books for 77 years is like trying to get people to invest in your new invention “the zipper.” We’ve already got that. Show us something new.

2. Transcribing literally what published novelists do subtly. I think this is why I get so many queries that start with the protagonist telling you the daily nuances of their life or a prologue that goes into detail about the world the book is set in. Novelists often get this information across subtly over the course of a novel, and by the end a reader knows ever detail intimately, so the impulse to start a book by describing the details is an understandable one. It’s just one that must be fought.

3. Going with the path of least resistance in writing. Writing is not easy, and so when plotting along, it’s tempting to go with the first thing that comes to mind. Often, however, the first thing to come to mind is something already seen in other books. It’s too easy to let inspiration become imitation become a clichÃ’ . Author Kate Brauning had a recent post about how she comes up with fresh ideas with “The Rule of Ten.” I think it’s utterly brilliant and challenges writers to question their gut.

 

Advice to new writers?

Be daring and be true. It will come across in your work.

 

Carl_eagle Carl Slaughter is a man of the world. For the last decade, he has traveled the globe as an ESL teacher in 17 countries on 3 continents, collecting souvenir paintings from China, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, and Egypt, as well as dresses from Egypt, and masks from Kenya, along the way. He spends a ridiculous amount of time and an alarming amount of money in bookstores. He has a large ESL book review website, an exhaustive FAQ about teaching English in China, and a collection of 75 English language newspapers from 15 countries.

The Best of Lightspeed (& Fantasy) Podcast

written by David Steffen

John Joseph Adams has been getting a lot of attention in recent years. He used to be the slush reader for Fantasy & Science Fiction, but has gone one to be the editor and publisher of Lightspeed, and of their horror sister Nightmare. He has also published quite a few themed fiction anthologies like The Living Dead, Wastelands, and By Blood We Live.

Fantasy Magazine has been around for quite a few years. Lightspeed is only a couple years old, started by Fantasy‘s publisher Sean Wallace and edited by John Joseph Adams. In 2011 John Joseph Adams became the editor and publisher of both, and chose to consolidate the two into a single magazine titled Lightspeed, but which contains the same amount of fantasy and science fiction stories that the individual magazines had carried. From the beginning Lightspeed has had a podcast that has broadcast all of their stories alongside the text publications. When JJA took over Fantasy, he started their podcast as well, but it only lasted 10 episodes before the merger absorbed Fantasy into Lightspeed.

So this is a “Best of” list combining all of Lightspeed‘s podcasted backlog, combined with the 10 Fantasy Magazine episodes in consideration as well.

 

1. The Way of Cross and Dragon by George R. R. Martin
Yes, Lightspeed has managed to attract some big household names like George R. R. Martin. This particular short story was published before I was born. But George is not on this list because he’s well known. These lists are based strictly on merit–I considered his story on the same grounds as everyone else. My #2 choice was very close to this story in my ranking, but this one edged it out because it is centered around my favorite topic for speculation–religion. This story is about a member of an intergalactic Catholic church in the future who is tasked with rooting out heretics in far-flung star systems. He is sent toward a particularly strange sect centered around Judas Iscariot.

2. The Old Equations by Jake Kerr
Based around a future civilization with quantum-based technology, which is an alternate future, based around a past in which Albert Einstein’s theories were dismissed as nonsense. In this future, one of the first interstellar trips at near-light speed is begun. Since they don’t understand the concepts of relativity, they have to figure out all those problematic details as they go. An interesting science problem, with a strong human story at the core of it. In some ways it reminds me of the excellent flash story “Deep Moves” by Bill Highsmith (which I cannot seem to find active link for, too bad)

3. The Taste of Starlight by John R. Fultz
Fair warning: This one will likely be too dark for many viewers. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. A long-haul intergalactic trip with a crew in stasis goes wrong in mid-flight when the cryochambers become damaged and a crew member wakes up years too early. He can’t re-enter cryo, and he has to figure out a way to stay alive until the end of the flight. An entire colony’s survival depends on his technical skills, after all.

4. Using it and Losing It by Jonathan Lethem
A man who is sick of dealing with people enjoys a visit to a country where he does not speak the language because of the freedom from conversation it grants him. Returning home, he decides that he wants that freedom in the comfort of his own country, and he sets out to forcefully forget all language.

5. A Hole to China by Catherynne M. Valente
A very fascinating story in the age-old tradition of a child who finds a secret fantasy world. A girl sets out to dig a hole to China and finds hidden worlds beneath her backyard. Lots of great worldbuilding here, a lot of fun to read.

6. Mama, We are Zhenya, Your Son by Tom Crosshill
I always like a good story from a skewed perspective. This story is told from the point of view of a Russian child who is the subject of scientific experiments to see if he can be taught to move and manipulate objects on a quantum level. It’s a bit confusing at first, because the boy does not understand what is happening very clearly, but stick with it and it sorts itself out.

7. Transcript of Interaction Between Astronaut Mike Scudderman and the OnStar Hands-Free A.I. Crash Advisor by Grady Hendrix
“You are going to die,” are the first words from the OnStar crash advisor after crash landing on a planet. (don’t worry, that happens right away, that’s not a spoiler). This story is exactly what the title makes it sound like. Lots of fun, dark humor, and the ending is superb.

8.ÂÂ More Than the Sum of His Parts by Joe Haldeman
A man badly injured in an industrial accident is reconstructed with cyborg parts. The story begins as he is going through his procedures, and progresses as he becomes more and more familiar with his new superhuman abilities, and how they set him apart in every way from his fellow men.

 

Honorable Mentions:

Bubbles by David Brin

Dark Sanctuary by Gregory Benford

Four Short Novels by Joe Haldeman
“Eventually it came to pass that no one ever had to die.” A vague opening that could lead any number of routes to tell a good story. In this case, Joe Haldeman has taken this beginning and gone four separate ways for it. Generally these are very high level, often without individual characters, or I probably would’ve ranked this one higher, but it was very interesting, if not emotionally engaging. It’s illustrative of the concept of story triggers, wherein a single prompt can send four authors in four completely different direction, but with just one author involved.

Lessons From a Clockwork Queen by Megan Arkenberg
Generally this one is written a bit distantly for my tastes, but the ideas in it are good enough, and the writing is charming enough that I liked it nonetheless. It’s written as a fairy tale story about a clockwork queen, with fable-style morals sprinkled throughout.

Technology and Writing

Technology is constantly changing the way we do so many things, and writing is no exception. How exactly? I’ve broken down the answer to that question into a set of categories. Keep in mind that all of this is through my own perspective on writing, which has been primarily speculative fiction short stories.

Is there anything I’ve left out, related to any sort of writing? Leave a comment!

1. Revising/writing

a. Spell Check-Many would be lost without spell check. Many programs, including Microsoft Word, even do a spell check as you type, and immediately mark an incorrectly spelled word the moment you type it. The spell check program can suggest alternative spellings, provide dictionary look-up. Still, spell checks could be improved–if the program could recognize a name through context this would prevent a lot of false alarms. Word also comes with a grammar check, but that is less useful because its grasp of grammar rules is shaky at best.

b. Revise and print-You decided you want to add a new paragraph on page one of a five hundred page manuscript? Or you discovered that all of your pages need a 1.5 inch margin instead of 1 inch? No problem! All you need to do is open up the document in your word processor, make your changes, and it’s ready to print. If you wanted to do this with a typewritten manuscript, it would not be fun at all.

2. Backing up your work

Imagine that, after putting weeks, months, or years of work into creating a masterpiece of prose, you suddenly lose your only copy of your manuscript. You remember the major plot points, but you’ve lost all the little details, and all the beautiful sentence-level work. It’s a terrible thought! Well, these days, there’s no reason to lose all your work if you just take a little time to prepare. Email is a convenient way to back your documents up. Many email services provide large storage banks for each account. I have a Gmail account that I started for free that makes a great aid to backing up documents. While I’m working on a new document, I email myself every couple of days. If I ever lost my other copies, all I would need to do is dig up the saved email. In addition to that, if someone plagiarized your work in the future, the timestamp on the email could help prove that you had a work in progress of the story long before it was in print. In addition to email, it’s always a good idea to back up a file in several places, each at different physical locations (so that a disaster like a fire doesn’t destroy years and years of hard work).

There are even programs designed specifically to help you keep your stuff backed up. Anthony recommend Carbonite.

3. Learning the craft

a. Interaction with pro authors-When I was younger, professional writers seemed to be a race of distant and otherworldly beings that I could never hope to interact with, lest my head explode (like when humans hear the voice of God in some belief sets). But now that illusion has been mostly dispelled. Don’t get me wrong, I still admire my favorite writers greatly for the amazing worlds they’re able to pull seemingly out of nowhere, but it turns out that quite a lot of them are quite nice people, and I’m even pretty sure that some of them are at least mostly human. Lots of them have blogs where they freely give writing advice to anyone who’s interested in listening. David Farland, for instance, has an email blog called Kick in the Pants–you can sign up for it at his website. Dean Wesley Smith is another favorite, providing great advice on his blog, including ideas for self-motivation like The Race. I’ve even added quite a few of my favorite authors as friends on Facebook–I enjoy hearing their writing updates and hear when they’re coming through my area for book signings.

No single writing method works for everyone, so if David Farland’s advice doesn’t work for you, don’t be discouraged. Just keep trying different methods until you find something that really clicks. Check out the sites of a few different authors. At the very least, their perspectives are entertaining. And if you have any questions, drop a comment to one of them. Keep in mind that they’re busy, but it’s not at all rare for them to take some time to reply to questions or comments.

b. Peer critique forums-Once I decided to start writing I spent more than a year writing a novel, mostly in isolation. I had just a few people who were willing to give me feedback on my stories, but these people tended to be inclined to tell me that they really liked the story, but not tell me much else. This was good for my ego, but not so useful to improve my writing skills. After that year, I decided to start writing short stories, and while doing market research I came across Baen’s Bar, a peer critique forum that doubled as a submission vehicle for Jim Baen’s Universe. You can post a story to their forum, and it is available immediately for feedback from others registered on the forum. Staff members of JBU often gave their comments, as well as other aspiring writers. Not only can you get feedback on your own work, many of whom are very experienced and have a good eye for picking out what’s missing in a story, but you can critique the writing of others. Of all the ways to improve your own writing, critiquing others is the best way, in my opinion. It allows you examine the stories of other aspiring writers and examine them with a cold eye without any emotional attachment to the story. You can decide what you like and what you don’t, and the real trick is to learn how to apply this to your own writing.

Jim Baen’s Universe will be closed as of mid-2010. There are no official plans to close Baen’s Bar critique forum, and the newsgroup it exists on will probably still need to be maintained for Baen’s Books and the Grantville Gazette magazine, so i hope the venue is around for a good long time.

c. Easy sharing-If you want to share a copy of a story with a friend, all you have to do is drop them an email. It’s free, and it’s quick, and a great way to share your work for feedback or just for fun.

d. Autocrit-Autocrit is a subscription-based service which provides automated tools to help watch for trouble spots in your manuscripts. It can look for potential flaws such as overused words and phrases, cliches, and overused dialogue tags. No tool is the end-all be-all of revising your manuscript, but this tool in combination with other techniques and tools can make a big difference.

4. Research

The effect of the Internet on research is obvious. Anyone with Internet access has nearly endless banks of information at their disposal, but one must always keep the source in mind. Wikipedia, for instance, is good for finding quick, interesting information, but because it is created by users, information provided there may not be correct. If a writer decides to write a story about doppelgangers, a quick Google search can provide a plethora of information in a fraction of a second.

5. Market info

1. Sites like Ralan provide submission information for a wide variety of publications.Â

2. Most markets have submisions page which describes exactly what they’re looking for, including any special formatting they require, required length, and preferred themes. Be sure to check out this page each time you send out a story to that market. You never know when some of their requirements will change. Many markets close to submissions from time to time, also, and it’s best to check here to be sure the market is still open as well.

6. Electronic submission/staff interaction

a. Save money-It costs nothing to send an email. That’s a major perk! Mailed submissions usually cost something like 2 dollars domestic within the US, including the SASE, and that’s not including the envelopes or the printing costs. Email submissions cost nothing. When you’re just getting started, those postage costs add up fast!

b. Quick interaction-An electronic submission arrives nearly instantly, ready for perusal by the magazine’s staff. My record fastest response was only 47 minutes (from Fantasy Magazine). That one was an outlier, but a few magazines consistently respond within 24 hours such as Fantasy, Clarkesworld, and Podcastle.

c. Geographically separated staff-A magazine’s staff members no longer have to be located anywhere near each other. In many cases, staff members may have never met in person, but members can interact easily with technology like email and online forums. This makes it much easier to find staff members, if you have the entire net-connected world to filter for candidates.

d. Competition fiercer every day! A downside to the recent ease of submission is that when submissions are both free and easy, more and more people will try it, which means more competition!

7. New publishing mediums

Printed words (either in magazine or book form) are no longer the only way to publish fiction. In fact, print may be the hardest one to maintain profitability with, and is probably the hardest method to start a new magazine with. Even a few years ago, print publications were generally considered to be more prestigious, but minds are opening a little bit more every year. SFWA recognizes professional markets based on pay and the circulation level, regardless of the medium.

Both of my sales to date have been to non-traditional publishing formats.

a. HTML-text format on a website. This can be provided for free (like Fantasy Magazine or Strange Horizons) or on a fee-based system (like Intergalactic Medicine Show or Jim Baen’s Universe).

b. Podcast-I’ve recently discovered audio fiction and I honestly don’t know how I’ve done without it. I can load up many stories on my iPod and I listen to them every day on my commute. Now I look forward to driving to see what the next story is! My first fiction sale was to Pseudopod, so I’ve got a soft spot in my heart for podcasts. And, even better, audio rights and text rights often do not overlap, so there is a large potential for resales for audio markets, as they are providing a substantially different product.

c. Print on Demand-Even just a few years ago, POD wasn’t really a viable option. Nowadays, if you have a good idea for a book or an anthology, you can publish it through POD and if you can find the audience for it, you can really do well. POD is not as risky as doing a huge preprinted print run (the traditional method), because you only print copies of the book that you have already sold. This means that once you’ve covered your artist/design and other upfront costs, each sale holds a share of profit. This is particularly appealing if the level of interest is uncertain or expected to be low.

Northern Frights Press was the publisher for my second sale. This was NFP’s very first anthology, provided via POD. Despite it being POD the printing is of a high quality that you could find in any bookstore, and it’s available to order from Amazon just like any other book. I’ve been very impressed with POD so far.

d. E-books-E-readers like Kindle are just starting to gain more widespread popularity. For a small fee, you can download books right onto the e-reader. With this technology you can grab new books instantly for less than what you would pay at the store, and you can carry your whole library with you wherever you go. I’m not sure that they will ever replace real books entirely–there’s just something I love about holding a physical book in my hand, the smell of the pages, the feel of the binding–but there are a lot of advantages to e-readers.

8. Social networking

In decades past, writing was generally considered to be a pretty lonely profession. Long hours alone with your typewriter were the norm, making a writer feel isolated from the very world she’s trying to write about. But if you’re writing on a net-connected laptop, you no longer need to be isolated. The importance of social connections in writing cannot be understated. There are many forums focused solely on writing, some geared towards particular genres, and they’re a great place to meet fellow aspiring writers. You’re not the only one struggling to be published. Together you can celebrate your successes, console each other for your failures, swap critiques, discuss writing techniques, and maybe just unwind a little bit.

#8 is closely related to #9 and #10. Read on!

9. Self-promotion

This overlaps somewhat with social networking in methods and tools, but the intent is different. Rather than meeting people for the sake of meeting people, this is working to spread your work to as many people as possible. Site like Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit work as very powerful promotional tools. With each of these you can share links with huge amounts of people with minimal effort, and they’re all free. Most of the hits for this article were probably generated by these tools. With a little careful promotional work, like book giveaways, traffic can be driven to your site to advertise your writing and help with name recognition.

10. Availability of distractions

The flip side of the coin of all these advantages is that with the whole web at your fingertips, distractions are easy to find. If you’re stuck on a story, staring at the word processing screen, it is far too easy to pop up Facebook to go read your friends’ statuses, to hop on an online forum to discuss True Blood vs. Twilight, or to go read (or write) a blog post about writing. Those things all have their time and place, but if you want to write, make sure you get your writing time in too!