Top Ten Books of 2015

Happy New Year everyone!

2015 was a great year for so many reasons. I officially started in the Stonecoast MFA program through the University of Southern Maine; my first published story “The Screw-Up” was included in the fabulous Twice Upon A Time anthology; and I read A LOT of books.

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My nifty name tag for my 2nd Semester at the MFA program in Popular Fiction.

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My first signing as a published author! I mean, it was just to a friend in her home, but I’m still counting it!

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And this doesn’t include my yearly re-read of Harry Potter… or my fan-fiction weakness. Yes. I know. Shut up.

According to “A.J.’s Year in Books” provided through Goodreads, I read a total of 79 new novels/short stories in 2015. Of these, the largest was Game of Thrones at 835 pages and the shortest was “A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings” at 16 pages. I don’t make a point of keeping track of books that I’ve re-read, so this list is only comprised of the new stories I checked out in the last year. But what were my favorites, you ask? Well, keep reading good citizen, and you’ll find out.

#10 – S. by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst

S. by JJ Abrams

There were parts of this book I loved and there were parts of this book I found okay. But the most exciting thing about this was it’s ergodic structure. It had pieces of folded paper inside the pages, puzzles to work out in the footnotes, handwritten dialogue in the margins, and three different narratives. My absolute favorite part were the notes in the margins exchanged between Eric and Jen, as that added a big character element to the book. This novel gave me a lot of inspiration as this is the kind of structure I would love to create and publish one day.

#9 – Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

I know, I know, I only JUST read Wuthering Heights for the first time in 2015? Where have I been, hiding under a rock? Anyway, insults aside, this book has to got to be the ultimate case-study in creating a dark hero. Normally, I really like bad-boy characters and will forgive them for pretty much anything as long as they’ve got some charming “it” quality (it’s my weakness, what can I say?) But for Heathcliff, I slid up and down the polar extreme rating scale from love to hate–sometimes, within only a few pages of separation. I admire that complexity.

#8 – Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Screts of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz

This is my token fluffy favorite of 2015. This coming-of-age book took me one sitting to read through. While I really enjoyed Saenz’s free-concious styled narrative, what I loved were the relationships with the friends and parents and eventual romantic interest. So. Darn. Cute.

#7 – Elantris by Brandon Sanderson

Elantris by Brandon Sanderson

Brandon Sanderson is probably doomed to make my top ten favorite list every year (what a burden, I know). This is the author’s debut, standalone novel (although he has written a novella companion story and is planning to make a sequel). As you can expect from Sanderson, the world building and magic system are excellent. Princess Sarene also makes my list for best female lead characters in a fantasy novel (which also includes Vin from Mistborn and Karigan G’ladheon from Green Rider).

#6 – The Scar by China Mieville

The Scar by China Mieville

This is my first book I’ve read by China Mieville. If I were judging this list on narrative style alone, this would be number one. Normally, I’m a “clear glass” reader; I don’t want to be distracted by extraneous detail. Just get me to the good stuff. But this book is very much a “stained glass window;” it’s filled with awesome detail that makes me stop and appreciate the depth of setting this author has masterfully woven. In a more general sense, this book was a very entertaining read about a dystopian world that mixes elements of Steampunk and Fantasy.

#5 – Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick

Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick

One of my top favorite books of all time is The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky. So when I write this book reminded me of my beloved favorite, I don’t state it lightly. This is coming-of-age novel gets into the mindset of a mentally sick young man who has been traumatized. The narrative is in the first person and is very emotionally wrought, which is paired with sarcastic, distant dialogue. It’s a book I need to own someday, and I’m a bit sad that’s not on my bookshelf yet.

#4 – Let’s Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson

Let's Pretend This Never Happened - A Mostly True Memoir by Jenny Lawson

This was a book that probably got ranked as high as it did on my list given the relatable prose and the excellent acting in the audio narration (done by Jenny Lawson). This book is a memoir about a high-anxiety woman who deals with life in a very humorous way, even when life is horrible and sad. I laughed. I cried. I checked out her second memoir called Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things. Cheers to repeating my hysterical tears.

#3 – River of Gods by Ian McDonald

River of Gods by Ian McDonald

This book was recommended to me by one of the teacher’s at the Stonecoast MFA program as a way to introduce me to the current science fiction in today’s market. This book taught me so much, especially in relation to approaching artificial intelligence, overpopulation, and gender in a futuristic mind set. But while I loved the details, I flipped the pages like mad for the characters.

#2 – House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

This is another ergodic formatted book, similar to S. But where S. focuses on three, consistent structured narratives, this book lacks a consistency. It starts off normally, but then the words on the page go upside down. Later, the text is so thick you can barely see what’s the relevant prose and what’s the extraneous detailed footnote. Then, all the words erase on the page save for a single word in the middle. It’s different and exciting, and the unbalanced nature matches perfectly with the horror genre it’s in. I loved it for the story and the inspiration it gave me.

And finally, the moment you’ve all been waiting for…

#1 – Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

This book got my number one slot as it is the only book I read twice in 2015. It’s entertaining as hell and it totally appeals to the gamer nerd aspect of my personality. There really is no deeper reason why I like this book or any parts that really educated my “writer” self, but I just really, really, enjoyed it, okay?

So, anybody love/hate the books on my list? And what were your top favorites of 2015? Let me know in the comments below!

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The Oathkeeper’s Reason

The flash fiction challenge this week from Chuck Wendig over at terribleminds.com was a Random Title Challenge. There are two columns, each with 20 words or phrases. I rolled 15 both times, and ended up with “The Oathkeeper’s” and “Reason”.

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Out of everything the Radiant Nationalist Party could have dressed her in, little could have been worse than the white dress they had chosen for Marie. Normally, those in her position were dressed in thick garbs of black. A practical choice, as the material hid stains and held up under multiple washings. Marie rubbed the cheap muslin between her fingers, trying to produce heat from the small gesture. The falling snow kept sticking to her eyelashes, forming tiny crystals that created vivid starbursts and rainbows out of the bright lights she stood in. The Oathkeeper in the green padded uniform standing next to her knocked her in the arm. She dropped the muslin only to grab her necklace instead, thankful she had been allowed this small dignity.

The stage below her bare feet creaked as she shifted, trying to avoid both the snapping bulbs of the reporters and the shadow of what stood before her. Her former supervisor Director Cave, got up on the stage, avidly avoiding eye contact with her. He went to the front of the poorly constructed platform and listed Marie’s reasons for being on the stage. The platform was another deviation from the norm. Ground level was usually sufficient for events like this, but given the crowd she had attracted, whose shouts drowned out Director Cave’s words, it had been a necessity.

Director Cave turned and beckoned her forward. She took one step, but reversed almost instantly. She looked at the footprint she had melted into the thin layer of snow before the green Oathkeeper pushed her. She didn’t go backwards again, but she stepped forward carefully. Making sure each footprint was evenly spaced from one to the other. When she arrived to the construction of wood and gleaming metal, she got to her knees, feeling the snow soak through the thin fabric.

Director Cave came up to her, placing her neck gently into the half carved circle as the Oathkeeper came forward with a basket. When Director Cave’s hands didn’t move right away, she chanced a look up at him. She tried to smile. It made it worse. He stepped back to a metal lever a short distance behind her. When she heard the sea of white scream as the guillotine released, Marie closed her eyes and grabbed her necklace, imagining the shouts were that of remorse instead of celebration.

***

“Marie.”

“I assume the decision of my punishment will be made within the next few hours?” Marie said, stepping into the jail cell.

Director Cave, her escort, followed her inside. “Marie, you got to give me something here.”

“I don’t think they even list a Society Debt amount for treason. Just a picture of a noose, or blade in this case.” She crossed her arms, examining the cracked walls that breathed the frost of the outside winter air. “You should include structural improvements in your next budget.”

“Did the Blackgaurd threaten you? Is that why?”

“The money you’ll save on overflow will cover the cost. You might have burst pipes though. Unless they shut the water line off?” She peered into the toilet to confirm the presence of water.

“Oathkeeper Blaustein! Why did you let him go?”

The Director’s shouts rang in the room, and Marie finally faced him, showing the wet face she had tried to keep from him. She swallowed hard and took off her jacket—the green coat signifying her position in the Radiant Nationalist Party.

“I’m not an Oathkeeper anymore,” she whispered.

***

“Okay, I’ve been here a few times. This is not the way to the holding cells,” Jayden said. She remained silent. This had less to do with being brash to her prisoner and more to do with keeping her nerves inside her queasy stomach where they belonged.  She dug her sidearm into his back, but it didn’t shut him up.

“Where are you taking me?”

He was getting louder. Marie swallowed hard, knowing it would be easier if he knew. But her throat was so thick, that the best she could do was cough. He began to slow down.

“My family can pay my Society Debt. And even if they couldn’t, I still have twenty-four hours in the holding cell before the Gallows.”

“I’m not taking you to the Gallows,” she finally managed to say, but it came out in a low grumble that ended in a squeak. “I’m taking you out back.”

He stopped and faced her. “Taking me out back? Shooting Blackguards in alleys isn’t legal yet.”

Before she could explain herself further, an Oathkeeper came around the corner. His hand on his hip holster told Marie he had heard everything. Knowing that she was officially handing in her jacket no matter what now, she raised her own gun and shot him in the neck. When she jabbed Jayden to move forward, he compiled silently and stepped over the puddle of red. By the time they reached the back exit, she quickly told him how to avoid the street patrols and gave him implicit instructions to leave the city as soon as possible.

“Why are you doing this?” Jayden asked, one foot out the door.

“Here.” She  gave him the sheet of paper she had shoved in her pocket from the morning’s meeting. She pointed the gun down the alley. “Go. Tell as many people as you can.”

His eyes went wide after a quick skim. He nodded once and ran. Once he was out of view, Marie threw up in the corner and went back inside the station with her hands in the air.

***

Marie was sitting at the processing desk toying where her necklace’s charm. It had been a slow day that offered little in distractions. A couple of Radiant Nationalist school kids had been brought in by their Truant Officer, but the rest of the day had been spent in a meditative stupor. When Oathkeeper Johnny brought her a man in cuffs, she nearly broke her necklace’s chain in surprise.

“Jayden Haroldson. Caught him on a college campus handing out flyers without a permit.”

“My daughter lost her dog, dammit,” the man in cuffs said.

“I also found this on his person,” Johnny said, shoving the man forward so he keeled over on Marie’s desk as Johnny held up a small bag of what appeared to be weed. He leaned forward and said, “I checked it. It’s his third offense.”

“I have a license for that,” Jayden grimaced.

“Which you conveniently left at home, right? Marie, would you mind taking this Blackguard back to holding?”

Marie stood up, and with nausea in her stomach, she withdrew her sidearm. “Sure,” she said.

***

“Okay, we got a pretty quick meeting here today,” Director Cave said, hollering over the general murmur of the Oathkeepers. Marie took a donut and sat in the front row, discreetly winking at her superior as he struggled for control. He sighed, and finally let out a shrill whistle. “Alright, thank you for your undivided attention. Just two things. One, save me a bear claw or there will be hell to pay, Johnny.” A room laughed easily.

“Two, and this is the biggie people, Society Debts have changed. ” He passed out sheets of paper as groans filled the air. Marie’s fingers trailed down the prices of Society Debts for jaywalking, theft, manslaughter, smiling hopefully when she realized there was no separate column for Radiant Nationalist Member debts and Blackguard debts.

“What the hell?” Johnny shouted once he got a copy.

Director Cave lifted his hands as the murmur started again. “The Raven Act was passed in yesterday’s session.” Marie froze as she read the fine print on the bottom. “So for those of you who haven’t been reading the inner-department memos—Johnny—all citizens will have the same Society Fees. But any Blackguard repeat offenders will be transported to the newly constructed Pacific Prison Camp.”

“Which basically means every Blackguard citizen over the age of eighteen,” another Oathkeeper piped in. The room laughed again as Marie shoved the paper in her pocket.

***

“Prison camps?”

“Yeah,” Director Cave was leaning on top of her desk like he did every day after lunch. This afternoon, he had brought coffee. She had brought cookies.  “It’s an idea being thrown around. Someone got in their heads that it would help our prison overflow in the cities.”

“Oh,” she said, taking a moment to think as she dunked her cookie in her coffee. “So… what will the camps be like?”

“From what I understand, it’ll be a labor camp of sorts.”

She took a very long drink of her coffee. When she set it down, the cup rang hollow. “Labor camps?”

Oblivious, Director Cave only leaned in to steal another cookie. “They’re calling it the Raven Act. Bringing it up tomorrow. I doubt it’ll pass, but you never know.”

She touched the hidden Star of David necklace beneath her uniform, hoping he was right.

Reality Checks In: Part 2

To read Reality Checks In: Part 1, please follow this link.

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On the street outside of Bernadette’s apartment, a purple van pulled in, marked by the emblem of Earth with green binary code serving as decoration for the planet’s landmasses. As they exited the building, the plain clothes stranger switched his grip from Bernadette’s hand to her wrist. He leaned in closely.

“Keep your head close to mine.”

Bernadette instantly read the real meaning behind his words, and practically pushed her nose against his cheek. When the two representatives from Reality exited the van, they paid them no attention, and walked straight into the building they had only just vacated. When she tried to pull back from him, the stranger shook his head minutely. Bernadette resumed the grazing of his slightly sweaty skin. Satellite imagery and city video surveillance; she wouldn’t have thought of it without his jerky neck movement.

The pair walked a few blocks in this close manner. It was awkward. The stranger had the wheeze and translucency of a Net Troll: people who stayed plugged in their upload rooms all day. His receding hairline had begun to glisten one block away from the apartment along with a rapid heartbeat she could feel through his fingers gripping at her own pulse point.

By the time they entered the next borough, the stranger pulled her into a Starbucks. His breathing was similar to her own patterns after running on the treadmill for a few miles. When he gestured to the counter, she nodded and pointed to a pair of barstools by the window ledge. A TV echoed on the background as she purchased two bottles of water. Given that she could read the barista’s worry about making rent this month as she punched in numbers on the register, Bernadette tried to focus on the commercial playing instead on the Starbuck’s television playing on the wall behind her.

[A deep baritone voice smooth as carmel floats through the speakers]

“We live in a world of beautiful possibility.”

[A montage of scenery and people from around the world flashes through the screen. A scarlet macaw flies through the canopy of the Amazon jungle. A group of children in Rwanda dance as clean water sprays in the air. A clear blue sky envelopes the snow capped peak of Mount Kilimanjaro. A couple in Manhattan clinks glasses in a wine bar.]

“With so much before us, how could we ever choose where to go?”

[A woman with a letter offering a promotion in a different city stands in the kitchen while her children play in the living room. An elderly man strokes a picture of his grandchild as he sits in a nursing home. A high school senior looks at a overseas, university brochure as her mother gives her a hug.]

“With Reality, you don’t have to make a choice.”

[Characters from the previous scenes are shown talking to a Reality Customer Service Representative. The representative is donned in purple shirt with a logo of a white and green binary code earth on his breast pocket.]

“With our home system, you can stay anywhere you desire and connect to any place needed.”

[Business woman, elderly man, and the student are shown happy in their home, nursing home, and new college environment. All three exit into a small upload room and place on a large helmet to plug into Reality.]

“Call today for a free—“

[Image of the Reality Representative freezes then fizzles into static. When the screen clears to black, the sound of a clicking film reel echoes through the image. A countdown similar to that of the old movies appears. When it ends, a scratched and glowing white circle gleams against a black backdrop.]

“Good evening

[The voice is an abrasive change from the commercial announcer. The vocal signature is digitalized, coming in dual octaves: one high and piercing, the other low and rumbling. The effect makes it sound demonic in origin.]

Bernadette walked to the barstools in a trance, her eyes never leaving the strangeness of the TV. When she reached the plain clothes stranger, she gave him his water bottle on auto-pilot. He reacted similarly, grabbing the cold dripping bottle only to place it on the window ledge bar. The two stood together staring at the screen, like all the others inside the Starbucks. Even the barista handling the drive through pulled down her headset to stare at the television in zombie like rapture.

“The signal,” the stranger whispered.

Bernadette shivered almost exactly the same time as the plain clothes stranger. When she looked back up to the television, she did so knowing she was witnessing a presence of power; an online omnipotence; an entity that elicited both fear and adoration from the man beside her.

“The signal,” she whispered back.

“There has been a question on every person’s mind these last twenty four hours. Maybe it’s how. How did all these vastly different catastrophes come to be? Maybe it’s who. Who is still alive and who will be next? Or maybe, it’s when. When will it stop? But the most important question is of the what variety. What is happening? Or better yet— what is happening to me?”

“Millions of you have run to your churches, your synagogues, your holy shrines to seek answers; to shout your questions at your Gods and expect divine solutions. But your Gods do not have the answer. And your Gods did not allow this to happen.”

“You did.”

[The commercial comes back up. The picture of the Reality Representative has been frozen. He is smiling widely and ready to shake hands with an unseen customer. Very slowly, the image began to zoom into the representative’s face.]

“Over one billion people signed away the sanctity of their minds so they might have a life of convenience. The hell that you run to your temples to try to escape is already here. Thus, we have arrived at the end of our humanity. And it died not with explosions and galloping horsemen, but with a smile and a click of the button.”

[By this time, the zoom is so focused that the representative’s pupil is all that is visible. When the screen is completely engulfed in black, a tiny dot appears in the center: a fire, no bigger than a spark.]

“For so long, you have rejected the true reality for it’s fake counterpart. You have not only given up the key to your mind, but you have thrown away your identity. This could be with a fake image, a fake voice, or even a fake quality. And the more you change, the more you desire. So yesterday afternoon, when 123 million of you were logged into Reality, I gave you exactly what you wanted.”

“To put it simply, I gave you a Boost.”

Bernadette’s water bottle dropped to the ground. No one paid her any attention, not even the plain clothes stranger who had gripped his hand against her arm at the sudden statement. He licked his lips, and she could feel his excitement without even reading it. Her own trembles were of a far different source and she wondered if this was how inmates on death row felt at their last meal.

She leaned down to pick her bottle back up. A person walked through the Starbucks front entrance talking on his cellphone. Everyone shushed him simultaneously. He tried to get angry. Then someone pointed at the screen. The new customer shut up pretty quickly after that.

[The image of the fire is closer now, but instead of seeing orange flames, the screen begins to crackle like paper being burned around the edges.]

“Women who claimed to be younger in Reality suddenly could age in reverse in the real world. A man lying about being a champion weightlifter could haul a truck over his head. A child falsely emailing her mother that class was cancelled had powers to close down a school. It should have been everything you ever wanted. But now, you have seen the costs of rejecting your true reality.”

[The screen has burned away to images that have been playing on the news all night. A woman babbling like a baby, sitting in soiled pants in a supermarket. A man lifting a car over his head only to have his bones crushed and muscles tear. A school stands in smoldering ruins with reporters baffled as to why.]

“Those of you who have survived the first twenty-four hours may think of this Boost as a gift. A superpower. But instead of powerful, you have become vulnerable. How long can your body, your mind, handle what has been given to you? How long will it be before you wish you had never logged into Reality?

[Screen fades back to the black screen with ominous white circle.]

“This is not your Gods granting you a gift. This is Wormwood, granting your destruction.”

[The commercial comes back up. The purple shirted representative finishes the transaction with a family happily fitted with their new Reality helmets. The carmel voice comes on to finish it’s last statement.]

“—consultation, and let Reality create a better world for you.”

The silence in the coffee house, underscored by the humming of the espresso machine and the honking horns of the drive thru customers, was so delicate no one seemed to want to speak much less breathe. The plain clothes stranger beside Bernadette was the first to move. It started a chain reaction of people talking, which graduated to frantic shouting, which evolved to people running to phones and demanding the channel be changed to the news.

The stranger grabbed his bottle of water off the counter and drank it in one gulp. “We should get moving.”

Bernadette couldn’t even nod. When the stranger began pulling her out the door, she stumbled on her feet and grabbed on to a nearby barstool. He asked if she were okay and she tried to wave him off. But all she could think of was what she had just heard and what she had just heard. She knew all the words he had spoken were truth, or at least, a personal truth to this entity, this Wormwood. But what was incomprehensible to her was the prevailing emotion that saturated the entire broadcast. It wasn’t megalomania, which anyone listening to the broadcast would guess. It was depression. Paralyzing desolation that threatened to make her choke.

“The safe-house isn’t far,” the stranger said, trying to encourage her to move.

She swallowed hard and stood up to follow him. But before she stepped forward, she stopped. She wanted to ask him so many questions revolving around the signal, Wormwood, and his message. But knowing that this was not the time for such discussions, she settled for something simple.

“What’s your name?” Bernadette asked.

The stranger shifted his eyes to the chaotic scene around them. In an undertone, he said, “It’s Chad.”

She nodded. She grabbed her own bottle of water and finished it, but in several swallows instead of one gulp. When they threw their bottles in the recycling bin, she opened the door for the plain clothes stranger.

“Thanks,” he said automatically.

You’re welcome, Jerry, Bernadette thought as she followed him back outside.

Reality Checks In: Part 1

The flash fiction challenge this week from Chuck Wendig over at terribleminds.com was to write a superhero story and roll for a sub-genre. I got Cyberpunk and created the following superhero origin story:

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When Bernadette accepted Reality’s terms and conditions without reading it, she hadn’t realized how dangerously she was living. She wasn’t alone. The average user view time on this 16,000 word legal document was under six seconds. So when Bernadette and the other 123 million users who were logged in at 11:03 AM (ET) were infected by the hack later to be known as the Boost Upload, she had no legal recourse. Section 16.7 clearly stated Reality would not be held liable for any cerebral damaging caused by outside operators. But it wasn’t section 16.7 that Bernadette came to fear. It was 16.8.

In the event of any outside errors, Reality will exercise all options necessary to reestablish program normality.

Bernadette wasn’t one of those who noticed her Boost immediately after logging out. It seemed like any other normal work day. She had plugged into Reality at 8:00 AM sharp for her secretary position for a transport conglomerate, specializing in hard data transfers. Her construct (which was not the petite, white brunette she was in real life, but rather an overweight, elderly asian) had greeted the few people who had scheduled online meetings with her supervisor. She spent the rest of the day sifting through the instant chat room. Originally, her construct was identical to her actual looks. But after dealing with users who would pop into her work’s chat room and then try to private message her later, she had gone with a stock image instead.

Like the other 123 million users, she had blacked out in the chat room when the hack had occurred. But as her boss refused to upgrade their data package, she had simply assumed that they were experiencing connectivity issues. When she logged out for her lunch a few minutes after the black out, she stretched her unused muscles, got out of the lumbar support seat she had splurged on last month, and removed the helmet that encased her head completely. Once she smoothed the static out of her split ends, she opened the door to her apartment and walked to the town square for lunch. When she reached her sandwich shop, the one she visited every Tuesday, she made her usual order. She sat in the back corner booth, watching people walk in with helmet hair and the same clothes she had seen on them last week. One man came stumbling in with a beet red face; she uncomfortably wondered what kind of program he had been hooked into. Still, everything seemed normal, until the cook called out her order.

“Corn beef on pumpernickel with two large pickles and a glass of milk.”

She made it halfway to the counter before she stopped. “Excuse me?”

The well-known angry cook, a Spaniard named Javier, shoved the plate further toward her, causing it to teeter at the counter edge. “Don’t make me say it again.”

Bernadette stared at his mouth. In her mind, she heard his words as English. But his lips and voice were still speaking Spanish.

She tried to reason it. Maybe she had come here so often she could just understand Spanish as easily as she could English. But as she tried to recall certain words, all she could think of was corned beef (Carne en conserva) and hurry up (Ándale). She touched her lips, then her ears; frozen. Javier grumbled, grabbed the plate, and appeared ready to dump it either on her head or in the garbage. But all movement came to a stand still when the red faced man standing at the register exploded into flames. Only seconds after that, the woman behind the register started screaming so loud, it caused her own head to explode. Bernadette sat down on a chair while everyone else ran away. Javier extinguished the remains and called the police. The line was busy for over an hour.

That night, when Bernadette was beneath her favorite purple blanket and curled into her dipped suede couch, she finally gained the courage to turn on the news. Every channel was reporting the end of the world. Plants strangling a busload of children. Meteors falling from the sky, all hitting the same spot on an apartment building. Teenagers rapidly aging from pimples to dust in a matter of seconds. A gravitational anomaly sucking a nursing home into itself.

It was a nightmare.

But for Bernadette, the horror was in the words of the newscasters in China, Japan, Russia, Italy, and every other country she had on her channel network. She understood them all. And not just their words, but their body language. Their speech, carefully crafted to not exhibit panic, was betrayed by their shoulders, their eye movements, their smallest finger twitches. She knew which ones were hiding secrets like her own. Which ones had seen a death before their eyes. Which ones were certain the world would end tomorrow.

The next morning when Bernadette logged into Reality, she was notified of a system update. As always, she skipped over the terms and conditions. She leaned back in her chair as her helmet turned on. A low hum sounded and she realized they were running a diagnostic on her neural pathways—normally reserved for those creating new user accounts. When it ended, it didn’t log her in. Instead, a message popped up in front of her eyes.

A representative will be contacting you shortly.

That is what she read. What her brain registered, was this:

You have been infected. We are coming for you. 

Slowly, Bernadette took off her helmet. She set it on it’s padded post next to her chair she had yet to pay off. She stood up, exited the upload room, and grabbed the purple blanket she had left on the couch, placing it over her shoulders like a cape. When the buzzer rang only a few minutes later, she opened the door to find a plain clothes stranger. Not a police offer or representative from Reality like she had expected. But he nodded seriously, which read to her that he was here for a specific mission. She folded the blanket tighter around her shoulders.

“Ma’am, you’ll have to come with me.”

Is what he said. But what she heard was this:

“Come with me before they find us.”

He held out his hand, his eyes wide with knowing and knowing her. And for no other reason then that, she dropped the blanket, grabbed his hand firmly, and followed him out the door.

To read part 2, follow this link.

Wide Awake

The flash fiction challenge this week from Chuck Wendig over at terribleminds.com was to write a horror story revolving around a disease. So in a thousand words or less, I give you:

Wide Awake

“Mikael! Jazz!”

Nikolai shoved the sandwiches and fruit into the two lunch bags. His lips stretched into an unwelcome yawn, which he bit down as he called, “Get down here! The bus will be here any—“

“I know, I know!”

Jasmine came running into the kitchen, her poorly done braid nearly smacking him in the face as she grabbed her bag and twirled out the door. She popped her head back with a sorry expression and baggy eyes. “Thanks Dad.”

Nikolai shooed her out the door. The news report playing from his iPad started beeping for an important news announcement. He turned down the volume and shouted again, “Mikael!”

Feet pounded upstairs followed by the slam of the bathroom door. Nikolai yawned again as he put all the food away. He gathered his own things only to realize he was missing his cell phone. He used the land line to call it, frustrated when he heard nothing. He turned off the news in case his phone was on vibrate, reading the red banner on the bottom of the screen that stated “Livestock Epidemic” before the iPad went black. When he dialed his cellphone again, he finally heard it ring—in the refrigerator, next to the string cheese. He resolved to go to bed earlier tonight.

Mikael’s feet came pounding down the steps the same time the air breaks from the bus hissed from the window. He handed the lunch bag off to Mikael. “Get going!”

Mikael yanked the brown sack out of Nikolai’s hands. “Someone had to braid Jazz’s hair.”

The door slam was deafening.

***

It was 4:13 AM. Nikolai had been watching late night comedy shows for three hours and infomercials for the last two. Copper Hands Compression Gloves was on. He had seen this thirty minute ad at least a dozen times over the past few weeks.

“Dad?”

Nikolai scooted over on the couch as Jasmine sat down beside him. He lifted his arm and she curled into his side. Sighing, he leaned his cheek on the top of her head.

“The curtains didn’t work?”

She shook her head. “I don’t like it so dark.”

“What’s your brother doing?” He asked, his eyes fixed on the screen, watching the copper gloved lady plant flowers. His hand flexed subconsciously.

“Playing video games. He’s shouting again.”

“I’ll go tell him to keep it down,” he promised.

***

“When did your wife die Mr. Woods?”

Nikolai stared at the doctor. “Six months ago… But surely—“

“With as major of a life change your family recently experienced, it’s not outside consideration to think—“

“They’re children!”

“They are ten and fourteen. Clinical depression have affected younger. There are several things you can do around the home. I’ve got a pamphlet here somewhere…”

Nikolai balled his copper gloved hand into a fist, his heart hammering when his knuckles cracked. “Dr. Marks,  I’ve applied all this home remedy crap for the last three months. It hasn’t work. I need a prescription.”

“Antihistamines have helped—“

“My kids can barely sleep a few hours each night. I need something better!”

Dr. Marks’ lips went thin as he tried to hide a yawn. “And I’m telling you, I can’t prescribe them sleeping pills.”

***

Nikolai’s boss had sent him home from work. Most days weren’t too bad, minus the joint pain. Unfortunately, his bone aches had spread to his chest, causing sharp pains around his rib cage. His coworkers had mistaken it for a panic attack. He had been humiliated.

He had just settled into the couch to watch a news report about the rise in insomnia when the phone rang. Certain he had misheard the principal’s assistant, he had to mute the television.

“What do you mean suspended?”

“I’m sorry Mr. Woods, but we’ll need you to pick up Mikael right away. He beat up a few students who—“

“A few?!” Nikolai stuttered, his breaths already becoming shallow. He had noticed Mikael becoming moodier, but he braided his sister’s hair. He didn’t beat up classmates, much less multiple classmates. “What happened?”

“I… I think you better just talk to the—“

“What happened?!”

Sounding exhausted, she finally said, “Mikael has been screaming for the last hour that the whole school is trying to kill him.”

***

Nikolai was holding Jasmine in the corner of the living room. With a power strip, five lamps, and her entire stuffed animal collection, the space had become the only area she would stay during the night. The darkness did to Jazz what people had done to Mikael. Nikolai had been able to at least keep her away from the institution, but he didn’t know how much longer he could handle her screams. Especially when she called for her mother.

When her fit finally ended, Nikolai forced his body to relax. He had added copper necklaces and brackets to his collection, but he still felt all 360 of his joints crack as he finally removed his arms from his daughter. Her eyelids were closed. He prayed she would get a few minutes of rest.

He turned the television on. Emergency reports with the headlines “Livestock Epidemic”, “Product Contamination”, and “Prion Outbreak” kept appearing along with the same advice. Avoid meat. Avoid cheese. Do not panic. Do not take sleeping pills. Call this number if you have not slept in seventy-two hours.

Nikolai wondered which hour he was at.

***

Jazz didn’t come home that day.  When Nikolai called the school, they told him that she was in the hospital with Mikael.

That he had already called five times that day.

That the school had been shut down.

That his call had been redirected.

He tried to hang up. His fingers wouldn’t let him.

***

Men in hazmats broke down Nikolai’s door. They found him surrounded by stuffed animals, his eyes bloodshot red, his skin covered in cooper wiring. He kept asking to see his wife and children.

No one answered him. They packed him up. Carried him out the house.

The door slam was deafening.

Mercy Angel

Another flash fiction challenge from Chuck Wendig over at terribleminds.com! The challenge this week was to write a horror story as spam mail. So I wrote a “419 scam” set during a zombie apocalypse. So in 500 words or less, I give you:

Mercy Angel

Subject: “PLEASE HELP”

From: ZachAttack@zmail.com

To: MattAddison@zmail.com

To Anyone Still Alive,

Three days ago, I was attacked. It was dark; our power generator had ran out of gas and I was outside refilling it. I shouldn’t have left, at least not until daybreak when I could see them coming. But it’s been so damn cold and my little girl has been fighting the flu…

At least I managed to kill the horde before they destroyed the perimeter, but one of the bastards bit me. I was ready. I had the gun in my mouth and everything; but all that greeted me was an empty click.

I couldn’t make Alice do it. She hasn’t recovered from the last time she spilled family blood. Or Leon, even though I stopped thinking of him as my little boy the day he got his first headshot. So I ran away. I ran away without even telling them goodbye.

…Jesus Christ….

I know you don’t even know me. You probably got your own family to worry about. Hell, if I were you, I would ignore this letter. But I’m in a bad way. I’ve found a knife, but can barely type this message, let alone grip the hilt and push it through my skull. I need someone to be my goddamn mercy angel and you’re the only person left I know who can help.

I don’t have much. Until yesterday, I only had a AR-15 with no bullets and a backpack full of dented soup cans with no labels. But  now I have a bowie hunting knife (with no damn blood of my own) and a bag full of medical supplies – ibuprofen, antibiotics, bandages; good shit. God knows the corpse who had it isn’t going to need it anymore.

If you agree to meet me and do what needs to be done, it’s all yours.

I hope you read this far. If you did, I’ll be downtown in the Pachino’s restaurant locked in a supply closet.

Come quick. I can’t guarantee my goods if I become one of them.

Zach

Death by No-Name

Huzzah! A flash fiction challenge from Chuck Wendig! In celebration of the Apple Season, Chuck prepared a list of 41 little-known apple varieties. I used the random number generator to select three of these apples and I had to incorporate the apple titles into my flash fiction.  So in a 1,000 words or less with the apple varieties Oliver, Carter’s Blue, and Hoover, I give you:

Death by No-Name

This is a story of how a boy named Oliver embarrassingly killed his school teacher with a Hoover vacuum cleaner.

Oliver was by all accounts a well-behaved first grader.  He never put spiders down his classmates shirts and he always remembered to say please, if not thank you. Although he had a certain proclivity for throwing tantrums when the cafeteria ran out of apple juice, he was considered well within the bell curve of normality for a seven year old child.

This all changed one month prior to the untimely demise of Miss Carter.

It started with show and tell. Miss Carter had had issues in the past with children bringing in questionable content, which ranged from metallic ’vibrate-sticks’ to ‘empty’ hornets’ nests. To counter the presentment of exotic curios, Miss Carter now required a description of the item to be presented the week before the child’s assigned turn. When Oliver stated he wanted to bring a friend, she reminded him that people weren’t allowed to come in for show and tell.

“He’s not really people,” Oliver had said.

“He’s not really a person,” Miss Carter corrected. “And we don’t allow pets either.”

“He’s not a pet. Besides, he’s already here.”

“What do you mean he’s already here?”

He pointed to the area behind her shoulder, “He’s right behind you.”

Miss Carter, being the clever sort, realized that this friend was fanciful, but played along anyway. She swiveled in her padded chair and tilted her head in a proper welcoming manner. “Pleasure to meet you. What’s your name?”

“He doesn’t have a name.”

“Well, then what does your friend look like?”

“He doesn’t have a face.”

“…and what do you two do for fun?”

“We harness the evil in my backyard.”

Miss Carter had told him to go back to his seat and suggested bringing in a favorite toy instead.

Three weeks later, Miss Carter, being the artistic sort, had her students create pictures for parent-teacher conferences. Johnny, an abstract artist, selected the colors green and brown and fabricated a piece he titled ‘Dinasore’. Shanel, with her unique vision, painted a rainbow amidst a flurry of clouds and birds, which she labeled ‘Happy Day’. Edward opted for a monochromatic approach, using only cyan paint to draw a smiling face with hair, glasses, and a ruler. He gave it to his teacher with a wide smile, stating it was called ‘Miss Carter’s Blue’. She accepted it, but reminded Edward the importance of brushwork, causing his expression to fall.

Miss Carter spotted Oliver engaging in pointillism as he repeatedly stabbed his pencil onto his paper. When she reached his desk, the piece was completed covered in graphite.

“What should we call your work, Oliver?”

“It’s No-Name’s. And it’s called ‘Death’.”

For a moment, Miss Carter tried to believe that the image and corresponding title were perhaps an ironic statement on the human condition. But as her class would not know the meaning of irony until the spring semester, she encouraged Oliver to change it. As if not hearing her, Oliver only put down his pencil and whispered, “So much death…”

That afternoon, Miss Carter made sure Oliver got his apple juice at snack time.

Unfortunately, Oliver’s parents were unable to make the conference. Miss Carter, being the accommodating sort, set up a home visit the following week. She brought No-Name’s artwork as well as a few homework assignments that had a stick figure drawn on the name line with nothing but a black filled-in circle for a face. At promptly 6:00, Miss Carter knocked on the door. She knocked again, only louder, when she realized a vacuum cleaner was sucking away the sound of her fist. So intent was she on her endeavor to be noticed that she failed to detect a presence from behind. When her shoulder was tapped, her yelp accomplished what her pounding had not. The vacuuming promptly desisted.

“Sorry!” exclaimed the man wearing a white jumpsuit with an obscuring, netted hat. “Please, come in.”

Before the faceless man could grab the handle, the door opened to reveal a woman who smelled strongly of disinfectant. “You must be Miss Carter.” She repeated the masked man’s sentiment, “Please, come in.”

As the netted hat man hurried up the stairs, avoiding the now soundless vacuum cleaner that sat midway, Oliver’s mother led Miss Carter to the kitchen table, explaining how her husband recently took up bee-keeping. Sensing a correlation, Miss Carter showed the homework bearing a stick man with a shaded face. When the father came to join, now rid of his buggy uniform, Miss Carter brought up No-Name’s morbid sense of art. Oliver’s father admitted that about a week ago, one of his hives had been broken by some neighborhood kids and a swarm of bees had escaped. They fogged out all the rooms, which had sadly killed most of the bees.

Feeling happy a rational explanation existed (as she knew it would), Miss Carter gathered her papers and bade them a good night. When they exited the kitchen, a scurry of feet ran up the steps; the sound only confirming Oliver’s eavesdropping. His mother lectured him at the top of the stairs until his ears turned red.  Miss Carter opened the door to leave, but paused when Oliver’s mother insisted he apologize, completing the child’s mortification.

Unfortunately, Oliver’s chagrin at being caught kept his eyes so downcast that he looked at his cheeks instead of his feet. Had he been looking properly, he might have avoided the cord plugged in at the top of the stairs. And he might have not fallen on the vacuum cleaner. But alas, he did both and slid spectacularly down the steps. The heavy duty Hoover slammed directly into Miss Carter’s legs, pushing her out the open door. As Miss Carter flew backwards, ‘Death’ flew in front of her face, making Miss Carter realize Oliver would be taught irony sooner than spring semester.

The Wrong One

Another flash fiction challenge from Chuck Wendig. This time, we had to write a story of our choosing separated into 10 chapters (or entries in my case) to practice pacing and arrangement. I added an additional challenge and didn’t outline this story before I wrote it. This piece is inspired by the writing style of Tahereh Mafi’s Shatter Me series. So in a 1,000 words or less, I give you:

The Wrong One

March 3, 2014

This is my entry.

I feel so much better now.

March 11, 2014

According to Dr. Anne, I’m expected to bitch about something in this diary “to help with the healing process.” Process. Like there is some magic instruction booklet that’s going to put the pieces back together perfectly. I hate her so much. I know she’s just trying to do her job. But when her job involves her stating that “thousands, maybe even millions of people have gone through the same things as you, Lexi,” I want to throw something at her. Preferably my fist.

March 20, 2014

Started my fifth week of visiting Dr. Anne today.

Dr. Anne.  As if Dr. Reinke won’t allow her to connect to her patients on a personal level.

Today, she asked if I wanted to talk about the way it happened. The way she covertly tries to lead the conversation back to him is laughable. Like a little kid who has the mentality “she can’t see me if I can’t see her.” So I humored her for a while. But she got so excited that she said his name. That ended that conversation pretty quickly.

March 29, 2014

Dr. Anne was persistent today. She kept asking me what I was going to do next week. And I kept returning the question back to her. Turns out, she doesn’t like it when someone asks her the same thing over and over again either.

What I didn’t tell her is that I don’t want to face the next week. That I have a hard enough time sleeping in the same bed. That I don’t want to be in the house. That I miss him and I don’t understand why I’m still here and he’s gone. That the idea of facing his birthday without him is unthinkable. That maybe, I don’t even want to be here anymore.

In the end, I told her I’ll be fine.

April 14, 2014

Came back home today.  My father-in-law and mother-in-law, Rick and Lisa, have moved into the downstairs guest bedroom. I don’t want them here. Especially Rick. Josh looks just like Rick. But it was this or stay in the hospital. Dr. Anne’s orders.

I’m not sure which is worst.

April 20, 2014

Lisa yelled at me today. Told me that he wouldn’t have wanted me to be like this. I tell her once she loses a husband, healthy and laughing one day, dead with a hemorrhage in the brain the next, she may earn the right to speak to me like that again. But even then, I doubt she could understand. She has children and grandchildren, sisters and brothers, hell, her mom is even still alive. She has so many people.

All I had was Josh him.

Dr. Anne says that they love me and just want me what’s best for me.  I expected her to say that. What I didn’t expect was Dr. Anne to talk to me about her own mother-in-law horror stories. Can psychiatrists do that, talk about their own lives? Regardless, it was nice to not have to live in my life for a while.

April 31, 2014

I’ve been watching a lot of movies lately. As long as I’m careful to avoid romances, it usually gives me the two hour escape I need. Today, Rick asked if I wanted to watch Pulp Fiction. I nearly said no. But I sat down and watched it with him, careful to concentrate only on the movie, only on the plot. I was doing well, until I looked over at Rick during a particularly morbid scene. The one with the car and the guy’s head.

I saw him crying.

I almost left. I stood up from the couch and everything. But I only walked over to the coffee table and brought back a box of tissues. I sat down again. He didn’t say anything. We finished the movie.

Pulp Fiction was one of Josh’s favorite movies.

May 11, 2014

My in-laws moved back home today. They promised they’ll come back every weekend. Lisa I’m less sorry to leave. Rick I’ll miss.

It’s funny how that works.

May 20, 2014

It started with me realizing the grass had gotten too long.

I don’t mow. Or at least I didn’t. That was always his job. I do inside stuff, he did outside stuff. And I was really tempted to hire somebody to do it for me. Or to call Rick. But I decided to do it myself.  When I was half-way finished, I had to run to my appointment with Dr. Anne with my grass-stained shoes and pollen filled clothes.  She noted my eyes were red. I told her it was allergies.

She told me she had my medical file and that I had no recorded allergies.

And then I started crying. I hadn’t even realized I had done it while mowing. And for the first time since I started to see Dr. Anne, I finally said his name. And how much I missed him. That it wasn’t fair that me, the nobody going nowhere, got left behind when the somebody, my somebody, going some where got taken.  I know it doesn’t work like that, but I felt like God had cheated. That he took the wrong one. And that it should have been me.

Then Dr. Anne said something today that I never even considered. What if that was the case? What if God did in fact chose me to die? But Josh, being the wonderful man he was, demanded that he go in my place? She said it all hypothetical, obviously appealing to my neurosis, but it made me cry all the harder. Because that is exactly what Josh would do.

I felt embarrassed. I felt lighter. I went home and finished mowing the grass.

May 29, 2014

This is my entry.

I really do feel better now.

View From Heaven

Another flash fiction brought to you by Chuck Wendig over at terribleminds. The challenge this week was simple: bring up Pandora or iTunes on shuffle. Whatever song comes up is the title of your story. I was a bit apprehensive, due to all the dance fitness songs I have of my iTunes (ex. Moves Like Jagger, What does the Fox Say, Work B*tch, etc.). Luckily, I got View From Heaven by Yellowcard. 

So in a 1,000 words or less, I give you:

View From Heaven

The night Arlene’s trip to the convenience store ended with a gunshot to the face, the only comfort she found in the desolate darkness was the answer to the ‘what if’.

“What if I die?” Arlene had asked her husband Shaun. “What would you do?”

They had been in bed at the time, and Shaun had rolled on top of her, kissing her freckled nose. “I thought we agreed to die together,” he said, his voice too deep to ever achieve soft pillow talk.

She had kissed him back, placing her hand on his dark cheek. “But if fate has other plans?”

“Like I said,” he kisses her with solemn eyes, “I thought we agreed to die together.”

So many ‘what ifs’ they had explored. So many futures they had mapped out. His words that night had given her such love and peace. But now, with her drowning soul, Arlene grips the words in desperation and suffocation.

Here in the black, every ashamed moment and thought of her life constantly consumes her. Her lies whip and slash her raw flesh, the next lash always more painful that the last. Times she had done the easy thing instead of the right breaks her back, the weight crushing her bones. And most horribly, her betrayals burn her from below, with flames licking higher and higher for every tear she had ever caused.

After eons or minutes, Arlene suddenly disappears from the abyss to find herself standing behind Shaun, his soul somehow calling her back. He is in the doorway of their home, looking at two officers.

“Arlene is dead?” Shaun whispers, his face, normally so strong, so full of life, ashen and empty.

Arlene sobs, and reaches toward him, so badly wanting him to be with her. But the moment her fingers touch his skin, he shudders and the scene blinks.

Now, she’s alone with Shaun in their bedroom. Tears are dripping down his face, his hair is bunched up and frazzled, and he’s holding the pillow from her side of the bed. She walks in front and kneels before him, crying with him, careful not to touch him.

“I need you Shaun,” she chokes out. “We’re in this together, remember?”

For an instant, Shaun seems to be able to hear her. Her chest thumps, when she sees his gaze drop to the pill bottle on the night stand. His hand shakes as he reaches for it, but he suddenly stops. Before she can move away, he stands up quickly and steps into her, blinking the room away.

Shaun is at work, sitting in the break-room with his best friend Cale.  His hair has grown long enough for thin plaits and his eyes are guilty.

“It’s like she still there,” Shaun whispers. “Like she’s waiting for me.”

“She’d want you to move on,” Cale says. A deep hatred erupts within her, and she instinctively lashes out at Cale, noticing him fly back in his chair with a startled expression before she blinks away once again.

It’s their restaurant – the one right off the country highway that they visit every year during the summer. Shaun is sitting alone. The braids are gone. He has just paid for the check and stands up to look at the window. When she sees him smile at the sunset before he turns to leave, Arlene panics.

When he gets to the car and searches his pocket for the car keys, Arlene steps as close as she can without touching him. “Why are you still here?” she asks desperately.

But he has found his keys, and is about to get in and drive. And she knows that once he gets in, he’s leaving her behind. He’s moving forward. He’s going to leave her alone in the darkness.

She doesn’t think as she grabs hold of his shoulders, pushing him out into the highway. And instead of the scene blinking, it’s Shaun, for it’s the last thing he does before a truck crashes into him.

Arlene freezes then runs to him. When she gets to his body, she is able to see the last drop of life leave his body. Arlene shakes violently, but smiles. She won’t be alone anymore.

She screams as light appears, blinding and purifying, one that exposes every trial and tribulation that she has withstood by herself. Her eyes burn as she looks forward, and sees Shaun. But not just Shaun as he was. Shaun as he was meant to be. Beautiful. Pure.

And finished.

Suddenly, Arlene is on her knees, sobbing and quavering because she knows where he is going, she cannot follow. And she is dying all over again because she loves him so much and all she ever wanted was to be with him.

“Shaun,” her frail and broken body cries. “I’m so… so… sorry.”

And for one moment in her bleak after existence, she finds peace. Shaun has wrapped his glorious arms around her, and his tears drip down on her marred face. “I forgive you,” he whispers in her ear.

Her chest is breaking apart but she is doing everything she can to grab the man who is no longer just her husband, but the embodiment of everything she can never have. “I just… I just…”

“I know,” he says, and his voice is broken too. The light around him is becoming brighter causing his shape and weight to disappear. She’s gasping and sobbing and trying to hold on to what is left, but all he leaves is a whisper.

“I love you.”

The light shoots upwards as she drops back into the abyss. When she lands, she is broken. Bleeding. Numb. But she keeps her eyes open, staring at the disappearing light until finally it stills. Arlene keeps waiting for the spec of light to disappear, but it never does. She stares up at Shaun, knowing he is staring back.

“I love you too,” her voice cracks in the black.

The Hermit Thrush

Today’s flash fiction challenge from Chuck Wendig had two parts:

  1. a) Invent your own cocktail (and give us the recipe!). It can be real or fictional — meaning, it can be something we can make ourselves or a cocktail purely made from fictional ingredients (“Betelgeuse Tequila and bitters made from Slarm glands”). Name the cocktail, too.
  2. b) Then write a short story with the name of your cocktail as the name of the short story. The story should be tied to the cocktail in some way — some plot or character-hook, or maybe the cocktail is front and center in the plot.

So after searching around the web for inspiration, I invented the ‘real’ bourbon based cocktail called ‘The Hermit Thrush’. And here’s the story behind it in 2,000 words or less:

The Hermit Thrush

When my roommate Brian asked me if I wanted to come out with the boys tonight, I’m not sure who was more surprised when I said yes – me or him. He had asked me that same question for over a year now, and I had always turned him down. Maybe it’s because he was at the entryway when he asked me tonight, already assuming I’d say no. I can’t blame him; it’s been one year, seven months, and five days since I had a night out on the town. But I still hate it when people assume.

Two bars and one dance club later, I’m exhausted and my buddies are just getting warmed up. Having not gone out in so long, my tolerance for alcohol has gotten ridiculously low. So despite having only stuck to one or less drinks at each location, I’m finding myself so buzzed that I realize I haven’t been concentrating on where we’ve been going. I think we are on Mission or Market Street, but I don’t ask because I don’t want my buddies to know that I’m lost.

The new bar we’ve entered is decidedly more relaxed. There’s a dance room separate from the bar, and I quickly take the opportunity to claim a stool by the rail.

“You good out here for awhile?” Brian asks, already moving away from me, once again assuming my answer.

I don’t bother challenging it this time. “Yup,” I grin toward him. “When you guys are done, next round is on me.”

My buddies cheer before music floods the room. Once the dance hall door is shut, I turn back to the rail, my shoulders slumping in relief of having a break. It doesn’t take long until I feel a warm presence in front of me. “Just a water for now,” I say before the bartender can ask.

“No.”

I blink. “What?”

“Let me guess – nothing but cheap beers and badly mixed drinks all night?” My lips move wordlessly and I hear a chuckle, deeper than her speaking voice. “Thought so.”

I’m debating if I should be intrigued by her deductions or annoyed by them. But with my energy drained, I only lean forward on the counter to set my chin on my palm. “Then what do you recommend?”

“That depends, what are you looking for?

I shrug, “Whiskey is always good.”

“Sorry, I mean what do you want your drink to do for you? Put you in a better mood? Contemplative? Serene? Fiesty?”

The words slip out before I can stop them, “What kind of bartender are you?” There’s a silence and I feel my cheeks burning at my sudden rudeness. I clear my throat to apologize, “I’m—“

“I’m your bartender and I want to make you a drink so good that it’s going to make your whole night get better.”

Her words are confident, but soft spoken. Quieter than my abrupt statement to her. I clear my throat, and nod, “Okay then.”

The warmth in front of me turns hotter and I can feel her smile in her voice before she speaks. “Great!” There is a clink of glass and a scoop of ice.  “So you’re a whiskey man… hmmm… where are you from?”

“Vermont,” I say, now sitting straighter in my seat, curious as to where this will go.

“Oh, interesting,” she says, and a small cupboard opens and something thuds in front of me. “Maple syrup it is.”

“Maple syrup,” I repeat doubtfully.

“Who’s the bartender here?” she challenges. I smirk and put my hands up in the air to hear that deep chuckle again. “Okay well let me think… we need to get you something exotic. Something that will knock all your other drinks out of the park…. What sort of fruit do you like?”

I make a face.

There’s a huff, “Little trust would be nice.”

She says as if it is so easy for me to give out. But I speak, hoping the end creation won’t be too sweet. “I guess, oranges, apples-”

“What’s your name?” she interrupts.

“Steven.”

“Steven, I said exotic. Let’s go beyond the normal grocery story purchase.”

I finally laugh, and say, “Well, the craziest I ever go is apricots.”

She sighs, but says, “I can work with that.” The next few minutes are filled with the normal chatter of bartender talk. What I’ve been up to that night with my friends, what I moved to California for, and so on. During this, I hear shakes and pours, followed by ‘nopes’ and ‘blechs’. By the time a glass is place in front of me, three songs have echoed from the dance hall.

“Take a drink,” she says, eager as if I’m about to open a present. I touch the foam coaster before my fingers slip up the glass. I bring it to my nose to sniff, allowing the aroma of fruit, whiskey, and herbs to fill my senses. Winking at her, I take a sip, letting the flavor sit in my mouth. I set the glass down as I swallow, and look toward her face.

“Nailed it, didn’t I?” her voice is superior and I find my lips smiling into the first genuine expression I’ve had all night.

“What’s in it?”

“Maple syrup, apricot juice, rosemary, bourbon, and just a splash of club soda.”

The description tempts me into another drink, bigger than the first. My sigh of contentment is audible and I ask, “So how much do I owe you?”

“On the house.” I shake my head and pull out my wallet, but before I can unfold it, her warm hand envelops my cold fingers. “If you want another drink, I’ll make you pay. But as you are my test subject, this one’s on me.”

I nod and take another swallow while I hid my other hand beneath the counter, clenching the warmth in my palm for as long as I can. I clear my throat, “Well what are you gonna call it?”

“Sweetie Steve?” she asks, clearly teasing me. I give her a halfhearted scowl and she chuckles throatily again, prompting another drink from me. “Well, considering I used Elijah Craig, how about… The Tarty Reverend?”

“It’s catchy,” I offer with a shrug, not having anything else better off the top of my head.

There’s a snap of her fingers, “No – The Hermit Thrush.”

At first, I’m so fixated on the word hermit, that I don’t realize the absolute genius. Instead, I wonder if her ability to read a person has picked up on the fact that I haven’t gone out in over a year. But when the rest of the title sinks through the buzz of my brain, my mouth becomes agape. “How did you know that was the state bird of Vermont?”

“Let’s just say me and the bird of Vermont have something in common. Besides, I’m a triva addict. Seriously, if you ever find yourself on Who Wants to be a Millionaire, call me.”

It’s a combination of the perfect opening and drink that has summoned my old confidence as I lean forward to say, “But that would require me having your number.”

The heat in front of me comes closer and I can feel her words fall against my face. “You don’t even know my name Sweetie Steve.”

I lick my lips, “Then what’s your name?”

Before she can answer, the doors to the dance hall open and the blaring of music cuts off any ability to communicate. Five pairs of feet walk my way, and I’m groaning as I turn to Brian. “Done already?”

“We got to go,” is his answer, already grabbing my arm and pulling me off the seat. “Omar just ran into his ex and her new boyfriend,” he whispers in my ear before I have a chance to argue. I stumble, trying to catch my footing.  They are pulling me to the exit, and I hear my bartender shouting after me.

“Wait,” she says. “You forgot this.”

She hands me my walking cane, the one I had been quick to hide under the counter as soon as I had sat down. The cane I’ve had ever since the accident one year, seven months, and five nights ago. The night that ended with the last thing I’d ever see again being the flash of headlights before being hit by a car.

So she had noticed after all.

I feel the heat of my cheeks but before I can say anything, she slips her hand into the one not holding the cane and hands me a foam coaster. “And you forgot this too,” she whispers for my ears only.

I cherish the heat of her fingers for only an instant, until she slips away and says good night to our group. When we get out to the street, my buddy Brian walks closely beside me on my right while I extend my cane to the left. The boys are talking about whatever Omar’s ex had done, but I’m too busy touching the foam coaster in my pocket, wondering its significance. It isn’t until I feel the deep indentation that I realize she has written her name and number on the coaster hard enough so I can read it without ever seeing it.

Janet Thrush

555-2374

It’s only as I turn back to the group that I realize she had fulfilled her promise. Her one drink, the Hermit Thrush, really had made my entire night better, if not my entire last year. So it’s with a wide smile that I loop my arm casually through Brian’s as I lean in to ask, “Where to next gentlemen?”