Anya Returns

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She stares at me with eyes of purple fire, a blazing phantom in the dark. My breath catches in my throat, and when I finally speak, it comes out a hoarse whisper.

“What happened, Anya?”

The woman I had known so many years ago grins.

“My eyes were opened.”

I wait for her to say more, but that’s all she offers in reply.

We grew up together, Anya and I. We were best friends, inseparable from the start. Our relationship turned intimate, and by the time we neared our college graduation we were already contemplating marriage.

That was when she disappeared.

Now, she rolls onto her side, pressing her body against mine, and I instantly grow hard with years of pent up longing. I have never felt an urge so strong. It overloads my synapses, drives me to the brink of madness.

This is a dream, I think. Any minute I’ll wake up. This close, I can see myself reflected in her spectral eyes.

Her family and I spent years looking for her. The police gave up in a matter of weeks for lack of evidence, but we kept searching, scouring her apartment, interviewing her friends, calling the numbers in the phone she left beside her bed.

Now, here she is again, lying in my bed as if the intervening years were nothing.

“You loved me once,” she whispers. Her breath tickles my ear. I detect the familiar smell of lavender and lilac. Her favorite scent, at odds with the feral untamed fire in her eyes.

Those flaming pupils bore into my own, extract my deepest secrets.

“I don’t understand,” I say, because there’s nothing else to say.

“Then let me help you understand.”

Her mouth opens, joins with my own. Another fire kindles, erupting to life inside my body. She leaps on top of me, hot to the touch, and I have no choice but to offer up my heart as an immolation.

“Love me now,” she says, and as our bodies become one, as the embers of an old love ignite once more, I glimpse the possessing spirit within and welcome it into myself.

Death by Ice

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If John didn’t find shelter soon, he would die.

It was his thirty-seventh birthday. He’d always wanted to see snow, so he and a group of friends had rented a cabin in the San Bernardino Mountains to celebrate. A huge snowstorm had swept the region the night before, leaving behind humongous drifts of crystal white.

“Let’s go hiking,” Alicia had said, and everyone thought it was a great idea. They donned extra layers of clothing and snow jackets, took their phones for group selfies and resolved to be back in time for dinner. Unfortunately, John had gotten separated from the group.

“I have to go back,” he’d said after only twenty minutes of walking. “I want to change into my snow boots.”

“You know the way?” Alex asked.

“Of course. A quarter mile there.” He pointed back behind them. If it weren’t for the fact that they’d teased him for his terrible sense of direction, he would’ve asked for company.

Now, John trudged through waist-deep snow and shivered. He’d lost the path a while ago, so that all that surrounded him were large gray rocks and towering pines. The cold had leeched through his jacket and snow pants, seeping into flesh and bone, and he could no longer feel his limbs. Was this how he would die? Would he exit this world only thirty-seven years after entering it, all because of a pair of shoes and a bruised ego?

I won’t die. That’s ridiculous.

He reached out to steady himself against a nearby tree and paused. How long had he been walking? Two hours? Three? He needed to rest.

No! screamed a half mad thought that bubbled out of a partially frozen mind.

Just a couple minutes. A couple minutes to rest his aching muscles, a couple minutes to calm his nerves. Then he could press on. In the back of his head, that manic voice continued screaming for him to go on. But he was no longer listening.

He dropped to his knees, rested his head against a nearby tree trunk. He reached back with numb hands to form a crude pillow, and he wondered vaguely why he couldn’t feel the bark.

Just a couple minutes.

John closed his eyes.

*    *    *

He woke to scratching. Eyelids fluttered, and for a moment he was dazzled by the golden light that filtered through the treetops. Then he felt it again, coarse and painful. He stumbled to his feet. His heart jumped into his throat.

John was surrounded by horned creatures twice as tall as himself, balanced on horse-like haunches and blood-soaked hooves. They reached out to him, scraping with scythe-like claws. He scrambled back. Bumped into a tree. Fell into the snow.

They closed in, began to rip skin and flesh. It was like having his heart carved out of his chest with an icicle. He cried out, coughing as his lungs hitched on the frozen air. He tried to pull away, but they’d pinned him against the tree so he couldn’t move.

Each slashing claw stole more of his warmth, until his teeth chattered like machine gun fire.

“G— g— go away,” he rattled.

Slash. Cut.

He tried to fend them off with useless hands.

Slash. Cut.

Black began to creep in from the corners of his vision. His arms and legs were dead, frozen weights.

Slash. Cut.

The image before his eyes constricted to a narrow white tunnel.

Slash. Cut.

Then light. Dazzling. And warmth. Suffusing. John marveled as feeling flowed back into his limbs. It was not the painful pins-and-needles sensation he’d expected, but a near instant restoration of feeling and motor control. The black that had conquered his vision dispersed. Now, he could see not only the world around him but more, a whole other realm that waited just beyond the threshold of space and time. There was love, and a presence that wanted to protect him. John called out to it, and it answered.

The horned creatures shrieked, shielding their eyes against the sudden burst of light. Hooting and snorting, they staggered away.

The light coalesced, assumed form and substance. It was the most beautiful thing John had ever seen. It had come to his rescue because it loved him, and he found that he loved it in return. He was no longer afraid to die, not if the light would take him with it.

John opened himself to its embrace. He felt a tug. A pull. His body fell away, left to freeze in the snow. John gazed down with disinterest.

The light swept him up and carried him home.

Dying Breath

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“Time to sleep, little one.”

Jerome’s eyes began to droop.

“Mommy loves you very much.” She bent down to kiss his forehead, then walked back to the doorway, where she paused for a moment before turning off the light and closing the door.

Jerome stared up at the ceiling, watching the shadows change shape. Too young to form cohesive thoughts, all he could do was feel the lingering love of Mommy like a warm blanket as he drifted to sleep.

For a moment, he teetered on the edge of the waking world. Then he plummeted and all was dark.

* * *

Jerome woke on a bed of straw. He was not an infant but a man, elderly and gray, with an off-white beard that stuck out of his face like a clump of weeds. It was here, in the space between time, that he could remember who he was once again.

In a far off realm, in his true body, he lay dying in a hospital bed. But a woman, a young doctor he’d been sure he knew from somewhere but whose face he couldn’t place, had given him a special gift.

“A life for every dream,” she whispered so only he could hear.

He asked her what she meant, but she only shushed him and told him to go back to sleep.

She whispered something else, a baritone rumble that swallowed the world in a primordial language he felt more than understood. He closed his eyes. When he awoke, he found himself here, on this very same bed of straw.

Now, every time he closed his eyes, he woke someplace new. He would be a different age, exist in a different year. Each step on his sojourn through the cosmos was a flicker, a snapshot in time. Yet a billion snapshots later he was still drifting, with only these brief interludes in his bed of hay to remember who he was.

Someday, it would all come to an end, for a dying breath could only be stretched so far and so thin. But for now he would linger, unsure if what he’d been given was a gift or a curse.

Who would he be the next time? Jerome lay down and closed his eyes.

Prey

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A shadow grazed the surface of the wall. Jackson whirled, momentarily dazzled by the piercing gold of nearby street lights. Nothing. Rivers of sweat flowed down the tiny crevices of age-worn skin, while his heart pounded out morse code. He was prey. That knowledge propelled him into the night.

A flashbulb of memory like a strobe: Mom and Dad, cradling him in their arms, the reflection of a past love so strong that tears began to mingle with the sweat. How he missed them. He’d been safe then. The world had been safe.

Another shadow, glimpsed from the corner of his right eye. Once more he whirled. Once more nothing. He knew he wouldn’t see it coming, that even if he’d been looking straight at it he’d have only seen a blur of color here, a lessening of light there. The Wanderers were amorphous. That was why it was chasing him, to steal his body. They were like supernatural hermit crabs, except they didn’t wait for the owner of the body to die before snatching it for themselves.

Jackson turned a corner, sprinted until he nearly slammed into a concrete wall. A dead-end alley. Fuck, he’d turned into a dead-end alley!

Nobody knew what the Wanderers were nor why they’d come, only that one day they’d invaded en masse, blanketing the world in darkness. Civilization hadn’t completely unraveled, at least not yet—humanity was strong; Jackson had faith it would endure—but like Jackson’s life, it was on the brink.

He clawed at the far wall, forced himself to turn, and there, standing before him, a vision of darkness only half glimpsed. Even in the night it was visible, an inkblot on the surface of the world that shifted before his eyes every time he tried to get a clear reading. He stumbled forward, bumped into another wall, stumbled forward again. Then he tripped over a concrete brick and went flying into the asphalt.

Pain, bright and flaring. Vertigo seized him and he felt like sicking up. It was upon him now, he could feel it. Not a physical weight but a heavy burden nonetheless, coiled like a snake, ready to strike.

On the precipice of death, he saw who he was reflected through the viewfinder of eternity. Then it lunged and the world went dark.

The Man

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This piece of flash fiction is an adaptation of a chapter that appears in a novel I’m writing.

George pressed into the late afternoon with his twin brother Bill at the forefront, a crippled knight mounted on his stainless steel steed. Somewhere in the distance, a car alarm sounded futilely. His neighborhood in Anaheim was not particularly nice, nor was it all that safe, but he hadn’t had any problems in the six or seven years since they’d been living there.

Bill had been in a bad car accident when they were kids, and George had been taking care of him in one capacity or another ever since.

A low bass groan emanated from deep inside Bill’s throat, quiet and plaintive.

“I’m fine,” said George. “Just thinking.”

He wondered sometimes how he would continue to take care of his brother on his meager salary. Their inheritance had eased the burden some, but that source of income had almost run dry, and when it was gone George didn’t know what he’d do. He could have finished school, could have become an accountant like his father and made much more than he was making now. But he’d dropped out to help Mom care for Bill.

They rounded a corner and George spotted the man, standing by an empty bus stop. He wore a black fedora and suit jacket, and was smoking and peering up and down the sidewalk as if he’d lost something. George watched him. The man often did that, seemed to search for something just out of reach. It used to creep him out as a kid.

He’d started seeing him shortly after Bill’s accident. He and his brother would be out at the mall and he would catch the man sitting on a bench. Then they would be at the store and he would spot the man standing by the magazines. Sometimes he’d even spotted the man in their parents’s yard, ambling about along the grass as if lost. He thought it odd, seeing the same man in so many places. He’d asked Mom about him once, but when she started eyeing him askance and asking if he was pulling her leg, he decided to keep the matter to himself.

The man had become an inevitability, like death and taxes. Sometimes George wondered if he was crazy, if he was seeing someone no one else could see because no one was actually there. Once, he’d sat down next to the man and tried to start a conversation. But the man had just looked on, as if George didn’t exist.

Bill groaned again.

“Are you okay? Want me to take you home?”

More groaning, an ululating plea.

Then the man gazed in his direction and went rigid.

George’s veins turned to ice. The man had acknowledged him, something that had never happened before. And with the acknowledgment, the world around George seemed to lose definition, making the man stand out in harsh relief to his surroundings.

He closed his eyes.

“You’re not real,” he whispered under his breath. “Go away, you’re not real.”

When he opened his eyes the man was gone.

Book Review: Doll Bones, by Holly Black

Doll Bones CoverSynopsis from Goodreads:

Zach, Poppy and Alice have been friends for ever. They love playing with their action figure toys, imagining a magical world of adventure and heroism. But disaster strikes when, without warning, Zach’s father throws out all his toys, declaring he’s too old for them. Zach is furious, confused and embarrassed, deciding that the only way to cope is to stop playing…and stop being friends with Poppy and Alice. But one night the girls pay Zach a visit, and tell him about a series of mysterious occurrences. Poppy swears that she is now being haunted by a china doll – who claims that it is made from the ground-up bones of a murdered girl. They must return the doll to where the girl lived, and bury it. Otherwise the three children will be cursed for eternity…

I picked this one up after reading this review. I promised the blogger who wrote it that I would eventually get around to writing my own. This is the result.

As I always do when I review a book, I like to point out both the positives and the negatives, because I believe that even a good book isn’t perfect, and because I like to present a balanced and thorough analysis.

Let’s start with what this book does right.

For one thing, it’s gorgeously written. Black has a gift for turning a phrase. The words she uses and the way she uses them frequently take my breath away. Occasionally, Black peppers her language with words that are a little complex for a middle grader, words like kleptomaniacal. I think this is a good thing. It’s not heavy handed, but comes up in the text organically, and it forces kids to do some research and to build their vocabulary.

Black does a remarkable job of describing the roleplaying of Zach, Alice and Poppy from their perspective, and of elevating mere child’s play to an elaborate ongoing act of talented and inspired storytelling. Just as in reality, the two in Doll Bones are one in the same.

True to Black’s other work, Doll Bones deals with dark themes like death and supernatural angst. But it does so in a way that remains accessible and palatable for children. This is important, because while we must allow children to face and learn how to cope with the consequences of life in a broken world, we must also tread lightly and be very careful not to unduly frighten and depress them.

Dysfunctional family life is a central theme, and serves as a backbone in the development of the book’s main characters. Poppy’s parents have thrown their arms up and decided to let their kids do whatever they want. Zach’s dad selfishly left him and his mother to make a living for himself, only to barge back in on them when it didn’t work out, just as they were adjusting to life without him. Alice is being raised by an overly strict grandmother, who won’t allow her to do most of the things an ordinary child in junior high should be allowed to do. The various dysfunctional dynamics of these three families are all too common in today’s world, and are undoubtedly relatable to many of this book’s readers.

Black captures beautifully the inevitable and often painful realities of growing up. Zach’s ever-growing discomfort over his playing with action figures at an age where such things are frowned upon by his peers is something that both children and adults can identify with, as well as his father’s misguided attempt to help him “grow up” by throwing his action figures away. There’s also a very tangible (and sometimes painfully awkward) tension that arises between Zach and the girls now that they’ve grown to an age where they begin to notice each other in new and different ways. This tension comes to a head about two thirds or three quarters of the way through the book, and adds a nice sub-plot to the story.

The “epic quest” that the children undertake is as much a product of their ongoing fantasies as it is about laying the doll to rest. In fact, more than once, Poppy’s veracity concerning the spirit of the doll is called into question, yet they choose to press on even in the face of extreme difficulty. The lure of an adventure, however risky and terrifying, simply proves to be irresistible.

Now, what about Doll Bones don’t I like?

For one, the plot suffers from too many implausible scenarios. At the beginning of their quest, Zach, Alice and Poppy board a late night bus. I would, at the very least, expect the driver to ask them how old they are. But he says nothing, and the children are allowed to go on their merry way. Later, desperate to cross a river so they can complete their quest and give the doll a proper burial, they steal a dinghy. Miraculously, Zach is able to sail it, despite the fact that he’s had no prior training, and that his only knowledge of sail boats comes from books. When it eventually capsizes in the presence of a barge, nobody on the other boat stops to ask if they need help, despite the fact that they can clearly see there are children on board.

I’m also put off by how abruptly the story ends. As a reader, I feel a little cheated. Some lingering mystery can be a powerful thing, but there are too many loose threads that should have been tied up. To be fair, it’s a difficult tale to conclude properly. Without giving away the ending, it’s clear as we reach the final pages that the kids have gotten themselves in pretty deep; some extremely skillful cleanup would be required to pull it off successfully. I think ultimately, the task proved too difficult, and that Black chose to end the story a little early instead.

Overall, this book is well worth the investment. It’s beautifully written, mysterious and true to life. It successfully handles a dark theme with the delicate care required for children’s literature. Though it isn’t perfect, I would definitely say that the good outweighs the bad, and would, without question, recommend it for both children and adults.