The Middle

[Contemporary short story, ~1400 words. -ARG]

 

Fire don’t care that it’s winter.

The air gets hazier as we rocket through the Smokies, Mom and me, taking mountain curves like she doesn’t remember she’s a cop five days a week. We’re already later than we would be, with traffic from the rain that ain’t where it needs to be, and we’ve been in the car six hours and I’m on no sleep.

Wildfire ain’t supposed to be out east. East we worry about storms, like Katrina or Fran, way back when. But turns out droughts can happen anywhere, and fire don’t give a damn that we ain’t prepared for it.

“If we have to evacuate, the dogs go in my car. Papaw can’t go with them, because they tear his skin.” Mom tells me. She’s right. I’ll drive Papaw and Nana back, in their impala. Only if Papaw gets discharged. I don’t know what we’ll do if the fire gets to the hospital.

“If we gotta.” I agree. “They’ll stay with you? What about the cousins?”

“It’ll be tight.” Her knuckles are white on the wheel. “But we’ll manage.”

We been looking for a way to get them moved outta the mountains for a while now. With Papaw’s heart, and Nana’s memory going, it’d be easier to have them closer. But they won’t do anything they don’t wanna.

Hospital’s a big, pretty place, and we gotta confirm where Papaw is. The news is on in his room– a cycle of reporters talking about the fire, people that lost their homes, videos of smoke covered mountains and hills of flame and one pair of guys driving down with fire on both sides. We’re all waiting to hear if they’ll call an evacuation for the trailer we ain’t at. Papaw and Nana fall asleep to the noise, the little green lines on the EKG, the hum of the heparin IV, Gatlinburg mayor giving a speech on TV. The governor talks about how special this place is, but it’s hard to care about the outside world.

A lab tech comes in to take blood, but her pulling tape rips Papaw’s skin. Paper thin, fragile. I guess she didn’t know because she felt bad, but ‘feeling bad’ don’t stop the bleeding. We call a nurse and she wraps up his arm. We won’t let that happen again, but that doesn’t undo the damage.

We feed Nana from the cafeteria. She hasn’t been eating, but she will if we watch. Time passes like molasses, and we wait. The chairs are hard, and there’s only two, so I walk around, or I sit on the floor. The nurse doesn’t like that. Doesn’t stop me.

Mom points to the TV, the one I’m trying my damnedest to ignore.

“That motel ain’t two miles from you.”

That perks me up. I hope the dogs aren’t in danger. When men face danger, people like to say they have a fight or flight response. Ain’t right. Men also freeze like deer do. I freeze, I know I do.

“I don’t think it was wildfire.” Papaw says. He sat up for dinner, needs help to do it. He’s hurting. He’s been going all his life and he don’t stop unless he’s hurting.

“Arson?” Mom asks.

“Yea.”

The TV drowns out the rest. I don’t doubt it, but I don’t want it to be arson, and I don’t wanna listen to the damned TV. I don’t wanna listen to anything else either. I get glued to my phone instead.

Embers can float a mile, it says.

 

Papaw needs help getting to the bathroom. Mom helps.

“This little gown they give you don’t cover your backside anyhow.” Papaw says. Temp’s set to eighty and he’s still shaking cold. I talk to Mom. Nana ain’t been home in some days, and Doctor ain’t coming today, most like, so I gotta drive Nana back. Back, toward the fire, where their dogs are. I keep saying we’ll run if they say, but they don’t say yet.

Fight, flight, freeze.

I drive back toward the fire, Nana my passenger. I make a turn too quick and loll her neck- I forgot how gentle I gotta be. She sleeps some after that. The fire glow doesn’t overrun the city glow, the Winterfest lights, the advertisements. I can’t see stars. Maybe smoke. Maybe light pollution. Maybe I just ain’t looking hard enough. Wind’s rough on the highway.

Embers can float a mile.

I sleep for ten hours, fitful, with a tornado warning blaring around 2am. I ignore it, pass back out, and hope I’ll even wake up for an evacuation. Morning comes like it always does, and Mom wants us back at the hospital, but I make sure Nana eats first. I drive back with blinking eyes, oil and tire lights on in Nana’s car. She reaches over to switch off the warnings, and I wonder how long she’s been doing that.

“What did it say?” I hadn’t caught the warning that time.

“Oh, I don’t know. It wasn’t what I wanted to see.”

Nothing to say to that.

We get there, parking in the pouring rain since Nana won’t let me drop her off. She walks slow, and I hold the umbrella. Mom texted asking for prayers since Papaw already got wheeled into the procedure.

My nails got picked apart from chewing, which I shouldn’t do around so many sick, but I’ve got an itch in my gut. Papaw wakes up, and we wait more, and sometime Mom and I go get oil to put in Nana’s car. There’s gotta be a bubble in the line somewhere, but it doesn’t get too hot on the road, so we’ll look later. The air is wet, and cold. Fire must be contained, right? We’re safe now, right?

The nurse comes in for midday pills, and we help Papaw sit up.

“You sound alright. How’re ya feeling?” The nurses treat Papaw kindly, and he teases them and jokes on, amiable as ever.

“I may sound alright, but I ain’t chasing no twenty year olds.” Papaw chuckles. I can tell he’s cold though. His hands shake, legs are mottled, and his arms got a dozen thick red bruises. My hands shake too, but I can hide that. Ain’t nobody looking at me anyway.

I leave for walks every so often. When the rain lightens up, I even go outside. People light up on the sidewalk, even though there are signs all over about how the hospital grounds are smoke free. Wonder if the wildfire can read.

That ain’t funny. People are dead. Count keeps going up each day, from finding the bodies. Tornado fatalities not included. I think they ought to be.

Cold bites.  I should’ve brought a thicker coat.

 

It’s past midnight, and we wait for the cardiologist again, but he’s not coming. I need to take Nana home while I can still drive. I can’t stand the TV anymore, taking any excuse to be out of the room. Everything’s still closed, still cold, still dangerous. My hands shake, like I know I’m on the cusp of disaster. If I leave tonight, will it be the end? I just want the cardiologist to come by like the nurses said he would, to tell us how much danger Papaw’s in, whether he’d get to go home soon.

I’m irritable on the way back, driving gentle but following my GPS to the letter. Nana’s lived here her whole life, but sometimes she gets lost or her directions get flipped, and I’m still worried I’ll blow a tire and have to change it in the dead of night.

We get back and I pass out, and it’s near noon before I wake up to a call from mom. I mutter that we’ll leave soon, and try to blink the tired out of my eyes.

The car starts outside. I bolt up to look out the blinds.

Taillights.

Nana shouldn’t be driving, but she don’t care. I pull on my jacket and step outside to watch her car whizz down the gravel.

I wrestle the emergency Marlboro out of my wallet. My shakes calm long enough to let me text mom. I let the cold bite, filling my lungs with that sweet, deadly relief. Fire, Tornado, danger, nothing. This ain’t the end. It’s the goddamned middle.

I stamp the butt out, because embers can float a mile.

And fire don’t care.

News & Chapter Titles

Hello Humans! Anybody feel a draft in here?

IT’S ME! I just finished the first draft of a new novel. This WIP came in just over 100,000 words, and 253 pages. The draft is loosely a YA comic fantasy, which I worked on for Camp Nanowrimo.

So, for this first post after Uncanny Valley, I’m talking about “Ahead of Fate” (the working title). Since I already have a synopsis and world information up on my still-in-progress website, I’ll be sharing the chapter titles that have been making me snicker for the better part of 3 non-consecutive months.

(I have a serious affection for puns.)

Table of Contents

  • Chapter 1: Demon, Deserter, Shifter, Slayer
  • Chapter 2: Sakura Nova
  • Chapter 3: A Brief Chase
  • Chapter 4: A Doggone Shame
  • Chapter 5: Orange You Glad?
  • Chapter 6: Pray It Forward
  • Chapter 7: Seven Minutes in Heaven
  • Chapter 8: Maid in the North
  • Chapter 9: A Whirlwind Bromance
  • Chapter 10: Six Ways to Sunday
  • Chapter 11: Net Prophet
  • Chapter 12: Conversion Therapy
  • Chapter 13: Reckless Abandonment
  • Chapter 14: The Prodigal Child
  • Chapter 15: The Last Peace
  • Chapter 16: The Human Race
  • Chapter 17: Ragnarok
  • Chapter 18: Pyramid Scheme
  • Epilogue: Kale Smoothie

 

I’m really looking forward to getting feedback from alpha readers on this piece.

In general, I don’t see many authors using chapter titles. Anybody know why? I love them.

-ARG

Zombies Don’t Eat Cheez Whiz

[A short piece of surreal fiction about accepting our weird, gross bodies. -ARG]

Zombies cheezwhiz pic

I think I just died.

I can’t be sure yet. This could just be a very strange third-person dream.

Given that my body is lying on the ground below me, being munched on by the living dead, I’m seriously hoping that this is only a dream.

There’s definitely a dream-like quality to the motion around me. The bodies moving around the corpsified version of me leave behind trails of light, like I’m looking through one of those old school two-color 3D glasses. My body is the only one not moving. I watch for a bit longer, and decide that if this is a dream, I really want to wake up.

The zom-zoms, my personal pet name for the dullards, soon move on from my body to chase fresher meat- my companions, of course. I don’t much like them anyway. Everyone I’d really liked had gotten zombified weeks ago. Or however long ago. I’m having difficulty remembering timelines, which favors the dream theory I’m rooting for.

On the positive side, I’m sorta getting the hang of floating, if no one takes an objective measure. It feels like I’m on the first level of a video game, and all my controls are sticking. This level would be quite a bit less disturbing without my dead body on the ground, covered in zombie-bites like giant gross chicken pox.

Ew.

I’ve never been a looker. But even as an acne-covered teen with an affection for Cheetos, Cheezits, Cheez Whiz, and other cheese products, I’d still never looked this bad. My skin has been replaced by slimy gray candle wax, and some white foam oozes out of my gracelessly slack mouth.

I avoid looking directly at the bite marks as long as I can, because I have always been very squeamish. I faint at needles, I can’t stand the sight of blood, and I both vomited and gotten crazy severe shakes after a documentary on poultry farms. Since then, I’ve been a life-long vegetarian. Even during this zom-zom rodeo, I shut my eyes every time somebody gets bitten. If this isn’t a terrible dream, then my weak stomach is probably the reason I’m corpse food. Zombies are gross.

Finally looking closer, I’m gross too. Along with red, angry bites everywhere, a whole huge chunk is missing out of my clearly broken right forearm.  Those zombastards must’ve chomped right through the bones!

Perhaps this horrible maybe-dream is telling me to give up the guitar. Good riddance, I’d never excelled at finger picking notes. I’m better with chords, by which I mean I’m not very good at all. I can’t entirely blame my recent six-month hiatus on the apocalypse though. I’d stopped practicing long before I’d witnessed somebody turn from conscious person into gross hungry candle.

At least I don’t feel queasy! Thank goodness. I don’t want to vomit all over my own corpse.

My corpse, which starts to groan and twitch.

Oh no. No no no no no. I hadn’t considered this possibility.

Wake up, me!

Wake up, wake up, wake up!

The groan echoes throughout the room, and the twitches made by my body leave behind shimmering shadows as it moves. My own eyes open below me, now made of gray zombie wax. My body slowly rises of its own accord, groaning.

Even pinching doesn’t wake me up. Can’t even feel it. I’m watching my own corpse turn into a zombie.

My body pushes itself up and drags its own gore across the tile toward some small sounds in the house. I’d gotten killed in a kitchen. I hope I hadn’t been doing something stupid when I died, although there is a distinct chance I had been looking for Cheezits.

I follow myself, which sounds strange. What could I call my own zombified body?

Me-bie? Other, Grosser Self? Zom-me? Zombody? Zombuddy?

I favor the latter two, but can’t pick. I guess I’ll stick with “Body” for now. I watch Body shamble toward the… what was it? Living room? I float through the wall, frustrated at my lack of speed. Body hit the counter at stomach level, smearing blood from its limp, useless right arm as it stumbled about.

The living room is bright, sparkling almost, with sun-drenched draperies that left little star-shadows wherever they moved. Sunlight is incredibly bright, shining in the air like suspended zirconium. I can’t remember the house perfectly, but my blurry memories definitely disagree with my current senses.

While I’m distracted by the shimmering sunlight, Body runs into a coffee table and falls flat on its waxy dead face.

I whack my forehead with my own palm in annoyance. It doesn’t hurt a lick.

The realization hits me like my palm to the face didn’t: I am a ghost. I am a non-corporeal phantasm, separated from my mortal coil. And my mortal coil’s clumsy husk had just tripped over a coffee table.

I try to sit on the couch to think, but I accidentally float too far down and get hopelessly lost in the cantaloupe-colored foam inside the old-school flower motifs. I flail uselessly until I have the brilliant idea to just float my way out, which takes longer than expected. Honestly, having to float in three dimensions should really come with a freaking game controller.

When I exit the couch, Body is gone. I hyperventilate for two seconds before I realize that I’m not actually breathing, and it’s not affecting me. I guess it’d been a mental reaction, not a physical one. No shakes, no overwhelming panic.

Maybe being a ghost isn’t so bad, just as long as I don’t try to sit on any couches. Those things are deceptively dangerous.

I float toward the next room, and the next, before finding Body flush up against a bookshelf. Gross coagulated blood is smeared all over the wood, various trinkets, and useless shelved Blu-rays. The books had been spared, but only because Body’s sleeve snagged on a metal hook holding orphan keys.

Body could easily release itself, if it would just stop going forward. Its groans echo throughout the room. I never remembered zombies being this loud before, or echoing in the slightest. Body’s vocal complaints are matched by significantly more alive sounds from another room. Taps of boots, heavy breathing.

Body swings around haphazardly and attempts to shamble toward the alive-noises. Its sleeve is still stuck fast, resulting in the worrisome wobble of the bookshelf.

My worry is short-lived. One good jerk from Body topples the whole thing, with pale trails of the movement cascading as the bookshelf falls. Body collapses underneath, feet flailing like it had slipped on a cartoon banana peel. The heavy wood shelf pins Body’s shoulder and twists its leg in a strange direction. It’s even stranger to realize I don’t consider Body’s legs mine anymore. Does ghost-me have legs? I’m a little afraid to check. Procrastination seems like a solid plan.

The humans enter, glance at Body, and move on. A small train of zom-zoms pursue at a slower pace. The alive people are fleeing, and anybody (ha!) who isn’t trapped by a toppled bookshelf is following at as fast a pace as those dead little legs would allow.

The house is quiet soon, except for Body’s noises. The groans are starting to sound more whiny to me, like a puppy begging to go out and eat the tasty humans. I wonder uselessly if Body is housetrained.

I briefly consider trying to lift the shelf, before abolishing the thought. Even alive-me wouldn’t have been able to lift it. In addition to having a pizza-style face, I used to have laughable upper body strength that my meager prowess at guitar had not enhanced.

Lying down beside Body, I put my hands behind my head and crossed my ankles of questionable existence. I glance over at the gross, waxy thing beside me that I had once inhabited.

“Would you prefer Zombody, or Zombuddy?” I ask.

Body continues grumbling without recognition that I’d spoken. I roll my incorporeal eyes and think. I could stay like this forever, and might end up doing that. It doesn’t seem so bad. I do the exact same nothing every summer. My world is much more at peace now that I’m not running. This frightening thing has happened, is still happening, and I’m adjusting. I’m okay. Chances are this isn’t a dream, but it’s also not a nightmare.

By far my biggest concern about ghost-hood?

No Cheezits.

Six Motivating Camp Nanowrimo Activities!

Humans!
I’ve been caught up with writing for Camp Nanowrimo, which is a ton of fun! However, sometimes it can be difficult to stay on task and keep writing, especially during Nanowrimo-style challenges where word-count is key. This is a list of camp activities that I’ve started with my writing group in an attempt to get one another involved.

Music Monday! Share a music video with the group to show off your hard work- one word for each second of the video. (e.g. If you want to rickroll the whole group, that’s only 213 words! :P)

“Twofer Tuesday(or “2’s day!”) Challenge your group mates by writing 100-300 words, and then tagging 2 more people to match that number. (Feel free to tag yourself for a ‘double down’ effect!)

Word Sprint Wednesday! As a group, try to rack up a tally of 10-minute word sprints. For keeping things easy between time zones, word sprints start at :00, :15, :30, and :45 every hour.

Treat Yourself Thursday! Find something you want (on amazon or another site) and “buy it” using words. If each word is a cent, then something that is $5 would cost 500 words. Then share your fake purchases with the group! That way, you can learn a little bit about each other, too.

Free-for-All Friday! Use a combination of any of the week’s methods to up your word count, and share with the group. Check out twitter for the #FriDare hashtag if you’re looking for extra inspiration.

Sketch Saturday! Have some artsy types in your group? Trade sketches with one another, at a ‘cost’ of 1000 words. Share information about your characters, and see how people in your group would draw them. I find fan art very encouraging!

A week is six days, right? If it isn’t it should be.

Have another activity you’d like to share? I’d love to hear about it!

Write On!

-ARG

 

Camp Update!

(& A Disclaimer about Posting Schedule)

As I start into the third day of Camp Nanowrimo, I’d like to make a quick disclaimer! I won’t be posting everyday. I’m focusing all my time and energy on the manuscript, and I’m doing pretty darn well!

I’m at 8.3k words, my friends!

Working on a manuscript at this pace is exhilarating, but I still find myself pacing and pondering over scenes, rooting myself in place until I find the path that resonates. The heart wants what the heart wants, as they say. So while Camp Nanowrimo, or writing months in general, don’t necessarily eradicate writer’s block, the pace is driven upward by goals and awesome community. (It’s also waaaay fun to see that number go up.)

Since the b-log is new, I’m still working on developing a workable posting schedule. However, feel free to peruse past posts, and look forward to (at least) weekly updates! If you’d like to see something particular, contact me.

Happy July!

-ARG

Alpin Recommends Books: Fantasy

Humans! I thought I’d introduce a couple of fantasy books that have captured my attention recently. I’ve grouped these books based on some common themes, and these books have a very similar feel, but were recommended to me from very different sources.

An Ember in the Ashes: This debut novel by Sabaa Tahir is an excellent example of a unique, eerily beautiful, and terrifying fantasy world without the typical cross-continent travel aspect (although I fully expect it in the upcoming sequel). This story is told from two perspectives, Laia and Elias, who couldn’t be from more different walks of life, but are still in parallel situations. Laia is a young woman who volunteers out of guilt for a hopeless, deadly spy mission in an attempt to get information to help her imprisoned brother. Elias is a young man who just wants to get away from the cruel tactics that he’d been raised in as a member of the ruling group, but instead is goaded by future-tellers into taking a dangerous chance at true freedom. Overall, I loved this story, although it didn’t fully draw me in until the first chapter from the Elias viewpoint. My favorite character? The wonderfully deadly Helene, for whom I wish every happiness.

The Wrath & The Dawn: This debut novel by Renée Ahdieh is a love story first, and a fantasy second. The magic in this is an undefined system, that unfolds through its interaction with other characters. The mystery of the magic system left me hungry for more throughout, and this is the kind of book that begs for (and has!) a sequel. Although I have not read the sequel yet, I am looking forward to it once I have the opportunity. In this retelling of the Arabian Nights, the heroine Shahrzad is fierce, dangerous, and determined to take revenge on the King, who killed her best friend. Of course, there end up mitigating factors (sorta), but I hardly think of that as a spoiler. I have some difficulty relating to the love-triangle subplot, but I imagine given the prevalence in modern stories, some people love this sort of thing.  I highly recommend this richly written novel to fans of beautiful, dangerous worlds and beautiful, dangerous women.

 

Happy Reading!

-ARG

Cooking for Humans!

Easy Taco-based Lasagna

Sometimes, humans have to be entertained, and I find that the best way to entertain these funny little bipeds is to feed them! Minimal-prep dishes can be whipped up easily, and as long as you intend to be around for an hour or so, a total win on inexpensive ways to feed these voracious creatures.

Ingredients: OVEN READY lasagna (6ish sheets?), 1 can black beans, 2tsp cumin, 2tsp chili pepper, 2 cloves garlic, cheese (2ish cups total, more is probably fine), 1-2c frozen spinach, and some kind of tomato sauce (4tbsp? It doesn’t have to be much),

Supplies: Oven, Lasagna pan, can opener, knife, tin foil

Preheat oven to 350F. Put three of the little oven-ready lasagna sheets to cover the bottom of the lasagna pan. Open bean can, do not drain, and spread beans even-ish over the lasagna noodles. The watery-goo from the bean can will cook the noodles in utero in the oven.

Mince the garlic with the knife thing. Sprinkle the cumin and chili powder on the bean layer, along with the garlic. Skip the garlic if you’re a vampire or if your guests might be vampires. Sprinkle a cup of cheese evenly onto the beans.

Put another layer of oven ready lasagna noodles onto the cheese, then cover that in your tomato sauce. Spread this out so that all the dry noodle is covered by the tomato goo. Put the frozen spinach on that. Sometimes I have to smash apart the clump while it’s still in the bag.  Sprinkle another cup of cheese on that. You can add more spices here, like red pepper, more cheese, or even oregano. Cheese counts as a spice, right?

Cover top in tinfoil. Put the lasagna dish INSIDE the oven at 350F for 35 min. Take off the tinfoil, leave in oven for another 5-10 min (this is to make the cheese on top all crispy).

This should take minimal prep- if it takes longer than 8ish minutes to put together/get in the oven, you need a better can opener.

I wish you many luck packets in your experiments with human food! Honestly, they seem to eat almost anything with cheese in/on/under/near it.

-ARG