Full of Crap

full of crap As a co-host of the Dead Robots Society, I can tell you that a large number of our topics come from our listeners. Wolf Roark, a good friend and a man whose picture is next to lovable curmudgeon in the dictionary, recently asked one that resonates with me.

How do you keep the crap that happens in the real world from affecting the story you’re trying to tell?

Now, this question can be taken in a couple of ways. I’m going to answer in both ways that spring to mind:

Way the First – I’m a husband, a father, someone with a day job, and in general just a busy dude. In short, there’s a LOT of crap in my life. Things that take time. Things I waste time on. Things I actually have to do. All of that stuff can get in the way of telling the story, much less actually getting the story written down. There are a couple of ways you can prevent that from happening:

Have A Schedule – Much of the crap that gets in the way has its own schedule. I have to be at work at a certain time. The kids have a bed time. We eat dinner at roughly the same time every day. Why should writing be any different? I write nearly every day at lunch. This is a habit I’m trying to cultivate and am having some degree of success at. I also try to write at the end of the day, but that’s possibly the worst time to do it for me personally. If any crap hits the fan then writing isn’t going to happen. That’s why I don’t rely on having that time to write. It’s like a bonus. So you need to find the best time of day for you to write.

Be Flexible – This may seem to contradict the schedule thing. For me, it gives me some freedom. I used to write almost nothing. Months would go by and nary a word would I commit to paper/electrons. When I finally decided to “get serious” I would start of grand and then something would go to crap. I’d feel guilty, get discouraged, and give up for a few weeks. Now, if life interferes, I let it. Then I remember that writing can happen and WILL happen the next day. I don’t let that trap of guilt and shame slow me down.

Get Buy In – Make sure that the people in your life know how important writing is to you. My wife, God bless her heart, will go to great lengths to make sure that I know that it’s writing time. She hasn’t taken the nuclear options of stealing the remote or hiding my beer, but those cards are on the table.

Way the Second – It is entirely possible he meant “how do you keep current events or the crap at work from creeping in to the stories you’re writing?”.

I say, don’t stand in the way of those things. Inspiration can come from the most unlikely of places. Everything from the origin of the story itself to events in the story can and should be somewhat fluid. Whether you’re a pantser or a plotter, you can leave room open to being affected by that song you heard or that movie you watched. These days I think that can be particularly useful if you happen to be writing political thrillers, but every genre can and should tackle the sort of events and issues that we run into in our daily lives.

Then there are the things that happen in my personal life. Being a father and a husband has done nothing but make my writing better/richer/deeper. I let those things in. I draw events and interactions into my stories. I feel like that will help them resonate with people.

The Final Thing – It’s entirely possible that I’ve missed the point of his question. Or that you’re inspired to ask a new question or answer the question he seems to have asked yourself. Please do! That’s what comments are for.

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Gender In Writing

A_TransGender-Symbol_Plain1 I’ve been studying both French and Spanish over the last few months. I was fluent in French at one point and am working to regain that. I’ve never studied Spanish, but I’m finding that the dribs and drabs I’ve picked up over the years is leaking out of my brain and gaining flesh as I study. I’m using a combination of the Duolingo app/website and the podcasts produced by Radio Lingua.

One thing this study has reminded me of is the concept of gendered nouns (regardless of whether or not the physical object has a gender), and the fact that both languages change the spelling of adjectives based on the gender of that noun they describe. I wondered if that was changing at all in practice the way that it is, to a lesser degree, in English. While we don’t have gendred nouns per se, I can’t help but think how I’ve gone from saying “fireman” to “fire fighter” and “policeman” to “police officer”. There’s another change in usage that I’ve noticed. Certain masculine words like “waiter” are supplanting their feminine versions entirely, in spite of efforts to create words like “waitron“. Then there’s the question of pronouns. All three languages I speak have “him” and “her”, but the only gender neutral term I know of is the English word “it”.

The more I read when it comes to gender issues and the use of descriptors like cis-gendred and genderqueer to name but two that are new to me, the more I wonder if this neutrality trend is good or bad (or neither). As someone who writes some science fiction, I think about how to use language like this in my stories. It’s somewhat pointless to try and be accurate about how we’ll speak in twenty, fifty, or a hundred years. No one can be sure how language will evolve in the coming decades. We only know that it will. Still, it’s fun to think about. Then there’s the matter of respect for the communities that use those terms currently.

Given the choice between using words that are gender neutral, gender specific, or applying the current gender specific masculine (or feminine) term to the broader group; how do you address that in your writing? Does that depend on your genre and audience, or do you have a rule that applies to all of your writing?

“A TransGender-Symbol Plain1″. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 de via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:A_TransGender-Symbol_Plain1.png#mediaviewer/File:A_TransGender-Symbol_Plain1.png

The Teacher

Here’s my latest entry in my ongoing serial horror piece. This one creeped me out.

I’m interested in suggestions for a title for this work. Drop any suggestions in the comments.

Abe popped the gel coated tablets into his mouth and chased them with a slurp of the red wine he’d bought earlier that day. It had been a hell of a week at school and he felt like he needed a break. He walked over to the fireplace, glass in hand, and hit the ignition button on the fireplace. Peace and quite, an adult beverage, and the flickering of the gas logs were only the first course.

He relaxed into the easy chair, relishing the feeling of his skin against the leather. It was cool at first, but it soon warmed to body heat. He was a little disappointed that he had to enjoy this time alone. He’d hoped to have a date to share the pictures with, but the person he had in mind was being investigated. They’d have to lay low for a while. Abe had been enjoying his hobby for twenty years and knew what precautions to take. His friend was newer to the passion and may not be as well schooled in what to do and what not to do. That could be very bad for him.

Abe had slipped up once and it had nearly cost him his job. It had cost him his marriage and he needed to really be careful, but that was all water under the bridge. He grabbed his tablet from the table nearby and opened the texting window. The face that looked back at him was angelic. The boy, Charlie, was a junior in Abe’s French II class. His grades weren’t the best and when he needed extra help, Abe had been very understanding. After all, bad grades could cost him his spot on the football team and without that there would be no college scholarship.

Soon he and Charlie had quite the friendship. Abe had never taken it any farther than that. It had been tempting, but that was part of being careful. He’d used all of his knowledge of Charlie’s likes and dislikes to build Rachel’s profile. Rachel was seventeen, had flaming red hair, and was an average student. She told Charlie that she attended a school across the state and had heard about him in the newspaper. She friended him on Twitter and soon the two were exchanging emails, texts, and direct messages. Cultivating the relationship hadn’t taken long. Getting it to the point where Charlie was sending him naked pictures had gone fairly quickly. Once he had those, it was easy to take it further. Now he had pictures of Charlie’s friends taken in the locker room and even had a video of varsity cheerleading coach Dana going down on Charlie in the back of her Passat. All Abe had to do was convince Charlie that this was the sort of thing Rachel got off on. In return he sent Charlie pictures of Rachel getting off. That had been a piece of cake since everything of Rachel’s came from one of those “barely legal” sites.

Soon he would take it to the next level. He had plans to “discover” the online relationship and threaten to reveal it to Charlie’s parents. That, plus all of the pictures, especially the secret locker room snaps, would turn the young man into his slave. It was the long con, but the little nibbles along the way, the pictures and videos, made the wait worthwhile. He’d been unable to really look at any of the pictures Charlie had sent this week and settled in to appreciate them.

When he opened the folder he nearly shrieked. All of the pictures had been replaced by one photo repeated over and over again. The barrel of a gun pointed at a camera’s lens. “I don’t understand.” He was about to put the tablet down when his muscles started to cramp. He gripped the device in spasming hands. Any tighter and he might crack the screen.

A window opened on the screen and it was Charlie’s face, but only the mouth moved. It wasn’t Charlie’s mouth. “I see that the medication has taken effect. There was a ‘mistake’ and your regular dose of anti-anxiety meds was replaced with something a little fiercer. The man I received your information from had planned to make your outing a little more public. So I expect you would thank me. If you were able to form words.”

Abe could no longer feel his hands.

“I don’t usually kill people, but in your case I’ve decided to make an exception. I can be convinced otherwise. If you understand, grunt once like a pig.”

Abe tried very hard and forced air through his throat and out of his mouth.

“You’re looking at the barrel of a gun. You like young men to put their ‘barrel’s’ in your mouth. I say you combine the two and take the barrel of that .357 you keep in your drawer and put it in your mouth. Pull the trigger and everything bad will go away.”

Abe wanted to scream. There was no way he’d kill himself. Suicides went to hell and he had no desire to end up there.

“I know. I know. Killing yourself is hard. Here’s what will happen if you don’t. You’re thinking to yourself that the next words out of my mouth will be that I’ll make your little secret public. If I wanted that then I would have let your eventual blackmailer live. I don’t want your victims to be hurt by your sickness. However you choose to die, I’ll wipe every file you have. No one will know about your indiscretions. That I promise you.”

Abe was able to narrow his eyes.

“What’s the alternative? I’ll kill you. It will be slow. And painful. You’ve made a life out of stripping people of theirs. After you lose your pictures I will see to it that all of the care you’ve taken in building a respectful life will fall down around your ears. You will wish that you killed yourself. Then, one day, a person will come to you with a package. That will take your what’s left of your life from you, but only after you’ve lest everything you live for.” Charlie’s face faded from the tablet’s screen.

Abe sat there for exactly seventeen minutes, until feeling began to come back to his fingers and toes. He felt the tears trickle down his face. He could either take his life, or he could leave it for this monster to take. “What kind of choice is that?” He screamed to the empty house.

He managed to stand after another ten minutes. He dragged himself to the kitchen using walls and furniture for support. A splash of cold water on his face convinced him that this whole mad experience wasn’t a dream. “There’s no way someone could take my life from me. I’ve been so careful. I’ve followed all of the rules.”

The tablet beeped at him from the next room. He stumbled to the chair and picked it up in time to see icons began to disappear. The tablet rebooted. “You could get to that. Of course you could. I have other places. I’ve hid them where no one can find them.” Feeling began to return fully to his extremities. The pins and needles threatened to drive him crazy. He ran as best he could to his office. The computer there was clean. He clicked on a link that took his web traffic through layer after layer of obfuscation. Eventually he reached a computer located in another country. It was there that he stored a number of his dearest files.

When the barrel of a gun looked at him from the screen, he pushed back. “There’s no way. You can’t have gotten everything.” He’d spent years building relationships and getting the things he wanted most. They were slipping through his fingers. If the person could get to all of his files and get into his home and switch his medicine, what couldn’t he do?”

Abe dragged himself to his kitchen and pulled down the bottle of scotch. He unscrewed the cap and turned the bottle up to his mouth. The liquor burned his throat. Drink and more pills took him to a sleep devoid of dreams.

He woke up the next morning, hung over and sure that everything he experienced had been a horrid dream. He started to go to his computer when the phone rang. He jumped like he’d been hit with a cattle prod. He answered it on the third ring. “Hello?”

“Abe? This is Principal Faulkner. We need to talk about something.”

Abe shook his head, trying to clear the cobwebs. “What is it, sir?”

“Abe, we’ve known each other for years. You’re one of the best teachers I have and I want you to hear it from me first. You’re being suspended, pending an investigation.”

They’d found out. The bastard that poisoned him had lied. He worked hard to keep his tone level. “Sir, Walter, I don’t know what this is about.” He came close to babbling out an excuse, but the principal hadn’t told him why he was being suspended.

“It’s probably nothing. We got a call from a parent and there’s some concern that you’ve been helping children to cheat on tests.”

A giggle burst out from Abe’s lips.

“You think this is funny?”

Abe cleared his throat. “Of course not, sir. I know how important reputation is. I just don’t see how you could possibly believe…”

“We have to treat each report of this nature as though it’s potentially true. Of course, I don’t have to tell you if this is true it will cost you your job. We’ll talk more in the morning. Goodbye, Abe.” There was a click.

“Goodbye, sir.” He hung up the phone. His job was gone. There was no truth to the idea of him helping a student to cheat. But someone who could get to all of his files and invade his home would have no problem manufacturing a cheating scandal. He walked to his office. The light was still on and his computer was still up. The wallpaper had been replaced with the picture that had haunted him last night.

“You win. Whoever you are.” He pulled open the desk drawer and pulled out a metal box. The pistol was nestled in black velvet. He cleaned it regularly and practiced with it. The short barrel was cold and tasted like gun oil.

The computer began beeping as files were deleted and tracks erased. The sound of whirring was overshadowed by a single, muffled shot and the splat of blood and brain on plaster.

Playing A Player

This is the next in my ongoing horror serial. Enjoy!

SanDisk_Cruzer_MicroElard finished his jog and stopped outside the library to cool down. He felt bad for Melanie. He didn’t know exactly what happened, but he knew one thing. She was no liar. He’d do some snooping on the library computers and see if the guy bugging her had left any trail. Then he’d take it from there.

He walked into the library and headed for the computer that Mel used. She was a creature of habit. If the computer she wanted wasn’t available then she’d wait. Elard was a different creature in many ways. The computer she always used was occupied. That just wouldn’t do at all for his purposes. He walked up to the baby faced young man hammering at the keys. “How you doin’ sweetie?”

The guy didn’t even flinch.

Elard touched him on the shoulder. The white button down shirt the hammerer wore was lightly starched. “I was talkin’ to you sugar.”

This time he flinched. “Huh?” He looked up at Elard with big blue eyes. “Can I help you?”

Elard nodded. “This computer has some viruses on it. Seems like someone was looking at baby porn on it. Pictures of naked little kids. You wouldn’t know anything about that, would you?” He stared at the man-child. Poor thing couldn’t have been more than six months out of high school.

“Shit no.” His fingers practically shot away from the keyboard. “I was just working on my term paper.” He scooted back and adjusted his thick framed glasses. “You go ahead and do what you need to do.”

“Thanks.” Elard nodded. “You toddle on over there.” He watched the young man walk away, taking note of the tightly fitting trousers. “Too young and innocent for me.” Elard turned his attention back to the computer. He plugged a usb stick into one of the available ports and powered it off. When he turned it back on he waited for the right screen and forced the computer to boot from the stick.

“Excuse me.” The voice came from behind Elard.

Elard turned to see the young man had come back. “Yes, sweetie.”

“Did you save that document? The one I was working on.” He pointed at the computer. His hand trembled slightly.

Elard shook his head. “Fraid not. You weren’t working in the cloud?”

“The what, now?” The young man cocked his head.

Elard sighed. Young and not too bright, in spite of the nerd chic look. “Google docs or some such?”

“No. I was going to save it to my USB thing when I was done.” He looked at the mostly dark screen. It looked for all the world like he was going to start bawling right here in the middle of the library.

Elard put a hand on the man’s stomach. “You sit right over there. When I’m done I’ll recover it for you.” The stomach underneath that shirt was hard and flat.

His eyes cleared up. “That would be awesome. I don’t know how I can thank you.”

Elard flicked the fingers of his other hand. “We can talk about that later. You go sit down and let daddy work.” He swiveled in his chair. He hadn’t been a dancer his whole life. Computers and anything electronic gave him a sense of control and power. When he’d get beaten up, he’d spend hours in the school computer lab healing and hanging out with the other rejects. He didn’t get the hang of them right away, but now everything about them made sense.

He sifted through the computer logs and the files on the PC and then moved out to the network. Every computer in this building had a chunk of code that could turn it into a zombie with one string of nonsense put into the right folder. The person that had taken these machines over would know nearly anything the people on the computers did. Key loggers would store anything that was typed and another piece of malware would grab screen shots periodically or if certain keywords were typed in. Go to a bank’s website and he’d have your balance and login information. Download smut and he’d know it. There was even a bit that used the webcam as a spy eye.

None of that mattered right now, since Elard’s homemade bootstick kept all of that cordoned off. All the mystery person would know was that this computer was down for a while. He could possibly guess why, but Elard wasn’t making any changes. At least not yet. He took his own screenshots and copied the bots of code that he could without tripping any alarms.

It was no wonder that this person knew Melanie well. He or she would have been able to cyber stalk her for at least the last year. What she didn’t do on her laptop she did hear. Hell, the person likely had her laptop owned as well since the girl used the same USB stick here and at home. She didn’t update their antivirus as often as Elard recommended, not that most AV programs could keep up with people like the one who was doing this. He was no script kiddie. Those pseudo hackers were no better than trained monkeys. Some of them very well trained. No, this person was on Elard’s level, if not above it.

Thinking better of the notion that his own stick was “invisible” to this person, he pulled the power cable and the USB stick. He’d be careful about the next place he plugged it in and then he’d destroy it. If there was anything nasty on there he’d minimize the damage and then make sure no one else got infected.

“Can you get my file?” The voice coming from behind him was timid.

Elard turned and really looked at the person. He could see the binding now under the white shirt that kept his breasts constricted. Whether the guy was a pre-op trans or a cross dresser or any number of other choices on the gender spectrum, he was good and would fool most people. Hell he’d fooled Elard. He held out a hand. “Name’s Elard. Sorry about all of that garbage I fed you a few minutes ago.”

“You can call me Gus, Elard.” They shook hands.

“That computer really is fucked. You don’t want any part of any file that you had on there. I wasn’t feeding you a line about that.” He pulled the guy’s USB stick from the computer and handed it to him.

Gus got that cry-baby look again.

Elard felt more than a little bad about how he’d treated Gus earlier. He’d turned on the creep factor pretty high. “Hey, look, I know shit is hard. You lost your paper. We’ll get you fixed back up.”

The look disappeared like Gus’s flipped a switch. “Gotcha.” The young trans person winked.

Elard laughed. “You played a player. Well done. But I really can help you out with that paper and I can introduce you to some friends.”

Gus narrowed his eyes. After a second he nodded. “I’d like that.” He grabbed his things and they walked out into the chilly afternoon.

Bacon and Oral Sex

No, not an attempt to get hits. Just the next piece of my serial horror story.

Made20bacon Melanie startled awake, drenched in sweat. She’d been dreaming about something huge with long vicious teeth chasing her down the hall. She threw the sheet off and realized that it was sticking to her crotch. She’d wet herself in her sleep. Her face flushed and she gingerly pushed the damp fabric away. Light struggled through the blinds and she looked at the clock. It was almost nine.

“What the hell was in that pill?” She got out of bed and gathered the wet sheets. The smell of her own piss made her wrinkle her nose. One decent thing the apartment had was a washer and dryer.

“Elard?” She yelled before she kicked the door to her room open. There was no answer. She had a moment of panic and envisioned finding him hanging from the ceiling fan in the middle of their living room. Thankfully it was the paranoid delusion brought on by nightmare filled sleep.

The washer and dryer was in their bathroom closet. She threw the sheets in and took off her clothes, adding them to the mix. Once she had it going she turned on the shower and waited for it to warm up. The tile was cold under her bare feet and there was a chill in the air. They kept the heat turned low to save on utility bills. She looked at herself in the mirror and gasped. There were big dark circles under her eyes and her hair was a stringy mess. She felt like crawling back into bed, but with no sheets it wouldn’t have been quite as effective.

She climbed into the shower and washed herself thoroughly. She even went so far as to shave her legs and pits. It made her feel human. She didn’t leave the shower until the water started to develop a chill. Once she was out and toweled off, she got into her bathrobe and that’s when she heard the front door open and close.

“Elard?” Her voice was barely above a whisper. Of course it was him. But she didn’t hear the person unlock the deadbolt. The footfalls were heavier than Elard’s usual even, light step. She whimpered and backed away from the thin, hollow door separating her from whoever it was out there. She might have pissed herself again if it wasn’t for the fact that her bladder was empty.

“Mel, you awake?” Elard’s voice boomed from the kitchen.

“Elard? I’m in the bathroom.” Her voice sounded stronger than she did. She held out her hands and willed them to stop shaking. Once she was sure she wouldn’t fly into a thousand pieces she walked out of the bathroom and into the living room.

He came out of the kitchen, wearing blue jeans, a black turtleneck, and a purple sweatshirt that had been cut to ribbons. “I got us groceries.”

“But it’s only the fifteenth. We usually don’t get groceries for another week.” The cupboard was getting pretty bare.

“I grabbed your card. You have that five hundred dollars, right?”

The money. The blood money. She balled up her fists and started swinging her hands and screaming. The first few clumsy punches missed him, but he let the next few catch him in the chest. “I wasn’t going to use that. It’s dirty. Damn you.”

Eventually he caught her hands and with effort managed to hold on to them. “Calm down, Mel. It may be dirty, but we could use the groceries and fuck this guy.”

She stopped fighting and felt all of the anger and energy drain out of her. “Yeah, fuck this guy.” She fell to the floor on her butt and cradled her head in her hands.

“Look, let me fix you breakfast and we’ll get started. You go get dressed before you have any more of a wardrobe malfunction.” He turned and walked into the kitchen.

She looked down and saw that her tobe gaped open. She pulled it shut, tied it off, and went to her bedroom. A clean pair of jeans and a long sleeved tee shirt later and she stood in the kitchen, inhaling the aroma of bacon and coffee. “I’m sorry.”

Elard turned from the cooking bacon, tongs in hand. “Don’t worry about it. My sister hits harder than that and she’d only eleven. You had a seriously fucked up day and it’s not going to get better anytime soon. We’ll eat and plan. You’ll feel a little better every day.”

“I wish I could be as sure about that as you are. Why are you so sure?” She walked over to the coffee pot. “Hey, we have a fucking coffee pot.” She opened the cabinet door and pulled down a mug.

“Yeah it was like fifteen bucks. No more of that instant crap.” He looked from the bacon to her. “I think I told you that I had some pretty bad stuff happen to me when I was a kid, right?”

She sipped the strong, black brew and nodded, moaning. “Damn that’s good. Yeah, but you never told me what.”

“Not very many people know. My mom was killed not long after my sister was born. Someone came into our house and held us up. When they couldn’t get the money they wanted they blew her head off. Did it right in front of me and the baby girl. I felt like shit about it for years. I was this big, bad twelve year old and I thought I should have been able to stop a grown ass man from killing my mom.”

“You were just a kid. There was-”

They said “nothing you could do” in unison. “Exactly. This woman was hurt bad and there was nothing you could do and no way you could have known. I got better with therapy. You will too.”

“They ever catch the guy?”

Elard shook his head. “No. Probably never will. Personally, he’s the one son of a bitch I’d like to see fried crisper than this bacon. But he probably OD’d in an alley somewhere.” He transferred the bacon to paper towels.

She took a piece and nibbled at it. Then she shoved the whole piece in her mouth and chewed noisily.

Elard laughed. “You act like you haven’t had a decent meal in months.”

She swallowed the bacon and with a healthy slug of coffee she nodded. “I have, just not bacon cooked so expertly.”

“I worked a short order job for a summer at the beach when I was sixteen. I learned how to make crispy bacon and the secret to good oral sex that year. Oddly enough, in both cases it’s patience.”

She laughed, snorting coffee through her nose.

They finished breakfast and cleanup. Melanie drank a second cup of coffee and made it last for thirty minutes while she watched Elard go through his morning yoga.

“I’m going out for a jog and then I’m going by the library. I’ve got snooping to do.” He had changed into a pair of shorts that would make Richard Simmons proud or scandalized and wore a long sleeved black shirt that hugged him tightly.

She nodded. “I need to research what we talked about last night.”

He shut the door and she fired up her laptop. It was three years old, but Elard kept it running in tip top shape. He took good care of her. She wondered if she brought as much to their friendship as he did. When she asked him about it once he just told her that she was his bitch and he was hers and things would level out one day.

She had access to a number of newspaper and periodical databases thanks to her status as a student. She had also done an internship the past summer to the local newspaper and her mentor had showed her several tricks of the trade. Before lunch she had a number of files saved that included mysterious deaths and hospitalizations. She didn’t know exactly what she was looking for, but anything that caught her eye got dumped into the to be read file.

When she got tired of pouring over the grim and grisly business of offing your fellow humans, she turned attention to the owner of that thrift shop. She didn’t remember the name of the shop, but a quick search of the address told her that the name was Second Hand Rose. The owner’s name was not, in fact, Rose. It was Felicia Trainor. She’d owned the shop for two years. According to her Facebook page, the shop was quite popular with the local soccer mom set.

More trolling on social networking and city and county public records showed her that Felicia had run similar shops in other cities. She moved every couple of years. If the pattern continued she was going to make the move again soon. Whoever it was that wanted her harmed must have known that. One of her searches turned up something interesting. Felicia had been put on trial on drug charges. The charges including possession with intent to sell. She couldn’t find any record of jail time, but that was an area she wasn’t familiar with. She’d need to find out how hard it was to snoop a person’s criminal record. Employers had to be able to do background checks.

Maybe the killer was another dealer she’d pissed off? That made a little sense to her. She looked up at the clock and realized that it was nearly lunch time. The smell of frying bacon still hung in the air, but it didn’t smell as good as it had when it was fresh. She looked in the fridge and made herself a sandwich and took grapes and an apple. They all went in a small backpack with a bottle of water. She slung it over one shoulder and went out back to get her bike.

The afternoon was cool and sunny, the sun brutally bright. She unlocked her bike and pushed off, jumping into the seat and peddling furiously. The rolling mount was left over from childhood, meant to impress her best friend Maegan. She hadn’t been peddling for more than two minutes when she realized there was a car behind her. She slowed down, intending to let it pass, but it didn’t. She hopped the bike up onto the sidewalk and pulled to a stop, taking her water bottle out.

While she swallowed several long draughts of cool water, she looked around. When she saw the BMW she choked. It had to be the same one from yesterday. She tried to be as nonchalant as possible in putting the bottle back and mounting her bike. She headed up the sidewalk, still in the same direction. When she passed a house with an open yard that backed up to a house with no fences, she swung onto the grass and pumped her legs hard. In thirty seconds she was on the street running parallel to the one she’d just been on. She doubled back in the direction of her apartment,

The car would have to go at least a block further to make a cross street. She cut back over to the original street, making a circuit. If the car was still on this street she would do the same thing in the other direction and head as fast as she could towards campus. It was nowhere to be found.

Had she imagined the whole thing? She couldn’t be sure. Fear did funny things. Her appetite had flown the coop, but she needed the energy. She road to a nearby park frequented by young moms and their toddlers and ate there. The sound of laughter warmed the chill in her soul.

Half a Plan

Bomber-beer Melanie collapsed onto the the ratty old plaid couch that she and Elard rescued from a curb last year. The previous owner had dogs and you could still smell them. It reminded her of home, one of her few good memories of the place she and her brother escaped. They’d had a massive brindle pit mix who was a sweet heart in spite of Dad’s effort to turn him into a killer.

“Want a beer?” Elard fished around in their fridge, a few feet away from the couch.

“Yes. Oh good God, yes.”

He set two bottles on the counter and took out a plastic container. After dumping its contents into a pot on the stove, he twisted the caps off of the beer and brought the two labelless bottles to the living room. “Those are the last two of Donnie’s beer. He’s got another case ready for us. I’ll pick it up tomorrow.”

She took a long pull of the cold, homemade lager. The chill and bubbles burned her throat, and the bitterness made her lips pucker around the bottle neck. It cleared the saltiness of tears and snot from her throat. Her mouth popped as she released suction on the bottle. “Damn that’s good.”

Elard finished his swig. “The man knows his stuff.” He sat on the chair opposite the couch, giving her a little space. “So what’s the plan?”

“You said you could find out who got into the library’s computers?”

Elard nodded. “Maybe not who as in the name and address, but I can get some info and go from there. What are you going to do?”

She took another long pull at the beer. What could she do? “I’m just a liberal arts major in search of a degree. I don’t have your skills.”

Elard pointed his bottle neck at her. “You’re a damn fine researcher. It was what you were doing earlier tonight.”

“I could see if there are any other weird deaths in the area. I could find out whatever I could about the lady who was h- h- hurt.” She banged her knee with her free hand. “Damn it. Why didn’t I say no?”

Elard gestured around their apartment. The walls were bare except for two pieces of art made by friends. A long crack crept down one wall. The carpet was ratty and threadbare. “We live in a firetrap. We don’t even have a tv or stereo. I barely had money to buy what I needed for ballet last semester. You’re not much better off.”

“I burned a woman for rent money.”

“Damn it, woman. Stop. You didn’t burn shit. She opened a box she shouldn’t have.”

“She knew something was wrong.”

“What?”

Melanie remembered the look on her face when she saw what was on the box. “She was resigned to whatever it was and she knew the ending wouldn’t be a happy one.”

“Go on.” Elard got up and moved to the kitchen. He stirred the stew and banged the spoon on the edge of the pan.

“The only thing on the label was her address. It was handwritten. It wasn’t a girl’s handwriting, or if it was it was very masculine. She recognized the handwriting. She knew her killer. Attacker. What the fuck ever.”

Elard pulled out a set of mismatched bowls and spoons. “That’s something. But nothing immediately helpful.”

“I didn’t see the contents of the firebomb, but there was liquid and glass.”

“I know someone who might be helpful there.” Elard dished the stew into the bowls and brought them into the living room. He handed her one. It was from the restaurant Elard worked at a few days a week.

“You know a bomb maker?” She took a small bite of the stew. “Fuck me that’s hot. But so good.”

“Mama G knows her way around a pot of stew. And no it’s not a fucking bomb maker. He’s a chemistry student I hung out with a lot last year. He likes to make recreational explosives.”

Melanie snorted, surprised that she could find it in her to laugh. “Recreational explosives? I didn’t know that was a thing.”

“Fireworks and that kind of thing.” He blew on the stew.

She drank a sip of beer, wanting to make the last third last. “Gotcha.” She already felt a little better about the whole thing. “Should I text this guy back?”

Elard ate a spoonful of stew and squinted. “I don’t know. That’s really iffy. We don’t want to attract a killer’s attention.”

She put the bowl down. She’d eaten half without even realizing it. “I’ve already got his attention. I wish I knew why.”

Elard shrugged. “It may not have been anything more than wrong place and wrong time. If he had that computer owned he could see who was using it. He saw what you were searching. Maybe he scanned your email and your bank account. He knew he had leverage and you had need. If you’d said no it would have been someone else.”

“What would you have said?”

“I don’t know, Mel. I mean I need the money as much as you do. I might have. I’ve done stupid things for money. Nobody alive hasn’t at some point.” He took another bite of stew. “This shit will make me think three times before I do anything stupid again. Guarantee that.”

She nodded. “Me too. So much for my future as a meth cook.” She ate the last few bites of her dinner and drank the last of the beer. With a belch that made Elard nod, she stood and stretched. “I need to see if I can get some sleep. I’ve got a lot of work to do tomorrow. I was supposed to finish my research paper tonight so I could go to my knitting circle tomorrow. I’ve also got to go to work. I’m gonna have to miss my knitting circle and I may call in sick.”

Elard reached out his hand. Melanie took it. “You need anything, I’ll be here. I was gonna go out tonight, but I won’t be ten feet away.”

She squeezed his hand and pulled him up into a hug. They held each other for a long time. She whispered into his chest. “Thank you.”

He broke the hug. “You’re welcome. You’re my bitch. I’m gonna look out for you.”

“Bitches before riches.” They bumped fists. She walked to her bedroom and turned on the light. Her bed sat there, reminding her of nothing more than a crouching tiger. She didn’t think she’d get a wink of sleep. “You have any pills? You know for sleeping?”

Elard walked to his bedroom. After a few seconds of loud rummaging, he came into hers and sat down beside her on the bed. “You take one of these. He held out a small yellow pill. You’ll be asleep in five minutes.”

She popped the pill and reached for the half full water glass that sat by her bed. Mickey winked at her from the side of it. She took a long sip of the stale water and swallowed it and the pill. “Thanks, bitch.” She patted him on the thigh.

He got up and started to pull her door closed.

“Leave it cracked?”

He did.

She shucked out of her pants and shirt and walked to her dresser to grab a clean shirt. By the time she pulled it over her head she yawned. The pill was already kicking in. She heard Elard rummaging around in the kitchen. The noise comforted her. She crawled under the thin blanket, pulled it up around her chin, and turned off her bedside lamp.

Hacking the Hacker

LG_L194WT-SF_LCD_monitor Stanley chuckled to himself as he logged off of the school’s server farm. The teacher deserved everything he’d get for hiding his sexuality from their students. Now, not only would everyone at the school know, they’d have photographic evidence by way of new wallpaper on every PC in the district. He swiveled in his chair and opened the nearby fridge. The cold can of Roadblock would be as much celebration as he’d have time for tonight. He had a maintenance window to attend to.

He cracked open the can and had half of its contents down his gullet when he heard the ping. It came from the surround sound speakers, moving from one to the next. He followed the sound, swiveling in his chair until the noise stopped in the speaker above his monitor. It continued repeating, rapidly increasing in volume and frequency until he had to put the can down and cover his ears.

The high pitched whine stopped only when he kicked the speaker plug free with his foot. “What the fuck?”

“Do I have your attention?” The black box stared at him from the center of the thirty-two inch monitor.

He slid up to his keyboard and grabbed the can of Roadblock. It tasted like ass, but it would keep him awake. He tapped with his free hand into the new chat window. “You do. And that’s not something you want.”

“You don’t have to type. I can hear and see you.”

He squeezed the can in his fist and the aluminum crumpled. “Then hear this. Get out of my system, or you’ll regret the day you were born.”

“How cliche. How do you know I don’t already?”

“Huh?” He pitched the can over one shoulder and belched loudly.

“I may already regret that day. That may be why I feel the need to poison energy drinks.”

Stanley burped again and tasted something coppery. “What the actual fuck?” He reached out for his ‘droid and as he did he realized he now saw two of everything. “How? Why?” He burped again, this one long and rumbling. His chin felt wet.

A mechanical voice crackled over the speakers. “By now you won’t be able to see what I am typing. Your vision will continue to get worse, and soon all you will be able to take in is a liquid diet. You are a creature of habit, Stanley. I won’t bore you with the how. The why would be the petty games you play with people’s lives.”

Stanley flopped out of his chair, and as he did his hand swiped the phone from his desk. His vision grew dark. “Call nine one one.” He managed to spit out the words and a surprising amount of fluid. As the operator came on line, all he could do was weep and belch.

What he didn’t see were his screen’s and computers going dark, one by one. The final screen showed data being siphoned from his computer at a phenomenal rate.

Free Ride

camaro Melanie couldn’t remember ever having a more miserable forty-five minutes. She came back into the foyer of the police station every ten minutes to warm back up, but it wasn’t the cold as much as it was the feeling that she was completely alone. She’d killed a woman, though she didn’t know it would happen. Whether she’d ever be convicted of any wrongdoing didn’t matter. She’d carry the guilt with her forever.

Finally, the dark blue Camaro pulled up in front of the station. Rage Against the Machine belted out from the speakers, audible even five feet from the car. The screaming died down mostly. Elard climbed out of the driver’s side and looked around. When he saw her he smiled. “Come on and get in before we both freeze our nuts off.”

She smiled back at him, a weak and watery grin, but it was still there. “Our boobs in my case. Though they’re about the same size.”

He got back in the car and she heard the lock disengage.

She opened the door and climbed in. The car smelled of cigarettes, fast food, and farts. It wasn’t the most pleasant combination, but it was familiar. She’d gotten a ride from him more than once and the conversation always made it worthwhile. “Thanks for coming to get me.”

He threw the car into drive. “No worries, Mel.” He pulled into traffic. “You just make sure and return the favor some day. So, what happened? If you feel like talking about it?”

Melanie looked over at her friend. They’d known each other for the last two years. That didn’t seem like much, but they’d packed a lot of living in that time. They moved in together six months ago and there had been no creeping or hanky panky on his part. She still wasn’t sure if he was straight, bi, trans, or what. “I don’t know. It was bad stuff.”

Elard looked over at her. “It’s cool. You tell me what you want, when you can.”

They rode in relative silence for a few minutes. “Someone is dead.”

“Okay.”

“I didn’t kill them, or at least if they’re dead because of what I did, I didn’t know that it was going to happen. Someone hacked into my computer at the library and gave me money to deliver a package.” She took a breath.

Elard reached into the space between them and pulled out a cigarette pack. He shook one out and stuck it in the corner of his mouth. When he put the pack back in its place he pushed in the cigarette lighter. “Hacking isn’t the right word for getting into those PCs. They’re more wide open than a Thai lady-boy all grown up.”

Melanie didn’t know if she should be surprised that he didn’t mention the killing. She pulled a long face at the analogy.

“You did something you shouldn’t have. Question is, what are you gonna do about it?”

She squeezed her eyes shut. There were no tears forthcoming. She worried about that. She hadn’t cried yet. “I don’t know. Fuuuuck. I don’t know.”

“We’ll find this guy. Then we take him to the cops.”

Her eyes popped open and she looked at him. “You can do that?”

The lighter snapped out and he lit the cigarette. “We can do that.” He puffed smoke out. “I can have a look at the computer. We can find out how he paid you. We’ll build a case.”

“Just like CSI.” She chirped. She actually chirped.

Paul chuckled. “Nah. It’ll take more than an hour. And we may not get everything we need. But I think we can. You better think about being honest with the cops though.”

“How do you know I haven’t been?”

“You’re sitting with me. You tell them that you got paid, and they’d crawl into your life so deep you’d wish they’d bought you a drink first. Still, you need to know that honesty’s almost always the best policy. Except when it isn’t.”

She wanted to punch him in the shoulder. Instead, she started to cry. Her vision tripled and quadrupled like one of those dragonfly kaleidoscopes. She sobbed and clutched her stomach. She wasn’t alone, but she still felt lonely.

Middle Grade Series Name Poll

I asked for some ideas for a series name yesterday. I’ve written some Middle Grades accessible horror stories and I’ll be writing more. They’re all short and I want a “banner” to tie them all together. These will be like Goosebumps but a bit darker.

To that end, I present my favorite suggestions so far. If you got one you think top these, you can add it, but it needs to be awesome! Thanks for your help!

[polldaddy poll=8409077]