Category Archives: Fiction

Rudolph and Steve

The elves all knew that Santa had very “traditional” values.

Rudolph the Elf, named after the famous reindeer (who his mother had a dozen posters of in the drawer she thought he didn’t know about), frowned as he read the new posting on the North Pole Employee Bulletin Board. It listed the new Company Policies that the Claus had implemented, one of which was just getting Rudolph all riled up.

NEW NORTH POLE COMPANY POLICIES

As the Administration believes strongly in “Traditional Views” of Christmas

And as the Administration believes in encouraging appropriate

Morals and Views within Employees

All Elves are hereby banned from engaging in “Nontraditional” Christmas Activities

Including but not limited to:

Giving Free Dental Checkups to the Uninsured

Saying “Happy Holidays” Instead of “Merry Christmas”

Same-sex Kisses under the Mistletoe

Ho ho ho,

Santa Claus

Rudolph grit his teeth and stamped his foot. “It’s not fair!” he said. “What right does the Old Man have to impose his moral views on us?

Rudolph’s boyfriend, Steve, patted him on the back. “Maybe we can talk to him,” Steve said. “Make him listen to reason.”

Rudolph tore down the notice and ripped it into shreds. “Yes,” he said. “Let’s.”

Rudolph and Steve marched up to Santa. The Old Man was prepping for the Big Night, and didn’t like to be interrupted. But Rudolph stood tall and cleared his throat to get Santa’s attention.

“Ahem,” he said.

Claus turned towards him and arched a snowy eyebrow. “Yes?” he asked. “Can’t you see I’m busy? It’s almost CHRISTMAS!”

Rudolph and Steve exchanged a look, then broke out into song:

Santa, you red-suited fat man
We have had enough of this!
Just because those are YOUR views
Doesn’t mean that is Christmas!
All of us are individuals
Each with our own beliefs!
You’ll never get these elves
To follow all your stupid rules!

So on this foggy Christmas Eve,
Santa, we’re here to say,
Either join the Twenty-First Century,
Or else, Old Man, we quit!

Then Rudolph and Steve stepped under the mistletoe and kissed. Whether Santa liked it or not.

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My #NaNoWriMo Excerpt

I was peer pressured encouraged to share an excerpt from my current #NaNoWriMo Project, Arcana Revived Volume Six (currently untitled). The chapter below is an early chapter that introduces Gabby Palladino and her sister, Adrianna.

Be warned, spoilers ahoy. Since this is a sequel, there’s massive spoilers in here for my first novel, Manifestation. Read ahead at your own risk.

Don't say I didn't warn you!
Don’t say I didn’t warn you!

 

Gabby and the Manifested warped into Evesborough, landing at the edge of the city in a flash of light. They staggered a bit in catching their footing and adjusting to the difference in elevation; Evesborough was in the mountains, high above sea level, so it was a stark shift from the coastal city they’d just left. The air was cooler, the sky was clear, and the mountains around them were covered in fresh evergreens that climbed the slopes all around the city.

Gabby rubbed her temple, fighting off a headache. The pressure around her skull from the ever-present weight of her aura was worse than usual. She was sure it was a mix of not only the stress she was going through, but also of the massive mana surges she’d just witnessed Tock wielding in the City of Arcana. Tock’s power had become immense, far greater than it had been last time Gabby had seen her a couple of months before. It was something she wasn’t sure how to handle, or even wrap her head around.

“What happens now?” Mason asked. He stood off to the side with the others, outside of the range of Gabby’s aura. She was having trouble holding the aura in right now and pulses of mana were leaking through it. The Manifested kept their distance in order to remain safe.

“Gather the rest of the Manifested in the city square,” Gabby said. “We’re going to have to make preparations for tomorrow.”

“Preparations for what, exactly?” Vijay asked. “To fight?”

Gabby shook her head no, but she didn’t know what other answer to give. “We’re going to stop the fighting.”

“How?” Mason asked.

Gabby sighed. “Just get everyone together.” She turned to Jaden. “Send out a city-wide summons. Not just our usual crew. I want all willing volunteers with any kind of arcana to come. We’re going to need everything we’ve got.” Evesborough currently held a few hundred thousand citizens, most of them refugees who had fled from other mountain towns in the surrounding area and come here for the protection offered by a more well-defended city. Out of the whole population, somewhere between ten and twenty thousand were Manifested, though they hadn’t been able to perform any kind of census to get an exact count. Plus, many of the Manifested were children who were too young to fight, or people who were unwilling to join the struggle. Gabby could hope for a thousand, maybe two, but that would be it. Not enough to stand against the entire massed force of the Northern Union army, to say nothing of Tock’s mass-produced golem army.

Jaden raised her megaphone and channeled a stream of mana into it. Translucent emerald light flowed from her fingertips into the gemstones that were encrusted around the device, melding arcana and technology together in a design Vijay had developed just for the telepath. When she channeled her thoughts into the megaphone, they were amplified by the arcanatech and channeled across the whole city. All Manifested willing to help us stop the war, please gather in the city square. Commander Palladino requests all Manifested willing to fight . . .

Gabby gave Jaden a grateful smile. “I’ll see you guys there in a few minutes.” She headed off on her own, walking down the street towards the lodge that had been turned into a makeshift command center. She kept her head held high as she walked, giving professional nods to the citizens and Manifested she passed by. The streets were fairly crowded with pedestrian traffic, though there wasn’t a single car in sight. They hadn’t yet had time to develop any arcanatech vehicles, and gas was a resource that had all but run out in the months since the mana storm. She didn’t think there was a single operational car or truck left anywhere in Evesborough, and in the other cities to the south, the military had taken control of all the gas supplies to keep their jeeps and tanks running.

She headed into the lodge, where groups of volunteers were working to coordinate everything from the details of Evesborough’s defense force, to the management of their food supplies, to the manufacturing of arcanatech weapons and devices based on Vijay’s designs. Several people stopped her with questions as soon as she entered and she was stuck for almost ten minutes making decisions about where to mount the newest arcanatech gun turrets, how to handle distributing food supplies to different parts of the city, and how to settle disputes between different teams who each wanted a bigger portion of their limited manufacturing supplies. She didn’t have the first clue what the best answer was to half of the questions, so she just made her best guess, or delegated the task to someone else. She didn’t really know how to lead an army or be responsible for the lives of others. She’d just been roped into the job because of how powerful her arcana was, and how it made the others look to her as their leader.

As she was moving among the various desks that filled the lodge’s main lobby and central rooms, Gabby spotted her sister seated at a desk in the corner. She arched an eyebrow, curious as to why Adrianna was there. Her doctor, Mahir Pavari, stood by Adrianna’s side. Gabby walked over to the and gave them a small wave. Adrianna looked up from the paperwork she was working on and gave her a tired smile.

“Hey, Sis,” Adrianna said. “How did it go?” Her eyes showed signs of strain and dark circles had formed under them. She was dressed in a hospital gown and slippers, with a fluffy blue robe on top.

“About as well as could be expected,” Gabby said. She decided not to go into detail, not wanting to add to her sister’s stress. “What are you doing here? Should you be out?” She looked to Dr. Pavari.

Adrianna frowned and lowered her head. She pressed her palms down flat on the papers that covered the desk before her. “I’m not an invalid,” she said. “I’m perfectly capable of being out on my own.” She glanced over her shoulder at Dr. Pavari. “I don’t need to be babysat.”

Dr. Pavari pushed his glasses up his nose and said, “We’re giving it a trial run. I think it’s good for her to get out and try to get into some kind of normal routine.”

Adrianna pressed her hands down harder on the desk. “Don’t talk about me like I’m not here.”

“I’m sure he didn’t mean it like that,” Gabby said. “It’s okay.” She paused, chewing on her lip. Then she nodded to the papers. “So, what are you working on?”

Adrianna cast a glare up at Dr. Pavari, the turned back to Gabby. “Food inventory. I used to do this at the restaurant.” She patted the papers before her, then smoothed them out, then patted them again. “I know how to do this. I used to do it all the time.” Adrianna had worked at a small restaurant in the West District suburbs for a few years, back before she got pregnant. She had been planning on going back to work when Dante was old enough. Though his death, and Adrianna’s subsequent breakdown, had prevented that. So had the beginning of the apocalypse.

Gabby opened her mouth to reply, but she was distracted by the way Adrianna continued smoothing out the papers before her. Her movements became rougher and she ended up ripping one of the pages. She held the two halves of the page up and pressed them back together, frowning. “I can fix that,” she said, her voice a bare whisper. “I can fix it. I just need tape.”

“It’s okay,” Gabby said, giving her sister a reassuring smile. “It’s not a big deal.”

“No,” Adrianna said. “No. I can fix it.” She opened one of the desk drawers, her hands shaking. She dug through it, her movements becoming more frantic by the moment. She slammed the drawer shut and reached for another. It stuck and she yanked on it, squealing. “I can fix it!” She yanked the drawer open and knocked it off its tracks. Pens, pencils, and paper clips spilled all over the floor.

“Maybe it’s time we head back,” Dr. Pavari said, touching Adrianna’s shoulder. “It’s been a long day, and it’s time for your pills.”

Adrianna sat stiffly, tilting her head towards him. “I don’t like the pills,” she said. She pressed her hands down on top of the desk again. “I don’t like the way they make me feel.”

Gabby swallowed a lump in her throat, fighting off tears. “Addy, if the doctor says—”

“You’re always taking his side!” Adrianna snapped. She stood up and slammed her hands down on the desk. “Don’t talk to me like I’m a child, Gabby!” She leaned against the desk, shaking.

Gabby held still, not sure what to say. She hated having to treat her sister like this. She’d always looked up to Adrianna when they were growing up; her sister was two years older than Gabby, and she used to teach Gabby about life and love and making friends. But their relationship had broken down during Adrianna’s pregnancy, and fallen apart completely in the aftermath of Dante’s death.

Dr. Pavari touched a hand against Adrianna’s back. “Let’s get back to the hospital. You can get some rest, and we can come back to finish the work later.”

Adrianna turned and glared at him, her fists clenched. Then she turned her glare on Gabby. “Fine,” she said. “It doesn’t matter. Fine.” She swung her hand out and knocked the pencil sharpener off the desk. Flakes of pencil trimmings flew everywhere. Adrianna turned and stalked from the room with Dr. Pavari trailing behind her. He gave Gabby an apologetic look and Gabby responded with the bravest smile she could force onto her face.

When they left, she took a deep, shuddering breath. The rest of the people in the room were staring at her, though most of them were trying to hide it. She held back her tears and pushed down her feelings, then forced herself to get back to work. There were still questions that needed to be answered and concerns that needed to be addressed. She was the one in charge, so she had to keep working.

* * *


mani_promoManifestation is available on:

Createspace in paperback

and Amazon in ebook and paperback.

Stress

mani_promoClick here to read Chapter 1: Magic, here to read Chapter 2: Manifestation, here to read Chapter 3: Distraction, here to read Chapter 4: Staring, or here to read Chapter 5: Therapy. Here you can read the sixth sample chapter of my debut novel, Manifestation, an urban fantasy adventure that explores the revival of magic and mystery in a world that is unprepared for the changes arcane powers will bring. Available in paperback and ebook.

 

Chapter 6: Stress

 

 

It was another quiet drive home. Gabby sat in the car and stared out the window at nothing. Mom tried to get her to say something by asking how the session had gone, but she quickly gave up when it became clear Gabby wasn’t going to talk.

As soon as they pulled into the driveway at home Mom said, “Straight up to your room.” Gabby huffed, not bothering to acknowledge her mother. She knew she was still grounded and didn’t need Mom telling her every day. She got out of the car and slammed the door, then stalked up to the house.

The house was quiet. Gabby let out a sigh of relief. The relief was short lived, though, since the little monster started bawling as soon as she came inside. She growled and rubbed at her temples as the pressure in her skull built up again. She wasn’t in the mood for Dante’s noise.

Gabby stalked into the living room. Adrianna was there, leaning over the bassinet to check on Dante. “Can’t you make him stop crying?” Gabby snapped at her sister.

Adrianna shot her a dirty look and picked Dante up. She rocked him in her arms and whispered soothing noises. Mom stepped past Gabby into the living room and went over to check on him. Adrianna shook her head and in a confused tone said, “He’s been fine all day . . .”

“And what about you?” Mom asked her. Adrianna had a look of pain on her face again, hinting at another migraine starting up.

Gabby turned and went back down the hall towards the stairs. As she stalked up the stairs to her room, she heard her sister say, “It’s nothing. It’s already going away.”

Cut off from TV, her phone, and her computer, Gabby sat in her room most of the night, feeling sorry for herself and listing in her mind all the things wrong with her life. Her sister and nephew were high on the list. She couldn’t even relax while she was grounded, since when Adrianna brought Dante upstairs for his nap, he started crying again and wouldn’t go to sleep or shut up for the next hour. She tried to tune him out, then tried to spend some time putting her thoughts down in her diary, but she couldn’t concentrate with the constant wailing coming from down the hall.

When she couldn’t take any more, she stepped out into the hall and shouted into Adrianna’s room, “God, just shut him up! Can’t you make him shut up?”

Her sister glared at her and snapped, “You know, you yelling all the time isn’t helping.” She got up and stalked over to Gabby, but she swayed in her steps. She paused to lean against her dresser. She looked dizzy, her eyes glazed and unfocused. She pressed the heels of her palms to the sides of her head. Tears welled in her eyes from the pain of the migraine setting in. Gabby frowned and stepped closer, her anger fading into worry at how sick her sister looked. As she stepped closer, Adrianna whimpered in pain, and looked about ready to collapse.

She looked up at Gabby, her eyes distant, and muttered in a confused tone, “Why are you leaving?”

Gabby frowned at the odd words, then screamed, “Mom!” as Adrianna collapsed to the floor.

* * *

An ambulance took Adrianna to the hospital and Gabby, Mom, and Dante followed in the car. They called Dad on the way, and he met them at the hospital shortly after Adrianna was taken into the ER. They sat in the waiting room and Mom tried to comfort Dante, but he was crying so much that they asked if a doctor could look at him too. The baby was taken to the pediatric ward for tests, and the rest of the family was left waiting.

Gabby was silent while they sat and waited to hear back on the results. She felt guilty for yelling at her sister, even though she knew that couldn’t have had anything to do with her collapse. Still, if something bad happened, she didn’t want an argument to be the last words she shared with Adrianna.

After hours of waiting, the doctor came out to talk to them. “They’re both doing fine,” he said. “The pain faded almost as soon as you brought her in and she hasn’t had any more symptoms during the tests. We didn’t find anything physically wrong with her. It’s possible the episode was brought on by stress.”

Gabby shrank back as her mother shot her a look. A tightness welled up in her gut and the pressure in her head swelled up. She looked away, staring at the wall. Mom turned to the doctor and asked, “Can we see her?”

He nodded and said, “We’d like to keep both her and her son overnight for observation. But you can go in for a few minutes.”

Gabby waited out in the hall while Mom went in to talk to Adrianna. She felt like this was somehow her fault. She knew she’d been lashing out lately. The pressure in her head got worse whenever Dante was crying and sometimes she felt like she was holding back a dam that was about to burst. She felt horrible for snapping, but she didn’t know what else to do. She thought about asking if one of the doctors could look at her head while they were there, but that would mean dragging up the suicide attempt again. She couldn’t deal with that.

She was sitting on the ground, knees hugged against her chest, when her mother returned from Adrianna’s room. Mom stood over Gabby, looked down at her, and said, “I want you to go in there and apologize to your sister.”

Gabby looked off to the side and brushed a tear from her eye. All she could see of Mom out of the corner of her eye were her legs and her hands at her waist, fists clenched tightly around her purse. She glanced up, peering through the thin veil of her brown hair hanging in front of her face. Mom’s eyes were red and strained. She looked sick. Down the hall, Gabby saw Dad exiting Adrianna’s room. He took a few slow, aching steps, then leaned against the wall. He rubbed his hand across his face and let out a long, slow breath. He stood there with his shoulders slumped, staring at nothing.

She wondered if they’d looked like that when she was in the hospital a month before, unconscious, having her stomach pumped. If they’d cared that much. It hadn’t been sympathy she’d awoken to. It had been her mother asking, What is wrong with you?

She slowly rose and under her mother’s stern gaze she marched down the hall to her sister’s room. Dad tried to force a smile as she walked by, though he did a poor job of it. When she walked into the room, she saw Adrianna lying there in pain with tears welling in her eyes. Her hair looked stringy from sweat, and she had wires and sensors stuck to her head and chest.

She was giving Gabby a strange look as she entered. She looked confused. Distant. Staring more through her than at her. After a moment she closed her eyes and shook her head, then she leaned back in the hospital bed. Her movements were slow and weak. She looked exhausted and the pain was clearly etched on her face.

Gabby felt her mother’s eyes on her back and she quickly whispered, “I’m sorry.”

Adrianna slowly forced her eyes open and gave her a weak smile. “So am I,” she said. She gave Gabby another strange look, as if she didn’t recognize her. Gabby stepped back and shifted her feet. Adrianna kept staring at her like she was studying her, while Gabby stood there fidgeting under her sister’s gaze.

She was about to turn to leave, uncertain what else to say, when Adrianna said, “Hey . . .” Gabby turned back to her sister but kept her head lowered, unable to meet her eyes. “None of it’s your fault, you know.” Gabby looked up at Adrianna for a moment and stared, then lowered her eyes in shame. “You didn’t start this,” Adrianna whispered.

Gabby glanced back up at her sister. Adrianna’s eyes were glazed over. Gabby’s chest felt tight. Her head pounded. Adrianna winced and covered her face with a hand, whimpering in pain. Gabby turned and hurried from the room, unable to see her sister in such pain.


mani_promoManifestation is available on:

Createspace in paperback

and Amazon in ebook and paperback.

Therapy

mani_promoClick here to read Chapter 1: Magic, here to read Chapter 2: Manifestation, here to read Chapter 3: Distraction, or here to read Chapter 4: Staring. Here you can read the fifth sample chapter of my debut novel, Manifestation, an urban fantasy adventure that explores the revival of magic and mystery in a world that is unprepared for the changes arcane powers will bring. Available in paperback and ebook.

 

Chapter 5: Therapy

 

 

Gabby sat in the psychiatrist’s office without saying a word. She’d come here straight after school, but her mind was still preoccupied with everything that had happened today. Dr. Caldwell glanced at her watch, then looked up at Gabby, waiting. Neither of them had spoken for nearly ten minutes, and Gabby knew Dr. Caldwell would wait for her to say something first. She did it every time.

During their first session, Dr. Caldwell had told her that everything they talked about was confidential, and that it was okay for her to express anything she needed to. Then she’d tried asking Gabby some basic things about school, home life, and her interests. When Gabby had refused to answer, Dr. Caldwell let her stew in silence for a bit while she simply observed her. She was doing the same thing now. Gabby kept her eyes off to the side and fidgeted in her seat. She didn’t want to be here.

Gabby decided she wasn’t going to talk first this time. Another five minutes passed before Dr. Caldwell finally broke the silence and asked, “So, Gabriella, what—?”

“Gabby,” she replied in an irritated tone.

“Gabby?” Dr. Caldwell repeated. She wrote something down in the notebook she held in her lap.

“My name’s Gabby,” she replied. “Only my mom calls me ‘Gabriella.’”

Dr. Caldwell nodded wrote another note. “Tell me about your nephew, Gabby?” she asked.

“Why do you want to know about him?” Gabby snapped.

Dr. Caldwell kept a professional expression on her face. “Because I want to get to know you,” she said, “and your family. Tell me about him?”

“There’s nothing to tell,” Gabby said. “He’s an annoying little brat who never stops crying.” Dr. Caldwell made another note, and Gabby huffed. She didn’t like the way the doctor wrote down everything she did or said.

“Tell me about school?” Dr. Caldwell asked. “Are you involved in any clubs? The school band?”

“My fucking mom made me quit drama club,” Gabby replied, glaring at the floor. “She’s such a bitch.” Dr. Caldwell made another note, and Gabby wondered if she’d written down the foul language she’d used. Gabby usually didn’t curse, but dealing with her mom made her so mad that sometimes it just slipped out.

“So, tell me about what happened at school today?”

Gabby shifted in the chair and stared at the floor. She wasn’t going to say anything else. She didn’t want to be there, so why should she bother?

“Gabby?” Dr. Caldwell asked. She leaned forward, letting out a long sigh. “You know Gabby, these sessions aren’t going to help you unless you start talking to me. And you’re not going to be allowed to stop coming just because you aren’t cooperating. Do you understand that?” Gabby shifted in her seat and looked off to the side. Dr. Caldwell watched her for a moment, then asked, “The boy who got hurt, did you know him?” Gabby shook her head no. “He just transferred into your school. From what I was told, he got into trouble with drugs at his old school. Did he give you any drugs?”

“I told you, I don’t do drugs,” Gabby snapped, her icy blue eyes glaring at her psychiatrist. She hadn’t told her yet why she’d really swallowed all the pills that day. She wondered if the doctor thought she was going to try to get her hands on more pills so she could try to kill herself again.

“All right,” the doctor said, raising a hand to try to soothe her. She looked back down at the notes she always had in her lap. Gabby’s eyes were drawn to the doctor’s shapely legs when she shifted to cross one over the other. Dr. Caldwell glanced up at Gabby, peering at her through her thin, stylish glasses. Gabby quickly looked away.

“So how do you feel about what happened?” she asked. Gabby shrugged and stared into the corner. “Do you know the other boy, Charlie?” Gabby nodded silently, biting her lip. She felt a burning in her eyes, but she didn’t want to cry. Not in front of the doctor. Dr. Caldwell kept a box of tissues on the small table right next to where they sat. The first day she’d come there, she’d told Gabby it was okay to cry. That no one else would know. But she didn’t want to cry. The pressure in her skull built up as she held back her tears. It felt like letting the tears flow would break open the dam and flood the world with her pain.

“Maybe it would help if you told me what you saw?” Dr. Caldwell asked. Gabby looked up at her. She didn’t feel comfortable there. The doctor was too neat and clean, with her blonde hair pulled back in a tight bun, and her neatly pressed skirt suit. She didn’t understand Gabby’s life. She couldn’t. She looked like a rich lady with her manicured nails and gold jewelry. Even the pen she wrote with was sleek and stylish, polished black with gold trim. What could she know of the life of a teenager in blue jeans and a hand-me-down pink blouse, whose only piece of jewelry was the woven beaded bracelet her friend Callia had given her, and whose parents probably wouldn’t be able to afford to send her to college?

What was the point in telling her what had happened? She wouldn’t understand.

“Gabby?”

Gabby looked up at the doctor, who was still sitting calmly in her chair. “Gabby?” Dr. Caldwell asked, her voice soft. “It’s okay, you know. You can talk to me about it.”

Gabby stared at the wall, uncertain what there was to say.

Chapter 6: Stress


mani_promoManifestation is available on:

Createspace in paperback

and Amazon in ebook and paperback.

Staring

mani_promoClick here to read Chapter 1: Magic, or here to read Chapter 2: Manifestation, or here to read Chapter 3: Distraction. Here you can read the fourth sample chapter of my debut novel, Manifestation, an urban fantasy adventure that explores the revival of magic and mystery in a world that is unprepared for the changes arcane powers will bring. Available in paperback and ebook.

 

Chapter 4: Staring

 

 

Gabby woke up in the hospital with a hard knot of pain in her stomach and a pounding headache. The room was dark but the light coming in from the hallway through the open door burned Gabby’s eyes and made her wince. Her mom sat in a chair across the room. When Gabby shifted in the bed and tried to sit up, her mom got up and crossed over to her. She stood at the side of the bed and stared down at Gabby with her lips pressed together. Gabby stared back, and the look on her mom’s face made her wish that she hadn’t woken up.

Gabby didn’t say anything at first. She didn’t know what to say. She didn’t have any explanation for what she’d done. She hadn’t even thought it through. Though maybe, she thought, her mom would listen now. She lay there in the bed and waited for her mom to ask her if she was okay, or what had happened to push her to such an act.

Her mom shook her head, her eyes wet with tears. “What is wrong with you?” she asked.

“Mom?”

“How could you do something like this?” Mom asked. She waved her hands at the plastic tubes and wires Gabby was hooked up to. “Do you have any idea what you’ve done to your family? How scared we were? Your father and Anthony both had to leave work and Frankie is missing class right now because we’re all down here worried about you! How could you do this to us? To your family?”

Gabby stared at her mom, mute. She clenched her teeth together. She wanted to yell, to ask her mom why she should care about what she’d done to them when no one had asked what happened to her. But she didn’t. She turned away from her mom, shifting in the bed as best as she could with tubes up her nose and an IV stuck in her arm.

“Just leave me alone,” she said.

* * *

The baby was crying.

The baby was always crying.

Gabby went about her morning routine, getting dressed in silence, except for the sound of the baby’s cries drifting up from downstairs. In the weeks since he’d been born, the weeks since Gabby came home from having her stomach pumped, it seemed like the baby never stopped crying and her headache never went away.

She clenched her teeth and rubbed at her temples. Dante wailed even louder. She responded to the wails by throwing her hairbrush against the vanity so hard she nearly cracked the mirror. She was sick of the constant noise, and sometimes really wished the little brat was just gone.

“Five minutes, Gabriella,” her mother called out as she passed by her door. “And don’t forget, you’re coming straight home after school. You have an appointment with Dr. Caldwell at five.” Gabby didn’t bother to answer. There was no reason to. It would be her third appointment with the psychiatrist, and she expected it to be as much of a waste of time as the first two had been. She sat and tied her shoes with harsh, tight yanks of the laces. “Gabriella?” Mom snapped, stepping back and peering through the door at her. Gabby stood up and checked herself in the mirror, fixing her hair. She didn’t even glance at her mom. After a moment, her mother sighed and gave up, then turned away and headed downstairs, leaving her daughter alone with her own reflection.

She stared at her mirror image for a long moment. She’d buttoned her blouse wrong. She huffed and started redoing the buttons. She kept messing up the simplest tasks lately. Not only was Dante’s crying interfering with her concentration, but her head felt like it was being crushed under a mountain of stone. Ever since she got back from the hospital, she’d been feeling pressure in her skull. The weight she felt pressing against her head nearly drove her to tears. It got worse with the constant wailing coming from down the hall.

She dried her eyes before the tears started to fall, then headed downstairs. As she stomped down the steps the baby cried louder. “Can’t you make him stop crying?” she snapped at Adrianna. Her sister glared at her, rocking little Dante in one arm and rubbing her head with the opposite hand. Adrianna had been experiencing frequent dizzy spells and migraines ever since Dante had been born, and they’d been growing steadily worse. The medication her doctor had prescribed didn’t seem to be helping any. Gabby didn’t have anything to take for her own headaches; she hadn’t told her parents about the pressure on her skull, since doing so would mean bringing up what she had tried to do to herself.

She’d tried more than once to tell them what happened, but her mother’s attitude about the whole situation made talking to her impossible. The constant badgering and demands for answers had made it too difficult for Gabby to explain what had really happened. Instead of telling her parents the truth, she ended up yelling and arguing with them, and accusing them of not being there when she needed them. Her dad had told her that if she couldn’t talk to them, she should tell the psychiatrist instead. But Gabby didn’t know if she could trust Dr. Caldwell, either.

Gabby headed out the door without another word to anyone in her family. She’d given up on talking to them. All the yelling and attempts to grab attention hadn’t gotten her anything except for being grounded ever since she’d gotten out of the hospital. Knowing that she was being punished for being a victim made it that much harder for her to open up to her parents. Her protests hadn’t gotten the grounding lifted, nor had they gotten her out of the weekly appointments with the psychiatrist. Appointments which usually involved her sitting there and staring at the wall while the doctor tried to get her to talk.

She rode the bus to school without saying a word to anyone. She had no friends left in school since Callia had graduated the year before. Plus now that Callia had moved away for her internship, Gabby never saw her. Her school day was boring, as always. Gabby spent more time writing in her diary than paying attention to the lessons. Math, science, and history bored her to tears, and she had no interest whatsoever in social studies or current events. Her literature class was about the only one that held any interest for her, and even that didn’t seem to draw much motivation from her anymore. As if that weren’t bad enough, she spent the whole day feeling like there was a chain wrapped around her head. The pressure on her skull never seemed to go away, and it drove her to constant distraction.

During gym class that day, as soon as she finished changing in the locker room, Gabby hurried off to find peace and quiet. She skipped running track, and instead hid herself under the bleachers. She leaned against the metal supports and closed her eyes, taking a deep, shuddering breath. She despised gym class. She was no good at running, she hated the uniform sweats and t-shirts they had to wear, and she hated getting changed in the locker room. Not that she had that much reason to be ashamed of her own body; she had nice curves and was very well-developed. She’d blossomed quite early in life, just like her sister. But she thought she needed to lose weight and she couldn’t help comparing her chubby body to the skinny girls with perfect legs and no flab.

She slid down to the ground and buried her face in her hands. It was quiet under the shadows of the bleachers. She had solitude, which she both loved and hated. She didn’t want to be around anyone else anymore, and she didn’t have any friends. Not since Callia left. But being alone with her thoughts brought bad memories back. Memories of things she hadn’t shared with anyone. She had never told her parents why she took all the pills that day. She hadn’t told them how she’d felt wrong ever since. Most days her head throbbed like it was caught in a vice, though it wasn’t a painful throbbing. Just a weight. Pressure.

“Palladino!” a voice called out to her. She moaned and rubbed her hands over her eyes, trying to push past the pressure she felt mounting on her skull. She’d started crying again without even realizing it. “Get your sorry ass out here and run some laps.” Gabby got up, bloodshot blue eyes staring at the gym teacher, wishing she had the nerve to tell her off. She sighed and headed onto the track, then jogged along until she started to run out of breath. It didn’t take long at all before she had to stop from fatigue.

As she came around to the far side of the track, she found her classmate Erica and her boyfriend Charlie hiding behind the second set of bleachers. Her footsteps slowed as she watched them making out. Charlie’s hands roamed over the teen girl’s body, and Gabby wondered what that would be like . . .

“What are you staring at?” Erica snapped when she saw her. “Get lost!” Charlie turned to look at her, a dangerous look in his dark eyes. He was on the football team and built like a tank. Gabby thought he was on steroids or something; every time she saw him, he seemed to be sweating, angry, and aggressive. He stared her down with a vein throbbing in his forehead, and Gabby backed away. Her head pounded and the pressure in her skull built up. The more the pressure built up in her head, the tighter Charlie’s grip on his girlfriend seemed to get.

She watched Charlie for a long moment as she backed away, until Erica smacked his arm and yelped, “Ow! You’re hurting me.” He turned back to his girlfriend and stepped back, letting go.

“Sorry,” he muttered, “I didn’t mean to.” He looked her over with apparent confusion, then glanced at Gabby as if it were somehow her fault. Erica rubbed her waist where he’d been holding her a little too tight. Charlie mumbled another apology, then glared at Gabby again, as if she were doing something wrong by just standing there watching.

Gabby hurried along. She didn’t want to be involved in anything going on between them. When she glanced back, she saw Charlie’s eyes were still fixed on her.

When class was over and she was back in the locker room, she kept her head down and quickly got changed back into her regular clothes. She didn’t like spending much time changing; being in the locker room always made her uncomfortable. She glanced down the aisle between the lockers at Erica and a group of the more popular girls she was friends with. They were all tall and nicely figured, and few of them were cheerleaders. Most of them had perfect, tanned skin, unlike Gabby with her pale skin and freckles. They were all much skinnier than Gabby, who had a more developed chest, more curves, and more flab around her hips and waist. She tried to keep her eyes to herself as she pulled on her shirt and jeans, then leaned over to tie her sneakers.

She glanced back down at the other girls again. She stared for a long moment when one blonde girl, still in her underwear, bent over to pick something up. The girl’s panties were riding up a little, revealing a glimpse of soft flesh. Gabby felt warm. One of the girls pointed at her and laughed, and the others joined in. She tried not to hear their taunts as she quickly pulled her shoes on, grabbed her backpack, and fled.

She ran around the back of the gym, and almost ran headfirst into a group of rough-looking students. There were about half a dozen of them, all dressed in black and smoking cigarettes. One of the oldest, a tall, mean-looking boy named Rick, was playing with a cigarette lighter, passing the flame under his palm as if to prove how tough he was.

Gabby skidded to a halt and they looked up at her, then started snickering at the tears falling from her eyes. Gabby’s heart pounded and her face reddened. The laughter grew louder and Gabby’s head started to spin. The laughter from the girls in the locker room rang in her ears, echoed by the laughter of the boys outside. It made her feel dizzy with shame. The pressure around her skull built up. She turned to run away, but then Rick shouted, “What the . . . holy shit!”

Gabby looked up and saw the grass between her and the boys had caught on fire. Several of the boys dropped their cigarettes and the flames spread. Rick stomped at the flames, then looked up at Gabby with his face scrunched up in pain. Her heart pounded and her face went pale. The flames rose and spread into the shrubs alongside the building. Gabby squealed and backed away. She’d never seen a fire move so fast before.

Shouts came from around the corner. Rick turned to flee with the other boys. Gabby stood there in shock, staring at the flames as they rose up the side of the building. Then a teacher came around the corner with a fire extinguisher, and Gabby fled the scene, hoping she wouldn’t be blamed for the fire the boys had started.

The fire alarm was pulled, the students were evacuated out to the football field. The fire hadn’t spread much farther after Gabby fled the scene, but it had gotten out of control enough that the fire department had to come put it out. The students were led away to make sure no one was hurt. Most of the kids were enjoying the break from classes, mingling in small groups of friends. Eventually the principal announced that everyone would be sent home early for the day and most of the kids cheered. The school buses lined up near the football field and the students were slowly herded in that direction.

Gabby kept her head down as she walked to her bus. Most of them ignored her, anyway. She walked by students chatting with their friends, boys and girls embracing in corners and under the bleachers, and others making plans for after school. She didn’t have anything fun or social to do after school; she’d been forced to quit the school play as part of her punishment, and she wasn’t involved in anything else.

She bumped into someone on her way past, and he yelled and shoved her away. “Ow! Watch it,” he yelled. He clutched at his stomach and glared at her. His face paled and he let out a groan as he rubbed his stomach where she’d bumped him, though she’d barely touched him. “Stupid dyke.”

Gabby stared at him. Her eyes started to burn, and she breathed in sharply through her nose. Why did he have to call her that? She didn’t even know him. He was a transfer student, Jacob-something. He was a goth kid in a leather jacket and with a weird haircut. He held his stomach as if he was sick. He stared at her, sweating. She glanced around and saw everyone else was staring at her too. Her face reddened. Jacob turned and walked away, holding his stomach as though he was about to throw up.

She heard a voice from the side mutter, “Such a freak . . . I swear, she’s always staring at me in the locker room.”

Gabby blushed and lowered her head. Rick and a few of the other seniors were pointing at her and laughing. Some of the other students shook their heads and turned away. The only one who didn’t seem to be laughing was the foreign exchange student, Minori. She gave Gabby a kind smile, but that made her feel worse. She’d never shown Minori any kindness in return. Minori had grown up attending a mission in Tsuchan, and the other students teased her for being a religious freak. Gabby had always been very strong in her religious beliefs as well. She thought maybe she and Minori could have been friends.

Minori gave Gabby a shy little wave. Gabby turned away, afraid to return the friendly gesture and risk being mocked even more for hanging around the exchange student. She hurried in the opposite direction, trying to avoid any more attention.

She made her way around the football team’s equipment building and ran across Erica and Charlie again. They were pressed up against the side of the building, kissing, while the athlete’s hands slid up his girlfriend’s skirt. Gabby stood off a short distance away, trying not to stare, but wondering what it would be like to touch a girl like that. She wasn’t paying much attention to anything going on around her. That is, until she heard Charlie’s voice snap, “What the hell are you staring at?”

“I wasn’t—!” she said, then cut off when she saw he wasn’t even looking at her. He was glaring at the new kid, Jacob. Jacob was staring at Erica, and not even trying to hide it. Gabby looked up at Erica and frowned. There was an odd look on the blonde girl’s face.

“Hey,” Charlie shouted, stepping over towards the new kid. “I asked you a question, freak!” A crowd started to gather around as Charlie advanced on Jacob. A few kids cheered and hollered in anticipation of a fight.

“Fuck off,” the new kid snapped. Gabby held still and watched with a growing sense of dread. The crowd pushed her forward, while many of the students shouted and egged the two boys on. When she got closer she saw a vein in Charlie’s neck bulging and his face turning red. She stared and held her breath. He didn’t just look angry. He looked like he was about to explode. His fists were clenched and he gritted his teeth so hard she thought they might crack.

“What’d you say to me?” Charlie screamed.

The new kid stepped closer. His face was pale, and his eyes had the unfocused, bloodshot look of someone who was high. He would have to be to mouth off to someone twice his size. “I said fuck off. He kept looking past Charlie’s shoulder, over at Erica, who was still leaning against the wall. She hadn’t moved from that spot. Her eyes were locked right on Jacob’s, unblinking. Jacob’s eyes traced over her body and she squirmed under his gaze.

The crowd pressed in closer. Some of the students chanted, “Hit him, hit him!” Gabby looked around, wondering how long it would take a teacher to realize what was going on. Even if one came, it didn’t seem like they would get there in time to break up the inevitable fight.

Before anyone could stop it, the pounding started. Fists flew, and Gabby thought she saw the new kid pull a knife, though it was hard to be sure with all the confusion and the cheering that went on around her. Her heart pounded, and bodies pressed against her from all sides. Her head ached, the pressure building up, and she felt closed in from all sides by the mass of flesh all around her. She screamed and tried to push herself back. She felt trapped, and surrounded without control. She pushed against the students around her, but they all shoved inward, and her small voice was lost among the cheering and chanting.

When the teachers finally showed up to pull the students apart, both Charlie and Jacob were on the ground, unconscious. Erica stood off to the side. Her face was blank and her eyes dull with shock as she watched the teachers attend to her boyfriend who lay on the ground. She rubbed at her temples and leaned against the building as though she was dizzy.

Someone pulled out a phone to call for help. One of the teachers knelt next to the boys to check on them. Jacob was bloody and bruised, but Charlie didn’t seem to have a mark on him. Gabby stepped closer, and the pressure around her skull tightened. She had trouble focusing her vision. She looked down at Charlie as the teacher searched him for injuries, but found none. The only strange thing about him was the way the veins in his neck and forehead bulged and throbbed. Gabby’s heart pounded, and she could have sworn that the throbbing in Charlie’s veins matched the rhythm of her own pulse.

Chapter 5: Therapy


mani_promoManifestation is available on:

Createspace in paperback

and Amazon in ebook and paperback.

Distraction

mani_promoClick here to read Chapter 1: Magic, or here to read Chapter 2: Manifestation. Here you can read the third sample chapter of my debut novel, Manifestation, an urban fantasy adventure that explores the revival of magic and mystery in a world that is unprepared for the changes arcane powers will bring. Available in paperback and ebook.

 

Chapter 3: Distraction

 

 

“Where are you going?”

Tock barely glanced back at Frankie Palladino as she pulled her pants back on. “I gots work ta do,” she told him. She ignored the hurt pout he gave her. She was too busy to worry about coddling some fool boy’s feelings.

“Oh,” he replied, his tone steeped with disappointment. He watched her dress, then said, “I just . . . I thought maybe you’d stay . . .”

Tock snorted as she pulled her shirt on. She scanned the floor one more time for her underwear, but she had no idea where it had been tossed to. She grabbed her backpack off the ground and slung it over her shoulder. She would have thought most boys would be grateful for a girl who didn’t want to hang around and cuddle. “More important things ta do, mate,” she told him. “It were fun though, aye? Maybe we does it again sometime.” It was still early in the morning. Tock had pulled an all-nighter, working on her engineering project until well after dawn. Around breakfast time she’d decided that a morning romp with Frankie was exactly the distraction she needed to clear her head. The engineering lab was still open, however, and now that the deed was done she intended to get right back to work.

“A-all right,” Frankie said, lying half-propped up on the bed, naked except for the sheet across his lap. The sight of him was almost enough to make her change her mind and stick around for another go. Frankie was the definition of tall, dark, and handsome, with an athletic figure that looked quite nice when he didn’t have any clothes on. She didn’t normally get all hot and bothered over jocks, but this one sure had pushed her buttons.

Tock shook off the distracting thoughts and turned to leave, but the boy leapt up in a flash, still naked, and intercepted her before she could get out the door. He pulled her into a deep kiss, which she allowed because he tasted so damn nice, but it didn’t touch her on any deeper level. As he pulled back, she caught a look in his eyes that showed her it had meant more to him than it had to her. Not my problem, she thought. They didn’t know each other that well. They were flunking the same history class together, had shared lunch in the student center a few times, and that was about it.

Frankie took one of her hands in both of his. “When can I see you again?” he asked, his voice soft and eager.

Tired of being delayed, Tock turned towards the door. “Whenever, mate,” she said. “I’s see ya ’round, aye?”

Frankie held her hand, his face scrunched up as if he were searching for some excuse to keep her around a little bit longer. Tock sighed and got ready to explain to the boy that it had just been a good time, but she was interrupted by a loud ringtone sounding from somewhere in the dorm room.

Frankie ignored the ringing and held Tock’s gaze. Her face reddened. The ringtone sounded again. “Ya gonna git that?” she asked him.

He sighed and released her hand. “Yeah,” he said. He started searching for the phone, but it was nowhere in sight.

Tock looked around while Frankie dug through the clothes on the floor searching for his phone. She spotted the jeans she’d pulled off him a short while ago and picked them up, then dug the phone out of the pocket and tossed it to Frankie. He gave her an awkward smile and swiped his thumb across the screen to answer the call.

“Mom?” he said. He paused and listened, then a frown crossed his face. “Wait, what? Gabby or Adrianna?”

Tock frowned and stepped towards the door. She didn’t know who either Gabby or Adrianna was, though she remembered Frankie mentioning he had a couple of sisters. One of them had just had a baby. Frankie had come back to the dorms late last night after the little tyke was born and bumped into Tock. He’d asked her to dinner, but she’d been too busy with her engineering project to spare him the time. As far as Tock knew, both of Frankie’s sisters had been perfectly fine when he returned to the dorms last night. “Oy, mate,” she whispered, jerking her thumb towards the door. “I’m gonna bounce, aye?”

He looked up at her, still listening to whatever his mom was telling him over the phone. His expression darkened and he broke out in a sweat. “Is she okay?” he asked.

Tock fidgeted, one hand still on the doorknob. Frankie turned away, focused on the phone call. If the boy’s got family troubles, Tock thought, I should leave ‘im to ‘em. She hesitated, chewing on her lip. She watched Frankie for some sign of whether he wanted her to go or to stay.

“Okay,” he said into the phone. “Okay. I’ll be right there.” He jabbed his thumb at the screen and ended the call. Tock waited. Frankie stood there, trembling. His eyes were unfocused and he stared into the corner.

“Everythin’ awright, mate?” Tock asked. She bit her lip and chided herself for such a dumb question, but she hadn’t known what else to say.

“I don’t know,” he said. “My sister. She’s in the hospital. I need to go.”

He stepped towards the door, then stopped and looked down at himself. He was still naked. Tock handed him his pants and he pulled them on, then grabbed a shirt off the floor.

“Well, I ‘ope she’s okay,” Tock said. She turned the doorknob, but hesitated. “You gonna be awright?”

Frankie took a deep breath and nodded. He sat down on the bed to pull on his shoes. “Yeah,” he said in a strained voice. “Yeah, I’ll be fine. I’m sure I’ll be fine.”

Tock nodded. She wasn’t sure whether to hug the boy or leave him be. “Awright then,” she said, opening the door. “Go on. Take care o’ yer sis. I’ll see ya ‘round.”

“Yeah,” he said. “Thanks.”

Tock hurried out the door and down the hall. She felt bad for leaving like that, but she had her own problems to worry about. She had an engineering project to complete and a history test she wasn’t going to bother studying for. She didn’t have time to get involved with Frankie’s family. She hadn’t even met the Palladinos, nor did she plan to. Still, as she headed to the engineering lab to get some work done, she kept wondering about Frankie’s sister and hoping she was okay.

Chapter 4: Staring


mani_promoManifestation is available on:

Createspace in paperback

and Amazon in ebook and paperback.

Manifestation

mani_promoClick here to read Chapter 1: Magic. Here you can read the second sample chapter of my debut novel, Manifestation, an urban fantasy adventure that explores the revival of magic and mystery in a world that is unprepared for the changes arcane powers will bring. Available in paperback and ebook.

 

Chapter 2: Manifestation

 

 

Gabby woke up late in the night. She was disoriented for a moment, until she remembered she was in her friend’s bed. Callia slept next to her, her angelic face softly glowing in the moonlight, her hand still resting against Gabby’s skin. Gabby’s heart raced, and she couldn’t help leaning down and planting a soft kiss on her friend’s lips. She lingered for a long moment, then pulled away as Callia whimpered contentedly in her sleep.

Gabby looked at the digital clock on the nightstand. The glowing green numbers read 2:14. “Shit,” she whispered. Her parents were going to kill her when she got home. Taking the car had been bad enough, and being out until all hours of the morning was probably giving her mother more time to stew on her anger.

Gabby climbed out of the bed, pushing away her desires as she pulled herself from Callia’s touch. She changed back into her still-damp clothes, moving as quietly as she could in the dark room. Once she was dressed, she unlocked the door and slipped out into the hall, holding her breath the entire time.

She’d taken two steps down the stairs when she heard a door open behind her. She froze, hoping that if she stayed still, she wouldn’t be seen or heard in the dark. A moment later, the hall light flared to life. Gabby shut her eyes against the sudden brightness, then slowly opened them and turned to see Callia’s mother standing in the hall.

“Gabby,” she said, crossing her arms. “When did you get here? You know, your mother has been calling here all night looking for you.”

Gabby swallowed and lowered her head. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Gainsborough,” she whispered. “Please don’t tell her I was here? I’m going home now—”

“I’m not going to lie to your mother, Gabby,” Mrs. Gainsborough said. “You should be ashamed of yourself! Taking your mother’s car, staying out all night, and now I catch you here, in my daughter’s room.”

Gabby’s face turned red as she glanced back towards Callia’s door. Did Callia’s mother know what had happened? Not that anything had happened. Not really. It had just been a kiss. A kiss Gabby could still taste on her lips.

“I’m calling your mother,” Mrs. Gainsborough said. “She can come down here and get you, and—”

“No!” Gabby whispered. “Please, I . . . I’m going home right now. I don’t want to get into any more trouble.”

Mrs. Gainsborough stared her down for a long moment. “You shouldn’t be out alone this late at night,” she said. She let out a sigh. “Your parents are probably asleep by now, so I suppose there’s no point in waking them. But let me get my coat, and I’ll drive you home.”

“But what about my mom’s car?” Gabby asked. “I can’t leave it here.”

Mrs. Gainsborough tapped her fingers on her arm and studied Gabby for a moment. “Where did you park?” she asked. “Is it far? I don’t want you wandering through the streets alone in the middle of the night.”

“I parked right around the corner,” Gabby said, turning towards the stairs. “Really, I’ll be home in five minutes.”

She waited for a moment, until Mrs. Gainsborough nodded. “All right,” she said. “Fine. But I’m calling your mother first thing in the morning.”

Gabby decided not to argue the point any further. She didn’t want to get into any more trouble than she was already in. She hurried down the stairs and out the door. Mrs. Gainsborough followed her and watched her as she walked from the house, until she was around the corner and out of sight.

The rain had stopped, but the night air was freezing, and Gabby’s breath frosted in the air as she hurried back to the car. When she was still a couple of blocks away, however, she saw the flashing lights of a police car in the distance. She froze in place, her mind screaming in panic. She thought about how many laws she was technically breaking at the moment, being out past curfew with her mother’s car and wallet. She held her breath and hoped that the police weren’t there for her, but there was no such luck. When she got close enough to see what was going on, she spotted a cop car and a tow truck by her mother’s car. Her mother must have reported it stolen, or at the very least called the police to report her daughter missing and send them looking for her.

“Oh, God, no, no, no,Gabby whispered, rubbing her hands across her face. She looked around, uncertain what to do. Being brought home by the police would make her situation worse.

She turned in the other direction and started circling around the block. It was a long walk from Callia’s house back to her own, but she decided she’d rather walk home in the cold than get picked up by the police. She kept a brisk pace, trying to come up with a story in her head that would explain what had happened. She tried to think of a convincing way to make her mother believe someone else had stolen the car, even though she knew any story she concocted would be full of holes.

The silent streets were empty, except for an occasional car passing by. After walking for almost an hour, she realized she’d gone in the wrong direction. Her mind was so frazzled that she’d lost her way. She was almost back in the industrial district at the edge of San Lorien. She cursed under her breath and turned around, rubbing her arms in an attempt to keep warm.

She was finally headed back in the right direction when a pair of headlights illuminated her in the darkness. She turned around and saw a car approaching. She considered hitching a ride, but she knew that was too dangerous, especially in this neighborhood. She turned back in the direction she was heading, ignoring the car. She expected it to pass her by, but as the car approached it slowed down. She glanced back. A shadowy figure watched her from the driver’s seat. She picked up her pace, suddenly feeling very alone and vulnerable and far from home. The pressure in Gabby’s skull returned, worse than before. The car followed, and she panicked, breaking into a run.

Tires squealed behind her as the car raced after her. It sped up until it overtook her, screeching to a halt right in front of her and blocking her path. Gabby screamed and turned to run in the other direction, but the driver got out of the car and chased after her. Her breath burned in her lungs as she fled, but the ground was slick from the rain and she lost her footing. Before she knew what was happening she slipped and fell, and then the man was on top of her. She tried to fight back, but he was too strong. She searched inside for the strength to fight him off. There was a burning light in her mind, just beyond reach. She screamed and struggled and tried to find the light, but she was helpless to stop what was happening. Eventually she gave up and turned everything inward, her thoughts, her emotions, and the light she’d been reaching for. Trapped with no hope of release, she surrendered and let it happen, while the pressure inside her continued to build endlessly upon itself.

* * *

The house was empty when Gabby finally made it home. She stumbled through the door and shut and locked it behind her. “Mom!” she cried out into the darkness. “Dad!”

There was no answer.

She dragged her bruised body upstairs, searching every room for some sign of her family. No one was home. She went into her room and found a note lying on her desk:

Gabby,

I don’t know what in God’s name you were thinking taking my car, but you are in serious trouble. We came home and you were just gone! I don’t know what’s been going through your mind lately, but this is unacceptable behavior.

It’s almost four in the morning. I just hope you’re someplace safe. Your sister just went into labor and I think it’s for real this time. We’re taking her to the hospital. When you get home you had better call me right away so I know you’re safe and sound. And as soon as we get home you and I are having a serious talk about what you did.

-Mom

Gabby sat on her bed and sobbed, clutching the note to her bruised chest. She pulled out her phone with trembling hands; after what had happened, she had been in too much shock to think to call for help. She turned the phone back on and saw more missed calls, texts, and voice mail notifications from her mother. Her fingers shook as she tapped the screen, about to call her parents and beg them to come home.

She stopped before making the call and looked at herself in the mirror. She was covered in mud, her hair was tangled, and her sweater was torn. She didn’t want her parents to see her like this. She put down the phone and stripped from her clothes, throwing everything she was wearing—the torn sweater, ripped jeans, and shredded panties—in the garbage. She never wanted to look at those clothes again.

She showered, spending a long time under the hot water, trying to get clean. She didn’t feel clean. Later, she returned to her room, changed into fresh clothes that covered the bruises, and locked her door. She didn’t feel safe anymore, not even in her own home. She lay down on her bed after the worst night of her life, and by the time she fell asleep the sun was rising.

She slept most of the day and ignored her phone whenever it rang. She didn’t leave her room once all day. It was late by the time her family came home. They were laughing and happy, and her brothers’ voices drifted up along with her parents’ from downstairs. Before long there was a bang as someone tried to open Gabby’s door.

“Oh, this is real mature, young lady!” her mother yelled through the door. “You were gone all last night, and now that you’re home you lock yourself in? Gabby?” Her mother banged hard on the door as she screamed at her through the thin wood, “Gabby? I’ve had enough of this. I know you were off at Callia’s house last night, her mother called and told me. Your sister had the longest day you could possibly imagine, and we are just thanking God that she made it through okay. Now you are going to march your butt downstairs apologize to your father right now! And tomorrow when you meet your nephew you are going to treat him and your sister with some respect, do you hear me? Gabby? Gabriella!

Gabby remained where she was, huddled in the corner. She didn’t want her mother to see her the way she was. She didn’t want anyone to see her shame.

“Fine,” Mom snapped. “You can just stay in there all night and think about what you’re doing to the rest of the family.”

Gabby heard her mom stalk off and stomp down the stairs, while all she could do was huddle in the corner and cry.

Her tears eventually stopped and she sat there in the dark, alone. Her head throbbed with pressure that wouldn’t go away. She didn’t want to talk to anyone, but she knew she couldn’t sit there forever. She went downstairs, and found her family all together in the living room. They were showing pictures of the new baby, who was down at the hospital with her sister. Her parents and brothers were all quietly talking, looking happy and fulfilled. Gabby crept up quietly, without a clue how to explain to them what had happened. She didn’t know what to do next.

“Mom . . .”

All eyes turned on her. She stifled a sob. When she opened her mouth to speak, her mother cut her off, “Unless you’re here to apologize, I don’t want to hear it.”

“But, I—”

“But nothing, Gabriella Marietta Palladino,” Mom said. “I don’t want to hear it.”

Gabby choked back a sob and yelled, “No! Mom, you need to listen!”

“You do not speak to your mother that way!” Mom screamed. “If you aren’t going to learn some respect, you can just go back to your room.” She stared Gabby down and pointed to the stairs. “Upstairs!”

“Mom, please!

“Now!” Mom screamed, standing up and pointing towards the stairs.

Gabby stared at her as tears streaked down her face. Her father sat quietly and let her mother call the shots. Anthony and Frankie looked between her and Mom, but they said nothing. Frankie looked like he was about to say something, but a sharp look from their mother cut him off.

Gabby turned and ran up the stairs and into her room. She slammed the door shut and slid to the ground, hugging her knees to her chest as she broke down in sobs.

She stayed in there the rest of the night. She didn’t go downstairs for dinner. The stress, the crying, and the gnawing pit in her stomach from not eating anything all day had given her a headache that wouldn’t go away. She endured it for as long as she could. Her head was still pounding when she heard the front door open later in the night. She looked out her window and saw Frankie and Anthony leaving, returning to their lives away from home. Not long after that she heard her parents down the hall, getting ready for bed. When quiet settled over the house, she crept into the bathroom to search for some aspirin.

She opened up the medicine cabinet and snatched the bottle down, then dumped half a dozen pills into her hand. She popped them in her mouth and turned on the faucet, cupping her hands and filling them with water to wash the pills down. Then she splashed the cold water on her face to wash away her tears.

After she dried her face, Gabby grabbed the aspirin bottle to put it away. She paused and stared down the mouth of the bottle for a long moment, her mind blank of any conscious thoughts. She turned the bottle in her fingers, watching the little orange pills tumble about inside. Then, without really thinking about what she was doing, she put the bottle to her lips and dumped the full contents into her mouth.

She turned on the faucet and leaned over the sink. She choked on the pills as she tried to wash them down, and she ended up spitting half of them back up. The water carried them down the drain. She opened the medicine cabinet to search for more. She grabbed Dad’s heart medication and the diazepam Mom was taking for her nerves. She swallowed them all, a handful at a time.

The empty pill bottles were scattered all over the countertop. A few stray pills were littered across the floor. She left them there and she went back to her room, turned off the light, and laid down in bed to go to sleep, possibly for the last time.

Chapter 3: Distraction


mani_promoManifestation is available on:

Createspace in paperback

and Amazon in ebook and paperback.

Magic

mani_promoHere you can read the first sample chapter of my debut novel, Manifestation, an urban fantasy adventure that explores the revival of magic and mystery in a world that is unprepared for the changes arcane powers will bring. Available in paperback and ebook.

 

Chapter 1: Magic

 

 

Gabby Palladino raced through the front door of her home, a huge grin on her face for the first time in weeks. “Mom?” she called out. “Dad?” She hurried into the living room, looking for her parents. They should have been home already; she’d stayed late after school to audition for the new play, and by the time the late bus brought her home, it was well past the time her parents normally returned from work.

“Mom?” she asked, peeking into the kitchen. “Adrianna?” There didn’t seem to be anyone downstairs. She looked back out the window and saw Mom’s car sitting in the driveway, but Dad’s car wasn’t there. She didn’t know if he was late getting home from work, or if he’d gone back out for some reason.

She climbed the stairs and looked into each room on the second floor. Frankie’s room was empty, though it always was now that he was away at school. He almost never came home, even for the weekends. Adrianna wasn’t in her room, nor was she in the nursery. Adrianna was due any day now. Gabby glared at the secondhand crib that awaited the birth of the little brat. She couldn’t stand the sight of that room anymore. It used to be her oldest brother Anthony’s room, but ever since they’d moved his old stuff into the attic to make room for the new baby, she couldn’t look at the room without remembering that her big brother wasn’t coming home anymore. At least, not for anything more than the holidays.

She turned away and looked into her parents’ room. Mom’s purse sat on the dresser, but there was no sign of her parents anywhere. She imagined they must have left in a hurry for Mom to forget her purse.

She took out her phone and swiped her finger across the screen to scroll through the contacts until she found her mom’s cell phone number. She plucked at the loose threads of her sweater while she waited for an answer. When her mother finally answered, she had the gall to sound impatient. “Yes, Gabby, what is it?”

“Where are you guys?” Gabby asked. She went back to her room and peeked out the window that overlooked the front yard, hoping in vain that she’d see Dad’s car pulling up to the house.

“We’re at the hospital,” Mom said. “Adrianna wasn’t feeling well and we wanted to make sure she’s okay.”

“Did she have the baby?” Gabby asked, her tone mocking the excitement she should have been feeling.

“No,” Mom said. “The doctor said it was false labor. It could be any day still. Listen, there’s leftovers in the fridge. I’ve got to go.”

“But Mom,” Gabby protested, “you didn’t even ask me about—”

“Not now, Gabriella,” her mother said. “I need to go talk to the doctor about your sister.”

“But Mom!” Gabby said. Her mother hung up without another word.

She grumbled and sat down on her bed, crossed her arms, and glared at the floor. Her mother hadn’t even asked her about the play. She’d gotten the lead. It was one of the most exciting things she’d ever done. Not that anyone cared.

After a few minutes of moping, she got up and went over to the window. It was raining, so going out anywhere was out of the question. She looked down and saw Mom’s car sitting in the driveway. She wasn’t allowed to drive yet; she was supposed to have her license already, but like so many other things in her life, it had been put off because her family was too busy getting ready for the baby. Almost every time she’d asked her parents to take her out for lessons, they’d made excuses. She knew how to drive well enough not to get into an accident, but she wasn’t ready to take her driving test yet, mostly because of parallel parking.

She went back to her parents’ room and looked at her mother’s purse. She stepped over and peeked inside. The car keys sat on top of Mom’s wallet. She reached in and tapped them with her fingers. She wondered how much trouble she’d get into for what she was considering.

She decided she didn’t care.

She grabbed the keys, then as an afterthought snatched her mom’s wallet as well and shoved it in her pocket. She went back to her room and grabbed her pink jacket. It had been bitter cold all day. The weather seemed to be hinting at an early winter. The rain would make the cold that much worse. She put on a knit hat and gloves, then headed outside without any real idea where she was going.

She drove into the city first, crossing from the suburbs into the busy streets of San Lorien. She took herself out to dinner at the most expensive restaurant she could find, in the lobby of the Donovan Grand Hotel, and paid with her mom’s credit card. When the maitre d’ questioned her, she claimed her family was staying at the hotel but her parents were off sharing a romantic evening together, and her mother had sent her to dinner alone. He eyed her with doubt, but didn’t argue.

After dinner her phone rang. Her mom’s number displayed on the caller ID. She ignored the call, then put her phone on silent. She didn’t have any idea if Mom was calling from the hospital, or if she’d gotten home and noticed that she was missing. Either way, she didn’t want to deal with it right now.

As the sky grew darker, she started to worry about getting lost in the city if she kept driving around at night. The rain had lessened, but it was still coming down enough to make visibility poor, and the approaching darkness made it worse. She didn’t know the streets of San Lorien all that well; she’d grown up in the suburbs, and didn’t come into the city that often. She was already lost, since she’d been driving around without any real destination in mind. She pulled to the side of the road so she could use the GPS to find her way, knowing she’d never figure out where she was going without it. Once she started tapping the buttons on the touch screen, however, she realized she didn’t know what address she should punch in. She didn’t want to go home yet. After a moment’s thought, she decided to punch in her friend Callia’s address. She wouldn’t be able to take her mother’s car all the way to Callia’s house, of course, since Callia’s parents were surely at home.

The GPS guided her through the dark streets, and the tall buildings of the city faded away and were replaced by the worn-down industrial buildings that ringed San Lorien. She drove past those and into the more familiar two-story homes of the West District suburbs. She parked around the corner from Callia’s street and got out to walk the rest of the way. The night air was chilly, and the cold rain soaked through her knit hat before she reached her friend’s house. When she got there, she hesitated just before knocking on the door. Her parents might have called Callia’s, looking for her.

She snuck around to the back of the house and pulled out her phone. She hit the power key and swiped her finger across the screen to unlock it, then immediately saw several missed calls and texts from her mom. She ignored them and instead sent Callia a text message: Are you in your room?

She waited in the rain for the reply, bouncing up and down on her toes to try to keep warm. A minute later Callia’s reply appeared on the screen: Yeah, I’m home. What’s up?

I’m outside, Gabby texted back.

What? Callia texted. Why didn’t you ring the doorbell?

I’m in the backyard, Gabby replied. A moment later she saw Callia’s window on the second floor open, and her friend’s blonde head stuck out.

“What are you doing down there?” Callia asked. “Your parents called here looking for you.”

“Let me in,” Gabby said, trying to keep her voice down so Callia’s parents wouldn’t hear. “I took my mom’s car.”

“You’re crazy! Callia said, shaking her head. “God . . . hold on.”

Callia pulled her head back inside and shut the window. Gabby shivered in the cold while she waited for her friend to come let her in. Her phone was still on silent, but while she was waiting, the screen lit up with an incoming call. The caller ID showed it was her mother’s number again. She tapped the screen to reject the call, then locked the phone again. She didn’t want to talk to her mother right now. A few moments later Callia appeared at the back door. Gabby slipped inside, stepping carefully so as not to make any noise. “You’re gonna get in so much trouble,” Callia whispered. “You know that, right? If my parents catch you here . . .”

“I won’t stay long,” Gabby whispered. “Where are your parents?”

“Watching TV,” Callia said. “Come on, and be quiet.”

Callia led Gabby through the kitchen and into the hall. Gabby could hear the sound of the TV coming from the living room and the light from the screen flickered into the hall. They slipped past with care, then hurried up the stairs and into Callia’s room. Callia shut the door and locked it, then turned to look at Gabby. “You’re soaked,” she said. She helped Gabby get her jacket off, but the old, worn out material hadn’t kept the rain out very well and her sweater underneath was damp as well. “Here, let me get you something to wear. I need to get changed for bed anyway.”

Gabby sat on the edge of the bed while Callia dug through her dresser drawers and pulled out a nightgown for herself and an over-sized t-shirt for Gabby. Callia started to get changed, showing no modesty in front of her trusted friend. “So let me guess,” Callia said as she pulled her shirt over her head. “You had another fight with your mom.”

“Yeah,” Gabby said, keeping her eyes down and trying her hardest not to stare at her friend’s body. She couldn’t resist a peek, and her face heated up at the brief sight of Callia’s bare chest before her friend finished changing into her nightgown. “Well, not a fight. But they left without me, and . . .” She trailed off and bit her lip, realizing now that taking the car just because her parents had taken Adrianna to the hospital hadn’t been a bright idea. Now that she wasn’t distracting herself and she sat down and think about what she’d done, it started to sink in that she was going to be in a lot of trouble.

She changed out of her wet clothes quickly, trying not to let Callia see how much she was blushing. It was the same feeling she dealt with around other girls in the gym locker room every day at school. “It’s just,” she said, “ever since Addy got pregnant, that’s all anyone ever cares about. It’s not fair that she gets so much attention just because she was a slut.”

Once they were both changed, Callia sat next to Gabby on the bed and took her hands. “You really shouldn’t be mad at your sister,” she said. “She’s going to need your support.”

“It’s what she gets,” Gabby said. “She’s been with so many guys. She just keeps it secret from Mom.” Gabby knew that Callia was right; the baby was due any day now, and Adrianna was going to have to raise him alone, since her ex-boyfriend Jeremy had abandoned her.

There was a long pause, then Callia asked, “What about you?”

Gabby looked up and asked, “What about me?”

Callia gave her a shy smile and asked, “Have you ever . . . y’know . . . with a guy?”

“Eww, no!” Gabby replied, shaking her head and scrunching her face up in disgust.

Callia giggled and shook her head. “Yeah, me neither,” she said. “I’ve never even been kissed.”

Gabby found that hard to believe. Her friend was beautiful. She had perfect porcelain skin, golden blonde hair, and shimmering blue eyes. She was thin and graceful, and exactly what Gabby pictured an elf would look like.

“Have you ever been . . . curious?” Callia asked.

Gabby’s heart started to speed up. “Yeah,” she whispered. “I mean, I guess. But I’ve never met someone who I’d want to . . .” That was a lie, but she’d never admit to the truth.

“What if it was someone that you trust?” Callia asked. She intertwined her fingers with Gabby’s, a playful smirk touching her tender lips. “Just to try it.” She shrugged. “See what it’s like.”

Gabby barely nodded. “Yeah,” she said. Her mouth suddenly felt very dry.

“Yeah?” Callia asked, leaning closer.

“Yeah . . .”

Their lips touched and Gabby closed her eyes. Callia’s lips felt so soft, and they tasted faintly of strawberry chapstick. They were moist and warm, and Gabby trembled at the thought of her own chapped, dry lips. She held perfectly still until Callia’s lips moved gently against hers, and she parted hers ever so slightly in response. In that moment, she believed in magic.

All too soon it was over. “That was . . . interesting,” Callia said.

Gabby nodded, unable to find her voice. Her heart was pounding and she trembled. She could still taste her friend’s lips and all she could think about was kissing her again.

The room was silent for a moment, then Callia got up and said, “I’m going to go say good night to my parents, so they don’t come up here to check on me. I’ll be right back.” Gabby nodded and waited while Callia headed downstairs. Gabby settled herself awkwardly on the bed and tried to keep as quiet as possible. Her mind raced, but no coherent thoughts came to the surface. She was full of energy, and it danced just beneath the surface of her skin, waiting to be released. She just didn’t know how to release it.

When Callia friend returned, she locked the door again and shut out the light. “Okay, they think I’m going to sleep. We just need to be quiet.”

In the dark, Callia settled on the bed next to Gabby. The rain outside had finally cleared, and the moonlight drifted through the window. Gabby could barely make out Callia’s form, lying on her side, her head propped on her hand. Her thoughts raced with forbidden desires, but she kept them to herself. They built up in her mind like a pressure building up inside her skull, threatening to burst free. It made her head and her heart ache.

“So,” Callia whispered in the dark, “what else is new with you? Didn’t you audition for that play today?”

Gabby smiled, glad that her friend had remembered. “Yeah,” she said. “I got the lead.”

They chatted for a while, keeping their voices low as Callia asked Gabby about the play and about school. Gabby had a hard time concentrating on anything beyond the warmth of the girl lying next to her and the pressure building up inside her. After the conversation lapsed, to distract herself from such thoughts, she asked, “What about you? Are you still going to Costa Rosa in the spring?”

“Actually,” Callia said with a smile in her voice, “I have an interview for an internship. It’s with the Jansborough Wildlife Preserve. If I get it, it’ll count towards college credit, and I can enroll at C.R.U. next fall.”

“That’s great,” Gabby whispered, fighting the conflict she felt in her chest. Jansborough wasn’t that far away, but it still meant her best friend would be out of reach. Jansborough was even further west than Costa Rosa, and further inland, away from San Lorien’s ports. “If you wait until next year to go to the university, we could end up starting at the same time.” Callia had graduated from high school the year before, but Gabby was just starting her senior year. Callia had taken a year off after high school to figure out what she wanted to do with her life. She’d worked some part-time jobs and done volunteer work, which had taken up a lot of her free time lately.

Gabby missed seeing her friend in school every day, but she could look forward to sharing classes again in college next year. Until then she would miss Callia dearly. Even if Gabby had a car or her license, the move to Jansborough would put her friend hours away. It wasn’t as if she could expect her parents to drive her that far for a visit.

“Yeah,” Callia said. Her hand idly reached out and played with Gabby’s hair. “It’s going to be a great learning experience. There’s a research station, deep in the woods, with cabins where the staff live. We’re going to be studying animals in their natural habitat, trying to find out how they’re being affected by civilization moving in on their homes. And since the work there counts as college credit, I won’t need to spend as much time in classes later on.”

“It sounds great,” Gabby said. She was glad for the darkness; it kept Callia from being able to see the tears in her eyes. “It sounds just like what you always wanted. Going out there and actually doing something.”

“Yeah,” Callia said. “I’ll miss you.” The excitement was gone from her voice.

“I’ll miss you, too,” Gabby replied. They settled back into silence. She closed her eyes and let out a sigh, focusing on nothing except for the feeling of Callia’s fingers playing with her hair. Before she knew it, she had drifted off to sleep.

 Chapter 2: Manifestation


mani_promoManifestation is available on:

Createspace in paperback

and Amazon in ebook and paperback.

Me-Man

Commas matter, because without them, the phrase, “Don’t screw with me, man!” becomes “Don’t screw with Me Man!” And just like that, the super-egotistical pseudo-hero Me-Man is born!

——————————————————

Me-Man stood on the steps of City Hall, checking his hair in a small hand mirror. He ran his fingers through a tuft of his perfect blonde hair, polished his teeth with the tip of his tongue, then winked at his reflection and said, “You are gorgeous.”

A beeping sounded from his utility belt, me-me-me-me-me . . . me-me-me-me-me . . . Me-Man tucked the mirror back into its holster on his right hip and pulled out his cell phone. He struck a pose, chin held high, and held the phone to his ear. “Me-Man here,” he said. “Does someone need . . . me?”

He laughed at his own private joke. Of course they need me, he thought. I am fabulous.

“Me-Man!” the police chief shouted into the phone. “We need you downtown! There’s a hostage situation at Starbucks!”

“I’ll be right there,” Me-Man said. “You know you can always count on . . . me.”

Me-Man looked around the steps of city hall. It looked like his arch-nemesis, Dr. Social Anxiety, wouldn’t be showing up for their final showdown. Again. “Sorry, folks,” he said to the crowd gathered at the base of the steps. “Duty calls, and it looks like Doctor Too-Shy-To-Show-Up is . . . well, too shy to show up.”

He descended the steps, throwing his bright blue cape back over his shoulder. His insignia, a stylized depiction of his own face, grinned at the spectators from the back of the cape. He hopped on the me-torcycle and sped off, ready to save the day.

Me-Man arrived at Starbucks a short time later. The coffee shop was surrounded by police. They all turned to Me-Man as he approached. “Good day, gentlemen,” he said, dismounting from the me-torcycle. “Tell . . . me exactly what’s going on here?” He gave the police chief an up-nod and winked.

“Me-Man, thank goodness you’re here!” the police chief said. “There’s a man in there with a gun, and he’s going to kill the hostages if they don’t start serving Pumpkin Spice Latte year-round.”

“No problem, Chief,” Me-Man said, grinning. The light of the afternoon sun reflected off his shining teeth. “Sounds like the perfect job for . . . me.”

Me-Man strode forward and entered the Starbucks. The hostages and the wild criminal all turned towards him. “Me-Man!” the criminal shouted, pointing his gun at him. “You’ll never stop me! Not until the pumpkinny goodness is made available regardless of the season!”

“Now, now,” Me-Man said, waving his hands to calm the man down. “Let’s not do anything rash. Why, you wouldn’t shoot . . . me, would you? Just look at . . . me.”

The criminals wild eyes focused on Me-Man’s magnificent hair, his shining teeth, and his cleft chin.

“That’s right,” Me-Man said, raising his chin and planting his fists on his hips. “Take  . . . me in.”

The criminal looked over Me-Man’s magnificent uniform, his spiffy utility belt, his perfectly-formed dimples, and the stylized Me-Man face emblazoned across his chest. He was mesmerized.

While Me-Man held the crazy man in his thrall, the police came in and freed the hostages. Then they took the criminal’s gun and handcuffed him. The criminal was so fixated on Me-Man that he didn’t resist.

“Thank you, Me-Man,” the police chief said, clapping Me-Man on his magnificent shoulder. “You’ve done it again.”

“Any time, my slightly inferior friend,” Me-Man said, patting the chief on his round belly. “It’s all in a day’s work for  . . . me.”

He looked up at the sky, the sun shining on his golden hair, the wind rustling his cape. He winked.

“It’s good to be . . . me.”

Where There Be Dragons

This story is dedicated to Beau Barnett.

Where There Be Dragons

“Weredragons,” the innkeeper said.

“Dragons?” Sidney asked. His hand shot to the sword at his hip. “Where?” He looked around the inn, but saw only the usual patrons. About a dozen people sat at tables around the room or on stools at the bar, nursing their drinks. A group in one corner was playing some kind of card game and laughing over the results of the recent hand. A waitress moved between the tables, delivering drinks and avoiding the occasional pinch.

“Not dragonsware,” the innkeeper said. “Weredragons!”

Sidney frowned and shook his head. “What’s the difference?” he asked. He let go of his sword and crossed his arms. He had come here looking for an adventure, not a grammar lesson.

“Well,” the innkeeper said, polishing a glass with a dirty cloth, “weredragons make dragonsware, which is more durable and heat-resistant than clayware or stoneware, what with it being made from weredragon scales and all.” He put away the glass, then set a serving of salted nuts on the bar, served in a bowl made from thick red scales.

Sidney waved his hand to decline the nuts, while he thought over the innkeeper’s words for a moment. “Ahh. Right,” he said, scratching his head. “Well then, where be the weres?”

“Where?” the innkeeper asked. Then he pointed out the window and said, “There.”

Sidney looked out the window. In the distance, beyond the town and past the rolling hills, a brooding mountain sat, bringing the whole scene down. “There?”

“They’re there, the weres have their lair there,” the innkeeper said with a serious nod. “Mighty big reward to a man what could slay them.”

Sidney stood taller and straightened his tunic. “Well then,” he said, “if that there be where the weres have their lair, I’ll have to go they’re.”

“There,” the innkeeper corrected him, “not they’re.”

“Whatever,” Sidney said with a dismissive wave. He turned back to his table. “Beau! Leave that wench be, there be weredragons there!”

Beau ignored him and kept flirting up the busty wench he’d been occupied with all morning. She was swooning so much over his manly charms that little hearts were floating around her head. After Sidney called him again, Beau grabbed one of the little hearts out of the air and tucked it away in his pocket. “To remember you by, m’lady,” he said with a wink.

“Oh, Beau,” the wench said, “you’re such a charmer!” She inhaled quite interestingly, and Beau had trouble pulling his eyes from another pair of keepsakes he would have liked to pocket.

“Beau!” Sidney called as he stalked out the door. “Come now, you can ravish her later!” Beau kissed the wench’s hand, which resulted in another volley of hearts pitter-pattering through the air. Then he hurried off to join Sidney on their way to the weredragons’ lair.

They arrived at the weredragons’ cavern just as the sun was setting in the mountains on the horizon. It poked into one of the mountain peaks as it set, and sprung a leak, spewing gas across the sky as it flew around like a deflating balloon before crashing somewhere in the distance beyond the mountains. Darkness fell, knocked over on its rear by the fleeing sun. Sidney and Beau had to find torches, but once they had them they realized they had no way of lighting them.

“This is all your fault,” Beau said. He held up the unlit torch and shook it in Sidney’s face

My fault?” Sidney asked. “How is this my fault!?”

“If you hadn’t been flirting with that wench, we’d have been here before sundown!” Beau said.

Sidney started to steam. He sputtered in fury. “What!?” he shouted. “That was YOU! I was busy getting us this job!”

“Oh, don’t be such a hothead!” Beau countered, knowing that would just aggravate Sidney even more.

“A hothead?” Sidney asked, steaming even more. “I most certainly am not!”

“Actually, you are,” Beau said, setting his torch against Sidney’s head. The heat sparked the torch and it combusted, flames sprouting from its head. “Thanks for the light!”

Sidney fumed, steam shooting out of his ears. He forced himself to calm down so his hot head wouldn’t light anything else on fire. “Let’s just get this over with,” he said. “Now, where are those weres?”

They descended into the cavern with their torches held high. Sidney drew his sword and kept it at the ready. Beau remained a few paces behind; he was a lover, not a fighter. He only came along on these adventures so he could brag about his heroics to the wenches back in town. They descended deep into the bowls of the earth, which Sidney was grateful for, since they weren’t nearly as messy as the bowels of the earth. Soon they entered a broad cavern. The ceiling held an open rift that reached all the way up to the sky and carried in the moonlight. Sidney watched as it carried the moonlight one bundle at a time before dropping it down into the cavern below.

“Weredragons!” Sidney called out. “Where are you? Show yourselves, and face my blade!” He waved his blade around menacingly, and the face of the blade glared at the weredragons as they approached. The weredragons glared back, but their glare was at least twice as menacing, if not three and a half times as menacing. The blade whimpered and closed its eyes. The weredragons had won the first round.

“Who dares enter our lair?” the leader of the weredragons roared. He had the body of a man with a dragon’s head, sharp claws, and green scales. He stood tall on scaly hind legs, hunched forward, with a long, sweeping tail behind him. The tail dropped the broom and stopped sweeping; this was serious business, with no time for tidying up.

“It is I,” Sidney said, raising his blade to do battle, “Sidney the Brave, and my companion, Beau the Flirtatious! Stand ready, and prepare to be slewn!”

“Slewn?” Beau asked, turning his eyes skyward to the sky. “You sure about that word?”

“Slewed?” Sidney asked, keeping his blade raised. He paused for a moment in thought. “Err, slewt?”

“SLAIN!” the weredragon shouted. “We’re about to be slain, you fool!”

“Exactly!” Sidney said, then he swung his mighty blade and lopped the weredragon’s head clean off its shoulders. A moment later it wasn’t so clean as blood sprayed all over the recently swept floor.

The other weredragons charged, and Sidney swung his sword to and fro, hacking them to pieces. Then he hacked the pieces to pieces, just to be safe. When the onslaught was finished, he stood leaning on his sword, breathing heavily. The air in the cavern really needed to go on a diet.

“Sidney,” Beau’s voice called from behind him. Sidney turned and saw his friend lying on the ground in a pool of blood, and he sure wasn’t doing the backstroke.

“Beau!” Sidney cried out. He rushed over to his friend and knelt beside him. “No! Beau! You were too beautiful for this world!” Tears flowed down his face and mingled with the blood on the ground.

“Sidney,” Beau said, his voice weak. “Just promise me one thing, old friend . . .”

“Anything,” Sidney said, holding Beau against his chest. “What is it?”

Beau pulled the heart from his pocket and handed it to Sidney. “Ravish that wench for me,” he whispered. “Ravish her good. I promised her a good time when we got back. Give her one for me.”

“I will, old friend,” Sidney said. He took the heart and tucked it away in his pocket. “I will.”

He buried Beau beneath a cement-tree that grew in a cement-ery. On the cement headstone he inscribed, “Here Lies A True Friend, A Ravisher of Wenches: Beau the Flirtatious.”

When he returned to town he was lauded as a hero and given a huge reward. No longer caring about riches, he donated it to the orphanage in Beau’s name. Then he found the wench, dropped to one knee, and presented the little heart to her. The heart floated into the air between them and made her swoon. Then they kissed, and the heart exploded into a flurry of little winged hearts and cupids shooting arrows all around.

“What’s your name?” he asked her. One of the strange things about the magic of little hearts was how they could make you fall in love at first kiss, even with a total stranger.

“Beauty” she said. “I hope you’re a good man. My last boyfriend was such a beast!”

Sidney assured her he would always strive to bring her happiness. Then he scooped her up in his arms, whisked her away to his room at the inn, and ravished her quite thoroughly. He tried to be understanding when she accidentally called out the name “Beau.”