More creepy dollhouse story: setting the stage

When she finally cleared the dead and dying brush away from the dollhouse, Alyssa was surprised to see that it was, by and large, intact. The miniature Colonial had stout walls and the shutters had real, tiny hinges that squeaked when she tested them. The doorhandle was tarnished, suggesting that it was real brass, and as if that wasn’t unusual enough — she’d expected it to be rounded, like a pin-head — the miniscule latch on the handle worked, too. 

Someone had taken great care to build the toy. Alyssa didn’t have the heart to put it out by the curb, without any other reason than it was still a bit spoooky. It only smelled a little mildewy, and when she lifted it out of the earth to turn it around, there was zero evidence of live creepy-crawlies. A few old webs swung from the eaves, festooned with tiny bug corpses, and she thought she recognized spider nests by the chimney. But they weren’t problematic. Just gross.

In fact, she was less disgusted by it than fascinated, particularly in the remains of the doll furniture that shifted and slid around as she awkwardly set the thing down on the grass to get a better grip. Crouching on the damp ground, careful of the wet dead leaves, she found the latch to open the back side of the house and swung the wall open. “Maybe there’re some old antiques in here worth something to a dealer,” she muttered, craning her neck to peer inside. “What shape they’d be in, though . . .”

Instead of gnawed old walnut four-posters and moth-eaten upholstery, however, Alyssa saw to her great surprise  bed-sitters marvellously crafted from twigs and twine, their bedspreads of downy feathers fallen to the floor with the movement of the house. A sink made from an acorn top rested on what looked like a mushroom pedestel, although she didn’t think that could be possible. A flat stone, the kind she’d use to skip across a lake, had been balanced on frame of crossed twigs fashioned like the beds, but it had fallen and damaged its perch when she’d lifted the thing. She also saw to her great astonishment several cross-stitched and twig-framed samplers no bugger than her fingernail, some of which were still attached to the walls.

“Wow,” she said, sitting back. “Didn’t expect that.”

She poked a skillfully designed twig rocking chair, and noticed little trails of dirt down the first floor hallway and in the kitchen. In fact, there looked to be a wad of bulrush silk or goose down or something soft by the front door, markedly dirty and matted down in the middle. She supposed it could be a mouse nest, but it was curious that there were no droppings around it. “Poor thing, you probably got snapped up by some owl or a neighbourhood fox before you got to finishing it. Or a cat, those things are like serial killers.” Alyssa clicked her tongue, shaking her head. 

Closing the wall back up, she debated what to do. 

It was a darling thing, really. It just needed a fresh coat of paint, maybe some wallpaper samples and some cloth remnants to make it worth more than a week on the curb. Possibly the junk of her backyard could become someone else’s treasure . . .

Then Alyssa remembered that it wasn’t actually her backyard. She was just a renter, after all. What if this had belonged to the previous tenant, and she (or he, to be politically correct, she reminded herself) had not had time to come back for it? Life had a way of interfering in stuff like that. Maybe some little girl was begging her mom or dad to go back to the house before the winter buried it (never mind that the thing looked as though it had been there for several winters, or longer than that, even). 

Better to be safe and build a good relationship with the landlord than to be sorry, Alyssa decided. She picked the dollhouse up again, bending her knees with the awkwardness of the load, and carried it into the house.

They like it! They really like it! (It = the snowmobiling story)

goodnewseveryoneI showed my struggling / reluctant readers what I have so far on their snowmobiling story, and they loved it! They especially liked the dialogue about going to get beer — apparently I nailed it. And when I related the anecdote to the administrator, she said, laughingly, “You know what’s really scary? That you can get inside the head of a sixteen-year-old!”

Made me feel pretty good, I have to admit. But it’s only just starting. They gave me some great slang to use in the story, and explained how to drive a snowmobile. Also suggested that I look up videos on YouTube (why didn’t I think of that?) I promised them dialogue tonight, more movement in the plot, and I haven’t done anything yet. Plus I’m still working on the video that wraps up the 24 Hour Playwriting Challenge, and I brought home marking and I haven’t taken it out of the bag . . .

So I’ll keep this post short, I think. Get the video done, and go to bed early for once. Busy day tomorrow: my daughter has her final skating show practice after school.

Throwing caution to the wind . . .

Okay — I am diving into the snowmobiling story for my students. I’ll try to do a bit on it every day, keep it to a novella, and see how they respond. Not enough time to do more exposition tonight, but at least it’s a start! 

———————-

Adam glanced down at the gas needle and wished he’d had enough money to fill the tank all the way before hitting the trails. He had a good half of a tank in his snowmachine, but his buddies weren’t following the plan they’d all agreed on, turning left at the fork behind Northern College instead of looping around the lake in one quick trip. Danny was in the lead, and Adam knew he had a habit of making changes on the fly. They might be going halfway to Rouyn for all he knew.

Danny kind of pissed him off when he did stuff like that, but it was exciting, too.

If he’d only filled up the tank all the way . . . Adam cursed under his breath, adjusting the speed of his vehicle while leaning into a curve on the track. He had stuff to do that afternoon, stuff that required money. His next paycheque wouldn’t come for another week, so he was trying to be good and make the cash last. Danny, Steve, and AJ didn’t have to worry about working; their dads all had good jobs and gave them money pretty much whenever they wanted. They didn’t have to think about budgeting. Maybe that explained why they could just change their minds at the last second and do whatever suited them.

He looked at the needle again and decided that as soon as they stopped for a break, or if he went down to a quarter of a tank, he’d turn back. No sense in being stupid.

His mind made up, Adam focused on keeping pace with his friends. It was a perfect day for snowmobiling, so no wonder they wanted to do more than a loop and back to town again. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, just an expanse of deep blue overhead that reached from one side of the snow-covered forest to the other. It was damned cold out, but thanks to his mom landing some good deals during Boxing Day sales, Adam’s new skidoo suit and gloves kept him from feeling the worst of the chill. -35 C was too cold for downhill skiing, which is what his girlfriend Penny would have liked to have done that afternoon, but it was perfect for hitting the trails: the Arctic temperatures made the snow sparkle in the sunlight, especially those crisp bits that flew away from the speeding vehicles’ tracks and blades. It was absolutely gorgeous.

Too bad Penny didn’t like hopping on the back of his machine and going with him. It was the one thing — well, maybe not the one thing, there were other things they didn’t have in common — but the main thing that they had different between them. He wished she was with him now, riding behind him, but he understood that he couldn’t force her to like it. Maybe, eventually, she’d want to try it out and he could take her for a ride.

Just not with Danny around. That guy was his friend, but also an idiot.

If I could harness my subconscious to do my will . . . plus problems with writing from imagination vs experience

Do you ever have one of those dreams where you’re not sure if it was real the next day? I get that once in a while. Last night I had another.

I had taken a summer job working in an office, doing some kind of bookkeeping, and several of my colleagues were there — mostly women, though, including friends of mine named Kam, Colette, Kim, Monica, and maybe Golda. I wasn’t happy about the job, but I needed the money. My daughter was hanging around and I could see that my boss disapproved, so I had to send her home. In addition to feeling badly about that, there was a big meeting and the managers announced that everyone was expected to participate in some kind of super-high-efficiency diet involving seeds, alfalfa, kale, and other nutritious but gross-tasting foods. We weren’t allowed to bring anything processed or fatty or sugary to work for lunch or snack breaks.

I was really pissed off at this point. I refused to play along, declining to accept the starter-pack that was being given out and throwing the stink-eye at the smelly tea that Kam was trying to drink down, and I knew I was in trouble. Thankfully, I was sent out on a professional call, so I determined to bring back some real food to save my friends’ tastebuds.

Right before I left, one of the other employees — a petite blonde — tried to give me a ring that kept turning to a gummy in my hand. She looked at me desperately, and I realized that if I concentrated, the ring would keep its form. Once that happened, I knew that what was really going on was some kind of trap, prison, or spell: each of my employees was really a fairy-tale heroine, locked away from their own worlds in this sterile office and forced to eat crappy raw grains and seaweed. It would be my job to help them remember who they were and break free. (At this point, I realized that I was combining Parks and Recreation with Once Upon a Time, but I wanted to help my friends, so I kept it going.)

So I left the office with its maze of partitions and cubicles and meeting rooms and drove down a block of closely-constructed townhouses. There was a railway crossing and I was having a hard time stopping the car. I hit the brakes, and I’m right on the line, so I start to reverse. A school bus (empty) pulls around me and tried to get over the tracks but got hit by the oncoming train. I was thankful that we hadn’t been smucked, but then I see in my rearview mirror that a police officer is waving me over, having video-taped the whole event.

After getting a ticket, I went back to the office and went in preparing to do battle. To my surprise, everyone was eating pizza. Real pizza! So I looked closely at the boss, and there was a glint in her eye, something that suggested manipulation . . .

And then I woke up. I really wanted to go back in and continue the story, see if I could free Snow White, etc. from the web of lies and deception, but I’ll never find out how it ended. See, I can’t just pick up a dream the next night from where it left off. I can think about it as I’m relaxing into sleep, but then my subconscious will just take over and do whatever it wants. Most annoying are the times when I’m walking along endless highways, or the thing where I realize I’m driving a car from the passenger seat or backseat and I have to try to slide into the proper part of the vehicle.

Tomorrow night, the 24 Hour Playwriting Challenge starts. I have some registrations but I have the feeling that a few students might join up at the last minute. I’ve never done something like this before, so it’s going to be a learning experience, hopefully with a steep curve. And lots of coffee. We’re not staying up all night, but still, I’m going to need it, I think. Then Saturday will be the all-day part, with rehearsal and whatnot — definitely going to be a coffee day. I feel like I should be more stressed about it than I am presently, but it’s going to hit me tomorrow with full force anyway.

I’ve also promised some struggling students in my grade 11 english class that I’ll write them a story involving snowmobiles, because that’s what their main interest is and it may help them connect to reading. The only trouble is that I don’t do snowmobiling: my experience is limited to three incidents:

— I was around 9 or 10 and taken for a brief ride on the back of a parental friend’s snow machine. It was loud and stinky.

— My brother tried to take our dad’s new-to-him snowmobile for a quick run around the yard (without permission) and got it stuck in the deep snow where the yard sloped. My friend Karen and I had to help him get it out before Dad came home. I think we did it — I have no recollection of any yelling or other upset from that night.

— I went ice fishing two or three years ago, as part of a staff social event, and got to ride in a sledge pulled by a snowmobile. It was, again, loud and stinky.

So I’ve told my students that they’re going to have to help me with the story. I mentioned this idea to my vice-principal, that I’d write a story and have the students decide where it will go or what the details are, and he didn’t seem overly thrilled with the concept. His thought was that we need to give the students “more agency” and encourage them to do these things on their own. That’s all fine and dandy, I agree with that very much, but when you’re working with kids who get antsy after being surrounded by four walls for half an hour, who aren’t into writing or reading beyond the absolute necessity, why not work together on something creative so they can get the feel of it? It’s still part of that “gradual release of responsibility” concept. And one student in particular, B, is excited that I’m going to write something for him, that he will get a say in but not have to tackle on his own.

I need to get going on this project. I’ve set the goal, a high-interest, medium-vocabulary read about snowmobiling, with a word count of 20,000 – 30,000, at least. The problem now for me is the plot. I talked it up with some of my lunchtime crew yesterday, gathering some ideas. I could do a story about a poker run — never done that — or getting lost or stuck on the trails, or breaking through the ice (have heard a firsthand experience from a friend). I have a vague idea about having to win the poker run in order to gain the cash prize that will allow the protagonist to achieve something important, like money for a sibling’s class trip to Toronto or something else that kids up here would recognize as having value. But beyond that . . . I’m at a complete loss. My head is blank. I can have these freaky dreams about crap from TV shows and stuff, yet I can’t put together a simple plot about a kid with a snowmobile?

I keep coming up with concepts, and that’s as far as I get. And they all feel so cheesy:

  • A kid who has built his own snow machine from scrap parts and discarded pieces in a junkyard races against kids with brand-new, top-of-the-line Skidoos, with the prize being a next-year model. Your typical underdog story, in which he learns the value of hard work, appreciating what he has, blah blah blah . . . (not feeling it, can you tell?)
  • A teenager who has witnessed a crime and escapes into the woods on his snowmobile, only to realize he’s being followed by the criminals. His only recourse to get away is to use the maze of the trails, but night is falling / blizzard comes up / warm weather has weakened the ice on the lake, so his dilemma worsens . . . (maybe this one, I could get excited with this)
  • When a girl takes her boyfriend (who’s just moved up from a southern town/city and has little experience with the snow/cold) for a run and their machine goes through the ice, she has to give him a crash course in winter survival as they trek back to the closest house / store for help . . . (after all, it’s not just for boys, right?)

Maybe I’ll just throw these suggestions at my students and see which one they like the most. Take it from there.

And I should probably get someone to take me snowmobiling at some point, so I have that experience for the writing.

(shudder)

Bermuda Crybaby

Okay, fair warning: I’m pooped, so this story has been started but it doesn’t seem to want to finish itself tonight. I’m not entirely certain where it wants to go, just yet — I’m thinking scary, but it could also be a gentle sort of romance. I see both possibilities happening here. And it was meant to be much shorter than it’s turning into. Anyway, read it if you like and tell me: do you think it should become scary and ominous, or be more about self-discovery and love? I can do either!

———————————————–

Lindsay wasn’t really scared of the dark, nor had she been since she was a little kid. And she wasn’t afraid of the water. But she didn’t like the idea of seaweed touching her legs deep under the surface, where she couldn’t see the stuff wiggling and waving around in the currents, and her stomach turned over at the thought of a fish ever bumping into her leg.

Shudder.

Still, she hadn’t expected to be so afraid of snorkelling around a wrecked ship not twenty feet from the pink beach of the resort in Bermuda where she and her friends were staying. Not when the sun was roasting her shoulders and the waves were lapping coolly around her ankles, the turquoise waters sparkling into the distance while children laughed just down the way and rock music was playing from someone’s boombox. This was her vacation. She was supposed to be trying new things on this adventure, not standing frozen, half-in and half-out of the Atlantic ocean like some sort of washed-up Greek statue. And not when the equipment in her hands was costing her $20 an hour for the rental. She’d worked hard at her part-time Mcjob to fund this trip, and she hadn’t even needed to bring her English homework along — she’d prepared for a good time by wrapping up all her loose ends at school days before the plane had taken off.

She’d vowed, once she turned eighteen, to stop being so nervous about new experiences and to take more chances. Lindsay had never broken a bone in her life, or sprained an ankle, or even gotten a gash deeper than a scrape, because she was cautious to the point of paranoia, or so her girlfriend Eva told her. Eva — now, there was someone to envy. Eva had jumped (literally, her feet actually leaving the ground when the announcement was made) at the opportunity to go parasailing, taken a scuba-diving class to check out a nearby reef, and climbed to the top mast of a sailboat. Lindsay was familiar, too, with the pictures and videos of Eva bungee-jumping and zip-lining, horseback riding and skiing downhill at breakneck speeds. Eva was so much the opposite of herself . . . sometimes Lindsay wondered what the woman saw in her.

It was just a sunken boat, for crying out loud. The resort people had put it there, on purpose, for tourists like herself to paddle around and peer at. She could see it from where she was standing, a long white, black, and red shape seemingly just beneath the waves. Other guests she’d spoken to while renting the flippers, mask, and snorkel had gushed about the colourful sea life they’d observed in and around the wreck, an experience that was not to be missed.

So what’s wrong with me? It’s a perfect day — just get in the freaking water!

But Lindsay couldn’t make her legs push forward, no matter how she berated herself. She stood there until her feet were buried in the drifting pale sand, letting the soft sea breeze caress the burning skin on her upper back and neck and enjoying the way it teased her hair. Seagulls cried overhead. If one of them pooped on her, she’d have to dive in to wash it off, or else go back to her room to take a shower.

Finally, she turned around and trudged back onto the hot sand to return the gear, dry and unused (by her anyway), because her time was nearly up and she really wanted something to drink. The brackish odours of brine and kelp and God knew what else were making her mouth and throat feel dry and scratchy. Glumly making her way back across the beach, she smiled in relief at the sight of Eva loping toward her.

“Lindsay! You’ve got to come and see this!” The tall brunette was shouting as she approached, uncaring of who might be watching. “They’ve got a grotto!”

Bemused, Lindsay shaded her eyes. “One of those underwater cave thingies?”

“Yeah! Well, sort of,” Eva told her, skidding to a halt. She leaned over to rest her hands on her knees, grinning breathlessly. “It’s a cave and it’s got a pool, and it’s absolutely gorgeous. Come take a look!”

Lindsay let her girlfriend take her by the hand and lead her down the length of the beach, toward a cliff at the opposite end. She suppressed an urge to climb up the wooden stairs leading back to the resort’s main building and her safe, air-conditioned room, following Eva instead along a crushed-shell path around a prettily-landscaped abutment.

On the other side was a small dock within a charming lagoon. A few rowboats tied neatly on either side of the dock bobbed gently in the swells. To the left, the path ended at another set of stairs rising toward a dark hole in the cliff, beside which was a neatly letter sign reading, “Grotto”.

“See?” Eva chortled, clapping her hands. “Isn’t it awesome? You have to see inside, it gets even better.”

The gaping blackness raised goosebumps on Lindsay’s arms and scalp, but Eva was already dragging her forward and up the steps. A rush of cold air made her shiver, and she started to protest, too late; in another moment, she was inside the darkness of the cave, smelling wet earth and salt water.

Oh, my God, there’s going to be a cave-in and we’re going to be trapped . . .

“Just let your eyes adjust,” Eva told her quietly. Lindsay felt Eva’s arms wrapping around her and relaxed a little. “See, Lin? There are lights on the walls, and just under the waterline.”

It was true. As her vision changed, Lindsay saw two perforated lines of muted yellow orbs, one at just over head-level — well, for Eva anyway — and the second distorted by the waters lapping around it. The pool itself was an inky black, but the striations of the rock glistened around each lamp’s glow.

“Have you been in the water?” Lindsay murmured. She moved forward, shuffling her feet cautiously, and discovered a railing placed conveniently to prevent guests from falling over the ledge of rock.

“Yeah, and it’s beautiful. You’d think it would be cold, but it’s comfortable.”

“Are there any fish?” She knelt to touch the stone, expecting to feel disgusting slime under her fingers. “There wouldn’t be any seaweed in here, would there?”

“No, you goose,” Eva laughed. “I promise you, there’s nothing else like swimming in a grotto. You’ve already got your swimsuit on, let’s go in!”

Story Time! I’m calling this one (temporarily) Pamela’s Spring Fever

Pamela had about an hour before she needed to be on the road. Even with the howling winter storm outside, she’d left herself a nice pocket of time before she’d have to be at the Timmins airport to catch her 9 pm flight to Toronto. Then it was a quick run down the airport to board the passenger jet, and she’d be on her way to palm trees and warm salt water. After the long, freezing winter, wallowing in extra time before she found herself sunning on the beach in Acapulco was actually quite the luxury. She tossed the last few necessities from her medicine cabinet into her makeup bag, watching lipstick, mascara, and foundation tubes arc freely through the air and land on target.

Her kit ready, she tucked it securely into the top of her suitcase. The packing list next to it on the bed had nearly every item crossed off: sandals, heels, one-piece for whenever and bikini in case she met anyone promising . . .

Pamela frowned. “Where’s my cellphone?” she muttered to herself.

Caught up in the excitement of preparing for her vacation, she hadn’t even bothered to take it out of her purse that morning. Pamela wasn’t a believer in staying connected every moment of every day: unlike some people she knew, she didn’t sleep with the thing next to her bed and she wasn’t on Facebook sharing her every meal or her daily dramas. She hadn’t even posted that she was going away for a week’s break. Who knew what immoral bastards lurked online, watching for opportunities like apartments left empty for days? Plus, she was looking forward to posting her photos online and surprising her friends and coworkers. Imagine the looks on their faces!

She wondered if she’d left the thing on her desk at school in all of the hubbub of the last day before Spring Break. It wouldn’t be the first time, but even with — she checked the clock on the stove — forty-five minutes to go, a run up to her workplace was a) a downer, and b) an irritating waste of time. Thankfully she was organized enough that the detour wouldn’t cause much of a logistics problem, but she’d have to forgo touching up her manicure.

Outside, the late winter storm drove tiny particles of snow down her collar and up her sleeves. She cursed as she hauled and wrestled her suitcase down the treacherous steps of her building. Fresh nail polish probably wouldn’t have withstood this kind of torture, anyway, even protected by leather gloves. It was so cold that the metal of her vehicle groaned piteously as she popped the trunk to load her things. Fortunately, the snow wasn’t sticking to the windshield, its layers brushing easily away, but when she finally sat in the driver’s seat, the warm air of the previous day’s driving had created a layer of frost and ice over the interior glass. She wasted another five minutes while the car warmed up, scraping a patch so she could see.

The forecast was calling for a metre of snow, at least, in what they were calling winter’s last gasp. For the first time, seeing the storm for herself, she wondered whether her flight might get cancelled. Few other vehicles were ploughing their way through the streets, and after she fishtailed around the corner, she understood why. She’d drawn the curtains as soon as she’d gotten home and into her packing, so she hadn’t really noticed the accumulation of snow or the early dusk from the thick clouds, or how rapidly the temperature had fallen. It was still going down, too — it was already unusually frigid for March, and the thermometre clicked from -27 to -28 C while she watched.

Acapulco couldn’t happen too quickly.

The school was mostly dark as she pulled up. She left the car running to keep it warm while she plodded through the drifts toward the main door. Inside the glass vestibule, the blasting heat was delightful; less so was the rapid melting of the snow in her collar into cold trickles on her skin. She tromped up the stairs to her classroom and fumbled with her keys in the dimly-lit hallway. It was a newer school, only eight years old, so it wasn’t as creepy as other buildings in which she’d worked, but the blue glow of the security lighting was a bit eerie.

But her phone was on the desk in her classroom, exactly where she’d left it. Unfortunately, it was also out of power, but she had a charger in her car. No problem.

The wind outside shifted, blowing snow against the glass. The sound was startlingly loud. Pamela dropped the phone and winced at the crack it made on the floor. Snatching it up, she rushed from the room and headed back down the corridor, willing her heart rate to slow itself down. No reason to be edgy; it’s just a storm, she told herself. She sighed in relief as she came into the bright florescent lights of the main foyer, laughing at herself for acting like a ninny. I’ve got the jitters from too much coffee and pre-vacation nerves.

It took her a moment to realize what had happened when she stepped into the vestibule again, and the lights went out.

Her reflection showed Pamela the widening of her eyes right before the streetlamp outside also failed. Her heart pounded heavily in her chest. She pressed against the exterior door, but the security locks were dependent on electricity running. Panicking, she pushed again, and again, thumping her shoulder against the latching bar. The headlights of her car turned the swirling snowflakes into frightening shadows. Pamela turned around and tried going back into the school to call for help.

The interior doors were locked, too.

Desperate, now, she looked for a fire alarm to pull, but to her dismay, she saw it inside the foyer on the other side of the glass.

Pamela turned again, leaning her back against the smooth surface of the door. Her phone was dead, possibly broken now, too. Nobody knew she was going away for a week, or that she’d come up to the school after hours during a severe winter storm, when no-one else was around. Could she break the glass with her boots, maybe? What would be the penalty for that? Was her situation really that desperate? After all, she was only going to miss her flight.

She exhaled, concentrating on calming down. Her breath appeared in a white cloud. There was no relaxing now. Ripping off a glove, Pamela held her bare hand up to the heating vent, feeling sick to her stomach.

No heat.

The wind lashed at the row of glass doors before her, rattling the panes in their frames. She walked the few steps forward toward her car and pressed her hands against the glass, ignoring the biting cold on her bare skin. In the driveway, the snow had drifted up over the fenders and was obscuring the windshield. The heaters were working — she could see that in the bare patches of the windshield — but that didn’t do her any good.

If she broke the glass, she could just lie and say that it hadn’t been her. After all, without power, there wouldn’t be any proof that she was in the building . . .

Whether it was from nerves or the rapidly cooling temperature in her little glass box, Pamela was shivering. Her decision made, she sat by the wall and considered the best point at which to kick the door or window. She thought she recalled someone saying that it was best to attack the middle, or just to the side, where the tension was most compromised. With the wall at her back for some support, she could just get at the side window.

The first kick jarred her leg all the way from ankle to hipbone. It also made zero impression on the glass.

Pamela kicked again.

She pounded the safety glass until sweat beaded on her forehead and she was sobbing for breath. But either her frame was too slight, or her boots weren’t tough enough, or she lacked whatever reserves of crazy strength she’d seen in the few students who had actually managed to break windows in the school.

Then again, she’d never actually seen a student break a window, only heard about it from other people. Sometimes it had been with fists, and sometimes with objects.

Pamela took out her cellphone and hefted it. If it was the 1980s and it resembled a brick, maybe that would work. Still, it would add to the solidness of her boots. She stuck it down into the sole under her heel, and did the same with her wallet in the left boot. The bulk was uncomfortable, but she felt renewed. Lying on her back, she wiggled until her legs were bent against the glass, and then kicked them both out together. Was that a crack, or had she imagined it? Shaking, she did it again.

But the glass held firm. She let her legs fall to the side, sobbing like a child.

Outside, the blowing and drifting snow obscured her headlights and covered the tailpipe of her idling vehicle. The engine choked out. Raising her head, Pamela registered the change in the silence. Without the grumbling background noise of her car, it was just her and the storm against her little glass cage.

Someone would have to come along, she knew. There would be custodial staff, or another teacher who needed to retrieve something from a desk. In the meantime, she had to keep warm. Sitting up and wiping the tears and snot from her face, Pamela crossed her legs, took her wallet and phone out of her boots — pausing to rub her sore feet — and dumped out her purse.

She had her plane tickets, a wad of cash money and traveller’s cheques, a package of Kleenexes, and some tampons. Pamela didn’t smoke, so no matches or lighter. She had a pack of foil-wrapped gum and some batteries that she had intended to drop in the recycling box but forgotten about. Maybe if there was some charge left in them, she could try that trick she’d seen on Orange is the New Black, and light the foil on fire.

She could MacGyver a little fire or something, right by the glass. Maybe the rapid change in temperature would be enough to make it crack?

Pamela tucked her cash and plane tickets back into her wallet and rolled the kleenex and traveller’s cheques into a little stack of paper logs. Then, holding her breath, she folded the foil with shaking fingers and pressed the ends to one of the batteries. The first didn’t work, but the second did. The foil reddened and smoked. She held it carefully to the edge of a ball of Kleenex, praying for the tissue to catch. It was smoky and the stench made her eyes water. Coughing, Pamela waved away the curls of smoke, trying to add oxygen to the smouldering paper. A few tentative flames licked the underside of her stack of pathetic kindling. She thought it was shrinking, so she leaned forward and tried blowing at it.

The strength of her breath scattered the embers and unburned bits of paper and tissue. Crying out, she grabbed at the wisps, thrusting them back toward the window, but it was too late. Whatever fire she might have had was gone. Smacking her head against the glass in her frustration, Pamela finally heard the crack she’d been waiting for. She drew back, ignoring pain in her forehead, and scrambled at the base of the window, brushing away her erstwhile fuel.

At the very bottom of the glass was a small crack, the size of a chip on a windshield.

Moving onto her side, Pamela whipped it with her right heel. She attacked it with renewed vigour, her breath hitching between every kick.

Story Time! Beware the crocuses of spring . . .

Everyone knew to stay away from the alley that ran down past Widow Greenbow’s big old house. Although two wheel ruts clearly marked the path cutting through the middle of the block, it seldom saw vehicle traffic of any kind. Foot traffic was rarer still — neighbourhood kids followed tradition and avoided the trail even though it might shave five or even ten minutes off a walk home from school.

So throughout the winter, the wheel ruts became smooth, elongated dents in clean snow. Not even animal tracks marred the perfect slopes of white that had drifted and piled over the shed leaves from the double-row of overhanging poplars and pine trees. In the summer it looked like a hollow from a storybook, all shady and green and leafy, soft grass lining the floor from street to street, beckoning curious passersby to enjoy its peace in spite of their hesitations. Even now, as the season finished turning and the slushy snow churned up muddy on the sides of the roads, the alley path looked clean and relatively dry. Patches of green grass showed themselves between tree roots and down the centre of the wheel ruts. It was what an older person might call “picturesque”, idyllic and serene. Inviting and untouchable. There was just a feeling about that part of the block, a quiet that didn’t want to be disturbed. Or shouldn’t be.

Lester had to pee, though. He desperately needed to go, had had to pee since second recess, but the supply teacher hadn’t let him leave the class for some stupid reason and then after school, the toilets in the boys’ washroom had overflowed because some nimrod had decided to try flushing a dirty magazine page. There was no way that Lester was going to dash into the girls’, and he didn’t dare to ask a teacher. None of his friends lived near the school. There was nothing for it but to run home as fast as he could.

The trouble was that he could barely walk anymore.

The pain in his groin was making his eyes water, and he had to hold himself as he stumbled forward through the melting slush. He wasn’t going to make it without wetting himself like some kindergartener, and if he did, what if someone saw the proof on his jeans? Which humiliation would be worse — getting spotted taking a piss in a back alley, or walking the rest of the way home with a big wet streak down the leg of his pants?

The alley was right there. And there was a stand of poplar trees about halfway down, sheltering a patch of freshly turned earth. He could see some little green points sticking up there, like the ones in his mom’s garden. He vaguely recalled that she’d said something about buying fertilizer. In school, they’d learned where fertilizer came from. Lester hopped from one foot to the other, pressing his knees together. Would it really be so bad? He wasn’t going to do number two, just . . . water them, a bit. He usually had good aim, too. As long as nobody saw . . .

Lester shuffled forward without another thought. His urge to pee was so great, he let the strap of his backpack slip down off his arm to the wrist, and when it banged against his thighs, he released his crotch long enough to let it fall so he wouldn’t end up accidentally peeing on it. Then he was at the tree, standing in the fresh earth, fumbling with his fly. The air was cold and fresh on his skin, helping what came naturally to come along.

“Aaaahhh,” he sighed, leaning against one of the slim tree trunks. “Oh, yeah . . .”

Finishing up with a quick shake, he tucked himself back in and looked around for a clean bit of snow to wipe his hands. There were a few piles outside of the circle around the tree. He’d taken care to avoid peeing on the little green shoots, but he felt badly just the same that he’d nearly trampled them in his haste. He squatted to peer at them in an apologetic sort of way. What had his mother called these early spring flowers? They weren’t cactuses; those grew in the desert. These ones had colourful tips, white and purple and pink, almost like when his sister had painted her nails that time. They poked up sharply, not soft like he thought flowers should be. The thought made him uncomfortable. Lester suddenly felt stupid about his urge to say sorry to some dumb plants, and put his hand on the ground to push himself up.

The green shoots thrust themselves at his arm and pierced his skin like thick green fish hooks.

Lester yelled, pulling back. Something green shot out of the ground and into his mouth, choking him. The soil stirred and churned, falling away as a hulking green limb the same colour as the flower stems emerged from beneath the dirt. He scrambled back, kicking and struggling, until his back hit the tree trunk and he could go no further.

Crocuses. The thought popped randomly into his panicked mind. They’re just crocuses.

Something round bulged up in the soil, barely higher than the level of the ground. A ridge moved and opened to a smooth white orb, a pulsing marble lined with black veins and green ooze. Lester tried to scream again. Below the white thing, a cavity yawned, black and deep. He gagged on the stench of rot and dog dirt that suddenly rose around him.

The green shoots in his wrist and elbow dug in and dragged him forward.

The thing was strong, stronger than Lester anyway, and he couldn’t find anything to grip to stop it. Desperately, he flailed for a stick, or a rock, or even a snowball, but there was nothing but dirt. With his free arm, he bashed the monster about its gaping jaw, weeping. The monster changed its pull on him, flinging him from side to side to make Lester stop struggling.

In the middle of his panic and fear, Lester heard the jingle of his house keys falling from his jacket pocket. Slamming his palm in the direction of the sound, he found them on the third or fourth try, just his fingertips catching the point of the backdoor key. He strained against the thing, his groans muffled by the vine in his mouth, vision blurring with tears from the effort to stretch himself far enough to grab his pitiful weapon.

Then he raised the key in his fist and stabbed it downward onto the thing’s bulbous white eye.

It rumbled horribly, gurgling in pain. The green shoots withdrew as quickly as they’d attacked, and suddenly his mouth was free of the choking vine. Lester lost his balance and fell forward toward the gaping maw, screaming hoarsely, but after a moment, he realized that his arms were pinwheeling against nothing but earth.

The creature had gone, if it had ever been there. Lester scrambled back, staring at his bleeding arm and the place where the green shoots had been. His pants were covered in wet mud, stained down to the knees. He crawled away, into the slush, snatched up his backpack, and dashed back the way he’d come. He didn’t stop running until he’d made it home, safely slamming the door behind him.

In the kitchen, his sister looked up from her nail polishing.

“Hey, loser, did you piss yourself on the way home from school?”

10957883_10155208029285352_292016957095651801_n

Photo credit: My aunty Deb in BC

Lady-wolf: the Untold Story

We had always kept our distance from the two-legs — they were loud, they stank (usually of fear), and they couldn’t communicate. But the prey had been hard to find for a few days, and we were hungry, as were our pups. My mate’s stomach was growling as loudly as I’d ever heard him when he had to warn away coyotes.

So when the two-legs had quieted down, well after dark, we followed our noses to the scent of food.

Although there was no moon, the faint glimmer of starlight coupled with the orange glow from the fire help us find fish spines on a rock, and crumbs of something yeasty on the beaten ground by the hot place. Strange clear round things, too, like small bones that had been cleaned of their marrow. I sniffed one and sneezed at its oddly acrid scent, like broken mushrooms after a rain. Nothing edible there. While my mate licked hopefully at the fish spines, I padded over to a sack that smelled promisingly of food. There was a small hole in it that my claw was able to rip open just a little bigger, letting slimy guts spill out. Not particularly appetizing, but better than nothing.

As I was pulling the innards further out, a wind rose that blew the bag away from me. It tumbled end over end toward the strange cave where the two-legs were sleeping. I snapped up the morsel I’d taken and followed the rest, easily fastening my teeth around its neck to drag it away.

The two-legs inside must have heard me, or maybe it had to mark its territory. Suddenly the big leaf moved aside and its ugly face was there, its eyes staring into mine over its flat snout. We both froze. I’d never been this close to one of them before. I let my hackles rise and growled in warning, advising it to keep its distance. I thought I could scent that it was a male, but there was female odour as well. I could smell yeast here, too, very strong, and that odd smell like mashed fungus. I wasn’t about to get closer to find out more, but then I heard a sound in the cave. Maybe it moved, or something else, but I didn’t like it. I let my teeth show, growling louder, and heard my mate answer in kind.

After too many rapid heart-beats to count, I decided to take a chance on moving back. I put a paw on my prize, intending to drag it away also by snagging it with my nail. But there was a second sack there, something else next to the first I had chased, and it was heavy. The two-legs said something loud, and reached out quickly to stop me. I snarled, snapping a stronger warning.

The stupid two-legs gripped my prize and yanked it back. I got close to its stinking face, fighting for what was mine. My mate responded, approaching, and then when the two-legs looked away, I seized my chance to sink my teeth into its forelimb. I expected it to cry out, but it did something else: it bit me back, fastening its jaws on the tender skin of my ear. Instead of the two-legs yelping, I heard my voice in the pain. Surprised and hurt, I spat out its dirty tasting body and scrambled away, leaving my prize — and my pride — in the dirt.

My mate found me later, attempting to lick my wound, but my tongue wouldn’t quite reach. He obliged by cleansing it as best he could. Every lave of his tongue on my hurt reminded me of the shocking strength of the two-legs jaws trying to rip my flesh from my bones. I knew I would never go near their kind again, no matter how hungry I might feel.

The bites took a long time to heal. Flies swarmed over my hurt ear, where pain rumbled like thunder. But by the time the lesser light was rising nearly full and round in each evening sky, it pained me not at all. I felt wonderfully energetic and playful, approaching my mate for penetration when he didn’t expect and increasing my range of hunting until I was angering our neighbouring families. I tumbled and played with our litter until they were worn out and slept where they fell. I couldn’t help it, though; it felt like the glow of thousands suns under my skin, powering my muscles and pushing me to run as fast as I could. I had to run, because then, when I stopped, I would be able to do the other thing that I couldn’t resist, and that I knew my mate would not understand.

Grasping a firm twig in my maw, i traced shapes in a space of dirt I cleared with my tail. A winding path, like the river carving through the valley. Lines crossing each other and blending downward into one thick reach, like the veins on a leaf or the tall trees that rose about me. The unnatural hump that had been the two-legs’ cave. My jaw made these images clumsily, and I found that I could hook my forepaw around the tip of the tool, and by moving it carefully and slowly, I could do it better.

It disturbed me, these moments, and I would eventually rise shuddering, uncertain of the reason or the purpose behind these things.

It was when the lesser light rose in its fullest that I learned the truth of the two-legs’ curse on me.

The pups, my mate, and I had settled in for the night. I had brought home a fat rabbit and our bellies were full. But as they snored in our den, the white light in the forest beckoned me. I wanted to stay warm and safe, listening to my family breathing, but the desire to go crawled on my fur like a thousand insects. There was no comfort in remaining. I silently and swiftly ran away up the mountain, seeking a private place in which to howl my discomfort away.

And then I stumbled.

I fell, as I ran. Nothing had ever happened to me like that, at least not since I had been a pup. I got up to run again, and my forelegs wouldn’t grip as they had done before. I dragged myself, whining, my bones burning, to a clear flat place on a rock, and lifted my nose to the sky.

But my nose no longer angled before my eyes, jutting proudly before my face. I shook my head, trying to rid myself of the painful tingling, as the black tip shrank away and my teeth and tongue with it. I raised a forepaw, panicking, confused, and scrambled back as I saw the hairless limb waving in the space where my nose had been. The limb ended not in my fuzzy paw, but in something flattened and naked, my knuckles stretched and unfamiliar. My bladder released in my fright, and although my skin wrinkled for hackles, cold air whisked across my neck where the raised fur should have been. A strange sound ululated from my throat — neither a bark, nor a whine, but a low keening wail. I fell back, and in my panic, I recognized an absence of pain where I ought to have jammed the bone of my tail. I twisted around to see, and to my horror, my beautiful thick tail was gone, swallowed into a strange smooth round surface. I tumbled over and over, crying out as the mountain rock and brush left stinging scratches on my suddenly tender skin. When I finally skidded to a stop in a cradle of stone, the light of the moon revealed my new body and I wept.

How would my children feed from me, with only two bulbous mammary glands where six had been? And how could my mate accept me, without my fur? I curled forward, protecting the underbelly which had grown long and felt so hollow. When I tried to stand, my back legs were ungainly and awkward, hitting the ground in two places, bending at an unnatural angle. And I was cold, so cold. I missed the warmth of my family, our bodies piled together in the heat of our den. Something leaked onto my face and ran from my nose, and I knew I must be dying. Wolves did not leak in this way. I was sick and I would not be able to return to my home.

The night wore on. I managed to find grips on the rock, moving slowly as I grew accustomed to myself. The freezing wind tore my breath from me. My body ached and shivered. The fur which had been left to me was long on my head, shorter than a newborn kit’s on my legs, matted patches between my legs and under my forearms — not nearly adequate for protection. If I was now a two-legs (for that certainly seemed to be the truth), I understood better their reason for building hot places when they lived in their strange caves. Why their dens were filled with bedding like a bird’s. Naked, they could not survive.

So when I saw a two-leg place with a fire, I had to swallow my revulsion and panic in order to get close enough to be warmed.

As before, the beings were gone. I could not smell them this time, or smell any food right away. The heat drew me in. There was a pelt by the fire, something scratchy and the colour of blood, left hanging on a strange bush. My teeth were unable to pull it over me, but as I had done with the stick in the dirt, I was able to use my forepaws to stretch the pelt onto my body. Between the pelt and the fire, I was soon able to stop shivering.

I do not remember falling asleep, but it must have been true, because a touch on my shoulder woke me. Again, I tried to growl, but a high-pitched noise hummed from my throat instead. Two-legs were looking at me, making soft sounds. I snapped my teeth, moving backward away from their outstretched limbs. Behind them, the sky was still dark. I felt dirt under my nails as I clawed the ground. I looked down at the marks these long knuckles could make, and felt calmer. I made furrows, digging, and traced the spiral of a cut tree stump, while the two-legs made more noises.

The shock of understanding — it exploded in my chest, when one of them made a sound I could interpret: “Water.”

I looked up at a hollowed bone, filled with clear water. “Aa-der,” I intoned, and crawled forward, hanging my tongue out. It was difficult to lap the drink into my mouth. I tensed at the feeling of the bone touching my teeth, but when the water poured in, I found it easier to swallow. When the two-legs took the bone away, I whimpered. I watched as more water was poured into it from a sack, and then it was offered to me again, this time with a soft touch on my forepaw which made me flinch back.

The smaller two-legs was holding a bone, too. I watched as it curled its ugly knuckles around the bone and raised the liquid to its mouth. Astounded, I realized that this was something I could do, too. I dropped the bone and spilled the water with my first few attempts, but I had always learned things quickly. I found that I could drink like a two-legs, after all.

“Who?,” they kept saying to me. “Who?” Like monstrous owls changed by sorcery into poor mockeries of the birds they had once been.

“Where?” It sounded like a growl, but wasn’t. The noises were intelligible, but I did not know their language. “Hurt,” they said, but what did it mean?

They gave me food, hard like tree bark but tasting of berries and wheat. They built the fire, placing more sticks on it, so that I would not be cold. These were not the terrifying two-legs of my nightmares.

So when the sky brightened and I shuddered back into my normal form, perhaps their screams were also to be understood. As soon as my four legs were under me, my tail brushing the air once more, I ran from them as fast as I could, retracing my path back to home. Far better that I had frightened those who had bitten me, changed me, than my own offspring and pack.

Story Time! In which I have some science-fictiony fun with microbiology and Mennonites

A few months ago, in the course of a class discussion, I had a hard time saying “nanobots”. Eventually for some reason, I ended up blurting out something so ridiculous that it just had to be written down. I promised them a story. I shall now attempt to produce a piece of flash fiction worthy of sharing with my grade 11 College English kids.

“Killer Mennonobots”

The microscopic ‘bots worked exactly as Greg had expected them, and why not? He’d engineered them, after all. He was no under-appreciated genius — the rows of awards and framed certificates were proof that plenty of his peers recognized his achievements in the field — but this, his most personal challenge and longest project, this was satisfaction made tangible.

He bent to the microscope and gazed again at his creation, Debussy playing softly on the battered old CD player in the background.

To the naked eye, the small glass dish appeared to hold only a smear of viscous green fluid. But through the refracted light and lenses, Greg was able to admire the perfection of his tiny world.

They might have been as small as Who’s, and certainly, they were as industrious. Bipedal, four-limbed, straight spines, their inner workings covered with flexible dark membranes microns thin. He’d laboured for over a decade to get the forms right, staying late hours in the laboratory after his normal work day had been finished. The programming had been relatively simple, once the working parts had been finessed. They were self-replicating, but only after achieving what he amusedly called “experience points”, limiting their numbers exponentially: as each generation produced their clones, the algorithm dictated a corresponding change in the program requiring an increase in “experience” before the next replication could begin.

Greg had even managed to build in a randomization plot: each replication had a 50-50 chance of appearing male or female. The males’ limbs were individually coated, resembling trousers, and the females’ membranes flowed in a spreading mesh like a long dress.

His nanos weren’t scuttling insects or bulbous jellyfish. They marched stolidly and gracefully through their environment, as direct and unassuming as Mennonite farmers in the field.

Itty-bitty, smaller-than-a-blood-cell Mennonites.

Mennonobots.

And as quickly as their human counterparts could raise a barn or piece a quilt, his microscopic dolls could construct anything he ordered, the required codes typed with precision into the computer. For this test, in the sample of grass fibre he’d provided, they’d already maneuvered slender fragments into a square frame. He smiled, humming softly while a hundred or so Mennonobots arranged themselves into straight lines, moving in tandem to select the next length of Golgi apparatus appropriate for their needs.

The microwave in the far corner of the lab beeped impatiently. Greg’s neck was sore, needing the hot grain bag inside, but he couldn’t bear to look away. It was simply too fascinating.

While Generation 9.9 completed erection of a shelter, Generation 9.10 was herding floating mitochondrion together like so many cattle. Gens 1.1 through 9.7 had been disappointing failures, the last several operational but only capable of meandering hopelessly through leaking cytoplasm and saline. In Gen 9.8, though, he’d had his breakthrough. The latter group was isolated now, cooling their itsy-bitsy heels in the refrigeration unit to prevent another replication until he’d completed his tests.

“How would you fare against your children and grand-children?” he murmured, stepping back from the eyepiece. “Gen Eight moved in formation, but I didn’t have them try what you’re doing.”

Greg straightened with a groan, and on the way to the fridge, nabbed his heat pack from the microwave. He slapped it on the back of his neck, exhaling in relief as the heat penetrated his stiff muscles. The fridge door squeaked slightly when he pulled it open. He stepped into the impersonal white light of the interior, ignoring the slightly stale odour until it occurred to him that the equipment was missing its usual antiseptic scent.

And cold.

The fridge was warm.

His heart raced in panic. If Gen 9.8 had been damaged or left to replicate unmonitored, he would have to contain his current experiment rapidly or risk disaster.

Coughing on a catch in his throat, Greg wavered between dashing back to the sample and checking what remained of his precious work on the sterile metal shelving. Visually, the seals were intact, but if they’d been exposed to air, or an abrasive chemical . . .

He leaned closer. The seal wasn’t intact. A series of almost imperceptible holes — invisible to anyone not familiar to the lab’s procedure, or Greg’s own practice — cut through the plastic film where it met the solid wall of the container. It almost looked as though a fine needle had been slipped through the material, but when Greg held the box closer to his eyes, the tiny ragged edges jutted outward, not inward.

His eyes watered from the strain of peering at the damage. He pivoted and carried the box over to his work station. Sweat beaded his forehead. He peeled back the top of the container, prepared a sample, and then set his eyes to the microscope to first check on the progress Gen 9.9 and 9.10 had made.

Greg’s heart faltered, beating unsteadily in his chest. He gaped impotently, unable to breathe for a moment.

Where one simple building had been under construction, two more were now being framed. Tracts of material were furrowed and squared, tended by rows of tiny Mennonobot women behind strange mobile blobs.

In another heartbeat, he’d identified the blobs by their waving flagella.

They’d harnessed bacteria.

And — oh God — if they could do that, then could his babies control viruses, too?

His hands trembling, Greg fumbled the Gen 8 sample into place. He contemplated not looking. After all, no-one knew what he’d been doing after he’d clocked out. This was his life’s true work, but hadn’t God also destroyed His creation when it had corrupted itself? Did he even dare to see what had happened in his own invisible world?

The scientist in him needed to know. The engineer that he was needed to see what had happened. The human wanted to burn it all and forget that he’d ever attempted Frankenstein’s feat of mastering life.

Greg was already burning. He ripped away his lab coat and loosened his tie, aware that sweat was soaking through the fabric of his shirt. Then he put his eye to the microscope, gripping the table while his head swam.

Within the solution, a community of humanoid beings scrambled around toppled structures. They reminded him of ants when their glass farm had been shaken and their tunnels had collapsed. He increased the magnification, his pounding head intrigued by a minor change in the males’ physical appearance. And magnified it more.

“My God,” he said aloud. “They’ve built — but how? With what material could they make tools?”

His fevered brain threw him images of sugar crystals, salt, a variety of minerals and fibres, but the wave of dizziness that blurred his vision wouldn’t allow him to focus.

The last thing he saw before his legs crumpled beneath him was a cluster of elongated, spider-like shapes. Bulbous heads connected to legs made of rods, the figures of the Mennonobots astride the slender, spring-like bodies. Riding them. Directing them.

He tried to recall specifically which viruses they’d kept in that refrigerator. The question circled in his brain, a needle on a broken record. A cluster of soggy alphabet cereal pieces caught in sink water, going round and round the drain. No, that was the ceiling whirling above him. The little perforations seemed to grow bigger, morphing into cloned Mennonite farmers and their mutated livestock, the stuff of imagination. Unbelievable that they could ever exist. Inconceivable that something too small to be seen could be . . . could do . . .

Book Review: As the Witch Turns

51TrV0-LTFL._AA278_PIkin4,BottomRight,-53,22_AA300_SH20_OU15_

Oh, how I enjoyed this short story! I love the snark, I love the sly digs at pop culture, I love the voice that Anne Carpenter gives to a certain witch we all know and (most of us) love… I’ve read another book about the witches of Oz, and this tale is a similarly refreshing take on the original. And I have to say, without revealing spoilers, that I completely agree with the protagonist. I’m on her side.

Kept me guessing, with each turn of the witch! Read this, I promise you’ll enjoy it!

Buy Link:

http://www.amazon.ca/Witch-Turns-About-Women-ebook/dp/B007X686F0/ref=sr_1_4?ie=UTF8&qid=1373123908&sr=8-4&keywords=as+the+witch+turns