Wicked Cool Mid-January Giveaway

Not Just Another Rafflecopter Giveaway

eNovAaW giveaway | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's books

Yes, we’re doing it again. In what’s starting to look like a tradition, eNovel Authors At Work is offering yet another wicked cool giveaway. Along with enjoying great deals on these books (and some are free), you can win:

  • eNovAaW giveaway | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's booksKindle Paperwhite
  • Vera Bradley Pocket Note Set with Pen
  • Fisher-Price Nickelodeon Shimmer & Shine, Bedtime Wishes Shimmer
  • Panasonic ES2207P Ladies Electric Shaver
  • Message Charm (46 words to choose from) Expandable Wire Bangle Bracelet
  • Inktastic – Life’s Better With Books Tote Bag Natural
  • Star Wars Black Series 6 Rey (Starkiller Base)
  • $15 Amazon Gift Card
  • Bass Pro Shops Active Watch for Ladies – Blue
  • Walking Tyrannosaurus Rex Dinosaur 21″ Toy
  • Panda Planner
  • Aurora Tears Purple Created Amethyst Butterfly Birthstone Water Drop Pendant Necklace, 18″

With so many gifts, you’re more than likely to win something. However, the giveaway will only run between the 17th and the 30th. Take part by going to the Rafflecopter.

Let’s get to the books! A whole bunch of them will be FREE or 99c until the 21st:

  • The Reluctant Hero by Jackie Weger: FREE. “This was a wonderful story. It was funny, full of surprises and I couldn’t put it down.”
  • Rain Clouds and Waterfalls by Piper Templeton: FREE Inspired by the artistry of the Beatles, each tale is framed by a Beatles song or event.
  • Don’t Tell Anyone (Trager Family Secrets) by Laurie Boris: 99c. “Poignant, moving and realistic.”
  • Hurricane Hole by RP Dahlke: FREE. “Romance and danger and a sweet and funny ending… a sailing adventure that will keep you riveted.”
  • Wolf’s Pursuit by Alexa Dare: FREE. Shifter Romance with an engaging coven of supernaturally talented women.
  • Storm Crazy, Bonus Edition by Livia Queen: 99c. “My new favorite series!”
  • Imperfect Love: A Sweet Romance by Rebecca Talley: 99c. A devastating diagnosis changes everything.
  • Musiville by Nicholas C. Rossis: FREE. “A funny, upbeat, music-filled story that can be enjoyed by both children and adults.”
  • DEFCON Darcy (Darcy Walker Mystery Book 4) by A.J. Lape: 99c. “That girl is in mysterious trouble again!”
  • Past of Shadows by Colleen Connally: “A well-written, exciting page turner.”
  • Murder in San Francisco by Dianne Harman: 99c. “Winston is such a smart dog! You gotta love him.”
  • The Reckless Year (Book 4 in the Misfit Series) by A.B. Plum: 99c. A psychopath in love?
  • Finding Home by Jackie WegerFREE with Kindle Unlimited. “Lol! I loved this book. Hilarious.”
  • Lies I Never Told by Martin Crosbie: FREE on http://martincrosbie.com
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Thank you, Mr. Harvey

Doug Harvey died yesterday. He was an icon in Major League Baseball and the ninth umpire selected for the Hall of Fame. Not only was he one of my favorite umpires to watch when I was a kid, because of his cool, professional demeanor, standing up in the (sometimes literal) face of some of the hottest hotheads in the game, he was also one of my inspirations when I wrote The Call.

As I educated myself about umpiring and what it takes to make it, I fell in love with this Harvey quote, which I felt summed up the profession that to some can look like such a thankless pursuit. I ended up opening the novel with it.

“When asked what he was fighting for, General Washington, in writing to General Thomas, said the object was ‘neither glory nor extent of territory, but a defense of all that is dear and valuable in life.’ He must have been an umpire. That’s what umpiring is about.”

Harvey also inspired the young umpires in the story. Margie admires his classy, in-command style and wants to emulate him. She’s never told anyone that before, and when a fellow rookie makes the comparison, she’s thrilled. (I’ve included an excerpt below.)

Thank you, Mr. Harvey, for all you’ve given baseball, and for inspiring generations to come.

—–

As Margie rounded the right-field corner, Wes Osterhaus fell in beside her. His wiry limbs matched her stride, his pale, freckled cheeks pinking from the exertion and the Florida sun. In their morning classes, Wes sat Catholic-school-straight in the chair in front of hers, bobbing his head at the instructor. He always had the right answers, and a hundred other questions. The instructors had been patient with him, but more and more they said, “Let’s talk during lunch,” or told him to go look it up in the academy’s library. The “library” was a dingy, cinderblock-walled equipment room that smelled of sweat and old coffee and contained two metal folding chairs, an old TV, and an erector-set bookshelf of manuals and videotapes. Sometimes Margie passed the room on her way to Big Al’s office and Wes would be sitting there alone, staring at the screen, scribbling notes on his pad. She felt bad for the guy. He was smart, that much was clear, and he was one of the few people in camp who would talk to her. She overheard a couple of trainees calling him “Oster-cize,” and she wanted to kick them.

“Nice day for a run, huh?” Margie said.

“Technically, no.” Wes said some stuff about dew point and relative humidity that left Margie’s head spinning. Then he trailed off, and on the left-center warning track he said, “Forty-eight.”

“Excuse me?” Margie wiped the sweat off her brow with the back of her hand.

“Sixteen percent of three hundred.” He nodded toward the group of guys practicing on the field. “That’s how many candidates will get recommended for evaluation after we’re done. Fewer still will get minor-league assignments.”

She smirked. “I think you’re gonna do fine.”

He nodded toward Rocky Anderson, who was berating some guy until he hung his head. “But that instructor is lowering our chances. He’s doing it all wrong.”

Her eyebrows hopped up. “Whaddya mean, wrong?”

“Positive reinforcement has been shown to help long-term learning better than negative reinforcement.”

“You got English for that?”

“Okay, right,” he muttered, as if giving himself a reminder to dumb-down his vocabulary for the masses. “Your strike fist. If he said, ‘nice job’ when you tucked your thumb in, instead of making you do laps when you get it wrong, research says you’d learn better.”

“What, you saying I’m never gonna learn?”

“No, Margie, I believe you will.” He paused a moment and added, “Because you remind me of Doug Harvey. He’s the best umpire in the game.”

She grinned. “Really? Doug Harvey?”

“Yes. The way you make your calls. The way you know the rules.”

Damn. “You wanna race?”

“Not especially.”

She knocked an elbow into his arm. “Aw, come on. Race me to the on-deck circle. Loser picks up the beer tonight.”

“That’s negative reinforcement. And besides, I don’t drink.”

“Okay. Winner gets to pick the game tape in the library later.”

“See? Now I’ll do it,” he said. “Because you’re offering me a learning opportunity.”

He took off. She took off after him. For the first time in Margie’s life, a boy beat her in a footrace. Probably because she let him.

Punch Drunk: Short Fiction

Nearly anything sounds like a good idea when you’re starched up with five or six shots and a couple beers and your buddies are clapping you on the shoulder and shouting your name. Hell, yeah, it had been a good idea then. Go get her, they said. You can do it, they said. She’d be a fool not to take you back, they said.

But at half past the rooster’s crack with a backpack over my shoulder and a bus ticket in my hand, I felt kind of stupid. I was thinking about cashing it in, when I turned toward the counter and wham! my arm bumped into this little old lady.

She was all blue eyes and white hair and smoothing out invisible wrinkles in my shirt even though I should have been the one apologizing, because she was such a tiny thing. I hoped I didn’t hurt her. My gran got laid up with a broken hip for just stepping off the sidewalk wrong, and here I was, this big lummox not watching where I was going. Story of my life.

“Ma’am, I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean—”

“Oh, there’s no need for that, or that ma’am business, but thank you.” Her little blue eyes twinkled. “You going to Albany?”

“Yes, I’m—”

“Good, then you can carry this for me. I’d put it in the baggage compartment but I’m so afraid of what might happen down there.”

I followed her pointer finger to a blue gift-wrapped box big enough to hold a punch bowl. But before I could say no—as if I would—I was carrying it in one arm while she held on to the other and I was seeing her up the stairs into the bus. The only two empty seats were together, so I put my pack on the overhead shelf and started to put the box up there, too, but she stopped me.

That was how I ended up with a punch bowl sized box on my lap as we pulled out of the station and started for the highway. I couldn’t look away from that box and the silver ribbon around it and couldn’t stop thinking of what might have been. It wasn’t heavy enough for a punch bowl. I kept seeing Diane’s face. Kind of angry and disappointed at the same time. Like “who is this bull in a china shop and why am I marrying him?”

“It’s not gonna bite you, you know.”

“I’m sorry, what?”

The old lady waved a hand toward the box.

“Would you feel better holding on to it yourself?” I asked. She would, and I let her. I knew this routine. Diane knew all the steps. Asking me everything without actually asking. Like it was some kind of game to get it out of me without using the words. Only I didn’t figure it out until she’d already won. Or I’d lost. Didn’t matter. Maybe getting on this bus to go charging up to Diane’s house had been a stupid idea. There were other people I could visit in Albany. She knew all of them, of course, and word would get back to her, and then—

The old lady rested a withered hand atop the blue striped wrapping paper, realigned the ribbon. “So who’s in Albany?” she said. “You’re going to visit your girlfriend?”

How the heck—? “Fiancée. She’s my fiancée. Or at least she… But I… And we… I mean, we’re supposed to get married, but…now I don’t know. I don’t know if she still wants…”

She laughed. Blood rushed to my face so fast I swore it might burst out the tips of my ears, and that only made me madder. “It’s not that funny.” I said.

“Oh. I’m sorry. I’m not laughing at you. You remind me of my grandson. All tied up in knots wondering whether a girl likes him without actually asking her.”

That shut me up. Mainly because she was right. Diane and I had a fight, and I’d just walked away. And I really didn’t want to have this conversation with a stranger. I didn’t want to have it with anyone. “So what’s in the box?”

That shut her up. Then I felt guilty. I could hear my gran scolding me in my head. “Sorry. None of my business.”

She sucked in a long breath and let it out just as slowly. “If you must know, it’s my husband.” A sharp look followed. “Oh, put your eyes back in your head. The way you’re staring it’s like I’ve murdered him and chopped him up into little pieces.”

Had she? Maybe I should have turned in my ticket when I had the chance. “You mean, like, his ashes.” I’d never seen what a human being amounted to. Gran wanted to be buried in the old cemetery next to Pop, and my folks obliged. I’d helped carry Gran, and that casket was heavy. This box couldn’t have weighed more than four, five pounds.

“Not so loud,” she said. “Or they’ll make me buy an extra ticket.”

For a second I almost believed her, and she met my sly smile with one of her own. I tapped a finger against the box. “Not a bad way to travel,” I said. Nobody would ever suspect. I could see why she didn’t want him in the baggage compartment, or in the overhead rack.

“He always liked buses,” she said. Then her smile fell as she turned toward me. “What’s her name?”

“What?”

“Your fiancée. Or the girl you’re not sure is whatever you think she is.”

I slunk down a couple inches. “Diane.”

“Well, when we get to Albany, you tell that Diane—” Then a phone started ringing. It wasn’t mine, ’cause I didn’t have one. Not since one of my buddies swiped it from me last night and threw it in the lake when I was trying to call her drunk. Turned out five or six shots and a couple of beers weren’t such a good idea in a number of ways.

“Is that yours?” It sounded like it was coming from her handbag, and she frowned into it. Then I noticed the ribbon on the top of the box was vibrating.

She giggled and gave the box a playful tap. “Now, Bertie, you stop that. You know how expensive those roaming charges are.”

“You wrapped it up in the box on purpose and set an alarm or something,” I said.

Her mouth pursed. “Aw, you’re spoiling my fun. Maybe that’s your trouble with this Diane person. You have no sense of humor.”

“She’s not ‘this Diane person.’ She’s my fiancée, and I’m…” A jerk. That’s what I’d been. A big oaf and a jerk. That was why I knew about boxes big enough to hold punch bowls. It had been the first wedding present to arrive. And the last thing I broke before I walked out. I could still hear the shatter of the glass exploding on the tile, and the echo of the awful things we called each other. I felt like an idiot for leaving her to clean up the mess.

“And?”

“Nothing.” I slumped down more. At least the phone had stopped ringing. That was creeping me out.

“Say you’re sorry.”

“Fine. I’m sorry, Bertie. I’m sorry I’m sucking all the fun out of your bus ride.”

“No. Say it to Diane.”

“I don’t… I don’t know if she’s even interested in hearing it.”

“I see. You didn’t call first.”

“I tried. Sort of. And I’d ask to borrow your phone, but I don’t think Bertie is finished with it yet.”

She laughed. “I guess I was wrong about the sense of humor. But I was a little bit right about you.” She made a sweeping motion with one hand. “You thought you’d just ride into town like a knight on horseback and surprise her. The grand romantic gesture.”

“Kinda. Sorta.” I tapped a finger against my leg. “Just. You know. Hypothetically. If I was going to do something like that, what should I do?”

“You could bring a nice gift, for starters. Then just say you’re sorry and tell her how you feel. Easy as pie.”

Not so easy. Not the way I’d left. She had every right not to answer the door. She had every right not to marry a big oaf who—

“There ya go, thinking too much. I can almost smell it.”

Then I didn’t feel much like talking anymore, either. We didn’t speak for the rest of the trip, and when we came to a stop at the Albany station, I took the box from her lap and turned toward the aisle.

I got up to let her exit ahead of me. Then I saw Diane. Through the window on the other side of the bus. I saw her standing in the small knot of people waiting by the door. I couldn’t take my eyes from her delicate face, as if she were an exotic flower poking out of the weeds. Passengers started streaming out. I tried to stay out of their way, but my eyes were glued to that window. Like we were back in junior high and I was seeing her for the first time—a heart-thumping dream with her long red hair and turned-up nose and cute little cheerleader skirt—while the big football jock I’d been felt as weak as a baby.

“She’s lovely,” the woman said, and nudged my arm. “Go talk to her.”

“But I don’t have a gift…”

“Oh, yes you do.”

I glanced at the box in my arms. Bertie? And her cell phone? I turned to tell her that she must have been crazy, but she’d already left. Maybe I could still catch up to her. I grabbed my pack and hustled off the bus. She was nowhere. I never thought she could move that fast. And how could she just leave Bertie—?

But then Diane was there, her green eyes staring up at me, and I couldn’t move at all. All I could think was what an idiot I’d been and that I’d do anything to fix this.

“What’s that?” she said.

Oh. The box. “I don’t know… There was this old lady from the bus…” Nope. Nowhere. Maybe I should have gone to lost and found inside the station, see if—

“But my name’s on it.” She gave me a little teasing grin. “Maybe you’re still a little drunk from last night. Eddie told me about your phone.”

I looked down again. And, indeed, “Diane” was written on the wrapping paper. With a heart around it. When did she—? “No, I’m, uh, fine.”

She hooked her arm through mine. “Hon, you’re looking a little pale. You want to go somewhere and get a cup of coffee and talk?”

I nodded. More than anything, I wanted to talk to her. Or at least try. I let her lead me to the diner across the street, a favorite of ours. She ordered us some coffee and before I could protest she had the box on the table and started opening it like a kid at Christmas. My heart was hammering and I wanted to stop her but what could I say? No, it’s not for you? That some crazy old lady left her husband’s ashes in there with her cell phone and wrote your name on the wrapping, maybe while I was daydreaming and maybe—

It was a punch bowl. My throat went dry. That old lady was nuts. Or I was. Maybe I was still drunk. I gulped my water, buying a moment for some kind of excuse. She’d put Bertie’s ashes in a punch bowl? But the box hadn’t been nearly heavy enough…

As she opened the top, I glanced up, preparing to say—I had no idea what. But she was smiling.

“It’s perfect,” she said. And took it out so I could see. No ashes. No cell phone. Just a bowl. “It’s acrylic.” She tapped a polished nail against it. “Unbreakable.”

Unbreakable. How the heck did she know about… “Unbreakable?”

“Yeah.” She turned it around in her Tinkerbell-delicate fingers. “This was the one Aunt Mary was supposed to have sent. Kinda glad you broke it, tell you the truth. If people would only use the registry. I specifically picked out things that weren’t so…fragile.”

“You picked…” But half my brain was still thinking about my seat mate. Damn, why hadn’t I even asked her name? Now all I wanted to do was thank her. “Did you see a little old lady get out of the bus, maybe a few people before me? Tiny thing, blue eyes, white hair…she’d been sitting next to me by the window all the way up.”

Diane’s mouth softened. “I watched your bus come into the lot, circle around and park. Nobody was sitting next to you that I saw.”

Nobody was sitting… She was tiny, but she wasn’t that tiny.

Diane pressed her cool, pretty hand over mine and gave me a patient smile. “Maybe you are still a little drunk, hon. Come on, let’s go back to my house and you can take a nap and I’ll put this with the rest of the incredibly unbreakable gifts and we can talk later.”

I nodded dumbly and picked up the bowl. I didn’t even like punch. Maybe I could learn to.

Silent Night: Flash Fiction

I did not want to be afraid. It was a beautiful evening, not so very cold, and the snow fell in tiny shimmering flakes, just like the first Christmas that Mama Svetlana and I lived in New York. She had taken a break from cooking in her restaurant and we saw the big tree in Rockefeller Center, all lit up and shining. But there was no tree this year. It was no longer allowed. By order of the government, there were to be no lights other than those that were absolutely necessary for public safety. Lights made for crowds which made for tempting targets, or this is what they claimed. So as I walked home, all I had was the snow. And a terrible feeling that I had been followed. I saw nothing, nobody out of the ordinary. Perhaps it was my imagination. Still, Mama Svetlana says that if I feel afraid, and she is out of town, to come to the restaurant and ask one of the men to walk me back to the apartment.

I knew all the men there. From the busboys to the waiters to the Russian businessmen who always took up the round table in the back corner and talked of things that I was not supposed to be hearing. But I happened to arrive when Alexey the dishwasher was due for a break, so he threw on his jacket and said, “I walk you, da?”

I nodded and followed him out. I felt comfortable around Alexey. Not just because he was big and could look intimidating. Or because he was good-looking with nice blue eyes but not so handsome as to make me nervous. But because he was only a few years older than me, and like me, his English was also not very good. So I did not feel the pressure to make conversation. He would always see me not just to the building but up to the apartment door and sometimes inside, to make sure it was safe. I thought that excessive, but gentlemanly, and I offered him tea or a snack, because that is what Mama Svetlana would have wanted me to do for a guest in our home. Usually he would decline, fumbling through enough English for me to feel reassured that it was because he had to get back to the restaurant, and not because I was a burden to him.

That evening, he accepted a cup of tea and some butter cookies that I had baked the night before. They were my favorite. And, it seemed, his too. Soon, though, he made his excuses, and when he reached for his coat, I saw the handle of a gun sticking out of the inside pocket.

I nearly dropped my teacup and pointed toward the firearm. “You need a gun to walk me home?”

“Is not safe,” he said, looking almost apologetic—for the political situation in New York, for the secret immigration police that pulled up in their black SUVs and took people away. Like our neighbor, Mrs. Gonzalez, and her three children.

“But I am legal,” I said. Mama Svetlana had adopted me in London, and we had the proper paperwork to live and work in the US. Even though she had not renounced her Russian citizenship and I… Well, I was not quite sure where I stood. My father was Austrian and my mother a Syrian refugee. But what more ideal kind of American than one who carried the genes of so many civilizations?

He cleared his throat, shifted his eyes left then right as if deciding what and how to tell me. “You are daughter of Russian woman with powerful friends,” he explained. “You make target.” That silenced me. My heart was doing circus tricks, along with my stomach. I thought I might throw up. Then he put his hand over mine. “I not say this to scare you, Anya. I say this so you pay attention.”

That made me angry, and I pulled my posture up straighter. “I don’t pay attention? I have been paying attention my entire life.” I told him what it had been like to grow up in a country in which it was not safe to be a Middle Eastern refugee. I told him about how my parents had died. How Mama Svetlana had adopted me as her own. I even told him what I heard at the restaurant, that some of Mama Svetlana’s friends—the Russian businessmen—have been talking about a plot to undermine the American government and one of them went on in quite some detail about how it could be done. Alexey listened to my barrage of English—very patiently—but when I talked about the Russian businessmen, his eyes iced over.

“You should not listen to these men,” he said. “They are fools with not much better to do with their time.”

I felt afraid again. Of the tone in Alexey’s voice. Of the men. Of the horrible things they had said. Even if they were fools.

Perhaps Alexey saw that on my face, and he pressed a warm hand to my cheek. “Do not let them scare you, Anya. Everything will be fine. Everything will be…as it should be.”

I wanted to bathe in his reassurances, but a shiver went through my body just the same.

We made a bargain that evening. While the lights were out and the snow came down and he ate the rest of my butter cookies. He said he would keep me safe. He said he would not tell Mama Svetlana I had been eavesdropping. For giving me all of this, what he asked for in return was my silence.

I nodded. What else could I have done?

“You are good girl,” he said. “There is no reason to be afraid.”

Then he kissed my forehead, transferred the gun to his front coat pocket, and left.

I peeked through the blinds and watched him disappear into the snowy night. Despite what he had said, I felt more afraid than ever. This time, for all of us.

Hartford: Flash Fiction

The hamster could be dead for all she knew. She longed to unzip her coat and check the coffee can for signs of life, because it was cold as hell in Hartford with an icy mix of snow and sleet peppering her face and neck and finding the gaps between her sneakers and socks. But she was afraid that if she stopped to look, either she’d find a dead hamster or a very live one that might escape and die from exposure. Or she’d end up murdered by some vagrant in the switching yards at two in the morning. Even before she’d had this thought of the hamster he’d given her—who gives someone a rodent for Christmas without even asking?—her boyfriend had been a good twenty yards ahead of her, head down, hands in his pockets, loping along like he went for long walks through the snow every night. Now he was even farther, a dark blur in the distance. She hurried to catch up, called his name but he didn’t answer. He was angry, and that’s what he did when he was angry. As if it were her fault he’d read the bus schedule wrong and there were no connections to Boston on holidays. As if it were her fault the only hotel in reasonable walking distance didn’t have any vacancies and the less-reasonable one was two miles from the bus station and the cab company didn’t answer their phone. As if the fate of the hamster were her fault, too. Again, she called his name. He stopped. Turned.

“You’re slow, woman.” He sounded like his father.

“It’s cold,” she said.

Even his grin looked like his father’s. Mean around the edges. “Then walk faster.”

He started telling her a story. No apologies for his silence, for ignoring her. The stories always had dragons in them, and princesses, and he pulled them out of his pocket to pass the time while they waited for buses, or during the long stretches when they were hitchhiking and no cars would come along. This was one she’d heard before, about a princess who ends up rescuing the dragon, and he’d told it to her the night they’d first met. It charmed her, then. But it was cold and late and while the charm was wearing thin, she didn’t have the courage to face the silence. He stretched the story out for the rest of the walk, disappeared while she laid her credit card down for the room, began a new tale in the creaky elevator ride up to their floor.

Her Christmas present was still alive. But something inside her wasn’t. The right words never seemed to come when he shone his blue eyes and stories on her. Only while he slept was there room for her. In repose his mouth turned into a scowl, exactly like his father’s. When he fell asleep that night, in a hotel room she couldn’t afford, she started what would be a series of notes, first to herself and finally to him, in which the princess rescues herself. And the hamster.

November Giveaway

Hi, everyone! I promised you a giveaway after the World Series and here it is. And I’ve brought friends!

Free Kindle Books and Tips (FKBT) is working with eNovel Authors at Work to put on a great giveaway of signed print editions (USA & Canada only, sorry) of the following books:

In addition to the books, two lucky winners will win a Fire HD10 tablet and a Kindle Paperwhite. Excellent e-thingies to read your books on.

The giveaway will run until November 27.

Go here to enter: http://fkbt.com/2017/11/13/time-big-november-giveaway/

 

Day of the Dead: Flash Fiction

A visit to a neighbor’s house and an offering in the dark inspired this piece, which I wrote for this week’s 2-Minutes-Go. There’s some lovely writing going on. Maybe you’ll want to visit…read, comment, write. However the spirit moves you.

—–

The night is dark and cold, the full moon hidden behind a bank of clouds, and the glow in the distance calls to you. You are so weary, and the warm light is a beacon for your sorrow, a balm for your loss, a sleepwalker’s companion. Pinpricks of dancing candle flames form the arms of the cross extending to the walls of the shrine. You are late to the offerings; the shelter is quite full. You remember coming here before, and what you brought. You lit a candle for her, called her name, set down a small token that reminded you of her. Almost by rote you left your house on the first night of the Day of the Dead with something of hers in your pocket. A dried blossom, a poem, a picture she would have found amusing. Tonight you have nothing, because everything of her is now gone. You think of what you could have brought. The romance novel she urged you to read, every time you visited. The nail polish bottles she insisted you take, although you never wore it. All gone now. The house isn’t even there anymore. But this shrine is. It’s quiet; too late for visitors. You’ve always come late, to have your privacy, to say the things you never had the courage to before. A different thought is on your lips this night as you approach. “You want to know why I left him.” Silence. The candles flicker. There are no answers. At least, there are no good answers. No undoing what has been done. You can now only hope for forgiveness, and that he might find something good enough about life to continue. Maybe he too felt the tug to return to this place, and you scan the offerings for remembrances he may have brought. There are photos of people you don’t recognize. Tiny Bibles and teddy bears and… You bring a hand to your neck. The strand of pink-tinted fake pearls you once adored lay among some drawings you remember giving him, the copy of The Velveteen Rabbit you loved until it was nearly falling apart and…a wedding ring. Yours. The anguish scares you backward, out of the sheltering walls, and you wail into the night.

Olga

Growing up in a tiny village on the Russian steppes, where sometimes not even the wheat would grow, left Olga little to feel hopeful for, but when the odd, small airplane fell from the sky, its cargo still intact owing to some engineering genius, she felt like the God she had not been allowed to believe in had smiled upon her.

She looked left, then right, then up into the partly cloudy afternoon. The only witnesses to what had just happened were the hawks that circled overhead, hoping to swoop down for a rodent tempted by the scatter of wheat gone to seed. She snuck up on the wreck, knelt before it, breath held as if some alien being would burst out and consume her.

But it made no noise. There were some markings on the broken craft that she didn’t understand, some crooked letters that didn’t look like the Cyrillic her uncle had taught her. Similar markings were duplicated on the padded carton attached to the device. Curiosity overwhelmed her caution, and she used the end of her scythe to remove the packaging first from the metal framework and then to open the box itself.

She sat back on her heels, unsure of what to make of the second box fitted into a crumpled nest of paper. There was a picture on the box—pretty people staring at a screen and looking happy, and she didn’t know what to make of that either. It was nothing like their old television set. But somehow an instinct told her that one, this thing that had dropped from the sky was something magical; and two, it was something she wanted to run inside and show her uncle.

He was fixing a window in the living room, and in the background droned the one channel they could receive on their tiny old television. His eyebrows rose at the sight of her bursting into the house, for she was normally a quiet girl who did not slam doors. Breathlessly she pushed the box toward him and told him what had happened, and after a moment he relieved her of her burden and set it on the table.

But he didn’t look happy.

“Uncle, what is it?” He had been in the army before settling down to farm, before her mother took sick and sent her to live with him, and he knew far more about the world than she did. “And why did it crash in the field?”

“You left it out there?” He stood up suddenly, frowning. Before she could answer he was on his feet and heading for the door. “Then you will help me,” he said over his shoulder. “And we will tell no one about this. No one, do you hear me?”

Her throat constricted, so she could only nod as she followed him out.

They made quick, silent work of carrying the mangled plane into the shed, of breaking it into pieces. She was afraid to ask why they were doing this, afraid of his tight mouth and narrowed eyes. He sent her to her room when they returned, and when she was called down for supper, the small, magic box was nowhere to be seen.

“I got rid of it,” he said finally. “It’s for the best. Beware of these new devices, Olga. You are a very special girl, and we don’t want them to find you.”

The Council: Flash Fiction

The five men entered the exclusive club through the back door and did not need to be introduced nor shown the way to their private room. Each man’s drink of choice arrived moments after he sat down. One Diet Coke, one frosty draft, one sweet tea, one decaf, one vodka martini. The greetings were more somber, the smiles slower. Prior meetings had been, if not happier, at least more convivial occasions. The men would compare experiences and gray hairs, ask after each other’s families, show off pictures of grandchildren, suggest ways they could help raise money for disaster relief in poor countries. But this was not one of those meetings. This was a problem that the Council had tackled only once in their long and storied history, but these members had never faced it before.

Each lifted his glass in a silent toast. The first sip a kind of ceremony. Slow, calculating, bracing. When all the beverages were back on the table, the eldest—by only four months—spoke, his quiet crackle of a voice and decades of experience commanding the room, making them lean closer to hear.

“Thank you for coming. Assume you’ve received and read your briefing packages.”

The men nodded.

“Knew you would have, just wanted to confirm. Based on that, our prior conversations between and among, and the grave situation we are facing, thought it might be prudent for us to sit down and get on the same page.”

The men nodded.

“And want to add first, you two”—he waved a wizened, liver-spotted hand toward the draft of beer and the sweet tea—“excellent job speaking out. Know it’s not everyone’s wheelhouse to even whisper publicly about the new guy, but appreciate that you did. Kind of softens the target.”

The man behind the draft beer looked especially pained.

“Yes, Forty-four. Is there something you’d like to say?”

The tall, elegantly dressed man cleared his throat. “I’m as concerned as all of you,” he said. “And maybe for a few reasons, I have more call to be—with the exception of Forty-two, I can imagine.”

Forty-two, the ruddy man behind the Diet Coke, waved a hand. “No worries, brother. I wasn’t crazy about being back in that fishbowl again, know what I mean?”

Forty-four nodded, with a wry half-smile, and continued, gesturing toward the packet in front of him. “But pulling this trigger—literally, pulling this trigger–seems a little extreme. I was hoping we could achieve a more tenable outcome if we work at it from the inside. We still have connections in high places. Operation Twenty-five looked like a viable option. I do believe that our founding fathers, in their foresight and wisdom, would have thought that amendment to be a necessary failsafe, in the event. And I do think, and I think we are all in agreement, that this is, without a doubt, an event.”

“Yes, we can definitely agree about the importance of action,” Thirty-nine said, his voice a mere wisp with a Southern accent. “But I fear the damage he could do in the time it would take to invoke the twenty-fifth.” He tapped the folder. “And we are all running out of time. So it is my reluctant but necessary call that we go forward.”

Forty-three gave Forty-one the side eye. “And that injector gizmo in the Oval Office chair…it really will look like a heart attack?”

Forty-one raised a brow at his son. “That’s what J. Edgar Hoover told me.”

Silence fell over the table, and one by one, the men nodded.

Off the Grid: Flash Fiction

My work boots crunch over the trail, navigating exposed roots and rocks and branches. The crickets and cicadas sing alternating choruses, joined by birdsong and the rush of the swollen creek and the everpresent background duet of chainsaws and helicopters. I hear that sound in my dreams, an earworm I can’t shake—whine, chop-chop; whine, chop-chop—as I eat my cold breakfasts and grimace at over-sweetened cups of instant coffee and sponge myself semi-clean with a rationed bit of water and a stiff, old washcloth. Chainsaws. Everywhere. Cutting apart the trees that toppled over in the last storm—blocking roads, ripping down power lines, crushing cars and roofs and whatever unfortunate things happened to be in their paths.

I fear my uncle might be one of those unfortunate things. I walk faster.

He knew this was coming. The crazy weather, the longer and longer stretches we’d have to go without electricity. “One day,” he said, pouring me warmed brandy while we sat in front of a fire on a frosty evening, when I was not old enough to legally drink. “One day all that”—he waved in the general direction of the nearest town and beyond it the city where I lived with my nuclear family—“will be gone. Collapsed under its own hubris, terrorist target, whatever. We’ll all be living like this, off the grid. No texting. No cell phones. No goddamn twenty-four-seven-everything-you-want. Someone’s gotta be the wise old fool that teaches you kids how to get on with it.”

Like he’d shown me—where to find clean water, how long to boil it if it isn’t, what plants you can eat and which can be used medicinally. The last time I saw him—over a weekend when I told my parents I’d be hiking with a girlfriend and her family—he took me hunting. He prefers a bow. It takes more skill, makes less noise, and won’t poison the groundwater with lead. He took down a small buck and showed me how to dress it. He made me promise not to tell my mother; certainly if she knew that I’d not only lied to her about where I was going but helped kill a deer, she would never permit me to leave the house again. At home, she pretends my uncle doesn’t exist. There is no talk of her younger brother; any mention of her childhood includes him only peripherally and with a quick change to another subject. Like he’s been committed to life in prison or did something equally mortifying.

I’ll never dare tell her of my visits. Or that he taught me how to shoot that bow and also how to skin a woodchuck. I can’t help a smile at the memory. He was proud of me for not being “all squeamish like a girly-girl.”

I walk faster. The chainsaws and helicopters whine-chop off into the distance.

To get to him on a normal weekend, I have to ride the subway to the end of the line, hop a bus, then hike three miles from the road up to his place. But the storm has rendered many of the roads impassable; the train tracks also have to be cleared of trees and debris, so it’s taking some effort and detours and waiting to even get to the foot of his driveway.

Now I’m half-drenched with sweat and feeling a little lightheaded despite the stale granola and two small bottles of water I swiped from the pantry.

I stop to listen. A chainsaw—the new state bird, my father joked—buzzed from the right. Not from his house.

I walk faster. I try to trick myself into believing he’s okay. That eventually I’ll smell woodsmoke and breakfast cooking. That he’ll greet me with his big easy tobacco-stained smile and hook one flannel-wrapped arm around my neck and ask about my folks and what lie I told them this time.

This time? I told them nothing. Dad was fiddling with the generator and Mom had gone out trolling for supplies.

I figured they’d never miss me, and if they did, I’d say I was helping the neighbors.

My heart pounds as I get close enough to see what happened. There is no woodsmoke. No breakfast cooking. All I can smell is pine. Fresh and sharp, like the tree—and his house—never saw it coming. I sprint the rest of the way, calling his name. No answer. Calling again. No answer. Then I hear it. A small, repetitive rasp that chews on my already tweaked nerves. And something like…whistling.

I nearly faint when I find him in the shed out back. Where we dressed the deer, the woodchuck. He is sitting at his workbench, sharpening the blade of his axe with a file. Whistling something that sounds like “Go Tell it on the Mountain.” He squints up at me and grins.

“Had a look at that tree, did you?”

I can only nod.

“Well, stick around and we’ll show it what for.”