One and Only, Chapter 4 (the rest of it)

Okay. Here we are. The last of chapter 4 in my ongoing serial novel ONE AND ONLY. You can read previous chapters (and the other sections of chapter 4) right here. Getting chapter 4 right was a real bear! I think that’s because it’s a big turning point in the story. A moment where separate threads start to come together.

The clip above is from what, in my opinion, is the most explosive two minutes of television. Not just wrestling television, but ALL television. It’s a breaking point in one of my favorite slow-burn heel turns in wrestling. Bret Hart, after being screwed out of the championship multiple times, loses his mind on pretty much everyone, shoving promoter Vince McMahon and saying “shit” on network television in the process. It all ends with a brawl between four of the promotion’s top stars at the time. The goal was to build excitement for the pay-per-view for the following weekend, Wrestlemania 13.

That’s not what I’m doing here. I won’t end this chapter with a prompt to buy the rest of the book if you want to see what happens next, though I admit that I considered it. What I am thinking about is big buildups that lead to the next act. I think that’s where we are here.

Let’s do a quick recap. Mason (who’s scenes thus far are in the first person) has unknowingly brought his girlfriend back from the dead. It’s his fault she’s dead and though he performed a necromancy ritual, he’s still sure that he failed. His late girlfriend Marybeth has indeed come back from the dead, and she’s not alone. Something monstrous has overtaken her. Because dead girls make for bad hosts, this same monstrous thing has now jumped into the body of Caroline, a friend of Mason’s, after dispatching two police officers and three of Caroline’s friends. One of those murdered friends is Amber, sister to indie wrestler Aldous the Blade, who’s just won the championship and wants to know where his sister is. Things are about to come to a head, folks, and this big confrontation will lead us into the second part of the story. The underworld portion, if you’re following Dan Harmon’s story circle, I guess.

4

Mason’s father was having a very bad night. He was having a very bad week. Hell, it was more than that. He was having a very bad second act. While the little girl playing on the race track that he’d built on the living room floor earlier that night gave him plenty of reason to be grateful, the void left by the death of his wife made its presence known more times a day than he could count. On top of that, he now had to worry about Mason. That boy was losing his mind as far as Miles Bell was concerned. The worst part was he couldn’t exactly blame the poor guy.

Yes, losing Donna to cancer was a real gut punch. But he saw it coming. Something about adulthood helps you expect bad shit to happen. You learn that you’ll soon know more dead people than living. At Mason’s age, though, shit like what happened to Marybeth just wasn’t supposed to happen. Still, he wasn’t exactly crazy about how Mason had handled it. Digging up her corpse? Performing some half-assed ritual? What the hell was all that? He knew his boy was weird, but there was weird and there was… whatever Mason was. Bizarre? Unhinged? Sick? He didn’t care to think of his son in those terms at all.

Most days, he felt like completely falling apart, but then he looked down at little Sheila. Running her little Hot Wheels around the racetrack. Making all kinds of cute coos and sighs. Occasionally looking back at him with the most loving expression. A deep love embodied there that he just didn’t feel like he’d earned.

Life could be beautiful, even in spite of the pain. Even in spite of … he cast a glance at the stairwell. He shifted in his seat and fought the urge to check on Mason again.

5

I had to go on foot. It was a lot slower than driving and a hell of a lot slower than astral projection. But still, I could feel the earth under my feet, the vibrations of its resistance. The worst part was I didn’t even know exactly where I was going. I had to stick to side roads and dark wooded paths. When I found what I was looking for, I wished I hadn’t.

One corpse, blackened and still smoking, lay in the middle of the trail. It smelled like overcooked hamburger. Another lay beside it. It was a girl I recognized. One of the twins, Farrah or Felicity. Her neck was bent at an unnatural angle, all the way backwards, so that the back of her head was nearly flush with the skin between her shoulder blades. Her eyes were frozen open in an expression of agonized horror. Her hands were claws, clutching for a life that had long ago left.

I got the awful notion that this was all somehow my fault. I had no proof. It was just a feeling, but it was a strong feeling. It felt like knowledge. Was this what religious people meant when they talked about faith? A strange certainty contrary to evidence? It was this unproven certainty that kept me from calling police. I’d be in deep shit if they so much as suspected my hand in this. I wasn’t sure how they could, but I was sure they would.

I scanned my surroundings. My heartbeat accelerated like the fist of a frustrated door knocker. I saw nothing in the darkness save for gray outlines of trees, but I knew I wasn’t alone. Someone had killed these two poor girls. I glanced down at the still smoking body. Whatever did this couldn’t be too far away.

I checked my phone and saw I wasn’t too far from the road. Spooked out of my mind, I headed for it. At least beside the road, I wouldn’t have dense woods on all sides. Deep shadows from which anything could jump out at me. No room to run.

When I reached the road, my feet stuttered to a stop. The wreckage of Caroline’s car lay before me. It looked like someone had smashed it like a beer can on the head of a frat boy. My guts plummeted. My pulse throbbed between my ears, heavy and sounding so much larger than something that could possibly be contained inside me. I felt the sight of my friend’s crashed car in my neck and shoulders. It weighed me down so heavily that my legs buckled, and I could hardly breathe. My hands and knees pressed into the pavement. I hardly felt the pain.

The sounds of approaching footsteps broke through the numbing despair. They belonged to an imposing shape.

6

Aldous “The Blade” Armstrong approached the broken-looking kid kneeling beside the smashed-up car. He still wore the championship belt around his waist. He still stunk and his blood was still up from the match with Trashcan. The sight before him made him shake. He recognized the car but didn’t want to believe his instincts. It was Caroline’s car. Amber’s friend Caroline. Where the hell was Amber?

He thought he recognized the kid as he walked past but didn’t take time to look closer. More than anything, he wanted to check the car. Make sure no one was inside. The way it was all wrecked, he didn’t think anyone could’ve survived whatever had happened.

The kneeling kid was whispering something Aldous couldn’t make out. He tried to ignore it, but the sound of it skittered across his brain like so many spiders. He looked about the car, the repeated whispers never stopping. The frame was bent and twisted. All the glass was blown out. Across the mangled hood, something dark glistened in the moonlight.

“Jesus,” he muttered. He turned to the distraught kid. “What happened?”

The kid didn’t look up. He just kept whispering nonsense. Aldous used the toe of his boot to nudge the kid in the forearm.

“Hey, kid.”

The kid looked up. Aldous definitely recognized him. Went to Amber’s school. Miles or Manny or something. Or maybe Jason. Mason? His eyes were wide and jerky. His lips were moving, but he’d stopped speaking. After looking Aldous over, he frowned.

“What are you supposed to be?”

Aldous was taken aback by the comment at first, then remembered he was still wearing his gear.

“I’m a wrestler. I came from a show. What happened here?”

The kid’s confusion faded. Even in the darkness, Aldous see the color drain from the kid’s face.

“I don’t know. They’re all dead.”

Something squeezed the Blade’s heart.

“Who? Who’s dead?”

The kid pointed behind him.

“Two girls. Back in the woods.”

“Who? Do you know them?”

“Twins. Farrah and Felicia or something. And this car … it belongs to my friend Caroline.”

“Jesus fuck. Was there another girl with them? Amber?”

“I don’t know,” the kid said, sounding like he had glass in his throat.

“Fuuuuck,” Aldous said. He ran for the woods, leaving the kid, broken by the road.

7

I didn’t have the will to follow the wrestler into the woods. I hardly had the will to rise to my feet. What a coward. What a fucking joke. I had it in me to shove my girlfriend off Sunset Cliffs. I had it in me to try bringing her back from the dead. And I couldn’t bring myself to do anything now. Something was very wrong here and it went beyond a bad car wreck. The inkling that this was somehow my fault had become an absolute certainty by this point.

I shifted and slumped. Faced the woods. There was nothing there to see, but it beat staring at the wreckage of Caroline’s car. I didn’t like the way the blood shimmered on the ruined hood. I didn’t like how fucked up the car was despite no sign of impact. Maybe it was a hit and run, but all sorts of alarm bells were going off in my head telling me this was something so much more. Something big and monstrous.

I peered into the darkness. The trees stood like towering, gray skeletons, their branches like witch’s claws. I could no longer hear the wrestler’s footsteps leading away from me. I wondered if he’d reached the bodies yet.

That was Amber’s older brother. I’d heard a little about him. Amber was kind of a bitch most of the time, but I didn’t want her to get hurt. I didn’t want anyone to get hurt. If only I’d been able to bring Marybeth back… maybe I could bring back everyone who’d died tonight. Maybe … maybe … maybe …

From deep in the woods, I heard a scream. It seemed to go on forever. It grew louder and louder. Whoever was screaming was headed my way. And fast.

The body flew by me. It flew like a projectile of hard flesh. It crashed into Caroline’s car and plopped to the pavement beside me. It was the wrestler. He lay there twitching and bleeding from the mouth.

“Oh God, oh God, oh God…”

I faced the woods, unable to look at the dead wrestler. Even though I was afraid to see whatever had done that to him, I couldn’t tear my eyes away. I had to see. This was why people in horror movies didn’t run right away: they didn’t really believe what was coming. They didn’t even really know what was coming. I sure as fuck didn’t and I couldn’t move because I had to see it. I had to see it to believe and I hoped that I’d believe in time to run.

When it came for me, it wasn’t what I expected.

It was Caroline. She was levitating, her feet three inches from the ground. Her eyes were glowing electric blue and her hair was blowing back though there was no breeze. I spoke her name. Her features twisted and she cocked her head.

“Oh,” she said. “You must mean this body. Why don’t you try looking closer?”

“What?”

“You never were a smart one, were you?”

The levitating fiend groaned and then something happened which I can’t possibly explain but I fucking swear to you it happened. Caroline split into two. From the top of her head to her genitals, she tore herself apart, but before I knew it, after much bulging and twisting and churning, she reformed herself into two women. Caroline stood on the right and a half-liquified corpse stood on the left. When the girls spoke, they spoke as one.

“It’s me,” they said. “Your one and only.”

Turned out I was a necromancer after all.

Some Updates

Yesterday, I was messed up on allergy medication, and I recorded this embarrassing video. I’m slurring bad and rambling, but at least I practiced talking in front of a camera? Yeah, there’s the bright spot. You have to find those positives.

I went to see my buddy Shane McKenzie last night. He laid some very exciting news on me about a film he wrote. I can’t divulge everything, so all I’ll say is it’s about to go into production with one of my favorite character actors attached. I’m happy for him. Dude works harder than anyone I know, myself included.

I’m almost finished reading Kenzie Jennings’ RED STATION. It’s part of Death’s Head Press’ popular Splatter Western line and a ton of fun. Kenzie has a lean style and doesn’t shy away from the nasty stuff. You can grab that book here.

Writing has been slow this week due to the aforementioned side effects of allergy meds. I started to hit my stride again last night, so hopefully that trend continues today. I’d like to get a new chapter of ONE AND ONLY up on Monday. Plus, I’ll be jumping back on the Wesley Southard collaboration soon.

White Trash Occultism, the new video podcast with friends Kelby Losack and J. David Osborne has been getting some nice traction. You can watch the first episode here. Episode 2 will be up Tuesday morning.

This weekend will be spent finishing up the new chapter of ONE AND ONLY and commencing my next section on the Wesley Southard collab. Like a shark, I must keep swimming, and speaking of Wes and sharks, he’s got a new book out called CRUEL SUMMER that looks like a wild ride. You can grab it here.

That’s it for today, gang. As always, thanks for reading.

Galaxies Within Us

I spent this morning catching up on newsletters from authors I follow. If you’re not sure I’m subscribed to yours, feel free to drop a link in the comments. I promise to at least check it out. Developed, long-form thoughts are so much more appealing to me than bite-sized hot takes. While I’ve felt increasingly alienated from the scene to which I’ve belonged for ten years now, there are some folks who I know are intelligent, interesting and kind. I’d like to keep up with them.

My newsletter is more or less dead in the water. Maybe fixing that’s a 2022 resolution. I’ve made enough for 2021. Sure, we’re scared still and 2020’s aftershocks are still being felt, but as I stated yesterday, I’m onto the next one. All about leveling up. Bearing my torch through all darkness and lighting little fires along the way.

This past week, I did a few things that were outside my comfort zone and (in some cases) outside my normal realm of interests. I started learning how to code at Free Code Camp. New skills are important, especially in the gig economy we’re increasingly moving toward. Sure, it doesn’t have anything to do with writing and that’s okay, or maybe it does and I don’t see it yet. Still, I’m growing. Leveling up. Evolving.

I also started studying & investing in the stock market. Dry stuff, from my outsider perspective, BUT I will say there is a feeling I get watching my money grow. A feeling I used to get from likes on social media, but so much more beneficial, in my opinion. Something that means having the means to take care of my own.

I also recorded a vidcast (is that a word? a video podcast) with Kelby Losack and J David Osborne. While chatting with those two is not outside my comfort zone at all (in fact, I feel like I can be my genuine self around them), recording that conversation and putting it up for the world to see is another matter entirely. I pride myself on being real as fuck, but I’ve always been hesitant to do ALL my thinking in public because I worry about sounding crazy or insensitive half the time. The show will go up on Tuesday morning. It’s called White Trash Occultism. Links will follow once it’s posted.

Progress on ONE AND ONLY is moving along nicely. Chapter 3 will be up here tomorrow morning. You can read Chapter 1 here and Chapter 2 here. I kind of know where it’s all going, at least the part of it that I’m calling ONE AND ONLY. See, I didn’t show my hand before, but it’s 5 am on a Sunday and I’m feeling froggy. I’m working on three novellas that will actually be one novel. ONE AND ONLY will probably conclude around Valentine’s Day. It’s sequel will commence the following week and wrap up around June. The third part will wrap around Halloween. This is intended as a year long, public project. A chance to work out loud, offer early access, and think on a larger scale. Once it concludes, I’ll edit and collect them into a physical edition you can purchase.

I used to think of writing as THE thing I do. It’s time to think of it as A thing I do. We’re complicated, and I think limiting ourselves to one vocation can be mentally and economically harmful. I am Lucas Mangum. I am not one thing. YOU are not one thing. Whole galaxies swirl within us.

Good morning.

Hitman

I finished reading HITMAN, the autobiography of Bret Hart, earlier this week. Those who will tolerate my talking about wrestling know that he was my favorite worker. Even when he turned heel in 1997, I still secretly wanted him to win. I recognized even then (I was 13) that the man was an artist. He knew how to tell stories. He had a way with words. His matches looked like real fights.

HITMAN came out in 2007 or 2008, but I put off reading it due to its length. Plus, I wasn’t really into wrestling at the time. I cycled out of it, going all in on musical endeavors from 2003 to 2010. I didn’t start watching wrestling again until 2015, and a lot of it started with revisiting some of Bret’s promos. Some critics say he was never a good talker, but I don’t know; he had a down-to-earth, working-class character that I always vibed with, and still do.

The book, at 546 pages, is quite a doorstop, and it spans his life from a childhood growing up with eleven siblings and a wrestling promoter father to the unceremonious end of his career after a botched kick to the head from Goldberg.

I’ve talked at length with Kelby Losack and J. David Osborne about spoilers and that we kinda, not so secretly, love them. In a memoir of a wrestler whose career I’ve followed, spoilers were inevitable. I knew how it would all end. I knew his little brother Owen would die in a terrible in-ring stunt. I knew all about the Montreal Screwjob. I knew about the way Bret’s career would end.

And yet, I couldn’t stop reading. I honestly believe that a truly good artist could have the surprises in their work ruined without adversely affecting the enjoyment of the work.

HITMAN is such a book. Bret writes with the same down-to-earth, working-class sensibilities he brought to his wrestling persona. He writes with an honesty I long to see in everything I read.

I know that every time I talk about wrestling I alienate my audience, but seriously, if you want a well-written, heartbreaking and insightful book, you could do a hell of a lot worse than HITMAN.

Resolution # 3

No more mental health days. I took a lot of those last year, missing more time at the day job than I care to say. Sure, I had good reasons. My brain trying to kill me. Anxiety over our crumbling society. Anger at people on both sides of the political aisle. Sadness over sick and dying friends.

But I want to keep going. Doing the things I need to support myself and my family. This isn’t about pride or so-called toxic masculinity. This is about refusing to let them win. This is about living life the way I want to live it.

This is not to say that I will, going forward, neglect self-care. Quite the opposite. There are plenty of ways to take care of myself without fucking up my livelihood.

Walks after work with only an audiobook and my camera for company. Hitting the heavy bag. Taking care of my fish and the outdoor cat who visits almost daily. Meditative tarot readings. Blogging here every damn day.

The list goes on. I’ve got this. You’ve got this. Happy New Year.

One and Only, Chapter 2

One of my current books in progress is called ONE AND ONLY. It’s a horror story with a strong romantic element at its core. Think RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD 3 or FRANKENHOOKER. You can read the first chapter right here.

I’m posting the second chapter of ONE AND ONLY here. This afternoon on my Twitch channel, I will do a deep-dive into this chapter, breaking down my process sentence-by-sentence, and answering any questions you may have about the story, my currently available books, wrestling, or writing in general. Festivities start at 3 pm, central time.

After chatting with my friend J. David Osborne, I’ve been obsessing about the idea of early access to art (a common practice in video games, but very new in the world of fiction) and the growing interest in the meta-narrative behind creative content.

I’m a few chapters into this book. The goal is to post a new chapter each Monday morning and do a corresponding Twitch stream about each chapter in the afternoon. I hope you’ll join me.

TWO: CAROLINE

1

“Wake up, Marybeth.”

The speaker had an unfamiliar voice. She’d heard those three words many times before. From her parents. From her sisters. Once from a guidance counselor who said that she lived in a fantasy world. This one came from none of these people.  She thought then that maybe it had come from Mason, but that didn’t sound quite right. No, this voice belonged to someone new. So, who was it then?

Come to think of it: where was she? Someplace cold. Someplace dark.

Everything hurt like hell. Her eyelids felt like someone had tied weights to them.

She heard footsteps. Someone was coming.

“Wake up, Marybeth.”

That voice again, though maybe, she thought, not so unfamiliar. It had a buttery quality. It was soft, yet forceful. She tried to replay it in her mind as she lay there in the dark, aching, cold, and stiff.

“Wake up, Marybeth.”

This time, she felt her lips move when the voice spoke. She was the speaker. She was commanding herself to wake, but she didn’t want to! The place where she’d been before was … it wasn’t anything. It was a dreamless sleep. It was … She was dead.

Except, she wasn’t.

It all came flooding back to her. The confession to Mason on the cliff. The attempt at a kiss. The hate that flashed across his face before he shoved her over the edge. The fall. So much pain.

Her eyes flitted open. She was still somewhere dark and cold but was unconfined.

Was she in a field? Expecting pain, she was afraid to move.

The footsteps drew nearer. Became louder. Two sets of them. Men with flashlights. They stood over her. The younger of the two looked fresh out of high school, with his boyish features and slender build. His badge said his name was Olsen. She couldn’t tell if he was naturally as pale as he was now, or if the sight of her had drained the blood from his face. The older cop chuckled, sounding like a weasel. His badge said his name was Brandt.

“Necrophile’s night out, eh?” he said and elbowed Olsen in the ribs.

Olsen’s upper lip curled in disgust.

“Yeah, I guess so.”

“Kid, you want to be a cop, you’re gonna have to learn to have a sense of humor. Grow a set.”

“You’re such an ass.”

Brandt gave another weaselly chuckle.

“An ass who you report to, remember.” Olsen gave an uneasy nod. Brandt cocked his head and gave Marybeth a once over. “Pretty little thing, though.”

“Get up, Marybeth.” Her lips didn’t move, but she heard herself clear as HD sound. “Get up and kill them.”

What? No, I…

“I wasn’t asking.”

She felt herself rise like the light end of a seesaw. The two cops gasped. Brandt even cried out. It sounded girlish. With a glance around, she realized she was in a cemetery. She’d been buried alive. Or she’d died and somehow come back.

Olsen raised his hands.

“Ma’am, it’s going to be okay.”

She felt herself grin so widely that she thought the corners of her mouth might split.

“Jesus Christ,” Brandt muttered.

“Okay?” she heard herself ask. “I’ve never been better.”

She lifted one hand, spread the fingers to make a choking claw. Brandt lifted off his feet and slid through the air.

“Damn it, Olsen!” he yelled. “Help me!”

He fell into her grasp and she squeezed. He writhed, kicked his legs, and tried to pry her fingers free.

“Fucking shoot her or something,” he said in a strangled voice.

Olsen fumbled with his firearm. She held out her other hand, palm out. Olsen lifted off his feet, too, but unlike his partner, he sailed backwards. He smacked a thick oak, back-first. His limbs flopped, and he grunted. Marybeth made a fist. He floated forward several feet, stirring as he tried to regain control. She opened her palm again, and he flew back against the oak. This time, he went limp. She lowered her hand, and he collapsed in a heap of dead weight.

Brandt had given up on worming free. He had his gun drawn, pointing it at her in a shaky grip. She took a deep breath in. Brandt tried to steady his hand, reaching over her arm, using both hands. Pointing the barrel right at her face while she kept inhaling. While the air rushing into her grew stronger. While his face came with it. He screamed and dropped the gun when the flesh ripped free. He put his hands to the glistening red mask he now wore, sobbing in agony and disbelief. She let him fall to the ground. He was still screaming when she left the cemetery.

2

Caroline put on a sweater two sizes too big, tucked her blonde hair under her bicycle helmet, and pedaled out of her parents’ garage. She rode the bike out of her suburban neighborhood onto Sugar Bottom Road, which was heavily wooded. When she reached an unmarked dirt path, she turned onto it. The grinding hiss of the gravel under her tires broke through the Juice WRLD on her headphones. The woods were dark and cool, serene. She glanced over her shoulder to make sure no one had followed her.

Russell sat on the stoop of his trailer, clutching a tallboy of Pabst between his knees. A fire blazed inside a circle of stones. When he saw her, he nodded once and stood. She leaned her bike against an evergreen, took off her helmet, and approached him. They embraced. She put the side of her head against his chest and listened to his heartbeat. It was strong, like him. He slinked his fingers through her hair and guided her head so that she looked up at him. His eyes were like ash. His features sharp.

They kissed. Gently at first, then much harder. She could feel him growing against her and all the excitement and fear and need and guilt that came with their looming copulation. They pulled away from each other, holding only each other’s hands. He nodded toward the fire. He’d set up a blanket beside it. She smiled up at him and led him to it. They undressed. The fire felt warm on her naked skin as she pulled Russell on top of her.

When he entered her, she looked down between them, zeroed her focus on their perfect connection. How she made him glisten as he moved inside her. He began slowly. She lightly drew her nails down his back, stopping to squeeze his buttocks. He increased his rhythm and force. He smiled at the way she moaned, which she liked to see because she knew that meant she made him happy. She studied the veins that pulsed in his arms. The dark hair that hung in his eyes, swaying lightly. The fire hissed and crackled, its tongues curling around each log, making her warmer, making him warmer. As she watched the flames dance, she thought she might come this time. Something was building there. Something vibrant, tingly, and hot.

She rose her hips to meet him. He moaned his approval. Slid his hands under her butt. It didn’t last much longer after that. He finished a few seconds too soon, stopping her at the edge. She didn’t protest or ask him to help her along. She simply embraced him, holding him to her until he softened, imagining him melting into her, the two of them becoming one.

3

They disconnected, and everything felt cold. She wrapped herself in the blanket and scooted closer to the fire. He stepped into his pants and reentered his trailer to grab another PBR. When he returned, he brought over two camp chairs and sat in one of them. She saw he’d brought out two beers, too. He offered her one.

“No, I’m D.D. again tonight.”

He made a sound in his throat and smirked.

“What?” she asked.

“I wish you’d stay with me one of these nights.”

She moved from next to the fire and sat in the chair next to him, taking the blanket with her.

“One of these nights, I will,” she said and took his hand.

He took his hand away, downed half the first tallboy and grimaced. He picked up a rusty pole and stoked the fire. She watched him work, sparks and ash flying up all around him.

“You still love me?” she asked.

He looked over his shoulder at her, eyebrow cocked.

“Of course.”

“What about when I get old and gray?”

He set down the poker and knelt in front of her. He put his hands on her bare knees. They felt warm. She started to open for him again, but he applied enough pressure to hold her legs in place.

“I don’t love you because your young,” he said. “I love you because you’re real.”

She ran her fingers through his hair like she was petting a loyal dog.

“I don’t feel real sometimes.”

“You are though.”

“How do you know?”

“I just do.”

She just laughed. There was so much about her that he didn’t know. She reached over and took the half-drunk Pabst. She tilted the can, spilling its contents over and between her thighs, giggling at the liquid’s chilly touch. He stared up at her, eyes widened.

“Don’t want your precious beer to go to waste now, do you?” she asked.

He relented his grip, allowing her to open for him. Then, he lowered his head.

4

“Did you have a nice ride?” Caroline’s mother asked.

“Sure did!” Caroline said, giggling to herself at the double entendre.

She began to cross the living room to march upstairs.

“Gonna be around for dinner?”

“No, I’m going out with the girls.”

“Why am I not surprised?” her mother said with a laugh. “Your leftovers will be in the fridge.”

“Thanks, Mom.”

Caroline went upstairs to the bathroom. She got the water going hot and stepped under the spray to rinse off Russell, dirt, and smoke. As she washed herself, she thought she should probably tell him to stop coming inside her. Sure, she was on birth control, but there was no such thing as being too careful. The last thing she needed was a baby. Her parents would say she had too much going for her, but she didn’t know about all that. She did know that she was too young.

After her shower, she dressed in a form-fitting maroon sweater, mid-rise skinny jeans, and sneakers. She straightened her hair and sprayed herself with some Light Blue. When she tromped back downstairs, her mother stepped in front of her, holding a bowl of stew.

“Last call,” her mom said.

“No, thanks. Smells good though.”

She gave her mom a peck on the cheek and skipped through the front door toward her car. The blue Ford Fusion had been a gift from her parents upon her acceptance to ASU. She had no intention of going.

5

First, she picked up Amber who lived in a neighborhood with houses three times the size of the houses in Caroline’s neighborhood. Amber didn’t throw it in anyone’s face. She did the opposite, often seeming embarrassed by her parents’ affluence. She always made Caroline pick her up and drop her off at the park across from her development even though Caroline had seen her house more than once and everyone knew the area in which she lived. Caroline had once seen Amber punch a dude in the nose for suggesting her riches made her a spoiled brat.

Now, she was sitting on a park bench, staring down at her phone. Caroline gave the horn a light honk. Amber looked up and brightened, springing to her feet and running toward the car.

“Hey, girl,” she said, sliding into the passenger seat.

“Hey yourself. What’s up?”

Caroline put the car back in drive and pulled away from the well-lit park.

“Did you see this shit?” She shoved the phone in Caroline’s face. The headline practically screamed: GRAVE OF BELOVED GIRL DESECRATED. Before she could read the smaller printed details, Amber yanked the phone away. Caroline put her eyes back on the road. “Some pervert dug up Marybeth Carlyle’s grave.”

“Oh, God.”

“It was probably your creepy friend.”

“Mason’s not creepy,” she said.

“Babe, come on. He seems nice, but let’s be real. When we were all talking about that dumb Hereditary movie, he took some weird book out of his backpack, opened a page and said: ‘here’s Paimon right here.’”

Caroline giggled.

“That was three years ago. I’m sure he’s … matured a little.”

“Oh, I’m sure.”

As they drove toward the Clemente twins place, they had to drive past the part of the woods where Russell lived. Caroline turned to look at the passage leading to his trailer but kept her thoughts to herself.

“Speaking of weird,” Amber said. “I can’t believe that Roderick kid just lives back there. What does he eat? Squirrels or something?”

“I’m sure he goes food shopping, Amber.”

“Still. What kind of guy just lives in the woods?”

The kind of guy that I like, she wanted to say, but she kept silent. Sometimes secrets mattered more than pride.

When they reached the house of the Clemente twins, Caroline gave the horn two taps.

“And now we wait,” Amber said. “Want to take bets on how much time passes before they come out?”

“No,” Caroline said.

“You’re no fun.”

The twins—Farrah and Felicity—came out wearing matching green hoodies and black leggings. They slid into the back seat. Caroline pulled away from their house.

“Are you guys seriously riding without music?” Farrah asked. Caroline and Amber looked at each other. “I don’t know how y’all do it. Put on something fun.”

Before Caroline could touch the radio, something screeched from next to Farrah as a death metal song blared from Felicity’s phone.

“Ugh, turn that shit off,” Farrah said.

“You said you wanted music,” Felicity said, laughing.

The twins fought over the phone, guttural growls from the lead singer providing an absurd soundtrack to the tussle.

“All right knock it off,” Amber said, swiping the phone and silencing the music.

“Hey,” Felicity whined.

“You don’t get this back until I know you two are gonna behave. If we’re going to buy that beer, we can’t just act like a bunch of little girls.”

“Oh, please,” Farrah said. “All you have to do is show Ted behind the counter a little skin and he’ll let you have the whole store.”

“For free,” Felicity added.

Amber looked at Caroline for backup. Caroline pulled the car back onto the wooded road.

“Well?” Amber asked.

“Well, what?”

Well, aren’t you gonna say something? Defend your best friend’s honor?”

Well, they do have a point,” Caroline said, barely containing her laughter.

Amber looked ahead and stuck out her lower lip stuck out in an expression of mock hurt.

“Fine,” she said. “Still not giving you bitches back your phone.”

“Hey, come on!” Felicity said. “Don’t be like that.”

Something shadowy slumped out into the road. Caroline kicked the brake pedal, pressing it all the way to the floor. The car lurched to a halt. Its headlights flooded the figure which had walked right out in front of them. It was a girl and Caroline recognized her.

“Marybeth,” she whispered, while her riding companions shouted over each other.

Marybeth turned away and staggered off to the woods on the other side of the road.

Before Caroline could even take a moment to evaluate what she hoped to do, she threw the car in park, unbuckled her seat belt and opened her door to get out.

“What are you doing?” Amber asked, her voice sharp with disapproval.

Caroline didn’t answer. She sprinted into the woods after Marybeth. After the girl that, as far as she knew, died over a week ago in a tragic fall off Sunset Cliffs.

Time Passes

I went to visit this guy yesterday. This is an old photo. I couldn’t bring myself to take a picture yesterday. He’s not doing well, and I would rather remember him like this.

On the plus side, he did remember me.

Life can throw some strange and terrible curve balls sometimes. We had to rehome him (and two other cats) a few years back due to our son’s allergies. The news was the breaking point that sent me to the hospital.

I’m better these days, I guess. We go on.

I’m proud of what I’ve done to survive. I know the narrative online is that people like me don’t know what it’s like to really struggle, but I know my truth. I was born fighting and I fight every damn day to stay well.

Nuance, man. Deny it all you want, but it ain’t going nowhere.

Good morning.

Remains

I broke down an old chair and disposed of it in my fire pit last week. The remains look really cool up close, like a post-apocalyptic landscape. Of course, now I have something like a thousand loose staples in my fire pit, but that’s okay.

I slept on the couch to help my partner and kid have a good night’s sleep. We started watching THE OUTSIDER, which was adapted from a Stephen King book. It’s really good so far, and now I kind of want to revisit the novel. Over the last few years, I’ve been hesitant to read anything super long. I do love King though. I mean, come on. Who doesn’t?

The fish tank is looking good since I did that 90% water change. I’m dreading the algal bloom, but maybe it won’t be so bad this time. I only have 5 fish in a 30 gallon aquarium. Hopefully, I can be a little more deliberate with adding more livestock and maintaining a good look for the water.

I’ll be working today for five hours, then I’m off to visit my cat Jack. We had to rehome him a few years ago due to our son’s allergies. He was our first baby. Thankfully, he lives with my father-in-law. Unfortunately, he’s not doing so well, and I’d like to see him one more time, just in case we’re at the end. We’ve been isolating. My father-in-law has been isolating. I’m sure we’ll be fine in regards to the spread of COVID. Save your lockdown lectures for someone who gives a shit.

I’ve got a thousand words to do on the Wesley Southard collaboration before I kick it back to him. After that, it’s back onto ONE AND ONLY. Chapter 2 will be posted on Monday, and like last Monday, it will have an accompanying breakdown live on Twitch. You can check my schedule and subscribe here.

That’s all for today. Remember, there is beauty in destruction.

2021 – Real AF

I’m almost finished reading HITMAN, the autobiography of retired wrestler Bret Hart. It’s easy to forget that wrestlers are artists. Throughout the reading of the book, I’ve found myself nodding my head to parallels in the life of a wrestler and the life of an author. All the years of paying your dues. Mutual respect between the honorable ones. Backstabbing among the less honorable. Unhelpful coping mechanisms for loneliness. Pride when you manage to pull something off just right.

Writing is hard. I also love it. It’s important to take time to appreciate things unrelated to what drives you. Family is an obvious example. Also, hobbies outside your vocation. In my case, watching and reading about wrestling, my fish tank, music and comic books.

As soon as I finish HITMAN, I’m doing a buddy read of the 90s DC comics arc ZERO HOUR. I remember the ads for it vividly. I can’t remember why I didn’t read it at the time. Since I was ten or eleven, chances are I got interested in other things. My interests fluctuate a lot even now. Probably even more so back then. I’m excited for it though. My friend has been a DC fan forever. He swears that even outside of BATMAN, their output is better than Marvel, which is interestingly not the consensus. Then again, he and I have never cared about the consensus. I care even less as an adult.

Am I a lone wolf? I don’t think so. I have a wolfpack, real as fuck people I know I can rely on.

Anyway, it’s a New Year. Rot in hell to the trash fire that was 2020. Big things are coming in 2021 and beyond. Got all sorts of exciting things in the works. In the meantime, check out PANDEMONIUM if you haven’t already. Good reviews are rolling in!

Today will be spent with family, though I’ll probably sneak in some work on the Wesley Southard collaboration. Speaking of Wes, he’s got a new book up for preorder right now. Take advantage of that preorder price.

Be well, everyone.

Resolution # 2

Take days off from SERIOUS writing.

I say SERIOUS because on these days off I will still blog daily, as promised. I just won’t do the big 1-2,000 word writing sessions. While I do think it’s important for writers to write as much as they can, in the same way athletes should train as much as they can, I think it’s equally important to find time for other things. Relax. Recuperate. LIVE YOUR LIFE.

“Find the thing you love and let it kill you.” Fuck that, I love lots of things, and me getting killed helps no one. So, yeah, days off.

Because of the holiday, I took four days off from major writing projects last weekend and came back stronger than ever. I spent time with my loved ones. I finally took care of that awful cloudy water in my fish tank. I got my office in the garage looking nice and homey.

There’s more to life than writing. I know I’m not supposed to say that. I know we writers are supposed to live and die by the pen (or the keyboard), but I ain’t interested in what I’m supposed to do.