Something Borrowed

The war raged and ravaged and tore at the outside world for a year before the draft.  The whole country watched grainy news footage of dusty, decimated cityscapes and bleeding, wide-eyed children waiting for treatment in makeshift hospitals.  It all felt very far away, before the draft.  After, no one could run far or fast enough.  The draft would catch up with you eventually, if you were a healthy young man without connections.

Nick Keene had been running his whole life, and he was an expert.  He’d started the day his mama killed his daddy in their kitchen.  In the high heat of a Deep South summer, Nick had watched the whole thing, had seen his mother plant a knife deep in his father’s potbelly, had seen his father drop, bleed, and close his eyes a final time.

“Nicky,” his mama had implored him, wringing her bloody hands around a ratty dishtowel. “Nicky baby, you gotta say you did it.”  She stepped over his daddy’s body, not even cold.  She put those stained, raw hands on his shoulders.  “You tell’em you did it.  Ain’t nobody gonna put a baby on death row.  You love me, don’tchu baby?”

He did, in the deep, whole, unconditional way that only children can love, but he ran.  He ran and ran until he reached the next state, and then he kept going.  He missed his parents, his life, his home, but he never looked back.  He was twelve years old, and he’d been running ever since.

********************

Nick Keene became Nick Keys, shirking the weight of a family name and a desperate guilt he couldn’t bear to carry.  A string of low-paying jobs took him all across the country, but hard luck followed him everywhere.  He fell out with a girl in Omaha after she lost their baby, crashed a car working as a chauffeur in Los Angeles, lost all his money teaming up with a card counter at the tables in Atlantic City, broke a toe on the docks in New Orleans.  Whether it was something big or something tiny, Nick couldn’t catch a break.

Things had started to change in Kentucky.  At twenty-one, Nick made his money playing music with another runaway.  Tommy Flint was the best guitarist Nick had ever seen, and he often wondered why Tommy had never been discovered, especially considering that Tommy’s ex-partner, Rocky Rush, had.  Rocky’s music topped charts all over the world.  Nick was jealous, and knew Tommy must feel the same, but together, he and Tommy had styled themselves Flint and Key, and they were pretty good.

Two guitars

They hitchhiked when they had to, and took night buses when they could.  They’d stay a little while in a town and then move on.  Nick didn’t know what Tommy was running from, and Tommy didn’t ask about Nick’s past, and between the two of them, they had enough suffering and fear and bad luck to write ten albums worth of songs.  Good songs, songs that made money and got people talking.  Nick figured it was only a matter of time before the right person heard the right one, and they’d be set up for the rest of their lives.

On the night Nick got his draft notice, they sat across from each other in an almost empty diner after a bar gig, splitting a Hot Brown and cold pie over steaming cups of dark black coffee.

“What’ll you do?” Tommy asked.

“Shit,” Nick replied, and took another bite of pie.  “Shit,” he said again.  The white lights overhead suddenly felt too bright, and Nick rubbed his eyes with the calloused fingers of one hand while he considered.  “I have to go see my mama,” he finally said.

“I didn’t know you had one,” Tommy retorted, in a mild attempt to lighten Nick’s mood and the terrible enormity of the situation.  They both knew the draft was a death sentence.

“I didn’t come from nothing,” Nick said, and put three dollars down on the table.  “Everybody has a mother.”  He got up from the vinyl booth, heaved his guitar case over his shoulder, and walked out, leaving Tommy behind him.

“Now, wait,” he heard Tommy plead, shocked and distressed in a way that warmed his frightened heart.  “Don’t go off alone.”

Nick just kept walking.  He heard the door jingle as it closed behind him.  He’d never been good at goodbyes.

********************

It took three weeks to make his way home.  When he got there, robbed of his guitar at a bus station in Tennessee and sick from hunger, Nick found his mother in the graveyard, six stones down from a tall magnolia tree.  He found his father, too, not far away, but he lingered by his mother’s plot, scooping the creeping weeds away with the toe of his scuffed brown boot.  He leaned over and ran his fingers along the carved letters of her name, Judith Keene.  She’d only been gone for a month.  He’d only just missed her.  She’d never tried to find him, and he’d never come back to her, not in nine years.  He’d never even written her a letter.

Nick walked from the cemetery to the house where he grew up.  He stood on the sidewalk, just out of the glow of the one leaning streetlight, and stared at the final ruin of his childhood.  The bungalow sat empty and dark, covered in an impenetrable curtain of thick kudzu.

“You’re Nick Keene,” someone said from behind him.

Nick turned, but didn’t step into the light.  “What do you know about Nick Keene?” he asked.

A woman took a step towards him, coming into the halo of bright yellow light, and smiled.  She was a knockout.  Bright auburn hair, ivory pale skin, dressed in a dark blue cocktail dress.

“I know you’re him,” she answered, “and I know you’re hungry.  Come on with me and we’ll get you a sandwich and something to drink.”

She turned and started walking, and Nick followed.  He was hungry, and she was offering.

“Who are you?”  He caught up with her, looked at her delicate profile, and realized she couldn’t be much older than he was.

“I was a friend of Judy’s” she said.

“You knew my mother?”  Nick couldn’t recall that his mother ever had close friends, or any friends at all.

“I did her a favor once.”

“What kind of favor?”

The woman didn’t answer.  Nick wasn’t sure he really wanted to know.

“Where are we going?” he asked instead.

“My place,” the woman answered.  “Everything else is closed.”

“Why’re you helping me?”

“Well,” the woman stopped, “the way I see it, you have no past, not anymore.  And if you’re back here, that probably means you don’t have much of a future, either.”  She looked him right in the eyes, and held his gaze.  “You get drafted?”

Nick looked down at the pavement.  “Yeah,” he answered.  “I wanted to see my mama one last time.  I wanted to make things right.”

“Then the least I can do is feed you,” the woman said, and started moving again.

Nick followed, and lost track of time in the humid night air.  He thought they might have gone about a mile, into what was left of downtown with half of its boys away at war, when she walked around the corner of the bank and unlocked a side door.

“Here we are,” she said.

He followed her up a set of narrow stairs and into a large apartment.

“How long’s this been here?”  Nick looked around him, at the expensive furniture and the tall windows.  “I don’t remember this being here when I was a kid.”

“Sit down,” the woman said, and motioned to a leather armchair in the corner.  “I’ll only be a minute.”  She walked towards what Nick assumed was the kitchen, and turned the radio on before stepping out of site.

Rocky Rush’s caramel voice flooded the space around him.  Nick wondered what his life would be like, if he’d been discovered like Rocky, flown off to Hollywood or New York to record music and become famous and live secure and safe for the rest of his life.  All it would have taken was one moment, one right moment in front of the right person.

“Lucky bastard,” Nick grunted.

The woman came back with a plate of club sandwiches and a rocks glass full of something brown and syrupy. “That’s what you want, then,” she said, “to be up on stage, to be a star.”

Nick considered.  He took a bite of food, and a swig of what turned out to be good whiskey.  His throat felt warm.  “I want enough money to live in a place for more than a few weeks.  I want a job that won’t end when the project’s done.”  His voice started to quiver.  “I don’t want to go and fight and die in a country I don’t care about.”

“Your mama didn’t want to die, either,” the woman said.  “She told me so herself.  Said she’d do anything to stay free and alive.  She missed you, though, towards the end.”

Nick realized he’d finished the whiskey.  The woman took it and poured him another, standing over him after handing him the glass, swaying lightly to the rhythm of Rocky’s minor key love song.

“Do you play music?”

“I did,” Nick said.  He told her about Tommy, and their time together and their songs.  “But somebody swiped my guitar outside of Memphis,” he finished.

“That’s too bad,” the woman said.  “Luck’s a funny thing, isn’t it?”  She sat down beside him, nestled herself right against his shoulder.  “I bet you’re every bit as good as Rocky Rush.  I bet he just happened to be in the right place at the right time.”

“Yeah, I guess,” Nick said.  He’d finished the second glass by now, and felt himself getting tired.  He felt tired all the way to his bones.  He leaned his head back.  The woman snuggled in closer.  He could feel the silk of her hair against the skin of his neck.  “Lucky son of a bitch.”  Nick closed his eyes and sighed.

“You want it, don’t you?  Just a little bit of his luck.”

Nick didn’t reply.

“To be a star?”

“I do,” Nick said quietly.

“I thought so,” the woman said, and kissed him lightly on the lips just as he drifted off to sleep.

********************

Nick woke up alone, with a painful hangover and a heavy ball of dread and fear in the pit of his stomach, and no memory of how he’d come to be in the empty attic above the bank.  He remembered, though, that he was going to war, and that his mother was dead.  He had no past, and his future was a pine box six feet under the cold ground.  He stood up and made his way down the stairs and into the bright sunlight, each step taking him closer and closer to what he knew would be the end.

The closest military induction center was four towns over.  Nick walked in and gave his name at a small desk in the front.

“Keene?”

“Nicholas Keene,” Nick replied, and gave his birth date as he presented his draft notice.

The lanky soldier behind the desk looked through every piece of paper in sight, and then said, “Hang on just a minute, a’right?”

Nick waited.  The soldier came back empty-handed, and told him there must have been a mistake, and that he was free to go.

Nick figured the mistake was on their side, that it would catch up with him eventually, but he went, and he used what little money he had left for a bus ticket that would take him as far away as he could go.  On the bus, he sat down beside a paunchy older man in a khaki suit.

“Hey, I know you,” the man said.  “You’re Nick Keys, aren’t you?”

“Who’s asking?”

The man reached into his pocket and presented Nick with a crisp white business card.  “I caught your act in Louisville a couple of months ago,” he said.

“I know your name,” Nick said.  He couldn’t believe it.  “You’re with Columbia.”

“Sure am.  Just down here to see some family, and then I’m heading back up to New York.”

“Oh,” Nick said.  He waited, hoped, the man would say more.

“You here alone?” the man asked.  “Where’s your partner?  You two were dynamite together.”

“He’s still in Kentucky,” Nick answered.  “I’m on my own,” he added.

“Well, that’s unfortunate,” the man said.  “Are you interested in being a solo act?”

********************

Rocky Rush died in the war a year later. That he had even been drafted surprised his many fans and broke the hearts of thousands of teenage girls.  The shock of his death started a movement among young people all over the country to hold the government accountable for allowing so many young men to die in a conflict many of them didn’t even understand.

Nick played his first sold out show the night he heard the news.  He wrote a song about Rocky, once he was back in his dressing room and three beers deep.  It hit number one, and stayed there long enough to break a record.  Nick Keys, the runaway with no home and no family, was a star.

********************

Tommy Flint sat at the bar of a dive outside of Cincinnati, hunched over in his threadbare coat with one hand resting on his tattered black guitar case.  He downed a shot of the strongest thing the bartender had on offer, and hummed the chorus of Nick’s latest hit.  He laughed, low and bitter.

“That lucky son of a bitch,” he said.

“Who?” a delicate female voice answered back.

“Nick Keys,” Tommy answered, with a little less enunciation than he’d like.  “He was my partner,” he finished, and held up his empty glass for a refill.

“Oh?”

Tommy lifted his head and turned to see a striking young woman with auburn hair and ivory skin, wearing a blue cocktail dress.

“I met him once,” she said.  “I did him a favor.”

“He was a good guy,” Tommy slurred.  “Better than all of’m.”

“I’m sure you’re a good guy, too,” the woman said.  “And I’m sure you’re just as talented as he is.  He probably just ended up in the right place at the right time.”

“Mmhmm,” Tommy replied.

“Luck’s funny that way, isn’t it?”

She held up her hand to signal the bartender, and ordered a champagne cocktail.  “This round’s on me,” she told Tommy.  “Is that what you want, then?  To be on stage?  To be a star?”

Tommy downed another shot.

“Just a little bit of his luck,” the woman purred.

“I do,” Tommy answered.

The woman leaned over and kissed his cheek.  “I thought so,” she told him.

Anybody else in need of a good book or several?

It’s been a rough and stressful few weeks, hasn’t it?  I was planning to write a post about the best spots to hike in and around Loudoun County, and I might do that in the next few months; but, with the CDC recommending some serious social distancing measures and with many people opting to stay away from public places and, you know, inside, I thought a reading list might be more appropriate and helpful.  And if you’re anything like me, you’re probably feeling like you’ll need a lot of books to get through this.

Bookshelves

*The lovely chaos that is bookshelves in my home.

So, I’ve listed below several books that I’ve enjoyed over the last year or so.  They’re not in any particular order, but I’ve categorized them loosely, and if they’re part of a series, I’ve generally listed the first book and added an asterisk.  I’ve linked their Goodreads or Amazon pages and quoted summaries, as well.  I hope you find something here that you’ll enjoy, and I wish you happy reading, good health, and abundant toilet paper in the weeks to come!

Adult Fiction

The Sun Down Motel, by Simone St. James

“The secrets lurking in a rundown roadside motel ensnare a young woman, just as they did her aunt thirty-five years before, in this new atmospheric suspense novel from the national bestselling and award-winning author of The Broken Girls.”

The Bookish Life of Nina Hill, by Abbi Waxman

“It’s time for Nina to come out of her comfortable shell, but she isn’t convinced real life could ever live up to fiction. It’s going to take a brand-new family, a persistent suitor, and the combined effects of ice cream and trivia to make her turn her own fresh page.”

The Invited, by Jennifer McMahon

“In a quest for a simpler life, Helen and Nate abandon the comforts of suburbia and their teaching jobs to take up residence on forty-four acres of rural land where they will begin the ultimate, aspirational do-it-yourself project: building the house of their dreams. When they discover that this charming property has a dark and violent past, Helen, a former history teacher, becomes consumed by the legend of Hattie Breckenridge, a woman who lived and died there a century ago.”

The Ghost Bride, by Yangsze Choo

“Li Lan, the daughter of a genteel but bankrupt family, has few prospects. But fate intervenes when she receives an unusual proposal from the wealthy and powerful Lim family. They want her to become a ghost bride for the family’s only son, who recently died under mysterious circumstances. Rarely practiced, a traditional ghost marriage is used to placate a restless spirit. Such a union would guarantee Li Lan a home for the rest of her days, but at a terrible price.”

Bellewether, by Susanna Kearsley

“Some houses seem to want to hold their secrets.”

*Tsumiko and the Enslaved Fox, by Forthright

“A letter from a long-lost aunt names Tsumiko heiress to an ancestral estate and its accompanying fortune. Only the legacy comes with an aloof heirloom: an inhuman butler. Argent has served the Hajime family for centuries, and Tsumiko must renew the generational bond or he’ll die. Argent hates her for the hold she has over him, but he craves her soul almost as much as he craves his freedom.”

The Widow’s House, by Carol Goodman

“This chilling novel from the bestselling, award-winning author of The Lake of Dead Languages blends the gothic allure of Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca and the crazed undertones of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper with the twisty, contemporary edge of A.S.A. Harrison’s The Silent Wife—a harrowing tale of psychological suspense set in New York’s Hudson Valley.”

Short Story Collections

Burning Bright, by Ron Rash

“In these stories, Rash brings to light a previously unexplored territory, hidden in plain sight—first a landscape, and then the dark yet lyrical heart and the alluringly melancholy soul of his characters and their home.”

Shatterday, by Harlan Ellison

“…legendary author Harlan Ellison dissects the primal fears and inherent frailties common to all people and gives voice to the thoughts and feelings human beings bury deep within their souls. Unflinching and unapologetic, Ellison depicts men and women in all their ugliness and beauty, and humanity in all its fury and glory.”

Half Wild: Stories, by Robin MacArthur

“Spanning nearly forty years, the stories in Robin MacArthur’s formidable debut give voice to the hopes, dreams, hungers, and fears of a diverse cast of Vermonters—adolescent girls, aging hippies, hardscrabble farmers, disconnected women, and solitary men. Straddling the border between civilization and the wild, they all struggle to make sense of their loneliness and longings in the stark and often isolating enclaves they call home—golden fields and white-veiled woods, dilapidated farmhouses and makeshift trailers, icy rivers and still lakes that rouse the imagination, tether the heart, and inhabit the soul.”

Poetry Collections

Our Numbered Days, by Neil Hilborn

“In 2013, Neil Hilborn’s performance of his poem ‘OCD’ went viral. To date, it has been watched over 10 million times. Our Numbered Days is Neil’s debut full-length poetry collection, containing 45 of Neil’s poems including ‘OCD’, ‘Joey’, ‘Future Tense’, ‘Liminality’, ‘Moving Day’, and many, many never-before-seen poems.” 

The People Look Like Flowers at Last, by Charles Bukowski

The People Look like Flowers at Last is the last of five collections of never-before published poetry from the late great Dirty Old Man, Charles Bukowski.”

New American Best Friend, by Olivia Gatwood

“Gatwood’s poems deftly deconstruct traditional stereotypes. The focus shifts from childhood to adulthood, gender to sexuality, violence to joy. And always and inexorably, the book moves toward celebration, culminating in a series of odes: odes to the body, to tough women, to embracing your own journey in all its failures and triumphs.”

Young Adult Fiction

Gods of Jade and Shadow, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

“The Mayan god of death sends a young woman on a harrowing, life-changing journey in this one-of-a-kind fairy tale inspired by Mexican folklore.”

 *Red Winter, by Annette Marie

“Emi is the kamigakari. In a few short months, her life as a mortal will end and her new existence as the human host of a goddess will begin. Carefully hidden from those who would destroy her, she has prepared her mind, body, and soul to unite with the goddess-and not once has she doubted her chosen fate. Shiro is a yokai, a spirit of the earth, an enemy of the goddess Emi will soon host. Mystery shrouds his every move and his ruby eyes shine with cunning she can’t match and dares not trust. But she saved his life, and until his debt is paid, he is hers to command-whether she wants him or not. On the day they meet, everything Emi believes comes undone, swept away like snow upon the winter wind. For the first time, she wants to change her fate-but how can she erase a destiny already wrought in stone? Against the power of the gods, Shiro is her only hope… and hope is all she has left.”

Highfire, by Eoin Colfer

“From the New York Times bestselling author of the Artemis Fowl series comes a hilarious and high-octane adult novel about a vodka-drinking, Flashdance-loving dragon who lives an isolated life in the bayous of Louisiana—and the raucous adventures that ensue when he crosses paths with a fifteen-year-old troublemaker on the run from a crooked sheriff.”

*City of Ghosts, by Victoria Schwab

“Cassidy Blake’s parents are The Inspecters, a (somewhat inept) ghost-hunting team. But Cass herself can REALLY see ghosts. In fact, her best friend, Jacob, just happens to be one. When The Inspecters head to ultra-haunted Edinburgh, Scotland, for their new TV show, Cass—and Jacob—come along. In Scotland, Cass is surrounded by ghosts, not all of them friendly.”

The Ten Thousand Doors of January, by Alix E. Harrow

“In a sprawling mansion filled with peculiar treasures, January Scaller is a curiosity herself. As the ward of the wealthy Mr. Locke, she feels little different from the artifacts that decorate the halls: carefully maintained, largely ignored, and utterly out of place. Then she finds a strange book. A book that carries the scent of other worlds, and tells a tale of secret doors, of love, adventure and danger. Each page turn reveals impossible truths about the world and January discovers a story increasingly entwined with her own.”

The Rest of Us Just Live Here, by Patrick Ness

“What if you aren’t the Chosen One? The one who’s supposed to fight the zombies, or the soul-eating ghosts, or whatever the heck this new thing is, with the blue lights and the death? What if you’re like Mikey? Who just wants to graduate and go to prom and maybe finally work up the courage to ask Henna out before someone goes and blows up the high school. Again. Because sometimes there are problems bigger than this week’s end of the world, and sometimes you just have to find the extraordinary in your ordinary life. Even if your best friend is worshipped by mountain lions…”

Manga and Graphic Novels

*Noragami, by Adachitoka

“Yato is a homeless god. He doesn’t even have a shrine, not to mention worshippers! So to achieve his ambitious goals, he’s set up a service to help those in need (for a small fee), hoping he’ll eventually raise enough money to build himself the lavish temple of his dreams. Of course, he can’t afford to be picky, so Yato accepts all kinds of jobs, from finding lost kittens to helping a student overcome bullies at school.”

*The Sandman, by Neil Gaiman

“New York Times best-selling author Neil Gaiman’s transcendent series SANDMAN is often hailed as the definitive Vertigo title and one of the finest achievements in graphic storytelling. Gaiman created an unforgettable tale of the forces that exist beyond life and death by weaving ancient mythology, folklore and fairy tales with his own distinct narrative vision.”

*Yona of the Dawn, by Mizuho Kusanagi

“Princess Yona lives an ideal life as the only princess of her kingdom. Doted on by her father, the king, and protected by her faithful guard Hak, she cherishes the time spent with the man she loves, Soo-won. But everything changes on her 16th birthday when she witnesses her father’s murder! Yona reels from the shock of witnessing a loved one’s murder and having to fight for her life. With Hak’s help, she flees the palace and struggles to survive while evading her enemy’s forces. But where will this displaced princess go when all the paths before her are uncertain?”

Memoirs, Academia, and Non-Fiction

The Oxford Inklings: Their Lives, Writing, Ideas, and Influence, by Colin Duriez

“A unique account of one of history’s most intriguing literary groups, which will find itself on the reading list of every serious Tolkien, Lewis, or Inkling fan. The Inklings were an influential group, along the lines of the Lake Poets or the Bloomsbury Group. Acclaimed author Colin Duriez explores their lives, their writings, their ideas, and, crucially, the influence they had on each other.”

You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, by Sherman Alexie

“When his mother passed away at the age of 78, Sherman Alexie responded the only way he knew how: he wrote. The result is this stunning memoir. Featuring 78 poems, 78 essays and intimate family photographs, Alexie shares raw, angry, funny, profane, tender memories of a childhood few can imagine–growing up dirt-poor on an Indian reservation, one of four children raised by alcoholic parents. Throughout, a portrait emerges of his mother as a beautiful, mercurial, abusive, intelligent, complicated woman.”

The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction, by Neil Gaiman

“Analytical yet playful, erudite yet accessible, this cornucopia explores a broad range of interests and topics, including (but not limited to): authors past and present; music; storytelling; comics; bookshops; travel; fairy tales; America; inspiration; libraries; ghosts; and the title piece, at turns touching and self-deprecating, which recounts the author’s experiences at the 2010 Academy Awards in Hollywood.”

The Hidden Power of F*cking Up, by Keith Habersberger, Zach Kornfeld, Eugene Lee Yang, and Ned Fulmer

“To be our best selves, we must become secure in our insecurities. In The Hidden Power of F*cking Up, The Try Guys – Keith, Ned, Zach, and Eugene – reveal their philosophy of trying: how to fully embrace fear, foolishness, and embarrassment in an effort to understand how we all get paralyzed by a fear of failure. They’ll share how four shy, nerdy kids have dealt with their most poignant life struggles by attacking them head-on and reveal their – ahem – sure-fail strategies for achieving success.”

Educated, by Tara Westover

“Educated is an account of the struggle for self-invention. It is a tale of fierce family loyalty and of the grief that comes with severing the closest of ties. With the acute insight that distinguishes all great writers, Westover has crafted a universal coming-of-age story that gets to the heart of what an education is and what it offers: the perspective to see one’s life through new eyes and the will to change it.”

Snow Moon

It had been an in-between sort of winter – too warm for snow, and too cold for much of anything else.  Days and days of frigid rains and half-lit skies had passed in a steely, gloomy blur, giving way to more of the same.  All of that would change tonight.

From her cubicle window, Julia watched a robin perch on a ledge of the neighboring office building, and wondered if the little thing knew what was coming.  Her farmer grandparents had taught her that nature always knows, and is prepared, and she wondered why humans so often counted themselves as separate animals.  No one at work seemed prepared today.  Forecasters anticipated the storm’s arrival by 7:00, and now, at 4:45, the office was still abuzz with talk of this meeting and that presentation.  She just wanted to get out the door, onto the road home before the inevitable, interminable traffic jam, and only two emails and a check-in with her manager stood in her way.

Twenty more minutes, she thought, tops.  Just twenty more minutes, and then she’d be on her way to pajamas and hot chocolate and BBC’s Pride and Prejudice, her snow-day traditions from high school onward, and tomorrow, she’d take a walk and make a snow angel.  She wanted hers to be the first footprints.  That had been her favorite thing, when she was young and living on a farm way out in the country with her parents and her grandparents.  She always wanted hers to be the first set of footprints on a fresh fallen snow.  It proved that she, and not anyone else, loved the snow best.  And that had been so important, when she was ten.

Snow Day Footprints

Maybe she’d even build a snowman, she thought.  She hadn’t built a snowman since college.  “Let’s get crazy,” Julia mumbled to herself.

“Excuse me?”

“Oh,” Julia said.  She should have known nothing is ever just to yourself when you work in a cubicle farm.  “Sorry,” she told Sarah-from-the-next-cube.  “I was talking to myself.”

She watched as Sarah nodded and went back to her work.  Julia hated working in an office environment like this.  There was never privacy, but you had all the anonymity you never wanted.  Everything was tinged in somber shades of off-gray – the desks, the carpet, the overhead lights – and people seldom smiled.  Not even the company’s monthly “happy hour” was truly happy.  It was just a tired-out group of not really friends pretending they weren’t networking to get ahead, trying not to appear as drunk as they were.  Artifice and gameplay dressed up in business casual, that’s all it was.

But this job paid the bills, and the bills fed her, kept her in books and clothes, and allowed her the little luxury of a trip here and there when she needed to get away.  She was planning to visit England in the summer, to see Bath.  She’d always dreamed of going to England, and the salary from this job made it possible.  You had to work to live, and work wasn’t always fun, she told herself, over and over.  Her life was just like everyone else’s, she reasoned.  And then she wondered when she had decided to be okay with that, and resolved to start looking for something new, just as soon as she got back from her summer trip.  Maybe she would even move back to the country and take up work on the farm with her parents.  It would be nice to be with her family again.

Two emails and a useless but thankfully brief meeting with her boss later, Julia had packed her messenger bag with her laptop, power cord, mouse, and notes on her priority assignments, and was standing in the elevator, waiting for it to make its slow, creaky way from floor eleven to the lower deck of the parking garage.  She sighed and leaned her head against the wall.

“You look tired,” said an amiable, masculine voice from the other corner.

“I am,” Julia answered.  She hadn’t realized anyone else was in the elevator with her, but that wasn’t surprising.  Her mind had been running on one track since this morning – get home before the snow, enjoy the snow, daydream about snow – and now, at the end of the day, there just wasn’t any room for anything else.  “But I’m really excited for the snow,” she added.

“So, you’re one of the people who likes snow?”

Julia straightened up and turned, and saw that her companion wore a smoky-colored gray suit and light blue tie, and a pocket square.  A pocket square, of all things.  She thought she’d seen him before, was fairly certain of it, but you could never tell.  He looked familiar, but so did every other Caucasian male sporting a dad-bod wrapped up in a suit and tie in the entire building.  Dark hair, brown eyes, and not very memorable at all.  But he looked friendly enough, casual and relaxed, his hands in his pockets.

“I am,” she answered.  “What about you?”

“I love snow,” he said, “and I like this time of year.”

“Really?”

“I do.  I like the feeling of starting fresh.”  He smiled.  Julia noticed his straight, white teeth.

“Most people feel that way about January.”  Julia smiled back.  It felt like the right thing to do.  She hated office banter.

“Sure,” he answered, “but I like February better.  You know it comes from an old Latin word?  Februa, to cleanse.”

Julia hadn’t known that, and said so.

“The Romans had this festival, the Februalia.”

Julia hmmed and nodded.

“And I really do love the snow.  The best snows are always in February.”

Julia nodded again, and hummed a noncommittal “Mmhmm.”

“I’m boring you.”

“No!”  He was, and she would have loved a quiet ride, but she certainly didn’t want him to know that.  “Not at all.  I love snow, too.  When I was little –”

Before she could say more, the elevator lurched to a stop.  Floor two.  Julia felt stuck in a nightmare.  Bad enough being trapped in the elevator.  Worse being trapped in the elevator with an almost complete stranger right before a snowstorm.  They could be in here for hours.

“I don’t think it will be long,” the man said.

Well, that was strange, Julia thought.  “I hope not,” she replied.

“When you were little…”

“What?”

“You were talking about the snow, when you were little.”  The man raised a hand from his pocket, prompting her to continue.

Julia had lost the thread of the conversation when the elevator stopped.  “Um, yeah, when I was little.”  She struggled to collect the thought.  The man waited.  “When I was little, I used to stay up all night waiting for snow.  I wanted to be the first one outside.  I wanted to make the first footprints.”

“I get that,” the man said.

“I just thought snow was the most magical thing.  I still do, actually.  Work is boring, you know?  It’s like life just gets in the way of the things we should be enjoying.”

“Yeah,” the man replied.

“I think if I could just live in a snow day forever, I’d be okay with that.”

“Really?”  The man raised an eyebrow.

“Of course!”  Julia found she couldn’t really stop herself from adding, “everything slows down when it snows.  People actually take the time to be happy.  It’s like they can’t do that on a normal day.  Because there’s too much to do.”  Julia paused for a moment, to take a breath.  “Snow means you have to stop.  You just have to stop and appreciate the moment for once, and I love that moment.”

The man smiled again, and Julia realized it wasn’t an unpleasant smile.  “I think everyone has a moment they’d like to live in forever,” she said, “and that’s just mine.”

“I can see that,” the man said.

“Well, what’s yours?”  Julia asked.

The man opened his mouth to answer, but before he could, the elevator jerked into motion.  “Well,” he said, “that wasn’t so bad.”

“No,” Julia said, and asked again, “so, what’s your moment?”

The doors pinged open on level two of the garage, and the man stepped out.  “I’m made of moments,” he said.  He winked as the door closed.

That had certainly ended abruptly, Julia thought as she went down one more level, and then walked to her silver sedan.  5:31 – earlier than she’d left in days, and plenty of time to beat the storm home, if she took a few neighborhood roads and shortcuts.

********************

It snowed for a solid fourteen hours, give or take.  Julia spent the time looking out the window, curled up in her favorite overstuffed armchair.  She caught up on some reading, drank hot chocolate, and watched some of her favorite BBC miniseries.  She stayed up all night.  When the snow stopped, she put on her winter coat and galoshes and walked for an hour or so, enjoying the crunch of the crisp white powder under her feet, and the fresh, icy smell of a winter finally come.  Hers were the first footprints.  She made a snow angel, and she built a snowman, and when the sun went down on the glistening landscape, she sat on her front porch steps and stared at the full moon, high and bright and silver against a dark blue satin sky.  Yes, she thought, I could live in this moment forever.

********************

A desk in the corner in the corner of a nondescript office building sat empty.  A manager approached Human Resources, asking to hire for a position, and curious as to why it had never been discussed before.  The work went on as it always had, as if Julia had never existed at all.

The man in the gray suit had moved on, too.  A new office building, a new elevator.  He found himself alone with a young man, on the tenth day of March at 5:16 in the afternoon.  The young man looked on the verge of tears, his eyes glassy and rimmed with red, and his hands trembling as they tried to grasp the handle of a black canvas laptop bag.

“Rough day?” the man in the gray suit asked.

The young man dropped his laptop bag to his feet.  It landed with a thud on the floor of the elevator.  “Yeah, people suck.  But it’s just a job.”  He took a deep, shaky breath and said again, “It’s just a job.”

“Sounds like it’s not the right job,” the man in the gray suit replied.

“Yeah, really,” the young man snorted.

“I always thought I’d be doing something more interesting,” the man in the gray suit said.  “I’ve never liked working in an office, but it sure is convenient.”

“I hate it,” the young man said.  He ran his fingers through his hair and added, “I’d rather be hiking.”

“I love hiking,” the man in the gray suit said.  “What’s your favorite trail?  I’ve heard there are lots of good ones around here.”  The man in the gray suit did not hike.

“Oh, man, when I was a kid, there was this trail out west that we used to go to every year and –”

The elevator jerked to a stop between the fourth and fifth floors.  The man in the gray suit smiled.  “And?”

********************

Winter turned to spring, and then to summer and fall, and then winter again, and again many times.  Julia’s face grew fine, spidery lines, and her hair turned coarse and ashen.  Hers were still the first footprints.  And as the world outside moved on, one season after another, year after year, she sat on her front porch steps and stared at the full moon over the diamond-bright snow.  Yes, she thought, I could live in this moment forever.

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Unrequited

You asked me once,

Do you love me?

and I said,

Yes, I do.

What I should have said was

You are a beautiful dress in just my size that doesn’t fit

on purpose.

I should have said I never learned how to love something

that didn’t hold me too tight

and make me beautiful in all the wrong places.

Hearts

Loudoun Local: Great Spots for Romance and Relaxing

Another new feature I’ve been planning for a while!  I’ve been living in Loudoun County for nine years now – first in its suburban east, and then (because I like land and history and the fantasy that I might someday own goats and maybe a horse) in its beautiful rural west.  Loudoun has a lot to offer, as do its neighbors like Fauquier and Clarke, and I’m excited to showcase some of my experiences and hopefully inspire readers to come and explore this lovely part of Virginia.

So, whether you have plans with your sweetheart for Valentine’s weekend, or you just want to hang out with your friends or take yourself on a fun date (because you deserve it!), here are a few of my favorite spots for romance and relaxing in Loudoun County.

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For a unique, small-town shopping trip: The Aldie Peddler – Aldie, VA

This little shop is one of my favorite places in the world.  Wally, the chatty and charming proprietor and proud, though unofficial, Mayor of Aldie will make sure you feel like an old friend, and you won’t leave empty-handed (trust me).  Great wines from all over the world, gourmet snacks, quality outdoor furniture, and fun kitsch, all in a sweet little shop in an old house,  in a Loudoun County village that dates back to 1810.

Wally

For brunch, or to spend a weekend: The Red Fox Inn and Tavern – Middleburg, VA

The Red Fox is one of the oldest taverns in the country, and it’s a beautiful spot to sit down and enjoy some delicious brunch favorites.  If you’re feeling a little more luxurious, book a room and stay for the weekend in Middleburg, the nation’s picturesque horse and hunt capital, full of good places to eat, fun shops, and friendly locals.

For dinner, and most especially for dessert: The Conche – Leesburg, VA

Upscale dining with a creative, cocoa-inspired menu, worth a visit for the chocolates and desserts alone.  Indulge your sweet tooth – you deserve it!

For an interesting stroll or a short, easy hike: The Village of Waterford – Waterford, VA

The entire Village of Waterford is a National Historic Landmark, and it shows.  The residents here take incredible care to maintain their properties to the highest historical standard, and when you walk through this little gem, you’ll truly feel like you’ve gone back in time.  You have a couple of walking options, depending on what you’re looking for.  There’s a walking tour through the Village itself:

Waterford Walking Tour

From the Village of Waterford’s website

Or a short hike that starts at the Village’s Old Mill:

Waterford Trail Map

From the Village of Waterford’s website

For a laid-back wine tasting: Zephaniah Farm Vineyard – Leesburg, VA

This vineyard sits on a family farm, and tastings are conducted in the family’s house, which dates back to 1819, or in their new timber-frame barn.

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At the house, you’ll be invited to choose a comfortable spot on the first floor, where you’ll sample lovely wines at a leisurely pace surrounded by unique decorations and a few family heirlooms.  You’ll feel relaxed, looked after, and right at home.

For a craft brew and a good view: Bear Chase Brewing Company – Bluemont, VA

There are lots of breweries in Loudoun County, and quite a few of them boast a pretty amazing view.  Bear Chase is one of the newer additions to this list, and they’ve done everything right.  Enjoy a beer and a pizza by their cozy fireplace, or on their covered porch, or on their extensive lawn.  Fair warning, though – they get busy.  I’ve always been able to find a spot to sit and relax, though, and there’s usually good music on the weekends.  And just look at that view:

Bear Chase View

Bear Chase also sits near the Raven Rocks Trailhead and Bear’s Den overlook, so it’s a perfect spot for a post-hike beer with your sweetheart (or your bestie, or yourself, because like I said, you deserve it).

For cider, spirits, and a dance with the Green Fairy: Mt. Defiance Cidery and Distillery – Middleburg, VA

If wine and beer aren’t your style, head to Mt. Defiance. Named for the battlefield that sits just west of Middleburg, Mt. Defiance has a rustic cider barn on the east side of town, and a steampunk-chic distillery on the west.  At the barn, grab a glass of their famous Cider Kir – a dark red mix of their Farmhouse cider and Cassis liqueur – and sit in a rocking chair in front of the fireplace or on the patio.

Cider Kir

At the distillery, you have lots of choices – cute mini-cocktail flights, seasonal specialty cocktails, and for those brave enough to try, Absinthe.  Now, I’m kidding about being brave, because Absinthe won’t make you hallucinate, but it is pretty strong, and it tastes kind of like licorice.  I happen to like licorice, and the process of preparing Absinthe to taste is interesting to watch; but, if it’s just not your thing, then try the chocolate pairing, which features chocolates from The Conche, and is just really delightful.

Chocolate pairing

********************

And there you have it.  I know there are places I’ve surely missed that deserve to be on this list, so feel free to drop a line in the comments if I’ve not mentioned any of your favorites, or if there are places in Loudoun you’ve always wanted to visit.  But regardless of that, I hope I’ve given you some good ideas for this weekend, or really any weekend, and I hope you enjoy whatever you do, because, like I said (several times, in fact), you deserve it!

Story Time

“We who make stories know that we tell lies for a living. But they are good lies that say true things, and we owe it to our readers to build them as best we can. Because somewhere out there is someone who needs that story. Someone who will grow up with a different landscape, who without that story will be a different person. And who with that story may have hope, or wisdom, or kindness, or comfort. And that is why we write.” –Neil Gaiman

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Let’s rewind the clock.  By a lot.

At the end of 2018, I came up with a list of several things I wanted to do with this blog.  I’d not written anything for it in ages, and I knew I wanted to create something a little different than what it had been before.  So, I redesigned the page, curated and edited previous posts, and created Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter pages.

And then – nothing.  The blog fell off my radar, again, for the better part of a year.  Life gets busy, you know?  2020 is a new time, though, and this year I’m dedicated to writing.  I hope you’ll read and stick with me, because I’ve got some cool stuff planned.

First on that agenda – the short story series I started on January 31st.  I’ve always enjoyed reading short stories, but I haven’t really focused on writing them since college.  They’re great practice, though – there’s no better way to focus on tight, consistent plotting and deliberate, concise word choice – and actually pretty fun.  I’m planning to publish a new story each month this year.  I’ll be asking for ideas and inspiration, so please feel free to leave feedback and share your thoughts.  Stories, after all, are meant to be shared with others.

Though I’ll certainly be writing all sorts of posts in the future, I wanted to share this particular information now, because I think we should go on this adventure together.  And I’ve never been one to say no to an adventure.

Charmed

Avery Dye came home one snowy night in January to a dark, quiet house and a cold casserole dish on the kitchen counter with a note inside that read “Be back never, you sick bastard.”

The Holler in Snow

**********

Elsewhere, about five hundred miles away and a little over six miles above his head, his wife Kelly sat in the middle seat of a mostly empty flight.  Kelly had planned every detail of her escape for months, right under Avery’s nose and without any guilt.  In the mornings, smudging a thick layer of cheap concealer over last night’s bruises.  At midday, between errands.  In the evenings, over the finely cracked, delicate porcelain of their civil dinner conversation.  This was the first thing that she’d really done just for herself in her entire twenty-nine years, and if it was selfish, she didn’t have the energy left to care.

When she thought of Avery, alone in the empty kitchen staring down a life without her as his domestic attendant, his living punching bag, his arm décor and bed warmer and everything he thought a “wife” should be, she smiled.  Let him live out his days alone, eating fast food roast beef sandwiches and drinking store-brand soda.  If he bought himself an actual punching bag and a body pillow, he might not even notice.

The plane bounced.  Kelly gripped the armrest.  She’d never flown before, had never traveled far beyond the little hollow between two mountains where she grew up, and each time the engine decelerated, or the wings began to angle, or the ping of the “fasten seat belts” sign sounded, her heart beat faster.  She looked down at her hand.  Her knuckles were white.  How many hours, she wondered, before I’m on the ground again?

“It won’t be long now,” said a soft, lightly-accented voice to her left.

“Excuse me?”

“Before we land.  It won’t be long now.”

“Did they announce it?”

“No, but I’ve flown this route many times before.”

Kelly took a moment to look at the woman sitting next to her.  She’d been so preoccupied before, she hadn’t noticed much of anything.  This woman, elegant in a light blue silk scarf with her dark hair neatly pinned in a bun at her neck, had clearly never lived in a white clapboard shack, had never cooked anything in a casserole dish, and had certainly never worn drug store makeup.

“Oh,” Kelly said, and then added, before she could help herself, “You don’t look like you’d have any reason to visit out this way.”  Though it occurred to her, after she said it, that she was the farthest from home she’d ever been.

The woman waved a thin hand in the air, “Everyone has reasons.  I go where I’m most needed.”

Kelly knew that aid workers of every variety often came to help in the mountains, working at free clinics and repairing rundown houses and such.

“And right now,” said the woman, as she rested a firm but gentle hand on Kelly’s own, “this is where I’m most needed.”

“What kind of work do you do?”  Kelly felt uncomfortable being touched, had not been touched with care in so long, but she tried to dismiss it.  This woman was someone worth impressing, the first one in Kelly’s new life.  This woman, she was certain, had seen the world, had been kissed on both cheeks by handsome Frenchmen in corner cafés, had probably ridden camels in Egypt and eaten real Chinese food in China.  Kelly suddenly felt small.  And why shouldn’t she, she chided herself.  Her world was the size of a high school education and a bad marriage.

“A little of many things,” answered the woman.  “None of them are truly work.”

“I guess it’s not really work if you love what you do.”

“Exactly,” said the woman, and winked a perfectly lined eye.  “Tell me about yourself,” she said.  “I love hearing someone’s story.”

A flight attendant came by just then, and the woman ordered a glass of champagne for them both.  Kelly had never tasted champagne.  She and Avery had toasted with 7 Up at their wedding.  She took the glass, sipped it, was surprised by its tart flavor.  So this was it, she thought, as her ears went warm.  This was her new life, the life she’d dreamed of and finally had the courage to pursue.  This was her breakout, her freedom, finally, come to fruition.  She allowed herself to feel little glamorous, for the first time, sitting beside this beautiful stranger on her way to a new adventure.

“There’s not much to tell,” Kelly replied, embarrassed all over again at her small life and her limited choices, all of them bad and many of them not really choices at all – nothing to do in her small town but visit the local library, no money for college or travel, no good jobs to make money.  At the beginning of her adult life, still a baby, really, at only eighteen, the stability of a marriage to a well-loved local boy, the safety of a roof over her head and food at her table, had seemed like the highest bar Kelly could reach.

“Oh, I doubt that,” the woman said.  “Everyone has a story.”

Something about the rich caramel in her voice, the solid weight of her hand on Kelly’s, the conspiratorial twinkle in her eye, all convinced Kelly, though she didn’t know why exactly, to talk.  And once she got started, as the woman cooed affirmations and tenderly held her hand, Kelly found that she couldn’t stop.  She laid out all of her broken pieces – her sorrows, her regrets, her shame, her dreams – and began to feel lighter with every word.

“Darling,” said the woman, “how much you’ve been through, and you can’t be more than thirty.  But look,” and she motioned out of the window, “we’re here now.”

“We are!”  Kelly hadn’t noticed the plane descending, through layers of clouds and above crystal blue water and white sand.  “I’ve talked your ear off!  I’m so sorry.”

“No, on the contrary, I enjoyed your story.  I’ll keep it close, just like the others I’ve collected.  And I hope you find your burden lighter.”

Kelly thought for a moment.  There had been a burden, hadn’t there?  She’d been worried about something, hadn’t she, frightened even, when she stepped onto this plane?  Only she wasn’t sure now.  Perhaps it was the champagne, she thought.  To be polite, she replied, “I’m sure I will,” and, “thank you.”

“Thank you,” said the woman, and stood to begin a slow walk down the aisle of the plane, humming lightly as she went.

Kelly stood up, as well, and grabbed her overhead bag.  She wandered off the plane and into the terminal, daydreaming about dewy air and warm saltwater.

Blue Water

She thought of nights spent listening to the sound of waves lapping on the shore, and of being alone in a pillowy bed with a good book.

She felt a nagging tug, though, somewhere in the back of her mind, that an empty bed would be terribly lonely, and that the beach would be sticky and too hot, and she wondered if she shouldn’t move to the mountains.  A small town in the mountains, perhaps, where she would meet a rugged, handsome man, and live a simple, charmed life.

**********

The woman watched Kelly go, though Kelly would hardly have noticed.  Her job done, and the fine, wispy strand of story and memory tucked firmly into her palm, the woman turned and walked to Gate A6.  She tucked Kelly’s story into a handkerchief, glowing faintly and still humming a sad, hollow tune, and placed it in her pocket.  She sat down beside a young lady in black leggings and an oversize sweater, with her arm in a sling and a backpack resting on her thighs.

“It won’t be long now,” the woman said.  She ran a hand with sparkling, black nails through her hair, now worn in loose, blonde curls streaked with bright blue.

The young lady turned.  “Huh?”

“Our flight boards in fifteen minutes.  Tell me, are you traveling for business or pleasure?”

The young lady thought for a moment, and said, “Both.  Or neither?  I’m not so sure.”  A tear slid down one cheek, and she adjusted her sling at her shoulder.

“Well, why don’t you tell me all about it?  Maybe I can help you decide.”  The woman smiled, and watched as the young lady’s expression went slack, and then sharp again.

“I don’t know where to start,” she said, but she did start, and she laid out her troubles and her dreams, and the woman listened.

The woman always went where she was needed, and she was always needed.  She never had a moment to feel bored or lonely, because some poor soul was always wishing for an escape, a new start free from pain or fear.  It was a delicate and a daunting job, collecting these stories, weaving them into an even thread that could be pulled out clean and quick.  How fragile, the woman thought, were stories and memories, and how easy they were, once the thread was done, to take forever, and how little they were missed.

**This is the first in a series of stories I’m planning to post.  I’ll write more about it soon.**

Beginnings and Endings

For many people, and for me, most years, January is the time for new beginnings.  My January started with an ending.

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Betty Lou McGhee Osborne, October 4, 1929 – January 14, 2020

This is a picture of my sweet grandmother as a teenager.  I like this one, because she’s smiling, and she always hated pictures of herself and never really smiled in them.  I would give just about anything in the world to see her smile again.

Losing my grandmother is hard enough.  Knowing that I’ve now lost my last grandparent is jarring, overwhelming, weird, and sad.  It’s like losing pathways in my life.  It’s an odd, sort of melancholy feeling, knowing that roads you’ve always taken, houses you’ve always visited, rooms you’ve slept in, kitchens you’ve eaten in, hills you’ve always known, are lost to you now.  Sure, you can go back to visit, but you’ll never go back in the same way.  You’ll never go back and find home.

So, where do I go from here?  Lots of people have asked this question, I’m sure, and I know I’m lucky to be asking it in my thirties, and not any sooner.  But you never really have enough time with the people you love.

Writing now, suffering through my second horrible upper respiratory infection of the season, pondering loss, I’m quite glad to say goodbye to January 2020.  See you again never, you shameless bully.

I know there are brighter days coming, and I’ve made lots of plans.  Sometimes, you just have to keep going with pieces missing.  Every beginning has an ending, and sometimes, you just have to start there.

A Virginia Writer Goes to the Land of Fire and Ice

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A view of the water on Highway 47 around Hvalfjörður.

Funny story: Graham and I went to Iceland in March, I blinked, and now it’s nearly September.

I really have struggled with what to say in this post.  There are blog posts and articles all over the Internet about what to do in Iceland, how to save money, what to bring, and what you should know before you go.  The market for advice is…well, just a little saturated.  Not unlike my hair, my clothes, and my hiking boots after walking behind Seljalandsfoss on a damp day.

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Seljalandsfoss in south Iceland.

Worth it? Oh, absolutely.

With the collapse of WOW air and the rising sentiment that Iceland has become too much of a magnet for Millennials seeking adventure in its windswept landscapes, several of my friends asked me, when Graham and I got back, if our trip was worth it.  Worth the cost, worth the time, worth fighting the hordes of other eager tourists looking to catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights and bathe in crystal blue waters.

Again – oh, absolutely.

So, instead of doling out advice that you can find elsewhere, I’m just going to tell you why, even now that you can’t score super-cheap WOW air tickets (spoiler: we flew Icelandiar and it was great) and even now that Greenland is the new hotness, you should absolutely, 1000%, without any hesitation book your trip to Iceland.

The tourist spots are actually worth a stop.

We’ve all been there – trapped in a cramped elevator on the Eiffel Tower, stuck behind some wailing kid while you’re trying to snap a picture of the Grand Canyon, desperately huffing it up the hill at Edinburgh Castle just barely managing to keep up with the tour guide.  In these moments, many of us – yes, even avid adventurers – can succumb to our lesser instincts and wonder, is this worth the hassle?  Well, yeah, of course it is, and Iceland is no different.

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Kirkjufell, on the Snæfellsnesnes peninsula in the west.

You should absolutely see the geysers, pet the shaggy ponies, scale the craters, and walk along the black sand beaches.

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Strokkur, on the Golden Circle.

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A thermal field along the Golden Circle, near Geysir.

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Kerið, a volcanic crater lake on the Golden Circle.

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A fluffy Icelandic horse I tried to make friends with on the Golden Circle.  He wasn’t interested.

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Reynisfjara Beach, facing Dyrhólaey, near Vík.

Go play in a glacier lagoon and spot diamonds on the shore.

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The Diamond Beach on Iceland’s south coast.

Will you have to deal with people?  Sure, but they’re just as excited to be there as you are.  Just give each other space and be patient.  It is worth the hassle.  I promise.

And if you go in the winter or early spring, there are ice caves.

And they’re really, really cool.

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An ice cave on Vatnajökull, Europe’s largest glacier.

And they don’t all look the same.

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A black ice cave on Vatnajökull glacier.

A tour takes half a day.  You have time to do another cool thing in the morning, and then play in the ice all afternoon.  It’s kind of comforting to know that not all caves are dark and creepy.

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Layers of ice and ash.

My parents thought Graham and I were crazy to go to Iceland just when it was starting to warm up in Virginia, but if we’d gone in the summer, we would have totally missed this opportunity.

There’s plenty of culture and history to explore.

Iceland was first settled in 874 AD.  The country has a rich history.  Its people were and are a brave, hardy, and resourceful bunch.  You’ll spot history from the car driving to your next hotel.

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A traditional turf structure, on the road in south Iceland.

You’ll see it lauded in towns and cities.

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Lief Erikson, in Reykjavík.

And yes, there are museums, too.

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A ship on display in the Skógar Regional Museum.

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Traditional turf houses, which have been moved to the Skógar Regional Museum.

Don’t miss out on actually learning the history of this little island.  It will surprise you, and you’ll be better for knowing about it.

You don’t have to spend a ton of money on food and lodging. 

This was the view from our totally reasonably-priced Reykjavík hotel room:

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The view from our hotel room in Reykjavík.

And while we certainly splurged on a few meals, it’s not hard to find a quick bite.  Hot dogs are an Icelandic favorite, and they’re not expensive, and they’re pretty damn tasty.

Iceland is not the least expensive place Graham and I have ever visited, and if you fancy a beer or a cocktail, do be prepared to drop some coin.  But if you do your research and plan ahead, and if you aren’t visiting in the height of summer, your trip to Iceland won’t empty your bank account.

Icelanders have a sense of humor.

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The Monument to the Unknown Bureaucrat, in Reykjavík.

They’re fun people, and they’ll appreciate your visit.

And they’re artistic, literary, and whimsical.

Did you know that Iceland is one of the most literate nations in the world?  Or that one in ten Icelanders will publish a book?  If you like reading or art, you’ll be happy in Iceland.

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Artwork on the side of a building in Reykjavík.

There’s also some stunning architecture.  This…

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Hallgrímskirkja, the cathedral in Reykjavík.

…was inspired by this:

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Basalt columns at Reynisfjara Beach.

You might even see a troll or two.

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A statue of Bárður Snæfellsás in Arnarstapi, a village on the Snaefellsnes peninsula.

Iceland is really just heartbreakingly beautiful.

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A view we happened upon when we made a wrong turn onto a dirt road, near Hvalfjörður.

Just look at it.

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Another view of Hvalfjörður.

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Þingvallavatn, the largest natural lake in Iceland.

You can see waterfalls, black sand beaches, glaciers, and mountains all in one day.

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Skaftafell National Park, near Öræfi in southeast Iceland.

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A pretty little waterfall we spotted from the road.

You can walk along a tectonic divide.

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Þingvellir National Park.

If you’re lucky, you can catch a glimpse of the aurora (probably while you’re driving and your camera equipment is packed into the back of the car and you need to take pictures quickly with your cell phone or else you’ll miss it…do find a safe place to pull over).

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Blurry cell phone photo 1.

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Blurry cell phone photo 2, with extra blurry stars.

The landscape in Iceland is unlike any other place in the world. Go see it.

If I haven’t convinced you to buy a plane ticket by now, let me leave you with this.

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Gullfoss.

That mythical, dreamland Somewhere over the rainbow?  I found it.  It’s Iceland.

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I don’t remember where this is, but isn’t it gorgeous?

Have you booked your trip yet?