October Stories #4: Regret Won’t Die

Here it is, folks – the final post in this limited series. For the others, go here, here, and here.

I’ve really enjoyed sharing these incomplete snippets! It’s intimidating to post things that are unfinished and largely unedited, but it’s also sort of freeing. It’s a good reminder that, when it comes to writing, something is better than nothing. You can’t build sandcastles without sand. Just getting something down on the page is the most important thing.

This particular piece is more a pre-writing exercise than anything, creating a character and a history to build on, inspired by a trip I took (I think I was on it while I was writing this) to the Eastern Shore of Virginia. I imagined this story as a psychological mystery/thriller, with a ghostly component. I liked the idea of exploring regret and isolation, of looking at how running away isn’t a solution, and how old hurts and bad thoughts, unchecked and pushed away, can be debilitatingly toxic.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this series! I’ll try to think of some others I can put together in the future. In the meantime, thank you for reading! (And check back on Wednesday for a complete short story for October. It’s going to be a good one!)

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Laura Fuller had always envied her cousin’s hair. Lyla Henry had deep auburn hair that glowed copper in the sunlight, and bright green eyes with fiery gold flecks. Laura’s own hair was dull blonde, almost gray, and her eyes were brown. Just brown. Lyla’s alabaster skin shimmered like a pearl. Laura’s was tawny, always tan, even in winter. 

One night, when Lyla and her parents had come for a visit, Laura had teased knots into Lyla’s hair as she slept. The next morning, Lyla had sniffled, resigned, as she watched the tangled mess fall to the floor, lobbed off with kitchen scissors. One summer, as they lay on a blanket under a blistering hot sun, Laura watched as Lyla’s milky white skin turned deep purple.  She’d replaced Lyla’s sunscreen with coconut-scented lotion. Laura broke Lyla’s glasses, put baby oil in her shampoo, sprinkled pepper in her soda. Any petty, unkind thing. When Lyla cried, Laura smiled. 

When Laura learned that Lyla’s parents had died, and that Lyla would be coming to live at her own house, she spent the whole night outside wrapped in a blanket, lying with her back on the ground and her feet propped into the tire swing, staring up at an unfriendly moon in an angry sky threatening rain.

Laura believed that we must be born with the ability to hate, because she had hated Lyla, who was chatty and funny and kind, for as long as she could remember. Next to Lyla, she felt dirty and clumsy. At sixteen, Laura could muster only mild sympathy, and a bit of ruthless satisfaction, knowing that Lyla had nothing, no parents and no home and no love.  And for that, she felt awful all over again. Why had Lyla been born gentle and beautiful, while she had been born bitter and spiteful?

Lyla settled in quickly, but she cried into her pillow at night when she thought no one would hear. She shared Laura’s room, and the day she moved in, she made Laura a throw pillow with lace and sequins to put on her bed. She’d sewn a picture of the two of them into the stuffing, and made herself one to match. Lyla helped Laura’s mother with the dishes after dinner, and swept every other day. Laura seethed, and spent hours reading books and lying in bed. Lyla exceled in school, made a large group of friends, and went to the movies every Friday. She put a picture of her parents on her bedside table, and kissed it each night before going to sleep.  Laura hid the picture under some blankets in her closet. While Lyla searched, Laura stepped outside to watch the birds in the garden.

About a year later, Lyla didn’t come home for dinner after studying with friends at the library, Laura felt relieved to have one night alone. When the police found Lyla’s hat and gloves in a ditch the very next day, Laura worried, and cried for Lyla for the first time in her life. When her mother hosted a funeral service, with a casket filled with Lyla’s favorite books and photos, and the pillow she’d sewn to match Laura’s, Laura spent the night again wrapped in a blanket in the garden, with her back on the ground and her feet propped into the tire swing.

********

Laura and Lyla were connected, had always been connected, born two days apart to two twin sisters. When Laura had fallen and scraped her knee, Lyla’s had scabbed over. If Lyla should happen to trip on the stairs, Laura would stumble. And when Laura felt angry and hateful toward Lyla, Lyla would stare into Laura’s eyes with a deep ache in her own.

On the night Lyla disappeared, Laura dreamed of wind and weeds. She dreamed of dirt and dark. In the wind she heard howls, and in the weeds she smelled blood. When she did wake, twisted in a heap of blankets on her bed, she heard only the sound of crickets and clocks, the quiet, calm noises of an old house, and she knew that her dream was real. Laura felt empty and incomplete, as if a part of her was missing, gone, murdered. Whoever had taken Lyla had taken a part of Laura too.      

The police never arrested anyone, and they never found Lyla. Laura spent the next two years, until she turned eighteen, haunted by bad memories. If she found a copper hair strewn across her pillow, if she found a picture of Lyla and her parents in a desk drawer, if she felt someone behind her walking in the woods, or gentle hands on her back as she brooded in the tire swing, Laura feared that Lyla was there, or had been there. Laura became so apprehensive and nervous that any drop of hatred in her body dried up, became hard and heavy, sitting in her chest like a stone, growing mossy, dark black with mold. Some days she could smell damp on her breath, the earthy mushroom scent of that jagged rock in her core, odious and acrid.

********

On the day she turned eighteen, Laura purged her room of all signs of Lyla. Any picture, any stuffed animal, any book or belt or piece of jewelry. She stuffed the pillow Lyla had crafted into the bottom drawer of her dresser. She put fresh yellow roses on Lyla’s empty grave, and promised that she would never worry about a breath on her cheek in the night or a presence behind her as she walked. She went to college, and spent the next four years practicing forgetting her cousin. But she felt the stone in her gut dig deeper, carve out a larger cavity, and sink into her, heavy and unbreakable.  She wondered again why she had been born only to hate and hurt.      

********

Out of college and living at home, Laura began again to feel the breath on her cheek as she slept.  She dreamed only bad dreams, and spent her days groggy and silent. When she found an old picture of Lyla lying on her dresser, she knew Lyla lived in that house still, and was watching.

Laura moved, when she was twenty-two, across the country, to a sparsely populated island on the eastern shore of Virginia. She lived with an acquaintance of her mother, who was elderly and needed help with housekeeping and grocery shopping. She settled into her small bedroom, into her routine of housework and errands, and thought very seldom of Lyla, or of the stone still nestled inside her. She wrote editorial columns and feature articles for a local paper. She learned to bake soufflé and to play piano. She read at night on the porch, and listened to the distant clamor of gently crashing waves. 

She made friends with the locals and spent quiet evenings at the table playing cards and eating cookies. Sometimes, in between sleep and wake, she dreamed of Lyla humming, or sometimes, whispering.

Find me. I’m here. I’m not gone.

October Stories #3: A Little Christmas

*For the first two posts in this limited series, go here and here.*

I’ve been working on some version of the story this scene comes from since 2016. It’s a story about a house, a family, a legacy, and what it means to come home again. I don’t know why I’ve never finished it. I suspect it’s a bit too close to my heart. I’ve loved and hated writing it, and it’s given me more trouble than it will perhaps ever be worth. We’ll see.

Enjoy this bit, though, and be sure to check back next week for the last October Stories post! (And thank you for reading!)

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The dark tree limbs meandered like streams against a bright midnight sky, black, gnarly rivulets creaking with the howling wind. Tall grasses, waiting to be baled into winding bundles of hay, swayed back and forth. The craggy fields sat silent, waiting for the promise of Christmas snow. How many years since Tess had seen a winter in this hollow? 

Eight Christmases away, eight in the bustle and traffic and lights of the city, attending party after party and trying to build some reputation in the world. Wrapped tightly in a sturdy handmade quilt, Tess certainly didn’t envy the partygoers now.

As she sat, alone except for Charlie, in front of the glimmering embers of the fireplace, she thought of all of those wasted holidays. How many red velvet cakes had she missed? How many cups of Christmas custard? How lonely, now, the last Taylor woman, waiting along with the empty fields and valleys for that first flake of mountain snow.

From somewhere in the belly of the house, Tess heard a step, a sigh, the creak of a door upstairs. Perhaps not so alone, she thought, and scratched Charlie’s wrinkled head.

“Charlie,” she whispered, watching his ears perk up and his eyes remain closed. Did he feel it too? This was home, and you’re supposed to be home at Christmas. Even the house, standing tall and dark and steady against the winter wind, seemed content to have a Taylor home.

October Stories #2: Final Wishes

*If you didn’t catch the start of this limited series, check out this post: October Stories #1. If you did and you’re back for more, welcome back, and thank you!*

A few years ago, I had a weird dream. This happens frequently, but my dreams usually aren’t vivid enough to warrant writing them down. This dream was different, and it inspired me to start the story I’m sharing today. I think about this one from time to time, but I’ve never come back to it. Maybe one day.

Anyway, enjoy! And come back next week. 😉

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To anyone else, the door at the end of the hallway was just that – a door. And not a very interesting one.  It was regularly tall, wooden, with panels in the standard places, and a simple brass doorknob. No light peeked out from underneath it, and the usual person looking at it would think, quite reasonably, that it opened to a narrow set of stairs leading up to a dusty old attic filled with boxes and crates brimming with the collected junk of a thousand yesterdays.

Sara Smith, however, and despite her entirely common name, was not a usual person. And her parents knew it.

All parents think their children are special. “Jack rides his tricycle faster than any other boy on the block,” a parent might say. “Yes, well, Jane is already writing in cursive and her fingers can barely fit around the pen,” another might reply.  

Sara’s parents, sitting in the parlor with other families sharing lunch or tea, would change the subject. “The weather’s been lovely this summer,” they might suggest. Or sometimes, “I hear the spring festival this year is supposed to draw twice the normal crowd.” The conversation would then move on toward topics unrelated to children and their small but noteworthy accomplishments, at least for the next several minutes, and Bill and Anna Smith would look at each other and breathe two syncopated but inconspicuous sighs of relief.

Because Sara Smith was not a usual child. 

Her birth was normal enough, if a bit early. She’d been a normally happy baby. She’d even liked prunes, though when her mother thought of that now, she wondered if it might have been the first sign that something was not quite usual. As Sara had grown, she’d hit her milestones right on schedule. She learned to babble and then to talk, to crawl and then to toddle and then to walk and then to run, to sound words and then to read them, and she’d even broken her arm trying to climb a tree when she was five. She liked unicorns, princesses, coloring books, and, much to her mother’s dismay, the color pink. 

One night, when Sara was six and three months, and playing in the nursery her parents had set up in the bright, airy attic of their quaint, cozy house, her mother had come up to check on her. In between giggles, she’d heard Sara talking. 

“My mommy says it’s good to be helpful and to share.”

Silence.

“I don’t know how, but I’ll try.”

Silence.

“You’re welcome. I like your necklace. It’s shiny.”

Silence.

“Sara,” her mother called, “who are you talking to?”

“The nice old lady,” Sara replied. “She wants me to help her.”

“With what?” Anna Smith was proud that her daughter was playing at helping.

“She says she’s not alive anymore and her son is sad and I should let him know that she’s okay and that the combination to the safe is seven seven three nine. That’s a really big number, isn’t it, Mommy?”

“Yes,” Anna replied, “it is.” She didn’t know what else to say.

Looking back, Bill and Anna Smith always thought of that moment as the one that changed everything, because it was the moment they knew that Sara, their happy, normal, freckled, giggly daughter, could see ghosts.

Sara Smith was not a usual child. And to anyone else, the door at the end of the hallway was just a door. But to Sara Smith, it was the entrance to her very special workshop.

October Stories #1: A Spooky Prologue to an Incomplete Tale

I love a good ghost story. When people ask me if my house is haunted, I’m always just a little disappointed to say, “No, I don’t think so. Probably. Most of the time.”

Since it’s October, I’ve been thinking a lot about ghost stories. I actually think a lot about ghost stories a lot of the time. October just gives me a convenient excuse to let my weirdo flag fly. I think a lot of people think about ghost stories, because ghost stories are, at their hearts, human stories. Whether they’re psychological, tragic, uplifting, or frightening, ghost stories are fundamentally human. Most of us are curious about what will happen to us when we die, and ghost stories give us a tangible, palatable way to explore that curiosity.

I write a lot of ghost stories. Or, I should say, I start a lot of ghost stories. I seldom finish them. But I thought it would be kind of fun to share some of these abandoned pieces with you, for the month of October. Expect a post each week this month (four total), starting today, with what I thought might be the prologue to a ghostly murder mystery, inspired by my own longstanding (and admittedly strange) hobby of reading palms. A prologue is, so far, all it’s become. But I hope you enjoy it, fragment though it may be, and come back in the next few weeks for more.

*And a disclaimer – many of these are old, some of them are unedited, all of them are incomplete. Writing is messy work. But it sure is fun. And if you particularly like one of these, feel free to leave a comment! Maybe you’ll inspire me to get back to work on it. So with that in mind, into the ghostly ether we go!*

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In my dream, I’m trying my best to ignore the sounds of someone crying in the room outside the kitchen. My mother is at the stove, worrying over the kettle, and I’m putting two tea bags into a chipped mug I got out of the sink. I take the mug over, and she pours the water and walks away, and then I’m alone and waiting to be allowed in my own living room again. Customers don’t like children, I’ve been told, and I can’t read yet anyway.

I know this is a dream because I know what happens next, but I never see it. Before the preacher slings the hot tea in my mother’s face for what she’s told him, before he slams the door and says we’re both damned to Hell, before my mother comes back into the kitchen to wipe her red, burned cheeks with a dirty dish towel, and before she tells me that a fortuneteller’s life is no life for anyone, I will wake up. 

I’ll startle out of sleep and my hazy mind will muster whatever sense it has in the middle of the night to remember that my life is different, that I have built a better future, and that my mother has been dead for three years. I will remind myself that I haven’t read a single palm since the accident, and that it wasn’t my fault.

This I will tell myself over and over, “not my fault one, not my fault two,” counting my own reassurances the way that other people count sheep, until I fall back into an uncertain sleep and dream, again, of subtle lines in rough hands and the dangerous secrets they whisper to the few who can hear them. I will see my mother’s face, her wide green eyes sad and certain, resigned to the fate that I’ve read for her, my first and last paying customer. The lines will tell you everything, she reminds me, even if you’re not ready to listen. I’ll wake again and remind myself that I’m not listening. Not anymore. Not ever again. 

This life might be no life for anyone, but I don’t know if it will ever let me go.    

What’s your writing routine?

The short answer is: It is not.

I read this book recently, which gives brief descriptions of the routines of famous writers, artists, and other creatives.

I’d recommend it, if you’re looking for a fun, quick read. And it did get me thinking.

When I decided to pursue writing as more than just a hobby, I thought I’d develop a routine and habits, in the same way I’d developed them working in an office – a 9:00 a.m. coffee, a quick walking break mid-day, a late afternoon rush of productivity. But that never happened. I do write a fair amount, most weeks, but never on any kind of schedule, and never as part of a regular practice. And when people ask what my routine is, I never really know what to say.

“Well, while still in last night’s pajamas, I sit in the recliner in my living room and I drink coffee until I’m jittery, and then I type frantically on my laptop until something happens. And then I keep at it until it’s done, which is sort of indeterminate and looks different every day, but I really can’t focus on anything else until I hit some kind of stopping point and please don’t ask me to. And then it’s usually time to eat something or at least drink water because I’ve forgotten to do that all day.”

Like, is that a routine? That doesn’t seem like a routine. But it works for me, at least most of the time.

Though I hate to be asked, I confess I do find it fascinating how different people approach the act of creating. I feel like it’s deeply personal to each creator, and that’s probably why it’s often hard to explain. Or, for some, why it’s easy.

Write a poem in 250 characters or less! (Or, let me tell you about my impostor syndrome.)

Last year, I wrote a poem for Button Poetry’s Short Form Contest. I liked the poem I wrote, though it didn’t win. It later became “Unrequited,” and I’m quite proud of it.

As of last year, I’d never entered any of my creative writing into any contest, ever. Not even in college, when I sat on the editorial board of a literary magazine and could have easily, albeit not entirely fairly, included one of my pieces in the publication. (I wouldn’t have done that. I promise.) I’ve always been timid about my own work.

I realize that I have major impostor syndrome. I’ve never published anything, and I’m terrified to submit my writing to agents and publishers. I’m always far more impressed with what I read from others than with what I write myself. I feel, often, like my creative work is clunky, dull, trite, and uninspired. Not always, but often. It can be discouraging, maddening, and sometimes, debilitating.

To be clear, I’m not looking for sympathy. I think this is a battle many creative people fight every day. Some days, I win. Some days, I…stare at a blank screen and procrastinate and (not infrequently) cry, and I definitely don’t win. But on the good days, when everything comes together, I feel like I’ve made magic, and that keeps me working – through the fear, through the doubt, through the impostor syndrome. And I see that you can’t be an impostor in your own life.

The Short Form Contest requires a submission of 250 characters or less. That’s characters, not words. It can be a poem on its own, or an excerpt from a larger piece. When I discovered the contest last year, I felt…I don’t know, compelled to enter. 250 characters? I wouldn’t feel that bad being rejected over 250 characters. Very few people can do something amazing with 250 characters, right? And so, I entered the contest, knowing my poem wouldn’t be selected, and I felt good. It felt amazing just to put something out there.

So, I entered again this year, with a poem inspired by one of my mom’s favorite books, Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach. (I’m helping my mom start her own business, and she was on my mind.)

I like my poem less than last year’s, but I put it out there, because why not? And I feel good. Maybe I’ll enter some other contests this year, or even submit work to some publications or agents. Maybe this is the year. We’ll see, and until then, I’ll keep writing. I hope, if you’re struggling, you keep writing (or creating whatever you create), too.

Oh, and if you want to read the poem I submitted this year, here it is. Enjoy!

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You should have known

I am more than the wings you tried to clip

I am more than meant to fly

You should have known

I am too much to trap and tether

and you are too small to try

Seagull 6

I will never stop learning.

Here’s something I know: I am white.

rehearsal - 087

Here are a few things I also know, because I am white:

I have never had to change how I speak, dress, or do my hair for people to take me seriously and respect my intellect. I have never feared for my life during a police encounter, or worried that, should I be pulled over for a minor offense like speeding, I could be removed from my car and restrained, searched, or handcuffed for no stated reason. I have never questioned my place in society, my ability to access educational institutions, or how others see my humanity. I have never, ever been the minority in any room, ever. I have never been asked if I own my property. I have never been told to “act white.” No one has ever called the police on me for walking in a park, having a barbecue, selling bottled water, or playing with a toy in a public space. No one has ever asked me if my hair is real, and I can go to pretty much any stylist I want to get my hair done. No one has ever attacked me, hurt me, lied about me, or threatened me when I’ve shared my thoughts and stood up for what I believe in. There are no mechanisms of power currently in place to curtail my rights and opportunities in this society, and almost all of my elected leaders look like me. I know that I will be given the benefit of the doubt in my interactions with authorities and employers. I know I will never be treated poorly when moving into a “nice” neighborhood, and that an overwhelming majority of people living in that “nice” neighborhood will look like me. I know that my name will never be laughed at or questioned. I know my family’s name and history going back generations, because they were not stolen from my ancestors, and because my ancestors were not brought to this country in chains.

That’s a lot, right? And these are not things I know because they’ve been taught to me in school. I’ve not read them in books. These are things I know because I live in a society that looks at whiteness as standard, as normal and basic, and everything else as different and other, and, in the worst cases, as dangerous and threatening. These are things I’ve internalized, been born into, without even realizing it.

I’ve always considered myself a smart, curious person, and so it’s been humbling, humiliating, and eye-opening to realize just how much I don’t know about my own country’s history, and how much I didn’t truly understand about how people of color experience life here. As I’ve come to see just how many gaps I have in my knowledge, I’ve been doing a lot of reading (and a little bit of watching). There are lots of lists out there right now for people who want to learn. Here’s one, and another. Here’s one for children. And here’s one for movies, if that’s more your style. And one more. I don’t want to rehash these lists, and I certainly don’t think I can put together anything better, but I do want to share, because people have asked me, just what I’ve been reading and watching.

MEMOIRS AND NON-FICTION

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Between the World and Me

A memoir from father to son. Powerful, emotional, personal, eloquent. I’d wanted to read this one for a long time. I’m glad I finally did. I cried a lot.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

Devastating, heartbreaking, and inspiring. I read this in college, about thirteen years ago. I felt like it was important to revisit it now, in this moment, with older eyes and more life experience. I was right. And, also, I cried a lot.

White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for What People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo

White Fragility

Helpful, but humbling. It’s worth noting that this is written by a white person, and specifically targets a white audience.

White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide by Carol Anderson

White Rage

Shocking, eye-opening. I needed a drink once I finished this one. I couldn’t believe just how much I hadn’t learned in school. It made me angry, and then made me sad, and then made me resolve to keep learning.

ARTICLES

“The Case for Reparations” by Ta-Nehisi Coates

“Now we have half-stepped away from our long centuries of despoilment, promising, ‘Never again.’ But still we are haunted. It is as though we have run up a credit-card bill and, having pledged to charge no more, remain befuddled that the balance does not disappear. The effects of that balance, interest accruing daily, are all around us.”

“How I Discovered I am White” by renegademama

“In other words, it’s ‘white’ until further notice. It’s ‘white’ until proven otherwise. It’s ‘white’ or it’s the ‘other,’ and it has nothing to do with actual numbers, percentages of ‘minority’ population. It has to do with power. It has to do with the culture of power. What do I mean? If a comedy film features a white family, it’s a comedy. If it features a black family, it’s a comedy for people of color. Think about it.”

“It’s Time to Listen and Believe” by Ben R. Williams

“But when someone points to the iconography of the Civil War era and says, with heart-breaking honesty, that those symbols are a painful daily reminder of the horror that their ancestors endured? When someone says that many of these symbols were erected during the Civil Rights era to intimidate people like them and keep them in line?

My responsibility is to listen to them and believe them.

When someone tells you what hurts them, you don’t get to tell them they’re wrong.”

MOVIES

13th

This was so, so hard to watch. But is so, so important to watch. You think slavery is a thing of the past? This documentary will make you think again.

C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America

A mockumentary that plays with the idea that the Confederacy won the Civil War.

WHAT’S NEXT?

How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi

How to Be an Antiracist

I’m reading this one now, and I’m a little less than halfway through. So far, I’m struck by Kendi’s honesty, and this book feels very personal and intimate.

Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor by Layla F. Saad

Me and White Supremacy

This one was recommended to me by a friend. I’m intrigued and excited by the title and the premise. I’ll probably start on it next week.

The Pittsburgh Cycle by August Wilson

This is a collection of ten plays, each of which takes place in a different decade of the 20th century. I read all ten in college, and I think it’s time to reread them. They made a huge impact on me back then, and I expect they’ll do it all over again.

This is not a conclusive list, and I am not done. I won’t ever be done. I will keep learning, because even though I am sad, ashamed, and exhausted, it is my responsibility to educate myself and be better.

I’ve been encouraging others to do the same. It has not always gone well. It’s hard to hear that your people are the villains in someone’s story. It’s hard to see that your ancestors weren’t on the right side of history. It’s hard to contend with being part of systems you didn’t build and didn’t notice but have still benefitted from. I know that. I’m struggling with it, too. But it’s a necessary struggle, and it’s part of a necessary change that’s incredibly, tragically overdue.

Share Your Shakespeare

“Shakespeare – the nearest thing in incarnation to the eye of God.” –Laurence Olivier

Books

I got my first book of Shakespeare’s plays in middle school.  I won’t pretend that I could actually read them, but they waited for me.  The best stories do that.  And Shakespeare told the best stories.

When I was in high school, I had the opportunity to play Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  I’d like to think I did well.  Whether I did or not, I enjoyed just being able to take part in a little piece of Shakespeare’s world.

Hermia

Yeah, that’s me, in high school, trying to claw out Helena’s eyes.  I’m not sure why the guy behind me is wearing an M&M shirt.  High school’s a strange time.

In college, I decided to study literature, and read a paper at a Shakespeare conference at the Virginia Military Institute.  My paper…did not win, but again, I felt fortunate to just be involved.

I still read Shakespeare.  Pretty frequently, in fact.  I’m not going to wax poetic about Shakespeare’s influence on…well, everything…because I don’t know that I could cover it all in one blog post.  I think the most wonderful thing about Shakespeare’s body of work is just how interdisciplinary and universal it is – there’s something for the readers, the psychologists, the sociologists, the historians, the philosophers, and, of course, the actors.  There’s even a little something for the conspiracy theorists.  There’s a reason Shakespeare is still with us, hundreds of years after his death and several evolutions of our language later.  Very few writers observe and capture so well all of the best and the worst of humanity.

And so, today, on the day that we celebrate the birthday of the Bard, and in the spirit of the theatre, revelry, and bringing literature to life – and embracing our own flawed humanity – here’s my Shakespeare:

I probably should have warned you that I’m no actor.  But, come on, everyone recites Shakespeare when they drink wine, right? RIGHT?!  Anyway, you don’t have to be a great actor to enjoy Shakespeare.  He gave all of us plenty to love, whether we experience it on the stage or on the page.

And there’s something comforting about knowing that long after I’m gone, and hopefully this video is, too, Shakespeare will still be here.

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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