Writers

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On going back and forth.

Published August 7, 2019 by mandileighbean

I feel like this summer has mostly been a disappointment. This is mostly my own fault for being lazy and creating grandiose expectations to which no mortal, or season, could live up to. Then again, I reason I shouldn’t be so hard on myself because “summertime sadness” is more than just a popular song. It’s a real thing and I’ve decided the best way to combat it is to be productive and to always keep moving forward.

I wish someone would tell my subconscious. I keep having dreams that are mostly ominous.

For example, the night before last, I had a dream (that I can only piece together in vague shades as it rapidly faded in the ways that dreams do) where I was being chased throughout my childhood home and into its backyard by a tyrannical T-Rex who roared and roared out orders. My family and friends were warning me not to run, feared I would make things worse, but eventually everyone started running with me. And apparently, dreaming of dinosaurs indicates that it’s time for the dreamer to put things behind her and she symbolizes she is stuck in a situation holding her back. Well, that makes perfect sense to me; this is the first summer in six that I haven’t been rushing to my cell phone, hoping and praying for a text message, that I haven’t invented reasons to reach out, only to end up disappointed and ashamed. It’s hard to move on from someone who embodied all your future happiness (or so you thought) but it’s good when that someone is only narcissistic and manipulative.

But then my dream shifted and I was in the room I was sleeping in and unable to turn the lights on. They would flicker dimly and turn off no matter how many times I flicked the switch. To dream of lights that do not work as they should could represent a lack of insight, and could also mean the dreamer is unable to feel that safety is under her control. I don’t feel I’m in any kind of danger, but I most certainly understand the lack of insight; I never know what the hell I’m doing. And studying in Ireland is something I want to do and am afraid to do. It’s much easier to stay exactly where I am, after all.

But then my dream shifted again; I was driving over low bridges over water in Florida while I was panicking because I was late for work in New Jersey. This apparently symbolizes that an important decision must be made because the dreamer is at a critical junction in her life and might have to defend herself against others in her decision to grab an opportunity. Well, holy shit; Ireland it is.

But when I went to the high school where I teach to help with a fundraiser for the Executive Board of the Student Government Association, which I co-advise, I brought up the idea of taking a sabbatical to study in Ireland to my principal, whom I love and admire. And he told me no. He said I was too valuable, which is nice to hear, but he wouldn’t even entertain the conversation. I don’t think he’d actually deny me and I’m flattered by his sentiment, but I want to go. I want to study in Limerick for a year.

Later that night, I had a dream I witnessed a horrible, horrifying car accident, which is a very bad omen. But today, I received an email from Professor Joseph O’Connor from the University of Limerick. He sent me information about the Creative Writing program. I’d have to apply, offer up 3,000 words of original work to be judged. That’s terrifying; what if they say no? What if I’m not good enough? I’m sure I’d be accepted for continuing studying literature, but to be told no is still daunting.

I’m printing out a lame picture from the internet that looks like this:what-if-i-fall-oh-but-my-darling-what-if-44300870

Guess it’s time for me to soar. I’m going to request a phone appointment with the woman from the University of Limerick in charge of international students.

On adventures, especially the small ones.

Published July 3, 2019 by mandileighbean

ulfrankmccourt

I didn’t write a single entry for the month of June. I had drafts, but I never published a single entry. June was a rough, tough month for me; the end of the school year is always a hectic time, and there were financial and personal woes that kept me distracted, but the adventure – albeit a small one – I was psyching myself up for at the end of the month was a real blessing and a real game changer. Essentially, I’m saying that I’m glad I held off so I could post a love letter to The University of Limerick/Frank McCourt Creative Writing Summer School. It’s been about a year since I left a writing conference brimming with such admiration and inspiration and affection, and I’m excited to tell you all about it.

I attended the conference with a colleague who was my former English teacher and is now a very good friend. We headed into New York City during the later hours of Thursday morning. We checked into our hotel and spruced ourselves up before heading to an exclusive, invitation only reception at the Irish Consulate. I can’t remember feeling as privileged and elegant as I did that night. On the seventeenth floor of an intimidating building on Park Avenue, we were treated to passed hors d’oeuvres and wine and the wonderful joviality that seems to be exclusive to the Irish. Ellen and Malachy McCourt were present, relations of the Irish writer Frank McCourt, in whose honor the Summer School was started. Frank McCourt and his book Angela’s Ashes hold very special places in my heart because his book was the very first, and perhaps the only book, I remember my entire family reading. I’m talking my grandparents, my parents, my siblings, my aunts, and my uncles, and maybe even some cousins. Discussing that book with my extended family is one of my most cherished literary and familial memories, so to be in that elegant room with windows overlooking Park Avenue and rubbing elbows with the Irish literary scene was surreal.

The school really kicked off on Friday afternoon, where all attending gathered at the Glucksman Ireland House for registration and orientation. We were split up into three seminar groups (A, B, and C) and each group took each Core Workshop. My colleague and I had the good fortune of being in the same group, group C. But before we split up, we all remained in the main lecture room for an introduction that outlined the aims of the weekend, and for a lecture by Professor Sarah Moore Fitzgerald that included writing exercises and covered self-motivation, plot, structure, and story.

sarah-moore-fitzgerald-407653063 Professor Sarah Moore Fitzgerald was an incredibly warm, energetic and passionate woman. She was an absolute joy to learn from. She told us all that “There really is no expertise … everyone comes to the blank page” and that blank page is a “real leveler.” The inclusive atmosphere she created was crucial to establishing the camaraderie that gradually built over the weekend between the attendees and the faculty. Her knowledge and encouragement will stay with me for a long time. Her author profile is here, on her publisher’s website.

After Professor Sarah Moore Fitzgerald’s lecture, my group and I traveled down a short, creaky staircase for our first Core Workshop: All We Shall Know: Short Stories to Novels, led by Professor Donal Ryan.

donalryan Professor Donal Ryan was just … cool. He put us all at ease with his humor but simultaneously managed to keep us all on our toes with his wit and insight into the creative process. He was honest and open and completely generous. He really drove home the point that the best kind of stories are character driven and beautiful in their simplicity, meaning just tell the story you want to tell. He played songs that captured this idea and pointed out how they did it in just a couple of verses and a chorus. He said, “Infinity is there for us as writers” because anyone can write about absolutely anything, and that can be overwhelming. So the key is to keep it simple: read and write to hone your craft, and to be almost mathematical about plot, pacing, and structure to sort of rein yourself in and not succumb to “the oppression of infinity.” Professor Donal Ryan’s author profile can be found here, on his publisher’s website. And this is a link to a wonderful article about Donal Ryan, which really captures the spirit of his approach to writing.

I was on cloud nine leaving the building after the first day, and things were only made better by having a delicious dinner at “Eataly.” The writer’s life is definitely the life for me, and I am forever indebted to my colleague for bringing this experience to my attention. I feel like a different person, and I feel like a better writer.

Saturday was a full day: we started earlier and ended later. We began again as a large group with Professor Sarah Moore Fitzgerald discussing plot, the importance of conflict in the plot, and she shared intimate details of her process as a writer of books for young adults. Again, she was passionate and vibrant and full of knowledge. I filled pages and pages of my notebook with notes; amazing.

After the main lecture, my group shuffled over to the second Core Workshop in the seminar room just inside the front door of the house. The workshop was titled Poetry in the House of Prose, and it was led by Dr. Martin Dyar.

M-Dyar-by-Fran-Marshall-1-960x675 Learning from Dr. Martin Dyar was an incredible experience, so much so that I find it difficult to put into words the transformative magic that occurred within the room as he spoke. Before the workshop, we were to read “The Swimmer” by John Cheever and a collection of poems curated by Dr. Dyar. He explored the connection between narrative writing and poetry with examples, and spoke so eloquently about the importance of both and how using them in tandem makes the beauty of the written word and of abstract thought more accessible to the reader. Like Professor Dolan Ryan, he talked about compression and how with writing, and especially with poetry, less is often more. I annotated all over the poem we focused on and was inspired not only as a writer, but as a teacher. His workshop was so important on so many different levels, and it’s always wonderful to talk with brilliant people, and he is absolutely brilliant. Dr. Martin Dyar’s profile and brief biography are featured on the Poetry Foundation’s website.

We broke for a quick lunch. I had ice cream. What an amazing, incredible day! And I was only halfway through it.

After lunch, my group had our final Core Workshop with Dr. Kerry Neville, titled Writing Memoir and Longer Fiction.

kerryneville Dr. Kerry Neville was beautiful and honest and brave and vulnerable, and just an artist in full. She had us write a story about ourselves to introduce ourselves and really demonstrated the magic in a good story and what it can do to create an understanding and a sense of community between people, specifically between an author and her readers. She really emphasized the point that no matter what you write, it’s your job to get it right, to give the story the dignity it deserves. Dr. Kerry Neville also had us bring in important photographs and write a sentence or two about why there were so important to us. I had a picture of my maternal grandparents celebrating St. Patrick’s Day some years ago, and I wrote about the connection between them and Frank McCourt and sharing literary aspirations with my grandfather. I was honored and blessed to have the moment to give credit to Grandpa, who left us far too soon and was always so supportive. I like to think that he would be proud and we would have been incredibly close as I got older. And I owe Dr. Kerry Neville for sharing her knowledge and passion, and for allowing me a platform to do the same. She is a wonderful woman. Dr. Kerry Neville’s website is here.

We ended the day at the Swift Hibernian Lounge, where we were treated to an intimate concert with Pierce Turner.

Pierce-on-puck-fair-counter WOW. What a performance. What an experience. Pierce Turner’s lyrics were poignantly beautiful and incredibly intelligent. As I sat beside an Irish filmmaker, across from a woman who had studied at the University of Limerick for a year, and next to my colleague, I was perfectly in love with my life. It was amazing and wonderful, and I – again! – am struggling to find the right combinations of words to do the magic of the evening any sort of justice. It was actually as close to perfect as I think an evening can get. Pierce Turner’s official website is here. And this is my favorite song that he played that evening.

Sunday was our last day, and it was bittersweet. New York City always exhausts me and while I was excited to unwind at home, I knew I had been a part of something truly great and I would miss it dearly. I miss it right now.

Our last day started with an awesome lecture by Professor Eoin Devereux, called Waltzing Back: The Cranberries’ “Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We?”

eoindevereux The lecture was awesome. Professor Eoin Devereux was passionate and knowledgeable, but managed to make everything so accessible. Professor Joseph O’Connor kept calling him a Renaissance Man, and it’s true; he was a treat to listen to and my only regret is that his lecture wasn’t longer. Professor Eoin Devereux’s impressive faculty page is here.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the importance of The Cranberries in my life. When I was a miserable teenager hell bent upon making my mother’s life more miserable than it needed to be, when her and I were at our worst, we could somehow manage to sit together and still share a love of music, particularly that of The Cranberries. My mother introduced me to Dolores O’Riordan’s haunting voice and stunning lyrics, and she played for me her favorite songs.  There’d been several signs from the universe indicating I was right where I was supposed to be, and Professor Eoin Devereux’s informative and entertaining lecture was definitely one of them.

The conference ended at McSorley’s Old Alehouse with a simple brunch. Each of the faculty members read a little something they had prepared and after some merriment muted by the knowledge it was the end, we parted ways. McSorley’s was the perfect establishment for the send off; rich in history and with stories of its own. One of my closest friends in college (whom I named one of my characters after in my novel) worked there for a long time, and her family still owns and operates it. I reached out to her and we reconnected briefly and everything just felt right.

It’d be a horrible, terrible mistake if I didn’t acknowledge Professor Joseph O’Connor, the man who led the way and endeavored to put the whole conference together.

profoconnor His humor and warmth and knowledge set the tone for the whole weekend. He was incredibly gracious and kind, and remarkably talented, and inspiring. Professor Joseph O’Connor’s author website is here.

He spoke about the possibility of studying at the University of Limerick, and encouraged us to reach out to him if we were interested. So I did.

I guess what this whole post has been leading up to is the revelation I came to: I want to study for a year in Ireland. I want to live and write there for a year. And I’ve begun planning to do so.

I’ll keep you updated, as always.

On interpretations and story lines.

Published May 9, 2019 by mandileighbean

The other night, I had a dream that I was in the shower and all my nail polish washed off in the water. I was pissed because in real life, I had just had a manicure and a pedicure and it totally stressed me out. When I woke up, I had forgotten the dream until I saw the red polish still on my fingernails as I reached for my phone (a terrible habit I need to break – summer objective #1!). I Googled “dream symbols nail polish” and as you can imagine, an overwhelming amount of information popped up. Some of the interpretations claimed to see nail polish in a dream meant the dreamer was focused on beauty and attention to detail. Other interpretations took it a step further and said that if the polish was a unique color (like blue or green or purple) then it showed the dreamer’s free spirit. But the interpretation I found that made sense to me was about how seeing nail polish in a dream meant the dreamer was dealing with rumors and “dirty words.” In my personal life, I’ve lost a close friend recently because this person told others that I hated them and said horrible things. I’ve been bitter and angry as a result, so the dream makes sense in that context.

But does that make the interpretation accurate? Does it have any merit, or am I just choosing what applies to me because I can only really look for what I am already seeing?

More recently, I had a dream where mice were running all over my feet and I was beside myself. I took to Google once again and was met with many different interpretations … again. But the website I settled on readily admitted that there are many unique interpretations for seeing mice in a dream, but that seeing mice in a dream was more often than not a bad sign. It mentioned mice representing feelings of inadequacy and of not being good enough, and the fear of being used, all of which are currently extremely relevant to me and what’s been going on in my personal life.

Are these really signs, or do people really only see what they look for?

I don’t know. Personally, I’m always looking for signs and I do believe there are miracles. But as I grow older, I find I have more and more trouble trusting myself. It is an incredibly frustrating sensation. And when it happens, I like to imagine I’m someone else to rectify the situation. I’ll ask myself, “What would Carrie Bradshaw do?” or “What would Harry Potter do?” or “What advice would Jane Eyre have?” I think of characters I admire and go from there. I don’t think that’s such a bad thing because maybe, just maybe, ink and pen and paper are stronger materials than blood and bone.

I bring up characters to ask about story lines. My prompt for this week is to: “Ask for fans’ favorite story lines and see if they have ideas or suggestions regarding what should happen next.” So for the next post, I’ll share more of my current project and ask for thoughts on what should happen next. But for this week, just tell me some of your favorite story lines. One of mine is from the SyFy network’s show “Haven” (based on The Colorado Kid by Stephen King … no surprise there, right?). The show was filled with “troubled” people, whose anxieties and fears and desires manifested into supernatural abilities. I thought it was a clever spin on the whole “sheriff in a small town” trope. And I fell in love with the character of Duke Crocker, played by Eric Balfour. (I should mention that I’ve always been attracted to men, both real and imagined, that have dark hair and dark eyes, and who are mostly assholes (from Michael Scott in “The Office” to Duke Crocker on “Haven,” and despite both shows being on Netflix, they couldn’t be any more different in plot and theme and genre. I hope that illustrates the depth of my issue)).

So let’s get talking! Please comment about your favorite story line from books and/or movies and/or television, and maybe it’ll be inspiring for all those aspiring writers out there (myself included!).

 

On the ups and downs that inevitably come with change.

Published April 24, 2019 by mandileighbean

Hello, readers! I am super elated to be writing to you from the Sunshine State when I am taking in copious amounts of Vitamin D and time with family, both of which are essential to maintaining good health.

121419-Life-Is-Ups-And-Downs

I know I am not telling you anything that you don’t already know, that you haven’t already experienced firsthand, but the universe in an incredibly fickle place, my friends. Like the late great Frank Sinatra once crooned, “You’re riding high in April / Shot down in May…” because that’s life. I was feeling optimistic about my life and the direction it is heading in until I tried to be honest with someone I loved and the person was dismissive and manipulative, and then I attended a beautiful wedding where I had so much fun I am still sore (and maybe even still drunk), but there was an empty chair beside me. I am on vacation but flinch when I pass a mirror. This all may seem melodramatic and stylized, but E.L. Doctorow once said, “I am led to the proposition that there is no fiction or nonfiction as we commonly understand the distinction; there is only narrative.”

So what’s a girl to do?

Life changes moment to moment; nothing lasts forever and the trick is reminding myself that I believe that’s a good thing. There needs to be some kind of karmic, cosmic balance. You take the good, you take the bad, and then you have the facts of life … right? As corny and clichéd as these quotes may seem, I really think it’s an essential part of survival. People grow and change, so why shouldn’t circumstances? Why do we have this desire to nest and be stuck and comfortable and complacent? Isn’t the discomfort with the progress?

I’m thinking about change (and by extension, the lack thereof, I suppose) not only because of events in my personal life, but because of happenings in my professional life as well. This blog post is supposed to be all about change, like I’m supposed to discuss how my writing has evolved. I had a really wonderful conversation with my creative writing students a couple of weeks ago. It ended with a student-teacher they are convinced is a pimp and a werewolf with some stunning and compelling evidence (he was in a three-piece suit with a pink shirt underneath, with impossibly voluminous hair, and his hands were covered in silver rings which, according to my students, kept him from changing into his true self, a werewolf), but we also talked about scrutinizing our past selves. One of my edgier and more alternative students shared photos on her old social media accounts, where she constantly wore beanies she now dislikes and drew cat whiskers on her face with eyeliner. She was absolutely mortified by the fact that she had gone out in public like that, that people had seen her. I confessed some of my more embarrassing juvenile blunders (as in dressing and looking like the lead singer of My Chemical Romance for an entire year, on purpose) but luckily for me, there was no social media. I think there was MySpace, but everyone was new to pasting ourselves all over the internet so none of us really had anything to be proud of, and now, we all have something to be ashamed of.

But the conversation got me thinking of how we change as time marches on and how more often than not, we’re embarrassed by our past selves. Is it because we’re older and wiser? Or are we just adapting to the social norms and continuing to conform? Don’t you think there’s a certain kind of fleeting bravery in teenagehood, where we truly don’t give a shit and are thereby truly free? Either way, I believe it’s a universal experience to look back at something you were super passionate about and cringe. It happens to the best of us.

This happens when I look back on my first novel, Her Beautiful Monster. That does not mean I am not proud of that novel, because I most certainly am. I think it’s entertaining as hell and there are some turns of phrase in there that are beautiful and fresh and remind me that I have talent. However, at the same time, there are passages that embarrass me. I was so naïve to the whole business of writing, and as far as my personal life goes, I had yet to experience any of that character-building stuff known as heartbreak. I was too young to know better, and sometimes, I catch myself believing that ignorance really is bliss. The more I read, and the more I get to know other wonderful writers, I can feel defeated, like it’s never ever going to happen to me. On my worst days, I tell myself my first novel was a fluke, that the publisher was young and desperate like me, and it was good for the moment but that my writing career has no real longevity. I don’t have any real talent and people were just being nice.

My writing since that first novel has evolved, and that makes me happy and proud. I’m not looking just to entertain, although I hope that will always be my main objective. I have some important things to say, some wisdom to impart, and I’m more cognizant of my process and choices. That last bit is a double-edged sword, though, because I can get in my own way. Instead of letting my hands fall to the keyboard, or instead of just putting pen to paper, I overthink it and make my storytelling more complicated than it has to be because of some critique someone offered years ago.

“Moody Blue,” my second completed manuscript, might never be published. And that would be my own damn fault. I sent it out too early and without any real revisions. The first draft was a god-awful mess. This summer, I might change the title and send it back out, see what happens. Or should I just focus on this new story that I’m working on? It’s so hard to tell and on any given day, I can convince myself that either option is best.

I am so fucking annoying to myself.

But let me end on the positive: my writing has evolved to become more unique to me. My plots are better developed and my characters are more authentic.

Will it be enough to get published? I wonder…

On validation and the kind of truth that hurts.

Published April 11, 2019 by mandileighbean

seeing-the-signs-of-the-universe-696x398

Hello, readers. How are you?

About a week ago, I received an email from Tom Strelich (his website is here), author of Dog Logic (which can be purchased here) and one of the judges of the Summer 2018 Owl Canyon Press Hackathon writing contest. I didn’t win the contest (terrible for my ego) and as it took place over the summer, I had naturally forgotten all about it. The email was a surprise, but when I read it, it transformed into the best kind of surprise that leaves you breathless and dancing in your underwear through your empty house in absolute triumph. The email was filled with positive feedback and a remarkably kind offer to review my novel on Amazon and Goodreads, Her Beautiful Monster. He wrote:

You have a really good voice, and those are rare (I read amost 500 short stories for the Hackathon and trust me, good voices are rare!).  From the first few pages I knew I was in good hands. The characters were great and you pulled off one of the most difficult balancing acts for a writer, to make them recognizable and sympathetic yet unique.  You’re a really good writer and I strongly encourage you to keep writing — you owe it to your talent and the reading public (the fraction that doesn’t go for pulpy genre stuff anyway).

You also might consider growing your story into a larger work (e.g., chapbook whatever those are, novella whatever those are, a binge-worthy boxed set, or just a novel).  I ended up doing that with the short story I wrote for the original proto-hackathon —it became the first 3 chapters of Dog Logic, the novel I spun out of it which went on to win several awards and is usually in the Amazon top 10 or so in its category (well, maybe top 20 on some days), so miracles do happen. Or, just cook up a whole new novel from your mother wit, you’ve got the chops for it.

This award-winning author did not have to email me. The fact that he did restores my faith in humanity, which means more than my faith in my writing talent, but it restored that too! His criticism was completely valid. His notes said: “…really good voice but the story isn’t as strong as the voice, but worth an email.” I remember worrying I was rushing the story to fulfill the contest’s deadline, and I remember pouncing on the first idea that came to mind, so the story definitely was not as strong as it could have been, as it should have been as an entry for a contest.

But I thought I’d use this sign from the universe to love myself as a writer more than I have been lately, and to share the story with you.


“In the Pines”

No coverage, not even one bar, the battery was dead anyway. It was still daytime, but there was an overcast and the sky had a perfectly even dullness, so there was no way to tell what time of day it was, much less which direction was north or south or anything else for that matter. A two-lane blacktop road snaked up into the distance and disappeared into some trees, or a forest if you wanted to get technical about it. It also snaked down toward some lumpy hills and disappeared there as well. What sounded like a two-stroke chainsaw could be heard in the distance, but it was impossible to tell whether it was up in the forest or down in the lumpy hills. This had been happening more often lately. Two different ways to go, with a dead battery and no bars, and nobody left to blame.

Madeline turned back to survey the 1985 Cadillac El Dorado. There was nobody to blame, that was true, but if she had to blame anybody, it would be definitely be Steve. He was perched on the hood of the El Dorado, smoking a cigarette. His flannel shirt blew open in the breeze to reveal a dark green V-neck shirt. His jeans were fashionably stressed and if Madeline had been in a better mood, she supposed Steve could have been considered handsome. But they had been traveling together too long for Steve to be anything but a douche bag. He’d led them here, to the middle of nowhere in West Virginia from the comfort of their cozy shore town in New Jersey, with minimal forethought. It was infuriating.

Here Steve was, pulling over not to ask for directions like he should, but to smoke a cigarette. He never smoked inside the car as a rule because he was worried it might depreciate the value. How that could possibly matter now when the two of them were on their way to deliver it to a buyer was beyond Madeline. Steve’s ad on Craigslist had been abundantly clear; all sales were final and as the money was already in Steve’s bank account, all they had to do was drop off the car and then fly home.

But that was the problem with Steve. He was always focused on the wrong things, the most random details. He had this wild and romanticized idea that this trip would be something Jack Kerouac would be proud of, that he’d learn all the secrets about the universe and his identity. Steve had had a rough go of it lately. He was in between jobs with no prospects of a real career. He’d come out of college with $100,000 worth of debt and a B.A. in English. Steve refused to be a teacher, so where did that leave him? He didn’t know, and the older he became, the more he convinced himself there was nothing special about him. Over beers at the local watering hole that they had been going to since their senior year of high school with fake IDs, Steve confided in Madeline that he was positive this level of mediocrity he was experiencing was as good as it was ever going to get. The defeated way he had turned from her and drank to keep from talking had nearly broken Madeline’s heart. She knew it was mostly self-serving, melodramatic bullshit, but she didn’t want her oldest friend to feel so sad.

The next day, Madeline woke Steve with his favorite breakfast sandwich from the local convenience store. As she plopped down on his bed and tempted him with sausage and egg and cheese on a perfectly toasted bagel, Madeline told Steve this trip might be exactly what he needed to mix things up and get some perspective. She offered to tag along, citing that she could use the different locales for her photography.

But really, the main reason Madeline had agreed to accompanying Steve was because she was sure he’d end up dead without her. He had basically confirmed her fear when, at the last gas station they had stopped at to fill up on fuel, he had thrown out the directions he had printed off of MapQuest. It was a genuine accident – he had only wanted to clean up a bit and dispose of food wrappers, straw wrappers, candy wrappers and the like – but it seemed like a fatal one now that they had no GPS. There was no service on their phones and Steve did not own a standalone GPS, which irritated Madeline to no end considering all the traveling he claimed to do.

They hadn’t spoken since the revelation of the discarded directions, and Madeline would be damned before she would be the one to break the silence. She stood a few feet in front of the car, staring off into the distance, sizing up their options. She had seen the movie “Deliverance,” had even watched “Wrong Turn” through her fingers, and knew they were in trouble. Aside from inbred mutants, Madeline disliked the distant sound of chainsaws coupled with isolation. Though it was warm, she shivered and wrapped her arms around herself. Which would it be, the forest or the hills? As Madeline gazed into the distance, she considered grabbing her camera from the backseat and snapping a few shots. A landscape like that would make a badass album cover or, at the very least, a nice picture from some real housewife’s living room. A crow squawked in the distance and Madeline shivered again. Crows were harbingers of death, and Madeline thought that was a bad sign.

The engine roared to life behind her, and Madeline knew that was her nonverbal cue to climb back in the car as a dutiful but silent copilot. She wouldn’t argue with Steve about the destination, deciding to let him choose and deal with the consequences, deciding to be content with observation and silent judgment. Reaching to turn on the radio, Steve also seemed fine with not talking, with just driving. He twisted the radio knob to move the dial until he found something that wasn’t buried beneath irritating static.

Nirvana’s rendition of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” played through the speakers, and Steve turned it up. He had always loved Nirvana, partially evidenced by his penchant for flannel which had not ended in the 90s. A little too young to genuinely appreciate the artistry and bravery of the band, Madeline was still familiar with the song and its many variations. It had been a crucial element in her favorite murder mystery series on television; it had been the murderer’s favorite song and the clue that gave him away in the end. The reporter unknowingly hot on the trail of the murdered had ended up in his apartment, drinking wine and about to get cozy, when the murderer told her to wait just one second while he set the mood. The murderer went to a room in the rear of his apartment and started playing the song on his record player. It was the same song that had been found playing at all of the murder scenes and suddenly the reporter realized she was in real danger. Long story short, she killed him by plunging a pair of kitchen scissors in the murderer’s eyes.

That association, and the delightfully disturbing lyrics that were vague enough to be terrifying because they left so much to the imagination, aided Madeline in coming to the conclusion that the forest was not the way to go. She turned to tell Steve, but the music was loud, and he was singing along at the top of his lungs. My girl, my girl, don’t lie to me/ Tell me where did you sleep last night/ In the pines, in the pines/ Where the sun don’t ever shine/ I would shiver the whole night through. Steve must have felt Madeline’s eyes upon him because he turned and flashed a gorgeous smile, the kind of smile that could all together kill the tension between them. It was the kind of smile Steve used whenever he needed to end an argument and ensure his victory. When Madeline refused to smile, he lowered the radio and asked her what was wrong.

Madeline said that she thought it’d be best to veer towards the hills instead of the forest up ahead. She told him the sunshine wouldn’t be able to shine through the thick boughs of all the pine trees, and she knew that wasn’t the vibe he was going for.

Steve wasn’t buying Madeline’s offered rationale. For one thing, the day was overcast so Madeline was full of shit on at least one count. Steve pointed this out to Madeline, and furthermore, Steve wanted to know why Melanie was really so against taking the road that led into the forest.

Madeline simply stated it was a feeling she had and that more and more articles were writing about the science behind intuition so if Steve had no strong feelings about it one way or the other, then he should just listen to her. Madeline leaned back comfortably in her seat but shot furtive glances at the radio.

Steve knew Madeline very well, an advantage of being in someone’s life since grade school and asked her if the song was freaking her out. He had come close to the truth, too close for comfort, and her cheeks burned red. She insisted that had nothing to do with it, but then quickly wondered what difference it would make if it had. After all, Steve believed in signs and omens; he had chosen this particular buyer out in the middle of fucking nowhere because the letters in his name added up to nineteen if you could fucking believe it. What a weirdo.

Steve agreed that he did believe in signs and omens but argued that Madeline was misinterpreting this particular sign. What if the song came on the radio because they were supposed to be in the pines? Had she ever considered that?

Madeleine said that was easy for Steve to argue because he wouldn’t be the girl shivering in the pines. Steve only shrugged, offered no real response, so she fell silent and was happy imagining it was Steve’s head caught in the driving wheel that was mentioned in the lyrics. She wasn’t sure what a driving wheel was, and the context clues from the song led her to deduce only that it had something to do with a train.

The song ended and was replaced by some soft rock songs. Melanie was staring out the window, gazing at the landscape flying by. Steve was working his way through their most recent candy purchase. They drove on like that for a while, each silently stewing, as they traveled into the forest, into the pines.

At some point Madeline fell asleep, ironically wondering what it was about traveling by automobile that made passengers so sleepy, and she only woke up once she realized the car was no longer moving. She sat up straighter, momentarily concerned by the pain in her shoulders and back. She regretted not clearing off the backseat and stretching out to really get comfortable. Madeline was going to turn and yell at Steve for stopping and for keeping all of his shit on the backseat. Apparently, the nap hadn’t eased her crankiness.

But when she turned to look for Steve, the driver, to see what was going on, he was no longer inside the car. That explained why they were stopped. Steve was standing outside the car, his door still open, so that all Madeline could see was his waist and legs. She asked him what was going on. She wanted to know why they had stopped.

Steve lowered himself so he and Madeline could make eye contact. He looked annoyed, but only mildly so. He encouraged Madeline to climb from the car and to see for herself. He then stood and resumed staring, dead set on offering Madeline nothing. She resigned herself to taking his advice and climbed from the car. More than curiosity, Madeline was eager to stretch out and ease the throbbing pain.

There was a train stopped on the tracks before them, but there was no closed gate with flashing red lights and there were no dinging bells. There was no aluminum sign painted bright yellow. There were no warning signs at all, which was incredibly weird. There were also no signs as to why the train was stopped. Madeline asked Steve what was going on, and he was a little crestfallen to admit that he didn’t know. Steve asked her if she saw anything weird.

From her current vantage point, Madeline thought everything looked perfectly normal. So Madeline took a couple of steps forward and then let loose a blood-curdling scream, knocking herself on her own ass. She scrambled backwards until she hit the front bumper of the car, screaming for Steve.

Steve rushed over, asking her what was wrong and if she was okay. Madeline didn’t have words, couldn’t find them at the moment, so she raised a trembling finger and only pointed at the driving wheel located directly in front of them. Inside was a severed human head. Its eyes were wide with shock and horror, most likely both, and its mouth was open to reveal toothless gums. Its hair was shaggy and its beard was curled just beneath its chin. It was grotesque and horrible and Madeline wanted to turn her face away and bury it in Steve’s firm chest, but he was moving closer to the train. He wanted a better look. Madeline told him he was a lunatic, and she tried to tell him this was just like the song, almost exactly like the song, but he wasn’t listening to her rambling.

Steve kept telling her to calm down and he walked closer to the train’s driving wheel with the surprise inside. At first, he thought some kind of improbable and horrific accident had occurred. It was, after all, a railroad crossing with no warning signs of any kind. Essentially, that made the place a death trap. But Steve and Madeline were okay, and Steve kept telling Madeline that. He looked closer and he realized that the victim wasn’t decapitated by the train because there was no way the head would be so in-tact, so pristine. Aside from the bulging eyes, the head looked like it could be reattached no problem and the guy could go back to dancing in no time.

The laceration that had separated the head from the body was neat and even, like it had been made by someone with steady feet and solid ground, operating with deliberateness, the way a lumberjack might begin to cut down a tree. Steve considered telling Madeline all of this to calm her down, but he was too confused and concerned by the scene, and there was no way telling her the specifics of the grotesque scene before them would have worked to comfort her anyway. He called over his shoulder to tell Madeline to get back in the car, but he kept his eyes on the severed head. He was desperate to know how the head came to be where it was, and he wanted to know if someone put it there, and most importantly he wanted to know why this was happening. He had no one to discuss things with, because all Madeline could do was gibber and cry and hold her disbelieving head in her hands.

Suddenly, the sound of a working chainsaw was louder than everything else. It came from the other side of the train, from just a few feet away, and it was enough to send Steve running to Madeline’s side. She was screaming hysterically again, had not moved from the front of the car, and he didn’t bother to shush her. Moving with urgency, he helped her to her feet and told Madeline the plan was to get the hell out of there, to get back to where there was cell phone service and he could call the police. Madeline nodded, unless she was shaking so bad it only looked like she was. Steve was being as gentle as he could, but he wanted to move fast.

Clutching each other as they rose, turning to walk to the passenger side, they were stopped dead in their tracks by the presence of a patrol car. The lights were flashing but there was no sound, and it was parked perpendicular to the road so that the scene was blocked from view and so that Madeline and Steve could not make any kind of exit. The chainsaw had cut off and the only sound seemed to be the sounds of their own breathing. Madeline asked who it was in a trembling voice, but Steve only shrugged. He whispered to Madeline to stay quiet; he was too busy wondering when they patrol car had pulled up, and why the officer hadn’t said anything.

Then the driver’s door of the patrol car clicked open. Madeline gasped and clung tighter to Steve. An imposing-looking man in a khaki uniform with a tell-tale gold star winking in the sunlight climbed from the car. He was wearing reflective aviators, the kind that cops in horror movies set in rural towns always seemed to wear. His mouth was a straight line and with his eyes hidden behind mirrors, it was impossible to tell what the lawman was thinking. Steve didn’t like the uncertainty of it all; Madeline could tell by the way he held onto her. She couldn’t blame him as she didn’t like the way the lawman was behaving. It didn’t make sense.

Instead of running over to see if the kids who had just discovered the severed head were okay, the officer stayed standing on the far side of his car, allowing it to separate him from the terrified couple before him. He greeted them with a thin smile, said howdy, and then asked them what the trouble was. Hadn’t he heard them scream?

Madeline might have laughed if she wasn’t so scared. Steve spoke from beside her, saying they were lost and happened upon the railroad tracks. He gulped before he added that there seemed to be a severed head in one of the driving wheels.

The officer nodded and stepped back from his patrol car, firmly shutting the door. He walked over to them and while doing so, he told them he knew about the situation, that someone had called it in only ten minutes ago. Then why would he have asked what the trouble was? Madeline twisted her head from one side to the other, searching for a nearby residence. There was nothing, just pine trees as far as the eye could see with only the serpentine road running through them. Who could have possibly called it in? Madeline didn’t want to believe the uniformed officer was lying, but what choice did she have? She pulled Steve closer, stopped just shy of climbing inside his shirt.

Steve didn’t say anything, only listened. He knew something was off, but the officer took the silence as a cue to keep talking. The officer told them this was the second severed head reported in just as many months. He explained that as long as he had been on the force, there’d been whispers and rumors about the Butcher Brothers.

The Butcher Brothers were a pair of brothers in matching overalls that didn’t go for shirts or shoes but expected superior service. The one thing they hated more than anything else in the entire world was being wronged, cheated, scammed. Anyone trying to put one over on them was an enemy to be annihilated. The Butcher Brothers deemed any kind of trickery as an insult to their intelligence, which honestly didn’t amount to much but still seemed to count for something to the Butcher Brothers.

The word on the street, or the unpaved roads that served as thoroughfares to and from the dying nearby town, was that the most recent victim (present company excluded) was supposed to bring the Butcher Brothers a car, some kind of rarity, a real collector’s item. The officer explained the car was a lemon, and that the whole deal was nothing more than a sham. The officer had been the one to find the head just a mile or so from where they now stood, and the body was just a few yards farther than that.

Madeline could barely listen, let alone look. All she saw was dark green fabric, and all she smelled was Steve’s cologne and cigarettes. She heard what the officer said, but she didn’t want to process any of it or understand any of it. Madeline only wanted to climb back inside the El Dorado with Steve at the wheel and drive home. She had been short with him, but she would take it all back, especially if he could get them home.

The officer was looking at them curiously, the way a housecat watches a fly she’s been mercilessly toying with instead of outright killing it. He took a few steps closer, and Madeline could hear his bootheels thud against the pavement with a soft but satisfying crunch. He rested his hands on his hips and took in a deep breath like he was settling in and getting comfortable. He asked where the flatfoots were from anyway.

Steve laughed without any humor and gulped. He said they were taking a road trip and were trying to do it the old-fashioned way with maps and atlases, but they got lost and all turned around. Steve asked if the officer would be kind enough to point them back to town and they’d be out of his way. The officer turned from the couple to survey the El Dorado. He asked what year the El Dorado was. Steve was shocked by the question. He couldn’t understand what the year of the car had to do with anything. He lied and said he didn’t know.

The officer didn’t say anything. He stepped even closer and had taken a particular interest in Madeline. He asked if the little lady was alright. Madeline didn’t answer, so Steve spoke up and told the officer seeing the severed head in the driving wheel of the train had understandably shaken her up. Steve continued and said Madeline’s distressing demeanor was all the more reason for them to get the hell out of dodge. He tried another laugh and this one sounded more authentic. Steve asked again for directions back to town.

The officer looked Madeline up and down and then he nodded slowly. He told them that if they went back the way they came, and made the first left onto a gravel road, it would take them all the way back to town. He tipped the hat on his head and walked back to his car so he could move it. Steve gingerly walked Madeline to the passenger side of the El Dorado, whispering a mile a minute that they were going to be okay and that they were going to make it through this as long as they stuck together and stayed calm. Once they were in the El Dorado, and the police cruiser was off to the side, Steve accelerated backwards and made a K-turn.

Madeline was crying softly and Steve promised her it was almost over. Hunched over the wheel, Steve was searching frantically for the turn off. Madeline asked why this was happening to them. Steve had no answers. All he could do was reach over and take Madeline’s hand in his. He brought it to his mouth and roughly kissed the back of it, promising against it was all right and that it would be all right.

In about ten minutes, Steve saw gravel and breathed a sigh of relief. He turned left, going deeper into the pines. The sound of the tires rolling across the tiny stones was music to his ears. To comfort Madeline, he released her hand and squeezed her thigh softly while smiling bright. Steve told Madeline they were on their way, and they’d be home before she knew it. He told her he’d get her whatever she wanted, whatever she needed. Steve told Madeline he’d spend the rest of his life making it up to her if he had to. Madeline turned to him with something like hope etched on her face.

But Steve slammed on the brakes as a wild-looking man came ambling out of the pines. He stopped in the center of the gravel road, forcing Steve to stop right where he was. The man, clad in ripped and filthy overalls but lacking a shirt and shoes, turned to face the car. A crooked, insane smile was plastered across his face and when he turned, he also raised a chainsaw high above his head.

Madeline and Steve screamed until their breath ran out. Madeline was hitting and slapping Steve, demanding that he get them the fuck out of there. Steve told her he was going as fast as he could, and as he turned to reverse, the second Butcher Brother slammed his fists on the trunk of the car. Steve hit his brakes once more and Madeline was beside herself. She was pulling at her own hair, imploring that he keep driving and if he killed the fucking psychopath behind them, then so be it.

The Butcher Brother behind the car scrambled to Madeline’s side of the car. He wrenched the door open before Madeline even knew what was happening. He reached for her hair and meant to pull her from the car. Steve held onto Madeline with one hand and accelerated forward, pushing the pedal down as far as it would go. The Butcher Brother in front of them dove out of the way and the one assaulting Madeline fell by the wayside as they sped forward.

Steve didn’t slow up one bit, not even so Madeline could shut her door. He sped until gravel met pavement. He sent the tiny rocks spewing into the air and the tires squealed as he made a hard left onto the highway. Cars beeped and drivers cursed him, but Steve kept driving for another ten miles or so, until they left the small town the Butcher Brothers called home.

The pair pulled into a gas station and parked beside a pump. Steve turned to Madeline and stupidly asked her if she was alright. Her forehead was bloodied, and her face was a mess of smeared mascara and snot. She looked so pitiful that Steve felt his breath catch in his throat. He thought he might cry. He took her into his arms and he apologized, and he kissed the top of her head. All Madeline said was that she wanted to go home.

The pair walked into the store attached to the gas station and asked to use the phone. The confused cashier handed over his own phone and asked if everything was okay. Madeline started crying again. Steve wrapped an arm around her and told the cashier he was calling the police because they had been attacked. The cashier paled and said he’d be back in a moment with the manager. Steve nodded and told the voice on the other end that he needed a patrol car immediately. He couldn’t say where he was, but he could tell the operator where they’d come from and what happened.

Madeline stepped away from Steve and towards the glass windows that made up the entrance of the store. There was a crowd gathering outside, gawking at the El Dorado with the dent in the trunk and the front doors open and the out of state plates. The police would come but Madeline didn’t think the crowd would disperse. If anything, she feared the crowd would grow and swell and then Steve and Madeline might never be able to leave.

But the police were able to make the crowd scatter. They promised to file an incident report and took their contact information to keep the pair updated on any future developments. Steve and Madeline were free to go. Steve purchased a carton of cigarettes and an atlas. Madeline purchased some candy and before they left, she took Steve’s picture beside the El Dorado. It was a handsome portrait, better than an album cover or average landscape.

They made their way through the crowd, and back to the El Dorado. And as they approached it, a crow flew directly over their heads and landed on the hood and then looked at them. They stood some distance away and watched the crow watching them. Another crow flew directly overhead and landed beside it. The first crow squawked and then both flew away. They watched the crows disappear, looked at each other, and then got in the El Dorado. Only one way to go this time, with five bars and full battery.

On new projects and begging for feedback.

Published March 28, 2019 by mandileighbean

Good morning readers and writers and internet users! Hope all is well ❤

While I’m working to get my second manuscript, titled Moody Blue, published, I am also working on a new book! I’m sharing the prologue with you below, and I am DESPERATELY BEGGING for feedback! PLEASE let me know what you think!

Prologue

The only people who ever really cared about Duke, the only people who ever honestly gave a shit, were gone – one of them forever, a recent member of the dearly departed. The other was away, becoming a better human being who’d have no time for addicts who couldn’t stand to see their own faces in cracked bathroom mirrors. Duke was currently studying his own reflection in just such a mirror and recognized himself, but he hated it, hated the reflection. His hair was too long and his eyes were too red, and he wasn’t fucking high enough. He turned away from his face, sick of looking at his stupid, fucking face. There wasn’t much to like about Duke, and Duke knew that, but he didn’t want to have to face it day in and day out. He needed relief, which was why he self-medicated. He’d used all the heroin he’d had in the house, which was impressively more than usual, but now it was gone and he had to rely on alcohol.

Duke didn’t want to rely on anything anymore; or anyone, for that matter. Come to think of it, Duke didn’t think he even wanted to be in the house anymore, either. Bottle of whiskey clenched tight in his fist, Duke stumbled over to the small coffee table by the front door. His keys were laying there and he reached to grab them. The world seemed to tilt as he did so, and the wooden table went crashing to the floor, taking two picture frames with it. Duke grabbed the corner of the wall to keep from falling completely. Had his other hand been free, he might have been successful, but that damn bottle wouldn’t let go of his hand. Whiskey splashed all over him as he went down hard on his ass. Cursing loudly, he threw the bottle at the nearest wall. Duke watched the glass shatter, seemingly from the inside out, and he saw the tiny shards explode into the light and catch it. The glass metamorphosed into stars and Duke watched, transfixed. The cuts the stars inflicted on his cheeks went unnoticed, were inconsequential. Duke watched the glass fall until it all lay on the floor.

His discarded, cold, metallic keys winked at him. Duke suddenly remembered he had to leave. He crawled to gather his keys, cutting his palms on the fallen stars from just moments before. Scooping up the keys, Duke rose shakily to his feet and made his way out through his front door. He left the door open behind him so that it resembled a large, gaping mouth, howling in pain and protest. Duke also left a bloody palm print on its face, cackling wildly and falling three times before he was sitting behind the wheel of his yellow Cadillac Seville from 1987. He’d bought it cheap off Matt to replace Uncle Rick’s rusted Ford because Duke couldn’t bear to drive it. Duke couldn’t bear to sell it, either. He didn’t want it but he couldn’t let go, and that, ladies and germs, was the story of his life.

The engine came to life loudly, but the radio was louder. It was Bruce Springsteen, singing “Atlantic City” with a supreme kind of melancholy that just fit the moment. Duke’s face fell and became serious as he thought hard, carefully considering everything making up the moment. He suddenly had a destination in mind: Aurora’s dorm, and he’d have to get there fast, or it’d be too late. He’d have to race the devils brewing within him to reach Aurora before she realized she was not only better than Duke, but better off without him as well. He backed out onto Broadway Boulevard, neatly knocking his mailbox to the ground. Duke was indifferent to it, sped down the quiet residential streets until he hit the highway. It was when he was pulling onto the ramp for the Garden State Parkway, heading north, when it happened: the accident. Duke took the ramp too fast, at seventy miles an hour, and the car rolled over and over, leaving the pavement to tumble down a grassy hill before slamming into the trees.

Duke lay bleeding, inside and out, for a devastating ten minutes before someone finally saw the mess and called the proper authorities. The Boss was still growling through the speakers to no one in particular. “Everything dies, baby; that’s a fact. But maybe everything that dies someday comes back.”


Aurora had just drifted to sleep after a late night of paper writing. It had been interesting at least, discussing what it means to be human through the novels Ingenious Pain by Andrew Miller and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick. Aurora thought college was pretty cool. She was happy in college. Even sleeping, she was happy. It all felt right and Aurora had discovered she was right where she was supposed to be.

She awoke with a start from Bruce Springsteen suddenly proclaiming triumphantly that tramps were born to run from her cell phone. She scrambled to answer it, not wanting to wake her cranky roommate, so she didn’t even pause to see who was calling. “Hello?” she croaked.

“It’s Matt. You’ve got to come home. I’ll come get you if you want, but you gotta get back here.”

Aurora sat up in bed. “Matt, what is it? What’s wrong?”

“Duke’s had an accident with my car and it’s not looking good. Christ.” Matt paused. “He’s dying.”

The tears came surprisingly fast, before Aurora could even really understand all that Matt was saying. “Matt, I … um, I’ll come home right now. I’ll call you when I’m close.”

“Are you okay to drive? I shouldn’t be telling you like this, I’m sorry. I didn’t know who else to call. He doesn’t have anyone else,” Matt said. His voice cracked at the end and Aurora heard him swallow, likely to keep from crying. There was another pause. “I can –“

“I’ll be there soon, Matt. I’m on my way. Just call me if anything changes, okay?”

“Yeah, yeah, of course.”

“Okay, I’m on my way.” Aurora hung up before Matt could say goodbye. Throwing the covers back, she got moving, had to keep moving to keep her mind occupied. Aurora tossed clothes thoughtlessly into a duffel bag, not pausing to think about Duke being dead, not being around, not being Duke anymore. The thought of him scarred and bloody, and slowly becoming pale and cold, was enough to render her useless, but goddammit, she didn’t have time for hysterics. Aurora couldn’t curl up into a ball on the floor and sob like she wanted to. Slipping flip flops onto her frantic feet, Aurora threw open the door to her room, hurried down the hallway and bolted down the stairs. Her duffel bag and purse swung heavily as she ran to her car, so she was thankful she had forgotten her book bag. There wasn’t time for stupid, fucking homework. She had to have enough time to say goodbye.

Normally, it’d take Aurora over an hour to travel back home from the college. That night, it barely took her forty-five minutes.


Matt met Aurora in the parking garage of the hospital and escorted her inside, explaining to her in hushed tones that Duke’s condition was improving, miraculously so, and that they needed to remain cautious but could afford to be optimistic. They seated themselves in terribly uncomfortable vinyl-covered chairs and waited.

And waited.

Matt stood and walked a few paces to stretch his legs and ease his aching back. “He’s been in surgery for two and a half hours now.” Matt leaned against the cool glass framing the operating room. He hadn’t really looked at Aurora since she’d arrived.

“What happened?” Aurora asked. She was trembling.

“He was high as fuck and tried to get on the parkway.” Matt was silent after that, listening to Aurora sob softly behind him. He did not reach out to her, did not offer to hold her or console her or anything. Aurora wasn’t mad about it. She knew they were both drowning in misery and that neither of them was strong enough to hold the other one up, at least not yet.

Two crippling hours went by, during which Duke emerged from his surgery and all his friends could do was wait until he woke up. When he did wake up, the doctor came and told Aurora and Matt, but the doctor also said that Duke was not out of the woods yet and that it would be some time before he could see visitors.

Matt yawned and stretched, and turned towards Aurora. “You gonna go home?”

Aurora shook her head and rubbed her eyes. Mascara was smeared all underneath her eyes and she knew she must have looked awful. “I don’t want to be too far, just in case …” Her voice trailed off as her mind traveled to horrendous possibilities, just the worst of the worst. She cleared her throat to find her voice and said, “You know, just in case something happens. I guess.” She swallowed hard.

“I get that, but you look like shit,” Matt said with a laugh that was more forced than anything else. “You need to sleep, and if you won’t do that, then you need to eat.” Matt studied her for a moment. “Let me take you to get some food.”

“I don’t want to go too far, you know, in case-“

“There’s a diner right down the road,” Matt interrupted. “We won’t be too far and we won’t be too long. You can just guzzle some coffee or something. Let’s go.”

Aurora sighed heavily. There was no real reason for her not to go, so she acquiesced and didn’t even protest when Matt bent to retrieve her purse.

In the few minutes it took for Matt to drive them to the local diner, Aurora fell asleep. She thought she knew what it was to be exhausted, but she was wrong. Matt reached over, gently grabbed Aurora’s shoulder and shook her awake. Aurora was momentarily confused and simply sat, staring at Matt with bleary eyes until she blinked slowly, stupidly. Matt laughed and it was a pleasant, genuine sound. It felt good to be out of the hospital, removed from the sterile, suffocating tragedy. “We’re here,” Matt smiled. “Need a minute? I can go in and get a table.”

Aurora nodded after she yawned loudly, somewhat obnoxiously, and stretched and rubbed her eyes, mascara be damned. “Yeah, sure.” She looked at Matt seriously. “Can I bum a cigarette?”

Matt snorted. “Since when do you smoke?”

“I’ve become quite cultured since I’ve been away at college, I’ll have you know,” Aurora said. She rolled her eyes but smiled partly to let Matt know she wasn’t really annoyed, and partly because she was pleased to have surprised her longtime friend, happy to have actually changed something about herself. Aurora didn’t want to waste her “college experience” by adhering to a behavioral code that had suited her in her small hometown, in a comfortable environment void of any really challenges and thereby void of any real personal growth. Aurora couldn’t elaborate, couldn’t say any of this to Matt, because he was born in Ocean Gate, still lived in Ocean Gate, and would most likely die in Ocean Gate without ever feeling stuck or disappointed or unfulfilled. So Aurora just looked at him expectantly.

“I guess so,” Matt smiled, but eyed Aurora warily. He reached for his pack of cigarettes in his coat pocket. “I wonder what other morals Little Miss Perfect has let fall to the wayside.” Matt was half-serious and hesitated just a moment more before suddenly pressing the pack close against his chest. “Tell you what; a real gentleman never lets a lady smoke alone.” He offered her a wink before a cigarette, and she was definitely more interested in the cigarette. She slid one delicately from the crowded pack (it was brand new; Matt had stopped on his way to the hospital, correctly figuring that the combination of caffeine, nicotine, prayers and Aurora was the only combination to get him through whatever lay ahead) and thanked Matt graciously. He did the same, lit Aurora’s and then his own with the green lighter he stole from Duke at a house party a month earlier. The pair of lifelong friends both took long, deep drags and exhaled slowly, just breathing and thinking in the silence, which is really all most humans are capable of in times of crisis; the normal ones, anyway, very much unlike the heroes that make the paper or the evening news.

“Where was he going?” Aurora asked.

“What?”

She took another drag of her cigarette, realizing too late the question was better suited for being posed after sleep, after a shower and over alcohol. Ironically, she was too tired to care and continued. “Where was Duke going?”

Matt paused. He too pulled on his cigarette before he spoke. “Damned if I know,” Matt said without looking at her.

Aurora’s shoulders were heavy with skepticism. “You didn’t talk to him at all that day? Seriously? You expect me to believe that?”

“He was fucked up,” Matt said. He was rubbing his forehead and continuing to avoid making eye contact. “We talked, maybe, but he was high as hell. What he was saying probably didn’t even make sense, you know?”

“But he was saying something wasn’t he? Isn’t that what you just said?”

Matt groaned. “He was upset by the same old things he always complains about, drank too much and God knows what else, and decided he was finally going to get out of town.”

“But –“

“Jesus Christ, Rory! What do you want me to say? Do you really need me to point out the obvious, that you’re the only person he’d ever visit off the parkway? What could- I mean, how could that possibly matter? Fuck off if you’re going to make this about you,” Matt said. He had exploded and been unfair, cruel even. Somewhere deep down inside, Rory knew Matt could blame his exhaustion, his stress and heartbreak, but none of it could excuse the way he had attacked her, using her nickname and reminding her of how personal everything was. The car was filling with a shocked silence.

Rory grabbed her oversized purse and gracelessly climbed out of Matt’s car. She slammed the door behind her to truly emphasize the exit and it echoed in the silence of the early morning. She marched angrily down the sidewalk outside the front of the diner. She stopped at the bottom of the concrete stairs that led to the entrance, an entrance marked by ever glowing neon lights and double glass doors. She had yet to flick away the cigarette burning slowly between two fingers and her free hand pushed her wild hair from her eyes. She turned away from the diner’s entrance, turning towards the parking lot, slowly realizing there really wasn’t any other place for her to go. She was suffering from the same exhaustion and stress and heartbreak Matt felt, but there was something more, something like confusion and a little bit like guilt since she knew Duke had been trying to get to her. Rory started crying, crying really hard, alone in a parking lot in the gray light before dawn. It was a pitiful sight, especially when Rory wrapped her arms around herself to keep from completely going to pieces. Forgotten, the cigarette was still burning down between her two fingers.

Matt climbed from the car, slipping his keys in his pocket and nudging his door shut with his hip. He called Rory’s name, but she turned away as he jogged over to her. All she offered Matt was her back. “Rory, I’m sorry,” he said. “I was an asshole.”

“Leave me alone.” Her response was cold and clipped.

“I’m mean when I’m stressed,” Matt explained as he halted a few paces behind Rory. “I’m tired and sad and didn’t want to answer your questions.”

“I don’t care.”

“Oh, come on, Rory,” Matt pleaded. He grabbed her shoulder and spun her around to face him. “I didn’t mean it, okay?”

“I feel so bad,” she sobbed. “I feel so goddam guilty because I left him. His uncle was murdered and I just went back to school, back to my own little world, like he didn’t just lose everything he had.” The tears gushed uncontrollably and made her nearly impossible to understand. “I’m supposed to be his best friend and I abandoned him. And I am selfish and I do make everything about me, but he still wanted to see me.” Shuddering, shivering, she said, “As messed up as he was, he still wanted to see me.” The cigarette finally fell from her fingers and she broke. Rory brought her hands to her face, sad and shamed and tired, and Matt took her into his arms.

Matt shushed her. “You can’t feel guilty. I know it’s easy for me to say that, but you didn’t put those keys in his hand or that bottle in his mouth.” He pushed her away from him so he could see her face, but still held her by the shoulders. “You can’t- I mean, you just can’t beat yourself up over this. You’re his friend and you love him, and that’s enough, okay? That’s enough.”

“I do love him,” Rory sobbed, collapsing back into Matt’s arms. “I love him so much, and he’s such a fucking idiot.”

Matt laughed softly and tried to soothe her further by gently rubbing her back. They stayed like that for some time, not saying anything, happy just to be held until the sky turned rosy gold. They headed inside the diner, and over coffee and pancakes, they talked about anything and everything but Duke.


They returned to the hospital a few hours later. Duke was awake but wouldn’t be allowed visitors until the evening. Matt used the time to sleep and shower, but Rory stayed put, dozing across a few chairs for 30 minutes at a time, pacing up and down the hallway, and chugging coffee incessantly. When the doctor came to find her and tell her she could see Duke for just a few minutes, Rory did her best to patiently listen to the doctor; he advised her to speak softly and stay calm. Rory did her best to follow him to Duke’s room as normally as she could but it was a struggle. She wanted to sprint to Duke’s bedside and hold him, and if she broke down yet again, then so be it. But she already felt responsible for Duke’s current physical state. If she were to make it worse, she would not be able to live with herself Rory found herself panicked into silence as the doctor excused himself and shut the door softly behind him. Rory’s breath caught in her throat.

“Aurora,” Duke breathed. He was the only one to use her full name, not even her parents did, and the sound of it nearly caused her to collapse. “You look like shit,” Duke added, soft and low, after using only his eyes to survey Rory. He laughed but it was almost inaudible.

Rory stepped forward, trying to stay composed. She remembered herself after a moment and offered a disappointing smile. “Like you’re one to talk.” The impending silence made the air heavy between them. “I only have a few minutes, but he said I could come back tomorrow.”

Duke nodded, breathed in and out. “I know,” he said.

Rory moved to the side of the bed and delicately took Duke’s hand in both of her own. “But I’ll stay for as long as you need me, for as long as it takes to get you well.” She bent forward and kissed his forehead, then she lovingly kissed his cheek. Trying not to start crying, she let her cheek lay against Duke’s for a few silent, precious moments. “I love you,” she said.

Duke stared straight ahead, blinking furiously. He wanted to say it back and even felt he needed to say it back, but he didn’t trust himself to speak at the moment. He was grateful to be alive and grateful to be loved, especially by someone like Rory, but he was ashamed he’d been willing to throw it all away. He was also terrified of what lay ahead, that he might make such mistakes again. He was sure he didn’t deserve this precious moment with a beautiful woman, this miraculous second chance. Everything he felt and believed he had to consider was overwhelming and he knew his voice would be affected as a result, and sound shaky and overcome with emotion. Duke didn’t want that, not anymore. He wanted to be strong. He didn’t want to be a burden. Duke took a few deep, steadying breaths before he finally said, “I love you too.”

Rory straightened up and looked down at Duke with a soft, sad smile that Duke suddenly wanted to violently smash. He didn’t want to be pitied – that idea had not flown once sobriety arrived. Duke knew that wasn’t fair, but he didn’t have the energy or the knowledge to fix it, so he shut his eyes tight against it and lazily allowed his head to roll to the side.

Poor Rory didn’t know what to make of it. So she said, “I’ll let you rest and come back later with Matt. We’ll get Eric over here, too.” Duke said nothing nor did he move. “Bye Duke,” was Rory’s lame response to his silence before she hurried from the room.

Duke lay there, absolutely loathing himself until he fell asleep.


Rory and Matt returned the next day, sometime in the early afternoon. Rory had smuggled in one of those milkshakes you mix yourself from the local convenience store and she was thrilled to find Duke in much better spirits. She gave the milkshake most of the credit.

The three friends avoided speaking of the past at all costs and focused on the future, on Duke’s next move. Rory offered to clean out Duke’s house, which he had inherited from his recently departed uncle. So one day while Duke was still recovering in the hospital, she emptied and disposed of all the liquor bottles and syringes, moving from room to room, carefully inspecting each for hiding places both clever and obvious. Matt helped, dutifully following Rory from room to room as an extra pair of eyes and as an extra pair of strong and sturdy hands. Rory changed the sheets on Duke’s bed and turned up the heat so it’d be warm and cozy upon his return.

Rory vacuumed the broken glass, removed the wooden shards, and cleaned the bloody palm print from beside the front door. It was almost as if Duke had never left that night, but only almost.

Duke saw the results of Rory and Matt’s efforts just a few days later when he was finally released from the hospital and able to come home. His breath moved in and out in shuddery spasms as Rory pushed his wheelchair over the threshold of his home. It was the same, but it was also entirely different.

Once inside, Duke opted to wheel himself around. He moved from room to room in the same way Matt and Rory had, but it was unclear what it was Duke was searching for. His face was immoveable and his expression was impossible to read. Matt and Rory contented themselves with following just a few paces behind. They were intrinsically and inexplicably cautious, anticipating some kind of outburst from their stormily silent friend. Both assumed his stoicism was only temporary, but Duke kept on keeping on. When he wheeled himself into his bedroom, all Duke said was, “New sheets.”

“Yeah,” Rory lamely ventured. She paused to clear her throat. “They’re a higher thread count and I got you a heavy comforter.” She smiled but it was nervous and queasy. “You need to be able to relax in here if nowhere else.”

Duke raised his chin to indicate a bizarre looking light upon the end table on the left side of the bed. “Is that what that’s for?”

Rory stepped forward, a dull, pulsing heat rising in her cheeks. “That’s a sea-salt lamp,” she explained. “They’re supposed to reduce stress and anxiety. They’re very trendy.” Again, she tried to smile, tried to be light and natural and normal. But again, all she managed was awkward and forced and lame.

“Oh,” was Duke’s response. He looked around the room once more before deciding to leave.

Matt stepped to the side to allow Duke to roll past, but then he lingered where he was. He waited until Duke was out of earshot before he asked Rory what the fuck Duke’s problem was. Matt explained that Duke was being an epic kind of douche bag and had been that way since they’d left the hospital, and Matt was willing to chalk it up to a million different reasons, but if it was something as simple as sober Duke was an asshole and nothing more, then Matt wasn’t entirely sure what he’d do. When Rory offered nothing in response, Matt asked in a harsh, hissing whisper, “What the hell is his problem?”

“Oh, I don’t know, Matt,” Rory hissed back, functioning at an extreme level of sarcasm. “Maybe he’s pissed he’s stuck in a wheelchair and maybe he feels useless and worthless because he’s going to be out of work for a long time.”

“Eric will hold his job-“

“Maybe there’s no money coming in and all kinds of money going out and he’s worried. There’s medical bills and court fees and prescriptions and regular bills and groceries-“

“The inheritance will keep him comfortable for at least-“

“ –all of that on top of severe physical pain, not to mention what extreme mental and emotional-“

“Okay, okay!” Matt exploded, no longer whispering. “I get it, alright?” He sighed heavily and turned, prepared to finally follow Duke down the hallway. Before he was out of reach, before he was too many steps ahead, Rory reached forward and gave Matt’s hand a reassuring, encouraging squeeze. They were all Duke had, so they could only be sympathetic; or at the very least, that was Rory’s understanding of the situation.

So once Duke was on the road to recovery and absolutely all of the damage could be assessed, Matt stopped dropping by everyday (though he did check in on a daily basis). Rory was more devoted, as she always had been and always would be; she went food shopping, drove Duke to all of his appointments and anywhere else he needed to be, cooked dinners at least once a week, stayed on top of the bills and let Duke know which money was due when. She took care of her best friend until he was able to get around without assistance and was cleared to drive, which was well after the spring semester had ended and well into the beginning of the following fall semester. Rory never registered for classes and much to the chagrin of those who knew and loved her (Duke included), she never returned to school.

Rory moved back in with her parents because the rent was free and she was only blocks away from Duke, so when he needed pain relief in the dead of night or when he woke sweating and screaming from god awful nightmares, she could be on her way before Duke even hung up the phone. It was a perfect situation until her parents started to get pushy about school, until her parents asked her pointed questions about exactly what she was sacrificing and for whom, until she could no longer ignore the valid points her parents raised during difficult discussions that rapidly increased in frequency. Rory had to run away, to shove it all down and away, because that was easiest even if it wasn’t best. With the last of her student loan money, she paid the first and last month’s rent for a quaint, absolutely adorable apartment less than two blocks from the bay. And since she was well-known, and more importantly well-liked, Rory had no trouble getting hired at the local tavern and in the two years that followed, she was able to work her way from hostess to bartender. Between the tips from the regular customers who adored her and the tutoring jobs she scheduled on the side, she made ends meet. It was a quiet, simple kind of life.

And Duke never asked her about it.

He knew that if he thought about it too hard for too long, or if he thought about it at all, he’d begin to feel responsible for nearly all of Rory’s wasted talent and potential. If he thought about it, he’d begin to develop a very real fear of Rory’s eventual and inevitable resentment once she realized Duke was quite content to keep her trapped, regardless of how content Rory might be to be trapped. In Duke’s defense, Rory never said anything about any of it; she just let the situation be what it was. So the all-important conversation about what it all meant for both parties involved never came up. In all the hours spent nursing Duke back to health, spent helping Duke regain mobility and independence and a sense of identity, neither him or Rory talked about the constantly advancing September or points beyond.

It was what it was.

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On the critic in your head, and the external critics who try to get in your head.

Published March 14, 2019 by mandileighbean

muppet-critics

 

I’ve wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember. The first time I thought I had any real talent, or any real future with writing, was when I was in the third grade (if you can believe it). We had a homework assignment having to do with vocabulary, and I wrote a poem using the entire list of vocabulary words. My mom liked the poem, but made me complete the assignment the exact way the teacher assigned it so I wouldn’t lose credit or get in trouble (good lookin’ out, Ma!). I brought both versions of the assignment to school, and my teacher FREAKED out. He loved the poem and signed me up for a local young author’s conference.

But third grade was FOREVER ago (or at least very much feels that way) and other moments of validation have been few and far between. I did publish a novel, but it was with an incredibly small press and there was no publicity, so I don’t think anyone read it outside of my social network. And they all seemed to like it, but would any of them really tell me otherwise?

And that brings me to the main topic of today’s post:

Ten Obstacles Every New* Writer Faces
(by new, I mean any writer not firmly established)

  1. Self doubt!
    My biggest obstacle, without question, is self doubt. It plagues me every time I write anything at all, and it is a struggle to persevere against the nagging suspicion that I’m no good and people are just nice. I do my best and remind myself I was published and people did enjoy my book and that people do enjoy this blog. I remind myself as often as I can that I am talented, that my writing is worthy of praise, and that I have something important to say.

    I think it’s important to note that even wildly successful, established writers suffer from self doubt. I absolutely adore Nic Pizzolatto’s work. He’s the mastermind behind “True Detective,” the HBO original series. The first season is pretty much universally lauded as a masterpiece, and I agree. I’ve re-watched the first season more times than I care to admit, and I find something else to love about it. It inspired me to read “Galveston” (Pizzolatto’s novel) and “Between Here and the Yellow Sea” (Pizzolatto’s collection of short stories). I highly recommend both, as Pizzolatto tells fresh stories with a love of language. His prose, while dark, is beautiful and cerebral. Hence, I was pumped when the second season of “True Detective” was announced, especially upon learning the cast included Colin Farrell, Rachel McAdams, and Vince Vaughn.

    But the second season is pretty much universally lauded as garbage (though I think history will be kinder than the current climate of critics). There were so many plot lines and so many characters that nothing ever felt authentically fleshed out, and the ending was deeply unsatisfying. I was shocked; how could something so good turn so bad? I did some research, and came across an article that Pizzolatto was deeply affected by the criticisms of the first season and wrote the second season as a response. Instead of guarding his art, he lost his voice.

    I am by no means passing judgement. I doubt I’d operate much differently. So when season three was announced, I was more than skeptical. I had no expectations, really. And boy, was I pleasantly surprised. Season three is a subtle, nuanced narrative that is delicately crafted to expose the many problems that come from the passing of time, failing memories, and the choices people make with no regard for future consequences. I was particularly impressed by Stephen Dorff’s performance and have convinced myself I am in love with him (check out this article). Particularly in the last couple of episodes, Dorff shined and added a human element that was more palpable and tangible than what the main story line had to offer.

    Granted, the third season had definite parallels to the first season, and I suppose it could be argued that Pizzolatto simply reverted back to what worked instead of venturing into new literary territory, but I call bullshit. Good storytelling is good storytelling, in my opinion, and Pizzolatto is a master storyteller. But everyone’s a critic, right? Entertainment Weekly gave the finale a C rating and wrote a hit piece, specifically blasting a heartbreaking scene featuring Dorff. I read it angrily, remembering that scene from season one when Woody Harrelson accuses Matthew McConaughey of shitting on any moment of human decency. Instead, I offer Esquire’s excellent write up of Dorff’s performance, which can be found here.

    But I digress; back to the list.

  2. Naivete!
    When I first seriously started writing, I thought everything would be easy and happen in a predictable pattern. I thought everyone I encountered genuinely believed in me and my talent. However, I have learned the hard way that some people just want to stroke their own egos and make money, and some people have no problem doing that at the expense of a young writer.
  3. It costs money to make money, even as a writer!
    The greatest asset as a writer, other than the obvious necessity of talent, is a professional network. It really helps you get your foot in the door if you know someone. I know no one, so to start making connections and contacts, I began attending conferences, which is really the only way to go. Unfortunately, attending legitimate conferences where you can meet agents and editors and other serious writers costs money. I’ve been to two legitimate conferences, and they cost $3,000 each. That cost does not include travel and lodging and other incidentals, and that can be difficult to manage on an average salary, which leads me right to my next point…
  4. It takes time!
    It takes patience to finish a novel, send it out to agents and publishers, and wait to hear back. But it also takes time to hone the craft, to read and to write. It takes time to travel to conferences. I had to request time off from work for both of the conferences I attended, and I know I am blessed that doing so wasn’t problematic. I’m sure there are some writers, working full-time as something else, who wouldn’t be afforded the same luxury. I realized that writing takes serious time, and needs to be prioritized. I need to start turning down invitations and stay off Candy Crush and social media to get writing done. I have to choose my writing over other obligations, even those that involve my job, because it is my true passion and what I love to do. That’s a daunting commitment, especially when it’s easier to make excuses and not take the risk of pursuing a passion.
  5. Writer’s Block!
    I never thought it would happen to me. I’m bursting with ideas! I’m eager to tell stories! But when I sit down at the computer, sometimes, nothing comes. The cursor just blinks and I just sit there, blinking, and anything I type is deleted because it’s awful. Stress and exhaustion create Writer’s Block, and at times, there is just no avoiding it.
  6. Priorities!
    I won’t repeat myself, as I touched upon this idea in #4, but writing must be a priority. I thought I could have my cake and eat it too, that I could write while having a life. But as I grow older, I realize writing must be a part of my life. I have to do it everyday and pursue agents tenaciously. I can’t put it off and use the excuse that I’m living and experiencing things to enrich my narratives – it can’t be one or the other.
  7. Advice!
    I’m a transcendentalist, so I believe people mean well. When I’m given advice about my writing, whether it be the content or the logistics of getting published, I patiently listen and express my gratitude for the concern and input. But I’ve realized it has to go in one ear and out the other. People are people are people; no two human beings are the same, so no two writers are the same and no two writers are going to have the same exact path to publication. And no two writers are going to have the same art. I’m learning to guard my art, to trust that I know the best way to tell my story, so I’m leery when it comes to advice.
  8. Finding a tribe!
    It’s easier to make writing a space in my life if I talk to and hang out with fellow writers and artists. I recommend finding a writing group, or a book club, or even just one person who will talk shop with you.
  9. Marketing/promoting!
    Writers can often be introverts and have trouble selling themselves and their works. Luckily, I’m an extrovert. I’ll talk to anyone about anything. I’m incredibly friendly. But I don’t know the first thing about promoting a novel. I didn’t do any marketing for my novel because I didn’t know what to do, and I didn’t know who to ask (and this goes back to naivete). A writer friend of mine has a publisher who’s handling all that for him, and I am so excited for him.
  10. Staying relevant (releasing new material)!
    It takes time to be published, so in between releases, how does a writer stay relevant? This blog is one way, but I want to be able to keep my writing in the spotlight. I’m considering publishing a chapbook of poetry I created using magnetic poetry (I post them on my Instagram, here). Self-publishing costs money, though it may save time, so I’m considering all my options.

Was the list helpful? Was there something I missed? Did you hate season three of “True Detective”? Leave a comment and let’s start a conversation!

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