Nightmares and Nativity (A Christmas Story), Part One

Jenny strung the last of the burnt popcorn strings over the bows of the tree and stood back to admire her hard work with a skeptical, scheming smile. Stretched fat and flat, her distorted reflection stared back at her from the round faces of all the orange and black balls, a Halloween funhouse on the Holiest night of the year. Dollar store skeletons that looked like candlewax figures dangled limp and dead from every branch, eyeless sockets staring out into the unknown, witness to a darkness she could only imagine, a beautiful black void just beyond the periphery. Behind them glowed jack-o-lantern lights, two hundred of them, to be precise. They were cute, those lights, and had these innocent, three-toothed smiles that made Jenny think of a shy, goofy child caught whittling the skin from a dead cat. Evil could be cute. Black bows were scattered everywhere, as were the nooses she had made from all her shoelaces. It was hard to tie so many of them in one setting, thirteen coils on each one. Her fingers hurt. But they always hurt. She liked to stab the tips of them with straightpins and suck out the blood like a starving vampire. It was subtle self-mutilation, easy to hide. And fun. It was fun to hurt … a little.

The tree was a dwarf, only three feet tall. But make no mistake–it was evil. One-hundred percent demonic–a leprechaun with a bloody knife hidden behind its back, a cauldron of stewing bones at the end of its rainbow. On its highest point rested the head of one of her old dolls, a Cabbage Patch Kid once named Gretchen. But Gretchen’s name had changed when Jenny found the darkness, when pink ribbons were replaced with black lace, black nail polish, and her bright life painted black, dyed to the roots. The day the color was stolen. The day the gray clouds finally dropped and devoured her world in a thick, suffocating fog. There was no Henny Penny, no one to warn her. It just fell. She fell with it.

Annebelle Lee’s decapitated head looked out at her, her mouth a straight, determined line trying not to crack, like a child trying to fight back tears at Mommy’s funeral. Jenny had drawn stitches down the sides of her doll’s cheeks that looked like unfinished railroad tracks, and colored them with red marker. She had also bleached Gretchen’s pink face–filled it with pallor, injected it with sorrow, turned her into a porcelain doll no one would ever want. It had taken three days in the sink, soaking in a potent convection of Clorox and nail polish remover  Jenny thought might be toxic to breathe. She wondered what it would be like to take a drink.

“You’re a traitor,” Annabelle Lee whispered to her. “How could you do this to me? How could you turn me into this horror? I trusted you. I loved you. I wanted you to hold me, sleep with me, love me in return. I wanted your love more than anything. I was an orphan, for God’s sake. How could you break my heart?”

Jenny walked to the tree and caressed the doll’s thick, stringy black hair. Annabelle Lee’s eyes stared at her, full of accusation and fear. Red paint, too much of it, dragged down the side of her cheeks in crooked streams. Jenny had wanted to make her look like she was crying blood, but instead she looked like her eyeballs had exploded. It was an emotional sight, like seeing an angel cry.

“Nevermore, babydoll,” Jenny cooed as she stroked the doll’s cold face and cried. “This will all be over soon.”

She went around the room, lighting candles throughout her studio apartment: two on the stove; three on the table beside the bed; one in the little bathroom that still had the previous tenant’s stains inside the toilet. The rest of the apartment was as much a shithole. She studied the fires, watching their flames sway wickedly in the warm wind from the furnace vents, little witches writhing on the stake.

On the coffee table were miniature statues, one of Santa, the other a tiny wicker reindeer with a golden bell around its neck. She had cut away Santa’s face with a kitchen knife–scratching away his effigy like the ancient Egyptians did to damn their pharaohs in the afterlife–and stuck the blunt tip of a broken pencil down the front his red trousers, creating a phallic protrusion. He was posed behind the deer, doing criminal things that Mrs. Claus had probably suspected for years. Not that anyone could do anything about him–Santa was judge and jury of the North Pole, the dominant male. A king, really; another man who had placed himself, like the Pope, above all others. Instead of kissing his ring, he wanted you to kiss his fat ass all year long, just to get on the right side of the list.

Knowing which side she was on this year, Jenny brought her fist down on Santa’s red hat, feeling his wire-body bend and bow to her savagery, prostrating him at the reindeer’s anus.

“That’s what you deserve, you dirty old man,” she said. “Every brokenhearted kid who didn’t get what they asked for knows you suck ass.”

She was biting her bottom lip, an old habit from childhood. Blood rolled into her mouth and mixed with her spit. Copper and Jack Daniels Devil’s Cut. She swallowed it greedily, wanted more. More blood and more booze.

“What are you looking at?” she asked Annabelle Lee. “Don’t you dare judge me. I can throw your soft little body away. And I’ll do it. You know I will, Anna. Splat–right in the trash, with the used rubbers, rotten hot dogs and diseased needles. You wouldn’t like that, would you–waking up with a molded, stiff wiener stabbing you in the mouth?”

The heat kicked on again, fanning the dying candles. The apartment was hot. Too hot. Sweat rolled down her face and her dark eyeliner ran with it, a river of wet, black ash, bitter on her lips. Just like her tears.

She needed someone, even if it was one of the homeless men down at the park. They were crazy, but interesting. She liked their stories, even if they were lies. Hers were, too.

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Prospects of an Alternate Ending

Yesterday, while every sane person in the country was doing their best to eat themselves into a turkey-induced coma, I couldn’t stay off my phone ( a sure sign times have changed: five years ago, I would’ve been on a computer). Like a million other science and astronomy geeks, I was more interested in the life-and-death struggle of Comet ISON than the time-honored traditions of John Smith and his gluttonous band of pilgrims. Their ships sailed hundreds of years ago, but Comet ISON was on its maiden voyage; their destination was a continent, Comet ISON’s was our home star (geeks bigger than me often call the sun by its name, Sol). Both trips were harrowing, but I already knew how the Plymouth Rock story ended. I had pumpkin pie to prove it.

I have a lot invested in this comet: twenty-three days, and three-hundred pages of first draft; and two months of a second draft that added almost thirty pages of backstory to my original novel. The book, which I’m talking about for the first time, is a decades-long love story told around the arrival of comets. It’s sweet, funny, and, in places, heartbreakingly tragic.

I jumped the gun a little in writing my book in the summer, because, even then, I realized there was a chance Comet ISON wouldn’t survive. This was its first visit to the inner solar system; no one knew if it would hold up. Kind of like a cosmic test of integrity inside a wind tunnel, or the first time you try to put weight on a broken bone. There are hundreds of examples of comets that don’t survive, a new one every few years that, instead of finding majesty, are reduced by the sun’s gravity into plumes of brightly burning dust.

Knowing this potential ending, I wrote the book anyway. I kept asking myself why, and telling myself to wait until Christmastime to see what happened. At least then I’d also have key dates to include in my book, and the comet’s own  backstory wouldn’t be as grainy as Hubble’s photos of it were at the time. But my main character, Chance, didn’t want to wait. He had been waiting for this comet since Hale-Bopp departed back in ’97. He was in love, and he was tired of waiting. And his impatience was contagious to me, the writer.

In September, the real speculating began within the science community. The comet was acting weird. Waffling in and out of brightness. Unstable. It didn’t look good. Prognosis: negative.

I was devastated, and on the verge of banging my head into the bathroom stall at work, even though those walls are covered in juvenile graffiti and bloody boogers (the truth isn’t pretty; neither are the bathroom stalls at work). And then my wife saved me. Because, in one sentence, she did what all spouses of writers do better than the writer’s themselves: she found the silver lining; she looked at things with a fresh set of eyes, without the weight of an imaginary world, and its people, on her shoulders.

She told me my book would be better if Comet ISON died.

She was right–the comet’s death would add an extra layer of conflict to my book, and an extra layer of humanity to my characters.

That was the day I saw the alternate ending. The one I might need to use soon.

But I might not. When I went to bed last night, Comet ISON was a streak of shattered debris rounding the sun, the white arc of a fingertip swiped across an infrared image of our star. It was one well-cooked turkey.

This morning, there are signs of life again, renewed hope for a comet that has nine burning lives. Something survived, so maybe my original ending of the book does, too. If not, I’m thankful for it anyway. There are some who believe that comets seeded life on earth, that they delivered to our planet the complex proteins that created life. I don’t know, but this comet brought life to a story, gave birth to men and women. That’s a miracle to me.

I’m going to wait a few days to start my final draft. I’m going to hold my breath with Chance, hope for him, and see what happens. No matter what, there’s still a stubborn woman out there named Faith, and he’s still waiting for a comet to bring her back to him. ABC News is reporting that something emerged from behind the sun.

No matter what it is, the story survives.

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He paws at the door; I get up, open it. He runs away, off into the yard, to stare at me like I’m the dumb kid who just fell for the up-high-down-low-too-slow. I close the door and whisper bad names at him, knowing he doesn’t care, that he only pretends not to understand.

The dog hates me.

Three seconds later, he’s back, pawing at the door again. The door shakes. The glass shimmies. There’s movement behind the glass, out in the dark night, a whisper of a streak, a blur of motion. He let’s out a long, high-pitched whine that sounds like the first thirty seconds after someone fires a revolver next to your ear.

I open the door again. He jumps back, ears flying, and bolts for the yard, knowing I won’t chase him: it’s dark out there, I’m barefoot, and we both know what business he’s been doing. I’ve already had enough of his shit.

He’s on the back porch before I can even get the door closed, leaning his weight against the glass, paws working like he’s trying out a new drum solo. Upstairs, the wife laughs at The Mindy Project, while the two year old on the couch calls me “Pinky” and barks laughter. I have no idea what it means, but in my mind, just for a second, I thought he called me the other P-word.

I run my hands through my hair and look at myself in the mirror. It’s time for a haircut; I look like Wolverine, but with less style and no claws.

The dog has started leaving dead moles on the porch. In another home–one where a dog loves its master–the mole might be seen as an offering to a god. But not at my house. The dog hates me, and I take the mole as a threat, like the rabbit in the stew pot in Fatal Attraction.

I saved his life. Twice. The first time when I brought him home from the pound, and then when I paid to keep him alive through a rough bout with Parvovirus. He doesn’t care. The only appreciation he knows is biting my hand and pawing me in the balls; digging up the yard, and tearing chunks out of the door while he plays the game he thinks is so cute. It’s not. Fetch is a cute game; so is tug-of-war. Not this. This is cruelty and torture. This is a battle for supremacy in the ranks, a power play. And I’m losing. I feel like I’m being bullied by a kindergartener.

The game goes on until I leave the door open, just a crack. Then he comes in on his own, jumps up on the couch, and looks at me like I’m the idiot with no testicles. He thinks he’s made me feel inferior, but in truth, I look at him and think about how, if I wanted, I could break his jaw with one quick kick. I don’t. With his mouth wired shut he would just whine all the time.

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I never write about water

Water. I’m terrified to write about it. And sand. It just seems like everything’s been said already, every metaphor made and remade, all the originality long since carried out by the tide. And the truth of it just isn’t that appealing: It’s either clear, or one of a few different shades of blue-green-brown, depending on the weather overhead, and the diet of whatever animal chose to defecate in it upstream. It’s lame, and I’m scared of being a lame writer.

But it’s useful.

Need a sweet first kiss? Try this:

Jack and Jill sat on a hill overlooking the brown pond that filled the caldera below. The little pond, where they had skipped rocks and chased frogs as children, gave ripples to the setting sun that burned orange and brown on its muddy surface, and in the waves of dying sunlight, Jack’s heart rippled too. He leaned forward, parted his lips, and stole the kiss that no book had ever given him.

Need a good death scene? Check this out. We’ll add some darkness just for kicks:

The swollen black river claimed Jill’s life beneath a sea of stars that spun like dying fireflies on it’s surface. She was lost to the undercurrent, gone like so many others who had challenged the bridge and lost. There were no screams, and even if there were, the river took them, too.

Need a moment of quiet reflection?

Jack stood in the warm waters of the pond and watched the tadpoles dance across his feet. People always likened life to caterpillars and butterflies; maybe because frogs are such ugly creatures. Ugly like him. He was a frog, and Jill had replaced him with a butterfly with bigger muscles and a tanning bed membership. He had seen them, kissing beside the well, Jill’s tongue darting inside Dick’s open mouth like she was the frog and he had a fly in his throat. He closed his eyes, made a fist around the stone in his hand, and wished they would fall in the well and drown.

Need some resolution?

Jack dropped the gun in the sand and screamed at the cattails he had once tried to eat (they looked just like corndogs to him), “Damn you, Dick! Damn you for what you made me do to her!”

Jill was in the well now, lost to the dark and stone, and soon he would come tumbling after.

Water. Scary, boring water.

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Finding the Perfect Murder Weapon

Every story, no matter what kind it is, needs a good murder weapon. Even the ones without murder. I know this for a fact, because I spend every night combing the surroundings of my stories to find one. Mostly I’m killing witches. My boys like to hear them die. It’s what they’re waiting for.

These witches all live in the same little creepy house, the one at the end of “The Scary Woods”. They’re mean and disturbed, and they like to kidnap little boys (they’ve also abducted two poodles and a parakeet, which are always in the other cage, in need of rescue) and slowly cook them over their cauldron. My boys are brave, but they’re dumb, too. Night after night, they beg to be led down that dark path with the creaking trees and the moonlit shadows. They know something is lying in wait for them … but, like all good readers and listeners, they have faith that I’m somehow going to find a way to get them out of their predicaments … And entertain them while I do it.

The witches’ tired stories and retreaded kidnappings aren’t important to my sons. They just want to get to the end, to see how one of them bravely kills the witch. And it’s in those moments when I learn to tell stories; when I learn to seek out every nook, cranny, and dark corner of my imaginary world, seeing everything that lays in plain view and everything just out of sight: the shovel by the shed, the broken plate by the sink, the knife on the table with its handle sticking out from beneath a bloodstained dishtowel,  and even a football helmet, once.

I’m a seat-of-the-pants writer. It works best for me–I like letting my ideas have a free range to roam on, even if sometimes they spit dripping wet cud in my face. But as a storyteller, I’m required to know, with the first word, where I’m headed and what lies in wait when I get there. I’m also required to keep that information from my readers.

God knows I haven’t written enough to offer any sage advice to other rookies, but if I had to, it would be this:

Know your weapon before you begin, and wait until just the right moment to use it. Stephen King once killed a monster with an aspirator. And he knew he was going to. Nicholas Sparks used a notebook to kill women’s hearts all across the world. And he knew he was going to do it with the first shuffling step poor old Noah took towards Allie in that nursing home. In my book, Faith and Comets, I used a device people stare at every day to bring two lovers together. I didn’t take it from behind my back and show it to readers until the end, but I knew before I began what it was and what to do with it.

Know where you’re going before you begin, and then have a lot of fun getting there.

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Building a Platform

What is a writer’s platform? Sitting here typing, my gut instinct is to say it feels like I’m standing on the gallows, noose around my neck, being asked to come up with last words that will  someday be immortalized on plaques or in songs. That’s what building a writer’s platform feels like to me.

It’s actually the expectation, in this new digital age, that writers can build fans before they build books or novels, thus making it easier on publishing houses to decide whether or not to buy your work.  It doesn’t even begin there–that’s the end. Agents have to know people like your writing, too, or they’re not interested. It’s overwhelming. It’s another notch in the noose.

Readers are great people. Some of them become great writers. But heavy readers are often socially awkward, which means most writers are socially awkward, too. Oh, I can shake hands and make nice with anyone. But I don’t necessarily want to.

The author’s platform means I have to. I have to engage everyone, even people I can’t see. I have to basically stalk strangers on the internet, endearing myself to them through quips and witty one-liners, exposing my soul, and even worse, my stories, which sometimes seem like they run deeper than my soul.

So, this blog is me whoring myself out. Not because I think I’ll ever be a great writer, but because I think I have great stories to tell. I might feel a little choked by it all, but my stories don’t. My characters are loud and proud; some of them are mean and vile and duplicitous. They want to be heard. They want to be felt. They can slip the noose.

Before I begin my whoring (I promise I’m clean), let me take the time to thank everyone that I will steer to this site in the hopes of getting my “numbers” to acceptable levels. I hope we can all share ideas, and I hope that we can all share in my dream.  We can all be friends, even if some of you know more than me.

Most of all, understand that I’m new to this. So, if you see me choking, cut me some slack.


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