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Posts Tagged ‘Short Fiction’

It’s embarrassing for me to admit this, but I make excuses not to read all the time. I tell myself that I’m too busy; that I need to devote more time to my writing; that I’m not seeing friends enough—the list goes on. Worse still, I make these excuses solely to myself so I can feel better about ignoring that unread novel I go through my day. It’s a habit that is only hurting my writing and my creativity, because any writer worth their salt will tell you that you can only hope to produce quality prose if you read voraciously. Without a wide breadth of reading experiences to draw from, it’s impossible to craft a story that will make sense among other works of fiction.

While I try my best to read novels at the same rate that I did in college, it’s an admittedly uphill battle. That’s why I decided to read more short fiction not too long ago. I only recently realized the obvious power of short fiction, whose better authors are able to squeeze more beauty, poignancy, and depth in a few pages than many writers can do over the entire span of their career. The sheer talent of short story writers gives me hope (and constant material) in my own writing endeavors, and it’s something that I can’t recommend highly enough to other writers.

If I choose my authors correctly, it’s possible that I can finish a story in a single sitting that will stick with me for weeks to come. I spend time wondering how an author can make such hard decisions when they set out to write a short story, like how to determine the appropriate amount of plot detail or the right balance between character development and descriptive dialogue. When I write I struggle to contain entire subplots within the larger framework of my main story; I can’t imagine what it’s like for someone to compress an entire story into a few thousand words.

Talents authors accomplish these feats all the time, and yet their work is severely underserved and unnoticed in the general fiction community. Think about it: who do you know that prefers a good book of short stories to an old-fashioned novel? It wasn’t until I realized the convenience of reading short fiction that I took the time to study and appreciate the art. Sure, I had studied short stories in college, but I had never considered them outside an academic setting. But short fiction authors are well worth your time.

For example, I just finished a book of short stories by the Native American writer Sherman Alexie, and I learned more by reading his funny and tragic short stories than I ever did with any book I’ve read over the past year. I would never have known about him if I hadn’t gone down the rabbit hole of contemporary American short stories writers, but I’m so thankful that I did. My gratitude will show through in my fiction.

In short (hah), short stories do have inestimable merit for writers. For my part, I’ve learned so much about making my prose leaner, about developing my characters more thoroughly, and about creating a unique atmosphere from the short stories I’ve read. Do yourself a favor a check out a book of short fiction from an acclaimed author, sit down, and take the time to ingest the compact stories. You’ll be glad you did.

Byline:

This is a guest post by Kristie Lewis from construction management degree. You can reach her at: Kristie.Lewis81 @ gmail. Com.

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Between the Sheets

I find kiss scenes more challenging to write than sex. BUT, even more than steamy scenes, I love build-up and playful banter. In addition to paranormal YA and historical romance, I write erotica under a nom de plume.

Real Life Romance

I met my husband, the love of my life, Sébastien, in France while I was a teaching assistant during the 1999-2000 school year (and returned home a married woman). Some people bring back a shot glass – I brought home a husband.

First Kiss

Not till age 21. No wonder I get anxious writing them.

Seven Times a Charm

I wrote six “practice” novels before I felt ready to go live with my first eBook, this month, Entangled. It is the full novel version of Spellbound and will be followed up with two sequels.

Sweet Tooth

Off the charts! I once gained 50 lbs in 3 months because I couldn’t stop baking (and eating) chocolate chip cookies. My favorite cookbook at the moment is “Health by Chocolate” by Victoria Laine. Now I can have my chocolate and eat it too!

About Nikki’s chocolate-covered contribution:

A Resurrection Spell Gone Wrong

Two months after dying, Graylee Perez wakes up in her identical twin sister, Charlene’s body. As the daughter of a witch, can anyone blame her mother for attempting to bring her back to life? Only now Gray’s stuck sharing her sister’s body 50/50 in 24 hour shifts.

The race is on for Gray to find a way back inside her body before Charlene purges her from existence. Warlock Raj McKenna is rumored to meddle in the black arts, not to mention he’s after Gray’s invisibility spell and worse – her heart. But Raj might be the only one powerful enough to save Gray from fading away forever.

About the author:

Nikki Jefford’s novella Spellbound appears in the YA paranormal romance anthology Death By Chocolate, released this week. She is a third generation Alaskan who found paradise in the not-so-tropical San Juans Islands in Washington.

She blogs at: http://www.nikkijefford.blogspot.com/

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THE GREY LADY
Romantic Suspense/Mystery Short Story
by C.S. Challinor

Cornwall, England

In a blaze of chrome and burning rubber, the motorbike skidded to a screeching halt inches from Maggie’s feet where she had stepped into the street without looking. Ever since Adam’s departure, she had been in a trance.

“I’m so sorry,” she exclaimed. “I wasn’t looking where I was going.”

“No problem,” the young man replied, removing his helmet and smoothing back his sun-streaked blond hair.
Maggie thought vaguely how nice he was being about the whole thing, but she only had the presence of mind to mumble further apologies before walking on across the street without so much as a backward glance, preoccupied as she was with thoughts of Adam.

Adam had left for the summer, and the months yawned before her–days they could have enjoyed on the beach, evenings they could have spent at their favorite pub perched on the cliff top. She had given up all hope of their celebrating his twenty-eighth birthday together.

Instead, she idled away her free time, wandering restlessly along the rugged Cornish shore on England’s southwest coast, thinking about him. Adam was a puzzle. A dark horse since their first date. Gnawing into her doubts was his secretiveness. He had said he had family to visit in Devon, though she knew he couldn’t mean his parents, whom he’d lost in a car accident long ago. He had left his fishing trawler, The Grey Lady, in the hands of his partner, and told her he would write. Yet, knowing Adam, he probably wouldn’t. She had no idea how long he would be gone. Meanwhile, she watched couples holding hands, everybody enjoying their summer. Everyone but her.

She tried painting again, knowing she should put some practice in for when she went back to art college. There was no end of subject matter to be found at Pirate’s Cove, the small picturesque seaside resort where her parents lived. But her heart wasn’t in it.

Then one evening, as the sun was dipping into the sea, she spotted a lithe figure silhouetted against the sky. The way he walked, utterly lost in thought, drew her attention. He passed in the distance and disappeared into the dusk, but she caught him in her painting, just a shadow, an enigmatic shadow crossing the sunset.

Maggie was heartened by her picture. It was the first canvas of the summer that she hadn’t wanted to paint over, and it took her mind off what Adam was doing away in Devon.

The next evening, she returned to the same spot to try to recapture the magic of that moment. She didn’t have her easel with her this time. Lying back among the reeds and sand dunes, the soft evening air playing on her face, she simply listened to the swishing of waves over the shingles. The nearby crunching of sand startled her, and she sat up in alarm.

Standing over her in the dimming light was a young man dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, fair hair blowing in the sea breeze. A smile played on his lips.

“Imagine running into you again,” he said in a southern accent that made her think of rich clotted cream. Crouching down, he stretched out his hand. “I’m Brett. Did I scare you?”

“A bit.” Maggie gazed into his perfectly symmetrical face. “I think I saw you yesterday walking along the beach at about this time.” She was too embarrassed to bring up the motorcycle incident again.

“Yeah, I’ve seen you about, too. You work in that little tourist shop on the high street. Bric-a-Bracs or something. I keep meaning to go in there.”

“You should — if you like arty stuff and antiques. My parents own it.”

“I might just do that. Do you spend all year round here then?” he asked.

“No, only holidays. I’m at college in London. How about you?”

“Just touring through on my bike.”

“Do you travel a lot?”

“I do. I probably know the UK less well than Asia or North America. This is a new departure for me, being someplace close to home.”

“So, what do you do exactly?”

“I’m a photo-journalist. And you’re studying what?”

“Art,” she told him.

“We’ve got something in common, then. We both like to make pictures.” He settled himself more comfortably on the sand. “May I?” he asked.

Maggie shrugged. “I don’t own the beach,” she replied in a smart-aleck tone she immediately regretted.
He looked at her curiously. “You seem a bit down.”

Maggie didn’t know how to respond. He was perceptive. Adam wasn’t. Adam was egocentric and remote, but she supposed that was part of the attraction. This stranger shared a similar quality of mystery and had the same suggestion of strength, but he seemed attentive and interested in what she had to say. Before she could stop herself, Maggie started to open up, telling him she was involved with someone, but that suddenly he’d had to leave and now she didn’t know what to do with herself. And he wasn’t one to phone, she added bitterly.

Brett told her that he was getting over the loss of someone as well, although it had been awhile back. “Love sucks,” he said.

Swallowing hard, Maggie glanced away, but managed to hold her tears at bay.

“You have the most delicate profile,” Brett complimented her. “Mind if I photograph you sometime?”

Maggie shook back her dark hair in a mock model pose. “How many women have you said that to this summer?”

“No, really. You have a wistful face. Sort of haunting.”

She looked down, running her fingers through the sand as a blush warmed her cheeks. Adam rarely paid her compliments. She sighed heavily.

“That bad?” Brett asked.

“Oh, he’s probably bad news anyway. I’m just so confused. I feel like this whole summer is wasted and I want to feel like I’ve done something with my break from college.”

“Well, let’s do something then. What do you like to do other than paint?”

“Sailing, windsurfing, music. There’s an old inn over at Devil’s Creek called the Black Brew. They have bands at the weekend.” She and Adam used to go there, though she didn’t tell Brett that.

“Yeah, I think I know where you mean. Seriously, you’d be doing me a favor if you could show me around the area.”

Maggie agreed, and he asked if she was free the next day. She told him she didn’t have to work at the shop the next day. She did, but knew she could swing it with her parents, who lived above the store.

“I’ll pick you up at, say, ten o’ clock?”

Maggie nodded.

“Who should I ask for? You didn’t tell me your name, but I’m sure it must be something beautiful.”

She didn’t know why exactly, but she didn’t want to tell him her name was Maggie, a name she had never really liked. Her parents had felt obligated to name her after a childless aunt. Instead, she told him her middle name, chosen in one of her mother’s more whimsical moods. It was the professional name she had decided to use one day. She had never told it to Adam, afraid, she supposed, that he would laugh or make some sarcastic comment.

“It’s Serena.” She knew Brett would like it even before he drew out a low whistle.

“It suits you. Night, then,” he said, getting up from the sand and smiling down at her.

She watched as he sauntered away over the dunes. He left her with a glimmer of hope, and for the first time since Adam left, she began to look forward to tomorrow.

The next day, Maggie waited at her bedroom window in a navy T-shirt and a pair of crisp white shorts that showed off her suntanned legs. Puffy white clouds scudded across an azure sky above the surf-capped waves. She greeted the view with renewed enthusiasm, wondering how she could have forgotten how breathtaking it was. Suddenly, the throaty growl of an engine heralded the arrival of Brett’s Harley. Maggie ran down the stairs and waved her parents goodbye as she rushed out of the store.

“Well, hello again,” he said, looking her up and down with an appreciative gleam in his eyes that were as tender blue as the sky.His smile was captivating, Companionably, they crossed the street to the sea wall and continued on down the beach. All morning, she noticed how girls stared at him, and then at her with unveiled envy.

Her heart thrilled to be walking at his side. Maggie had felt special like this with Adam too. Whatever he lacked in Brett’s more conventional good looks, he made up for with his own special brand of moody charisma. Adam strode the beach or street as if he owned it. Everyone in town knew Adam, and no one messed with him. Brett didn’t give the impression that he thought himself better than everyone else, but he got the same attention as Adam anyway.

Maggie pointed to the Black Brew perched up on the cliff, from where the old inn overlooked the waves swirling and crashing against the jagged rocks three hundred feet below.

“Why is it called the Black Brew?” Brett asked, shading his eyes from the sun.

“It used to be a smuggler’s hangout,” Maggie explained. “Black Brew is a Jamaican rum that dates back to the 1800s. It’s also called ‘Devil’s Brew.'”

“Sounds lethal.”

Maggie laughed. “It is. There’s a legend surrounding the inn, if you’re interested.”

“Go on.” Brett sat down on a flat rock, smiling in anticipation.

“Well, in the tavern’s heyday, when Pirate’s Cove was doing a thriving trade in contraband, a sword fight took place on the cliff over a beautiful woman. One of the duelers plummeted to his death. Since then, people have seen the woman’s ghost on the cliff at dawn and heard the sound of her weeping.”

Brett skeptically raised an eyebrow. “People who have drunk too much Black Brew, no doubt. It’s probably a trick of the light and seagulls they’re hearing.”

Maggie chose to ignore him. From the first time she heard the story as a little girl, she had been fascinated by the Lady of the Cliff. Pirate’s Cove did good business out of the legend, but Maggie’s interest went deeper than just ghoulish interest. She had often imagined the two men fighting on the cliff edge, swords glinting and sparring at dawn; the fatal blow that sent one of them tumbling to his death; the woman’s helpless screams. Imagine witnessing that and knowing you were the cause…

“The Lady of the Cliff or the Grey Lady, as she’s also known, loved the man who was killed,” she told Brett. “And she comes back to grieve for him.”

“Uh-huh. And what became of the man who won?”

“He was lost at sea the next day.”

“And the Grey Lady, what of her?”

“Legend has it she was with child–as they said back then–and had to leave the Cove because she was unwed. But to this day she returns in death. A sad story, don’t you think?”

“If it’s true.”

Maggie shook her head ruefully. “Men! Absolutely no imagination. But if you want proof, there’s a headstone in the graveyard.”

“A tourist gimmick.” Brett ducked a playful blow from Maggie. “Look, I’m a journalist. I deal with facts. I’d need more evidence before I could believe in a supernatural tale like that. I’ll give you this, though. Ye olde Black Brew does look romantic in a gothic sort of way. Do they have rooms there?”

“They do, but I don’t expect it’s cheap in the summer season.”

Brett shrugged. “Yeah, well, I need more privacy than the local YMCA has to offer, and somewhere quiet to work.”

Maggie suggested they go and take a look. She had never seen the rooms, but always wanted to. They strolled, chatting and laughing, back to the store, Maggie praying that her parents wouldn’t see her hop on the back of the 900cc Harley.

The ride up the coast road was exhilarating. Brett didn’t have a spare helmet, and her hair blew about everywhere. She was laughing as she got off the bike. Brett dismounted and propped it on its kickstand.
“You look like a gypsy with your hair all wild like that,” he said, raking his fingers through her dark tangles. He drew her against his leather jacket and pressed his warm lips to hers. They had only been together a few hours, but already Maggie knew there was a bond between them. His eager mouth tasted as salty and beckoning as the sea. She responded cautiously at first, then with growing hunger. She wanted him, but it was too soon. Pulling away, she touched her mouth where his kiss had been.

“Sorry,” he said. “The sea air must be making me lightheaded. I got carried away.”

“So did I,” she apologized with a smile, amazed to have forgotten about Adam in that moment of passion, when only a few days before she thought she never could.

“Well, let’s go and see about a room–just for me,” he added quickly.

They entered a cramped hallway where a warm smell of toast lingered in the air and found the front office. A woman in her fifties, dyed yellow hair pinned up in an old-fashioned beehive, emerged when Brett knocked at the door.

“Is it a room you’ll be wanting for the pair of you?” she asked in a welcoming voice.

“Just for him,” Maggie said.

“Overlooking the creek, if at all possible, ma’am.” Brett smiled appealingly at the landlady. It worked–she looked completely won over.

“Follow me,” she invited, leading them up the narrow stairway that barely accommodated the generous dimensions of her hips.

Brett and Maggie exchanged amused glances.

“Lucky number thirteen,” she announced, stopping at the end of a short corridor and opening a creaking door. “This is a nice little room, this one here.”

Maggie jumped up in childish enthusiasm. “It’s adorable!” As she glanced around the bedroom with faded roses on the wallpaper and an old-fashioned grate in the corner, she tried not to let her eyes stray to the brass double bed.

Brett grinned at her. “Great view,” he commented, pulling back the chintz curtain from the salt-incrusted panes. Next, he took a peek in the bathroom. “A bit pokey, but it’ll do.” He glanced at the tariff pinned to the door. “I’ll take it. Is breakfast included?”

“Bacon, sausage, two eggs, toast, homemade marmalade, and all the tea you can drink,” the landlady boasted. “A strapping lad like you will be needing a proper breakfast.”

Maggie stifled a giggle at Brett’s abashed expression and followed him and the innkeeper out of the room. Downstairs in the polished-wood lounge, decked out in oil lamps and nautical artifacts, Brett and Maggie idled over lunch in one of the booths.

“Would you like another cider?” Brett asked her, holding up his beer mug for the waitress to see.

“Better not. I’ll fall asleep.”

“Don’t worry about that. I can carry you up to bed if necessary,” he joked. “It’s not far.”

Maggie laughed and changed the subject. “So tell me about the girl you’re getting over. After my going on about my ex-boyfriend, it’s got to be your turn.”

“‘Ex’ is it now?” he joked.

Maggie didn’t know why she had talked about Adam that way, but she suspected it had a lot to do with Brett, who had so quickly and unexpectedly stolen away her attention.

Brett’s tone and expression became serious. “Losing Lisa was bad enough,” he confided. “But it was the way I lost her that really gets me.” He stopped short and clenched his teeth, his delicate features hardening to stone, too angry to speak.

Maggie sensed he wasn’t comfortable talking about Lisa and she didn’t want to wreck their newfound friendship by prying, so she decided to leave it at that, thinking in his own good time he would tell her more about that episode in his life.

The next day, they explored the rocky part of the shore. Maggie showed him a secret cave that could only be accessed at low tide. It was three feet above the shoreline and hidden from view by land, visible only by sea as a dark shadow among the rocks. Boats seldom ventured there. The sharp rocks lurking like icebergs beneath the surface of the water had wrecked many a ship in years gone by, and now a lighthouse warned boaters away.

Inside, the cave was spread with a cushioning layer of sand and was just about high enough to stand up, and wide and deep enough to lie outstretched.

“How did you find out about this place?” Brett asked.

“It’s an old lovers’ haunt.”

“Oh, a tryst for you and your man, was it?”

“I don’t think he knows about this place. And I haven’t been here in years.”

She and Adam had no need to come to the cave. He had a comfortably converted old tin miner’s cottage back inland.

Brett stared vacantly out to sea, as though he were searching for something in his mind’s eye. Waves pounded onto the rocks below, and a misty spray reached the opening of the cave.

Maggie kneeled down beside him. “What brought you to Pirate’s Cove?”

“I came to find someone.”

“To find her?” Maggie asked softly, a sudden constriction in her throat.

“Oh, no, I would never take her back now.”

In her relief, Maggie didn’t think to ask any more. It was then she realized, through her jealousy, the strength of her growing feelings for Brett. So when he asked her to meet him at the cave at midnight, she agreed without hesitation.

When she returned home, she told her parents she would be out late that night. She was too excited to eat supper and went straight up to her room to change into warmer clothes. A photo of Adam, taken on the deck of his trawler, stood on her dressing table. With barely a thought, she locked it away in a drawer.

####

Carefully climbing over the rocks that were slippery with seaweed and glistened in the dark, Maggie reached the cave, relieved to find Brett already there, sitting on a sleeping bag. A slender rope ran over the ledge and into a rock pool.

“Fishing for crabs?” she asked.

“Chilled champagne, actually. I was waiting for you before I hauled it in.”

“I’m impressed,” Maggie said as he drew up the bottle and she saw the French label.

“Only the best for the best. Come, sit.” He patted the sleeping bag and popped open the cork. “No glasses, I’m afraid. The landlady wouldn’t let me take any out with me. Would you like the first slug?”

“Thanks. This is wonderful.” Maggie sighed in bliss, hugging her knees and gazing over the dark expanse of sea.

“You’re wonderful,” Brett said suddenly. “Your face is wonderful. This body is wonderful.”

He ran his hand up and down her back until Maggie felt delicious tingles down her spine. She arched to his caress, and suddenly his lips were on her face and throat. They undressed each other, kissing all the while, their bare skin bathed in the sea breezes. He kissed her, and she pressed him to her, fusing into his arms until there on the hard sand she could feel nothing but his warmth and passion driving into her. As the last ebbs receded from their bodies, he sprawled on top of her, breathing hard.

“Ah, Serena, you make me forget the reason I came here,” he said, propping himself up on his elbows.

“You said you came to find someone?”

“Yes.” He gazed down at her, and she saw an intense look in his eyes. “I came for revenge.”

Lying on the sleeping bag, Maggie wondered about the grim word, so potent with meaning. She wanted to know more about Lisa, but Brett’s look changed. Gently he smoothed back the hair from her forehead, and soon they were making love again, lost in each other, living for the moment, on the windswept coast of Cornwall.

Over the next few days, Brett took pictures: of Maggie, the cliffs, the fishing boats as they returned with the day’s catch. They spent more and more time together. Her parents let her off shop duty when she said she was in the mood to paint, which seemed like every minute of every day now, so involved was she with Brett, but they didn’t question her refound enthusiasm. They had always been supportive that way, maybe even a little too indulgent of their only child. And no doubt they were glad to see that she was getting over Adam’s absence. Although they had never said anything, Maggie knew they disapproved of him.

As this new love grew, Maggie became more cautious. Pirate’s Cove was a small town, and she didn’t want talk of her and Brett getting back to Adam, so they hid their love away, even from her parents. Maggie and Brett stopped going around town together and instead sought out remote corners of the shore where they could be alone, happy just to beach comb, arms wrapped around the other. Nights were spent in the cave on the cliff, their cries of ecstasy carried away by the sighs of the breeze.

Then one morning at the Black Brew, after secretly spending the night in each other’s arms, Brett finally confided the reason for his fury and confusion. With the first rays of sun peeping through the window, he told Maggie that someone had stolen his girlfriend.

It was his brother Adam.

When he told her that, he might as well have slapped her across her face. Suddenly, the pieces of the puzzle fell into place: the physical qualities Brett and Adam shared, the fact they both came from Devon, their reticence on the subject of family. She wondered why she had never made the connection before. It had to be the same Adam.

Though numb from shock, Maggie managed not to react outwardly to the revelation, insisting she had to go open the store and would see him later.

All morning long, she pondered whether to tell Brett about her and Adam–but that they were no longer together. Would Brett believe her? Then she reasoned that since Adam was out of town–for now, anyway–Brett couldn’t find out about her relationship with his older brother, unless she told him. He knew no one else at Pirate’s Cove.

The person he had come to find could only be Adam.

The word “revenge” came back to torment her, resounding over and over in her head. In a moment that made her double over in pain, it occurred to her: Brett had known about her and Adam all along and had stolen her from Adam intentionally, the way Adam had seduced Lisa away from Brett. He had come to the Cove to get even. Maggie’s face burned with shame, but that was nothing compared to the anger that blazed in her heart.

She did not know how she managed to get through the rest of the day. The touch of Brett was still on her from that morning, on her hair, her lips, her skin. She loved him, but he had betrayed her. Even the sale of her “Pink Seagulls at Dawn” canvas with a price tag of two hundred pounds did nothing to lighten her mood.
Maggie forced herself to wait until late afternoon before doing anything. At five o’clock, she rushed out to her car and sped up the narrow road to the Black Brew, desperate to confront Brett and hear him admit how he had used her.

“Bastard! Rotten, lying bastard!” she cried out as tears streamed down her face.

A horn blared, and Maggie realized she had veered onto the wrong side of the road. She swerved back just in time to avoid a head-on collision with a van. Shaken, she continued on to the inn. After parking next to Brett’s bike, she went to see if he was at the bar before going up to his room.

The pub was packed with locals, mostly fishermen celebrating Friday night with pints of beer and fistfuls of darts. She caught sight of Brett in one of the booths talking to someone she could not yet see. He was so deep in conversation that he did not notice her until she was right in front of him.

“Sweetheart,” he said, leaping to his feet. “I was just talking about you.” He proudly started to make the introductions.

But Maggie and Adam had already seen each other. In slow motion, Adam’s face metamorphosed into surprise, then disbelief. She looked back at Brett to see confusion register on his features and realized that he did not know about her and Adam. His face grew pale, he looked sick to the soul.

“You two-timing slut,” Adam cursed, ice-blue eyes piercing into hers. “Though I can’t accuse you of spreading it around since you managed to keep it in the family.”

Maggie pounced on him, but Brett pulled her away

“Careful, Serena, he’s dangerous when he gets like this.”

“Serena? What is this crap?” Sneering, Adam grabbed her wrist so hard that she gasped. His expression was dark, and he looked like he would kill her in a heartbeat. “You bloody slag…”

Brett punched him in the face. The barman intervened, telling the two men to take it outside–among groans of protest from the bar crowd. Adam pushed Maggie aside and stormed out the door. Brett stared after his brother and made a move to follow, but Maggie held him back. “I had no idea until this morning.”

“I can’t believe this,” he faltered. “Here I was telling him about the new girl in my life and how perhaps we could try to put Lisa behind us. He’s being all reasonable for once and bragging about this Maggie woman, who turns out to be you, for Christ’s sake!”

Rubbing the red marks on her wrist, she took a deep breath. “Maggie’s the name people here in town know me by. Serena is my middle name.” She glanced fearfully into his eyes. “What’s going to happen between us?”
“What d’you mean?”

“Well…,” she stumbled, “You and Adam, you know…”

“Won’t be the first time we’ve shared the same woman,” Brett said bitterly. “It doesn’t change the way I feel about you, if that’s what you mean. You didn’t know we were brothers.” He looked at her straight in the eye. “You wouldn’t think of going back to him now, would you?”

“How could you think such a thing?” She made a move toward him.

“He can be very persuasive.” Brett took Maggie in his arms, burying his face in her hair. “I have to go after him,” he said. “He might think I did this on purpose to get back at him.”

“Can’t you just let bygones be bygones?” she begged.

Brett stood back so he could look at her. “You don’t understand, Serena. I practically worshipped the ground my brother walked on. He was four years older than me. I looked up to him. But he was a bully. He could have had any girl he wanted, but he took Lisa. Then he flung her away like a used tissue when he’d finished with her. Where’s the brotherly feeling in that?” Anger smoldered in his eyes. “So if you think he’s just going to let you go and leave us in peace, you’re very much mistaken.”

Maggie remained speechless. She felt she was involved in something deeper than she could handle, a continuing saga of sibling rivalry in which she had become the trophy. She didn’t know what to think anymore, but one thing was obvious. All her instincts told her she had to run from Adam and she had no choice but to turn to Brett. They had come too far and she’d felt too much. She just didn’t see how this was going to end.

“How did you meet up?” she asked finally.

“He came to find me at our parents’ old house, where I still live when I’m not on assignment. I had written to him that I’d be back from the States in July and would be over to see him at Pirate’s Cove. I guess he didn’t want you finding out about his sordid past, so he went to Devon to track me down. He waited for me back home, but I’d already left to come here.” Brett planted a kiss on her forehead. “Listen, I hate to leave you like this, but I have to go and sort it out.”

As he turned to leave, he cautioned over his shoulder, “Stay away from him and keep your doors locked.”
Maggie ran after him through the pub. “Be careful yourself,” she said as he sat astride his bike putting on his helmet.

Brett handed her a black case. “I brought this back from New York. It’s a semi-automatic. Put it somewhere safe.”

Maggie stared at it. “How did you get a gun on the plane?”

“I didn’t. I mailed it to myself in pieces. “I have to go into remote areas at times,” he explained. “But I don’t want Adam finding it on me.”

She held the case in her trembling fingers, afraid the gun would suddenly go off in her face.
They kissed one last time, and she watched Brett roar off on his Harley with the dust rising behind him. She watched until the taillight faded into the dusk, thinking all the while that Adam and Brett were not as different as night and day after all.

Then she got in her car and drove back to the store. Her parents were just getting ready to leave. Her mother wore a long Bohemian skirt and silver hoop earrings, her long blond hair flowing down her back. Maggie smiled. She barely looked old enough to be her mother. She and her father were like newlyweds again since they had entered semi-retirement and opened the tourist shop. Soul mates; and Maggie often wished she might be as happy with someone one day. She was so close now, and yet her fragile dream could still be smashed if Adam chose to be vindictive.

“Your dad and I are going to the theater,” her mother said in her girlish voice as Maggie plunked her bag down on the counter. “Do you mind closing up shop for us, sweetie?”

“Okay, Mum.” Maggie tried to sound cheerful as she ushered them out of the store before they noticed anything was wrong. “Have a good time. Bye.”

She drew the window blinds in preparation for closing and started to tidy the shelves crammed with an assortment of shell-based candleholders, curios, and Maggie’s watercolors of local seascapes. Ten minutes later, the bell rang and she swung around to see Adam strut menacingly through the door. He flipped the sign to “closed” and drew the bolt behind him.

“What are you doing here?” Maggie demanded.

“I’ve come for you, of course.”

“I thought you weren’t interested. At least, that’s the way it appeared at the beginning of the summer.”

“I had some business to sort out.”

“You and I are through, Adam. I’m with your brother now.”

“Really, Serena?” he said in a sarcastic tone. “Well, as far as I’m concerned, nothing’s changed and you’re still mine.”

Maggie stared at him with disdain. “I’m not a possession that you can just enjoy when it suits you. I’m a person with feelings, and I got sick of waiting for you. Then when Brett told me what you did to-” She broke off as Adam lunged at her, and she kneed him where it hurt. Violently he gripped her shoulders and shook her.

“You don’t know, Maggie. You don’t know what it was like growing up without parents, having to raise a younger brother at fifteen years old. I left school and went to work so I could put food on the table and send him to school in decent shoes. But Brett got to go to college. He had it good, don’t you see? All down the line, starting with our mother. She always loved him better than me. He has those angel looks, perhaps you’ve noticed. Everybody loved Brett better than me. So I took Lisa and I got her to love me too.”

At first, Maggie almost felt sorry for him. However, as she realized what he was saying, his crazy reasoning began to frighten her. She stood up to him, for her and for Brett.

“How could you do that to you own brother?” She looked at him as she would some slimy creature that had just crawled out from under a rock.

Erupting into a rage, Adam grabbed her arm. As she tried to pull herself free, he pushed her toward the counter, bending her backward until she was lying across it.

I can’t let this happen, she thought, groping around until she found what she was looking for. She undid the catch on the box and eased it open, then slowly reached inside as Adam pushed up her skirt. Her hand closed around the gun barrel. She felt Adam plunge into her and yelled out. She pointed the gun at his shoulder and, in her panic, pulled back the trigger.

A hollow shot rang out between them. Simultaneously, a sharp rap sounded at the window. Adam’s face whitened with shock.

“You crazy bitch,” he snarled, pulling away from her and storming out the door.

The gun shook in her hand. It was moments before she had the presence of mind to set it down on the counter and call her parents. She persuaded them not to call the police, hoping to spare them the gossip that was so rife in a small town like Pirate’s Cove. She did not tell them about the nature of the assault, to spare them unnecessary pain, and assured them that Adam would not be coming back. At least, she hoped that was the case. Yet in spite of her efforts to hush up the incident, a policeman came to see her the next day. Maggie thought at first that Adam had lodged a complaint against her for possessing a gun and firing it.
“The gun only had blanks,” she explained to the cop.

Maggie had asked her father to check the barrel after Adam left. She did not know what happened exactly, but was relieved to discover that no serious wound could have been inflicted, even though she had acted in self-defense.

“That’s not why I’m here,” the officer said. He proceeded to tell her that Adam had been found at Devil’s Creek, his body mangled at the foot of the cliff.

A sob caught in her throat. “He’s dead?”

The officer nodded. “Yes, miss. Was he your boyfriend?”

“It was over between us. He was angry about it. He came to the shop last night and we had a fight.” Maggie glanced anxiously at her parents, hoping they would not have to learn the whole truth. “Then he left, and that was the last I saw of him.”

“We believe he might have committed suicide. He had been drinking.”

Maggie knew that couldn’t be the case. Not Adam. He was not one to hurl himself off a cliff for the sake of a woman, and though he drank, she had never seen him drunk to the extent he would do anything stupid.
The policeman did not ask about Brett. It seemed no one had seen him the night of Adam’s fall. There was nowhere Brett could have hidden. Nowhere except the cave. And the cave was their secret.

####

When the funeral was over, Maggie felt a huge sense of relief. Most of the fishing community had turned out to show their respects to Adam. Now she and Brett were the only mourners left at the church.

“Adam would want his ashes cast out at sea,” Brett said. “But his crew mates will have to go without me. I don’t have sea legs.”

“Tell me what happened that night, Brett.” Maggie felt she could not deal with any more secrets.

Brett searched her face and shook his head. “Let’s just leave the past behind us, Serena.”

“I need to know,” she pleaded.

Brett sighed with resignation. “It was an accident. He fell. That was the police verdict.”

Maggie decided to leave it at that. Whether Brett was around at the time of Adam’s death, she might never know. Perhaps the sound she had heard during her attack at the store was Brett at the window. She could not be sure. Was it ever possible to know everything about someone, however well you knew them? She had never felt she really knew Adam. However, she could not doubt the strength of Brett’s love for her, and she had to have faith that it would be enough to overcome her doubts.

“No more secrets, okay?” she implored him.

“None,” he said with a faint smile. “But, while we’re on the subject, are you Maggie or Serena?”

“The name Maggie died with Adam.” Taking his arm, she led him out of the gloomy chill of the church into a small, neatly tended graveyard.

“Look,” she said, pointing to a simple headstone, which read, “Here lie two brothers, united in death.” Maggie fingered the worn, engraved lettering. “The Lady of the Cliff insisted they be buried together.”

“Do you believe they were really brothers?” Brett asked.

Maggie looked up at him, amused. “So you believe the legend now?”

“I saw her, you know.”

For one dreadful moment, Maggie thought he meant Lisa, the girl Adam had stolen away. “You mean…”

“The lady on the cliff. It was just before daybreak. There was an indistinct figure cradling a bundle in her arms.”

Maggie stared at him, her hand at her throat, unsure whether he was making this up.

“I swear it, Serena. I saw her.”

####

They sold Adam’s cottage and rented a house overlooking the sea, far away from Devil’s Creek and its mixed memories. Adam’s trawler, The Grey Lady, never made it back home. A freak storm overpowered the boat and three fishermen were lost at sea along with Adams’ ashes, only the pummeled remains of the hull washing up days later on a distant shore.

For the rest of the summer, Brett worked on his travelogue while Maggie painted. Her pictures acquired a new depth. Not only did they depict what met her eye, but now suggested a hidden meaning. Maggie had discovered that in life there was no such thing as black and white, but varying shades of gray. And just as day becomes night, night moves toward day.

She and Brett fell into a happy routine, but as the weeks passed, another storm cloud gathered. Maggie could no longer make excuses to herself that all the anxiety she had gone through with Adam was the cause. As they lay together one night, she turned hesitantly to Brett. His arms wrapped tight around her gave her the courage to speak.

“Brett,” she whispered.

“Mm?”

“I think I’m…pregnant.” Maggie clenched her teeth in the dark, waiting.

“You are?” He pulled back slightly, and she could just make out the contours of his face and the shine in his eyes.

She burst into tears, she did not know whether from joy, disappointment, or simply the relief of telling him.

“Why are you crying, sweetheart?” He held her closer. “We were bound to have a baby some time. Your parents will be thrilled. They were just hinting about a grandchild the other day.”

“It’s not my parents I’m worried about, or college,” Maggie began. Now she had come to the hard part. “Oh, Brett,” she sobbed. “I don’t know if the baby is yours or Adam’s.”

She felt the impact of her words penetrate Brett like a bullet; his body turned rigid.

“This never ends,” he said at last in a controlled voice. “Adam wins–again.”

“We don’t know that. The child could just as well be yours. We could do a blood test,” she blurted, “Then…”
Brett put a finger to her lips. “A DNA test might not prove anything. Listen, Serena, let’s make a pact, here and now, that we will never try to find out one way or the other. If the baby is Adam’s, so be it. We’ll love the child the way Adam never felt loved. Maybe, that way, we can give Adam something back, now that we have so much.”

Maggie hugged Brett to her. She could not speak. In that moment, she knew her feelings for him grew even stronger than ever before. She knew he was right, and her heart burst with love for the baby she was carrying.

But if she bore a son, well… Maggie decided the boy would be an only child, so history could never repeat itself.

©2009. C.S. Challinor / All Rights Reserved. This story may not be copied nor printed in any form without permission from the author.

This story was slightly edited for content for The Dark Phantom Review.
“The Grey Lady” was previously published by Loving Magazine, UK, as “Night & Day.”

About the author:

cchallinor-210-exp-5785C.S. Challinor was born in Bloomington, Indiana, and was educated in England and Scotland. She now resides in Southwest Florida. Her short stories have been published in women’s magazines in the United States and the United Kingdom. Challinor is a member of the Authors Guild and Sisters in Crime. Vist her website at http://www.rexgraves.com.

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MicroHorror is a new ezine featuring horror stories in various subgenres–traditional, modern, gothic, dark fantasy. The requirement? They have to be well written and be 666 words or shorter–talk about a clever gimmick for a horror magazine! Here to talk about MicroHorror and how it came about is editor Nathan Rosen. Rosen shares his formula for a great horror story and discusses the most common mistakes he encounters in submissions, among other things. 

Tell us a bit about MicroHorror. When and how did it get started?

MicroHorror launched in May of 2006, and it's a classic "If you build it, they will come" story. I love short horror, as you might guess, and I was sitting in my office one day wishing I could read some horror microfiction, so I started searching. I found plenty of sites featuring horror of all lengths, and I found sites featuring microfiction in all genres, but nothing hit the sweet spot I was looking for. I decided that if nobody else was going to do it, I'd build the site myself. I came up with a catchy name and a good gimmick for the word count, and the rest is history.

What type of horror fiction do you consider?

I'll take horror in any category or subgenre you care to name. Traditional, modern, gothic, dark fantasy—the sky's the limit. I'll even take poetry if it's excellent, and believe me, it's real easy to write terrible horror poetry. Reprints and simultaneous submissions
are fine. The only unbreakable rules are that it has to be horror, it has to be 666 words or shorter, and it has to be your own original work. Read the FAQ and submission guidelines right here

If you could narrow down to three the elements that make a great horror story, what would those be?

I believe that a great horror story is made of the same three elements that make a great joke: the setup, the escalation and the payoff. When these three elements all work in harmony and lead you to an ending that's both unpredictable and fair to the story that came before it, a story succeeds. Give me a good twist at the end, but don't cheat. That's what I really like to see.

What are the most common flaws you encounter when reading submissions?

Failure to proofread. Please, for my sake, clean up the typos and grammatical errors before you submit a story. I know that nobody's perfect and mistakes slip in all the time, but I've received submissions that I doubt the author even read once after writing it.
It doesn't reflect well on the writer, to say the least.

Do you review horror books?

Not at the moment, no; I really haven't branched into any content beyond the stories themselves. I do have plans for the future, though, and I'm always looking for a good short story collection, so by all means send some recommendations my way.

There are so many horror sub-genres-cutting edge, dark fantasy, extreme, supernatural, traditional, psychological, etc.. Do you think some have higher literary value than others? Which one do you think is more popular at the moment?

This is something of a silly question, isn't it? I think there's value to be found in all types of horror. Take any approach you want, from subtly psychological to all-out splatterfest, and it can still be used to teach us something about the world and ourselves.

Do you think the horror fiction market has declined, reached a plateau, or is still climbing?

Who's to say? Everything changes so fast. But whether or not an author is able to make a living from writing horror, I guarantee that he or she will be able to find an audience somewhere in the world.

How hard is it to promote a small horror publication like MicroHorror when faced with the competition?

I don't worry about it. It's a labor of love, and it's not a zero-sum game. We can all succeed.

Could you tell us about the advertising and promotional opportunities MicroHorror offers authors?

I offer exposure for any talent willing to put his or her work out there. That might not be a whole lot, and there's no money in it, but who knows what can happen if the right
person happens to come along?

What is the scariest book you've ever read?

Have you ever read the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark collections? They were kids' books published in the 1980s. The stories themselves, in the harsh light of adulthood, are fairly tame, but Stephen Gammell's illustrations are downright terrifying. They gave me
nightmares as a kid, and they're still some of the best horror art I've ever seen.

Which authors, in your opinion, will be remembered as the best horror writers of the 20th Century?

Who knows? Stephen King will be a perennial, of course. Some of Clive Barker's works are timeless. I'd like to see more attention given to Joe R. Lansdale myself; he's gotten acclaim but hasn't quite broken through with the name recognition, and he's a reliable source of a great story.

How does one subscribe to your magazine?

Just visit http://microhorror.com and you'll be there.

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Today on the second installment of my Spine Chillin' interviews, it is my pleasure to introduce you to Gordon Clemmons, editor of the new dark speculative ezine, Shadeworks. Clemmons talks about what makes a great horror story and shares with us the most common mistakes he often encounters in submissions. He accepts only the highest quality stories and hopes to turn Shadeworks into a full print publication in the near future.

Thanks for this interview, Gordon. Tell us a bit about Shadeworks. When and how did it get started?

ShadeWorks actually started in late August of last year (2007), but some hosting problems delayed the launch for several months. We published our first issue in May of 2008.

I've been a fan of horror fiction for as long as I can remember. I think I weirded out my classmates when it came time for creative writing–mine were the only stories involving zombies and mass murderers. I own a company focused on the online world of the publishing industry, so it wasn't too big a step to start an online magazine for horror writers. It combined two of my passions, and I hope it helps emerging horror writers to showcase their work.

What type of horror fiction do you consider?
We're open to any sort of dark speculative fiction–good writing wins over sub-genre preference–but the goal is to grow into the traditional-supernatural niche. There are some great horror zines out there now like The Harrow, Chiaroscuro (ChiZine), etc. I hope ShadeWorks can be of the same calibre but specifically for the traditional-supernatural scene.

Authors can read about the submission guidelines on our submissions page.

If you could narrow down to three the elements that make a great horror story, what would those be?

Identifiable characters, pace, and trust in the reader's imagination.

If characters are caricatures, there's no sense of distress. I don't worry when cartoon characters are flattened with a big mallet, and I find no horror in cardboard characters no matter how bad their situations. Something I find myself regularly advising writers to remember is: there are certainly selfish, murderous, and vain people in the world, but they very rarely see themselves that way. More personalized, identifiable characters and fewer cliché archetypes, please.

Pace is crucial for maintaining suspense and reader interest. When a writer gets bogged down in the details during a crucial scene, suspense goes out the window. The worst is when it becomes a play-by-play report; Susan might have straightened her shirt after stepping under the low-hanging tree limb, but I'm more interested in the savage monster looming over her. The other edge to that sword is going too fast. Goldie Locks was on to something.

Trust in the reader's imagination weaves its way through the previous two elements, but I think it deserves special attention. Description is certainly an art, and part of that art is knowing when to stop describing. Give the reader a framework to build on and cover any key points, but let the reader fill in the unimportant details. They can personalise and better identify with the material that way.

What are the most common flaws you encounter when reading submissions?

Certainly cardboard characters, poor pace, and too much description are big ones, but there are other fundamental issues I encounter regularly. Hack dialogue attribution (he said, grimacing) and telling instead of showing are big ones. One of my pet peeves is the use of as or -ing where a conjunction or sentence break should go. For example:

Filling her glass, she grinned at Jacob.
or:
As she filled her glass, she grinned at Jacob.

Both can be better written:

She filled her glass and grinned at Jacob.

A book I often recommend to writers that speaks to these sorts of issues is Self-Editing For Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King.

Do you review horror books?

Not currently. As our submission rates and readership grow, I hope to add new features like reviews. Our upcoming Halloween issue will be the first to feature artwork along with the stories.

There are so many horror sub-genres–cutting edge, dark fantasy, extreme, supernatural, traditional, psychological, etc.. Do you think some have higher literary value than others? Which one do you think is more popular at the moment?

I think the literary value of any horror work is entirely dependent on the author and not the genre. I do think certain sub-genres–psychological for instance–draw a bigger pool of good writers, but my guess is that this is due to other sub-genres having stigmas. I hope this is changing as more good writers break down boundaries and blur the lines between genres. As an example, is it really that big a leap between Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian and extreme horror or grindhouse, other than in expectations of sophistication and quality?

As for the second question, if what is being published and what is being submitted is any indication, I would say the cutting edge sub-genre is currently most popular.

Do you think the horror fiction market has declined, reached a plateau, or is still climbing?

I think it is in a metamorphosis. Just as borders are blurring geographically thanks to the Internet and open markets, writing styles from all over the world are mixing and combining to blur the lines between genres. I see this as a great time for horror writers because they can take advantage of these emerging borderlands to create unique works that generate a lot of talk. I think we're seeing this from writers like Patrick Rothfuss and China Mieville in the fantasy and sci-fi worlds, so it's only natural that the same will occur in the horror genres. Kelly Armstrong has shown how horror, romance, and female empowerment can blend to make a very successful series (Elena Michaels is a great antihero). Stephen King's Cell lives somewhere between horror, techno-thriller, and epic adventure tale (as do many of his works). Most of Dean Koontz's works span an array of genres. And let's not forget the young readers. Thanks to series like Harry Potter and the Twilight Saga, fantasy and horror are finding vast new audiences.

How hard is it to promote a small horror publication like Shadeworks when faced with the competition?

It can be difficult to get started–it took a few months before submissions started trickling in. Understanding search engines and how to get the word out on the Web is important, but more important is being respectful and helpful to the writers who submit their work. I've found in business that word of mouth is the best form of advertising you can get, and so far that has held true for ShadeWorks as well.

Could you tell us about the advertising and promotional opportunities Shadeworks offers authors?

Currently ShadeWorks offers horror writers a clean, ad-free publication to showcase their work. We accept only the best submissions, and my ultimate goal is for ShadeWorks to earn a solid reputation for this. I would love nothing more than for emerging writers to be able to list ShadeWorks on their cover letters to potential agents and publishers and have it mean something.

Down the road, should we grow the way I hope we will, I plan to offer a print edition and to pay professional rates to help good writers meet the membership requirements set by the Horror Writers Association.

What is the scariest book you’ve ever read?

World politics aside? Bag of Bones by Stephen King. It's one of the few books I've read that had me squirming with (delightful) fright. The basement stairs scene? Forget about it. If you want a world-class education on pace in a horror story, read that book.

Which authors, in your opinion, will be remembered as the best horror writers of the 20th Century?

It's tough for me to be objective here. Richard Matheson, Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, Koji Suzuki, and Clive Barker would have to rank pretty high.

How does one subscribe to your magazine?

We have an RSS feed that folks can subscribe to. Any updates or new issues are announced there.

Thanks for this interview, Gordon, and best of luck with your new ezine!

 

Interview by Mayra Calvani

Mayra Calvani is a multi-genre author and reviewer. Her paranormal books include Embraced by the Shadows (romantic horror/vampire) and Dark Lullaby (atmospheric horror). She is also the co-author of the nonfiction work, The Slippery Art of Book Reviewing.

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Hi all,

For those of you who read Mary Castillo’s excerpt, “Por un Amor” and participated in her drawing, the winner of the $10 Starbucks Gift Card is………. Kristine H !!!!!

And now for my story… After reading it, simply answer the question at the bottom for a chance to win a box of yummy Belgian chocolates. The winner will be announced tomorrow on Jamie Martinez Wood’s blog. Good luck! I hope you’ll enjoy my dark (and yes, a little creepy) Valentine’s Day story!

The Painting
by Mayra Calvani

I was sitting in front of the fire with The Original Illustrated Sherlock Holmes on my lap. It had been a rough semester, without let up, and my only escape from the constant pressure was my crime and mystery collection. All day, I’d looked forward to reading the stories in the book. This particular book was a limited, leather-bound edition which I had purchased at the famous 221b Baker Street—now the official Sherlock Holmes Museum—on a short visit to London a couple of weeks ago. The illustrations were the original ones from The Strand Magazine, and were so engaging I could look at them for hours. I had also bought a little bust of Holmes; this one stood proudly on top of the mantelpiece.

It rained heavily outside and the wind blew like the endless howling of a wolf. I still had not gotten used to the Belgian weather. I sneezed for three times in a row and cursed whoever was up there in that idealized cave they call heaven. This cold was not getting any better. I could picture the savage battle going on inside my body. I was obviously far behind on the battle field, my little cells running away like cowards. I had to eat better and stop drinking so much. At least I didn’t smoke or drink coffee.

I focused my watery eyes on the page and another sneeze came out like an explosion. Then the sweetest sensation made me float in the air and settle down again. I thought I had reached salvation. I put the book down and stared at a small cockroach crawling up the wall. I wished I could defy gravity like that. The intruder disappeared behind a bad painting of a clown. I hated clowns, but the painting came with the apartment. The first day I moved in I tried to take it off, but the damn thing was completely glued to the wall. It was a clown like any other clown. That’s why I despised it so much. It had a broad smile on its face and sad looking eyes. But if you looked closely you could see that it wasn’t really smiling and that its tightly shut lips were the embodiment of solemnity.

“Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day,” it mocked me.

Big deal. I glared at it. If the clown thought it was going to have some power over me, it had another thought coming. Valentine’s Day was another capitalist invention to steal money from the ignorant masses. Hearts and roses everywhere. Sickening.

From the apartment above mine came the irritating sound of high heels clicking on tile floor. Oh no. Not now. This cold was unbearable enough as it was. I certainly didn’t need the help of my noisy upstairs neighbour to turn my headache from bad to splitting. Everything the woman did was noisy. She constantly fought and argued with her husband, and her hobby seemed to be moving furniture from room to room, which by themselves were pretty normal activities, but she had a strong preference to do these after midnight. Flushing the toilet at three o’clock in the morning seemed to be another of her favourite pastimes. Maybe in another building this would not have been a problem, but here the walls were made of paper. I could hear everything—even her piss in the middle of the night. What a way to wake up, with a sensation of drowning.

The clicking continued for about ten minutes. I finally put the book down. What on earth was she doing? Walking up and down her corridor for the sole purpose of driving me mad? Maybe she was trying to hypnotize me with the monotone clicking. In an absurd way it seemed to be working. I could hardly keep my eyes open.

Silence.

I sighed. I was so tired and drowsy from the medication I fell asleep with the book on my lap.

***

The sound of loud voices woke me.

I glanced at my watch, trying to fight disorientation. It was almost midnight. I had slept for sixteen minutes. My body felt as though it had been clobbered while I slept.

A major fight was going on upstairs. I recognized the baritone voice of the husband. Some time during the past sixteen minutes he had come back home. He kept shouting and she lashing back in a whining voice. To make matters worse, they were Italian and were using their native tongue to “communicate.” She began sobbing, which seemed to send the husband into an even greater fury.

To appease my murderous thoughts, I rose and staggered into the kitchen to pour myself a glass of orange juice. After finishing a glass, I calmly fetched the mop from the small kitchen closet. Then, like a madman—hair messy and oily, the shadow of a one-week old beard covering my face, wrinkled bathrobe stained with juice—I began to hit the ceiling in a frenzy.

Finally I stopped.

I looked up to the ceiling, which was marred with dents.

Silence.

Feeling much better, I set the mop against the wall and went back to sit by the fire, the only place at the moment which seemed warm enough for my feet. I turned the armchair a little to be closer to the burning logs, which kept crackling and sputtering.

I, a sensible, practical person, tried to consider the situation logically. Ever since I had moved in, two months ago (I was an exchange student from the University of Bridgeport), I’d had to endure the continuous noise from my upstairs neighbours. I had complained to the building manager twice, to no avail. I had even walked upstairs and talked to the lady—a suntanned woman with coppery hair, buttery teeth and insane-looking green eyes. Her eyes reminded me of a one of those marsupial night creatures which live in constant terror of being eaten. Maybe her look had to do with her husband. In any case, we had been unable to communicate. She spoke no English. She did ask, using sign language, if I spoke French or Dutch. I shook my head. In the end I tried to get my message across in Spanish, but there was no way getting through to her, so I came back downstairs. Since that day all I’d been able to do was hit the ceiling when it got too unbearable. I didn’t want to move out, either. The rent was okay for a sophomore literature student from abroad and I had fallen in love with the fireplace, which was the perfect place to read mysteries.

I got the terrible sensation of wanting to sneeze, but nothing came out. I dozed off for a little while longer, but not before scowling at the painting of the clown, which, once again, appeared to be mocking me. I turned back to the fire. From the corner of my eye I caught movement. I glanced back at the painting, but everything looked normal.

At about two in the morning I managed to pull myself from the armchair and stagger to my bedroom.

Not bothering to pull the covers over me, I collapsed face-down on the hard European (must have been imported from Russia) mattress and shut my eyes.

Not much later something made me stir… the faint yet distinct sound of moaning. Apparently they had decided to celebrate Valentine’s Day early. Their bedroom was above mine. I endured the whole thing, complete with the crescendos and grand symphonic finale. Moments later the not-to-distant sound of piss came from the toilet upstairs. Flushing.

The piping system had been built in a way as to give the impression of a Tsunami each time the toilet was flushed.

Too weak to open my eyes, I cursed inaudibly, my head still plastered to the sweaty pillow.

***

The next day, when I saw I was not better, I realized I had the flu. I had missed the last two days of school and it looked as though I’d have to miss the rest of the week. After a skimpy breakfast of toast and juice, and two tablespoons of cold medication, I went to the living room to prepare a new fire.

As I crouched and began to arrange the logs, I heard the whisper… Happy Valentine’s Day.

I stopped moving, startled.

The sound had come from my apartment, not from upstairs. In fact, the whisper had come from the same room. I glanced about the room, my eyes finally settling on the clown. In some bizarre way it seemed to reach deep into my soul, somehow absorbing the essence of who I was and reflecting it back at me. I averted my eyes.

When the fire was ready I sat in the armchair and extended my cold feet close to the flames. I reached for the leather-bound book on the little table beside me and opened the page at the bookmark.

After reading a few lines I put the book down. It was very quiet and I wondered what my upstairs neighbour was up to. Her silence somehow made me restless. Maybe she had gone out. I tried to concentrate on “The Adventure of the Speckled Band,” but found the effort exhausting.

Since the cold medication wasn’t having any effect on my symptoms, at noon I took a double dose. Holmes used to take cocaine and even heroine; that was much worse. Then I took a glass of water with me into the living room and stood in front of the painting. I took a sip and held the glass in front of my eyes and saw the image of the clown through it. The image was nothing but a mass of hazy colors forming something indefinite.

Then I heard it, the exquisite clicking of stiletto heels on tiles. I looked to the ceiling. I sighed. I wanted this to happen. My whole being longed for it. My attitude could be compared to victims of kidnappers who in some deranged way grow attached to their tormentors.

Almost involuntarily, my eyes returned to the clown. I thought it had called my name. It was smiling as usual and looking at me. No matter where I was in the room, it would always be looking at me. A sharp pain in my temples blinded me for a moment. I felt dizzy and had to hold the back of the armchair for support. Yes. I was right. It had called my name and now it was talking to me. Its mouth was moving and it had no teeth. Inside its red mouth there was only a black empty space. I wondered how it could talk and still smile like that.

Slowly I went out of the apartment and crossed the empty, windowless hall towards the stairs which led to other floors. Once on the upstairs hall I was happy to see that it also was empty. My heart thudding, I knocked on my neighbour’s door and waited.

A moment later the door opened and I gazed with fixed fascination at the color of her hair—only a consummate professional could achieve such an unnatural hue.

She appeared to recognize me, displayed her buttery teeth, and began talking in another language—probably Italian, though it might as well have been ancient Sumerian. She moved her hands in all directions as she talked, and gestured me to come inside. Not uttering a word, I obeyed. She continued her enigmatic speech. The vibrations of her voice entered my ear as if they were coming from another dimension. My body felt as hot as a kitten’s belly, and my head as if it had been implanted with electric wires.. I just wanted her dead.

I fixed my eyes on her neck and silently closed the door behind me (I grasped the knob with my robe, not to leave fingerprints; I’m not an imbecile) as she bent over to pick up a cleaning rag from the floor.

In spite of my drowsiness, my hands felt incredibly strong.

***

Later that evening I sat by the fire and wrote what I had done, a fictional confession of sorts. I filled seven pages of longhand, doctor-like scribbles only I could decipher.

I glanced at the painting. Earlier I had covered it with a sheet. The clown could stare at me no more.

The door bell rang and, papers clutched to my chest, I got up and went to answer it.

Though I had been expecting them, my heart skipped when I saw the two Belgian policemen standing outside my door.

After I made it clear I spoke only English and Spanish, they quickly introduced themselves in English and stated the reason for their visit. My upstairs neighbour had been strangled and they wanted to know if I had seen or heard anything.

I adopted a surprised expression and shook my head.

“Did you know her?”

“I saw her just once. I’ve been living here for only two months,” I said. “Though I could often hear her. She was always fighting with her husband—I assume it’s her husband. That’s the reason I once met her. I went upstairs to ask them to keep their voices down. It was late and he was shouting and she was screaming. In fact, I almost called the police that night. They had a big fight last night, too. It sounded pretty bad. If you ask me, I think the husband was abusing her.”

One of the policemen wrote furiously on a note pad.

The other policeman glanced at the papers I held against my chest.

“I’m studying for an exam,” I said.

The policeman nodded. He looked like a toy policeman. Both of them did.

“Ironic, huh? To be murdered on Valentine’s Day. That husband of hers, he must be a poet.”

After several more questions and answers, they apologized for the inconvenience and said goodbye.

Holding my confession close to my heart, I closed the door and went back to sit by the fire.

“Elementary, my dear Watson,” I murmured. One by one, I fed the pages to the flames. Even Holmes would have been proud.

***

©2008. Mayra Calvani / All Rights Reserved.. This story may not be copied nor printed in any form without permission from the author.


Now for the question: What does the protagonist have clutched against his chest when the police come to pay him a visit?

To enter the drawing, simply email me your answer at mgcalvani (at) hotmail.com. Good luck!

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Starting December 11th until the 23rd travel to a new blog for a Christmas story, recipe and prize giveaway. The prizes will range from print books to gift certificates to goodie baskets!

Here’s the schedule of the chica-lit stars:

12.11.07: Mary Castillo, author of Switchcraft

12.12.07: Berta Platas, author of Cinderella Lopez

12.13.07: Mayra Calvani, author of Dark Lullaby (That’s me and I’ll post my story here at The Dark Phantom!)

12.14.07: Caridad Pineiro, author of Holiday With a Vampire

12.15.07: Lara Rios, author of Becoming Americana

12.16.07: Caridad Ferrer, author of It’s Not About the Accent

12.17.07: Margo Candela, author of Life Over Easy

12.18.07: Kathy Cano Murillo, author of Crafty Chica’s Art de la Soul

12.19.07: Tracy Montoya, author of Telling Secrets

12.20.07: Jamie Martinez Wood, author of Latino Writers & Journalists and Rogelia’s House of Magic (coming summer 2008)

12.21.07: Misa Ramirez, author of Lola PI: Living the Vida Lola (January 2009 from St. Martin’s Press)

12.22.07: Sofia Quintero, author of Juicy Mangos

12.23.07: Toni Margarita Plummer, author and editor

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