December 25, 1940

     On December 25, 1940, during a heavy snowfall. At Farley Farm on South Road, the entire Farley family – consisting of both parents, all six children, and both sets of grandparents – were ill. Duncan Blood and young Doctor Charlene Williams stopped by the home to administer to the sick. During the day, Dr. Williams left to obtain some fresh soup, and on her return, she saw a horse in the yard. She tried to approach the home, but could not get any closer, no matter how long she walked, nor in which direction she tried to go.

     Finally, frustrated, she returned to town and found a member of the police who agreed to accompany her.

     In the officer’s patrol car, they experienced the same difficulty she had on foot. No matter how fast the car drove, it could not draw any nearer. At last, with his car nearly out of fuel, the officer had been forced to return to Cross.

     Close to midnight, the officer, one of his colleagues, and Dr. Williams again made an attempt. As they traveled along South Road, they passed a small boy, bundled against the snow and riding a horse. He waved cheerfully at them as they steered around him, and Dr. Williams returned the wave.

     When they neared the house, they were surprised to see discover that they could continue directly toward it. It was then that Dr. Williams noticed that the horse was gone and that Duncan Blood stood outside.

     The house burst into flames as the officers and Dr. Williams climbed out of the patrol car. Duncan stopped the three of them from racing into the spreading inferno.

     “They’re dead,” Duncan explained. “They have been since the boy arrived. He gave them the day, you see. One last Christmas.”

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December 21, 1949

     Josef Wukovits owned a small farm on the eastern side of Cross. He was a diminutive man, who grew enough food to keep himself and his animals fed. Josef was a widower, and he and his wife had not been blessed with children.

     He lived a solitary existence, and he was pleasant with his neighbors. Josef’s childhood was one filled with sadness and hunger, and anyone who needed a meal could sit at his table, often eating the meager food he had prepared for himself.

     On the evening of December 21, 1949, during a snowstorm, there was a knock on his door. When he answered it, he found a young woman, clad in worn clothes and a thin jacket and nearly frozen to death. Without hesitation, Josef took her into his house, sat her by the fire, and wrapped her in warm blankets. He plied her with chicken soup, rubbed the warmth back into her hands and feet, and allowed her to sit in silence.

     Slowly, color returned to the woman’s cheeks, and when she seemed capable of walking, he helped her to his bedroom, where he laid her down and heaped quilts upon her.

     For the remainder of the night, Josef kept the fire burning brightly, and he checked on the young woman repeatedly. Towards dawn, exhaustion overcame him, and he fell asleep.

     Before midday, he awoke and hurried back into his room. The young woman was gone, and the bed was made as though it had never been slept in. On his pillow was a note, which read: Thank you, Josef. Never again shall you be hungry.

     Beneath the note was a single golden coin, and each morning another would be in its place until he died a decade later.

 

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December 20, 1916

     It is known as Die Feldhausen von Totenbaum, the tree of dead hares.

     The tree can rarely be found for it is hidden somewhere on the vast estate of Duncan Blood, and the only warning that the tree has blossomed is the sound of rifle fire emanating from his land.

     Most years, the tree bears no fruit. It grows and, according to legend, it follows the seasons as any tree will.

     Some years, however, the tree serves as the harbinger of disaster, and the only way this is known is to see if the tree bears its strange and hideous fruit.

     When the field rabbits of Cross can be found hanging from the branches, and the triple guns and the dog of the unknown Hunter are present, Death will visit the town.

     The last known observance of the tree in bloom was December 19, 1916, when Bram Hall was wandering – drunk – and somehow managed to end up in the middle of Duncan Blood’s property. A day later, when he found his way out and back to the center of town, Bram stopped first for a drink, then made his way around Cross, telling everyone he met about what he had witnessed.

     While many people ignored his ramblings, a few of the older residents knew what it meant, and they barricaded themselves in their homes.

     On the night of December 20, 1916, a storm tore through Cross, destroying houses and sweeping livestock and horses into the river.

     While only five people were killed in the storm, the sickness caused by exposure to the elements resulted in 37 hospitalizations, and the property damage prompted two men and one woman to commit suicide.

     Recently, the crack of rifle fire has been heard from Duncan’s land.

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How do you write?

     I suppose that’s the most consistently asked question outside of, ‘Where do you get your ideas?’

     But ‘how do you write’ is an extremely important question, because other writers want to know. Some of them will be exactly like you, others will be like me, and still, more will be exactly as they should be – themselves.

     With that being said, I want to talk about writing and editing.

     Some writers find it beneficial to write a chapter, go back and edit it, read it, then edit it again. Some even do this until they can’t see straight anymore.

     I am not one of those people.

     For me, getting the entire story out onto paper is by far the best strategy I have for getting a story out and ready for editing.

     If I stop and look at the piece, I keep going back. I keep tweaking it. And there’s no need to. In fact, I would argue that going back and constantly correcting the first few pages or chapters would be detrimental to your story. By never advancing, you can’t see where your story is going.

     My advice, then, is to put the entire story down on paper. Then walk away.

     Yup, that’s right. Put it down and walk away. Give yourself a few hours. Preferably a day or two, but if you can’t bear to be away from it for that long, then at least a few hours. This will give you some breathing room, the opportunity to come back to your story with fresh eyes, eyes that will read what you’ve written and say, “Eh, not bad. Not great, but not bad.” Or you’ll look at it, swallow back a bit of vomit and wonder how the writing in front of you ever made it past your mouth.

     Whatever you do, don’t be afraid. Write and work and try. Always try.

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December 16, 1995

     Time and distance can be constructs of the mind more than based in reality, although there are few who would believe such a statement.

     In Cross, however, this tends to be far more truthful than most are comfortable with.

     Quinton Straus was born on April 3rd, 1975, and when he graduated from Cross High School, he decided to attend the Cross Branch of Miskatonic University. His focus of study was theoretical migration and the fluctuations in time through the Bleed between realities. Along with his professor, Dr. John Winthrop IV, Quinton succeeded in opening a fourth door into the Bleed. On December 16th, 1995, with cameras rolling and students and staff cheering them on, Quinton and Professor Winthrop entered the Bleed.

     According to witnesses, the door slammed itself closed, and a force sealed it against all efforts to open it.

     After three hours of strenuous effort, the decision was made to attempt to cut through the door, to see if the student and professor were at least visible.

     Another hour passed before a bolt-hole was cut into the wood and a small, fiber-optic camera was inserted into the opening. The camera revealed a desert scene with tents and materials one related to the ancient Bedouins of the Middle East.

     A moment later the camera settled on an old man, who turned and faced it. His eyes went wide, and then he shook his head. He held up his left hand and showed a Cross High School class ring.

     When he lowered his hand, he mouthed three words, “Seal the door.”

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Old Cross Cemetery

     Elena leaned against the car door, her head half out the open window. The bass pounded. Paul drove hell-bent around the back roads of Cross, Massachusetts. An empty bottle of Heffenreffer rolled against her feet, her stomach rolling with it.

     “Oh Christ, Paul, I’m gonna puke.”

     “Not in the car! Out the window. I just cleaned the damn thing.”

     “Can you turn the stereo down?” she asked. “It’s making my head ache.”

     “No.”

     “Paul,” she started.

     “No,” he said. “We’re almost there anyway.”

     “Almost where?” Elena closed her eyes and sucked in the fresh air and tried to ignore her head.

     “The Old Cross Cemetery.”

     Elena sat up. “No.”

     “Yes.”

     “I don’t like going there in the daytime,” she growled. “The place scares the hell out of me. Why the hell would I want to go there at night?”

     “’Cause it’s the only place we can get it on tonight.”

     “Listen,” she snapped, “you’re out of your mind. I am not having sex in a cemetery. Ever.”

     “Yes, you are.” He glared at her. “You owe me.”

     “Christ,” Elena said. She put her hands over her eyes. “You’re such an ass.”

     “Yep.”

     “And I’m not having sex.”

     “Yes, you are.” He pulled the car over to the side of the road. “’Cause we’re here.”

     Elena looked out into the dark woods and saw a small stonewall. The trees fell back, revealing Old Cross Cemetery. The headstones and a single mausoleum stood in the moonlight. The car stereo’s bass ricocheted off of the trees and monuments.

     Paul turned off the radio and the engine, pulling the key out of the ignition and stuffing it into his front pocket. For a moment, the music seemed to echo among the stones.

     “Paul,” Elena said. “I don’t want to be here. I don’t like this place.”

     “Come on.” He climbed out of the car.

     “Paul.”

     He slammed the door.

     Dick, she thought as she followed him, stumbling.

     Paul walked into the center of the cemetery, slapping and kicking at the headstones.

     “Paul, don’t do that,” she said.

     He sneered as he mimicked her. “Paul, don’t do that.”

     “You are such a dick.”

     “Thanks.” He stopped behind a tall marble obelisk. “Hey, check this out.”

     “What?” Elena walked around the monument. At their feet lay a large round drum made of deep stained wood with a dark, worn skin.

     “Somebody left their toy.” With a laugh, Paul raised a foot and slammed it down, putting a hole through the drum’s skin.

     “Paul!”

     “What?” He shook his foot free. “Come on. I’m horny.”

     “I’m not. Bring me home.”

     “Not until we do it,” he said, winking at her and licking his lips.

     “Bring me home,” she demanded.

     “Walk.”

     “I’ll walk!”

     Elena turned away, Paul laughing.

     “Have fun, you little tramp. Two miles in the dark before you even hit the high school!”

     Elena gave him the finger and kept walking.

     I hate him! she thought. Now I’ve got to walk home.

     A scream sounded behind her.

     Elena turned and froze.

     In the center of the cemetery, a tall, thin creature clad in orange armor stood, it’s shoulders hunched. Silver eyes glowed from a noseless gray face, jagged black teeth showing through a snarl. Large, pointed ears, decorated with silver earrings, protruded far above its bald head. In a long thin hand, it squeezed Paul by the throat, holding him several feet off of the ground. Paul’s legs and arms flailed. Fast at first, then slower.

     The thing looked to Elena. “Was it this one, young Lady?”

     The voice came out rough, harsh, and male.

     “Was it?” He asked. “Did this one damage my drum?”

     Elena could only nod as Paul’s limbs stopped moving.

     “My drum?!” He shook Paul, who dangled in his grasp. “Mine! A gift to me from those gibbering Gauls. A peace offering made from the skin of a Centurion. Ruined!” His voice echoed off of the trees. Birds, frightened from their sleep, screamed as they fled their nests into the night.

     “And now I must replace the flesh of a worthy man with your worthless hide!” With an angry shout he tore Paul’s clothes off. Using his free hand, he gutted the boy with a smooth snap of the wrist. Muttering under his breath, the creature skinned Paul with disturbing ease.

     Elena collapsed to her knees and vomited, her head spinning.

     The sound of skin tearing away from muscle filled the cemetery.

     Elena fell forward, catching herself by thrusting her hands into the steaming pool of bile and liquor. Vomit dripped from her nose and mouth.

     A thud and the sound of glass shattering jerked her head up. The thing stood by the mustang, and slammed Paul’s skinless body into the car repeatedly. The hood curled up; the roof bent down, and with a last curse the thing stuffed Paul into the shrunken window frame.

     The thing came and knelt beside Elena.

     “Now,” he said. “What to do with you?”

     He rubbed his hairless chin.

     “My name is Illoc,” he said after a moment. “Hero among the Nej, the dark Faeries, and I have yet to make a habit of slaying young maidens,” he sniffed, “though you are no longer a maiden. So, the question is, what to do with you?”

     Illoc scratched his forearm with blood covered nails, then snapped his fingers, laughing. “Faery extract! I haven’t used it all. Stay there, young lady, I shall return.”

     In a daze Elena watched Illoc stride off to the mausoleum, pausing to pick up Paul’s skin, which flapped with a wet sound as he went.

     Illoc disappeared into the mausoleum, then reappeared with a small bottle.

     Elena pushed herself into a sitting position, wiping her mouth with a shaking hand.

     Not real. Not real. Not real, she thought.

     Illoc reached her side and lifted her chin with a cool hand. “Drink.” He lifted the blue bottle to her lips.

     Elena drank, the liquid cold and sweet.

     Illoc took the bottle away.

     “Good. Now home for you, young lady.” Setting the bottle down, he picked her up. He cradled her, rocking her while walking toward the mausoleum. Her vision grew hazy, her eyelids tired. His rough voice became soothing. “We’ll find your room through the shadows shortly, dear.

     “And I must apologize for that vulgar display of my temper, but I disagree with people breaking my belongings. I brought only my most prized possessions when I left Ireland for this new world, and I cannot tell you the number of Goblins I’ve slain or the Faeries I’ve hunted listening to that drum being beaten upon a hill. And I doubt that I’ll see the likes of that centurion ever again. A real soldier he was.

     “But the past is the past, and your friend’s skin shall have to suffice. And, if it is not too forward of me,” Illoc said, “I might advise you to seek friends of, shall we say, a higher caliber?”

     Elena closed her eyes as they climbed the steps of the mausoleum.

     Softness wrapped around her, and she felt her clothes being removed.

     Illoc spoke in a whisper as she felt her own bed beneath her and the sheet drawn up around her shoulders. “You will sleep now, young lady, from the extract. Perhaps we shall see each other again, for Cross is a small place and its shadows are deep.”

     Elena managed to open her eyes and caught sight of the tall Faery stepping into the darkness behind her bedroom door.

     Closing her eyes, Elena drifted into sleep.

     She awoke with a start, her head pounding. Looking at the shadow behind her door she shivered, her mouth dry. Then she pulled the blanket closer and through her open window the sound of a distant drum welcomed the sun.

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How Much is Enough?

     ‘How much is enough?’ is a question that crops up often in regards to many ventures, but especially when the focus is on writing.

     Writing shouldn’t be a painful act.

     Some elements of what you write may be painful (memories of abuse, struggles in life, and a slew of other triggers), but the act of putting thought to paper shouldn’t pain you.

     What you need to do is strike a balance between how much you believe you can write, and how much you want to write.

     These can often be two vastly different numbers.

     The best way for you to find the happy medium – the amount you can reasonably produce – is to pick a subject you like, estimate how many words you believe you can write, and then write about it for half an hour.

     Focus and write.

     That’s all. Don’t set up your music.

     The only task you should focus on is your writing.

     When those 30 minutes are up, stop and take a look at what the difference is between your estimated ability, and the actual amount you were able to produce.

     Let’s say you were able to write 500 words in those 30 minutes. And let’s say you thought you would be able to write at least 1,000.

     Split the difference.

     For this instance, I think that 750 would be a reasonable number to strive for.

     In my experience, increasing your writing a little at time is better than becoming frustrated with an inability to meet an unrealistic expectation.

     Next time you sit down to write, set a goal for yourself. If you’re going to write for half an hour, try to reach 750 words. An hour? 1,500.

     Remember, life happens. It’s cliché, I know, but it’s also the truth. You’ll be interrupted by the phone, by family, by just about everything under the sun. Roll with those disturbances and keep your eye on number of words you’re striving for.

     It can only make you a better writer.

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A Silver Anniversary

     “Why the hell is the radio playing at seven thirty in the morning?!” Frank screamed, pulling the sheets over his head.

     Celeste didn’t answer him.

     In fact, Frank couldn’t even hear her breathing.

     He sat up, hope racing through him.

     Frank frowned.

     Celeste wasn’t dead, just up and about somewhere in the house. Frank inhaled, smelled the stench of his oxfords and felt the heat of the room. Muted sunlight drifted in through the open curtains, the bedroom spotlessly clean save for the trail of clothes he had left the night before. He could hear the radio playing on the first floor.

     Frank swung his large fat legs over the side of the bed and stretched.

     The radio’s playing, he thought in amazement.

     He had told her never to play that thing when he was home. Cheerfully Frank stood up, grabbing his bathrobe from the closet and pulling it over his fat frame. Now he had an excuse to hit her. Normally, Celeste never gave him one.

     But today, today seemed different. Frank could feel it.

     Feels like a good day, he thought, rubbing his hands together. Whistling he put on his slippers, ran his hands through his balding hair, and headed out of the bedroom.

     Halfway down the stairs Frank paused.

     The smell of roses and mothballs hung in the air.

     Frowning, Frank continued on his way, stopping beside the door into the den.

     It isn’t the radio, he thought, it’s the record, player.

     Over the speakers came the sound of Mick Jagger singing about how all of his love was in vain.

     Frank’s frown deepened. I’m really going to have to work up a sweat.

     Slow steps brought him to the kitchen, where his breath hissed out in amazement.

     Hundreds of white candles burned on every available surface. The smell of roses washed over him, accompanied by a sharp, piercing chill. Black cloth hung over the windows as well as the door to the living room. Celeste stood at the sink wearing her wedding gown.  The fabric was held together precariously by safety pins. She washed something, humming along with the Stones, her back to Frank. On the table, a crystal vase housed two dozen long dead roses in cloudy water.

     Frank surveyed the scene before him, shaking his head. Maybe I can get her committed.

     “Good morning, Frank,” Celeste said. She kept her back to him, still scrubbing away.

     “What the hell are you doing?” he demanded. He cracked his knuckles, anticipating the first blow.

     “Washing the frying pan,” she answered.

     “I don’t see my breakfast on the table, Celeste.”

     “And you won’t.”

     Frank blinked, opened his mouth several times then managed to ask, “What?”

     “I said, ‘And you won’t.’ Are you going deaf?” she asked sweetly, “Or has the fat finally seeped into your ears?”

     Frank shook his head in disbelief. “You can’t be talking to me.”

     “But I am.”

     “I’m going to.”

     Celeste didn’t let him finish. “Go, Frank. Get out. Now while I’m giving you the chance.”

     “The hell I will,” he snapped. “This is my house. What I say goes. Now get out of that damned dress, get those candles out of here, turn off that music, and cook me some damned breakfast!”

     He raised a foot to step in.

     “Don’t,” she said coldly, straightening up. “Do not step into my kitchen, Frank, because you will never, never leave it alive. Do you understand me, Frank?”

     Frank brought his foot back to the carpet of the hall, eyeing the tile of the kitchen.

     “Do you know what I cooked this morning while you lay sweating in that bed?” she asked, draining the water from the sink.

     Frank, stunned, remained silent.

     “I cooked up something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue, and a coin in my shoe,” she said, laughing. “And do you know what I thought of? I’ll tell you, Frank, what I thought of. I thought, and none too fondly, of the many times you’ve beaten me, raped me, and all of the other pleasantries you’ve seen fit to bestow upon me.”

     “You’ve been talking to that women’s shelter, haven’t you?” he snarled.

     “No,” Celeste smiled, turning around to face him. “I found an old cure-all in my great-grandmother’s cookbook.”

     Frank gasped and clutched his chest, a shooting pain lancing through him.

     “Oh no, Frank,” she whispered. “You won’t get away that easily.”

     She walked forward and helped him into the kitchen, easing him into his chair.  He sucked desperately for breath.

     “This isn’t right,” he hissed, looking at her fearfully.

     “What?” she asked.

     “You.”

     Celeste no longer wore the haggard mask of twenty years of fear and overeating. The gray had vanished from her soft brown hair. Her straight back, free from its previous hunch, no longer revealed her years of physical suffering. Fingers were no longer twisted with arthritis. Her breasts, absent of the sagging of age, stood with the vitality of youth.

     I don’t know her, Frank thought.

     Celeste stood with pride, her hazel eyes shining. Her lips, full and red, smiled playfully, her face now well-defined and attractive. On her flat stomach she splayed her thin, graceful fingers. Celeste wore an expression of satisfaction and pleasure.

     Smiling, she stepped back to the sink and took up the large black cast-iron frying pan. She dried it with a red checkered dishtowel.

     “I found that cookbook this morning, cleaning out the basement like you told me to do. And there was the recipe, the first one I opened to. I can’t really describe it, Frank, but I knew it would do what I wanted. What I needed it to do.

     “I found the candles from my sweet sixteen and had something old,” she said, smiling. “I peeled a scab off of my forehead, supplied by one of your more recent displays of affection, and I had something new. I took a lock of what little hair you have left and had something borrowed. The coin,” she said and tapped her right foot, “is a wheat penny.

     “And the something blue,” she said, winking, “that’s the secret part. The special part.

     “I cooked it up in wine and roses, dear Frank, and this is what occurred.”  She motioned to herself with the frying pan. “What do you think?”

     “I think that I’m still dreaming,” he whispered.

     “Good dream or bad dream, Frank?” she asked.

     “Neither.”

     “Well,” she said, grinning, “we can’t have you sitting on the fence like that.”

     She blew him a kiss.

     From the crystal vase the roses leaped, thorns biting into his ample flesh as the stems bound him, hand and foot, to the chair. As he opened his mouth to scream buds plunged in, gagging him.

     “There,” she said, leaning back against the counter-top. “All set to go, aren’t you, Frank.”

     Frank whimpered, praying that he could wake up and beat the hell out of her right there in bed.

     But he did not wake up, and he did not hit her. He sat in the chair, tied down by roses.

     Celeste hummed along with “The Midnight Rambler” as it came across the speakers. Finishing with the pan she set it down on the stove, dropping the dish towel into the sink. She walked by Frank, patting him on the head as she left the kitchen. A few minutes later she returned with an armload of old newspapers.

     “You know,” she said as she knelt down beside him, “tomorrow’s our twenty-fifth anniversary. Our silver anniversary. Not that you’ll see it.”

     Celeste laughed, spreading the papers out around him on the kitchen floor.

     “Blood is so hard to clean off between the tiles.” She stood and pinched his cheek playfully.

     Celeste walked back to the counter, opening a drawer and pulling out a box of black plastic trash bags. She took the cleaver down off of its hook.

     “You know,” she said, turning to face him, “I feel really good about myself, Frank.”

     She set the bags and the cleaver on the table.

     “It’s too bad. This is what I looked like when I was sixteen. You missed out.” She cocked her head to one side and patted her behind, giggling.

     “Oh God, Frank! I am so happy! I’m going into Boston for the day, and then I’m taking a train to, well, anywhere. I’ve got the bank card, and there’s an old friend out west who’ll give me a hand getting re-settled.”

     Frank listened in fear, pain dancing along the fatty flesh of his arms and legs. He threw up into the roses, and was forced to swallow the burning bile.

     Celeste’s eyes blazed in the candlelight. “I had so many dreams, Frank, and I smothered them for twenty-five years. But not anymore.”

     She smiled. “I suppose that you’re wondering what I’m going to do.”

     Frank nodded painfully.

     “Well, Frank, when I remembered all of your gentle caresses this morning, I realized you hit me the most over meals. ‘It’s not cooked enough!’ Whack! ‘It’s cooked too much!’ Whack! ‘It’s cooked!’ Whack!” Celeste grinned. “Get the picture, Frank?”

     She lifted the frying pan up off of the stove, holding it pensively as if testing the weight. She nodded in satisfaction. “Yes, I think that this will do. Quite nicely actually.”

     Moving her hips suggestively, Celeste walked forward, swinging the pan from left to right. Stopping inches away from him Celeste’s smile fell off of her face.  She lifted the pan up into a batter’s position.

     “I know that it’s not silver, Frank,” she whispered, “but we’ll work with what we’ve got.”

     The pan came crashing down.

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The Cajun Tap, 1919

     The bus stopped in a small town called Cross, and Hank Rivers decided he’d gone far enough. He tipped his hat to the driver, shouldered his sea-bag, and stepped out. Once on the sidewalk, Hank took out his pipe, packed it, and lit it.

     As the smoke curled up from the bowl and escaped from the corner of his mouth, Hank glanced up and down the street. A few Fords, all older models, were parked at the curb. But like all the New England towns he had passed through, after 6 PM the center of town was battened down like a destroyer ready to ride out a storm.

     Hank sought out a place to drink and was relieved to see a sign for a watering hole.

     The faded, wooden sign hung from a rusted iron swing pole affixed to a brick wall near the mouth of an alley. Hank could make out the carved images of a mug of beer and a bottle of whiskey, and three words engraved above them.

     The Cajun Tap, he read. Then, with a shrug, he adjusted his sea-bag and made his way to the sign.

     When he reached it, Hank saw a flight of narrow stairs leading down below street level. A dull, orange tinted light seeped out of a large rectangular window set high in an ancient, dark wood door. Hank descended the stairs and caught a glimpse of a small brass plate engraved with the word, Knock.

     He rapped on the center of the door twice.

     It opened a moment later, and an old man who looked like death warmed over stood in the doorway. He wore a battered bowler hat that was ragged and threadbare with age. The man’s blue eyes were sunk deep within their sockets, and lines spread out to either side of his thin face from the corners of his eyes and mouth. He had on a pair of dungarees held up by stained red suspenders, and the boon-dockers on his feet looked older than Hank. The sleeves of a collarless shirt had been rolled up to the elbow, revealing thick scars on the man’s pale flesh.

     “What do you want?” The old man asked in a heavy Louisiana accent.

     “A drink and a meal, if you have them,” Hank answered.

     The old man leaned forward a fraction, his nostrils flared, and then he nodded.

     “Come on in,” the man said, stepping aside. “Straight to the back, you’ll find the bar. Booths are private.”

     “Can I get a booth?” Hank asked.

     The old man chortled and said, “What’s your name, son?”

     “Hank.”

     “I’m Louis Crowley, Hank,” the old man said, closing and locking the door behind them. “And we’ll see if you warrant a booth when you’ve finished your drink at the bar.”

     Hank shrugged and walked along the length of a slim, dark aisle. He could make out the booths on either side, but the angle of the lights above each hid the occupants from view.

     The sound of murmured conversations rose and fell around him.

     At the end of the aisle, the room opened to face a long bar with seven unoccupied bar stools. The bar itself was a long piece of planking that, judging by the scars upon its surface, looked as if it had come from an old battleship. Bottles and jars and glasses cluttered a series of shelves, and candles threatened to gutter out in old ship’s lamps that hung from the exposed beams of the ceiling.

     “Sit down, Marine,” Louis said, going around to the back of the bar.

     Hank set his sea-bag down on the floor, placed his hat on the bar, and settled down on a stool. “How’d you know I was a Marine?”

     “I’ve an eye for your breed,” Louis said. “What’re you drinking?”

     “Whiskey,” Hank answered. He took his pipe out of his mouth and knocked the ashes out into an old brass ashtray.

     The old man chuckled, nodded and said, “Course it’s whiskey.”

     “Good drink for a thirsty man,” Hank said, grinning.

     “Only drink for a Marine, so’s I been told,” Louis replied. He took a dark bottle and a large tumbler down from their respective shelves and poured Hank a healthy dose of strong smelling liquor.

     “Damn if that doesn’t smell fine,” Hank said, nodding his thanks as Louis slid the glass in front of him. The old Cajun left the bottle uncorked on the bar as Hank took a long drink.

     “Tastes as good as it smells,” Hank announced.

     “Glad to hear it,” Louis said, adding a little more to Hank’s glass. “Where’ve you been?”

     “Up and down the coast,” Hank said. He glanced around the bar, and for the first time, he noticed the curious decorations. A wide array of weapons hung from or were supported by old belaying pins. Hank saw bayonets and swords, trench knives and bowie knives. Pistols and rifles ranging from old muskets to Lee-Enfields and a Maxim machine gun. Hank shook his head and said, “Damn. That’s a hell of an arsenal you’ve got.”

     Louis nodded. “Friends leave them on their way through. Which brings me back to my question, Hank. Where’ve you been?”

     Hank looked at the old barkeep. “I told you –”

     Louis cut him off with a shake of his head.

     “I asked it wrong,” the old man muttered. “Here, what took you so long, Marine?”

     The question chilled Hank to the bone, and his hand trembled as he reached for his whiskey. He managed to empty the glass without spilling any and set the tumbler back on the bar top. Hank felt sufficiently fortified, and he asked, “What in the hell are you talking about?”

     “The wheat field,” Louis said, refilling Hank’s glass.

     A wave of brutal memories crashed over Hank and threatened to drown him with the images of violence. He saw his friends mown down on either side of him by German machine guns. The Marines leaning forward as if they walked into a high wind as they moved through the golden wheat. Over the staccato bursts of the machine guns, Hank heard men screaming in pain, others shouting in English or German.

     He gripped the edge of the bar, squeezing it with both hands, and shook his head.

     “How,” Hank asked in a harsh, rasping whisper, “in God’s name do you know I was there?”

     Louis looked at him not with sympathy or compassion, but admiration.

     “I’ve only met a few men,” the old man said, “who carried on as you did.”

     Louis reached beneath the bar and extracted a large, new grocer’s ledger. The year 1918, Vol. II was stamped in gold-leaf on the marbled cover.

     “Been a long time,” the old man said, “since I needed more than one ledger for a single year.”

     Hank watched as Louis laid the ledger on the bar and flipped it open. The old man turned several pages, nodded and cleared his throat.

     “Gunnery Sergeant Henry “Hank” Rivers. Killed in the wheat field, sixth of June, 1918. Despite death, Gunner Sergeant Rivers led the charge into Belleau Wood. Vanished before collection.”

     Without a word, his mind spinning, Hank reached up with surprisingly steady hands and unbuttoned his shirt. He slid his arms out of the sleeves and folded the garment before he placed it on the bar. Then, with Louis standing impassively in front of him, Hank stripped off his undershirt.

     He looked down at his chest and saw a trio of small, neat circles, one above each nipple, the third between them both. With his left hand, Hank reached behind him and felt the edge of a gaping exit wound.

     Hank sighed and picked up the whiskey. While Louis put away the ledger, Hank finished his drink. With the liquor gone, he put his shirts back on and asked in a soft voice, “How is this possible?”

     Louis shrugged. “I don’t know. Some few can do what you did, but it is a rare feat. I do know that you’ve led them on a merry chase for which they’ll surely call you out on.”

     “I don’t understand any of this,” Hank murmured. “Who’s been looking for me?”

     “The Valkyrie, Marine,” Louis said, pouring the last of the whiskey into the tumbler. “You’re due in Valhalla. Well, past due.”

     “How do you know all this?” Hank asked, confused. “What is this place?”

     “I’ve been around a long time, Hank,” Louis said. “And as for what this place is, that’s easy. This is my bar and a way station for Valhalla.”

     Behind him, Hank heard the door to the bar thrown wide, and the sound of boisterous female voices filled the air. Men cheered from the darkened booths and Louis smiled.

     “Well,” the old Cajun said, “looks like your ride is here, Marine.”

     Before Hank could respond, a firm hand gripped his arm, and a woman said over his shoulder, “Gunnery Sergeant Rivers. You are a pain in the ass.”

     Still, in shock at what had transpired, Hank laughed and said, “Yeah. That sounds about right.”

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Pacing

     Several years ago, I made the transition from part-time freelancer to a part-time ghostwriter. While I’ve discussed working within the constraints of someone else’s ideas concerning good writing, I haven’t talked about all the particulars.

     And I can’t in a short format such as this.

     What I can do, however, is take them one at a time.

     Today’s focus is pacing.

     I had a terrible time with pacing originally. Personally, I want a story to develop in a certain way. More organic than formulaic. I think most of you reading this can agree with that. Writing out a specific iambic pentameter for chapters leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. Especially when you’re a fan of letting your characters grow and change with the story.

     And that is all well and good when you are doing your own thing. I have plenty of stories where the development of a character or the climax of the tale takes a long time to achieve.

     If you’re working as a ghostwriter, then you need to think about pacing. You need to set your pacing so that you can put it on a graph where A stands for action, and B stands for anything else. Basically, when you lay out your chapters in front of you, you should have a rhythm, like so: A B A B A B…

     Ad nauseum ad infinitum, as the Romans were wont to say.

     Should you find yourself working as a ghostwriter and creating thrillers of any sort, keep this pacing in mind. Rev the engine, let it idle; rev the engine, let it idle. Not only will this keep your readers excited, but it’ll make your boss happy too.

     And, best of all, it can help you with your own writing.

     Speaking of which, time to do a little more of my own.

Keep writing!

     Nicholas

Help Support Cross, Massachusetts!

Hello! I hope you enjoyed this post. If you did, please consider putting a dollar in the pot. 🙂 Every little bit helps, and each dollar allows me to spend more time creating posts and stories for you to read. Thank you for your support!

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