Sunday, December 30, 2012

Dreaming of Design

I spoke about rewriting completed works in my last post, and I kind of look at rethinking website design the same way.  When I originally designed this blog, I knew next to nothing about how to design it or what I wanted it to look like.  Yes, I knew I wanted an archive of my old posts available, as well as a preview of blogs I thought were good along the side, but that was about it - I'd never really sat down and thought about how it should evolve.

Well, at the one year mark, I know I need to do that, and I have the same dread I did with rewriting the first chapter of Akeldama.  The website works just fine, so why should I go in and start fiddling with it?

However, doing so is what professionals do.  There are things I'd like to change slightly in the way this site is laid out.  Not much, as I like the way the posts are easy to read for the folks who stop by.  However, one of the things I'd like to do is change the links across the top(of which I now have only one, and it leads back to the homepage).  Nicole Pyles over at World of my Imagination has a lot of stuff I'd like to emulate - a bio page, a link to novel previews for books I've written, a "contact me" button, etc.  Joe Peacock and Robin Weeks have similar, if smaller, toolbars at the top of their blogs.
(Time to move around the pieces)
Unfortunately, I don't yet know how to do such things.  I know that I can play around with the design long enough and figure out how to link in other pages I want to create, but I've been a lazy bastard and not spent the time necessary to make it a reality.  Truth be told, in addition to be lazy, I have little confidence in my website design capability.  I am decidedly not technologically savvy, so I'll have to really put in some time to figure it out(to give you an idea of how technologically behind the times I am, I still have a flip phone from 2005, and I enjoy it).

Additionally, I need to go back to adding more pictures.  For reasons I've explained before, I do not use random pictures from the web to help make funny points or better illustrate what I'm trying to say, even though it would be very easy to do so.  Up to this point, I've been shamelessly stealing photos my wife has taken, and she hasn't always been happy about my doing so, telling me I need to "take your own damn pictures."  She has recently gotten a new camera and has bequeathed me her old one, and all that is holding me up is getting off my lazy ass and taking pictures myself.

As a corollary to taking my own photos, I want to add a new banner photo to the top, and I need to spend some time figuring out what that should be.  When I first began, I wanted a cool picture up top, but since I have no desire to owe someone I've never met thousands of dollars in copyright infringement penalties, I decided to alter that dream.  I think a banner picture would add life to the site, so I have to figure out what to add and then snap a pic of it.

Anyone out there got any suggestions for a better layout for me?  I'll listen to anybody...on the understanding that your advice is free.  :-P

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Rewriting "Completed" Work

I've spoken often of the editing we writers have to do as we put pen to paper.  Further, editing isn't a onetime process, but an ongoing one that requires multiple rounds.  Ensuring all the words are spelled correctly and you're using proper grammar is the easy part - it's when you have to change or remove things that the editing becomes more difficult.

However, I've run into another area that has been an unpleasant surprise for me and my writing.  I've long considered Akeldama to be complete, but the first chapter has always felt awkward.  The general scene is what I wanted - which has the book opening up with action so as to set the tone for the rest of the story - but it never felt right.  It was bumpy and uncoordinated, and I always wondered if it had enough pull to draw a reader into reading the rest of the novel.
(What a mess)
I always had the nagging feeling that the opening scene needed to be rewritten, but I was loathe to do so since it was already done.  It was that feeling you get when you've hung that doorframe slightly crooked - going back and getting it straight would mean re-doing work you thought was already complete, and, dammit, it still worked.

But since Akeldama is going to be my debut novel, I knew I had to go back and do it right.  It felt like that history paper you knew you needed to finish, but I dragged myself to my computer and looked at the chapter to figure out how to make it more compelling.

To my advantage, I understood the main character a lot better now than I did when I first wrote Akeldama.  Not only had I completed that novel, but I'd since written a second book with Seth Gendrickson as the lead, so I had a better sense of who he was and what motivated him.  He was too innocent in the first chapter when I originally wrote it, and although he hadn't been through the trials that would forge him into a harder person through the course of Akeldama, he'd still participated in several vampire hunts, as well as having seen his brother ravaged at the hands of one of the undead, and no one comes out of such experiences starry eyed, no matter how young they are.

The opening scene involves Seth concluding a mission that will culminate in his promotion to the official rank of Hunter, and I decided to give him an edge he didn't have in the original version.  He's not the person he will eventually become after the trials of the Vampire War are over, but he still needed to be a more commanding presence than the first time I wrote it.

Beyond that, I went a bit overboard describing the action in the original draft.  I thought I needed to be very vivid in talking about the creature and the damage it inflicted, and this time I've decided to use more allusion and allow the reader to imagine and infer rather than to see directly.  This will be a difficult task since the book hasn't yet established itself in the mind of the reader, but it will hopefully help set a more terrifying tone.

I'm not yet done, although I expect to be so in the next day or so, and I must admit that I feel a weight lifting off my chest that I didn't know was there.  Yes, I despised the thought of going back into something I thought was already done, but I was unaware how much the chapter's awkwardness was affecting the way I looked at the novel, and it's changed my entire outlook towards rewriting.  I don't think I'll ever truly look forward to it, but I won't dread it as much either, especially if, in my heart, I know it needs a rewrite.

Look at me - I'm growing.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Writing Against Conscience

Last week, I posted another chapter from Salvation Day.  Given the content, as well as the glee with which one of the characters is carrying out a double murder, a few folks have asked me how I could possibly have written such a thing.  A couple have even suggested some shock therapy to help me "overcome my demons."

I have to admit that the chapter in question was probably one of the hardest things I've ever written.  As a father, it was easy to imagine the little girl who got murdered and to feel revulsion at what was going on.  However, in order to show why the person the main character was getting the memory from was in Hell, I had to write it from his point of view, and that required me to put myself in the shoes of the killer.
(Step on a crack and break your daughter's back)
As writers, we have to step outside of our comfort zones if we want to really convey to the reader what we want them to understand.  To spark an emotional reaction in your audience, you have to do something unexpected.  Anyone can write a bland description of a murder, but to get an emotional reaction from the reader, you have to get inside the mind of the killer, show the pleasure he takes from such a wanton act.  And what would draw an even stronger reaction than the callous murder of a child?

Fortunately, most of us are incapable of envisioning such a despicable thing, let alone carrying it out.  However, that creates a quandary for the writer - how to draw in readers without going insane?

It became necessary to imagine the most vile thing anyone could ever do.  How would someone like this think?  What would spark such a reaction from them, a reaction so violent that not only would that person kill, but enjoy it?

I decided to try and go completely against my nature.  In order to do so, I had to write in chunks, and I heartily recommend that to anyone else who contemplates writing something that's such an anathema.  I was physically revolted by what I was putting on paper, so I did it in steps so I could keep fresh but not descend into the madness required to do what the character did.  Haven't we all sympathized with our characters at some point, even the villains?  As hoity-toity as that sounds, I didn't want to risk even an inkling of it, so I stopped several times during the chapter to clear my head.

Even reading it now, I get sickened, and I want to see the bastard fry forever.  However, a small part of me is excited by what I produced.  I think I proved to myself what I'm capable of writing when I want to.  Such things open up my writing world and enhance the possibilities I can create down the road.  Although writing against conscience is difficult, it lets me go in directions I never imagined and makes me more able to spark the reaction I'm looking for.  Such things, I hope, will help make a more saleable book, as well as satisfy an audience looking to be surprised.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Blogging - A Year In Review

It has now been one year since I began blogging.  I have always had lots of opinions and would add them to whatever message boards or other venues that presented themselves, but this was my first attempt at something consistently coherent.  Over the course of the past year, I've learned several things:

1.  Blogging consistently is important.
This can be hard, but blogging on a consistent schedule is one of the keys to success.  You can do it once a week, four times a month, or daily, but be consistent in what you choose.  Lots of people look to blogs as part of their routine, and if you want to be part of that routine, you need to be there when expected.

2.  Readers might like you, but they don't care when life is hard for you.
This is a corollary to the previous point.  If you're lucky, readers will begin to relate to you and will look forward to reading your stuff.  However, most don't really care if you are too tired to blog, or too sick, or if your cat died.  Oh sure, they might care later once you're back on the air and able to explain your absence, but the loss of time can cost you lots of readers, readers who, when they don't see you at the regularly scheduled time, will simply shrug their shoulders, maybe mutter what an asshole you are for letting them down, and will move on to the next blog(one that won't disappoint them).

The point is that you have to push through the times when you don't feel like blogging.  We all have times like that.  To be honest, now is one of those times for me.  I just got back from a weeklong vacation, I don't have anything clean to sleep in(naked to bed doesn't work for me), and it's getting late.  However, I promised to put up a post three times a week, and we have arrived at the appointed time.  Were I not to do it without giving prior notice, I risk being seen as unreliable.  Yeah, I could get away with it once or twice, but why get into the bad habit when it just requires a little more testicular fortitude?

3.  Most viewed and most commented don't always match.
Prior to blogging, I took it as an article of faith that the more popular a post, the more it'd draw comments.  Well, as I looked through my page views for the last year, that proved to be about as wrong as could be.  Certain topics stir the pot and get the most engaged to comment on them, but that doesn't necessarily provide the greatest measure of what interests folks.  Much like with a radio talk show, most people who come across a blog don't comment - they simply read.  That can be a discouraging facet at times since I like to engage readers, but there's little I can do about it short of begging people to comment, and even that likely wouldn't work.

4.  Engage with fellow bloggers.
I've found some great blogs this past year.  While getting more involved in the writing community, I've discovered people who are very talented and give great advice.  Some are established writers who have earned awards for their work, and others are new to the field but rapidly finding success.  Some are still looking, but all are great people who love to engage and find people who read their work to be what drives them.

I have yet to encounter a writing blogger who was a complete ass(the same cannot be said of other types of blogs).  Most are eager to talk with others about the craft and love people.  It's been a refreshing experience to get to know so many insightful individuals(at least as well as you can get to know someone across the digital domain).

5.  Plan out what you're going to say.
This one's hard...maybe the hardest part of blogging.  I admit that there have been times I've sat down to post and had no idea what I'm going to say.  The results of randomly coming up with subjects rarely pleases me, and most of you can probably tell when the effort is a little half ass.  That's not to say I don't pour my heart into it, just that I tend to reach when I don't plan out far enough in advance.

I used to think I have a great memory, and when an idea for a post came along, I could simply tuck it away for later.  Experience has now shown me that's not the case.  Therefore, when I get a great idea on what to blog about, I now write it in my trusty journal so that I can reference it when the time is right.  Doing so has led to many more engaging pieces and helped ensure I don't repeat myself too often.

6.  Cherish the good ideas and be creative with them.
We writers rarely find ourselves in a beam of light with a celestial chorus playing in the background, our latest idea surely divinely inspired.  Oh sure, it happens, but those times are few and far between.  That means that when we do come across a decent idea, we need to be creative with it.  Doing so serves two purposes - first, it helps engage readers in a way that lets them feel connected; and second, it allows us to practice our craft.

My personal favorite from here has been my Muse Series.  It began as a way to express how I felt a conversation should unfold in a story, and it took on a life of its own.  True, I haven't done this as often as some might like, but I've found myself looking more and more for ways to do such stories.  I've found that engaging with my Muse through this blog has helped me understand her better, and the results can be hilarious at times.

7.  Blogs help you explore what you want.
Blogging is kind of like thinking out loud.  When I first started out, I was obsessed with finding a literary agent and getting a traditional publishing deal.  Over time, however, I began to ask just what it was I wanted to accomplish with my writing.  On top of that, I started researching traditional publishing more and found it not to be to my liking.  That was when I decided that I wanted to make an okay living, get my work in front of readers, and stay on control of what I produced.  That made indie publishing, once a refuge of last resort, something that captured my imagination.  I'm not sure I'd have ever come to that conclusion if it wasn't for this blog.

This blog helped me work through my feelings about indie publishing and what it would mean.  Such reflection helped me evolve my position to where it's nearly unrecognizable from where it began.  If not for this platform, I'd probably still be obsessing over query letters and worrying over whether I could afford to go to the latest writers' conference.  Writing about the literary world, however, has opened my eyes to what I really need to do to be successful, and I now have greater focus on the goal.

8.  Stay focused on what your blog is about.
I'm an opinionated person.  This will come as no surprise to those who know me well.  Events of the past couple of months have left me chomping at the bit to talk about.  However, this isn't the place for it.  We are here to talk about writing, not argue over the last election or the fiscal cliff, and certainly not to discuss polarizing issues like abortion or gun control.  There are tons of blogs for stuff like that, but this isn't one of them.

I used to like Peter King of CNN/SI, but he has begun using his platform to promote certain ideological viewpoints.  Whether you agree with King's point of view or not is irrelevant.  The problem is that when I read MMQB, I want to read about football and have an escape from the daily influx of bullshit we see on our news channels.  I don't want to get drawn into the same partisan bickering that makes each of us so very mad.

Were I to drop in a stray comment about a politician or issue I care about, I risk angering at least half the audience.  In our polarized age, a large number of people will stop reading your work if they sense you are of the opposite political persuasion, most likely accompanied with a muttered "drop dead."  In fact, the next novel I plan to begin in January - tentatively entitled Schism - is about the divide in our country.

9.  It's challenging but worth it.
Blogging is hard, no doubt about it.  But it's a fun kind of hard.  It challenges us to grow in the craft and stay disciplined about providing content.  It stretches our imaginations in ways we never intended, and it allows us to engage the people who mean the most - readers.  There are times I wonder if it's all worth it sometimes, but then I'll get a comment saying that someone really enjoyed what I had to say and it'll be worth it.

Okay, enough reflection.  I hope you have enjoyed this blog as much as I have.  Next time, I'll get back to the craft and discuss writing against conscience, aka - how I wrote that blood curdling chapter found in the previous post...

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Salvation Day - Chapter 9

As promised, here's chapter 9 from Salvation Day.  In this excerpt, the main character, Mike Faulkner, has met the council of Satan and is being guided through Hell in order to see the pitiful souls God allows to inhabit Earth before they're sent to eternal damnation.

This was probably the hardest chapter to write.  I had to write it from several different points of view in order to get the reader into the head of the damned, and one of those points of view made me want to vomit.  Read on, if you dare...

            Lucifer took Mike by the shoulder.  The gesture may have been friendly, but the grip spoke more of command than request as Lucifer guided him towards the wall.
            “This will be the quickest way,” said Lucifer.  He tightened his grip and jumped.
            Mike felt himself rushing upward, the sensation being both exhilarating and terrifying.  They flew through the walls of the Iron Citadel and towards what could generously be described as “outside.”  He kept his eyes open through the layers of rock as they passed.
            Despite being inside a solid wall, he had no trouble making out Lucifer.  This supposed Prince of Darkness held tightly onto his shoulder, and Mike feared he was going to start bleeding.  Higher they flew until they burst out of one of the towers and into the open.
            From here, he could make out much more of Hell’s expansive landscape.  The cavern stretched out endlessly, full of lava pools and jagged black stalactites.  The sky was difficult to distinguish, sometimes appearing as a wall of black rock, and sometimes appearing as an unobscured orange canvas.  Bright yellow lightning flashed across the sky.
            The rest of Satan followed.  Lucifer was impassive as he twisted and turned, following an unseen path to a destination Mike wasn’t sure he wanted to find.
            Without warning, Lucifer put out his left hand and emitted a pale yellow mist.  As Mike was about to ask about that, a fireball emerged from nowhere and collided with the mist, ricocheting off at a violent angle and impacting the wall.  The force of the resulting explosion rolled across Mike like a Tsunami, so rattling that he was sure Lucifer would drop him.  However, the Devil hung on tight.
            “What the was that?” Mike screamed.
            “Hellfire, Dr. Faulkner.  It is part of existence here, randomly generating throughout the air.  When moving around, one must be aware and watch for warning signs.  An impact at this height would be difficult to recover from.”
            Warning signs? thought Mike.  I didn’t see any warning signs.  He reflected that he hadn’t been looking for anything, either – he’d been more focused on the fact that he was flying across Hell and a landscape that went on for much further than he thought it would.
            He got another nasty surprise when a giant winged creature descended on them as if looking for prey.  It had the head of a hornet, the body of a lizard, and leathery wings.  It also had a huge stinger where a lizard’s tail would have been.  Reptilian claws stretched out, stinger angled in.
            Lucifer made a slashing movement with his hand, and a stalagmite from the now solid cavern ceiling stabbed at the creature.  The rock impaled it and retracted.  The creature’s hiss echoed like it came from an old fashioned record player.  Lucifer offered no explanation now, and Mike was too afraid to ask.
            He didn’t know how long they’d been flying, but he could now hear a sound in the distance.  He soon recognized it.
            He shuddered instinctively, remembering his first trip.  However, as they got closer, he noticed that they didn’t have the same effect as before.
            “Relax, Dr. Faulkner,” Lucifer said.  “You have my full protection from the Bells.  We just needed to come here to give you a hint of what we get on a daily basis.”
            They began to descend over the landscape and towards the rain of people that Mike could now hear thudding on the rock floor.  He was sickened by the sound, which reminded him of dropping a stack of boards from the top of a roof.
            With Mike in tow, Satan landed, skidding to a stop.  Mike gaped at the scene.
            There were mountains of bodies.  It looked like they didn’t have use of their arms and legs as they twisted around the piles.  There was no sound except the Bells, but Mike imagined that each soul was screaming in panic.  As bodies continued to fall from the sky, others would tumble from the pile and onto the ground.  All were naked, but not in any way that Mike found appealing.  They looked like they had been dipped in a light green goo that covered their bodies.
            All at once, Mike could no longer hear the Bells.  A blanket of silence fell over the group, and Mike saw Lucifer turn to his right.
            “Good morning, Gressil.  I see the flow is unending.”
            “Morning, noon or night, whichever is whichever, the flow has never, nor will it ever cease,” replied a snake-like voice.
            Mike looked for the voice and found a towering figure; so towering that Mike wondered how he’d missed it.  It had to be 100 feet tall, with purple and brown skin and what looked like dead grass for hair.  It wore overalls and held an enormous shovel.  Crooked yellow fangs shot out from a powerful looking jaw.
            The thing called Gressil took the giant shovel and placed it into the pile of bodies, scooping up a large number.  The bodies continued to struggle, some falling off the shovel, but most staying on.  It tossed the bodies into a rock crevasse shaped like a big black funnel.  Again and again the shovel tore into the pile.
            Walking forward, Lucifer said, “Gressil, we need a moment with a few of these souls.  We won’t keep you from your work for long.”
            “Keep me, slap me, tackle me, bury me – it makes no difference.  The shovel will work as it knows to do.  Release my reprieve upon your favor.”  Gressil leaned against his shovel and wiped beady yellow sweat from his brow.
            “Come Dr. Faulkner.  It’s time for true understanding.”  He paused by one of the bodies.  The man was bloated, possessing a fair amount of body hair, with eyes like large brown pools.  “This one.  You know the scum that inhabits Earth on occasion.  As I explained, it’s God that makes Man what he is.  That He could ever allow such a creature to exist is deplorable.  And you should know both sides of the coin.”
            “I don’t understand,” said Mike, a phrase he was aware he’d been using a lot.
            “You will, and here is where that starts.”  Lucifer kneeled and touched the forehead of the soul in front of him.  He then reached up and took Mike’s wrist…
            “Won’t that kid ever shut the fuck up?” he mumbled.  His head hurt, the result of another hard night.  But what did anyone expect?  His boss was a complete asshole and Cindy wouldn’t get off her fat ass to help.  Nope, she just sat around watching Oprah and stuffing the little shit with candy.
            He opened his eyes and looked around at the shabby apartment.  The sun filtered through the blinds and hurt his eyes.  He slept on the couch, hoping that he wouldn’t have to listen to that crap out here.  Cindy took up the whole damn bed anyway.
            He looked around to find his bottle.  It would soothe him, unless it was empty.  But he knew there’d be beer in the fridge.
            Still, how was he supposed to enjoy it with that kid screeching?  Why didn’t Cindy do something?  If the bitch had gone out and not told him, he’d slap her again.
            “Alright, goddammit, I’m up!” he yelled.  Rolling off the couch, he stomped down the hall to the bedroom.  Haylee was standing in her crib and crying.  He heard the shower running.  Probably why she didn’t hear her little brat.
            Haylee was Cindy’s kid.  Could’ve been cute too, if she hadn’t gotten the stupid expression her mom carried.  Geez, that lazy little whore didn’t even bother to wipe the spaghetti from the kid’s mouth!
            He didn’t know why he stuck around.  Haylee wasn’t his, and her real dad made the smart move while Cindy was still preggers.  If she hadn’t been such an easy lay, he wouldn’t have been with her either.  But he’d never marry her – he’d be stuck then.
            He grabbed Haylee by her jumper and picked her up to his face.  “What the hell is the matter with you?”
            Haylee’s eyes glistened new tears and she pointed.  “Mama!”
            “She ain’t here.  What do you want?”  Haylee just screeched again.
            He shook her hard.  “SHUT UP YOU LITTLE SHIT!”
            “What are you doing?” asked a voice behind him.
            He turned around and there was Cindy, naked and wet, bleach bottle blond hair slicked back.  She probably needed to get back in there and scrub some more.  Maybe if she did more than watch TV and bitch, she wouldn’t look like a fucking whale.
            “Here, you take the kid,” he said.  Then he threw Haylee at her by the jumper.
            Cindy almost caught her, but with her hands and body wet, Haylee slipped through and crashed against the floor.  She screamed even louder this time(if that were possible), and Cindy picked her up.  She walked over to him, Haylee in her arms, and tried to slap him in head.
            “Don’t you ever do that again you bastard!”  She turned to walk away.
            She wasn’t gonna get away with that.  He grabbed her shoulder, wrenched her around, and punched her across the cheek.  She fell against the dresser, and then to the floor.  Haylee screamed again.
            “You think you can do something like that just ‘cause you got the kid?”
            He went over and grabbed her by the hair.  This time, she screamed instead of Haylee.  She dropped her daughter and reared back with her left arm.  He blocked it and then slapped her.
            Dammit, Hayle was still crying!  He stepped over Cindy and kicked Haylee in the head.  She made a low grunt and then fell silent.  At least she was quiet.
            Cindy rolled over, crying.  Then she looked at Haylee and screamed again.  He didn’t think anyone could have screamed louder than the brat, but Cindy did.
            “Chill out.  So she got a little bit of a spanking.  Did her some good.”
            But Haylee wasn’t moving.  He didn’t give a shit.  So long as she wasn’t screaming, he could go back to trying to get over this damn hangover.
            He walked back to the kitchen and got a beer.  He twisted off the top and took a long swig(wow, that hit the spot).  In a few minutes, it’d take the edge off his headache too.
            It felt good to shut up that little shit.  He just wished he’d thought of it a long time ago – would’ve saved him a lot of grief.  He laughed and shook his head.
            “I’M GOING TO KILL YOU!” Cindy screeched as she lunged at him with a steak knife.
            He managed to bring up his hands and grabbed her wrists.  She squirmed for a second while he got the knife.  Getting it out of her hand wasn’t hard – she was only a woman, and a pretty pathetic one.
            “You killed my little girl!” she sobbed.
            “Whatever,” he said dismissively.  “I been hit in the head plenty.  She just needs to sleep some more and stop screaming.  Why can’t she be quiet?”  Cindy continued to sob.  He didn’t care.  If she was hurt, then maybe she’d learn not to do shit like that.
            “Don’t you go trying anything else that fucking stupid again.  You got me, and I stay with you.  You think anybody else is ever gonna give you the time of day you fat fucking cunt.  Not with that brat you’ve got in tow.  Go finish cleaning yourself up and don’t bug me.”  He started to open the fridge for another beer.
            Cindy got up and lunged at him again.  Without thinking, he brought the knife up to collide with her big ass belly.  Figuring the second one would feel just as good, he pulled out the knife and jammed it in again.
            And again.
            And again.
            He laughed.  Stupid little girl.  She should’ve known not to piss him off.  Now she’d crossed the line.  He drug her by the hair into the TV room and laid her down by the recliner.  She gurgled and wheezed, leaking blood all over the carpet.  Good thing he wouldn’t be staying much longer or that’d be hell to clean.
            He went to the bedroom and took Haylee by the jumper.  She had a large gash across her right eye.  Smiling, he knew he’d done his job well.  He thought he felt her heart beating a little.  So what?  He’d take care of that.
            He dropped her next to her worthless bitch of a mother.  Cindy still wheezed, but the wheezes were further apart now and growing weaker.  He smacked her on the ass and thought about getting it from her one more time, but he figured he could find another useless hole out there to stick it in.
            “You mess with me, this kind of shit happens.”  He looked at the mess that Cindy had become and laughed as she wheezed again.  It looked like she wanted to move, but that wouldn’t happen.
            Smiling at Cindy, he brought his foot to a spot above Haylee’s back and stomped down hard.  Kinda sickening to hear the little bitch’s back break, but at least he wouldn’t hafta worry about that faint heartbeat he heard.
            Cindy flexed her fingers a little.  He stood over her and grabbed her by the hair.  She gave no resistance, and he turned her to look in his direction.
            “I’m doing what I shoulda done a long time ago.  Adios bitch.”  And with that, he shoved the knife into her neck.
            The beer spilled during Cindy’s stupidity, so he reached for another one and twisted off the cap.  It flowed smoothly.  He knew he’d need a shower to get rid of all this blood – yes, a shower and a change of clothes.
            The water took the edge off his headache, but it took some scrubbing to get the blood off his hands.  Damn, even after getting herself killed she could be a pain in the ass!
            He pulled on an old T-shirt – LSU baby! – and put on a raddy pair of shoes.  He knew he’d need to be careful on the way out not to slosh through Cindy’s blood.  Tracking that stuff down the steps to his car would be hell to get off.
            After grabbing a few of Cindy’s rings and shit, he pocketed the $150 they were saving to pay the rent.  Well, she wouldn’t need it now.  Figuring he’d get thirsty, he also pulled the last two beers from the fridge, knowing he’d need to pick up more on the road.
            Where would he go?  Who cared?  His next big adventure awaited!
            “And now,” said Lucifer, “flip the coin.”
            The water felt good.  It was better than anything Justin had done recently.  It didn’t judge her, or hit her, or fall asleep right after sticking it in.  No, it just made her feel good.
            What was that noise?  Probably Haylee crying.  She’d get her in a minute.  Haylee could be an annoyance, but she still loved her.  Probably the only thing in this damned world that she really did love.
            She wondered briefly if Justin would wake up – he passed out last night, like he usually did.  Luckily he did so on the couch.  She didn’t want to choke on his vapors all night.
            She hated that he drank himself unconscious most nights, but he was all she had.  Plus, his job kept a roof over their head.  If she walked out, where would they go?  Her dad was dead and her mother made it clear she didn’t want Cindy or Haylee around.  Couple that with the fact that daycare would eat any paycheck she managed and there wasn’t much to do.
            Sighing, Cindy also reflected on not wanting to be alone.  Will left when she was pregnant and she hadn’t heard from him since.  She’d like to know where he was, if for no other reason than to collect back child support.  Then maybe she could leave Justin.
            Then what?  She’d be alone.  As good a companion as Haylee was, she didn’t want to be without a man to hold her and be with her in a manly way.  No, she’d done the alone thing before and didn’t like it.
            The towel hung on the bathroom door, and she grabbed it as she shut off the water.  Once the water was off, she heard something.
            “SHUT UP YOU LITTLE SHIT!”
            Dropping the towel, she opened the bathroom door and stared at him.  He looked like he was still drunk.  Justin wasn’t like one of those guys who got silly or all lovey dovey when he drank.  No – Justin was a mean little prick, and alcohol only enhanced it.
            Now he’d gone too far.  Cindy didn’t much mind if he hit her, but he hadn’t laid a finger on Haylee.  Now, however, he had her with one hand, his nose about three inches from her little girl’s face.
            “What do you think you’re doing?” she asked.
            He turned around to face her, still holding Haylee by one hand.  A day of stubble covered his face and he looked like he was disgusted.
            She felt ashamed a little by that look.  She knew she wasn’t what she once was, but she’d always let him do what he wanted.  He needed to appreciate that.  Not many women would have put up with him, but she needed him and his paycheck to survive.
            “Here, you take the kid,” he said and tossed Haylee at her like she was a beanbag.
            Unprepared, it took Cindy a half second to react.  She clumsily reached up to grab her daughter, but she was wet and Haylee slid off her right shoulder, hitting the ground with a muffled thump.  Haylee was probably more scared than hurt, but she screamed again.
            She reached down and scooped up her girl, trying to comfort her.  Haylee needed to get through it and calm down.
            With Haylee supported by her left arm, she walked over to Justin.  “Don’t you ever do that again you bastard!”  He flinched when she reached over to slap him in the head, putting up his arms.
            Satisfied that the incident was over, she turned around and began she cuddle Haylee.  Maybe if she stopped crying, Justin would be fine.
            However, she felt a hand on her shoulder as Justin turned her back to face him.  She couldn’t have reacted much if she’d wanted to anyway, not holding Haylee.  She felt his knuckles against her face and then searing pain.
            Damn that hurt.  Justin had hit her before, but it was usually just a slap or a shaking.  She couldn’t remember him using a closed fist.  Falling against the dresser, her first horrified thought was that she’d crushed Haylee.  Granted, she wasn’t svelte when she gave birth at the age of 17, but having a kid forced her weight into areas she’d only seen in her mother before now.
            “You think you can do something like that just ‘cause you got the kid.”  Justin’s voice sounded mad.  Hopefully now he’d walk out.  If he went back in to watch TV, she would stay in the bedroom until he calmed down.
            No such luck.  Justin lifted her by the hair.  Now she started getting scared.
            Figuring she had to try and get him off of her, she dropped Haylee out of her left arm and swung it up towards Justin.  With the angle she was at, there wasn’t much else to do.
            He took her left wrist, let go of her hair, and brought his hand down against her cheek.  That was the more familiar pain she was used to.  She fell back to the ground, face against the carpet.  Now she started to sob.
            That’s when she heard a loud thud, like a watermelon hitting the ground after being dropped from a rooftop.  She rolled over and caught sight of her daughter.  Haylee’s eyes were open, but there was no movement in them.  Blood trickled out from a large gash across her right eye, just above the eyebrow.
            The sound that escaped her lips was something she never thought could come out of her mouth, and it bounced off the walls.
            “Chill out,” Justin said in a nonchalant way. “So she got a little bit of a spanking.  Did her some good.”  Then he walked out of the bedroom.
            She reached over and shook Haylee.  No movement.  She peered into her eyes.  No sign of life.  Oh dear God, this couldn’t be happening.  Not Haylee!  Panic shot through her.  She knew she should call for help, but getting that man out of her apartment was the first thing that sprang to mind.  She would take the panic from her head and inflict it on Justin, and maybe, in some way, that would bring Haylee back.
            Still naked and wet, she crept down the hallway.  The tiny kitchen opened up on the right, and there stood Justin, a bottle of beer to his lips and his eyes closed.  She took a steak knife from counter.  They’d had pork chops the previous night and the knife was still covered in sauce.  Now was her chance.
            “I’M GOING TO KILL YOU!”
            She lunged forward with blind hatred.  Just one chance was all she wanted.
            However, she didn’t get that chance.  Inexperienced as she was, she tried to bring the knife straight down on him, and he caught her wrist.  Justin twisted and pulled until the knife was now in his hand.  Normally this would have terrified her, but with Haylee gone, she didn’t care.  She didn’t even care when her head hit the counter.
            “You killed my little girl!” she cried.
            “Whatever,” he said dismissively.  “I been hit in the head plenty, and I’m fine.  She just needs to sleep some more and stop screaming.  Why can’t she be quiet?”
            He pulled the refrigerator door open and said, ““Don’t you go trying anything else that fucking stupid again.  You got me, and I stay with you.  You think anybody else is ever gonna give you the time of day you fat fucking cunt.  Not with that brat you’ve got in tow.  Go finish cleaning yourself up and don’t bug me.”
            She lunged, intent on killing him now.  It was either him or her.
            It turned out to be her.
            She felt the knife pierce her flesh just above her navel.  Justin backed up for an instant, like he didn’t know what to do.  Then a wicked gleam flashed across his face, and he moved in again.
            And again.
            And again.
            The second stab was worse than the first because now Cindy was fully aware of what was happening.  Pain shot through her stomach and into her back.  She could feel blood running down her leg – it was warm and mixed with the rest of the water from the shower like she was bathing in it.
            Her legs gave out and she crumpled to the floor.  Blood spilled over the tile.  She tried to struggle to her feet but had little strength to move.  Her mind faded further from reality.  As if from a staticky radio, she heard him laughing.
            She vaguely felt him grab her hair.  He was stronger than he looked.  Blood smeared on the tile, then on the carpet.  She absentmindedly wondered if there was anything that would clean that up.
            Laying there, she thought about what became of her life.  She knew the end was near, but at least she wouldn’t have to bear the pain of Haylee’s funeral.  That alone would have been worse than the knife.
            Wheeze.  Gurgle.  Slower now.
            She saw Haylee appear next to her.  Her expression was vacant, her arms limp.  Cindy’s soul cried out in sorrow, but she didn’t have the strength to verbalize it.  She was only slightly aware that something touched her rear, but it felt like it was asleep, numb.
            “You mess with me, this kind of shit happens.”  She saw Justin’s foot as if through a tunnel crash on Haylee’s back.  The crunch sickened her, even though it sounded like it was far away.  Cindy tried to reach for her daughter, but her fingers were the only thing that responded, and those none too well.
            Haylee was gone.  She’d never attend her graduation, meet her boyfriend.  She’d never get to teach her to avoid the mistake’s she’d made in life.  Only loss remained.
            She could barely make out any sound now except that of crashing waves.  She thought the ocean must be close because those waves were getting closer, louder.  The tunnel she was retreating through provided only a faint glimpse of her TV room.
            Her head was up again.  She guessed it was Mike.  He mumbled something, but she couldn’t hear him over the waves.  She felt one final pain against the side of her neck.
            Mike took a step back and shivered.  His skin was clammy and he realized he’d been crying.
            “Why did you do that?” he asked.
            “To provide understanding of the suffering God has brought,” said Lucifer.
            Mike looked down at the pitiful creature whose experiences he’d just touched.  It looked at him, covered in light green film, arms flopping uselessly.  Mike felt utter revulsion.  And something else.
            “Seems to me like this guy deserves what he’s getting,” said Mike.
            “He does,” said Lucifer calmly.  “However, did she deserve what was inflicted on her by this worthless excuse for a soul?  God could have saved her by not providing the circumstance.  Or the codependency.  He could have given Justin a greater sense of compassion or lessened his addiction to alcohol.  Justin’s actions, girded by free will, caused enormous suffering.”
            Mike rubbed his hands together.  “What was that?  I understand that you put his experiences into my head, but how did I feel her pain?”
            “Man is uniquely designed to absorb the experiences and feelings of others with whom they share an emotional connection.  You are only aware of this subconsciously, and it can only be drawn out by a supernatural force.”
            He pondered that.  “Why create it at all, especially if it’s inaccessible to mankind?”
            Lucifer smiled.  “Are you questioning God’s design?” he asked sardonically.  His face turned serious again.  “Some humans can access it briefly and at the periphery.  Either they sense it through dreams or have what they believe to be heightened intuition.  However, nothing to the extent you’ve experienced.  In Hell, we have our own ways of getting to and using it.  It makes designing things for this scum easier.”
            “So this jerk is going to get what’s coming to him?”
            “Oh yes.”
            “Good,” Mike growled savagely.  His thoughts turned to Satan’s proposition.  “I understand the part about God creating inclinations, but I still go back to the fact that this guy deserves to be here.”
            Lucifer nodded sympathetically.  “Of course.  It was easy to find someone who should be here.  Let’s look for someone whose sentence might be a little more, um, subjective.”
            Gressil continued to lean against his shovel, picking something out of his claw-like fingernails.  Lucifer walked through the mountains of bodies, occasionally pausing.  He would mutter, “No, not enough.”
            Finally, he stopped and motioned to Mike.  Lucifer said, “This one.  Are you ready?”  Mike nodded.
            Lucifer didn’t kneel this time.  Even covered in goo, Mike could tell the person was light skinned with blond hair.  It looked up in fright as Lucifer turned it over.  Placing his hand on its forehead, Lucifer again took Mike’s wrist…
            Ahhhhh.  The needle was sharp and fire flowed through his veins.  He waited, knowing it wouldn’t be long.  Sure enough, soon the rush to his head was unmistakable.  The smack was kicking in.
            He put the needle down on the coffee table and flopped back on the couch.  Yeah, that was it.
            He knew the effects wouldn’t last long, but he needed them.  Leaning back, he wondered at the world.  It was a fucked up place, full of sadness and loneliness.  Most of all, it was a place of guilt.
            Guilt about doing what a person wanted with their own body.  Guilt about some of life’s pleasures.  He was tired of being lectured about how this or that was bad for you.  Dammit, if he wanted to engage in some fun, that shouldn’t be anybody’s business.  His body may have been a temple, but it was his temple.
            Looking down at his temple, he thought he needed a word with the landlord.  It was looking run down.  Yes, a quick word and he’d get his temple fixed.
            He reached over and lit a candle.  It was late afternoon and he needed some light.  Didn’t matter that the electric company shut off the power – candles gave plenty.  As he got it going, he leaned over to start another one.  Wouldn’t spill, he hoped.  If it did, he didn’t know that he’d be able to find the door before the fire got him.  They always hid doors in a dark room.
            He snickered at his own sense of humor when he heard something.
            What?  Where?
            No, it wasn’t anything.  Probably the smack starting to wear off.  He knew the drill.  How long had he been here?  Dark outside now, so probably a while.  Wow, time sure passed when the head’s just a-buzzin.
            Salivating.  Yeah, the buzz was definitely wearing off now.  How long could he go before his next hit?  Four hours?  Eight?  He needed to start stretching these out because he just didn’t have the money.  Or at least wouldn’t until he…uh…found some more.
            A knock.
            Real this time, not the smack.  He groaned, knowing who it was.  Opening the door, sure as shit there she stood.  Mom.
            “Hi,” he said with false cheer.
            Her face framed by the candlelight, she wore a sad expression.  She looked worn, overcome.
            “Your dad’s diamond cufflinks are missing.  We’ve been looking for them, hoping he misplaced them.  But he didn’t, did he?”
            He feigned shock.  “The one’s grandpa gave him when you guys were married?  That’s awful.”
            “Steven, don’t play games with me.  You were over last week, begging for money.”
            “Are you suggesting I had something to do with that,” he said, trying to feign anger.
            “I’m not suggesting it,” she said.  “I’m saying it – you stole from us.”
            “I can’t believe that you could accuse your own son…” He tried to sound mad, but burst into giggles.
            “Steven” – she and dad were the only ones who still called him Steven – “we’ve tried to get you help, but it’s clear that’s not what you want.  We can’t do anything else for you.”
            Now anger did rise in his voice.  “I never asked for your help.”
            “But you need it,” said his mom.
            “I’m doing just fine,” he said.
            She shook her head.  “Steven, look at you.  You’re 24 years old and should be in the prime of your life.”
            He looked down at himself.  Yeah, he was a bit skinny, but he just had fast metabolism.  The pale look in his eyes would go away once he got some sleep.
            “Okay,” he admitted.  “I’m a little strung out, but it’s under control.”
            “No it’s not.  If you’d just get into that clinic…”
            “Methadone is for losers who can’t handle real shit,” he said shortly.  “If you came to lecture me, you can leave.”
            “I didn’t come to lecture.  I came by to tell you not to come around our house until you clean yourself up.  It’s too painful.”
            “What do you mean?” he asked.
            “I mean it how it sounds.  We’re tired of you stealing from us.  We’re tired of your attitude.  And we’re tired of seeing you like this.  When you clean yourself up, call us.  Until then, please stay away.”
            Was this his mother?  She wouldn’t drop him.  Over a little smack?
            To accuse him of stealing?  Yeah, he might’ve taken a few thing(even though he couldn’t remember exactly what), but they were family.  They should have been happy to give him anything.
            “Fine,” he growled.  “I don’t need you anyway.”  He turned around and refused to look at her.
            As she was leaving, she said, “We saw Missy yesterday.”
            He turned back to her, heart racing.  “Missy?  How is she?”
            “Not well.  Because of you.”
            Now he felt pain in his chest.  “That’s not right.”  He looked at the ground.  “I wish she’d come back.”
            “She’d like to, but she wants to come back to the man you used to be, not this junkie you’ve become.  She needs more than that.”
            There was that whole guilt thing again.  His body, his life.  If she couldn’t see that, maybe she didn’t need to be here.  Still, it hurt as badly as the day she walked out.  That was last week, but it seemed forever ago.
            “Goodbye mom.  Take your lectures.”
            “Goodbye Steven.”  Her voice broke.  “I hope you find happiness.”  She walked away.
            He went over and lit another candle.  They’d have to last for a little.  Maybe he’d sleep, or try to.  That way he could pass the time until his next hit.
            Mike looked up in revulsion.  “He’s in Hell for being a druggie?”
            Lucifer turned and nodded.  “Yes, God put this poor soul here.  You’d have thought that He would want to help, that He’d heal him.  No – He’d rather not deal with him, so He’s sentenced Steve to torment.”
            Mike was aghast.  “But he did it to himself.  What good does it do to send him here?”
            “Don’t ask me.  It wasn’t I who sent him.  We can only claim the souls we’re given, and none beyond that.”
            A strong sense of pity came over Mike as he looked down at the scrawny soul.  It stared at him.
            “What will happen?” he asked.
            “Don’t worry, Dr. Faulkner.  Poor souls such as this aren’t sent to the Wastelands or destined to vomit hot coals.  Still, time here is not pleasant, and we will find something, even if it’s not harsh.
            “And as I said, doing nothing is not an option.  There are too many, and you’ve seen how harsh Hell’s environment is.  We haven’t the resources to take care of so many; only the means to send them to their fate.  Were we to release them, it’d only be to a different torment, for we don’t even know if Limbo would accept them.  Only God controls that.”
            He couldn’t get the image of this pathetic figure out of his mind.  The sheer unfairness of it all hurt him deeply.  But still…
            “This is God we’re talking about,” he said.  “The Almighty.  The Alpha and Omega.  I think He’s wrong, but don’t know if my stuff could change that.”
            Mephistopholes stepped forward.  “I think it’s time we gave Dr. Faulkner additional motivation.  I know he’s torn by what he’s seen and what he’s been taught.  It’s a large task to destroy the Almighty, but it’s necessary in order to save Man and allow him to grow.”
            Lucifer brought his finger to his lips and appeared deep in thought.  Finally, he said, “Yes, I think you’re right.”  He turned to Gressil and said, “We’ll be leaving you to your labors now.”
            “Leaving or no, I thank you for the time.  The task continues, unending.”  Gressil picked up his shovel by and tore back into the pile.
            Lucifer motioned for them to leave.  Mike was afraid to ask what was next.
            Lucifer sensed his thoughts.  “Relax Dr. Faulkner.  We’re going to grant your desire.  Our next stop is Karen.  Your wife awaits.”
            He didn’t know what to say.  He’d wanted to see Karen since he first got here.  Even before that, when she took her own life, he’d wanted to have her back.  However, with what he’d seen, he didn’t know if he was ready, but what choice was there?
            As they moved, the only sound Mike could hear was Gressil shoveling souls.  Intent on the task at hand, the demon didn’t look up.  Just scoop and throw, scoop and throw.  And the flow continued unabated.