Sunday, March 30, 2014

Writing Into A Box

I love the beginning of a novel.  The possibilities are endless.  I can see lines of confluence and strange spasms of imagination everywhere.  I've often said that I only outline to a certain point because the story has to remain fluid.  There needs to be wiggle room that allows what you want to say to evolve past the rigid limits of an outline, and that's part of the mystery and fun of writing.

Unfortunately, there can be a downside to this.  If a writer isn't careful, he can write himself into a corner, and getting out of this corner can involve a great deal of pain.

I think this is what happened in Canidae.  I didn't take sufficient care in the work and just allowed it to meander wherever my mind took it.  The result was that I found a story that borders on absurd.  Don't get me wrong - there are many elements that will remain in the final product, but I've got a lot more to re-create than I have to save.

The painful part of this process is that I'm going to have to go back and re-write a bunch of stuff.  I'll need to locate where things went wrong and start from there.  I have a feeling that will happen closer to the beginning of the novel than to the end.

This is why taking a breath to evaluate your work is so important.  Don't get me wrong - I believe in Stephen King's advice that you should write the first draft for you.  However, don't get so caught up in it that you have to spend a good deal of time and angst in rewriting large chunks of it down the road.  Step back and ask yourself if it's working.  It's true that this is much easier done after you've put your writing away for a few months and can look at it with fresh eyes, but that doesn't mean it can't be done at all.  Just look at it from the perspective of a reader and ask, Does the story make sense, or has this jumped the shark?

Remember that weeds grow as quickly as new paths to your book, but if they overrun the garden, you lose anything usable.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Conquering the Night

This is a short story I entered in a contest run by the Hemingway family last year.  It didn't win, but I still like it, so I posted it here.  It's different than most of my stuff - more of a slice-of-life kind of thing that is meant to be symbolic.  I hope you enjoy it.
            "Everyone must face the night," George's father said.
            "But I don't like the night," George replied.  "It's dark out there, and something keeps making strange noises."
            "Those are merely creatures of the night, and you must eventually confront them."
            George was a sturdy boy nearing 16, with shoulder length brown hair and a frame that hadn't yet filled out.  The loincloth he wore covered what it needed to, while a layer of dirt seemed to cover the rest of him.
            He poked at the fire with a stick.  Sparks rose towards the roof of the cave, and George stared sullenly at the flames.  His father had recently been pushing him hard to go out into the night, but the fire was so warm and comfortable that George didn't want to.  It was different in the daytime when he could see what was coming, but the dark made him nervous.
            As it always did, the fire burned until sunlight flooded the cave's entrance.  Now that it was light again, George had nothing to fear.  He could see where he was going, and he could identify all the noises of the forest - sharp chirps were birds, loud grunting came from the apes, and the occasional growl emanated from the jungle cats that roamed for prey.  Yes, in the daylight, he knew what to avoid and how to stay safe.
            The grownups talked a lot about the dark of night.  George's father mentioned it could be cold and contain surprises.  George's own brother had gone into the night a few years back and never came back, so he wondered why anyone would ever willingly venture into such a nightmare.
            Today his father took him fishing by the stream at the base of a nearby hill.  The water flowed freely after recent rain, and the fish proved easy to catch.  The boy felt like he didn't have a care in the world.  In the midst of this relaxation, his father broke the silence with that disturbing topic again.
            "George, your time of ascension is near.  You must venture into the darkness."
            "I don't want to," George pouted.  "I get all I need from the fire and daylight.  Our cave is well lit and I have all I could ever want."
            "Every man must confront that which he fears.  It is not our lot in life to stay comfortable."
            "But Stephen went into the night and we haven't seen him since," George countered.  "What if he was eaten by the puma?  What if he slipped on rocks by the waterfall and plunged into the river?"
            George's father dipped his fishing line back into the stream.  "I have faith that your brother is making his way in this world, and if God sees fit to bring him back to us, we'll see him again.  If he is unable to handle moving around and living in the night, then we can but pray for his spirit."
            "But the fire is warm," George protested.  "It keeps away the predators and lets us see so that we don't fall."
            "Only because your mother and I make that fire for you each night."
            "What does that have to do with anything?"
            "Son, I mastered the night long ago.  I conquered it by building our fire each evening, but I have enough confidence in my abilities that can survive in the night if need be."
            Shaking his head, George went back to his line.  He decided he would never go into the night on his own.  If he could help it, he would never go into the night at all.
            It had been a good haul - the fish tasted fine, and all three of them ate until their bellies were full.  George poked at the fire with his stick and noticed it was growing small, but he got a nasty surprise when he reached for another piece of wood - there was none to be found.
            "Father," he said in a trembling voice, "we're out of wood."
            "Oh, we must've forgotten it this afternoon.  No matter - we'll just get some more."
            George was nervous.  They'd never run out of firewood before, and the sun was already down.  He hoped that his father could return with enough wood to stave off the night before the light died.  That was when the evening's second nasty surprise reared its ugly head.
            "George," his father said, "I want you to accompany me."
            The boy's insides went queasy.  "Why do I need to go?  Can't you just make multiple trips?"
            Stern lines set into his father's face.  "I'm getting old, and my footing isn't as sure as it once was.  I need help to get enough to last the night.  If you won't help, I'll have to wait until morning."
            "B-but the fire will go out," George stammered.
            "You have a keen eye," his father countered.  "Come - it won't take long."
            George's hands shook.  His father walked to the cave's entrance and looked back expectantly.  The boy took a tentative step, and then another.  When he reached his father's side, the older man turned and walked into the darkness.
            He was determined to stay close enough so he could keep an eye on his father and not get lost.  The ground was moist and the footing uncertain, so his eyes darted between the ground and his father's shoulders as they moved into the night.
            After a few minutes, George said, "Where are we going?  There's wood right by the cave."
            "You forget that we had rain two nights ago.  The wood around our cave is wet and unsuitable to burn.  We need to head into the hillside where the clouds never went."
            He hadn't counted on this.  The trip into darkness was supposed to be quick so that he could again be warmed by the fire.  That they would be surrounded by black concerned him.
            The journey took over an hour, and his father held him by the hand as they walked.  George slipped in the mud or on the occasional rock, but his footing grew more firm as his eyes adjusted.  As they reached the hillside above the clouds, his father let go.
            George's fingers instinctively flexed without the firm grip of his father, but he kept his eyes on the older man.  When they reached a pile of dry brush, George's father turned to him and said, "How much wood have you picked up, son?"
            "None, father."
            Even in the dark, George could tell his father's face hardened.  "We won't get near enough if you focus solely on me.  Look around and explore so we can get what we need."
            "Yes, father," George replied, his eyes licking the ground.
            Once he started looking around, George began finding what they came for.  He picked up smaller twigs but soon realized those would serve little purpose beyond kindling.  He began to grab larger pieces, checking for the holes that would allow air flow so the fire could burn longer.
            After a few minutes, he lost track of his father, and as long as he was immersed in picking up wood, that didn't matter.  However, once his hands were full, he looked around.
            The wood clattered to his feet as his heart leapt into his throat.  He squinted, hoping that he could look through the opaque curtain of night and locate the other man.  Although his vision had gotten better, the night overpowered his eyes.
            "Father!" he called.
            The only answer he got was the hooting of an owl.  Things seemed very still.  George stood like the night itself was holding him in place.
            Calm down, he thought.  He's out there.  Just listen for him.
            His stillness now had less to do with fear and more to do with trying to pinpoint his father.  The owl hooted once more, but there was nothing that sounded familiar.  Surely the man would be looking for him, calling out for him as he'd called for his father.
            Seconds wore into minutes.  George became more accustomed to the sounds of the night, but none of them were his father.  He now faced a dilemma - risk facing creatures of the night by staying here, or try to find his way home.
            He broke from his spot and waded through the dry grass.  His footstep were unsure since he was without a guide.  He'd been on this hilltop plenty of times, but those times were always in daylight, so he found it disconcerting to be unable to see much.
            The moon hung in a sliver on the horizon, providing little help.  As George ventured along the edge of the hill, the dark outline of some unknown thing rose in front of him.  George saw spindly arms reaching for him.  Those arms drew back a little before lunging once more.
            However, George soon realized that the figure was little more than a tree devoid of leaves.  The tree swayed in the wind, and he soon laughed about his foolishness.  He ventured on.
            "Father!" he called out again.  Again he was met by silence.
            What is his father had fallen?  Worse yet, what if his father had been taken by the puma or some other creature of the night?  Who would gather the wood and hunt for his family?  George had accompanied the man and knew what to do, but he'd never had to forage alone.  Would he be able to provide for his mother if his father failed to return?
            He searched for another half an hour before starting the journey home.  He'd called for his father several more times and gotten the same silence each time.  Either his father had decided to return home, or he'd fallen prey to something in the night and George would find his remains in the morning...if ever.
            The top of the hill had been barren, except for the occasional tree and sea of dry grass, but the woods he now reentered were a tangled mass of branches and blackness.  A limb he couldn't see hit him in the face and George fell onto the wet ground.
            There was a click-click-clicking noise nearby.  George froze again and waited until it faded.  The night flittered through the trees, giving George very little to navigate by.  Even though he knew the way by heart, his footing was unsteady at night.  Each step felt like a long day's march, and the muddy ground pressed into his feet as much as the night pressed into his eyes.
            George grabbed branches and the occasional tree trunk for balance.  He thought he remembered the way, but he couldn't tell if the misshapen rock he just touched was the one by his favorite reading spot or the one that led to the river.  He pressed on.
            Eventually, the ground became more steep and George stumbled further.  He knew he'd passed the trail leading home and would have to go back up the hill when his feet found water.
            The water came to his knees, and he knew he was in the stream they used for fishing.  It was cold and rushed past him, but he found comfort in knowing where he was.  As he was about to climb the bank and go back up the hill, something silver caught his eye.  Whatever it was darted downstream and out of sight.
            However, another silver flash came towards him, so George stayed still and peered into the water.  It soon became evident it was a fish he'd never seen before.
            The fish glinted in a way it shouldn't have been able to without light.  It was twice as big as anything George had seen in the daytime, and he wondered how long his family could feast on such a creature.
            Absurd, he thought.  Why would anyone want to fish at night?
            To catch fish that big, he thought as he took another look.  He didn't have the tools to grab the fish now, but he made a mental note to come back later.  Wait until his father heard about this!
            Still unsteady, he grabbed a tree branch that hung over the stream and pulled himself out of the water.  As he regained his balance, he felt something odd in his hand.  Whatever was on the branch he'd grabbed was round and hard.
            He stripped the branch of several of these round objects.  Rolling them around in his palm, he finally brought them up to his nose and sniffed.  Berries!
            He loved berries.  They were a treat he enjoyed after a meal of fish or chicken, but his father or mother had always gathered them until now.  George was sure that lots more trees carried them, but he'd never thought to look above his head before.  He'd have to remember this - now he would be able to enjoy berries whenever he wanted.
            Munching on a handful of berries, he strength returned.  Yes, the wet leaves and mud still pressed into his skin, but he felt more able to shake them off.
            There was a low rumble to his front.  He froze again.  The throaty growl warned him it was an ocelot or some other small predator.  Such creatures could be aggressive, and their teeth would rip through his skin with the ease of a carving stone.
            Night continued to hide the animal, but George strained and felt it was somewhere just up the hill.  If he was where he thought, there should be a small cache of rocks up ahead, and they might provide enough cover to hide him.
            He didn't want to move too fast, for he knew quick footsteps would give him away.  It was fortunate there was a cross breeze blowing down the hill down, so the animal shouldn't have been able to catch his scent.  Finally reaching the small field of rocks, George knelt behind one of the larger stones.  If the creature found him, he'd have to pick up one of the rocks and fight it off.
            However, it never found him.  George heard it growl again before heading back up the hill, apparently on the trail of some other thing that wasn't as careful.  He said a silent prayer and headed back into the woods.
            The rest of the way was slippery, and George twisted his ankle more than once, but he finally saw the soft glow of his family's cave.  He moved towards it, brushing tree limbs and leaves aside as he made his way.
            He was dirty and tired, and he knew that only another hour or two remained until the sun broke the horizon.  Still, his mother and father weren't asleep.  His mother sewed a couple of pieces of fur together while his father stared into the fire.
            "I made it back," George panted.
            His father looked up and smiled.  The man stood and looked at his boy.  "I knew you would."
            George trudged into the cave and plopped down by the fire.  "What a night."
            "Yes, but you survived."  His father looked at him.  "Did you bring back any firewood?"
            George looked up at his father, his eyes wide.  "Firewood?  I barely returned with my flesh still on my bones."
            "As might be, but a man must be able to bring things back from the night as well as brave it."
            George's mouth was agape.  Didn't his father realize what he'd been through?
            "I dropped the wood when I couldn't f-find you," he fumbled.  "I thought survival was enough."
            "Enough for now," his father reassured him.  "In time, you'll have to come back with more.  Once you're in a cave of your own, you'll have no choice."
            It slowly dawned on George what had happened.  "You meant for this to happen, didn't you?  Why?"
            "Because each man must face the night."
            "But I could've died!"
            "You didn't," his father noted.  "And there were things you discovered out there."
            George rubbed his neck.  He didn't want to admit he learned anything, but he found his voice betrayed him before he could catch it.  "I saw the biggest fish I ever have."
            "Yes, they spawn at night.  This is the time to bring in the best catches."
            "And the berries - I found berries."
            "A nice treat.  Maybe now you can get your own instead of relying on us."
            "But there was an ocelot!" George protested.  "It nearly found me."
            "If it had found you, what would you have done?"
            "I would've fought it.".
            His father sat down and placed an arm around his son.  "You'd have reacted as I expect any man would have.  Further, it didn't find you - you figured out how to get away and survive to face it again someday.  You learned much on your first foray into the night, much as your brother did.  In the coming days, you'll make another foray, and your confidence will grow with each step.  Maybe next time, you can even remember to bring back firewood."
            George looked at the fire, high and bright.  To the left of the fire was a large pile of branches.
            "Where did all that come from?" he asked.
            "Wouldn't you know it, but it turns out that there was some in the back of the cave.  However, it's getting low, and we'll need more tomorrow."
            "Maybe you can get the wood and I can try to get a fish."
            His father smiled.  "One step at a time, George.  One day you'll own the night.  For the moment, take comfort in simply having survived it."
            George fell back on the fur laid down by his mother.  As firelight reflected off the ceiling, he reflected on his adventure.  His father had been right - the night was a challenge, but one he'd faced well.  Next time, he'd do even better.  The prospect both thrilled and frightened him.  And although he didn't think the fear would ever completely retreat, it would lessen in time, and he would master it.

            He had no choice.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Creating Mood Through Writing

We all know that creating a feel for each story in the reader is key to evoking emotion in them.  Readers have to be as caught up in the tale as the main character, and that's hard to do in prose.  On screen, directors can create emotional involvement through lighting, music, character body language, and a whole host of other things that all but shout, "THIS IS WHERE YOU SHOULD FEEL SCARED/LOVEY DOVEY/ANGRY!"

As writers, however, we don't have that luxury, and doing so with words alone is very hard.  I've adopted several things throughout my works that are designed to elicit a certain response from the audience in order to draw them into the story.  Please don't overdo any of these techniques, but when used sparingly, they can have quite an impact.

1.  Italics.
Basic.  Easy.  Writers have been using italics for ages to make sure the reader knows that something is different about a portion of the story.  Maybe one of the characters is thinking about something and the italics lets you know that it's private.  Perhaps there's a dream sequence, yet another private set of thoughts, that is meant to draw you deeper into the character's psyche.  Whatever it is, the different style says, "This is special."

2.  Varying fonts.
This can get annoying very quickly.  However, if done right, it can add a great deal of dimension to a work.  I used differing fonts in both Salvation Day and Akeldama in order to paint a picture, and the font usually came from a character voicing something.  I can say something about another person just by altering their font, such as using a more guttural font to let you hear the bite in a demon's voice or a loud and boisterous font, such as Gaudy Stout, to let you know the person voicing it is making a definitive statement.  Like I said, don't do this much or it loses effect fast, but in the right spots, it can really draw people in.

3.  The one liner.
One of the oldest tricks in the books.  I don't know of a single writer who hasn't used this.  It comes out when you're writing a paragraph of a few lines.  You draw the reader into rote stuff that places that person into a mild sense of complacency about what's happening.

And then you throw up a dramatic stop.

Too much of this is emotionally exhausting, but it has to be done in certain places to push the reader into feeling what you want him or her to feel.  It screams that something big has happened, and what follows after is important, so the reader needs to pay close attention.  It's like a cliffhanger in the middle of a chapter, only the reader doesn't have to wait to find out what's happening, a payoff most enjoy if  done every once in a while.

4.  Irregular paragraph punctuation.
Stephen Kind is a master at this, as demonstrated in The Shining.  He'll stop a paragraph, sans punctuation, and move into another set of thoughts

(just to make you know that a new part of the story has taken over.  This can be quite jarring, as if the writer is sharing some deep inner secret that only you and he are privy to.  This can be used to show the difference between the persona a character presents to the world and the one that rages just under the surface, or it can show the struggles a character has that sets up suspense for how that character will react.  And King will do so)

without you even breaking stride.  In my opinion, this really set up a creepy vibe in The Shining, and it set me on the edge of my seat, especially when I was reading it at night.

5.  Single sentence paragraphs that trickle down an entire page.
Sometimes a writer needs the reader to understand something.

That something is that time is never constant.

When we get into a rhythm, we barely notice its passage.

But when the writer wants the reader to get a feeling of slowing down, this can be useful.

And it makes time go on and on and on...

I used this in Akeldama.  There's a scene where the main character is tied up in an enemy stronghold and stewing in his own thoughts over a traumatic event.  The passage of time as it crept along was vital to letting the audience know just how slowly it was going.  This technique is designed to create the feel we've all had that time has nearly stopped.

6.  All caps.

Again, use this for effect only.  We've all had people in our lives - bosses, coworkers, parents - that yelled a lot, and when that person continually did so, it lost effect.  A few bosses of mine were such screamers that I never knew when to take them super-seriously and when to just write them off as "that's the way they are."  Yelling like this makes an impression when done rarely, for people sit up and take notice.  Most know that the person wouldn't be yelling if it wasn't important.

These are but a few techniques to create mood, and they're by far not an exhaustive list.  Please please please remember that these are intended to add to the story and must be used sparingly, for if they become omnipresent, they lose effect and just annoy people.  And annoyed people rarely stick around to buy more of your books...or even finish the one they're reading right now.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Changing Horses in Midstream

For the five folks who read this blog, you know I've been writing a new novel called Onyx.  Well, I'd like to say I've been writing it, but I haven't touched it in several weeks.  A few things have gotten in the way, such as work and needing to spend time with family.  However, there's one other minor thing that has gotten in the way...

...a different book that's begging to be written.

When I wrote Homecoming, I had to develop a backstory, and that backstory centers around a man named David Morton.  Morton is the key to how the human race found hope and, eventually, a new world on which to thrive after being brought to the edge of extinction.  Ever since I completed Homecoming's first draft, Morton's story has been in my thoughts.  I find myself going to bed thinking about his actions in one part of the story or another.  Such obsession has only one answer to make it go away - I have to write the story.

This is not to say that I don't have strong feelings about Onyx.  What it says is that Morton's story is so much more prominent right now that it's getting in the way of my enthusiasm and creativity in writing Onyx.  As you know, enthusiasm is the key to any good book, so I've decided to shelve Onyx in favor of this new book that will not wait.
(May we be as enthusiastic as these guys)
It'll be interesting to see just how quickly this new book comes out.  I don't even have a title yet, only a rough outline of what will happen.  The ideas for what Morton does - his struggles, setbacks, and triumphs - have been running through my head for a long time, and I feel that if I don't get them out, my brain is going to explode.  I can't have that, so I guess I have to write about it(the only way of my brain exploding that I'll accept).  The character matures greatly throughout the story, which takes place over the course of 72 years, driving forward with both boundless optimism and quiet despair.  He's flawed, naive, arrogant at times, and deeply insecure at others.  He feels the weight of the world on his shoulders, and even though there are times he wants to do nothing more than crawl into a hole and disappear, he also feels a sense of obligation that if he doesn't act as best as he knows how, then he won't be able to look himself in the mirror.

In other words, he's human.

I'll get back to Onyx in the fall, but Morton awaits.  Hopefully my enthusiasm for this book, enthusiasm I've learned never to ignore when it hits you about a specific work, will allow me to finish this before too much longer.  Although I've written before about plowing through something so you have a good base of material to produce, writing, in the end, has to be fun or you'll never stick with it.  So that's what I'm going to do here - have fun.  If nothing else, it's going to be a wild ride.

Thursday, March 20, 2014


For my novel Salvation Day, I had to come up with a decent amount of background that I knew wouldn't make it into the novel.  In time, I turned part of that into a short story.  This bit is about one of the main characters and her descent into Hell.  I hope you like it.

            Karen pressed the razor blade into the skin and pulled it across her wrist.  The ice had done a good job of numbing things up - although she was vaguely aware of the blood flowing into the sink, there was no pain associated with it.
            She felt lightheaded and staggered backwards against the bathroom wall.  Her vision went hazy, and although there were red splatters dripping onto the floor, she didn't care.  That would be someone else's mess to clean.
            Sliding down the wall, Karen felt peaceful.  The pain of recent months would soon end.  Her daughter gone and her husband distant, she knew life to be not a blessing to be enjoyed, but a curse to be endured.  As her energy fled, she fell to the ground and closed her eyes.
            All at once, Karen felt more aware than she ever had.  She may have fallen, but the floor didn't break that fall.  She looked up and saw her body rapidly receding above her, a black cloud of thick smoke enveloping it.  Struggling against this image, her spirit fell through the emptiness.
            The blackness soon faded into a bright orange haze.  Wisps of yellow and grey smoke rose from some unseen well below, and the wind that rushed past was like a hair dryer in the face.  Karen's mind jumped from panicked thought to panicked thought, but she couldn't figure out what was happening.
            Smoke racing past her parted to reveal a vast cavern.  Jagged black rocks rose from the surface, along with a mottled pile of something she couldn't make out.  That was when she realized she wasn't alone.
            There were others falling beside her, people of both genders and all races.  The steady shower of bodies poured from the sky, those caught in the maelstrom struggling against the same unseen force that wrapped itself around Karen.  Some toppled end over end while others fell like a stone through a pond.
            She tried to scream, but no sound escaped her lips.  The only sound was an awful ringing of bells washing over her.  The vibration pulsed through her, shaking her from her feet to her heart and back again.  As the gong penetrated, it drew in a vast feeling of despair and loneliness that extinguished every happy thought she'd ever had.  Although she tried to recall something that might give her comfort - Samantha's first smile or the day Mike proposed - nothing would register.  Instead, all she felt was a sinking sensation that went beyond her fall.
            Her arms and legs refused to respond to her.  She could do little but flail, jerking her shoulders and torso to get some kind of motion.  The ground rushed towards her, and through the rain of bodies, she saw a puddle of bodies below.  Karen wanted to brace herself for the impact, but unable to move, she could do little but watch it approach.
            Faster it came, the writhing mass of bodies giving life to the cavern floor.  Would they grab her?  Would she sink through them?  Again she tried to scream, and again with equally futile results.
            She hit the pile and bounced, rolling like a log off of the naked bodies.  Her back shrieked in agony, but that was nothing next to the revulsion she felt sliding off of the others who lay there.  There was a thin film of green slime everywhere, and traction would've been impossible even if she could've moved.  Once she finally slid to a stop, she found herself face down and staring into someone's armpit.
            Twisting and turning with every ounce of energy she had, Karen finally managed to turn around, although she wondered who was now staring at her backside.  That quickly became the least of her worries.
            The rain of bodies continued, each one striking the pile with the sound of wood hitting concrete.  There was no sky, only a bright orange light occasionally penetrated by sharp black stalactites.  Bursts of yellow lightning split the air and the rushing wind brought an intermittent scream.
            And the bells!  The bells, the bells, the merciless bells.  They shook the air and poured over her like a wave, each gong taking hope and replacing it with misery.
            Where am I? she thought.  Am I dreaming?  Yes, that's got to be it.
            Her rationalizing stopped when she managed to turn her head and saw...something.  It was bearing down on her and was 50 feet tall, with sagging brown and purple skin, curling brown horns, and an enormous pair of yellow fangs that shot from a protruding jaw.  It wore a pair of green overalls and carried what looked like a snow shovel.
            "To and fro, feel the flow, everyone sent where meant to go," it sang.
            As Karen tried to make sense of the creature's ramblings, it tore into the pile with its shovel, flinging a stack of bodies over its shoulder.  She couldn't make out where the people on the shovel disappeared to, but she doubted it was anywhere pleasant.
            She desperately wanted to stand up and run, even if that meant stepping on those beneath her, but her body refused to obey.  At that point, the creature pushed its shovel into her pile and scooped up another mass of bodies, including her.
            Most made it onto the tool with no problem, but Karen saw several body parts fall from the end of the shovel.  Whatever picked her up chuckled.
            "Separate or together, each one finds his place."
            Quickly, Karen was airborne as the creature tossed her over its shoulder.  She managed to twist just enough to see and giant black funnel.  She spun around, others pressed against her as she shot through the dark tunnel.  Karen squeezed her eyes shut until there was...
            Silence.  No sound.  No bells.  Just a ringing silence.
            Karen stood, realizing she now had full control of her limbs.  She was no longer naked, but rather wearing an old pair of jeans and a pink t-shirt she'd always loved.  The despair the bells let in was still present, but she felt she had more control.
            The world gradually came into focus.  The room, which moments before was dark, now brightened to show a formal parlor.  There were rigid chairs and tables with glossy finish.  The walls were an off-white and the windows were adorned with gold curtains.  All in all, it reminded Karen of her grandmother's house.
            Several people began to appear as well.  Hums of conversation were solemn.  Some held drinks, and all of them wore clothes one might put on if going to church.
            "Excuse me," she said to one of them.  "What's going  on here?"
            The figure ignored her and sipped his drink.  As the haziness faded further, she recognized the man.
            "Uncle Herbie!" she exclaimed.  "What's happening?"
            However, Uncle Herbie continued to ignore her.  Karen waved a hand in front of his face with similar lack of results, so she shook her head and kept walking.  That was when she noticed something against the far wall.
            A coffin.
            Karen didn't want to go up and look, but she felt compelled to, even though she already knew who was in it.  The sleek brown box had brass handles along the side, and the lid was open.  A few people peered inside, made a face that Karen could only associate with disgust, and walked away.  She shuffled towards the coffin.
            Sure enough, her body was in there, but not as she remembered.  The corpse's face was bloated and covered with worms.  Her hair was limp and colorless, and an open sore split her left cheek.  She could tell she was naked but had no desire to see what the rest of her body looked like.
            “Oh dear God, someone please wake me up,” she cried.
            Her next door neighbor Terry and an old work acquaintance of her husband's named Pat walked by.  Both held drinks, and Terry spoke.
            "What a dumb bitch."
            Pat sipped his drink – scotch by the smell of it – and nodded.  “Yeah.  I thought she’d do something stupid.”  He grabbed the Karen-corpse by the hair.  The head wobbled.  “I mean, could anyone have ever kissed this thing?"
            “I dunno,” replied Terry.  “Hey, Mike!”
            Karen turned and saw her husband walking over.  Mike wore a blue suit and sharp red tie.  He also had his arm around a dizzying blond in a black miniskirt.
            “Yeah?” Mike replied.
            “You ever kiss this nasty looking whore?” asked Terry.
            Her husband made a sour face.  Little as I had to.  I got her when I was lonely and she was an easy piece of ass.  After that, I couldn’t leave like I wanted or she’d have taken me to the cleaners.  But now that she’s gone, I can be me again.”  He pinched the blond on the ass and she giggled.
            “But still,” said Pat in a disgusted voice, “how could you have kissed this?  Look at it.”
            Mike looked at Karen’s corpse and shook his head.  “I know.  She used to be good looking, but that was years ago.  Then she got pregnant and let it all go to shit.  Too bad, ‘cause that was the only thing she ever had going for her.  Kinda stupid, and a personality that would make your skin crawl.  I used to stay at work so much so I wouldn’t have to talk to her.”
            “Mike, don’t say that,” sobbed Karen.
            “I know what you mean,” said Terry.  “She couldn’t even keep her own kid alive.  What kind of a mom can’t keep her kid from dying?”
            “Yeah, that’s the other thing,” said Mike.  “It was her fault that Samantha died.  If she’d taken better care of her, my daughter would be alive.  Probably a good thing, though.  I would’ve never forgiven myself if she’d gotten Karen’s looks or attitude.  One of her was enough.”
            Tears streamed down Karen’s face.  She stormed over to Mike and tried slapping him, but her hands went through his cheek.  He didn't even react. 
            “LOOK AT ME!” she screamed.  Her arms flailed at Mike in an attempt to do something, anything, but nothing happened.
            Donna, Terry's wife, came over to the casket.  “What did she think she was doing?”
            “Who cares?” Mike said.  “Probably thought we’d get all weepy over her, but she didn’t know us that well.  I already had – it’s Candy, right? – on the side before Karen did this, but at least now I don’t have to sneak around.”  He snickered.  “Good thing she never knew about us going at it on the couch while she was at the hospital with Samantha.”
            Karen broke down again, face in her hands.
            “You mind if we see what she did?” asked Pat.
            “Nah,” said Duplicate Mike.  “I’m only here to make sure she’s good and gone.  Wasn’t for etiquette, I'd leave.”  He turned back to Candy and brushed his hand over her right breast.
            Pat and Terry flipped the coffin over.  The corpse rolled out, bloated.  Her skin was ashen gray, and she looked like she hadn’t bathed in a year.  On each wrist was a large gash with encrusted blood. 
            Terry grabbed one of the hands, shaking it vigorously.  “Nope, no more blood to come out of this useless cunt.”  He started laughing, as if sharing an inside joke.  “How are you Karen?  Still dead, I see.”
            It was Donna’s turn.  She opened the corpse’s mouth and looked inside.  “Hello?  Anybody in there?  I heard you were gone, but you always looked a little vacant, so it's hard to tell.”  She looked at Mike.  “Kind of a dead lay, wasn’t she?”
            Mike shrugged.  “Yeah, just something to pass time.  Probably would’ve been better off with a knothole in the fence.”
            Karen fell to the floor and started sobbing uncontrollably.  Everyone she knew was acting like her death was little more than an inconvenience.
            She looked up to see the blond squeeze Mike's arm.  With that, her husband said, “I’ve got better things to do here than pretend to cry over this worthless bitch.  Come on baby – let’s go find some quiet time in Karen’s hearse.”
            Mike winked at his friends, slipped his arm around his date’s waist, and walked off.  Karen could do little but weep.  The others who were left began to defile the corpse.  She turned and tried to walk from the room but was met by a man in a dark suit with a red carnation on the lapel.
            “Mrs. Faulkner, the viewing is not yet complete.  You really must stay.”
            “Why?” she cried, oblivious to the fact that this was the first person that acknowledged her.  “They don’t love me.  They all h-hated me.”
            “That may be true,” said the man.  “But it would be impolite to leave early.”  He put his hand on the small of her back and tried to lead her back into the room.
            She turned back just in time to see Terry rubbing the corpse’s face in his crotch.
            That was all it took.  She broke from the man’s hand and ran down the hallway towards the entrance.  Bursting through the doors, she screamed the whole time.
            She hadn't been sure what to expect when she came through the other side, but a nursery wasn't it.  All around were mothers holding children, cuddling and caressing them.  The cribs were in neat rows, each with a mobile hanging above.  The children were wrapped in soft white blankets.  Music from a lullaby crooned from somewhere unseen.
            Karen was the only woman without a baby in her arms.  She began to look around, queasiness rising in her gut.
            “Samantha?” she called.  “Samantha?”
            She walked, then ran, up and down the aisles of cribs, occasionally stopping to look inside one.  At the end of a row, she’d skid and turn the corner before running down the next aisle.
            “Samantha!  Where are you?”
            Karen accidentally brushed against one of the mothers holding a child.  The woman had straight blond hair and wore a white sweater.  The amount of white was beginning to overwhelm her.
            “Watch where you’re going!” yelled the woman, shattering the room's serenity.
            “I’m sorry,” said Karen.  “I’m looking for my daughter.”
            She’s not here,” sneered the woman.  “Who’d even sleep with you so you could have a child?  What’d you do, ride some poor drunk after he passed out?”
            Karen backed away, eyes widening.  The other mothers began to shoot her dirty looks, as if her mere presence was offensive.
            “Samantha!  It’s mom!  Where are you?”
            A woman with curly black hair and a very white shirt leaned over the crib next to Karen, a softly cooing baby in her arms.  “You’re not supposed to be in here if you don’t have a child.  You should leave.”
            Karen stared at her for a second and then continued yelling.
            “Samantha!  Samantha!”
            Finally, she heard gentle cry from not far away.  Karen rushed over, but she didn’t find what she was expecting.
            Karen picked up a limp and clearly dead baby.  It looked like Samantha did the day she died – limp, mouth and eyes holding a stiff position, and yellow.  The color of her jaundice stood in sharp contrast to the room's white.
            “Samantha, wake up.  Oh Jesus, please honey, wake up!” cried Karen, taking the kid into her chest.  She pulled her away and tried to shake her without being violent.  “SAMANTHA!”
            The curly haired woman walked over, still holding her baby.  “You shouldn’t be in here unless you have a baby.”
            “This is my baby,” she sobbed.
            No, that kid is dead.  You shouldn’t be in here.”
            “Samantha!” Karen sobbed.  Suddenly, Samantha was gone and Karen was hugging a gravestone that read, “Samantha Faulkner.”  She screamed again and threw the gravestone down, shattering it as it struck the ground.  An orderly in an immaculate white uniform walked over.
            “You’re disturbing the other mothers,” he said.  “If you don’t have a baby, you need to leave.”
            “But my daughter was right here,” she said, pointing to the crib.
            “There’s your kid,” said the orderly, also pointing at the crib.  The thing Karen had picked up earlier was back, looking as lifeless as ever.  “Doesn’t look so good, though.  What did you do?”
            Karen could barely speak between the sobs.  “I d-didn’t d-do any, anything.  I l-loved her.”
            “Not enough, I guess,” said the orderly, who began to walk back down the aisles.
            Karen reached back down into the crib and took Samantha, but when she came back up, it wasn’t Samantha she had, but a large piece of liver.
            She shrieked, the liver oozing through her hands.  Before she could drop it, the organ dissolved into a yellow paste that ran down Karen’s arms.  She tried to wipe off her hands on the sheets of the now empty crib, but she was unable to reach them, so she wiped them on her jeans.  The yellow spread across her legs as well as her arms. 
            “What’s happening to me?” she cried.
            “Nothing is happening to you,” said a small, childlike voice.  “Because that’s exactly what you did for me – nothing.”
            Karen looked down to find a baby Samantha upright and walking towards her.  Samantha was still very yellow, only accented further by the yellow nightie she wore.  However, this wasn’t the sweet little girl she remembered – this one had a glare in her eyes, accusing her mother of some unknown crime.
            When Karen didn’t speak, Samantha did.  “You let this happen to me.  I came from you and you couldn’t protect me.  What kind of a terrible person can’t take care of their child?”
            “B-but I did every-everything I could for you.  I took care of you when you w-were sick and stayed with you until the end.  I love you and miss you s-s-so much.”  The lack of reality didn’t even register, and the only thing that mattered was getting Samantha’s forgiveness.
            The baby made a contorted expression that Karen would have never believed came from a child so small.  “No.  If you really loved me, you would have fixed me.  That’s what mommy’s do.  I died wondering why God would give me a useless thing like you for a mother.”
            Karen tried to reach for Samantha, but the child backed away and shrieked, “GET THE FUCK AWAY FROM ME, BITCH!”
            As Karen froze, a very large woman in a white tank top and white slacks walked towards them.  She quickly realized that it was Anne, Mike's mother.  The woman bent down and picked up Samantha, who seemed to happily accept the affection.
            “There, there, I can take care of you.  Better than she can, at any rate,” she said, jerking her head towards Karen.
            “I wish you were my mommy,” said Samantha.
            “I know,” Anne said.  “I did a good job for my son, but I couldn’t convince him not to marry her.  Maybe you’d be alive if he'd picked better.  That’s okay – he’s moving on and finding others who will be better for his future children.”  She turned around, refusing to further acknowledge Karen, and walked away.
            “Don’t you ever come here again,” Samantha called as she faded down the aisle of cribs.  “We don’t want you here.”  A lot of the mothers still holding their own children nodded.
            The orderly in white walked over to Karen and put his hand on her arm.  “You need to leave.  You don’t have a child, so you can’t be here.”
            “B-but that’s my daughter,” she said, pointing in Samantha’s direction.  Samantha, for her part, didn’t appear to even know who Karen was, being intent on cuddling with Mike’s mom.
            “No it’s not,” said the orderly.  “That child is alive.  Yours is dead.  It’s time for you to go.”
            Karen put her hand over her mouth and walked towards the door to the nursery.  The double doors were gray, standing out against the white like a stain.  As she walked, the other mothers shouted at her.
            “Don’t come back!”
            “Only good mom’s come in here.”
            “Try to take care of a dog next time.  Good practice…until you kill it too.”
            She burst through the doors, crying as she did so.  The tears in her eyes made the bright light she encountered even more brilliant.  Placing a hand up to shield her face, she put her other hand against the wall.  It was cold and wet.  She slipped in something and slid to the floor, her strength fading.
            "Karen!"  Mike screamed.  "Karen!"
            She struggled to make sense of what was going on.  Warm blood flowed from her wrists and spilled onto the floor, forming a puddle at her feet.  She tried to wipe the tears from her eyes but succeeded only in smearing her face with blood.
            "Hang on, honey," Mike said.  "The ambulance is on the way.  Dear God, Karen, why did you do this?"
            She slipped in and out of consciousness.  The paramedics wrapped her wrists and loaded her into the ambulance.  She heard them as if through a door tell her that they'd stopped the bleeding but she needed an infusion soon or she'd die.  It was all very confusing - hadn't she already died?
            When she came to, Karen was lying in a hospital bed, bandages wrapped tight around her wrists, and an IV allowed fresh blood to flow into her body.  She looked around and saw Mike sitting in a chair beside her bed.  He looked exhausted but smiled when she opened her eyes.
            "Nice to have you back," he said.
            "What happened?"
            "You cut your wrists," Mike replied.  "I thought we lost you.  After what happened with Samantha, I don't think I could've taken losing you too."
            "That's not what I mean."  She slumped back against her pillow.  "I died.  I know I did."
            "No.  I came home just as you were bleeding all over the place.  I did what I could to stop it and called 911.  Then I just tried to keep you awake so you wouldn't slip away."
            "No, no, no," she breathed.  Exhaustion threatened to overpower her.  "I died.  I'm sure of it.  And..."
            After a second, Mike prompted, "And what?"
            She bit her lip.  "I went to Hell."
            "Honey, you had a nightmare, that's all.  I thought you were gone, but I'm glad we could save you.  Why would you do that to yourself?"
            All of her pain came rushing back.  Through choking sobs, she said, "I couldn't take the p-pain.  My little g-g-girl is gone, and I couldn't do it anymore."
            Mike took her hand.  "You have me.  I don't want you to ever check out on me."
            "But you weren't around like I needed.  You let me sit in that house all alone.  There was no other way for the pain to go away."
            "Please, let me be here for you.  I'm sorry you were in so much pain, and I wish I could go back and take it away, but all I can do is try to help you, us, move forward.  It'll be hard, but we'll do it together."
            She looked into the eyes of the man she loved and squeezed his hand.  "Thank you.  I'm so sorry.  Please don't ever leave me again."
            "I won't" Mike choked out.  After taking a deep breath, he said, "Let's get past this.  There are other things we need to deal with now."
            "Like what?" Karen asked.
            "Well, there's this."  He reached into a bag at his feet and pulled something out.  Karen couldn't see what it was until he laid it on top of her stomach.
            Samantha, jaundiced and dead.
            Her hair stood on end and instantly turned white.  When she looked back at Mike, his eyes were red and he smiled at her through razor sharp teeth.
            "You made the choice," he growled.  "Your actions broke with the natural order and opened you up to us.  Now we'll have a long time to work things out."
           Karen wondered if she'd ever stop screaming.