Excerpt: ‘Other Lives of the Boothbys’

Yesterday, I promised (warned?) that an excerpt would arrived today, from my novella Other Lives of the Boothbys.

And now here’s the section where Bradley Boothby calls the writer George Foulkes to chat about a character in one of George’s stories…


Excerpt

Dialing the phone number on the screen, Bradley hoped George Foulkes wouldn’t ignore the call. If George had caller ID (and didn’t most people?), he wouldn’t recognize this number and might assume it was a telemarketer. George could let the call go to voicemail.

“Hello?”

“Hi. Is this George Foulkes?”

“That’s me. Who’s this?”

Bradley didn’t have a flair for the dramatic. If he did, he could’ve deepened his voice, wishing to sound like a theatrical voice from beyond. Bradley said his own name in his normal voice.

Silence that could’ve lasted an hour but was merely a handful of seconds.

“Is this the editor again?” George asked. “No, I guess not. The number’s different. So’s the voice. Who is this, really?”

“I’m really Bradley Boothby. The editor called you because I went to his office this morning. I asked him to look up my name in his company’s books, and he discovered it in yours.”

“But my book isn’t published by his company,” George said. “I’m sending it around.”

“Okay, so that part’s wrong. But the book was at his company. And my name’s in your book.”

“Oh my God.” The writer’s caution dropped its luggage and jumped into excitement. “My own character is calling me. Do you have a quest for me? Or do you want me to chronicle more of your adventures?”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“Is this like in The Dark Tower?”

“Dark what?”

“A book series by Stephen King,” George said. “The characters visit King, and they convince him to continue writing the series. Well, they hypnotize him to keep going. He was afraid of being killed by the Crimson King. And with good reason. It’s a fantastic series. King’s a master of his craft, and I like stories about parallel realities.”

Bradley pinched the bridge of his nose, and the pressure helped to center his thoughts. “I’m wondering if I’m in a parallel reality.”

“Is it like ours? Or is it a post-apocalyptic wasteland?”

“It’s not a wasteland. Not yet.”

“Too bad,” George said. “It would’ve had more opportunities for characters to act like savages. But you calling me is huge. Never in a million years did I think one of my characters would call me.”

“I’m not your character,” Bradley said.

“Oh yeah? Do you own a storage facility?”

“No, and I didn’t find a time machine.”

“Then how do you know about the time machine?” George asked.

“Jack Schneider told me. We just had drinks, and he told me about your novel, how you got the idea for the name of the characters.”

“I know you’re not the people from the booth. They’re not my characters.”

“And I’m not, either!” Bradley’s volume was louder than he had meant.

Danielle looked worried at her husband, leaning against the kitchen counter, growing more agitated, his arm held across his chest propping up his other arm holding the phone at his ear. The past couple weeks had put a strain on Bradley, and today’s revelations made it worse. They should’ve improved the situation, by providing answers. However, not all answers gave relief, instead causing troubles of their own.

“This is disappointing,” George said. “Especially since you don’t have a time machine. That’d be more incredible than incredible.”

“Believe me, if I owned a time machine, I’d be rich,” Bradley said. “I’d go back in time and buy the stocks that would make me rich. And I’d live in a much bigger place.”

Bradley didn’t have to look around the kitchen to remember its dimensions and middle-of-the-line appliances. He and Danielle fantasized about owning a rowhouse, rather than renting this apartment. They were saving money for that dream.

“Okay, okay,” George said, enthusiasm drained from his voice. “So you’re not my character. It would be cool if you were, though.”

“Gosh, thanks for acknowledging me as a real person.”

“I deserve the sarcasm,” the writer said. “Why’d you ask the editor to look up your name?”

As Bradley gave the background of the persistent déjà vu outside of Randolph-Turley, it was easier to talk about. Growing accustomed to it with practice. George asked if the feeling was one that Bradley often had, and Bradley said he rarely felt it before the recent happening with the publishing company. Before, the feeling was minor, going to a place and having the sense he had been there but was unable remember the specific memory.

Bradley pictured George sitting cross-legged on a rug, peering through eyeglasses, a notepad resting on his lap, pen jotting down nuggets of information. The writer turned into therapist. Wanting to delve into the inner workings of this situation, discover what made it tick.

“We find ourselves in a fascinating place, don’t we?” George asked. “Here’s how I see it. You could hang up, and this whole thing is over. You found your answer about my character. You can chalk it up to random shit in a random world.”

“Sounds about right,” Bradley said.

“But this doesn’t have to end here. We can keep going.”

“Meaning?”

“Meaning the universe aligned to put us together,” George said. “I don’t know why, but it did. We should get together in person.”

“You want to come to New York and meet up?”

“Or you could come here. I’ve got it.” Excitement returned to the writer’s voice. “How about we meet the people in the booth? My wife and I are regulars at the diner. We’ve seen those people there before. Wouldn’t that blow your mind? Boothby could meet the Boothbys.”

Bradley pondered such a meeting. “I think it would blow your mind more than it would blow mine. They’re just regular people to me.”

“You’re sort of connected to them. Think it over. It would be a shame to end things with this phone call.”

Bradley said he would consider the idea, then he hung up and told Danielle about George’s invitation. She didn’t share the writer’s thrill about meeting strangers who happened to be eating in the booth behind George Foulkes and his wife on a particular night. Kansas City, Missouri wasn’t a subway ride from Brooklyn.

***

Minotaur at the Door

Minotaur at the Door cover

Today’s excerpt comes from The Minotaur at the Door, a novella about what could be a minotaur knocking on the door of the house where Pablo, Miles, and Harry are renting.

Pablo’s journey alternates chapters with the events of Daedalus and his son Icarus, centuries before Pablo. These chapters breathe life and detail into the myth of Asterion, the first minotaur, and Daedalus and Icarus’s imprisonment in the labyrinth. How father and son deal with being stuck in the maze and how they craft a plan to escape.

So here’s part of the first chapter. The book is available at Amazon as an ebook and paperback.

*****

The house’s three occupants were busy watching television shows in separate bedrooms, and none of the men was excited to answer the knocking at the front door.

Harry pressed the pause button on the remote control, since his show was in the slow scene of a tea ceremony. Sometimes the friends of one occupant came over to hang out, but Harry wasn’t expecting anyone tonight. He opened his bedroom door, called out down the hallway, “You guys expecting friends?”

“No,” Miles said from behind his closed door, amid the dramatic music from his TV.

“No,” Pablo said from behind his closed door, amid the sounds of dialogue from his TV. “Can you see who it is?”

“Fine,” Harry groaned. “But it’s someone else’s turn next time.”

Going downstairs, Harry thought about how the yakuza thumped on the doors of people who owed them money or favors. Harry was quite taken with the action-packed television show, now in its third season. Most of the people visited by the yakuza paid the owed money, or they stutteringly promised to return a favor required by the Japanese crime syndicate guys.

When a debtor tried to escape, the plan didn’t end well for them. A chase ensued through night-time Tokyo (it was always night-time in the chase scenes), then the yakuza used harsh methods to persuade the debtors to pay up. Only one character had been able to elude the yakuza: Kaito Takagi, who could disappear, ghost-like, into the crowded city. Harry would’ve liked to have that ability.

Perhaps because of the show’s suspense, Harry peeped through the peephole instead of opening the door. What he saw standing on the front step shocked him and made him glad for checking. The thing standing on the front step couldn’t be there. A second look into the peephole confirmed the truth.

Harry bounded back up the stairs and shouted, “There’s a minotaur at the door!”

Dramatic music and dialogue stopped as pause buttons were pushed. Two bedroom doors swung open, and the roommates stepped into the hall that lacked decoration on the walls—merely a corridor to more important places.

“Is this some kind of joke?” Pablo said.

“If it’s a joke, it’s a weird one,” Miles said.

“It’s not a joke. It’s serious.” Harry’s eyes and voice communicated sincerity.

“But the minotaur wasn’t real,” Pablo said. “It’s just a myth.”

“Myth or not, there’s a minotaur out there,” Harry said.

As a fresh round of knocking came from the front door, the three men remained in the hallway.

“Is it Halloween?” Miles asked.

“That’s not till next month,” Pablo said.

“Oh, right,” Miles said. “The days tend to run together for me. Maybe this is somebody’s idea of a prank. I need to see for myself.”

He led the trio down the steps, to the foyer, and he leaned forward to peer through the peephole. The other two stood a few steps to the side, in the living room, and watched.

Astonishment was on Miles’s face as he went to join his comrades. “Holy crap, you weren’t kidding about that thing!”

“But is it really real?” Pablo said. “Or is it just a costume, and you were right about somebody pranking us?”

“Looked kinda real to me,” Miles replied.

“I’ll see about this.”

Pablo became the third to check through the door’s tiny, circular window—and he was the third to be baffled by the sight. Even while the creature wore a hoodie, it had a bull’s face. The image defied the reality of this suburb of Columbus. A creature couldn’t have the head of a bull and the body of a person. Pablo retreated to the group.

“What’re we gonna do?” asked Harry.

“How should I know?” Miles asked back. “I’ve never met a minotaur before.”

“Let’s pretend we’re not here,” said Harry. “It’ll think nobody’s home and it’ll go away.”

“But the lights are on.” Pablo pointed to the lamp next to the couch.

“And the TVs are on.” Miles looked at the ceiling, as if his eyes had X-ray power to see into the bedrooms and the television sets, each with a stilled image. He said, “The beast could’ve seen the flickering lights of our TVs through the upstairs windows when it was walking toward our house.”

“Yeah, it could’ve,” Harry said. “You guys think it can hear us talking?” He didn’t bother to lower his voice.

Presumably in answer, a grunt came from the other side of the door. Followed by louder, insistent knocking. The house seemed to shake, although that might’ve been in the three occupants’ imagination. They gaped at each other, a triangle of worry.

“Let’s go to the kitchen!” Miles stage-whispered.

Their rushed voices turned into rushed legs; they skittered through the living room and dining room, into the kitchen. It was the farthest the occupants could’ve stood from the front door without opening the back door and transforming into non-occupants.

“What if the beast is hungry?” Harry said. “What if it’s banging on our door because its belly is rumbling, and once we open the door—if we open the door, that is—it will eat us up? That’ll be all she wrote. No more us. Gone in a frantic crunch of flesh and bone, because we won’t be able to get away.”

Pablo had listened thoughtfully to his roommate and tried to keep as level a head as possible. “I don’t know what minotaurs eat. It would be easier if a centaur was outside. That way, there’d be a man on the top half, so it’d be obvious what they eat. They like to eat what all other men eat.”

“But don’t you think centaurs might have horse-eating tendencies?” Miles asked. “At least some of the time?”

Lifting an instructive forefinger, Pablo said, “Maybe for Sunday brunch, they add a bit of hay.”

“Brunch is such a great idea,” Miles said. “Wonderful how it combines breakfast and lunch. And you could be right about centaurs. Maybe they have some hay, and an apple for dessert.”

Pablo’s finger remained raised. “Or a tasty carrot.”

“Would you two stop?” Harry demanded. “That kind of talk isn’t helping our predicament. Not one bit! A centaur isn’t out there. What do we know about minotaurs?”

“I only know they live in Spain,” Pablo said.

“Those are regular bulls,” Miles said. “In Spain, they fight bulls, and they do that running-with-the-bulls thing. Which is pretty nutty, if you ask me.”

None of the men had a desire to run with the bulls in Pamplona, although the subject had come up when, at various times, they had discussed life bucket lists with other friends, and a handful of those other friends had expressed interest in bull running. Seeing the Grand Canyon and the Great Wall of China were on the three men’s lists, which had a much lower risk of horns piercing their back sides.

“Isn’t the minotaur the god of war?” Harry asked.

“That’s Mars,” Miles said.

“That’s a planet,” Pablo said. “The red, angry one.”

“It was named after the Greek god of war,” Miles said.

“Mars is the Roman equivalent,” Pablo said. “Ares is the Greek god of war. They’re different, but somehow they’re the same.”

Harry threw up his hands. “It’s all so confusing!”

Nothing was confusing about the new bout of hammering on the door. The glasses in the cupboard jittered and clinked together. The occupants also jittered as they gazed, wide-eyed, toward the front of the house.

“We have to learn more about this creature,” Miles said. “Do we appeal to his bullish side or his mannish side? Quick! Get Bulfinch’s Mythology from the bookshelf!”

“What?” Pablo snapped. “You don’t know the Roman god of war, but you remember that Bulfinch wrote a book about myths?”

“If you think about it, it makes sense,” Miles said. “Gray had anatomy, Jane had fighting ships and assorted weaponry, and Bulfinch had mythology.”

“Keenly said,” replied Harry. “Was Bulfinch a minotaur?”

“Of course not,” snorted Miles. “Bulfinch is spelled with only one ‘l.’”

Harry looked a little wounded and sounded a little defensive. “It sounds like an odd combination of a bull and bird. Specifically, a finch. They’re yellow, right?”

“I think they can be,” Miles said. “But I don’t think all finches are yellow. It’s not a prerequisite.”

“That’s got nothing to do with our situation,” said Pablo. “I agree that we need to learn more about the creature. Go get the book, since you know so much about it.”

Miles scratched his stubbled chin. “I only know it’s under ‘b’ on the shelf. Since fiction and non-fiction are mixed together, and they’re alphabetical by title.”

“But if the categories were separated, the book would be in the fiction section,” Harry said. “Myths are just made-up stories.”

“That beast isn’t a made-up story!” Miles exclaimed.

Pablo groaned in exasperation. “Are we sure it’s a minotaur? It’s awfully dark out there.” True, it was night-time. He turned to Harry and said, “Maybe it’s your Uncle Frank, thinking it’s Thanksgiving. Frank’s a big guy.”

Harry frowned at his roommate. “We already proved that it’s not Halloween, so it can’t be Thanksgiving. Even if it was, our family always goes to Grandma’s house for Thanksgiving. Uncle Frank knows that fully well.”

“But he makes mistakes,” Miles said.

“Everyone does,” Harry said.

“We’re getting nowhere!” Pablo cried. “I’ll get the book.”

As he hurried back to the living room, more house-trembling knocks came, like from the epicenter of an earthquake. The two occupants in the kitchen were silent until their friend returned with Bulfinch’s Mythology.

Pablo searched the book’s index, thumbed through the pages until finding the appropriate page. He said, “Says here the minotaur was in a maze in Crete. Everybody knows that. But here’s something I forgot. And it’s bad news. Very bad news. He ate people. Seven men and seven women were sacrificed to him every nine years.”

The other two men made grossed-out faces.

Miles said, “So he has a taste for human flesh. Great, just fucking great.”

“But there’s also good news,” Pablo said. “Theseus killed the minotaur.”

“Did he write the thesaurus?” Harry asked.

This time, Pablo snorted. “Who cares? He killed the monster!”

“But the monster on our front step is very much alive!” Miles said.

“Maybe he’s a relative of the one in the maze,” Harry said. “Like Uncle Frank is my relative.”

Pablo thumped the book shut, like jaws clamping down, but the book’s jaws snatched only air. “Enough with this bullshit. I’m going to see what he wants.”

“Don’t you dare open the door,” Miles said. “It’s our only protection against the beast!”

“I’ll talk to him through the door,” Pablo said. “And don’t forget, the walls are also protection.”

“Thank goodness we have brick walls,” Miles said. “They’re not made of straw, like in the story about the big, bad wolf.”

Pablo hefted a sigh and looked tired from the weight. “But it’s not a wolf, so you don’t have to worry about it blowing the house down.”

Harry perked up, excited to make an insightful remark. “If a centaur was out there, maybe it would eat our house. If our house was made of straw.”

Pablo stomped off, followed on his heels by his two roommates, and Pablo stopped just behind the front door. The stranger’s loud huffing could be heard, reminiscent of a wolf.

###

The Red Tree

Red Tree cover

A new excerpt! This time, it’s from “The Red Tree,” which is a short story, but one on the longish side. It clocks in at just over 10,000 words. While rain falls for weeks, the Engler family invites friends over for an evening of dealing with cabin fever together. And when the spring sun arrives, the Englers celebrate by walking in a wooded park, where they encounter a red tree away from the trail. Guesses abound as to why the tree is red when none of the other trees are.

Life returns to normal for most of the Englers. The father, Calvin, decides the red tree was a sign for him to make changes in his life and property. Changes the family and neighbors don’t quite understand. But some family members can be eccentric, and others learn to roll with it.

Below is a portion of the first chapter. If you like it, the ebook is available at Amazon.

*****

They feared the spring rain would never end. The gray cloud-ceiling kept releasing raindrops, like a tight formation of planes carpet-bombing Calvin Engler’s house and all the other houses in his neighborhood and the roads on which he commuted and the office building in which he worked as a manager for a business consulting company. The cloud-bombers seemed intent on turning the buildings to rubble. Occasionally, thunder rumbled, lightning seared the earth.

Dana Engler didn’t have to tell her husband the family was getting cabin fever, especially their two sons. Playgrounds could’ve been visited, but playing there would’ve resulted in very muddy clothes. Dana said, “Could you imagine them going down the slide and landing in a puddle that’s grown bigger every day?”

“The boys would probably like that,” Calvin said, picturing Zach and Ryan, one at a time, sliding down with slickened speed and landing with great explosions of arching water. Like when they cannonballed into a pool, except with darker water.

“I wouldn’t like doing the extra laundry,” Dana said. “We’ve got plenty of dirty clothes as it is.”

“You have to admit, their clothes have been cleaner since the rain. Indoor play isn’t as dirty.”

“But they’re getting sick of pillow forts,” she said.

“Me, too,” Calvin said. “They were fun in the beginning, but every time it’s the same thing. The boys get a kick out of building the fort and crawling in it for a little while. Then it gets old, so they get their soldiers and knights and attack the fort. I always have to defend it.”

“It’s more fun to attack than defend,” Dana laughed.

“Yep, and I like attacking the attackers. But they’re not into that. They get mad at me for flipping things.”

Dana and Calvin invited two families over for a Friday evening to liven up the house. The families had met through their kids in elementary school, and they met now and then for playdates and pot-luck dinners. An idea to deal with the ever-present rain was to rotate the host family for gatherings.

Calvin prepared his famous lasagna, and Dana baked several frozen bags worth of tater tots. The Clemenceaus brought Spanish chicken and rice. Neither of the adult Alversons were fond of cooking, so they brought a large salad, along with brownies made from a boxed mix, and nobody complained the brownies weren’t from scratch.

Each of the Clemenceau and Alverson families was balanced with a boy and a girl. The boys were in the same grade level as Zachary Engler. The Clemenceau and Alverson girls were older than all the boys, and often called them immature and suggested they grow up already. To which the boys replied with well-practiced farting noises made with their tongues.

The four boys chowed down dinner and returned to playing in Zach’s room, creating structures with LEGOs and racing cars on the floor and zooming robots in the air, then the cars suddenly achieved the power to also fly. The two girls, under instructions of their parents, had joined the boys before dinner, but after dinner, they retired to the living room, playing Connect Four on the coffee table.

The grown-ups took their time eating dinner and drinking wine and beer. Glad the kids were occupied and enjoying themselves. Sometimes a loud remark came from Zach’s room (“I told you this robot’s a good guy!”), but as long as an intense argument didn’t develop, the parents were fine to let the kids work it out for themselves.

“With all this rain, feels like I should build an ark,” Calvin Engler said.

“Seriously, right?” Lisa Clemenceau said.

“It’d be a neat family project,” her husband, Jeremy, said. “Plenty for everyone to pitch in.”

“Too late for that, though,” Dwight Alverson said. “It’s too soggy out there. If you wanted to build an ark, you should’ve started before the rain started falling.”

“And I don’t think our back yard is big enough,” Dana Engler said.

“It doesn’t have to carry two of every animal,” Calvin said. “Just our family.”

“So it’s not really an ark, but a boat to save us,” Dana said.

“Hey, we have to look out for number one,” Calvin said.

“You’re not gonna invite us on the boat?” Jeremy Clemenceau asked.

“Sure we will,” said Calvin, not wanting to look selfish.

“What about us?” Paula Alverson asked.

“Of course you can join us,” Dana said. “We’d be delighted to have you guys along. The company would be great, and we’d need help to sail the thing.”

“We’d need help before that,” Calvin said. “We’d need help building the thing.”

Calvin said plans for a big ship would have to be drawn up and good-quality lumber must be procured, not the cheap junk usually on sale but planks with no knots in them. Because this beauty had to be ship-shape, no leaks on this vessel. Also, they’d have to watch online videos for tips on building a water craft, tips that newbies wouldn’t know, tips passed down by professionals wanting to share their passion.

Jeremy Clemenceau added that they would need to get books on how to cut the jib and tack into the wind and tie an assortment of knots and become familiar with the delicacies of the astrolabe. The geographic-positioning apps on their phones would not work so well with much of civilization underwater, except maybe for the tops of skyscrapers and transmission towers. And a book should be purchased on the language of maritime signal flags to communicate with the ships of other survivors.

Assuming there would be other survivors, which everyone around the table hoped there would be. A lonely scenario to be the last three families on earth. Similar to the Twilight Zone episode in which a nuclear war destroys the world, and a survivor finally gets the peace to read all the books he desires, but accidentally steps on his eyeglasses and breaks them.

“I haven’t seen that episode,” Lisa Clemenceau said.

“Total spoiler alert,” Paula Alverson said. “Now you don’t have to watch it. You know what happens.”

###

 

Other Lives of the Boothbys

Other Lives of the Boothbys cover

Time for another excerpt from one of my books — this time my novella, Other Lives of the Boothbys. In this story, Bradley Boothby feels déjà vu when walking by the office building for Rayburn-Turley Publishing, that he is somehow connected to one of the publishing company’s books.

Following is the first chapter. If you like it, please consider buying the book to find out what happens next. Available on Amazon as ebook and paperback.

*****

At first, Bradley Boothby dismissed the odd sensation when he passed the Randolph-Turley building on his commutes to and from work. The feeling was nonsensical and didn’t deserve deeper attention than tossing it off the curb, where it would roll into a storm drain then eventually make its way to the Hudson.

Bradley had other things to consider, including his research on the spending habits of twenty-somethings versus middle-aged people. It was more important to focus on doing a good job at his job.

Yet the odd sensation persisted in visiting Bradley during his commutes. As if the idea had survived the journey through underground pipes, swam to the surface of the river, and flew to Randolph-Turley’s roof. Perching there until Bradley arrived on the sidewalk, when it dive-bombed onto his head. Into his head.

The idea was akin to those mythological creatures that combined different animals. A griffin or centaur or mermaid or some such. Bradley asked himself, Was there a mythical creature capable of swimming and flying? Well, flying fish already existed. And some birds could swim.

Bradley didn’t harbor dreams of being included in a book—or in a movie or TV series. No delusions of grandeur of becoming a celebrity recognized (even admired) by crowds of strangers. He was fine with his low level of fame only among his friends.

On one of Bradley’s journeys home during March, he remembered a movie he and Danielle had seen several years ago: Stranger Than Fiction. The movie had provided pleasant entertainment for the evening. Did the movie’s memory cause the odd sensation? Did part of Bradley’s subconscious want to create a diversion from his regular schedule, entertainment for his commute?

But significant differences divided him and the movie’s main character (Bradley forgot the guy’s name). Bradley’s life wasn’t as finely regimented as the character’s. Bradley was married. Bradley didn’t hear a female, English-accented voice narrating his every move. The only voice in his head was his own—and the assorted memories of what people had said to him in various conversations, along with snippets he had overheard in the subway and other public places.

Thankfully, no narrator lived in his brain. Getting through the day would’ve been very challenging with a narrator’s voice accompanying his thoughts. And an English accent might’ve sounded authoritative and pompous. More comfortable would’ve been a narrator with a New Yawker tongue: “So Bradley goes to the office kitchen for another cup of cawffee and mutters to himself, ‘How many years till retirement?’”

Whatever the origin of the strangeness in passing the Randolph-Turley building, the feeling kept arriving with regularity. Bradley had to tell someone about it. His wife would’ve been more understanding than his friends and close co-workers, who would’ve likely teased Bradley about going nutty and in need of a vacation.

Besides, Danielle had frequently asked him during the past couple weeks if something was wrong. Bradley had answered it was nothing major. Just stuff at work. He couldn’t cover up his agitation with a straight face (why he never played poker). Danielle could see right through him, a skill improved in their five years of marriage.

In their Brooklyn apartment one evening, Bradley tried paying attention to Danielle relay the latest complaint of an irritating woman—Tanya—in her office. Something about offensively amateurish graffiti in subway stations. It wasn’t clear which bothered the office woman more: the offensive language or amateurish style.

Which inspired the tangential wondering that if graffitied curse words were done artistically, would they be less offensive? Fuck Off could be prettied up by writing it with curlicues and flourishes, but the message remained the same.

Bradley wasn’t offended by curse words on walls. Clever sayings in graffiti could amuse him for days. The dark humor of Just Say No To Cannibalism on a wall had tickled his funny bone on an evening when he had been in the mood to enjoy it. As had pennies from heaven don’t help me afford really good drugs.

Bradley supposed, if he was a father, he might’ve wanted to shield his children’s eyes from foul language. Except the kids would’ve learned curse words some day. If not from graffiti, then hearing them yelled in school or snarled in a movie or grumbled by an intoxicated uncle at a holiday gathering.

Danielle sighed. “You must be tired of hearing about this. I get annoyed by Tanya then I annoy you by talking about her so much. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t keep the cycle going.”

“It doesn’t annoy me.” Bradley placed a bowl of leftover turkey chili into the microwave and tapped the time buttons. “Go ahead and vent. I know it makes you feel better.”

“So does this.” Danielle sipped from a glass of red wine. “I’m done venting. How about you? You’ve got that look again. Is work still stressing you out?”

“That’s not really what’s been going on,” he said. “The other day, something happened when I saw the sign for Randolph-Turley on their building. I’ve seen that sign thousands of times, but something clicked that day.”

Since Bradley paused, his wife prodded him: “What clicked?”

“The feeling that I’m connected with the place,” he replied. “As if I’m a character in a book.”

A speechless moment in which Danielle’s frown spoke volumes.

Bradley said, “It sounds weird, I get that. But I can’t shake the thought that somebody in the publishing company has written about me. I don’t know why. It’s not like my life is interesting enough to be in a book.”

The microwave beeped, startling them. Bradley removed the heated bowl, gave it to Danielle, and he slid the second bowl of chili into the microwave. She put her bowl on the kitchen counter, uninterested in food because of the conversation.

“Yeah, that’s weird,” she said. “Have you ever read a book from that company?”

“I have no idea,” Bradley said. “Who pays attention to the publisher when they read a book?”

“Okay, silly question. I’m just trying to get a handle on what you’re telling me.”

As the microwave beeped again, Bradley retrieved the second bowl. He didn’t like the look on Danielle’s face—it made him feel batshit crazy for opening up about his fixation.

He said, “I know we’re not characters in a novel. I know we’re real people. As real as this.” Bradley knocked on the kitchen counter, as if announcing his presence to a tiny family living in the cabinets, whom he wanted to visit.

“At least you know that.”

“Then why can’t I shake the idea that somebody wrote about me?” he asked.

“Maybe the same way a song gets stuck in your head,” Danielle said. “Even when you hate the song, it can loop and loop in your head all day.”

“Could be it.”

“What about seeing someone about it? Talking to someone other than me?”

“You mean a shrink?”

“Therapist,” she said. “Cindy goes to one and she says it helps her. The therapist is a good listener and he asks questions about things that Cindy hasn’t thought about. Patterns that Cindy didn’t realize.”

Cindy was Danielle’s best friend. Bradley wasn’t surprised to hear that Cindy went to a therapist. Cindy had been divorced twice and was one of those people with a tendency to act impulsively. She kidded Danielle by calling her tame. But Cindy also valued Danielle’s quieter demeanor and patient ear as a wine-drinking, restaurant-going companion. Friendship therapy.

“I’m not gonna see a therapist,” Bradley said, deciding not to add his opinion that therapists were for other people, not him.

One side of Danielle’s mouth tugged back in a disproving expression. “It could help you.”

“Doubt it,” he said. “A therapist won’t give me any real answers. Probably would just ask about my childhood and tell me I’ve got unresolved issues.”

“You definitely have unresolved issues. You can’t remember your turn to scrub the bathroom. I’m sure that started in childhood.”
With a groan, Bradley said, “A therapist can’t fix that.”

“Would be nice if they could,” Danielle said. “What about looking up your name on Google? See if it’s a character?”

“Already did that.” He was embarrassed for the admission, as it rang to him as narcissistic. Searching for yourself on the Internet to find out your popularity—or just your name’s popularity. He said, “Nothing came up.”

“What about talking to someone at the company?” she asked. “They could tell you if you’re in one of their books.”

His face twisted. “I can’t do that. They’d think I’m crazy and throw me out. I debated whether to tell you. Figuring you’d think I’m dumb. But they’d be much less forgiving.”

“Or they might humor you and tell you one way or the other,” Danielle said. “If you’re in a book or not. They might’ve gotten stranger requests.”

“I don’t see what could be stranger than this,” he said. “I’ll save myself the embarrassment and skip going there. Maybe this talk has solved it. Maybe the feeling will stop bugging me.”

“I hope so. Want to talk about it some more?”

“Nah, I’m done. Let’s eat.”

The couple ate dinner while watching a television show about two families in 1880s Chicago. The first season had included the great drama of the 1871 fire and rebuilding was in full swing by the second season, of which the Boothbys were in the midst.

Before Bradley gave his attention over to the show, he took in the familiar surroundings. The couch where he ate many meals with Danielle and lounged with a book or newspaper, his feet propped on the coffee table. Much of the furnishings had been bought at a street market, pushed into a taxi or a ride service’s SUV, and driven here. This was home. He was glad for Danielle sitting next to him. She didn’t have to calm him down often, but she was effective when the need arose: his worries about the health of his grandparents and an often-stressful marketing job. Compared to those, tonight’s frustration felt trivial.

###

Don’t Lose Your Head

Don't Lose Your Head cover

Several years ago, I published Don’t Lose Your Head, a novella of a ghost haunting a guy. I didn’t promote the book, instead choosing to focus on client work (graphic design) and writing other stories. But I wanted to revisit the novella and give it a more rigorous editorial eye. I’m glad I did, since I ended up chopping off 12,000 words from the story and making it much sharper. I’ve stopped worrying and learned how to enjoy editing. It really can make a difference in a story.

As an excerpt, here’s the first chapter of the novella, to give you a taste. If you like what you read, the book is available on Amazon as an ebook and paperback.

*****

Alan Burris glanced in the car’s rear-view mirror and saw an older version of himself sitting on the back seat. As if the mirror contained magic to reflect how Alan could look in several years, with deeper lines in his forehead and gray hairs blending into darker ones at the sides of his head.

William Resnick had never noticed the resemblance, but his wife picked up on it during her first ride in the black Lincoln sedan.

“Bill,” said Mrs. Resnick, also in the back seat, “he looks just like you!”

“Huh? What?” Bill Resnick looked up from the report’s pages on his lap.

“The driver.” Mrs. Resnick grabbed the headrest of the front passenger seat and leaned forward, saying, “I’m so sorry. I don’t even know your name.” She spoke up, as if the driver was a hard-of-hearing geezer—even though Alan was younger than both of his passengers.

Alan briefly toyed with the idea of asking the male Resnick if he remembered his driver’s name, but doubted that game would go over well. Don’t annoy a client. One of the rules of the biz. Alan introduced himself to the Mrs.

“I’m Laura,” she said. “I’m sorry we didn’t do proper introductions when we got into your car. I don’t know where my mind was.”

“It’s fine, ma’am. Like I said earlier, it’s good to meet you.”

The line deserved repeating. After driving Bill Resnick to and from JFK airport for a couple years, Alan had never seen the Mrs. until now. Her existence was known, due to the wedding band encircling Bill’s finger. Alan had wondered what the wife was like, imagining a woman who dressed in elegant clothes, moved with grace, and performed as a fantastic hostess at dinner parties. The kind of hostess who put the guests at ease and could carry conversations about pretty much anything.

Seeing Laura Resnick this morning answered Alan’s imaginings, along with finding out she wasn’t as attractive as the picture of her in his mind. Not that she was ugly, but Alan had elevated her to a level of beauty he now realized was unfair and unrealistic. But he had been correct about her elegance and grace.

Even though Alan would never discover her hostess skills, he was going to discover the Resnick house’s interior. Having the Mrs. in the Lincoln gave the green light for Alan’s plan—once a general idea and hope—to be placed on the schedule. His patience was about to be rewarded.

Mrs. Resnick turned back to her husband and said, “What’s with the scoff?” She had lowered her voice. “You don’t think he looks like you?”

A small laugh from Resnick, or something resembling a laugh. “Hardly.” Resnick returned to his Very Important Papers.

Alan asked himself, What do you care, Rez? Always at your reports and phone. Acting like you run the fucking world.

Mrs. Resnick pushed on: “I’m serious. If you shaved off your mustache, you two could be twins. Okay, so your hair color’s different, but your faces are quite similar.”

“Laura, would you give it a rest? I need to prepare for this briefing.”

She sat back against the seat, clearly dejected. “But we have, what, two hours on the plane?”

“There’s a ton I have to cover. I don’t want to look like a fool in front of the client.”

“Fine.” Then she spoke louder again, for their supposed geezer driver’s benefit: “Alan, could you turn the radio up? Just a little?”

“No problem, ma’am.”

The NPR reporter, who had been talking about the economies of several European countries, transitioned to a new story about ethnic cleansing in an African country.

Ethnic cleansing, Alan thought. Such a safe, shined-up phrase for the meaning it tries to hide. Like “we’re letting you go.” Like you’ve been sitting outside the boss’s office for hours, a puppy crying to be let out and taken for a walk.

Mrs. Resnick gazed out the window, at the other cars crawling beside them. Was she envisioning herself in another car, yakking it up with another driver, another husband? One who was more attentive? They could’ve talked about their thoughts on ethnic cleansing, doppelgängers, and anything else that came to mind or the radio.
Maybe she would’ve placed her hand on the other husband’s knee and suggested some plans for when he was done with his presentation to the client. With his work wrapped up for the day, the two of them could’ve dined at a fancy restaurant then continued the romance at a fancy hotel. She could’ve said, “I’m glad I finally joined you on a business trip. I know you’re busy during the day, but you’re all mine in the evening.”

Has it been a while since you guys got it on? It’s not like you’ve got kids to tiptoe around.

No kids had ever yelled good-bye to Resnick as he left his house and walked toward the Lincoln during one of Alan’s pick-ups. And no kids had ever yelled hello when Resnick made the reverse journey. No minivan was parked in the Resnick driveway. Instead, a silver Lexus RX. Other times, a red Infiniti Q60. His and hers. Alan had changed his decision several times in trying to match which car belonged to husband and which to wife.

Also, no dog had ever appeared at the door. No finely bred dog barked and wagged its tail to bid its master adieu or hello. All the clues pointed to a married couple living a comfy life in the nice suburb of Westbury with no kids or pets.

*

Earlier this morning, when the Resnicks had left their “we’re quite well off financially and like to show it” type of house, they hadn’t poked at a security system’s keypad. There had been no tell-tale chirp of a system being armed. As both Resnicks had approached Alan, standing by the Lincoln’s open trunk, he had almost leaped with joy.

It’s too good to be true. Wait. Don’t get ahead of yourself. Get the details first.

Alan had greeted them with a perky “good morning,” and loaded their luggage in the trunk. The Resnicks had climbed into the back seat, and Alan shut the door behind them. Then the drive and careful information gathering started.

Alan had said, “Good to finally meet you, Mrs. Resnick.”

“Likewise,” she had replied. “And I want to thank you for taking such good care of my husband. He tends to run a little late.”

A harumph from her worse half.

“It’s true, Bill.” Mrs. Resnick had a soothing voice. Her attention returned to the driver as she said, “But you’ve kept him from missing his flights.”

“All in the job, ma’am,” Alan had said. Modest and polite. Keep it up, soldier.

“And this morning, it’s important not to be late.”

“Why’s that?” Here we go.

“Because I’m going with him, of course,” Mrs. Resnick had said. “We have old friends in Chicago, and it’s been too long since I’ve seen them. Far too long. When Bill told me he’s going there for a meeting, I jumped at the chance. It’ll be a mini vacation. Just from today to Sunday, but it’ll be a chance to relax and sightsee. Right, Bill?”

“Yeah. Right.” Resnick clicked open his briefcase and started shuffling papers.
The papers didn’t keep what Resnick probably saw as the old ball and chain down. Mrs. Resnick said, “Well, I’m looking forward to it.”

Alan pinched his thigh to test if this was a dream. He didn’t wake up.

Time for some justice. Tonight’s the night, Rezzie old boy. It’s finally here.

*

The Lincoln exited on to the ramp toward Kennedy airport and eased to a stop at Terminal 7, underneath the United Airlines sign. Still plenty of time to catch their 10:05 flight.

Alan went into the steps of the departure routine. Clicked on the car’s caution lights. Pressed the button to open the trunk. Got out of the car and was slapped by the noise of the morning rush: a plane taking off, cars honking and jostling for space. Alan opened the back door on the curb side and offered his arm to Mrs. Resnick. She looked surprised for a second then thanked him, grabbed his suit jacket-covered forearm, and pulled herself out of the car. Alan hoisted the luggage from the trunk and set it on the sidewalk.

Alan said to the couple, “I hope you have a wonderful time in Chicago, Mr. and Mrs. Resnick.”

Mrs. Resnick flashed her husband a look, and since she presumably didn’t see the signal she anticipated, her hand slipped into her handbag.

Alan smiled. “No need to tip me, ma’am. The limo service is paid through his company.” Alan nodded to Resnick.

She looked relieved as an uncomfortable moment passed. And Alan wasn’t about to tell her that good, ole’ Billy Resnick wasn’t that great of a tipper when replying to Velox Limo’s invoices. The subject of frequent complaints Alan shared with his boss, Hank.

“Let’s go,” William Resnick said and started wheeling his luggage away. Off to check his bag and show the world how it should be run.

“Have a good day,” Mrs. Resnick said to Alan, seemingly embarrassed by her husband’s brusqueness, before she went to join him.

As Alan watched the well-dressed couple walk through the doorway of the airport terminal, he imagined conking William Resnick’s skull with a cartoon hammer, slumping him to the ground so hard that stars and tweeting birds orbited his already swollen head.

###