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Robert Plamondon’s Fiction Blog

I’ve been working on two novels at once, which has me thinking about fiction writing in general, and I’ll have some things to say here about that. I’d love to hear from you about these topics.

As for the novels, I’ll finish and publish both of them by the end of 2020 in paperback and Kindle form. In the meantime, I’ll post draft chapters here. I’d love to hear your reactions to these, too.

Both novels fall into the young-adult urban fantasy category and are set a little more than two years apart, with mostly the same cast of characters. The working titles are My Brief Life and Tragic Death and Jen Meets Her Match.

Links Within This Site

Due to the nature of blogs, the most recent posts are listed first, but where the novels are concerned, every chapter will have a link to chapter 1, so you’ll only be a click away from the start.

Links to My Other Sites

 

Write Like You Talk. No, Seriously!

Lots of great talkers are terrible writers. Put a pen in their hand and they become dull and inarticulate. Why is that?

I’ll give you a hint: I saw a TV program once that showed kids selling goods at a farmer’s market in Brazil. They made change effortlessly and with near-perfect accuracy. But when researchers asked them to use the arithmetic they’d been taught in school, they became slow, hesitant, and inaccurate.

It’s the same with writing. In school, we’re taught a cumbersome approach that cuts us off from our existing skills as completely as the guillotine cut off Marie Antoinette’s head. That isn’t a good look!

Why do schools do this? Not my problem. This isn’t about fixing the educational system: it’s about you.

It’s the same thing with public speaking. People who are fascinating when you talk to them at lunch become awful if you put them on a stage. But we’re not going to fix that one today.

If you can tell an interesting story without having your audience run away three times out of five, you already have what it takes to be a writer.

Any halfway decent talker can be an interesting writer. You just have to write as entertainingly as you speak. The “making stuff up” part of fiction writing is less of a problem. Channeling a lifetime of telling whoppers into writing comes more naturally.

I admit that you’ll eventually need to learn all the nuts and bolts of the written word: how to place paragraph breaks non-randomly, for instance. But the things you were taught in school that still give you that deer-in-the-headlights look today aren’t that important. Some were never important in the first place. The others you’ll pick up soon enough. In writing, the main thing is to get your story written at all, because you can’t fix it until it exists.

Surf the Colloquial Wave

The trend in writing over the past hundred years or so has been informality. These days, professional writing (and especially fiction) has its tie missing and its sleeves rolled up. It’s been a long time since the button-down look has been fashionable.

Not that beautifully articulate formal prose can’t be wonderful: it can. But it’s no longer fashionable, which means it’s not worth your time.

For example, you’ll notice that I, a professional writer, use sentence fragments. A lot. I’ll boldly split infinitives where no infinitive has been split before and I figure that a preposition is a fine thing to end a sentence on. (Sorry, Mrs. Rosendahl.)

What I’m saying is that if you pretend that you ain’t never been taught no grammar, you’ll end up with prose that, paradoxically, is more likely to win you the Nobel Prize in Literature. Your odds go from “zero” to “so close to zero that it can’t be measured”—an improvement of infinity percent!

Write Like You Talk. I Mean It.

Here’s the deal: if you write down a story the way you’d tell it to a friend, it’ll be livelier than if you told it any other way. This is true for both fiction and nonfiction. Liveliness isn’t everything, but where there’s life, there’s hope. Dead prose is hard to resuscitate.

Here’s the mindset to use:

  1. Imagine that you have a story you really want to tell and an audience who really wants to hear it.
  2. Imagine that your audience is by invitation only. No Negative Nancies; no Teachers from the Crypt with Red Pens of Doom. Just people who are interested in your story.
  3. Tell the story to your audience. (That is, write it down. Don’t just imagine telling it!) Tell it all the way through.
  4. Celebrate. You deserve it.
  5. After the celebration comes the cleanup. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.

Ugly First Drafts

Many successful authors write first drafts that are so bad, you wouldn’t believe it.

Terrible first drafts are normal, even for the most successful authors. Don’t despair because your work isn’t as good as theirs, because neither is theirs.

They know the secret: you can’t fix it until you write it down. A story’s hard to work with when it’s still in your skull—it’s dark in there. So they bring it into the light and finish it in the second, third, or umpteenth draft. You can live down to this standard!

Ready, Fire, Aim

People who should be writing spend too much time preparing to write. Don’t do that.

When I get interested in something, I’m the King of Research. I read everything I can get my hands on, I watch YouTube videos, I listen to podcasts: the works. But I get my hands dirty at the same time. “Ready, Fire, Aim” is how I roll.

Let’s face it: the idea that you should sit in a classroom for years before you use your learning is what got us into this fix in the first place. As soon as you start writing your first story, you’ll have one relevant and meaningful question after another. That’s a good time to look for answers.

Be careful who you listen to! The best advice on fiction writing comes from published fiction writers. I’m especially fond of James Scott Bell’s books (and audiobooks) on writing fiction.

Q&A

Here are some questions and answers to get you started, though:

  • Do I have talent? Sure. I don’t believe in talent. I believe that practice makes perfect. By leveraging your existing skills, you put your best foot forward.
  • Should I wait for inspiration? Never wait for anything.
  • Do I need to read a lot of fiction first? See my answer to the previous question. You’ll probably want to read more fiction once you become interested in the nuts and bolts of prose fiction.
  • How do I pick a title? No one knows! It’s typical to pick a working title and change it later.
  • How do I open a story? How do you do it when you tell one to your buddies? Maybe like that. The opening introduces the rest of the story, so if you haven’t written down the rest of the story yet, you can’t tell whether you have the right opening. So don’t lose any sleep over it. Look at examples from books that drew you in right away, too.
  • How big should my story be? How big a story do you tell your buddies? Bigger than that, probably, but not vastly bigger. We’re leveraging your existing skills here. Don’t write something as big as Game of Thrones as your first project unless you absolutely can’t resist.
  • Novels or short stories? One of those, yeah. Or both.
  • What point of view and tense should I use? How would you tell this story around a campfire? I’m a big fan of the first-person yarn, where the storyteller is the main character and presumably wrote down the tale after the events are over. It’s a very human mode. If that doesn’t fit your project, I recommend the much-maligned third-person omniscient mode, since it’s the other natural, traditional storytelling mode, used in everything from fairy tales to nonfiction histories.
  • How do I become rich and famous? When you find out, let me know. Part of it is “keep writing,” though. This is a craft. You’ll keep getting better as long as you keep working at it.

So now go write something.

My Brief Life and Tragic Death, Chapter 5

(Looking for Chapter 1? It’s here: Chapter 1. Purple Pumpkins.)

Chapter 5. Room Service

We hadn’t expected to fall asleep. If we had, we would have kept watch, or tried to, because we knew we weren’t safe. I woke around sunrise. To my surprise, I was in my bed, though I was still in my boy’s disguise and still wearing my sneakers. Frank was asleep in the armchair.

I saw a letter in my own handwriting, addressed to me, sitting on my desk. I got out of bed. My legs were stiff and painful, but that was true every morning. I sat in my desk chair and read my letter.

June X, 1972

Dear Flavia,

When I wake after midnight I remember that I can see the future. Not just one future, but variations depending on what we do based on my foreknowledge. I try to find actions that prevent disaster without triggering additional disasters. It’s very strange—the deed that makes things come out right can seem trivial and unrelated. Following my guidance precisely is essential.

I apparently forget everything that happens at dawn, even the fact that I was awake at all. I see some events with an Olympian detachment, but others … I’m grateful for my amnesia. Once gone, the memories are gone for good: just as inaccessible by night as by day. I only remember last night’s letter to Frank because he showed it to me in the library.

Did I sign yesterday’s letter to Frank with love because I already loved him? Alas, I don’t remember. I wish I could!

Yes, I suppose I must have written a letter to Daddy, too, but I don’t remember. I wonder what I said? Perhaps I’ll ask him some day.

What else? It’s important that I say as little as possible about future events because only focused foreknowledge can be used with predictable results. Broad foreknowledge affects too many decisions and the future becomes terribly blurred and confused. It can easily deliver the opposite of the results I most desire. So I’m not putting hints or even encouragement into this letter.

I need to keep the secret of these letters to just me, Frank, and Daddy.

Flavia

P.S. I’m you and you’re me. This is probably easier to grasp after midnight because I remember the events of the day. During the day, I’ve forgotten the events of the night, so there’s less continuity. It’s all one, though.

There was also a letter addressed to Frank, and another to Daddy. I crossed to where Frank lay sleeping, slumped in the armchair. I put a hand on his shoulder. “Wakey-wakey, rise and shine.”

He sat up suddenly, disoriented. “Huh? What?”

“I wrote you a letter last night, just as you asked.”

“Oh.” He stretched. “Pass it over.”

I did, and he opened the letter. As he read, I walked back and forth to limber up my legs.

Frank looked up from the letter and said, “You talk all lovey-dovey after midnight.”

“Do I?”

He handed me the letter.

June X, 1972

Dear Frank,

After reading this, ask me to share the letter I addressed to myself. It explains the basics.

There is so much I wish to say to you, my love! But it’s important that anything tinged with foreknowledge be said at the right time and in the right way, especially if it’s written down.

Meet me after midnight tonight so we can talk. It won’t the kind of romantic midnight assignation you may be thinking of, alas. I forget with the dawn, and I selfishly want to remember all my tender moments with you. But meet me without fail.

Your loving

Flavia

After I finished reading, I handed him my letter. I waited until he finished reading it before saying, “Do you think my personality changes at night?”

“I doubt it. I’ll let you know. Try calling me your love.”

“Good morning, my love.” I shivered. I hadn’t been prepared for how right it felt. Yes, I know my English is too formal, but that’s how I am; that’s who I am. Calling Frank “my love” was exactly right for me.

“Morning,” said Frank. “I love you too. I sure hope we get sprung in time for breakfast. I’m starved.”

I couldn’t decide whether to be angry at Frank for saying “I love you” for the first time so casually, or delighted that he’d said it at all. In the end I decided to be gracious about it. Frank had some strange notions. He might even imagine that “mine, mine, mine” was the same as “I love you,” which meant it didn’t count as the first time.

There was a knock on the door ten minutes later. “Who is it?” called Frank.

“King William,” came a voice. Daddy’s voice.

Frank looked at me. I nodded, and he called, “What’s the password?”

“Breakfast,” said Daddy.

“Enter, friend!” said Frank. He unbolted the door.

Two soldiers came in first and did a sweep of my suite. Then Daddy walked in and embraced me. He hadn’t hugged me in ages. I almost cried. He was no longer carrying a submachine gun, just a holstered pistol. He held me at arm’s length, looking delighted by both me and my boy’s disguise. He noted the rope ladder, which Frank had left out, ready for a quick getaway. “Very resourceful.”

A sergeant pushed in a cart of covered breakfast dishes. He quickly set the sitting room table for three, set out the dishes, saluted, and departed, taking the two privates with him and closing the door.

When was the last time I’d had a private breakfast with Daddy? Or even been seated at the same table? I couldn’t remember.

I hurried to my bedroom to fetch the letter to Daddy and handed it to him before taking my place at the table.

“That was quite a light step, Princess,” said Daddy, setting the letter aside for now. “Another of Frank’s miracles?”

“Not me,” said Frank, who had decided to serve. “Who wants ham? Last call. I could eat the whole pig.”

Daddy and I both made sure we got our fair shares. I told Daddy, “It’s these high-top sneakers, Sire. They’re light and they have just enough support to keep my left toe up.”

I poured Daddy’s coffee and looked inquiringly at Frank, who shook his head. I learned later that, as part of his training regimen, he rarely drinks anything but water and, of all things, buttermilk.

Daddy and Frank were both very hungry. Frank, though much smaller than Daddy, matched his intake with that bottomless appetite of a boy in his teens. I ate about half as much as he did. Frank had good table manners, which was a relief.

After we had finished eating, Daddy said, “Where shall we start?”

“Perhaps by reading your letter?” I suggested.

“Very well.” Daddy read his letter carefully, then put the sheets back in the envelope and put it in an inside coat pocket. “Fascinating. We’ll go into all of that later. Before I give you a summary of the situation, do you have any questions?”

“Is Lady Lestrange in custody?” I asked.

“She is dead. Why?”

I was speechless only for a moment. “She tried to force her way in here, but Frank had bolted the door. Then she tried to talk her way in.”

“Locking yourself in with a princess is terribly improper, boy.”

“Daddy!” I said, shocked.

Frank scowled. “I dithered over closing that damned door for almost a minute. I’ll be quicker next time, Sire.”

Daddy nodded. “Yes, well done. Are you willing to continue protecting and supporting my daughter?”

“That’s an understatement, Sire.”

“Good. We will work out the rules and such soon. Carry on.”

Frank grinned. Daddy smiled sourly and said, “I meant, keep up the good work.”

He paused and gathered his thoughts. “It was a coup attempt, of course. A stuffy and pompous coup attempt, put together by people with no appreciation of their own stupidity. Not the usual pattern at all. Chercher le vampire.”

I didn’t understand. “What?”

“It means ‘search for the vampire.’ As a rule, it’s our vampires who do the scheming. It’s taken from a French expression, cherchez la femme, which is a maxim among French detectives. Search for the woman. To a proper Frenchman, a serious crime must involve love, or the whole world has gone mad.”

Frank quoted, “With all this manure, there must be a pony in here somewhere.”

“No doubt,” said Daddy blandly. “Yet in spite of the plotters’ incompetence, they almost succeeded. Had it not been for Flavia’s letters, she and I would be dead and the traitors would have won. Only momentarily, to be sure. They had no real support. And they enlisted far too many of their friends and relations. You will be needing a new maid, Princess.”

“What happened to Miss Parmalee?”

“She is dead.”

I almost burst into tears. I hadn’t liked Miss Parmalee and she hadn’t liked me, but we’d been constantly together for the last year. Was she dead because I was so unlovable?

I heard Frank shift his chair closer. He put an arm around me. I couldn’t help crying then, so I threw my arms around him and wept. It all seemed so natural that it took me some time to realize that Frank hadn’t paused to consider Daddy’s reaction. And yesterday I hadn’t let him near me when I cried.

When I recovered and disengaged from Frank, I looked at Daddy. He wore a strange expression that I couldn’t figure out at all. As if nothing had happened, I asked, “What happened to her?”

“Lady Lestrange, Miss Parmalee, and two others hid somewhere in the palace until dark, then made a break for it on foot. They reached their hiding place, but it wasn’t proof against vampires. The vampires fed lavishly and all four traitors died. A regrettable act of violence by persons unknown.”

Frank shifted uncomfortably. I, too, suspected that Daddy knew exactly who the vampires were and may have sent them himself. After a moment Frank said, “I don’t suppose you happened across Spike.”

“Louisa Maréchal graciously volunteered her assistance. She’s helping to track down the remaining traitors. Shall I send her to you when she returns?”

“Yes, please. How about Maria and Charlotte?”

“As far as I know, they were not involved in any of this.”

“That’s a relief.”

I asked Frank, “Who are Maria and Charlotte?”

“Two of Grandfather’s dependents.”

“Whose dependents are they now that he’s gone?”

“They’re pretty much on their own. Uncle Nestor doesn’t like them.”

Nestor was the new Count Woodville. Frank’s grandfather had died two years ago. “How old are these girls?”

“They look and act about twelve. In reality they’re between eighty and ninety.”

“How is that possible?”

“They’re vampires.”

“Oh, of course.” I’d read that children who became vampires stopped developing physically and emotionally, though they learned new facts and skills readily enough. But I’d never met anyone like that.

I was twelve myself. They’d certainly be strong and graceful. Were they pretty? Would I have to compete with them for Frank’s affection? Vampires used their glamour to influence humans; even to enslave them. It was worrisome.

“Let’s not discuss Charlotte and Maria at the moment,” said Daddy, “though I’m sure we all have concerns.”

Frank said, “How much is left of the palace staff?”

“That’s not yet clear. No more than two-thirds. It was an odd sort of coup attempt. No real military involvement. The palace staff imagined that they ran the country already, and their vast experience meant that obviously they’d be kept in charge if we were killed, at least until the new monarch could be elected; a rigged election, no doubt. The princess and I seem to have been their only targets.”

The way our constitution works, direct heirs (that is, Daddy’s children) can inherit the crown directly, but any other succession requires an election. Since I’m crippled, there’s a school of thought that holds that I shouldn’t succeed without an election, either.

Frank said, “I keep hearing about the incompetence of the palace staff, but I don’t know how it happened.”

“Few of the staff positions are important in reality, so the palace attracts second-raters. The second-raters repel the men of talent. I find this immensely frustrating. So did my father. A tiny government like ours can’t really attract the best men, anyway. There are so many wonderful opportunities in the larger world. Most of the crucial work is done part-time by leading men like your late grandfather or Dr. Wright.”

I wanted to point out that it’s “men and women,” not “men,” though in fact few women held positions of prominence. Daddy would have agreed with me and then continued just as before, on the grounds that everyone knew that “men” means “men and women.” I have my doubts about that.

Frank told Daddy, “I’m only willing to fill in as Flavia’s tutor and maid until school starts.”

Daddy chuckled. “What do you think, Princess?”

“Do we have to be so formal when it’s just the three of us, Sire?”

“I suppose not. I’m a little gun-shy after Louisa’s example.”

“She calls him Billy,” Frank told me, not even pretending to keep a straight face. To Daddy he said, “How about if I call you ‘sir’ in private?”

“Perfect. All right, Flavia. Informal it is.”

“Thank you, Daddy. I need a new maid. One who respects Frank. And me. And us.”

“I draw the line at Louisa,” said Daddy.

Frank chuckled. “I’ll write Mom for suggestions. Spike might have some ideas, too. Sir, do you know anyone who’s okay with the necessary girl stuff and has nerves of steel?”

This upset me. “I’m not that hard to get along with!”

Daddy said, “I think Frank is thinking ahead to your midnight meetings. The usual servants’ gossip will create intense interest in your friendship and put pressure on me to separate you, though you’re still very young. The right companion will minimize this.”

We talked it over for a few minutes. I would join Frank at his lessons, which would resume tomorrow. If this worked out, a new tutor could wait until September. As for a maid, we might do that in stages, with someone to come in morning and evening to help me dress and undress and someone else to tidy my suite every day.

The emphasis might even be shifted to guards rather than chaperones. Since my previous chaperones had tried to kill me, this seemed natural enough! The soldiers were intensely loyal to Daddy in ways that courtiers rarely were.

Frank displayed his willingness to ask for the moon and stars by suggesting that I be given a new suite, no higher than the second floor, with an adjacent room for him, connecting via a door that was secret or at least so securely locked that no one would guess that he used it every day.

Daddy turned his best penetrating stare on Frank, who met it calmly at first. After two or three seconds he began to scowl. His face gradually turned red, then he stood and put a hand on my shoulder, still glaring at Daddy. Daddy’s face was like stone.

“Take that back,” said Frank.

“I didn’t say anything,” said Daddy.

“She trusts me,” said Frank. “It’s the only reason we’re still alive.” His voice rose to a shout. “Do you want her dead? Do you? Then go ahead. Act like any of this is normal.”

I don’t know how Daddy reacted to this. Frank’s grip on my shoulder had become so painful that I gasped. He looked around wildly, then let go as if my shoulder were red hot. He met my gaze in alarm and contrition.

“It’s all right,” I whispered.

He flinched at my innocuous words. He stared at me, wide-eyed, suddenly horrified and strange, as if he’d only half-wakened from a nightmare. Tears rolled down his cheeks. His mouth opened and closed without any sound, then he whispered, “In my … in my dream, I saw everything twice. The one time I saw events just as they happened. In the other, I dragged my feet for no good reason and they … they shot us both. You said ‘it’s all right’ then, too, just before … just before … just before you died. Oh, Flavia, I’m so sorry!”

He began to weep in earnest, in that heartrending way that boys have, struggling against each sob. I stood and took him in my arms, then pulled him down to sit next to me.

After Frank began to subside I looked at Daddy. He was wiping away tears of his own. He murmured, “I concede the point. Where did his dream come from, Flavia?”

I didn’t remember, of course. “At a guess, I sent it to him when I put the note on his nightstand.”

Daddy said, “It seems awfully harsh.”

Frank said, “No! It was perfect, because it worked.” He wiped his tears on his napkin. He sighed and closed his eyes, trying to relax into my embrace without much success.

He soon pulled free and gave me a ghastly imitation smile that suddenly turned genuine. “The important thing is, you have excellent taste. You chose me.”

“Any port in a storm, my love.”

He chuckled. “Likewise. Any brilliant and beautiful psychic princess named Flavia will do for me. I wouldn’t want people to think I’m fussy.”

Daddy stood, looking diplomatically bland. “I must leave you now. There is a trusted sentry on the door. I’ve given orders that he will prevent anyone from entering unless he receives your permission. Leave the door open or closed, bolted or not, at your option. Stay in the suite until I give you the all-clear. Probably in time for lunch. Frank?”

“Sire?”

“You’ve convinced me. We must all trust each other. In areas not related to her … ah. We need a code phrase for this new talent. See what you can come up with. In other areas, you’re nothing but a pair of child prodigies. For you, Frank, being too big for your britches is as natural as breathing. It’s a family trait. Together, you two can surely get yourselves into trouble no one else could even imagine. Getting out again? I think not. I have no idea what to advise. Maybe assume that you’re only half as smart as you think you are.”

“That’s still mighty impressive,” said Frank, who had recovered nicely.

“No doubt. In anything remotely ordinary, seek advice from trusted friends.”

I said, “I don’t have any except Frank. And you, Daddy.”

“Help her find some, Frank.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Search beyond the obvious. And I’ll work out a schedule where we meet daily. Private breakfasts may be ideal.”

With that, he departed.

Continued in Chapter 6, “Ticklish Situation.”

My Brief Life and Tragic Death, Chapter 4

(Looking for Chapter 1? It’s here: Chapter 1. Purple Pumpkins.)

Chapter 4. Penetrable Disguise

I awoke with a start. Someone was knocking on the door. I sat up. Frank was already on his feet, looking tense. Stopping a pace from the door, he called, “Who is it?”

“Lady Lestrange,” came the voice of Lady Lestrange, the palace’s housekeeper. She didn’t actually do any housekeeping. She mostly got in the servants’ way.

Frank looked at me. I hesitated. Lady Lestrange had never done me any harm, but I didn’t like her and neither did Daddy.

My hesitation was enough for Frank. “I’m sorry, Lady Lestrange, but your name isn’t on the list.”

“Who is this?”

“I’m sorry, I can’t tell you that.”

“Let me talk to Princess Flavia at once.”

“No.”

There was a pause, then she said, “Who is on the list?”

Frank smiled at this one. Apparently he thought the question was a blunder. “I can’t tell you that.”

“I must insist.”

“Good-bye, Lady Lestrange,” said Frank. He crossed to the sofa, kissed me on the forehead, and sat down beside me. “Hi there, sleepyhead.”

“Hello, Frank.”

“Is Lady Lestrange related to any of the recently deceased?”

“Oh. Yes, Sir Archibald was her younger brother.” I looked at Frank in worry. “It’s not over yet, is it?”

“Doesn’t look like it.”

“Then you saved my life by bolting the door.”

“Or prevented you from being kidnapped. She turned the key in the lock first. She only knocked after she couldn’t get the door open. That can’t be protocol.”

“It isn’t. What will they try next?”

He stopped and thought, then shrugged. “No idea. I suppose it depends on how well they’re doing. Which reminds me, how well are you doing?”

“My legs are stiff. I need the toilet soon. I’m bearing up. Frank, I’m really glad you’re here.”

“So am I.” He helped me to my feet. I leaned on him halfway to the bathroom door, then made the rest of the trip on my own.

“Should I flush?” I called softly to Frank.

“Not yet. Smart girl.”

When I emerged, I noticed that the lights he’d turned on were all near the closed curtains, so we wouldn’t cast shadows on them when we moved about the suite. I pointed this out to Frank and said, “What other clever steps have you taken?”

“That’s about it.”

“Why not flush?”

“Some people are stupid and forgetful. The smart ones try to do too many things at once, so it amounts to the same thing. If we don’t remind them we’re here, they’ll forget about us. Grandfather liked to say that the squeaky wheel gets greased. And uncertainty makes people hesitate, so we never want to clarify anything. Just as an example … um … suppose they want to blow the door open with explosives and take you hostage, but they’re afraid the blast will kill you. Sounds from the plumbing mean you’re out of the line of fire and it’s safe to blow the door.”

“Do we just wait?”

“Mostly. For now.”

“Then what?”

“Do you have a fire ladder?”

“Yes.” I pointed to the cabinet where it was stored and he took it out and examined it. It was a neatly rolled rope ladder with wooden rungs and a pair of metal hooks that went over the balcony railing.

“It’ll do,” he said. “We can make a break for it if we have to.” He left it out where it could be grabbed quickly.

I glanced at the clock. It was a little after five. It wouldn’t be dark until after nine.

“Where did you learn these things, Frank?”

“My grandfather, mostly. He was a great man.”

“Your paternal grandfather? Daddy’s late cousin Franklin?”

“That’s right. I’m named after him.”

“Wasn’t he the one with the human menagerie?”

Frank scowled at me. I felt shame and something close to terror. Offending Frank … it would be too much. I said, “I beg your pardon.”

Frank nodded and said, “Let’s move to your bedroom. I made myself nervous with my explosives example.”

It was a breach of etiquette for Frank to enter my bedroom, of course. It took an internal struggle for me to say, “All right.”

“And let’s get that wand out. And your canes and crutches.”

“I don’t have any canes or crutches.”

Frank muttered angrily to himself. I said, “Speak up, Frank.”

Frank rolled his eyes. “I was just saying that your, um, most royal father hasn’t thought it through. They make good clubs, for one thing.”

“The aluminum ones don’t.” I had always used the aluminum kind, back before my walking improved and my crutches and canes were confiscated.

“The wooden ones do. Not to mention sword canes and stuff like that.”

How like a boy, to make a weapon of everything. “I suppose that, as a last resort, one could even use them to assist one’s walking?”

“I guess. Seems like a waste, though.” We smiled at each other. How strange that this boy could make me smile! No one else could. And he could do it even while drawing attention to my handicap and criticizing Daddy.

My bedroom is really half study, half bedroom. Frank scanned the titles of my books with a little smile on his face and a piratical gleam in his eye. “Nice.”

I sat in my armchair and he took my desk chair. My wand was sitting on my desk. He reached for it, stopped, and looked at me. I said, “Go ahead.”

He picked it up, then closed his eyes and touched the grip to his forehead.

I said, “I’ve never seen anyone do that before.”

He handed me the wand. “Try it.”

I did, and I got a sense of … serenity, precision, and control.

Frank said, “It’s a wonderful piece of work, isn’t it? Amazingly delicate and precise. Almost the opposite of my wand.”

“I suppose yours blows things to smithereens.”

“Yep. Sometimes even when I want it to.”

I used the wand to idly create some points of light and send them floating across the room. I suppose I was showing off, or at least demonstrating that, in my hands, the wand was more than a stick, though in truth my training hadn’t taken me very far.

Frank was on edge. The long wait was hard on him, leaving him both restless and exhausted. He paced back and forth. I tolerated this for a while, then said, “Frank? If you don’t calm down, I’m going to scream.”

He opened his mouth to reply, but was interrupted by a real scream in the distance. We stared at each other. More screams and shouts followed, in different voices, and a few gunshots. The next thing I knew, I was on my feet and had flung myself into Frank’s arms. He held me tight but didn’t kiss me.

Soon all was quiet again, and Frank asked, “How are the legs?”

“Stiff. Walking will help.” He didn’t mention flight directly, so neither did I. We paced back and forth for a while until I was about as limber as I seemed likely to get.

He sat in my armchair and pulled me down onto his lap. This put our faces closer to the same level. After a little undignified squirming I found a posture that was comfortable and made it hard for him to escape my kisses. Not that he tried. Quite the contrary.

Our first kisses had been heartbreakingly gentle. I experimented with ones that were more definite.

“You’re very bold,” he said. “I like that in a girlfriend.”

I looked at him appraisingly. “Frank, you’re very attentive and you have natural talent.”

“Thank you. So do you.”

“But you’ve kissed girls before.”

“I cannot tell a lie. Well, I can, but I won’t. Spin the Bottle, mostly.”

“What’s Spin the Bottle?” I’d never heard of it.

“You’re running with the wrong crowd. It’s a kissing game, obviously. You and a group of friends sit in a circle. An empty wine bottle is used as a spinner. One person twirls the bottle and has to kiss the person it’s pointing to when it stops.”

“What if it’s another girl?”

“Depends on the house rules. Spin again, first boy on the right, or go for it.”

I blinked at the third option. Kissing another girl was so unexpected that it made my mind quite blank. Frank said, “I refuse to kiss other boys, myself.”

“Spin the Bottle doesn’t sound very romantic.”

“Sort of the point, really. Everyone pretends it’s harmless and the kisses don’t count. It’s mostly true.”

I kissed him and said, “My kisses always count.”

“I noticed that.”

We kissed a little more, then Frank wanted to get back to work. “If we make a run for it, you’re in the wrong clothes. What do you have that’s more rugged?”

“Jodhpurs. I have a pair of overalls, too. Daddy and I join in the manual labor sometimes, at harvest and such.”

“Good. How about shoes you can walk long distances in?”

We talked it over. When I’m tired, my left foot tends to droop. That is, my heel comes up all right with each step, but my toes tend to scuff along the ground, tripping me. I had a special shoe attached to a leg brace to keep my foot from drooping. It was heavy, though.

I’d recently discovered that my Keds high-top sneakers tended to hold my foot in position if I laced them tightly. Canvas sneakers weighed almost nothing. They were ideal. They just weren’t princessy.

“Good,” said Frank. “Let’s have you travel incognito.”

I saw where he was headed. “You want to disguise me as a boy, don’t you?”

“Yep.”

I didn’t want to be disguised as a boy. Frank had never seen me except in a beautiful dress. So far he seemed happy to think of me as an attractive, even desirable girl. But what if this illusion was easily shattered? Did thirteen-year-old boys even have girlfriends? Maybe this was a childish game to him and costume was essential. I said, “I hope you realize that there isn’t a boy in the kingdom with a gait like mine, so it’s a complete waste of time.”

“Maybe we’ll encounter people when we’re not on the move. Anyway, dresses don’t accessorize with sneakers.”

“Oh, all right. Help me off with this dress.” My dress fastened in the back, of course. As a princess, I was never expected to dress myself, but my maids had been unreliable enough that I’d learned anyway. Alas, this dress was particularly impossible. If I took my modesty too seriously, I’d be stuck in it forever.

He drew back in surprise, then said, “Sure.”

“Undo the buttons in back.” He set to work and I said, “You seemed surprised.”

“I never expect to get a girl’s clothes off on the first date,” he said.

“How many first dates have you had?”

“Counting this one?” There was a pause, then he said, “That makes, umm, let’s see, by my estimate … one.”

He helped me out of the dress. As I stood there in my slip, I was afraid he’d be disappointed. Or uncontrollably amorous. Or who knew what. But he looked away. This irritated me. He could at least show a polite interest! “Don’t just stand there,” I said, “I can’t wear this slip with overalls. Help me out of it.”

“Aye-aye, mon capitaine.”

“That doesn’t sound right.”

“I meant, ‘oui-oui, skipper.’”

He helped me out of my slip and I was left standing in my underwear and stockings. I’d never seen him blush before.

I was glad I’d started wearing training bras recently, being fairly sure that he’d have been even more embarrassed if I hadn’t, though in fact he’d once again looked away. “Hand me my shirt,” I said.

He did so, and seemed relieved after I put it on. I started removing my stockings. Once they were far from forbidden territory I had him take them off the rest of the way. Stockings are difficult for me. This also put him into contact with my matchstick legs, which are by far my worst feature. And therefore they’re always on display. There’s nothing like an above-the-knee dress and white stockings to show my legs to their very worst advantage.

I’d always wanted to be interested in clothes and fashion, but I’d never been given the opportunity. My wardrobe had been chosen by the stuffiest and least imaginative women available, women who liked to pretend that Queen Victoria hadn’t been dead for seventy years. Modernity had penetrated their thick skulls only to the point of realizing that high button shoes, which would work for me almost as well as high-top sneakers, were hopelessly out of fashion. Pants suits scandalized them and they imagined that I was too young for long skirts.

They never listened to me, anyway. I wished them all to the devil.

After helping me out of my stockings, Frank’s only comment was, “Your left foot is colder.”

“Yes, the circulation is poor. My left leg is shorter, too.”

He compared my legs and couldn’t see it. “By how much?”

“A quarter of an inch. It makes a difference.”

We talked about this as he helped me into socks and overalls and shoes. He thought that an extra sock on the left foot might be just the ticket to increase warmth, provide a shim, and allow tighter lacing. It was logical, but I said I’d like to test it under less trying conditions and would go with my existing shoe insert for now.

But the best part was that he didn’t draw back from touching my legs or even my coldish left foot. They neither repelled him nor elicited his pity. I wondered why. In fact, these few minutes of conversation contained more practical consideration of my handicap than I’d received in the last year.

Frank wanted me to braid my hair, claiming it was required when impersonating a boy successfully. Loose hair stuffed into a cap meant that there would be a “big reveal” later in the episode. This baffled me until he explained that he was making a joke about television clichés.

I’d never seen television, though we had movie nights in the palace once a week. I admitted that I didn’t know how to braid hair. Frank surprised me by doing it himself. He was dreadful at it, and his frustration and his tendency to swear and then feel embarrassed made me giggle.

I settled a cap over his handiwork and looked at my reflection in the mirror. The boy in the mirror looked back at me solemnly; a serious boy of obvious intelligence. He was surprisingly handsome, as if I were Frank’s adorable little brother. “I make a better boy than I’d like.”

Frank looked me over. “If you get confused, I’ll find a way to remind you that you’re all girl.”

“You hardly looked at me when you had the chance.”

He opened his mouth to speak, then closed it again. After a moment, he whispered behind his hand, “What’s my line?”

“You’re asking me to prompt you?”

“Well, why not? You did in your letter.”

“Frank Barron, you’re the most maddening boy I know.”

“I’m the only boy you know.”

“That’s not true!” I hesitated and added, “It’s a little bit true.”

He groped for his next line, but met my gaze and began to smile for no reason I could see. A moment later I couldn’t help smiling back. How did he do that?

He said, “I just realized something. You’re my girlfriend, and that means I’m allowed to think you’re beautiful. And I do. You’re my beautiful Flavia. Get used to it.”

He had me there. “You put the emphasis on ‘my.’”

“That’s because you belong to me. Mine, mine, mine, and don’t you forget it. But I’ll ogle you properly next time. I promise.”

I knew I should be outraged by his claim that he owned me, but it made me happy. Why? It didn’t make any sense. I’d have to think more about this later. “What does ogle mean?”

“It’s like leering, only less creepy.”

“Frank!”

“I meant … um … it’s a delighted amorous stare … no, gaze. Delighted amorous gaze.”

“That’s better.”

He asked me to pace the room a couple of times. Much better. The sneakers were a really good idea.

Time dragged. I asked Frank to tell me about his life in California. He lived in an ordinary house within walking distance of his middle school, where he was an ordinary student. I told him I didn’t believe he was ordinary, and he admitted he was the smartest kid in his class and had a lot of life skills through no fault of his own.

“What do you mean?”

“My parents got drawn into a venture that’s taking more time than it should, over the hills and far away, so they’re not around much. Most of the time it’s just me and my sister Spike.”

“I thought you were an only child.” And what kind of name was Spike? Especially for a girl?

“Foster sister. Louisa Maréchal. She just turned twenty.”

“How could you end up with a member of the Maréchal family as a foster sister? They’re very clannish.”

“Not when one of their own gets bitten by a werewolf at the age of seven. They couldn’t wait to get rid of her. Dropped her like a hot rock.”

“How awful! Wait, was she infected?”

“Yep. She’s a real bitch around the full moon.”

I glared at him and he said, “Sorry.”

“I don’t think you should talk about the poor girl that way.”

She talks about the poor girl that way. But I’ll behave.”

“Thank you.”

“You mentioned Grandfather’s human menagerie—”

“Oh! I’m sorry, Frank. I didn’t know.” I looked at him with real anxiety. With that line I’d insulted his grandfather and his foster sister. It would be so easy for him to hold it against me!

He reached out a hand. My guilty conscience made me flinch again, then I hated myself for flinching. He froze, an appalled look on his face, so I grabbed his hand by the wrist and pulled it closer. He relaxed and stroked my cheek with his fingertips.

Soon he continued his tale. “Anyway, I spend the school year in California and holidays on this side of the gateway, plus a weekend or two a month.”

“But you’ve been avoiding the palace, haven’t you? I haven’t seen you.”

“Sort of, but not this time. I’m getting tutored in magic by Dr. Wright.”

I was impressed. “I just get lessons from one of his apprentices.”

“He’s buddies with my parents. I’m here for the whole summer. I have the world’s tiniest bedroom just down the hall.”

He’d be here until the end of August! A weight lifted from my heart. Still … “Frank, I’m confused about us.”

“I’m not. Do you think your father got a letter, too?”

What? Oh. Of course I’d sent Daddy a letter. That’s why he hadn’t been blown to bits and why he’d been quick to accept Frank. Obviously. “Yes, he must have. And I must have put in a good word for you.” I wondered what I could have said to make Daddy so amenable. But I set the issue aside. “Frank, I signed my letter to you with love, and I don’t remember if I meant it.”

“Would you have said it if you didn’t mean it?”

“Maybe? Lives hung in the balance.”

“I want it to be real, Flavia. Please?”

“So do I.”

He looked relieved. “No problem, then. Let’s make it real. We’ll put our backs into it. We’re off to a wonderful start.”

“Are we?”

“Sure. You’re good in a crisis, I love your taste in books, and your kisses always count. And I’m in the doghouse for not ogling you as much as you deserve. You’re perfect, Flavia.”

“Flatterer.” I didn’t mind it so much this time.

“I’m not the flatterer; you are. When your life depended on finding a hero, you picked me.

All of which was gratifying, but Frank was soon restless again. The strain was getting to him. It was getting to me, too, but I showed it less. I had more training in presenting an outward calm while tolerating boredom and frustration. He offered to pace in a different room, but I didn’t want him out of my sight.

It was a long, slow, boring, endless, hungry evening. It seemed like it would last forever, but shortly after dark we both fell asleep.

Continued in Chapter 5. “Room Service.”

Deep POV is Way Too Shallow

Hey, let’s kick around so-called “Deep POV” for a while. It’s fun! Beating it up is almost too easy, but let’s do it anyway.

The idea of “deep POV” is that if you take a stream-of-consciousness narrative and clean it up so it isn’t too unbearable, you’ve got something uniquely wonderful. (People usually define it differently, but then, they would.)

Now, with stream-of-consciousness, you have an inherently shallow point of view, reporting on the viewpoint character’s surface thoughts and immediate impressions as if you were a brain recorder. Nothing deep about it.

Deep POV is exactly the same thing, but while stream-of-consciousness tends to use lots of self-interruption and sentence fragments to maximize its own tedium in the cause of “realism,” deep POV tends to use complete sentences to make the story marginally less ghastly.

Part of the problem with deep POV is that it assumes that the inside of the viewpoint character’s skull is far more interesting than it really is. Let’s face it: it’s dark and wet in there.

This error is compounded by deciding that only the stuff the character is experiencing in the moment can be described at all. All the things that the character knows but isn’t actively thinking about are kept secret from the reader. Thus, if you want to give some background information, you either have to contrive a scene where somebody talks about it or force the character to ponder it, hopefully in a non-random-seeming way.

In an ordinary story, the narration is done by the narrator. Take a traditional first-person story. The author pretends that the viewpoint character first lives through his adventure, then sits down and tells his story as best he can. Narrating his own story, in other words. This lets the author tell the story in a straightforward way, explaining things the audience needs to know as needed. You know: the way human beings tell stories. This isn’t allowed in deep POV. Strangling the narrator is the defining feature of deep POV.

Why would anyone bother? Admit it: you’d rather gnaw off your own leg than read a stream-of-consciousness novel. You’ll never read one unless you sign up for the wrong English class. Thus, the popularity of deep POV is a mystery to me. I assume that it’s a literary fad that affects authors rather than readers.

I’ve noticed, though, that a fondness for deep POV occurs side by side with a second literary spasm: the superstition that “an omniscient narrator is ipso facto a head-hopping narrator.” This belief is drilled into the heads of aspiring writers in spite of its obvious silliness. Omniscient narration is a narrative form; head-hopping is a beginner’s blunder. It’s equivalent to defining a manual transmission as “stalling the car by letting the clutch out too fast.” Nope. Not even close.

What is my favorite narrative form, you ask? It’s the first-person yarn. For example, Robert A. Heinlein starts his classic Have Space Suit, Will Travel with the paragraph

You see, I had this space suit. How it happened was this way:

From the very first line, we know that the story will be told as a personal anecdote, entirely different from the brain-recorder approach that deep POV uses.

In one of the novels I’m writing at the moment, Jen Meets Her Match, Jen makes it clear from the first paragraph that she sat herself down after the fact and told her story in her own words (and with no attempt to restrain her teenaged attitude):

My boyfriend is a real piece of work. Oh, I’m sure you’ve heard of girls whose boyfriends are vampires, werewolves, or even zombies. Those girls are lightweights. I don’t mean to brag, but they wouldn’t last five minutes with my boyfriend. Not that Frank is undead or anything. That would be too easy.

This entire paragraph would be impossible in deep POV, since it frames action that hasn’t been related yet, and that’s verboten. Nor would the next paragraph be permissible in deep POV:

It all started during the first week of school. Sophomore year. Wednesday, September 4, 1974. Paul Anka’s “Having My Baby” was at the top of the charts, but other than that I was doing okay. I was minding my own business when Frank showed up next to me in the lunch line. He was new and we’d never spoken, but we had a few classes together and I knew his name.

Only the sentence “I was minding my own business when Frank showed up next to me in the lunch line” would be allowed in deep POV, since Jen isn’t consciously pondering the date, the Top Forty, or the list of things she knows about Frank during that particular moment. In short, in deep POV, there’s no framing, no scene-setting, no nothin’.

As you can see, I use first-person narration when I want to take full advantage of the viewpoint character’s voice and attitude. I only use it for highly articulate characters. With characters who aren’t as verbally flexible, I use third-person. That way, I’m limited only by my own verbal ability. While there are exceptions where a not-so-articulate character can be a fascinating first-person narrator (Flowers for Algernon leaps to mind), it’s an awfully tough row to hoe.

Does deep POV have any advantages? I haven’t found one: everything claimed as a unique advantage of deep POV is something I’ve been able to do with other viewpoints.

 

 

My Brief Life and Tragic Death, Chapter 3

(Looking for Chapter 1? It’s here: Chapter 1. Purple Pumpkins.)

Chapter 3. Inaccurate Fairy Tales

I pointed in the direction of my suite. Frank walked across the courtyard with me, lending his support in more ways than one. He seemed a bit preoccupied, as well he might. Even so, he was more attentive than my usual companions.

While today’s plotters had intended to kill me out of hand, I realized that future plotters might someday see me as someone worth capturing. My betrothal and eventual marriage to a usurper might add some useful legitimacy. Not to the usurper, exactly, but to my children by him. Which would make people more willing to tolerate the usurper himself. He’d be the father of the more or less legitimate heir and husband to the real princess, you see.

Marrying me to Daddy’s murderer is a power play that a villain can understand. There’s a science to it. The trick is to keep the bride from killing herself or her husband until she’s heavily pregnant, at which point she inevitably gives up for her baby’s sake. Or so they claim.

Of course, I was only twelve years old, which was awfully young for that particular scheme. But I had it in my future if any future villains didn’t discard me in distaste for being a cripple.

And that, dear reader, is princessing in a nutshell. It’s no career for a young girl.

Of course, Daddy is very smart and will probably keep the upper hand in spite of all their efforts. Probably.

Once we were inside the palace again, Frank saw a bench in the corridor and said, “Can we rest for a minute? I’m terribly out of breath.” He wiped imaginary sweat from his brow. There was real sweat on mine.

I nodded and we sat. I was charmed by his alert kindness and the deliberate transparency of his little white lies.

After I’d recovered a little, I said, “Who are you, Frank?”

“My father is Sir Ralph Woodville. My mother is Shirley Barron. The way Dad tells it, when they first met, he was an aristocratic young ne’er-do-well who knew a good thing when he saw it. She was a tanned and perky California surfer girl—and devastatingly intelligent, of course. He didn’t stand a chance; not that he wanted to. The rest is history.”

“You’re illegitimate?”

“No, they’re married and everything. I can go by Frank Woodville if I want to. I just don’t.”

I did a mental calculation. “That puts you about eleventh in line for the throne, doesn’t it?”

“Yep. Once the succession crosses over to the Woodville line, I have two uncles, a father, and three cousins ahead of me. No crown for me, thank God.”

“Do you have any siblings?”

“Not a one. You?”

“No. But you knew that. What’s California like?”

“You’ve never been?”

“No.”

“I like it. Especially the way I can walk around at night and not have every drop of blood sucked from my body. Let’s nip across the gateway as soon as we can. I’ll take you to the movies, bowling, ice cream, go-karts: the works. And shopping, I guess.”

I thought it must be nice, living on the other side of the gateway, perhaps going to a public school, making friends, and doing all the normal things I’d never done. And having two parents. What luxury!

Frank probably used his mother’s maiden name to help maintain his privacy. I’m told that, on the California side, the gateway is a secret, but a poorly kept one. The Woodville name would attract attention from those in the know.

As my boyfriend, Frank really might expect to take me on dates on his side of the gateway. I wasn’t sure, but the things he’d listed seemed appropriate for … middle-school children? Yes, that was right. But was he really my boyfriend? I decided to ask. “Frank?”

“Hmm?”

“I told Daddy you’re my boyfriend.”

“I was there. Anyway, I am your boyfriend. I kissed you and everything.”

I studied his face. He was smiling but he wasn’t joking.

“Are you sure?”

“You’re my very first girlfriend, but I think so. Let’s make it official. Flavia, I really like you and I haven’t kissed you nearly enough. Let’s go steady.”

“Okay.” I’d have preferred him to be more formal, but never mind. He could have let himself off the hook, but he wanted to be my boyfriend! The topic of kissing confused me; especially, again, the idea that he wanted to.

But there were rules. The first rule was that princesses don’t have boyfriends. Suitors, yes. Fiancés, yes. Husbands, yes. Never boyfriends.

On the other hand, I was crippled. Perhaps the rules didn’t apply to me? Perhaps I was so unimportant that my own happiness could actually matter?

Frank broke in on my thoughts. “Try to write me another letter tonight.”

My heart sank. “I don’t know if I can.”

“Neither do I. Let’s find out.”

“You seem awfully calm after all that’s happened.”

He held out a hand. It was trembling. “I’m doing all right. So are you.”

We stood and resumed our journey. When I told Frank that my rooms were on the third floor, he began muttering angrily to himself. He seemed to think that I was being mistreated. I had to ask him to stop.

My legs and back were aching and stiff. It took us a long time to climb to the third floor, but we made it to my suite eventually: bedroom, sitting room, bathroom, and walk-in closet. My maid, Miss Parmalee, had a room across the hall. I banged on her door as I passed, but there was no answer. She wasn’t in my rooms, either. Daddy’s bodyguard, who had continued to follow us, checked my suite, announced it was empty, and departed to rejoin Daddy.

Frank helped me to the sofa and said, “What next?”

“I don’t think you’re allowed to be here unchaperoned.”

“The king ordered me to stick to you like a second skin until he relieves me personally.” He’d left the door wide open, as etiquette demanded. He walked over to it and stood, considering. “Your servants are missing. I’ve been taught that, on a day like today, anything unexpected is bad. It proves we still don’t know what’s going on.”

You’re unexpected.”

“No, I’m not!” He pointed at himself. “I’m always right here.”

His silly argument was comforting. I almost smiled. “You know what I mean.”

“Let’s figure that the King knew what he was doing, keeping us together. And so did you when you sent me the letter. Thank you, Flavia. Really. It was an amazing compliment. I wouldn’t have missed today for the world.” He gave me the most wonderful smile before turning his attention back to the door.

I could tell when he made his decision. His posture straightened and he seemed to grow larger. “Right. We’re bolting the door. Screw chaperonage. Unless…” He turned and looked at me. “What kinds of weapons do you have?”

“Just a wand. But I don’t think I’m up to hurting people.”

“Me, neither. Punching someone out, sure. I’ve done that plenty of times, boxing. But grown men are way above my weight class. Messing them up with magic? I don’t know. It seems different, somehow. Wrong. And I’m not sure it would work.” He nodded sharply. “Bolted it is.” He closed and locked the door, then threw all three bolts. The top and bottom bolts gave him trouble, since they hadn’t been used in years. Next, he closed and locked the heavy iron gate to the balcony, the one that protected the room from importunate vampires. Unlike the windows in the library, which faced the courtyard, my windows were on the outside of the palace, facing north. Then he closed and locked the French windows and drew the curtains.

“Why draw the curtains?” I asked.

He quoted his unknown teacher, “Never give the enemy the gift of information.” He turned on a couple of lights and repeated the process in my bedroom.

While he attended to these tasks, I began to cry. I couldn’t help it. I was too exhausted to bear up any longer. It wasn’t just the tiredness and emotional strain. My legs and back ached terribly. It was humiliating to be reduced to tears while Frank was so active, but I couldn’t stop.

I had endless practice with silent tears, but Frank noticed right away. Miss Parmalee would have taken a lot longer, or pretended to. He took a step towards me. I must have flinched, because he stopped abruptly. His air of confidence vanished and he looked bewildered and sad. He said, “What should I do?”

I realized that he was willing, even eager to hold me as I cried, but the idea was just too strange. Between silent sobs, I said, “Could you read to me? It would distract me and I like your voice.”

He found a book of fairy tales and started reading Snow White aloud. But he was on edge and prowled the room like a tiger as he read. That was too much for my jangled nerves. I asked him to be still.

Frank admitted that he really wanted to hold me or at least sit beside me, but I wouldn’t let him. Not while I was crying.

He flung himself discontentedly into an armchair and resumed reading aloud. He used different voices for each character, often inappropriate ones, such as giving the Evil Queen the deepest voice as he could manage. This cheered him up. He managed quite a pleasant voice for Snow White and changed her name to Flavia.

He interrupted himself and told me he didn’t mean anything by it and hoped I didn’t mind. I urged him to continue. It helped, though I was still crying.

I wondered why Frank was so attentive and biddable. Everyone else I knew was preoccupied. They paid little attention to me and none at all to my wishes. Frank was different. Why?

Oh. The letter. I’d steered him true and now he trusted me. I’d signed the letter with love, and he trusted that, too. Frank had thrown himself joyously, heart and soul into a situation that gave him a heroic role to play and a princess, of sorts, to fall in love with. But perhaps his mood could only last a little while?

As if in answer to my thoughts, he changed Prince Charming’s name to Frank. Flavia and Frank found true love and lived happily ever after. He did the same thing with Sleeping Beauty. We found true love and lived happily ever after half a dozen times in a row.

Eventually he began bestowing his name more randomly. He was cheerfully mangling the story of Rapunzel (“’Flavia, Flavia, let down your long hair, that I may climb the golden stair,’ called Frank the witch”), when I drifted off to sleep.

And that, dear reader, is how I met Frank.

Continued in Chapter 4, “Penetrable Disguise.”

My Brief Life and Tragic Death, Chapter 2

(Looking for Chapter 1? It’s here: Chapter 1. Purple Pumpkins.)

Chapter 2. Behind the Arras

It started with a muffled boom that I could feel in my chest and stomach, followed by the thud of falling stonework, the higher-pitched crash of roof tiles, and finally the screams of injured horses. The first sounds frightened me. The last one angered me.

“Follow my lead,” said Frank. “Come on.”

I stood and swayed. My bad leg was asleep. Frank pocketed the note, picked me up like a child, and carried me to the back of the library. I was small but not that small: he was strong for his age. He pulled back the corner of a floor-to-ceiling wall hanging and revealed a wide, empty niche that had probably displayed a statue or two once upon a time. Though I spent more time in the library than anyone, I’d never suspected it was there. He pulled me inside and twitched the hanging back into place.

I found myself facing him, my arms around his neck. I couldn’t let go because my legs refused to support my full weight. He had an arm around my waist to help keep me upright. He enjoined silence by pressing the index finger of his free hand gently to my lips.

Just seconds later I heard footsteps enter the library. They ran up and down the aisles in an almost frenzied search. A man’s voice, familiar but unwelcome, said, “She’s not here, my lord.”

Another unwelcome voice said, “She has to be here!”

“Maybe she’s in the ladies’ room.”

“Let’s check, then.”

The footsteps departed.

I stirred, but Frank put his finger to my lips again and I subsided. It was dim but not entirely dark. Frank listened with his eyes closed and his head tilted. From time to time, he opened his eyes and looked at me to see if I was all right. He seemed almost painfully alert. Each time our eyes met, I could feel him relax a trifle, but this was interrupted when he closed his eyes again.

My legs were waking up and I didn’t need to hang on to him anymore, but I kept my arms around his neck.

After a minute or two, he began stroking my hair with his free hand. It was an outrageous liberty. I should have been furious, but … I wasn’t. It was soothing.

I hadn’t expected tenderness from Frank. I hadn’t expected tenderness from anyone ever again; not since my mother died. I sighed softly and let him continue, accidentally nuzzling his throat before resting my cheek on his shoulder. I could hear his heartbeat. He seemed so sure of himself, so calm, but his heart was racing. It slowed somewhat and his body relaxed as he stroked my hair. I wasn’t the only one who found it soothing.

The note had saved my life. I tried to remember writing it, but not a shadow, not an echo of it remained.

I tried to imagine writing the phrase, “You must befriend me,” but it seemed unreal. I had no friends; none at all. I rejected the few overtures that came my way, all palpably insincere. Stranger still, Frank had acted upon my note without hesitation, with a strange combination of manly fortitude, touching faith, and childish glee.

It was this that convinced me that I’d truly seen the future. I couldn’t have imagined Frank’s response, let alone predicted it. Not with my everyday knowledge.

I’d signed the letter, “Love, Flavia.” Perhaps it was a lie to ensure Frank’s cooperation? On the one hand, it was an almost admirable ruse; forgivable, considering the stakes, though I hated dishonesty. On the other hand, Frank had trusted the letter. He’d trusted me. I hoped he hadn’t trusted in vain. Taking advantage of him seemed terribly cruel. He deserved better. Could he ever forgive me?

After a long period of silence, we heard scattered shouts, gunfire, and shrieks in the distance. The tension was unbearable. I wanted to scream. That was when Frank and I began kissing. I’m not sure which of us started it. I was twelve and perhaps a little backward for my age. Kissing had never been on my mind. I suppose I still thought of myself as a little girl, though my body had changed in ways that declared otherwise. But here I was.

Frank, on the other hand, was boldness personified. Surely, his approach to kissing would verge on assault! But it wasn’t like that at all. He moved slowly, as if his heart would break if he startled me. His lips were warm and his kisses were so soft! In spite of everything, I allowed myself to pretend, just this once, that a boy could love me.

The shouts and gunfire stopped, but we didn’t. We traded gentle kisses, not only on the lips but on the face and neck, too.

We froze when we heard footsteps. A soft voice called, “Flavia?”

“Daddy!” I scrambled out of the niche and almost fell, but caught myself on a nearby bookcase. Frank emerged a moment later.

My father the king strode into view. He was wearing one of his beautiful pinstripe suits. Unusually for him, he was carrying a Thompson submachine gun; the older model with the drum magazine. It made him look like a particularly handsome 1920s gangster with an excellent tailor. He sighed in relief. There were tears in his eyes, so I guessed that he’d been afraid that he’d find me lying dead. He looked curiously at Frank.

I wondered if Frank would be embarrassed. After all, he’d been caught alone with a girl and wasn’t even properly dressed. I needn’t have worried; Frank was the soul and image of the cheeky rascal. He extended a hand. “Sire. Frank Barron.”

Daddy shook it automatically, then chuckled. “Caught me off guard, boy. Welcome. I haven’t seen you since you were small.”

“Daddy, I think Frank just saved my life.”

Daddy’s face went wooden, the way he does when he’s hiding his emotions. “He probably did. They were going to shoot you if they caught you, Princess. Thank you, my boy.”

“Also, he’s my boyfriend.”

“What? How long have you known him?”

I didn’t wear a watch, so I turned to Frank. He glanced at his wristwatch and said, “About twenty minutes—or the rest of our lives, if we’d been found.”

I was starting to sag. Even my good leg was aching and trembling. Frank offered me his arm matter-of-factly and I leaned on it.

Daddy said, “Don’t get your hopes up, boy.”

“Show him the note, Frank.”

Frank handed him the note. Daddy read it carefully. He has wonderful powers of concentration, even in a crisis. He told me, “Interesting. We’ll talk later. Frank, I know you’re an intelligent boy. This note and every single one of its implications are state secrets.”

“Yes, Sire.”

He stared at Frank for a moment and said, “I’m assigning you to accompany the princess. Stick close to her until I relieve you. Stay sharp and keep her safe.”

“Thank you, Sire!”

Daddy smiled briefly, then became grave. He told me, “Princess, I want to show you something. Something ugly, I’m afraid. Come along” He walked off briskly. He’d left his two bodyguards just inside the library door, and they flanked him. Daddy outpaced us and we were left behind.

Daddy is a wonderful person, but he has fixed beliefs about mind over matter, especially among the aristocracy. No coddling. What’s sad is that I can keep up with him and walk without limping for short distances if I’m not too tired, but I was over-tired that day, having worn myself out horseback riding the day before. Daddy never slowed to my pace. He strode down the long corridor and was lost to sight as he took the stairs to the ground floor. But he sent one of his bodyguards to walk behind us at a discreet distance. I hobbled as fast as I could.

Frank was upset. Many people are upset when they see me limping heavily, which adds an unpleasant lurch to my gait and almost as painful for them to watch as it is for me to walk. Somehow, though, I knew that he was bothered more by Daddy’s behavior than by my limp. I had mixed feelings about this. Eventually he said, “I can carry you or we can slow down. Take your pick.”

I slowed. He was right, of course: it helped. I could walk more normally and he could support me more effectively if I didn’t rush. Carrying me was out of the question; not when we might be seen. It was too undignified.

Frank said, “Should I be on your other side?” Most people are too busy pretending not to notice my handicap to take in the details. I nodded and he moved to my left. My left leg is indeed my bad leg. Not that my right leg is anything to write home about. I came down with polio when I was little, just before the vaccine was used widely here, and it damaged both my legs. I’m fine otherwise; I really am. I leaned heavily on Frank’s arm.

“There we go,” said Frank when my gait was as good as it seemed likely to get. “Two young people out for a stroll. I like having a beautiful girl on my arm.”

“I’m not beautiful,” I said, “and I don’t like flattery.”

Frank said, “Modest, too. Is there no end to your virtues?”

“I’m serious, Frank.”

“Oh, all right.” We started down the stairs to the ground floor and he changed the subject. “So what kind of stakes do you use when you gamble?”

“I don’t.”

“Because I figure we’re about to be shown corpses or prisoners, and I wondered which side of the bet you wanted.”

I shuddered and my eyes filled with tears. “Please don’t. Please. I’ve had a sheltered life. I can’t joke about murder. It’s all new and horrible.”

“I’m sorry, sweetheart.” He called me his sweetheart!

After a few steps he said, “So today’s not typical, then?”

I stood up straighter. “How could it be? It has you in it.”

I was afraid I’d gone too far, but he grinned. “So it does. Shall I distract you with pleasant thoughts?”

“Having you as my boyfriend is not a pleasant thought!” Now I was sure I’d gone too far and I was ashamed. He was my rescuer, my hero. He deserved my thanks, not my abuse. And I liked him. What was wrong with me? Was I some kind of monster? I looked at him anxiously. He was looking at me in exactly the same way. A moment later we were both smiling. It felt very strange.

I said, “I walk a lot better than this most days.”

“I’m glad to hear it. What good is having a girlfriend who doesn’t fetch and carry?”

“You’ll think of something.” The next time I glanced at him, he wore an evil grin. This puzzled me until I figured it out several steps later. “Not something like that! Stop it! I’m an innocent girl. I don’t do double entendre.”

Frank said, “I’ll teach you. I knew this girl, she had the biggest double entendres you ever saw.”

We were silent for a few steps, then I said, “Meaning breasts?”

“Probably.”

“So I have to learn what people with dirty minds will infer when I only give them a vague hint?”

“Exactly.”

“Without developing a dirty mind of my own?”

“Well, no.

I tossed my head. “Never mind, then.”

“What good is having a girlfriend who doesn’t let me corrupt her?”

“You’ll think of something.”

We were almost at the courtyard door and Daddy was waiting for us. When we caught up, he opened the door for us.

The palace is basically a Spanish-style villa. It’s three stories tall, with stone walls, red tile roof, and a central brick courtyard with a fountain in the middle. On the opposite side of the courtyard, part of the wall had fallen, presumably due to the explosion. Daddy’s study was exposed, looking strangely intact considering that one wall was missing, until you realized that this wasn’t true. The first several feet of floor, including his desk and chair, were missing. Someone had tried to blow him up.

We stopped and stared. After a while Frank said, “I wonder how it was done? I’d have thought the blast damage would be more spherical.”

“Do you know about explosives?”

“Doesn’t look like it.”

I’d heard the screaming of horses, but none were now in the courtyard. They must have been led off to the stables. I hoped the poor beasts were all right.

The aftermath of the explosion wasn’t what Daddy wanted us to see. He led us to a wooden farm wagon. In it had been thrown four corpses. I’d never seen a corpse before, except once or twice at open-casket funerals where the morticians had gone to a lot of trouble. This was different. I’m not going to describe what they looked like, but even I could tell that they were dead bodies and not people anymore. A cloud of flies had gathered already and there was a smell of feces that almost masked the smell of blood. Death was more undignified than I had realized. I felt a little dizzy and for a moment I had a sense of unreality. The appalling vividness made it undeniable, though.

Lord Murdock the seneschal was one of the corpses. So was my tutor, Sir Archibald. Two were men I didn’t know. The other end of the wagon held a dozen purple pumpkins. Until that moment I hadn’t realized that purple pumpkins existed outside of dreams.

There were other people about, so I had to speak formally. In a shaking voice I said, “Sire, Lord Murdock and Sir Archibald looked for me in the library. I recognized their voices.”

“I’m almost sorry they didn’t surrender,” said Daddy in a deceptively mild tone. “They would have apologized to you from the scaffold.”

Sir Archibald had been a nervous, twitchy man with bad breath. Of all my tutors, he had been the least competent, the least diligent, and the least sane. Sometimes I’d wondered if he hated me. I had my answer now. Lord Murdock hadn’t pretended to like me the way most did. A crippled princess was an object of open distaste to him, even if I was heir to the throne.

I felt weak and ill. Frank braced himself as I put more of my weight on his arm. I said, “Do I … do I have your leave to depart, Sire?”

“Of course, Princess.”

Continued in Chapter 3, “Inaccurate Fairy Tales.”

 

Jen Meets Her Match, Chapter 4

(Looking for Chapter 1? It’s here:  Chapter 1, Double-Dog Dare.)

Chapter 4. Double Anchovies

I knew Frank had gone insane when the very next thing he did was pick up the kitchen phone and order five pizzas. I just stared at him. If anything, it was more surreal than the zombie. Frank still held the shotgun, but his wand had vanished.

He made another brief phone call, then unplugged the phone and took it out to the patio, where he plugged it into a weatherproof extension jack. He dragged over a deck chair for me and I flopped down into it, glad to be away from the zombie’s stench. I still didn’t feel entirely well, and the thought of pizza wasn’t helping. Frank dragged over a chair for himself. The phone rang.

Frank picked it up. “This is Frank. Yeah, that’s right. It’s all over, or Round One is, anyway. The mess is out front. We’re around back. Oh, and call the cops for me, will you? They know you.”

Soon a couple of vans pulled up in the alley. We could just see them over the back fence. Men piled out and Frank shouted, “Come on in!” Six armed and uniformed private security guards trooped in. Four carried shotguns.

Frank greeted a middle-aged man who was clearly in charge. “Hey, Bill. Don’t let anyone mess up the crime scene out front. D.R. should be here any minute. Oh, and this is my girlfriend.” He turned to me. “Jen, meet Bill the Vampire Slayer.”

We shook hands. I’d heard of Bill, actually. He was a local celebrity.

Frank treated Bill with respect but not deference, as if they were peers. Bill named the rest of his crew and departed for the front of the house with two of his men.

A few minutes later we heard a couple of vehicles pull up in front, and we soon saw a man in a rumpled suit who turned out to be a police detective, accompanied by a uniformed cop. Frank stood and introduced himself to both men, shaking hands. He introduced me with cheerful possessiveness as his girlfriend. I belonged to him and he made sure everyone knew it. I kind of liked it.

Detective Cartwright asked us questions while Sergeant Dickens took shorthand notes.

Frank didn’t tone down his jokey obnoxiousness much, but he answered serious questions with precision.

Before we’d gotten much further than names, ages, and home addresses, four men in rubber boots, rubber aprons, and rubber gloves showed up.

Detective Cartwright looked irritated and said, “Hands off the crime scene until my photographer and the coroner are done with it.” He told the sergeant to light a fire under the coroner, then decided to point out the boundary of the crime scene to the newcomers himself, and they all left.

“Who were they?” I asked.

“Disaster recovery,” said Frank. “They’ll clean up the mess and hang a new door. Tonight, if I’m lucky. You okay, baby doll?”

“I guess,” I said. “What happens next, lambkin?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Probably everyone stands around until the coroner says, ‘Yep, that’s a dead zombie, all right.’ He’ll call an ambulance to cart away the pieces and then D.R. cleans up. Bill and the boys will stick around until I have a front door again. With any luck, someone will remember to follow the back trail. Maybe they’ll find out what happened.”

I thought about this. “I should probably call my grandma.”

He gestured to the phone and said, “Feel free.”

Grandma was happy to hear from me. A news flash about a zombie attack had come over the radio, but without details. Grandma said she didn’t want me walking home. I didn’t blame her. I told her I’d call again when I was ready to leave.

Suburban zombie attacks were rare at the time (except near graveyards), but they happened. They were often random, or random-ish: the worse the deterioration of the zombie, the more confused they were about the unfinished business that reanimated them in the first place. Eventually they settled for random violence and human flesh. Especially brains, of course. But I had a hunch that Frank’s house hadn’t been chosen at random.

I hung up the phone and noticed that Frank looked like he’d lost his last friend. It scared me. “Why so sad, bubby?”

He took my hand. “Oh, you know. I finally get you alone and zombies and cops barge in. I wouldn’t blame you if you bailed on me.”

Finally? You only met me at lunch!”

“Don’t be prosaic. We’ve been destined to be together since always.”

“Oh, we have, have we?”

He made a vague gesture with his free hand, indicating the swarm of strangers. “Ask anybody.”

“But that means you were two-timing me when you were with … I’m so sorry!”

For some reason, my reference to his lost love didn’t strike home this time. He waved away my concern. “Yep, that’s me. I’m the worst kind of cad. When I look back on all the terrible things I did, all I can say is, ‘Wow, was I cool or what?’”

“What.”

“But I’m sure I can be redeemed by the love of a good woman.” He paused for dramatic effect. “I don’t suppose you know one?”

“You have to settle for me, big boy. I have two dollars invested in you. I own you.”

“Fair enough.” He smiled at me with dancing eyes, his sadness gone.

The coroner and the pizzas arrived at the same time. The coroner, an elderly man with a cherubic smile, was ecstatic that one of the pizzas had—I kid you not—double anchovies. It takes all kinds.

Frank’s five pizzas were none too many. There were at least fifteen people present, not counting me and Frank. The only one he’d met before was Bill, so he was playing host to a mob of strangers. Frank dragged out a couple of six-packs of beer and one of soda from somewhere, along with a bag of ice from the freezer, and work ceased for a time. Business was brisk and none of the beers stayed on ice for more than thirty seconds.

I was surprised at all the people who were happily drinking on duty, but Frank told me that “on duty” and “one beer” were never mutually exclusive as far as he could tell.

I took a soda. It helped. I couldn’t touch the pizza, though. Not even the ones without anchovies. Nor could Frank. It was one of those little things that reminded me that he was a kid like me. He wasn’t like the hardened professionals who were eating his pizza and drinking his beer. The zombie had put him off his feed, too.

The cops resumed their interview over pizza. Frank revealed with pride that I was the heroic zombie slayer, not him. Both I and the shotgun were admired and praised by everyone present. It felt good! I mean, really good. I’d impressed the cynical veterans. It felt a lot better than winning another spelling bee.

I was afraid Frank would get into trouble. I’d heard that sawed-off shotguns were illegal. Apparently it was half an inch longer than the legal minimum.

Soon everyone was back at work. The zombie was gathered into two body bags and taken away in an ambulance. The coroner and the cops departed and the disaster recovery folks got to work. They were keen on chlorine bleach and hydrogen peroxide and strongly perfumed detergents.

The good news was that the door frame was fine and they could get an equivalent door installed tonight. This would be followed by a stronger one in a few days, along with another upgraded door for the back, and a third for the doorway between the garage and the house. They quoted a price that made my eyes bug out, but Frank didn’t turn a hair.

The bad news was that the white shag carpet had cleaned up beautifully and no longer had any stains or smells. We’d hoped it was ruined.

Soon it was time for me to think about heading home. It was a beautiful afternoon and it was silly not to walk, though Frank offered to call me a cab. I called Grandma and she arrived at a typical family compromise. She told my twin younger brothers to run over and escort me back. They either missed the implication about their own expendability or were too excited about the crime scene to care. In a few minutes they trotted into the front yard, which was already presentable again.

“Frank,” I said, “these are my loathsome brothers, Stuart and Roy. They’re both eleven.”

Frank shook hands. He hadn’t shaken hands with me when he introduced himself. Just everyone else on the planet. What was his deal? He said, “You guys look too much alike. One of you should grow a mustache.”

“I’ll do it,” said Stuart.

“No, me!” said Roy.

“Have a race,” said Frank. “First one to pass as Groucho Marx wins.”

“That’s just shoe polish,” said Roy scornfully.

“Karl Marx, then.”

“Are you really Jen’s boyfriend?” asked Stuart.

“Sure. I’ll prove it to you. Call her a name and I’ll punch you out.”

They both blinked at this offer. Frank added, “Boyfriends aren’t just romantic. They’re possessive and protective and violent. Though today I let Jen do all the killing.”

That distracted them. Frank took them to admire the splintered, buckshot-chewed door. They turned and looked at me with wide eyes. They were disappointed that the zombie had been removed. Not even a whiff of it remained. The disaster recovery people were good.

Then it was time to go. “You’re not really going to kiss her, are you?” asked Stuart.

Which of course meant that Frank not only kissed me, he did it with unnecessary theatricality that made me giggle, more or less ruining it. The jerk.

And then I walked home with my brothers, who were all agog and danced around me asking stupid questions, most of which I couldn’t answer.

And that was my first day as Frank’s girlfriend.

Continued in Chapter 5, “Blind Keyhole.”

My Brief Life and Tragic Death, Chapter 1

My Brief Life and Tragic Death is one of the urban fantasy novels that I’ll complete and publish before the end of 2020. Let me know what you think!

Chapter 1. Purple Pumpkins

I met Frank and survived an assassination attempt between lunch and teatime.

I suppose it started with the whistling. I had the palace library all to myself, as usual, and was reading at my favorite table. It was a beautiful June day in 1972. The hush was shattered when a boy walked in, whistling. He caught sight of me and approached. It’s hard to smirk and whistle at the same time, but he managed it. When he reached my table, he stopped whistling and stood smiling at me. It was a good smile; it invited me to smile back, which I didn’t, of course.

He was a handsome boy of about thirteen, which made him a year older than myself. He was tall for his age, with a haircut that said he was from the California side of the gateway. I liked him at once, which annoyed me. I don’t get along with my fellow children.

His smile and likability made me self-conscious, though I was wearing a particularly beautiful blue dress that day.

The boy was actually wandering the palace in shirtsleeves, having abandoned his blazer who knew where. He’d loosened his tie and rolled up his sleeves. Somehow, this made him look at home, as if I were the intruder.

I gave him a cold stare. “This is a library, you know.”

He looked around in pretended astonishment.

I added, “You can tell from all the books? At least, I hope you can.”

“I’ll take your word for it. Hey, maybe you can help me. I’m looking for a sweet little girl named Flavia.”

I placed a bookmark and closed my book. “Are you being irritating on purpose?”

“Of course I am. How about you?”

I was taken aback. “Why?”

“Look, babe, do you know where Flavia is or not?”

“I’m Princess Flavia.”

“Then your portraits don’t do you justice. I like the freckles especially. A freckle is a beacon of honesty in a mendacious world. Allow me to introduce myself. Frank Barron, at your service.” He stuck out his hand.

If you ignored his actual words, he was wonderfully well-spoken, especially for his age. He had that command of language which only an intelligent person who reads a great many books develops, but without the stiff delivery of someone like me, for whom books are their only friends. I was a bit regretful when I said, “Princesses don’t shake hands.”

“Oh, that’s all right. I’m not a princess.”

I rolled my eyes. “But I am.”

“Anyway, you have it backwards. Privilege, you see. You can shake anyone’s hand. They aren’t supposed to make the offer. Privilege gives you more choices than other people. Or it should.”

Most people smile only with their mouths, at least when they smile at me. Frank’s eyes twinkled. This was a game and he was inviting me to play, but it didn’t look like any fun from where I was sitting.

Except for correcting his execrable logic, that is. “You just admitted your faux pas in offering your hand,” I said, feeling a bit triumphant.

“And then there’s the third category. Princesses, everyone else … and me.” He stuck out his hand again. “Frank Barron.”

I shook my head.

He said, “I dare you to shake my hand.”

“No.”

“I double-dare you.”

I hesitated. “Why?”

“I’ll tell you in a minute.”

“I’ve never shaken anyone’s hand.”

“It’s easy. I’ll teach you.”

He’d piqued my interest, so, in spite of many misgivings, I allowed this. As a girl, I could shake hands while seated, which was a mercy.

My misgivings were unfounded. Unlike his banter, Frank’s handshake was straightforward. Somehow, it communicated that he was a real person and he knew perfectly well that I was one, too. This had never happened to me before.

“One last time. Allow me to introduce myself.” He stuck out his hand. “Frank Barron. Call me Frank.”

I took his hand and said, “Princess Flavia Beaumont. Pleased to meet you, Frank. Call me … Flavia?”

“Perfect.”

“Wait, why are we on a first-name basis?”

“We’re friends.”

“We are not!”

“And you just now invited me to call you Flavia.”

“You tricked me!”

“I wonder. But my first answer was true.”

“We are not friends, Mr. Frank Barron.”

He became serious. “Humor me. It’s important.”

I felt myself tense. “Who sent you?” I’d been warned that, damaged goods though I was, I would still be a target for plots.

“No one knows I’m here but you.”

“What do you want?”

“I’ll start with my second-best reason. I’m surrounded by people with dull brains and no sparkle. I’m going to die of boredom unless I find someone smart and amusing.”

“I’m not noted for my sense of humor.”

“Sparkle is always entertaining. You’ve got lots.”

“You think you can convince a princess to become your court jester?”

And vice versa. Fair’s fair. After all, I grew up in a town that was too small to have a village idiot, so we all took turns.”

I giggled, then clapped a hand over my mouth. “That didn’t mean anything.”

“Of course not. Your turn.”

“My turn for what?”

“To tell a joke or amusing anecdote.”

Did I even know any? “Frank, are you always this annoying?”

He looked around theatrically, then confided, “Actually, I’m on my best behavior.”

I gaped at him. “You’re usually worse?”

“You’ll get used to it.”

I remembered that he’d called this his second-best reason. “Why are you really here, Frank?”

“I found this note next to my bed when I woke up.”

He handed it to me. It read,

Dear Frank,

I don’t know it yet, but I desperately need you to befriend me today. Meet me in the library at 2 PM sharp. Tell me “purple pumpkins” or show me this note.

Love,

Flavia

P.S. Frank, I won’t remember any of this, let alone the dream, so you must believe in and act upon that part of your dream which starts with the explosion in the courtyard.

It was a sheet of my personal notepaper. The note was in my handwriting and signed with my signature.

I stared at it, stunned.

Frank said, “How good a forgery is it?”

I considered this for a moment, then shook my head. “I think it’s genuine.”

“No one else knows that purple pumpkins mean something?”

“No. They were in a dream I had just last night.”

“I had a dream last night. The note was right about that.”

“Oh?”

“I was here, talking to you, when there was a tremendous racket in the courtyard.”

Just then, there was an explosion in the courtyard.

Continued in Chapter 2, “Behind the Arras.”

Jen Meets Her Match, Chapter 3

(Looking for Chapter 1? It’s here:  Chapter 1, Double-Dog Dare.)

Chapter 3. Shotgun Kiss

The TV had turned itself on. It treated us to a wide-angle side view of the front steps, complete with zombie. Just one zombie, but that was plenty. Nice security system he had there. Too bad he really needed it.

Now, we all know girls who think zombies are to die for, in a manner of speaking. Maybe you’re one of them, God help you. You can have my share.

This particular zombie wasn’t the desiccated, mummy-like type. No, it was the juicy kind, fairly fresh without being anywhere near fresh enough. It had been young and muscular. A man in his twenties who died in a car crash, at a guess. If it made it into the house, the white carpet was done for and we’d be lucky if the smell ever went away completely.

“Frank, honey, this is not the after-school activity I signed up for!”

“Yeah, no kidding. Let’s retreat to the safe room and let Security handle this one.”

What safe room? But retreat was a good idea … wasn’t it?

He added, “If they can.”

“You’re not filling me with confidence here, snookums.”

“Oh, we’ll be all right. It’s just a zombie.”

The safe room, it turned out, was the master bathroom. Frank locked the surprisingly heavy door and barred it with three steel bars he pulled from the linen closet.

There was a phone on the wall and he picked it up and dialed, tapping his foot until someone answered. Then he said, “Yeah, hello, it’s Frank Barron. I’m in the safe room with a guest. That’s right. There’s a zombie at the front door. No, of course it’s after us! If it was selling encyclopedias, it’d carry a sample case!” He slammed down the phone. “Idiot.”

I felt trapped. What were we doing in here? I felt like the room was a vending machine and we were the candy bars. We were helpless, reduced to hoping the monsters were all out of dimes. I wanted out! “I’m starting to freak out, sweetie.”

“Do you want me to comfort you?”

“Get rid of the damned zombie, you moron!”

He laughed. “Atta girl.” He swelled with purpose. He really did. He seemed larger. More dangerous.

There was a little portable TV on the counter. He turned it on. It showed the zombie pounding away slowly with its fists. The front door was already badly splintered.

Frank barely glanced at it. He turned away and opened the cabinet that concealed the water heater. Next, he demonstrated that the water heater was a fake. It spun around like a lazy Susan and revealed … a treasure trove.

He pulled out a nickel-plated double-barreled sawed-off shotgun and handed it to me. “You know how to use this?”

I’d done some skeet shooting. Who hasn’t? I snapped the action partway open. It was loaded, all right. I closed the action. Oh, my. It made the most wonderful muted clicking sound, announcing that Death was in the room. “Just point and shoot, lover boy.”

“Remember to cock the hammers, too, pumpkin.” He handed me a canvas ammo pouch and I slung it over my shoulder.

For himself, he took out a slim brown wooden rod about a foot and a half long, tapering at one end and with a wrapped leather grip at the other. Too thin to be a nightstick. It was a magic wand. Had to be. A businesslike magic wand. Oversized and without a trace of ornamentation. He put its leather strap around his right wrist and said, “Ready, tootsie?”

“Don’t call me tootsie, sweetums.”

“Ready, Jen?”

“Let’s do this?” I didn’t mean for it to come out as a question, but it did.

He bent down and kissed me on the lips. It was quick, over almost before it began. “Come on.”

Yes, that’s right. That’s the story of my first kiss. But I have to admit that it wasn’t too bad. It wasn’t bad at all. Okay, okay! It was wonderful. Just you try kissing a boy while holding a sawed-off shotgun loaded with (as I found out later) silver buckshot while a zombie is doing its best to break in and kill you. It’s vivid, that’s what it is. It made me feel special. Loved. Invincible.

Frank took the lead and we strode back into the living room. The zombie had battered a hole in the front door that gave us a good view of its chest and head. It saw us, gave a strangled roar, and redoubled its efforts. The hole wasn’t big enough to let the zombie in, but its stench was coming through loud and clear.

“You go first, sweet cheeks,” said Frank. “Just one barrel at a time. That thing kicks like a mule.”

Maybe I should have been scared out of my wits, but Frank was confident enough for both of us. I made a mental note to murder him if he ever called me “sweet cheeks” again. I cocked both hammers and raised the shotgun. I pulled the stock firmly against my shoulder and squeezed the first trigger.

Geysers of rotting gore spurted from the zombie’s chest as the buckshot struck home. Some sprayed into the room. Fortunately, we were too far back to be spattered. The zombie gave a muffled bellow—muffled, I suppose, because the buckshot had perforated its lungs. It fell back out of sight but then popped up like a Jack-in-the-box. It was looking distinctly ragged. I gave it the second barrel, then snapped open the action to reload.

Frank shouted, “That’s right, world! She’s my girlfriend!” Then all was quiet.

My fingers were trembling, making it hard to load the two new shells. I wanted to curse and rush things, but I made myself slow down. I found a pace my fingers could manage, and that felt a lot better.

The click when I closed the action did its magic again. Bring it on! I took a step forward, intending to peer out the greatly enlarged hole in the door. Frank put a hand on my shoulder. “No using the front door, remember?”

A glance at TV showed that my second shot had left the zombie more or less headless. It wasn’t even twitching anymore. The battle was over.

My excitement faded quickly. It was replaced by … other feelings. I sagged. “Can I throw up now?”

Frank deftly relieved me of the shotgun and led me to the hall bathroom. His tone was gentle. “All the comforts of home. Nothing’s too good for my zombie-slaying girlfriend.”

I vomited into the toilet and said weakly, “I promised my father I wouldn’t kill on a first date.”

“No problemo. It was already dead.”

“Frank, darling?”

“Yeah?”

“You’re a jerk.”

“Am not.”

“Are too.”

“Am not.”

“Are too!”

“What? And I thought everything was going so well!”

I couldn’t help smiling at that. I waited for my stomach to settle (or not, as the case may be). Frank’s attention was mostly on the front door. It had become a merely nominal barrier. He watched me out of the corner of his eye, though. Every time I looked at him, we both cracked up. I don’t know why. A minute later I got to my feet, used the bathroom tumbler to rinse my mouth, and said, “Frank, honey?”

“Babe?”

“If this is a quiet afternoon at home, what the heck is going to happen at the dance?”

To be continued in Chapter 4, “Double Anchovies.”