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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

 

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.”

Jen Meets Her Match, Chapter 2

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

Chapter 2. White Shag Carpet

Let’s face it: my new boyfriend was unpredictable, even weird. I wondered what he’d do when we met on the front steps after school. I half-expected to want to hit him with a brick within seconds. He did not disappoint. He walked over with a cheerful smile and looked me slowly up and down.

This was a first for me and I didn’t like it. Not one bit. I felt myself blushing.

He said, “Come on,” turned on his heel, and walked away.

I had to run to catch up. “That was the least boyfriendly greeting I’ve ever seen. I hate you!”

“Oh, it could have been so much worse.”

“It could have been a lot better, too!”

“Jen, you’re the love of my life, but—”

“I am?”

He hesitated, then said, “Love of my life du jour?”

“That doesn’t mean anything.”

He stopped walking and looked around. We were more or less alone. He said, “Time out.”

That scared me. It really did. There was a method to his madness. I knew that. The protective shell of obnoxiousness and nonsense really helped. It was safer, somehow. Still … “Okay.”

“I’m hopeful, Jen. I know we just met, but I have a good feeling about us. I think this could be real.”

Weren’t we too young for that? Wasn’t it doomed to be over in a week, a month, a year at most? He didn’t know anything about me! But … I liked him. “Me, too.”

“Just so you know. Time in.”

“Can I hold your hand?” Asking made me feel five years old, but I needed something from him. My stomach knotted at the thought that he’d make fun of me for asking.

“Sure. You’re my girlfriend.”

It felt awkward, taking his hand for the first time. I was glad we didn’t have an audience.

And so the rest of the walk was romantic, right? Don’t be stupid. After behaving himself for less than a block, Frank sped up, slowed down, spun us around in circles, and even tried to steer me into trees and mailboxes.

Okay, I admit it was really funny. And I almost managed to steer him into a lamp post. When I finally stopped laughing, I announced, “Rule Number Four. Knock it off, or I’m going to need a barf bag and you’re going to need an undertaker. Sweetums.”

“Whatever you say, my precious little rose petal.” He behaved after that.

Once he stopped horsing around, walking hand-in-hand with Frank was delightful. I’m not saying I’ll ever write a sonnet about it, but he wanted to hold hands with me.

This all took place in a town you’ve never heard of in California, by the way. It was a pleasant, sunny day. Most of them are.

After a few more blocks he pointed out his house, a single-story ranch house with an attached two-car garage. It was newly painted and the yard was unnaturally neat and trim.

“You just bought this?” I asked.

“Yep. Only had it about a month. Oh, promise me you’ll never open the front door.”

“Why not?”

“Booby traps.”

“Fair enough.” But I didn’t believe him. No, I assumed the living room had a white carpet. White carpets are one of those warning signs of insanity. You know, like wearing underpants on your head. Once someone installs white carpet, they demand that no one use the front door and that everyone levitate when crossing the living room. A white shag carpet means they’re incurable.

We went around to the back, which was just as tidy as the front and featured a patio, a swimming pool, and a redwood hot tub, leaving space for only a token patch of lawn. Redwood furniture with those lumpy waterproof cushions completed the ensemble.

1974 had a lot of trendy methods for getting people naked. It was a peak year for that sort of thing. In addition to streaking, nude hot-tubbing was a favorite. I looked sourly at Frank, but he was unlocking the door and didn’t notice.

Frank opened the door and waved me in. “Home sweet home.”

The kitchen was too clean and too empty. By the look of it, it only had about half the dishes and cookware you’d expect. Frank opened a drawer and pulled out a key. “This is for you. It works on the back door. Always lock it behind you. Don’t prop it open for a second unless I say it’s okay.”

He should not be giving me a key already. I accepted it anyway. “Why not?”

“Burglar alarm. Oh, and take off your shoes. White shag carpet in the living room.”

Do I ever get tired of being right? No, I do not.

He gave me the grand tour. The themes were “unlived-in” and “upscale.” This was a good neighborhood, but the furnishings were a couple of notches beyond what you’d expect. All the furniture was classy and it was either antique or brand-new: nothing in the middle. The living room had a wonderful antique leather couch along with a new quadraphonic stereo with two turntables, AM/FM receiver, reel-to-reel tape, and cassette tape. No eight-track, though. A real audio-snob setup. It was all turned off, but I glanced at the receiver. It was tuned to the local Classical FM station. Yes, I really do notice things like that. I read the Sherlock Holmes stories when I was ten and trained myself to observe.

There was also an enormous Zenith color TV, its dial set to the local NBC station. A shelf held a row of Victorian or even earlier clocks and instruments, all glass and polished brass and wood.

Frank’s bedroom was the most lived-in room of the house, but that didn’t take much. It was actually quite tidy except for his desk, where a few books and notes were scattered. No posters on the walls, no stereo. He hadn’t really moved in yet.

A glance at the dial on his clock radio showed it was tuned to the local Top Forty station and his alarm was at 5:30. He must be some kind of athlete. He looked fit enough.

The master bedroom wasn’t being used as a bedroom at all, but as a library. Some of the bookcases had locked doors. Not glass-fronted doors, either. Solid wood. For secrecy or security? I yearned for a peek inside.

A light was blinking on the library phone. The light on the kitchen wall phone had also been blinking, but Frank had missed it. He said, “Make yourself scarce for a couple of minutes, honey bun. I need to call my answering service.” He picked up the receiver and dialed.

I continued my tour. There were two other bedrooms, one with a king-sided water bed occupying pretty much the entire room and one with a double bed. Both had some clothes and shoes in the closets, but they gave me the impression of being guest rooms nonetheless. This emboldened me to open a couple of drawers. They were empty.

Frank lived alone.

Well, that explained a lot. But how awful for him! His parents were not only absent, they’d been gone for a long time. Everything about the house had been set up assuming they’d be gone. The tidiness of the yard, pool, and house meant that Frank had services that came in and took care of them for him. Plus a burglar alarm service and an answering service. Frank had the best loneliness money could buy.

But it was worse than that. This was a new school for him. A new town. He didn’t know anyone. And to top it all off, he was mourning a lost love.

No wonder he was rushing things! The poor kid must be so desolate that he’d fall in love with a cardboard cutout.

It wasn’t a comforting thought. Or a flattering one. Jen Simonson, the Amazing Cardboard Girl. But the fact remained … I liked him. And at least his loneliness implied that I’d matter to him. I wanted to matter to him.

I wandered back into the kitchen and looked in the refrigerator. It was about one-third full of the usual stuff. Always the most expensive brands you could buy at the local Safeway. Most people like a mix of cheap brands and premium brands, but whoever stocked this fridge (and I guessed it wasn’t Frank) bought the expensive stuff on reflex. Interesting.

Frank came back out. He looked cheerful enough. “You didn’t die of boredom?”

“I did! I totally did, but this funky guy with a beard and a halo showed up and slapped me a few times. He brought me down and everything’s groovy.”

“Glad to hear it.” He made a gesture indicating the house and said, “What do you think?”

“Frank, darling, you know I love you, but a white carpet is a sign of a diseased mind.” I felt a little dizzy at how easily the words “I love you” escaped my lips. But it was just a joke, right? And I’d said, “I hate you” earlier. Maybe it just balanced things out?

“Jen, honey, sweetheart, pumpkin, I couldn’t agree more. Wasn’t my idea. But what I meant was, ‘You know my methods, Watson. Apply them.’”

“From my observations, Holmes, I’ve deduced that you have oodles and bags of money. You live alone. You lead a double life. You jerk! What have you dragged me into?”

“It’s not that bad. Mom should be back in a month or two. And it’s only, oh, one and a quarter lives. One and a half, tops. How creeped out are you?”

Creeped out? Me? “Don’t be feeble-minded, sweetie. Get back to the business at hand.”

He looked blank for a moment, then said, “Oh, right, sorry.” He smiled and looked me up and down. I liked it better than last time. “Jen, my pet, you look scrumptious this afternoon. If you’re not too busy, step over here and put your arms around me.”

So I did.

I’d more than half-expected an embrace from Frank to devolve into a tickle fight or something equally ridiculous. But Frank behaved himself. Thank goodness for Rule Number Four.

A hug from Frank is like his handshake: definite, masculine, accepting. Something about it told me that he’d set aside all his outrageousness and I could trust him completely. I relaxed against him with a happy sigh.

A tension that I hadn’t known he was carrying left him. He shuddered.

I almost burst into tears. I don’t know why. I told myself it was just the aching loneliness of a boy who’d been abandoned by his family. I knew how empty he must feel. Oh, yes. But it wasn’t love. It wasn’t about me. It couldn’t be.

But when I looked up at him, he was smiling at me. As if I were beautiful. As if he loved me. I let myself be swept into the dream and smiled back as he bent down to kiss me.

A thunderous knock on the front door made me jump. Why me? Then there was another knock. Really loud. Of course there was.

Frank straightened and swore under his breath. Then he crossed to the front door and peered through the peephole. The pounding continued, with a tremendous knock every couple of seconds.

Frank turned around. He looked puzzled. “I wasn’t expecting any zombies. How about you?”

To be continued in Chapter 3, “Shotgun Kiss.”

Banter: Swimming the Snark-Infested Waters

I grew up in a family of compulsive storytellers and conversationalists who engaged in constant verbal one-upmanship, so I have an advantage when it comes to snark.

People ask me sometimes how one writes banter-filled dialog.  I think it works about like this: it would be the same as an argument if it weren’t for the laughter. Like an argument, banter is competitive. But it resembles flirting because it’s cooperative at the same time. It’s a game, though often with enough seriousness that a misstep will turn it into an argument. That soupcon of danger helps make it good.

In fiction, characters who are attuned to each other can say almost anything to each other and get away with it because they understand what the other person means. In my in-progress novel, Jen Meets Her Match, Jen says “I hate you!” to her boyfriend Frank almost every day. By which she might mean almost anything.

I guess the main thing with banter, as opposed to, say, Spider-man mouthing off at people who don’t have the skill to hold up their end of the conversation, is that it takes two to banter. Some of the old screwball comedy movies, especially the Thin Man series, do very well with this. You also see good (if zany) examples in Duck Soup and other Marx Brothers movies, not to mention somewhat less ancient offerings like The Princess Bride.

 

Jen Meets Her Match, Chapter 1

This is the opening chapter of one of my two in-progress young adult urban fantasy novels, Jen Meets Her Match, which I’ll publish in paperback and Kindle format before the end of 2020. Let me know what you think!

Chapter 1. Double-Dog Dare

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.

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.

What does Frank look like? He’s about a head taller than me. Reasonably attractive. Pleasantly fit. A good, solid 8.0. Maybe an 8.5.

Me? Don’t ask. Braces. Not enough curves. I’m Jen, by the way. Hi.

Frank plunked down his tray and told the lunch lady, “I’ll have the spécialité de la maison, please,” by which he meant the usual slop. Then he gave me a smile and said, “So, Jen, do you have a date for the dance on Friday?”

“I’m not going to the dance.”

“No date?”

“What’s it to you?” What a jerk! No, of course I didn’t have a date. I’d never been on a date in my life. Or kissed a boy, for that matter. Boys don’t go for the sharp-tongued Brainiac type. He didn’t have to rub it in.

Frank said, “Well, it’s like this. I’m about to ask you to the dance, so I hope you’ve dumped your old boyfriends. I don’t think three isn’t a crowd.”

Wait, what? Was he joking? I mean, yes, of course he was joking. But he seemed serious at the same time. “Hang on.” I picked out a dessert and made my way past the register. What was his deal, anyway?

He caught up and asked, “Where are we sitting?”

I led him to my usual table, which was empty, thank God.

Frank sat down and said, “My name’s Frank. Frank Barron. Which is a fertile field for puns if you like that sort of thing.”

“Frankly, it sounds like a barren field. And I’m Jen. Jen Simonson. But you knew that.”

“Genevieve Aster Simonson,” he agreed. “I hope you never go by your initials. That would be ghastly. So tell me about your current boyfriend or boyfriends.”

“They’re symptoms of your delirium, Frank.”

“You were too good for them, anyway.”

I was impressed! Most boys can’t banter their way out of a wet paper bag, but Frank was good. That bit about multiple boyfriends? Flattering. And so nutty that it was impossible to take offense. Oh, what the heck, why not go to the dance with him?

He said, “So what about the dance? And while we’re at it, let’s go steady.”

“You jerk! Don’t up the ante like that!”

“Now, don’t be hasty, Jen. It’s a great idea. You’ll love it. I’m enjoying being your boyfriend already.”

“You’re not my boyfriend!”

“Bet you a dollar you agree to be my girlfriend in the next five minutes.”

“Done.” I’d take his money. I held out my hand and he shook it. It was a good handshake. He didn’t try to crush my bones, but it wasn’t weak, either. He took his time and did it right. It makes a girl thoughtful.

Then his smile vanished. He looked me straight in the eye and said, “I double-dog dare you to be my girlfriend.”

I stared at him. “Are you serious?”

“Deathly.” For the first time, I saw uncertainty in his eyes. He wanted me to say yes and was afraid I wouldn’t.

I took out a dollar and handed it to him. I mean, what else could I do?

He was delighted. I was pretty happy, too. Now, I knew going steady isn’t a forever thing. As likely as not, it wouldn’t last into next week. To be honest, that was one of its attractions. But losing this bet felt … promising.

Then I said, “Now tell me why.”

“Not yet.”

“You’re my boyfriend, Frank.” I stopped. “That sounds weird! Anyway, you’re not supposed to keep secrets from me.”

“I am, though. I have to.”

This irritated me. Frank Barron was not a Man of Mystery. He was just another sophomore, a fifteen-year-old kid like me. “Frank, honey, sugar, sweetheart, I’ll bet you a dollar that you won’t be my boyfriend five minutes from now.”

Strangely, this delighted him. “Done.” We shook hands again.

“Well?” I prompted.

“You’re going through those dollars awfully fast.”

“Never mind that.”

“You’re my girlfriend. I have a responsibility. Anyway, I’ll tell you the obvious part. I asked who the smartest girl in our class was, and everyone said it was you. Not that I really needed to ask. You know my methods, Watson.”

“What do you care how smart I am?”

“I’m sick of girls whose brains explode when they hear a bit of sesquipedalian grandiloquence.”

“Why would you overwhelm them with pompous nonsense in the first place?”

“The point is that your brain is made of sterner stuff. The rest of you isn’t too bad, either.”

“So?”

“Me want.”

I took out another dollar and gave it to him. I could have run out the clock—I had another four minutes—but I knew he’d won. Any boy who can switch between cave-man talk and sesquipedalian grandiloquence is a boy to be treasured. But I knew he’d railroad me if I gave him the chance.

I said, “We need some rules.”

“No we don’t.”

I jabbed an index finger at him. “Rule Number One: Don’t automatically contradict me. Jerk.”

His eyes twinkled. “Oh, all right.”

“Rule Number Two: If I say ‘time out,’ I mean it. You have to act like a decent human being. If you can.”

“Good idea. And vice versa. You wouldn’t believe what a delicate flower I am.”

I looked at him in deep suspicion. He said, “See? You don’t believe me.”

I buried my face in my hands. Straightening back up, I said, “I thought going steady was a sign of maturity.”

“Poor, sweet, innocent Jen. Don’t worry: I’ll take care of you. Your food’s getting cold.”

I obediently picked up my fork and looked at the entrée without enthusiasm. At least it came with a floor show today. I said, “Protecting me from your own idiocy doesn’t count.”

“Somebody has to. I should get some credit.”

“Eat your lunch, sweetums.”

“Anything you say, poopsie.” He picked up his fork.

“Rule Number Three: Don’t be revolting when I’m eating. No trying to make milk come out of my nose. And never call me poopsie again. Twit.”

He chuckled. He liked the sharp-tongued Brainiac type.

There were a few minutes of blessed silence while we ate. At least he had good table manners.

When Frank finished eating, he said, “I don’t suppose you can dance.”

“I dance like an angel.”

Anyone but Frank would have fallen for it. “Do angels dance?”

“Not a step. Not on the head of a pin or anywhere else.”

“Me neither. Should we learn by Friday or just show up and make fun of everyone else?”

“Remind me, darling: why are we going to a dance if we can’t dance?”

“We’re going to all the school functions, honey bun. It builds team spirit and valuable social skills. I read that in a magazine.”

“Yeah, right. What’s your real reason, sugar bear?”

“If all we do together is homework and making out, cutie pie, we’d get bored. We’d start to argue. I’m timid and bashful. I just crumple up when a girl speaks sharply to me. So we have to mix things up. Or I do—you seem plenty mixed up already.”

“You can keep this up all day, can’t … no, wait, don’t say it. You can keep it up all night, too. Very funny.”

“I didn’t say anything. You have a dirty mind, little girl.”

“And you have a little mind, dirty boy. Where were we?”

“I was telling you that the last few minutes convinced me that I like you and I want to spend a lot of time with you.”

That was more like it! But was it bravado? Frank gave the impression he could take the rough with the smooth, but could he? “Frank, dear, have you ever had a girlfriend before?”

“Guess.”

I looked at him as I considered. “Yes, of course you have. Obviously. Poor girl. I’ll bet it killed her.”

He turned his head away, but not before I saw his eyes fill with tears.

“Oh, my god, Frank, I’m so sorry!”

“Not your fault.” After a few seconds he sighed and met my gaze again. “You free after school?”

“Until six.”

“Your place or mine?” He delivered the line almost dully, without his usual flair.

I said, “Mine’s fine if you want to meet my grandmother and my two little brothers. They’re okay. It’s about five blocks away.”

“My place will be empty. Let’s go there. We need to talk.”

He was already maneuvering to get me alone. Well, what do you expect from a boy who starts with a double-dog dare?

He saw my hesitation. “I’ll bet you’re still my girlfriend a week from today, doll-face. You have ten bucks? I’m offering ten to one odds.”

“Wait, you’ll pay me a hundred dollars just to break up with you?”

The twinkle was back in his eyes. “Come on, Jen. You know better than that. You’ll forego a hundred-dollar payout just to keep us together. Of course you will. Plus lose a sawbuck of your own money. That’s how serious you are about us. Maybe not yet, but a week is a long time.”

My head was spinning. “I don’t think I can afford you, hon.”

“Sure you can, sport. Just stop betting against us. Put your money where your mouth is. It’s as safe as houses. My house. After school. Let’s walk over together, but I’ll give you my address and phone number anyway.”

So I wrote down mine as well. The bell rang. We had about half our classes together, but fourth period wasn’t one of them, so we parted. It was probably just as well. I was running out of endearments and insults.

Fourth period was dull and gave me time to think. You might think that Frank’s tragic past was romantic. You do, don’t you? You’re an idiot. It was 100% iron-clad board-certified Grade A bad news. Frank was hard enough to manage without going all weepy at random times. I’d never even kissed a boy, and I was entering a competition with another girl—and I was going to lose. Being safely dead as well as more experienced, she held all the aces. I hated her. I wished I knew her name so I could curse her properly.

Did I even have a chance? Maybe? Not a good one. When I thought about it, I just knew he hadn’t acted the same way with her. No, his obnoxiousness was new. A protective shell. Had to be. I mean, how many girls could put up with it at all? And in spite of it being all his fault, the rat, he’d compare the tenderness he’d had with her to the prickliness that he’d saddled us with…

It wasn’t fair. What a jerk. But I had two bucks invested in him and I was going to get my money’s worth if it killed me. Or, better yet, him.

Continued in Chapter 2, White Shag Carpet.