Monday, February 8, 2016

An Excerpt from "Mutes"

Greetings, WYMOP readers!
Last week, if you remember, I was bragging a little on the new story collection I have coming out at the end of the month, Echoes of Darkness, and I posted an excerpt from one of the stories in the book, "Ma Liang’s Crayons". I also promised to show you the cover this week, and I’m going to make good on that promise in just a minute.
First, though, I’d like to say something about this week’s post. It’s another excerpt from Echoes, this one from a story titled "Mutes." "Mutes" is a story some of you have seen before, and is a favorite of some of my readers out there. It is not, however, the kind of thing you may be used to seeing on While You’re Making Other Plans. I usually come here to share things that happen at work, or with my son, and I try to have a humorous angle. This post is some of my fiction, though, and quite a bit of my fiction doesn’t have that fuzzy bunny, cute puppy feel some of my posts here do. For the most part I am a horror writer, with all that implies. There may be terrible language. There may be bad things happening to good people. You have been warned.
But, on the plus side, my mom liked the story. Hi, Mom!
So, without further ado, here is the cover and a little bit of story.
I do hope you enjoy it.
~ ~ * * ~ ~

echoesofdarkness_smales_frontcover.jpg

An Excerpt from "Mutes"


From the upcoming collection Echoes of Darkness, by Rob Smales



Tape begins:
Test, test, is this thing on? Okay. Right. Okay  .  .  .  where to start? I found this old tape deck, and I have one tape. I need to get this told, just in case, but I have to hurry. I don’t know how much time I have. Granny McCalloum was right. She always said—wait, I’m getting ahead of myself.
My name is Scott St. Armond. I’m making this recording in my apartment, and I swear I’m of sound mind. I swear to God.
I’m from Slaughter, Louisiana, population about 1,000. My Granny McCalloum is the local hoodoo woman there. She used to claim I have the sight, too. But I wasn’t like her. Not then.
Anyway, I came to the big city when I turned eighteen, trained up and got work as an EMT. That’s when shit got weird. I’m not sure exactly when it started, but the first time I noticed anything was at this car wreck my partner and I responded to out on Route 18.
Oh, hang on—
I just checked the window, and there’s too many to count. Jesus, this is bad.
Okay, Route 18. Some kid out speeding around lost control of his car and went off the road, into a tree. The driver was banged up, but walked away. His girlfriend, though, wasn’t wearing a seat belt and was thrown from the vehicle into another tree. We found her at the base of an old pine, in rough shape. She’d been impaled by more than a dozen branches, some of them as thick as my two thumbs together. She’d rolled to the ground with snapped-off pine stakes sticking out of her torso, legs, and one eye.
She was still conscious. We found her by following the screams.
Another crew showed up for the driver while we went for the girl. We strapped her to the stretcher, branches sticking out of her this way and that, and started carrying her up to the road. I’m a pretty big guy, lots bigger than Jerry, and I had a hard time carrying her over the uneven ground in the dark. I don’t know how he managed.
We jostled her a little, and that got her screaming again. Now, I was still green, and this was easily the worst thing I’d ever seen. You can watch videos and movies, even real stuff like the surgery network, but it’s nothing compared to up close and personal. Especially the screaming. I was freaked out.
So when I looked up from watching for rocks and holes and saw five dark silhouettes backlit by our ambulance strobes standing not ten feet away, I reacted badly. I caught a whiff of a sweet licorice smell. I thought Sambuca and figured they were drunk.
I yelled, “What the hell are you doing? This isn’t your fucking entertainment! Back away; get back to your cars! Go on now!” But they just stood there.
Behind me, Jerry yelled “Scott! What the hell are you doing, man?”
I glanced back at Jerry and shouted over the girl’s crying.
“What the hell’s it look like?” I said, “I’m telling these looky-loos to—”
I stopped dead and the stretcher gouged my lower back. The night was clear with a good moon, but when I turned back to them, they were gone. The field between us and the road was empty, not a soul in sight.
Jerry struggled not to drop the stretcher, and yelled at me to move my ass.
We got the girl into our bus and Jerry started us rolling while I tried to stabilize her. Jerry waited until we’d left the ER to ask what the hell I was doing out there.
“Didn’t you see the people?” I said. “The people in the field?”
He just squinted at me and said, “I didn’t see anybody but you. Yelling at a field.”
Jerry had worked there a couple of years already, so it was practically part of his job to rib me as the newbie. He walked around for a while saying I’d already cracked from the strain, but that wasn’t it.
That was the first time I saw the Mutes.

~ ~ * * ~ ~

There you go, some story and a cover—and isn't the cover purty?

 . . . And this is the part where I should try to come up with something clever to say, giving you a smooth outro so you'll want to come back next week for more, but I'll be honest: I delivered the mail all day today in a snowstorm, and then after work I shoveled a couple of driveways and managed not to get home until almost 11:00 pm. I'm tired, and I'm getting up in about five hours so I can write before work.

Long story short? I'm going to bed. I hope you all enjoy the little bit of "Mutes" above, and I hope to see you back again next week. 

I'll be here waiting.

Talk to you later!

Monday, February 1, 2016

An Excerpt from "Ma Liang's Crayons"

Greetings, WYMOP readers!
Today is February 1, 2016, and in just twenty-seven days there will be a new book available from Amazon: Echoes of Darkness, a short story collection from Rob Smales, published through Books & Boos Press.
Yup. It’s mine all mine.
To share my excitement a bit, rather than some spontaneous bitching, like usual, I thought I’d give you all a little sample of the work in the book, and share an excerpt from one of the thirteen stories making up Echoes of Darkness. Below you’ll find the opening scene from the story “Ma Liang’s Crayons.”
I do hope you enjoy it.

~ ~ * * ~ ~

An Excerpt from "Ma Liang's Crayons"

 From the upcoming collection Echoes of Darkness, by Rob Smales

The house was filled with people. Black suits, dark skirts, and solemn voices. People sipping from clear plastic cups, or carefully holding undersized paper plates to their chests, trying not to make a mess with the pasta salad, or let little deli meatballs roll off onto their shirts and ties. She didn’t even know half the people currently occupying her living room, and most of those she did know, she hadn’t seen in years. Especially not the past year, when she could most have used some help, or even just a shoulder to—
“When’s Daddy coming home?”
Julie looked down, surprised. Pearl stood in the kitchen doorway, looking strangely adult in her formal dress, a string of faux pearls around her tiny neck. Pearls for the Pearl, Connor had said, making the little girl laugh when he’d given them to her. He’d always been a hit with Pearl, always been the fun uncle. And that had helped: someone else to distract Pearl when Danny had gotten sick. Someone else to shore her up when Danny had taken a turn for the worse, and Julie had needed to focus on caring for her hus—
“Mommy?” The voice was small, but insistent. “When’s Daddy coming home?” Julie heard things in her daughter’s voice, things that shouldn’t be in the voice of a six-year-old. There was fear in that voice, and sadness, and confusion, and an impending sense of loss, but on top of it all was the tone—the over-careful enunciation—of a young woman trying to ignore all that, and act as if everything was fine, just spiffy, tip-top, business as usual.
As if a little girl burying her father could ever be usual.
Julie heard these things in her daughter’s voice, and knew that her heart should have broken to hear them—shattered like a wine glass assaulted by a high C. And it would have, had it not already been broken. She looked over Pearl’s head once again, to the people out in the living room, the strangers, and friends so recently in absentia, who had come to eat her food and celebrate the life of her husband, though not one of them had been willing to help him though its ending, the cancer consuming friendships as readily as it had consumed Danny himself, only faster.
She glanced back down at the little girl standing in the doorway, the woeful child demanding an answer. Pearl deserved an answer, Julie knew, but what was she to say? This was her daughter—their daughter—and she’d been through a lot, even more than she understood yet. Julie should be helping Pearl to understand what was happening, what had been happening for the past year—and more—and console the little girl in her grief. She knew she should do this. She knew.
But the words wouldn’t come from her dishrag heart, wrung out with saying goodbye to Danny after so long, and her head was filled with confusion about Connor, missing for the past ten months, and not even making it to his own brother’s funeral. And so her answer, poorly chosen for nothing but its honesty, came out flat, and matter-of-fact.
“Never, Pearl. Your daddy’s never coming home again.”
The words took a moment to register on the small face, but when they did, the oddly adult expression, the rigid mask Pearl wore to help hide her fear and uncertainty, crumbled like a house of cards tumbling down. Disbelief flashed across her daughter’s countenance, almost too fast to see, before her soft little features settled into an expression of sorrow so deep it almost frightened Julie. Sorrow, tinged with something Julie couldn’t quite recognize—at least until Pearl spun away, wailing as she pelted across the packed living room.
“I hate you!”
Shrill words degenerated into sobs as she ran, colliding blindly with some people, clumsily avoiding others, until she disappeared into the hallway. The slamming bedroom door cut off the sounds of her sorrow, leaving the crowded room filled with awkward looks and silence.
“You all should go now.” Julie’s voice was quiet, but none of her guests had difficulty hearing her, and her tone brooked no hesitation or rebuttal. A muted murmur rose as plates and cups found perches about the room, and coats were collected, but the voices never rose up into intrusiveness as the people, those she didn’t know and those she did, filed out without offering their goodbyes.
~ ~ * * ~ ~
There you have it: a little taste of Echoes of Darkness. A sad, sad, little taste . . .
Next week I'll be throwing a beautiful cover up here for you to see, but in the meantime I have to look into getting a final proof copy—have I mentioned I'm excited?
Talk to you later!

Monday, January 25, 2016

Have You Seen my Shades?

“Where the hell are they?”
I had torn my mail truck apart. I’d pulled out or moved every package and tray of mail in there. I’d checked up on the dashboard, in the dash-mounted scanner holster, under the dash—both driver and non-driver sides (we aren’t allowed passengers)—and pulled all the stuff out from under my work shelf. I’d checked the left and right door wells, and behind my seat. I’d even checked the crevice between the seat and the seat-back, worming my fingers down into a space far too tight to hold anything larger than loose change. I had done all that, yet here I was, standing in the post office parking lot, rubbing my forehead with my fingertips in frustration.
I couldn’t find my sunglasses.
It was a bright, sunshiny day, and I was to spend the next six and a half hours out in it trying to read addresses from white envelopes: I was not going to make it without my shades. See, it was the day after my day off, so I hadn’t been the last one to actually drive my truck. My sunglasses usually live up on the dashboard when I’m not wearing them, and I leave them there overnight so there’s no chance of me forgetting them in the morning. On my days off, however, my floater (the person assigned to cover my days off) is in the truck, and she apparently doesn’t approve of sunglasses on the dash; I’ve come in after my day off to find them in all of the places I mentioned above except wedged down into the seat crevice—but she’s still my floater, so there’s still time.
Today, however, I couldn’t find them at all. I huffed an angry sigh, put my truck back together, and headed out to my route in the blinding sun. I’d decided I was going to have a talk with my floater, but for now I just needed something to get me through the day; halfway between the office and the beginning of my route, I hit the directional and took a hard left—straight into the parking lot of the local 7-Eleven.
It was perfect. The 7-Eleven was where I’d purchased the lost sunglasses, and there was another pair right there on the rack. I snatched up the replacements rather angrily, still frustrated that I needed to buy new ones simply because my floater didn’t like where I keep them, paid at the register, and slipped them on as I left the store. Ah! Much better. And now, I thought, driving to my route, when I get the other pair back I’ll have an extra pair, for the next time she does this.
I started my route, walking from house to house to deliver the first relay, then driving on to Farrell Court. Farrell Court is some elderly housing run by the local Housing Authority, and consists of a series of square, brick buildings with four apartments in each. The mailboxes for all four units are together, in each building’s foyer. Entering the first dimly-lit hallway after walking about in that bright sunlight, I couldn’t see a damn thing, especially wearing my shades. I shoved my new sunglasses up on top of my head—dislodging the “missing" pair of sunglasses that had been up there the whole time.
Yeah, this is the kind of embarrassing thing I do. The kind of thing that, though when it happens I say Thank God no one knows about this, when Monday rolls around again, and I need a blog post, here I am telling you all about it.
Damn.

Talk to you later.

Monday, January 18, 2016

THUD!


Greetings, WYMOP readers!

I listen to audiobooks. Lots of ’em. Podcasts too, but some of them are also audiobooks, just released in episodic form. Chances are, if you see me at work, I’ve got at least one earbud plugged into my head. And chances are, if that earbud is in there, that I’m having private story time within the confines of my own little skull.
Some days, it’s the only thing that keeps me from going postal.
So the other day I was listening to Peter Straub’s Ghost Story. I thought perhaps I had read the novel as a kid, but as I listened I found none of it familiar. Not in the slightest. So I settled in for what I’ve heard touted as one of the greatest ghost stories of all time, confident that I would enjoy it. And I did. I enjoyed it all morning in the office, and then while I was out on the road, straight on ’til lunch.
Even at lunch, when I usually pull out the chromebook and work on something writerly, I left the buds plugged in and listened. When lunch was over, I stayed plugged in while I crawled into the back of the truck and pulled some mail and packages up into the cab for me to deliver in the second half of my day; the whole time the narrator was telling me Straub’s Ghost Story.
If you haven’t ever read Ghost Story (or seen the film, I suppose), there are scenes where the individual characters are having nightmares. This was what was playing in my ears as I drove away from my lunch spot: one of the characters dreaming is in a building he doesn’t recognize, and there is something in there with him—something that has come to get him. He’s trapped in a room, listening to the thing work its way through the house, thumping and bumping along. The thing, whatever it is (he doesn’t know until the end of the dream) is brushing against walls, and thudding against the floor, and he can hear it getting closer . . . and closer . . .
This was the scene running through my head as I approached my first park point after lunch, and it’s a tense and detailed scene, I can assure you. So I was not in what one might call the best frame of mind when, just as I touched the brakes to pull over, a tremendous, truck-shaking THUD came from the back of my mail truck. And I did what any sane, sensible person would do in a situation like that: I felt my eyes bug out of my head as I shouted “Holy duck!”
Okay, I didn’t actually shout duck, but that D is only a couple of letters off, and come on, my mom reads this thing!
Hi, Mom!
So I bellowed some fowl language (haw-haw) and pulled to the side of the road. It only took me that long to realize what had happened, but it also took that long for my heart to start up again—and when it did, it was rapping along at triple its usual pace as if trying to make up for lost time.
When I’d pulled that mail up to the front of the truck, I’d had to move some other things around in the back to make room for me to work: I needed some space to shift the trays. One of the things that had been in my way was a long, wide, flat package, heavy enough that someone at the beginning of the mailing process had been so concerned as to actually plaster a few HEAVY warning stickers on it, and those stickers weren’t lying—the thing was damn heavy. Rather than lift it and shift it (I was kneeling back there, not in the best position to gain any real leverage) I had simply pried it up and stood it on end, freeing up some floor space to work in.
And then I forgot to lay it back down.
So, when I touched the brakes and my truck began to slow, the HEAVY package overbalanced and toppled, landing flat again with an immense, truck-jolting whap. This entire sequence of events ran through my head as I pulled into my usual parking spot for that point in my route, and I took a while to just sit, listening to my heart smash around in my chest and laughing fit to bust, both fueled by the metric-butt-ton of adrenaline that had just been dumped into my bloodstream.
Why didn’t that package tip when I accelerated away from my lunch spot, to fall quietly backward atop the trays of mail behind it? How did it come to fall right at the point in the story where a loud thud had potential to make me soil myself? I can’t say for sure, but I have a theory: God has a wicked sense of humor, and, occasionally, I provide great entertainment for Him.
Good one, God.

Talk to you later!

Monday, January 11, 2016

Everything New is Old Again. Wait—What?

Greetings, WYMOP readers!

Okay, I believe last week I mentioned something about writing a “Happy New Year” piece, discussing 2015, 2016, new resolutions, people wearing party hats and proving they could count backward, all that stuff, but I bailed on it in the eleventh hour and wrote something completely different. There’s a reason for this.
I don’t have any new resolutions.
I have to-do lists. Lots of them. I started making them way back when I realized I was forgetful. I’d write down this sweet little list of things I needed to get done that day, or that week . . . and then forget where I put it. I’d be cleaning my room a week or so later and find that lost list on the corner of my desk—right on top of the lost list from the week before that. Item #1 on both lists was find good place to keep to-do list.
Whups!
So now, though I still make pen-and-paper lists (that corner of my desk is really getting buried!) I also have a big whiteboard on the wall with a nice, updatable, hard-to-lose list. I have two lists on my computer so I can access them from my chromebook, tablet, or phone: a general to-do list and one titled To-Do: Writing Only. Would you believe that none of these three lists have any of the same stuff on them?
And mounted on the wall above my desk is a poster board with a fourth list, a writing t0-do list for the year. It’s a record of a half-dozen or so writing goals that I’d love to accomplish in 2016, and right there, at the top, in big black letters, it says:
TO-DO: 2015
Waitaminute! 2015? That can’t be right! And it’s not. Not really. Because if you could actually see this list of mine, you’d notice right off the bat that the five in 2015 is set higher than the rest of the numbers, directly above a thick black X drawn through the number four. It’s a list I wrote back during the opening strains of 2014, and there ain’t a thing crossed off. It kills me to admit it, but I’ve had that same list for two whole years and I haven’t made a dent in it.
Wow.
Most of it is long projects. I’m known (if I’m known at all) for short stories. I’ve had people say to me  “You need to write longer stuff. You need to write a novel.” What these people really mean is that I need to publish a novel. I’ve written a novel. Hell, I’ve written two. And a half. And started another. But are they in any kind of shape to send to a publisher?
Oh, hell no.
My first finished novel is currently in two forms: a comb bound hard copy, so I can occasionally drop it onto my desk from a height of 12—18 inches and listen to the thunk (I find it soothing—thunk, thunk, thunk), and an electronic copy that’s been taken apart and spread out, like a mechanic who’s disassembled an engine, so I can try to see what’s wrong with it. My second rough novel is in better shape than the first, and has been calling to me in my sleep to work on it, as has a novella I also have down on paper. Both of them are pointing to that first disassembled novel with matching looks of fear in their eyes and saying We don’t want to end up like that poor bastard!
Well, they won’t. I look at that unchanging list from 2014, my new to-do list from two years ago, and I get extremely bummed out . . . until I actually look back on 2015.
In 2015 I started working with The Storyside, a small group of people like me, dedicated to writing the best stuff we can. I co-edited a fiction collection The Storyside put out in October, Insanity Tales II: the Sense of Fear, and it’s damned good. The five of us are running a blog over there that’s pretty impressive. I started writing a monthly review column over at Cinema Knife Fight called Monster Movie Madness, where I . . . yeah, well, that one’s pretty self-explanatory. I joined forces with my editing partner from The Storyside to form S&L Editing, and we recently had our first client—who was so happy with the editing we did on his novel he’s already talking about giving us another one. While I was doing all this I managed to get six short stories published, write and have published a 40-page novelette (yes, that’s it up in the sidebar), and write the second half of a 90,000 word story collection that’s due out at the end of February, Echoes of Darkness from Books and Boos Press.
When I look back on all that, do you know what I call 2015?
Practice.
Practice at being a working writer. Practice at being a working editor—which tends to make you a better writer. I just spent the past couple of weeks going over edits for that collection with my publisher, Books and Boos, and you know what? For the first time I haven’t convinced myself that what I’m putting out there in the public eye is terrible, or that I’m awful at this and that I should just stop wasting my time. I’m my own worst critic—lots of writers are—and I almost never think my work is good enough, or polished enough, or . . . enough enough. I usually manage to persuade myself that people who compliment my writing are just being nice. But for the first time I’m looking at a novel-sized mass of work—it’s thirteen different stories, but they’re all mine—and there’s this little wonder-filled voice in the back of my brain saying Holy shit, this is . . . this is good!
So that’s where things stand: I don't have any resolutions, and my new to-do list is really two years old—but this year I’m looking at it in a different way. I’m a little more experienced, a little more confident, a little more son of a bitch, I think I can do this! I think I’m finally ready to start knocking things off this list—not everything, but I have to start somewhere. I won’t bore you with the whole list, item by item, I will share the last thing on it, right at the bottom of the page. It’s the one thing I know I’ll never finish, even though it’s the one item I’ve been working on since before there even was a list:
Get better and better at writing. If I’m gonna be a word junkie,
and I am, then I want to be the best damn word junkie I can be.
Well, that’s it. Happy New Year. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to take this Sharpie and climb up on my rickety, swively office chair and draw a big X and a small 6.
And then I have a lot of work to do.


Talk to you later!

Monday, January 4, 2016

Rocks in Her Head

Greetings, WYMOP fans!

I know we just had the New Year and all, and everyone's posting My Year in Review articles and making resolutions online, and to tell you the truth, that's what I was going to do as well. I was going to tell you some of the things I did with my writing in the past year, and how they were going to affect the next 361 days of my life. I sat down and started to do just that: I had a list, and pictures—all kinds of good stuff.

And then it all went horribly awry. Way off the rails. I think the technical term for what I did is that I "@#$%ed it all up." I mean big time.

So I bailed on it. It was 11:00 on the night the damn blog was due, and there was no way I could fix that hot mess in time. It's 11:45 now, and I just banged out the little story you see below. Honestly, if I didn't work with some highly amusing people, I would have been screwed. Ready?

True story

I was sitting in the break room this morning, writing for a while before I clocked in, when I heard all this commotion from the workroom floor. Now, I couldn't see what was going on, but I could identify the voices, and it sounded like one of the women I work with was just all kinds of excited.

"My son got hit in the head with a rock! He was gushing blood all over the place, and I didn't have a phone! This is one of the rare times when I don't have a phone. They were playing a game, see, and this neighborhood kid wanted to cause a distraction or something, so he picked up a rock and threw it at this fence. It's one of those metal fences, you know? What are they called . . . chain! He biffs this rock at this chain fence and it bounced off and hit my son in the head! He was gushing blood all over the place! And I didn't have a phonethis is like the one time I don't have a phone, right?"

Things went on like that for quite a while, I'd say five minutes of full on exclamation points, before someone thought to ask "Well, Jesus, was this right before work?"

"No," she said, just about out of breath. "Yesterday afternoon."

They established that, though she was completely worked up about it all over again, it had actually happened more than twelve hours earlier, and her son was just fine. Something occurred to me, and I chuckled. I kept right on chuckling as I put my writing stuff away and clocked in; then I went over to the guy who works right next to her—the one who'd asked the question.
“Hey,” I said, loud enough for the people about us to hear. “Did you catch that thing on the news this morning?”
He gave me a blank stare.
“You didn’t hear?” This elicited a shake of the head, so I continued, turning slightly toward the excitable woman and including her in our conversation. “There was this thing in the news this morning about women in this country—mothers—who are beating their kids with stones.”
“What are you talking about?” said the excitable woman.
“It was on the news. These women, see, they’re throwing stones at their own kids. It’s a mental thing.”
My kid was hit with a rock—” she started, but I rolled right over her.
“Yeah, but these women, they’re hitting their kids with stones, then blaming it on neighborhood kids.”
Her eyes lit up, her mouth opening again to comment.
“And then these women get all yelly and arm-flappy about it the next day, because they like the attention.”
Now she was giving me the blank stare, though the guy working next to her was grinning.
“It’s this new mental thing they’ve discovered. They call it Munchausen by Rocks. See?”
The guy burst out laughing, while she slapped me on the arm and called me a bum, and though she knows me and usually gets my sense of humor, she had a low opinion of me for the rest of the day. But that’s okay.

The punster is the lowest form of human.

Happy New Year! Talk to you later.