1.15.2018

Turn And Face The Strange

Disclaimer: This post is not really for you. It's for me. It will quite likely be disjointed and random and provide too much information in to the way my mind works through stuff. If you want the rainbow-farting unicorn/everything is awesome all the time Todd, you probably shouldn't read this. This might shatter any preconceived notions you have of me. That guy hangs out a lot on Facebook. This post deals with an epiphany that I suffered last week, and to be perfectly frank, sorting things out in this blog is cheaper than therapy. And the other side of it (the side that is for you) is this.  If you recognize yourself in anything I've put down here, then you know one thing--you're not alone. 

Still with me? Great.  Let's begin.

I still don't know what I was waiting for
And my time was running wild
A million dead-end streets
And every time I thought I'd got it made
It seemed the taste was not so sweet
So I turned myself to face me
But I've never caught a glimpse
Of how the others must see the faker
I'm much too fast to take that test


The above lyrics were taken from the David Bowie classic, "Changes," which first appeared on the album Hunky Dory, released December 1971, one month after I was born. 

There are a handful of songs that hit me straight in the soul. Songs where if I sit and contemplate their meaning and how the lyrics apply to me, they will reduce me to a blubbering blob of a dude. 

This is one of those songs. The rest of the song is amazing and hits me just as hard, but this first verse just sums up everything to a tee. 

I know I mentioned the epiphany on Facebook last and hinted at a lunchtime bloggy blog to dive into detail, sorry about the delay, but here is said blog.

The epiphany I suffered last week was this little bit of a mind fuck. From a Facebook post that went mostly unnoticed:

Cognitive dissonance...social anxiety...emotional dissonance...that feeling that this is all somehow not where I’m meant to be.
As those have come up in my life in the past, I have used them as a warning that I have strayed off the path and am not doing what I’m “meant to be doing” in this lifetime, so I alter course and change.
But what if those are actually my indication that I’m about to breakthrough and hit that next level?
All those times I turned away, I could have been so much closer to the purpose.


So..yeah.  That's my pattern...I'm chugging along thinking I'm doing what I'm meant to be doing and there's that weird little thread getting tugged. It's annoying at first, so you think you can just do a quick tug and everything will be fine. Next thing you know, you have unraveled several rows of your favorite shirt, or scarf, or messenger bag. 

And that is a very uncomfortable feeling. That feeling like suddenly everything is wrong. Or maybe it isn't everything. Maybe it's only the little things. Maybe it's the little fact that your wife for the last 3 years never said goodnight when she was going to bed and you were downstairs working on something. Or the fact that you write and pour your heart out and she rarely, if ever, gave unsolicited feedback of any kind on your writing. Or the other wife who told you that you had a knack for lyrics, but you probably shouldn't try singing because something was just...off. 

Those are, of course, hypothetical examples and in no way, shape, or form, still cut deep and sting nearly 20 years later. 

Back to Bowie:

I still don't know what I was waiting for
And my time was running wild
A million dead-end streets
And every time I thought I'd got it made
It seemed the taste was not so sweet

That's kind of me. At age 45, I published my first book. Seriously...what was I waiting for? It's easy to oversimplify that question, so I won't insult anyone's intelligence, least of all mine. A large portion of that was timing, so I'm not sure that entirely counts. 

I'm going to cut to the chase here. The song is called Changes.
And let's be honest, I suck at handling change. Small changes I'm generally OK dealing with. The Big Pharma sponsorship package I'm ingesting probably helps the most with those little course corrections that occur on a daily basis. The bigger ones where I have an expectation of something (realistic or not) are harder to deal with. Plans getting cancelled or altered. Unexpected bills. Things like a laptop dying for no reason. 

I put on a good game face. But those things seriously fuck with me. When that happens, then I tend to do a deep dive and start overthinking everything that's going on in my life. I start putting attributes and reactions there to things that are completely in my fucking head because there is no external proof to validate what I'm thinking!.

It's the ultimate mindfuck and I do it to myself. 

I am in a time of change in my life.

I will be moving in the spring of this year. I hate moving. As good as I know this move will be for me, I still find myself finding reasons why this won't work the way I expect it to. It's dumb. I know that. It's completely irrational, but it's still back there, just floating in the back channels of my mind. 

That's not the only change though, I've become more focused on what I want to do with my writing this year. I have set goals. And I'm working to achieve them. That's a change for me. Because the more I put myself out there, the greater the risk of being exposed.  Being exposed for a shit writer who probably shouldn't pick up a pen if he can at all help it. Now, I don't think I'm actually a shit writer, but that question will always be there. I don't think I'm alone in that. I know plenty of other artists who go through similar doubts. 

Here's the one that really kind of messes with me (and I'm sure I've talked about it on this blog ad nauseam), but here it is.  What if I'm good? What if I'm really, really good at this writing thing? What then?  Then I don't have any excuses. Then I have to put in the hard work that I know it takes to write the books and get them out to the world. Then I have to struggle with that question of at what point to I become a full time writer/author?  Fear of success is a thing, too.

But here's where I had the epiphany.

In the past when I had those gnawings in my brain that my life wasn't where it was meant to be, that I wasn't doing what I was supposed to be doing, I changed course. Marriages (yes plural) weren't working? Maybe I'm not cut out for marriage.  I am now one marriage/divorce away from needing to study paleontology and dance with my friends around a fountain in New York.  

I look back at just how many times I changed my direction because of that nagging feeling. 

And I was starting to get it, quite recently (times of big change tend to trigger it). As I was looking at my life through a bourbon flavored period of reflection, I realized something. I don't want to change course. The writing is going the direction I want it to go. The people in my life are the people that need to be in my life, so I'm not ready to shuffle that social deck of cards right now.

That's what got me thinking...what if that feeling doesn't mean 'turn away.'  What if it means, instead, 'hey...dude, you're close. This is your subconscious early warning detection system and that awesome life you always dreamed about is right ahead of you!! Press on, for godssakes, press on!!!!'

That was the mindfuck. Thinking back to all of the times I turned away instead of pressing through. Instead of going to the other side of the fear. And yes, I know that the experiences I went through made who I am, and I'm not discounting any of that. 

I don't know if that I pressed through those odd feelings I would be in a different place now. I probably would. Would it be a better place? I can't really say. I'm not a Time Lord. And even if I was, I could never go back on my own timeline.

I guess the long and short of it is, I should have listened to that little nagging thread earlier on. NOT because I'm not happy with how my life is going now, but because running away from the things that scare me or make me uncomfortable is never going to get me where I want to be. 

I also recently remembered, that when your favorite sweater has a little loose thread, you can cut just that piece of loos thread off and keep going. 

Huh. Who knew?

1.08.2018

RBC Week 2: The Party Crasher

We are in the second week of the year 2018, and I am (so far) sticking to this particular goal/resolution. I'm speaking of course of Ray Bradbury's challenge to new writers. Part of this challenge (and the one that many writers including myself seem to focus on) is to write a short story a week for 52 week, as it was "impossible to write 52 bad stories in a row."

I present to you week 2's entry, well on my way to proving or disproving Mr. Bradbury's assertion.

Enjoy,
Todd

***

The Party Crasher
by Todd Skaggs


The red bulb of the joint’s cherry grew with a fiery intensity as I heard him inhale.

Moments later it was floating my way in the dark room. A strained, disembodied voice spoke to me out of the pitch dark, “you want a hit off of this? It’s the good stuff. It’s the stuff the government grows but doesn’t talk about. The Church gives it to me on account of what I do for them.”

I reached below the glowing amber dot and felt the joint. As I took it my hand brushed its holder. A leathery texture brushed against my hands as I took the spliff, guiding to to my lips, and drew the first slow, sweet drag that I hoped would lead me to oblivion.  No stranger to weed, I could feel the effects of this strain almost immediately. I had picked the right party to crash. Fuck Jones for not being here, too. Of all the times for my roommate to be out of town. She would be sorry she missed this.

I leaned the direction opposite my benefactor, looking for someone to pass the jay off to while it was still lit. It was too dark to see much of anything.

“Just you and me, Holmes.” The voice again spoke.

I took another hit and passed the lit cigarette back in the direction of the voice.

Speaking my own strained dialect, wanting to hold this smoke as long as possible, I asked, “What is it you do, man?”

I heard another long exhale before he spoke. “I hunt and kill demons for the Church.” The words floated through the darkness to my quickly reddening ears.

I choked out the last of the smoke I was holding.

“This must be some primo shit man, because I could swear you said you hunt and kill demons.”

“It is. And I did.”

At the exact moment my mysterious host said these words, I felt the full effects of the smoke kick in. I was vaguely aware of more words directed at me, but wasn't quite sure which order they went in. Finally my brain sorted them out.

"You really should be more careful when you crash parties, Mr. Thomas." Another inhale. Another flare of red from the darkness in front of me.

"Who? How did you know my..."  The words weren't cooperating.

A table lamp came on. Though on its dimmest setting, the effect was blinding. After my eyes remembered what it is they were supposed to do, the room came in to focus, spotted by the purple after-image of the light bulb floating in my field of view.

I could see the man now. He looked ancient.  At least twice as old as any of my oldest relatives. His frame was small, unimposing on first glance. The word that floated in my head was wiry. I had an uncle that had that same body type. He looked to be all skin and bones, but there was an ungodly strength hidden somewhere in that wiry frame.  I learned from an early age never to underestimate the wiry ones. I saw the patchwork leathered hands, one still holding the lit joint.  He reached out, offering another hit to me.

I shook my head no. I didn't know what was in that shit, but I didn't want to wind up in a bathtub of ice missing one of my kidneys. The way I was buzzing, I feared that might be the most likely outcome as it was.

"You're going to want another hit after I finish telling you what I have to tell you. In fact, it would be a damn good idea if we both sat here and killed this. It's going to be a long night and you're going to need it more than me."

There was an edge to his words, a warning that was undercut with a hint of compassion. It felt to me as though he didn't really want to do what he was about to do.

I let out the slow sigh of someone who had just resigned himself to making a bad decision. "Fuck it, lots of people live perfectly normal lives with just one kidney," I said, reaching out to take the joint. Taking another hit, I noticed something different this time. The smoke didn't burn. It was cool. And it filled my lungs. There was no feeling that I was about to choke.

The look on my face was the old man was waiting for.  He smiled and simple said, "good. That's better." I felt my body sinking into the bean-bag chair. No that wasn't right. I wasn't sinking. I was melting into the chair. I could no long tell where the beanbag chair ended and I began.

This was indeed some good weed.  I looked up at the old man again. His face looked like a worn leather attache case. Some parts worn smooth with age, others showing the scuffs that no amount of buffing could remove. But what struck me most about the man was his eyes. His eyes sparkled like the flash of lightning cracking through a midnight sky. I have never seen such eyes.  He motioned for me to take another hit.

"Dude. I'm beyond baked at this point. I'm about to pass the fuck out." It was all I could do to get the words out of my mouth. I hoped they actually did come out of my mouth.

He smiled at me and took the joint from me. When I looked at it, I saw that it was nearly roached. I don't remember taking that many hits off of it, but clearly someone did. And it had been in my hands.

This would normally be the part where I would start laughing. Something about smoking a spliff down to where it needed a clip and not remembering should have struck me as immensely funny. I should be laughing. I wasn't. This wasn't going at all how I had hoped it would go.

"I think you're ready now, Mr. Thomas." Those lightning eyes pierced me. I realized I was still holding my breath. I slowly exhaled.  No smoke. That's going to hurt like hell tomorrow. If I lived that long.

"You heard me correctly before, on all accounts. I work for the one true Church. I am employed as a demon hunter. My official job title is Community-Spiritual Liason. The IRS doesn't really have a check box for "demon-hunter." When I find the demon, I normally kill it. Depending on the age of the demon and the integration of the demon with the host, this generally means that when the demon is killed, the host body is left in a vegetative state. The church is usually pretty good about taking care of the lost souls and their families, so no worries there." 

He stopped and pulled a pair of reading glasses from his front shirt pocket. Once those were on, he dug a little notebook from his jeans pocket. The little book was well-worn, pages and cover secured with a rubber band that had been folded over itself several times. He opened it and flipped, landing on a page somewhere near the back.

This should have been freaking me out or eliciting uncontrolled laughter. I found the urge to do neither. I was calm and focused. Listening to this stranger talked to me about fairy tales and things of make believe. Who in their right might would believe demons were real?

At that moment, apparently I did.

He went on, "And then there are those rare instances where a demon doesn't actually possess the body. Rather, they attach themselves to the body and use it as an anchor in this realm. They use the anchor as launching point. A demonic base of operations. They integrate themselves into the psyche of the host without actually possessing them and then proceed to possess whomever they need to for whatever nefarious mission they've been sent to this realm for. If by some chance they are exorcised, they simply leave the body they are possessing and return to the anchor. The priest usually has no idea and considers the exorcism a success.  Anchored demons are the hardest to hunt and kill, Mr. Thomas. It takes careful calculation and timing to get them at the precise point they are returning to their anchor."

I knew he had been watching me intently as he told me the bit about the anchors. Clearly he was looking for some soft of reaction. I was honestly too high to know if I gave him one or not.

I saw his fingers run across something on the page as he looked back up at me. Taking off his glasses, he folded them and put them back in his shirt pocket.  Twisting the rubber band three times around the notebook and put that back in his pocket. When all of this was done, he looked back up at me.

"Mr. Jeffrey Thomas, you are an anchor."

Something deep the recesses of my mind screamed out. I should be terrified. The fight or flight should definitely be kidking in right about now. Nothing. No reaction, save one. Pity.

I'm not sure where it came from, but the waves of pity flowed out of me, riding a crest of darkness I never knew to exist in myself before that night. I felt sorry for whatever life this guy had and whatever it was that led him to believe this bullshit story he was telling. I tried staring him down, but I couldn’t focus. His head seemed to be vibrating like an old movie right before the film does that clackity-clack thing at the end when the reel is still spinning but there’s no more film going through the projector.

I stifled a laugh at thought of this old man winding his way through a film projector.

"Mister..I'm sorry, what did you say your name was?" I waited for a reply.  The old man simply smiled and joined in the waiting game. He won. "Right. So, anyway. Look, dude. I'm high as balls from whatever you packed in that doobie. But I'm not too high to see that this is some kind of scam."

I looked around at the room I found myself in. The couch the old man was sitting on looked just like my stained mocha loveseat. Apparently we shopped at the same place for bookshelves, too. There was still a layer of herbally induced fog clouding my logic, but enough synapses were firing to cause me to seriously question my surroundings.

"Something amiss, Mr. Thomas?"  The lightning eyes bespoke of a raging storm, but that damnable smile somehow comforted me.

"This. This looks like my apartment. I went out tonight to crash a party, but this looks like-- This IS my apartment. What the everloving fu-"

His leathery hand hit the side of my face with the crack of a pistol in the night, jarring me back in to this moment.

"Mr. Thomas, I need you to focus. We don't have much time. You are the anchor, and very shortly you are about to have a very dark visitor docked in your soul's harbor.  We must act quickly."

Face still stinging from the smack, I didn't notice until that second that his hands had grabbed my wrist and were holding my hands palms up.  I tried in vain to pull free. There was an ungodly strength in this man's grip. I suppose it came with the territory, a perk of battling demons. I succumbed and ceased my struggling.

"Fine.  What do I have to do to stop this demon from anchoring?" I asked. I'm not sure where the question came from, but in the current circumstances, it seemed appropriate.

"Just be still, Mr. Thomas. This will all be over soon" he said to me, loosening the grip on my wrists just long enough to shift the way he was sitting.  I looked with equal parts awe and confusion as his started speaking in an ancient tongue. It wasn't anything that I recognized, but it felt old. I feel like part of me should know it if part of me was anchored in the demon world. Still, the words were foreign. They washed over me like a dark wave. I felt my body soaking them in like a sponge overfilled with dirty water. The pressure was building. Finally he paused.

"So...these words. This thing you're doing," I said, "it's going to kill the demon?"

A burst of laughter bounced off the walls of my tiny apartment as he looked up at me. The eyes that once danced with the lightning of a summer thunderstorm held a sheen of pure, polished obsidian. They stared at me with a darkness blacker than the words that just invaded me.

"Kill it?" he asked, and then squeezing my wrists tighter he said in a near whisper, "Oh no, my dear Mr. Thomas. We are most certainly not going to kill it. We are going to anchor it to you. I have been waiting 75 years for a vessel like you."

The last sentence sent the chill down my spine that had wanted to run free there all evening. This feeling was multiplied exponentially by the glassy black marbles staring back at me from the old man's eye sockets.

He continued his dark liturgy and I felt the presence wash over me again.  Struggling seemed futile at this point. As the darkness crested through me, I felt my eyes close for what I had hoped would be the last time. I didn't know what being the anchor point for a demon consisted of, but I couldn't imagine anything good.

***

I don't know how long I swam in the darkness. A combination of whatever was mixed in with the weed and the feeling of a shadow wrapping itself just along the outer edge of my heart caused an odd floating sensation. I felt a pressure building on my left bicep as my room slowly came in to focus. The whoosh whoosh whoosh of the inflating blood pressure cuff caught my attention. The sounds matching the pressure pulsing around my upper arm.  Red and white flashing pulses danced in drunk syncopation with lights of red and blue through the sheers on my front window.

I panicked. Trying to sit up, still disoriented from my swim in the sea of darkness, I was stopped quickly by the paramedics.

"Sir. We need you to sit still." There were two EMTs flanking me, a male and female. I tried to read their name patches, but focusing took a little to much energy. It was the woman speaking to me now. Ginger hair pulled back in a professional ponytail, tucked under a ball cap with a caduceus.

The male stood up, next to a police officer. The cop had a notepad open and was copying information off of something the paramedic was holding. It looked to be an open wallet, my wallet.

"Sir," it was the woman again. "Sir, can you tell me your name?"

Foggy, but apparently lucid, I answered, "Jeffrey Thomas."

She looked up at the two men for confirmation. I saw the slightest nod from her partner.

"Very good Mr. Thomas."  She was speaking to me in the tone reserved for those people who might be crazy, and she hadn’t made up her mind yet. I could appreciate that.

I answered the battery of questions designed to help determine if I had suffered a concussion as well as the handful sprinkled in there to give them an indication of my mental state.

As I answered, I kept an eye on the officer and the paramedic. They were double-checking my answers. I looked around. There were two other officers walking around my apartment as though looking for something, or someone. There was a fourth officer stationed by my door.

"Mr. Thomas, can you tell us what happened?" It was the closest officer speaking this time.

"I was hoping you could tell me, Officer." I felt a calm wash over me. I don't know why I said what I did, but what came out of my mouth next just seemed to be the right thing to say.

"I was sitting here, working on my next book. I had ordered some takeout. I heard a knock at the door. I answered. And the next thing I knew, you are all here in my apartment. And I don't even have a kettle on to offer you any tea." I gave a feeble smile as I looked up at the officer. The paramedic directly in front of me removed the blood pressure cuff. The loud tearing sound of the hook and loop tape ripped through any tension still left in the room.  The two paramedics helped me up from my sitting position on the floor to my loveseat.

The officer took a seat on the ottoman in front of me.

"Sir, we think you were the victim of a home invasion. There was no forced entry, but that makes sense now. Your neighbor called us after hearing the Chinese delivery driver scream. So we don't think the perp had time to go through your whole apartment.  I'm going to need you to look around and tell me if anything is missing in this room. I see your desk, but no computer. It looks like they got your TV, too."

I stood on legs that should have been shakier than they were, given the circumstances. Walking over to my desk, I looked. Papers were scattered everywhere.

"Shit. Are you fucking kidding me?" The words left my mouth before I had time to think how they might be interpreted.

"What is it? Did they get anything? A laptop computer?" The officer's pen hovered over his notepad. I shook my head and turned back to the desk.   Reaching down to the side, I pulled up a small portable typewriter. I righted it on the desk and plunked a few keys. The fall from the desk to the floor hadn't done any major damage.

"No, officer. No laptop. No TV. I used this," I said, gesturing to the light blue Lettera 22 portable typewriter that I had just pulled up from its unnatural respite on my floor. "I'm pissed because they screwed up my manuscript. You see, I never number the first draft. Superstition from when I got my first book deal. It's going to take me a month to sort through these pages."

The rest of the evening blurred in to a haze where time had little meaning. The medical team cleared me and packed up their tackle boxes and left, leaving only the red and blue lights flashing through my front curtains. Eventually those, too, departed leaving me only to my thoughts. I held a business card with the lead officer's information, "should I remember anything about my assailant."

I smiled and politely thanked him.  I had nothing more to give them. I apologized for not getting a better look before I was sent down to more closely examine my carpet.

Closing the door behind him, I turned back to my apartment. It looked less like the site of a recent home invasion and more like the abode of a slightly eccentric author who had a problem with clutter, but I wasn't about to tell any of them that. Clearly none of them had read my books, or they might have stuck to the line of questions dealing with my sanity.

That was of little consequence now.

I wasn't sure how much time I would have before it came back. I never knew. Sometimes it was days. This last time it was seven years. Nor did know how long it would stay when it returned.

I picked up the pages that had been scattered around the desk, flipping through them trying to find the natural order of things.  I found the title page and the first couple of pages.  I set them to the side as I kept sorting through the rest.




THE DEMON INSIDE
by JEFFREY THOMAS


I met my first demon when I was 5 years old. It was just visiting at the time. It wasn't until 22 years later that it would come to live with me full time.

***





1.05.2018

Lost In The Forest All Alone

Sitting in a Starbucks off of the interstate. It doesn't really matter which state, or even which highway for that matter. Nor does the particular Starbucks matter. They are all the same. There is the corporate individuality that is not wholly unique to a franchise coffee shop. Some things are the same. Some touches of the individual manager's flair are evident. But for the most part they are the same. They are this way because it works.

As a writer, I personally take comfort in the fact that I can go in to just about any Starbucks in the country and get about the same experience. The menu will be the same. The seating will be approximately the same, and the vibe will be very similar. Some have a better feel than others.

Not 2 miles from this Starbucks is another Starbucks. It's darker on the inside. And it's smaller. The fuzzy phrase they are looking for is probably intimate. It doesn't feel intimate to me. It feels cramped. I can't stretch my brain there. My creativity seems cramped when I walk in. The flow is all wrong. People seem too close, even if the distance between the seats is the same as they are in the one I'm currently in.

This is the third night this week I have been here. Maybe the fourth. I've lost count. I've come because the areas of my apartment I want to write in are too cluttered. I've come because during the magical month of madness known as NaNoWriMo, or to most people-November, I was able to coax some delightful inspiration from the muse.I've come because I did one of the stupidest things I could possibly do. I shared my goals and projects.

Some would call that brave. Others would say that it's vital. That you can't have the accountability that comes with setting a goal if you are the only one that knows about it. And it's stupid. I know this. I got cocky. I set a goal in 2016 to publish a book by the end of my birthday in 2017. And I wound up publishing 2 books. So, I wanted to push myself.

That's the story I tell. That's the story that the short memory, ADHD set remembers.

I found the actual post that I made in November of 2016.

The truth of the matter is, I declared that come hell or high water, "The Treachery of Rainbows" would see the light of day by my birthday in 2017.

Don't bother looking for it on my Amazon author page. It isn't there. It's still sitting in 6 different folders and hopefully my Google drive. It's done. The first draft of it was finished in 2016. The thought was that I would edit it and take the literary world by storm with my particular brand of genius in 2017.

That didn't quite happen. 

Here's what did happen.

I was asked in December of 2016 (after my declaration for TTOR's birthday) to participate in an Urban Fantasy boxset set.

I did.

My first book, a novella if we're being  picky (I'm not..it's a book...a book I wrote), was published on Tuesday April 25th.

I had gone from writer to author at 12:00:01AM on that day. 

My world changed. I know that's cliche, but it's true. I can't go back to being someone who wants to publish a book. 

December 5th, also a Tuesday, saw the second book of mine available for public consumption.

I got cocky. I know writing is hard. I know publishing books is hard. I know that making a living as a writer is hard.

But I have never been one to not dream big.

So I did. I had big dreams. Scratch that--I have  big dreams.

I wrote my author goals for 2018 down in my bullet journal. Along with the unwritten goal of actually filling this bullet journal.

As of now, the plan is to do what it takes to hit all of those goals, even if it kills me. By December 31st, 2018 I will have some pretty amazing stories to tell.

And that's where the shit hits the fan, though. Because I did share the goals, I somehow feel obligated to hit those goals. I mean, if I don't hit them, somehow I've let you down, right? Because I hate to let people down, that fuels some frustration.

A friend of mine came to me with a similar situation. I realize now, sitting here in a standard Starbuck off the interstate, that I was able to help them through the situation because it was also something I personally needed to hear.

So, yeah. I shared my author goals.  And there are a lot of trees in that forest. I got so caught up with how many trees I was dealing with that I forgot to step back and realize how beautiful the forest actually is.

If made it this far, I'll give you a little bit of a treat. I have to be honest, I really didn't write this for you. I just needed a little reminder that I could still just sit down and write.

I can't wait to hit the next milestone. And the next one after that. And the one after.

"I'm not writing a book, I'm writing a chapter.
I'm not writing a chapter, I'm writing a page.
I'm not writing a page, I'm writing a sentence." Victoria Schwab




Have a great weekend my friends!

-Todd

1.03.2018

RBC Week 1: Last Chance

One of the 2018 goals I have set for myself as a writer is to follow the advice of one of my author-heroes, Ray Bradbury. He is said to have advised new writers to write a story a week for 52 weeks as it was impossible to write 52 bad stories in a row. We shall see.  With your indulgence, here is the first.  Enjoy.
-Todd

***


Last Chance
by Todd Skaggs


The first thing that hits you when you walk through the door of the Last Chance Diner is the smell of grease traps that are about twenty years past needing to be empty. The second is the thin film of desperation that covers everything. It hangs in the air like the wisp of a spider web you never mean to walk through yet somehow shake off for the next few minutes, wondering where in the world it came from.

The music coming out of the two tweed covered boxes hanging above the griddle and filling the nearly empty dining room was clearly from some station. The music seemed right at home amongst the table tops and booths that had been recovered in countless layers of vinyl over the decades.

The diner, to most just passing through, seemed to be a place out of time. To us locals, though, it was the heart of our community. In spite of the first impression it cast to the unknowing eye, the Last Chance Diner was the soul of what made our little town of Mabock, home.

Currently Jan and Dean were singing about a senior citizen from California who apparently has a lead foot and loves to race.

The place was called the Last Chance Diner, but there was some disagreement about how it came to have that name.  The tourists are all told the same thing.  It's called the Last Chance Diner because it’s the “Last chance for a decent meal for 3 hours anyway you leave town.”


That part was true. The only hot food you could get before you got to the city was sitting on a roller for hours just waiting for the next hungry person to fuel up their car.

One story that only the locals seemed to know was that the diner was an ultimatum. Over seventy years ago, Old Man Tabas and his Missus were having problems. He sunk their entire savings in to the diner. He said it was the last chance to save their marriage.

Another locals only legend has it that the Last Chance Diner was the only thing that the fire of ‘63 happened to skip when it threatened to burn the town down. It was the town’s last chance to not fade in to ashen oblivion.

There was probably someone in the town who knew the truth, but they weren’t talking.

I looked around. A few ladies fresh from the woman’s auxiliary or some other churchy group sat at the bar. Their low conversation occasionally interrupted when one of them let loose with a cackle that split the dull murmur of the diner like a shotgun blast on a still night. The outburst was usually short lived and they quickly went back to their shared order of fries and coveted slices of pie: blueberry, chocolate, and a banana creme that was to die for.

“To die for.” The waitress made sure to emphasize it twice.

In the fancier restaurants in the bigger cities, they didn’t call them waitresses. They called them servers.

In a place like the Last Chance, they were waitresses. Literally waiting for something, anything, to happen. For some kind of magic to walk in.

The universe has a funny way of rewarding those who resign themselves to waiting.

The Leader of the Pack abruptly cut, as though the needle of the record were being angrily dragged across the vinyl.  Static. Then Nina Simone started in crooning in a sensuously lazy way about a spell she was putting on some poor unfortunate soul.

The door to the diner swung wide as the first strains of the chorus poured out of the speakers.

“You’re not welcome here.” The voice, angry came out from the opening in the wall that looked in to the kitchen.

I looked up. Something had the normally unflappable Pops riled up. No, not something, someone.

“Aww, c’mon Pops. The prodigal son has returned.”

The prodigal son, as he called himself, stood just shy of six-feet. Average build. Everything about him was completely forgettable.

Except his eyes.

His eyes had the glint of a new dime in the summer sun. No matter how much you wanted to look, the flare was too intense. A second was the longest I could look at him before I had to turn back to the plate on my table.

The food so colorful and fresh just a minute before looked….flat. Somehow not as vibrant.

I, too, felt flat, as the gray blanket of indifference covered me.

“Sorry, brother. You looked a little too long. It’ll wear off soon.”

It took me a minute to figure out that he was talking to me.

“Mmm hmm. Um..thanks?”  I didn’t register that the words were coming out of my mouth, but there they were.

The man smiled at that and turned back to the kitchen. His walk was slow and with a purpose.

It reminded me of a jungle cat stalking a wounded gazelle.

The waitress, soft in all the right places, but still hardened by years of working third shift, stepped in his path.

“Oh darlin’, you do not want to be doing that.”  The amicable tone had a dark edge to it.

I was fighting the urge to face him full on and watch the scene unfold, but the fear kept me from fully engaging. I settled for a slight tilt, giving my peripheral vision a slight boost.

I was seeing what appeared to be a stand-off.  The mystery man stopped short. The waitress stood two feet in front of him, blocking his way to the kitchen. Blocking his way to Pops.

“Nadene, please close out your tables. We’re closing early.” The command came slowly, deliberately from the kitchen behind the waitress. There was a tone of resignation in the voice.

I couldn’t believe my ears. In the years that I had been coming here, I never saw Pops close a shift early. He prided himself on keeping up with the three other cooks in his employ.

“Sorry folks. I need to ask you to finish up. Nadene will get you to-go boxes. Your meals are on the house tonight. It appears I have a family reunion.”  Pops voice quietly filled the diner. He wasn’t shouting, yet somehow, everyone heard him as though he were at each table making the announcement personally to each patron.

The figure stood silently in the center of the diner. A slight smile slithered across his face as he saw everyone bustling about like panicked ants that had crossed a trail of cinnamon powder and suddenly lost their way.

Nadene was at my table before I knew fully what was happening, styrofoam to-go container in hand.

“I’m so sorry, sweetie. I don’t know what any of this is about.”  I heard her apologizing, but the words sounded like they were coming from a radio station that wasn’t quite fully in tune. I knew what the words were, but it took me longer to put together what they actually were. And there was a hiss of static surrounding them.

“He’s not going to be processing things normally for a hot minute, darling.”

Those words I heard. Crystal clear. They came from him. From the man that had Pops spooked enough to close the Last Chance early. Something that hadn’t happened since the day of Ma’s funeral. And even then, Pops was working the griddle, tie loosened and sleeves rolled up. He said cooking eased the aching in his soul. He said that Ma would want him to take care of their friends, especially when she couldn’t be there to do it.

But this wasn’t like that at all. This was different.

I looked at the empty styrofoam container on the table next to the half eaten bacon cheddar burger on my plate.

I knew what needed to happen. Logically it made sense. I needed to put the food on the plate into the container on the table. And I needed to get the fuck out of there.

But I, I couldn’t. Something was just...off. I saw all of the pieces of the puzzle and knew the picture they were supposed to make, but for some reason I couldn’t put the pieces together.

Then I felt it.  The chill that comes on a winter morning when you roll over in bed and the sheet falls to the floor. The cool air of the room hits your body like a bucket of ice. This was that same feeling.

And suddenly the pieces clicked.

“Annnnd, he’s back.”

I heard the voice, but I didn’t dare look. This last...holy shit, has it really been….twenty minutes was hell. I quickly scooped the food into the container, and left a few bucks on the table. Just because this asshole was causing Pops to close early and I knew Nadene was counting on those tips.

“You take care, Mikey.” I heard Pops call behind me, but I still couldn’t turn to look.  I shot up a hand to give a wave as I pushed the thick glass door open and stepped out to meet the cold night air.

I heard Pops saying something as the door closed behind me, but I couldn’t make out the words. The thick double pane glass taking its turn at blurring the words coming to my ears. I got to my car a few seconds later. The thoughts that had been camping out like the snow cap on a mountain fell down in an avalanche of confusion as I tried to make sense of what happened.

As I was pulling out of my parking spot, I saw Nadene walking out to her car. I slowed, waiting to make sure she got in safely. As I continued my departure, I saw the lights flickering inside the diner. The neon ‘OPEN’ sign went dark as did the large sign facing the highway.

Neither of which had ever happened in my lifetime.

***

It wasn’t a far drive home. It wasn’t a far drove from any place to any other place in Mabock. The town’s second and third traffic lights had been erected in my lifetime.

I pulled into McHenry Estates and weaved my way through the single and double-wides until I came to my home. A 32-foot double that had been left to me by my uncle, the only family I ever remembered.

I grabbed the to-go container from the passenger seat and climbed the three steps to my postage-stamp of a porch. I could hear shuffling behind the door. I braced myself for the pounding I would get as soon as I crossed the threshold.

Sure enough, the thick paws of the grey-brown elkhound landed just below my chest as I walked in.

“Hey there Samson!”  I knew he was excited to see me, his tail told me as much. I learned long ago not to keep anything valuable  no lower than 4ft from the ground or somehow it would get whacked by his tail.

“Let me set this stuff down then we’ll go for our walk, buddy. I know. Oh, I know. I missed you, too.” I raised Samson from a pup. I got him the same week I got the keys to the trailer. I grew up in the trailer and the thought of being the only living thing in there just didn’t sit well with me. Barry over on Rt. 38 had a litter of pups from his bitch and I got first pick. I didn’t pick Samson, he picked me.  That was seven years ago and he still had the energy he had when he was a pup.

I opened the fridge and looked for a place to put the to-go container. I settled on putting it on top of the 12 pack of PBR on the bottom shelf. There were no other take home containers on that shelf, so it would be easy to remember that it was the most recent.

I should probably clean that fridge out soon. My thoughts were interrupted by an anxious elkhound holding a leash in his mouth and looking at me expectantly.

Ruffling the fur on his head I smiled. “Ok buddy, just a quick walk around the park. It’s late and there’s some crazy shit going on out there tonight.”  I remembered the weirdness at the Last Chance and wondered what was happening with Pops right now. I still felt the remnants of whatever voodoo whammy that guy threw my way. It wasn’t prominent like it had been in his presence, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was still there, lingering.  That was enough send a chill up my spine. I reached for the fleece hanging on the hook by the door. I threw it on and then latched the leash in to Samson’s collar before stepping out in to the cool autumn air.

***
The trailer park was well lit and none of the uneasiness I felt on the drive home followed me around as I let Samson get his daily walk in.

As we circled back from our circuit and approached the trailer, though, something felt off. I noticed Samson slowing. He felt it too. I heard a low, steady growl and when I looked down, the hackles on his neck were standing at full attention

We both stopped.

The door to my trailer stood open. It wasn’t opened wide, but it was definitely not closed. I was certain I had closed it.  I could see movement inside. Whoever was in there was not randomly tossing the place. I could see through the curtained windows that they were moving from the front of the trailer to the back.  I decided to let it play out. There was nothing of value in the trailer. Anyone who knows me knows I use it as a place to sleep and write. And occasionally drink and screw. The most valuable thing that was ever in that trailer was at the end of the three foot leash I was holding, growing more agitated by the second.

“Easy, buddy. Won’t be long now.” I walked to a bench in a green patch of land the trailer park owners called a park. A Walmart swing set, sandbox, and a couple of park benches didn’t make it a park, but it still served its purpose. Tonight its purpose was letting me get a good look at whomever was in my apartment.

I sat in the bench that afforded me a direct view of my trailer. Samson lay at my feet. To the untrained eye, he looked like he was napping. He wasn’t. He was still aggravated and ready to spring in to action at a moment’s notice.  For the moment, he was taking his cues from me. I was chill. He was chill.

The doorway to the trailer darkened as a figure loomed, momentarily filling the whole opening as it ducked and crossed the threshold. Stepping out onto the porch, it looked left and then right. Before leaving, it turned and took one last look inside the trailer.

I could feel Samson tense up at my feet. Something had him more on edge than I’d ever seen him. That made me decidedly less chill as I watched this intruder leave.

As he turned to walk off, I saw the moonlight flash in his eyes. The queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach was all the reminder I needed. I knew those eyes. They belonged to the asshat that had put the whammy on me at Pops.  What the fuck could I have that he would be looking for.

I did my best impersonation of a statue. When I saw the figure leave the porch and go around the side of the trailer, I finally let out the breath I’d been holding. My chest burned as I stood. Samson was eager to return.

I crossed the distance of the courtyard and hit the porch of the trailer taking the steps two at a time. Samson also bounded up the steps, keeping pace. I stopped at the doorway and looked in.

Not one single thing was out of place. Not. One. Single. Thing.

What the fuck? I thought. This makes no sense. Why go through the trouble of cleaning my trailer up. Unless he didn’t want me to know that he was there. And if that was the case, why would he leave the door open? None of this made any sense at all.

I walked in and that’s when it hit me. The wave of nausea wrapped around me like a blanket. I turned as I started falling to the floor, vision fading. Samson was on the porch looking concerned but he didn’t come inside.

“Goddamned threshold spell.” I mumbled. Before things went dark, I saw a shadowy figure coming up the stairs and stand just behind Samson.

“Good boy,” he said, patting Samson’s head. “Dogs are always smarter than humans when it comes to detecting magic. You really should have listened to yours, Mikey. I could hear him trying to warn you. Have a good nap. We’ll talk more in the morning my friend.”

Friend? The word didn’t make any sense. Nothing made any sense right now.

Except the darkness. The blanket of darkness that was wrapping around me brought me to a place that was far more comforting than it should be, considering the danger I was in.

***

The first thing that hits you when you walk through the door of Sonny’s Diner is the smell of a new day. It’s like walking through the best parts of your favorite air freshener. It seems that no matter what the day is like outside, when you walk in, there is always a light of hope.  It’s an odd sensation.  Most newcomers to the diner don’t quite know how to explain the feeling. Most of the locals have grown used to it.

The music coming from the barely noticeable Bose sound cubes is usually a mix of folksy alternative and an eclectic mix  of music that would rival most big city coffee houses. On Friday nights, there’s usually a small band or combo set up in the corner. The music was a stark but welcome contrast to the worn table tops and mismatched vinyl covering the seats of most of the booths in the place.

To most passing through, the place had an air of nostalgia. There was enough of the diner vibe to harken back to a time when going to a greasy spoon was not simply an after-bar destination.

Sonny had taken over the diner from Pops and had renamed it. No one in the town could quite remember when that all had happened. In the minds of most, it had always been Sonny’s Diner.

I sat there looking at his bacon burger with a sense of unease.

This is so fucking weird. I thought as I tried to work out the missing pieces to this puzzle.

“What’s weird, Mikey?” A figure was by my table side. I didn’t see him come out of the kitchen, yet here he way, by my table.

It was Sonny himself. Unlike what people remembered of Pops, Sonny was always around. He could be seen going from table to table, mingling with the guests and making sure the got what they needed and they had the best meal they could have for the low price they were paying.

“I was just thinking that something seems off, Sonny. I can’t put my finger on it, but something isn’t right.”

I don’t know why I was telling Sonny this. As far as I could remember, we were best friends. I’d  known Sonny since I was a kid.  There’s pictures of us up on the walls here and there in the diner in various stages of our lives. I have to be honest, though, when I look at the pictures, I see me, but I have absolutely no memory of whatever it is we’re supposed to be doing in the pictures.

Doesn’t much matter, though. Sonny seems to always be there just in time to fill in any missing gaps.

His eyes always shone with the fiery glint of a newly minted dime in the summer sun. As he smiled at me, all felt right and I went back to eating the best bacon cheeseburger in Mabock.

Nina Simone started playing quietly over the speakers. I always did love this song.  I think that’s why Sonny kept it on the playlist. Somehow he knew.

He always knows.


~Fin~


Turn And Face The Strange

Disclaimer: This post is not really for you. It's for me. It will quite likely be disjointed and random and provide too much information...