The Dark

One rule: you must use the words, “you can’t fight what you can’t see.”

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The darkness presses around him, like a physical weight. A chill creeps into his skin, damp against the curve of his spine through the shirt on his back. A headache pulses in his temples, sharp, violent pain creeping behind his eyes.

What is this? How did I get here? 

He plants a palm against the icy wall at his back, supporting himself as he pushes up off the ground. His hand comes away wet, and the empty thwack of a drip hitting the floor sends his heart pattering in his chest.

His eyes widen, attempting to see something, anything in the inky blackness which stretches around him. The empty grey outline of a door emerges through the fog. He stumbles for it, adrenaline flooding his veins with dizziness.

Where do you think you’re going, my pet? 

The words slice through his head. He crumples to the ground, pressing his eyes shut and clapping his hands against his ears. He recognizes the voice, sweet but deadly, like ethylene glycol.

Where is it coming from? Where is she coming from? 

He jerks his head on his neck, though he can’t see his hand before his face, never mind a form in the darkness. He glances forward again, struggling to make out the faint edge–the hint of light beyond his cage of cold black. He gets up slowly, legs shaking beneath him. The voice has gone silent. He makes the short journey to the door, his shoes scuffing the floor beneath him, the only noise. Sccccrrrrfff. Scccrrrffff. Scccrrfff. 

The door rattles as he plants both palms against it. His body shivers and shakes, faint bruises and scratches screaming in the silence. He fumbles for a knob or handhold, his fingers grasping against the mottled surface, finding nothing.

Mason.

He feels her breath brush his ear, and spins, arms flailing through empty air.

“Where are you?” he shouts, and the darkness swallows his words.

A frantic desperation fills his chest, and he grasps for the door, fingernails grinding between the thin edge where the grey light seeps in. He manages a hold, and reefs on the heavy slab. It gives a little, enough to give him hope. He pulls harder and the door opens, only to catch after an inch. The heavy clank of chains rattling together sends his stomach into his feet.

The cold hands clamp around either side of his head from behind, paralyzing him, feet freezing to the spot. A chill drips down his spine like ice water, his breathing catching in his chest.

“Oh Mason,” she says, her nails biting into the flesh at his temples. “You can’t fight what you can’t see.”

The deep violet clouds fill his vision, seeping through his skull, making his head swim with disorientation and darkness. He feels himself slipping, his body growing weak, the violence of her spirit consuming him. The chorus of screams echo in his ears, and his are the loudest.

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GasLighting

The lovely Ms. Radina Valova is a talented screenwriter, photographer, and author friend of mine, who hosts a writing prompt every week (feel free to check out her website here). She gives a photo to inspire us, and adds required lines, phrases, props, etc. to incorporate into our writing piece. It’s a lot of fun, and open to anyone who is interested! Look for it on twitter every Thursday with the hashtag #PhotoStoryPrompt.

This week’s challenge: Write the start or part of a story based on the image below. One rule, you must use the words “truth is a cold mistress, but steel is colder.”

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The night is dark, the only light coming from the harsh white fixtures embedded in the aluminum canopy over the gas pumps. The streets lay empty and quiet before him, the occasional swoosh of a distantly passing vehicle, the only thing to break the silence.

Mason’s heart does an unsteady dance in his chest, sweat rolling down the back of his neck as he stands in the humid hours of the early morning. His eyes flicker to the road, and he knows he’s waiting for something, but that’s the only thing he knows.

He barely remembers crawling out of bed in a daze, hours ago, his body moving of its own accord. But he does remember. Like sleeping walking, he’d watched it happen through groggy, squinted eyes. At first, he figured he must need a drink or something. He often switched into autopilot, trudging through the night to lumber through the kitchen and run himself a cold stream of water from the faucet. He’d duck his head into the sink, swallowing a few mouthfuls until he was satisfied.

But he hadn’t done that. Not in the murky hours of this early morning. He wrestled into a dark pair of jeans and a shirt, mismatching his socks, and slipping on shoes. The fear still hadn’t started, not then. Not until he grabbed his keys by the door, and slipped into the dingy hallway of his apartment. Then the pulse itched at the back of his head, a need to satisfy some desire he couldn’t identify. And with the pulse, the panic.

Turn around, he told himself, but he didn’t.

He got in his car, and drove as though he knew where he was going. Inside, his thoughts spilled, incoherent lifts and falls of fearful intonation.

What is happening, where are you going? Turn around, Parks. Turn around and go home.

But he didn’t. He drove, not checking his mirrors, not checking his speed, not checking his shoulder as he drifted into another lane. If the streets hadn’t been empty, he would’ve killed himself, undoubtedly.

Standing here now, he knows he should go home. He wants to go home, to crawl back beneath the covers and slip into a dreamless sleep, though he knows the thought is fanciful. The world is not kind enough to let him drop into oblivion. He will crash into another nightmare, with swirls of deep violet, and shrieks of the dying. He will toss and turn, waking up with sweat soaked covers, and trembling hands.

Maybe that’s why he stays, his back ram-rod straight, his eyes focused on the road. Maybe that’s why he’s left his car without bothering to close the door behind him, and stands out here in the middle of an abandoned gas station parking lot. Because it’s better than the alternative.

And yet, his pulse pounds in his throat, and he feels dizzy.

What are you waiting for, Mason Parker? What are you waiting for?  

The response in his head shakes with the voice of a child, terrified.

I don’t know, he thinks.

When the car pulls up, the windows tinted, the lights flickering off the ebony paint, a rush of relief sweeps through him. He’s not crazy. He was waiting for something.

The sensation is soon overcome with horror.

He was waiting for something…

A woman slips out of the back seat, and his heart beats harder. Run. Run. But he doesn’t.

The woman’s hair spills in dark waves over her shoulders. As she stands, taller than him, dressed like an actress at an awards ceremony, her eyes flicker in his direction. They’re darker than the night around them. His heart seizes, and he can’t breathe, but he doesn’t move.

She smiles faintly as she clatters up to him in stilettos. Her legs, long, pale, exposed through a slit up the side of her dress, are all he can look at. He can’t bring himself to look up. To look into her eyes.

“Good evening, Mason,” she says.

A flash, and his heart is beating again, far far too quickly. He’s not just standing straight anymore, he realizes, he’s standing at attention. His eyes stay on the ground, submissive. He says nothing.

The gravel and dust swirls around her feet, clouds of deep violet that crawl up her legs, revealing glimpses of her true form beneath. Shimmers of interlocking silver scales, reflecting the light from the canopy.

“Look at me.”

His gaze creeps up at her insistence.

Her eyes are entirely black, her teeth sharp slivers of bone. As she grins, dark, shimmering wings beat behind her back, and he feels the grip of her power crush his heart. He fights for a breath.

He hadn’t known when he’d fallen in love with her. Corrine.  In his chest, the stab of her betrayal works further and further in. The pain of surrendering his will to her lights through his memory. She only lets him recall the truth sometimes, and she does it to hurt him.

As though reading his thoughts, she reaches out a hand, her cold palm against his cheek. Inside, he shivers. On the outside, he does nothing.

“Truth is a cold mistress,” she says, then drops her eyes. She reaches into the clutch at her side, pulling out a silver six-shooter, which she plants in his hand. “But steel is colder, and you have a job to do for me.”

His fingers curl against the pistol grip. Bile creeps up the back of his throat, but he swallows it. He’s nothing more than a pawn for her in this world.

And he had loved her so much…

“Of course,” he finds himself saying, glancing up at her once more, looking for some hint on her face that she feels something. Anything. Though her glamour, the illusion, has settled back in place, there’s nothing human in her expression.

“Don’t get caught,” she says.

He wakes in the morning, having slept through his alarm. He grumbles, rolling over, and throwing the covers off himself. He’s going to be late for work. As he stands, his body protests, stiff and sore. He feels like he’s been crushed beneath a steam-roller. He wonders where it comes from. He hasn’t been to the gym in a few days, and he can’t figure what he could have done yesterday to make him feel like this.

He simply can’t remember. He never does…

 

 

My Muse is a Jerk

My friend, Brian Buhl, wrote an incredible piece about his muse (you can find it here). The idea of personifying that ineffable quality that us, as writers, wrestle with in order to put out words on a page, was intoxicating. I had to try it. I meant to finish some editing I had been working on first but, lo and behold, I couldn’t even wait for that. I had to write this piece. And here it is. Hope you enjoy!

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“Come on, kid,” he says. His grin comes slow and easy, my scowl comes hard and fast. “It’s not that difficult.”

“Sure, okay, you say that,” I start, but he presses a finger against my lips, effectively shushing me.

My face flushes, the heat rising into my cheeks, and up to the top of my ears. My heart drums faster in my chest, pulsing in my throat. If I didn’t know I need him, I’d tell him off.

My eyes dart, up and to the right, where I can glower at him. His pale skin flickers now and again, revealing flashes of his veins of varying hues of color, weaving dizzyingly beneath the surface. Sometimes I catch the dance of teal around his throat, sometimes it’s the spark of purple in his eyes, sometimes it’s the yellow in his fingertips. Sometimes I see them all at once, rainbows of magic. It comes as easy to him as breathing.

Sometimes I don’t see anything at all. Just another man.

“Look,” he throws an arm over my shoulder, waving out at the expanse before us. Off the edge of the roof beneath us, there lie rows and rows of high rises, reaching endlessly in every direction. They clamber to the skies, lit up as though with fire in the drizzly night. The streets below are empty, no cars, no people, no sound but the gentle up and down of his voice, and it’s eerie. “You have whatever you need at your disposal. It’s all in here.”

He reaches back to me and gently taps my forehead with his index finger. I swallow hard.

“It’s not that easy,” and I know I’m whining, but I can’t help it.

“It’s not that difficult either. You’ve done it before.”

“But what if—”

He hisses, “Shhh.”

His eyes flash with amber, then it fizzles, and dies, leaving them the same green as my own.

Tears bristle, and I try to bite them back. I’m always afraid if I show weakness, he’ll leave. Only the strong can do this, and I’m not that. I just pretend, and it doesn’t always work.

“Look, Scrittor—”

“Don’t call me that,” I say. “I don’t know what that means.”

It only makes him smile wider, and I swear I could punch him in his perfect face when he does that.

“Not everything is about understanding, love. And what you want to do? That certainly isn’t about understanding. It’s about feeling. It’s about emotion. It’s about trust.”

His fingers wrap around my wrist, and I can see the excited dance of crimson flashing across his knuckles. My eyes widen, snap up to him, my heart stutters. He’s walked to the end of my arms-length. My elbow is locked, turned up to the sky. He glances back, and his eyes swirl with a rich tapestry of color.

“No,” I say, tossing my head violently.

He takes another step forward, and I dig my heels into the loose gravel on the roof.

“I thought you said this was what you wanted,” he says with a laugh that echoes off the surrounding buildings.  

With the prominence of the red glowing in his irises, it doesn’t take much imagination to picture him killing me. Rationally, I know I’ve survived him before. He seems—mostly—to have my best interests at heart. But he’s also wild, unpredictable, untamable. A mystery to me, even after so many years.

I grab his fingers in my own, trying desperately to pry them off from around my wrist. It’s effortless, the way he pulls me to the edge. Already, the dizziness swims in my head.

“I’m scared of heights,” I squeak, as though he’s forgotten.

“Trust me, Scrittor,” he says.

“You? The one who won’t even stop calling me some name I asked him not to?”

“It’s not about what you want.”

“Isn’t it?” I quirk an eyebrow.

His eyes slip back to normal, and I see my reflection look back at me from his black pupils. He doesn’t answer, his gentle grin causing a hum of familiarity to grow in my chest. No. It’s not about what I want. It’s about something bigger. For a minute, I’m comforted, peace running through my veins like water. This is right. Somehow.

Then I see the pavement below, dashed with white lines, empty, so so very far away. My vision bugs in and out of focus, my stomach lurching into my chest.

“I can’t,” I say, not even realizing the words are leaving my mouth.

“Trust me, Scrittor.”

“I don’t,” I shriek, grinding my short fingernails into his flesh. He doesn’t bleed, not the way I do, but licks of ink mix with the misting rain, and drip onto the rooftop beneath our feet. His grip remains firm, and I scream, tears building pressure behind my eyes.

“Hey,” he whispers so gently I stop, looking up into his eyes. He uses his other hand to brush damp strands of brown off my face. “It’s going to be okay.”

As though lifting a heavy duffel bag, he leans forward, grunts, and hefts me over the edge. My desperate cry is snatched away in the wind, and I don’t hear my voice come back to me. The sick sensation of falling wrenching my insides. I writhe, my fingers grasping uselessly at the air as it passes so quickly. My eyes press shut, and then I feel it stir within me. Something. Something I didn’t know was there. I fight against the rush of wind, and then I work with it. It swells beneath me, and I’m not falling, I’m soaring. My raucous laughter echoes off the buildings, and people start to spill out from the doors, craning their heads to look up at me. I take note of each one of them, a manic smile splitting my face. I see a man in a patchwork jacket, a woman with wrinkles of worry creasing her eyes, a thug with a tattoo inked into his skin.

And I smile as I rush up, up, back towards the rooftop, where he sits, his feet swinging back and forth as they dangle off the edge. He gives me a quick, two-finger salute. I told you so, is written all over his face.

“Jerk,” I say as I rush past him with the breeze, but I can’t keep the laughter from bubbling up with the word.  

“You’re welcome!” he cries after me, but I’m already off.

There’s so much to see. There’s so much more to discover. The next story is waiting.

Bucky Barnes is my Hero

 

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I’m not even going to pretend this was a semi-original idea. I’m just going to own the fact that I read Clementine Fraser’s post, called Why I Fell For Captain America, and I got very excited when, at the end, she asked who our favourite hero is. I responded with a comment that was probably longer than is socially acceptable, and it still wasn’t enough. So here I am.

Hi, my name is Ashley, and I have an unhealthy obsession with Bucky Barnes.

My Pinterest board is flooded, I mean, FLOODED with fan art, stills from the “Bucky scenes,” interviews, fun facts from the comics, screen shots of tumblr posts where people have mirco-analyzed the crap out of Sebastian Stan’s facial expressions in the movies. I have a Bucky Pop-Figure, wallet, shirt, notebook, and the collection grows each day I feel like I can neglect the costs incurred with the responsibilities of being an adult, and buy those things which remind me of my hero instead.

But here’s the thing. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is littered with ‘cool characters,’ right? They can fly, they can fight, they can move things with their mind, they can stop time, they can swing from the rooftops, they can phase through walls, they can summon lightning from the skies (but can any of them pull some passing guy off his motorcycle, turn it, take it, and take off, all without missing a beat? Just Bucky? Yeah, that’s what I thought).

Though Bucky is by far the coolest–with his metal arm, and the six thousand different weapons he can wield with deadly precision–that’s not the reason he’s my hero.

Arguably, Bucky has one of the most traumatic backstories. Don’t fight me on this, okay, I said ‘arguably’ and I said ‘one of.’ We can all agree he’s been through Hell and back again. He lost everything when he fell from that train in 1944. He lost his family, he lost his best friend, he lost any semblance of normal, he lost control, he lost himself. He became a weapon, and an object.

And yet, somehow, he’s managed to find his way back. We know he didn’t do it on his own, one Mr. Steve Rogers had a lot to do with that, as did the scientists in Wakanda, but let’s not ignore the fact that Bucky had to crawl through years of indoctrination and mind-control to find himself again. How much easier would it have been to forget? To let the memory-wipe take him back to the place where he could watch, but not control his own actions? Where he could submit his will and his resolve, and give up?

But he didn’t.

That’s the thing I love about Bucky. Just like Steve, he could “do this all day,” fighting to stay on his feet, fighting to keep the barest scrap of himself, even if it means struggling with the realization of what he’s done. Because, let’s be honest, being the Winter Soldier gives Bucky an out, whether he’d take it or not. The Winter Soldier’s loyalty is to Hydra, and there, he’s simply following orders. Bucky’s loyalty isn’t, and he can look back on all those orders he’s followed with shame and regret.

You see, saving himself comes at a cost. Being himself, comes at a cost. It comes with the cost of owning up to a checkered past, splashed with red, and dripping with guilt.

This is the thing, this is the kicker, this is what really gets me. Bucky would rather be himself than be absolved of responsibility for the things he’s done wrong. He’d rather do the hard thing, if it’s the right thing, than allow himself to be used.

It no secret that in Civil War, Bucky is a mess. He’s trying to piece his life together in a world he doesn’t understand, from a past he can’t quite access. He struggles with his fragile psyche, he struggles with his own helplessness to do what he knows is right, he struggles to feel like he’s worth the time and attention his friend puts into him. Hm. Relatable.

Despite all that, he doesn’t give up. It’s not that he wants to keep going, it’s not that he thinks he’s strong enough to keep going, it’s that he has no other choice. And how many times do we grind through the difficult things in life because we have no other choice? If Bucky can do it, with years of suffering, pain, and torment behind him–with literal voices of dissension that can send him on the wrong path–can’t we?

You see, this is what makes Bucky so admirable. Sure, he fights the bad guys (erm, well…mostly we’ve seen him fight the good guys), but he also fights himself. He fights the things he doesn’t like about himself, all the evil inside of himself, and slowly but surely, he wins. One memory at a time–in all their glory and shame–he reigns it back in.

And that’s what a hero does.

 

Should…

I’m going to be straight with you here. I suck at blogging. I can’t seem to motivate myself to sit down and write in this GIANT white box, even when given amazing prompts by my friends. No, I sit, I think about blogging, and then I feel this smothering weight of dread. I may find myself going to my blog when the idea hits me that I SHOULD, and then I wonder why I’m not working on my latest work in progress, I wonder why my blog looks like crap, I wonder why I haven’t eaten anything in the last twenty minutes, and I get up to make myself a snack.

 

Basically, I am the picture of motivation and productivity, always.

 

 

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But I’ve been talking to some of my writer friends lately, explaining my belief that “real writers blog.” They all informed me that, if it feels like a chore and it’s something I don’t enjoy, I don’t have to do it.

 

It’s sad, but that was quite the concept to me.

I swung a little too far to the other side in response. I figured I’m free, I’m off the hook, I never have to blog again. Except then there came moments where I wanted to, and didn’t, because I’m ‘not blogging’ now.

Long story short, here I am, and I came to a realization:  I hate the word SHOULD.

Should is something we tell ourselves when we’re motivated by guilt, or fear, or unrealistic expectations. I should write a blog, because that’s what ‘real writers’ do. I should study this evening, because that midterm is coming up. I should get a better job, because I hate the look in their eyes when I admit what I do for a living. I should stop wasting time on this project, because it’s never going to go anywhere.

In life, there are things we have to do, things we want to do, and things we get to do. There are no things we SHOULD do, it’s a construct.

I have to go get groceries tonight, or it’s KD for dinner. I have to study for that midterm, if I want to get a good grade. I want to write this evening, because I have some great ideas. I get to spend time with my family this weekend, because we’ve planned to go to the park while it’s nice.

It’s a re-framing of your perspective, and I think it makes all the difference. I WANTED to write a blog post today, so I did. If I ever think I should, I’m going to evaluate my motivation. Life’s too short to waste time on things you think you should do.

Drugs and Good Ideas

I basically live inside the Twitter-verse, and a lot of my blog posts are inspired by the amazing group of writers I have met there. One such friend, Tiffany Crystal (her great blog can be found at tiffanycrystal.wordpress.com), started something we call “Bat Files.” Yeah, that probably raises more questions than it answers, but just roll with it. Tiffany gives a prompt for a group of us to consider when writing our blog posts for the week. This week’s prompt is about writing triggers/inspiration: the thing that never fails to get you working.

This is going to sound rather intuitive I suppose, and maybe a little bit dumb, but the thing that never fails to make me lunge for a pen, is a good idea. I don’t necessarily mean my own, but that will certainly get me itching to write too. No, I mean a well constructed story, already in existence, will make me want to write. An overheard conversation on the bus wherein two people find themselves in a situation most people don’t find themselves. Finishing a book I really, really enjoyed. Dialogue with other writers about what they’re working on. Watching a binge-worthy show on Netflix.

This is where I knew I was going to get caught up in a tangent. I’d apologize, but I’m really not sorry.

I started watching Breaking Bad for the first time about a month ago (I know, I know, I’m really behind on the pop-culture band wagon). I have since finished it, which is a feat for me. I have difficulty completing a series in anything less than a year and a half.

I remember watching the first episode with a friend, leaning over, and saying: “this show watches like a good book reads.”

As a pre-published author, I appreciate the strong writing exhibited over the course of the series. It’s filled with great hooks, dynamic characters, internal and external motivations, situational irony, suspense. There’s really not a lot more I could ask for. I didn’t love everything about it, but as a whole, Breaking Bad was the epitome of a good idea to me. As such, it made me want to write. Every marathon session was inspiration waiting to happen.

We live in a world populated with good ideas. With stories already written, and those waiting to be. Seeing that, is what makes me want to write. Knowing there is something to be said, and I can say it. Knowing there is a story to be told, and I can tell it. Realizing people have done so before me, makes me see that it’s doable, and I know I want to do it! I can’t help it. Good ideas just make me want to write.

When Your Writing Says “Yes” and You Say “No, No, No.”

There’s a phenomenon I’ve experienced in my writing–I was more than a little relieved to find out I’m not the only one. The stories I write take on lives of their own.

I’ve just started taking my writing seriously, and have entered into the dreaded phase best known as “editing.” I’ve revisited chapters dozens of times. Each time I rework a scene, something happens. The world I’m creating becomes more real, the characters, more dynamic. The story takes on a life of its own.

My husband once said to me, “You’re such a perfectionist. When are you going to be happy with your writing, and go get it published?”

I tried to explain to him what a struggle this is for me. More than almost anything, I want to see my books in the world. I want to squeal with delight, and earn myself a couple sideways looks, as I pick up MY paperback in the bookstore. I want to feel my characters breathe from the pages. But–as I told my husband with a pang of frustration, unable to explain it quite properly–I don’t feel like I necessarily create the story. It feels like something that’s already there, and I am simply the conduit through which it must move. My job then, is to do the story justice, by writing it as closely as possible to the thing that already exists.

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It sounds crazy, and maybe it is. Maybe all of us writers just harbor tamed madness, but I can see this pre-existing story the deeper I wade into my writing. My characters make their own decisions, and I wrestle with them. They fight the plot, and ruin my perfectly constructed point by point outline. They become people of their own. The twists and turns that occur between the words “Chapter One” and the words “The End,” occur almost unintentionally. I’m not saying I have no control over it, but I can feel it, like a sliver in my brain–ceaseless irritation–when I write something that goes against the story. It’s like I was meant to say something specific–the themes, the symbols, the subtext, they are weaved within the fabric of the writing already, and often come to be by accident. If I don’t write the right story, those mean nothing, and are lost in a sea of what could have been.

When I’m writing the story as it’s intended to be written? It’s intoxicating. It’s a world all it’s own, as vividly alive, as real, as tangible, as the one we inhabit right now. Hours flash by like minutes; I run through the fields of wishes and dreams I never meant for my characters to have; I feel the hairs on the back of my neck tingle as I turn my head to see the threat, just behind me. I breathe a sigh of relief when the hero wins, unsure myself, if he was going to be overwhelmed!

The story beats to the drum of my heart.

Writing, I truly feel, is the purest of glimpses into the beauty and pain of creation. But it’s something meaningful and it  feels like I’m a part of something bigger than myself when I can reach outside of what I think, to tell a story that needs to be told.