Free Fiction Friday: The Watchers

A pastiche of H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, this vignette evolved from a walk I took around my neighborhood. I kept seeing all these blue glass lawn ornaments, most of which were globes. Hoth at the beginning of The Empire Strikes Back. My imagination took off from there. It’s appeared once before on this blog and recently in the North Texas Speculative Fiction Writers group’s anthology From Planet Texas, With Love and Aliens.

The Watchers: A Vignette of Alien Invasion

In the early part of the twenty-first century there were people who believed we were being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s; those people were dismissed as loons, quacks who went out to New Mexico and watched for the Grays to emerge from Area 51.

At the time, I thought such people were at the very least misinformed, pretty damn weird, and probably sold jars of lime Gatorade to tourists believing they were buying alien urine. So it goes.

In my late forties I decided to begin taking a morning constitutional on the advice from the books of health gurus—to some these gurus are quacks as well—and on one of these walks, on a crisp cloudless October morning, in a quaint middle-class neighborhood west of my flat, I passed by a nice red-brick house of a family I knew only slightly, when I heard a slight rustling from their hedges.

I stopped and listened, thinking it was only a squirrel or a bird, or perhaps a lizard. But the sunlight dappling through the shade tree in the front yard revealed something else—an azure sparkle through the leaves. At first I dismissed it as perhaps some piece of trash, a beer can perhaps, caught in the leaves.

Later, after we knew the truth of the matter, some who saw the pictures I took with my camera phone said they heard hissing in the night sky. Others heard nothing, but reported a mass of comets shooting through the sky, an unusual enough phenomenon little reported by the media, which was too busy analyzing Kanye West’s decision to go into fashion design.

Anyhow, I started on my way once more, but then the rustling in the hedges erupted again. I stopped and turned and watched. Something was rising steadily above the leaves and limbs. I brought my camera into focus.

A glowing blue globe peeked from over the edge of the hedge. I trembled but felt compelled to approached, almost as if the Thing were laying some kind of Jedi-mindtrick on me.

The Thing rose silently. There were no visible means of propulsion. Clearly, a technology superior to any on Earth—as far a we know (who, after all, really knows just what the frak is going on at Area 51).

I moved closer. It hovered in place over the hedge. I saw no massive hole, no sign of impact whatsoever. It made no threatening moves, no sound, but I knew better. I knew from sci-fi flicks that nothing good could come of this.

I knew the invasion was on, and at the moment, was its only witness on this too quiet street . . .

 

 

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On Writing: Voice

giphyVoice and narrative, according to Terry McDonell in The Accidental Life, supersede pretty much everything a piece of writing offers to make it good — even word count.

As a magazine editor, who edited Hunter Thompson and Jim Harrison, among others McDonell used word counts placed at the top of a manuscript page to “evaluate pacing or the lack of it in a piece.” Invariably, the writers he worked with would send features in either way over or way under the word count.

“None of this matters if the piece is good — and that’s determined by voice and narrative, not length.”

But, what is this elusive Roadrunner of a thing writers chase after called voice?

It’s the sum of every writing strategy you use to makes you sound like you on the page, according Roy Peter Clark. It’s the distinct word choices and punctuation and rhythms and everything else that gives plagiarists fits when they try to pass your writing off as their own.

“Voice is a word critics often use in discussing narrative,” writes Ursula LeGuin in Steering the Craft. “It’s always metaphorical, since what’s written is voiceless. Often it signifies the authenticity of the writing (writing in your own voice; catching the true voice of a kind person; and so on).”

Certain voices are very distinct, easy to recognize:

We ate the sandwiches and drank the Chablis and watched the country out of the window. The grain was just beginning to ripen and the fields were full of poppies. The pastureland was green, and there were fine trees, and sometimes big rivers and chateaux off in the trees.

That’s Hemingway, of course, from The Sun Also Rises. What’s always made Hemingway’s prose distinct to me was the repetition of “and”— the conjunction’s got rhythm.

What would just that first sentence sound like if punctuated with commas as we’re taught?

“We ate the sandwiches, drank the Chablis, and watched the country out of the window.”

It’s still vivid and descriptive, clearly the eye of a good writer giving us concrete details of a train ride, but something seems lost. Those “ands” make it Hemingway.

Another distinct word choice is “fine” referring to “trees”. It gives the trees an aesthetic quality. Hemingway does this often with words like “fine” and “good,” to the point of parody. In fact, parodists often throw in a lot of “fines” and “goods” in their parodies of his style.

Here’s another favorite voice of mine:

If I were a bitch, I’d be in love with Biff Truesdale. Biff is perfect. He’s friendly, goodlooking, rich, famous, and in excellent physical condition. He almost never drools. He’s not afraid of commitment. He wants children — actually, he already has children and wants a lot more. He works hard and is a consummate professional, but he also knows how to have fun.

That’s Susan Orlean, from her feature “Show Dogs,” collected in The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup. With this lede, it’s the commas that give the sentences punch, when the sentences are long enough to warrant commas.

But, what makes it distinctive is its surprise and humor. “If I were a bitch” jumps at you, makes you want to read more. It takes you a moment to realize Orlean is talking about a dog, one that by the end of the paragraph, you’re in love with, too. The surprise of “bitch” in the first sentence is sweetened and softened with “He almost never drools.” There, if not before, you can hear Orlean’s smile, a bit of a “gotcha!”

The use of subjunctive in the first sentence also stands out. It seems like a useful strategy to get the reader inside your frame mind, and into the world of the piece, if not overused. Orlean opens her classic piece “The American Man, Age Ten” with the subjunctive as well:

“If Colin Duffy and I were to get married, we would have matching superhero notebooks.”

What an interesting twist at the end of the sentence, to go from speculating about marrying someone to marrying someone who wants to have matching superhero notebooks. We’ve gone from adult speculation about the world and right into the world of a 10-year-old boy in turn of a phrase.

Of course, by voice, some writers mean writing in a certain point-of-view, especially in fiction, when you’re telling a story from a character that isn’t you, or is just a shadow of you, even if you’re writing a roman `a clef.

Nonfiction writers use this kind of voice, too. Ian Frazier, for instance, parodies the language of a legal brief in his hilarious essay “Coyote v. Acme,” in which hapless cartoon character Wile E. Coyote sues the Acme Company, whose tricks and traps never trap the Roadrunner and leave Wile E. maimed, mangled, and otherwise bodily harmed.

My client, Mr. Wile E. Coyote, a resident of Arizona and contiguous states, does hereby bring suit for damages against the Acme Company, manufacturer and retail distributor of assorted merchandise, incorporated in Delaware and doing business in every state, district, and territory.

Sounds legit to me. That’s what voice does. It even gives a fake legal brief a sense of humor and makes it seem real.

So, work on your voice, until you can sing with authority and authenticity.

— Todd

Recommended Reading: Audiobooks

downloadAs a child, who didn’t like being read to? While I don’t think audiobooks make up for discovering in the sound of your dad’s voice language and reading and its nascent joys, they certainly can be boon companions on long commutes or while washing dishes. How long was my last commute, you ask? To work and back again, I listened to all of Dune in about two weeks. All. Of. Dune. (Counting appendices and cartographic notes, my paperback version is 535 pages of dense 10-point type. In other words, it’s a long book.)

It’s just been in the last couple of years that I’ve begun to appreciate the companionship of audiobooks. Since then, I’ve listened to many more. On YouTube, I found a copy of Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great, read by The Hitch himself. Oh, to envy that voice, sneering, snarky and cigarette-and-whiskey-smoked slamming it to the deity.

I followed that up — also on YouTube — with Richard Dawkins reading from The God Delusion.

Of course, most writers don’t read their own audiobooks, though I wouldn’t have minded hearing Terry McDonell reading his memoir The Accidental Life. The version I downloaded from Audible is narrated by Jason Culp and runs 11 hours and 30 minutes.

Though McDonell doesn’t narrate the audiobook, it’s nonetheless a great listen, part reflection on nearly 40 years as editor of magazines including Rolling Stone, Sports Illustrated and Esquire, as well as a reflection of McDonell’s interactions with the writers who wrote for them: Hunter Thompson, Jim Harrison, Thomas McGuane, James Salter and Peter Mathiesson, to name a few.

It’s also in part an instructive book about editing and writing and the often rocky relationship between the two crafts.

It’s the kind of book (I’m reading the hardback now) that makes you nostalgic for the days when editors and writers held a bit of the public’s imagination, even if it wasn’t necessarily for writing — the writers McDonell spent time with partied like rock stars with drugs, booze and even women, or men, depending on one’s preferences. It also, without demonizing it too much, reveals how much the writing life has changed because of the Internet and technology — there’s lower pay, for sure, in a trade that’s already hazardous to your cash flow. The real problem, as it always seems it has been, is the suits. McDonell takes a peek at that part of the life, too.

Currently, I’m giving a listen to Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood & the Prison of Belief. Wright narrates the introduction but the rest of the book is read by Morton Sellers.

I’m about 6 hours into the 17 and one-half hour audio and it’s absorbing. Just the biography of Scientology’s founder L. Ron Hubbard and the way the science-fiction writer evolved his philosophy into a cult and elevated it to a religion through a variety of means is gripping. Hubbard’s methods are common to cult leaders: coercion, charisma, abuse, outlandish punishments, isolation from family and friends, demands for absolute loyalty, demands for money and attempts to falsify and discredit accounts of ex-followers and critics through a variety of means, including threats and lawsuits.

There’s much to be said, even listening to the first few hours, about the dangers of the cult of personality that seems to take a grip on us daily. Strong, charismatic personalities pull us away from natural skepticism, working on our flaws and insecurities; they rarely seem to work on our strengths. We can see it in other figures: Jim Jones, David Koresh, even Hitler and our current president. They dismantle hearts and minds, even whole countries. Cults rarely come to good ends — unless they manage to become normative, slip into the mainstream, as religions — they usually end in Kool-Aid and conflagrations.

Scientology seems to have a disturbingly far reach: though Hubbard ranted against psychology, I think back to several of the self-help books I’ve read over the years by psychologists, and their advice seems strangely like that in Hubbard’s Dianetics; I think, too, of the paranoiac rantings of talk-radio host Alex Jones — a science-fiction fan — whose rantings can be followed at Prison Planet (Hubbard theorized Earth was a prison planet). How many people has Jones riled up with his rants (our president appeared on his show. How much the president’s rhetoric seems like Jones’.) Was Jones influenced by Hubbard or Scientology in any way?

Listening to Wright’s book has made me uncomfortable about contributing a little to one wing of Hubbard’s empire: The Writer’s of the Future contest. And yet, as a writing contest, it gives beginning science-fiction and fantasy writers a chance at a wider audience. It’s launched some good writer’s careers. I’ve had friends published in it, and I have received accolades from the contest. Am I caught in an argument that I hate: learn more about a particular writer and it taints that writer’s work. Does it really? Can I still love Junot Diaz’s fiction, for instance, though he’s been MeToo-ed?

Those are probably questions for another post.

For this one, I especially have to recommend the latter two audiobooks for your reading and listening pleasure.

— Todd

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Current News: Why Anthony Bourdain Matters

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Unless you count imaginary trips, I haven’t traveled much, although I hope to do more.

Yet, I feel I’ve traveled the world vicariously through — the rest of this sentence seems unreal to write — the wanderings of the now late Anthony Bourdain. Bourdain, 61, the celebrity chef, writer and host of CNN’s “Parts Unknown” died June 8, apparently of suicide.

In the past couple of years, news of celebrity deaths seemed to outnumber celebrities. I’m not much of a celebrity watcher/follower. Of course, I have my Hollywood heroes — Harrison Ford, Jack Nicholson, Frances McDormand, etc. — and certainly as a teen I was obsessed with pretty much everything the band Van Halen did.

But, I didn’t get into celebrity gossip, unless you count the great TV talk shows like the “Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” as celebrity gossip, or regularly follow TMZ — though that show has begun to warrant some legit breaking news.

The closest thing I suppose I have to celebrity obsession is with writers. I used to collect writer’s obituaries and, when I really get into a particular writer, I will read what I can about him or her. If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you’d probably find a hint or two I’ve had long love affair with Ernest Hemingway.

In 2016, in particular, it seemed every Hollywood star, every rock star was turning up dead, only two celebrity deaths genuinely affected me as if I’d actually lost a relative or friend — Carrie Fisher, of course was my princess, like she was for many of you. What more can you say about the space princess who was your first movie star crush?

Of course, David Bowie and Prince rank high up on the loss scale, too.

Then, however, came writer Jim Harrison. Harrison died March 26, 2016, sort of the ideal writer’s death, I suppose, if there is any ideal death — at his table, writing in longhand.

I came to Harrison, late, introduced to his writing by my mentor and colleague, Clay Coppedge. Before I ever read a word of Harrison’s prose, I heard Harrison read at the Texas Book Festival in Austin, when he was promoting his collection of essays, The Raw and the Cooked.

This is where I get back to Anthony Bourdain. As any reader of Jim Harrison knows, the man was a gourmand. Harrison took pleasure in food like no other writer I’ve ever read, other than Hemingway (Harrison would have hated that comparison).

Until 2009, I had no idea Anthony Bourdain was such a fan of Harrison’s.

Then, I had become a religious watcher of Bourdain’s show on the Travel Channel, “No Reservations.” It became an obsession. In Bourdain, I found a kindred spirit — I longed for adventure; he adventured. He ate, he drank and he loved life. He also wrote well about it and had his own TV show.

It was hard not to love his show and him. I was in the second year of long-term unemployment, edging toward divorce and straining under a savage bout with depression. Bourdain’s joie de vivre was intoxicating, a relief from the darkness crushing against me from all sides, from the high place of my mind.

I made sure not to miss the episode Bourdain visited Harrison in Montana.

“I’m in awe of him,” Bourdain says of Harrison in the episode. It’s refreshing to hear a celebrity say he’s in awe of someone and mean it.

And it’s clear from Bourdain’s book Medium Raw, the chef was in awe of Harrison. Harrison is “the man who has done everything cool with everybody who’s ever been cool, dating back to when they invented the fucking word.”

Like Harrison, what the bad-boy chef —Bourdain was once called the Hunter S. Thompson of celebrity chefs — writer and traveler gave us was authenticity, the kind of thing that seems missing in our world of corporate ken dolls, the kind of thing Bourdain gave his fans, even in a Montana that, as wild as it still is, has also become overrun with CEOs and moguls.

In all of his shows — his most recent was “Parts Unknown” — Bourdain traveled and ate and drank and gave us armchair travelers a touch of depth about a place, the sort of thing you can’t get with ordinary tours. He went to out-of-the-way places, had a love affair with street food and in Vietnam famously ate a bowl of $6 noodles with President Obama.

After Bourdain’s passing last week, all I could post about it was “Damn.”

I hadn’t watched “Parts Unknown” in awhile, but I loved every episode for its touch of authenticity. Plus, more often than not, he’d end up citing a favorite book — in Tangier he recalled Sheltering Sky author Paul Bowles, and probably talked about William S. Burroughs — or he’d somehow work in a line from “Apocalypse Now.”

Just this week, The Atlantic, talks about Bourdain’s authenticity. “The key ingredient of Bourdain’s career was indeed realness.”

That’s what mattered about him. He was a pop culture icon. And yet, he could stand in awe of other icons like Harrison.

He mattered to me, because he showed a life of no fear, and he talked about good food, good books, good music. He wasn’t afraid to be cultured or crazy.

It’s the kind of thing we need now. We need pop culture of the variety of Bourdain and Harrison, even Hemingway and Twain. People unafraid of the world or life. People without borders, because somehow we’ve become a culture isolated and wanting protection through walls.

I’d rather live in Bourdain’s borderless world.

There’s a photo that’s circulated around social media. I found it on a Jim Harrison Facebook fan site. It’s of Bourdain, Harrison and the now late actress Margot Kidder. They are drinking at a bar in Livingston, Montana.

It’s a poignant scene, the kind of thing that makes you wish there were an afterlife, but only if you could hang out at bars with your friends and with great actors and writers and chefs.

It’s the kind of afterlife I hope Bourdain is enjoying.

— Todd

Free Fiction Friday: The Short, Unknowable Life of Frances Beachcomber

First published in 2004 at Pindeldyboz, “The Short, Unknowable Life of Frances Beachcomber” also began as an exercise. It’s one of my favorites, because once I left off from the prompt, I let my imagination roam, connecting images from real life (the beheaded snake) to the characters shaping in my head as I wrote.

The Short, Unknowable Life of Frances Beachcomber

Simon Beachcomber’s life had been most simple and most ordinary, and therefore, most terrible. Simple because he did not work at a stressful job that required much thinking. Simple because he and his wife, Frances Beachcomber, never quarreled, nor did they put forth undo emotions of any kind. Ordinary because he worked an eight-to-five job in an office, behind a desk, underneath a bright fluorescent light. Ordinary because each morning he drank coffee and read the business section of the paper while Mrs. Beachcomber also drank a cup of coffee and worked the crossword puzzle.

Both liked solving crossword puzzles and each evening Mr. Beachcomber would buy a second newspaper at the convenience store on the corner and solve the crossword while Mrs. Beachcomber cooked dinner. After dinner they compared answers. Most of the time they had answered the puzzle correctly.

Then Mr. Beachcomber would read at night before going to sleep. Mrs. Beachcomber, on the other hand, turned in and went to sleep right away.

Every week, every month, every year was the same.

Years, indeed, did pass and Mr. and Mrs. Beachcomber realized they were growing old together. And, Mr. Beachcomber, when he retired, had saved enough money over the years that he and Mrs. Beachcomber could live comfortably, spending their days working crossword puzzles, attending to ordinary life.

A few months after retirement, Mr. Beachcomber began to notice something missing, out of the ordinary, and it worried him greatly. He woke up one morning and realized Mrs. Beachcomber had been misplaced.

She hadn’t left. He just didn’t know where she was. He hadn’t noticed that for the past fifty years Mrs. Beachcomber had been shrinking steadily, until now she was the size of a quarter.

Mr. Beachcomber dressed, put on his favorite, though now unfashionable fedora—he had worn it every day since V-J Day—he buckled his belt, which just the day before he had to punch new holes in because it seemed he was losing weight daily, and fingered some lint in his left trouser pocket (Mrs. Beachcomber clung to his car keys as the cracked nail of his left forefinger scratched the surface of the pocket’s cloth), and he set out to search for his wife. On that first day, there was no luck. He hadn’t driven anywhere, only lumbered around the house.

There had been some excitement, though, when he hacked the head off a chicken snake that had crawled into the garden to digest a mouse. He mistook the chicken snake for a rattler and leveled the garden hoe against its neck, taking the head off in one chop. (And Mrs. Beachcomber always said the hoe wasn’t sharp enough to defend against a snake. He wished she were around to see it.)

After disposing of the snake, he went inside, laid his car keys on the dresser and took a nap. (Mrs. Beachcomber clung to the ring, her legs kicking through the vast gulf between the pocket and dresser, hollering frantically. Oh, if he’d only turn up that damn hearing aid!)

On the second day of his search he looked on his dresser where his keys lay. How odd, he thought, normally those are in my pants’ pocket. Why are they here?

Mr. Beachcomber sat on the edge of the bed, thoughtfully recollecting the actions that led to putting his keys on the dresser rather than leaving them in his pocket. He killed the snake; it could’ve been a rattler. Its head was like a rattler’s. If only Mrs. Beachcomber had been there. Now she might never know. She would have thought him brave.

What else had Mr. Beachcomber done? After killing the snake he saw fresh tomatoes on the vine and thought he’d pick them. Fresh tomatoes would please Mrs. Beachcomber, too. As Mr. Beachcomber stooped to pick each tomato his keys would slide out of his trouser pockets. So, he had them in his pocket then.

He then rubbed his left hip which was sore for some reason. Underneath his fingers he felt a small lump, what he figured was a bug bite (Mrs. Beachcomber had bitten and scratched him) and then remembered that while in the garden he had thought it was his keys that were scratching him, so he came in for a drink of water and retired to the bedroom where he decided to take the keys out of his pocket and lay them on the dresser while he napped.

The heavy key rings fell across Mrs. Beachcomber’s chest. She screamed. The rings had pinned her against the wooden dresser. Before long, her breath was crushed out.

Mr. Beachcomber stepped up from the bed. A scrim of blood and cloth seemed tangled in the key ring. He bent to investigate. There was his wife, the size of a quarter. Her limp, lifeless body.

Dead. Mrs. Beachcomber was dead. Though married to her fifty years, at that moment, looking at that tiny crushed body, Mr. Beachcomber thought he knew nothing about his wife. She was only Mrs. Beachcomber, a woman good at crossword puzzles, a simple and most ordinary thing.

Current News: Cats, Freelance and Staying Focused/Interested in Writing

I’ve inherited a cat. I’ve never owned a cat and hadn’t really planned on getting one, but Callie the Calico became part of my  life just a little more than a month ago after a friend’s death.20180430_201537

Now, I wonder why I haven’t had a cat before, though I know next to nothing about them, other than they apparently evolved some 6-7 million years ago in the Middle East and were worshiped as gods.

Callie seems to be a good companion so far, and I’m glad I was able to adopt her. It’s probably good for writers to have cats and clearly there are some famous literary cats, like Hemingway’s six-toed feral cats that  roam his Key West estate.

***

Since February I’ve had a regular freelance gig writing advertorials for local newspapers. These have been fun and a nice source of side/supplemental income. At the same time they’ve juiced  my journalism jones again.

I guess I’m like James Bond, never say never, again. I was convinced I was done with journalism last September, at least daily newspaper journalism, and maybe that part of my writing life — at least full time — is done. It’s hard to tell.

The renewed interest in journalism has also led me to reading some great nonfiction again, including Mary Roach’s Grunt, about which I’ll write more in another post.

Reading nonfiction and writing a form of it, though, has put me in the mood to write more of it and that’s why I’ve been blogging more lately. I hope you’ve enjoyed the output.

***

This freelance gig and a renewed interest in journalism and nonfiction, though, has also distracted me from working on the second draft of a novel, a second draft I had fully expected to have finished by now.

Getting distracted by different forms of writing seems a constant for me. At times all I want to write is fiction or a specific genre of fiction such as science fiction or mystery.
Then I get occupied with wanting to write more nonfiction.

Do you experience this as a writer? Does your interest in a form jump around?

But, besides my mind jumping around from fiction to nonfiction, I’ve lost interest in the second draft, lost interest in the novel itself. In one way, this is a bit discouraging. I really wanted to see this thing to the end. But will I? I’m feeling doubtful about this.

Then again, it was about this time last year I was growing tired of the first draft and was ready to chuck in all in the trash bin.

So, maybe, I’ll push through and complete it. Maybe, what I need is some distraction like blog posts to push through the block. To keep writing.

—Todd

Free Fiction Friday: “The Arc of the Cosmos”

Today, I’m starting what I hope to be a regular feature: Free Fiction Friday. On Fridays, I will post either a previously published piece of fiction or something fresh I think you might like. Below is my first ever piece of published published fiction. “The Arc of the Cosmos” began as an exercise in which I followed a  prompt in Josip Novakovich’s invaluable book on writing, Fiction Writer’s Workshop. The prompt suggested writing a story from a dream. So I did. It’s a pretty accurate rendition of the dream, although I’ve never owned a dog named Punchy. “Arc” is also the first story of mine ever accepted for publication, and was published online April 29, 2003 in the webzine Pindeldyboz.

The Arc of the Cosmos

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Swinging his father’s putter, Jack kept whapping the tennis ball, trying to get it up the wheelchair ramp. The ball would roll about a third of the way up before curving and falling over the edge and onto the carpeted step. It was like a miniature golf course. Except he was inside his house.

He tried once more. Of course, he should have tried using a real golf ball but that could break something and his mother would kill him if he broke something. He set the ball at the bottom of the ramp, looked up the length of the ramp to the carpeted hallway and saw the edge of the wall where he wanted to bank the shot so it would roll into his room.

After whacking the ball with more force than the last time, he watched it zoom up the ramp. It made it! It made it! It kept rolling, heading almost precisely where he’d aimed it. Inches from the wall, however, Punchy darted from the shadows of the hallway, her slobbery jaws intercepting the ball before it could make its bank into his room.

“Punchy, no,” he shouted. “Bad dog.” He dashed up the ramp and the dog scrambled away from him, twisting in the hallway until she was bounding down the steps and into the living room where she skittered across the slick tile.

Her haunches gave out from under her and she banged into the fireplace with a yelp.

Jack chased after her and went to all-fours when she fell and crawled over to her to make sure she was all right. There were enough injured animals in this household with his mom all banged up from slipping on the ice last month.

He ruffled Punchy behind the ears and the dog sat up and nosed his face and began to lick him. “Off me! Off me!” He struggled to push away the dog’s heavy forepaws, when suddenly the dog’s weight shifted away from him. In the middle of the living room floor was a glint of yellow. The tennis ball. “No Punchy! Stop it. My ball. My ball!”

But the dog had already snatched the ball in its slobbery jaws.

By the time Jack had scrambled up, Punchy’s snout had jutted into the air, the ball lifting in an arc, and then falling away from the ceiling, dog spit flipping in silvery droplets from it. One of the droplets connected under Jack’s left eye. “Yuck!” He wiped away the spittle. “Stupid dog!”

The ball spattered against the tile, bounced again in an arc, twisted and fell with a dusty thump into the fireplace.

“Shit,” Jack said. Heat rimmed his ears when he realized what he’d said. Cursing was foul. His mother would beat him for sure.

No time to worry, however. The dog had already started for the ball. He leapt and tried to grab her collar, only to crash against the hard tile, sharp stings needling his elbows and the backs of his legs.

Ashy tendrils curled around the fireplace where the dog had landed. She was snuffling in the ash and soot for the tennis ball.

From down the hallway his mother hollered, “What’s going on in there, Jack?”

Jack bellowed, pains knifing his arms and legs.

He had crashed like this once before. On the gravel road behind his house. His bicycle had caught a big rock and slung him over the handle bars and he smacked against the road. Then he had to have stitches for the cut above his eye. He hadn’t ridden his bicycle since, afraid to crash again.

Everyone was afraid to crash. His mother talked about how scared she was lying out on the patch of ice after her crash, unable to move, trying to call for help, but not finding her voice. Her hip didn’t pain her until after they’d gotten her to the hospital. The cold and shock must’ve kept it from hurting, she explained to Jack. Now she was afraid to walk, because that could mean another crash.

Jack had watched when the woman therapist came to help his mother walk again. She would bawl when the woman tried to get her on her feet.

Pain pierced his thoughts and he screamed for help. Punchy stood over him, whimpering. His elbow hurt so much. He thought it might be broken. No one was there to help him. No one had been there to help him or his mother in a long time. When he had fallen from his bike, his father had been there to drive him to the emergency room so he could get sewed up. His father was gone, though, married to someone else by now.

What could he do? He stared up at the ceiling, tried to focus on the fan churning above him. The fan whirled like the cosmos, empty and black, nothing out there, nothing to hear him cry in pain.

Feeling began to come back into his legs. A few minutes later he was able to sit up. He knew then he’d have no one but himself to rely on.

Down the hallway his mother shouted, “Jack, are you all right? Jack?”

“Yes, Momma, I’m okay,” he said. His legs were wobbly, coltish, but he could stand. Punchy nuzzled her ash-dusted snout against him. “I think I’m going to be all right.”