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Chuck Wendig’s latest writing challenge asked for us to share a real-life spooky experience. I decided to write a bit about something that happened about this time last year.

I’ve written a lot about doors. Secret passages, locked doors that contain various secrets, portals to other places… It’s definitely a recurring theme in my work. So imagine my surprise at finding something that wouldn’t be out of place in my work showing up in my apartment.

My girlfriend and I were moving in together for the first time, and we’d finally found an affordable place with enough space in the right neighborhood. We leased the apartment without looking at it, so we didn’t notice it when we first moved in. Not even when we were doing our walkthrough with the checklist the office had given us. Looking for chipped paint, broken blinds, etc. Maybe it was just the shift in lighting after we got the bedside lamp set up. Eventually, though, we spotted a small seam in the wall. There it was. A vertical line, a slight indentation too deep to just be in the paint.

“That’s weird.”

“Oh, damn. Yeah, it is. It’s like they patched the wall over here, and didn’t care that you’d be able to see a gap in the drywall. Weird.”

We didn’t think about it for a while after that. Occasionally, we’d smell smoke, though, like the next door neighbor was enjoying being in Colorado (despite lease clauses). Then, there was a revelation.

“Holy shit.”

“What?”

“Uhh… It’s not just a seam.”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s a door.”

“What the fuck?”

Sure enough, there was a second line running parallel to the first, about two feet over. Then we followed them up.

“Yeah. It’s a door. There’s frame here too, and look. There’s the lintel.”

“What the actual fuck?”

“I don’t know. Maybe it was a leftover from when the construction guys were building the apartment. A way between this one and the one next door without having to go back into the hall.”

“Then why would they frame it and then fill it in?”

My girlfriend even asked the leasing office about it. The agent who came to look at it had no clue it had ever been there. We pulled the bed away from the wall, and the lines ran all the way to the floor. It was unmistakably a door. Filled with drywall and painted, yes. But a door.

That was when we looked up at the ceiling and noticed the scratches in the popcorn ceiling. Gouges several inches long, spaced closely together, about a foot from the filled-in door. Another group of them a few feet away, nearer to the entrance to the bedroom. Almost like something had crawled across the ceiling from the door to the not-quite-door… Or been pulled…

 

 

 

Happy October, everyone!

 

 

 

 

This one’s another entry for one of Chuck Wendig’s Terrible Minds Writing Challenges. We were given two lists of twenty words, picking one from each list to create a random title. After a day of brainstorming, the final line popped into my head. So, here you are. It’s a flash piece, really. Not even 500 words, but I like it. I hope you do too.

 

“Orchard After”

 

They met as children, wandering across the meadow that connected their parents’ farms. They became friends instantly, each thrilled to have the other to talk to, to share in the collective adventure that is youth. Rain or shine, they would meet. Every day during the summer, and every free moment during the school year, they were together. One would wait for the other at the old apple tree in the middle of the meadow.

Borrowing tools and parts from their parents, they built a tree house. It would shelter them from the rain and shade them from the sun more than the tree could alone. The apples fed them when they wished to remain away from home. They took great care to plant the seeds when they could, and in time, they sprouted.

They grew older, and closer together. High school brought them a series of new challenges. They each began work on the farm, learning the trades of their mothers and fathers. In between tasks in the fields, they tended the burgeoning orchard that was now growing Soon, the summer day arrived when they shared their first kiss, hidden from a thunderstorm inside their tree house.

Time passed, and their love grew stronger. Though they could no longer both fit inside the tree house, they could still spend a hot afternoon sleeping beside each other in the shade of the tree’s branches. School came to an end, but still they stayed on, neither willing to part for more than a few days at a time. As their parents grew older, they took over the farms together, consolidating and focusing on the apple orchard.

Years became decades, and the two grew old. They still made and sold apple pie and cider with apples that they grew, having sold the rest of their parents’ farmland, save for what had been the meadow. Children visiting the orchard would play in the tree house while the grownups shopped and sampled. In the quiet evenings, the lovers would meet again, beneath the tree where it had all began. They would sit and hold hands and talk about how quickly the world had gone by.

One winter day, it was time for them to say their final goodbyes to each other. They kissed one final time, pledged their love. The cold took them both, there under the branches of the ancient apple tree, fingers entwined as the roots below. They were buried there, as they had wished for years to lie together.

And as the snow came down, and the years passed, the lovers were forgotten, and all that remained was the orchard after.

 

 

 

 

This one’s for Chuck Wendig’s Terrible Minds Writing Challenge. Our instructions were to write a sci-fi story about a dragon, only not necessarily a mythical one. It’s a short piece, well under the 2,000 word limit, but it was something that came to mind immediately after reading the challenge prompt.

“The Dragon”

 

“Are we starting?”

“Yes ma’am. We’re recording right now. You can start wherever you like.”

“I was there that day. They said that there’d been nothing like it since the old calendar, since the bombings on Earth. I never saw footage of those, but I’ve heard statistics. It amaze me still to realize that we used to live in such numbers that the loss of a couple hundred would be considered relatively insignificant. That that could’ve been the better option. I don’t know what exactly this new weapon was. Just the name all of the news outlets on the colony gave it. The dragon.”

***

“Yes, she was the first one to call it that on the intrasystem media. I asked her about it afterward. She said it seemed like a good fit. Something so destructive that it couldn’t possibly be real. She was never the same after that day. Nightmares kept her from sleeping, and eventually she just… she couldn’t stop seeing them.”

***

“What do you remember most about that day?”

“The smell. I’ll never forget the smell. Melting metal, charred flesh. I can’t eat barbecue anymore. The masks could only filter out so much, and we didn’t have them for the first wave. And the heat. Even when we got the bunker gear, we couldn’t stay on site for too long. Dozens of folks were dropping just from the heat.”

“You were with the first responders?”

“We all were. There weren’t enough of us. We didn’t have adequate supplies, or enough people. How can you plan for a disaster on that sort of scale when there’s been nothing like it used for centuries?”

“Had you ever seen footage of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki?”

“Once, when I was a kid. They told us that no one had ever done anything on that sort of a destructive scale since. People kept pointing to those two bombs as one of the worst things that humanity ever did to itself. I wish they’d been right, that we’d never come up with anything worse.”

“You said supplies were inadequate too. Would you like to elaborate?”

“Well, there was no way we’d ever have the rescue equipment or the medical supplies to treat burns of that intensity on that large of a site. No colony would. The governors would never allow the funding for recovery for a disaster that they couldn’t foresee, and half of them are too young to have learned about the bombings back on Earth. They’d dismiss them out of hand and say that we should be prepped for real emergencies. Loss of atmosphere, gravity failure. Things that you expect to happen on an orbiting colony. Not the heat, not a fire so sudden and massive that it burns through 85% of your oxygen supply in a matter of seconds. Not some lunatic trying to hurt or kill everyone. We were damn lucky we didn’t lose the whole colony.”

“But you kept trying, despite being understaffed and under-supplied?”

“We had to. 12 hour shifts and then some, to start. You know how critical the first hours are in a recovery effort. More people died, but we kept trying. We had to, damn it. We had to know that we were doing our best. It was the only way we could keep going.”

***

“I don’t think anyone could have predicted it. My understanding is that the work on the project was so compartmentalized that no one team could’ve put together a solid idea of the whole. Different groups of engineers and scientists working on components on different planets and colonies. No communications other than what was absolutely necessary would’ve been allowed. Tell one team they’re working on one project under one code name. Take their work and have an unaffiliated group start working on it from there under a different code name. Never let the right hand know what the left is doing, you know.”

“Hence why there couldn’t be a contingency in place.”

“Exactly. No one knew what The Dragon was capable of. Just that it was a dangerous weapon.”

“And someone set it off in the middle of a civilian population center.”

“Yes.”

“Do you believe the attack itself was premeditated?”

“We’re done here.”

***

“How many people died?”

“In the initial burst? Estimates say over half a million. The Dragon’s Breath, the mishmash of various ailments people caught in the aftermath is still killing people. Nearly double that.”

“Do you honestly believe it was an accident that the weapon was discharged on the colony?”

“I’d like to believe that, but the investigation is ongoing.”

“Thank you for your time.”

I could see the dust clouds rising in the distance long before I heard the slow rise and fall of the sirens. On the plains, you can see forever. I ran back into my grandfather’s house and grabbed the binoculars from their place on the back of his dining room chair (where they would always be close by so that he could watch birds at the edges of his property or approaching storms rolling in over the nearby towns to the west). Looping the carrying strap over my shoulder, I dashed back outside and scrambled up the television antenna next to the house. Stepping across the gap to the green-shingled roof, I climbed to the apex and brought the binoculars up to my eyes.

There! They were still several miles away, but getting closer by the second. A quick adjustment of the focus knob brought the cars into sharper view. There were four of them; three were police cars with their lights flashing a staccato red and blue rhythm. Leading them all was one car that I can only describe as a cherry red Detroit dream, with outrageous fins and chrome surfaces catching the August sun and threatening to blind me. It had to have been customized. There was no way the stock engine would have given him the speed he had. The driver was pulling away from the cops, clearly outmatching them in both skill and machine. He was using them against each other on the narrow dirt roads, using his speed to thwart any of their attempts to outmaneuver him.

Closer now, and I adjusted the binoculars again until I could make out the writing on the police cruisers. Two were local, town cops having apparently joined a sheriff’s deputy in the chase. His car was superior to theirs, but the county roads were clearly not familiar to him either.

I knew them well. My dad had taught me to drive on that stretch of road. I knew full well where the neighboring farmers’ sprinklers caught the gravel beyond the edge of their fields, washing away some of the stable surface of the road or turning the low-lying stretches into very small swamps. I knew the intersections where the corn grew tall in the late summer, blocking a driver’s view of any oncoming traffic. I knew where the semis driving through had turned the road into a washboard until the next time the county could send a road grader through to smooth it out again. There were dead ends lurking where anyone not paying attention would find themselves flying off an embankment and into a ditch. Even if you spotted any of the hazards, there was no guarantee that hitting your brakes would keep you safe.

I knew that the cops didn’t drive out into the country unless they absolutely had to. An occasional domestic violence call when a wife had finally found the courage to seek help, a child who had wandered farther from home than usual, a controlled burn getting out of hand when the wind shifted suddenly; these sort of things, they were used to dealing with. A high-speed chase down narrow, unpaved roads? Not so much. Now they were coming up to the Ackers’ farm and I could finally hear the shifting pitch of the sirens. I felt my heart beating faster as the older car pulled farther ahead, adrenaline surging as I imagined myself in the driver’s seat, laughing out loud as I saw one of the city cops skid and spin a 180 into the ditch, hurting only his car and his pride. The other cop and the deputy managed to keep themselves on an even course, but the driver in the red car had gained nearly a half a mile.

The cars were close enough to see without the binoculars now, so I let them hang around my neck and watched anxiously as the red car swerved to the left at the edge of my grandfather’s tree line, dust flying as he stomped on his brake pedal in an impossible U-turn onto our property. The deputy and his cohort sped past, losing track of their prey in the cloud he’d kicked up. The driver, a long-haired man in a backwards baseball cap, was grinning like a madman as he wove past the John Deere outside of the shop, past the end of the paved driveway, and back out onto the road, back east toward Ackers’ again. Soon he was just a column of dust on the horizon. I raised the binoculars and watched him fade into the distance as the officers too late realized their mistake and changed direction, climbed back down the antenna and went inside. My grandparents were drinking coffee and watching Murder She Wrote with the blinds shut, and I doubted that they’d even noticed the events of the last few minutes, so I made a point of not mentioning it to them, sitting down with them and watching the rest of the show instead.

I had never seen the car before, and I never saw it again. Same for the laughing man behind the wheel. I checked the local newspaper the following Wednesday, but there was no mention of the chase in the city or sheriff’s reports. I like to think that whoever he was, wherever he was from, he’d wanted a little adventure for the day, and he somehow found a way to share it with me. To this day, I wonder what it must have felt like to have the thrill and uncertainty of that pursuit, not knowing if he’d be able to make the turns and courting death with every second. I’ll never forget the roar of the engine calling to me as I stared at the taillights, the smell of tires grinding into gravel. When I go back to the farm, I still climb up to the roof and watch for him, binoculars in hand, waiting to see that Detroit dream one more time.

This piece was written for Chuck Wendig’s latest Terrible Minds Writing Challenge. Thank you for reading. Don’t forget to check out the other entries!

“The river stole the gods.”

That’s what my grandmother used to say, anyway. “The river stole Them away from us, and left us alone. Left us to survive without Them.” They had belonged to our people for centuries, longer than we’d been maintaining a record of our tribe. I still remembered the stories that we would hear every night, that the elders of the village would share. Stories of how the gods came to be, what They did.

The First of the gods had come to us from the river, so it never seemed strange to me that the river had taken Them back. It was perfectly logical to me, but I was always a bit strange, according to my brother. The First was born to us from the reeds and the mud, given shape by the flowing water that still sustains our village. The sun looked down and saw the shape, and baked Him into hard clay, and the full moon looked down on the empty body and saw fit to give Him a soul, and then the moon began to wane, and He rose up and made His seven sisters and brothers in the same manner. Soon, all of the gods had been given Their shape, with the First asking the sun to dry Them, and the moon to give Them souls as well. The sun complied willingly, for the sun is always hot again with each new day, but the moon replied that there was but one soul left, and that it was the moon’s own soul, for there could be nothing more given until the moon was full again. So the First god took His own soul and broke it into eight pieces on a rock at midnight, when the moon was gone, for He could not wait for the moon to return with new souls. My grandmother told us that this was supposed to be a lesson about patience, but I never really understood why. I wanted to ask her if the rock the First had used to break His soul was still there, if she knew where He had done it. Instead, I’d just smile and nod and encourage my brother to do the same so that she wouldn’t yell at us for not learning from her stories. Father and Mother would have spanked us, so even the yelling was preferred if it came to that.

One fraction of the First’s soul, He took back into Himself. The remaining seven fragments were given to His brothers and sisters, and once They too possessed souls, They stood by His side. Together, They then set about naming all of the things, and dividing the world into parts that each of Them would oversee. The seas, the skies, the stars, the earth, the plants, the beasts, time. Each of the First’s siblings was god of these things. The First presided over Them all, giving Them guidance, since He was connected to all of Them through His soul. For centuries, our people lived in peace under Their rule, and They would return to our village every month to visit the place of Their birth. “We would watch Them from a great distance, and we could see that every one of Them stood at least twice as tall as my father, who was the tallest man in the village,” my grandmother said. “And we would hide, but still try to see what They were doing. Their gatherings always lasted from sunrise to moonrise, as They honored the place of Their birth. They appeared at dawn, They stood at the river’s edge in the mud from which They were formed, and They vanished as the moon took its place in the sky.” We asked my grandmother to describe Them, beyond Their great height. “They were the color of the river, bright when the sun shone on Them, blending with the night save for a subtle shimmer when it didn’t. They were beautiful.”

The gods were kind, benevolent, and very slow to anger. My grandmother only knew of one time when They had seen fit to punish any of the people of our village, just before the river took Them. It was harvest time, and one of the men of the village had been found having killed his neighbor. Murder was unheard of in the village. Death was not uncommon, but it was not the explicit realm of any of the gods, and so it was deemed to be something far beyond the control of men. After all, if the gods have no power over a thing, what hope does man have of controlling it? When this man was found with another’s blood on his hands, he was locked away until the next time the gods came. The villagers had no idea that it was going to be the last time. The gods returned as was Their fashion, and instead of hiding from them, my grandmother’s father stood near where he knew they would appear. When They arrived, he called out to them, and my grandmother and the others hid in the usual place. “My father spoke to them,” she says, “but we couldn’t hear him or Them from our hiding place. Eventually he came back to us, saying that the First had demanded the murderer be brought to him. We brought him out, and my father took him to where the gods waited for them. They looked at the man, and instructed my father to come back to hide with us.” Here she always grows sad. “We heard the rushing sound of the water, and saw the gods step into the middle of the river, the killer up to his neck. There was a great rush of white and blue, and when the surge passed, there was no one left. No murderer, no vengeful gods. We never saw any of Them again after the river stole Them away. Punished him, and punished us all by leaving us here without Them.”

Note: This story was written for a “Story from a Sentence” challenge from Chuck Wendig over at terribleminds. He hosts similar challenges weekly, and I’m trying to get back into the rhythm of writing for them. Hopefully more microfiction will continue to arrive here on a somewhat consistent basis. Thanks for reading!

“The Casket”

The casket was made of steel, polished and gleaming blue in the June sun. I didn’t know the man inside, but I knew of him. Everyone in town knew about the house where he’d lived for the last forty years. My dad told stories of how, as a teen, he and his friends had dared each other to enter Mr. Walter’s yard, to approach the house, to lift the brass knocker on the door, to steal a sprig of foxglove from the sunken garden. He told me that he’d won almost a hundred dollars over the course of a single summer. I didn’t feel brave enough to tell him that I’d never made it beyond the fence, but I always nodded every time he mentioned some detail of the grounds.

Mr. Walter’s funeral was simple. He was buried in the graveyard a quarter mile outside of town. Pastor Mikalsen came to do the service, and my dad and I were the only mourners, unless you count Zeek, the gravedigger (who only has the job because he lives nearby and owns a backhoe). I guess that’s what happens when you spend most of your life as a hermit, even in a small town. No one wants to come to say goodbye. Dad said he felt obligated after antagonizing the old man for most of his own youth. We didn’t even dress up, since we’d been out working on one of our tractors all morning. Two mourners whose only black attire that afternoon consisted of grease-stained jeans and t-shirts.

I told Dad that I’d walk home after the service was over, and that I wanted to have a little while to think. He gave me an understanding nod and climbed back into the pickup, calling for Pastor Mikalsen and his wife to join us for dinner that evening as he drove away. I watched as the pastor followed him back to town before asking Zeek if he needed a hand. When he waved me off, I wandered the few uneven rows of remaining stones. I’d always loved spending time in the little cemetery, even waking up early on Saturdays in my youth to ride my bike there. My great-grandfather and great-grandmother were buried there, and I soon found myself standing before their headstone. Zeek finished piling the last of the dirt on top of Mr. Walter and headed off toward home, the backhoe serving as his transportation for the afternoon, and I was finally alone with my thoughts.

I sat down in front of my great-grandparents’ grave and looked at the dates carved in the dark marble. They’d died less than a year apart, and only a few months after I was born. Dad didn’t talk about them much, and all I really knew was that we lived in their old house. Mom talked about her side of the family even less, though I suspected she had good reason for keeping such things to herself, and never prodded her about it. She might as well have been an orphan for all I actually knew about her relatives. I didn’t mind too much, because it meant a hell of a lot fewer road trips across the country to see them. There are only so many times you can drive across Nebraska before it starts to take a toll on you.

After a few minutes, I stood up and dusted myself off. I made a final round of the cemetery, being careful not to walk on the freshly packed soil where Mr. Walter now resided. I set off down the road for home when inspiration struck, and I started walking the opposite direction. Soon I stood before the towering home the old man had once occupied. Daylight, I mused, made all the difference in approaching the building. Even on a bright afternoon, the place loomed over the grounds. The wrought iron gate where I stood was marked with a massive stylized “W,” itself in turn decorated with an intaglio of ivy. I traced it with my fingers, feeling the textures of the etched metal. With a brief glance over my shoulder, I gave the gate a gentle push until it opened.

That was all it took. I felt a surge of confidence as I slipped into the yard, leaving the open gate behind me. I was in Mr. Walter’s yard. Remembering Dad’s stories, I headed for the back of the house, following the flagstone path that led to the sunken garden. I pulled my phone from my pocket, snapping a few pictures along the way. To say that it was beautiful did no justice to the place. I realized that Mr. Walter must have maintained everything himself until his death, and that he had clearly poured all of his energy into that garden. While the rest of the yard, and the house itself, had fallen into some state of disrepair, the garden was pristine. A jeweled mosaic decorated one of the walls, sapphire, topaz, amethyst, and a half-dozen other stones set in patterns resembling flowers. Ivy grew around it, but had been carefully cleared away from the mosaic itself.

I could have lost myself in thought in that garden, but I had work to do before the light faded. Finding a patch of the famous foxglove, I picked a handful and headed back to the gate. The walk back to the cemetery took only a few minutes. I laid the flowers down at Mr. Walter’s grave, knowing that the chances of anyone else ever doing to same for him were slim. I didn’t know the man in the steel casket beneath my feet, but I knew of him. Everyone in town did, but I wouldn’t forget him. Somebody had to remember the dead, after all. When our houses are torn down, and our gardens are left untended, eventually only memory will remain, though that too will fade.

It was time to go home. The sun was setting, and we had company coming for dinner.

 

 

(This piece was written for a flash fiction challenge hosted by the inimitable Chuck Wendig. We were given ten words, and instructed to pick five of them to include in a 1,000 word short story. I used topaz, orphan, casket, hermit, and foxglove.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Today’s entry is a response to the latest Terrible Minds Writing Challenge, and comes to you courtesy of the wonderful Chuck Wendig. We were instructed to choose a word from each of two columns of ten words. These two words would give us our title for a thousand-word story. From there, we were free to choose genre, setting, etc. so long as the title was composed of those two randomly selected words. It is with great pleasure that I present to you “The Apocalypse Mechanism.”

“The Apocalypse Mechanism”

I found myself hypnotized by the button. It sat there all day, just peeking up at me from beneath its warning label-emblazoned plastic cover. The labels said “Do Not Push”. The button seemed to say the exact opposite, but I knew what would happen if I pressed it. Hell, the alarm system would engage the second the cover was flipped open
(I wanted to push it)

and that couldn’t even be accomplished without two keys, only one of which was ever in my possession at any given time.

So I stared at it. Me versus the button. The greatest showdown never to be broadcast live on television, though one documentary maker had come down to film my little chamber about a year and a half after I started. Our little chamber, I suppose. Marco and I took turns. I don’t know if he stared at the button the way I did
(I wanted to push it)

like I was looking deep into the eyes of the lover I could never have. We never talked about it. He only spoke Italian, and I only spoke English. He had the other key. I wore mine around my neck. I think he did too, but again, we didn’t exactly have the best of conversations, or any conversations, for that matter. Language barriers and whatnot. Pretty sure the guys upstairs planned it that way, but there’s no way for me to know for certain.

The chair was pretty comfortable, so I guess you could say it was a cushy job. I mean, how many gigs can you find where you get paid a shit-ton of money to sit in a big chair and wait patiently for nothing to happen? Not many. This one was one of a kind, too. It was an armchair, too, not a desk chair or anything like that. Designed for me and me alone. There was a matching one opposite mine, made for Marco, and we never sat in each other’s. We wouldn’t have been comfortable. That was the way it was designed. I asked once what would happen if one of us had been killed, and the only response I’d gotten was an offhand comment about having to draft a plan for a new chair.

The button was green. That really threw me off the first time I sat in that chair. I’d been expecting red when they gave me the breakdown of the job. It just seemed logical that a button that could end the world would be red, you know? Nope. Green. Big and friendly, almost a neon green, like it was telling you “Don’t Panic” or something. Like it wanted to be pushed. I’m fairly certain it did, because then it would’ve been all over, but when I mentioned that to the staff psychologist, he said I was just projecting.

The button was only part of it, of course. The room wasn’t built to house anything, it was everything. The whole complex I worked in was the device, and the room with my little chair and my big friendly “Do Not Push” button
(oh, gods I wanted to push it)

was only a little chamber, a tiny fraction of the thing they called “The Apocalypse Mechanism.” Designed by the most brilliant minds on the planet, top to bottom, including my chair. I can’t call them the best minds, because if the best minds had been around at that point, it wouldn’t have come to the building of that damned thing. The best minds would have been able to come up with something better, a plan that wouldn’t involve Earth being sacrificed.

Still, the minds we had left were brilliant. They had taken good care of them in the facilities back in Russia. Neat little rows of jars, cleanly labeled, and so on and so forth. I’d actually gotten a tour of the place a few years before I got my button-watching job. A cold set of shelves, but like I said, they held the most brilliant minds left on Earth. They put them to use, and away we went, letting them design the mechanism that would allow us to hide our tracks completely.

Marco and I each worked on ten hour shifts. Ten hours on, ten hours off. Since we were underground, it didn’t really matter much to us that we didn’t see daylight. What was left to see on the surface anyway? Nothing I hadn’t seen before. Nothing I wanted to see again. Ten hours sitting, waiting for the word that it was time to wake the other, time to use the keys, time to release the plastic cover, time to push the big green button.

It would mean that the world would end. Earth would be destroyed, and the home of the human race would be lost to history forever. Marco and I would have no choice but to stay behind, of course. As far as I knew, he was just like me. No family, nothing left. No reason for us to be on the ships that would be setting course for the colony worlds far from our solar system. My button was the trigger. I held one of the two keys that would prevent anyone or anything from taking our home and using its resources against us. The Apocalypse Mechanism. The ultimate in scorched earth tactics.

I stared at the button for a lot of my shifts. I could have read, I suppose, or listened to music, but I couldn’t help myself. I knew that I’d have to push it one day. I could feel that from day one, so I stared at the button. I stared at it for five years, ten hours at a time.

Until now. Until the alerts. Too many ships still orbiting, trying to leave. Too many people still in range. No way to protect them now. No choice. I call Marco. We draw out our keys, unlock the cover.
(I don’t want to)

We push it together.

I recently finished Chuck Wendig’s first novel for young adults, Under the Empyrean Sky. As a fan of Chuck’s blog over at Terrible Minds, I felt I owed it to myself to give one of his full-length books a read, and I’m damn glad that I did.

Under the Empyrean Sky introduces us to our intrepid young hero, Cael McAvoy, captain of a teenage scavenger crew in the Heartland. Cael and his friends sail a land boat across the seemingly endless fields of corn to salvage anything they might be able to sell in their home town of Boxelder, because any extra money they can bring in helps provide for their families.

See, only one thing grows in the Heartland. The Empyrean makes sure of it. Hiram’s Golden Prolific is a modified strain of corn that spreads anywhere it pleases, choking out any other potentially competitive life (and it’s not fond of people walking near it, either). It’s the only seed that the Empyrean distributes to the farmers in the Heartland, and the returns for working for the Empyrean machine are enough to barely survive.

So Cael McAvoy scavenges, but he and his friends are not the only crew at work. The mayor’s son has a crew, number one in salvage recovery in Boxelder, and Boyland Barnes Jr. brings daddy’s money to the fight to ensure that Cael’s crew remains in second place. With tensions running high as the Harvest Home festival approaches, Cael takes his ship out for a prime target, only to be shipwrecked in the corn by Boyland Jr. It’s then that he finds something out in the middle of the field, something no one in the Heartland could have predicted. Vegetables. Fruits. Things that have no right growing in the midst of Hiram’s Golden Prolific. The discovery could make them all rich enough to buy passage to one of the flotillas, massive hovering cities of the Empyrean, where the wealthy live in splendor floating over the Heartland like Cael’s boat over the corn. Or it could get them and everyone they’ve ever loved killed.

Wendig packs one hell of a punch into the pages of this book. Deep characters and rich world building blend seamlessly with gritty violence and some of the most honest dialogue to hit the pages of a young adult novel. While some things might come across as a bit heavy-handed (like Empyrean agent Simone Agrasanto‘s name), most of the novel is quick and sharp, like the leaves of the plant that lends its name to Wendig’s self-dubbed “cornpunk” genre. Under the Empyrean Sky weaves teenage love, sex, violence, and intrigue into a wild land boat ride that will leave you counting the days until the release of volume two.

This week’s challenge from Chuck gave us ten randomly chosen words (library, ethereal, storm, dolphin, replay, undertaker, envelope, satellite, chisel, and cube). We were asked to pick five of them to include as elements within the story for a thousand word piece. Here’s “Grave,” featuring library, storm, envelope, undertaker, and satellite, albeit a couple of hours late.

Grave

Lightning crackled across the sky, chasing itself from cloud to cloud as Devlin slung his spade over his shoulder. The storm had been building on the horizon for hours, and the apprentice undertaker had plenty of time to finish his last task, but he’d spent much of his afternoon hiding from his master, Thom. So it was that he found himself crawling out of a newly-dug grave as the first drops of rain began to fall.

Sure, Thom was kind enough on the surface. He’d taken Devlin in several years before, allowing his parents to care for his younger brother and pursue their own careers in archaeology. The old man knew he wasn’t going to be able to carry on his job for more than another year or so, but still, he didn’t have to beat Devlin every time he found him reading. His ears still ached from the boxing they’d been given that afternoon. At least his book hadn’t been thrown away this time.

Digging graves was a bore, always the same dimensions, always the same shovel. The only thing that changed was where in the yard he would be digging. At least the people in the books he read got to escape from their dull lives, off on some adventure. Dev sighed and made his way back to Thom’s cabin at the northern edge of the graveyard. At least the day’s work was done. He called out as he entered the door, the first raindrops hitting the ground as he propped his shovel against the door frame. “Thom? I’m done.”

“Ah, good. I see you managed to beat the storm. Dinner’s nearly ready, if you’ve completed your work.” The senior undertaker stood from a chair near the stove. A fire blazed in the fireplace, lending warmth to the cabin as the temperature dropped outside.

“I did. Mission accomplished, boss.”

“You know it would take you a hell of a lot less time if you didn’t read when you were supposed to be digging.”

“I know.”

“I’m not training you to read all day.”

“I know.”

“Is it going to happen again?” Thom raised his fist.

Devlin sighed. “No, Thom.”

“Good. Glad we talked. Sausage and cabbage soup for dinner. Enjoy. I’m going to bed before the weather gets any worse. Goodnight, Dev.”

“Night, Thom.”

Once the old man had gone to bed, Devlin sat at the table and sipped at a bowl of soup. The week’s mail had come in while he’d been at work and was sitting on the chair beside him, so he picked it up and idly thumbed through the various letters, magazines from coffin makers, and postcards from customers until he spotted a small yellowed envelope with his name on it.

Inside the envelope was a matching piece of paper, a letter in neat handwriting, green ink shining in the firelight.

“Dear Devlin,” it read, “Your father and I are very proud of you. We know that your apprenticeship hasn’t been easy. It’s never easy to have to spend your life doing something you don’t want to do. Still, it’s very important for you to have this opportunity. With the work you’re doing now, you’ll be able to earn a stable living. Who knows? In ten or fifteen years, you might be able to pursue more of your passions.

“You’re very lucky you know. Your brother has to travel to the satellite villages to find work anymore, and no one is about to offer him an apprenticeship. Still, I suppose things could be a lot worse for us right now. Your father and I are busy with our own work, naturally. The excavation of the library is going far better than we’d expected and the scrolls and tomes that we’re finding are in remarkable condition. It amazes me how well the desert manages to preserve artifacts for us.

“We continue to search for the heart of the library. We’ve found a clue that is pointing us even deeper underground. Oh, to have lived at the peak of this civilization! The level of skill it must have taken to be able to create something so massive, a facility of this size, beneath a mountain! Devlin, the words cannot possibly describe the way I feel right now. We’re sorry that you can’t join us. You’d love it here. It’s warm and beautiful, and the chances we have to find something big are growing better by the day. We love you, Dev, and can’t wait to see you. Love, Mum and Dad.

“P.S. Your father is working on some sketches to send when the post goes out again. I hope you like them.”

Devlin set the letter aside. His soup had gone cold, so he poured the remnants out and paced around the dining room. The library. His parents had talked about it for years before leaving for the excavation, and in his childhood he had considered it the stuff of legend. Now here he was, hundreds of miles away, the great desert separating him from them, bound by the terms of his apprenticeship. He longed to join them. There was a sense of finality about the work he did for Thom, with each grave he dug serving as someone’s end. The library was history in the making, each day bringing new discoveries for his parents. Even his brother was finding new things in the satellite villages that surrounded his home.

Dev sighed and sat back down. The terms of his apprenticeship bound him, and Thom was too clever to allow him to sneak off any time soon. As he stretched in the chair, a flash of lightning outside the window illuminated the whole room, throwing his spade into sharp relief. “There is a fresh grave outside,” he glanced at the envelope. “And Thom’s got no family to speak of…” The thunder boomed, rattling the cabin. Devlin sat in thought as the storm raged on and the rain continued to fall. “It is an option…”

And here’s yet another entry for a Chuck Wendig Writing Challenge. This one is brought to you by They Fight Crime. Go check it out. It might just help you come up with that character idea you needed.

My description from They Fight Crime was this: “He’s a scarfaced Catholic stage actor on the hunt for the last specimen of a great and near-mythical creature. She’s a beautiful hip-hop college professor with an evil twin sister. They fight crime!”

And without further ado…

“So, where are we staking out tonight, Doc?” Clark carefully applied a layer of foundation over the pale pink reminders of the fire that lingered on his jaw, neck, and shoulder with a practiced hand. “Same place as last night?”

“No, dear,” Professor Andrews replied as she slipped into the room. “Tonight I was thinking that we’d keep an eye out on the bus stop on 45th. I’ve heard a couple of reports of attacks in that area in the last week.”

“And you think that it’s the same person each time?” he asked.

“Well, ‘person’ is a loose term. I heard hints that it might actually have been him.”

“The werewolf?” Clark paused, triangular sponge in hand.

“Mmmhmm.” She grabbed a pair of headphones and placed them around her neck. “After all, the moon’s been full. The M.O. certainly fits.”

Clark finished his makeup and checked the results in the mirror. No sign now remained of the scars that normally marred his face. Still, the burns ached. The theatre fire had been almost ten years ago, but the pain and the scars lingered, and the makeup could only cover the physical injuries. “Melissa,” he said, “you know how long I’ve been after him, don’t you?”

Professor Andrews stepped behind him, wrapping her arms around his shoulders. “Clark, darling, of course I know. I’m just worried that you’re going to get caught up in some sort of revenge fantasy like my sister did.” She placed a kiss on his cheek.

“How long has she been in prison now, six months?”

“Seven,” Melissa replied. “We don’t have to worry about her. That’s not the point. If our boy is the one attacking these people, this is our chance to finally put him away.” She played with the chain around Clark’s neck, straightening the crucifix on it as she did so. “And once he’s gone, then we’ll be free to do whatever we like with the rest of our lives.”

“Would you go back to teaching full time?”

“If I could find a college that would take me on. Alyssa did a number on my reputation back when she was pretending to be me. But maybe we could find a place that’s looking for help with their theatre program too. There’s got to be more to your career than small-time performances of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and that web ad campaign you did last summer. ”

“Hey, you loved seeing me as Brad.”

“Pretty sure that has nothing to do with your ability to act. After all, he’s Barry Bostwick in the movie.”

“Ouch.”

“Yeah, I guess that was a little harsh. I mean, he was pretty funny in Spin City and those Peps…oh, right.”

“Yeah.”

“Clark, it’s not that I think you’re a bad actor. I just think that you’re better suited to what we do right now.”

“You really think I’m good?”

“The best. Other than me, of course. And at least I didn’t make some joke about burning down the theatre because you were awful.”

Clark’s hands went to his foundation-covered scars for a moment before he realized she was still smiling. “Thanks, Melissa. You know, when you first came to me to offer me the job, I was half-convinced that you were only using me as a source for holy water. It’s a big relief to know that there’s more to it than that.”

Melissa straightened and walked back to her wardrobe, pulling out black t-shirt after black t-shirt and throwing them into a pile on the floor. “Oh, I knew you wanted revenge, but I figured you had to have some talent if you were going up against the rest of his pack on your own. Never would have guessed you were that crazy. Proved me wrong, didn’t you? Damn, I can never find the one I’m looking for,” she muttered darkly.

“What are you doing?” Clark called over his shoulder. He was preoccupied with his cell phone now, searching for more information about the recent attacks.

“Trying to find my Wu Tang Clan shirt, but it’s not here.”

“It’s in the laundry. You got blood on it last time.”

“Clark, I need that shirt. It’s the only way that the guys we fight know that I’m ‘Nothing to…'”

“I’m pretty sure the katana’s a dead giveaway for that one.”

“Valid point. I’ll go with Snoop. Maybe it’ll make our boy giggle when he sees it, and I can hit him while he’s distracted. Did you have a chance to get the silver edging added?”

“Yeah, but you owe Maki another two grand. He melted down a lot of heirlooms for that, and he’s pretty convinced that his great-grandfather is haunting him again.” He laced up a pair of combat boots.

“Fine. We’ll pay for it with the reward money when we stop this werewolf, then we’ll deal with Old Man Yamada.”

“Sounds like a plan. We better get moving, then. It’ll take us at least thirty minutes to get to 45th.”

Melissa pulled two holstered pistols from the wardrobe and handed them to Clark. “You’re driving,” she said. “Those are loaded with the silver-tipped rounds, just in case.”

“Thanks Mel.” Clark stood and attached the holsters to his belt. “Nearly ten years, but we’re down to the last known one. Let’s end this.”

Adding a sword belt to her own outfit, Melissa turned to face him. “Together.”

“Son of a bitch burned me once. Not this time.” Clark quickly crossed himself. “Let’s go.”