Book Review: Dead Endings, by Jessica Chavez

I have a weakness for weird fiction. I'm also partial to good writing. The issue I've always run into is this: There is far too much of the former, and far too little of the latter.

Dead Endings is brilliantly written, very weird fiction.

Of course, there have been other stories written about the paranormal. Good stories, even. What sets Dead Endings apart, for me, is the realness of the world and the people in it. Cailen is a down-to-earth person, one I can relate to -- probably more than I should admit. She's a writer, she's lazy, she cares deeply for her friends, she grumbles about helping people but she does it anyway. We get to know Cailen the best, spending the most time with her overall, but the rest of the main cast is also well-rounded and likable. Even the antagonists are sympathetic, to the extent they should be, anyway.

(I'm avoiding a plot synopsis here, because you can read one of those elsewhere very easily, and because I went in knowing almost nothing and I think I was better off for it.)

What caught my attention most of all was the writing. The narration is gorgeous. Sometimes the ability to construct a compelling plot and the ability to write it beautifully are not found in the same person, but that's not the case here. Just really excellent work. I'm going to cut myself off from talking more about the writing, because I could gush about it for a long time. It's good. You'll see what I mean.

It's not a long book, which isn't a negative by any means. You just might want more, and that's a perfectly reasonable reaction to good writing. The plot does seem to continue -- it's being serialized online, and I imagine at some point another book will release collecting this next part of the story.

I highly recommend this book. I don't write a ton of reviews -- because I'm lazy, but also because I'm picky. This is worth your time.

Buy it here: http://amzn.to/2kxqCuR

In Defense of Weak Characters

(This post will contain plenty of Heaven's Forgotten spoilers. If you haven't read it, why don'tcha? Pick it up on Amazon.)

I've resisted talking about this subject for a few months now, mostly because it will come across as defensive. And it's even a bit silly for me to say anything, because on the whole I've enjoyed incredibly positive reviews--more so than I think I even deserve, to be honest--so focusing on one negative aspect seems both petty and pouty.

But, it is a subject I care about a great deal. I've buried the lead long enough, so here's what I'm talking about.

"My biggest complaint was that I found the main character to be staunchly portrayed as the heroine, despite being self-centered and immature. Moira shows at times a shocking lack of empathy, bad parenting skills, and inability to communicate in a relationship..."

"So what was my problem with the book? Why did I give it four stars and not five? Moira. I understand that she is young, but that doesn't stop me from giving her the worst mother of a year award. How many times could she possible say she's relieved when her daughter is away at preschool? Or hell, even when she is kidnapped? I know there are bad humans out there, but I like to believe that that thought would never cross your mind if your child was taken from you against your will. Then, all she does is cry throughout the whole story. All these strong characters are in this story, but weak Moira just cries in the background while being a terrible parent."

"Moira wasn't very likeable and I found her to be selfish and not a good mother at times.  She also cried constantly!  I hate when characters do that."

"The female characters are reminded time and again that they are helpless from danger without the help of a man and theyall react to stress with screams and tears, sometimes pathetically beating at the chests of the men in the room. Moira depends on her ex-boyfriend to drive her and Penelope from North Carolina to her hometown of Chicago to seek the help of another man, Adam..."

These are a few examples of the kind of criticism that Moira, the main character of Heaven's Forgotten, has received.

I think part of the reason I take these sorts of criticisms so seriously is because Moira is basically me. Having never been a mother myself, I largely based her off of how I've reacted in similar situations. I did my best to guess what I might do, given the extraordinary circumstances she finds herself in.

Creating the character of Moira, I was attempting to create a kid (23 years old, remember) who had found herself, through no fault of her own, in literally the worst parenting circumstances in the history of the world. She responds with tears, with fear, and by seeking help from the few people in her life who might be able to lend a hand. I can't imagine I would do it better than she did--in fact, I'm sure I wouldn't. So if anything, I'm giving her more credit than I give myself.

There's a real hunger right now for female main characters to take on the roles traditionally served by macho male characters: the action hero who doesn't need help from anyone, who stands up to any and all evil and gets what he wants (perhaps walking away from an explosion in slow motion in the process). And that's fine by me. There's space for that. But I've never particularly cared for stories with a traditional macho main male, and I didn't have much interest in crafting a story in that vein. The stories that interest me are stories about broken people leading broken lives and persevering despite their circumstances. 

So, Moira is a "weak" character. She is broken. She is far from the ideal mother.

An author friend of mine put it to me this way: "You could have made Moira a strong character, but it would have made her a worse character."

If Moira didn't need to seek help in these life-or-death, heaven-or-hell circumstances, how realistic would she be? If I as a thirty-something man break down in tears on occasion from the relatively small amount of stress I face, is it unrealistic to think a twenty-three-year-old kid would be more stalwart? I'd imagine I'd be facing a very different set of criticism if I'd gone that route.

Despite her shortcomings, I do have to question the perspective that she is nothing but a weak person, "pounding the chest" of the men in her life, demanding to be rescued. Spoilers follow, and here's where I get really defensive:

Moira alone left her family with her half-angel infant in tow to start a life with no idea what she was doing or what lay ahead.

Moira alone confronted her father about all the terrible things he had done to her.

Moira alone sought a weapon that could kill Michael and set out in secret to kill him, to get her daughter back.

And in the end, Moira alone chased down her (former) best friend, to not only save her daughter, but to save his soul.

I'm curious about what others think. Are traditionally "strong" main characters important to a story? Or is there a place for a character with plenty of "weakness" to spare?

Writing Poorly

Josh Shenk, author of Lincoln's Melancholy, made the statement that has become the mantra of my writing career. Mantra might not be the right word, but I'm having the courage to write badly.

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Harry Potter and the Crippling Fear of Self-Promotion

Apologies in advance, this post has nothing to do with Harry Potter.

Am I bothering you? I hope I'm not bothering you. You probably aren't that interested in what I have to say, anyway. On the list of things that matter to you in this moment, I'm probably somewhere below the precise list of particles found on the bottom of your shoes.

Right? Or is that my fear of self-promotion showing through? 

I've always been hesitant to talk up any of my projects to people, particularly people I don't know, but family and friends, as well. If I do, I usually mask it with a stupid joke, because haha, if you don't care about what I'm saying then I didn't really care either, I was just goofin'.

But a huge part of being an author is knowing how to talk about your book to people you don't know and who don't care (or, hopefully, simply don't know yet that they do care). So I'm gearing up for those potentially embarrassing encounters.

First, I'm reaching out to book reviewers to pitch them on writing a review of Heaven's Forgotten. This isn't too bad, because chances are, if they don't want to read it, they just won't reply. Then I can pretend the rejection doesn't exist.

That's not enough, though. I'm trying to work on my elevator pitch -- i.e. the quick but encompassing summary of what my book is and why you'll think it's awesome. 

I was volunteering a couple of weeks ago with First Book, an awesome charity that gets books into the hands of children in need, and a couple of ladies I was helping asked what I did for a living. That allowed me a (shockingly unsubtle) segue into a quick pitch about my book. Now, the book isn't out yet, so that makes it harder to "close the deal," so to speak, but I'm thinking of it as practice.

Anybody find themselves in similar situations? Any strategies for overcoming what I can only assume is a learned insecurity about one's own work? I'd love to hear about it.

Short Fiction Monday: The Rising Cost of Insurance

This story originally appeared in Escape Velocity Magazine, Vol. 3, and was reprinted in Escape Velocity: The Anthology.


The Rising Cost of Insurance

Timothy's secretary was a blonde, and this alone was responsible for the affair. It wasn't his fault. During his formative years he had developed an attraction for fair hair, probably because of his mother. Then he married a brunette who refused to dye her hair, which, he decided, was also not his fault.

His secretary said, “Mrs. Anderson is coming in today at ten o’clock. I forgot to tell you last night.” She sat facing away from her desk, watching him through the open doorway into his office. Timothy wanted quiet. She had opened his door to deliver a memo from Corporate and had refused to shut it on her way out.

“You can't just forget to tell me things. It's your job. Don’t let it happen again.”

She smiled, as if his order were some little joke. Then she kicked her legs out and spun around slowly, a carnival ride for the elderly. He would fire her, except she would certainly run to Corporate and his wife and spew every disgusting detail of their affair. It would mean the end of his marriage. Worse, the end of his job. And he was damn good at his job.

9:45. His desk was clean. He pulled up Mrs. Anderson’s file on his computer so it would be ready. The insurance agent had dealt with all the necessary prep work. As an adjustor, it was his job to make sure the damage claimed matched the level of insurance purchased.

He never understood why people wanted to meet with the adjustor. Did they think they could get more coverage after the fact? That wasn’t how insurance worked.

At ten o’clock a woman appeared in the front office. She wore a black dress that reached her ankles, covered her arms, and erupted white lace at the neck. She had put on black eye makeup that now traced a River Styx down each cheek. Apparently she had come directly from her husband’s funeral.

She exchanged words with the secretary -- he had stopped thinking of her as Janet, because the affair needed to end -- and made her way around the desk and to his door. It framed her for a moment. A sad portrait. He urged her to come in, to sit down. She did.

He decided to begin traditionally. “Allow me to offer our condolences.”

“Thank you,” she replied, and the corners of her mouth twitched upward, a nervous reaction or an attempt at a smile.

“Let’s see what we can do for you today.” He clicked his mouse. “Your deductible is 20,000 dollars. You know, we normally take care of all this through the mail.”

“Do you take Visa?”

He smiled. “Of course. Do you remember if you had your Visa card with you at the time of the accident?”

“I… yes. I know I did. It was in my purse. He was holding my purse.”

She choked and covered her face with her hands. “Please,” she said, “please. He’s my husband. You can… I know you can… Please!”

Timothy pulled on a grave expression. “It would be good to go over your coverage again, I suppose, before I return to the scene. Feel free to stop me if you have a question.”

She nodded, drying her eyes on the sleeves of her dress. Behind her, his secretary was pulling the neckline of her shirt down, revealing pale cleavage. He forced his eyes to the computer screen.

“You had our Basic Liability coverage, which is far less than we recommend. That’s also why your deductible is so high.”

“I know.”

“Therefore, and I’m sorry to say it, but it appears we can only cover the other driver and his… three passengers? Yes, three. And their car.”

He clicked Print and waited as the printer beside him spit out three forms.

“I just need your signature on this.” He passed it across the desk to her. “There’s a pen right there.” It was attached to a black tether, because too many people had stolen his pens, and they weren’t cheap Bics, they were very nice, custom made, with his name and address on them.

She picked it up. Her hand seemed like gelatin, the way it wavered, the way the pen shook in her grip. She signed. He took the paper back and was surprised to see that, despite her condition, her signature was very neat. He folded it and slid it in his pocket.

“There’s a lot of paperwork involved. I’ve always said, they can invent a time machine --” now his secretary was licking her lips and twirling a strand of hair between two fingers -- “uh… they can invent a time machine, but they can’t come up with an alternative to all this paperwork.”

He always thought it was funny -- or at least interesting -- but Mrs. Anderson did not react.

She stood, but her legs appeared to be unable to support her body. She leaned heavily on the back of her chair with both hands. “Please. I’m just asking you this as a favor. Please. Please. He’s my husband.” Her mouth moved some more without sound.

His secretary was now leaning forward in her chair and folding her arms beneath her chest, pushing up her breasts. As Mrs. Anderson composed herself, Timothy thought maybe seeing Janet wasn’t such a bad thing. He realized he could stare at her cleavage all day, and it was pretty funny watching her pretend to be picking something up off the floor as Mrs. Anderson turned to leave. Not funny. Cute. He found it cute. He wanted to invite her into his office right then, clear off his desk with a swipe of his arm just like he’d done the first time, just like he’d seen in movies.

But no. He had to take care of Mrs… He checked the screen. Anderson. Mrs. Anderson. It would be an easy one. He looked at the glass front door. Mrs. Anderson was on the other side of it now.

“I’m going to take care of the Anderson case,” he said. “Do I have any more appointments this afternoon?”

Janet crossed her legs and leaned forward again. “Nope.”

“Good. You’ll be here when I get back, won’t you?”

“You'll be gone, like, two seconds.”

“Right." He felt himself blushing. "I’ll see you in a few.”

He stood, walked out into the front office and through a side door. He flicked on the light switch. The room was as big, or better, as small as his office. The walls, the floor, the ceiling, were silver. It was like stepping into a house of mirrors. A person could see their every flaw from every angle.

In the center of the room, as silver as the walls and floor and ceiling, stood the Machine. Like a convex mirror, it made him look fat and stretched. Smooth and round. It was shaped, Timothy was often embarrassed to acknowledge at get-togethers, like a giant egg.

The front of the thing jumped out a few inches with a hydraulic hiss, then slowly moved to the side, allowing him to enter. As he climbed in, he thought about his wife, just for a moment. He thought about his upcoming, promised promotion. Then, as he seated himself on the low bench and watched the door slide shut before him, he pictured Janet’s thighs, which he had always really enjoyed. He punched the case number into the numerical pad that glowed on the wall beside him.

The trip always jarred him. He shut his eyes as the Machine began to shake. Colors danced across the insides of his eyelids, oranges, blues, reds, greens, and other colors he knew no names for. A spectrum, he’d heard, outside the normal realm of what he should be able to see.

Then it was over, and the door slid open, and he stepped out into the same room as before. This time, he walked behind the Machine and through the back door, which opened into a garage that smelled equally of motor oil and new leather. Two cars, one silver, one blue, stood parked before two closed garage doors. To the side, various tools that the mechanics used on weekends for general upkeep. He climbed in the car nearest him, pressed the button to open the garage, and backed out into early evening. It still bothered him, entering and leaving different times of day as quickly as passing through rooms in a house.

He drove to the corner of Clark and Addison.

He parked and checked his expression in the rearview mirror. Thinking about Janet kept forcing a smile onto his face. He needed a neutral expression. He had to be calculating. This next part would be dangerous. He would be stopping an accident, but the people might prove difficult to deal with.

He thought of his wife, and the smile melted away.

In the glove compartment he found the beacon light, a big red and blue thing shaped like an ice cream cone. He stepped outside. There was the car. He turned the beacon on and stepped into the street. He had to turn his face away because the light was so bright. He thought about Janet, and her thighs, and all of her, and he started to get aroused -- so he thought about cold showers and baseball and his wife.

The car slowed to a stop. Behind him, a car passed through the intersection. If he hadn’t been there, the Andersons’ car would have smashed into it. There would have been several deaths, although currently Timothy couldn’t remember how many.

He tossed the beacon back in his car and stepped to the driver’s window. Mrs. Anderson rolled it down.

“Good evening. I’m Timothy Richards from Our Family Insurance, and I’m here tonight to prevent an accident.”

“Good God!” Mr. Anderson said. He was a middle-aged man in a business suit with a receding hairline. He held his wife's purse on his lap. “When would it have happened?”

“Several seconds ago. The car that just passed through the intersection. Your car would have smashed into theirs, killing the occupants.”

“Jesus, Mary and Joseph,” Mr. Anderson said. “Damn it, Rebecca, I’ve told you to pay attention. I’ve told you a thousand times.”

“Oh my,” was all Mrs. Anderson said.

Timothy reached into the inner pocket of his coat and pulled out a small black device, the size and shape of a pack of cigarettes. “Mr. Anderson, could you please step out of the vehicle?”

“Why?” Mr. Anderson said.

“Sir, I need you to step outside the vehicle immediately. We are in danger of negatively impacting the flow of time.”

Mr. Anderson appeared confused, but he handed the purse to his wife and climbed out. Timothy rounded the car and placed the black device on Mr. Anderson’s chest. A moment later the older man crumpled to the ground. Mrs. Anderson screamed.

A minute of hysteria passed. Mrs. Anderson was inconsolable. Timothy placed the black device back in his pocket.

“I’m sorry for your loss,” he said.

“You’re sorry? You just murdered my husband!”

“Your husband would have died in the wreck, and allowing him to live might have altered time in a potentially catastrophic way. It is for the best.” He pulled the form from his pocket. It remained intact, signature and all. It would stay that way until he returned to the present. “You signed this, in the future. Can I please have your Visa card? If the deductible extends beyond your credit limit, you will be billed for the remainder.”

She was crying. She took the form from him with quaking hands and held it up. In the waning light it must have been hard to read. She shook her head. “Why? Why did you have to… Those other people would have died?”

“Yes.”

“Then, haven’t you changed the course of history by saving them? Why did you… why did you kill…?”

“Ma’am, I do apologize, but we always recommend stronger coverage. May I see your Visa card?”

She sat in the driver’s seat and shook her head, back and forth, back and forth, like a pendulum. Timothy reached across her and took her purse. She didn’t move. He opened it, leafed through tampons and loose change and packs of Kleenex until he found her Visa card. He placed it in his pocket. “Your card will be returned to you upon verification of fund transfer. Now, if you’ll excuse me--” he snatched the form from her hands--“I must be on my way. Direct any inquiries to the Our Family Corporate Office.”

He turned on his heel and left the woman to her tears. As he climbed in the car, he was already thinking about Janet. He pushed thoughts of his wife from his mind. No guilt tonight. Not tonight. Tonight would be for Janet, and then tomorrow, at the corporate dinner, he’d receive his promotion. Maybe he would take a vacation. With Janet? Yes. He would call it a business trip.

In his rearview mirror he saw the Wreckers arriving with their flatbed truck to collect the Andersons’ car. Right. He had forgotten. The car had been totaled. Or would have been. He was supposed to stay until the Wreckers arrived. Oh well. They were there. No harm done. He couldn’t see the woman anymore. Maybe she was calling a cab.

He forgot her even before he arrived back at the office, back to the present, at which point he really forgot her. Time flowed forward. She had never been to his office. To Timothy, she didn’t exist.

Book Review: The Girl on the Train

I haven't written a book review since grade school, if you consider a book report to be the same thing. So while there may be better book reviewers out there than me, I can say with absolute certainty that they are not wearing my pants right now. So, I've got that going for me.


Paula Hawkins' debut novel The Girl on the Train occupies a similar space as Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl. In both, we move through the minds of multiple narrators who may or may not be lying, to us and/or to themselves. This ends up being very effective and is what pulls you forward into the story, despite the fact that the inciting incident doesn't rear its head for thirty or forty pages.

While there are three characters we focus on throughout the book, the first is arguably the main character: Rachel. She has been divorced for two years and is a serious alcoholic. She blames her drinking for her current state and for the end of her marriage. She's living with a friend, paying rent, and lost her job several months ago. Too ashamed to admit it to anyone, she continues to take the train into the city every day. 

The train stops regularly in the same place, behind some houses in a nice little town. From her vantage point on the train, Rachel watches a married couple go about their morning. She calls them Jess and Jason, though she doesn't have any idea what their real names are. She's constructed a perfect little life for them in her head. 

But it falls apart the morning Rachel sees Jess kissing another man on her back porch. And shortly after that, Jess goes missing entirely.

I won't say more for fear of spoiling what is genuinely a good story. Just know that we get multiple perspectives on the events, and everyone is much more connected than may first be apparent.

Honestly, I only have one gripe with the story, and we're tiptoeing around spoiler territory here for sure, so skip to the end if you'd rather not know ANYTHING.

SPOILER LINE


My only real problem with the story is the way the villain is presented at the end. I thought the twist leading up to the reveal was cool, and fairly well executed, but the behavior of the villain seems to become almost cartoonish in the end. I didn't feel like the book earned an over-the-top villain, and it would have been better to show this person as more conflicted, rather than outright evil and insane.


END SPOILER

Highly recommended if you're into Gone Girl and that sort of dark, psychological thriller. A well-constructed mystery with compelling characters. Three thumbs up.

The Hook

The importance of The Hook in writing cannot, I think, be overstated. Maybe in our great-grandparents' time there was less to distract people from their slow-moving books, but today there is Twitter, and I feel like that's the only example I need to mention.

For the non-writers who are reading this, first of all, hello! Second, it's nice of you to humor me by reading a thing about writing which you might not even care about. And third, The Hook is the piece that comes hopefully early on and "hooks" you, gets you invested in the story, the characters, the situation -- whatever it might be.

Context provided. Let's move on.

I make it a goal to reveal The Hook within the first five or ten pages of whatever I'm working on. I don't know if that's the "right" way to do it, but I like it. And I feel like that's a fair length to expect even the busiest reader to get through. If they read the first ten and aren't hooked by what I've written, okay -- at least I tried. But if they are, hopefully they'll make time to read the rest.

I'm only thinking about hooks because I recently started reading The Girl on the Train. It's a beautifully written book, I can say that much for sure. What I can't say, now almost 10% in (thanks Kindle!), is what it's about or what's at stake.

I'm reading it because it's getting accolades, because the writer of Gone Girl gave it her seal of approval. But if it hadn't gotten all these accolades? If it hadn't gotten celebrity endorsement? I don't know if I'd still be reading. Like I said, it has beautifully written, evocative prose. But I'm only pressing on because I know from the blurbs I've read that there's some sort of twist coming, some sort of unreliable narrator-based intrigue that caught the attention of Gillian Flynn.

Ick, this sounds like beginning writer bagging on successful writer out of jealousy. It's not. I'm loving the book so far, and you should read it, too. It just made me think about writing hooks and how I don't even consider NOT including one early on anymore.

I guess I'll keep trying to set the hook nice and early. Unless someone knows Gillian Flynn or, like, Neil Gaiman personally and wants to give me a shoutout their way. That's fine, too.

Short Fiction Monday: The Exoneration of David McCrae

Short Fiction Monday is a thing I just made up, where I'll share a piece of short fiction that I or an author who approves has written. It may not happen every Monday. Additionally, Short Fiction Monday could happen on Tuesday, or Thursday, or really any day. Don't trust everything you read, is my point.

Originally published in the New England Writers' Network magazine, this version of the story was most recently published in Fabula Argentea, an online journal of fiction edited by author Rick Taubold.


The Exoneration of David McCrae

by Branden Johnson

David presses his stubby nose against the passenger window, fascinated, like a dog, by the passing trees. He turns to look at me. Snot runs around his upper lip, into the corner of his mouth.

“You’re disgusting,” I tell him.

He struggles for a moment with the ropes binding his hands and feet.

The sun has cracked the horizon behind us. Warm light leaks across my neck.

I turn on the radio and flip through the channels. R&B gets on my nerves, so I skip ahead. I’m not really in an 80s Rock mood, either. I pause on the dance music station, but David starts bouncing along with the rhythm, grunting with a guttural sound that reminds me of apes.

Instead, I find an instrumental jazz station and let it fade into the background.

David smiles at me. He doesn’t look like a murderer right now.

Then he stares down at the ropes, his mouth a small O of surprise, as if this is the first time he’s seen them.

“Yes, David. You’re tied up.”

He brings his wrists up, puts the rope in his mouth, and gnaws.

“Don’t do that.”

He’s drooling all over himself. I have to stop him. For all I know, he might be able to chew his way through. Doing my best to keep the car steady, I reach over and open the glove box. Inside is the usual assortment: a couple of maps and a small bottle of Tylenol and my registration. In the back, though, I find a small bottle of petroleum jelly. The label is gone, worn away by time. This stuff must be ten years old.

I shove his head back against his seat, take off the cap and rub some of the goop on the ropes. He puts them in his mouth again.

“Aackh!” His tongue is hanging out, glistening with the stuff. His eyes begin to tear up.

“You deserve this,” I say, as we crest a hill and plunge into a valley. “You deserve worse.”

* * *

“What’s wrong with David?” I remember asking. I was eight. I had watched him next door for two years. I knew he was different, but only recently had I begun to think something might be wrong.

My mother swatted my wrist. “There’s nothing wrong with him. He’s a special little boy. It’s not his fault.”

Special? Not his fault? That sounded wrong to me.

He sat, penned in his backyard, a boy my age with buzzed hair and a never-ceasing stream of drool decorating his chin. He pushed a small blue ball along the grass until it rolled out of his reach. Then he began to howl, like a wolf. His mother appeared within moments to carry him inside.

“We should have them over,” my mother said. “I’m sure Jackie could use a break. We could do lasagna.”

All I could think about was what would happen if he peed himself in our house. Would I have to clean it up? Could my parents possibly be that cruel?

* * *

It’s risky to stop, but I have to pee. I’m not like David. I have the presence of mind not to piss myself. He’s done it at least twice since our little road trip began. The car smells like an outhouse.

There’s a 7-11 at the next exit. I park in the back and use the old blanket in the back seat to cover David’s ropes. I tuck him in.

“Nap time,” I say.

David grins and shuts his eyes, but they pop open a moment later.

“Don’t make any noise. Be quiet.”

Inside, I step up to the counter. The attendant is sixteen, seventeen, white-blonde hair and green eyes.

“Hi,” she says.

“Hi. Where’s the bathroom?”

She looks at me from beneath long, dark lashes. “You from around here?”

“No. Er, yeah, originally. On vacation. Visiting family.”

She’s got the key now. It’s attached to a battered foot-square board that reads “Please Don’t Steal Me” in cracked white letters.

“Where do you go to school?”

“I’m, uh… I was home-schooled. I graduated last year.”

“Oh.” She swings the key just out of my reach. I could grab it, but I would have to lean across the counter.

“Can I have the… you know?”

She looks profoundly disappointed as she hands it over.

I want to stay and talk to the girl. At least, a part of me does. The stupid primal part that wants everything to be normal. A few months ago? I would have had her phone number right now. Making plans. But now, the thought of her is tying my stomach in knots, and I need to get back to David.

I piss an almost clear stream against the urinal. I wonder if anything has been on the local news yet. Maybe national. It was a big story. And this, another dramatic chapter.

Outside, I find David asleep, curled up under the blanket and snoring like a bear.

* * *

I had one more course to finish up, and it was taking forever, because I was already over it. I was ready for high school to be done. I sat in the living room, the book sat in my lap, and my attention never left the TV.

There was a knock at the front door. I was closest, but I ignored it.

So my father got up from his chair and took a peek through the curtains. “It’s David.”

My mother, in the kitchen, stuck her head around the corner. “Oh? Let him in.”

My father opened the door. “David, put that dow—”

The blast left me deaf for a moment. The deafness quickly gave way to a high-pitched ringing.

My book fell to the floor, and my father fell, too. Smoke billowed around him as he fell, face all gore and bone. My mother screamed.

David screamed, too, and pulled the trigger again.

Blood poured from the wound in her stomach. I scrambled across the living room floor, desperate for cover, but when I looked back I saw that David had gone. So instead I crawled to my mother, tried to put pressure on her stomach, but her life came up around my hands and ran away into the carpet. By the time help arrived, she was long gone.

* * *

I’ve spent a solid day behind the wheel. I’m exhausted. But where can I stay? I can’t drag David out with me, not without being seen. There’s a campground about ten miles ahead, so I force myself to stay awake until then.

They don’t ask me any questions. They take my ten bucks and give me a ticket with a number 33 on it and point me toward my site.

David snores in the passenger seat.

I park, recline the seat, and settle in. I expect to pass out in an instant. The exhaustion, though, is no match for David’s snoring. I lie there for an hour, eyes shut, no sleep.

Finally, I slap him on the cheek.

“Gwuh!” he says. In the half-moon light I see him grimacing. He looks angry.

But that’s not possible, because he doesn’t understand anger.

* * *

His parents cleaned him up nicely for his court appearance. He wasn’t able to testify—he knew only five or six words, his mother said from the stand, crying crocodile tears and dabbing her eyes with a white handkerchief—but he looked as sharp as I’d ever seen him with his nice new haircut, his fancy new suit, his expensive new shoes.

When the prosecution showed the pictures of my mangled parents to the jury, David laughed. Not at that, at something else he had seen, a fly buzzing around the room maybe, but his parents scolded him and looked mortified.

No motive. Poor helpless creature found his daddy’s gun, copied what he had seen a thousand times on TV. Couldn’t possibly have known better. He can’t use the bathroom by himself for God’s sake.

The jury sent him home with his parents. Strict supervision by a twenty-four-hour live-in nurse, state-appointed.

Her name is Megan. I tied her up with an extension cord and left her in a closet yesterday, when I took David.

* * *

We pass a billboard of a cowboy twirling a lasso above three scantily clad cowgirls. A strip joint. David grunts and hits his head against the window.

Something is working him up. Can’t be the cowgirls, can it? No.

“You like the lasso, David?”

He squeals. He doesn’t understand a word I’m saying.

“We could make one out of your ropes there. Put it around your head, tie one end to the bumper, drag you right along! Wouldn’t that be fun?”

He laughs. He hears the lighthearted tone and reacts like a puppy might. A stupid dog.

Hours pass. It’s midday when we enter Oregon Grove.

The town is frozen in time. Not a thing has changed since our last family vacation here, two years ago. One street, two lines of shops. A library, a town hall. The memories solidify as a lump in my throat, and I think of my parents there on the sidewalk, having a spat over which to visit first: the library or the antique store. Me with my Gameboy, not caring one way or the other.

Their ghosts dissipate as we drive through.

Four more miles.

If the town seems just like I remember it, then the cabin is a photograph, one I keep in my pocket and look at with longing twenty times a day. The tire swing out back, dangling from the oak tree my great-grandfather planted. The line of tin cans by the fence my father and his brothers shot with BB guns. The barrels by the front door we filled with apples and sold at the county fair.

Everything the same. We would come for a weekend that would turn into a week, and for a little while, I could forget that summer would soon be gone.

I park in the gravel drive. I keep both hands on the wheel, even after I’ve shut off the engine. My knuckles go white. For a few moments I stare at them, think that this is what fear looks like: white knuckles on a steering wheel. How stupid is that? Why am I afraid?

I take a deep breath and get out.

When I yank David from the car, he tumbles out and laughs, rolling around in his piss-soaked pants. There’s a huge stain on the seat. I hadn’t considered that. DNA evidence. I might have to dump the car. But how will I get out of here?

There will be time to consider that later. Not much time, but some.

One hand under each armpit, I drag him down to the edge of the lake. It sparkles in the afternoon sun, throwing off glinting flecks of yellow-white light. I drop David in the muddy bank and take off my shirt.

He’s still laughing, wallowing in the mud like a pig. I bend over, put one arm behind his knees, the other behind his neck. I lift.

The forest is empty around us. We’re alone.

One foot in the water. Then the other. Three, four, five steps. David laughs with his eyes shut and his mouth wide open.

The water is just below my stomach. I stop. With my eyes closed, I begin to lower him.

His foot touches the water, and he begins to cry. First it’s whimpering, but it quickly turns to sobbing and howling. He sounds like…

Like a little boy.

I give him a hard shake. He looks at me, sniffling, face wrinkled and wet with tears.

“You don’t get to cry. You don’t have the right.”

He’s still crying, but silently now. He shakes his head, says, “Wa.”

“Shut up.”

He says “Wa” again.

“You son of a bitch. You’re going in the water.”

“No wa!” He bites down on his lip so hard it bleeds.

“No.” I shake him once more. He cries harder. “Stop crying.” But I’m crying now, too. “You deserve this. You deserve so much worse.”

“Drew,” he says. He’s looking at me. He sees I’m crying—he must—and he looks concerned.

Concerned.

The world has turned to wet madness through my tears. I begin to sob. “Drew,” he says, my name coming out of him smoothly, no stuttering, no grunting. He rests his head on my shoulder.

Stomach-deep in the lake behind my parents’ cabin, we cry.

When I’ve cried myself dry, I look at David again. He says, “No wa.”

I nod. “Okay. No wa.”

We return to shore. I set David gently in the grass. He lays back and stretches out his legs, breathing in the fresh air.

There’s a moment, then, when reality smashes into my chest so that I can barely pull in a breath. Because I’ve given myself only two paths. One ends with David dead and me with my foot on the accelerator and the car pointed to Mexico. The other ends with me in jail.

I need an answer, and I’m not the one to give it. I turn to David.

He smiles, hair still dripping water onto his forehead, which in turn runs down his cheeks, like tears, but happy tears.

“Why?” I say, and maybe I’m talking to him, maybe I’m talking to myself, maybe I’m talking to Jesus or Buddha or Hare Krishna. Maybe I’m talking to the whole goddamned universe, not thinking that it owes me an answer, not being so deluded as to believe I’m special enough to warrant its attention. But asking just the same, because what else can I do?

I go to the car and dial 9-1-1 on my cell phone. I need this to be over. I need to be human again, and this is my last chance.

BoJack Horseman

You have Netflix, right? Is that even a question you have to ask people anymore? Whatever. If you have Netflix, you should watch BoJack Horseman.

If you're not familiar with the show, there are plenty of TV critics that can give you a good idea of what you're in for. I recommend Margaret Lyons' piece at Vulture.

She touches on exactly why I love the show. I love it because it could have easily--EASILY--been a funny show with goofy animals and two-dimensional characters. It might have even been pretty good. But creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg chose to imbue it with actual characters that grow and change and feel, with a continuity that rewards paying careful attention, and with a subtle but affecting look at depression and loneliness.

Quick synopsis: It's about a sitcom actor (the titular BoJack) from a popular show in the 90s who, today, lives a lonely life with the wealth he accumulated during his heyday. Yes, he's a horse. No, that's not particularly significant to the story.

Season 1 touches on a variety of subjects across its twelve episodes, but one that sticks out is Episode 8: "The Telescope." BoJack receives word that his partner, with whom he created the sitcom that gained him his fame, is dying of cancer. (It's a good thing Bob-Waksberg waited until Episode 8 to drop this plot -- I can imagine uninvested viewers abandoning the show if this was their first experience. What a downer, right?) BoJack visits him, and along the way recalls how he screwed his partner over, getting him ousted from the show.

BoJack hopes to reconcile with him before the end. I know I've felt that way, even if I've never been in a situation as extreme as this. I can't stand to have people mad at me, and neither can BoJack. 

Most comedies, if they dared to tackle a topic like this, would get in a few good laughs and then end with a heartfelt reconnection. Music swells, fade to black, happy feelings all around. BoJack Horseman does not do this. BoJack Horseman, ostensibly a show about cartoon animals living alongside cartoon humans, filled with sight gags and occasional raunch, allows this plot to resolve naturally. BoJack doesn't get what he was hoping for. No resolution or forgiveness. Just hurt feelings and failure. 

I don't think I've seen that sort of storytelling maturity in most television dramas.

Season 2 was just released, and Netflix has announced Season 3 for 2016. Get onboard, folks. As long as you know what to expect, it'll be a good ride.