The Gift

This is a holiday short story (about 2,500 words) set in the dystopian future of Sudden Mission, and after the sequel, Nasty Leftovers. Just a gift. It portends some events in the third installment (which is a completed first draft, Dec. 2016). But no spoilers. Enjoy, and Merry Christmas!

The Gift

Paul Shannon gazed at the small gold ring in the little box as he walked along. He’d found it in the remains of a small store in one of the ruined villages he passed through a few days earlier. There was a nice diamond in the middle of The Gifttwo lines of tiny diamonds surrounding it. It would fit Amy Grossman. He was pretty sure because he put it up to the second knuckle on his little finger. He had tested a little friendship ring she wore on his finger before.

He smiled to himself. The plan was to give it to her for Christmas. I’ll back in time.

Then he smelled wood smoke. That wasn’t unusual, but he was far from the community on a foraging mission into western North Carolina. It was unusual to find other people out this far, especially after a heavy snow and in the deep of winter. He stopped, crouched down among the trees, shoved the small box back in a pocket, and listened. He wore an off-white poncho that covered him and his pack and helped him blend into the snowy terrain. The slight breeze came from the west and it carried the smoke and the smell of cooking meat.

His stomach grumbled and his mouth watered. He’d been out several days living light and eating dried fruit and meats. I hope you don’t give me away, he thought to his stomach.

Quiet as he could, he crept toward the smell of wood smoke. He used his staff to leverage branches aside and help maintain his balance.

The last thing he wanted was to face roving raiders or gangsters from one of the larger cities like Richmond or Columbus. Those weren’t the names the gangsters called them now, but they were the names he knew.

His current mission had him deep into western North Carolina, almost to the mountains. He’d found a few stashes of food and fuel in some small, decaying, abandoned towns and recorded the locations on his map. He was actually planning to turn around and head back today. Until he smelled wood smoke.

The ground rose slightly, then dropped away. Over the top of the rise, Paul saw a wisp of smoke rising from a copse of trees just off an old roadbed. He paused where he could see the area and listened again.

Nothing moved below. He checked his back trail, just in case.

He unslung his pack, pulled out a pair of binocular, and got a better view of the area around the copse of trees. Tracks in the snow came down the road from the west and turned into the trees. A set of tracks went to an old burnt out gas station a few hundred yards northeast.

It looked to Paul like whoever made the tracks to the old station went there and followed their trail back. There was no way Paul could approach the copse directly from his position without being exposed. If he stayed in the woods on his side of the old roadbed and went west, then crossed the roadbed about a ways up, and came back–he could keep to the cover of trees and scrub until he got close to the copse.

He returned the binoculars to the pack, got it slung on his back and moved out.

#

Paul tried not to think of Amy Grossman too much while he made his way to the place he chose to cross the roadbed. Thoughts of her often made their way into his head as he was trying to concentrate and stay alert. He stopped and crouched down a moment. He checked his surroundings and his back trail, then he buried his face in his hands a moment. After a few deep breaths, he prayed.

Father God, please help me keep my focus.

When he looked up, he checked his back trail and surroundings again. Nothing moved. Nothing changed. He quietly moved on.

He knew he was in love with Amy and he knew his emotions ran deep when it came to her. He hadn’t told her how he felt yet, but it was getting pretty obvious. Paul’s mom was always giving him these strange, penetrating looks. And Dad was almost worse. He would just look at Paul, smile, and nod. Paul wasn’t sure he was ready for marriage and family yet. What he did want was to survive this mission and get back to Amy. They could sort things out then.

He was at the place he planned to cross the open roadbed. He took a deep breath and let it out. It came out like steam from a pipe. He looked west and east and the area was clear. He quickly moved across the roadbed and what he saw stopped him at the trail left by whoever was in the copse. Footprints, yes. But there was also a blood trail. Most of it mixed in with the footprints. It was just one small set of prints.

Paul hunted with his father and knew what a blood trail looked like. Someone in that copse could be hurt. He had plenty of first aid materials in his pack because you never knew what you’d come across on these missions. He might be able to help.

He finished crossing the road and turned east when he got into the trees again.

After a few minutes, he could smell the wood smoke again, even up wind. It also carried the smell of cooking meat. His mouth watered, his stomach growled, and he swallowed a few times. When he thought he had his impulses under control, he quietly approached until he could see through the trees to a campsite under the copse.

#

A female dressed in buckskin shirt and pants crouched at the small fire, cooking strips of meat hanging from sticks. She had tied long black hair into a pony tail and that hung down her back. A hide–what looked to Paul like a deer hide– lay stretched out on the snow on the far side. The carcass of the deer hung from a branch of a tree. A shelter made from blue tarp stood on the other side of the camp from the hide and carcass. The female was humming.

The blood trail, Paul realized then, was probably from the deer. Relief washed over him. He scanned the campsite further, but didn’t see a shotgun or rifle. He was about to stand and approach when the person at the fire turned her head.

“You can come over to the fire,” she said and stood, facing toward Paul. “You are welcome here.”

Paul froze in shock. She knew he was there. He slowly stood and walked out of the trees.

“Come over,” she said, waving Paul closer. “Are you hungry?”

She looked attractive to Paul with large, dark eyes, and she looked about his age. He noted the large knife on her left hip. It was about half as long as the sword Paul used to have. Then he saw the bow and quiver against the tree near the hanging carcass.

“I’m Paul,” he said holding out his right hand.

“I’d call you noisy,” the young woman smiled and accepted the handshake. “I’m Lucillle. Call me Lucy.”

“You’re pretty welcoming for someone alone out in this country,” Paul said. He pulled his hood back and brushed at his curly black hair.

“I’m not too afraid of what might be down here. The gangs don’t come out this time of year,” Lucy said. She chewed on a piece of venison. “But, things are getting bad in the mountains. I decided to go east.”

Paul’s stomach growled loudly.

“Here,” she said. She handed Paul a stick with cooked venison. “How long have you been away from home?”

“About a week, ten days,” Paul said, then took a large bite of the meat. He pulled off the poncho and dropped his pack and staff. The tender, juicy meat filled his mouth with wonderful flavors. Paul figured Lucille had some good spices.

She studied Paul for a moment. “Home for you must be around Raleigh?”

“Yeah, just east of there. Raleigh is still kind of a mess, I doubt we’ll move into the city. We have a nice comfortable community.”

Paul bit off more of the meat. Then he dug into his pack and pulled out some of his dried fruit and offered it to her.

“I know it isn’t much,” he said, “but it helps balance against the meat. And it is sweet. Mom dried them.”

Lucy took some of the apricots and smiled. “Thank you,” she said.

“To be honest, I’m getting a little tired of them,” Paul said and laughed.

#

“Life is getting hard in the mountains,” Lucy said later as she and Paul sat in the shelter and sipped on tea. “People go hunting and never come back. There is a group down near Asheville that has been having a running battle with someone or something. Sometimes, you can hear the gunfire up near Boone. I’ve seen some of the Asheville soldiers out in the mountains near Boone a few times. They get into some fight or other, then nothing for weeks. We avoid going into areas where there was fighting. Folks have been leaving little by little. Boone is almost completely empty.”

“We had family in the Boone area,” Paul said. “Mom’s side. One of her cousins and her kids came to us after the Troubles. We haven’t heard much more from Boone since then.”

“Do you take refugees?” Lucy sipped at her tea and looked at Paul over the cup rim.

“Sure. There’s room and plenty of work to do. And we have plenty to eat. No one goes hungry.”

“I’ve heard some places shoot refugees,” Lucy said.

“I’ve heard similar,” Paul said. “We’re not like that, though. We have enough and we have a great system to keep things working.”

“Is it a Christian community?” Lucy asked.

“Yes,” Paul said. “We’re Christian. Not any particular denomination though. Kind of all mixed together. What Elder Franklin calls natural Christians.”

She nodded.

“Lucille, I’m heading back home tomorrow. Do you want to travel together?”

She looked up smiling. “Call me Lucy. Yeah, that would be good.”

#

Paul looked at the little gold ring in the small box as he and Lucy rested on the trail. They were about an hour from the community. Over the last several days, Paul learned a lot about Lucy. She lost her parents during the Troubles and survived with relatives in the Boone area. But as people left, she decided to strike out on her own.

“So, this Amy you talk about,” Lucy looked over his shoulder, “is that for her?”

“Yeah. I’m planning to give it to her for Christmas. It’s pretty. I don’t know if it’s real diamonds or anything. Or if it’s real gold for that matter. I think she’d like it.”

“Oh, I think she’ll like it. But I think she’ll think this is more than just a gift.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah. That’s the kind of ring someone gives in a wedding, Paul. Are you planning to ask her to marry you?”

Paul was stunned. “Huh?”

“You’re what, seventeen? Eighteen? You’re old enough. Heck, if you weren’t so moonstruck over this Amy girl, I’d be after you.”

Paul felt himself blushing. “I … uh …”

“Don’t tell me you haven’t been thinking about this a lot.” Lucy poked his shoulder and laughed.

“I have. I’m just not sure I’m ready.”

“My aunties always said, ‘If you wait until you’re ready, you’ll never get it done.'”

Paul slipped the small box back into a pocket and got up.

“I’ll think on that some,” he said. “Let’s go. We’re almost there.”

Elder Franklin and James Carson were waiting in the road as Paul and Lucy approached the community. Paul saw Amy’s tell-tale auburn hair and staff behind them. He smiled as he approached.

Amy pushed past Franklin and Carson and ran into Paul’s arms. She kissed him, then quickly pulled back, her nose wrinkled up.

“You need a shower,” she said. “I missed you!”

Amy looked at Lucy. “Who’s this!” If Amy could shoot flames from her eyes, Paul thought Lucy would now be a pile of ashes on the road.

“I found her out north of Shelby just before I turned back,” Paul said. He introduced Lucy around, then handed Carson his trip notebook. “The pickings are getting slim, James. I secured a few caches of useable food and tagged some fuel stores. Not much else.”

“Thanks, Paul,” Carson said.

“Are you thinking of joining our community?” the white-haired Elder Franklin asked Lucy.

“I’d like to,” she answered.

As they walked into the community, Lucy told them of the happenings in the mountains and why she left. All the while, Amy kept a strong grip on Paul’s arm.

“You have nothing to worry about,” Paul told her in a whisper.

“I’m not worried,” Amy whispered back. “She should.”

#

Later, freshly bathed, shaved and in clean clothes, Paul wrote a note, folded it carefully, and placed it inside the small box with the gold ring. He wrapped the box in some pretty Christmas wrap, then put bow and a small tag on it. “To Amy, From Paul,” read the tag. He placed that under the tree in the living room.

Tomorrow was Christmas. He’d made it back in time.

Father, he prayed silently, thank You for Your blessings and grace and getting me home safely. Thank You for Amy. Help me be a good man and honor You and Your son. In His name, amen.

Paul sat on the floor in front of the fireplace and looked at the tree, just enjoying the quiet. Roger and Sarah were already in bed. Mom and Dad were in the kitchen making some cocoa. The world–life–is so different now, he thought. In a way it was sad, all the destruction and loss of life. But his community survived.

Amy walked into the room and sat beside him.

“I don’t have a penny,” she said. She gently brushed her hand through his hair, then cuddled close.

“Oh, no need. Nothing specific going on in here right now.” He tapped his head with his finger. “Just glad I’m home and relaxing.”

He looked at the tree, then under it, then smiled at Amy.

“Oh, look. I think I see something new there.”

Amy’s grey eyes brightened and she reached for the small package. “What did you do?”

Just then, Mom and Dad came in with a tray full of cups of cocoa.

Amy held the small package and looked at Paul. “Can I open it now?”

<<< The End — For Now >>>

Keep writing.

 

Catching Up

Catching Up:

The Storm

November 17, the largest storm event in 126 years blew through Eastern Washington. As a result, we were without power at our house for three days. Our children were without power for four, five, and six days.

Fortunately, there was no serious damage at our houses. But a lot of people in Spokane are still struggling to repair damage and get back on the grid. Avista, the power company here, has been working around the clock to get things back on line.

Thanksgiving

We had a lot to be thankful for, as we gathered at our oldest daughter’s house and celebrated the holiday with family. We are all healthy, doing well, and all had power again.

Prefunk the Holidays

The November promotion by my publisher, Booktrope, went well. During the free week, from Nov. 9 to 14, about 100 ebook copies of Sudden Mission were downloaded by readers.

We are still looking for final numbers on the sale price ebook, but the $2.99 price did draw interest. Some folks also bought the print copy. There were a couple points in November I was a best selling author on Amazon. What a roller coaster ride this is.

NaNoWriMo

November is also National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and a number of author friends participated. Many did accomplish the 50 thousand word goal and I cheered them on during the month. I hope I made some small contribution to their success.

I did not participate this year as I’m deep in the edit and rewrite of Nasty Leftovers, the sequel to Sudden Mission. 

Guest Blog Post

As we were still without power, I got a note from Wendy Van Camp that my guest blog about “Characters” went up on her site. You can read it here: No Wasted Ink.

I met Wendy at WorldCon 2015 here in Spokane and she invited me to write a guest blog and she will do a review of Sudden Mission sometime early in 2016.

Book Signing

I will be in Colfax, WA, Thursday, Dec. 3, from 3 to 6 pm selling and signing paper copies of Sudden Mission. If you are in the area, stop by the Whitman County Library in town and visit. If you have a copy already, I’ll be happy to sign it for you. If you want one, I’ll have a supply with me.

This is also Colfax’s Winter Festival, so there should be lots of things going on that day.

Keep writing.

 

Just the Messenger

I’m just the messenger

In my novel, Sudden Mission, I have the angel Gabriel show up to bring a message to the main character, Paul. His job is to get Paul to listen to the message and do what is asked. He doesn’t tell Paul how to do his task, what tools to use, or even make suggestions.

Sudden Mission Cover“I’m just the messenger,” he tells Paul. Gabriel’s task is to deliver the message. His statement almost seems like a cop out, but it isn’t and it is an important point to consider. This story is not about Gabriel. Gabriel’s role, as an angel, is to glorify God. In this case he is doing an assigned task, God’s bidding.

In some ways, the story isn’t even about Paul. The story is about faith. It’s about trust in and obedience to God. Gabriel does his part, delivering the message. Paul does his part by being the protagonist and living through the things that happen on his quest. But the story is also about God’s love and redemption.

So, where does that leave me, the author? I’m the one who hammered out the pages, word after word. Then I rewrote, edited, corrected. Editors worked on it and I again rewrote, corrected and edited. Our proofreader went over it. Again I corrected and fixed. The story is polished and powerful. I should be proud. My story, right?

No.

As the writer, author, I need to remember that the story isn’t about me, either. I have to put my ego aside and listen to God. He is the one telling the story. God gifted me with the skills and talents, the imagination and the words, and He’s using that in me to tell the story. He gifted my publishing team, my editor and proofreader, too. It is through these gifts that this story came to be.

As Jesus said, “… apart from me you can do nothing.” John 15:5 (NIV)

His story.

I stand in the wings now, seeing the fruit of God’s story.

I’m just the messenger.

 

—–

Note: A slightly different version of this first appeared on the Vox Dei Publishing blog on August 18, 2015: http://www.voxdeipublishing.com/blog/messenger

 

Amy’s Lesson

(This is a short-short story–about 1,500 words–I put together the other day. My thought is to write a third novel following Paul and Amy from Sudden Mission and the sequel, but from Amy’s point of view. So this is an exercise in writing from Amy’s point of view, plus a little view into the dystopian world they live in, and some seasonal fun. Happy Halloween. – GLP)

Amy Grossman shrugged her shoulders against her backpack straps as she entered the small town. The breeze pushed a lock of her auburn hair across her grey eyes and she gently looped it back behind her ear with her right hand.

Aside from the breeze tossing gold and brown leaves and bits of paper around the street, nothing else moved in the town. Empty storefronts looked out on the main street. Windows shattered, doors smashed in, and the products formerly offered for sale inside gone.

They seemed to cry out to the empty streets. Why?

Fall was strong in the air and the early morning frost that coated her sleeping bag was still fresh in Amy’s memory, and just then it made her shiver. Normally, the autumn breeze would bring crisp scents and a promise of harvest and feasts. But this small town had been ravaged by looters, gangs and rovers in the last two years. The smells in and around it held a strong suggestion of decay and rot.

Fortunately, the smells of not-so-freshly dead were long gone.

BOAmy jumped, startled by the sudden rush of breeze and scrape of dry leaves on the sidewalk near an alleyway. She found herself in a fighting stance, holding her bō in an attack position, looking around. She still had nightmares from her experiences on this last summer’s mission trip. The lost souls they went to save, the hellhounds, the battles, the demon, and the possessed–all continued to haunt her daily life.
She remembered there was a term for what she now experienced. Nightmares, jumping at sudden noises, being hyper-vigilant. She just didn’t remember the term. It’s not important now, anyway, she told herself. There isn’t anyone to help me deal with it other than Paul and my family.

She shook it off and continued on. She sought a grocery or hardware store that may still have something useful left. This was the third town in the last few days of foraging. They were having to go further and further from their community each time they sent out foragers. And each time they returned with fewer useful items, less edible foods.

Amy had a short list from the community, most of which she found already. But she still needed to find some tools and some special oil, undamaged clothing, and any edible food.

The community produced almost everything anyone needed from their household gardens and a few small farms. But, they always sought to add any unspoiled canned food and stocks of clothing. Amy could not carry all that back in her backpack, but would note the location of large stocks of clothing, food, or hardware for larger groups who would come later with trucks.

Fuel was rare now so vehicles were only used when absolutely necessary and there was a large cache of supplies to bring in.

She stepped carefully across the threshold of a broken entry door, trying not to make too much noise. Her eyes scanned the dingy, dark interior of the former hardware store.

#

Nothing moved.

She didn’t expect to find much on the shelves. Most were cleared of anything useful. Everything left behind was damaged or destroyed and joined the detritus covering the shelves and floor of the store. She moved carefully toward the rear of the store and found the door to the back room. This is where stock was kept until brought out to the shelves. Looters often overlooked this part of the store operations, and the community harvested a lot of good tools and material in these back rooms.

This one, though, was well looted. Boxes torn open and the remains of spilled fluids and powders littered the floor. If there had been tools and equipment back here, they were long gone.

She shook her head, but still made a loop through the room to make sure she didn’t miss anything.

Outside, she identified a small grocery a couple of blocks down the street and made her way to it. Just after the Troubles, the time when Satan threw reality into chaos and decimated two-thirds of the world population, supermarkets and grocery stores were difficult to enter. Power failures caused frozen and refrigerated food storage to fail. The resulting smell of rotting food could be overpowering. Now it wasn’t so bad. You just didn’t touch or move anything from the freezer or cooler units.

She walked slowly through the aisles of the grocery. What she found was boxed food chewed into by mice, or worse. All the canned food she saw was dented or bulging–and most of those scattered on the floor. No coffee in cans, bags or bulk at all. At the bulk bins for coffee, she opened one and breathed deeply of the aroma. Even empty, it still held an aroma.

I miss good coffee, she thought.

She sighed and shuffled on.

In the candy aisle, she saw one little bag dangling from a display hanger. It had a patina of dust, but a dull orange and yellow could be seen through it. As she drew closer, she recognized it.

Candy corn.

Carefully, she pulled the small bag from the hanger bar and gently wiped the dust off the package. Yes, it was candy corn. It was intact and the candy inside looked unharmed, even safe to eat. The pieces had bright white, orange, and yellow parts.

She resisted the urge to tear it open and devour all the pieces immediately. Tears filled her eyes and spilled down her freckled cheeks. Memories of her childhood, Halloween treats, and the flavor and sweetness of candy corn in her mouth drifted through her head.

Then another memory–a lesson–came to her. Something she could do to share this special treasure.

Candy corn.

#

Amy watched the small children enter her little Sunday school classroom. She could barely contain herself as she sat on the floor waiting for them. They circled around her and joined her on the floor doing the normal things small children do; wriggling, giggling, and squirming around.

“How are you all this fine Sunday?” Amy said. This was the signal for the children to settle down and pay attention. After a moment, they were attentive.

“Fine, Miss Amy,” they chorused.

“Good,” she said. She looked around at the small, sweet, smiling faces. “We have an interesting lesson today. Who can tell me what God is?”

One little boy shot his hand up. Amy nodded to him.

“God is good,” he said.

“Thank you, Brad. That is correct. Anyone else? What is God?”

A little girl on the other side put her hand up.

“God is our Heavenly Father,” she said when Amy looked at her.

Amy smiled and nodded.

“Right. Did you also know that God is three in one?”

All the children looked at Amy, some confused.

“God is the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit,” she said, using the fingers of her left hand to enumerate the points. “All three in one God. It is called the Trinity.”
Another little boy raised his hand.

“Yes, David,” Amy said.

“Does he come apart like a toy?”

“No, not really,” Amy said. She chuckled softly. “Let me show you something that might help understand God.”

She reached behind her and into her pack and carefully brought out a small package. Her hands shook just a little. There was enough for all the children here, with some left over. But for all she knew, this was the last package in existence. She carefully opened the package and spilled the contents out in her hand.

“This is candy corn,” she said. “I want each of you to take one. Just take one, hold it in your hand and look at it carefully.”

The children all took a piece of the small candies. Amy realized this was the first–and likely the last–time that these children would see and experience candy corn.

“Notice that there is a white part at the tip, an orange part in the middle, and a yellow part on the large end.”

She used her own piece to demonstrate as she spoke, pointing to each part. “But the candy corn is one piece. This is like God. God has the Father part, the Son part, and the Holy Spirit part, but is just the one God.”

The children looked at the candy and back at Amy. No one raised a hand.

“And, do you know the best part?” Amy said. She held up her piece of the candy.
Most of the children shook their heads. No one raised a hand.

“God is sweet and good! Just like candy corn.” Amy popped the candy corn into her mouth and chewed. The flavor wasn’t as strong as she remembered, and the candy was just slightly stale. But it was good and sweet. She savored it a moment, with those childhood memories flooding back. Then she noticed the children hadn’t moved a muscle.

“It’s okay,” she said, smiling. “You can eat your candy now.”

< The End >

Keep writing.

Character Motivation

I use Twitter as a resource. If you follow me or check my Twitter profile, you’ll see I follow less than 200 people, and followed by just a bit over 200 folks. The folks I follow are one of three types: old friends, information security folks, writing folks. I say folks, because Twitter profiles are not always people, but include companies or organizations.

Anyway, the way I use Twitter is to focus on specific information. This garners real gems sometimes. Here’s one I’ll share. One Paul Fenwick posted a blog entry discussing how to undermine learning in children.

Paul Fenwick

While the focus of the article is on how we encourage or discourage learning and the studies done in 1998 and 1999, we as writers can take this information further.

How we speak (authors) to our characters in our fiction, and how our characters speak to each other, can affect their progress and motivation. The language we use can move the character forward, or have the character ring hollow. How do you describe a character who faces tough challenges, and fails. If the character values effort and learning (among other things), the character comes back and tries again and again until successful. The character who values “looking good” and fails, usually will give up after one or two failures. Any attempt to portray the character differently will seem wrong.

You may apply this concept to both the protagonist and antagonist characters. I’m thinking that young adult fiction should show these distinctions clearly in characters. Not just for character honesty, but to demonstrate the difference between valuing effort and learning over just looking good.

I could be wrong, of course. You are welcome to correct me.

Keep Writing.