SPSFC: Quarterfinalists

After much consternation, deliberation, and probably another unnamed “ation” or two, Team Space Lasagna is proud to announce the quarterfinalists for The SPSFC.

Each team member read at lest 10-20% of 31 books this fall. We chose the 10 best books to move on to the quarterfinals as follows (in no particular order):

A Star Named VegaBen Roberts
ConstellationRobert Scanlon
Blackcoats: Dead Man WalkingMichael Lachman
Eden M51Glenn Paskoff
Between Mountain and SeaMary Lou Locke
Primordial ThreatMichael A. Rothman
The Elcy ProtocolBave Grozdanov
The Dinosaur FourGeoff Jones
EarthweedsRod Little
Ducket and Dyer: Dicks for HireGanesh Nair

Over the next several weeks, we’ll be reading these books in their entirety and posting reviews. The contests requires us to publish reviews for our top three, but we’ll likely have something for all of these from at least some members of the team.

While congratulations are obviously in order for the Quarterfinalists, we would also like to thank the other twenty one authors on our list. The ever amazing Edpool managed to read all 31 entries in their entirety and has provided a thoughtful review for each. So, while we couldn’t pass everyone to the next round, we can link to reviews for those who did not move on.

TitleAuthorReview Link
The AwakeningAdair Harthttps://hatboy.blog/2021/08/13/the-awakening-a-review/
MindguardAndrei Cherascuhttps://hatboy.blog/2021/09/09/mindguard-a-review/
Elijah’s ChariotAndrew Griffardhttps://hatboy.blog/2021/10/01/elijahs-chariot-a-review/
The Invisible CityBrian K. Lowehttps://hatboy.blog/2021/09/03/the-invisible-city-a-review/
God in the MachineCole Martynhttps://hatboy.blog/2021/10/08/god-in-the-machine-a-review/
Children of ValeDaniel Alan Andersonhttps://hatboy.blog/2021/09/24/children-of-vale-a-review/
Planet B completeDavid Hollandhttps://hatboy.blog/2021/09/09/planet-b-complete-a-review/
Watson and HolmesE.B. Dawsonhttps://hatboy.blog/2021/09/03/watson-and-holmes-a-review/
The One: A Cruise Through the Solar SystemEric Kleinhttps://hatboy.blog/2021/10/08/the-one-a-cruise-through-the-solar-system-a-review/
ShepherdsJames Brumbaughhttps://hatboy.blog/2021/08/20/shepherds-a-review/
The Threat BelowJason Latshawhttps://hatboy.blog/2021/10/01/the-threat-below-a-review/
EosJennifer Perryhttps://hatboy.blog/2021/08/13/eos-a-review/
Double EdgedJessie Kwakhttps://hatboy.blog/2021/10/11/double-edged-a-review/
Rise (Last Chance #1)Katie Hannahttps://hatboy.blog/2021/10/08/rise-a-review/
IsoldesseKimberly Gruenbacherhttps://hatboy.blog/2021/09/24/isoldesse-a-review/
ACHELevi Jacobshttps://hatboy.blog/2021/09/02/ache-an-edpool-review/
The View from Infinity BeachRichard Johnsonhttps://hatboy.blog/2021/09/16/the-view-from-infinity-beach-a-review/
Silicon OverrideShawn T Ketchersidehttps://hatboy.blog/2021/08/20/silicon-override-a-review/
The Binding TempestSteven Rudyhttps://hatboy.blog/2021/10/01/the-binding-tempest-a-review/
The Chaos JobTheresa M Baumgartnerhttps://hatboy.blog/2021/10/15/the-chaos-job-a-review/
Stars Forever BlackTony Brunohttps://hatboy.blog/2021/10/15/stars-forever-black-a-review/

I’d like to thank team Space Lasagna for working so hard to preview these books, and keep me company on this journey. I can’t wait to dig even deeper into these amazing stories.

Happy reading y’all!

SPSFC: The Culling – Week 1

For Round One, Team Space Lasagna is reading 10%-20% of three books each week. We’ll each evaluate whether we want to continue reading each based on initial impressions. The ten books with the most “Yes” votes after round 1A (The Culling) will move on to round 1B for a full readthrough. The top 3 from round 1B will move on to round 2 for review by the full SPSFC team.

On to this week’s books!

ACHE by Kelvin Myers

Sub Genre: Cyberpunk Date Started: 8/6/21 Amount Read: 10%

First book of the contest for me and it grabbed me right from the start. When figuring out how I’d handle my reviews and judging, I figured anything I put down after “only” 10% would be something I just couldn’t read. But right off the bat that hypothesis is in the trash. ACHE roped me in within the first few pages, and I knew pretty quick I’d be reading to the end. So, I decided to set it aside, pretty much right away. I’d like to save this for a full, post Culling, readthrough.

I’ll admit, I’ve not read much cyberpunk, but I’m familiar enough with the genre to be intrigued by the setup here from the start. We meet several interesting characters in the opening pages, and some are thrown into some harrowing situations straight away. The world inhabited by these characters seems unique, even if drawing from a popular genre. It should be interesting to see how the world, and the characters’ role in it evolve.

ACHE suffers early from some editorial issues. A character’s name appears to have been changed at some point, and some instances of the old name still pop up. Most likely an overreliance on Find and Replace during editing. But, this is a self published contest and I expect to see some of that. So far these issues haven’t detracted from my enjoyment of the characters or story.

So, that’s one book on my “Yes” list. I’ll be reading this one regardless of it’s final standings for this round. Look for a review in the not too distant future.

Verdict: YES, keep reading

The Awakening by Adair Hart

Sub Genre: Far Future/Computer Simulation Date Started: 8/10/21 Amount Read: 15%

I almost put this down during the prologue. I almost immeidately felt bombarded by too many names that appeared to be straight out of a random sci-fi name generator. I had to read several paragraphs multiple times to feel comfortable with what was happening.

Thankfully, I kept reading, and the first official chapter brought me back in. The Awakening sets up some interesting potential with a narrative involving the main characters being ripped out of their lives in a computer simulation. Hart does of good job of getting you invested in the main characters early, and while the prose and editing leaves some to be desired, I definitely want to keep reading to see where this story goes.

TLDR: Interesting premise overcomes some editorial issues

Verdict: YES, keep reading

Eos by Jen Guberman

Sub Genre: Dystopian YA Date Started: 8/12/21 Amount Read: 20% (ish, Mobi file did not return progress)

This one grabbed me the least of the three, but mostly due to personal preference. A young adult, post apocalyptic dystopia story that’s just not where my tastes fall. But, this being a contest I’m trying to judge based on quality and keep personal preference to the side as much as possible.

Guberman brings the main character to life quite well in the opening pages, but as with the other two books this week, style and editing issues broke immersion several times. I still found myself invested in the adventures of this young thief dealing with life in an oppressive system.

I think Eos may struggle to make it through to the next round of reading/reviews, but I’ll add it to my shelf regardless.

Verdict: Yes, keep reading

Big Bearded Book Review: Rabbits

Rabbits by Terry Miles

Started 6/22/21 | Finished 6/23/21 | Format: Kindle ebook | Genre: Sci-Fi

Sometimes a bad book can still be a fun read. Not to say Rabbits is necessarily a bad book, but I certainly wouldn’t call it great either. That didn’t stop me from devouring all 400+ pages in a little over a day. The last 100 pages though, were more of a fight than those that came before.

Miles does a great job of hooking the reader early, always the first test for me when picking up a new author. Early chapters regularly end with the kind of cliffhanger that begs you to turn the page and see what happens next. Characters are introduced, and a mystery is laid before the reader. And it’s a doozy of a mystery at that, pulled from today’s headlines, filled with conspiracy theories and distrust of digital spaces. I found myself intrigued early, as a story reminiscent of Black Mirror and the like, began to unfold.

Miles leans heavily on pop culture references and big clue reveals to drive the story from the outset. This quick and easy table setting style should be familiar to fans of Ready Player One and The Davinci Code. The problems start, however, about halfway through the story, as the novelty of these reveals and references begins to wane. When seemingly every chapter is filled with nod and winks to the reader, I tend to tire of the technique quickly.

Miles’s characters also suffer from an overreliance on reference and lack of development. I never felt any character, including the protagonist, was developed past which video games, or movies, or music they could name drop. Towards the end of the book, I actually felt like I understood the characters less than when I started. The “ahas” and “gotchas” come thick and fast in the last third, leading to a bad case of narrative whiplash.

Even with these shortcomings though, I mostly enjoyed my time in the world of Rabbits. The novel is based on a popular podcast from Miles that also leans heavily on pop culture and puzzle solving tropes, so fans of the podcast should be able to look past it’s shortcomings. Rabbits is a pageturner in the truest sense of the phrase. It’s been a while since I’ve put down a book quite this fast, so credit where credit is due.

On to the numbers!

The Hook: 8  

I read 300 pages in the first day and wrapped everything up on day two. Miles’ premise really got its hooks into me but I did find myself fighting against some of the negatives as I got into the last third.

Plot: 7

Plot was easy enough to follow, as a straightforward mystery thriller. Miles gets lost in the twists and turns late but does an overall good job of keeping the reader up to date.

Characters: 6

Main character was pretty well fleshed out, but way too many “twist” reveals towards the ends. By the end I had no idea who the hell I’d been reading about. Without getting too spoilery, I will say this confusion is part of the mystery, but things got way too bogged down and murky by the end. Furthermore, I really didn’t care much about the secondary characters at all. The love interest felt like a Cliff Notes summary of a character, which was still light years deeper than anyone else. The main villain was so undercooked I had trouble feeling anything but ambivalence towards him.

Pacing: 7

Story would rip along only to be brought to a screeching halt by far too many flashbacks and exposition. Almost every narrative chapter that drove the story forward was followed by, or even interrupted by, a flashback or info dump.

World Building: 5

What world? Everything took place in Seattle. Seriously, a story about an mysterious and secretive international contest takes place entirely in the greater Seattle area. At one point I got excited about a potential Oregon road trip only to immediately find out the person we had to talk to just happened to recently move to Seattle. Miles just kind of skirts the surface of this mysterious contest, which I’m sure is fleshed out better in his podcast, but as a standalone novel, it was lacking.

Resolution:  4

The last 15% or so of the book is filled with so many exposition dumps and half baked plot twists, I lost track of where everything was (and I was taking notes), then it just ended. It’s been a week and I still don’t quite understand exactly what happened.

Structure: 7

1st person narrative is always hard to pull off but Miles did a pretty good job. At times a bit too “stream of consciousness” but I never felt it took away from the enjoyment. The book also leaned too heavily on shoehorned pop culture references as descriptors.

Enjoyment: 8

Warts and all, I really enjoyed this book. Had this been a weekend hammock read, and not something to critique, it would fit firmly on my Recommended list. So that’s where it goes.  Sometimes you need a good, turn your brain off, popcorn blockbust book to fly through and Mills provides that in spades.

Who’s Baby is This?

I don’t even need a DNA test to know Ready Player One and The Davinci Code will be picking Rabbits up from soccer practice every Tuesday night.

Final Score: 3.5 Beards

SPSFC and Me

I’ve been thinking about writing a lot lately. Not actually writing mind you, just thinking about it. After many years of blogging, and short stories I’ve been on a bit of a break. OK, it’s been a long break, like over five years. Sure, I’ve filled the void with other creative endeavors, mainly painting little things and learning to produce Twitch streams. But my first love is writing. And I’ve missed it.

So when, a few weeks ago, I saw a post from Hugh Howey about judge/reviewer applications for the Self Published Science Fiction Contest (SPSFC) I did that thing I tend to do.

“This looks fun Dwight. Let’s apply. All they can do is tell you no.”

I filled out the application, with all the details of my tiny online presence and fully expected to not hear back. Except I did. And I got in. And this thing is even better than I imagined.

I’m already working with a team of reviewer/judges and getting ready for some amazing work over the next year. I get to work with a team to review dozens of books, write reviews, and help determine the winner(s) of this amazing new contest. Yeah, I get to read. A lot. And write. A LOT.

So, here we are. About to dive into a new journey. I hope you’ll come along and read what I have to say. I’m also planning to livestream a good chunk of my reviews on Twitch too. Stay tuned for more on that.

If you’re interested, here’s the criteria I’ve set up for my reviews. All categories will be ranked 0-10 with a final score converted to a 1-5 Beards final score(yes I have a spreadsheet):

The Hook: Did the story grab me early on? Or did I have to slog through the opening?

Plot: Does it make sense? Does it keep me going?

Characters: Do i identify with them? Care about them? Feel anything?

Pacing: How do scenes/chapters fit together. Too fast? Too slow? All over the place?

World Building: Are you showing me or telling me about your world? I don’t want to be hit over the head with exposition. Give me hints and let me fill in the rest.

Resolution: How did you wrap up your story? Am I satisfied with the the ending? Or did you let me down with a half baked conclusion?

Structure:  Prose, perspective. How well written was the book?

Enjoyment: Warts and all, how much did I enjoy it? A poorly written book can still be a blast to read. And a masterfully constructed tome full of eloquent prose can still be a slog

Bonus Category:

Whos Baby is This: If this book’s parents were works of fiction, who would they be? Just to give you a quick idea for the feel of this book

I’m excited to get started. Books should start going out to judge teams in July, and the contest runs through June of next year. In the meantime, keep an eye on this space for some test reviews over the next couple of weeks.

‘Till next time y’all!

The Music That Made Me – Part Two: You Don’t Know How it Feels

Funny how things work out sometimes. I’ve been feeling the pull to write a lot lately, but every time I sit down I seem to come up empty. Then, a couple weeks ago, a friend posted his “Playlist for the Apocalypse” and started blogging about the political commentary found in some of his favorite music. Shortly after, another friend posted his top ten most influential albums on Facebook. Next thing I knew I was strolling through my catalog and reminiscing about the past...

Tom Petty: Wildflowers (1994)

Some of y’all are Dylan, some Springsteen, maybe even Young. Me, I’m a Petty guy through and through.

‘Greatest Hits’ got the most play, but ‘Wildflowers’ got me started

I thought about throwing the early 90’s greatest hits album with the Heartbreakers, as that probably got the most play (Mary Jane’s Last Dance may have more spins than any song in my collection) , and definitely fits my overall aesthetic a little more closely.

But Wildflowers is what I picture whenever anyone mentions Tom Petty. I knew who Tom Petty was before ’94, but he was just more of that “old guy” music I hadn’t figured out yet. By ’94 I had thoroughly rejected the music of my parents (classic oldies, Three Dog Night, CCR etc.), and had run through a sup[er angsty, heavy metal/rap phase common to a lot of teens.

By the time Wildflowers wormed its way into my life I was 17, was driving a car and had my heart broken a time or two. And that’s it, right there. That’s Wildflowers to me. A not yet adult, starting to figure shit out (slowly); who’s experiencing more emotions than just “pissed”; who’s starting to dwell on the possibilities of what’s next; and who really enjoys playing “You don’t Know How It Feels” on repeat on his skip resistant Sony Discman with bass boost.

Travis Allen Photography

If I had to pin one emotion on this album, I think it would be HOPE. When the guitar kicks off the title track, I can’t help but smile. There’s just something beautiful, carefree about these songs. I found them at at time when the world was in front of me, when I was just about to set out an my own. I had no clue about the highs and lows, the roadblocks, the joys and the pain that lay before me. But what kind of journey would it be if we knew it before we left? Wildflowers, for me, is about that unknown, that possibility, and now that I’ve through a good portion of it, its about the journey itself. The possibility became reality. Maybe not in the way that 17 year old kid thought it would, but in the only way it ever could.

You may not how it feels to be me, but I can tell you. It feels pretty damn good.

Post Script Thoughts: For a guy who didn’t drink, smoke or even think about drugs until after high school, stoner rock sure made up a huge part of my formational music choices

Best Song: Wildflowers

Most Underrated Song: Don’t Fade On Me

Weirdest Song: Honey Bee

The Music that Made Me – Part One: Tones of Home

Funny how things work out sometimes. I’ve been feeling the pull to write a lot lately, but every time I sit down I seem to come up empty. Then, a couple weeks ago, a friend posted his “Playlist for the Apocalypse” and started blogging about the political commentary found in some of his favorite music. Shortly after, another friend posted his top ten most influential albums on Facebook. Next thing I knew I was strolling through my catalog and reminiscing about the past.

I started off just making my own top ten list, figuring I’d throw it on the socials. As often happens, the muse had other ideas, as I found myself wanting to write more than the few characters you typically get on the book of faces. So, here we go. Maybe this is the start of a new series, maybe I’ll quit after one go ’round. Who knows?

A couple things you need to know about Dwight and music. Well, really just one thing. I experience music almost exclusively on an emotional level. I like angry music when I’m pissed, and sad stuff when I need a good cry. I rarely connect with lyrics on an intellectual level, so don’t come here expecting anything resembling in depth lyrical analysis (I highly recommend this blog to scratch that itch). What you will find, however, is an exploration of where I was when these albums/songs struck me. So, if you’re so inclined, stick around, and lets listen to some music.

 

Blind Melon (Self Titled) 1992

Ninth Grade.

Fifteen Years Old. Prime age for the formation of musical tastes.

I think most of us have an album or two (or ten) that we consumed on repeat, lying on our back staring at the ceiling. This is where we find fifteen year old Dwight, on his bed, avoiding his family, getting lost in drug fueled, bluesy tunes of Shannon Hoon and company.

I actually have a hard time describing where this album takes me. The emotions are nebulous, wispy, but always calm. I couldn’t tell you how many hours I’ve spent with this album in solitude. Just don’t ask me about lyrics or meaning. For me, this album just is. I know guitar lick, every drum fill, every word to every song. None of it has meaning as anything other than part of the greater whole of the album.

I think this album was my first dabble with meditation. As an angst-y teen, always fighting with dad, pressured by school, and sports and the neverending pursuit of girls, Blind Melon always seemed to center me. Now, almost thirty years later, I find a lot of the same solace and recovery in daily mindfulness practices.

I still can’t put to words what, exactly, this album does so well. It’s just rock solid, from start to finish. Hell, No Rain, easily the most famous song, is my least favorite by a minute and a half. I can listen to this album on repeat for hours and get something new out of each listen.

I miss Shannon Hoon. Sometimes I wonder what he would have created had he survived a clearly troubled time in his all too short life. But that’s the thing about so many great artists, shooting stars across a crowded sky, gone before we ever realized how beautiful they were.

 

Random Post Script Thoughts:

Favorite Song: Tones of Home

Least Favorite Song: No Rain (still amazing, but everything else on the record is better)

Best Led Zeppelin Ripoff Jam: Time

 

Week One – Birthdays and Summer Pillows

OK, I know I just posted like two days ago, but my birthday was on a Thursday and that felt like the right time to kick things off. I’m looking to write one a week so I’m just dropping this here in order to bump the cycle back to the weekend. So, you get a two-for this week. Exciting, right?

Anyway, I got my long ride in yesterday. 24 miles in 2 hours on the MTB around town. I rode some gravel, almost got run over by a semi on a freshly chip-sealed road and enjoyed a delicious stroopwafel (seriously, these things are like 90% why i take long ass rides).

Stroopwafels_01
Stroopwafel!

This Dutch delight is great for a mid-ride energy boost. High sugar wafers sandwiched around some sort of caramel/brown sugar concoction. Great to keep the blood sugar up while burning carbs.

As great as these are for exercise fuel, the rest of my Saturday was full of some great but unhealthy food. I’m not going to feel guilty about it though. My friends and I were hanging out celebrating a couple of early September birthdays so good food had to be enjoyed. Birthday’s deserve some Big Boy Cookie Time and a couple drinks. Just don’t let your friends order for you or you’ll end up with this:

img_1088
The Summer Pillow

Or let them. It was delicious. I’m man enough to enjoy the fuck out of a pink champagne cocktail.

Enough fun for now though. Today was a rest day. I’ll be back to the grind tomorrow. Celebrations are over. Time to produce some results.

Training – Week 1

Swim: 624 yards (624 yard total)

Bike: 32 miles (32 miles total)

Run : 2 miles (2 miles total)

So, I’m 41 Now

Birthdays are weird. At least when you’re getting older and they’re yours.

I love celebrating other peoples birthdays; my kids, my wife, my friends etc. But mine? Meh, just another day at this point.

Last year, my 40th, I made an exception, given the gravity of the occasion, and spent the day in Chicago with my buddies eating foods and taking bad pictures. But the years leading up to 40, just another day.

Today, more of the same. I woke up, a wizened fool of 41 years, and it just felt like Thursday. I was tired because I have kids, and I’m exercising 5-6 days a week, and I had woke up at 3:30 super gassy and had to poop real bad (yeah, the filter goes when you get old, sorry-not sorry). But that’s just every day at this point.

This isn’t to say I don’t appreciate my birthdays, I absolutely do. I don’t fear them like some do, I embrace them. I feel better in my 40s than I did in my 30’s. And I’m definitely a better man than I was in my 20’s. But again, today just feels like Thursday. I put my kids on the bus and went to work.

While I haven’t made plans to celebrate anything this year, I have been doing a lot of thinking. Mortality, legacy, all that existential crap that seems to come around to dudes who start to feel old and whatnot. Mostly I’ve been dwelling on the last 5 years though.

I spent 2011-2015 super focused on fitness and nutrition, dropping over 150 lbs, running a 25k, riding a century, etc. Then, in 2015, life happened again, new kid, new job, a bevy of other life changes/excuses. Next think I knew i’d gained about 60 lbs back and lost a large chunk of fitness. I’ve had a great last three years but this was definitely the part I was least proud of.

So, in May I recommitted myself to diet and fitness. I’ve focused on healthy eating and whole foods and slowly acclimating my body to the rigors of doing things other than sitting and eating. I’ve lost about 25 pounds since then and I’m finally starting to feel like my old (5 years ago old) self. As the pounds came off and the miles increased that weird part of my brain that talks me in to doing stupid stuff reappeared. He said, “Dwight! You need a goal!” And I was like “Yeah, me, I really do. I work best when there’s a goal at the end.”

So, I figured, I’ve been wanting to do another triathlon since I did Tri del Sol in 2012. And I set myself a goal to be ready by July 2019. I upped my bike miles and I started running (veeeerrryy slowly) again. I made plans to start swimming once the High School pool re-opened and I was on my way.

But then that little asshole in the back of my mind piped up again. “Really dude? One race? That’s your big goal?”

Dammit me. Why do I always do this to myself? I should quit while I’m ahead,right?

Yeah, no. That’s not what I do.

So the motors kept whirring and I started to remember how great it was during the year I was a Road Warrior. Blogging about my journey, raising money for worthy causes. Training for things that are inherently awful and stupid because I’m an idiot and enjoy ridiculous challenges for some reason. And more pieces fell in to place.

So here’s the deal. What started as a goal of 1 triathlon next summer has turned in to a summer of them. 1 a month, starting the weekend my kids get out of school and ending the weekend of my 42nd birthday. I’m sure I’ll do the Irish Jig and River Bank Run in some capacity. But next year is about triathlons.

June 1, 2019 – Greenville Triathlon

July 13, 2019 Tri del Sol

August 18, 2019 – Ludington Lighthouse Triathlon

September 7, 2019 – Reeds Lake Olympic Triathlon

There. I wrote it down. That’s what they say to do with your goals right? Anyway. I’ll be blogging about training and stuff here. Maybe some other stuff too. And after the first of the year I’ll probably put together some sort of fundraiser to go with it, see if I can do some good with all this too. For now though, you can contribute to my Facebook Fundraiser Birthday Event thingy . I’m raising funds for Child’s Play, a charity that provides games for kids in children’s hospitals around the country. The guys at Penny Arcade started this charity many moons ago and they do some great work, making life a little more bearable for kids dealing with some nasty stuff.

Well there it is. If you’ve read this far, well I’m sorry. Not really, you should know better. But thank you anyway. You can check my training data through the link below if you are so inclined.

Come back often, I’m sure it will be all roses and rainbows. That’s how training goes right?

Training – Week 1

Swim: 624 yards (624 yard total)

Bike: 8 miles (8 miles total)

Run : 2 miles (2 miles total)

The 13th Stone

Rough draft snippet from a story I’ve been throwing around a bit, expanding off my short story Simmon.

The are was crisp against his skin as Simmon stepped out into the morning.  The sky looked especially blue today, most likely on account of the weeks of grey and wet Albany had endured recently.

His horse was waiting for him in the stables.  Sword and shield were expertly slung on the saddle.  

“Thank you Westley,” Simmon said to his squire as he took the reigns.  “Well done as always.”

“Thank you my Lord.  Safe travels”, Westley said as he took his leave.

Simmon placed his foot in the stirrup, halted when he heard the shout.  

“Simmon!  Where are you going?”

Simmon’s shoulders heaved through an exasperated sigh.  He removed his foot and spun to face his caller.

“I’ve got rounds Billie.  Same time every week.”

“Well take me with you Simmon!  You can’t leave me here by myself.”

“Billie, you’ve got your own chores.  You know you can’t come with me.” His heart sank as her eyes welled, reddened.

Billie was twelve, an age where most kids wanted to act several years old.  Ever since their father disappeared, Billie had the opposite problem. Constantly scared.  Never wanting to be alone. Borderline helpless.

“Billie, you’re twelve years old.  Old enough to help with mom. With father gone I’m charged with keeping track of his lands.  The roads are far too dangerous for you.”

“You just don’t want your baby sister tagging along while you play with your friends!” Her voice was starting to crack.

“You know just well I’m not going anywhere to ‘play’ “.  He whined the last word with mocking emphasis.

She was partly right though.  The last thing he wanted was his whiny sister at his heels for the next two days.

“I hate you!” she yelled as she spun on her heels, then ran back towards the manor.

Simmon, guilt setting in, started to call out to her, then quickly realized it would do no good.  He turned his back to home and headed north.

Billie was taking their father’s disappearance much harder than he or their mother.  She’d always had a special bond with Jerald, Atrus of Cathatch, and their father. It made sense that she’d struggle the most.  

 

Yet these times were not ideal for coddling of the young.  Billie was going to have to learn to grow up fast.

Simmon arched his back as he took in a lung full of air to clear his head.  Bren would be meeting him soon and he’d thankfully have someone a little more mature to share his journey.

***

The field was empty. Had been for the last fifteen minutes, ever since Simmon first showed up.  He was just feeling the first twinges of frustration when the arrow snapped past his year and lodged in the tree just fee from his head.

Simmon rolled backwards, over his shoulder, deftly producing his sword and shield as he came upright.  His eyes scanned the tree line in the direction of the arrows origin. Flame touched his hands, ready for use at a moment’s notice.

Simmon had just started to back slowly into the tree line when Bren emerged from the other side of the clearing.  Simmon could see his wicked grin clear across the glen.

“Good morrow to you Simmon of Cathatch!”

“Damn it Bren, you’re gonna get someone killed”

“You know better than that Simmon” Bren cackled.  “There are few in all of Albany what can loose an arrow with the skill to equal my own.”

Simmon couldn’t help but smile at his friend.  “The someone I was referring to was you. On account of my sword cleaving your skull.”

“Ah, but you’d have quite a time reaching me with that great sword while I’m standing clear across the glenn.”

“Good point”, Simmon replied, a sly grin creeping across his lips.  He sensed the flame was still ready and loosed a small blast. Orange-yellow flame sprang from his fingertips, forming a loose ball that flew across the glenn, splashing down on the grass at Bren’s feet.

Brenn’s eyes widened as he lept back.

“Whoa ho!  The great wizard Simmon exposes his true nature!”

Simmon smiled as he walked towards his friend.  “Yeah, some wizard I am, a few flickering spells.  Nothing but parlour tricks.”

“More than I can do.  Plus, you’re the only one I’ve ever heard of that can tap all four elements.”  

Simmon waved his hand as if to brush off the compliment.  “Yeah, jack of all trades, master of none. Son of the great Jerald of Cathatch, warrior cleric.  Defender of the realm. All before him tremble at his might. And what can I do? I can light a campfire.”

“Yeah, you’re right Simmon.  You are pretty worthless. Now are you finished moping?  We have some lands to tend don’t we?”

Simmon smiled and walked back to the tree line.  His horse was just inside, tied to a tree. He loosened the reigns, swung a leg over and rode to meet Bren, waiting for him at the center of the glenn.

Bren was smiling as they met.  He pointed to his feet where Simmon noted some light scorching on Bren’s right boot.  

“These cost me a pretty penny noble one.  You should take greater care with your spells.”

“You should be glad I don’t have better aim,”  Simmon grinned as he kicked his horse into a trot.

***

“Will you be staying the night Master Simmon?”  The mayor was fat, soft from years of privilege.  The site was all too common in the small villages and towns across Albany.  Charged as the Lord’s representative for local governance, mayors often often took advantage of their station, living soft, rich lives, free of any hard labor.  Their soft, fleshy bodies often reflected their lifestyle. This one even had the telltale reddish nose of a heavy drinker.

“No mayor, I think not.  My sister gave me quite the tongue lashing for leaving her this morning so I think we’ll head homeward.  I’d like to make it back as early as possible in the morning.”

They mayor smiled knowingly.  “Ah yes, and how is young Mistress Billie?”

“As good as can be expected.  She’s twelve after all, quite impetuous.”  Simmon hated the formality of dealing with dignitaries.  One had to use just the right words, just the right tone.  It just felt so unnatural.

The mayor frowned.  “Yes, so terribly young to be dealing with such a terrible situation.”

Simmon nodded.

“Still no word on your father?” The mayor asked.

Simmon’s shoulders sagged. He’d been expecting the question but after answering three times prior today, he was tiring of the discussion.  

“No mayor.  No word. We are of course terribly concerned at the lack of communication but father can take care of himself.  In the mean time, we shall take care of his lands in his absence, shall we not?”

“Yes of course Master Simmon!  If all goes well, your father shall return to find an Atrus more prosperous than the one he left so many months ago.”

Simmon smiled, clasped the mayor on the shoulder. “That’s what I like to hear mayor.  You’ve always done well by the people of Perry and by my father. I have no doubts that will continue.”

The mayor’s chest puffed up at the compliment, his belly spilling out in front of him.  “I am at the service of Jerald, Cathatch of Atrus, his family and his fine son Simmon. If you have need of my assistance, all you need do is ask.”

Simmon turned to mount his horse.  Bren was already astride his. Simmon recognized the smile on his friend’s face.  Bren knew how much Simmon hated politics. He reveled in his friend’s discomfort, as any friend should.

Simmon swung his leg over, settling firmly in the saddle.  “Mayor, it was a pleasure to see you again. It is always a pleasure to visit your fine town of Perry.  Remember, taxes are due soon. Expect a messenger in the next few weeks with this year’s dues.”

“Our coffers are full, we wait only for the notice.  Safe travels young Master Simmon.”

Simmon nodded and turned his horse to the road.  As they reached the edge of town Bren started to laugh.

“What?” Simmon asked.

“I’m glad we didn’t stay for dinner.  I don’t think I could stomach watching that man eat.”

Simmon smiled before kicking his horse into a canter.  “Come on. Let’s get home.”

***

“You know, I still don’t understand why you made me hunt down all this kindling when you can just light a log on fire with you damn hands.”  Bren’s back was turned but Simmon could hear the frown in his voice.

“The elements aren’t for play Bren.  And they especially aren’t for promoting laziness.”

“Um, have you seen my shoe?  What the hell was that if not play.”

Simmon grinned, caught in some minor hypocrisy.  “Bad aim, I told you.”

Bren laughed.  “Fair enough. You do make a terrible draoi.”

Simmon’s face changed immediately.  His smiled wiped clean, replaced by a haggard look of utter frustration.

“Shit, sorry.”  Bren’s face dropped too as he saw the hurt in his friend’s eyes.  “Sore subject. Right.”

Draoi were renowned in Albany for their ability to control one of the elements.  Draoi were blessed with the ability to reach within themselves and grab the essence of an element, bending it to their will to some degree.  

“It’s OK Bren.  I shouldn’t let it affect me so.”  Simmon forced a halfhearted smile back to his face.

“Right!” Bren brightened back up.  “I mean, like I said, you’re the only person I’ve ever heard who could handle all four elements.”

“Yeah, but like I said,” Simmon put extra emphasis on the I, “the best I can do in any of them is tantamount to parlor tricks.  I’m to be Catatch some day Bren. My father can form from fire whatever he chooses. Swords, shields, arrows. His element makes him one of the most formidable warriors in all of Albany.  Mine make me a hit a banquets. I’m a half step above the court jester.”

“You never know Bren, it could just take longer to develop when you’re dealing with all four.”  Bren was trying to reassure his friend, but his voice cracked unmistakably with doubt.

Simmon smirked at Bren.  “Yeah, maybe.”

As the son of Jerald, Simmon was expected to show signs of an element early.  And Simmon did not disappoint. In fact, as a young child Simmon exceed everyone’s expectations.  Early on in his studies he showed an ability to control fire, just as his father did. He first felt the warmth of fire in his hands at the age of seven.  When he lit the family hearth for the first time that winter his parents had beamed with pride.

Shortly after Simmon showed signs of the other elements.  He was able to fill the stable water troughs at a thought.  He could extinguish candles with the wave of a hand. He planted his mother’s flower garden without a spade.

Surely Simmon was destined to be a great draoi.  Maybe the greatest of all.

Only he wasn’t.  The elements that manifested at the age of seven had not grown by the age of sixteen.  Normally, those with elements had shown some level of mastery by the age of fourteen. Those that showed exceptional control were invited to study at the draoi college.  Those that didn’t were typically relegated to carnivals and stage shows.

Simmon received no invitation.  His parents had hoped Simmon’s ability to control multiple elemnents would earn him an invitation, lack of mastery notwithstanding.  When his fourteenth birthday came and went with no invitation, his father put on a brave face but Simmon could read the sense of failure in his eyes.  Tensions eased quickly but Simmon never forgot the first time, and only time he disappointed his father.

The only thing saving Simmon from the carnivals was his birthright.  He was to be Catatch of Atrus someday, elements or no. The honor of lordship lessened the sting of disappointment only slightly. In fact, at times it filled him with dread. After all, how was he supposed to fill the shoes of the great and mighty Jerald, Cathatch of Atrus, when he was so clearly a lesser man.

Simmon looked up at Bren, noticed the concern on his face.  “Don’t worry about it Bren. It’s my cross to bear. I’m good with it.”  Simmon paused, took a deep breath, continued, “Why don’t you get some sleep.  I’ll take first watch.”

Bren started to protest, noticed the look on Simmon’s face and thought better of it.  “Alright Simmon. Wake me when it’s my turn.”

Bren adjusted his pack to give a comfortable place to lay his head.  He turned away from the small fire.

Simmon took a few deep breaths to clear his head and pushed the subject of elements from his mind.  No need to dwell on that which he couldn’t control. Especially when he was on watch.

Simmon looked into the flickering orange and yellow of the small fire.  He waved his hand and the camp went dark.

“Parlor tricks.”

A View From Below

The following was an my entry in the 2015 Iron Writer Challenge. Elements included: A heavy metal song, A priest, and picture of someone looking up out of a grave.

“Now I lay me down to sleep…”

The preacher launched into a new prayer.  James thought the service should have been over by now.  Several of his friends had said their piece. Then the preacher had given a short homily, followed by a terse prayer.  

How odd that he’d followed it up with another.

“If I die before I wake…”

James could hear the dirt fall more than feel it.  Two unseen faces had begun shoveling it over the sides after the first prayer.  He wondered why they didn’t wait until the end of the service.

Not that there was anything to be done about it.

It must have been a stroke, James thought.  Four nights ago now, five maybe?  

He’d been talking on his ham radio to some guy in Utah.  His call sign had been W7JFQ. They’d just made contact when the 2×4 smacked him.  At least that’s what it had felt like. Then his vision went supernova. The colors had been mesmerizing, at least for the fleeting instant before absolute black set in.

He’d woken up on a table.  The steel would have felt cold had he been above room temperature.  Somehow he’d known he was dead. There’d been no fear, no confusion, just the cold realization that he was dead.  That and the quizzical sensation of having his blood drained and replaced with embalming fluid.

Then the mortician had closed his eyelids and the world once again turned black.  He’d heard everything though; the small talk amongst the morticians, the funeral directors as they’d dressed him, even the goodbyes from family and friends at his visitation.

There’d been no fear, no confusion; just the cold realization that he was dead.  That and the fact that he was awake through it all.

Now, here he was, six feet down, watching helplessly as earth poured down from above and the preacher continued his prayer.

“Exit light…”

Wait a minute!  That wasn’t a prayer, he thought.  

James strained to hear as much as his deceased mind would allow.  

“Enter night…”

 

That wasn’t a preacher either, he realized.  It was his nephew Mark.

The no good slacker is reciting Metallica lyrics at my funeral!

James swore he could feel his embalming fluid boil.  Everything about Mark drove him crazy. The little jerk couldn’t hold a job, always seemed to be high, and apparently didn’t believe in belts.  

What was it Uncle John called him, James wondered.  Saggatian?  Yeah that sounded right.

“Take my hand…”

If only he could find a way to crawl out of here!  He’d kick that little turd right in the nuts!

“Aww crap, the lid popped open!”

James saw a haggard face peer over the grave’s edge.  Then another, weather beaten figure leaned over holding a shovel.  The man dropped to a knee, pressing the shovel against the lid that James suddenly noticed to his right.

Hinges squealed as the lid swung shut.  Darkness enveloped him yet again.

Well this ought to be interesting James thought as Mark’s muffled voice mixed with dirt splashing on the casket.

“Off to Never Never Land.”