So many authors! So many books! All free!
If you need something new to read, this is where you should go.
So many authors! So many books! All free!
If you need something new to read, this is where you should go.
I spent this week doing a bit of clean-up. I finished adjusting my prices on Ingram Spark (for their price increase). I’ve been adding print book URLs to all my Books2Read links.
This is a manual process, and while I’m thrilled about having print links, It. Is. Tedious.
I’m really pleased with the release of The Ghosts You Left Behind. Early reviews are in, and the response is heartening. One of my biggest fears with this season was making things interesting and fresh while keeping the promise of the series.
What’s next? I’m not sure. I have several projects simmering on the stove of my mind. I visit each one, stir and taste, maybe add some spices, and set it back to simmering. (I’m not sure this makes sense to anyone but me.)
I’ve come to accept that I’m not the sort of writer who plans books and series in advance, with a calendar and project management software. One of those simmering stories will come to the forefront and let me know it’s ready to be written.
In the meantime, I have books to read, Photoshop tutorials to complete, and any number of writing-related things I can do.
Yes, at long last! The release of The Ghosts You Left Behind: Coffee and Ghosts 4.
When Katy and Malcolm discover a secret stash of Springside ghosts, they can’t tell if they’re on a rescue mission, walking into a trap—or dealing with something far more sinister.
But the simple act of freeing the ghosts sets the past on a collision course with the present.
Katy has always known the past can haunt. Usually, that’s something she can fix with freshly brewed coffee and some Tupperware.
This time, old enemies lurk in the shadows, pulling strings and weaving inescapable webs.
When she falls in, survival may be impossible. But to escape, Katy must navigate threads from the past, deal with capricious spirits, dubious allies, and ruthless adversaries.
And if she fails?
No one she loves will have a future.
Coffee & Ghosts is a cozy paranormal mystery/romance serial told over multiple episodes. This series bundle contains all three novella-length episodes of Season Four:
What now? Well, now I have a Little Free Library and Halloween table to decorate. And maybe a nap to take.
Almost more there for the release of The Ghosts You Left Behind: Coffee and Ghosts 4:
This slow and steady approach seems to be working. Pre-orders are trickling in nicely. (Yes, I know. No one’s more surprised than I am.) This is definitely the way to release a book–low key and low stress.
So, do you know what I have this week?
I mean, other than a pre-order?
Print books (in process) and pumpkins!
And I’m exhausted. It’s not that hard to do, but it adds up when you’re creating paperback, large print, and hardcover editions.
So, I will keep this short and take the rest of the day off while the title winds its way through all the various vendors and systems.
You know what I have this week?
That’s right. I have a pre-order.
People, people. It. Is. Done.
Well, almost. I’m currently getting all the print versions. That will take a few more days. But really?
I went with a release date of October 31st. Halloween fits both the story and the entire series. I had hopes of releasing the book last year, also on Halloween. But we all know what happened last year.
So, like a lot of couples, Katy and Malcolm had to postpone their wedding. But now?
And you can find The Ghosts You Left Behind at your favorite e-book retailer.
As we wind our way toward the waning days of 2020, I thought I’d scroll through the 98 books I’ve read (so far) this year to see what I could see.
What did I see? A handful that really stood out. Mind you, if I finish a book, that means it was entertaining and did everything a book should do. But there were definitely some four and five-star reads this year.
That being said, these are my four and five-star reads. There’s a very good chance they are someone else’s one-star reads. That’s the way entertainment works.
Without further ado, here are the books:
The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V. E. Schwab
Code Name Hélène by Ariel Lawhon
The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott
Miss Graham’s Cold War Cookbook by Celia Rees
Network Effect: A Murderbot Novel by Martha Wells
You’re sensing a trend, aren’t you, right up until that last title. My pleasure reading definitely skews historical/fantastical, plus I have a thing for spies.
I absolutely love the Murderbot series of books, and I highly recommend them (and reading them in order). In fact, I reread the first four in preparation for Network Effect (and I’ll reread all of them next year when book six is out).
One of the points of view in The Secrets We Kept is in first person plural, that of the typists. Really, it made the book (well, for me, at least). I absolutely plan on writing a story in first person plural one of these days and inflicting it on unsuspecting slush readers everywhere.
A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear: The Utopian Plot to Liberate an American Town (And Some Bears) by Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling
Come for the bears, stay for what really must become a Coen Brothers movie.
True or False: A CIA Analyst’s Guide to Spotting Fake News by Cindy L. Otis
Young adult nonfiction, but really all that means is the prose is lively and accessible (rather than dull and serious and self-important). For middle school on up, especially for adults who forgot that they learned about yellow journalism in high school.
The Heroine’s Journey: For Writers, Readers, and Fans of Pop Culture by Gail Carriger
From the description:
This is an excellent reference guide for genre fiction authors seeking to improve their craft or for readers and pop culture enthusiasts interested in understanding their own taste. It is the perfect counterpoint to The Hero with a Thousand Faces not to mention Save the Cat, Women Who Run With The Wolves, and The Breakout Novelist.
If you’ve been stymied by all the usual suspects when it comes to writing advice, seriously give this book a try. I can’t tell you how many oh, so that’s why moments I had while reading this.
QuitBooks for Writers series by Becca Syme
I read Dear Writer, Are You In Writer’s Block? this year but I recommend all of Becca’s books in the series. Granted, they are probably more useful if you have a passing familiarity with CliftonStrengths, but I still think you can get a lot out of them even if you don’t.
Little Free Library (over at Tor.com)
A wonderful little story. You can also buy a copy for your e-reader (links at the bottom of the story post).
When Lexia befriends a girl from outside a luxury spa facility, she starts seeing the cracks in her mother’s disastrous fifth marriage, the world in which she lives, and her own future.
The day Lexia discovered the glass wasn’t fogged was the day she decided to see the outside for herself. Something swirled beneath her hand whenever she tried to wipe the condensation from the window. A few bursts of light would shine through, then the clouds reformed, opaque as ever. Behind her, hot mineral baths churned up steam. The heated pool sent out waves of moist air. Sweat bloomed all over her skin until she glowed.
But beneath her fingers, the window was cool. Light shined behind the glass, the effect like winter on Earth—a glare to make you shield your eyes and glance away. Why? The question pinged in the back of her mind. Why would someone hide the outside?
Lexia wore her flimsy spa wrap, but didn’t care. She’d see the outside, if not through the glass, then some other way. In the last year, she’d learned that there was always some other way. She cast her gaze about the spa. A group of women, her mother among them, sat at the far end, each encased to her shoulders in diamond-speckled mud. A year ago, Lexia would have sat nearby, let the women pet her, buy her trinkets from the gift shop, listen to her mother’s mock protests.
“Oh, but you’ll spoil her,” her mother had always said, followed by a secret smile that told Lexia no amount of spoiling was ever enough.
That was before her mother embarked on another marriage—her fifth; she was a professional decorative—before their fights. Now, relaxing felt like work, pampering a chore. So Lexia turned her back on the women and went in search of something more substantial.
Like a vent. All this moist air needed to go somewhere. And somewhere had to be better than here.
With all the steam, and chatter, and strains of soothing music, no one noticed when she rounded a corner. Or almost no one. An old lady, her gnarled fingers curled around an old-fashioned book, glanced up and gave her a smile, the sort that said she knew what Lexia was up to—and highly approved. Heart thumping, Lexia dipped out of sight and confronted the nearest vent. She pried her fingers beneath its rim. To her surprise, it slipped right off. For easy cleaning, she imagined. Not that Lexia had cleaned all that much in her sixteen years.
She eased inside, replacing the cover as best she could. Lexia crawled, hiked up her wrap, and crawled some more. The change in pressure clogged her ears as she moved from one air lock to the next, through invisible filters. The air cooled, took on a metallic flavor. Churning and clanking filled her head. It was like moving through a huge metal beast, and she was somewhere deep within its innards.
One dark turn led to another until she confronted an actual door. She punched in the code she’d seen Paulo use on the gift shop register. The door slid open, revealing a grate, and beyond that, the outside.
“Oh! That worked.” She laughed, the soft sound bouncing around the enclosed space.
Tiny streams of sunlight lit the backs of her hands. There was only one thing to do. She flattened her palms against the hatchwork and shoved.
The sun’s glare hit her full in the face. Lexia blinked. Tears burned her eyes and streamed down her cheeks. When a shadow blocked the light, Lexia squinted, ready to bolt back inside the spa.
But wait! It was a girl. Like her! Or almost. This girl was thin, with enormous eyes. No hair. Not a single strand marred the smooth surface of the girl’s head. No eyebrows, either, Lexia realized. Still, this girl looked so pretty, and so nice.
“Hi,” Lexia breathed. “Do you want to come in?” She’d read that the local population was transplanted from Earth. Certainly this girl understood her.
The girl backed up, pebbles scattering in her wake, and turned from the vent’s opening. Lexia threw herself forward, latched onto an ankle, her own chest scraping rocks and metal.
“Please don’t go! I won’t hurt you!”
The ankle in her hands stilled. Lexia unfurled her fingers bit by bit, convinced the girl would bolt. Instead, the girl turned around and crept forward until they were face to face, Lexia leaning over the vent’s edge, the girl just below her.
The girl took Lexia’s hand, turned her palm skyward, and traced lines with a finger. Puzzled, Lexia shook her head. The lines continued, up and down, over her skin, like a child learning the alphabet. Oh, the alphabet.
“You’re Amie!” Lexia exclaimed, unsure if she should feel clever or not.
The girl, Amie, nodded.
“Well,” Lexia said. “Come on inside.”
Together, they crawled through the vent. At the entrance to the pool area, Lexia pressed a finger against her lips. She slipped from the opening and casually strolled around the pool area, collecting items as she went—a robe, a head wrap, someone’s oversized frothy drink. Back in the vent, Aimie gulped the drink, the foam coating her upper lip in strawberry red. Lexia draped Amie in terrycloth from ankle to head, a nearly perfect camouflage for a girl from the outside.
Outside. It was almost too much.
“Come on,” Lexia said when Amie set down the drink. “My room has everything we need.” She took Amie’s hand, and together they left the spa.
No one noticed. Or almost no one. Lexia swore that same old lady stared at them. The smile was still there, only now it was tinged with worry.
* * *
In the hallway, Lexia’s stomach jumped each time a guard strolled by. They were all tall, all handsome, all with sharp eyes no amount of solicitude could hide. She led Amie through the corridors, not too fast, but not so slow someone might notice a girl who didn’t belong. Only when they had reached her quarters, and the door had whooshed closed behind them, did Lexia let out a breath.
“We did it!” She grinned at Amie. “And you need a bath.”
Lexia filled the tub and drained it twice, and still gray scum floated to the top of the water. But at least Amie looked clean and—more importantly—now smelled like lavender and vanilla. Even better, the girl’s dark eyes glowed and although she was silent, her smile filled Lexia’s heart.
It was after the bath, and a tray full of chocolates, that Amie pointed at the model on Lexia’s desk.
“I get to do one every month,” Lexia said, her hand lighting on the structure. It was her best one yet, a scale replica of the first station on Mars. “Since it’s a hobby, I can’t do more than that. I always tell myself to go slow, make it last, but I can’t stop myself.”
Amie cocked her head, brow furrowing.
“I wanted construction, you see. I have the test scores for it, all the spatial ability. And I love geometry.” Lexia shrugged. “They keep telling me I’m too pretty, that it makes more sense to be a decorative, like my mother, and her mother. It’s a better career choice—a safer one.”
She leaned closer, and Amie did the same, so their noses almost met over the top of the Mars structure. “Some girls even cut themselves.” Lexia drew an imaginary blade along her cheekbone. Amie jumped back and shook her head, her eyes wide and scared.
“Oh, don’t worry. I won’t. Besides, do you see anything sharp in here?” Lexia laughed, but it was the bitter sound she sometimes heard from her mother. She clamped her mouth shut. “Do you know how hard it is to build anything without something sharp?”
Amie’s gaze went to the Mars station, then lighted on Lexia’s face. Her hand moved again, first in the air, then on the table surface, like when she’d taught Lexia her name, but different.
“Oh, plans,” Lexia said at last. “You’re wondering if I draw plans. I can, but—” Why hadn’t she considered this before? No, it wouldn’t be nearly as fulfilling as building a model, but it beat waiting for her nail polish to dry or dozing through yet another facial.
She pulled up two chairs to her in-room console. She scrolled past all the social chatter, the notices for Slam Tonight! and the spa offering a “me” day, and dug into the educational programs. Yes! Design and Drafting, architecture, everything to teach her how to build virtual houses, cities, even stations that could be used anywhere in the galaxy, from research centers, like on Mars, to ones like they sat in now—a spa facility meant for rest and relaxation.
Lexia tore her gaze from all the potential plans and speared Amie with a look. “Did you know about this?”
Amie grinned and gave her a shrug.
“Do you need help with something, on the outside? Is that why you’re here?”
Amie leaned forward and pressed the keypad. On the screen, images of makeshift dwellings appeared. Amie pointed to one and then to herself.
“You live … there?” Lexia shook her head in disbelief. The wooden structure was little more than a lean-to. Sure, Lexia had done her time in Adventure Girls. Once, she had even slept outside, with nothing but canvas stretched over her. But at the end of the trip, the entire group had returned to a spa facility, where every pore was sucked clean, hair and nails made to shine.
Amie tapped Lexia’s wrist. The girl pointed to the screen, and then to Lexia. With her hands, she mimicked building.
“Do you want my help? Want me to show you how to make it better?”
Amie gave an emphatic nod.
“Okay.” Lexia pulled her hair into a loose bun at the base of her neck. “Let’s see what I can do.”
* * *
It took a week of designing, of visualizing, not just on the screen, but in her head, and when she could, in real time. Lexia took to collecting odd bits the spa guests left lying around. Old-fashioned books, empty containers from box lunches. These she fashioned into a small village. She learned, by watching Amie move stick figures around the structures, about life on the outside.
She knew that—somewhere—her console time was being logged. Keeping up appearances meant venturing from her quarters. She’d loved school, but a girl destined to be a third-generation decorative spent most of her time experimenting with foundations rather than building them.
But leaving her room meant leaving Amie behind. Unless … Her fingertips lighted on Amie’s bald head. Even when the look was in fashion (and it currently wasn’t), it attracted too much attention.
“Want to go somewhere?” she asked, feeling sly.
Amie’s eyes went wide, but her lips curled into a smile.
“I’ll get you a wig,” Lexia said. “And then we can really have some fun.”
* * *
In the gift shop, Lexia ran her fingers through the strands of a pink wig, one with spring-green highlights. A presence shadowed her steps, tall and broad. Paulo stood behind her. Paulo, who keyed in codes on the register so sloppily, Lexia often wondered if it were on purpose.
“You going to wear that to the slam tonight?” he asked.
“Haven’t seen you at one.”
“My mother’s been giving me fits.” Actually, she hadn’t seen her mother in nearly two weeks, at least not up close, but it was a handy excuse.
“Sneak out tonight.” With the suggestion, Paulo winked.
“I might,” she said again. Always keep them guessing. This was her mother’s advice when it came to men. When Paulo grinned, Lexia saw that it did, indeed, work. But it was an empty sort of victory. Why build castles in the air when she could construct real places to live? Who needed boys when she had a friend—a sister—waiting for her, one who needed her help?
* * *
From her vantage point in the hallway, Lexia could see the wide-open door of her quarters. When her mother’s voice barked commands, Lexia almost ran away. One thought kept her locked in place.
Lexia swiped the sweat from her upper lip and considered the wig, tissue-wrapped and snug in a spa bag. Another command echoed from the room and a guard stepped out. He blinked, surprise washing across his features before he schooled them into a bland expression.
“Ah, Mrs. Mortarri? I think I’ve found her.”
He nodded at Lexia, and she had no choice but to enter her room.
“You’re not in that much trouble,” he whispered as she passed.
If he thought that, then he didn’t know her mother.
“There you are!” Her mother whirled, hands on hips. “Where have you been?”
“Nowhere. A walk.” Her voice sounded strained, shaky. She clutched the ribbon handles of the bag and willed herself not to search for Amie. Don’t move. Don’t glance around. Don’t breathe.
Her mother raised an eyebrow. “Shopping?”
Lexia cringed. Of course. No one cared if she spent hours in the educational modules on her console, but the second the charge at the gift shop went through, the system must have alerted her mother.
Her mother held out a hand. Lexia pulled the wig from the bag and dropped it into her mother’s waiting palm. A year ago, she could have purchased three new wigs, and her mother would have laughed—and tried them all on herself.
“Really, Lexia? You shouldn’t cheapen yourself with such trash, not to wear and not to associate with.”
The words felt like a blow to the throat. No, she really didn’t like Paulo—at least, not in the way he wanted her to—but the boy wasn’t trash. He simply had to work and wanted to dance and drink when he wasn’t. And the wig that was oh, so pretty? And would look so nice on Amie? Well, that wasn’t trash either.
“And what is that?” Her mother pointed at the Mars station and the replica of Amie’s village she’d built around it.
“A model,” Lexia said, and how the words found their way from her throat, she didn’t know. “I like building them.”
“I’m not sure it’s the best use of your time.”
“It’s just a hobby.” Casual, not plaintive. Don’t let her see how much it means.
Her mother shook her head. “You’re just so … just so … well, I simply don’t know what I’m going to do with you.”
In earlier times—better times—her mother might have tried to understand. She’d sit on the floor with Lexia, both of them surrounded by building blocks, and laugh when her own constructions inevitably collapsed while Lexia’s remained standing.
“You must get it from your father,” she’d say, “because clearly you didn’t get it from me.”
Soft words no longer came from her mouth. Not since last year, since her last, awful marriage. She never spoke of Lexia’s father. It was as if she wished both of them would simply fade away. They no longer shared quarters. Lexia was never invited to her mother’s dinner parties; not that she wanted to eat with a bunch of adults. But eating alone, in her quarters, made everything taste the same, like salt, even the desserts. Especially the desserts.
As if she had no more words for Lexia, her mother left, without a goodbye, a kiss, a hug. Lexia stared at the shut door. Oh, that she could burn a hole into it with just her eyes.
“I’m what, Mother? Just because you don’t care about the things I do, doesn’t mean I’m—”
A pair of thin arms wrapped around her, a soft sigh bathing her neck. Lexia spun, mouth wide open in wonder.
“Where did you—?”
Amie pointed to the bed, or rather, the platform it sat on. Lexia knelt, rapped her knuckles against the side, and listened to the hollow sound. She eased back the panel and peered inside. Beneath the bed, there was just enough room for an Amie-sized girl.
“You’re smarter than I am,” she said. “I don’t even have your wig, and now we can’t—”
Amie pressed a finger against Lexia’s lips.
“I talk too much, don’t I?”
Amie simply drew her to the console. There, she scrolled through the fashion channels until the display landed on turbans.
“Oh, but those are for old ladies.” Lexia wrinkled her nose. “Like my mother.”
Amie opened her mouth in a silent laugh. Then she pointed to Lexia’s collection of nail polish.
“Oh!” Lexia jumped up, fingers tingling like they always did before a new project. “I could make it pretty.” She spun around. “I could start a trend.”
She tore a strip from the bottom of her bed sheet. Around Amie’s fragile head it went, then Lexia sprinkled on glitter and sparkles, and dotted the material with lime green nail polish. Lexia turned her friend toward the mirror.
“Look at you! You’re gorgeous.”
Amie’s eyes glowed, her fingertips touching the dots that matched her nails.
Lexia clapped her hands. “Let’s go have some fun.”
* * *
Only in showing Amie the spa did the oddities strike Lexia. Why, with the sun so brilliant, was the glass perpetually fogged? Why was everything so self-contained? At the last spa, she’d gone on excursions nearly every day, took lessons in the local language, and even visited the planet’s tiny moon.
Here, there was one short day trip to an island resort owned by the spa—and nothing else. The information panel talked up the splendors of the planet, the town of New Eden, the sustainable lifestyle of the local populace, and the fresh produce brought in daily to the spa.
Then she thought of Amie’s lean-to and all the plans she somehow hoped to give the girl. She thought of the disease that had stolen her friend’s voice as a baby. Why hide these things? The only thing on the other side of the glass was reality.
“Is it bad outside?” she asked Amie. They’d discovered the kitchens, now deserted after the formal dinner, and were working their way through a tub of berries and cream. Here was the food of New Eden. For once, Lexia was hungry. For once, things tasted sweet, and her fingers grabbed one berry after another, as if she’d never get enough.
Amie shook her head.
“But it isn’t easy.”
Amie shrugged and dipped a palm-sized strawberry into the cream.
“Why were you trying to get inside, then?”
Amie froze, mid-bite. Her gaze darted toward Lexia, a pleading look in the girl’s eyes.
“For the same reason I was trying to get out? Just to see what was on the other side?”
Amie swallowed the strawberry and threw her head back in silent laughter.
* * *
Maybe it was the berry-stained fingerprints left in their wake. Maybe it was the pilfered sparkling quenchers from the walk-in refrigerator. Or maybe the guards had simply tracked their every move since they had left Lexia’s quarters.
No matter. The first guard caught Lexia unaware, thick fingers around her wrist and upper arm. Amie, though quicker, fared no better. She kicked, tried to scratch, her mouth open in a silent scream.
Lexia screamed for her. Her cries brought officers and old, respected guests, and too many witnesses.
“They’re hurting her,” someone said, voice ringing with indignation.
An old woman hobbled into the center of the gathering. “Let the child go,” she said to the guards.
The man holding Lexia released his grip on her. She rubbed his sweat from her skin and tried to wipe away the ache.
“Now the other,” the old woman added.
The guards released Amie as if her skin burned them. The second her feet touched ground, she scampered off. No one chased after her, and Lexia let out a sigh that shook her whole body. She turned to thank the old woman, but froze. Yes! It was the same woman, the one in the spa, with the book and the secret smile. And now that smile bloomed again on the old woman’s face. Before Lexia could say a word, a barking voice cut through the silence.
“Lexia! What have you done!”
Her mother parted the crowd with her voice and a hand—the same hand that, seconds later, cracked against Lexia’s cheek.
Lexia stumbled into the guard behind her. His hands gripped her waist for longer than strictly necessary. She didn’t care. Her cheek stung, her eyes watered, her heart squeezed tight in her chest.
“Mind that she is still a child,” the old woman said.
“Mind your own business,” her mother snapped.
“You could say I am. Is she not my granddaughter?”
Her mother paled. Lexia felt all the air leave her lungs. She focused on the old woman, her soft face, and eyes that looked both sad and kind.
“Technically, no,” her mother said. “She is not.”
“But as long as you’re married to my son …”
Her mother’s mouth went grim. The old woman hobbled over to Lexia.
“We have not met, my dear, and I suspect we won’t again. A piece of advice from an old woman, then?”
Numb, Lexia nodded.
“Don’t let yourself get trapped. I did. So did your mother. That’s not a sufficient reason to end up trapped yourself.”
The woman kissed the bruise forming on Lexia’s cheek and turned down the hall. The crowd, the guards, silent and staring, parted for her. No one spoke. At last, her mother gave a frustrated sigh, collared Lexia, and dragged her through the corridors by the spa wrap.
* * *
When her mother engaged the override lock, Lexia pressed her hands against the smooth door. Her first impulse was to pound, to kick—just like a child. Instead, she leaned her forehead against the cool surface and shut her eyes. In her mind, Amie ran through the hallways, into the pool area, and crawled through the vent to freedom.
She wanted to believe the pictures in her head. An icy fist in the pit of her stomach told her it was better not to.
What had gone wrong? Why was she always wrong? She never sneaked out to slams, like the other girls, never even flirted with the spa workers. All she wanted was a friend. Lexia had never known that that hole inside her existed until Amie had filled the space. Now, nothing but an ache remained, that hole larger and darker than ever.
Her gaze lighted on the bed, or rather, what it sat on, its hollow platform. She crawled, wrists aching, and eased back the panel. Could she fit? She wasn’t as small as Amie. Inside the space smelled old, like layer upon layer of dust and memories. Lexia eased her feet to the farthest corner, settled her hipbone near the center, and at last pressed her cheek against the floor. The bruise throbbed, but it was a handy reminder. If she was truly going to do what she planned to, she’d need that.
Lexia packed, weighing each item for its potential worth and inevitable weight. In went all the plans and designs she’d made with Amie. Although it was frivolous, she added the lime-green nail polish. From her bed, Lexia tugged the smallest blanket and rolled it tight. Then she curled into the hollow space again, belongings at her feet, blanket beneath her sore cheek.
It took a very long time to fall asleep.
* * *
In the morning, her mother’s shrieks woke her.
“Where is she?”
“Sorry, Mrs. Mortarri, but there’s no record at all of anyone entering or leaving her quarters.”
“But she’s not here.”
Lexia held her breath. Would they search for her? Could anyone detect the panel, in place, but slightly off-kilter? Would anyone use an infrared detector, or for that matter, common sense?
“I suppose someone could have hacked the system,” a guard ventured.
“That boy from the gift shop. What’s his name?” Her mother snapped her fingers. “I don’t know, but find him. Find her!”
Poor Paulo, Lexia thought. He didn’t deserve this. The stomp of boots filled the room before footfalls echoed down the corridor. She squirmed, peered through the small sliver where the front panel didn’t quite meet the corner of the headboard. Her mother wore a spa wrap and a wash of tears across her face. The urge to shove the panel out of the way nearly overwhelmed Lexia. In her mind, she saw the scene play out. She’d burst from her hiding spot. Here I am, she would say. Her mother would embrace her, kiss the bruise on her cheek, and cry even after Lexia forgave her.
She braced her feet against the wall, ready to push back the panel, but froze when the intercom buzzed.
“Mrs. Mortarri, will you be keeping your massage appointment this morning?”
“Excuse me?” her mother said. “My what?”
“Massage appointment. Under the circumstances, we can reschedule.”
Lexia’s chest grew tight. Her head buzzed, and the sound of it was so loud, she was afraid she’d miss her mother’s next words.
“Yes, of course I’ll keep my appointment,” her mother said. “It’s been a stressful morning.”
And now Lexia couldn’t breathe.
Her mother turned, the spa wrap fluttering across Lexia’s field of vision before vanishing completely.
Where had her mother gone? Her real mother, not the one who had so recently swept from the room, intent on keeping a massage appointment. Where had that woman run to? Because certainly she’d gone somewhere and left Lexia behind, alone with an imposter.
She slipped from under the bed and replaced its panel, then she tore a few more strips from the bottom of her sheet. These she used to tie the blanket to her pack.
At the door, she hesitated, rocking on the balls of her feet. Would it open for her? She had shed the spa wrap, and what she guessed was the tracking device that went with it. She wore old clothes, from Earth—out of fashion, of course—but they were nondescript and sturdy. Lexia shut her eyes, inhaled a deep breath, and placed her hand on the console.
The door opened.
She grinned—couldn’t help it. In a way, it made sense. Why engage an override lock on an empty room?
In the corridor, a guard passed her, the same one who had gripped her wrists and left his sweat all over her. The man stared as though he didn’t recognize her. Maybe he didn’t. Maybe that was part of the problem with these spas. Everyone was either a guest or a worker—no one was an actual person.
In the pool area, she rushed past the mud baths, the mineral pools, running her fingers along the fogged glass without leaving any streaks. Lexia paused near the cabana where her mother booked all her massages.
The flaps were closed.
She clamped a hand over her mouth and wished she could cry silently like Amie did. Then, she turned toward the vent.
She crawled through the structure’s innards, spilled onto the pebbles outside, and scrambled to her feet. The spa sat behind her, a white blob, its own self-contained bubble in a brilliant green reality. Hills stretched for miles. Lexia ran, haphazardly at first, then with purpose toward the largest tree on the first hill.
On one of the branches, something white flapped in the wind. When she was ten feet away, she recognized it.
A strip from Amie’s turban.
Lexia stood beneath the branch and peered at the path ahead of her. Another glimmer of white, there, in the distance? She slid down the hill, never losing sight of the bit of white. When she reached the second tree, she tugged the strip from the branch and tied it around her wrist. Then she ran toward the next hint of white in the distance, leaving the world of fogged glass behind.
Inside Out first appeared in The Maze: Three Tales of the Future.
For December, it’s stories about helpers, magical and otherwise.
I first met Simon the Cold outside the library on a night so icy it stole all the moisture from my breath. My feet crunched through the slushy mix of sand and snow. I walked with my head bowed, the air sharp against my cheeks. That was why I nearly crashed into the man bent over the garbage bin, its latticework gleaming with frost.
The glow from the man’s headlamp illuminated the inside of the bin like a spotlight—not a single sliver of light was wasted. I stood for a moment, regaining my balance, my jeans stiff with cold, and watched the man pull treasures from the dark depths.
He glanced up and said to me, “You’d be surprised what people throw away.”
When I didn’t respond, he added, “Or maybe you wouldn’t.”
I forgot about the books I had on reserve. Instead, I raced to the second-floor cafe and bought the largest coffee on the menu board—the Caffeinator. With my pockets crammed with sugar packets and little containers of half and half, I ventured back outside. My boots skidded on the ice. A drop of coffee landed on my wrist, the scent warming the stale winter air, but I hardly felt it against my skin. My heart started pounding the second I spotted the man, still at the garbage bin. Heat flashed across my cheeks. I studied the cup in my hands. What was I doing? Was this in any way sensible?
Then I thought: How can I not do this.
So I marched forward, boots crunching, coffee sloshing, until the man raised his head and the headlamp shined its spotlight on me.
“I can’t take that from you,” he said.
I stood in the circle of his light, clutching the coffee, completely without words to convince him.
“And no tricks,” he added. “You look like the tricky sort to me.”
Perhaps it was nerves, or the cold, or the fact, I’m the least tricky person ever born, but I burst out laughing. “I’m not tricky at all,” I said. “In fact, I’m pretty transparent.”
“Ah, that you’re not, girly. That you’re not.”
Normally, someone calling me girly—of all things—would crawl beneath my collar and chew away at my restraint. But this man meant it, if not with kindness, then as an acknowledgment.
I see you there, young person, and what you’re trying to do. I’ve survived without you for this long and will continue to long after you’ve forgotten me.
That was why I took a step forward. He’d returned to sort his treasures, leaving me in the cold and the dark. He didn’t glance up. He didn’t stop his sorting. His fingers twitched ever so slightly. They were pale and stiff. Items slipped from their grasp, rattling the contents of the garbage bin.
I took another step forward.
“Old Simon hasn’t had a shower, girly, for quite a while. Just take that as fair warning.”
Nothing, I decided, could smell worse than this stale winter air. I took one last step and set the coffee on the edge of the garbage bin. From my pockets, I pulled the sugar packets and half and half.
“It’s funny,” I said, placing them next to the to-go cup. “You’d be surprised what some people throw away.”
When he didn’t respond, I added, “Or maybe you wouldn’t.”
I walked toward the parking lot and threaded through the cars until I reached my own. I didn’t look back. That, I sensed, was part of the deal. So I left the lot by the back exit and drove the long way home.
* * *
It was only that night, in my dreams, that I saw with clarity the strange paleness of the man’s skin. The color, the texture, was like wax poured over real skin, the hue still there, but hidden deep beneath the surface. In my dream, I worried about frostbite—his and mine. When I woke, the comforter was crumpled at the foot of the bed. My skin felt waxy and prickly. I ran the shower hot until steam filled the bathroom and I had melted all the wax away.
Outside was that brilliant, breakable cold. Snow cracked, ice shattered and popped. Everything painted in bright colors—white, blue, yellow—the only colors in the world, it seemed, or at least the only ones worth noticing.
Maybe that was why I didn’t see the delivery truck. Maybe that was why I didn’t hear the horn. Maybe that was why, at the last moment, I felt myself jerked backward by the hood of my coat. My arms flailed, and my boots skidded against the ice-slicked sidewalk. I tumbled into the alleyway behind me and fell into the arms of the person who’d grabbed me.
It was him, the man from the library, the one in my dreams. Old Simon, he’d called himself, but I couldn’t remember if that was something he’d told me or part of my dream.
“You shouldn’t have done that, girly,” he said now. I didn’t know if he meant stepping into traffic or buying him coffee the night before.
“Old Simon’s got enough to do.” He heaved me to my feet with surprising strength. “Don’t need to add looking after you to my list.”
“You don’t look that old,” I said.
When he laughed, all I could see was a young man beneath all that wax, rich dark skin hidden beneath the layers of what looked to be oh, so cold. Only his eyes weren’t pale—or young-looking. This was a pair of eyes that had seen their share of winters and pedestrians trampled by horses, clipped by trolley cars, and bounced off windshields.
“I am old,” he said. “I have much to do and no time for rescuing you.” He brushed off his jeans and tugged his camouflage jacket into place by the epaulets.
“I can see that.”
At the entrance to the alley, he paused but didn’t turn around. “You can?”
“It’s in your eyes. At least, most of it is.”
“And the rest?”
“You’re looking for something.”
“That I am, girly.”
“I’m Halley,” I said, wanting to be clear on one thing if nothing else. No more girly. “Like the comet.”
“Returned to give me some grief?”
“Maybe I’m here to help.”
At that moment, I doubted my sanity. My pulse went thready. With a hand, I braced myself against the alley wall, my fingertips scraping icy mortar. I was a woman who lived on library books and television reruns of Doctor Who. I was young enough to still be called girly and not really mind. I was young enough to believe that someone like Simon the Cold had a mission and that I could help.
I was young enough to simply believe.
He hadn’t moved from the alley’s entrance—a good sign. He was listening, his head cocked back to catch all the telltale sounds of the alley. In front of him, cars churned up slush. Boots trampled sand and salt. But Simon’s attention? All on me.
“We could start with another cup of coffee.” I dropped my hand from the wall and walked toward the light.
“That we could, girly,” he said when I reached him. “That we could.”
* * *
I went with the ceramic mugs, despite the odd look from the barista. I picked up the solid black container of half and half and plunked it on the table, despite the odd looks from everyone else. Simon added cream and sugar like I thought he would. Patrons stared at me, at my cup, and the one opposite it. Their gazes flowed through Simon.
“People don’t see you,” I said.
“People generally don’t see the homeless.”
“But this is different.”
“I’m still homeless, girly.” He brought the mug to his lips, paused as if reconsidering something. “Halley.”
“I can see you.”
“That you can.”
He didn’t answer. Instead, we drank in silence, steam from the coffee filling the air between us, warming it until Simon himself looked warmer, his skin darker, as if the steam had melted a layer of frost.
“Are you sure you want to help me,” he asked.
“Good.” He set his cup on the table and grabbed my hand. “Because we start now.”
We dashed through the coffee shop, scooting past bags of beans and boxes of supplies. I glanced back in time to see two policemen—no, two things—reach our table. Hairy, large, and shapeless one moment, dark blue, official looking, clean-cut the next. They flickered from one form to another, like a hologram of two images.
I stumbled and fought to regain my balance. “Those aren’t people.”
“No.” Simon tugged me through the door and into the alleyway. We plunged into the shadows, the alleys behind the storefronts a labyrinth of brick walls and trashcans. Despite the cold, the stench of rotted vegetables lingered in the air.
“You’re not people,” I added.
Even in the dark alley, I caught Simon’s raised eyebrow. “I can’t be anything other than myself.”
“And that self is?”
“In trouble if we don’t keep moving.”
And so we ran, Simon in the lead. He kept hold of my hand and tugged me around Dumpsters and over pallets that creaked beneath our boots. We crunched plastic sacks and cardboard boxes. The air felt sharp in my lungs and clouds of my breath misted my face. My neck, where I had wound my scarf, started to heat. Without breaking stride, I yanked at the wool.
At last we emerged at the far end of the alley. Up the block, people streamed in and out of the coffee shop. Even at this distance, I could taste the coffee in the air. I sucked in the scent, grateful for anything that didn’t reek of water-logged wood or rancid meat.
“What are those things?” I asked.
“Something that would harm us all.”
“But you won’t let them.”
He dropped my hand and then turned to look at me. Outside, he was more wintery than before. “No,” he said. “You won’t let them.”
I touched my mittened fingers to my scarf in disbelief. How could I stop those things? I didn’t even know what they were. But Simon simply nodded.
We stood in the cold forever. At least, it felt like forever. Then I noticed the world around me, people moved at a glacial pace, their breath hanging in the air. Cars inched forward, each tread squeaking the packed snow.
“What did you do?” I asked Simon.
He grinned an icy grin. “I thought we needed a breather, a little time to collect our thoughts.”
“You can stop time?”
“No one can stop time. I merely . . . slowed it down, for a bit. It won’t stop our friends from the coffee shop for long. They’re too clever for that.” He took up my hand again and tugged me forward, through the ice statue pedestrians.
“I don’t understand,” I said. “One minute you don’t want me around, and the next I’m supposed to stop something?”
“Oh, girly … Halley … it’s more complicated than that.”
We continued our strange trek through frozen people and things, a dog with one paw raised, ready to shake; a split bag of groceries, cans hanging in midair; a shower of suspended grit from a snowplow.
“That night at the library,” he said when we’d reached the bridge that spanned the river. “And in the coffee shop. You saw me. I’ve been waiting for the one who sees. I just didn’t expect her to be so puny.”
“Hey!” I pulled from his grip. “I’m not as puny as I look.” That didn’t sound quite right—or at least, not as right as I wanted it to sound.
“I don’t know why they send me the likes of you,” he continued, almost as if I wasn’t even there. “You small ones who see too much and are far too fragile.”
A low boom sounded behind us. It sent a jolt through me, then it resonated with how hard my heart was beating. I was many things, but fragile wasn’t one of them. Simon grabbed my hands again, yanked me fully onto the sidewalk seconds before a black SUV rumbled past.
“Fragile. Like all humans.”
My heart thudded even harder, and the scarf around my neck felt tight, like it was choking me, deliberately. “The world, it’s—”
“Speeding up, and so should we.”
We ran, again. This time, I stayed silent. This time, I kept pace with Simon and thought about being fragile.
Maybe he was right.
* * *
The neighborhood changed the farther we went, from old Victorians in the painted-lady style; to respectable, if smaller, houses; to un-shoveled sidewalks, cars up on blocks, and chain-link fences that looked as though someone—or something—had clawed through them.
I’d never been to this part of town before. The longer we walked (our legs had given up on running miles back), the more certain I was of one thing: this part of town didn’t exist. It was another of Simon’s tricks. Unless it wasn’t, and it was simply one of those things people didn’t want to see.
Not seeing. There was a lot of that in the world, more than I ever realized.
“If you’re not human,” I said to Simon, “then what are you?”
We’d moved to trudging down the center of the street, the only clear path through all the snow. The accumulation hid the sidewalk, smoothed the steps leading up to houses. All the windows were dark, and the sun was sinking, its rays and warmth obscured by the tallest buildings.
“Something old,” he said to the pound of our footfalls.
“That’s why I—” I broke off and tried again. “When I look at you, words pop into my head,” I said. Out loud, this sounded nonsensical, but I pushed on, with both my feet and my mouth. “I think: Simon the Cold. You don’t look old to me, just . . . frost covered.”
I braced for an outburst. After all, was it better to be old or cold? Either way, it wasn’t much of a compliment. But Simon’s laughter echoed against the buildings. For a bare second, the sun seemed to swell, glow brighter, before turning remote and winter cold.
“Oh, girly.” He cleared his throat. “Halley. I am both. I am in my winter.” He raised a hand, indicating the air, the snow, the ice around us. “This is like looking at my reflection.”
“But it’s not really your reflection,” I said.
He shook his head, a smile still lingering. “No, it’s not. Which is why I need to finish my work before spring comes.”
At last we reached the city dump. The entrance booth was empty, the gate looped with chains and padlocked. Simon walked up to the fence, passed his hand over the locks. They sprang open, the chains swinging with their weight.
“We need to arm ourselves,” he said.
“Here?” My gaze scanned the piles of discarded objects, tires and dishwashers and things that glinted in the setting sun.
“You’d be surprised what people throw away.”
Simon walked through the gate, his headlamp already secured. He reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a second lamp.
Hand outstretched, he offered it to me. “Or maybe you wouldn’t.”
The glow of the lamp revealed treasures. And yes, I was surprised by what people threw away. In some cases, I wasn’t sure it was people doing the throwing. In my hands I held a sword in finely-wrought silver. If I swung the headlamp away and peered through the dark at it, all I saw was a broom with most of its bristles missing. Simon piled odds and ends into a grocery cart, one that had no hope of plowing through all the snow—unless you viewed it by lamplight. In that case, it was a sleek sled.
My fingers lighted on a garbage can lid. I knew without even using the headlamp that it would make a perfect shield—right size, right heft, its handle made for my grip.
“Is this how you see the world?” I asked Simon.
“Most of the time. Even old Simon can fall back into lazy habits.”
“So we see what we want to see and hear what we want to hear.”
“And the battle rages in front of our unseeing eyes.” He nodded. “Yes. There are layers to everything. People, this world, the things you hold in your hand. Most of the time, we don’t need to see these things. Most people don’t either.”
“Now, things are bad. I am . . .” He hesitated, the briefest of smiles gracing his lips. “Cold, and winter is much weaker than it appears.”
“And those things in the coffee shop?”
“If I’m ice—”
“In a manner of speaking, yes. They would burn this world, but not in the way you’re thinking, not with flame and destruction. They spark infidelities, betrayals, revenge. Oh, there is far too much revenge in the world. Why humans have developed a taste for it, I can’t say. It starts sweet but turns sour. It would fill your throat and choke you.”
I clutched my broomstick sword, another question occurring to me. “That night at the library, when you turned your headlamp on me. What did you see?”
Simon was silent for a long moment. He plucked a few more items from the debris and added them to the shopping cart. Before he turned from me, he uttered one word.
* * *
We left the gates to the city dump unlocked.
“For those who might need things,” was all Simon said.
The air felt warmer against my cheeks as if, somewhere, an invisible bonfire heated the city. First one, and then another snowflake floated down, big fat flakes, the sort children loved to catch on mittened fingers and on their tongues. The night filled with snow until I could barely see where we were going.
That, I realized, didn’t matter. Simon knew the way. After a while, I discovered I did too. If I shut my eyes, the route we needed to take became clear, as if a map of it was on my eyelids. We were headed back toward the city center, straight into the heart of the banking and financial district.
“Why there?” I asked Simon.
“It’s where they start their destruction, burning resources. Think of the crash of twenty-nine, or of o-eight for that matter.”
“Will they crash the world today?”
“If not today, then someday, or somewhere. Old Simon can’t be everywhere at once.”
But we’re here now.
I didn’t say it out loud. Perhaps I only thought those words. Even so, Simon’s shoulders straightened, his step quickened, and I marched alongside him. For the first time in my life, I felt like I had a mission, a purpose. I could do something—something worthwhile.
“You’ve always had a purpose,” he said, the words soft as the snow. “Remember that.”
They met us in the street, armed with briefcases and umbrellas, dressed in pinstriped suits. One woman wore high heeled shoes and yet glided effortlessly through the snow. I blinked and saw her, not as she appeared to everyone else, but her true form—a fiery beast that melted a path through the ice. Her cell phone was a weapon, something I only realized when Simon yanked me to the ground.
A lightning bolt whizzed over our heads and sizzled against the coffee shop’s brickwork.
I hunkered down next to Simon, my gaze taking in the things that surrounded us. The rest of the street had cleared, the snow so heavy, it had chased everyone else inside. Streetlights bathed the night in a yellow glow, and through that glow, they approached. Bankers, police officers, firefighters—all occupations you’d instinctively trust. They circled us, each braced to attack.
“I’m going to count to three,” Simon said to me, his voice calm and steady, like we were having a conversation in the coffee shop. “Then I want you to rush the one next to the fire hydrant.”
The firefighter. Even in disguise, he was a good head taller than I was. He clutched a hose, which, if anyone cared to look carefully—but of course, they didn’t—would be utterly ridiculous in all this snow and ice. In the world viewed through my headlamp, the creature held a coil of barbed metal. The weapon was thin, flexible, curling and uncurling like a snake. The creature stood there, unmoving, the coil undulating as if it had a mind of its own.
Simon grunted. “He’s yours. I’ll take care of the rest.”
“He’s the one I can’t fight.” Simon’s voice had dropped now. “That’s where you come in.”
“Why can’t you fight him?”
“I can’t even touch him. We’re cut from the same cloth, as the expression goes, or in this case, the same piece of the universe.”
“In a way. But then, so are we, Halley. So are we.”
“And that’s why I can see you—and them.”
“She catches on quickly.” This was not Simon, but the firefighter, the huge thing in front of us. “Did you also inform her of her role after today’s confrontation?”
“She has no role.”
“Only if you dispatch us, and dear brother, and you are not up to the task. Not now, so far into your winter.”
“We shall see.”
The world exploded then. The firefighter shot skyward, flames and heat evaporating the snow. The air filled with steam. As a teen, I’d taken a year of karate, but I was no fighter. I didn’t know how to handle a sword. And yet, my hands knew what to do. My feet knew where to take me. I dashed not to where the firefighter had been standing, but where I knew he’d land, my sword at the ready.
His coil caught the blade seconds before his feet touched the ground. I blocked the second blow with my trashcan lid shield. But that barbed metal was pliant, and it wrapped itself around my blade, yanked the handle from my grip.
I panted, gaze darting between where my sword clattered to the road to Simon. The others surrounded him. He remained still, passive. I prayed he had a plan—for him and me.
The creature approached, barbed metal twisting this way and that, flicking toward my boots, catching strands of my scarf when I failed to lift my shield in time. I jumped back just as the coil swirled to catch me around the ankles. He advanced again, and again, I leaped. Leap, tangle, leap tangle, our movements a dance that led us away from Simon.
Keep him away from Simon. This was my only thought, even as my shield slipped from my grip and spun on the snow-slicked asphalt. Keep him away from Simon.
A crack reverberated. The buildings around us shook. I spun. We both did. The firefighter lowered his weapon and stared. A blizzard engulfed the other creatures, freezing them in place. At first, the rapid disintegration left me breathless, my stomach churning. A piece here, a piece there, torn apart, scattered.
The firefighter roared with so much force, I stumbled backward.
And onto my sword. With my teeth, I tore the mittens from my hands and picked up my sword. My fingers ached in the cold, but I clutched the grip, crouched low, and waited.
The firefighter twirled the coil, its barbs sparking in the air. In my mind, I saw its trajectory: toward the center of the fight, toward Simon. It would end him in a brilliant blaze of fire.
I sprang forward, caught the coil as it extended forward, the blade of my sword clanging against the metal, shaving off the barbs.
The blow sent me to the ground, sent the sword flying from my grip. The coil hung in the air and then fragmented, tiny barbs littering the ground, stabbing the snow.
The firefighter shrank. Pieces of the others broke off, scattered in the street before vanishing.
“Spring,” the firefighter said, his voice weak. “Spring.”
And then he, too, was gone.
I stood alone in the empty street, no sign of creatures, no sign of Simon. Nothing to show for what had just happened, only fat snowflakes that stuck to my cheeks and the broomstick I held in my hands.
* * *
My library books were overdue. This was what happened when you took time out to fight creatures no one else could see. The night I returned them to the library, snow still crunched beneath my boots, but the air felt soft against my face. Most everyone went without their hats and gloves. I’d left my mittens at home.
I glanced at the garbage bin, half hoping Simon would be there. He wasn’t, of course. I returned my books, paid my fine, and on the way out, stopped for a Caffeinator, making sure to stuff my pockets with sugar and those little containers of half and half. For old time’s sake, I told myself.
I could never find my way back to the city dump, although I tried several times. I still had the broomstick. I hung it above my fireplace. No one ever asked me about it. I wondered if anyone could see it, and if so, how it looked to them. When I spied it from the corner of my eye, it gleamed, the handle intricately carved.
I was going to balance the cup of coffee on the edge of the garbage bin, but someone stood there, head cast downward, a glow illuminating the contents inside.
My heart sped up. I clutched the to-go cup so tightly some of the coffee slipped from beneath the lid. A flash of pain spread across my skin, then the cool air rushed in to heal the burn.
I approached, but the man didn’t glance up.
“You’d be surprised what people throw away,” I said.
He took a step back, as if embarrassed at being caught. My heart pounded faster. Not Simon. Not Simon.
Then, I saw his eyes.
“Simon the Cold.”
“I ain’t cold, girly.”
“That’s right, the comet. Here to burn another path through my sky?”
“What happened?” I asked.
“You talking about the winter? My winter?”
“You were there.” The question was in his eyes, if not his voice.
I nodded again.
“The way it works,” he said, his words slow. “I don’t always remember.”
And now I was cold. Simon? Not remember me?
“But it’s hard to forget a comet that blazes through the sky, especially one that saves your life.”
“I did that?”
“You did. But now I’m in my spring, and—”
“Or everything. That’s the problem with spring. It’s hard to tell what might grow. You can only plant the seeds.”
I held out the coffee then, both hands clutched around the cup.
He shook his head. “It doesn’t work that way.”
“How would you know? You’re in your spring.”
His laugh made the temperature rise at least a degree, maybe more. Wet, heavy snow slipped from a branch and plopped on the ground. I still offered the cup, arms outstretched, until—at last—Simon the Warm took it from my hands.