January 30, 2013

The Weresquirrel - Hold On To Your Nuts!

(From a news article, featuring a squirrel that got it's head stuck in a Halloween decoration. It's not a literal representation of The Weresquirrel, but an entertaining accessory to the story nonetheless.)

The Weresquirrel
(Hold On To Your Nuts)
Copyright 2012
By Terron James, Christina W. Cook, Krista Wayment, and J. A. Bennett

Abby shivered in her thin zip hoodie and snuggled closer to Christian. The sun had left a low orange smear across the western horizon and, with its descent, the warmth in the mountain air bled away.
Christian pressed his body against hers and leaned in for another kiss. Warm chills thrilled through her. A senior. She was totally making out with a senior. Her friends would die of jealousy. His rough five o’clock shadow grinded against her chin. Abby leaned back and curved her lips into a smile. So different from the scrawny geeks her age. Christian was no freshman. He was a man.
“Your nose is cold,” Christian said, looking down at her. The deepening shadows played across his face, carving out his strong cheekbones and hiding his eyes. “I’ll make a fire.”
“Thanks,” Abby replied with a shiver. “I was just about to ask.”
“My pleasure.” Christian kissed the tip of her nose, then jerked back, stood up, and wandered off with his lips pulled tight. A few steps later, he bent down to pick up a small log and spit on the ground.
What was that all about? Abby wondered, bringing the back of her hand against her face. A sticky fluid warmed her knuckles. She pulled her hand away and gawked at the clear snot glistening on her skin. Holy crap!
She glanced back up at Christian, mortified that he had tasted her drippy nose. The lingering orange glow from the sun had disappeared and Christian’s tall frame was barely visible. Fallen twigs and needles from the surrounding pine trees crackled under his feet as he wandered around searching the ground for kindling.
Abby breathed deeply, hoping their night wasn’t ruined. To distract herself, she unzipped her small, red backpack and dug inside for a snack.
“Christian,” she called, “have you seen my trail mix?” She fingered through the small pack—lip gloss, travel size body spray, gum, but no trail mix.
“Huh?” he replied, his footsteps a distant crackle.
“My trail mix. Did you take it?” The thought of Christian stealing her food bugged Abby. She had been counting on that trail mix to sustain her energy. Aside from the peanut M&Ms, the bag was packed full of assorted nuts. Cashews were definitely her favorite, but she had heard somewhere that almonds were the most filling, so she had thrown a handful of those in, too. Her mouth watered. He better have some food in his pack.
Amidst her brooding, Abby suddenly realized that Christian had not replied. She peered between the surrounding trees, but could no longer see him through the pale light. She looked up. The full moon glowed large and bright, but offered little comfort. An overwhelming sense of vulnerability filled her as she thought of being left alone in the woods.
Abby strained her eyes, hoping to see Christian on his way back. She ached for the comfort of a blazing fire and his strong, warm body.
A loud snap reached her ears, then a high pitched scream pierced the air. No, not a scream. More like a squeak. Abby’s breath caught in her throat and she jumped to her feet. The noise was followed by a stifling silence.
“Christian?” she called, trying to keep her voice steady. The last thing she wanted was for him to think she was a baby. Still no response.
A cloud blanketed the moon, rendering her blind. Abby donned her backpack and thrust her hands out in front of herself, refusing to stand around and wait. She took a tentative step forward, then paused and listened. Nothing. She took another step, then another.
As quickly as it had appeared, the cloud moved away and moonlight poured back into the forest. A small creature stood hunched over at her feet. Abby recoiled with a start, but realized the rodent was just a squirrel. Its back was turned toward her as it gnawed on something and smacked its lips. It seemed completely unaware of her presence. Abby began to smile, oddly comforted by the small animal’s presence.
Then it turned to face her.
Abby’s smile froze on her face. Blood-red eyes caught her stare and pierced her soul. Two pointed teeth protruded from the front of its mouth like daggers. Moonlight glinted on those horrible teeth and Abby watched in stunned silence as they bit down on a long cylindrical object.
In one horrifying flash of understanding, Abby recognized Christian’s class ring still wrapped around his dismembered, half-eaten middle finger. A scream burst from her throat, tearing through the night.
The squirrel cocked its head and its round eyes blinked up at her. Abby knew the little beast was not afraid of her. In fact, it seemed to be sizing her up—maybe even planning its dessert.
Abby backed away. Toe. Heel. Toe. Heel. She wanted to run to the four-wheeler, but she was lost. All she could do was put more distance between herself and the little carnivore munching on Christian’s finger. Abby shuddered. Where was the rest of him?
The squirrel tipped its head to the other side as it watched her back away. Before she knew what was happening, Abby felt her shoe come down on a pinecone with a deafening crack. The squirrel twitched into a frenzy. After dropping Christian’s finger, it sprang forward. In two bounding leaps, it grabbed hold of Abby’s face.
“Ew, get off!” Abby shrieked, swatting at it with shaking hands.
Abby’s foot caught on something—an exposed root, maybe—as she scrambled about. She fell backward and crashed to the ground. The squirrel tumbled off of her, then Abby pushed herself up and fled.
“Find the trail. Find the trail. Find the trail…” she wheezed as she plunged blindly through the forest. Trees whipped her cheeks and tugged at her hood. While ducking under an oversized branch, Abby chanced a glance over her shoulder. A pair of red eyes bounced in the darkness as the horrifying little squeaker bounded after her. She tried to scream, but only a gasp escaped her burning lungs.
Abby burst from the trees into a narrow alley. At first she thought she had found the main road, but she realized that the overgrown path she stood on had not been used in decades. Desperation flooded over her. She wanted to sob.
While she deliberated on what to do, a chain of approaching squeaks and hisses echoed from the forest. A ball of fur landed on the crown of her head. Abby gripped the dirty little squirrel and hurled it as hard as she could into the woods. She wasn’t ready to die, least of all to that. Her friends would never let it go.
Abby’s feet took control. They turned left and sprinted along the moonlit road while she screamed for help.
For a passing moment, Abby acknowledged that the idea of running from a squirrel—fangs or not—was totally stupid, then blind panic overtook her again.
Up ahead, she saw the outline of a small building. A cabin, maybe, but it was too dark to tell. With renewed vigor, Abby called out and moved her legs as fast as they would carry her.
Four steps from the door, the squirrel tackled her from behind. Abby slammed into the forest floor and pine needles pricked her cheeks. How could something so small bring her down like that? Despite her backpack, it felt like she had been rammed by a train.
Just as Abby thought her life was over, the little fur ball was gone. After waiting a moment to see if it was some kind of a cruel trick, Abby forced herself to roll over and peek through her protective arms. Relief flooded her weary body.
He stood a short distance away, under the shadow of a large oak. He lifted his foot and stomped down on a small, shifting shadow. The sickening crunch penetrated Abby’s ears and forced its way down to churn in her stomach.
She gulped. “Christian?”
He turned.
Abby’s breath caught. She couldn't move. Was this what shock felt like?
The first time Abby had seen Christian, his gray eyes had captivated her. Abby hadn’t been able to put her finger on what was so different about them, but they made her swoon. Rumor had it that he never asked anyone out, so when Christian invited her on a four-wheeling trip up the mountain, she had pounced at the chance without a second thought. She was going on a date with the hottest guy in school. She had even lied to her parents about staying at her best friend’s house for the night.
As she stared into Christian’s glowing indigo eyes, Abby wished she hadn’t lied to her mom. No one knew where she was, or the danger that threatened her. Christian was taking slow teetering steps toward her with an open mouth, slack and drooling. It was just like the movies. Unbelievably surreal.
Abby knew she should move, but she couldn’t—frozen by her date’s glowing eyes. Her lips trembled as Christian lurched closer. When he stepped out from under the tree and moonlight flooded over him, everything changed. He looked just as he always had—gorgeous, smooth skin, dark hair, and gray unglowing eyes.
She exhaled. I’m such a dork! Her brain had been playing tricks on her. It had to be from her low blood sugar. If only she had eaten that trail mix. She looked Christian up and down, and her eyes rested on his outstretched hand.
One finger was missing.
“Take my hand,” he said.
“Are you nuts?” Abby slid back against the building. “Stay away from me, you inverted werewolf zombie freak!”
Christian dropped his hand. “Not bad,” he said with a slight nod, “but you forgot one very important part. Can you hear that sound?”
Abby kept her eyes locked on Christian, but strained her ears. Nothing. Only silence. “What you talking about, psycho?”
With an eerie chuckle, Christian sneered. Elongated incisors appeared from behind his upper lip. “The hypnotic rhythm of blood pumping through your veins. What am I,  you ask? A one-of-a-kind hybrid dead set on enjoying his meal tonight.”
Ignoring Christian’s advancing step, Abby hurried into another question. “So you’re a vampire, too, huh? Why aren’t you sparkling?”
He rolled his eyes and took another step forward.
“Did that squirrel do this to you?” Abby asked in desperation.
Christian paused. “Hardly. Believe it or not, that varmint was trying to save your life.” He lifted up his mangled hand. “I used to have a magic ring that made me look normal to mortals, but I seem to have misplaced it.” His sarcasm oozed off his thick tongue. “Now I’m back to my good ol’ self. When I’m not lit under direct sun or moonlight, my true form shows.”
Christian sidestepped under the dense branches of the oak tree. A hump bulged out of his back as he slouched forward and gawked at her with a tilted head. “You like?” he slobbered through a waterfall of drool.
“Gross,” Abby replied. She wanted to run as far away as possible, but couldn’t move no matter how hard she tried. It was like Christian held her captive, compelling her to stay with his glowing indigo eyes.
“No biggie,” Christian said with a shrug. “Won’t matter much in a minute anyway.”
He made an ungainly advance toward her while staying in shadows and holding Abby’s gaze. She was helpless. Her mind reeled as she reflected on the previous fifteen years of her life. So much time wasted. So much left to do. Now it was too late. She’d never see another sunrise.
When Christian was just a few steps away from Abby, another chilling crack filled the silence. Her salivating adversary gaped over his shoulder and his eyes grew wide. Abby followed his gaze. Another loud pop. Movement disturbed the shadows. Was the poor squirrel Christian had stomped to death coming back to life? Abby squinted. Yes, yes it was.
She turned back to Christian and smirked. “You better run, hybrid. That squirrel’s hip bone just reconnected to its thigh bone. Won’t be long now before it makes you dinner.”
Christian spun on his heel and fled as quick as a zombie, a limp arm dangling at his side and one leg dragging behind. Abby couldn’t help but think of her younger brother’s annoying martial arts videos as she watched the slow motion battle between hybrid and weresquirrel—one trying to escape while the other popped back into shape. She knew that if Christian reached the moonlight, he’d be out of her life forever. She’d look like a total loser.
Abby chased after Christian, throwing rocks and poking him with a long stick, all the while keeping a safe distance between them. She knew all about the unmatched strength of a zombie… vampire… werewolf… thingy. Yeah, well, at least she had a good hunch.
“Stop it!” Christian whined as he stumbled to the ground for the ump-teenth time. “Cut it out, will ya?”
A tiny shadow fell upon Christian’s prostrate body. With razor sharp claws, the squirrel ripped Christian’s heart from his chest, smashed it to the ground like a football, then leaped high into the air and stomped it repeatedly into the loose soil until the heart stopped beating.
Abby collapsed to her knees and gazed upon her knight in shining fur. With a brief twitch of its left eyelid, the squirrel dropped to its fours and skittered across the clearing to Abby’s knee.
“Look at that,” Abby said as she scooped up her furry friend and kissed it on its nose. “You’ve made a terrible mess of your claws.” She stroked its fur, caressing its spine with her fingertips.
The squirrel gazed up at Abby through its long eyelashes. Abby returned its red-eyed stare and breathed in the sweet aroma of pine nuts and cashews that fluttered from the squirrel’s snout.
She planted a more affectionate kiss on its nose. Moist, but definitely not drippy. Things were already way better than her previous date. “Got any plans for the rest of your life, Bucky?” she asked with a sigh. Abby had never fallen so hard for anyone before. She was in love with him, even though he was a weresquirrel. It was irrevocable. Her heart nearly leaped from her chest as she dreamed of their life together.
The squirrel sprang to the ground and pointed into the thick of the forest.
“What is it, Bucky?” Abby asked, rising to her feet.
Bucky took Abby by her shoelace and, with a gentleman’s care, led her forward. She didn’t ask where they were going. She didn’t care anymore. As long as they were together, that’s all that mattered.
Time ceased to exist as they strolled through the clouds. Days could have passed without Abby’s knowledge, but they traveled only fifty yards before they reached the clearing. Abby blinked at a roaring bonfire surrounded by hundreds of weresquirrels. They were all dancing together as they squeaked and squawked a harmonic chant.
“You brought me to your pack family?” Tears filled Abby’s eyes. She had been wanting to take their relationship to the next level, but wasn’t sure how Bucky felt in return. Relief flooded over her. Their relationship was moving fast, but it felt so right. She knew he was the one. Nothing would ever come between them.
Bucky led her across the clearing and stood her in front of a fallen tree that had been fashioned into a throne.
“Did you gnaw this just for me?” Abby asked as she lowered herself onto the seat.
Bucky’s nose twitched.
“How thoughtful.” Abby’s cheeks flushed as her hand methodically traced the chewed grains of her pine chair. “So now what?”
Bucky bounded up the fallen trunk and placed a crown of acorns on Abby’s head. The weresquirrel pack moved their celebration in front of her. Out of their midst flew a bag of trail mix, which landed directly on her lap.
Abby smiled as she reached into the bag and popped a couple almonds into her mouth. “Mmm,” she moaned. “That’s what I’m talking about.”

January 11, 2013

The Iceberg Effect

I've often heard people say that novels are like icebergs. Readers only see 10% of what actually exists in the author's mind. This is an essential truth, especially for myself, in an entertaining, creepy, obsessive sort of way.

While writing Insight, the first book in Beholders, I was working at a civil engineering firm. My responsibility (among many other tedious details) was to research and write legal documents for DOT property acquisitions. Basically, when the state decided to build a road, I figured out who owned the property and how much land the state needed to buy from them. So, as you can imagine, when I started creating the world of Appernysia, I found myself stepping into 2 real problems.

First, because of my background with legal ramifications, I had a natural tendency to over-explain landscapes and architecture. I wanted to make ABSOLUTELY CERTAIN that the reader knew EXACTLY how my world looked. I couldn't fathom the thought of people misinterpreting my descriptions. Second, because I had developed such an astute appreciation for detailed and perfectly accurate architectural and engineering plans, I thought everyone felt the same way.

I was WAY off!

To fully understand my point, you have to fully understand what went into the creation of Appernysia. I have piles of self-created maps, cross-section schematics (for those who even know what cross-section schematics are) of trees, walls, corridors, weapons, bridges, rivers, etc. I even took the time to create one of my main cities, Itorea, in Minecraft. All these creations, in most cases, are an excellent waste of time for authors, although they do help us imagine our worlds more clearly. The point is, 99% of readers do not care if the stone bridge connecting a scout tower to a curtain wall is 8.5 feet long. Too detailed. Too tedious.

Simply put, authors should trust their readers intuitions, and allow their readers the active use of their imaginations. Don't stifle their creative sides with yours. Isn't that why books are always better than movies? As readers, we can put our individually perfect faces on the characters, rather than having a director shove their interpretations down our throats. This is especially enjoyable with those characters we love to hate, like Braedr Pulchria.

January 9, 2013

Sick 'n' Lovin' It!

I've had a thought on my mind for quite some time, but just now found a few minutes to put it into words.


There, I said it!

Seriously, though, I never believed I could be such a hard-working employee. I thought I've seen busy before, but nothing like what I've been doing at Excelsior Academy.

I think back to times at my engineering office where I was working late nights, spending upwards of 80 hours per week to meet my employer's demands. It was all-around agonizing work. I suffered from exhaustion, malnutrition, and terrible hygiene (yeah, I know, gross, but deal with it).

Guess what? Now I work 120 hours per week, make half as much as I used to, and LOVE, LOVE, LOVE IT! No need for employer threats and consequences to hang over my head, either. I'm doing all of it for my students, all 130 of them. I care for my 7th and 8th graders more than I could have imagined.

This past week has been especially eye-opening. I've pushed through some terrible trials to show up AND perform my job, trials that you never would have seen me overcome before becoming a teacher. It's all about these kids!