Category Archives: writing
Thank you to Carl Knauf for this excellent review of The Ruined Man and The Dark Goddess!
Read it all via Writers’ Block
Find out why Albert Caine has a severed head in his refrigerator. Read Blood and Lust for free from Michelkin Publishing!
My new book, The Dark Goddess, drops Friday, January 19! In anticipation of that glorious event, I am giving away two signed copies of The Ruined Man. If you haven’t read it, now is the chance to plunge into the gritty world of Victor Wolf for free! If you have read it, you can have a copy to share with friends or family!
Entry is easy. Just click on the link below and get started!
And don’t forget to preorder The Dark Goddess on Amazon!
After the excitement from “The Saga of Shamus” died down I took a step back and decided to work on my craft. Learn how to smith the words better. To accomplish this, I started writing short stories like a mad man. This was a relatively new field for me. Until then I had mostly written plays and novellas. I had just moved to Albuquerque and me and my friend Brandon would spend our weekend mornings writing. And believe me, I wrote. And wrote. And wrote. I churned out at least one short story a week for a weeks on end. Most of these stories were garbage and will never see the light of day. I collected my favorites and self-published a collection called “Twisted Yarns.” I know what you’re thinking. Why would I self-publish again? What would possess me to want to undertake that exercise in humility again? To be honest, I was getting discouraged. Because even though I was churning out garbage short stories at a record pace, I couldn’t find anyone to publish them. Most of the stories I wrote were too long for the word counts of these publications. Flash fiction was really big at the time and everyone thought that if you couldn’t tell a story in under 1000 words, it wasn’t really a story. I don’t write 1000 word short stories. Hell, I don’t even write 3500 word short stories. My short stories start at 7500 words and usually top out somewhere around 10k. And the few places that did accept lengthy stories gave me nothing but encouraging rejections. If you’re a writer, you know the kind.
“Great story, but not what we’re looking for right now.”
“Really enjoyed the story, but doesn’t fit our issue. What else do you have?”
And so on and so forth. Over and over again. One rejection after another in a constant flow of bad news. After a while the ego takes a hit. After a while you start asking yourself questions and doubting yourself and your talent.
One of the stories to come out of this frenzy of writing was the original short story version of, “The Ruined Man.” The story actually followed the events of the upcoming book 2. I sent a copy to my old creative writing professor and he got back to me the same day with, “Turn this into a book! It NEEDS to be a book!” So that’s what I set out to do.
Turning a short story into a full-length novel is no easy feat. I’ve heard it said they are two separate modes of writing. A short story is like a passionate kiss from a stranger. It is fast, unexpected and leaves you breathless and wanting more. Whereas a novel is like a love affair. It’s slow, develops over time and is chock full of emotional highs and lows. So the trick was how to turn a passionate kiss into a love affair. I decided to start at the beginning, like all good love affairs. I told the story of how Victor Wolf became the Ruined Man—a story that ended up beginning 15 years in the past. The story, which ended up being book one, “The Ruined Man,” flowed out of me as if Wolf was telling it to me over afternoon coffee. Before I knew it, I had completed the Purple Gates story and had to move on to the second half which covered the events in the short story. Turning that into a love affair was difficult and took years. Literally years. The few query letters I did send out about The Ruined Man were met with rejection (surprise, surprise). Even after the discouragement settled in and I quit writing, I would still go back to Wolf and tinker around with the novel. It soon became a monster. A monster that I loved like a child. A beast I wanted to protect from the slings and arrows of all the nasty assholes rejecting my work and chipping away at my self-esteem. So I kept the book locked away in the fortress of my hard drive like the electronic manifestation of the Man in the Iron Mask.
Eventually, I quit looking at it altogether. Because I had finally had enough. Enough rejection. Enough criticism. Enough ridicule. Enough hearing loved ones talk about how I needed to “find a real job” and leave this writing thing behind. Those of you who know me know how huge this decision would be for me. All I ever wanted was to be a storyteller. Period. From the time my imagination started imagining I was making up stories. There is nothing I love to do more than get lost in my imagination and find a story there to share with others. I had spent years of my life not listening to all the naysayers. My high school teachers begged me not to be a writer. My college professors begged me not to be a writer. My parents REALLY begged me not to be a writer.
“There’s no money in it.”
“You’ll be poor your whole life!”
“Nobody respects writers! They are slackers and miscreants!”
I ignored them all and pursued my dream only to find out they were right. As I said in my last blog, I was one voice in a cacophony of thousands trying to get heard. Few people listened. Fewer cared. Everybody wants to be a writer but nobody wants to read. I was discouraged, disgusted and frustrated and I was getting real tired of rejection. So I decided to leave it behind and get a job in IT. There is nothing more soul-crushing than giving up on your dreams. Very little else will take the light from your eyes and the life from your step like losing a piece of who you are. But I had to. I couldn’t take the pain any more. I couldn’t take the feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness. I couldn’t take the smoldering disappointment I felt radiating from everyone around me. I had been defeated. So I stepped back and “gave it to God.”
I felt it leave in that moment—the fire I had kept stoked for years just didn’t die, it was snuffed out. As my imagination dimmed, a sharp pang stabbed my heart. It felt exactly like breaking up with someone. The loss was immense.
Franz Kafka said a non-writing writer is a monster courting insanity. Franz Kafka knew something about it because I learned the truth in that statement pretty quickly. My whole life I used writing to process the world around me. The stories, poems, plays and essays I’d written were fueled by a myriad of emotions. But that was gone now. I didn’t have an outlet for creative expression. Those were dark days.
During the summer of 2016 I came across Michelkin Publishing’s call for submissions. They were an indie house out of New Mexico and they were seeking local writers with books about New Mexico. Bonus points for magical realism. My thoughts immediately went to The Ruined Man, but I quickly pushed it back. I had quit writing. I didn’t want any more rejection. I gave it to God and He decided to keep it. All my passion for writing was gone. But I kept going back to it for days. Finally I relented.
“It’s no big deal,” I convinced myself. “You haven’t gotten a rejection in years, you can handle at least one. It doesn’t even matter. It’s not like you’re a writer anymore, anyway. Accepted or rejected, it’s all the same now. Besides, it’ll be rejected for sure. No doubt.”
So I went to Michelkin’s site and filled out the submission form and included a summary of my monstrous word-baby. I clicked send and was hit with a brief spike of excitement that was quickly dulled over. Then I waited. Waited for the rejection I was sure would come.
“Dear Mr. DeGray,
Thank you for your submission but we can’t find room for you right now.
Every publisher or agent ever”
The morning I got the email from Michelkin’s publishing department that’s what I expected it to read. But that’s not what it said. They actually said they liked the summary and wanted to see the first 50 pages. I couldn’t believe it. I was shaking as I dove into the electronic dungeon of my hard drive. My heart pumped wildly as I opened the key and let my Monster in the Iron Mask see light for the first time in ages. I spit-shined the manuscript and sent them what they asked for. Then I waited again.
Months later I got another email. Again, I expected this to be the one where they thanked me for my time but they had decided to pass. Again, not what happened. They felt the first 50 were solid and wanted to see the whole manuscript. I almost cried. No joke. I spent the weekend polishing up my beloved brain-child and sent it off to them. And then I waited.
By this time I was getting anxious. It was December now and I hadn’t heard a thing from them since the end of September. I was convinced they hated it and hadn’t gotten around to sending me the rejection yet. I tried not to care, but the fire had been sparked inside me again. It burned with a tiny flame. Like a tea light–a miniature flicker of light in a sea of dark hopelessness. It was fragile and I knew that this rejection would snuff it out for good. I couldn’t help but wonder if that was the cosmic plan behind it, the killing blow that would ensure I would never get back up. And then it came.
December 10, 2016 I was at my niece’s birthday party when I got an email from Michelkin Publishing. My throat instantly dried and I was hit with a rush of excitement. I took three deep breaths and returned to the party. Later, after I had gotten home, I paced around for at least an hour terrified to open the email. Finally, I steeled my resolve and read the email.
They said they’d be happy to publish my manuscript. In two books. I cried. No joke. And that tiny flame suddenly grew into a blazing beacon.
And now, six months later, my first published novel is actually out. It feels great, I can’t lie. It’s blissful to no longer be a monster courting insanity. All dreams are worth living. That’s what I took away from this adventure in publishing. No matter who you are, no matter what your secret dream is—live it. Don’t let the wet blanket of hopelessness put out your fire. Don’t let the criticism and disapproval of others guide the direction you take. It is YOUR life, after all. You are the one who has to live it, so live it well.
With my new book, “The Ruined Man,” coming out Friday I got a little nostalgic for my journey as a writer thus far. And though “The Ruined Man” is published by Michelkin Publishing, I started out in the self-publishing world over 10 years ago.
I began my journey into the publishing industry in 2006. I had written a book called, “Absolutely True Retellings: The Saga of Shamus.” It was a YA fantasy adventure heavy on the social satire. A lot like Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift. I wrote the entire thing out on legal pads sitting at coffee shops in Lubbock, Texas. I still write like that to this day except I write at coffee shops in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Shamus was the first novel I ever completed and as such, I thought it was one of the best stories ever told and I wanted the entire world to read it and love it as much as I did. I tackled the daunting task of copying everything I’d written into Word and passed it along to an English professor friend to edit it down.
After that I tried tackling the even more daunting task of finding a way to publish my book and get it in the hands of readers the world over. Now keep in mind this was the end of 2006 and the first half of 2007. The publishing industry looked quite different than it does today. Self-publishing was basically unheard of and no one in the legitimate publishing industry took it seriously. I attended seminars where I was told by agents and editors that if I decided to self-publish I would never be taken seriously in the publishing world. In short, I’d ruin any chances I had of becoming a traditionally published author.
Needless to say this terrified me. I immediately began researching how to get an agent, write a query letter and all the other hoops you have to jump through to go the “traditional route.” As I said before, the publishing industry was very different ten years ago. Readership was declining and ebooks hadn’t become popular yet. As a result most of what traditional houses were publishing were novels ghost written for celebrities and books about wizards. To complicate things further, traditional publishing houses weren’t taking on new writers like they had in the past. They tended to view unknown authors as a liability and any money spent on them was wasted. It didn’t take long to realize that even if I were to get the attention of an agent or the Big 5, they weren’t going to pay much, if any, attention to me. Marketing, promotion and getting people reading my book would all fall on me. So I said, “Fuck it.” If I had to do it all myself, I was going to do it all myself. I was done wasting my time trying any of the traditional methods of publishing either mainstream or independent.
Still put off by the stigmas of self-publishing, I started looking into vanity publishers and hybrid publishers. For those who may not know the term, a vanity publisher is a book publisher who will turn any manuscript into a book regardless of content or quality. A hybrid publisher combines elements of traditional publishing with vanity publishing. In both cases the services offered carried a hefty price tag that more often than not rose into the $10,000 range after editing fees, formatting fees, layout fees, cover design fees and a marketing package that was tagged on with the promise of helping you “promote your book.” These promotional packages mainly included kitschy bookmarks, flyers, fact sheets and the guarantee that the company would send a press release via spam mail to anyone on your contact list. I waded through countless offers from vanity publishers until I happened across a supposedly legitimate hybrid publisher called, BookPros.
Word on the web was that BookPros would only take on your project if they felt it was high quality and commercially viable. I submitted my manuscript and waited to hear from them. A BookPros representative called me a few weeks later. They told me they loved my manuscript and wanted to get started working on it immediately! I was stoked. I was elated. I was above the moon. The president of the company even got in on the call and told me what a wonderful author I was and that I was brimming with potential. I mean, what artist doesn’t want to hear that? BookPros went on to inform me that they worked closely with a professional marketing firm to promote myself and my book. I would be flown to their offices to undergo media training and the whole bit. At this point I was nearly in tears. This was everything I had been waiting to hear. Every naysayer could suck eggs, all my self deprecation would vanish in the presence of this all-powerful validation I received. My ego, properly inflated by all the flattery, agreed instantly. Then they told me all this could be mine for the low, low, discount price of $12,000. Didn’t take me long to say, “Forget that bullshit,” and resign myself to self-publishing.
Those early days of self-publishing were exciting and filled with promise, like when the bell rings on the last day of school and a summer of endless possibility is just over the horizon. And believe me, the self-publishing sites creeping around at the time were definitely taking advantage of the doe-eyed authors lining up to be the next big thing. Because that’s what they were promising—no “promising” isn’t exactly the word. They never actually told anyone they were guaranteed to be a best seller; they just failed to correct everyone’s false impressions and hopeful delusions.
Back then, we thought that if we published through a self-publishing imprint like Authorhouse or Xlibris that our books were going to end up on the shelves of every bookstore from one coast to another. Our books would be on the shelves next to Stephen King, Clive Barker, James Patterson and Michael Crichton. We thought we were going to be able to proudly tell everyone in our lives, “I published a book. And you can go to Hastings (God rest its soul) and pick up a copy!” We were wrong. Utterly and completely wrong. It came to light much later that few, if any, self-published books actually made it off the publisher’s website. Oh sure it was listed on Ingram and available for bookstores to order, but we didn’t understand what this meant. We didn’t realize that our books were being listed with everyone else’s books and that a floodgate had been opened, flooding an already struggling industry with thousands upon thousands of new books to choose from–most of them unedited, horribly formatted drivel with a terribly designed cover carrying price tags anywhere from $10 to $30. That was another thing we didn’t “get” at first. These self-publishers allowed us to set our own price and determine our own royalty payments. So the higher the cost, the more royalties we would receive. Have you ever seen a horribly designed paperback weighing in at 300 pages with a $30 retail price? I have. I’ve seen hundreds. Guess how many of them are the next big thing?
After the truth about self-publishing came out the industry got an even worse reputation. All the wannabe authors took it personally and believe me, we were furious. Self publishers were likened to charlatans selling snake oil and empty dreams. And in their ivory towers, the Big 5 sat smirking, thinking they had weathered the storm and would once again rule the roost. Turns out they were wrong, too. But hindsight is always 20/20.
During all of this, I chose Lulu as my self-publishing provider. Back then, they didn’t seem as plastic as the other self-publishing sites. They also had rigorous standards for including books on their global distribution lists. Authors could publish anything they wanted on Lulu’s site, but if it was going to Ingram it had to be considered “industry standard.” I had to submit my book for approval and have it evaluated. This added a level of legitimacy I felt the other places lacked. So I began the laborious process of putting together an industry standard book.
At the time I was working as an ISS teacher in Lubbock which afforded me ample time to work on formatting, editing and designing The Saga of Shamus. I worked on it for at least 8 hours a day for six months straight. When I wasn’t working on the book I was researching industry standards and practices trying to figure out how to get seen in the flotsam of self-published garbage that had washed up on literature’s shores in the past few years. I was proud of my book, after all. I still am I believed in it. I thought it was worthy of recognition (and I still do). I wanted to find some way—any way—to get it in the hands of people who would read it. Social media really wasn’t a thing yet so I had to get creative with my promotional opportunities. Naturally, for an author, the first thing that comes to mind is a book signing.
Alas nothing was sacred in the self-publishing industry and seemingly overnight it was awash with authors clamoring to do book signings. You couldn’t walk into any Hastings (God rest its soul), Barnes and Noble, Boarders or even down the hall of a shopping mall without coming across a self-published author peddling his books. So I jumped right in and starting slinging books with the best of them.
That experience was…ultimately an exercise in humility. People walked by purposely avoiding eye contact as if I were a bum asking for spare change. The few that did stop did so out of pity or mild interest as if I were a disabled bum asking for spare change. And the rare few who left the table with a copy usually ended up leaving it elsewhere in the store as if I were a Jehovah’s Witness handing out Watchtower pamphlets.
But that’s not to say all of it was bad. Sitting at those folding tables with copies of my book fanned out before me filled me with pride and even a sense of accomplishment. I had done what I set out to do. I self-published an industry standard book. I took control of marketing and promotion, and even if it weren’t some nationally recognized book tour; I got out there. I met people, talked to them, told them my story and did it all with a smile on my face.
My best book signing event took place in Datil, New Mexico of all places. Datil is so small that calling it a town is being dishonest. Most of the people in the area are ranchers and live a much slower paced life than their city dwelling brethren. I had gotten some illustrations done for Shamus by an artist who was from the area. When word got out that she had done illustrations for my book, the library emailed me and asked if I would be available to do a signing during their upcoming library hootenanny. I readily agreed. It was an experience unlike any other. There were more people there and interested in my book than at all my other events combined. I sold all the copies of my book that day while a band played country music in the next room. I even received my first fan gift: a small pink elephant made of glass. The context makes perfect sense if you’ve ever read The Saga of Shamus (hint, hint).
To be able to move a complete stranger with something I’d written made the struggle worth it. In the end, that’s what I took away from my adventures in publishing Shamus. When you really get down to it, we aren’t writing for ourselves. We are writing for the world. For our audience. And when we meet that audience face to face and interact with them–when we see the admiration and appreciation in their eyes a writer can’t help but walk away thinking, “I did something right. Something good. Something other people enjoy and are inspired by.” And that, friends, is what it is really all about.
That’s right. My paranormal thriller The Ruined Man is available for early purchase before the official release date on Friday. Get your copy of The Ruined Man paperback!
And check out the trailer up on Youtube.
Jones has a gnome problem. And who wouldn’t think it’s a problem to have gnomes out to kill you? If that isn’t bad enough, he just broke up with his girlfriend and his neighbor, who is a fairy, just drank his last beer. The world of magic isn’t all fun and Hobbits and old wizards who smoke too much. Sometimes, it’s threatening and sinister and not some place you’d like to go for vacation.
“Friggin gnomes,” I muttered. I’ve never liked gnomes. Filthy little thieves is all the really are. You can always tell when gnomes are around because shit starts disappearing. Shit like lighters, clothes, knick-knacks, jewelry, etc. The little bastards even stole my bartender’s tool! You can’t be a proper bartender without a bartender’s tool. Needless to say, I lost that job and have hated gnomes ever since. And now they were trying to kill me. Everything comes full circle I suppose. “I just broke up with my girlfriend. I don’t need this shit.”
Doloria rolled her eyes. “Get over yourself. You’ve got bigger things to worry about.”
I glared at her, but she was right. “O.K. So what stops a gnome??” I said and began pacing.
“You mean besides your blade in its gullet?” giggled Doloria. “I like a pixie stick.” She swung an invisible wand at an invisible gnome.
“I’m not a fairy. I can’t use a pixie stick.”
“Make a circle of protection then. With a gnomish twist.”
“I’d rather not. I don’t like using magic. Why don’t you keep watch. Just for tonight? I’ll figure something out in the morning, I promise.”
“Uh no. I’ve got plans. Looking for my sister. She’s been gone a few days. Other fairies have gone missing too.”
“Want me to help?”
“Uh, no. You have your own problems.” She guzzled the remainder of her beer and burped loudly before springing to her feet. “Well as much as I love our little chats, I gotta run.”
“Protection circle it is,” I sighed and prepared to create it. I do all my ceremonial magic automatically. I can’t tell you how I do it. I go into a trance and the magic preforms itself. That’s why I’m not a wizard. I’m not casting spells out of dusty tomes or trying to conjure demons. I just think about it and it kind of happens. After I was done I dug an old book of matches out of the kitchen drawer and lit a smoke. Now, at least, no gnomish assassins would sneak up on me in my sleep. And tomorrow…tomorrow I’d start finding answers.
The best place to find answers to my questions was a flea market. Gnomes love the shit out of flea markets. They get to buy, sell and trade any “treasures” they’ve come across. My bartender’s tool probably ended up in a flea market. Plus, flea markets usually have a fat Elvis impersonator. Gnomes go ape shit for fat Elvis.
Just like any other weekend, the flea market was was overcrowded and stank of body odor and fried food. Junk peddlers called to the second hand shoppers, proclaiming their junk better than their rivals’. I know what you’re thinking. How was I going to find a gnome in all that? But spotting gnomes in a flea market is easier than you think. When the fey disguise themselves as human, they don’t glamour themselves as Oompah Loompahs or munchkins. Nope. They are usually the huge, loud and dirty fools running around slamming into people and spitting in improper places. The trick is to separate the glamoured fey from the actual huge, loud and dirty fools that populate the flea market.
This is most effectively done with a holey stone. A round stone with a hole through the center. Old magic and simple. It allows you to see through illusions and glamour. Of course this meant I was wandering around covertly peeking through a hole in a rock. But, hey, it’s the flea market. Crazier people wander around there every day. That’s where they go to hide.
It didn’t take long to find a gnome running a booth. He was disguised as a monster of a man: well over 6ft and half way through 300 pounds. His shirt and jeans were colorfully stained and he had a huge bushy beard which stored leftover bits of food.
“How’re ya today?” he asked as I browsed his wares.
“Great. Just great. I’m looking for a bartender’s tool. Have one?”
He scratched his beard and belched thoughtfully. “Been a while since the last one passed through my hands.”
“That’s a shame. I have good money to spend.” Mention money and a gnome’s eyes instantly widen. But when I pulled out the golden coin his eyes widened for a different reason: fear.
“You! You’re supposed to be—“
“Dead? Yeah, I know. Funny how life works out, isn’t it?”
He chuckled nervously and darted quick glances around his shoulders.
“What’s your name?”
“Skittleshanks.” He eyed me up and down. I could tell he was trying to tell if he could get past me without blowing his glamour.
“Look. If you insist on causing a scene I’ll bind you and get my information that way. Or–and this is the option I’d choose if I were you– you take a lunch break and we talk about this like civilized folk. And maybe get a fat Elvis set in, too.”
Fifteen minutes later I was sitting across from Skittleshanks watching him devour double cheeseburgers and funnel cakes.
“Where does something so small put so much food?” I wondered, mildly impressed at his display of wanton gluttony.
He burped in my face in response and wiped his mouth with the back of his meaty hand. “What is it you want, exactly?”
“I want to know why your cartel is trying to kill me.”
“You mean you can’t figure that out for yourself? Someone is paying us to. It’s business.”
“Who paid you to?”
He finished off a jumbo soda before answering, “I dunno.”
“Don’t play with me, gnome,” I threatened. “I need answers before things get ugly.”
“Oh things got ugly the moment I laid eyes on you. I told you I don’t know who put out the contract on you. I just know it’s there. Management doesn’t let us in on all the juicy details, see?” He looked over my shoulder and nodded. “This is him, boys.”
“What’s going on?” I demanded as I was hauled to my feet by two buffoons as equally large and filthy as Skittleshanks.
“These are my brothers Skeetshills and Spittlespew.”
A word of advice: Never get captured by gnomes. There’s few things in life worse than death and most of them have to do with gnomish captivity and torture. “Let me go!”
Skittleshanks guffawed. “Or what? You’ll bind me, Mr. Mystic?”
One of the lugs holding me clocked me upside the head and sent my world spinning. Then they dragged me out and threw me into the trunk of their beat up Continental without drawing a second glance from any of the flea marketers, like nothing at all was out of the ordinary. And through it all fat Elvis sang “Are You Lonesome Tonight” in the background. And that,folks, is why I love flea markets.
From the story “A Night In Summerlands” in Twisted Yarns by Jason DeGray.
Get your copy on Amazon today!
THE WATERMELON MOUNTAINS
How do you know when you’ve crossed the border into insanity? Is there a conscious awareness of that moment? If there were, Kurt couldn’t recall it. But the fact remained that, to him, reality didn’t seem real anymore. There was a definite disassociation with not just ‘society’ but reality altogether. As far as he was concerned, existence was fake. A sham. A badly written plot to an epic science fiction novel replete with corporate dystopia and inexplicable quantum phenomena. He had become a detached observer from the whole of it. Bemusedly watching his fleshly persona scurry about on a quest with no foreseeable positive outcome. Like Percival on his search for the Holy Grail. Utterly and irrevocably absurd. He was sure there were mental disorders to describe his condition—But hell. Anymore, there were mental disorders to describe every aspect of human nature. Most of them justifications to write people prescriptions for pills they didn’t need. Normal had come to mean a placid complacency in life characterized by a dull stare and inability to see past the latest distraction. What this fake reality was a distraction from, he didn’t have time to consider because Albuquerque was coming into view.
The fading sun painted the Sandia Mountains a pinkish red to the east, giving them their name among the locals of The Watermelon Mountains. To the west he could make out the tips of three dormant volcanoes that characterized the West Mesa. Before him sprawled the town of Albuquerque in all of its chaotic glory. It had a charm to it—a definite enchantment. But Kurt could feel the undercurrent of violence and destruction that ran hot just beneath the surface. He’d seen enough news to know that hot undercurrent bubbled to the surface more frequently than most cared to admit.
He had to get a room and fast. Somewhere out of the way. Not flashy. A place where his comings and goings wouldn’t be monitored. That place was the Borderlands Motel, a seedy joint hovering on the border of civilized Albuquerque and the place where civilization went to die. He spent a fitful night amidst the screaming, yelling and fucking of the motel’s other patrons leaking through his walls. The next morning, he drove to the nearest Mal-Mart and picked up a new burner phone. His first call was to Esme.
“Kurt! Oh my god! Where are you? I’ve been trying to call you for a week!”
“I left my phone at home. Smart phones aren’t safe to carry. I’m in Albuquerque.”
“When are you getting here? Bella keeps asking for you. I’ve been worried sick. My mom’s driving me up the wall. You know how she gets.”
“I know, I know. I’m sorry. Look. It’s almost over. I’m gonna get the answers I need here and then I’ll be in Arizona. Two or three days tops. I promise.”
“So what’s going on? Is the government really after you? My mom thinks you’ve gone crazy.”
“Look. I’ll explain everything when I get there.” Hearing her voice was painful. He didn’t want to have to deal with this shit right now too. There was enough crazy going around already. All this did was complicate things for him. For some reason their first meeting played through his mind. She looked so alone sitting at the coffee bar. He didn’t know if he should approach her. Didn’t know if he could even muster the courage. But there she sat, hand cupping her shapely chin. Honey brown locks tumbling over delicate shoulders. Her face a mixture of intensity and boredom as she struggled to maintain focus on the book in front of her. He loved her instantly. He loved her still. And the last thing he wanted was to bring this weirdness into his family’s life. “I miss you guys so much.”
“Yeah. We miss you too,” she said, concern leaking into her tone. She had been scared since he busted into the house that day and started shoving clothes into a duffel bag. Sure, he was an eclectic guy. Always had been. That was part of his appeal. But this…this was different. The panic and paranoia had reached critical levels. He very well could be having a psychotic break. She kicked herself for not seeing this earlier. If Kurt was going through that, then the last thing he needed to be doing right now was running across the country off the grid and afraid of every shadow to cross his path. Sure things were difficult between them lately. He was an asshole more often than not and she’d entertained plenty of thoughts of leaving, but it’s not like she didn’t love him. And if he needed her, she would be there for him. “Are you O.K? If you want, I can come meet you out there. We can finish whatever you have to do together.”
“No need to worry. It’ll just be a little while longer. I promise. Tell Bella I love her and will see her soon.”
“Kurt…I really don’t think you should be alone right now.”
“That’s why I love you. I really have to go.” He hung up the phone and immediately called GRL_BLU. “In town. What now?”
“Meet me at the tram. 3 p.m.”
Albuquerque is home to the world’s longest tramway. A cable car system running from the bottom of the Sandias to the peak where a restaurant greets weary travelers.
Kurt found his way to the tram and waited for GRL_BLU to show. He watched as people came in, purchased tickets and boarded the tram, unsure of who he was looking for until a short Hispanic girl in her 20’s sauntered in. She had hair dyed a sapphire blue and enough piercings to make her look like a walking tackle box.
He approached her awkwardly. “Umm…excuse me. Are you—“
“Not here. Just get on the tram. We’ll talk more later.”
The tram was basically a tiny, metal box suspended by nothing but a wire cable. It swayed and lurched on its journey to the top and Kurt was sure that at any moment he would be plunged to his death on the rocks below. He kept trying to make eye contact with GRL_BLU, but she was ignoring him, gazing out the window, lost in her own thoughts.
What is going on here? What am I doing? Kurt wondered as he studied the woman who was supposed to help him. This isn’t safe. GRL_BLU was cool online but he didn’t know a damn thing about her in real life. Knowing someone online and knowing them in real life are two different things. Everybody is playing a persona online whether they realize it or not. They pretend to be the best versions of themselves in some form or fashion. For all he knew, this strange woman was a shill for the Mind’s agents luring him to his death. He stopped short after that thought and his eyes widened.
GRL_BLU turned to him then and smiled knowingly. “Man, your head must be about to explode from all this shit. Am I right?”
He nodded and leaned in close, hoping no one in the crowded tram would overhear, and whispered, “Are you working for Them?”
She giggled. “Them? No. I’m with They.”
“That’s not funny.”
She laughed anyway. It was always the same with these Swifting types. She would never understand what made them the special ones. What it was that triggered the mutation in them. All of them were basically the same. Timid cowards who were incapable of making any real decisions. They floated through life when their abilities were triggered, adrift in a sea of uncertainty and dread. Never knowing whether they were going to wake up in the world they fell asleep in or another altogether. Maybe it was for the best that she and those like her stepped in. All the Mind’s cells were suffering from a corrosive insanity. Existence was sick—diseased—and it was up to her and her cohorts to end the suffering once and for all.
“You met Jim in Durango, right?”
“I did. You guys know each other?”
“Yeah. As much as two people can. He’s supposed to meet us at the restaurant and go over some things.”
Kurt mentally kicked himself. He’d managed to himself caught no matter where he turned. Neither GRL_Blue’s mysterious friends nor the Mind’s agents really cared about him. They were only interested in what Kurt, and namely his Swifting, could do for them. He had a feeling this had all been played out before by his online Swifting comrades, like Kid_Kode. And he was fairly certain Kode was dead.
“Relax,” the blue-haired gutter punk assured him as if prying into his thoughts once again, “It’s all going to be O.K.”
The restaurant at the top was an old log cabin style building with a large, wooden deck around it. Jim was nowhere to be found. Nor had anyone matching his description been through there.
“Don’t worry,” GRL_BLU said, “I’m sure he’ll show soon. Let’s go grab a drink.”
They took seats at the bar on the back deck, each trying to ignore the uneasiness building.
GRL_BLU was the first to break the uncomfortable silence. “So I take it Jim filled you in on what’s going on here.”
“Yeah. Are you validating what he said?”
He looked at her quizzically. “Are you sure? It’s pretty insane shit.”
“Jim always says sanity is nothing more than being well-adjusted to your situation. But Truth, well, Truth just is. What you consider sane or insane doesn’t really matter in the face of Truth.”
“Jim is just stuffed to the gills with information, it seems.”
“He is,” GRL_BLU assured him. “He’s literally one of the smartest people I know.”
“Well alright then. Let’s hear it. What’s the next step?”
“That all depends on you.”
“Yes. The Machine is already falling apart. Everything is falling apart—the Mind is infested with insanity—falling headlong into chaos and then…” she shrugged her tiny shoulders, “You feel it, don’t you? Admit it.”
“Yes,” he said, a barely audible whisper that escaped his lips to expose his innermost thoughts.
“I knew it! I knew you would get this. I told Jim you’d be different.” She ordered another round and two shots of Captain Morgan. She handed one to Kurt and raised hers for a toast. “To Kurt. And the sacrifices we make for a little peace and quiet.”
“Uhh…cheers? I guess…”
“So you basically have two choices. Kill yourself and end your insanity or run and hope you can swift far enough ahead of the Mind to start making things interesting.”
“How can I run?” Kurt couldn’t help but recall his visions. “It’ll eventually catch up to me, right?”
GRL_BLU nodded. “Unless we quicken you.”
“We…kick you into overdrive. Catapult you into new dimensions altogether.”
“For what? Jim said that was dangerous.”
“Sure it’s dangerous. But think about it. Everything is crumbling into nothingness anyway. You can get a head start on all of that. Help the get the ball rolling. End the universe’s suffering. You’d be, like, a hero for sure.”
“Actually, that sounds pretty terrifying.”
Before she could retort, her phone chimed for an incoming text. She glanced down at it. “It’s Jim. Said to meet him outside. There’s a shelter up the trail a bit.”
It was much colder on the peak than it was in town and Kurt wished he’d brought a jacket. As they neared the shelter, GRL_BLU called out for Jim. Silence was her response. She sat down at the stone table and Kurt checked out the view. It was breathtaking. The whole city of Albuquerque sprawled out below him like some 3-D map.
“I’m king of the world,” he yelled.
A low chuckle from the underbrush got both of their attention. GRL_BLU waited expectantly and couldn’t contain her shock when the Bald Guy and the Brunette stepped into view holding odd looking weapons.
“Are those credit cards?” Kurt wondered.
“No,” GRL_BLU answered and took a few steps back, “They are definitely not credit cards.” She was desperately searching for a way out. This couldn’t be it. She couldn’t go out like this. Not this way. When she died, she would return to the Void. She had to make her mark on the aberration called Creation while she still could. She had to be remembered. And she wasn’t going to let her footnote in history end like this.
“Don’t even think about it,” the Bald Guy said and chuckled. “I’ve always wanted to say that. But seriously. Don’t.”
“What have you done with Jim?” demanded Kurt. He had finally had enough. Something changed inside him. He lost fear of anything anyone could ever do to him.
“Who is Jim?” asked the Brunette while cleaning out gunk from underneath her nails. She didn’t seem the least bit worried about Kurt at all. “He a friend of yours?”
Had he shifted again? To a world where Jim didn’t exist? “No. Yes. I don’t know…maybe. He was the guy I ran into in Durango. He told me about everything.”
“Oh. Him,” remarked the Brunette with obvious distaste. “Is that what he told you his name was? He’s no longer a problem. No need to worry.”
“I’m not worried about him. You’re the ones trying to kill me!”
She laughed, a beautiful and haunting sound that resonated in the depths of Kurt’s innermost soul. “Another one of ‘Jim’s’ fairytales, I take it? Make no mistake. Both Jim and his little side kick here want you dead. They just want your death to destroy worlds. We want you to save them.”
“They’re already being destroyed,” said GRL_BLU defiantly. “You assholes are losing. It doesn’t matter what you do. The Mind is coming apart at the seams. Insanity is leaking in. Creation is the abomination. I’m just helping return everything to peace.” And then she made her move.
It all happened so fast Kurt would never be sure what really happened. In one instant GRL_BLU bolted. In the next the Bald Guy zapped her with his credit card gun and she vanished. No blood, no body, not even a neat little pile of ashes, GRL_BLU was gone as if she’d never existed. Kurt snapped and rushed the Bald Guy in a blind rage. They wrestled for control of the strange weapon until the Mind’s agent mysteriously vanished too. After that, the Brunette was on top of him, her weird gun pressing threateningly on his throat.
“What is your problem? We aren’t trying to kill you, you stupid asshole, you’re already dead!”
“What? What do you mean?”
“You. Your specific version of ‘you’ is dead. You died in that train wreck back in 2005. Or you should have died. There was no close call. Something glitched and you ended up swifting. We’ve been trying to catch up to you ever since. To set it right.”
“So it was you who killed all those other versions of me? Is that what setting it right means?”
“No. Those deaths you saw were committed shortly after you’d swift. The Mind was trying to self-correct your little anomaly. You were supposed to be dead, after all. But somehow you always managed to slip through—shift away—and get swapped out for some innocent version of yourself who ended up paying for your mutation. A mutation which can very literally blink universes out of existence.”
She believed what she was saying. She really did. It made sense that this is what the Mind would tell her, that is, if the Mind had actually spoken to her or any of her fellow agents in a very long time. Honestly, she had been shooting from the hip for countless centuries and across an infinite number of universes. All the Mind’s agents had continued on their initial missions like immortal automatons whose creator had passed on and left them alone in a cold and uncertain world. They had purpose—a prime directive, so to speak. And that purpose was to perpetuate existence. To keep nonexistence from creeping in and taking over—to keep the multiverse from becoming static. She pushed on keeping this mission alive but at times she couldn’t help but wonder if she was following the Mind’s goal or following her own flawed logic. Now was one of those times. But second guessing herself would only get her killed and endanger countless lives. So she steeled herself for what she had to do.
“There is no other way. You can’t be allowed to continue this.” The credit card gun at Kurt’s throat started to glow and hum.
“Wait!” he yelled and a bright light filled his vision.
He awoke the next instant, shaking and sweating; his alarm blaring in the background.
“Daddy! Daddy! It’s morning, daddy. I want waffles,” said a small voice he instinctively knew belonged to his toddler son, Jacob.
He tried to shake off the dream, to accept this newest universe he’d stepped into. He ran his fingers through his hair and managed a smile. “Waffles it is, little man,” he promised and put on his robe. A mental image flashed through his mind—an image of him jumping off Sandia Peak to land in a broken heap on the rocks below. He felt a pang of guilt for Esme and Bella.
“Daddy needs his coffee.”
“Coffee is brewing in the kitchen. Estimated time until completion is one minute twelve seconds,” chimed the robotic female voice of Rosie, his automated housing assistant.
He maneuvered around his apartment, it was unlike any he’d Swifted into before. It had a completely different floor plan. Different furniture. He didn’t recognize the woman in the picture with him, but knew her name was Elise. A television embedded into the wall clicked on as he passed by.
“…partly cloudy and 55 degrees. Light winds and a slight chance for afternoon showers…”
He poured himself a steaming mug of coffee, fixed Jacob breakfast and stepped out onto the balcony. The mug slipped from his numb fingers and crashed to the ground. The geography, the plant life, the sky were all wrong. All unrecognizable as if he wasn’t even on Earth anymore. He was on an island, a vast ocean stretched out before him and dense jungle covered most of the land with unrecognizable plants. He was part of what looked to be a large, walled city that stood in the center of the island like a dark monolith.
“Where am I?”
“Home,” chimed the robotic female voice of Rosie, “This is your residence, Kurt.” Tiny robots swirled around him, cleaning up the broken glass and spilled coffee. “You have lived here with your wife, Elsie and son, Jacob, since your arrival three years ago.”
“But where am I? Am I on Earth?”
“There is no Earth. It died long ago. This is Colony Prime on the moon Arboles, orbiting planet Marduk in the Rigel system. Why are you having memory problems? Should I inform the medical ward of your troubles?”
“No. No, I’m fine. Just had a strange dream is all. I’ll be fine.” He’d done it. He’d broken free of the cell and Swifted into another dimension. “I’m gonna need another cup of coffee though. This is going to be a long day.”
And deep inside the heart of Creation, the Mind stirred.
Part two of the dimension hopping saga of Swifting! Enjoy!
OVERHEAD SPY SKA-TELLITE
He watched the plane take off and then got in his car. GRL_BLU had said she’d email him her info if he needed any help. He had to assume that if the Brunette knew so much about him already that she was privy to most, if not all, of his online sources of information. Hell, probably anything connected to a computer was fucked. But he had nowhere else to start. Besides, if They (and he hated using that proverbial term) knew his next move then he’d be better off seeing what his options were.
He logged into his other email account—the one kept hidden so he could keep his Swifting as low key as possible. His inbox lit up with one new message from GRL_BLU.
So yeah. Weird shit and things probably aren’t safe. But whatever. If they know, they know. Right? So here’s my number give me a call and let’s figure this out.
Kurt eyed his smart phone warily. He couldn’t trust the damn thing. Eyes and ears and photographic memory all rolled into one. Forget that. He went to Mal-Mart, bought a burner phone and dialed the number he was given. She answered on the fourth ring.
There was a long pause before a timid, “K?”
“Yeah. It’s K.”
She breathed an audible sigh of relief. “Oh thank Tiamat. Are you OK?”
“So far so good. Nothing weird yet.”
“Are you alone?”
“I am now.”
“You shouldn’t be. I can help you. Get to Albuquerque and call me again.”
“Yeah.” She hung up after that.
Albuquerque, New Mexico didn’t seem like the kind of place Kurt wanted to end up. He’d seen it on popular t.v. shows and if art imitated life in the least, he was pretty sure Albuquerque was a cesspool of crime, drugs and moral degeneracy. All of which were fascinating to watch on television but not so much to experience in real life. The upside was that it was on the way to Arizona where Esme and Bella awaited him. At this point, it was either Albuquerque or sit around and wait for the Brunette to come knocking. His gut told him this was a bad idea. He’d known GRL_BLU from the forum for over a year now. She always seemed like a cool enough person. So fuck it. Road trip it was.
He left later than night, heading out of town and north deciding on the northern interstates in an attempt to be less obvious. He made it to Madison, Wisconsin taking breaks to sleep at rest stops and paying for everything in cash. He was at a gas station browsing for chips and soda when a short, chubby bald man entered and flashed the clerk a disarming smile.
Kurt’s thoughts immediately went to his conversation with GRL_BLU just before he left and her story of Kid_Kode running into a bald guy right before he disappeared. But that was just being paranoid. Right? There were millions of bald guys in the United States. Every one of them couldn’t be working for whoever was after him. He took a deep breath, and turning to face the drink coolers, exhaled and tried to relax.
“Oh nice. Two energy drinks for five bucks,” the bald guy said and stood beside him. “You like these?”
“Huh? Oh, I don’t know. I think all energy drinks taste the same.”
“True enough,” the bald guy chuckled. “So you on a big trip?”
The question caught Kurt off guard. “How’d you know?”
“Just an educated guess.” He studied the energy drinks, unable to choose one. “I think orange and grape. What do you think?”
“I think you should learn how to make decisions by yourself. Asking strangers for advice gets people in trouble.”
The bald guy laughed. “That’s smart.”
“Yeah,” Kurt mumbled and hurried over to another isle. He was browsing the chips, trying not to look in the guy’s direction when he felt the barrel of a gun pressed into his back and hot, fetid breath on his neck whispering, “Do you know what fear is?”
Kurt froze for an instant, unsure of what to do. “I have a pretty good idea right now.”
“Fear is nothingness. Staring the void right in its empty, vapid soul and realizing that is the potential for everything. Does that not terrify you? That all of this—the whole of existence—could some day disappear into nothingness?” Kurt opened his mouth to answer but was cut off, “Don’t worry about answering. What you think doesn’t mean a damn thing. What matters is that you, Kurt, are a catalyst of said undoing. Which is why you’re coming with me.”
“Mister, what are you doing to that man?” said a child who appeared at the end of the isle, clutching a teddy bear. Her big, innocent eyes were wide with worry. “You look mad. Are you gonna hurt him?”
The Bald Guy smiled and backed away. “Why, of course not, little one. I was just talking to him. Wasn’t I?” He turned to Kurt for affirmation, but Kurt had already fled.
The Bald Guy watched from the window as his quarry got in his car and sped off, almost hitting 2 people in his frantic haste to escape. “Now look what you did little one. You let him get away.” The Bald Guy turned to give an admonishing smile to the little girl, but she too was gone.
He saw her at the counter with her mother, buying chocolate milk and pretzels, her eyes alight with joy and the uncomfortable situation already forgotten.
“You got played,” said a voice at his ear. “We had him dead to rights.”
He nodded at the Brunette’s statement. “They’re getting brazen. They must really want this one. C’mon. I’m hungry for some chicken fried steak. I saw a diner right off the I.”
Kurt drove frantically for hours, unsure and unconcerned with the direction. He stopped only when he had to get gas and stayed awake with caffeine pills and energy drinks. He hadn’t seen the Brunette or Bald Guy since Wisconsin and hoped that he had finally given them the slip. He couldn’t keep this up. Exhaustion was setting in and he had to stop for a while. Get his bearings. Figure out where he was going to go from there. He saw signs indicating Durango, Colorado was coming up and decided to stop. Durango was a quaint mountain town just across the border from New Mexico. It housed a thriving tourist industry, a small college and Ska Brewery. He really needed a good beer and Ska Brewery had always been a favorite.
He was well into his second beer and half a cheeseburger when he saw a man browsing the merchandise corner, shooting quick glances in his direction. He tried to ignore him—tell himself he was over reacting. The guy wasn’t bald. He wasn’t a hot brunette chick in disguise. Just some blonde dude who was way too tan and looked about 30. Nothing to worry about.
Until the guy walked over and said, “Hey. They have good cheeseburgers here?”
“I guess. Yeah.” Said Kurt, avoiding eye contact in hopes of making the creeper go away.
He didn’t. “Great. Gonna have to try it. The beer good too?”
“Yeah. Beer’s good too. Now if you don’t mind…”
“Right, right. See, I just drove in from Salt Lake City. Just asking some friendly tourist questions.”
“You a Mormon?”
“A Mormon. You’re from Utah, you said.”
“Not everyone from Utah is a Mormon. Besides, if I was a Mormon, you think I’d be in a bar?”
“I dunno what you religious types do. Look man—“
“Look, Jim. I’m done answering friendly questions. Now for the love of God, leave me alone!”
Jim raised his hands in mock surrender and took a few steps back. “No need to get all bent out of shape. I’m just trying–”
“Just trying to be friendly. Yeah. I get it. But if you knew what I’d been through lately you’d understand that I’m the last guy you wanna be friendly with. Now leave me alone.”
“Right. Sure.” He made like he was leaving and threw, “Women, huh?” over his shoulder.
Kurt bristled. This guy was seriously testing his patience. “What did you just say?”
“Women. Hell, whatever happened to you, it’s plain to see that a big part of it has to do with a woman.”
“Mind your fuckin’ business,” he growled while tossing some cash at the bartender and marching out the door.
Jim walked slowly and deliberately toward him as he fumbled for his keys, unable to fit them into the lock.
“Kurt. I’m one of the good guys. I’m here to help.”
Kurt dropped his keys with a curse. “Yeah right. You’re a liar like the rest.”
“The rest? You mean the Brunette and the Bald Guy? I don’t work for them. I work against them.”
Kurt paused for a second and glanced at Jim.
“I’m telling you the truth. Just calm down and come back inside. We can talk and if you don’t like what I have to say you can leave. No questions. No following you. Just…let’s talk, alright?”
Kurt stood there for a brief moment obviously struggling with the decision. “Alright. One beer. I need some answers.”
“Me and the people I work with are a conglomerate of sorts. You are aware of the existence of other universes? Parallel dimensions?”
“Of course. Bubbles within bubbles within bubbles.”
“Or cells within cells, yes? Now imagine each and every possible universe within your own is part of an even larger cell, or your prime universe, so to speak.”
“And that prime cell is only one of a countless number of cells within the whole Mind.”
“Like the mind of God?”
“If you want to call It that. Though most of us consider that kinda tacky.”
“Oh wow,” Kurt stammered as his mind was blown. “So each of these cells—these universes—exist as its own separate dimension?”
“Now you’re getting it!”
“I’ve been at it for a while. Swifting and all…”
“Ah yes. And that’s where the crux of your problem lies. You see, Swifting between universes within the same dimension is seen as normal and within the confines of the Mind’s goal. Most of the time people Swift without ever realizing it. Little shifts here and there to help their progress. It’s when violent shifts happen and people become aware that worries those that seek to harm you.”
“Why?” He didn’t ask for this. Never set out trying to Swift into different places. He didn’t understand why anyone would want to harm him.
“These anomalies like you break free of the cell. They can eventually Swift to different dimensions altogether. Places where they aren’t meant to exist. Places where their unnatural presence can irrevocably alter the Mind’s goal for that particular cell. You get it?”
“Yeah. Shit can get really messed up if we end up where we aren’t supposed to.”
“Right.” He leaned in closely. “So when did you first notice your Swifting?”
“You mean when it dawned on me? Simple. It was after I got back from a road trip to California in 2005. On the way home, we almost got hit by a train.”
“Yeah. And when we got home we found out that Billy Graham wasn’t, in fact, dead.”
“The preacher? And you remember him being dead?”
“Yeah. He died in the 90’s. President Clinton played the sax at his funeral. It was on television. I watched it with my mom. She kept saying what a great man he was. My friend that was with me remembered him dying at the same time too.”
“Interesting. Where’s your friend now?”
“Haven’t seen or heard from him in years.”
Jim nodded sagely. “He’s probably dead by now.”
“Why would you say that?”
“Look, the Mind has a way of…dealing with problems like you and your friend. You’ve already met them.”
“You mean Brunette and the Bald Guy?”
Jim nodded. “Yup. Agents of the Mind, we call them. They are specially privileged individuals who get to hop universes and dimensions enforcing the Mind’s goal.”
“Wait, are you saying the Mind is trying to kill me?”
Jim smirked and sipped his beer in reply.
“Weird how things turn out sometimes. Now as fun as our little chat was, we’ve gone over our time. You need to get back on the road. The Brunette and the Bald Guy are probably close behind if they’re not already here. You need to keep moving. Get to where you’re going.”
“What about you?”
“Don’t worry about me. I’ve been playing this cat and mouse game with these idiots for longer than I care to remember…or admit. Safe travels.” Jim walked to the bar, paid the tab and left.