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  1. I had to try one time. Even though Dad was about to turn the car into my aunt and uncle’s driveway. Even though he and Mom had said “no” the hundred other times I’d already asked them. This was my last chance so I crossed my fingers on both hands and went for it. “Please please can I go to New York City with you guys?” I asked. “We could see the Statue of Liberty. I read all about it online. It’s 305 feet tall if you count the pedestal it stands on.” I knew they would like that I threw in the exact measurement. They always approved when I used my laptop for educational things instead of just playing video games. “I promise we’ll take you to see it another time, buddy. This is a business trip for us and we’re going to be busy the whole time we’re there,” Dad said, stopping the car in front of my aunt’s herb garden. “Aww, look how excited they are to have you stay with them.” Mom pointed to the porch. Great Uncle Theo held up a WELCOME JAKE! sign and Great Aunt Ducky took a handkerchief out of the pocket of her plaid dress to wave back and forth, her silver hair pinned in its usual neat bun. “Then can I at least have eight hours of screen time every day?" I asked. “And then two more after dinner? There isn’t anything else to do out here. I’m going to be so bored!” “You can have three hours a day,” Dad said. “That’ll leave you plenty of time to do other fun stuff out here in the country, like going fishing with your uncle. Or peach picking with your aunt.” “Except none of those things are as fun as playing Battle of the Zombie Dragons,” I muttered as Uncle Theo pulled open the car door. Right away I got a whiff of the just-blown-out birthday candle smoky smell that always blew around my aunt and uncle’s little brown house with its crooked green shutters. Uncle Theo ran his hand through my curly hair. “Well, I’m surprised you didn’t feel that crawling around your noggin!” He held up a plastic spider and grinned. “Good one, Uncle Theo,” I said politely like I did every time he played one of his practical jokes. When I was six, I couldn’t stop giggling at his endless pranks. Now that I was almost eleven, I thought they were more annoying than funny. “Wait until I show my new batch of fake dog poop. It fools your Aunt Ducky every time and we don’t even have a dog!” Uncle Theo burst out laughing. After they kissed me goodbye and reminded me to “be a good boy” and “don’t play your games all day, be outside in this nice fresh air!” Mom and Dad got back in the car. I stayed out on the porch for a few extra seconds in case they changed their mind and turned around to come back for me. But Dad tooted the horn a few times and Mom stuck her arm out the window for one last wave before they turned onto the road. I couldn’t help letting out a little groan and Uncle Theo nodded. “Yes, today is a scorcher,” he said. “Let’s take your things up to your room and we’ll head over to Dairy Queen after lunch. Nothing better in this heat than a strawberry sundae.” He picked up my duffel and took it inside. I leaned down to pick up my backpack. Two bright purple eyes peered at me from below the porch railing. “Whoa!” I said, leaping back so fast I knocked over one of the rocking chairs. Whoever or whatever it was took off towards to the woods that edged the back of the yard. It was galloping so fast all I could see was a dark blur. Maybe it was a bear? Not that I knew a lot about bears. Back home in Chicago I mostly saw pigeons and a few squirrels and once I saw two rats fighting over a piece of bread in the alley behind our apartment building. I ran into the house and up the stairs to the little guest room at the end of the hall. “Look at this Jake,” Uncle Theo said from the doorway. He held up a small spoon. He touched it and the whole spoon collapsed. “Isn’t that a hoot? I can’t wait to see the look on Aunt Ducky’s face when she tries to eat her banana split with it and the ice cream keeps falling right to the ground.” “Good one, Uncle Theo,” I said without even thinking. He leaned in and whispered. “You won’t believe what I’ve got up my sleeve for my next stunt. It’ll be the biggest one I’ve ever pulled off. You’ve never seen anything like it!” I followed him down to the kitchen for lunch, trying to figure out what his big practical joke could be. Probably something he read in his favorite book, THE 100 BEST PRANKS TO PLAY ON YOUR FRIENDS AND FAMILY. I’d looked through it once and Uncle Theo had drawn little stars next to Number 39: Fill the cookie jar with ketchup and Number 67: Stuffing the whole freezer with ping pong balls. So that’s what I’d be doing the next ten days: Playing ZombieDragons, staying away from weird bears and watching out for Uncle Theo’s next big joke. Page Break Chapter 2 “I saw something weird today,” I said when we sat down at the table. “There was something looking me from the side of the porch.” “Probably our neighbor’s cat, Henry coming over for a visit,” Aunt Duckie said. “Don’t worry, he’s very friendly.” I shook my head. “No, this definitely wasn’t a cat. It ran to the back woods so fast it was hard to see anything. I even thought it could be a bear. But bears don’t have super bright purple eyes, do they?” Uncle Theo put down his egg salad sandwich. “You’re sure it had bright purple eyes?” I nodded. “That was not a bear.” He stood up. “Excuse me. I’m going to run downstairs to get some, uh, pickles from the pantry.” “There’s some right here, Uncle Theo.” I pointed to the plate in the middle of the table but he’d already hurried through the basement door. “What’s going on?” I asked Aunt Ducky. “He seemed really freaked out all of a sudden.” “Oh, uh, maybe he’s worried that we’re out of pickles,” Aunt Ducky untied her apron. “I’ll go help him find some. You stay here and finish your lunch.” She went down the stairs quickly too. I was gulping down the rest of my sandwich so I could get upstairs to start a new round of Zombie Dragons when a loud thump! on the back porch made the kitchen windows shake. I looked through the yellow curtains to see a box. At least I thought it was a box. I’d never seen one like this and it was my job on Saturdays to unpack all the cartons delivered to my family’s shoe store. This one looked like it was made of heavy black rubber. Bulging out on one side, it caved in on the other. I opened the door to read the writing etched into the rubber: 5 POUNDS OF CHUNKY BAT VOMIT FOR SPELLS NEEDING CHUNKY BAT VOMIT 5 POUNDS LIQUIDY BAT VOMIT FOR SPELLS REQURING LIQUIDY BAT VOMIT. DO NOT LEAVE OUTSIDE OR VOMIT WILL MELT. PUT IN COOL DARK PLACE RIGHT AWAY. This must be stuff for Uncle Theo’s prank. He probably ordered it from the same place as the fake dog poop. Despite the loud thump like someone had dropped a boulder on the porch, it was pretty light when I picked it up. The kitchen was sunny and warm so I carried the box down to the basement. My aunt and uncle weren’t in the little pantry stocked with Aunt Ducky’s jars of homemade jam and pickles, and they weren’t in the laundry room either. “Where are you guys?” I called. “You got a package delivered.” “I’m very sorry we sold you a jar of ant snot when you asked for worm snot,” Uncle Theo said. “Huh?” I said. “My spell was ruined by your stupid mistake. If things don’t improve around here, you will suffer my rage,” a raspy voice answered him. “This place will suffer the rage of all the witches!” another voice screeched. “We are tired of the way this store conducts business and we won’t put up with it much longer.” “I’m so sorry, I assure you it won’t happen again. Beltrane, please bring me a jar of our finest worm snot for Witch Hensel right away,” Uncle Theo said. The voices were coming from the far left side of the basement, always the shadiest, coolest part of it because of the big maple tree that grew in the yard above. “Uncle Theo, are you okay?” I leaned into the wall to press my ear against it when something pressed against my arm. It was a glass doorknob on a slim door tucked into the corner. How had I never noticed this door before? I used to spend hours down here playing with my train set, the tracks covering every inch of the floor. I twisted the knob and the door opened easily. I poked my head out before I went through the doorway. A few uneven steps dropped to a narrow tunnel lit by small torches flickering along a crumbling brick wall. I leaned forward to read something scratched into one of the bricks: NO WITCHES ALLOWED BEYOND THIS POINT My shoulders relaxed. I’d just found Uncle Theo’s next prank. He must be getting all of this ready for Halloween. It was only August, but this one was definitely going to take a lot more work than putting fake dog poop down. Of course he had to start working on it early. This was like something in a movie. I started down the tunnel. It probably led to a room decorated with fake cobwebs and ghosts made out of old bedsheets. I’d find it, let Aunt Ducky and Uncle Theo yell “Boo!” at me and then get back to Dragons and hopefully we’d go to Dairy Queen for that strawberry sundae soon too. The sharp twists and turns of the tunnel reminded me of the cornfield maze my fourth-grade class visited last fall. After a few seconds, though, I couldn’t tell if I was going forwards or backwards, right or left. The torches gave off such little light that I kept stumbling into dark dead ends, scraping my nose against the bricks. Stairs led down one passageway only to go back up another a few seconds later. I felt like I was walking in circles. Scary, dark circles. I didn’t know what direction I was headed in and I certainly didn’t know how to get back to the basement. Hot tears filled my eyes and now I really couldn’t see where I was going. “Uncle Theo?” I called. “Aunt Ducky?” No one answered. I slumped against the wall to figure out what to do next.
  2. Opening Scene - Introduces the protagonist and setting, establishes core wounds Sooner or Later You can run on for a long time, Run on, duckin’ and dodgin’, Run on for a long time, Sooner or later God Almighty’s gonna cut you down. — Traditional American Gospel Mrs. Evelyn Doherty had a standing appointment with Madame Theresa every Wednesday at one-thirty PM. She was a faithful client and never missed a scheduled reading, unless she was on vacation or unwell, which rarely happened. “Are you ready, Evelyn?” Madame Theresa asked in a tentative, encouraging voice, one finger resting patiently on the back of the final card. The Tarot were laid out in the familiar ten card Celtic Cross spread. A silk cloth lay draped across the table, a tangle of purple and yellow wildflowers dancing across an azure background. The Tarot cards, tawny with age, seemed to drift and stir as if floating in a pool of silken flowers. Mrs. Doherty leaned forward and pressed her eyes closed in concentration, her lips turned downward with anxious trepidation. In her right hand she palmed a smooth calcite stone that she favored for her weekly readings, pale blue like a robin’s egg. She was a devoted spiritualist and in the hierarchy of her small, comfortable life, Madame Theresa held a position just below President Nixon. The answer to her troubles, she knew, depended on this last card. She need not have been concerned. Although the hidden card remained a mystery to her, Madame Theresa was quite confident in the outcome. Her parents christened her Thérèse, after Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, The Little Flower. Madame Theresa was her professional name. After her mother died, her father favored his nickname for her. At night, holding her close, watching the rhythm of her small body rise and fall with each breath, he might lean over and whisper in her ear “ti flè an mwen” in his native Creole — little flower of mine — but Tess was the name she grew up with. Thérèse was as foreign to her as the Saint of Lisieux herself. She studied her client from across the table. Tess recognized the familiar cropped navy blue jacket with white trim, the same prim, light-blue ruffled blouse underneath. The jacket’s elbows were shiny from wear. Mrs. Doherty wore her hair in a tall beehive hairdo. A thick braid wrapped around the middle held it in place. She was an ardent devotee of L’Oreal’s Smoky Pearl hair color and under the soft pendant lamp her hair shimmered with a blue-gray glow. The column of hair was leaning to one side and several stray wisps were trying to escape. Tess suspected Mrs. Doherty wrapped her head in a scarf while she slept. Staring into the top of the glowing bouffant, she resisted the urge to reach across and part the nest of hair and peer within. She imagined revealing a tiny, hidden universe; milky-white clusters of secret thoughts and emotions tangled in a quick, chaotic rotating dance. She was as familiar with Evelyn Doherty as a therapist is with a patient, tending to her needs, acting as her emotional advisor. She knew how to interpret her expressions and quiet mannerisms, and, if she was honest, to manipulate her naive, uncomplicated fears and desires. Growing up an only child, her father taught her how to wield her empathy with precision. Working alongside him in the sideshows and small-town carnies, dressed in her adorable sailor suit, spotting and luring the marks. An innocent compliment, a sympathetic look, calculated to arouse a desired response. Pay attention. Listen carefully. Two bits for a reading. Two bits for a glimpse into the supernatural. A good night’s work rewarded with Italian ice, her favorite flavor cherry red. He trained her to go after women mostly, preying on their superstitions and maternal instincts. Draw them in. People are fragile, they yearn to tell their secrets. Find their weakness. Reaching out with her slender fingers, taking hold of their hand, she led them to her father’s tent. She would wait outside, listening for the signal, a metallic tap followed by a low harmonic pitch, the ringing sound that meant the mark had handed over their money. Don’t be hasty. Never argue. Even the dullest mark can turn on you. Watching her client’s expression, her patience turning to irritation, Tess suspected that even inside the demure, well-mannered Mrs. Evelyn Doherty there was a secret buried inside her that even Tess herself was unaware. Mrs. Doherty opened her eyes at last and nodded. Tess revealed the final card. “Ah, the Seven of Cups.” “Is that good?” Evelyn asked, eyes opening wide, an uncertain smile on her lips. “Oh very good. Cups, as you know, represent emotion, and the Seven of Cups here symbolizes confidence. Confidence in your emotional life.” Tess pointed to the individual symbols on the Tarot card. “Look inside the cups. You see the snake, that’s passion and desire. The tower here, that’s strength. And the treasure, that’s abundance.” She traced her finger over the card in the sixth position. “Now, the Four of Wands, that’s the spiritual stability we discussed, combined here with the Queen of Swords.” Tess closed her eyes and lifted her chin in quiet meditation. “Yes. Yes, I’m quite sure. Patience and confidence.” She tilted her head to one side, as if listening to a distant voice. “Lester’s not having an affair. It’s clear from the cards chosen for you. Be patient, give things time to resolve themselves. You say he’s been tired lately, uninterested?” Evelyn nodded, the tiny lines at the corners of her eyes squinting in concern. “You know, it’s not unusual for older men to lose interest from time to time. Perhaps he’s working too hard? Too much on his mind?” Tess had seen pictures of Mr. Doherty. If he was stepping out, he was paying for it. And he was too tightfisted for that.
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  8. Sample of Prose Narrative OPENING SCENE: Introduces protagonist, his personality, and attitude, the setting, and minor characters in his life. The black and white wing-tipped feet of Richie Dodge scuff Arcadia, California sidewalks. He trudges from one curb cut to the next, though careful not to scuff anything above the soles. Faces peer out at him from a shop window, not because of his hipster persona, when hipsters are sort of called hepsters some thirty years after beatniks had their run, but because their images hang captive from posters among three walls. Richie answers their stares with a running critique. Ace of Base—they’ll never be the next ABBA—and The Spin Doctors—who thinks an audience actually wants to hear a thirty-minute jam—and some grunge band—who sacrifices originality for its art; looking and sounding like any other grunge band. His reflection in the glass opposite Soul Asylum prompts a shrug. His tie, hand-painted vintage flash with a flamingo perched on bent leg in blue and orange pastel, hangs sloppily from an unbuttoned collar and dangles over pressed linen trousers below his belt, a pet peeve almost as bad as when the tie sticks out from beneath his collar behind his neck. He runs a hand through his product-styled hair and pulls it straight over his head. When it settles, he’s created a piled-high pompadour, fitting for the anachronistic life he lives. Pressed against the window of the shop, now closed, he cranes for the bins of used records, older vinyl, from the ’70s, then the ’60s. Accepting skips and scratches as part of the act, he copies them to cassettes to save wear and tear. He’s yet to pick up a CD, untrusting of the latest tech fad, though they’ve been around few years. If I invest in those, they’ll change in a couple of years to little tiny things the size of a quarter, he argues with skeptics. It’s not real music anyway. Some digital code standing in for analogue. His eyes widen with Lulu’s Something to Shout About LP leading the row and hopes they have a few Petula Clarks he doesn’t own yet. He’s got twelve already. Looking to the folds of his wallet, there’s stitched leather and a lining of some fabric but no cash. His wages go to vinyl. It being Thursday, he’ll pick up his paycheck, in person, on Friday and come back for Lulu on Saturday after cashing it … in person … with a bank teller. The 21st century looms, and Y2K scares surface among the population, but he pays no heed. He doesn’t even own an ATM card. The pocket planner he retrieves from a trouser pocket, the one opposite his wallet, summarizes his latest downfall. Lauren, 7 pm proves the evening didn’t disappear. Her name’s there, in the May 7 block with an arrow extending three weeks to present day, May 27. He scrawls an X through the 27th, across the entry, Lauren 8:30 pm. Richie flips the pages back to April and studies the 14th day hoping he’s somehow lost track of the years. But it’s still 1993 and his birthday on the 14th still marks his 29th year, the last throes of twentydom. He curls his lip, like Elvis, and tucks his tie into his shirt, like a military man would. His wingtips lumber up a flight of stairs while he fumbles for keys and taps a shoulder on the door that tends to stick. At the open refrigerator, Richie’s roommate for the past year, Drip, stoops and rubs his arms for the cold, wearing just boxer shorts and a white v-neck t-shirt, the Drip Cosgrove walkabout T, Richie calls, Drip’s choice attire around the place. Drip turns with the scuff of Richie’s feet over the black-and-white checkerboard tile. “Du—e!” Drip says, somehow never able to finish the full word “dude.” “You’re home early.” Drip fidgets as though he’s been caught pilfering import CDs at the swap meet, fumbling a cup of yogurt. “No, Drip,” Richie says, “right on schedule. As usual.” Drip’s girlfriend, with her kinda short hair for a cute girl, Richie had once confided in Drip, stands behind the open refrigerator door, bare feet on the tiles. Her face peeks from around the side. “Hi Nancy,” he greets her with a comic-book sigh. “No way, Du—e,” Drip says. “Dumped again already?” “Of course,” Richie says, “It’s been three weeks.” “Wasn’t the one before that—?” “Three weeks, tambien, Drip.” “And you been going with this Laurie chick how long?” “Lauren,” Richie corrects. “She was sickeningly adamant about getting it just so when I met her at the mall. I was looking for that Felix the Cat watch.” “Yeah? What else? Details!” “His arms are the clock hands.” Richie sticks his arms out to demonstrate, one at his side, one straight over his head, three o’clock. “That’s how he tells the time.” “No, Du—e. Details about Laur-ie—en.” “Not much else to say but yes, three weeks it has been.” “She didn’t even have the courtesy to throw off the average,” Nancy says, still tucked behind the refrigerator. Drip nods and grins dimwittedly. “Sorry, Richie,” Nancy says. “Are you, like, okay, Du—e? Drip asks. “I feel kinda sick,” Richie says. “I’ll be in my room. Where’s the newspaper?” “The personal ads?” Nancy asks. “The want ads,” Richie replies. “Go on-line,” Nancy says. “They’ve got updated jobs and even personal—” “I like the print media,” Richie says. “Rough day,” Drip says. “You get fired again too?” “Uh …” Richie says, thinking a moment, “no.” “Did you quit again?” Nancy asks. “No, not yet,” Richie says. “You gotta find a happy zone, Du—e.” “I’m looking,” Richie says. “I’m trying. “Seek and he will find,” Drip pronounces. “Ye. Shall,” Richie corrects. “Right!” Drip punctuates by pointing index fingers from each hand at Richie. “That’s the right—” The refrigerator door escaping his grasp cuts him short. Richie meets Nancy’s eyes. She drops a cup of yogurt, splattering Greek-style over her toes. Richie’s eyes wander from the spill to her waistline. “You surprised us,” she says, “you got home early.” “Yeah, Du—e,” Drip says, “you, umm, did.” “Huh, what?” Richie asks, unable to hear over Nancy’s pink and orange polka dotted panties. It must be the case she’s wearing nothing else. She crosses her arms over her breasts. “Dots,” Richie says in a state of mesmerism. Drip covers her panties with a folded newspaper. “Oh,” Drip says. The top half of the newspaper unfolds and opens to full size. “You need the paper, don’t you? Seems like we got us a Mexican stand-off.” “Sorry,” Richie says. “I didn’t mean to see your dots—” Nancy looks down at her arms covering her breasts. “No I mean—” he tries to explain, gesturing to her undergarment pattern. He turns his back. Drip rolls the newspaper into tube and hands it to Richie, who takes the paper without looking backward. He’s off like the anchor in a relay race. # After two weeks washout from the Lauren event, drip asks, “When’s your last day here?” “Two more days out West, then off to New Hampshire. “You don’t have to move to Canada just cuz of her.” “I think the U.S. annexed New Hampshire last year.” “Why New Hampshire?” “I was planning to move anyway, eventually, somewhere. It’s a long story.” Richie draws a breath and says, “I’m from New Hampshire.” “Yeah, that took a long time.” “That’s the abridged version. See, I grew up in New Hampshire, but after college, I got bored, so I took a job in New York.” “Cool! What was the job?” “Collections at a rental agency. What’s not to hate? I used to sit around Saturday nights depressed, because I knew I had to go to work on Monday morning. Still, I figured I was in like Flynn when my next job was at a radio station in Ohio,” Richie says. “But too much news and talk—” “Not good for a du—e musically inspired” That was my reasoning when I came up with these creative on-air lead-ins when no one was looking.” “Recite.” “Little think pieces I forgot as soon as they aired. One was during a local election, and I say, ‘Everybody talks about politics, but no one’s talking about poli-fleas.’” “Nice.” “I used to think writing a book meant writing in a book. Until a librarian yelled at me for it.” “Wow.” “And the guy who founded the station got a posthumous award from some civic group. I mentioned to our listeners posthumous awards must not be that prestigious, because I’ve never seen the winner show up to accept it.” Drip ponders a moment. “I think that was the one that did it. I was fired more than ever. And I’ve been fired a lot time.” “I know. I read the sacred scrolls. But how’d you end up here?” “In subsequent chapters, I fled west and continued fleeing, job after job, until I ran out of country. That brought me out here to California, to strike it rich. Having not done that, I can’t afford to go to Hawaii, so I’m on my way back East.” “My usual plan is to quit my job without any prospects of getting a new one.” “It’s good you got a plan. “Different strategy this time. I got a job lined up. Working for that political group I told you about. A friend of mine got me in. Deidre. I think I’ll like it, government work. Excellent gold-brick potential.” “Does she know about your ambition, lack thereof?” “She’s always helped me out, ever since junior high. If missed a class, or several, she got me the notes—” “Whoa, unrighteous. You shouldn’t hose your friends.” “It wasn’t like that. Not really. And if people wanna do stuff for me, who am I to deny them?” Richie says. “It would be rude. Besides, they won’t trace me back to her. It’s government work; I’ll get lost in the morass. Or I’ll join a union.” “What do you know about government stuff?” “Haven’t I just stressed my skill in subterfuge?” “I dig onomatopoeia.” “And apparently alliteration.” “You did it again, Du—e!” “As for the job, with the right amount of diplomacy, I can talk my way into and out of almost anything.” “What if you can’t?” “It’ll mess with the time-space continuum. You see, that day has yet to come.”
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