musicals

Lockdown Theater

I actually got some work done the past few days, re-reading and doing some revising on the last book I wrote. It’s still going to need work. I can tell just about where the world started getting weird as I was drafting because my writing changed. The ending is going to have to be fleshed out more, but right now I can’t seem to do anything with it. There’s a big difference between wanting to be at home and being stuck at home (and worrying, during allergy season, that each cough could be something serious), and that’s messing with my frame of mind.

Fortunately, a lot of talented people are doing what they can to help those of us stuck at home. I’ve been enjoying John Krasinski’s (from The Office and Jack Ryan) “Some Good News” newscasts. In his latest one, he had a fun surprise for a little girl who was missing out on seeing Hamilton for her birthday. (That link goes to just the song, but the whole newscast is fun viewing.)

Then there was this very clever and creative family doing a lockdown version of “One Day More” from Les Mis.

On a more serious note, some former Les Mis cast members did this absolutely lovely version of “Bring Him Home” as a tribute to the health workers. (Having had to record myself singing to a track to have it edited into a piece for choir for Easter, I have new respect for what these guys did here.)

I may not try to make myself write much. I’ll keep posting my serial, and I may do some research, brainstorming, and planning. If I feel like writing, then I’ll go for it, but the main thing right now is to stay safe, stay healthy, and stay sane.

serial

Serial Chapter Four

Here’s chapter four of the serial story I’m posting on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. If you missed the beginning, you can find it here. The previous chapter is here. I think this might be my favorite part of the whole book. Enjoy!

Chapter Four

            A whole squad of guards surrounded Lucy as they marched her down the hall, the one guard holding her arm so tightly she was sure she’d be black and blue later. They went on for what felt like forever, up lots of steps and down lots of hallways, until they got to something that looked like a throne room. The room was big and long, with a high, vaulted ceiling. Banners hung from the wooden beams. Torches along the walls provided a dim, flickering light as the sunlight from outside faded.

At the end of the room on a raised platform sat two big, golden thrones surrounded by more torches. On one of the thrones sat a woman wearing a long dress of red shiny material that was so dark it was almost black, like dried blood. The red only showed when the light hit it just right, and then it was like the dress caught on fire. Lucy told herself that if she lived through this and got a prom date (which would probably require two separate miracles), she would make herself a dress like that for prom.

As she got closer to the throne, she could see that the woman wasn’t nearly beautiful enough to work that dress. She could have been, but Lucy realized her mom was right when she said “pretty is as pretty does,” because while this woman had beautiful features—aside from what looked like an overuse of Botox—there was still something ugly in her expression that ruined her whole look.

“Bring her to me,” the woman said. The guards formed a corridor, down which the one guard led Lucy. When they got to the front of the platform, he shoved her onto her knees and took one step back. The woman stood, which made the light do some amazing things on her dress. As scared as she was, Lucy found herself thinking about how fantastic that dress would look under a disco ball or with strobe lights. Focusing on that irrelevant detail kept her from completely losing her cool.

The woman came to loom over Lucy, and up close she was older than she looked at first. It wasn’t so much that she’d gone crazy with the Botox as it was that she’d filled in the creases with powder, and she’d used baby powder instead of skin-toned or even translucent powder, so her face was stark white. Her eyebrows had been plucked to thin lines, her eyes were rimmed in harsh black liner, and her red lipstick totally clashed with the red of her dress. Fabulous dress aside, girlfriend was seriously in need of a makeover, Lucy thought.

“So, here you are, after all these years, just as I foretold,” the woman said. Her voice was deep, almost masculine.

“Uh, foretold?” Lucy asked, her heart pounding so hard she could practically hear it.

The woman ignored the question. “I declared on the day of your christening that before the sun set on your sixteenth birthday, you would die.”

“But, I’m Baptist, and we don’t do christenings,” Lucy said. “We just do infant dedications.”

The woman glared at her, and Lucy wished she’d kept her mouth shut. “You dare to interrupt me with your talk of strange customs from the world where you’ve been hidden? I was there on that day. I know what happened. You cannot lie to me. Now,” she declared triumphantly, raising her arms above her head, “it has finally come to pass. And here is the instrument of your doom, the way I foretold it.” With a graceful gesture that made the loose sleeves of her dress shimmer, she pointed to a spinning wheel that stood beside her throne.

A spinning wheel as the instrument of doom? There was something very familiar about that. While Lucy was still working it out, the guard grabbed her arm, dragged her to her feet, and marched her up onto the platform.

The woman looked at her like she was waiting for Lucy to do something. Lucy gave her what she hoped was the universal gesture and facial expression for “And …?”

“Follow your compulsion!” the woman shouted. “Don’t try to fight it. I am stronger than you, and I will win in the end.”

Worrying that she was going to get herself slapped at any moment, Lucy asked, “Compulsion?”

Some of the woman’s triumph wilted. “You don’t feel compelled to do anything? Nothing calls to you or draws you?”

You mean, other than the exit? Lucy wanted to say, but she thought better of it. “No, ma’am.”

The woman sighed. “It was an old spell. It’s bound to have faded.” She pulled herself together and repeated, “And now, the moment of my triumph.” She raised her arms, cackled and shouted, “Touch it! Touch the spindle!”

With a shrug, Lucy reached out and touched the tip of her finger to the part of the spinning wheel the woman was pointing to. It stung a little, and Lucy pulled her hand back to suck on her finger. The room hung frozen for a second, with everyone there holding their breath. They all seemed to be waiting for something to happen.

But nothing did. The crazy woman looked at Lucy, and veins popped out in her neck and forehead. “What?” she shrieked. “What is this? Why is nothing happening?” She swept over to Lucy, grabbed her wrists, and pulled Lucy’s hands up to her face so she could see the drop of blood on the tip of Lucy’s finger. “You were supposed to die! Don’t you feel faint, or lightheaded? The world’s not going dark, is it?”

“No, not really. I’m kind of freaked out, I’ll admit, but I feel fine.” Then because the woman seemed very angry about that, and her being angry was probably not good for Lucy’s continued well-being, Lucy added, “My finger hurts,” as if that made up for her not dying.

The woman whirled to face her guards. “She was supposed to die. I, myself, cast the spell so that before the sun set on her sixteenth birthday, the Princess Aurora would prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel and die, and then the kingdom would truly be mine.”

That was when Lucy realized why all this sounded familiar. It was Sleeping Beauty. The evil witch, fairy, or whatever had cursed the princess to prick her finger and die—though death by spinning wheel seemed like a really odd way to off someone. That was as bad as some of the things James Bond villains came up with. But, supposedly, one of the good fairies had changed that so the princess would only sleep until true love’s first kiss woke her. And, at least in the Disney version, the good fairies had then taken the princess off into hiding to protect her until she turned sixteen.

But there was one tiny problem with this. It may have been Lucy’s sixteenth birthday, but she wasn’t Princess Aurora. She wasn’t a princess of any kind. She hadn’t even been elected a homecoming duchess.

“Are you sure you got the right girl?” the witch asked her guards. “Those enchantresses are quite clever, and they hid her so well that I never found her until now.”

“She’s wearing the royal insignia,” the guard pointed out.

The witch stepped closer to Lucy, raised Lucy’s chin with one bony finger, and peered at Dawn’s necklace without touching it. “Yes, she does have the royal insignia. Perhaps we must wait for the proper time for the spindle. There are five more days. Return her to the dungeon.”

Only as the guard grabbed her and dragged her away did Lucy make the connection that should have been obvious. “Aurora” meant “dawn,” and it was Dawn’s necklace.

Which meant that her best friend was Sleeping Beauty.

The guards threw her back into her cell. Now that there wasn’t even the slightest hint of sunlight coming through the window, the cell was dark and spooky, with the faint light coming from the torches in the corridor doing more to cast shadows than to actually illuminate anything. Lucy paced while she assessed the situation as rationally as she could. She was, apparently, trapped in a storybook world. It was a place where animals—birds, at least—could talk and where the fairy tales from Lucy’s world were current events. Sleeping Beauty was still wide awake and hadn’t been anywhere near the fatal spindle yet. In fact, she might never go near the fatal spindle since she was, as far as Lucy knew, still safely in Texas, where no one had the slightest idea who she was. It was Lucy who was stuck living out the story.

Would it still be a Sleeping Beauty story if the beauty never went to sleep? And wasn’t particularly beautiful?

There was a noise outside the cell door, and Lucy shrank into the shadows, worried that the evil witch had figured out a way to make her own prophecy come true and had sent the guards back for her. The figure that appeared at the barred door was a young man, maybe a few years older than Lucy, as far as she could tell in the torchlight, and he didn’t wear a guard’s uniform.

“Shhh!” he hissed as she took a tentative step out of the shadows. Moving like he was trying to be really quiet, he took a big iron key from a pouch on his belt and unlocked the cell door. Then he knelt in the doorway and bowed his head. “Your highness.”

Lucy wasn’t sure how she was supposed to respond to that. Did she thank someone who was bowing to her, and would he stay like that forever until she told him it was okay for him to get up?

“Who are you?” she asked. She figured that sounded royal enough, while still being a pretty important question.

He raised his head to look at her. He was rather cute, with wavy brown hair that was a little long on top and cut really short around his ears and at the back of his neck. He wore a sword at his belt and a green-and-black surcoat with a coat of arms on it that would make a great Camelot costume if she ever got home to volunteer as costume designer for the show. “I am Sebastian Sinclair, your highness, a squire to Lord Argus. The Loyalists sent me to rescue you.”

She liked the idea of rescue, but how did she know she could trust him? It wasn’t like she could ask for a photo ID to be sure of who he was. “What’s a Loyalist?” she asked.

“We oppose the witch and want to restore the royal family. Most important at this moment, we need to save your life.”

Her mom would kill her for running off with a stranger, but better a stranger who seemed nice and who was at least pretending to be friendly than a stranger who’d already said she planned to kill her. “Okay, then,” she said, “let’s get out of here.” She grabbed her backpack and headed for the door.

He stood and caught her by the elbow. “Caution, your highness.” He took off his cloak and wrapped it around her shoulders. It had come to just below his knees, but on Lucy it nearly reached the ground. She pulled the hood up and let it drape over her face. He stepped ahead of her into the hallway and looked around before holding his hand out to her. She took it and they hurried down the corridor, walking quickly, but not so quickly that it looked suspiciously like they were breaking out of prison.

Sebastian seemed to know his way around the castle. He never hesitated to turn down a hallway or go up a flight of stairs. He was pretty tall, and Lucy was very much not, so she had to practically run to keep up with his long legs. He must have been known—and maybe even important, or at least working for someone important—because everyone they passed nodded at him. Some even bowed their heads or bobbed little curtseys at him. They were in the lower levels of the castle, where the kitchens and laundry rooms were, so most of the people they met were servants. Lucy had a feeling the evil witch who ran this place wasn’t exactly up for boss of the year, so even if these people had suspected Sebastian was breaking out with a prisoner, she doubted they’d have tried to stop him.

They finally came out into the stables. “Do you mind riding double, your highness?” he asked as he untied a big chestnut horse. “I am afraid two missing horses might arouse more suspicion.”

“That’s fine with me,” she said. She had ridden horses before, but only old nags on her granddad’s farm, so she didn’t think she was up to riding for her life, if it came to that.

He pulled himself easily up into the saddle, then held a hand down to her. She put one foot on top of his boot where it rested in the stirrup, and from there he lifted her to sit in front of him in the saddle. She moved her backpack around to rest in her lap. “This may be less comfortable for you, your highness,” he said as he wrapped one arm around her waist, “but this way, you aren’t visible to anyone following us.” She couldn’t complain about being held against the rock-hard body of a cute guy. That wasn’t the sort of thing that happened to her every day. Or ever, really.

He kicked the horse into motion and they rode to the castle gates. She held her breath as they went under the big arch, waiting for someone to shout about an escaped prisoner, but no one said anything. They rode through the town, heading straight for the bridge. That seemed like the next hurdle, as it was a drawbridge, and one word from the witch could block the only route out of town that Lucy had noticed.

But the bridge was down, and nobody stopped them from crossing. Sebastian kept the horse at a casual pace even though she wished they could go faster. They’d just landed on the road on the other side when someone behind them shouted. Lucy turned and saw a giant fireball on the castle’s highest tower. It must have been a signal. Without cell phones or walkie-talkies, that was probably the best they could do. The guards on the far side of the river immediately went into pursuit.

Sebastian gave the horse a good kick and held Lucy tighter. The horse took off, and she was glad Sebastian was holding her so tight—now not so much because he was hot but because falling off the horse would have been a disaster. They had a head start, but it sounded like more guards were joining the chase. She hoped Sebastian knew where he was going and had a safe destination in mind because she doubted the poor horse could keep going very long at that speed carrying both of them.

Something whizzed by in the air, and she couldn’t help but flinch. “Arrows,” Sebastian said.

Now she was really glad he hadn’t made her ride behind him. She’d have been an easy target. But that meant his reasonably broad back was now the target, and he was the one who knew how to ride and—she hoped—where they were going.

A pack of dogs ran toward Sebastian and Lucy from the woods. Now would have been a really good time to have Dawn there, since she could tame even the meanest stray with a single word. But the dogs went right past them, running at the pursuers. Along with them were some deer and foxes. Lucy could have sworn she heard someone say, “Keep going to the camp, we’ll hold them off,” as they passed, but she didn’t see any people in that bunch.

The line of trees loomed ahead in the darkness. Sebastian suddenly jerked in the saddle and nearly lost his grip on Lucy. She grabbed the saddle with one hand and caught his arm with the other. He didn’t seem to be in danger of falling, since like a good rider, he was holding on with his knees, but she didn’t want to take any chances. “Are you hurt?” she asked as she hung on for dear life.

“I’m fine,” he said, but his voice sounded tight and a little breathless.

The sound of pursuit was farther behind as they passed the first trees, and the horse slowed gradually to a walk. It was hard to run full-speed in deep woods like these, and they weren’t on any established road or path. Lucy figured the horse was pretty tired, too.

“This way, sir,” a voice from way down below on the forest floor said. In the darkness, she couldn’t see who or what it was, but Sebastian trusted it and followed.

Now she was fairly certain that something was wrong because Sebastian’s breathing was ragged. “Are you sure you’re all right?” she asked.

“It’s nothing,” he said, but she could hear the pain in his voice.

It occurred to her that he’d been hurt for her sake. He’d put himself on the line for her. She supposed that was as good a way as any to prove she could trust him. To be more precise, he’d put himself on the line for the princess, for Aurora—for Dawn, who’d thought she was only playing royalty on the stage.

That brought up the question of what she should tell him. What would he and these Loyalists of his do if they discovered Lucy wasn’t the princess? Would they just ditch her, or would they help her find her way back home? Meanwhile, there was the witch, who was convinced Lucy was Aurora. She wasn’t going to stop looking for the girl she thought was the princess, and Lucy would need protection. Normally, Lucy was totally anti-lying, but these seemed like special circumstances.

The horse had to fight its way through an area of thicker underbrush, with vines hanging from the tree branches above. At least one little branch caught Lucy in the face. She’d have had a nice welt if the cloak hood hadn’t absorbed the worst of it. Finally, they reached a clearing and stopped. “Here we are, sir,” that same chipper voice said from below.

“Thank you, Cotton,” Sebastian said. Lucy still couldn’t see who he was talking to. He dismounted, and she quickly slid out of the saddle on her own so he wouldn’t have to help her. When he staggered and caught himself on the bridle, Lucy knew she was right. He was hurt.

It would have helped if there was more light, but it was fully night now, and all they had was whatever moonlight filtered through the trees. She got the mini flashlight out of her backpack and shone it on Sebastian, illuminating the arrow sticking out of the back of his shoulder. “We’ve got to get you to a doctor,” she said.

“We’ll tend to it momentarily,” he replied. “But first, I must see to the horse.” He raised his voice. “Is there water?”

That same voice said from somewhere around Lucy’s feet, “There’s a stream nearby, sir.” She looked down and saw a fluffy little cottontail bunny.

“I’ll deal with the horse,” Lucy said. “You, sit.”

Apparently, it was impossible for him to disobey a direct order from royalty. “Yes, your highness,” he said wearily, and not at all sarcastically, as he sat at the base of a tree. I guess it’s good to be the princess, Lucy thought.

“I’ll go with her,” another voice said, and she saw a fox walking beside her. She wasn’t sure what good it would do if the bad guys attacked, but at least it should be able to bite them in the ankle, she figured.

She led the horse over to where she heard rushing water and let it drink while she tried to rub it down as best she could with the cloak wrapped around her hand. That was what she remembered having to do when she helped her granddad with his horses. As she watched the horse drink, she realized she hadn’t had anything to drink since lunchtime, and that was hours ago.

Making sure she was upstream from where the horse was drinking so she wouldn’t get horse spit in her water, she knelt beside the stream and scooped some up in her hand, but then realized it was probably full of worse than horse spit. This would be a really bad time and place to get a case of Montezuma’s Revenge, so she let the water fall back into the stream and hoped Sebastian had brought provisions. Then again, any provisions he’d brought probably were scooped out of streams just like this one. She hoped they didn’t have amebas in storybook worlds.

When she brought the horse back to the clearing, Sebastian had made a small fire. She switched off her flashlight and stuck it in the front pocket of her jeans. He was struggling to remove his surcoat, but was hampered by the arrow.

“Let me help you with that,” she said. She removed the horse’s halter and left it to graze on whatever it could find on the forest floor, then went to help Sebastian. Under the surcoat, he wore a heavy leather vest, which must have offered some protection, but the arrow had hit his shoulder just where the vest ended. His sleeve was dark with blood. It was a good thing Lucy wasn’t squeamish.

“Okay, I think we need to get the arrow out,” she said, trying to sound more sure than she felt. Her mom had taught her basic first aid, but she hadn’t covered arrow wounds. Lucy bet it was like any puncture wound. This one didn’t look deep enough that he’d bleed to death if she removed the arrow, and besides, emergency rooms were probably pretty rare in this place, so leaving it in wasn’t an option.

She took the Swiss Army knife Jeremy had given her for Christmas last year our of her backpack’s inner pocket, opened it, and ran the blade through a flame a few times. She opened the scissors tool and cut Sebastian’s shirt around the arrow so she could see the wound itself. It would have helped if some of these talking critters had opposable thumbs and could hold a flashlight so she could see what she was doing. Or maybe they could help. Squirrels could hold nuts, right?

“I don’t suppose any of your friends could hold my light,” she said.

“Chatters!” Cotton called, and there was a skittering sound from above.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah! I can help! I can help!” It was a squirrel, eagerly rubbing its paws together.

Feeling like she was trapped in a surreal nightmare, Lucy switched on the flashlight and handed it to the squirrel. “Hold it so the light shines on his wound, okay?”

“I’m happy to serve, highness. It’s a great honor!”

“And I appreciate it,” she said before the squirrel could go on. She’d always figured those things would be real chatterboxes if they could talk. She turned back to Sebastian. “I imagine this is going to hurt like crazy.”

“It will. It always does. But I know I can bear the pain.”

She had to fight very hard not to roll her eyes. He sounded just like Jeremy, playing macho when it was something potentially serious, and if he was anything like Jeremy, he’d take to his bed and expect to be waited on hand and foot at the first sign of the sniffles.

“Oh, I’m sure you’ll do just fine,” she said. She took a deep breath to steady herself and tried to forget that she was about to cut into human flesh, then slipped the knife in next to the arrow, trying to loosen it so it wouldn’t do so much damage when she pulled it out. Sebastian hissed between clenched teeth but managed to stay perfectly still. “Now I’m going to pull it out, so brace yourself. On three—one, two.” On two, she grabbed the arrow and gave it a sharp pull. He started a yelp but bit it off. She checked the arrow, and sure enough, it looked like the head was all there.

“I thought you said on three,” he said, his voice shaking.

“I figured it would be easier on you if you weren’t expecting it. You’d tense up on three, and that would have made things even worse.”

He gazed up at her with something that looked like wonder, even through the tension of pain on his face. “The place where you’ve been must be truly terrible if you’ve gained so much knowledge about treating arrow wounds, your highness.”

“Are you kidding? This was my very first. But my friend Jeremy used to get bad splinters climbing over the fence between our back yards, so I got a lot of practice pulling those out. This was just on a larger scale.” Thinking of Jeremy again gave her a pang. Would she ever see him again? Surely he’d know by now she was missing, since she’d missed her own birthday party, and he hadn’t had the chance to give her that surprise he’d promised.

But for the time being, she had another guy to deal with. The wound wasn’t bleeding as badly as she’d feared it might, so she didn’t think he’d pass out or go into shock, but infection was a distinct possibility, and she didn’t think he could get a penicillin shot to clear that up in this world. She did, however, have something in her backpack that might help. She opened the outer pocket and found the bottle of hand sanitizer that her germophobic nurse mother insisted she use before eating in the school cafeteria and after being anywhere near a school bathroom. She also had an emergency sewing kit since, thanks to her skill at sewing, she was the go-to girl in the class for ripped hems and loose buttons.

“This may sting a bit,” she warned Sebastian as she prepared to squirt the sanitizer on his wound. He braced himself and barely flinched. This was one tough guy, she thought. The macho bit may not have been posturing, after all. “And now let me see if I can sew this up for you. I’ve never sewn human flesh before. Well, not intentionally. I did have one minor hemming-related incident.” She was really impressed with the way he stayed totally still and let her work. By focusing on how strong and brave he was, and on how incredibly solid the muscle under the skin she was working on was, she managed not to throw up while sticking a needle repeatedly into his flesh.

“It’ll probably leave a scar,” she told him as she finished and covered the wound with one of the larger bandages from the first-aid kid her mother insisted she carry, “but it’s not bleeding too badly anymore.”

“Thank you, your highness. I am in your debt.”

“Um, hello? You got hurt rescuing me from that dungeon. I’m the one who owes you. Thank you for that, by the way.”

There was a rustle in the underbrush nearby, and Sebastian’s hand went straight for his sword. Lucy tried not to swoon at the idea of being with a man who carried a sword and knew how to use it. Then she remembered the squirrel holding the flashlight. If someone was coming, that light was high enough to be visible from a distance. She reached up and said, “Thanks, Chatters, you did great.”

The squirrel put the light back in her hand, and she quickly switched it off. She had no idea how long the battery would last, and she doubted they had Wal-Marts anywhere nearby where she could buy a replacement. “I did great! I did great!” the squirrel said excitedly, until Sebastian gave it a glare and it immediately scampered into a hole in the tree trunk.

Sebastian stood slowly, not making any noise, and moved in front of Lucy. The rustling grew louder and closer, and she tried not to whimper. What if they’d gone through all this, only to be caught again?

serial

Serial Part 3

This is the third installment of a novel I’m serializing, posting chapters on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. The first chapter is here, and the previous chapter is here. Feel free to spread the word to others who might enjoy it. For updates on when each chapter is posted, you can follow me on Twitter.

Chapter Three

            Dawn’s aunts spent her entire birthday cleaning the house top-to-bottom. She couldn’t think of why they’d made her stay home, since they wouldn’t let her help. They just had her sit nearby and sing for them while they worked. For perhaps the first time in her life, she was tired of singing and desperately wanted to do something else, even pick up a brush and help scrub, but they wouldn’t let her leave whichever room they were working on at the time.

“It will be sunset in a few hours,” Matilda said when they finished scrubbing the bathroom late in the day. She sounded awfully pleased about that.

“That means we’d better hurry and finish,” Mariel said.

“I could help,” Dawn offered.

“No, dear, you just sit and sing like a good girl,” Matilda said, patting her on the top of the head. “Your music makes the work go faster for us.”

“The timing of sunset does vary from place to place,” Miriam said. She picked up her bucket of cleaning tools and led the group through the living room to the kitchen. “Sunset here doesn’t mean anything.”

“Is something supposed to happen at sunset—here or somewhere else?” Dawn asked.

Mariel and Matilda turned to glare at Miriam, who flushed pink. “I only meant that we wanted to have the work done by sunset, but if we didn’t finish, we could console ourselves with the fact that it’s still daylight somewhere,” Miriam said.

Dawn laughed. “I’ll have to remember that the next time I want to stay up past my bedtime. It’s still earlier somewhere else.”

As she followed her aunts through the living room, Dawn glanced at the grandfather clock. It was nearly four, plenty of time after school let out for Lucy to have made it downtown to the theater to check the audition results. Why hadn’t she called yet?

The thought crossed her mind that the aunts might have forgotten to pay the phone bill. She said she needed a bathroom break and stopped by the phone niche in the hallway to check for a dial tone. The phone was still working. Then it occurred to her that it was Lucy’s birthday, too, and her mother was having a big party that night. Lucy was probably busy, and it had been selfish of Dawn to ask her to run an errand for her. She’d find out soon enough if she got the part.

When they finished cleaning, the aunts sent Dawn off to her room to change for dinner. “Your best dress, mind you,” Matilda said. “This is a special occasion. And brush your hair.” Dawn put a record on and hummed softly along with it while she changed into a lacy white dress and put a bow in her hair.

She came back to the living room to find Matilda peering through the curtains into the back yard. “I think the sun has set!” she called out.

Mariel went to the sideboard and poured a red liquid from a crystal decanter into three tiny stemmed glasses, then hesitated, glanced at Dawn, and poured a smaller amount of liquid into a fourth glass. She handed the glasses to the other aunts, then the one with the smallest amount to Dawn. “You are sixteen, after all,” she said with a rare smile. “You might as well get your first taste.”

“Like I told you earlier, the sun sets at different times in different places,” Miriam muttered. “The days may not even line up properly.”

Mariel ignored her and raised her glass. Matilda immediately followed suit, so enthusiastically that some of the liquid sloshed over the rim of her glass. Mariel glared at Miriam until she, too, raised her glass. “To our Dawn on her sixteenth birthday,” Mariel said. “And to the beginning of the rest of her life.” Miriam downed her drink in one gulp, her eyes still narrowed into a frown, while Matilda sipped daintily at hers, her pinky extended. “Go on, drink up,” Mariel encouraged Dawn. Dawn took a sip, then had to gasp for breath. It tasted like a combination of cherries and gasoline. Surely this couldn’t be what the popular kids drank on weekends for fun. Mariel patted her on the back while she sputtered and coughed.

“And now for dinner,” Matilda said, ushering them all to the table.

For once, they didn’t nag at Dawn throughout the meal. Dawn wasn’t sure if that was because it was her birthday or because she was doing everything right. When they’d almost finished dinner, the phone rang. “I’ll get it,” Dawn shouted as she jumped out of her chair, nearly tipping it over, and ran to the phone.

However, it wasn’t Lucy telling her she’d be playing Guinevere. It was Jeremy. “Have you talked to Lucy today?” he asked.

“No. She was supposed to call me with the audition results after school, but I haven’t heard from her. Why? Aren’t you supposed to be at her party now?”

“She’s missing.”

“Missing?” she yelped. “What do you mean?”

“I mean no one’s seen her since the end of school. She signed up to take the driving test but didn’t show up, and she hasn’t come home.”

Dawn tried to think of a bright side, some wonderful thing that might have caused Lucy to miss her own birthday party, but nothing came to her. “And here I was, getting mad at her because she didn’t call me with the audition results,” she said, her voice cracking as tears stung her eyes.

“You haven’t talked to her at all today, and she didn’t say anything to you about anywhere she might have gone after school?”

She shook her head before remembering that he couldn’t see that over the phone. “No.” It came out as a sob. “Nothing other than checking the cast list. Maybe I should have called you or her mother earlier, when I didn’t hear from her. You could have started looking sooner.”

The aunts came in from the dining room. Their concerned faces said they’d overheard the conversation. Matilda put an arm around Dawn’s shoulders while Mariel took the phone away from her. “This is Dawn’s Aunt Mariel,” she said into the phone, enunciating very distinctly, as though she was afraid she wouldn’t be understood on the other end. “What has happened?” She frowned as she listened, then said, “I see. That is terrible. Please keep us informed.” She hung up and faced Dawn. “This friend who’s missing, that’s the one who’s wearing your necklace?” she asked, an odd look of fear—and was it relief?—on her face. The other two aunts wore similar expressions. All three of them exchanged glances before their faces went totally blank.

“Yes, it’s Lucy,” Dawn said with a sniffle.

Matilda handed her a lace-edged handkerchief and said, “Let’s go have our dessert.” She guided Dawn back to the dining table and nudged her into her seat, then said to the other aunts, “I’ll need some help putting on the finishing touches.” The three aunts went into the kitchen. Dawn noticed that they hadn’t cleared the table, so she carefully stacked the plates, arranged the silverware on top, and headed for the kitchen.

As she approached the door, she heard Matilda ask, “Do you really think it’s all over?”

Dawn knew it was wrong to eavesdrop, but her curiosity got the better of her, and she lingered near the door to listen rather than going into the kitchen.

“We haven’t had the signal yet,” Miriam said.

“We wait for the signal,” Mariel confirmed, “but yes, I do believe it may be over, and we were fortunate. The necklace may have some protective properties, but it also served as a form of identification.” She laughed a nervous, shaky laugh. “And to think, those sixteen years of careful hiding and planning might have come to nothing if it hadn’t been for the careless whim of a teenage girl.”

“A generous whim,” Matilda put in.

“Generous, yes, but it may have saved us from disaster. We were very fortunate,” Mariel said. “We never imagined they would find us here, so we were entirely unprepared. If she hadn’t given the necklace, we might have lost her, and now she should be safe because they won’t be looking for her anymore.”

Dawn shook her head in confusion. From the way they talked, she assumed they were referring to the necklace she’d given to Lucy. But sixteen years of hiding? First Lucy disappeared, and now her aunts were talking nonsense. Dawn didn’t know what to think. She bit her lip to fight back a whimper and edged closer to the door so she could hear better.

“What will become of the other girl, though?” Matilda asked.

“That is not our concern,” Mariel said firmly. “Dawn is safe now. That is what is important.”

“It should concern us,” Matilda insisted. She seldom argued with Mariel, but when she did, she stood her ground. “She’s an innocent.”

“They’ll realize soon enough they have the wrong girl,” Miriam said. “I doubt they’ll keep her, then.” But she didn’t sound like she believed it. “At any rate, there’s little we can do about it. We don’t dare take her back without the signal. It would be too dangerous. We’ve been gone nearly sixteen years, and we have no idea what the situation might be. For all we know, Melantha managed to take over even without killing the princess.”

“Still, we should prepare the portal. The signal may come at any time,” Mariel said. “We must be ready to go.”

“And we’ve been in here long enough,” Miriam said. “Hurry and light these candles.”

Dawn rushed back to her seat and tried to look as innocent and as untroubled as she could be with her best friend missing. It was the biggest acting challenge she’d ever faced, keeping her expression from showing the way her brain was spinning.

The aunts returned to the dining room, Mariel carrying a pink-frosted birthday cake covered with candles. They weren’t actually birthday candles but instead were a mix of household candles in various shapes, colors, and sizes. Behind Mariel, Miriam carried a stack of bowls and Matilda held a half gallon of ice cream. In spite of her concerns, Dawn was touched that they’d made the effort. “Oh, this is lovely! Thank you!” she said, not having to fake her gratitude. Still, she couldn’t help but flinch a little when Matilda put a hand on her shoulder as she bent to blow out the candles, and she noticed every single look the aunts exchanged among themselves.

***

            Lucy gave up struggling against her captor soon after they passed through that magical doorway. If she was truly in another world, freeing herself in the middle of nowhere wouldn’t do her a lot of good, and getting free of the guy holding on to her while she was on top of a huge horse running at a decent rate of speed probably wasn’t the smartest idea. She kept herself still, sending off all the body language signals that she’d given up.

Soon, the man holding her did relax his grasp a little, and he took his hand away from her mouth. She had a feeling she could scream her head off and it wouldn’t do her much good, since they were in the middle of a heavy forest. Even if there were people around, for all she knew, they’d be cheering on the guys in black instead of helping her.

“Who are you and where are you taking me?” she asked the guy holding her, then cringed when she realized she sounded like something out of a bad movie. Then again, those were pretty obvious questions, under the circumstances. He didn’t answer or even show any sign that he’d heard her. He’d spoken English—or, at least, she’d heard it as English—when he’d seen her, just before he grabbed her, so she knew he should have understood her. She suspected he had orders not to talk to the prisoner. “Okay, be that way,” she muttered as she rolled her eyes.

After what seemed like an hour of riding, they emerged from the forest and approached a village. The houses were half-timbered and had thatched roofs, and they were clustered together along a narrow, winding road. The men of the village wore loose, belted tunics over leggings and the women wore dresses that were pretty much long versions of the men’s tunics. The rough fabrics, simple design, and worn condition of the clothing told Lucy these must be peasants—that was, if this world was anything like what she knew of earth. She might not pay attention in history class, but she did know her clothing history. In spite of her danger, she couldn’t help but wish she could get a closer look at the fabrics because that might help her design Camelot costumes. Assuming she ever made it home. The town musical was the least of her worries right now.

The people stopped working as the riders came into town, and they hurried to move off the road, which was smart, as the riders didn’t so much as slow down. They didn’t seem to have any qualms about trampling anything in their path. In fact, Lucy was pretty sure they ran over at least one chicken, but she closed her eyes at the last second and didn’t see whether the bird got out of the way in time.

They’d nearly made it through the village when a woman looked up at Lucy, blinked in shock, gasped, and cried out, “They found her!”

Her cry alerted the rest of the villagers, who rushed toward the horsemen, waving hoes and pitchforks. Lucy wasn’t sure what was going on, but if they were trying to rescue her, she was totally in favor of that. She struggled in earnest, hoping that if her captor had to work to hold on to her, he wouldn’t be able to fight. Unfortunately, the other two riders didn’t have anything stopping them, and they pulled their swords and circled back while Lucy’s rider kept going. She couldn’t see what happened, but she heard a roar from the crowd, followed by screams, gasps, and thuds. The screams went on far too long, like either the peasants kept fighting even though they didn’t stand a chance, or the soldiers didn’t want to leave anyone behind. Lucy sagged against her captor in defeat, fighting back tears. Soon, the other two riders rejoined them, and they kept going. Now she knew for a fact that these men were the bad guys and that she did not want to be with them.

The trees thinned as the horses pounded down the road into a river valley. On a hillside across the river loomed a massive castle with a city huddled below it on the slope down to the river. This wasn’t a fairy princess castle, with graceful, gleaming spires. It was a castle that meant business, with thick stone walls and sturdy towers at each corner. It looked to Lucy like the kind of castle that would have a dungeon, and probably even a torture chamber. Suddenly the idea of a castle was much less romantic to her.

They clattered across the bridge and made their way to the castle through crowded, narrow streets. The people on the streets shrank away from the riders. Parents put themselves between the riders and their children. One woman held out a beseeching hand toward Lucy as tears ran down her face. An older man fell to his knees when he saw Lucy. Everywhere she looked, Lucy saw faces without hope, some of them with utter despair.

But what did that have to do with her? Was her being here such a bad thing for these people? She knew she didn’t mean them any harm. Or was it more to do with what awaited her, and they felt sorry for her? No, she decided as she looked into yet another set of despairing eyes, they were worried about what would happen to them. No one got that upset over the fate of a stranger, no matter how nasty that fate might be.

The city seemed to be in the middle of some kind of festival. There were brightly colored banners hanging everywhere, along with floral garlands strung across the street, from rooftop to rooftop. It was even more extreme than Lucy’s hometown’s Christmas decorations, only with less tinsel and no electric lights. If she’d noticed the decorations first, she’d have expected the people to look happy instead of like the world was coming to an end.

Their group rode into the castle courtyard, where a guard yanked Lucy off the horse. He dragged her into the castle, then down one flight of stairs after another. She struggled to keep up with him, often stumbling. She tried to remember each twist and turn so she could find her way out if she got the chance, but she was afraid she was hopelessly lost.

At the end of the final flight of stairs, they arrived in the dungeon—a narrow, torchlit corridor with barred doors set into the walls. The guard took a ring of keys off his belt, unlocked a door, and threw her into a cell, locking the door behind her. She landed on moldy straw that stank, so she jumped back to her feet. The only light in the room came from a tiny barred window set high in one of the walls and from a torch in the hallway outside the barred door. The cell’s stone walls were covered in slimy moss. There were brackets on the wall with chains hanging from them, and she was glad they hadn’t used them on her.

So, she was in a dungeon in another world on her birthday. She was missing her driving test, her own party, and whatever surprise Jeremy had for her. Tears filled her eyes, and she tried to fight them back. She could practically hear her mother’s voice telling her to pull herself together and think about what she could do. The thought of her mother made the tears worse. By now, her mother would surely be wondering where she was—or else she’d think Lucy was pouting about her mom not agreeing to take her to get her driver’s license. She’d just assume Lucy was being childish and dramatic and trying to get attention.

Alone and scared, Lucy couldn’t hold back the tears anymore. Armed men didn’t grab girls and haul them away to a dungeon because someone wanted to invite them for tea. She wanted out of there, and she wanted to go home.

“Ah, there you are,” a voice from behind her said, and she spun to see who it was.

There wasn’t anyone there, not that she could see. She got a mini flashlight out of her school backpack and pointed it at all the corners of the cell. The only living thing anywhere near the cell, besides herself, was the little black bird that had slipped between the bars in that window high in the cell wall. “Hello? Who’s there?” she called out. She hoped whoever it was hadn’t seen her crying.

“It’s just me,” the voice said from the window. It looked like the bird was talking. “I heard they finally caught you, so I came to the dungeon to check it out for myself.”

This was impossible. Birds didn’t talk. “You’re talking?” Lucy asked, just to be sure.

“Of course I’m talking. Do you see anyone else? Now, did they hurt you, highness? ’Cause if they did, I’ll have to do something about that.”

She shook her head. “No, they didn’t hurt me.”

“Good. Now, you sit tight. I’m going for help. We’ve got someone on the inside. And don’t touch any spindles.”

He flew away, leaving her with unanswered questions. Like how birds could talk, who “we” was, what a spindle had to do with anything, and what, in general, the hell was going on here.

And, wait a second, did he call her highness? She ran to the window to call after the bird, but then there was yet another voice behind her, coming from the door. “Don’t try it, there’s no escape,” the gruff voice said. She turned around cautiously, wondering what she might see. A talking guard dog, maybe?

But it was just a guard, a human guard. He unlocked the cell door and said, “Come with us. She wants to see you now.”

***

            That night, Dawn was too agitated to sleep. She paced her bedroom, trying to process everything that had happened that day. She knew she was missing information and couldn’t judge from what she’d heard of the aunts’ conversation, but it didn’t sound good. They’d been kind enough to her, but if they were willing to let something bad happen to Lucy, that couldn’t be good, could it? And it sounded like they knew what was going on, but they hadn’t shared any of that with her. Why not? She shivered and wrapped her arms around herself.

There was a noise from the back yard, and she went to the window to peer out from behind the curtain. The aunts had the doors to the garden shed open and were doing something inside. She heard them through the open window, but what they said didn’t make much sense. Their voices stopped as they backed away from the shed, then there was a flash of light through the shed’s windows and open doorway.

Dawn gasped in surprise and quickly clapped her hand over her mouth to stifle the sound. “There, that should do it,” Mariel said, brushing her hands on her black skirt. “We just step through the portal as soon as the signal comes, and we’ll be home.”

“Shouldn’t we tell Dawn?” Matilda asked. “This will be a very big change for her. She needs time to get adjusted.” Dawn clutched the windowsill to keep herself from falling as her legs went wobbly. She felt like someone had pulled the ground out from under her, leaving her nothing solid to stand on.

“She can get adjusted once she’s there,” Miriam said. “We don’t want to take any chances. She might not want to go, and we can’t take that risk.”

Now Dawn understood why they’d kept her home from school. It wasn’t just that day, it was for good. They were planning to leave. They were going to take her away.

“And what about the other girl?” Matilda asked.

“There’s little question of where she is,” Mariel said. “But perhaps I should go through to let the sisters know so they can intervene, if necessary.”

“Excellent idea,” Matilda said. “I’d feel so much better if we did something to help that poor girl.” Dawn felt a warm glow in her heart for her aunt’s kindness. Matilda always had been the one most like a mother to her.

“Very well, then, I shall go,” Mariel said. She walked into the shed, and the other two closed the door after her. Even after several minutes passed, Mariel didn’t come out of the shed.

Dawn sank down against the wall until she sat on the floor. She was dizzy, but she wasn’t sure if that was because of what she’d just heard and seen or because she’d been holding her breath for so long. The back door opened and closed, and Dawn flung herself across the room into the bed in case they looked in on her. Sure enough, soon her bedroom door opened, and she had to will her body to relax and her breathing to slow and become more even so she’d appear to be asleep instead of agitated. She gave herself half an hour after her bedroom door shut and another door elsewhere in the house opened and shut, then she slid out of bed.

She had to know what was in the shed. It was a compulsion that grew stronger every second—so strong that she nearly forgot to put on shoes before sneaking out of her room to go outside. The shed wasn’t locked, just closed with a latch. She unfastened the latch and eased the door open slowly, hoping it didn’t creak.

Inside the shed was a moonlit garden. She blinked and shook her head. That couldn’t be right. When she looked again, she saw that there was a faintly glowing arch in the shed, through which she saw the garden. Before she realized what she was doing, she took a step toward the arch, then caught herself. More than anything she’d ever wanted in her life—more even than a leading role in Camelot—she wanted to go through that portal. Though she kept her feet planted, her upper body swayed toward it.

On the other side of that glowing arch were the answers to all the questions she’d never thought to ask, like who she was, who her parents were, and where she came from. Based on what her aunts had said, she came from the world of that garden. That’s if they really were her aunts. Now she couldn’t even be sure of that much. Lucy had been taken because she was wearing Dawn’s necklace, because somebody thought she was Dawn, and that meant Dawn could learn who she was by finding Lucy.

Dawn took another step toward the glowing arch, then shook her head to clear it, backed away, and shut the shed door. She wouldn’t get far with nothing but a nightgown, and she wouldn’t get far on her own. She needed to find someone she could trust to help her, and with Lucy gone, that left one person.

Continued in chapter four.

Distractions

I got back to the mystery project yesterday, staring a round of revision, during which I hope to come up with a plot for the next book and an idea for series titles.

You’d think I’d have more time to write right now, but I seem to be being more social during lockdown than I usually am. My parents and friends are checking in on me, so I’m talking on the phone a lot more. Then there are video meetings and livestreams. People are putting concerts and shows online. Our local PBS station is doing educational programming for various levels of school during the day, and their “high school” programs are the kinds of things I like to watch, with history documentaries and literary adaptation movies.

As a result, it takes a lot of willpower to get to work when there are so many distractions.

Not to mention, cute animal videos. I love the videos of penguins getting tours of their aquariums while there are no visitors. I think in my next career I’m going to be a penguin wrangler. Or there’s the orangutan playing with the otters, or the one who’s now washing her hands a lot after seeing her keepers washing their hands more often. And there’s the bear who set the fallen traffic cone upright. And the mountain goats who are invading the Welsh town now that there are fewer people around (the version with the video edited to “Ride of the Valkyries” is classic).

In real life, I just have squirrels, lizards, and the Canada geese who seem to have decided to stick around in my neighborhood. Most of them are gone, but there’s this one pair that’s hanging out with a mallard family. If I hear them honking, it makes me think of fall, and then I remember what time of year it is.

This is shaping up to be a really weird year (and I imagine that’s the understatement of the century).

serial

Serial Chapter Two

Here’s the second chapter of the serial novel. If you missed chapter one, you can find it here. If you’re enjoying this, please share the links so others can find it.

Chapter Two

            Dawn’s Aunt Mariel met her at the front door before she had a chance to use her key or knock. “It’s late,” Mariel snapped. “Where were you?”

“I had the audition for Camelot this afternoon. Remember, I told you? And it went really, really well!”

“But you’re just now getting home?”

“I stopped by the drugstore afterward to tell Lucy how it went.” Dawn swept past her aunt into the entryway. “And I didn’t want to walk home alone. It wasn’t long until Lucy got off work, and then we could go home together.”

Mariel slammed the door shut and followed Dawn into the living room, asking, “Then what were you doing in the car with that boy?”

“That was just Jeremy giving us a ride home. You’ve met him. Remember? We’ve been friends since we were eleven. Lucy was in the back seat.” She stood on tiptoe to kiss Mariel on the cheek. “You’re so sweet to worry about me.”

The other two aunts came out of the kitchen to join the conversation. Aunt Miriam was shorter and softer than Mariel but was still very stern when she asked “So, nothing’s going on with you and this boy?”

Dawn laughed. “With Jeremy? We’re just friends. Besides, Lucy likes him.”

The three aunts exchanged meaningful looks. “You’ve never done anything like kiss a boy?” Aunt Matilda asked with a teasing smile as she tucked a stray gray curl behind her ear.

“Should I have kissed someone by now? I’m sure I could find a boyfriend if you think I should.”

“No!” Mariel snapped, then said more gently, “It’s not necessary. Everything in its time.”

“We were simply curious,” Matilda added.

Dawn sighed in relief. “Oh, okay. Because I don’t really have time for a boyfriend with play rehearsals and choir and all, and the boys in the drama club don’t seem too interested in having girlfriends.”

Miriam winced and glanced at the others. “Is acting a suitable profession for you?” She sounded almost nervous as she asked the question. “I know you enjoy doing the school plays, but you don’t want to make a career out of it.”

“Of course I do! There’s nothing I want more. All I want to do is go to New York and be a star on Broadway.” With a big grin, she launched into “New York, New York,” linking her elbows with Miriam and Matilda and doing a few kick steps.

Matilda tried to get in step with her, but faltered when Mariel said firmly, “We’ll worry about long-term plans when the time comes. In the meantime, it is time for dinner. Please go wash and change clothes.”

Dawn kept singing as she went down the hall, coming to the big finish as she entered her bedroom. As far as she knew, she was the only kid in school who was expected to dress for dinner, but her aunts were terribly old-fashioned that way. She didn’t mind humoring them, since they’d been so kind to her, bringing her up after her parents had died when she was a baby. She put on a simple black dress that was very much like what her aunts always wore, only without the stiff white collars that made them look like the Puritans in history books, then brushed her hair and tied it back with a faded black ribbon.

As she came out of her room and went down the hall to the living room, she heard the aunts talking. They sounded like they were trying to talk in whispers, only they kept raising the volume to talk over each other. Dawn stood quietly in the hallway so she wouldn’t interrupt their conversation.

“I hate for her to get her hopes up like that,” Matilda said. “What do we do?”

“Time itself will take care of it all,” Mariel said. “We won’t need to do or say anything until the time comes.”

“It will be quite a shock for her, though,” Miriam said.

There was a loud shushing sound, then Mariel whispered, “She should be coming back at any time.”

Dawn tiptoed back to her room, then walked normally down the hallway, singing to herself so they’d hear her coming.

“There you are,” Mariel said when she entered the dining room. “I don’t know how it can take you so long just to change clothes.”

“But you do look nice, dear,” Matilda added, adjusting the ribbon in Dawn’s hair.

Mariel clapped her hands for attention. “Enough talking. It’s time for dinner before it gets cold.”

The four of them gathered around the dining table, which was set with mismatched, chipped china. They followed all the formal etiquette rules as they passed dishes around the table to serve themselves. “No, dear, that’s not how you do it,” Miriam said as Dawn scooped mashed potatoes from a serving dish onto her plate.

“Sit up straight,” Mariel ordered before Dawn could take a bite of food. As soon as she took a bite, Matilda chimed in to tell her to take smaller bites. I’ll be grateful someday when I’m a big star invited to dine with royalty, Dawn told herself.

Mariel opened her mouth to say something else, but stopped and frowned. “Where is your necklace, young lady?”

Dawn touched the base of her throat, only then remembering that she’d given the necklace to Lucy. She was so used to wearing it that she could still feel it hanging around her neck. “I let Lucy wear it.” All three aunts glared at her, so she hurried to explain. “She gave me this bracelet as a birthday gift.” She held up her wrist and shook it. “See, you can add charms. I can get one for each show I do. But I didn’t have anything for her, so I let her wear my necklace, just for her birthday. She has to do an oral report for history class, and I thought she could use a good-luck charm since I won’t be there to cheer her on.”

“How could you—” Mariel began, but Miriam put a hand on her arm.

“I think it’s a lovely gesture,” Miriam said. “It was very sweet of you to let your friend wear your necklace on her birthday.”

Mariel’s eyes went from squinting in a frown to wide with realization, like she was only then figuring something out. A second later, Matilda gasped, then smiled and breathed, “Oooooh.”

“Yes, that was a nice gesture,” Mariel said. “After all, you won’t be seeing anyone tomorrow, and she’ll be out and about, so it’s a good time for her to be wearing that necklace.”

Matilda bounced up from the table. “Dessert time!” She collected their empty plates and disappeared into the kitchen. Dawn let herself sigh with relief that she wasn’t in trouble for giving Lucy the necklace. Moments later, there was a crash and the sound of breaking china. “Mariel!” Matilda cried out from the kitchen.

Mariel jumped up from the table, but Miriam stayed and caught Dawn’s wrist in a tight grasp before Dawn could go help. “I’m sure they can handle it,” she said.

Soon, Matilda came back to the dining room, carrying a tray with a pie and dessert plates. Mariel came behind her, then went around the dining room and living room, shutting the windows, blinds, and drapes. While she did that, Matilda served the pie as though nothing had happened, but Dawn noticed that her face was nearly as pale as her stiff white collar. When Mariel returned to the table, she, too, was unusually pale. The dish Matilda had broken must have been a favorite, Dawn thought.

The four of them ate their dessert in silence, the aunts all looking like they were listening for something. After a while, Dawn wasn’t sure if it was her imagination, or if she heard the sound of hoofbeats on the road outside.

***

            Lucy was having one of the worst birthdays ever. Her mom had left waffles and a gift for her, but it was depressing eating breakfast alone on her birthday. The gift turned out to be a new watch. It was nice enough, and Lucy had been under no illusion that she’d find a new car with a bow on the roof in the driveway, but a watch wasn’t exactly something she’d asked for or needed.

She’d thought she’d done a brilliant job on her history report, but the teacher had disagreed, insisting that a report on sumptuary laws in the Middle Ages didn’t prove that clothes were important to history, and therefore didn’t prove that there was a good reason to read Vogue in class. To top it off, she faced her driver’s test that afternoon, and she wasn’t sure her mother would let her get her license anytime soon, even if she passed. Her mom was still too paranoid about cars after the wreck that had killed Lucy’s dad.

The only bright spot of the day was Dawn’s necklace. It was a constant reminder that she had a sweet, generous best friend. Just having the necklace around her neck made her feel strong and powerful, almost invincible, and she carried that feeling with her as she went to the back parking lot, where the driver’s ed classes were held. Today would be the day she conquered parallel parking and passed the test, and then she’d go home to her birthday dinner and find out what surprise Jeremy had for her. Maybe he’d give her a locket or something heart-shaped to show they weren’t just friends.

Lucy was the first one to show up for driver’s ed, and the teacher hadn’t even arrived yet, so she went over to the nearby ag department animal enclosure to pet the sheep. They were spoiled rotten and rather friendly, but they probably thought she was going to feed them. “Sorry, guys, I don’t have any food,” she told them with a laugh as they competed to get close to her.

She glanced at her new birthday watch and realized that she still had ten minutes before the session started. That was almost enough time to run downtown and check the audition results so she could call Dawn as soon as she got home, but she didn’t want to take the chance of getting stuck to be the last one to drive. With any luck, as the first one there, she’d get dibs on the first turn at the wheel. Then she could take the test and get out of there instead of having to wait around and watch other people drive.

The sound of hoofbeats on the pavement made her look up. It sounded a lot like what she’d heard the night before, only louder and closer. A trio of men on horseback rode from the town to the back parking lot, toward the forest that started just beyond the football practice field. They were dressed all in black, with armor and helmets and swords at their sides, and they wore black cloaks that swirled around them. It looked like someone was taking the Camelot auditions way too seriously.

She thought the men would just ride by on their way to wherever it was they were going, but before they passed her, the leader came to an abrupt halt, raising his hand to signal the other two to stop. Then they all turned to face her. She almost felt like the leader had x-ray vision, from the way he studied her. She was sure he could see every detail of her appearance, and probably the state of her internal organs, as well.

“She is the one!” he shouted, and suddenly all three riders were coming right at her. Her instinct was to run, but she was trapped against the fence. The fence was too high for her to jump, so she could only run along it toward the metal shop. There were usually a few tough guys hanging out in there after school, and while they weren’t what she’d consider chivalrous, they also weren’t opposed to fighting. From what Lucy knew of their reputations, they were very likely armed.

In case they couldn’t resist a damsel in distress, she shouted, “Help! Someone! Please!” as she ran desperately toward the shop.

The shop door opened and a shaggy head stuck out. “Whoa, dude!” the guy said when he saw Lucy running toward him, three black knights at her heels.

“Help me! Do something!” Lucy shouted.

“Like what?”

“Like stop the freaky knights from getting me!”

He tilted his head to stare at the riders. “Whoa, so you mean they’re really there?”

It looked like she couldn’t count on the shop guys taking any initiative, so she made for the shop door, intending to throw herself inside and have the guys weld it shut, if she could make them understand that concept. Unfortunately, the horses were faster than she was, and the riders really knew what they were doing. They turned to ride alongside her, then the leader bent down, grabbed her arm, and pulled her up into the saddle with him. She tried to scream for the shop guys to call the police, but her captor got a hand over her mouth and pinned her against his chest with an arm that felt like a steel beam. The riders wheeled around and galloped into the forest.

They hadn’t been riding long when something loomed ahead of them. Lucy hadn’t explored this end of town much, but she was fairly certain that a giant, glowing gate wasn’t normally there. As they drew closer, Lucy could see that it wasn’t a physical gate. It was more like light in the shape of a gate, and what she saw through it didn’t at all match what was on either side of the opening. It was still a forest, but it was a different kind of forest, old growth hardwoods instead of the pines that surrounded the town. Wherever they were taking her, she had a strong feeling it wasn’t anywhere in Texas.

She held her breath as they neared the gate, and the tingle she felt when they passed through made her gasp. She craned her neck to see around her captor once they were out on the other side, but there was nothing behind them but forest.

She was stuck in another world, the prisoner of a trio of dark knights. This really was the worst birthday ever.

Continued in chapter three.

The Outside World

I ventured into the Outside World this morning because I had to pick up a prescription, and I restocked on groceries while I was out. Now I’m back safe at home with provisions for another couple of weeks. I may have to get somewhat creative with menus and I’ll have to bake my own bread, but I got most of what was on my list.

I made my own mask to wear for when I go out. It will require some fine-tuning because the instructions I followed were probably for a larger person. And it seems my ears don’t work well with the elastic loops, so I’ll have to make the kind that ties on. Although the WHO was saying healthy people don’t need them, I’ve seen a lot of other research showing that the countries where mask use is more universal have a much lower infection curve. The mask may only reduce your risk by about 50 percent, but the real benefit is that if more people are wearing masks, then they’re all less likely to spread the virus, and it looks like as many as 30 percent of people infected have no symptoms. It’s safest to act as though you’re infected in order to protect others, and along the way you may also be protecting yourself. I live in a majority Asian neighborhood, so a good number of people at the stores were wearing masks.

I also managed to get some socializing last night with a video chat with my church women’s group. So I may not go entirely feral while isolated.

And I took the long way to the store, mostly to let my car get up to highway speed a little bit, but that also meant I got to see fields of bluebonnets. That was a nice little lift to the spirits before I hide away for another couple of weeks.

serial

New Serial Story!

To entertain and amuse you while you’re stuck at home, I’m serializing a novel I wrote in 2007 but that didn’t sell. It’s a YA portal fantasy that’s a riff on fairy tales. The title is Spindled, which may give a hint as to what fairy tale it’s based on. Please note that I first wrote this several years before Tangled came out, and in fact I was a little irked when I learned about Tangled because I had in mind a whole series, with the next book being Mirrored and another book being, you guessed it, Tangled. I think I’ll post it a chapter at a time on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. I may also later (if there’s any demand) create a mailing list for those who’d rather get it that way. So, here’s chapter one.

Chapter One

            “I can’t believe they’re making you stay home on your birthday – on our birthday!” Lucy Jordan fumed.

Her friend Dawn didn’t seem nearly as upset as Lucy was. After an initial flicker of annoyance when she broke the news, she’d gone quickly back to her usual happy self, humming softly as they walked from the high school into the main part of town.

“We’re turning sixteen tomorrow,” Lucy continued. “That’s a big deal. And we always spend our birthday together.” Dawn’s humming took on the tune of “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” from The Sound of Music, and a little skip went into her step. Birds flew down from a nearby tree and picked up the tune as they circled Dawn. Lucy knew what was likely to happen next, so she started talking louder and faster, hoping to hold off the inevitable.

“I know we must be the two biggest dorks in the world, actually wanting to go to school on our birthday, but even being at school has to be better than sitting at home all day. Won’t your aunts even let you come to my house for cake and ice cream after your family dinner?”

Dawn didn’t answer, which Lucy knew was a danger sign. She could practically hear an invisible orchestra playing an intro—though that was probably just the birds that always seemed to follow Dawn around. The timing was particularly bad, as they’d just entered what passed for a downtown area in their tiny East Texas town. That meant there was a potential audience for one of Dawn’s musical numbers.

Sure enough, Dawn began singing “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” out loud, with the birds accompanying her, and just at that moment a convertible full of the most popular girls in school drove by. The weird thing was, the girls turned down their blaring radio to listen. Dawn was that good. Her voice was so sweet and pure that people didn’t mind her odd habit of bursting into song in public. Fortunately, no one joined her and turned it into a big spontaneous production number. Lucy wasn’t sure she could deal with that.

There was no point in asking Dawn any further questions about her aunts’ odd restrictions, since her mind was now off dancing around a gazebo with a junior Nazi messenger boy, so Lucy tried to make herself invisible as she walked through town alongside her. Dawn jumped up onto the benches along the downtown storefronts, leaping from bench to bench as she sang. A Jeep full of football players drove past, and Lucy cringed when they slowed down to watch the show. Only Dawn’s status as the prettiest girl in the school kept her from being labeled an absolute weirdo. Everyone and everything loved Dawn, even if they thought she was strange; They couldn’t help it. Lucy, on the other hand, didn’t have the advantages of beauty and talent, so even being a non-singing extra in one of Dawn’s musical numbers made her wish she could be sucked through a black hole into the Twilight Zone so no one would think she was as odd as Dawn.

The song’s dance break came, and Lucy tried to pick up the conversation where she’d left off while Dawn danced down the sidewalk to the accompaniment of singing birds. “What could be so bad about leaving the house on your sixteenth birthday? We were maybe talking about going to the Dairy Queen after school or you coming to my party. It’s not like we were planning to head to Vegas and get tattoos.”

“Do you think I stand a chance?” Dawn asked after she finished the song and the birds went back to bird-type songs that sounded nothing like anything out of an old musical.

“Well, I hate to break it to you, but that wasn’t the show you’re auditioning for.”

“I know. I was just singing something appropriate to our situation to warm up. But do you think I’ll get a part?”

“You’ve won every role you’ve ever gone after. You have a voice that would make Tony winners give up and turn to full-time waitressing in a fit of inferiority. Of course you’ll get the part. You’re the perfect Guinevere.”

“But those were all school plays. This is the community theater. I’ll be up against adults. I’ll be up against people who’ve had actual training, even some who’ve been to drama school.” Her eyes went wide with panic as she clutched at Lucy’s sleeve. “I’ll be competing against my choir teacher!”

“Oh, wow! Do you think Miss Clark would flunk you if you beat her for the role?”

“Why would she do that?” Dawn asked with a frown. “She’d probably give me extra credit for doing so well that I could beat her.” Then she smiled, and it was like the sun coming out after a storm. “You really think I’ll get the part?”

“I know you will.”

Dawn bounced on her toes, clapping in delight. “And you can volunteer to design costumes for the show. Community theater credit will be good for your resume, too.”

Lucy had been to a few community theater productions with Dawn, and she suspected that working on costumes for Camelot would amount to gluing braided trim onto bathrobes. But maybe if Dawn got to play Guinevere, she could design at least one fabulous gown for her. “That would give me something to do this summer other than make ice cream sodas.” Costume designing was really more Dawn’s ambition for Lucy than it was Lucy’s. It was part of Dawn’s grand plan for the two of them to take the New York theater world by storm. Lucy liked making costumes, but she wasn’t sure she wanted that as a career. She wasn’t really sure what she wanted to do with her life, although she’d ruled out anything to do with ice cream, thanks to her part-time job.

They reached the old movie theater that doubled as the home of the community theater. “Now, go knock ’em dead, and come by the store afterward and tell me how it went, okay?”

“Okay!” Dawn was already practically dancing when she opened the theater door and disappeared inside. Lucy couldn’t help but smile as she continued down the street to the corner drugstore where she worked at the soda fountain. It could be a little weird being best friends with someone who seemed to live inside a Broadway musical or a Disney cartoon. Even so, she and Dawn had been as inseparable as Dawn’s three guardian aunts allowed ever since Dawn moved to town in sixth grade and they discovered they had the same birthday.

If the aunts weren’t going to let Dawn out on her birthday, then she’d have to come up with an alternative birthday celebration, Lucy decided. As soon as she’d taken care of the brief after-school rush at the soda fountain, she called her other friend, Jeremy. “The aunts are keeping Dawn home tomorrow,” she said when he answered.

“On her birthday? Why?”

“I don’t know. I’ve given up trying to understand the aunts. They are foreign. Maybe it’s a cultural thing. Anyway, I thought we could do something today. She’s at the audition now. If you want to come to the pharmacy around five-thirty and have a little party when she gets done with her audition, I’ll spring for the ice cream on my employee discount.”

“Okay, I’ll be there.”

She had to hang up on him without saying good-bye properly because she had customers again, that same group of popular girls who’d driven by earlier. Lucy tried to make herself blend into the surroundings so they wouldn’t recognize her from being around Dawn in musical mode, but they didn’t look past her apron or paper hat and didn’t even acknowledge that they went to school together. Lucy decided not to bring that up while she dished up sugar-free, non-fat frozen yogurts. She didn’t want to be known at school as the soda jerk who hung around with the Disney princess.

She made several more ice cream sodas for kids whose mothers were picking up prescriptions from after-school doctors’ appointments, and then she had a few free moments to come out from behind the soda fountain counter and do some quick shopping. She’d been planning to do that anyway before she got off work, but now she needed to hurry. In the gift section of the store she found something perfect, and the store clerk offered to gift wrap it for her.

Jeremy arrived shortly after five, before Lucy had a chance to duck into the employee bathroom and touch up her hair and makeup. “Oh, you’re early!” she said, her face growing uncomfortably warm. She’d been doing that a lot lately around him, which was very annoying. She’d known him practically since she was born, so it was silly to let herself get flustered around him now. On the other hand, he certainly hadn’t looked like he did now when he was a toddler. He’d hit a growth spurt recently, so he was nearly six feet tall, and his blond hair swept dashingly across his forehead, making him look like he should be brooding in a black-and-white cologne ad. Fortunately, Jeremy never brooded. He was almost as relentlessly good-natured as Dawn.

He sat on one of the stools, spun it around a full circle, then leaned his elbows on the counter. “I thought I ought to come early to make sure I’m here when Dawn shows up,” he said. He gave her a wink and a smile and added, “And I figured you wouldn’t mind the company.”

Lucy held on to the edge of the counter until her knuckles turned white. She was absolutely certain that she could take his statement at face value and that he was not flirting with her. He really was just being a good friend, but that didn’t stop her from hoping. It wasn’t as though either of them had paid any attention to anyone else, so they were bound to end up together. He was merely taking his sweet time making a move.

“Not at all,” she said, the pitch of her voice going up to a squeak. She grabbed a towel and set about briskly wiping the counter. In the process, she accidentally knocked over a stack of metal milkshake canisters that fell with a clatter. He reached over and caught them before they rolled onto the floor. Trying to pretend like she wasn’t hoping the earth would swallow her whole, she added, “I’m glad you could make it, since this was short notice.”

“Hey, I couldn’t miss celebrating with my girls.” She made the mistake of looking at him when he said that, and his smile made her legs go watery. Was it possible that he was trying to move them out of the friend zone, and she’d been missing the signals? “And it was actually a pretty boring afternoon, so I needed something to do.”

“Then I’m glad I could come to your rescue,” she said, attempting to sound a little flirtatious. “You will still come over for dinner tomorrow night, right? This doesn’t replace that. I just wanted Dawn to get a chance to celebrate.”

“Of course I’ll be there. I wouldn’t miss it. I’ve even got a surprise for you.” Her heart fluttered at that, but as she was imagining him handing her a gift that he definitely wouldn’t give to just a friend, he added, “I’ve been looking forward to seeing your grandfather again. He’s hilarious.” Her grin froze on her face. He wanted to see her grandfather?

The bells on the side door near the soda fountain jingled, and Dawn waltzed in. “Surprise!” Jeremy called out.

“And happy early birthday!” Lucy added. “It’s not much, but it’s a party.”

Dawn gasped, grinned, and bounced over to take a seat next to Jeremy. “Oh! I can’t believe you did this!” she said. “Thank you. Thank you so much.” Her reaction would have been more on-target if they’d decorated the place with streamers and banners and had a band play her theme song as she walked in, but that was typically Dawn.

“We couldn’t let you miss celebrating your birthday,” Jeremy said, as if it had been his idea.

Lucy let it slide, though, instead asking, “How’d the audition go?”

Dawn knitted her perfect forehead into a frown. “I don’t know. I think it went well. I sang okay, and I was one of a few people they asked to stay to sing again. Miss Clark was also one of them, though, and there are only two big roles for women in Camelot. Otherwise, it’s just chorus. I guess I’d be fine with being in the chorus in my first real show, but I really want to be Guinevere.”

“You’ll get it, I’m sure,” Lucy said. “When do you find out?”

A little of the joy faded from Dawn’s eyes. “They’re going to post the cast tomorrow on the box office windows, but I don’t think my aunts will let me out to check. Do you think you could go after school and check for me, then call?”

“Of course. Now, what do you want on your sundae? Ice cream is on me today.”

“You don’t have to do that!”

“I was going to make cupcakes tonight to bring for lunch tomorrow, so this just replaces that. Now, design your own sundae, or I’ll create one for you.”

The mock threat backfired when Dawn clapped her hands and said, “Oh, that’s what I want! Create one for me!”

Now Lucy felt compelled to create the best sundae ever. She hoped Dawn had that effect on the rest of the world, or else she would be in big trouble if she did realize her dream of going to New York and making it on Broadway.

With a flourish, Lucy dropped a cherry on top of an elaborate concoction of hot fudge, caramel, and whipped cream and nudged the dish toward Dawn. She didn’t have to ask Jeremy what he wanted; after a lifetime of friendship she already knew exactly the way he liked his sundae.

Jeremy reached into his jacket pocket, pulled out two envelopes, and handed one to each girl. “It’s a good thing you love that theater, since you’ll be spending a lot of time there,” he said. Lucy and Dawn opened the envelopes to find gift cards for the movie theater. “You don’t even have to take me,” he said. “If you want to use these to see chick flicks together, that’s totally okay. I’ll find something else to do, something manly like camping or hunting, maybe a safari.”

Dawn hugged him. “How about one chick flick for Lucy and me, and then one big action movie with spaceships and explosions for all of us?” she suggested.

“Make it something with sword fights and you’ve got a deal.”

“With our theater, it’s not like there’s much of a choice,” Lucy said as she got out her little wrapped box and slid it across the counter to Dawn. “And this is from me. Happy birthday. I hope you like it.

Dawn unwrapped it, opened the box, and pulled out a charm bracelet with a musical note charm hanging from it. “Since music is your thing,” Lucy explained. “You can add a charm with each role you get. When you’re a big Broadway star, the bracelet will be full.”

Dawn’s eyes filled with tears. “It’s too nice,” she said.

“No, really, it’s not like it’s real gold, or anything.”

“But I didn’t …” she hesitated.

“Don’t worry about it.” Lucy knew Dawn never had any money. She wasn’t even sure the aunts Dawn lived with had jobs. At least, she’d never seen them going to work.

“No, it’s your sixteenth birthday. I need to give you something.” Dawn reached up and took off the necklace she always wore, then leaned over the counter to clasp it around Lucy’s neck. “Here, I want you to have this.”

Lucy was pretty sure it was way nicer than her gift to Dawn was. “I can’t take this. This was your mom’s. It’s too much,” she said, shaking her head and moving to take the necklace off.

Dawn caught Lucy’s wrist. “No, please, take it. At least wear it for our birthday if you won’t keep it. You’ve got that oral report in history class, and you can wear it for good luck.”

“Okay, then,” Lucy agreed. “Just for tomorrow.”

Jeremy faked a sniffle and acted like he had to wring out his imaginary handkerchief. “I’m so moved. Remind me again why I hang out with you two girls?”

“Because you love us,” Dawn said.

“Yeah, there is that. And you smell better than most of the guys in our class. Now, whenever you’re ready to leave work, Lucy, I’d be glad to offer you ladies a ride home.”

Dawn and Jeremy pitched in to help Lucy clean up the soda fountain, then the three of them piled into Jeremy’s mother’s car. He drove to Dawn’s house first and waited until she got to her front porch before backing the car away. Lucy watched Dawn’s front door open and an angry aunt greet her with stiff posture and jerky gestures. The door slammed shut behind them.

“Do you think she’s okay?” Lucy asked. “That whole thing about keeping her home from school on her birthday seems weird. Maybe we should tell someone.”

He put on the brakes, stopping the car at the end of Dawn’s driveway. “Well, you could always plead your case to the aunts. I’ll wait here for you.”

“No! Like they’d even listen to me, and it could cause problems if they are up to something.”

He laughed as he finished pulling out of the driveway. “Lucy, you’re letting your imagination run away with you. This is just one day they’re not letting her do what she wants—really, what you want. She doesn’t seem too upset about it.”

“She doesn’t get upset about anything.”

“You know, you may be right. Okay, tonight we’ll rescue her from the nefarious clutches of her evil aunts. Wear something black and bring a rope and a flashlight. Oh, and maybe some snacks and bottled water. Things could get rough.”

She punched him lightly on the shoulder. “Now you’re making fun of me.”

“That’s because you’re cute when you’re paranoid.”

Before she could find a way to ask what he meant by “cute,” he pulled into his driveway. “Thanks for the lift,” she said, then she noticed that her own driveway next door was empty. “It looks like Mom is working late tonight.”

“Do you want to come over for dinner? I’m sure my mom won’t mind.”

She hesitated. She hated to turn down the chance to spend more time with Jeremy, but she did have things to do. “Thanks for the offer, but I’d better get dinner ready for when Mom comes home, and I have that oral report for history.”

“The one you got assigned as punishment for reading a magazine in class?”

She rolled her eyes. “That teacher’s out to get me. But, hey, want to do something after school tomorrow? I don’t have to work. They’re giving me my birthday off.”

“Sorry, Luce, but I’m supposed to help with the Cub Scouts tomorrow. I will see you later at the big bash, though.”

She forced her voice to sound casual. “Oh, okay. Well, good night. See you in the morning.” Her house felt particularly empty when she unlocked the door. A note on the refrigerator told her that her mother would be home at seven, so she set to work making spaghetti sauce, all the while stewing over Dawn’s situation. No matter what Jeremy said, she was sure something odd was going on.

A noise from outside startled her. It sounded almost like hoofbeats on the road, but this town wasn’t quite rural enough to have horses on city streets. She went to the front window to check and saw her mother’s car pulling into the driveway.

Her mother set the table while Lucy finished getting dinner ready, then the two of them sat down to eat. “I’m working the early shift tomorrow, so I’m off to bed right after dinner,” her mom said between bites of spaghetti. “I hate to leave you alone in the morning on your birthday, but I wanted to get home in time to have everything ready at night. What time do you think you’ll get home?”

Lucy shrugged. “I don’t know. I don’t have to work. Dawn’s aunts are making her stay home and Jeremy has a scouting thing, so I could get home at any time you want me.”

“Think of something to do. I’ll need time to set up without the birthday girl underfoot.”

“I could see if there’s still a slot open to take the final driving test. I was going to do it later in the week since I thought I’d be busy on my birthday, but …” She shrugged as her voice trailed off.

Her mother frowned. “You think you’re ready?”

“I have a little trouble with parallel parking, but I think I can do well enough to get the driver’s ed certificate, and then I’ll be able to get my license. Can you get off work early enough later in the week to take me to the DPS after school?”

Her mom concentrated on twirling her spaghetti as she said, “We’ll see.”

It was the kind of “we’ll see” that usually meant “no,” but one look at her mother’s face was enough to keep Lucy from pushing the point. Instead, she served herself more salad and changed the subject. “Say, when you were coming home, did you see any horses outside?”

“Horses?”

“I thought I heard hoofbeats.”

Her mother raised an eyebrow. “In our neighborhood?”

“Near enough for me to hear them.”

Her mother put her fork down. “Lucy.” She said a lot with that one word, managing to fit in weariness, disbelief, and a distinct shortage of patience with childish flights of fancy.

“I’m not making it up,” Lucy insisted. “Though I guess I could have imagined it. And I was just asking if you saw anything because I was checking to see if I really heard it. I wasn’t trying to get attention or being dramatic, or anything like that.” She got up and started clearing the table. “I’ll do a load of laundry while I’m doing homework, so if you’ve got anything you want washed, put it out before you go to bed.” Both of them gave up trying to make conversation after that.

Later, when Lucy’s mom had gone to bed and Lucy was in the living room doing her homework, she heard the hoofbeats again. She went straight to the front window and pulled the curtain aside just in time to see a black horse disappearing around the corner, heading toward Dawn’s street.

Continued in chapter two.

The New Normal

It’s funny how quickly my worldview is adapting to the new normal. My dreams and nightmares have changed. I used to have nightmares about being in a crowd of people where I knew no one. Now I’m having nightmares about being at parties with all my friends and realizing that we’re all standing too close to each other. I had a dream last night about finding unexpected fresh produce in my refrigerator, a head of lettuce I’d forgotten about that was still miraculously fresh. I’ve found myself daydreaming about what I want to buy next time I go out for groceries.

Meanwhile, it’s affecting the way I see entertainment. I haven’t been watching TV all week, but I watched an episode of Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist last night, and the scenes of crowded restaurants and bars really bothered me. It was like watching a horror movie. I may have to stick with fantasy and historical settings, where it seems less strange and frightening for people to be acting like “normal.”

But then that brings up the issue of how to write contemporary works now. The first book in my mystery series takes place in February of this year. There’s no obvious date stamp in the book, but it’s planned for release this year, and the primary election is mentioned in the story as coming up soon. The second book takes place after spring break, so right around now. I found myself wondering if I needed to rewrite it, since there are large public events and school is in session. I decided to leave it as it is. After all, it’s already an alternate reality, since it’s a world where people have strange “magical” abilities. In the first book, there’s a huge ice storm that plays a big role in the plot, and that didn’t happen this year in the approximate location where the book is set. If I’m not rewriting to remove an ice storm that didn’t happen, then I’m not rewriting to add social distancing and sheltering in place. The books may be released this year (I hope!), but people will be reading them at random times, hopefully years into the future. But that may be why I can’t seem to make myself work on these books right now. I don’t want to write current events into the books, but I also can’t visualize anything contemporary without the current reality. So, I’m playing with fantasy works for now.

I’m kind of seeing why the book I’m re-reading didn’t sell. It’s rather quirky, and the heroine doesn’t have a lot of “agency,” which is big with publishers. But she’s in a situation that’s entirely out of her control. That’s the whole point of the story. Her agency is in how she copes with the situation. I’ll have to read through to the end to be sure I want to inflict it upon the world in some form. It does seem as though it’s made for serialization. I was really good about scene-ending cliffhangers.

New Old Stuff

Since I have very little brain these days, I pulled up an old book that made the rounds of publishers about 12 years ago and didn’t sell. I haven’t looked at it since then. I’m re-reading it to see if there’s something I can do with it, either to publish it myself or maybe just put it out there as a serial to give people something fun to read right now. It’s a YA portal fantasy based on the Sleeping Beauty story (the version used in the ballet and Disney film, in which Aurora is sent away with the fairies to live in hiding). Instead of just living in the forest, the fairies take her to our world until after her 16th birthday. But when the evil sorceress’s minions finally track her down, there’s a mix-up and they grab the wrong girl, an ordinary teenager from our world who suddenly finds herself living the Sleeping Beauty story. Meanwhile, we’ve got a Disney princess who doesn’t know what she is setting out on a rescue mission.

I like what I’ve read so far. The question is how well the plot will hold together along the way. If I’m okay with the story without needing to do massive rewriting (or if I can figure out what the rewriting would be), I may see what I can do with it. I’ve been thinking about publishing it here in installments, or maybe setting up a mailing list people can sign up for to get “episodes.” Or there may be some other place I can put it. It would be nice if I could use this to get people to try my work, and maybe they’d move from there to actually buying books, but I’m not sure how I’d spread the word beyond the people who already know who I am.

I have a couple of other books I’ve drafted but haven’t gone back and revised or polished that I may have to take another look at. This one’s complete to the point that it went on submission. The rest have never gone beyond me and would require a lot more work.

I need to get back to my mysteries, but at the moment I’m finding it really hard to work on those. They’re a little too “real world” for me right now. I need to revise book 2, and I need to think of titles for the series so I can find someone to design the covers. And I need a plot for book 3. I’m drawing a blank on all of these.

Coping Strategies

I’m amusing myself in isolation by setting up little challenges. There’s the one I think of as “menu Tetris,” in which I plan meals based on what I have in the pantry, fridge, and freezer, prioritizing ingredients or cooked foods that are likely to go bad first and arranging meals to maintain some kind of nutritional balance. Today I’m going to use one of my last garlic cloves and my last fresh tomato, along with some shrimp from the freezer and some olive oil to make something to toss with pasta. I wish I had some fresh basil, but my plant died during the winter (even though I kept it indoors). I’ll have to settle for fresh parsley.

I’m trying to ration my online time, so I’m using it as a reward for completing other tasks. I did a big disinfecting wipe-down of frequently touched surfaces, so I got to check Twitter.

I’m making it a point to exercise daily, preferably outdoors. My morning walk is really helping my sanity. I’m lucky to live in a spread-out area with good walking paths, most of them waterside. It may just be my imagination, but the air feels fresher right now with fewer cars on the roads.

I’m also trying to spend a lot of time with music, both listening and performing. The classical radio station has become my soundtrack. I make sure I’m up and going before the March of the Day in the morning, and I listen while I eat breakfast. I may turn it off during the rest of the day, depending on what kind of work I’m doing, but then they play entire concerts in the evenings. Monday night is usually some local symphony, Tuesdays are the New York Philharmonic (last night they played Rachmaninoff’s second symphony), Wednesdays are the Chicago Symphony (tonight they’re doing Mozart’s Requiem, so I’ll have to listen and resist singing along. I do have the sheet music), Thursdays are the Pittsburgh Symphony, and I think Fridays are Los Angeles, but I seldom listen to that. I’m not watching all that much stuff, either TV or movies. The music makes a good soundtrack for reading, doing work-related stuff, goofing around online, or knitting/sewing.

I don’t actually have a knitting project going at the moment. Instead, I’m adding beads to the knitted bedspread I made a few years ago. It’s a lace pattern for airflow, and is what I use for the summer. Now I’m adding beads to it for extra weight, since the weighted blanket I have (and love) is way too hot for warm weather. It’s fairly tedious work, so I have new respect for people who do lovely beadwork on clothing. It’s not going to be pretty, but it will live under the comforter during the day, so it won’t really be seen. I found a pound of beads on clearance, and though that doesn’t seem like it will add much, I can already feel a difference, and I’ve barely begun using up the beads. I’m focusing them all on the area around where I’ll be lying.

I’m trying to keep to some kind of schedule, more or less what my regular work schedule would be, but I’m not putting a lot of pressure on myself to work. Reading also counts as “work” for me, so I’m catching up on that.

Anyone have any coping strategies they want to share?