Pay per page? Get Outta Here With That Nonsense

The following is my response to Amazon changing the payout terms for Kindle Unlimited borrows from a 10%, regardless-of-length full payout to a pay-per-page standard, as well as my response to the responses.

“Starting in July, if you’ve been loading the system with bits and pieces instead of full-fledged work, you’ll be getting paid for bits and pieces.”
— Porter Anderson from Thought Catalog

Hear that, writers of short works? Those of you who, apparently, are not quite full fledged? See what the industry thinks of you? You’re only worth bits and pieces compared with the vaunted novelists. You’re being thrust back to your rightful place on the pay scale, and you only get that begrudgingly.  A bit of an unfair characterization of Anderson’s words and meaning? Sure. But that comment is also characteristic of many, many more like it. Short works are a racket. You’re gaming the system. What you’re doing isn’t fair. This is a common sense return to sanity.

Even Hugh Howey got in on the act:

“What we should celebrate is that short stories will no longer earn the same amount as a novel, especially since the 10% threshold was much easier to reach on a short story. That system just wasn’t fair. The new system is a vast improvement.”
— Author Hugh Howey

A vast improvement for writers of long-form works who stand to grab a much larger portion of the proceeds. In other words, a vast improvement for the people who are not you. Just the fact that it’s not you is even cause for celebration. Feel the love yet? Another unfair bit of assumption? Certainly. Howey has written some short works himself, and I don’t think for a second he’d want to do anything to knowingly harm any writers. But you see enough of this baked in bias against the short form, you begin to realize how ingrained it is. Even many other writers who work short will fetishize the position of the novel in the hierarchy somewhere above you, if not in stature, than certainly in monetary terms. You might even be doing it yourself right now. It’s everywhere. Peruse the articles and comments on every one of the links here and drink whenever you see some variation of “fairness” or “level playing field” used in describing the new pay scale. I dare you. If you can make it through all of them still lucid enough to read, you many need to have your liver checked out soon. Or join a 12 step program.

As for the suggestion that it was so much easier for short works to reach that 10% threshold, it’s assuming a direct one-to-one correlation of the value of a page relative to the work. Is one page in Kafka’s Metamorphisis (53 pages long in mass market paperback length) truly equivalent to one page in Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1,424 pages) in effect, import to the story and impact on the reader? Strictly proportionally speaking, there’s 27 pages in that Russain doorstop for every one in Kafka’s “pamphlet”. Isn’t it fair to presume that each page of Kafka’s tale must necessarily have more bearing on the overall than one which has nearly half it’s total length per page to stretch out? (Incidentally, all the page counts I use in this piece will be MMPB for ease of comparison. It’s not perfect, but close enough for my purposes without having to decipher Amazon’s standard page length algorithm. You know, page length for the stuff appearing on a device that doesn’t have actual pages?)

Short works aren’t short novels. It’s a different form entirely, with a different structural makeup and it’s own unique set of characteristics. Was it fair that Leo would have to get a reader through 140 pages while Fraz had only to reach 5 to trigger a full payout? Why not? It’s the exact same relative percentage of the story at hand. And we are talking about stories here, right? Because for a second there, it seemed like we’d veered into suggesting monetary rewards based on the volume in an imaginary container. But  then, that would be silly.

But not so silly if you’re of the mind that the short form is an inherent lesser to the long form, based on the sheer weight of it alone. It doesn’t matter if the underlying story is more effective at it’s own aims. They might even both be equally effective, yet the novel is still granted superiority, more deserving of increased compensation simply because it’s longer. It’s an idea that’s enticing to side with, I agree, if we’re talking about an actual physical book, and all the accompanying costs of producing and distributing one. For an infinitely replicable digital file of near insignificant size displayed on a screen,  however, that complicates things. And if we discount reader bias having been conditioned in many ways to expect more volume at a higher price with, say, a totally digital, essentially a la carte subscription service for a flat rate monthly fee, well, then, we’ve now removed any semblance of a price-based purchase decision from the equation. What we still have, though, are the stories themselves, each in their own forms, existing in much more even economic conditions than maybe ever before. The presumption of the novel’s sheer length deserving additional reward is not quite so clear cut as it may at first appear.

Is there such a natural superiority to longer form work? After all, it is longer. There’s more room in there, so it must generate more value, right? Well, here’s some expert testimony on that subject:

“We allude to the short prose narrative, requiring from a half-hour to one or two hours in its perusal. The ordinary novel is objectionable, from its length…as it cannot be read at one sitting, it deprives itself, of course, of the immense force derivable from totality. Worldly interests intervening during the pauses of perusal, modify, annul, or counteract, in a greater or less degree, the impressions of the book. But simple cessation in reading, would, of itself, be sufficient to destroy the true unity. In the brief tale, however, the author is enabled to carry out the fullness of his intention, be it what it may. During the hour of perusal the soul of the reader is at the writer’s control. There are no external or extrinsic influences–resulting from weariness or interruption…by such means, with such care and skill, a picture is at length painted which leaves in the mind of him who contemplates it with a kindred art, a sense of the fullest satisfaction. The idea of the tale has been presented unblemished, because undisturbed; and this is an end unattainable by the novel.”
— Edgar Allan Poe from a review of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twice Told Tales

Yup, that’s American literary treasure Edgar Allan Poe stating his opinion that the novel’s length is actually a detriment to the story not an advantage. What would Poe think of this new pay scale being implemented by Amazon? I suspect it would be enough to send the lord of horror screaming off into the night. This from the man who basically invented the form, as well as a handful of fiction genres many of us work in to this day. His words just might carry a little weight, don’t you think? And not in “the story needs to be the size of a cinder block to engender fair compensation” sense.

So what brought about this alteration of pay by Amazon? In their own words:

“One particular piece of feedback we’ve heard consistently from authors is that paying the same for all books regardless of length may not provide a strong enough alignment between the interests of authors and readers.”
— statement from Amazon

Here’s how I put it in a tweet immediately after reading of the change:

“WTF does length of the work have to do with anything? Just some whiny ass novelists bitching on wanting paid extra for their fluffed up nonsense.”

and this one:

“Pay by the page? In a fucking ebook? Sure, that’s not some backwards ass nonsense to appease a bunch of overly verbose squeaky wheels.”

I was a bit annoyed, apparently. But Amazon’s own words say basically the same thing. Many complaints from writers that equal pay for stories doesn’t align with their interests. “My story is longer than yours so I deserve more money for that factor alone.”  Sure, they were a tad more polite about it, but whatever. Writers of long form work didn’t like actually being on a level playing field in an open market based on nothing but the story itself. I can’t really blame them. That’s never been the case at any point in any of our lifetimes. This brief period of Kindle Unlimited has been the only time short works have existed in absolute parity commercially with long works that I have ever seen. And writers of long works didn’t like it one bit.

To borrow a concept from the social justice crowd, I’m calling this “novelist privilege.” They’ve had advantages (largely based on nothing more than cost effectiveness for printing and distribution) for so long that they don’t even see them as advantages anymore. And whenever something comes along to actually counter those advantages, we get a bunch of complaints about how unfair it all is, quickly followed by numerous characterizations that the previously disadvantaged class is somehow stealing what’s rightfully theirs. It never crosses their mind that, all this time, they may have been the ones unfairly siphoning away resources from others. Don’t even get me started on poets, writers of children’s books, novellas or non-fiction reference works. You folks are getting shafted by this just the same, if not worse. To be fair, you non-fiction reference folks were getting boned by the old system, too.

So what happens when you point this out? Here’s a comment I left on The Passive Voice the other day in response to all this talk of “fairness”:

“Except it’s not leveling the playing field. It was level. This is slanting it back in favor of novel length work, a trait that been SOP in publishing for about 75 years now, if not longer, and largely originating in the cost effectiveness for printing certain length stories, something that should have little or no bearing on a digital subscription service. Not to mention, pay per page? That’s regressive and backward thinking, in my opinion. I would argue with your statement that a writer deserves to be paid more for a longer work. Do you pay extra for longer songs? Do you pay a premium ticket price for a longer movie?”

This illicited a couple responses, needlessly to say, none of which were in an any sort of agreement. Here’s one:

“This is comparing apples to oranges to ask about long songs or movies. For decades, writers have been paid more for longer stories. Short stories were sold in collections or in magazines which effectively reduced the royalty per story, and then with the arrival of ebooks, a short story has almost always been priced lower than a longer novel, meaning the author earned less…Before KU, writers of short stories were almost always paid less than writers of longer works. This is a return to something along those lines.”
— Nirmala, commenter on The Passive Voice

No, I’m not comparing apples to oranges. The commenter is the one comparing apples to slightly different varieties of apples and calling them oranges. A differentiation, as pointed out here on the Dear Author blog that is becoming more irrelevant by the day. Of course, that piece also included some consternation on what this “means for the book” and a couple of thinly veiled shots at short works as being gimmicks. I’m telling you, this stuff is everywhere.

Other than that, this response basically consists of little more than saying, “You should be paid less because you’ve always been paid less.” Let’s try this one on the equal pay for women advocates. I’m sure they’ll find that reasoning very compelling. Ten minutes worth of human history should be enough to invalidate any arguments based on the premise that we should simply continue doing something because that’s how it’s always been. Especially considering that what we’re discussing here is the pay scale in a digital only subscription service for written works that’s only existed for one year. Always seems to have gotten a lot shorter. Here’s a good example of the destructiveness in that kind of thinking

“Much of that ‘standard’ (publishing contract) language has been around for years thanks to institutional inertia; as long as somebody signs an unfair clause that favors the publisher, the firm has no interest in modifying it. But even contracts negotiated by agents and lawyers often include longstanding ‘gotchas’ that live on only because ‘it’s always been that way'”.
— from the Authors Guild Fair Contract Initiative preview

This may be the first time I’ve ever quoted The Authors Guild and not immediately followed it up with some concerns for the collective IQ in that group. But it just goes to show you, conditions change around us every day. Because it’s always been is no answer at all. It’s the “because I said so” of responses for folks with no actual comeback.

For a more pointed response, Hugh Howey then gave his thoughts on my point:

“Wait. So writing a novel takes the same amount of time as writing a short story? No, this system is far more fair than the old one. If it takes me 6 months to write a 100K novel, and it takes you 6 months to write 10 10K short stories, then we should get paid the same per page (or time spent reading), not per item.”

When did I say anything about the time it took to write a story of any length? But since he brought it up, I’ll bite. The Goldfinch, rather famously, took eight years to write. Is he implying that Donna Tartt deserves eight times the compensation for one read that another author who penned an identical length book in just one year deserves? And what if it took me six months to perfect just one 10,000 word short story (different form of writing, remember)? Poe himself was rather famous for pouring over every word of every story over and over and over again, to get the desired overall impact described in his own words above. That takes time. Or better yet, is this a suggestion that a novelist who finishes a book in two months should only be entitled to 1/6 of the pay per one read that a novelist who took a year to write a similar sized one? It’s a moot point anyway because, even with this new change in pay terms, the time spent writing the work is totally irrelevant to any ultimate compensation, only its length.

I already addressed the same pay per page point earlier. It presumes a false equivalency of the value of one page amongst a variety of very different story forms. All pages are simply not created equal. Howey also mentions time spent reading as a metric deserving additional pay. Set aside for a moment that one page of a short story may be “worth” 10 pages (or more) of a longer work in impact on the reader. Under the new terms, Amazon doesn’t care how that time is spent. They’re payout is the same if the reader goes through one 500 page novel or ten 50 page short stories. Their only concern, and the driving impetus behind this change, is complaints from longer form authors unhappy with their stories competing on an even keel with other story forms. The time spent reading now matters to Amazon only in its totality, not its granularity. And where are all the complaints from readers? What I’ve seen is a lot of authors complaining that readers might not like it, but little or none from actual readers with those issues. Amazon’s own words reference only the complaints of authors. Silence on any such concerns from readers.

Under the old system, a short work and a long work would trigger a payout once a reader passed precisely the same percentage of the story itself, however long that story is. But now, 1/500 of a novel generates the exact payout as 1/50 of a short story, using a 500 to 50 page comparison basis. That constitutes fairness? Not from where I’m sitting. In fact, the only point I’ve seen to defend this is simply the longer work deserves more pay because its longer. Even taking into consideration that authors only get paid for what is read, that same 50 page short would need five different full reads to reach the same compensation as one person who only read half of the 500 word novel and couldn’t even finish it. How’s that fair again, in any other consideration than sheer, context-less volume?

Let’s do a little experiment. Stephen King’s The Stand checks in at a whopping 1,472 pages (I’m using the expanded version because that’s the one I actually read). By the way, I think they call it The Stand because you can use to stand on and reach stuff on high shelves. What could I have read that equals what King would get from one read of that monster? The Maltese Falcon (196 pages), Lord of the Flies (208), The Haunting of Hill House (174), And Then There Were None (208), I Am Legend (159), Animal Farm (140), Fahrenheit 451 (179) and War of the Worlds (224) combined would trigger exactly the same total payout by Amazon of The Stand. King’s bloated apocalyptic mess would generate the exact amount that Dashiell Hammett, William Golding, Shirley Jackson, Agatha Christie, Richard Matheson, George Orwell, Ray Bradbury and H.G. Wells would have to share amongst themselves.

Let’s go a little further. Are you a Sci Fi fan? It would take six mysteriously appearing replicants of Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris to equal one Stand. You would need seven wicked somethings coming this way for Bradbury’s dark carnival tale to get equal pay to King. It would take 13 trips up the Congo for Conrad to reach the heart of pay equivalency with The Stand. The horror, indeed. If short stories are more your thing, Shirley Jackson would need 122 tickets for her masterpiece 12 page short The Lottery to pay out the same as King. Or how about Poe himself? He’d need nearly 150 Houses of Usher to collapse in on him just to equal the pay generated by one read of The Stand. How, in the name of all things good and holy, can a system like this possibly be described as fair? Are we seriously going to argue that one page taken from any of the above mentioned works is so equivalent to one page of King’s that it should be the end-all determining factor in how compensation for written work is doled out within this platform?

I’m not arguing for the relative merits of any of the above stories, nor the relative demerits of King’s. These are a variety of works I have read fully, at one time or another. Taste is totally subjective. Any reader could make a list like this based upon their own personal taste and still, I think, reach a similar conclusion. Per page pay is nonsense that directly benefits writers of longer works above all others, for no other reason than length. Even if readers don’t finish the longer works they start, it still takes multiples of full reads for writers of short works just to catch up with compensation for partial reads.

I’ve read quite a lot over the past few years from many independent writers of novels about how old school publishers simply don’t like competition to their stories on a more level playing field. Apparently, so it seems, neither do a great many of them.

Dan Meadows is a writer living on the banks of the Chesapeake Bay. Follow him on Twitter @watershedchron

I Love A Good Challenge! Musings on whether live-blogging a short story’s a good idea

I’m thinking about live blogging a short story. Do you think that would be interesting? I’m really considering just writing one, basically live, updating every time I save, even keeping any changes visible. Then editing, also keeping changes visible. Hell, if it turns out well, I might even publish it.

Of course, the principal problem would be, “What if the story sucks?” I’m not going to vet it beforehand or take something I’ve already written and act like it’s brand new. I’m leaning toward not even starting with an idea and letting it just grow on the page. A bit risky, possibly, but I’ve always done my best work under pressure. What more pressure can there be than “don’t embarrass yourself by cranking out a piece of shit in public?”

Besides, I’m not talking about a novel, just a few thousand word short story or so. I wrote two blog posts yesterday that were probably 4 or 5,000 words combined, and they were unplanned, off the cuff.

When I was in school, it used to annoy the hell outta me when a writing assignment required an outline. Those damn web diagrams were the worst. I recall asking myself at the time, “Self, how the hell are you supposed to outline something sentence for sentence if you haven’t written it yet?” That process always seemed backwards to me. Nobody else I knew ever saw it that way, and it was years before I finally figured out why.

To me, writing has never been a physical act. Everything I’ve ever put on paper or typed onto a screen was already written in my mind. In fact, the last step in the writing process for me is the actual, physical recording of the writing. The struggle hasn’t been so much to get the story together well on paper but to accurately transcribe the finished tale from my own head.
I’ve always wondered where the small little details come from. I never consciously created them. I happily go along, following the path of the plot, and when I look back, all these descriptive little side notes just appeared in there. Where did they come from? I’m now pretty sure they were already written and I was unconsciously copying them from the finished story in my head. No, for me, writing is an act done best inside the mind. Putting it on paper is simply scribe work and little else.

So, if I write from the position that the story, article, paper, what have you, is already done before the first word is typed, how does it make sense to do a paragraph by paragrah outline beforehand? And why bother? If I’m going through the trouble of breaking down what each sentence is about, why don’t I just write the actual sentence? If I know enough to tell you that information, I know enough to skip that step entirely and just produce it. Needless to say, I almost always lost points on the outline part of the assignment while getting high marks on the actual finished product.

I still don’t understand why my teachers never saw the flaw in their assignments. If I got an A+ on the essay while totally skipping the outline, doesn’t that in some way invalidate the point of teaching the outline in the first place? Why should I lose points because I didn’t see the need in engaging in unnecessary busy work that was actually more of an impediment to me getting the end product finished? The guy I was sitting next to or the girl in the back row might need to use an outline, but I didn’t, as was well-proven by the highest marks on the writings themselves. I even came to resent it. I also didn’t understand until years later that I have a latent problem with authority and being told what to do. Besides, I clearly knew better than my teachers in this regard. One-size-fits-all is true to the extent that the outliers to their rules allow themselves to be squeezed into a smaller box than they otherwise should have.

Even still, I never thought I possessed any kind of special ability. I still don’t. What I have might be different than some people’s gifts, but everybody has them, they just don’t realize in many cases. I’ve always cranked out surprisingly clean first drafts; few typos, consistent details, rarely if ever a flaw in story logic. I just thought that’s the way it was done until I got a look at some other writer’s first drafts. My way isn’t better, per se, though for me it is. It’s just my way, and I developed it intuitively.

Watch an NBA basketball game sometime and take note of how many different variations of a jump shot you see. The common purpose is to put the ball in the basket, and each one of those guys developed their own methods for doing so, on a scale successful enough to earn a spot on the floor with the best basketball players in the world. Some are so-so shooters, some are streaky, some are consistently good and some are great. But each one found what ultimately works for them born of their own innate physical abilities. Writing’s the same way.

I have a mind that runs quick, fills in details on its own to flesh out actions, and is capable of refining and keeping track of complex ideas with little conscious input. My brain just works that way. Always has. So when I first decided I wanted to write a story, I took advantage of the innate tools at my disposal without even knowing I was doing it. All writers do the same. You may not have a mind that works like mine, your skills may reside in other places. Things I struggle with, like convincing dialogue, for instance, may just flow from you naturally. That skill affects how and what you write, and the style you use, whether you realize it or not. There truly is no such thing as one-size-fits-all.

I often wonder, very likely because my issues once a story is drafted tend to be in the “minor details” department rather than grand story elements, if our modern writing culture of beating a dead horse through re-writes, re-drafts and over-editing isn’t stealing a bit of the writer’s soul in a way. It seems a little odd to be saying I think we sometimes over-edit when the principle complaint in publishing these days, particularly indies, is a lack of editing. But that’s how I see it. Whenever I read a writer talking about spending months or years rewriting or editing a specific piece, I find myself wondering one of two things: Are you doing all that extra work because you feel it needs it or because someone told you to, and at what point does the continued necessity of rewrites indicate that the original was just too flawed to begin with?

Music has always been a big influence on me, holding even more inspiration than other writers in some cases. I tend write rhythmically, and use sentence structure to drive pace sometimes in lieu of action or in the service of it. My musical tastes have always run toward the exceptional instrumentalists, particularly those who can jam. There’s nothing like a musician who gets in the moment and just lets it rip. Conversely, the live shows I’ve seen with bands who essentially replicate their studio album note for note bore me to tears. It’s too precise, too processed, lacking in the emotion an artist should display. Are we killing more than simply a few typos by editing everything to within an inch of its life in the search for unattainable perfection? I tend to think we are.

This isn’t to say that a pile of typos and plot flaws big enough to drive a dump truck through is acceptable, just that there’s the law of diminishing returns to consider. At some point, continued edits don’t really improve the story, just shifting the deck chairs, as it were. If you’re re-writing four, five, six times or, god forbid, more, maybe that story just isn’t fixable. Like trying to keep an old car you’re attached to on the road can nickle and dime you to death, a story can do the same. Eventually, you have to break down, write it off and spring for some new wheels; call it as finished as it’s gonna get and move on to the next story.

Writing is such a tenuous, indefinable thing. The best parts aren’t created out of overt structure and control but rather emerge organically. The real issue is the down parts or the transitions between the high points and getting them to mesh properly with the great stuff, or at least not conflict or detract from them. When we over-edit, our tendency can lean toward lessening the good parts rather than raising the quality of what surrounds them. Basically, we can fall into the trap of mediocritizing the whole thing for some unnamed standard of conformity. It’s much like my old writing teachers holding me and others like me back by forcing unneeded outlining assignments on us, teaching for all at the lowest common denominator level. At least, that’s how I see it. But, as I said, my skills are particular to supporting that worldview, your’s may not be.

Anyway, I’m thinking about live blogging a short story. I hope it comes out well or at least publishable. Imagine, I’d have a record of the first draft, the entire editing effort, and the thinking behind every stage. The eventual ebook could be both a piece of entertaining fiction (god willing and the crik don’t rise) and a please-pay-attention-to-the-man-behind-the-curtain look at the writing process itself. I think that sounds at least potentially interesting enough to take a swing at. Don’t you?

Free Books on Independence Day!


In honor of July 4th, I’m offering five full-length ebooks absolutely free from Amazon.  Follow any of the links here to get your free copies. Happy Independence Day!

Bad Timing

Devil’s Dozen

The Valentine’s Day Massacre

The 13 Days of Halloween

Decline & Fall of the Publishing Empire

Free Short Story Weekend!


This weekend–Friday, Saturday and Sunday–a different short story in the Watershed Tales series will be free from Amazon each day.  The free stories will celebrate the release of the final three shorts of the series, bringing Watershed Tales to a total of 10.

Friday:  The Corn Snow

There’s something evil in the woods. No one quite knows what it is, but every five years, like clockwork, it returns to haunt one particular family, bringing with it a fierce storm marked by a rare, sleet-like precipitation called corn snow. Each time the storm comes, the unnamed evil claims a different family member as its own, no matter how hard they try to prevent it. But now, the family’s matriarch has had enough. Twenty years of watching the slow erosion of her family has left her old and alone.  On this night, the storm approaches once again, but she’s ready. She will not be taken.

This edition of Watershed Tales also includes a bonus tale, One Step Ahead. After a horrible accident during a bad storm claims the life of his pregnant wife and their unborn child, Gil’s rage leads him to curse God himself for allowing such misfortune.  Soon, however, he finds himself running desperately to stay ahead of the fate that had failed to claim his life with the rest of his family. Unwilling to simply lie down and accept it, Gil responds by fighting back the only way he knows how, by using the vindictive twist thrown at him to survive, staying just in front of the retribution always chasing him.

Get The Corn Snow from Amazon

Saturday:  The Beacon

The dreams had created an obsession so deep within Gary that he dragged himself, almost unthinkingly, out to the remote lighthouse in the middle of the night, risking the approaching onslaught of the storm, to find the answers. The woman in white he had seen every night for weeks had been calling to him, wanting him to solve the riddle the dreams had pounded into his head. Through the darkness, the thunder, lightning and heavy winds, and the treacherous route to the isolated peninsula upon which the lighthouse stood, Gary risked it all to try and settle his tortured mind.  But once he reached the beacon that had called to him so forcefully in his sleep, would he find the answers he sought, or only more questions?

This edition of Watershed Tales also contains the bonus tale, Yardwork.  If you thought mowing the grass, pruning hedges or raking leaves in your yard was tough, try being Tom.  In the ever-present struggle to maintain control over the forces of nature, and bring civilization to a comfortable suburban landscape, what do you do if the yard likes the way it is and doesn’t want or need your help?

Get The Beacon from Amazon

Sunday:  Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?

Business Man is the fierce, self-anointed top predator of his realm, the great gleaming steel and concrete jungle.  For so long now, he’s prowled the hunting grounds of these streets, seeking out new prey to fatten his bank account.  He’s become so self-assured in his dominance that the mere notion of danger had become alien to him.  Times are changing, however, and some of the weakest, least valuable inhabitants of his world have developed a new plan.  They are turning the long-standing food chain on its head, and if Business Man isn’t careful, yesterday’s predator could very well turn into today’s prey.

This edition of Watershed Tales also contains two short bonus stories.  First, Indifference tells of a world falling apart at the seams, death and destruction everywhere, and basic human compassion is the first casualty.  Second, the messiah is faced with having to deal with modern day problems during an illegitimate and intrusive interaction during a random traffic
stop by a police officer just trolling for someone to hassle in What Would Jesus Do?

Get Brother, Can You Spare A Dime? from Amazon

Evereybody Likes Free Stuff! Get a different short story ebook every day during the first week of March

Spring is just about upon us, and I figured as part of my ongoing promotion of my self publishing excursions, I’d offer up a different ebook in my Watershed Tales series of digital short stories for free for the Amazon Kindle every day of the first week of March.  Here’s the run down of what’s available, when, with the obligatory link to the store site.  Enjoy!

Monday, March 5-  The Long Walk

What happens when your conscience is over-ridden by your orders?  Is it better to simply do as you’re told, even when you find the actions abhorrent?  And if you do, despite your better judgment, what kind of consequences will follow, if any?  In The Long Walk, a young cavalryman gets assigned the duty of escorting some particularly violent prisoners to their place of execution.  The manner planned for the  deaths of the condemned is particularly horrible, but no one questions their actions or orders until it’s far too late.  Honor doesn’t supersede duty in the unforgiving desert, and the results are severe.

Get The Long Walk

Tuesday, March 6- Journalistic Integrity

Reporters and war correspondents regularly put themselves in harm’s way all in the name of journalism, ratings and informing the people.  Most times, things work out; sometimes they go horribly wrong.  When a military madman rises to power in a former Russian province after the collapse of the Soviet Union, threatening Moscow and London with some old Soviet nukes he’d managed to get his hands on, it looks like the story of the century.  A bevy of reporters from all the major news agencies in the world make their way through the war-torn countryside in pursuit of an exclusive.  But when they find what they’re looking for, these newsmen discover that instead of covering the story, they are about to become it.

Get Journalistic Integrity

Wednesday, March 7- The Garden

Isolation can do strange things to a person, and there can be no place more alone than in the depths of space.  Duane is an astronaut on a 20-year mission to test technology that could lead to mankind’s greatest exploration ever.  His ship, being fully automated, leaves him with nothing but time to fill.  The large garden that provides his food, water and oxygen for the journey is his only distraction from the tedium.  But several years into his mission, things start to go wrong and he loses contact with Earth.  The constant loneliness begins to dredge up memories of his unhappy past, and the garden that provides not only the elements for his survival but also his sanity, is threatened.  Will Duane find within himself what it takes to survive and make it back home or will he be lost forever?  This edition of Watershed Tales also includes a short bonus tale, Travis Walton Never Had It So Bad, a story of planetary exploration and how very wrong things can go.

Get The Garden

Thursday, March 8- Faded Summer Leaves

You hear so much about the innocence of youth, but in truth, youth isn’t all that innocent.  The same mean-spirited viciousness, rage and emotional trauma adults suffer through exists for the young, as well.  And often, the lack of experience of youth amplifies the problem.  Growing up is a hard row to hoe sometimes, and for a small, scrawny little kid like Tommy, it can be even tougher.  But everyone has their limits, even someone who you wouldn’t think could ever stand up for themselves.  A group of young boys on an afternoon fishing excursion is the stuff of sweet anecdotes and quaint paintings.  That is, until things go sour.  On this particular day, Roy, the town bully, really should have kept his mouth shut.

Get Faded Summer Leaves

Friday, March 9- the Trail

Are you afraid of the dark? What if you find yourself alone in the woods with the sun rapidly setting and darkness falling in all around you?  Would you be afraid then?  That’s the situation Aaron finds himself in as he realizes that his peaceful day of hiking is quickly turning into a nightmare when he underestimates how long it would take to get back to his car.  Alone in the woods, desperately trying to find a way out, he runs across a mysterious hiker who offers his help.  Should Aaron take it or find his own way to safety?  This Watershed Tales edition of The Trail includes the bonus tale, The Tell-Tale Heartache.  Amontillado lives a solitary life, father who ran out on him, mother who died years earlier and no one but the residents of the trailer park he resides in for company.  One Christmas day, a strange thumping sound attracts his attention and he goes on a quest to find its source.  The odd noise leads him to what he thinks he desires most, but will he like what he finds?

Get The Trail

Happy Halloween: Even More Fiction For The Season–This Old House

So Halloween is finally here, and to wrap up this gloriously creepy celebration, I’ve got a spooky little treat for you.  Here, for the first time ever, is a previously unpublished short story, This Old House.  Betrayal, adultery and a quiet little rundown farmhouse as the unwelcome setting for murder.  Read on and enjoy! 

Thanks for reading over the past two weeks of The 13 Days of Halloween here at The Watershed Chronicle.  I sincerely hope you’ve found something to scare the wits out of you during this best of all holiday seasons.  Happy Halloween!

This Old House

She was a rather large house for this part of the country, made even more so by the utter bareness of her interior.  The constant winds glided over the surrounding cornfields, slamming into her graying clapboard sides with all the force a good, unimpeded gust could muster.  Her paint had peeled away years ago, leaving her looking as many people do when they age; old, gray and alone.  Her now-antique boards would occasionally bend or swell, producing the eerie creaking sound that so many young children suspect is a ghost or ghoul from beyond come to claim their souls, but is only just the settling of her weight over the ages.

This house has a personality, molded over decades of spring plantings and autumn harvests, through the good years and the bad.  Three generations of farmers had called her home, and the impressions they left behind will never fully be wiped away.  Over the decades, she had learned to be protective of her inhabitants, as a good mother should, keeping a watchful eye, a constant vigil over their safety.  But the people had left her long ago now, to wither away silent and alone here in this field.  Cobwebs make up her only furnishings, and virtually every window in her has been broken.

Nevertheless, standing here idle, she still looks strangely inviting.  To a weary traveler who has been moving through the brown and yellowed corn, the cool autumn air having drained the life from their once-brilliant emerald leaves, the sight of her on the horizon could be nothing if not a blessing.

Yes, she is alone now, and yet she is happy.  After years upon years of large families taking up every available inch of her space, and all of the hustle and bustle that the people brought with them, she has grown to appreciate the calm and restfulness she now has in abundance.  This aging home has grown quite used to quiet evenings listening to the winds rustle through the corn stalks.  Her only recent inhabitants have been the occasional field mouse taking advantage of her ample shelter after a long, hard day of roaming between the rows, in the constant search for food.  She does so enjoy the peace of her existence now, her time winding toward its inevitable end and, deep down, she doesn’t want it to be broken.

But on this night, the calm that she has so long cherished is snapped by something stirring in one of her upstairs bedrooms.  A series of moans emanating from the small room where the youngest children used to live and laugh and play and cry, echoed through her hollowed-out halls.  Inside that room was a man, struggling as he tried to regain consciousness.

The unknown man fought to get to his feet, but in his visibly weakened and unsteady condition, he immediately tumbled back to the floor, the resulting thud thundering through the old house.  A small candle illuminated the room, and the shadows from the flickering light exaggerated every false, uneasy move.

“Where the hell am I?” he asked groggily, to no one in particular.

The man lifted his head, scanning the empty room, searching for any landmarks or other clues to give away his whereabouts.  It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the inconsistent lighting.  The flame of the candle bouncing in the breeze, drifting through the busted glass of the window pane, didn’t allow for very good visibility.

Soon, however, his eyes did adjust, and the man realized he was alone in the filthy, rundown room.  The chill breeze from outside caused goosebumps to rise on his exposed forearms.  From his position on the dusty wooden floor, he looked out through the last remnants of jagged glass in the window, and could see a nearly full moon, partially obscured by passing clouds.

He cast his clearing gaze on the candle, which, other than the soft streams of moonlight, provided the only source of light in the room.  From the look of it, the long, thin taper candle had been lit very recently.  It was still somewhat rounded at the top, and no streams of melted wax had yet made their way trickling down its sides.

As his strength slowly began to return, the man once again attempted to climb to his feet, this time far more successfully as he finally made it, unsteady but upright.  He slowly circled the room a few times to make certain his legs were fully back beneath him, with light wisps of dust kicked up by each shuffling step, before beginning to explore.

“What happened to me?” he thought to himself as he knelt down to pick up the candle by its small brass holder, being sure to keep a cupped hand around the flame to stop it from blowing out.  Getting a closer look, the candle definitely did not appear to have been lit for very long, but who had done it?  And, more importantly, were they still around?  He searched his mind, trying desperately to remember what he had last been doing, scouring his still-fuzzy thoughts for any hints as to where he was or how he could have gotten here.

“Well, Will my boy,” he finally said to himself.  “You really did it this time.  Must’ve tied one on and now you have no clue where you are.  Or worse yet, who you’re with.”  He looked around the shabby, vacant room one last time, his glance hovering over several patches in the walls where the old plaster had fallen away into odd little piles of refuse on the floor, revealing the rows of thin wooden slats underneath.  “Maybe this is Hell.”

Will finally walked through the open doorway and immediately found himself at the end of a long hall.  Three other doorframes lined the way, and each was standing as open as the one he had just awakened in.  He peered into each room as he went by, passing the candle just over their thresholds, finding similar empty, dust caked wooden floors and busted out windows.

At the far end of the hall, he paused, staring down a large staircase leading to the ground floor of the decrepit old house.  Looking to the bottom, he recognized some small bursts of light that could only have been made by another flickering candle somewhere nearby on the first level. 

“So whoever brought me to this dump must still be around,” he thought to himself as he slowly worked his way down the stairs.  He took each step as lightly as he could, recoiling at every creak of his weight on the well-worn boards.  Without knowing what was going on, exactly, he figured it was best to keep as low a profile as possible.

But as Will reached the bottom of the staircase, he instantly saw the futility of his plan.  Sitting there, in a large room off to his left, he saw another man hunched over a small table, the candle that was throwing light in his direction standing squarely in its center.  The man was holding a deck of cards, playing something that looked like solitaire.  After a brief glance at his surroundings, the table and chair seemed to be the only furniture in the building.  Will considered his position for a moment, thinking better of a fleeting notion to make a break for the closed front door about five feet in front of him.  He finally turned to face the other man and was about to say something when the stranger caught sight of him and jumped up from the chair, leaving the cards scattered about on the table.

“Oh, I see you’ve finally decided to join me back here in the realm of the living,” the man said.  Will’s heart sunk as he immediately recognized the voice as that of Jack Person, one of his co-workers at Wilpon & Heccht Insurance, where he had pointlessly toiled away for the past decade.

“Yeah, Jack,” Will began, uneasily, “What the hell is going on here?”

“You mean you don’t know?  I must’ve put too much of that stuff in your food.  You know, I got it from a cousin of mine who works for a drug company just outside of New York.  He sent me a vial of that shit and doesn’t tell me how much to use.  All he said was that it’ll knock out a 500 pound man for three or four hours, and I figured, what the hell?  The worst it’ll do is kill ya, and I was gonna do that anyway.”

Will froze as he saw Jack pull a small handgun from behind his back and point it at him.  Then, suddenly, a loud bang rang out from somewhere up the stairs, startling both men, causing them each to shudder in surprise.  For an instant, Will had even thought he’d fired.

“Damn wind,” Jack said, still pointing the gun directly at Will’s chest.  “It’s been blowing the doors in this dump shut all night.  They really ought to tear this place down before it falls down.”

“Now, hold on a minute, Jack,” Will said, trying to sound soothing.  “I don’t know what’s going on here, but I’m sure we can work something out.  There’s no need to do anything drastic.”

The sudden fear for his life caused memories of earlier in the evening to come flowing back into Will’s apparently drug-addled mind.  He had gone to dinner at Jack’s house at his invitation, despite his better judgment.  He had expected to see Jack’s wife, Kathy, there–she was the one who had talked him into going, after all, convincing him that not to would be suspicious–but when he arrived, she was nowhere to be found.  Jack told him that she had gone home to see her parents, something about her mother becoming suddenly very ill.  Their affair had gone on for over a year without Jack’s knowledge, or so they had thought.

“Didn’t think I’d catch you, did ya?” Jack said, waving the gun in Will’s direction.  “You two thought you were so damned slick!”

“Where’s Kathy?” Will asked, hesitantly.

“I told you, she went home to her parents,” Jack chuckled as he spoke.  “At least part of her did, anyway.”

“What did you do?” Will demanded, sounding about as forceful as he could, the sick feeling in his stomach getting worse at the thought of what might have happened to Kathy.

“Boy, that was one helluva dinner earlier, wasn’t it?  Some really good stew.  That Kathy sure knows how to put food on the table,” Jack said, still cackling. 

“Where’s Kathy, Jack?” Will asked again, this time with less force.  He didn’t really want the answer.

“You know, we almost didn’t have it.  While I was cooking, I realized that we didn’t have any fresh meat, so I had to improvise,” Jack said, and through the darkened haze, Will could make out the giant grin on his face as he spoke.  “I always said she had good taste.”

Just the thought of what Jack implied made Will double over, dropping the candle by his side.  His stomach, already twisting and roiling from fear and the after-effects of the drugs, seized mightily and he spilled its contents all over the floor in several massive heaves.

“Aw, what’s wrong?” Jack asked, faking sympathy.  “A little cannibalism’s good for ya.  Keep’s the cholesterol down.”

“You sick bastard!” Will sputtered from his bent over posture, the vile, acidic taste of the vomit still fresh in his mouth.  Jack just laughed heartily, still pointing the gun at him.

“You won’t get away with this,” he said, wiping away some of the vomit from his lips.  It was a pathetic and cliched last attempt to put doubt into Jack’s mind, but Will, himself, knew it wasn’t at all convincing.  How could he be?

“Will, my friend, I already have gotten away with it.  I’ve been planning this for weeks.  I liquidated all of my assets and have the cash out in my car,” he said.  “After I get rid of you, I’m on my way to living out the rest of my days as the king of some Caribbean paradise somewhere.”

Jack walked over to where Will was still hunched over, his footsteps echoing lightly through that large room, and placed the barrel of the gun to the side of his head.

“Say goodnight, Will.”

At that instant, just before he was set to fire, the front door of the house that was closed directly behind Jack inexplicably flew open, blindsiding him and sending him and the gun flying into the large, open part of the room.  Will saw his chance.  He lunged across the floor toward where the gun now rested, just underneath the table, and grabbed it before Jack was able to compose himself.  Will stood up quickly, the sick feeling in his stomach passing, replaced by a burning rage, and pointed the gun at his would-be murderer.

“Say Goodnight, Jack,” Will said, but before he could fire, the house began to tremble.  Will staggered as the floor beneath him rocked, and he could hear doors all around the house slamming shut, then open, then shut, again and again.  He looked down at Jack, who was now curled up in the fetal position, visibly frightened.  Will wasn’t certain if he was afraid because of the sudden turn of events or the unexpected rumblings of the old house, and he really didn’t care.  The bastard deserved to be afraid, after what he’d done to Kathy.

“It’s just a damn earthquake,” Will said, the trembling still noticeable beneath his feet.  “We haven’t had one of those for years, but I have to say, the timing of this one was impeccable.  I’ll see ya around, Jack.”

Will steadied his aim through the rumbling, and squeezed off three rounds directly into the man’s chest.  Just as Jack let out his final breath, the shaking stopped as suddenly as it had started, and the peace and quiet of the secluded, rundown house was restored.

“See, I told you it was just an earthquake,” Will said, as he bent over and fished Jack’s car keys from his front pants pocket.   As he stood up, he tossed the gun onto the prone body and headed for the still-open front door.  Before he stepped outside, Will paused and turned back toward the body on the floor. 

“The king of some Caribbean island sounds pretty good to me, old buddy.  Thanks for the cash.”

He gave the now-departed Jack a short salute, then headed out onto the front porch, passing through the same door that only moments earlier had saved him from being the one shot dead on the floor.  As Will headed down the four steps leading from the porch to the overgrown walkway leading away from the house, he was day dreaming about the sun and the sand, and how much Kathy would have loved it.  Oh well, he thought to himself, there’s always other women.  Will smiled softly, but as he placed his foot on the bottom step, the board gave way under his weight and his leg went crashing through. 

Will lost his balance and pitched forward, but his leg was still stuck, shin deep, in the front step.  He heard the sickening crack of bone as his body fell but his leg couldn’t follow.  There was a momentary sharp explosion of pain from his leg, cut short only when his body twisted and his torso met the partially rotted picket fence that lined the walkway, impaling himself on one of the few remaining pointed posts still upright.

Will used the last of his strength to turn his head slightly toward the old house.  The final thing he saw from this vantage point was the front porch, with its railings somehow still intact, almost glowing in the soft moonlight.  He thought for just an instant that it looked as though the house were smiling.

Undaunted by the happenings of the night, the wind continued on its great, endless journey through the corn.  The old house settled once more in the calming breeze, a few various creaks and moans betraying her years.  Then, once again, she returned to having only the rustling stalks to break the silence.  This house, even at her age, has a personality.  And she does not appreciate having her quiet evenings disturbed.

This Old House, copyright 2011, Dan Meadows and Watershed Publications.  All rights reserved.

For more scares and your otherwise generally creepy reading pleasure, check out my new short story collection Devil’s Dozen.  And if that’s not enough for you, try my earlier collection, Bad Timing.

The 13 Days of Halloween

Day 1: Scary Movies to Spend a Cold, Dark Night With

Day 2: The Ghosts of St. Mary’s County

Day 3: Vincent Price–The Last of the Great Horror Icons

Day 3: A Few of My Favorite Vincent Price Films

Day 4: Some Fiction For The Season–One Step Ahead

Day 5: Horror Literature–A Truly Unappreciated Art Form

Day 6: Hauntings of the High Seas

Day 7: A Few of My Favorite Horror Books

Day 8: More Fiction For the Season–The Trail

Day 9: Edgar Allan Poe–The Greatest American Writer

Day 10: Horror Anthologies on Film and Television

Day 11: Halloween Rituals and How They Originated

Day 12: Alfred Hitchcock Presents Horror

Day 13: Psycho Killers

Day 13: My Favorite Works of Edgar Allan Poe

The 13 Days of Halloween: My Favorite Works of Edgar Allan Poe

Earlier, I wrote about the plentiful reasons I believe that Edgar Allan Poe is the greatest American writer.  Well, to support my assertion, here are a few of my favorites from Poe’s many and varied literary efforts. Given that his work was written over a century and a half ago, they are now well beyond copyright.  Click on the titles of any of the stories or poems listed below and you can read the associated work in its entirety.

The Raven

Is this the best poem ever written?  Quite possibly.  By now, everyone knows the gist of this one.  Exactly how far reaching has this work’s influence been?  We’ve got an NFL team in Baltimore named after it.  When will this poem’s effects ever die out? Quoth the raven, “Nevermore.”

The Tell Tale Heart

Here’s another piece that everyone, and I mean everyone, is intimately familiar with.  The imagined sound of the murdered man’s beating heart under the floorboards has become an all-encompassing metaphor for inescapable guilt.

Fall of the House of Usher

Has there ever been a more bleak description of a house and surrounding landscape than the opening of this tale?  It’s an intimate little story about a young woman’s inability to escape her family’s long history of madness as it finally comes crashing down around her and her brother.

Annabel Lee

This is another one of Poe’s masterworks of poetry.  While it doesn’t possess the wide-spread longevity of The Raven, the deep emotional scars from a loss of love resonates throughout.  What else can you say about the tale of a love so great that even the angels in heaven were envious enough to kill the fair maiden out of spite?

The Cask of Amontillado

Somewhat similar in tone to The Tell Tale Heart and The Black Cat, this is the story of a well-to-do wealthy man’s attempt to steal the wife of a local drunkard.  In the end, the rich man’s avarice is his undoing, as he’s led to a death walled into an ancient catacomb by the temptation of some particularly rare and fine wine.


An odd tale of death and possible resurrection.  The narrator, who happens to be an opium addict, marries the hauntingly beautiful Ligeia, only to see her fall ill and die.  Later, he marries again, but his new bride also is stricken and dies.  However, her body goes through a process of slow revival after death, eventually rising from the dead as a reborn Ligeia.  Did she really come back or was it all an opium dream?

The Murders In The Rue Morgue

Possibly the very first detective story ever written, this tale introduces the amateur sleuth C. Auguste Dupin to the world, a character that laid the groundwork for Sherlock Holmes and virtually every other literary detective since.  In this tale, there are two mysterious murders, and it’s up to Dupin to use his considerable deductive reasoning to suss out the inhuman murderer.

The Conqueror Worm

The third poem on this list, and by far the least well-known, this one has stuck with me ever since I’ve first read it.  All of human existence is but a tragic play and, in the end, it’s the worms that feast on their bodies that are the heroes.  This poem was originally a part of another story on this list dealing with tragedy and death, Ligeia.

The Oblong Box

During a sea voyage, a man notices his friend has brought along this large oblong box and kept it with him in his stateroom.  Every night, his friend’s wife leaves the cabin and he can hear his friend inside opening the box and sobbing throughout the night.  Much like in the movie Seven, “What’s in the box?” is a very pertinent question.

The Masque of the Red Death

Talk about some snotty rich people getting their comeuppance!  This tale is about a cruel prince who seals himself and a large group of nobles into his castle to escape a plague ravaging the countryside.  They decide to have a masquerade ball one evening, and a very special guest appears, the Red Death himself, there to infect them all.

For more scares and your otherwise generally creepy reading pleasure, check out my new short story collection Devil’s Dozen.  And if that’s not enough for you, try my earlier collection, Bad Timing.

Click below for more fright-filled stuff.  And come back tomorrow for even more of my favorite time of year as The 13 Days of Halloween concludes…

The 13 Days of Halloween

Day 1: Scary Movies to Spend a Cold, Dark Night With

Day 2: The Ghosts of St. Mary’s County

Day 3: Vincent Price–The Last of the Great Horror Icons

Day 3: A Few of My Favorite Vincent Price Films

Day 4: Some Fiction For The Season–One Step Ahead

Day 5: Horror Literature–A Truly Unappreciated Art Form

Day 6: Hauntings of the High Seas

Day 7: A Few of My Favorite Horror Books

Day 8: More Fiction For the Season–The Trail

Day 9: Edgar Allan Poe–The Greatest American Writer

Day 10: Horror Anthologies on Film and Television

Day 11: Halloween Rituals and How They Originated

Day 12: Alfred Hitchcock Presents Horror

Day 13: Psycho Killers

Happy Halloween: Even More Fiction for the Season–This Old House

The 13 Days of Halloween: More Fiction For the Season–The Trail

Today, for The 13 Days of Halloween, I have another piece of spooky short fiction.  It’s called The Trail, and it’s from my recently released short story collection Devil’s Dozen.  If there is a lesson to be learned here, its to always be prepared, especially when you go out on a day hike.  You just never know who you might meet.  And like all of us, the spirits get lonely sometimes, too.

The Trail

Aaron watched in growing fear as the shadows crept over the trees, shrouding the forest around him in an ever-increasing blanket of darkness.  The sounds of the animals rustling in the leaves, or the crickets chirping had seemed so natural and friendly earlier in the bright light of day.  This wooded landscape, so beautiful and awe-inspiring only a few hours ago, now seemed to be made up of the building blocks from his most horrid nightmares.  As the encroaching dark continued to drown out his vision, the formerly-welcoming array of sounds were beginning to take on an evil, unknown quality.  But at least he was still on the trail.

He has mis-timed how long the leisurely hike up the mountain would take.  By his best guess, the sun had just passed the horizon and Aaron was still at least three miles from where he had parked his truck.  The semi-darkness didn’t allow for a very good view of the path before him as he continued to scuffle along at a quickened pace.  One false step, and Aaron’s foot struck on a large rock protruding from the earth, causing him to lose his balance and topple to the ground, striking his elbow on another such jagged stone.  The sharp tinge of pain that shot up his arm forced a low yelp from Aaron in response.  He at least still had the capacity to muffle his cry so as not to attract undue attention to himself here, alone in the darkening forest.

Despite his growing apprehension, Aaron was slightly pleased he still managed to possess enough self-control to remain cautious.  Black bears and even some types of wild cats were known to roam these woods, and he wasn’t about to attract one if he could help it.  He collected himself from the ground and rubbed his sore elbow, feeling a small abrasion and a corresponding still-swelling bump, but luckily nothing was broken, this time.  With darkness continuing to fall, and his being without a flashlight or lantern of any sort, more such falls were almost inevitable.

From what he could still see through the shroud of trees above him, the sky was becoming increasingly overcast, as well.  That would effectively cut off any light he could have expected from the evening’s near-full moon.  Aaron couldn’t decide whether to continue on and further risk injury or try and find some sort of shelter nearby.  There appeared to be a clearing off to his left where he could build a fire.  If he stayed here, with no supplies except for a lighter, a small utility knife and a water bottle containing only a few more swallows, he would have to have a fire, he thought.  And now, he felt like a bigger fool than ever for his decision to leave his phone in the truck.  He’d wanted a nice, relaxing day, out of touch from the world constantly pushing at him through that little device.  Well, he got his wish. Aaron couldn’t be more out of touch with the world than he was right now.

He considered his predicament for a moment before deciding that a fire would be too risky.  If nothing else, the warmth would attract snakes, and that would be the last thing he needed.  But to stay here without a fire would be equally risky, if not worse.  The temperature was supposed to fall into the thirties overnight, and Aaron didn’t even have a well-insulated coat, let alone any blankets.  In the end, he thought he might be better off continuing onward, even in the dark, than to risk death from exposure.

“What the hell are you doin’ out here?” a voice suddenly called out through the darkness from somewhere behind Aaron, sending a stark fear bolting through him.  His mind instantly raced to all sorts of gruesome possibilities.  Maybe he had stumbled onto the killing grounds of some vicious mass murderer who lived out in these secluded woods.  It could be some whacko just waiting for people to get lost out here where help was nonexistent, so he could brutally kill them and use them for stew.

Aaron spun around to try and get a good look at this potential assailant.

“Uh, I, um, got a little mixed up and lost track of time,” Aaron said, knowing that it was probably not a good idea to give up too much information but figuring it was as good an explanation as any.

“Damn stupid kids,” the voice replied, getting slightly louder as it continued, sounding as though it was approaching.

Through the blackening haze, he finally began to make out the silhouette of a man, decked out in what appeared to be all the necessary hiking supplies he had neglected to bring himself.  As the man got closer, Aaron took a small step back, still uncertain of the stranger’s motivations.  The man’s voice sounded like someone in his mid-thirties, maybe older, but he still couldn’t make out a face to confirm his suspicions.  The darkness covered the man enough that he couldn’t make out very many specific details.  The only thing he could tell for certain was that he appeared to be wearing a heavy white coat and carrying a large dark blue or possibly black backpack.

“Look kid,” the man spoke again, “Do you have any idea where you are?”

“Yes,” Aaron replied, trying desperately to sound confident.  “I’m on the trail I started on this morning and I think my truck is just a couple miles further on.”

“You think?  You’re gonna get yourself killed not knowing where you are at all times out here,” the man scolded him.  “Got it?”

Aaron nodded slowly, not completely sure if the man could see his response.

“Look, if you’re not certain, you’d better find someplace to stay out here for the night then try and find your way back in the daylight.”

“That’s what I was trying to figure out,” Aaron said.  “I was gonna build a fire in that clearing over there.”

“Bad idea,” the man said, matter of factly.  “A fire out in the open like this’ll bring a bear right to ya.  And we’ve got timber rattlers out here, too, that love to curl up with campers beside the fire.  One of those bites ya way out here, and you’ll be dead before you ever get back to your car.

“There’s a small cave off of the left side of this trail here about a hundred yards on up.  I used it a couple years back when I got caught in a snowstorm.  You’ll be safe there.”

Aaron initially wanted to say no thanks to the man, was still more than a little unnerved by his sudden appearance from nowhere.  But he also didn’t want to spend the night out here in the cold.  Plus, the man’s mention of timber rattlers only added to his earlier fear of snakes.  The man, despite Aaron’s misgivings, did seem to know his way around the forest.  And he had said that he’d used the cave of which he spoke before, in conditions that must have been much worse than this.

The man began to walk away without waiting for a reply from Aaron, as if the matter had been settled.  The choice was abrupt and stark; stay here and get eaten or maybe freeze to death, or follow the man to the cave and pass an uncomfortable night hoping for the best.  Aaron finally made his call, deciding on what he considered to be the lesser of the two evils he now faced, and quickly followed the man.

The stranger walked over the rough and unseen terrain as smoothly as if he were crossing a linoleum kitchen floor.  Aaron, on the other hand, lost his balance, stumbled and nearly fell several times, but somehow willed himself to stay upright.  He didn’t want to appear any more incompetent than he already did.  They walked on for a brief few minutes before the man stopped and pointed to an area to the left of the trail.

“There’s the cave,” he said.

Aaron strained his eyes in that direction, barely making out a small patch that remarkably seemed to be darker than the surrounding area.

‘I really don’t wanna go in there,’ he thought instantly, but still went along with the suggestion because he didn’t want to offend the man who seemed so much more knowledgeable about survival that he was.

“I’ll go in first and check it out,” the stranger said, almost seeming to sense Aaron’s apprehension, “to make sure there aren’t any critters already living here.”

The man knelt down and disappeared into the small black hole.  Aaron waited impatiently in the dull, fading light, suppressing a sudden urge to turn and run back down the trail now, while the stranger couldn’t see him.

“It’s all clear,” the man’s voice eventually called out from the void with a slightly perceptible echo in its tone, “Come on down.”

Aaron took a deep breath, and made his way to the opening, testing each step before him slightly.  He put out his hand to feel his way into the cave when it came to rest on a large stone above the entrance.  Pausing for an instant for a closer examination, Aaron realized that the cave was actually just a crevice between a collection of much larger rocks, and not a hole leading into the ground as he had assumed.

He slowly bent down and made his way into the opening, still being extremely cautious of each step.  Soon, he reached what felt like a level floor, and he began to walk deeper into the cave.  Moving further into the darkness, Aaron found himself again questioning the man.  How did he get down here without a light, and why wasn’t there one on now?

“Excuse me, sir?” Aaron called out softly, hearing even his light, hesitant words bounce back at him from the rock walls.  “Are you there?”

Suddenly, a loud crash came from behind him, causing Aaron to let out a screech of shock and fear.  Unlike when he had tripped on the trail earlier, in here, in the chill air and total darkness, he hadn’t been able to muffle his unexpected cry.

‘Oh, screw this,’ he thought, and turned to try and head back out into the wilderness, feeling his way toward the entrance as he could no longer even make out the faintest hint of light before him.  But when he reached the place where he knew the cave’s opening had been, he found the way blocked by one of the large stones he’d felt as he’d entered.  Gripped by a sudden panic, Aaron pressed his shoulders into the stone, digging his feet into the ground and shoving with all the strength he could summon, but to no avail.  The rock would not budge even an inch.

Finally, calming himself slightly, he turned again to face the darkness of the cave.

“I think we’re trapped,” he said, unlike earlier, actually hoping the man was still in the cave with him and hadn’t been the one that moved that stone that now confined him.  Waiting a few seconds for a non-existent reply, Aaron finally yelled out, his fear starting to get the best of him.

“C’mon, say something!  What do we do?”

But still, there came no reply.  Aaron again made his way deeper into the cave, again feeling his way along the stone walls as he went.  His steps were slower and more deliberate, yet he still managed to strike something in the path before him, causing him to tumble forward to the dirt covered ground.  Aaron struggled to get himself upright again, but in the darkness, he had lost his bearings before finally finding the rock wall once again with his flailing, panic-driven arms.  Taking another deep breath or two, Aaron suddenly remembered the lighter in his pocket, quickly fishing it out and struggling to generate the flame, striking three or four times before finally bursting to light.

For an instant, his eyes were whited out by the sudden glare from the firelight in the intense black of the cave, but soon enough, they adjusted and he was able to make out the object he had fallen over.  Looking down at the thing at his feet, Aaron’s mind completely reeled from the awful sight, and he dropped the lighter, rushing the small cave back into total darkness.

Aaron didn’t dwell on it for very long, or make out much in the way of specific details, but he had seen enough in that single instant of clarity.  A decayed skeleton of a man was lying against the wall, and the only specifics he could make out were a battered white coat and the dust-covered dark blue, almost black backpack it appeared to be wearing.

The Trail, copyright 2011, Dan Meadows and Watershed Publications.  All rights reserved.

If you enjoyed what you just read, you can click on the link below to find out more about the book it came from, my new 13-story collection, Devil’s Dozen.

And for more scares and your otherwise generally creepy reading pleasure, check out my original short story collection Bad Timing.

Click below for more fright-filled stuff.  And come back tomorrow for even more of my favorite time of year as The 13 Days of Halloween continues…

The 13 Days of Halloween

Day 1: Scary Movies to Spend a Cold, Dark Night With

Day 2: The Ghosts of St. Mary’s County

Day 3: Vincent Price–The Last of the Great Horror Icons

Day 3: A Few of My Favorite Vincent Price Films

Day 4: Some Fiction For The Season–One Step Ahead

Day 5: Horror Literature–A Truly Unappreciated Art Form

Day 6: Hauntings of the High Seas

Day 7: A Few of My Favorite Horror Books

Day 9: Edgar Allan Poe–The Greatest American Writer

Day 10: Horror Anthologies on Film and Television

Day 11: Halloween Rituals and How They Originated

Day 12: Alfred Hitchcock Presents Horror

Day 13: Psycho Killers

Day 13: My Favorite Works of Edgar Allan Poe

Happy Halloween: Even More Fiction for the Season–This Old House

The 13 Days of Halloween: Some Fiction For The Season–One Step Ahead

Today, I’ve got a little different piece for The 13 Days of Halloween.  The following is a short story excerpted from my first collection, Bad Timing.  It tells the tale of a man suffering a great loss that never goes away, mo matter how far or how fast he runs from it.  Even through his haze of anger and sorrow, he still manages to find a unique means of coming to grips with the horror his life has become.  But I don’t want to give it away.  Read on and enjoy!

One Step Ahead

Gil used his bandana to wipe the sweat from his forehead. The air conditioner in the old truck had given out months ago and the grayish stains on the armpits of all three shirts he owned testified to the time spent behind the wheel. Always moving, trying to stay in front of the storm.

According to his road atlas, the town shouldn’t be much farther ahead, no more than a mile or two. He looked in his rear view mirror, seeking out the broken black line along the horizon that he knew was following. And, as always, he found it there, still trailing him, a half-hour, maybe forty minutes back.

Gil stretched his arms, tense from the long hours on the road, and looked around at the landscape swirling by at 65 miles per hour, letting his gaze bounce from the dry, cracked earth to the drifts of dirt and dust built up beside the odd fence posts lining the shoulder to the gray, over-baked asphalt. He could feel the sun reflecting up from the ground as he watched the road before him shimmering in the radiating waves of heat. He drove on, bringing his most-unusual load to the good people of whatever podunk town happened to fall in his path.

Gil looked down at the digital clock on his dashboard to see 11:18 glowing back at him in the florescent green LCD numbers. His eyes rose in time to catch the “Welcome To Paradisio” sign as he passed by. The lettering was faded, wind beaten with swirling dirt sandblasting fine cracks into the “pop: 1,242” line painted on the small board hanging from the sign’s bottom.

“Paradise,” he muttered to himself, as he leaned over the steering wheel, looking up, seeking that ever-present tallest structure in all of the town’s he had visited, the church steeple. Gil slowed the truck as he entered the town, or the six rows of well-worn buildings that made up this less-than-bustling burg, anyway. After passing the post office, a hardware and feed store and an old grocery, he took a left at Main Street, finding himself face to face with Paradisio’s town hall. The three-story building was faded from the sun, its clapboard siding looking very much like it had been at least a decade since it had last seen a coat of paint.

Gil continued along Main Street when, finally, to his right, the church steeple appeared. The building, now only a hundred or so yards away, was made of brick, the only such structure that he could see in Paradisio. It had a fancy stained glass window above the door that appeared spotless. Every other window in town was so dust-coated that he had no visibility through the filthy glass, but this one was immaculate, the sun reflecting cleanly off the multi-colored pattern. Gil slowed the truck as he approached the town’s place of worship, his load rattling as he downshifted the old engine to a stop directly across the street from the building’s double entrance doors.

He shut off the engine, again wiping some sweat from his brow before opening the door with a time-earned creak of steel. He circled the pickup, shaking out the kinks in his legs from many hours spent driving. A few of the town’s inhabitants were straggling along the hot, dusty streets, each one throwing perplexed glances at the pickup truck load of unique cargo, and the rather shabby looking man who had driven it.

After a few minutes stretching his legs, Gil once again checked the horizon, locating the ever-present storm that had been trailing him for these past three years. He had been normal, once, just a regular guy with a wife, baby on the way and earning a solid living selling advertising for his home town newspaper. That life seemed so long ago now, only a fond remembrance that was almost like something he’d read in a book rather than his own back story. The accident, three years ago now, at the very peak of his happiness, with all he had worked so hard for just beginning to come together, had forever changed that history.

He and his wife were returning home from a celebration in her honor, her’s and the baby’s, actually. The party had broken up early due to the first flakes of an approaching winter storm. He recalled making all the excuses about getting home safely and beating the storm, but really, the snow hadn’t concerned him at all. He had never liked her family much, or they him, and the weather report made for a perfect escape route from someplace he desperately wanted to flee. Now, he would gladly listen to her aunts and uncles prattling on about their latest maladies and prescriptions forever if he could have just stayed there an extra half-hour that night.

On the ride home, another driver had lost control due to the conditions. He didn’t know how it happened, or even who was driving the other car, if it was a man or a woman. He’d been absorbed in a conversation with his wife about the color of their upcoming child’s bedroom, laughing together at the thought of a polka-dotted ceiling, then the impact, then nothing.

He awoke two days later, his head buzzing, in a sterile hospital bed, the antiseptic smell making the nausea he felt worsen. He could still remember the way the nurse who told him about his wife kept looking at the floor, the ceiling, the wall behind his head, out his room’s window, just about everywhere but in his eyes. The baby was dead before the paramedics even arrived on the scene, his wife following a few hours later. The blood loss from her internal injuries was just too much for her body to overcome. The shock of the news had hit Gil hard, even through the haze of painkillers dripping into his arm. His left ankle was badly bruised, along with his right wrist, one eye was swollen nearly shut and the throbbing in his skull from a concussion was deafening, but none of it could take him away from thinking about his wife, how her body must have looked, twisted and bloodied, and their unborn child who would never see a sunrise.

Then the anger struck, boiling up inside him, and he cursed everyone he could think of; the driver of the other car for causing the accident, himself for paying more attention to his wife than the road before them, her uncle who had held up their departure for fifteen minutes will some half-drunken tale of his first child, the paramedics for being able to save him but not her. He’d even cursed God for unleashing the storm.

Gil had never been a particularly religious man, but his wife was, attending church every Sunday for as long as he had known her. She never went anywhere without the small cross she wore about her neck. He’d watched her stroking its smooth, slightly tarnished surface many times in the past, whenever she was concerned over something. And where did it get her? Where was God when she needed Him most? To hell with God, he had thought at the time, his loss still fresh before him, to hell with fate, to hell with everyone. It was soon after that moment that the storm first appeared.

Gil left the hospital after a few days, still nursing his injuries. When he saw a weather report calling for more snow about two days later, he’d stuffed some clothes into an old duffle bag, jumped into his truck and headed out of the path of the approaching storm. The direction didn’t matter, he hadn’t even considered a destination, nor did he care, only away from the blizzard.

Gil had escaped that storm, only to find himself a few days later waking in a hotel room several hundred miles from home to the first flakes of another storm. He’d checked the weather on the hotel’s television, tracking the dense clouds on the radar images and once again set out to get away from the falling frozen precipitation. When yet another storm struck the town he’d stopped in two days after that, he began to worry.  Yet, still, he kept running.  After three months constantly on the move, with heavy snowfalls always following, even into areas of the country that hadn’t seen winter since the last ice age, from spring into summer, he finally paused to consider that the curses he’d sworn when learning of his family’s demise had snapped back at him. Gil had almost given up once, even letting the snow pile up six inches deep around him somewhere in the Arizona desert, but the rage caused by his helplessness returned. He’d renewed his vows of contempt, swearing that the snow wasn’t going to destroy him as well, and continued on his flight.

Still glancing around the tiny little town of Paradsio, still waiting for the storm to make its inevitable appearance, Gil decided it was time to set up.  He reached behind the driver’s seat of his truck, pulling out the large canvas drop cloth and rope he kept there. The people of Paradisio stopped to watch the stranger as he tied the top corners of the cloth to the hooks in the side bed of the truck. Once unfurled, the words Gil had spray painted onto the canvas were clearly visible in almost reflective orange letters. The makeshift sign read “Snowshovels $20”

After hanging the advertisement for his offerings, Gil returned to the driver’s seat of his truck and lit a cigarette to pass the time. A few of the townspeople started to collect in small pockets across the street, pointing and laughing at the man selling snowshovels in the desert. He always enjoyed this part, as much as he enjoyed anything anymore, watching the people, seeing their laughter, the disbelief at his actions. It was just about the only time anymore when he would smile. These people might think he’s a joke now, but in an hour, they’d be falling over one another for what he was selling.

Gil had thought of the idea nearly two years ago. The money he had saved from his former life had run dry, and he couldn’t stay in any one place long enough to even land a job, let alone actually collect a paycheck. He had decided that, if he was going to be forced into this lifestyle, constantly on the move, then why not use it to his advantage? Plus, the irony of earning a living pushing snow removal equipment to people who’d never even seen snow in person appealed to him as a fitting way of keeping his stomach full and gas in his tank. After all, everyone has to use the tools God gave them, right?

Gil was almost finished with his smoke when one of the residents of Paradisio, a disheveled looking older man, his clothes spotted with patches of dust and sweat stains, his face as filthy and unwashed as his shirt, approached the truck.

“You sure are a crazy one, aren’t ya?” the man said to Gil. He took the last drag from his cigarette, tossing it to the pavement at the man’s feet, a thin trail of grayish smoke still drifting upward from the burning tip.

“Not crazy,” he said, blowing the remnants of his last drag out through his nostrils.  “I’m a visionary.”

To this, the old man laughed so hard, some of the dust kicked up in whisps from his clothes.

“Mister,” he said, his laughter revealing the blackened, rotting smile of a man whose next visit to the dentist would be his first, “We don’t hardly see rain in these parts, an’ the only thing frozen is th’ ice Jeannie puts’n her tea over at the diner.”

The man kept laughing as he walked away from the roadside shovel salesman, the odor he exuded wafting behind him in a wake. Gil smirked slightly as he looked up to see the leading edge of the storm front begin to cross overhead.

“Laugh away,” he thought to himself.  “But I’ll have that twenty bucks you were saving for a bottle of Old Crow soon enough.”

Gil lit another cigarette as the first chimes of noon sounded from the church tower. Pretty soon, the congregation inside the building would pour out, and if he had timed things right, they’d emerge to a white-out blizzard and an inexplicable inch of snow on the ground.

He watched the few people nearest to his truck as they first began to notice the storm pushing in overhead. Its edge had finally crossed over the sun, shrouding the little dust-coated town in a muted, dim light. The icy wind was next, seemingly starting from nowhere. One moment, it was as calm as a stagnant lake, and the next, gusts of wind so cold they would freeze your spit before it hit the ground were sweeping through the town. At this development, the people on the streets stopped laughing. They turned in circles, trying to keep their backs to the frigid blasts, and looked up at the darkening sky. Some of them were still pointing at Gil and his payload, but he got the distinct impression that he was no longer the butt of any jokes.

Then the first flakes began to fall. They were scattered and seldom to start, slowly picking up speed. After a few minutes, the air was thick with snowflakes, the wind gusts swirling them about, mixed with the dust brushed up off the streets. Some of the people started to flee, heading for their homes, or the nearest places with an open door, to hole themselves up inside, away from the sudden change in the elements, and lose the afternoon to a pint of whiskey, he was sure. And some of them reveled in the bizarre twist of nature, running about in the middle of the street, yelling and laughing, arms upraised to the heavens, basking in this miracle of winter in August in New Mexico. Gil watched the revelers for a moment before grabbing the worn corduroy jacket that lay on the passenger seat and pulling it on, bracing himself from the sudden onset of cold. Finally, another man hesitantly approached Gil’s truck.

“I’ll take one,” he said, holding out a crumpled twenty dollar bill. Gil left his seat, crushing out the cigarette into the thin layer of new-fallen snow that had accumulated on the road before reaching into the bed of his truck and bringing out one of the shovels that were piled there. He handed it to his customer, taking the money at the same time. The man stood there for a moment, clutching the handle of the shovel, snowflakes bouncing off of his face and shoulders, looking like he wanted to say something but just couldn’t find the words.

“How’d ya know?” he finally spoke.

“Just lucky, I guess,” Gil replied.

The man stayed for a moment more, as if waiting for some further explanation from Gil that was not forthcoming before turning to leave, soon replaced by two more, cash in hand, finding a sudden need for Gil’s wares. As he accepted their money, he heard the first sounds of people leaving the church. The snow was starting to build up on the ground, the roofs of the buildings were frosted white and the roads were just beginning to disappear underneath a fine sheen of powder. Still, the wind kept blowing colder, and the snowfall kept getting heavier.

Before he knew it, there was a line forming at the tailgate of Gil’s truck. One after another, he sold snow shovels to the people of Paradisio, until his bed was finally empty, his inventory cleared away, and his pockets bulging with cash. The snow had continued to pile up, and was nearly four inches deep by then. Gil had to shake the layer of flakes out of his hair and brush them off of his arms and shoulders before he untied his sign. He jammed the bundle of canvas and rope back behind his seat from where it had come, before slamming the driver’s side door behind him and rolling up the window. The break from the constant frigid wind and the force of the heavy snow beating on his exposed skin was a relief.

Gil fired the truck’s engine into life, and used the windshield wipers to scrape away the snow that had settled onto the glass. The roads were now completely covered, he couldn’t make out any markings on them, but fortunately, the truck had four-wheel drive. Gil cranked up the heater to try and melt away the last effects of the wintry weather as he shifted into gear and pulled the truck away from the curb, wheels spinning slightly on the now-slick pavement. He started out of the town of Paradisio from the opposite direction that he’d entered it, peering between the swirling mass of snow to see various random citizens scraping off sidewalks and parking lots and driveways with the shovels he’d just sold them at a tidy profit.

Soon enough, he emerged from the outskirts of town, leaving behind the last of the buildings and now passing only flat, open spaces that had earlier appeared filthy from the dust and dirt and were now white, seeming oddly clean. In fifteen minutes or so, he would be clear of the leading edge of the storm, the world around him would warm once again and he could begin to put time between himself and the snowfall, moving toward his next stop. If things went well, he’d even be able to take a break in a couple of hours and spend a little of his hard-earned windfall on a big steak, medium-rare of course, and a pitcher of beer. But he couldn’t take too much time. The storm would still be following. And now, he had to restock.

One Step Ahead, copyright 2010, Dan Meadows and Watershed Publications.  All rights reserved.

If you enjoyed what you just read, you can click on the link below to find out more about the book it came from, my original 25-story collection, Bad Timing.

And for more scares and your otherwise generally creepy reading pleasure, check out my new short story collection Devil’s Dozen. 

Click below for more fright-filled stuff.  And come back tomorrow for even more of my favorite time of year as The 13 Days of Halloween continues…

The 13 Days of Halloween

Day 1: Scary Movies to Spend a Cold, Dark Night With

Day 2: The Ghosts of St. Mary’s County

Day 3: Vincent Price–The Last of the Great Horror Icons

Day 3: A Few of My Favorite Vincent Price Films

Day 5: Horror Literature–A Truly Unappreciated Art Form

Day 6: Hauntings of the High Seas

Day 7: A Few of My Favorite Horror Books

Day 8: More Fiction For the Season–The Trail

Day 9: Edgar Allan Poe–The Greatest American Writer

Day 10: Horror Anthologies on Film and Television

Day 11: Halloween Rituals and How They Originated

Day 12: Alfred Hitchcock Presents Horror

Day 13: Psycho Killers

Day 13: My Favorite Works of Edgar Allan Poe

Happy Halloween: Even More Fiction for the Season–This Old House

Devil’s Dozen now available! My new book hits the digital streets…

Here it is!  After lots of painstaking time and effort, my second collection of short stories is now out and available for purchase.  Unlike my first book, Bad Timing, this new model will only be available in electronic formats for the time being.  So if you don’t have a Kindle or some other ebook reader, what’re you waiting for?

Here is the listing on my Watershed Publications Site

Here is the listing in the Amazon Kindle Store

Here is the listing for various other electronic formats at Smashwords

If you haven’t yet read Bad Timing, you can find a copy either in print or ebook here.

Check it out!  If you enjoyed my first effort, I’m certain you’ll like this one as well.    If you haven’t, but enjoy all things dark and strange, give them both a try.  Besides, together you can get both books, 38 dark and (sometimes) disturbing tales in total, for less than $5.  That’s a deal you won’t beat in a bookstore.  Enjoy and happy reading!

Published in: on September 21, 2011 at 11:44 am  Leave a Comment  
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