After Dark

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We don’t go out after dark.

None of us do, no matter what kind of errand we’re on. That’s the rule. Matchbox made it in the beginning before most of the younglings had arrived. No one goes out after dark, and no one goes out alone. We all know it, and we all follow it. No exceptions.

Only it’s dark now, dusk gliding through the trees, and Matchbox isn’t back yet.

I stand at the top of the porch steps and lean against the railing, watching the road. She left an hour after dawn, when the air was still damp from the night’s rain and the sky still bruised with clouds. She had business, she told me. I asked what kind, but Matchbox is the sort to have secrets and to keep them. She doesn’t like any of us digging around beneath her cot or asking questions that run too deep. She brought us together in the beginning, when the lights in the city went out and the water stopped running. The sky turned black with smoke after the first day, and most of the city burned within the first week.

People went crazy, Matchbox told me. She said the ones that stayed in the city were stupid, and most of them were probably dead now. The city wasn’t safe for anyone decent, and she kept us as far away from it as she could, although she’d found most of us in its streets, or locked in abandoned apartment houses.

Not me, though. She found me behind a dumpster. I’d had sense enough to hide after the first riots started, and I don’t think she would have found me at all if she hadn’t been trying to hide herself.

We were the first. The rest came after, rescued from overturned school buses or dragged out of the sewers. The smaller ones, they answer to me, but I’ve always answered to Matchbox. She’s the boss, the one that always has a plan. I let her make the decisions.

Only now, she’s the one missing. And I’ve had our one rule drilled into my head so often that I don’t dare disobey it.

We don’t go out after dark, and we don’t go out alone.

The sky is red above the city, and I can smell the ash on the wind. The house we’ve been living in is white, with bushes in the front yard and a picket fence. The kitchen is empty and the lights don’t work, but it’s better than sleeping in a drainage pipe. Some of us even have beds. The rest sleep on the floor, tucked into sleeping bags and blankets that we’ve collected over the last few months. Matchbox was the one to find the house. She’d been looking after a few of the youngest got sick from sleeping outside. I couldn’t believe the house wasn’t burned yet. The door had been kicked in and all the windows were broken, but the roof was sound. Matchbox was prouder than a pigeon when she found it, and she’s fought to keep us from moving on, insisting that this may be the last place we’ll be safe.

I tried to remind her of that this morning, but she only kissed my forehead and promised she’d be back by noon. She made me swear not to come looking, and stupidly, I did.

But the trees leading to the road are black, the first stars are peeking through the clouds, and the red light over the city looks like a crack has been torn straight through to hell. So I’ll give her ten minutes. Ten more minutes before I break our first and most important rule, and go looking for her.

Realm Makers 2018

I am in Missouri.

Missouri is hot. Especially in July.

I knew it was going to be hot. I was prepared for it being very, very hot. I packed clothes for hot weather, made sure the air conditioning in my car was working and braced myself for a haze of bugs and muggy heat.

I was not ready.

But I am here now, and I have not yet melted into a puddle of goo. The gummy worms I brought with me did, but that’s another story. And, as much as everyone loves blazing sun, thick, muggy air, and steaming temperatures, that is not what I came to Missouri to experience. I came for a conference called, of all things, Realm Makers.

Realm Makers is a writing conference.

A Christian writing conference, actually. For authors writing speculative fiction.

In other words, it was a whole bunch of nerds who love Star Wars and Lord of the Rings and dragons coming together to talk about the writing projects we’re working on, listen to lectures on how best to write characters that make people cry, deepen our world-building techniques, and get blood on the pages. Figuratively.

It was great fun.

Besides the lectures, the general camaraderie, and new acquaintances, some of us were there to meet the many, many amazing literary agents, editors, and coaches who had come to mentor, listen, and possibly, find a few new projects for their schedules in the next few months. I had pitch appointments with two of them, which meant, in short, that I had to sit at a table, make eye contact, smile, and somehow manage to condense a full-length novel into three sentences without tripping over my tongue or forgetting how to say the word ‘exploited’.

This is more difficult than it sounds.

However, I somehow managed. And, considering the appointments were only fifteen minutes long at best, I had plenty of other time to enjoy the highlights of the rest of the conference. Such as:

The Awards Dinner.

The costumes.

And, most importantly, meeting one of my favorite authors.

He signed my books.

We talked about writing.

I was excited.

Wayne Thomas Batson has been one of my favorite authors since I was twelve or thirteen, and it was such a special experience to finally meet him in person. I’m not the sort of person to be star-struck, but I was a little star-struck. His books have meant an enormous amount to me over the years, and to finally meet the man who introduced me to Bartholomew Thorne, Aiden Thomas, Ghost, and a hundred other memorable and enticing characters was such a pleasure.

Plus, did I mention that he signed my books?

 

 

Riding Solo

Wednesday morning, I woke up at 4:30 A.M.

On purpose.

Who does that? I mean, the stars are still out, for heaven’s sake.

My cat was judging me. I think she wanted me to climb back into bed with her and go back to sleep for a few hours. Or pet her. She doesn’t really care if I get any sleep, so long as I stay in bed and keep her warm.

But, I couldn’t go back to bed. I had an adventure to start, and sadly, a very large number of adventures start at 4:30 A.M.

I think it might be a requirement.

By 5, the last of my bags were packed, my snacks were in the car, and my little car and I were headed down the road on our way to St. Louis. This was my very first solo road trip, and it was great fun!

For the first ten minutes.

Then I realized there was no one to pass me snacks.

Or open my water bottle.

Or start the audiobooks.

Having a second pair of hands in the car is actually very handy, come to find out.

Despite the lack of someone handing me snacks whenever I wanted them, the drive went exceptionally well. Long highways, cloudy skies, almost no traffic, and beautiful, rolling country for as far as I could see.

Especially in Kansas. I swear, once you hit Kansas, you can start to see the curvature of the earth. Not a bump in sight.

I’m kidding.

I love you, Kansas.

Just not enough to stay.

But not even Kansas lasts forever, and in the late afternoon, I reached paradise.

Or Missouri. Whichever you want to call it.

I knew for sure I was getting close when I stepped out of the car to get gas and felt like someone had wrapped me up in a steamed towel and pushed me into a sauna. Have you ever tried to breathe through a hot, wet towel?

It is not easy.

I think Missouri might be trying to very subtly murder me. Agatha Christie style. Someone should say something.

Heat aside, I am so excited to be here! This weekend is the Realm Maker’s Conference, and many exciting things are all set to happen! (Including the meeting of a very special author. Squeak! Pictures to come!) I will be sure and let all of you know how things go and post as many pictures as I can remind myself to take. Until then, wish me luck!

 

Boba Tea and The Last Sin Eater

I love boba tea.

Specifically, raspberry coconut boba tea, although I am not opposed to other flavors.

My sister introduced it to me originally. I don’t remember her exact words when she took me to the shop for the first time, but I’m sure it was along the lines of, “This is the best, most heavenly drink on the planet, and you haven’t really lived until you’ve tried it.”

That’s what I tell people now when they admit they haven’t tried it yet. I get enthusiastic.

I think it scares them.

Oh well.

Obviously, there isn’t much correlation between raspberry coconut boba tea and The Last Sin Eater, but just now, they are stuck in my mind together. Does that ever happen to you? You read a book somewhere, either on the beach in Portugal or in the corner of your library at home, and the book takes you straight back to that spot when you open it next. It also makes you hungry for that ice-cream—or raspberry coconut boba tea—that you had the last time.

Books carry memories. One of my favorite authors described it like flypaper . . . they catch your memories and keep them close between the covers until you can come back for them.

I have plenty of books that carry very vivid memories for me. Howl’s Moving Castle will forever remind me of a dimly lit, very empty dining hall in Scotland and the bread and cheese I lived on for a week there. Tarzan of the Apes reminds me of Portugal and hostel rooms. Jane Eyre reminds me of a hammock in the pines and the shocked look in an adult’s eyes when I assured her that yes, little twelve-year-old me was indeed reading this enormous book. And loving it.

And last Sunday, I devoured The Last Sin Eater while sipping (and chewing) on raspberry coconut boba tea on a sunny bench outside the movie theater.

Yum.

This wasn’t my first time reading this deeply profound book. My favorite books are always read and reread many times, and I can safely say that The Last Sin Eater is and always will be one of my all-time favorites.

The story begins with Cadi Forbes, a child growing up in America in the mid-1800’s. Her clan, a close-knit group of immigrants from Wales, have settled in the mountains, forming an exclusive community that is wary of strangers and ruled absolutely by the cruelty and vicious leadership of Brogan Kai.

Cadi, barely ten years old herself, is haunted by the death of her younger sister. When her grandmother dies as well, she is once again faced with the reality of death and the overwhelming, crushing consequences of sin. In a society that understands the purity of God and the weight of sin, and yet has no concept of grace or forgiveness, Cadi is constantly surrounded by guilt and blame over sins that she is sure will haunt her forever. Only the Sin Eater, a man doomed to take the sins of the entire clan upon himself, can possibly help her, and she begins a frantic search to find the elusive man.

This deeply emotional and moving book brings to light the beautiful reality of what Jesus Christ did for mankind on the cross, and the sobering truth that no one but Jesus can take away our sins. Not even a Sin Eater.

It was no accident, no coincidence, that the seasons came round and round year after year. It was the Lord speaking to us all and showing us over and over again the birth, life, death, and resurrection of his only Begotten Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ, our Lord.

 

Muslin

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They bring me satins and silks, embroidered dresses and lace that’s too fine to touch, too fine to wear. We’ve put a high price on my offer of marriage, but they can pay it, these men from the south. They come with golden cloth, with silver woven into scarlet, and I watch them as they parade their wares for me to see. My uncles insist that today is a celebration, a ceremony to honor me as I choose a husband. I know better. There is no ceremony, no honor in this farce. The wares my suitors have brought are bribes, not gifts.

This is an auction, and I am the chattel being sold.

One of the men, a pale-faced Beyran from the west, takes my hand, running my fingers along the length of damask silk he’s brought. I shudder at the cold clutch of his fingers and pull my hand away, looking instead at the tamed leopard another has brought. Their eager, hungry eyes follow my every move, and I wonder privately what would happen if I allowed myself to scream the way I want to. I don’t want this. Our kingdom is desolate, our people dying. We need wealth, a savior, and these men have the means to offer it to us. But surely, surely we have something better to sell.

Something other than my body, my soul. My life. I’m a prize to be won, still young enough to be beautiful, just old enough to be desirable. They all want me as their wife. Every one of them.

I want to be sick. I want their feverish, devouring glances off of my face, and I want my palace to myself again.

I paused, running my fingers over an ivory stool, and someone pushes a length of cloth into my hands. Muslin. Muslin? It’s poor fabric, poorer than anything I’ve worn since I was a child, sneaking from my rooms to run in the streets with children who longed for freedom as much as I did.

Muslin. I would give anything to wear muslin again, to run the streets and forget my duty and my birthright.

I’ve never wanted either.

The cloth—and the memories it brings to the surface—has made me stupid. A touch on my elbow brings me back to myself, and the man who gave it to me says softly, “It’s not much of a bid, your highness, but I thought it would catch your attention, at least. What do you think?”

I choke.

Will.

I stare at him, too horrified to say anything, too ashamed to push him away and run. He takes my arm, guiding me away from the crowds, smiling disarmingly at my handlers. They’re none too happy about their prize being removed from the buyers looking her over, but the silver tattoos on his hands and shoulders buy him a moment. Wealth, especially now, means everything. He pulls me out onto the terrace, into the cool wind that smells of rain and dust from the plains, and smiles at me. “Enjoying your auction? I must say, you have some tempting offers.”

I color. Only he would have to courage—the audacity—to call the ‘ceremony’ inside what it really is. It’s been fifteen years since I’ve seen him, fifteen years since we ran the streets together. A wealthy robber’s brat and a starving prince’s daughter. The beggar with the blue blood, he used to call me. I loved him then, for his bold tongue and his cheeky smile, but he’d disappeared, leaving me to my hell, and I’d never really forgiven him for it. “All of them more tempting than a bolt of muslin,” I tell him archly, hearing years of bitterness behind the words.

He feigns a hurt look. “You don’t like my gift?”

“Not particularly.” He would believe me, I think, if my face wasn’t so red. “I don’t like having my time wasted.”

“Ah.” He glances at the curtained doorway, a frown furrowing his dark brow. “Then you are not going to particularly appreciate what’s about to happen next.”

As if in response to his words, an explosion rocks the terrace, and the curtains between me and my potential suitors catch fire. Women begin to scream from the courtyard below, and I hear the frantic shouting of men who know they are about to lose all the wealth they’ve brought so very far. Will jerks me away from the door, pulling to the far side of the terrace, and utters a piercing whistle. When it’s answered from the ground he looks at me. “That’s my part done. Shall we leave it at robbery, or would you like me to add kidnapping to my list of crimes?”

I freeze, a thousand thoughts racing through my head in a single heartbeat, and hear myself say firmly, even before I’ve really made up my mind, “Kidnapping. Definitely.”

He grins, suddenly looking less like a robber and more like the boy I knew. “Perfect. After you, your highness.”

Of Mice and Fairies

Today, my new book, Of Mice and Fairies, is being released to the world.

It’s very exciting.

And intimidating.

But mostly exciting.

My gorgeous, wonderful, talented sister, E. Noel, illustrated Of Mice and Fairies for me. She’s an artist.

Like, a real one.

It’s super cool.

My mom always told us that we should publish a book together. When I was still writing stories in the notes section of my iPod touch and E. Noel was drawing dogs that were basically boxes with ears, my mother was sure that we were destined to work together. Like, we were written in the stars, kind of destined. Somewhere in the midst of my clumsy writing and my sister’s odd drawings, my mother saw greatness. We were going to publish something together, she was sure.

I laughed at her. And told her that it was never going to happen. I didn’t want to be a writer, and I would never publish a book with my sister.

Of Mice and Fairies is dedicated to her.

I have eaten my words.

As an added bonus, and because I love you all, the Kindle versions of both of my books—Of Mice and Fairies and The Birdwoman—are available on Amazon for FREE for the next few days! I truly hope you all enjoy this special piece of my heart!

Little House in Brookfield

Last week, I went shopping. Thrift store shopping, if we’re being specific. Thrift stores are lovely because you can find everything, anything—or nothing, depending on the day. I thoroughly enjoy browsing through several different stores in a single trip, perusing their bookshelves in search of something I don’t already own. It’s a treasure hunt, one that can end in nothing or everything.

Last week, it ended with Little House in Brookfield.

I grew up listening to my parents read The Little House on the Prairie books out loud to me and my siblings. The stories of Laura Ingalls and her family are intrinsic parts of my childhood, stories I’ve been listening to—and reading—for as long as I can remember.

Little House in Brookfield is almost as embedded in my mind. The story, instead of being written by and about Laura Ingalls Wilder, is instead about her mother, Carolina Quiner. This book, and the others in this series, are based on a collection of letters written to Laura by her aunt Martha, Ma’s sister. The research done by Maria Wilkes brilliantly recreates Ma’s childhood in Brookfield, Wisconsin.

Although written with the same simple, charming style as The Little House in the Prairie, Carolina Quiner’s childhood was very different from her daughter’s. Her father, Henry Quiner, was lost at sea when she was four years old. For her mother, grandmother, and four siblings, life is a constant struggle to keep their farm running, their family together, and enough food on the table.

As frustrating and difficult as such an uphill climb is for this small family, they still manage to face every day with an amazing amount of cheerfulness and faith. Ma’s steadying presence and silent strength is a cornerstone of the Little House series, and it is easy to see where that strength and character was developed. Her own mother is a rock in their home, despite dealing with the grief of losing her husband and the struggle of providing for a family alone. The kindness of a stranger, the help of old friends, and the prudence of a woman able to make something out of nothing keeps their family afloat. Old dresses are made new, toes show through the scuffed leather of shoes that are old and worn, and flour becomes a luxury they are not sure they can afford, and yet, life continues. Christmas is celebrated, birthdays are somehow made special, and family grows strong through the hardships.

 

Little House in Brookfield is a beautifully written story of love, hardship, and triumph. If you have loved the Little House books as much as I have, cherished them through your childhood and treasured them as long favorites, this is definitely a book for you. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

Each time they came to the mill, she wished she could climb up a pile of grain and touch the ceiling right before she slipped down the other side of the pile and skidded to the floor in a rush of barley, corn, oats, or wheat.