Wednesday, October 1, 2014

"The Witch of Mistletoe Lane," A Tale for Halloween

In 2011, Brian Fatah Steele of Dark Red Press asked me if I wanted to contribute a story to a Halloween anthology he was putting together. Brian is a horror writer extraordinaire, so the prospect was intimidating. Luckily, he said my story didn't have to be horror, so I agreed.

The result was "The Witch of Mistletoe Lane," a novelette featuring small town young boys who believe they have discovered a real witch living down the street. The experiences of these boys, minus the witch, draw heavily from my own childhood. Because of that, this story was a blast to write.

Once a week throughout the month of October I will post chapters of the story, until the whole thing is available here to be read for free. The anthology, Past the Patch, is always available for free download at Smashwords, Scribd, and a host of other sites.



Part 1 of 5


Every autumn, the clatter of leaves somersaulting along sidewalks reminds me of the October I met the witch. The small southern town of Saint Claire didn’t have a lot to boast about but the worst football team in the county, the annual watermelon festival, and Ag shows that brought the fattest pigs and beefiest steers to Main Street, where they showed their appreciation by crapping in front of the cafe, the antique store, and the True Value hardware that still sold hard candy from glass jars. Unbeknownst to the folks outside our insular world, Saint Claire had its very own witch, too. Mothers all over town scared the devil out of us kids every time they warned us to steer clear of the rickety old house that lurked on Mistletoe Lane. My own mother joined the hype. “Colton, you leave that place alone. I see you anywhere near it, I’ll bust your hide.” To which I inevitably replied, “But why, Mama?” She’d only respond with the look that meant, “You better do as I say.”

The first time I found myself outside the witch’s gate was a complete accident. Jimmy Harden and I rode our bikes to the cow pond on his grandpa’s place, hoping the fish liked the taste of the grubs on our hooks. They did, as it turned out, so we kept tossing our lines in till almost dusk. Realizing the time, we tied our stringers full of half-grown bass to our handlebars and hustled back to town. We were in such a hurry to avoid a whooping for being late to dinner that we turned one street too soon. Jimmy hit his brakes; his back tire left a black streak that must’ve been a mile long before he came to a stop. Pulling up alongside him, I stared in horror at the crumbling gingerbread house. I’d only ever seen it from the corner, in passing, as Mom hit the gas to get through the intersection fast as she could. Now that I was getting a good look at the place, I decided she’d been right all those years. It was a wonder anyone could live there at all. The house was scary as hell, staring back at us in the manner of Hamlet’s skull, pondering our demise. Weeds grew thick as jungles inside the leaning picket fence, and a pair of arborvitaes hid the front façade like hands thrown over a face too hideous to endure. White paint scrolled from the eaves, the wood underneath dry and gray. A couple of upper story windows boasted holes big enough for birds to fly through. The whole place reeked of cat piss.

To me, the creepiest part were the tattered Halloween decorations left over from years past. Though it was June, plastic jack o’ lanterns lined the walk to the front door. They used to be orange, but had faded in the southern sun to a whitish yellow, just like skulls of beheaded children. One of those ridiculous “crashed witches” was nailed to a giant catalpa tree near the rusted mailbox. Her broom had lost its broomcorn and was just a plastic stick that made a likely perch for blue jays. On the front gate hung a weather-beaten sign that read “The Witch Is In.”

Scared the witch might be watching, I backhanded Jimmy in the shoulder. “Let’s get outta here.”

Jimmy grinned in a way that said he was contemplating mischief and swept up a chunk of gravel from the ditch.

“No, man!” I cried.

He chunked it with his Little League arm; it sailed right through a window. Clink, clink, crash, went the glass.

We hightailed it for home, scared out of our minds and exhilarated at the same time, but Jimmy soon came to regret chucking that rock. The next week, his dad fell off a roof and broke his spine. He’s been in a wheelchair ever since. Then Jimmy came down with appendicitis that nearly killed him before his mom got him to the hospital. We never openly blamed these things on the witch or told our parents about the rock he threw, but he and I knew. That was when we were nine or ten.

The autumn I met the witch in person, I was thirteen, suffering through the tortures of Junior High and wet dreams about Elizabeth McDuffy, the Freshman cheerleader with green eyes and hair the color of autumn itself. It was Saturday afternoon, and the week before Halloween. A handful of jocks led by our star running back, Trev Reynolds, were conducting the yearly cat round-up. It was an unspoken tradition. Though all of us Saint Claireans knew about it, we openly denied its existence. For the whole month of October, the town’s cat lovers locked their pets indoors to protect them from the annual purging. It was the vagrant alley cats and their unwanted litters that satisfied the grotesque human desire for destruction. Me and Jimmy, along with Adam Laughton and Tyrone Banks, weren’t invited to take part. The secret ritual belonged to the cool older guys, not green, virginal junior high boys. We could only stand back and watch Randy Tillman’s black pickup truck painted with orange flames roar past just like a dragon. Piled into the cab and in the bed, our heroes hollered and cussed and displayed their trophy: another plastic grocery sack writhing with an irate cat.

All we had was our bikes, bigger and better ones now that we were older, but we were still unable to catch up. At Jimmy’s urging, we tried. We pumped those peddles as fast as our scrawny legs could go. Our war cries sounded less inspiring, because our voices were cracking and we kept choking on the dust kicked up in the pickup’s blazing wake.

Out on county line road, Tyrone hit a pothole and flipped over his handlebars. We stopped to shovel him off the asphalt. “Ah, hell, Ty,” Adam complained. “We’ll never catch ‘em now.”

Tyrone’s hands were bleeding, so was a gash on his leg where he’d caught the jagged edge of a peddle. He groaned and cussed, and Jimmy said, “Shut up. I hear something.”

We listened. Rrreeeeow! A cat in distress!

Up ahead, the road crossed Tallulah Creek. A dirt trail, no more than twin lines of red earth veered off the main road and plunged out of sight. We tossed our bikes into the ditch and followed it to the creek bank. Tyrone hobbled fast as he could, dragging his bleeding left leg. Randy’s black truck crouched at the end of the trail, silent and sleeping. The jocks clustered under the bridge, struggling with a manic beast. Rrreeeeow! it shrieked. The bridge amplified the protest. I imagined a creature the size of a panther, but when the hunters tugged the rope and hoisted up the noose, all I saw was an ordinary alley cat, orange and white. Her teets were heavy. She had babies somewhere. Jimmy, Adam, and Tyrone cheered with the big guys as the cat kicked and scratched at the noose around her neck. I watched, mesmerized and feeling like I might throw up. The cat was so scared it dropped feces, and the big guys jumped back, squalling and cussing as if the cat had done it as a purposeful act of revenge.

It was then that a couple of the jocks noticed us and chased us down. Trev Reynolds grabbed me and Tyrone by the scruff. Joey Osborn, the coach’s son, caught Adam by the shirttails. Jimmy stopped halfway up the trail and measured his options. Ditch his friends or help them out. He was a beefy kid by now, but nowhere near big enough to stand up to these guys. He crossed his arms. “We just wanna see!”

The rest of the brave and bold hunters saw that they’d been caught, and some began to panic. “Ah, man, they’re gonna tell Coach!”

“He’ll kick us off the team,” said Randy Tillman.

Joey Osborn said, “You dumbnut, we are the team! What’s he gonna do?”

“My dad’s the Baptist preacher! He’s gonna kill me.”

“They won’t tell,” said Trev Reynolds. He had eyes like a snake, real cool and mean. They looked straight at me, then at Tyrone and Adam. “We’ll beat the shit out of ‘em if they do, and they know it.” He jabbed a finger at Jimmy, lingering a safe distance up the hill. “You! Get down here.”

Jimmy craned his neck, likely hoping there was some kind of help coming along the road. No luck. He did as he was told and crept back down under the bridge. Trev Reynolds grabbed him by the shirtfront. “We’ll let you see, but you gotta get us another cat. All of ya! Go find us another cat and bring it to the dumpster behind Al’s shop. We’ll meet you there. If you don’t show, we’ll find you and hang y’all up instead.”

Over the crowd of taller heads, I saw the cat. Her eyes were popping and her tongue stuck out of her mouth. She no longer struggled. Three others hung from rafters under the bridge.

Reynolds slapped me upside the head. “You gonna cry? Go with your girlfriends, Colton Brisby. Yeah, I know who you are, and I know where you live, too. Go get that cat.”

#

“Ah, shit, we’re dead. We’re dead!” groaned Adam. We walked our bikes back to town, our enthusiasm as withered as nuts dunked in ice-cold water. “We shouldn’ta listened to you, Jimmy.”

“Did they mean one cat for all of us, or a cat apiece?” asked Tyrone.

“Ah, shut up, man, we’re friggin’ dead.”

“Quit whining!” Jimmy bellowed, and Adam shut his trap. “We’ll stop by my place and pick up an arsenal and catch as many cats as we can. Then they’ll let us be.”

Our arsenal consisted of the pair of slingshots that Jimmy and I used to shoot frogs at his grandpa’s pond. He held mine out, but I shook my head. I didn’t want to shoot a cat, not after watching that alley cat strangle to death. But what’s a guy to do when his friends look at him like, “What the hell’s gotten into you?”

“Hey, I want it!” Tyrone grabbed the slingshot and practiced aiming with it. The rest of us loaded our pockets with bright steel shot and took off before Jimmy’s mom could ask what trouble we were up to.

The first cat we found was slinking around behind the police station. “We can’t shoot that one,” I said. “What if Wade comes out and sees us. He might arrest us for cruelty to animals or concealed firearms.” Saint Claire was so small we only had three town cops; Wade was the police chief.

Jimmy shook his slingshot in my face. “Not very concealed, is it, dimwit.”

“Well, for brandishing weapons inside city limits, then.”

Jimmy rolled his eyes. “How ‘bout jaywalking? We been jaywalking all over town, stupid. Everybody does it, and nobody gives a shit.”

“Jaywalking don’t hurt nothing, dumbass!”

Adam, at least, saw my reasoning. He broke up the argument before fists started flying. “C’mon, let’s find a different cat.”

We searched and searched, and the longer we searched the more Adam panicked. By late afternoon he started looking downright sick, trailing along behind, holding his stomach. We’d raked the town and finally found ourselves on the northern edge. Past Seventh Street, there wasn’t much but cow pasture.

Tyrone stopped cold and cried, “There’s one!” A giant beast slunk through the tall grass in the roadside ditch, on the prowl. He turned those malevolent yellow eyes on us and darted off. “It’s a black one, too! Get it!” Tyrone wasted three good shots trying to hit him on the run. Jimmy took slow, careful aim, leading the cat by a few inches. Then the stupid animal paused in the intersection to glance back at us. Jimmy let fly. The steel ball lit a bright streak across the breeze. The cat yowled, spun, looking for the source of its pain, then took off like a bullet. We loosed our war cries and gave chase, leaping fences and flowerbeds and scrambling over cars parked in driveways. For a while we thought we lost it, but it darted out from under Mrs. Stein’s garden shed, a dozen yards away. We were nearly on top of that poor cat, when it turned onto a dilapidated street. I stopped so fast that I nearly ran out of my Converse shoes. Mistletoe Lane. And that black cat was limp-running straight for the witch’s house. The guys seemed to realize all at once, and stopped in the middle of the street. Panting and sweating, we stared at a shadow moving across a window. The front gate was propped open and the ragged ol’ sign said, “The Witch Is In.” The cat hobbled through, leaving a bloody paw print every time it stepped with its back foot.

A strangled, gurgling scream came from the house. The screen door banged shut and a woman ran up the sidewalk between the faded jack o’ lanterns. Except for the green skin, she might’ve been the twin of the Wicked Witch of the West. Long chin, hook nose, bony fingers, everything. Her black hair was a wild mess of frizz, and her eyes bugged out of her face, full of madness. She scooped up the wounded cat and cradled it like a baby, cooing and whimpering in a strange, ungodly language.

The four of us backed away slowly, but she looked right at us, and her free hand flicked and snapped out some symbols. Jimmy wailed, “No! Nooooo!” He turned and fled. The rest of us weren’t two paces behind.


(continued in Part 2, next week)

"The Witch of Mistletoe Lane" copyright 2011 by Court Ellyn. No part of the story may be reproduced without written permission of the author.

Image credits -

background: FantasyStock
texture: GrandeOmbre-stock
fog brushes: BBs-Brushes

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Swans of Westermere, a novella


You know, it's funny. But I got to comparing this novella with Mists of Blackfen Bog. Near the same length, they are both ghost stories. The structure of the titles is similar. The biggest differences, I guess, are that Mists takes place in the world of Tanerra, while Swans takes place in our world; Mists focuses on a priestess who has lost her faith, and Swans is told from the PoV of a twelve-year-old girl.  What is it with me and ghosts and novellas? I don't even believe in ghosts, but I love writing ghost stories. They're pure fun, albeit dark fun.

So what are we looking at in this promo image? A swan, a cloudy sky reflected in a still lake, scarred shadowy edges, strange symbols, and angry crows. All but the crows show up in Swans of Westermere, though I suppose I could add some crows.

The scarred edges and antique look of the image are meant to convey the look of a tintype. Tintypes are key to the mystery surrounding the century-old curse that Jocelyn Tanner uncovers as she roams her ancestral home. It was way back in college that I studied the birth of photography, so I must've dragged this element from the dregs of my brain.

But, come to think of it, my brain was more supple eight years ago. Yep, I wrote Swans eight years ago, but it's one story I haven't been able to forget. It has all the cliched elements of a thousand other ghost stories, but there's just something I love about this tale. How can I not adore the idea of the devil being locked in a box on Grandma's mantelpiece? I mean, really. It's just too much fun.

Look for Swans of Westermere
HALLOWEEN, 2014

image credits:

background: Kreatiques-x
tintype texture: AllThingsPrecious
swan: Drezdany
voodoo symbols: RavenGraphics
magic symbols: nomuh

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Burnout Blues ... A New Release!

What do you get when you write non-stop for 14 years? A little case of burnout. Yep, after fighting it for about a year now, I'm having to admit it to myself. I have burnout. It got to the point where sitting down to put two words together was comparable to climbing K2. I just wanted to sob every time I thought about writing.

So, I have taken off for two weeks, and I'm one week in and I already feel better. I tried to spend this time "writing something new," but even that proved a frustration. My husband finally said, "Stop! Don't write anything for two weeks." It's the first time I've ever felt a release from guilt during those days when the words won't come. I can breathe.

In addition to not writing, I'm having to make some other changes. Painful changes. Not only am I having to admit to burnout, I'm having to admit that I'm an addict. When burnout started taking over, gaming started compensating as an escape, until the point where it became a full-blown addiction. So during these two weeks, I've pretty much hospitalized myself in my house, and I warned my husband, "Prepare for withdrawal. It won't be pretty." It wasn't. The first two days I was a wreck. Yet I prayed fiercely through those times when I felt restless, agitated, when all I wanted to do was log in. "No," I told myself, "you desire words. You have a passion for words." I have been reading and reading and reading, even when the idea of consuming more words feels like eating another bite I can't stomach.

Strangely--and very quickly--the creative urge resurfaced. I dragged out an old story that's been haunting me lately (pun intended), one my husband keeps mentioning, even though he read it six or eight years ago. Rereading it, I decided it would be fun to have it in print, so I've been editing it and building a book cover for it. I hope to publish it sometime around Halloween--which is only fitting for a ghost story.

Here's a little promo image for it:


image credits:

background: Kreatiques-x
tintype texture: AllThingsPrecious
swan: Drezdany
voodoo symbols: RavenGraphics
magic symbols: nomuh

Saturday, September 13, 2014

"Twice Upon A Time," a fairytale anthology, coming soon!


I am so excited about the upcoming release of Twice Upon a Time, the first release for The Bearded Scribe Press. The collection of stories, from what I can tell, promises to be quite dark and strange.

Joshua was gracious enough to accept my story, "The Bone Harp," for the collection, and I'm flattered. This little bit of macabre fiction first appeared in Realms, a now defunct publication by Black Matrix, in 2010. And it remains one of my favorites. I simply loved writing this story. I hope you'll enjoy reading it -- when it comes out. So close now. If I had specific dates for the release, I would pass them on, but for now, we're hoping for November.

As for the promo image, I'm not sure it conveys the sinister aspect of the tale. That's one vengeful swan, though it might just be swooping in for a hug. Anyway ...



Credits for the artwork:

girl by faestock
swan by LubelleCreativeSpark
background by kreatiques-x
pixie dust by rL-Brushes
fog by BBs-Brushes



Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Road Trip: Mt. Elbert, Colorado


Two years in a row, my husband and I have driven to Leadville, Colorado, to be part of the race crew for a friend who was riding in the Leadville 100 Mountain Bike Race. We rented the same cabin above Twin Lakes again this year, because the view is unbeatable. Surreal, really. 

Sunrise view from cabin, Twin Lakes.

Sunset view from cabin, Twin Lakes.

This year, we chose to undergo the arduous hike up Mount Elbert, Colorado's highest peak. I just thought I had been exercising enough. But the trail is so steep that by the time we had reached the 12,600 mark--well above treeline, thank you--my legs finally rebelled and stopped pulling me up another step. I sat among some rocks, sheltered from the wind, while the rest of my party climbed on. A chipmunk kept me company. I fed him some bread off my peanut butter sandwich, but I didn't like the way he was having to smack on the bread, so I switched to almonds. I hate almonds, and my trail mix was full of them, so I stacked some on the rocks, and this greedy, grateful little guy stuffed as many as he could into his cheeks, then dashed off to stash them in his hidey-holes. 

Now, I'm kicking myself for not getting pics of the little guy. All I took was video of him snatching the bread. Ah, well. He kept me entertained while I waited for word from my party. A long while later, my husband sent me a text saying they had reached the summit. It took them another 45 minutes to hike back down to me. By then I was well rested, but they were in pain. We all wanted off that mountain, so we started down immediately. It took us (them) four hours to reach the top and two more to hike back down. I have never been so sore in all my life. Every muscle from my hips to my ankles is letting me know that they didn't appreciate the abuse. 

But we've made it home again, and my work-out regimen is about to kick up a few notches. The mountain defeated me ... this time.

Mt. Elbert. Above the clouds by 8 a.m.


Thursday, June 26, 2014

Small Distractions: Introducing Leonidas

So I've complained all year that there seems to be less and less time to write. But this week, if all goes well, will be the first week in months that I will actually have 4 days out of 7 that I can devote to writing. Amazing! Since when did I go and get myself a social life? I mean, really!

Today, however, it isn't my social life that has me distracted from writing. It's a little guy named Leonidas who doesn't have nearly as many muscles as this Leonidas:



My Leonidas showed up in the neighborhood a couple weeks ago, nearly dead from starvation and dehydration, not because he'd been attacked by Persians -- or Persian cats, for that matter. And who's the biggest sucker in the neighborhood? Yep, me. Just as we were getting him fattened up again, he developed a terrible infection and I was sure he would have to be put down. But the vets were determined to save him, and save him they did. Now, Leonidas is running wild all over my house, and my other cats still aren't sure what to make of him.

This is Leonidas telling me that the old draft of Fury of the Falcon really stinks. But, he says, the paper tastes great.



This is Leonidas being caught in the act of trying to tell this story his way.



He wanted me to post that he was fighting off a thousand Persian cats in the alleyway and is the lone survivor who must tell the tale. And he says the white stripe over his right eye is really hiding the scar he earned from battling the ferocious wolf-chihuahua of Suburbia Pass. ... Why am I not sure I believe him?

So I blame my being distracted from writing this morning on Leo's escapades and using me for a jungle gym. And since it's been a while since I've updated my blog, I thought it appropriate to gave a hint about why I've been, well, distracted.

As soon as he falls asleep, I will sneak in a few paragraphs of a new chapter.

(Side note: the page of text in that middle picture is crap. Don't read it, at all cost. Your eyeballs might melt. Not one word is being kept and used in the new draft.)

(Side side note: I am not a kitty rescue service. Please don't send me any more cats. I have all I can handle.)


Tuesday, April 29, 2014

National Poetry Month: The Everyday


Only a few days left to celebrate. On the 24th, our poetry moderator provided us with the following prompt:

* Write a poem about a mundane, everyday activity.

Well, I've been watching the history series Nazi Hunters recently, and so my psyche is filled with accounts of human carnage. Let that preface my little poem about gardening:

"Pulling Weeds"

Is it worth raw fingers,
bleeding scrapes,
mud caked under fingernails
to pluck up roots, overturn 
cities of underground highways, 
to iron out the ugliness, trim and mold and 
beautify to my liking,
to change the world one blade at a time?

It takes a certain sense of false
supremacy to say 
this beetle’s abode
is worthless.