Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Hand You're Dealt

Before we get into today's short story, a bit of business. As you know, I started this blog in 2009 to provide - what I hope is - a nice writing community and a safe place to share unpublished work. 99.9% of you are wonderful! But, sadly, I need to reinforce the Advisory and Submission Guidelines on the side panel of the blog for some of you, and also add some new rules:

1) Submissions can't be more than 1500 words. No exceptions. 
2) All genres of fiction and creative nonfiction are considered. Just nothing vulgar or offensive, please. Also, no poetry or children's books (MG and YA are fine). 
3) Submissions will not be considered for representation. Ever. Not even a little bit. If you try querying me at the blog address, you get instantly deleted. What I publish here is not always the same genre or style that I'd represent as an agent. This blog is 100% independent from my agency. 
4) New Rule: Do not submit more than once a month, or more than three times a year. I have to instate this rule because some - not all, but some - were abusing the blog and finding loopholes to get me to publish huge chunks of their self-published novels. Bringing me to...
5) Please do not submit excerpts of your self-published book. I will Google you and will know if you're lying. Self-publishing is still publishing, and I only accept unpublished work. If you submit something else, I promise to mention you also have a book out. 

Please follow these rules so I don't have to stop posting stories altogether. Thanks! And now... some fiction!

The Hand You're Dealt is a short story from English, reading, and creative writing teacher, Carol Lynn Thomas. She's a writer and editor for the Middle Grades Reading Network of the University of Evansville in Indiana, and is currently working a novel called What Flavor for Murder? Also, today is her birthday! 

Enjoy! And thank you for bearing with my housekeeping business. 

The Hand You're Dealt 
by Carol Lynn Thomas

From moment to moment, we view our lives through a prism of memory…

I was looking out at the lilac bushes in the yard when the phone rang.

“Carol? You hungry?” Evi said, laughing.

“Vat you got?” I said, slipping into our routine.

“I got pot cheese, tuna, all kinds fruit. Vat you vant?” For over fifty years, she’s been imitating her mother to make me laugh, sweeping me back to Newark, to when Evi was small and slim with pale skin and acres of thick brown hair, and I was a stocky tomboy in dungarees, penny loafers, and a blue and white plaid blouse.

I pictured her now in something silky, a beret perched on her still luxuriant hair.

“I’m at JFK. Just in from London. But I can’t stand to hear one more word about the terrorist craziness here. My flight will board in a sec, so quick, tell me who said this: ‘I greased it up and will come back later and slide it in.’”

We both guffawed.

“The janitor to Mrs. Murray, 1954, seventh grade, Bragaw Avenue School,” I said, laughing.

“You remembered!”

“Who could forget?”

The janitor had stopped by our Home Ec class with a sewing machine he’d repaired for Mrs. Murray of the corkscrew strawberry curls, ubiquitous hairnet, and pink face.

“Whatever made you think of Bragaw?” I asked.

“Here’s a clue: ‘Now, girls, imagine you are on stage dancing Swan Lake. But first I tell you about my illustrious debut in Moscow,’” Evi said in a Russian accent.

“Miss Petrovna!”

Evi laughed. “At the ballet last night I thought of her. Did I ever tell you I found out that she really did dance with the Bolshoi?”

“So those stories about her incomparable dancing were actually true?”

“Looks that way,” Evi said.

“And did I ever tell you how much I hated her?” I asked, remembering her eyes, pools of black without a trace of light or warmth.

“I know. Listen, I sent you a newspaper article you have to see. You'll know why when you see it. Should be in today’s mail. Call me tomorrow. We’ll talk. My flight’s being called. Gotta run.”

“Miss Petrovna,” I said aloud in the sun-filled kitchen, her name bitter on my tongue. I’d always feared if she brushed up against me, her sharp angles would slice my skin. She was so bony, nearly translucent, with black hair sleeked into a bun.

I poured a cup of coffee and looked at the lilacs along the fence, remembering the ones that grew beyond the windows of the little gymnasium where she made my life miserable. I laid my left hand on the table, and with the index finger of my right hand, I traced its shape.

Every Thursday afternoon in gym class I had to endure Miss Petrovna’s probing black eyes and frosty smile as she sashayed around me. To Evi, she may have been just a silly bore, but to me, an awkward girl with malformed fingers on my left hand, she was Torquemada in faded ballet slippers.

In her raspy voice, she blathered endlessly about herself. But I didn’t hate her for her egomania or the square dancing or minuets or calisthenics. I hated Miss Petrovna for how she made me feel as she pirouetted around me, her gaze pressing on my hand. I was helpless to stop the scrutiny. With gold bangle bracelets jangling on her skinny wrists, she reminded me of a cat with a bell on its collar to alert unsuspecting prey. I was the plump mouse with no chance of sanctuary through a crack in a baseboard.

There I stood in my blousy, blue gym suit and white sneakers, arms extended shoulder high. Miss Petrovna’s black eyes blistered a hole in my exposed left hand. She stared with a look I’d already seen too often, naked curiosity mixed with a glimmer of revulsion. Her eyes widened for an instant, then narrowed to slits. She raised an eyebrow. As her pouty lips smiled reluctantly, I glimpsed yellowed teeth with a gap between the front top two.

One afternoon Miss Petrovna herded us to the nurse’s office for weighing and measuring. Having to step on a scale in front of everyone and hear my weight announced might be grounds nowadays for a lawsuit against Nurse Brennan for violation of my self-esteem. But this was 1954.

As we lined up to return to the gym, Miss Petrovna clasped my shoulders and aimed me toward the nurse. Then she instructed the rest of the girls to start down the hall.

Dread swirled in my stomach.

“Carol, dear, come over here and show me your left hand,” Nurse Brennan said coolly.

My face burned. I eased my hand out toward her and caught my lower lip between my teeth. I avoided her eyes.

She grabbed my wrist, pressing on the bones in my hand and fingers, squeezing the fused joints in my left pinky, rubbing my tiny, gnarled fingernails.

I squirmed. She yanked me closer. “Stand still,” she said, irritated, turning my hand over and over. “I can’t possibly be hurting you.”

Nurse Brennan’s face blurred. Black spots danced in the thick air. Sweat beaded on my upper lip. I stared at the clock, willing the minute hand to jump ahead. I squeezed my eyes closed, aching to wrench my hand free, tear out the door, down the corridor into the freedom of the September afternoon. Legs pumping, arms thrashing, I’d race down the street to the park and collapse beneath a big oak to catch my breath. I’d look up to find Miss Petrovna and Nurse Brennan, panting and wild-eyed, looming above me. But before they could drag me back to school, God would rescue me. Slowly, slowly, He’d make their fingers blister and char and shrivel into tiny nubs of flesh while I watched and ignored their screams.

Miss Petrovna’s voice drifted back to me through a tunnel.

“Have you ever seen such a mutation?”

“An interesting malformation, for sure, perhaps as a result of the mother’s rubella in her third trimester,” Nurse Brennan said.

The walls squeezed me. I gritted my teeth, swallowing tears. That night, when I looked up the words I didn’t understand, the sharpness of the women's cruelty skewered me.

I prayed for a cloak of invisibility on gym afternoons. Why would a botched person like me exist at all? Over and over I chased this puzzle in circles. There had been no snafu in God’s laboratory. He had given me a defective hand on purpose. Was I an experiment? Let’s watch her to see how she copes?

On the day the new girl, Nicole Schuster, arrived in gym class we had to do Israeli dancing. Miss Petrovna peered over the piano, singing off-key at the top of her voice. “Hava nagila, hava nagila, hava nagila ...”

Nicole snatched my left hand. Her face remains on the edge of my memory, a photograph that has hardly faded with the years. As she opened her hand to look at mine, her mouth soured as if she had touched a slug. Shuddering, she jumped back and shrieked, “Ewww! What happened to your fingers?”

My heart loosened from its moorings. The images in the room --- the blue gym suits, the girls’ faces, a patch of sunlight on the wooden gym floor--- tumbled like fragments in a kaleidoscope, blurring, then sharpening again. I stood with both hands behind my back, my right clutching the left, squeezing my little fingers to comfort them. Anger billowed in Evi’s eyes. A flush crept up her neck, staining her pale face. No one moved for a long moment. A few girls giggled. Then Evi blocked me from Nicole who was hopping around, wiping her hand on her gym suit.

“I can’t believe you are such a horrible, disgusting, mean witch!” Evi hissed at her.

Miss Petrovna, engrossed in a racket of her own making at the piano, seemed unaware of the drama unfolding. By the time she glanced up, Evi had shoved Nicole away. As we got back in the circle, she took my left hand and gently squeezed it. I didn’t pull away.

From then on, I faked headaches at lunchtime on Thursdays to escape gym class.

I poured another cup of coffee and walked out to the mailbox. Sure enough, Evi’s envelope had arrived. I unfolded the article from The London Times, dated July 9, 2005.

Nicole Schuster Hoffman, noted American surgeon, was severely injured in yesterday’s terrorist attacks on the city’s Underground. It is still uncertain whether her hands can be saved.

I laid my left hand on the table and traced it with the index finger of my right hand.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Heroine Finds True Love

In the spirit of Thanksgiving, before I share today's story I'd like to say a very sincere thank you to all of you - my readers, story contributors, commenters, and general all-around good people who read this little blog. Thank you for being such great writers, readers, and listeners, and for keeping this site going.

And now, in the spirit of the blog, some fiction! Today's story comes from Samantha Memi, a writer living in London who is sharing an excerpt from The Heroine Finds True Love. In the author's words, it's about "a heroine who doesn't like the book she's in. This story was also included in Samantha's first chapbook Kate Moss and Other Heroines, published this month. Enjoy!

The Heroine Finds True Love
By Samantha Memi 

I was the heroine of a romance novel and I was so upset when my lover, the dashing hussar, Sergeant Trew, was seduced by his sinful stepsister, I fled to seek my fortune elsewhere. The only place I could find was a detective thriller, and no sooner was I a character in the book than I was arrested for the murder of my lover’s wife, and thrown in jail.

In my cell I heard a voice calling, “Caroline, the love of your life is waiting for you.” I looked up and, from a high window, a rope fell. I summoned the strength to climb but sadly, on reaching the window, I found someone I did not know.

“Don't you recognize me, Caroline?”


“I am Patrick, Sergeant Trew's manservant. My master searched for you everywhere in Secrets of the Heart, but you had escaped. He’s heartbroken to have lost you and begs your forgiveness. Squeeze through the window and I will take you to him.”

“Why should I?”

“Because you love him, and he loves you.”

My heart fluttered. Was it true? Did he love me?

“Where is he?”

“In an unfinished novel called A Love Sincere. He's in the arms of Princess Beatrice, who wants him to lead a rebellion against her father, King Vlad and her evil stepmother, Erzsebet the Cruel. But such is the faithfulness of my master, all he thinks about is you.”

A horse was waiting for me, and we rode as swift as the wind straight into the pages of A Love Sincere. But, as we neared the king's palace, where the traitorous Beatrice wickedly manipulated the goodness of my beloved hussar, we were waylaid by a band of ruffians who demanded gold and treasure. I had nothing about me but my modesty, and I was much afeared advantage would be taken of my innocence. Strangely the leader of the ruffians seemed friendly with the man I thought of as Trew's manservant. I overheard them speaking.

“She's a pretty one all right, what do you reckon we'll get for her?” said the deceitful manservant, with half an eye on me and half an eye on an imaginary pot of gold.

“Pretty heroines in romance novels are ten a penny, but if she can fight and use a sword she might be worth something,” said the ruffian, and he walked over to me and asked, “Can yuh fight?”

“No sir, I cannot.”

He took out his sword and pointed it at my throat. The other ruffians eyed me with lust, thinking how they could tie me up and take turns debauching my body and torturing my soul.

“I’ll teach yuh,” and he took a sword from another ruffian and gave it to me. I gripped the sword in my hand and the very feel of it brought back ardent memories of a role I’d played as a highwayman’s moll in a novel where I was the best swordswoman in the whole of England.

“On guard,” said the ruffian and, as he thrust his sword at me, I parried, clipped the sword out of his hand and slit his throat in one easy movement. His gang gasped and cried out. Their leader's blood fed the Earth and, as he gurgled his last few incomprehensible words, I walked over to the manservant.

“So you thought you’d deceive me.”

“No, it wasn't like that, I know where Sergeant Trew is.”


“In the castle yonder, captured by the King and his evil wife, Erzsebet, who will torture him for plotting against their kingdom.”

“Who's with me,” I called, “to relieve the king of his wealth”

To a man the ruffians cheered and held up their swords, then I sliced open the throat of the false retainer as his terrified eyes begged for life.

I quickly found a ruffian who resembled the manservant and had him dress to replace the traitor. Under cover of night I told the ruffians to hide in the bushes at the foot of the castle walls. In the early morning my fake manservant and I arrived at the castle, and I beseeched entrance as the love of the captive hussar. As soon as the gates opened the ruffians swarmed in and overpowered the guards. I rushed to the bedchamber of the Queen and found my love debauched and besmirched, spread-eagled on the bed while his torturess, half mad with lust for him, excited herself with love potions.

“Cut him free,” I ordered, but the madwoman flew at me like a vulture. I thrust my sword straight through an eye socket and killed her instantly. I cut my hero free and we embraced.

Later, with chests laden with gold and jewels we rode off into the sunset, or sunrise, I can't remember which.

A Love Sincere ended with me, six months gone, marrying Sergeant Trew and leaving the church joyously happy with bells peeling and crowds cheering. Talk about sentimental tosh. I just hope the next book I’m in gives me the chance to kill a few blackguards and maybe have a lesbian princess fall in love with me and, after a torrid affair, marry her brother, become Queen and chop off lots of heads. But who knows what our chances are in novels or in life. Look at me now, relegated to a measly little story of a thousand words. Could anything be more degrading. No handsome prince to seduce and leave heartbroken, yearning for my love, no kindly father-in-law to poison and ridicule as I rob his treasure chest and strangle his children while his wife, who loved and cared for me, begs for mercy.

If I had my way, I'd grab this miserable writer, shove her head in a bowl of bat’s blood, spit in her face and scream, “Next time you use me as a character make me wicked, comprende, wicked.”

I ask you, dear reader, for a heroine like me, what kind of a story is this?

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Shady Business

So, earlier this week via The Twitter, agent (and author!), Mandy Hubbard mentioned her distrust of new agents who have no publishing background. This started a conversation, which I participated in, about the merits of these agents and start-up publishers who claim to be legit.

The thing is, many of these new agents and start-up publishers (usually digital-only publishers) aren't aware they're not legit. They have the best of intentions. They're people who follow the industry closely and, because of the transparency provided by blogs and Twitter, they think they have enough information to start their own companies. Yes, everyone has to start somewhere and some of these newbies do succeed and prove their worth. Most of them, however, don't help an author rise to any level beyond what the author could have done themselves.

When I started at Curtis Brown, I was an assistant and only an assistant. I also kept up with industry news and market trends, but mostly I was an apprentice at an established agency where I had several agents to learn from. Before that I was an intern at a different agency and read the hell out of the slush pile. Reading the slush pile and writing reader's reports for agents seems like busy work, but here is what I learned from it: In my first year as an intern, what I put in the "yes" pile was usually not what the agent would have said yes to, and more importantly I learned why. My experience is very, very common among agents at my level and those at the levels above mine. Reading someone else's slush pile is a very helpful rite of passage.

If I took on clients within that first year of working in publishing, nothing I took on would have sold, I wouldn't even have seen a contract until it was my own client's, and I would not have known how to negotiate in my author's best interest. Every agency is different in terms of when they let assistants take on clients, but those decisions are always based on "is this person ready?" New agents who don't have that kind of experience in publishing, but just want to take on clients to "help authors get published" don't get that feedback or education. This is why, despite their good intentions, they end up hurting authors.

New agents at established agencies, or those who have publishing experience elsewhere, are hungry to build their lists and you should definitely query them. Put them at the top of your lists, actually. But pay attention to the backgrounds of these new agents too. If they don't have the backing of an established agency, then Google deeper and ask the following questions:

1. Do they belong to the AAR (Association of Authors' Representatives)? Note: Not every agent needs to join the AAR and I know a few at established agencies who have not joined, or just recently joined. However, if you're on the fence about an agent and their credentials seem suspicious, not being a member of the AAR could be a dealbreaker.
2. How long have they worked in publishing? If they weren't always an agent, what did they do before? Editor at a major house? Marketing or sales representative (meaning, they know what booksellers buy and would probably be a good agent because of it)? Were they an assistant or intern at an agency that's respected in the industry?
3. How long have they been agenting? It should not be the same amount of time they've been in publishing. If they are just starting out, who do they work for? What type of agency is backing them up? 
4. What have they sold? If they're new, this won't be as relevant because they may not have many sales to their name yet. In this case, ask new agents where they see your book in the market. Hardcover/trade paperback vs. mass market vs. ebook only? These things matter, and knowing which format will work best for your book is something a good agent should be able to tell you. 
5. What types of publishers have they sold to? Check Publisher's Marketplace to see an agent's sales history. Note: Not every agent reports their deals, but new agents usually do because they are still proving themselves. So, look them up. Are they only selling to the types of publishers you could have submitted to yourself? Or do they have a few Big 6 and larger, respected indie publishers in their sales history too?
6. Are they just a lawyer? Agents are like combination lawyers and managers, and you need those skills to be good at your job. The difference is that a lawyer has no personal stake in whether your book does well (they'll get paid either way) and their ability to read legal language rarely extends to book contracts, which is a different animal. If you self-publish or use a small press without an agent, make sure you get someone to read over your contract who is a literary lawyer. People who know legal jargon, as intelligent and educated as they are, aren't going to have the same expertise when it comes to publishing.

I also mentioned start-up publishers above. If you choose not to get an agent - either because you're going to self-publish or use smaller publishers who take unagented manuscripts - then you need to be extra careful. Like I said, start-up publishers can turn into legit publishers who are good at what they specialize in. They're often digital-only, at least at first, and tend to focus on a specific genre to build up a successful niche market. Note: This is what a good start-up publisher will do. Be wary of small presses, digital-only publishers, or start-ups who want everything and anything. Usually this means they haven't created a solid business model or know the best way to publish different types of books.

If you're unsure about whether to sign that contract or submit to that shiny new publisher at all, don't be afraid to ask the publisher the following questions:

1. Do you content edit or just copy-edit? Copy-editing is ridiculously important, but so is editing for the content itself. Will your book get Big 6 treatment at a small press? It won't go through as many revision rounds and maybe only one set of eyes (as opposed to several you get at large houses) will see it. But, that doesn't mean you don't deserve a professional editor with a skilled eye who will make your book the best it can be.
2. What is your marketing plan for my book? They should have one, and it should involve more than a Facebook ad. 
3. Where are your books sold? If the publisher is digital-only, ask them what platforms they use and if your book will be available on multiple reading devices. If they do print books as well, ask them if they've ever been sold through Barnes & Noble (the physical stores) or independent local bookstores (unlikely, but worth asking).
4. Will any part of this process cost me any money, other than the royalties you will earn on my sales? Answer: NO! NO, NO, NO! If a publisher wants you to pay them, run away. They are a scam. Real publishers pay you for the privilege to publish your book. 
5. How much are you taking in royalties? The answer to this question varies, but what you're really asking is "are you doing enough for my book to warrant taking over half my earnings?" Because if they're only doing the bare minimum and you're not seeing a significant return in your sales, you could have self-published and kept almost all of your royalties instead.
6. What's the deal with your subrights department? Subrights matter. It's how you earn back an advance faster and audio, film, serial, and foreign rights are how you get your book in more places. Most small or start-up publishers won't have a significant presence in the film world, but if they are going to call themselves a publisher, they should be aware of foreign markets and work with specific agents or scouts to sell your book abroad.

If any of these questions make a publisher nervous, don't use them. These are simple questions they should not only answer, but be proud to tell you. Of course, they are trying to woo you. Tell you what you need to hear. So, go a step further and research:

1. Go to sites like Preditors and EditorsFind out what other books they've published. Have they had success in your genre? Do they have any specialties? A good publisher has standards.
2. Where have their books actually been sold? Can you find them anywhere other than Amazon?
3. Do they have a Publisher's Marketplace page with reported deals? Note: This does not necessarily make them legit (as is more eloquently stated in this blog post by legit agent, Victoria Marini). But! It at least gives you a starting off point to see what types of deals this publisher has made. 
4. Who are their other authors? Contact them directly to ask about their experience. The publisher should also willingly give you their authors' information if you can't find it online. If they don't, then that's another red flag and you should be suspicious of them.

Yes, this is a lot of work. It's less work if you have an agent, but if you don't want or need an agent, be prepared. It's incredibly tempting to sign a contract because YAY BOOK DEAL!!! You've been waiting forever for this. All those rejections were piling up and you were getting so frustrated and ready to quit, but OMG this publisher sees the brilliance of your book and finally all is well in the world! Yes, of course you will want to sign immediately. This is what shady publishers and shady agents are counting on.

This whole process is hard. Whether it's you looking for a good agent or agents looking for a good small publisher (we use them too!). An easy way out only makes it harder in the long run. My job is to protect authors' rights and make sure their books are getting the treatment they deserve. Which is why agents like Mandy and Victoria, and me, and every other agent I know get so impassioned about these lovely people who want to do good, but probably aren't ready yet.

Long blog post is over. To sum up, research like it's your job! Because it is. Now, let's hug it out.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Broken Land, A Brooklyn Tale

Hey everyone. I have a New York story for you today from writer, poet and playwright, John Biscello. Originally from Brooklyn and now in New Mexico, John co-founded Venus Envy, an art and literary magazine. He also contributed some nonfiction to this little blog way back in 2009. His debut novel, Broken Land, A Brooklyn Tale is available online, and you can find him on his blog here. Enjoy!

Broken Land: A Brooklyn Tale
By John Biscello

There’s not really a name for what I do. I am not an investigative journalist, I am not a private eye, I am not a minstrel essayist. There are many things that I am not. If I were forced to impose a designation upon what I do, I’d say I’m a … curious. That’s all. Just curious. 

Anyway, if I had an office and it had been a rainy Tuesday, then a tragic blonde with legs like scissors strong enough to cut a flesh-and-blood man in half might have walked in . . . but that’s not the way this story begins. This story begins with a phone call from Jimmy Barrone, a writer and old friend of mine, who I hadn’t heard from in years.

His voice was tight and choked with tears, as he gurgled -- Still curious, Salvo?

I knew it was Jimmy, because he was the only one from the old neighborhood who still called me Salvo.

Jimmy, I said, long time no hear.

Jimmy’s dead, Salvo. Do you understand? I’m dead.

I countered Jimmy’s hysterics with good old-fashioned logic.

You’re not dead, Jimmy, I said. You’re talking to me on the phone, therefore you’re alive. Got it?

Jimmy snuffled some kind of primitive response, and went on -- I don’t know who’s who anymore, or what’s what. I’m breaking apart, Salvo. Fractals. Twelve Jimmy’s, then thirty-six, then forty-eight.

I followed the beat of Jimmy’s math, and tried to get through to a singular Jimmy, the one I had known since childhood.

Jimmy, I said, before you go to pieces with all this radical subdivision, tell me exactly what you think is happening.

I’m not me, were the last words Jimmy spoke before the line went dead.

I called back: a busy signal.

I calmly hung up the phone and sat at my desk. I picked up my plastic pencil sharpener and began sharpening pencils (#2’s, orange-yellow). It was what I did when I wanted to think things over, calmly.

While my curiosity had been piqued, and I fully intended to head over to Jimmy’s place and see what I could find out, Iwas not going to rush into the matter. I was not one to rush into anything, even when a distress signal has been fired like a flare in my direction. I didn’t trust distress-signals, especially when they came from writers. Especially writers who had been raised Catholic and had grown up in Brooklyn.

I also understood that anxiety and panic were highly contagious maladies. It was my responsibility to keep myself clean and healthy and sound. Which required exacting detachment. Too little and you were caught in a trap. Too much and you drifted away.

My cat, Keaton, an ash-gray beauty with lantern-yellow eyes, leaped onto my lap. He stared up at me, as if he wanted something.

What, I said.

He responded by switching his lean tail, side to side, like a pendulum.

My nails dug into Keaton’s scalp and gave it a good scratch. Keaton purred, like a pigeon making love to a toy motorboat, and closed his eyes.

I sharpened pencil after pencil, while playing Jimmy’s words over and over again in my head. I tried out various configurations.

I rearranged the original sequence of the words; broke them down into independent syllables; played the sentences backwards, as if trying to uncover a satanic message.

After my fourteenth pencil, and with none of the configurations having amounted to a breakthrough, I rose to my feet.

Keaton fell to the floor, gracefully. He gave me a cutting look, then padded away.

I went into the bathroom, flossed, brushed my teeth, and gargled mouthwash. Then I flossed again.

I put on my shoes and hat and overcoat. I grabbed my pencil sharpener, and six unsharpened pencils, and stored themin my coat-pocket. Then I left for Jimmy’s.

Outside, the night had teeth and it was raining. It suddenly dawned on me: it was Tuesday.

Maybe if I had an office, I reasoned to myself, a scissor-legged blonde would walk into it. You never know about these things.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Doll Hairs

Oh. Hello there. It's been a while! In the midst of hurricanes and catching up from hurricanes and being in an election coma, I'm very happy to bring some fiction back to the blog to share with you. 

Doll Hairs is a piece of flash fiction by Kelsey Ann Sandy, who is a writing and composition teacher with an MFA from Purdue University. Her work has appeared in The Albion Review and REAL: Regarding Arts and Letters. She is currently querying a novel of literary fiction, The Looking-Glass House and tweets at @KelseySandy. Enjoy!

Doll Hairs
By Kelsey Ann Sandy

Our father ordered porcelain dolls to look just like us. Little Lily and Little Rosie, we named them, and, for awhile, the dolls went everywhere that we went.

All of us, sisters and dolls, played Ring around the Rosy. We liked it because spinning made us dizzy and falling down was fun. We liked it because the flowers and the falling and the rhyming reminded us of death, and our mother had told us it was a nursery rhyme about the Black Plague. Sometimes we filled our pockets with the wilted petals that had dropped to the floor of our father’s garden. While we sang, we tossed the petals into the air. When they fell, we closed our eyes and let the petals fall all over us. Then, I would tell Rose and the dolls the story of the Black Plague, which I didn't really know anything about.

In my version, a plague of blackbirds filled the sky. There were so many, I told my sister, that even lunch-time looked like midnight. The blackbirds flew as one body covering the sunlight, an undulating sea of shimmering black feathers. Then the birds swooped down and devoured all the rose petals, red and white, all of them until there were no more flowers at all. The bushes shriveled to ashes and so the dirt also turned to ashes. The people walked amongst the flower graveyards until they too were covered in soot. Everything and everyone had turned to blackness. That, I said, is why they call it the Black Plague.

Once, when fist-sized blooms opened on the red and white rosebushes in our father's garden, Rose said, “If you tear off all the petals of Daddy’s rosebushes, I’ll pay you fifty dollars.”

“You will not,” I said. Fifty dollars was a lot of money.

“I will,” she said, “I promise.” And she crossed her heart and hoped to die.

I ripped the roses from the bushes as fast as I could, stuffing the torn petals into the pockets of my poplin dress. A few the thorns tore my skin, but Rose had said I had to tear off all the petals, and I didn’t want to disappoint my sister. In our bedroom, I pulled all the petals from my pockets and dropped them at Rose’s feet.

“Good job,” she told me. She was sitting in the chairs that were too small for either of us at the tea table, right beside Little Lily and Little Rosie.

“Thanks,” I said. “It was hard work all by myself.”

Rose laughed and picked up her doll, the one that looked just like her. “Fifty dollars?” she asked. “Was that the promise?”

I nodded.

“Well, you certainly deserve it.” She was laughing as she said it, as she plucked a red hair from her doll and held it up to me. In the sunlight, I couldn't tell the difference between my sister's hair and the doll's hair. “One doll hair,” Rose said. Then she laughed so hard she rolled out of her little chair. Then she laughed some more right there on the petals on the floor.

“Doll hair?” I said. “You promised.” She had crossed her heart and hoped to die.

“And I kept my promise,” she said. “I'll give you fifty doll hairs.” Then she got up from the floor, tossed her doll on her bed, and laughed as she left the room.

When our father got home he would see the missing roses, the bare stems jutting up from his perfectly pruned bushes, the bloody thorns. Standing between the two beds, I took one step toward the miniature, glassy-eyed version of my sister. The doll lay there, motionless, smiling like my sister had smiled when she’d tricked me. When our father got home, he would find the petals in our room and he would know what I had done and he would say, “Lily, why would you ruin my roses?” The doll still smiled when I plucked a hair from her head, “two doll hairs,” I said and tossed it to the floor. “Three doll hairs.” Little Rosie, the porcelain doll, kept smiling as I pulled each hair from her head, counting all the way to fifty, red plastic hair piling at my feet. But I wasn't satisfied. I kept plucking until I lost count, until the doll was completely bald. Not a single hair left on her pretty little head.