Category Archives: Flash fiction

The Hero’s Journey: An Atrocity?

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Over at terribleminds, Chuck Wendig recently asked his readers (many of whom are also writers) some interesting questions.  One of them was “What gets you to read a book?” The answers he received (nearly 200!) ran the gamut from ‘great covers’ to ‘word of mouth’ and on through to ‘authorial voice’.  While it could be argued that a slew of writers giving their opinion on this topic might not actually represent the tastes of the reading (but non-writing) public, the answers do give a writer some interesting food for thought.

A follow up question posed by Chuck was, “What makes you put a book down?”  This question garnered an even larger comment tsunami from his readership. One of those comments struck me as particularly interesting.

A respondent opined:

I would sooner read Mein Kompff (sic) again than another novel, or any piece of media, that is infected with the Hero’s Journey plot structure. The rantings of one of the most evil men in the history of the world is a far more enjoyable than seeing the schlub everyman hero be coerced into an ‘amazing new world,’ murder his bizarro-father, and bring the macguffin back to the mundane reality to resume a more cushy status quo.

I like to think of Joseph Campbell as the Albert Einstein of the creative world: a well meaning guy who made an amazing discovery that’s being used to commit atrocities.

Hitler’s self-serving (but ultimately boring) pseudo-autobiography notwithstanding, I at first reacted with anger. But I sort of get the commenter’s point: when the “hero’s journey” is mechanically pushed into your face, it can be a turn-off. Seems contrived. Done before. Boring.

It is a waxwork of art.

It looks real. Like a story we should be into, but  we already know what’s going to happen. Sure, we can read on to see how skillfully the author puts his characters through their paces, or we can just toss the book in disgust.

I think it’s a valid criticism. I especially admire the comparison of Campbell to Einstein and the unintended, ‘atrocious’ consequences of their respective accomplishments.

 

“Fetched by the world.”

Recently, I was reading an author interview in GlimmerTrain (I can’t remember who it was). But this author  stated she wrote her characters to be ‘fetched by the world’, and it just stopped me. Yes, that’s it.  What an excellent phrase: fetched by the world. So preferable to the more tiresome “hero’s journey.”

Great stories are peopled with characters ‘fetched by the world’. Sure, Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter, and Frodo Baggins spring immediately to mind (Thank you, Hollywood), but it needn’t be all fantasy and quests.

Who else was fetched?

Jonathan Harker, Emma Bovary, Humbert Humbert, Kunta Kinte, Grendel, Atticus Finch, Colonel Aureliano Buendia, Jean Brodie, Gregor Samsa, Scarlett O’Hara, Dorothy, Clarice Starling, Siddhartha, Okonkwo, Ahab, Ishmael, and Titus Groan.

Each and every one of them – fetched by the world. In a big way.

And we continue to read those stories through generations because, sooner or later, the world comes to fetch us all. Not a white whale, maybe, but a shadow on the chest x-ray. Or finding love with the wrong person. Or losing your job and having to drink it away or reinvent yourself. The world fetches us. That’s what it does.

We can ignore the call, or we can jump on the train, follow the yellow brick road, go to Alderan, or Mordor, or walk endlessly across Dublin, or swallow the red pill, or go down the rabbit hole.

We can undergo chemoradiation, or get divorced, or secretly love a 14 year-old or, or live through the day of our child’s funeral, or win the lottery, or ,God forbid,  have sex with road kill.

Or we can do nothing. No blood, no foul.

The world isn’t the explainable stage of rationality we want it to be. All bets are off. And we can heed the call and bring back our macguffin. Just as Hitler envisioned himself the ‘hero’ of his epic ‘struggle’ and brought back to our ‘mundane reality’ the spectre of National Socialism.

Campbell, I believe, knew it. He wasn’t worried about artistic overkill, the tired boredom of the reader in the marketplace. He was onto the very root of storytelling itself. Something buried deep inside us. Fear and aspiration.

He was writing of characters being fetched by the world.

Failing. Succeeding. Dealing with life, death, love, anger, jealousy, beauty, loneliness, alienation. Joyous rapture and murderous intention.

It’s what stories contribute to our common understanding, unchanged, across all these generations.

The ‘hero’s journey’ isn’t a formula.

It’s a way to understand life.

Your very life.

_______________

Image by Lost in Scotland


Midnight Cruisers

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Anna lay next to her husband, watching with satisfaction the effect the nightmare was having on him. His face contorted, he thrust his legs out straight, kicking at something. Occasional whimpers slipped from his lips which pulled back from his teeth like leeches recoiling from a flame.

Anna could understand why he was so terrified. She knew that in his dream Kevin was staked out in a starlit desert with an enormous black snake taking meaty bites from his thighs, making its bloody, painful way to his crotch.

It was not a recurring nightmare that Anna’s husband was experiencing, something he had confided to her through their speedy courtship and single year of marriage. No, this was a completely new nightmare, and it was going to kill him. His heart rate was going to escalate. It was going to stop in his chest as the snake finally opened its jaws and ripped his dick out at its root.

Anna knew all this because she had sent the Cruisers to her husband’s sleepworld to do her bidding.

The next morning Anna took great pleasure in calling Kevin’s assistant, Casey (the slut), to report his death. Nothing but silence on the other end of line. Perfect.

And then Anna began making her plans for Casey’s bad dreams that evening.

The first time they had come as spiders, their hard, black legs pushing through the plasterboard in her closet. Twelve year old Anna heard them scratching and clawing at her clothes. The hangers rattled and fell to the floor. The door bulged and she saw the spiders tumble out onto her white carpet, hissing, the size of dinner plates, hundreds of them. And she had sent them down to her father’s sleepworld. She had often wondered how she had been able to call them (and what were they, really?). But since that time she had grown more adept at controlling them, and they had served her many times. Always hurting the hurters.

Anna got the impression they came from far away. She didn’t know how she knew that, but deep inside she felt that was right. She called them The Midnight Cruisers, because of her impression that they traveled far and wide and she was only one of many beings in the universe they visited. And they only came at night. Mostly, she simply thought the name was cool.

Through the years, the Cruisers had come as shiny slugs with vicious human faces (for the gym teacher) a lion with a dirty mane and bloody teeth (for her mother), a twisted bare tree that whispered terrible truths (to the Greek fucker at the dry cleaners who always leered at her).

When she had discovered that Kevin was screwing his secretary, she debated whether to do him first, or start with the slut. Anna felt the cruisers were keener for Kevin, so she sent them down to his sleepworld last night where they knew exactly what form to take to stop his heart. They were spectacular and, as the years had proven, reliable and loyal.

By the time the morticians had carted off Kevin’s carcass the sun was already sinking, sending shadow fingers up her lawn, reaching for her doorstep.

Anna downed a nice glass of merlot and savored the thought of Casey in the grip of the  nightmare the cruisers would manufacture, just for her. She thought of that first night, the night of the spiders, when she’d sent them down to her father’s sleep world. Never again would she have to lie awake, dreading the squeak of her bedroom door.

From that night on, whenever there was justice to be done, a hurter to be hurt, Anna could stare into the darkness and call the Midnight Cruisers to turn her enemy’s sleepworld to hell.

Easy on the merlot, girl, she told herself: lots to do tonight.

She went to the couch and laid down. A few minutes of rest before calling them. It had been a fulfilling but long day.

When she rose from the couch, she went to her room and put on dark clothes. It was easy enough to get the slut’s address from Kevin’s computer. She felt it was now late enough. Casey would be sleeping and Anna didn’t want to miss the show. She could call the Cruisers from here, but then she would be deprived of watching Casey writhe in terror as they scared her slowly to death. What would they choose for the bitch? Anna could never know beforehand. Only when the nightmare was underway did the Cruisers allow her to dip into the sleepworld to see them at their work.

Parking under a linden tree, Anna sauntered to Casey’s house, a pale, yellow ranch set back behind a six foot hedge. The wind was cool on her back as it blew dead leaves across the street. She circled the small house, judging few people would pass by at this hour. Casey’s bedroom window lay at the back of the house. Moans came from the bed.

Anna walked quickly to the window to see what was happening, too excited now to be careful.

Casey writhed under the duvet, saying something Anna couldn’t quite make out, but she was sure  they were words of entreaty to whatever hideous aspect the Cruisers had presented to her.

A twig snapped directly behind her.

She spun around and screamed. Her father, worms and spiders spilling from his eye sockets, grasped her and pushed his green tongue into her ear.

And then Casey was speaking to her through the bedroom window screen. “I knew you were acquainted with the night things. After you called about Kevin, I was sure of it. I call them darklings, but I’m sure you have your own name for them. We all do. Of course, you realize you’re sleeping on your couch back at home right now?  Your dear father is simply the demon the darklings felt you should be sharing your sleepworld with tonight.”

Anna was getting sick from the stench of her dead father. “How?” she asked.

“The darklings feel you’ve been abusing your power. You’re the hurter now. They are not allowed to kill those they serve, so I was called in. I’m what you could call a cleaner. Enjoy your death.”

And then Anna was no longer in Casey’s back yard. She was back in her childhood bedroom, in the nightmare.

The hinges squeaked lightly.

A silhouette appeared in the doorway.

“It’s just the Cruisers, only the Cruisers,” she said to herself and closed her eyes.

Her heart was a dying slab in her chest. Pain shot down her arms.

Knowing what she’d see, she slowly opened her eyes anyway, and she screamed until her heart stopped.

And then the Cruisers were on her.

_________________________

I was browsing Flickr and found this arresting photo of a young girl lying in bed, thinking some deep thoughts. She got me wondering what in hell she was thinking and what type of adult she would become. I had Steely Dan’s “Midnight Cruiser” blaring into my headphones. The title of the song and the photo gave rise to this strange little story. Written on a gloriously sunny, post-blizzard Sunday morning with a cuppa good joe at my favorite market. The idea of cruisers to do one’s bidding is appealing, but who could ever control that level of righteousness?

Image by Alyssa L. Miller


That Halloween – 1965

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She feels as vaporous as a ghost, padding from room to room as the gloom slowly fills the house.

“Move it!” she yells up the stairs, and they scream back “Almost done!” in perfect unison.

She savors the memory of how their faces had lit up that morning, when she had put on her hat and coat and commanded them to get ready to walk into town for the costumes. They deserved it. A few crumpled bills stuffed into a pocket of her faded, blue raincoat held that kind of power. She had been trying to save for some time, to cushion them against the unknown. But now what was the use?

They pile down the stairs, costumes crinkling and hissing. All that plastic and silk.

“Watch out, Ma, or I’ll curse you!” Ruby’s witch cackles, waving her fingers.

Zach is some sort of hobo-clown. He loves Red Skelton and maybe that’s why he chose that one, she doesn’t know. Of course, the Montgomery Ward only had about the three costumes left by the time she had decided to bring them on down there, so it’s not like they had a lot to choose from.

“It’s getting dark, they’ll be starting down at the grange hall soon. You’d better get a move on,” she tells them.

“You’re coming, right Ma?” She sees Zach’s pale blue eyes widen behind the hobo mask.

“I’ll be along presently. Just hold your sister’s hand and everything will be fine.” She fixes her daughter with a serious but tender gaze. “Ruby, you’ll watch out for your brother, won’t you, hon?”

“Yes’m,” Ruby says and it’s hard to take her seriously wearing that clean mop she’s laid on her head for witch-hair. She’s just a kid, after all.

She bustles them out the door and notices the strap on Ruby’s right shoe is loose. “Hold on.” She bends down and snaps the buckle. “There. Wait! What good is a witch without a broom?”

She runs back into the house and grabs the straw-stick from the kitchen closet. “That’s better,” she says, placing the broom into her daughter’s hand.

“Come here, my hobo.” She holds her arms out to Zach and she sees his eyes roll, but he rushes forward into her embrace. “Be mindful of your sister, now. I’ll see you both soon.”

And then she releases him.

She walks back into the house, letting the screen door bang shut.

The kitchen is getting darker, but she doesn’t feel like turning on a lamp. The darkness whispers to her, like a lover, as she watches the kids, hand in hand, skip across the yard toward County Road 22.

“Hey, wait!” she calls out, and then scampers over to the counter. She has just remembered she bought a roll of film when they got the costumes. To get a picture of this Halloween. For a keepsake, like people do.

The wind is picking up outside. “A picture!” she yells, holding the camera over her head. “Just get closer together.” She moves her arms like she is directing traffic in town.

The sky above the children boils black, gray, and white.

And she snaps the picture.

“Okay,” she yells again, nodding her head. “I’ve got it. I’ve got you!  Now, go on.”

Back in the kitchen, she pulls the photo out of the side of the enormous, gray plastic camera and places it on the table. From here she can see into the living room as well as out through the screen door to the yard and the road. She looks at her wedding photo above the couch, and, on the mantle, the folded flag that came home from Vietnam on her husband’s coffin. Unpaid bills lie in a mound on the coffee table.

She looks down. Miraculously, the image of her kids on this Halloween slowly emerges as she loads the pistol.

She sits quietly  in the darkness.

Through the screen door she watches Zach and Ruby running, their squeals of glee swallowed by the rising wind.

“Go on, now,” she whispers again. “Go on.”

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___________________

Photo: delilas


2012 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

4,329 films were submitted to the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. This blog had 13,000 views in 2012. If each view were a film, this blog would power 3 Film Festivals

Click here to see the complete report.


Dummies – Nuclear Test Site, Nevada 1953

Good jobs,

Government man say.

Even children paid.

Keep house.

Keep new furniture.

Love children.

Love life.

_____________

Momma go out?

No.

Momma go out?

No.

M –

_____________________________________

For a flash challenge at terribleminds

Image by Mark Holloway


Deep Ones

The Deep Ones took her on a beautiful summer day.

She’d been lolling in the gentle surf, eyes half-closed against the sun and its glittering reflections. On the cusp of womanhood, her scent drew them in, just as the elders said it had happened in the time of horrors.

The Deep Ones dragged her to the bottom and drowned her, leaving a seed deep in her dead womb. It burst forth, fully tentacled, a storm of blood and bubbles.

Decades later, his stolen daughter a local legend, the fisherman spied a tentacled horror on the bottom – and wept in recognition.

_________________________________

Thanks to Emma Audsley who posted this excellent image (drawn by Victor Hugo, no less!) as a prompt for a 100-word story on her active and excellent blog, The Horrifically Horrifying Horror Blog. I responded to Emma’s prompt with the story you read above and I’m re-posting it here because I like this tiny tale.

Interestingly, I found the following text from Victor Hugo accompanying the image when I downloaded it from 50 Watts via Flickr.  Strange and fun, I think, how it meshes with the story I wrote having only seen the picture. More a testament to Hugo’s drawing than my writing, I suspect.

At night, however, and particularly in the hot season, she becomes phosphorescent. This horrible creature has her passions, she awaits her submarine nuptials. She adorns herself, setting herself alight and illuminating herself; and from the height of some rock she may be seen in the deep obscurity of the waves below, expanding with a pale aureole — a spectral sun.


Interregnum

The world no longer tolerated human sounds.

We again had only the wind and birds and streams, not the constant thrum of industry.

Cars and trucks and even trains lay askew,  smoking and silent under gunmetal skies.

Whatever happened had passed us by – it was elsewhere, an abstraction.

So we made love, and ate, and said beautiful drunken things.

We ran naked through the house, delirious in the aftermath of history.

We lived as the Creator had intended.

And it was only after the first of the dead scratched lightly at our bedroom window

That we realized the world would have its horror – our dreams be damned.

______________________________________

Image by Burtoo


The Fire of the Gods

Fletcher at the Dig

His tent snapping in a hot, dusty wind, Fletcher found it nearly impossible to concentrate on his journal entry, an entry on which so much depended.

The porter, Daran, waited just outside with wide eyes, looking up at the group of riders carefully picking their way down the narrow trail snaking along the inner wall of the crater.

“Even now, Bryce approaches with a party of loyalists to steal the figurine,” Fletcher scratched quickly. “My initial academic excitement in the historicity of the piece has been supplanted by more fundamental concerns. No, that is inaccurate; it is an existential dread that now pervades my soul.”

Daran tentatively stuck his head between the canvas flaps. “Sir, only three kilometers more and Doctor Holcombe is upon us.” He looked back over his shoulder, panting.

Fletcher wrote on. “I am giving the figurine to Daran to get it out of the country. His wife’s cousin runs some sort of illegal smuggling operation along the passage to Peshawar. I can only hope that the figurine and this journal will make their way to you from this godforsaken pit. As long as the carving stays out of Bryce’s hands, all may yet be well. Nevertheless, his fumbling interference has awakened something ancient and, what is worse, it has taken nearly complete possession of him.”

Fletcher wrapped the journal, along with the figurine, into a leather sack. He bound it all together with a length of catgut, and rushed to the tent’s entrance. He pushed it into Daran’s hands.

“Take it, for fuck’s sake!” he said, “And do as I have instructed. Get it to Susan!”

He watched Daran’s eastward ascent out of the pit, intermittently hidden by the scorched, black trees and the great billows of steam.

“Godspeed,” Fletcher said, rasping, as he watched the porter climb up through the blasted heath. “Get it to Susan, Daran. My journal will guide her actions. She will know what to do.”

Fletcher  sat in his canvas chair, facing the flapping maw of the tent. The smell of all these burning things made him nauseous. He drew his machete from its scabbard.

And waited.

Fletcher at the Trial

“And your expedition ended in the deaths of several members of your research contingent. Is that not true?” The prosecutor pushed her glasses down to the tip of her nose, her dead, grey eyes fixed on Fletcher.

“That is correct. Several members of the group were horribly mutilated, including my research assistant, Bryce Holcombe, as you know.”

The prosecutor looked at the jury before continuing. “Yes, Doctor Fletcher. Those of us here in the so-called developed world can only imagine the sense of horror to which you were subjected in this circumstance.”

Blinding light crashed through the wall-length windows in the courtroom. Fletcher looked down at his shoes.

“Dr. Fletcher, would you care to comment on how your extended absence may have contributed to your wife’s state of mind?  I mean, raising three children alone, for twenty-two months, while her husband  was off in far-flung places, digging up old civilizations and whatnot. Do you not think that could be stressful?”

Fletcher looked up at Susan. Her eyes were seemingly vacant, but inwardly focused, he knew, on an undying hatred for humankind.

Several minutes of silence ensued, punctuated by stifled coughs and aborted sneezes.

“Doctor Fletcher?” The prosecutor was now standing beside her table.

“Yes?” Fletcher asked.

“Your wife was found surrounded by your mutilated children. This jury would like your insight as to how that might have come about.”

Now Fletcher’s grief flowed out in great, heaving sobs. “It was a mistake!”

The prosecutor strode to the witness stand. “Doctor Fletcher. Do you have any idea what  the words Cthuga kraal boglarthop mean? Your honor, the prosecution introduces exhibit one-forty-three-A.” The photograph showed three humps under a white and red sheet. On the wall above them, the unintelligible words were scrawled in what looked like blood.

Fletcher looked out the window. Heat rose off the pavement of the courthouse parking lot in radiated waves.

“It means ‘Cthuga forever burns’.”

“What did you send home to your wife, Doctor, along with your journal?”

Fletcher loosened his tie and said, “An artifact.”

Susan at Home

She fed them.

She bathed them.

After stories, she kissed them and hurried downstairs to the package.

A large glass of merlot rested on the table as she eyed the leather sack and twirled the catgut binding round her index finger.

She ignored the journal. More of Fletcher’s tedious ramblings.

But the carving was exquisite. She felt its heat and breathed deeply.

The Fire of the Gods

It was much later that night when the children were startled awake by growls that shook the walls.

Together, frightened, they stepped lightly down the stairs.

“Mother?”

Silence.

Then more growling.

Mother?”

____________________________________________

Well, I haven’t participated in one of Chuck Wendig’s FF challenges for a while, so…  The challenge this week was to write a story under 1,000 words entitled “The Fire of the Gods”. Well, I dreamed of Lovecraft and August Derleth and this is what came out. The elder gods, the ancient ones, just love to mess with lower life forms… or perhaps they’re just misunderstood. Anyway – hope you enjoy it!

Image by Beesnest McCLain


All the Colors of This World…

The teacher’s day started like thousands of winter weekdays before it. She made up the twin bed, drank half a cup of instant coffee, fed the cats, put on her wool coat, and walked across the street to the school. She seated herself primly at her desk. The empty rows of desks reminded her of a barren, November garden. She awaited the imminent clamor of arriving children, children whom she would ignore today while she contemplated the dull grayness of the tenements outside her window and considered what must be done.

Today is the day, she thought. Let the nightmare end.

The teacher had left no note of her plan, but she had filled many notebooks describing her despair and her musings on the different methods one might employ to end one’s life. She would exit the world unheralded and unloved, just as she had entered it thirty-four years earlier. Why had kindness and warmth never bent in her direction? Her body had known no pleasure save for what little she, on those rare mornings, was able to provide herself.

A wasted life, best ended.

And then the new girl was presented to her, all large, sad slate eyes and dirty, coppery hair, and of course she had to be introduced to the class and found text books, and writing implements, and wasn’t this just the worst day to have this type of distraction?

But the teacher was one to fulfill her duty, no matter the inconvenience. She escorted the new girl to a desk where she immediately drew the stares and taunts of the class. The teacher, distracted, vaguely admonished the children to leave poor Agnes alone and get along with their lessons, please.

The tik-tik-tik of the freezing rain against the window mesmerized the teacher. The bells rang for recess but she merely sat, thinking of oblivion, until the children bolted of their own accord, casting worried glances in her direction. All except the new girl, who stood motionless in front of the teacher’s desk staring, holding a pink rose between her right thumb and forefinger.

And the teacher accepted the flower. She pushed its soft pink petals against her nostrils and inhaled deeply, so deeply her ribs ached. But the teacher did not release that breath. She closed her eyes, sat back in her chair, and held her breath, refusing to release the scent from her head. As if in a dream, she noticed that the sun had broken through a crack in the clouds and bore down on the large east windows. Shimmering light bathed her face, and from a place deep within welled up images of love directed at her, the teacher, the woman who never knew love, and then the teacher was startled awake when the new girl said, “Pink can heal.”

The teacher opened her eyes and wept and did not stop until well after the other children wandered back in from recess with fearful looks on their faces.

And so the teacher did not end her life that day. The teacher’s feelings blossomed as each day the new girl brought her another flower. And the new girl always seemed to know which flower was the right flower to present, as if the new girl could read her mind or her heart and apply the just right remedy. And the teacher learned.

She learned blue hydrangeas soothed. And orange nasturtiums thrilled. And white poppies intoxicated. And there was no end to her pleasure while she smelled the flowers, but in the evenings, she still could be counted upon to burn or cut her forearms until the kitchen table was slick with blood and tears.

One day the teacher asked the new girl why the feelings the flowers brought her were only temporary, and the new girl said, “Because you want to die, they will not take root. You are barren. I’m doing my best.”

And the teacher became angry at being called barren for the third time in her life, and she  shouted, “I don’t understand! Where do you get these flowers? I want to see where they come from, do you hear?” And she shook the girl back and forth and tried to reach into her pocket and pull out a flower to sniff, but the little girl threw the teacher off with unexpected strength.

Then it suddenly seemed to the teacher that it was sunset, although the children were at recess weren’t they?. The sky was dark, and a fiery red sun looked in on her and the new girl from just above the horizon, like some malevolent one-eyed god.

And the new girl was changing too. She grew taller, her head elongated and horns thrust themselves out of her forehead while her eyes migrated off to the sides.  She produced an enormous red rose from the pocket of her jacket and with a low, growl said, “Red means wrath.” And then the teacher was no more.

The teacher was never found, but everyone assumed the worst for in her desk were discovered several personal notebooks, written in her own hand, describing her black depression as well as her thoughts on ending her life. She also described a person she referred to as ‘the new girl’.

The bottom drawer of her desk was filled with dead flowers: azaleas, poppies, lilies, roses.

No one could make sense of the flowers.

And there had been no new girl in the teacher’s class this year.

_____________________________________________________________________________

This is one of those stories that was completely unplanned. I had not the faintest idea of what the ending of this story was going to be when I sat down to write it. Many times, one knows the ending and the writing is just a blazing of a trail to get there.

I hope people will continue to find the blog and read the stories. I’d like to think the stories provide some invitation to ponder or just a little entertainment on the train, the bus – some stories that don’t require a huge time commitment from the reader.  If you’re so inclined, please leave a comment thanks for stopping by. Hope you come back.

Image by studiobeerhost


Sitting in Darkness is Back!

I miss Sitting in Darkness.  I miss putting these little stories up here.

So, I’m going to start up again.

Tomorrow I’ll be posting a story sparked by this picture.

Feels good to be back.

Image by studiobeerhorst


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