october

He was a skeleton. All that had been soft and round was now sharp bone, withered muscle and loose skin. His brown eyes sat in gaunt hollows of dark flesh, his cheekbones sculpted and lean. “Do I look bad?” he’d say, desperate for me to admit the inevitable. “No.” I’d smile. He’d look away, disappointed with my kind dishonesty.

Only weeks ago, when he was not yet cadaverous, when he could still walk and smile and laugh, we’d driven to Malibu and walked on the sand. And then on up to Zuma to climb his favorite bluff. Up one side, across the top and then down the other, there was a steep trail — hill on one side, a drop to the ocean on the other — that led to a ledge he loved. A small patch of earth clinging to the cliff with a jaw-dropping view of the water below.

He jumped the small crevasse, landing on the patch. His hand to me, I followed, never liking this bit but wanting to please him. And we sat, his arm around my shoulder, ocean below, the sun on the horizon, the sea breeze buffeting us. At one point I heard him sigh. I glanced up. There was a tear in his eye and a tremble in his lip. I told myself it was because of the sun.

Weeks later, in October, the skeleton could no longer move, smile, laugh. He was now in bed, three pillows under his head, two under his back. The lesions feasting on his intestines making it impossible for him to lie flat. His hands swollen and red, no longer able to grip or grasp. His feet swollen and purple, red, black. “My slippers,” he’d say between gasps and moans and sobs. “I’m cold.” And then he’d scream when I tried to put them on, his feet way too big and wounded. So when he whispered again “My slippers,” I lied, assuring him they were already on. “Thank you,” he whispered before falling asleep.

It’d been three days since I’d eaten, the fridge and cupboards bare. Sleep had come in the form of brief cat naps, seated at the foot of the bed, listening for any movement. He’d come back from the hospital only days ago with a shunt in his head and IV tubes in his chest and his arm. A health care worker had come by, once, to show me how to inject the medicine into his head, his chest and his arm. The head was once every two weeks, the chest and arm three times a day. “How old are you?” she’d said, perhaps worried that someone so young had been given such a great task. I’d told her. “And you understand the situation?” I’d nodded, shrugged. Still believed it was a phase and all would be well. She’d sighed and left.

In his less lucid moments, he’d try to bang his head against the wall, pull the tube out of his chest or scratch the tube out of his arm. It was important he do none of these so my days and nights were spent watching him. I could not leave to get food. I could not leave to get a breath of fresh air. To leave was to risk him injuring himself. I used the restroom with the door open, my eyes not leaving him. I still believed this was temporary and he’d be well.

“He’s dying,” the EMT said. It was after midnight. I’d called 911 to have them move him from the bed to the couch. It was easier for me to help him that way. And with the lesions destroying him from the inside out and his feet swollen and weeping, he couldn’t walk or crawl and I alone, exhausted, hungry, weak, didn’t have the strength to move him.

“He’s dying,” the man said again, only softer. As if realizing this was news to me. That I had yet to accept the inescapable. I heard myself speaking. A distant voice sounding hollow, disconnected, somehow cheery, thanking him for his time and apologizing for bothering them. I remember him leaving. The door closing behind him. I remember looking at the familiar skeleton now on the couch and hearing “He’s dying.” And, closing my eyes, refusing to believe it.

I had fifteen minutes. One of his friends had come by to watch him while I ran to the pharmacy to get morphine and then to Subway to get a footlong. And so, weak and dizzy, I had shoved my sneakers on and rushed down the hill to Santa Monica Blvd, filled the prescription and, armed with less cash than I anticipated – the morphine costing more than I expected – barely had enough for a six inch sandwich. If I cut the halves in half and then in quarters, I reasoned, it’d last me a few days. And he’d be better by then, right? At least I was going to eat.

The friend was gone when I got back and Couch Guy was fiddling with the tube in his chest. “Stop!” I said. His hand paused in midair and then rested by his side. Ignoring the dosage, I gave him his first spoonful of morphine and sat on the floor, the sandwich waiting, unwrapped, in front of me. I sighed, too tired and scared to take a bite.

“Jump!” he said, his voice barely a whisper. From somewhere in his morphine haze, he stood on a cliff. “Jump!” he said again. I smoothed his eyebrow with my thumb, willing him calm. He sighed and drifted back to sleep.

Witching Hour. All’s quiet. He sleeps, calm, drugged, peaceful. I watch him. Lean close. Say his name and then “I love you.” I move closer. Press my nose to his, my thumb once again gliding over his eyebrow. “I love you,” I say louder, desperate for him to hear me. He stirs. The eyes open and then close. “I love you, too,” he says and then he sleeps.

The doctor stared at me. He was speaking. We were in the hospital. The emergency room. An hour after that last “I love you, too” he’d gone into cardiac arrest on the couch. 911 was called. The same EMTs from before had arrived, trundled him into the ambulance and rushed him to Cedars. I followed soon thereafter. Chose to feed the cats, Boo and Tuxedo, and then walk down La Cienega in the predawn quiet. Knew he would not die without me.

I had power of attorney over health decisions, or something, the doctor was saying. There was silver in his hair though he looked to be in his forties. A very tan, smooth forties. I said nothing. He was explaining how they could do brain surgery but in his condition he might not survive the surgery and he might not survive recovery and it would be very difficult on his body…I interrupted. Told him “No, no surgery.” He nodded. Paused. The nurses, the other doctor, they all paused.

There was a need to comfort, I suspected. These doctors and nurses, they’d seen this marathon before. Knew I was in the final sprint. Knew my soul was torn and my spirit battered. Knew I was running on fumes and that any touch, any smile, any small act of kindness might break me. So they said nothing, allowing me this final shred of strength.

Friends showed. Family arrived. Wanted me to disappear. To leave. I ignored them, sitting close, claiming my spot and holding his hand. Believed he could feel my thumb smoothing his eyebrow. Trusted it was a comfort though he slept forever lost in a maze of tubes and machines and rhythmic beeps.

He died at 8:24 in the morning.

They wouldn’t let me watch the removal of his body. His family left without a word, acting as if I didn’t exist. His friends had gone before that. I walked down the hall and took the elevator alone. A nurse, one from before, was there when the doors opened. She reached out and touched my shoulder. I bit my lip and walked away. Quickly.

The morning sky was the bluest I’d ever seen. The world around me sharp and bright. Even the concrete at my feet as I marched up Robertson seemed somehow new and different. Everything was odd, but in a brilliant way. I felt hollow and free, the terror of what had just happened not yet elbowing past my hunger and exhaustion and delusion and grief.

I went to Ralph’s. Eyed the microwave dinners but got eight cans of cat food instead and then, realizing I now had a funeral to plan and having no idea how much coffins cost, put two cans back.

And then I walked home. Weeping.

 

a small somewhat ephemeral thing

A sincere Thank You to everyone who picked up a copy of The Tall Priest or took advantage of the recent promotion and snagged a free copy of The Wounded King.

Because of your support, The Tall Priest climbed higher on the Amazon charts than any of the previous Martuk Series books. And, especially in light of the minimal marketing I’d done, that’s a small, somewhat ephemeral thing worth celebrating.

Here’s hoping enough of you will like it enough to share your thoughts with a brief review. (crosses fingers)

The Tall Priest 2.1-FINAL-COVER

 

The Wounded King Final - cover

 

beautiful brutal razor’s edge

Here’s what one review said about The Wounded King:

““The Martuk Series” of novellas… really captivated me…with an amplified sense of brutality and pain, there’s dark stuff here kids, all the way around. And I am on pins and needles for the next entry in “The Martuk Series”, “The Tall Priest”.

Not only will this push the envelope, it will guild that envelope in gold, hone it to a razors edge and use it in a beautiful & brutal ceremony. It so fucking heavy and beautiful and I loved every moment of it.”

So head on over and pick up The Wounded King, the first in the series, FREE now thru Sunday, March 12th, 2017.

The Wounded King Final - cover

 

the clattering clank of tiny bones

Since Amazon cut off the sample before it got to the text, I’ve included an excerpt here from The Tall Priest:

One

I was blood.

The taste of it raced ‘round my teeth and flooded my throat. The warmth of it fell from my eyes and stained my cheeks. The red of it dripped off my chin to wander along my neck and down my chest.

I’ll give you my son, she’d said, the Seer from the Mountains. Leave me here to do what must be done and I’ll give you my son.

Her words the darkest of shadows clouding my calm, I’d returned to Uruk that morning, the Seer’s son, an unexpected charge, in hand. Soon I’d stood in the Temple, my explanations useless, The Elder’s rage quiet and terrifying. Moments later, I, a powerful priest in a land of powerful priests, had been dragged across the stone to face my fate.

Now I kneeled, a powerless man in a prison of wood and stone, broken and bloodied in the dead of night.

By morning I’d be a corpse.

I’ll give you my son.

Those words, heavy with heartbreak, had come from the Water first.

Days ago in a small room hidden far beneath the Temple, I’d stood with my beloved, The Elder, as the shimmering pool had whispered

Blinded…

Silent…

Bleeding…

“Don’t. Please,” The Elder said as I’d waited, gripping the edge of hollowed stone, my face dipped low as I silently called to the Gods.

The Veil…

The Darkness…

It comes…

the Water whispered, answering me, the words caressing my cheeks.

He’d begged and pleaded, the Elder, this most powerful man in a city of powerful men. Implored me to turn away. Allow the Water to hold its tongue. Keep its secrets. “It’s dangerous and I can’t bear to lose you,” he said, his voice thick.

“I need to speak with the Gods,” I said, braced with uncommon courage. And I’d ignored him, leaning forward, blade in hand, to slice, to watch, to see. To listen and hear, the blood dripping from my wrist the key unlocking my fate.

And the Seer from the Mountains had appeared in the shallow bowl, the words

Take my son

falling from her lips.

These words, these three syllables, soon to be spoken a three nights walk from Uruk where she, the Seer, and I would stand, watching, under the shade of trees.

Take my son

Hearing her, I’d pause.

For that the guards put me in chains.

More words would be spoken on that path a three nights’ walk from Uruk, a darkening sky above. Of dangerous shadows and ravenous demons. Of monsters and magic. Of battles being fought and wars being lost. Here. Now. Unseen yet all around.

My heart, my gut, trusting her, I’d listen.

For that I lost my eyes.

Days later, now days ago, the tears wetting her cheeks as she stood, silent and waiting, her story at an end, my heart heard

…my son

And, against logic and reason and rules, braced with yet more uncommon courage, I’d relent.

For that the guards cut out my tongue.

Learning I’d heard and listened and trusted, my secret beloved, The Elder, had grown dangerously quiet. Discovering I’d acted against logic and reason and his rules, he betrayed me. In response to my misplaced courage, he ripped out my tongue, robbing me of my words, my knowledge, my secrets. And then, my eyes dug out and tossed to the hounds, those two words

…my son

finally took from me the pleasure of seeing the sun, the moon. The once-adored face of the love who betrayed me.

The Water in a small, secret room far below the Temple had spoken of that, too.

As had the sky, the earth, the forest, the stones…

Days ago.

Now I turned. My long legs tucked under, I rested on my knees, the cold stone of the cell burning my shins. In the dark of blindness, I heard them. Other prisoners. Their sighs and whimpers, tears and whispers. Heard the shuffling of thin fabric and the shivering of bare flesh. Felt the Silent Other, a stranger to me, waiting, watching. Drawing near, slow and patient, from the other end of the earthen hall.

A Silent Other I’d glimpsed when my eyes could still see, though I stood in the shade of trees under the gathering grey of relentless clouds. He haunted me still, this Silent Other, this stranger. His dishonest smile cutting through the terrifying darkness. The leather cloak falling from his shoulders hemmed with the clattering clank of tiny bones.

I swallowed the memory away, the blood from the still-bleeding root creeping down my throat. It still stung, that stolen tongue, though the burn in my missing eyes had given way to an exhausted thump, thump, thump.

Had I tears, I would have wept. For all I’d lost. All I’d never have. For mistakes and regrets. Lies. Betrayal. The ache of a broken spirit.

For my stupid willingness to abandon reason and peer into an endless wall of black.

But I’d been warned.

Days ago.

Silence

the earth had whispered.

Darkness

the trees had echoed.

Death

the sky had promised.

I’d been warned.

 

TWO

“It’s said she Called the Rain,” the Fat Priest said. He leaned, red-faced and sweating, against a boulder. “And that she battled a demon or something.”

I’d grinned, willing him silent, eager for the sound of the breeze snaking through the branches or skimming over the grass. The blessed silence of a bright sun warming my skin. The private joy of crisp air in every breath.

“A darkness,” I said instead.

“A what?”

“A darkness,” I said again, my voice louder and perhaps too harsh. “She battled a darkness, not a demon.”

“Stupid peasants.” The Fat Priest said. The rolls of flesh circling his neck jiggled as he chuckled before stopping to choke on a fit of sudden coughs.

I looked away. Ignored my travel companion, still resenting this pairing forced on me for this most important of tasks.

“Six days,” the Elder had promised. “In six days you will be home.”

And so the Fat Priest and I left when the moon was still high, walking into the shade of the thick trees outside Uruk. Stumbled up the trails into the deeper dark of the hills where the stars could no longer light our way. Struggled past the boulders and the stones. Angled past the vines and climbed over the immense roots of massive trees. Made our way, step by lumbering step, into the ancient mystery of the mountains as night relented and morning came.

All for him, The Elder.

And for her.

The mother of this young man who could speak with Those Beyond the Veil was coveted and desired. “Do you think she Called the Rain?” the Fat Priest said as his pudgy paw mopped the sweat from his brow. “Probably not,” he then said, answering his own question. He wiped his hand on his robe. “All this work, all this walking, hot sun, steep hills, bugs and who knows what watching from the trees, and all for nothing.”

“And if you’re wrong?” I said, my eyes on the distant hills awaiting us.

He grunted, the sound not quite a laugh, but not daring to be disrespectful.

“I do know this,” I said, keeping my temper in check as I refused his gaze. “It is said by those who know of such things, travelers and traders, those who’ve sat and supped and broken bread with her, that this woman speaks with Those Beyond the Veil.” I looked to him. “She has a rare and powerful gift given by the Gods.”

The Fat Priest watched me, his hand rising to shield his small eyes from the sun. “Is that so?”

I nodded. “If this is, in fact, true…” I stopped.

I took a breath. Steadied myself. Willed myself not to smile, the desperate ambition of this simple man an instrument almost too easy to play. “If this is true,” I then said, “think of the glory that awaits. The eager affection of those painted women in those dark alleys known only by a select few. The ample reward, the coin, the respect, that’ll be showered on you from the most powerful of priests.”

He watched me, the small eyes narrowing to mere slits atop the rounded, reddened cheeks. “Who are you?” he said. “The Elder favors you. Why?”

Pushing forward from the stone, he rose with a grunt to take a lumbering step toward me. “It’s said you have access to him that others don’t.” He paused, the hand again rising to block the sun. “How did you get that?” Another step, the eyes still narrow. “Tell me.”

“I serve the Gods, the king.” My heart was racing, my throat dry. “I do as you do, my friend.” I offered an easy smile. One that was ignored. “I cannot say why the Gods, or the Elder, favor me, if, in fact, as you say, they do.”

Feeling the Fat Priest’s jealousy, perhaps even anger, I could not tell him the truth. Could not share the beginning.

How The Elder and I came to be was my secret to keep.

***

The Tall Priest 2.1-FINAL-COVER

available now

And pick up The Wounded King, the first installment, for FREE

(March 10th thru March 12th)

sneak peek at the Second Feast

Just the quickest of sneak peeks at one of my current WIPs, Eidolon Avenue: The Second Feast.

Of course, this would be the long-awaited sequel to Eidolon Avenue: The First Feast which was called “powerful and jarring” by Cemetery Dance and “as engrossing and thrilling as it is disturbing and horrifying” by the great Greg F. Gifune (Bleeding Season).

A bit slow-going – comes with juggling a full plate of other WIPS – but, nonetheless, I’m having a lot of fun with it.

eidolon-apt-2-excerpt

Coming soon from Crystal Lake Publishing