Monday, October 2, 2017

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

Since I've started my blog I've had a tradition in October where I post scary stories and poetry. It's my favorite time of year.

Yesterday I began by posting a poem I'd written a few years ago and shared in some past post. The post is written through the POV of a future serial killer. In the intro before I posted the poem I wrote "sometimes humans are scary too." It's true, but it was meant in fun, to celebrate Fall and the art of horror writing and exploring the darker side of humanity and all of that good stuff.

But then this morning I wake up to the bad stuff. Lucky for me, I woke up to it, as opposed to having been a part of it. I turned the TV on right after I woke up, which isn't something I normally do. I normally lie in bed and check my email, but my back hurt so I didn't want to be in bed anymore. I turned the TV onto the Today show, and in the three minutes it took me to get my cup of coffee I heart the reporter say three or four times "the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history." My brain couldn't yet process it. One part of me is like, "fuck, another one." Another part of me is like, "Yep, it's seems like we were due for another one, it's been awhile since the last."

One of the first things I thought about was the post I wrote last night and the line, "sometimes humans are scary too." Yeah, no fucking shit. I think that's why we like to write about fictional monsters. Not as frightening as the human ones.

It's been a couple of hours since I've checked for updates. Right now I'm just free-writing all of my thoughts in hopes of some kind of catharsis, so if I write anything incorrect or contradictory, it's because I may not have been informed of new facts yet.

So far, it's like we have a seemingly normal dude (yeah, gambling issues do fall under the category of somewhat normal) who got a boat load of guns and shut up some people. What the fuck? It reminded me of yet another post I wrote last week "I'm afraid of the dark." In that post I talked about how I'm afraid of becoming the bad guy. I'm good, but what if that changes? I can't imagine anyone thinking, "hey I'm going to kill a bunch of people now." And so far, this guy seemed like a normalish dude. So what the fuck?

Sometimes I think I don't want to live in this world anymore because I don't understand what's happening. I don't understand why we keep killing each other and hating each other and making everything about us versus them and this versus that. I'm not looking at statistics or anything right now, but it definitely seems likes shootings and attacks are happening more and more and closer together. It's getting ridiculous. Can we even do anything anymore? School isn't safe, concerts aren't safe, movie theaters aren't safe, office buildings aren't safe, airports, bus stations, standing on the street in a crowd. . . . It makes me want to just find a nice rock and crawl underneath. No one's going to start shooting up rocks are they?

Pretty soon (if it's not happening already) there are going to be massive arguments about gun control vs. mental health. Because it's all about us vs. them. That's all it is anymore and I can't stand it. A bunch of people talked on the news about unity. Unity would be awesome. I'm not usually a pessimistic person, but I don't think unity is going to fucking happen. The division is going to get worse before it gets better. It would be nice if we could all just realize that we're all human beings with brains and hearts and we want and desire and our selfish but also selfless and we love and laugh and cry and who cares if someone grew up on a farm or in the city or is wealthy and eats quinoa  and tofu vs. that rich guy who eats steak every week or the poor person in the country vs. the poor person in the city and maybe it would all be okay if we all looked exactly the same or maybe the other extreme is better like in Oryx and Crake where they create a race of people and each and every one of them has a slightly different shade of skin and hair and eyes and no two were alike and those people were loving and innocent but I haven't read the sequels so maybe all of that changed.

I don't have anything else right now. I hope no one thought I had some grand message here, because I don't. Just thought dumping. I'm not even going to proof read this because that isn't the point. I'm sorry people are dying. I'm glad it hasn't been me or anyone I'm close too yet and I hate that I just typed the word yet because that's what it feels like. The rock is looking might nice right now, except what's the point of living if you aren't really living?

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Happy favorite time of year!

Welcome, October, how I've missed you. And I'm not even writing a horror novel. Though I do have a ghost, but she not a scary ghost. Some people don't understand the concept of non-scary ghosts. But they're totally a thing.

Also a thing are scary humans.

To ring in my favorite time of year, have a nice little poem I wrote a while back. I think I've shared it before, but I'm all wrapped up in Pieces to write a new scary poem or story right now, and I have to celebrate the season somehow. Enjoy!

Cameron's Dream

Cotton candy bubblegum is the best
Pops it in his mouth and reaches in the desk
He stares at the sharp point of the scissors
Still stained with the beginnings of rivers
Of her blood when he sliced the witch open
But in his mind, he’d only just begun
If only he could take her to the dungeon
To tie her up and start to have some fun
Knives sharper than scissors along her body
Pushing deeper as she screams like a banshee
Hot wax from Mother’s precious candles
In her wounds is his ice cream with sprinkles
He pauses, thinking of what he’ll do next
And jumps as the ruler slaps down on his desk
Cameron! Pay attention and spit the gum out!
He glares at Teach, wishing he could slap that witches snout
Becky turns around, finger-bandaged and eyes wide
He flashes the scissors and she wishes she could hide
She scoots her desk forward and whispers a prayer

But Cameron still spits his gum right in the center of Becky’s hair.


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Friday, September 22, 2017

I'm afraid of the dark

. . . But only certain kinds of dark. Some kinds of dark are super fun. The dark I'm afraid of is the darker side of humanity. As a fiction writer, this a problem. Generally speaking, antagonists are representative of the dark, ugly sides of humanity. They're what we fear. I'm not necessarily afraid of evil psychopaths and mass murderers. I'm afraid of writing them. If I write them accurately, I have to delve into their brain, and that's scary as hell.

Sometimes it's fun. I've been thinking a lot about these fears lately. I think this is the appeal of supernatural monsters: vampires, werewolves, zombies, demons, etc. For me, and maybe others, it's easy to write these characters as evil because they aren't us. They aren't human. In New Year's Revolution, I have a vampire character named Bianca who is horribly evil and deranged. She is completely screwed up in the head and has done horrible, unspeakable things. But I have no problem writing her. In fact, I love writing her. She's awesome. I love how demented she is. But she's a vampire. She isn't human. I don't have to fear becoming her because she is literally a monster. In City of Secrets I have an evil ghost. He's also done horrible things. But he's a powerful ghost who feeds off of selfish desires. Again, he is literally a monster.

It's the human bad guys that terrify me. In Pieces my antagonist is a murderer and a child molester. This is a human being who does unspeakable things. I'm not writing in this character's POV, but even so, I'm having a hard time getting in their head. (Using "they" as a genderless pronoun on the off-chance that a future beta reader reads this post. I don't want to give away who the antag is.) I have no idea what this person's "mask" is. I don't know what they're thinking on a daily basis. I don't know how they're supposed to interact with the other characters. I winged it for the second draft, but now that I'm writing the third draft, it's time to dig deeper, whether I like it or not. I don't.

As I started digging into their head and realizing their backstory, they started to become more human. At first, I thought "Yay! I know more about them!" But then I balked. I don't want this character to feel human, because it brings me to the question "If this person is a human, with real, human feelings, how terrifying is it that they do these unspeakable things?"

I am someone whose opinion falls into the gray area on a number of subjects. There are very few things in this world that are black and white. Serial killers, terrorists, and child molesters? I used to think they were all bad. That was a nice, comforting thought. Something is wrong with these people. They were born bad. But maybe they weren't. Something happened to them that made them bad. Or, even scarier, they don't believe they're bad. Inside their heads are warped ideas and motives behind what they are doing. In the case of my antagonist, they believe they are doing good. These thoughts are scary, because it makes me realize that maybe I'm less different from the "bad guys" than I thought I was. I view these people with pity. I can't fathom willingly deciding to hurt or violate someone. I also can't fathom someone else willingly deciding to hurt or violate someone. So what made them do it? What makes a killer a killer and a rapist a rapist? Did they lose control? Did something take over their brain and make them do it? Did they find some twisted justification?

This brings me to my deepest, darkest fear, one that I don't usually talk about for fear of people misunderstanding and/or thinking I'm crazy. What if something happens and I suddenly become evil? It sounds ridiculous on paper, but there it is. I love horror novels and movies, but there's a certain type of psychological horror that I can't handle. I used to be a big Dean Koontz fan. I was reading Moonlight Bay (minor spoiler coming, but nothing that'll ruin it). It was great. It was one of my favorites, until I got to this part where this man, who was a perfectly normal, nice, family guy started having nightmares about raping and murdering his wife and daughter. The nightmares terrified him, but they wouldn't stop coming. Eventually he started to want to do it, and to fantasize about it. I had to put the book down for a bit, it disturbed me so much. I realize it's fiction, but it's a terrifying thought.

Getting back to my writing, it's hard for me to dip into the mind of my evil antagonists, because I fear finding out that their mind maybe isn't that different from mine. Maybe the line between good and evil isn't as clear as I thought.
On the other hand, maybe digging into their brain might ease my fears. Maybe I'll realize that while their minds are more complicated than I thought, there is a difference. I don't know, but I do know that I want to write good books. Books with genuine characters. Books that scare people but also comfort them. Books that make people think. Books people can relate to. In order to do that, I have to face my fear of the dark.
I hope it gets easier.
Thoughts and suggestions on how to do this and/or cope with it are welcome. Thanks!

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Saturday, September 16, 2017

What if the ideas run out?

As a writer, one of my biggest fears is that one day I'll stop having great ideas, that the well will be dry, and I'll have no more great stories. This is especially scary because I've just now started to get better at putting a good story together. What if there are no more ideas to put into stories?

When I started my first novel, New Year's Revolution, in 2010, I expected it to be a fluke, and at the time I was totally fine with that. I just wanted to get Ella's story written. Eventually, the idea for City of Secrets came to me, and Pieces soon followed. These three stories have been keeping me pretty busy, so I haven't had time to worry about the idea well going dry. During that time, a number of other ideas have floated in and out of my brain, but none of them have given me that warm-fuzzy "this is it" feeling. Now, Pieces is almost finished and I'm not entirely sure what I'll be doing with the other two, which means it might be time to start thinking about a new project.

Guess when is a great time to start thinking about new projects? That's right, Fall is a great time for that, because NaNoWriMo is right around the corner. I had a brand new idea recently, but it's still just a tiny seed. I'm starting to worry that I don't know how to turn those little seeds into great stories. If I were a plotter, this would be fine. I'd know what to do. But I'm not a plotter. "The stuff" has to come to me naturally. Or at least, that's how it's worked in the past. But what if that magic won't happen anymore? What if I have to sit down and force it out?


What if I have to learn to plot?



Yeah. It's horrifying. 

Bright side: I wrote down a few more brainstorms tonight, so I think I might be able to do something with this idea. 

It'll be a romance. Say what?




I'm having a hard time believing it myself. 

If I'm lucky, I may even have enough of an idea formed to be able to write a crappy draft during November. I really like the idea of "beginning a 1st draft in November for NaNoWriMo" tradition. It worked great for 2015, when I wrote the 1st draft of Pieces. In 2016, I just started the 2nd draft of Pieces and started to write a lot, so it doesn't quite count as a second year of NaNo. 

While I'm excited about the idea, I'm wondering if this will always be my fear. Maybe it's a writer thing? If we run out of ideas, what do we have left?

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Friday, September 15, 2017

City of Secrets - Chapter 24

City of Secrets

Chapter 24




Previously: Frankie made a promise to herself to attend her classes and focus on school now that she's in her senior year, but it's turned out to be easier said than done after discovering that she shares a class with Chase, the popular boy who harasses and threatens her at every opportunity. Frankie has found an unlikely ally in Jason, Chase's best friend. 
 

Chapter 24
Frankie 



    Frankie breathed a sigh of relief when the bell rang at the end of eighth period. Finally. She’d thought the first week would never end, but she’d made it. She had two entire days where she wouldn’t have to deal with Chase, or any of the other jerks.

    Speaking of the jerks, one of them was headed her way. Frankie knew Laurel had no reason to be walking toward the back of the classroom other than to harass her, so she steeled herself.

    Laurel bumped into Frankie’s desk as she passed, knocking a pile of books and papers onto the floor. “Oops. Sorry, Freak.”

    “Yeah, right. Are you ever going to grow up?”

    “I said I was sorry. Can’t you just cast a spell to clean it up or something?” A group of girls at the front of the classroom laughed.

    Frankie rolled her eyes. The witch jokes were getting old. It was all getting old. “If I knew how to cast spells, you wouldn’t be standing there.” Frankie’s voice was cold, filled with a lifetime’s worth of anger and resentment. A small surge of triumph flared inside her as she watched Laurel’s smile disappear. It was back a second later, but Frankie knew she’d gotten under the other girl’s skin, and that was enough.

     “Ooh, I’m really scared now. See you Monday, Freak.” Laurel took the long way to the front of the room and joined the group waiting for her. Frankie didn’t move until they were out the door. She was about to bend to pick up her things, when she saw that Jason had gotten there first; he already had her books stacked into a pile.

    “You didn’t have to do that.” The sharp tone came automatically. She was always on guard at school; suspicion was a constant state of mind.

    Jason looked up. “I know.” It was blunt, matter-of-fact. The honest expression in his eyes melted away her doubts. Most of them anyway.

    “Okay. Well, thanks then.” She knelt next to him and unzipped her backpack, holding it open. Jason picked up the books and stuffed them inside, his hand brushing against hers as he did. It was a light, quick touch, but she still jerked away on reflex, drawing in a breath. Her hand seemed to sear where he’d touched her.

    “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean—”

    “I know. It’s okay,” she said quickly, feeling like an idiot. She didn’t know what the hell was wrong with her that she couldn’t even handle a guy’s hand accidentally brushing against hers. Was she that deprived of human contact? She zipped up her bag and stood, throwing it over her shoulder.

    Jason followed her lead, but instead of grabbing his own things, he stuffed his hands into his pockets, a nervous expression on his face. He looked like he wanted to say something, so Frankie waited. When he didn’t, she wondered if he was just waiting for her to leave, then wondered why she wasn’t. “Thanks again.” The word felt strange on her tongue, even though she’d been using it around Jason a lot lately.

    She was about to head to the door when he said, “How come I haven’t seen you in fifth the past couple days?”

    Oh, shit. Heat rushed over her, both at the mention of her dreaded fifth period class, and at the fact that Jason had noticed her absence. “No reason. I never go to all my classes. School is overrated.” Her mouth was dry. She didn’t know why the lie felt wrong, why it bothered her to lie to Jason Singer of all people. Not that she could tell him the real reason she’d been ditching fifth period.

    That reason was Chase. Of course it was Chase. He was the source of all her problems lately. She hated that she was letting him dictate her life even more than he already had, but she couldn’t bring herself to sit in a classroom with him everyday. The very idea made her feel sick.

    Jason met her eyes, his expression doubtful. “The other day you said you were going to go to all your classes this year.”

    “You remember that?” she blurted, then immediately wished she hadn’t. She didn’t want to sound like some eager little puppy dog, but he’d caught her off guard. Again. He’d been doing it all week.

    “Yeah.”

    “Well, old habits are hard to break.” She shrugged.  “Why do you care anyway?”

    He blinked at her sharp tone, but didn’t back off. “It’s not my business whether or not you go to class, I just want to make sure you’re not ditching because of Chase. I know he’s a jerk, but that would be—it wouldn’t be fair.”

    The laugh that tore from inside her caught her by surprise. It was full of bitterness and anger. “What kind of sparkly world do you live in? Of course it wouldn’t be fair, but nothing is. The world is shit, and people are shit. I’m used to it.”

    Jason’s eyes widened. He opened his mouth, closed it, then opened it again and said, “You didn’t answer the question.”

    Oh shit. I didn’t. I pretty much confirmed his theory. She felt sick. Though she didn’t want to show weakness, she put her hand on her desk, afraid her legs wouldn’t support her if she didn’t. “No. It’s not because of Chase. Why would it be?” Crap, don’t answer that question, she thought.

    “Because ever since—I don’t know. It seems like he’s been harassing you a lot lately, I mean—”

    “More than most people?” she finished, in a desperate attempt to turn the topic of the conversation to the entire school, rather than Chase. “He’s a jerk, Jason, just like you said. He’s always been that way with me. This whole damn school has, or haven’t you noticed?”

     Jason shook his head, and Frankie was both annoyed and impressed with his stubbornness. “He’s been different this year. And so have you. You always used to stand up to him, and now you don’t.”

    “What are you, spying on me or something?” she shouted, because he was getting too close to the truth, and it made the nausea inside her grow. She gripped the desk tighter. Frankie, just get out of here. It doesn’t matter. Jason doesn’t matter. As horrified as she was that Jason was so close to the truth, there was a tiny part of her that felt comforted by the fact that he’d noticed, that he cared.

    “I’m trying to help you, Frankie. Why do you have to be—” he cut himself off, but Frankie seized the opportunity. She had to do something before she cried, or blurted out the truth, or worse—let Jason in even more.

    “Be what? Such a bitch? Because I am. Get used to it, and mind your own fucking business.” The tears were about to fall. She pushed off the desk and practically flew out of the room without another look at him. If she saw the caring expression in his eyes one more time, she might lose it.

    She barely saw the floor in front of her as she walked swiftly away from the classroom. She turned the corner, resisting the urge to run, and nearly bumped right into Dave Colton. Shit, just what I need right now.     

    “Hey, Freak.” The arrogance in Dave’s voice reminded her of Chase. Her head spun; she was going to be sick.

    “Hey, dickhead,” she said, putting all her strength into speaking, hoping that she didn’t vomit, cry, or pass out. “What, were you waiting for me or something? That’s sweet.” Frankie was pleased that her voice came out sounding almost normal.

    Dave grinned, wolf-like, and Frankie wondered how long he’d practiced that smile for. It looked like he was taking lessons directly from Chase. “Want to know why Singer’s suddenly being so nice to you?”

    Yes. She did want to know, but not from Dave, because she wouldn’t get the real answer. “No, I want to go home and vomit. That’s what looking at your face does to me.” She moved to step around him, but he jumped in front of her again, blocking her way.

    He continued as though she’d asked him to. “He wants to get laid, and he knows you’ll give it up for anyone. Poor guy has no standards.”

    Her stomach churned. She tried to let Dave’s words go right out the other ear, but they didn’t. They started to sink in. What if it was true? Why else was Jason suddenly being so nice to her? “But he has a girlfriend,” she said, more to herself than to Dave.

    Dave laughed. “So? Amber made him agree to some stupid purity pact.”

    Amber’s name did not belong in the same sentence as the word “purity.” That girl could stay a virgin her entire life and she still wouldn’t be pure. Frankie stood up straighter, reminding herself that she was talking to Dave the Dickhead, and that she hated him, and Amber, and everyone else. She was supposed to hate Jason too. You do hate him. “That’s nice. Are you going to get out of my way now?” Voices were coming from around the corner. She moved to go around Dave again, wanting to get out of there before they were joined by more people who hated her, but Dave blocked her path again.

    “You know it’s true, Freak.”

    She clutched her stomach as it churned again. Oh no. She’d made the mistake of assuming that her nausea was a result of thinking about Chase, but it wasn’t. Of course it wasn’t. It was for the other reason, and she was almost out of time. “Get. Out. Of. My. Way.” She was going to vomit right there if she didn’t get to a bathroom, and quick.

    “What’s wrong, Freak, scared?” Laurel asked as she rounded the corner with a group of girls.

    “I think she is,” Dave said.

    Frankie opened her mouth to tell them both to shut up, but instead of words, she gagged. Oh, screw it. She took a step closer to Dave just as her stomach clenched again. Leaning forward, she surrendered to her body’s demand. Vomit flew out of her mouth, spraying everywhere. There were shrieks and laughs around her, but most of it was drowned out by the sound of her own gagging. When she finished, she straightened, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. Dave was frozen, a look of shock and disgust on his face. Orangish colored chunks were all over his shoes and jeans, and there were even a few spots on his shirt.

    “Shit, you freak! What the hell?”

    “Oh my god, Dave. You’re going to have to burn your clothes now,” a girl said.

    They were laughing—both at her and Dave—but Frankie didn’t care. The image was priceless. It couldn’t have worked out better if she’d planned it. “I told you to get out of the way,” she said. When she moved to step around him, he let her.

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Thursday, September 7, 2017

Fighting Hate

Hello friends. Just sending a quick reminder that when I'm not writing, I'm making jewelry along with some of my wonderful friends and talented artists. Together we are Pins with Purpose. A good chunk of our items feature safety pins, a symbol of solidarity. All of our proceeds benefit various charitable/non-profit organizations. A few of our items also support PACs, but those items are listed separately in the Repeal/Replace Congress category.

One of the organizations we support is The Southern Poverty Law Center.

Now seems like a pretty good time to remind people of what SPLC does and why it's important to give them lots of love and support right now. We have a man in the White House who refuses to condemn racism and white supremacists. This is not okay, and not normal. Because this man is in office, people who identify as Nazis and white supremacists now feel comfortable expressing their views publicly. This is not okay, and not normal. There has been a rise in hate crimes. This is not okay, and not normal.

Where does the SPLC come in? They fight all the hate.

From their site:
"The SPLC is the premier U.S. non-profit organization monitoring the activities of domestic hate groups and other extremists – including the Ku Klux Klan, the neo-Nazi movement, neo-Confederates, racist skinheads, black separatists, antigovernment militias, Christian Identity adherents and others.
We’re currently tracking more than 1,600 extremist groups operating across the country. We publish investigative reports, train law enforcement officers and share key intelligence, and offer expert analysis to the media and public."
"The SPLC stands up for the powerless, the exploited and other victims of discrimination and hate.
For more than four decades, we’ve won landmark cases that brought systemic reforms in the Deep South.
We’ve toppled remnants of Jim Crow segregation and destroyed violent white supremacist groups. We’ve shattered barriers to equality for women, vulnerable children, the LGBT community and the disabled. We’ve protected migrant workers and immigrants from abuse, ensured the humane treatment of prisoners, reformed juvenile justice practices, and more.
Today, with a staff of more than 100 lawyers and advocates, we’re focused on impact litigation in these practice areas: Children’s RightsEconomic JusticeImmigrant JusticeLGBT Rights and Criminal Justice Reform."

That's just a quick overview. Learn more here: https://www.splcenter.org/ 
We at Pins With Purpose have items that support the SPLC. As a reminder, 100% of sales of items listed for SPLC will go to SPLC. Artists volunteer time and supplies and are only reimbursed for shipping and handling.  We are happy to do it. Not only are we supporting good causes, but we are filling the world with beautiful things. 
Here are a few of the items we have supporting the SPLC. 






We also have several more. They can be found on our etsy page under the Liberty and Justice category. Please read item descriptions to find out which organization the item supports.

If you don't have a lot of money to buy things or aren't interest in jewelry, that's okay. You can help by sharing our page on social media and liking us on Facebook. Facebook.com/PinsWithPurpose/ 
Thanks!

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

City of Secrets: Chapter 23

City of Secrets

Chapter 23






Previously: On the first day of school, new girl Natasha and popular boy Chase discovered the murdered body of their guidance counselor, Ms. Miller. A few days later, no one at school--Chase included--seemed to care about Ms. Miller's death. Natasha, distraught and confused, got in an argument with Chase about it.
Natasha abandoned her old life to come to Caribou Canyon. She left behind her friends and a boyfriend, and is having a hard time adjusting. 

 


Natasha
 
  
     Natasha might’ve stayed in her room, wallowing in self-pity for the rest of the night, if it weren’t for the buzz of an incoming text that forced her to return to the real world. Crap. I still haven’t called Meg, she thought, sitting up and wiping the tears from her eyes.
 
    Thoughts of Meg left her mind when she saw the text was from Chase. It read, U busy?    

    She and Chase hadn’t spoken since their argument the previous day, and she wasn’t sure she wanted to. But it wasn’t about what she wanted; it was about getting answers. If nothing else, talking to Chase would take her mind off Nick, which she was desperate for.

    She wrote, No, just hanging out.

    The reply came a second later, Cool. Can we talk? 

    She wondered if that meant she had to apologize. She didn’t want to apologize when she was right, but she needed to get back on his good side. She wrote, Yeah, call me. 

    Actually, I’m outside. In the driveway. 

    Though surprised, she typed, Okay. B down in a sec. 

    She looked in the mirror. Her eyes were puffy, her cheeks red, and her hair was almost as messy as Chase’s, though the look wasn’t nearly as becoming on her as it was on him. Using a squirt bottle and a brush, she did what she could with her hair and applied foundation and powder to her face. She still looked like she’d been crying, but hopefully it would be too dark for Chase to notice. She slipped on her shoes and coat—hating the fact that she needed a winter coat in September—and raced downstairs.

    She stepped out into the cool, windy air, relieved to see Chase’s red Dodge Challenger parked in the driveway. At least it would be warm in the car. The wind whipped her hair into her eyes as she dashed to the passenger side and climbed in. “Oh my gosh. I can’t believe how cold it is.”

    “You get used to it. Here.” Chase turned up the heat and directed the vents in her direction.

    “Thanks.” She held her hands up, both to warm them and to avoid looking at Chase. She didn’t want to be the one to start the conversation.

    Apparently, Chase didn’t want to go first either. They sat in silence, during which she became acutely aware of the fact that the tight space smelled strongly of him—a mix of musky aftershave, leather, and something piney. Chase was angled toward her; she could feel his gaze on her. She finally put her hands down and turned to face him. His hair was even messier than usual. It stood up in several directions, but the serious expression on his face made the look sexy, rather than comical. God, he’s good to look at, she thought, her broken heart happy to have a face to replace the image of Nick in her mind. At least temporarily.

    “Hey,” he said, his voice soft and his lips forming a small smile.

    “Hey.” She tried to smile back, but remembered the way Nick had mocked the same hey from earlier, and instead cringed.

    Chase sighed. “Well, I guess that answers my question.”

    “Huh?”

    “You’re still mad at me. I can see it on your face.”

    Great. So much for freshening up. “No—it’s not—” She stopped. She didn’t want to tell him she wasn’t mad at him anymore, because she honestly didn’t know what she felt. “It’s not you. I just got off the phone with my ex right before you texted.”

    “Oh. Ouch.” He gave her a sympathetic look.

    “Yeah. We tried to do the friends thing, but—it’s hard.” Understatement. She was full of those tonight.

    “I don’t think that ever works out.”

    “Speaking from experience?”

    He shrugged. “Not really, actually. Mostly from watching my friends.”

    “So, no serious relationships for you then?” she asked, both because it seemed like the next logical thing to ask, and also because she wanted him to open to her.

    “No. I’m not a relationship guy.”

    “Why not?”

    “People are always asking me that. It seems obvious to me. I have girls lined up to go out with me. Why should I settle for one?”

    Natasha sighed, annoyed at both Chase and herself. She should be used to him going from easy-going to jerk in seconds flat, but she wasn’t.

    “What?” he asked.

    “What? Really?” She knew she needed to keep her feelings to herself if she wanted Chase on her side, but she couldn’t. Arrogance drove her crazy. “You realize that what you just said was totally conceited, right?”

    “It was the truth,” he said matter-of-factly, his expression almost challenging. “Did you not want the truth?”

    “So the truth is that you’re just full of yourself?”

    His smile—the confident, self-assured smile—fell away. “I don’t know. I guess I am sometimes,” he said. She couldn’t think of a response to that. Chase rested his forehead in his hands. “I’m sorry, this wasn’t how I pictured this conversation going.”

    “How did you picture it?”

    He looked up, a slightly amused expression on his face. “Well, I was going to apologize for the other day, congratulate you on making the cheerleading squad, and then flatter you so you’d forget you were mad at me. That’s how I usually handle girls.”

    Natasha’s mouth dropped open, her annoyance turning to anger. “Handle girls?” she repeated. “Seriously? How I am supposed to stop being mad at you when you keep making comments like that?” How am I supposed to get any information out of you if I can’t stand to be around you?

    His smile fell away, and he just stared at her for several seconds, his expression intense. It was unsettling, but she didn’t look away. “I like you,” he finally said, his voice soft.

    “I take it you’re just skipping right to the flattery.” It’s not going to work, she thought, ignoring the rush of warmth in her stomach. He was good. No wonder girls were all over him. But she wasn’t going to be one of those girls.

    The serious expression didn’t waver. “No, I’m being honest.”

    “Okay,” she said, not giving him an inch.

    He shook his head. “Come on, what I said wasn’t that bad, was it? I mean, don’t you handle guys?”

    “No. I talk to them. Because they’re people, not pets.”

    “I didn’t mean it like that,” he said. She crossed her arms and glared at him, her expression unwavering. He grinned. “Okay, I’m sorry.”

    “For?”

    “For what I said about handling girls. And for the other day. You were right. I was a jerk.”

    She wondered if he meant it, or if he was just saying it. Maybe it didn’t matter. She needed to put up some kind of a shield against his arrogance if she was going to get what she wanted. She needed to start handling him. “Okay. Apology accepted.”

    “Congratulations on making the cheerleading squad.” He winked.

    She laughed. “Is this where you tell me I’m beautiful?”

    “No. Beautiful is too generic for you. Tons of girls are beautiful. You’re much more than that.”

    The soft voice and intense gaze was back. The butterflies in her stomach warred with her logical brain. Remember the mission. She smiled. “Damn, you’re pretty good at this flattery thing.”

    “Maybe that’s because there are so many things about you deserving of compliments.”

    “That one’s a little cliché,” she said.

    “Doesn’t make it any less true.”

    She didn’t answer, she was lost in the forest that was his eyes, but it wasn’t because she was buying what he was selling. There was something about his expression that was off, but she couldn’t pinpoint exactly what it was. Chase was typical in so many ways, but in other ways he wasn’t. Part of her wondered why, and another part of her didn’t want to know.

    “I mean it, Natasha. And I really am sorry about the way I acted. I’m not just saying it. I know I was a jerk. I know I’m a jerk a lot, it’s just—I don’t know. I think that’s the way I’m supposed to be.” He looked down, studying his hands, the confidence he’d shown moments before gone.

    “That doesn’t make any sense.”

    “It would if you knew my dad,” he said, his tone so cryptic that it sent a chill through her.

    She waited, having the feeling that he was going to say more. When he didn’t, she said, “You can talk to me, you know.”

    Chase shrugged, still not meeting her eyes. “He just expects me to be a certain way. He always has.”

    “What way is that?”

    “As you would put it, a jerk.” He smiled when he said it, but there was no amusement in his tone.

    “Chase—” she began, but stopped when she realized she didn’t know what to say.

    “It’s okay. You’re right. My is dad a jerk. I used to know that, but I stopped seeing it. My dad is cold, he always has been, but he’s powerful. People look up to him. They give him what he wants. He taught me to be just like he is. I think I am, but I’m not sure it’s who I want to be.”

    “You don’t have to be who your dad wants you to be. Just because it’s his way, doesn’t mean it has to be yours.”

    “I wish it were that simple.”

    “Why isn’t it?” She wasn’t digging for information anymore. She could see the pain and confusion in his eyes, and she genuinely wanted to help, though she wasn’t sure she could.

    He looked away, staring out the window. It was a moment before he replied. “I guess because I don’t know what I want. Sometimes, it’s easier to be the guy my dad wants me to be. That guy doesn’t get hurt. People look up to that guy. People are afraid of that guy.”

    They are, she thought, remembering the way Frankie had looked at him the first day of school. Frankie had been afraid of him, afraid of the look in his eyes. Natasha had been afraid of the look in his eyes too, but now she had a hard time believing she was sitting in the car with that same person. “You don’t really want people to be afraid of you, do you?”

    There was another long pause. “I don’t know. Sometimes I think I do. It’s easier that way.”

    “I don’t believe that,” she said.

    He looked at her. “Come on, think about it. There are two types of people in the world. The ones who create fear, and the ones who are afraid. I don’t want to be the one who’s afraid.”

    A wave of sadness came over her. It seemed like a terribly bleak way to think of the world. “That’s not how it works, Chase. It’s a lot more complicated than that.”

    “It’s not. Think about the other day. How did you feel? Standing there in the rain while we waited for the police to show up. How did you really feel?”  

    His voice was soft, but cold. It sent a chill through her, but it had the desired effect. In her mind, she saw Ms. Miller’s body. She pictured the blood, the gray sky. She could feel the cold, hear the rain. She shuddered. “Horrible. It was horrible. I felt—tiny. Helpless. Afraid.”

    “Exactly. So did I. We were afraid. Ms. Miller was probably afraid too. But how do you think her killer felt? I bet he wasn’t afraid. He created the fear. He was the one on top.”

    Natasha felt sick inside. She didn’t want to think about the killer, about what he’d felt, what he’d been thinking. She didn’t like where this conversation was going. The brown in Chase’s eyes had grown darker, like a forest going black at night. “So, what? Kill or be killed?”

    He rolled his eyes, the exaggerated expression actually making her feel better. “No. That’s a little dramatic. I’m just trying to make a point.”

    “Which is?” she asked, trying to remember how they’d wound up talking about Ms. Miller’s killer.

    “I was afraid, and I hated it. There’s only one other time in my life I felt like that, and I never want to feel it again.”

     “When?”

    At first, she thought he wasn’t going to answer. She waited, and after a minute of silence, he started talking. “When I was eight. My dad took me to this homeless shelter in Denver. I thought—I don’t know—he was always wanting to teach me lessons. When they were over, he’d ask what I learned, what I thought he wanted to teach me.”

    Natasha wouldn’t have thought that was so strange, if it weren’t for the way Chase said it. He wouldn’t meet her eyes, and his voice had dropped down an octave.

    “So, I figured this was another of his lessons. Some of them weren’t so bad, but this one was, at least at first. He’d signed us up to volunteer, to cook and serve food. The cooking wasn’t so bad, I always helped Mom in the kitchen, so I knew some stuff. It was the serving that I didn’t like. The people who came in, well, they were scary. They didn’t look like anyone I’d ever seen. Their clothes were dirty, their faces unshaven. I’ve never seen people like that before. I thought they would act as scary as they looked.”

    “Did they?” she asked.

    He looked up, his eyes wide. “No. They were awesome. Most of them seemed really happy to see a kid there. They smiled, thanked me, teased me, told jokes. They were great. Way cooler than a lot of the adults my parents spent time around. I couldn’t believe how friendly they were. They seemed so grateful. I loved it. It felt really good, knowing I was helping them. It was the best day I’d ever had.”

    He paused, and Natasha waited, a feeling of dread inside her. She knew this story was going to take a dark turn, but Chase had looked away again, seemingly lost in his thoughts. A few moments passed before he continued.

    “My dad took me out to dinner that night, some super fancy place in Denver. Before we ordered, he asked me what I thought the lesson was. I can’t remember exactly what I told him, but it was something about how I figured he wanted me to appreciate how good I had it, that there were people who didn’t have it so good, and that because I did have it good, I could help people.”

    “Well, that sounds right,” Natasha offered.

    “Dad didn’t tell me if I got it right. Usually he did, but that time, he didn’t say anything. When the waitress came, he ordered everything on the menu. I’m not kidding, Natasha. Every appetizer, every salad, every entrée, and every dessert. The waitress thought he was joking at first. He pulled out this huge wad of hundreds, showed it to her, and told her to get us everything on the menu.”

    Natasha’s mouth dropped open in shock, and Chase gave her another humorless smile. “Yeah, I think that was about how I looked. I didn’t know what he was doing, ordering all that food. There were only two of us. I asked him how we were going to eat it all, but he didn’t answer.

    “They brought the food out in waves. I think it took at least two hours before we got everything. They had to pull over a couple extra tables to have room for it all. Everyone in the restaurant was staring at us, but Dad acted like he didn’t even notice.

    “He told me to eat as much as I wanted, and if I got full, it was okay. So, I did. At first, it was kind of awesome. I mean, I was a kid, and I had all these choices in front of me. It was like, I don’t know, food Christmas or something. But I got a horrible stomach ache later.”

    “I bet,” Natasha said, her voice a whisper.

    “So, when Dad said he was ready for the check, the waitress asked if we needed to-go boxes. We didn’t even eat half of what we ordered. That was when I found out what the lesson was. Dad told her no, we didn’t need any boxes. There were some plates we hadn’t even touched, but Dad said we weren’t going to save any of it. He told the waitress to the throw the rest away.”

    Natasha was speechless with shock. She stared at him, waiting for him to go on.

    “Want to know what the lesson was?” The sound of his voice told her that she didn’t, but she nodded. “It was that we’re better than those people at the homeless shelter. We’re better than the waitress, the kitchen staff, than everyone at the restaurant. We can have what we want, when we want it. People have to listen to us. If we want to waste food, we can, because it’s ours to waste. We’re at the top. We’re the strong ones, and we can do whatever we want with that strength. We can help, or we can hurt. That was the lesson.”

    “Holy shit,” Natasha said, unable to stop herself. “That’s—I don’t know. Wow.”

    His eyes were cold when he looked at her. “That’s my dad.”

    Okay, so Conrad Martindale is an asshole. And insane. Duly noted. “Jeez, Chase. I—I’m sorry. I don’t even know what to say.”

    His expression was softer when he said, “It’s okay. I’m just glad you listened, and that you’re still sitting here.”

    “Well, you know, it’s warm in here,” she said, doing her best to smile. She was relieved when he returned the smile, lightening the mood in the car.

    “I don’t tell that story to a lot of people.”

    “Yeah, I can imagine.” As his story sank in, she realized that it explained a lot. Chase wanted to be a decent person, but he’d grown up with a father who taught him that being nice was the wrong way to be. She couldn’t imagine what that would be like.

    “I think that’s why I acted the way I did the other day. I hated that feeling. Seeing Ms. Miller like that and not being able to do anything about it. I thought—if I don’t care, then it didn’t matter,” he said, his voice serious again.

    “But you do care. I saw you, Chase. You were as scared as I was.” She didn’t want to make him feel worse, she just wanted him to see the truth. She wanted to help him, because it was clear that he was asking her to.

    “Yeah, and I hated it.”

    “Of course you hated it. No one likes to feel that way, but there’s nothing wrong with it. It’s normal. You know that, don’t you?” she asked, realizing that he might not.

    “According to my dad, there is something wrong with it.”

    “You don’t have to be like him,” she said, at a loss for what else to say.

    “But if I’m not like him, then who am I?”

    “Anyone you want to be. You’re still in high school, Chase. You don’t have to know yet. I don’t know who I am,” she admitted. A year ago, she thought she did, but her fake parents had destroyed that feeling. She knew how lost Chase felt, because she felt it too.

    He narrowed his eyes at her. “Really? You seem to know exactly who you are, what you want.”

    She shook her head. “Nope. I don’t have a clue. But that’s okay, I figure I have senior year to figure it out.” The thought didn’t fill her with hope. Instead, it filled her with fear. Fear that she wouldn’t figure it out. Fear that she would never get her answers.

    “Yeah, maybe you’re right.”

    She took that moment to break the seriousness of their conversation. “Of course I am. I’m always right.”

    He grinned. “I’m sure you are. So, does this mean we’re good?”

    “Yeah, we’re good.” She meant it. She felt much better about him than she had when she’d gotten in the car. She felt like she understood him, at least a little.

    “Good, then let’s talk about tomorrow.”

    “What about it?” She kept her tone innocent, though she had a feeling she knew where he was going.

    “It’s our last free Friday before the games start. We should use it wisely.”

    “I get the feeling you have something in mind.”

    “I do. I promised you a tour. So, how about it?” he asked.

    “You’re on,” she said, feeling the best she’d felt in days.

    As she headed back into the house, she remembered what had Chase had said before he’d told his story, there’s only one other time in my life I felt that afraid, and I never want to feel it again. She wondered what part of the story he’d been referring to. The homeless people? His father? Natasha wasn’t sure, and she decided it didn’t matter. Chase Martindale had opened up to her. He was on her side, and tomorrow would be the perfect opportunity to try and get the answers she was looking for. 

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