Tag Archives: authors

When You Know It’s Bad


Ira Glass from “This American Life” describes one of the biggest struggles any creative professional has to deal with. We know what makes an awesome work of art, but our beginning attempts can’t seem to reach the standards we hold ourselves to. We try and try, and we know it’s not good enough. So what do we do?

As a writer, it’s important to persevere, no matter how hard it seems. The strategies listed below are more like vital parts of a balanced writing life. When one area falls, the equilibrium of creativity falters and crumbles.

Write 

The most important thing to do as a writer is to write. That seems obvious, but many writers get lost in the editing loop, in which they limit their production by continuously editing what they have already written. Every novel you write requires time to create freely and brainstorm through prose without limitation. You might realize halfway along that you’re going to rewrite most of what you’re typing, but that’s the point. Every draft involves a rewrite in some way, big or small. Too many writers think every draft has to be a cohesive story, with everything covered from beginning to end.

Let me tell you now – that’s impossible on the first try.

Talented writing involves stacking layers of drafts and weaving threads together. The more you write, the more skill you acquire. Ira says to increase your volume of work, and I wholeheartedly agree. When I was younger, my dad told me to “practice, practice, practice.” While I always rolled my eyes, I knew he was right. Writing more, and writing often, will keep you in good shape. 

Read

Ira also talks about having taste. Most writers have a taste in prose because they have been reading for a long time. It’s essential to keep reading, to keep exploring new ideas and concepts to keep up with changing trends and standards. While increasing the volume of what you write, also increase the volume of what you read. A delicate balance between the two will keep your creative soul well fed.

Relax 

It’s important to read and write, but creating stories is mentally taxing. Take time to breathe and enjoy life. If you’re anything like me, you’ll find that while you’re relaxing, ideas start flowing in. Sometimes just letting go is all you need to work through a plot hole, character crisis or query letter. 

Create

Being creative in other ways, whether it’s painting, dancing, singing or Jazzercising, can help keep your mind in shape. Writers need to express themselves in some way, and break the barrier between thought and expression. Freeing yourself, and opening yourself up to ideas, makes it much easier to work through a draft. 

Socialize

Most people think writing is a solitary profession, but it really isn’t. After all, writers do what they do so they can connect with readers. Writers work for their audience. Writing groups and conferences are essential to professional growth and craft knowledge. As terrifying as it is to expose your craptastic first drafts to someone, conversing, critiquing and empathizing can greatly help you in your journey.

I hope you are as encouraged by Ira’s video as I was. It’s a hard journey, but it’s a worthy one. And remember, no one can write your story better than you.

– Dani Nicole

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How to Reach Level FANGIRL PRO

scarfI had a Harry Potter themed Christmas. Yeah, you read that right. My mancrush categorized his gifts to me due to the obscene amount that I fangirl over Harry Potter. Such treasures of love have inspired this instructional post on how to appropriately fangirl.

  • Read the book. Don’t watch the movie until you’ve read the book. Otherwise you’re not a genuine fangirl, and societies of fangirls everywhere will cast you aside, leaving you to knit your Gryffindor scarf in solitude.
  • Write a review of the book. Log on to Goodreads and gush about how much you like this character and how much of a douche bag the villain is, and how you will never know how ___ could make a choice between those two dreamy guys.
  • Start discussions on Goodreads, conversations in elevators, and downright debates, always defending the honor of your beloved characters. Always prove that what you’re fangirling over far surpasses what everyone else is fangirling over.
  • Find your people. Casually drop your favorite book title in conversation and gauge the reaction on a scale of 1 to 10. If the reaction is 1, “What the hell is that?” then don’t befriend that person. If you get a 5 “I saw the trailer for the movie,” then you might have an ally. But it takes a true 10, “Girl where have you been all my life?” to tightly knit your new friendship.
  • Make your favorite fictional world your actual world. Fill your life with mementos of your favorite places, worlds and characters. Perhaps if you get that Harry Potter wand remote control, you’ll start to feel like you’re actually at Hogwarts. Or if you put enough Cheshire Cats on your walls, you’ll feel like you’ve fallen into Wonderland.
  • Fill your closet with obscure shirts that only true fangirls would understand.
  • Get everyone who wants to remain in your life addicted to the books you’re addicted to.

After those seven easy steps, you will officially level up to FANGIRL PRO. It’s not a journey for everyone, but for those who are called to book geekery, it’s an important task.

How do you fangirl? Or boy?

-Dani Nicole

Dani and the Mid-Draft Crisis

writing-520x359Last December Dani had a crisis. She didn’t buy a new car or get her cartilage pierced. She simply stared at her second draft, halfway complete, and panicked. Was the voice too modern? Did it fit her story world? Dani didn’t know, and she began to doubt her writing powers.

She fretted over coffee with friends, the steam of the java doing nothing to clear her writer’s sinuses. She played with ideas of rewriting the whole thing, of ditching the manifestation of many nights of insomnia, too much caffeine and bursts of creative inspiration. Though she poured her heart into her manuscript, for a weak moment she thought of throwing it all away.

That’s what doubt can do.

It destroys writers, trapping them in a constant cycle of rewriting. They have to make their manuscripts perfect. Have to. They can’t move on, or sleep, or enjoy life until their creation is absolutely flawless.

It’s so easy to listen to the panic that constantly orbits below the surface. So how did Dani beat her mid-draft crisis? She started to understand that being a writer means trusting her own intuition. She discovered that writing groups are fantastic and absolutely necessary, but staying connected with the heart of her story was vital for her writing health.

Dani realized this was her story – her masterpiece. There were no hard and fast rules. She only had her creative mind and her knowledge of the writing craft to guide her. The answer she so desperately sought for those long days was always in her own heart. Finish the manuscript.

Just finish.

Flash Fiction Friday

Happy Halloween!

Theme: Creepy, Scary, Eerie

The Mystic’s Price

By Paige Duke

I hope to God nobody sees me here, I keep thinking while The Mystic takes her sweet time. She’s been in that back room for ages, all to get me the little magic pill. I mean really, how hard can it be? Unless she’s like, back there making it from scratch. But that would be some weird, creepy voodoo, right? Joan didn’t say anything about that—“Just go and see The Mystic, you know that tiny shop on the strip. I thought it was all just nonsense before, but I swear that happy pill she made me is working like a charm! I’m down twenty pounds and I just won my Mary Kay Cadillac!”

Ok, this is stupid, I’m leaving. I’ve got my hand on the doorknob when three of my students walk by outside. I twirl out of sight, praying they weren’t looking.

Light splinters on the far wall, there’s a cabinet of weird little glass figurines I didn’t notice when I came in. I duck beneath the windows, and move to get a better look. They’re all human, incredibly detailed, like someone froze time and shrunk ordinary people. Some of them are beautiful and serene, but some look just positively tortured. This one woman is crouched and burying her face in her hands, I want to put my arm around her and tell her I know what she’s feeling, promise her that things can get better. I’d tell her I know what it feels like to try anything to be happy again.

I hear The Mystic shuffling in the back room, so I return to my chair. What is wrong with me? Having imaginary psych sessions in my head. A second later, The Mystic to comes through the beaded curtain. She’s looking right into me with her mascara-caked eyes, she knows something.

“Okay, Julie, darling,” she hands me a tiny green velvet bag, “take this first thing in the morning on an empty stomach with orange juice—has to be fresh squeezed, do not skimp on that detail, it makes all the difference.”

Inside the bag I spy a perfectly rounded shiny pill, more like a marble, and a slip of folded paper. “Um, ok. Thanks, fresh orange juice, I’ll make sure. What do I owe you?”

She settles a hand on her generous hip, “Joan didn’t tell you?”

“No . . .”

“I see. Well, dearie, you won’t like it—you pay me in blood.”

Uhm, okay this is sounding more like the creepy voodoo shit. “In blood? Did you say in blood?”

“Mhm, just a tiny drop, no more than a pinprick, right here.” She holds out her copy of my receipt, indicating a blank white box.
Now I’m seriously thinking of backing out, but I hate the way she’s looking at me, like the deal’s already done . . . and I really really want this, I think of that glass woman.

It’s just a pinprick, I can do that, right? “Okay then, let’s get it over with.”

I stick out my finger, there’s a quick sting, I swipe my blood, and I’m ready to get out. But The Mystic stops me with a hand at my elbow,

“Your blood signifies a binding contract. Do not break the terms.” She holds on for a silent moment, her eyes blazing, then lets go and nods to the bag in my hand, “It’s all in there.”

***

“Fifty percent of profits my ass!” I whisper to myself for the third time today. The Mystic’s terms didn’t mean anything to me when I was just swallowing some gypsy pill, but now that my new CEO husband’s bonus is rolling in and I’ve won my school a national scholarship, I’ve got a bill from The Mystic. And I do not want to pay up. There must be some kind of loophole. I mean, all she did was sell me the pill, she’s not responsible for my success.

Except when I went to see her about it, the shop was boarded up and I can’t exactly ask Joan . . . I miss Joan. I wish I knew where she went. It still feels wrong, the way she just up and left. But no one seems to know anything or care. I keep hoping she bought a private island and just went off the grid or something, all that money. Except that now I need her here to help me with the damn terms of this blood oath.

Ugh. No. No. I’m not paying that woman a penny. That’s all there is to it. Plus, how do I even know that pill worked? True, I’m happier than ever. But she had nothing to do with finding the love of my life or growing my career. I’m the one who did all the work. Yep, nothing to worry about, I decide as I crumple up The Mystic’s terms and chuck them in the trash.

***

We’re moving again, I can always tell when it’s about to happen. Things get loud and frenzied. My vision is limited, a glass figurine can’t move its head, you know. But I can see movement, I can still hear the noise. I can’t believe what a fool I was, thinking I could buy myself a new life. I didn’t know happiness was a thing inside a person. That seems obvious now. I’ve learned loads since defying those terms. Acceptance is another one—to see and accept what is. Like that blood oath, God, that oath was binding, yes sir. Amazing how many people try to get around it, they’re my companions now, The Mystic’s little trinkets. Immortalized in colored glass. That’s one thing I try to be grateful for. That I’m not alone. And Joan, dear Joan. She’s here with me. I can see her just from the corner of my eye, standing as tall and graceful as ever. And happy, she looks happy.

Nightmare Queen

by Dani Nicole

The memory still permeated her mind, and Rae shook, curling herself into a ball and pulling the sheets over her head. Just a dream. Just a dream.

But even the words her therapist told her to repeat to herself did not alleviate her terror. For it was at night when all the dreams came to her. When she shouldered the nightmares of the world and took them all in herself, so that others could sleep peacefully.

And she was left alone to put herself back together.

A great chill rolled down her spine as she remembered the suited man from her dream. The man with the auburn eyes. He’d wanted something from her, but Rae couldn’t remember it. She only remembered the man’s eyes and the surety of her terror.

She willed it all away, squeezing her eyes shut, but a memory resurfaced of her very first nightmare when she was just two years old. She sorted through hazy details, her mind reaching to grab for something she should remember. And then she did remember. Her first nightmare had been of a man with eyes the color of dried blood.

She swallowed. Surely she was overreacting. It couldn’t possibly be the same dream. With so many nightmares in the world, she never had to repeat one. That was her only solace. But this one… it had seemed so familiar.

She pulled the blankets from her body and stepped out of bed. When she stood she shook her shoulders and exhaled. She could do this. She was the Nightmare Queen, after all, and it was only a curse if she let the nightmares win.

She stepped toward her bedroom door, which she kept shut so as not to wake her parents with screaming. Turning the doorknob, her heart raced, but she didn’t know why. She was only going to the kitchen to pour a glass of milk, as she did when the dreams were too much. When she needed comfort and didn’t want to wake anyone.

She placed one foot across her bedroom threshold, and the hardwood floor creaked. As she trekked down the long hallway to the kitchen, a thought distracted her.

She should check on her parents.

She was sure of it, but again, she did not know why. She tiptoed to their room, not trusting the creaky floor to be quiet enough. And when she reached their bedroom door, she cracked it slightly.

Her parents’ bed was empty and perfectly made.

What the hell? She kicked the door open and turned on the lights. They flickered on slowly, revealing a certainly deserted room.

Rae walked to the bed and ran her fingers over the smooth comforter. Where are they? Why did they leave? She pressed her nose to her mother’s pillow and could still smell the perfume she sprayed after her bath.

They had been there last night. They had slept in that bed. And now? Now they were gone. Rae couldn’t help the tears streaming down her cheeks. The dream had been too real, too familiar. She couldn’t distance herself from it. She needed her parents. She needed her mother to stroke her hair and her father to hum her a song.

She turned back to the hallway, wanting to get her phone from her bedroom and call the police. But when she turned into the hallway, she froze.

For there at the end of the rows of doors, at the end of the creeky floor, stood a suited man with auburn eyes.

 

Flash Fiction Friday

Apocalypto by 88grzes, deviantART

Apocalypto by 88grzes, deviantART

Rookie Move

by Paige Duke

I set my feet like he taught me, tighten my grip, and nod. All too fast, the ball is flying at my face and I’m swinging with all my might. At nothing. Again. This was fun the first six times, but the novelty is wearing off.

“Okay, rookie.” Mateo says, walking toward me, doing his best to hide that smug smile. “I’ll show you one more time.”

“Nuh-uh, I don’t want your pity coaching. Throw it again.” I play tough girl to show I’m not mad, pretend I don’t mind looking ridiculous.
Three more failed attempts and I can’t keep up the act anymore. My back is burning, and the adrenaline rushing through my tensed muscles is screaming for release, willing me to take flight.

I drop the bat and walk in a little circle to calm myself. I’ve mastered my impulses. I’ve learned to suppress my powers day after day, and this is the thing that’s going to unhinge me? That I can’t hit a baseball. Pathetic. Mateo walks to me across the dirt field and with each of his steps, my frenzy loses ground.

He picks up the bat and holds it out to me, “Come on, let me show you one more time, I think you’re getting there.”

I roll my eyes, “Right.”

But I take the bat anyway and walk to stand in front of him. Maybe I’m missing on purpose, I realize. Because when he puts his hands on me to fix my grip on the bat, to guide my arms in the swing, to hold me against him a second too long—I can forget myself. Forget myself utterly. Inside his arms, I’m not a creature who slipped through the Veil, this forever caged and crippled halfling, I’m just a girl falling for a boy.

But it’s dangerous to forget. Selfish to let my guard down. And yet, I don’t know any other way. I can’t go back to those friendless, terrifying early days. Mateo is my only light in this gray and foreign world. I can’t give him up, but it’s not fair to hold him back either.

“Like this?” I say, swinging one more time, letting his arms guide me.

“Mhmm, all the mechanics are there, just gotta keep your eye on the ball.”

“Yeah, it’s that easy,” I say, ready to pull away, but he’s still got hold of me and his breath is hot on my neck.

He’s kissing the curve of my jaw and I’m just letting him, drifting into that fog of oblivion.

“Pax, you suck at baseball, but you are a goddess. Anyone ever tell you that?”

My eyes snap open, “Not in so many words.” I pull away, but his fingers are insistent against my elbows.

He turns me gently to face him. “Why are you fighting me?”

The world is chirping crickets and cool wind all around and the electricity of Mateo’s fingers against my skin. And there’s that absurd thought again, Just tell him. You can trust him.

Right, because a girlfriend who suddenly sprouts wings won’t be a problem. Love conquers all . . . all you need is love . . . all that human optimism will break down in the face of the Other.

But his eyes are so insistent, so pure, and then he’s kissing me, and I’ve lost myself. And against my will, I’m kissing him back. His fingers are restless, at my cheek, my back, my waist.

Alarm bells go off.

I tear myself away. I am aching and guilty and selfish. The hurt on his face is unbearable.

“Pax—”

I take two steps back, ignoring my better judgment, willing myself to do the right thing, to cut this off before I can hurt him any more. “I have to tell you something—show you, I mean. I’m sorry I’ve hurt you. But we can’t—I’m not—you won’t . . . ugh.” I don’t have the words to do this. So I turn and run, lightning fast, unleashing my power for the first time in so many months. I pull my jacket off and feel the wind at the open back of my shirt, soothing the fire that’s raging there at the unfurling of my cramped wings.

I’m airborne, I am free. I’m gaining height, soaring over the empty fields. Just get out of sight, far enough not to see him. I won’t have to face him again, he won’t come knocking at my door after this.

A whooshing fills my ears, and suddenly I’m spinning out of control, my arms pinned to my side. The sky is tumbling.

I’m falling. Plunging. But I can’t get at my wings. And the ground is too close—

The impact never comes. I’m floating, right side up again, set down gently onto my feet, looking impossibly upon another winged creature.

“Is that all?” He says, grinning.

“How—?”

“What, Pax? You thought you were the only one who ever wandered through the Veil?” Mateo laughs, “And here I was thinking I smelled bad or something.”

He is a thing of beauty, his bare skin in the fading light, the gloss of his wings jet black. But the sight of him is blurring through my tears. It’s all catching up to me: I’m not alone, I don’t have to hide, I won’t have to hold Mateo off.

His arms are around me again, his laugh is soft at my ear, “Aw, Pax, you’re such a rookie.”

Once Before

By Dani Nicole

Sunlight.

That’s all I see when I open my eyes. When I blink away the veil of my previous life and inhale the breath of a new one. I scan my memory, searching for clues. 

How did I die? Who am I now?

But as I think of my life so far, it answers me in haze of darkness. Nothingness.

I am nothing except what I am now. I stand up in a field of grass, hills rising up all around me. I’m in a valley, where the setting sun casts shadows that dance across the green.

One foot in front of the other. One exhale after each inhale. This life smells like fire. In the distance, smoke swirls up toward the sky, consuming a falling building.

Did I die in a fire?

I try to remember the sensation of burning. Of my skin consumed with flame. Did I choke, or scream, or try to put myself out? Did I die instantly, or did it take millions of seconds impossibly compressed in the span of minutes?

More steps toward the smoke, away from the place I was reborn.

Cold air frosts my bare arms. The tank top I wear does nothing to shield me from the ruthless wind. I wrap my arms across my chest and duck my head as I walk into the gust, away from comfort and warm and… knowing things.

As I walk, a song comes to mind. One that I’m sure I wasn’t supposed to keep.

In the sun,
In the sun she fades
Gone is the girl, the angel brave

She rides toward the earth
And rests upon her grave
Gone is the girl, the angel brave

And yet, there is a familiarity around me that shouldn’t be there either. The electric feeling in the air, the looming presence of danger.

I’ve been here before.

Impossible, but surety ripples through me. Assurance. I know these hills. I know that fire, that smoke and when I look at it, that desire. That desire to burn, to watch whatever’s inside crumble to the ground.

It was me.

I set the fire.

Memories prickle in my head like goosebumps on my skin. Flashes of ash and light and heat and sorrow and screams of death. The sun shifts in the sky and out of my peripheral vision I catch my shadow. Two eloquent, long wings extend from my shoulder blades, the feathers waving in the wind.

But when I reach behind me, I am greeted with only flesh and bone.

How to stop using clichés in fiction

Charlie Peverett, Cliché box, Flickr

Charlie Peverett, Cliché box, Flickr

Cut clichés. That’s an early lesson we writers learn, and for good reason. Clichéd phrases cheapen our writing. They may be helpful in everyday speech, so instantly recognizable that they’re like the traffic signs of language. But it’s precisely because they’re so glaring that they are toxic to the written word: they are trite, overused, unoriginal. If watching out for clichés is on your revision checklist, it’s easy enough to spot them:

  • Better late than never
  • A clean slate
  • Down and out
  • Icing on the cake
  • Keep an eye on
  • Live and learn
  • On the tip of my tongue
  • Too good to be true

Just to name a few. (If they’re not on your revision checklist, now might be a good time to add that. There’s no time like the present.) I don’t want to give the impression that you should never, under any circumstances, include a cliché in your writing. They do have a place when used intentionally. If you’re trying to achieve a certain tone or voice in a piece, cliché’s can help you do that. Used in character dialogue, clichés can give readers a strong sense of personality or setting. But reading a story riddled with unintentional clichés can quickly start to feel cheap and unsatisfying.

But clichéd phrases aren’t the only kinds of cliché that can sneak into our writing. What about stereotypes, overused tropes, and outworn genre conventions? Have you read a book’s back cover and promptly reshelved it, thinking, “Oh, I’ve read that before”? It’s this type of cliché that I want to focus on because it’s so easy to find them slipping into our stories. I wrote a short story not long ago, revised it a few times, and still found myself frustrated by how blasé it felt. So, trying to get a fresh perspective, I submitted it to my writing group for critique. They pointed out that one of my main characters was a pretty blatant stereotype, and they were right! He was right there under my nose It was obvious, but I couldn’t see it.

So, when we do find these in our writing, what can we do about them? One technique I’ve found incredibly helpful is to employ nuance. Stereotypes, like clichéd phrases, exist for a reason—because they’re almost accurate, they reflect a type of person or experience in the real world. But the inaccuracy of a stereotype lies in its rejection of nuance. So, yes there are ditzy cheerleaders and dumb jocks and nerdy gamers and soccer moms and workaholics . . . but what if you don’t have to chuck them out completely? What if they’re variations on a theme? Maybe your ditzy cheerleader was raised by a single dad and can change her own oil and fix a flat tire without calling her boyfriend. Maybe your nerdy gamer comes from a long line of famous chefs, so he can make a flawless six course French meal. Can you see the possibilities? Add an extra trait, another dimension, and you can see new avenues opening up or old ones rewriting themselves. To get to that place, though, of thinking differently about your characters and storylines, teasing out the possibilities is often the next step. One way is to ask yourself questions to get the ideas flowing. See if any of the following questions help you think a little more deeply about stereotypical characters or overused plot lines:

  • What else?
    • What else is possible for this character?
    • What else is in their past that makes them unique?
    • What else might they like or believe or long for that would make them more complex or that might explain their behavior?
  • What am I overlooking?
    • What is at this character’s deepest psyche that I’m not seeing?
    • What is he or she most afraid of?
    • What is this character’s greatest wish/highest ambition?
  • What’s unexpected?
    • What could happen to this character that would shake him to his core?
    • What thing, if she lost it, would completely transform this character’s life?
    • How can this character’s problem be heightened even more/what would push it to the next level?

If you’ve done this revision work already and had no success, then maybe it’s just time to start over. Sometimes that’s the best thing, but it’s worth the creative exercise to try fiddling with it first.

This is the hard work of writing and revising, right? It’s easy to be attached to our characters and storylines as they are and just ignore that nagging feeling when they’re too easy or too obvious or whatever it is that’s making them cliché. But that doesn’t serve our efforts to be strong writers or to thrill and enlighten our readers. There’s a phrase in yoga that I think is useful to the writing craft too: “Play your edge.” In any given yoga pose, that means you come to the absolute edge of what you can do in that moment, and then you hold the pose, grow in that space, rise to a new level of strength and flexibility.

 

How can you play to your edge in your work-in-progress or in a self-identified weakness in your craft? What other techniques have you used to work through clichéd prose or story problems?

-Paige Duke

Flash Fiction Friday

magical lamp, deviantART by MaithaNeyadi

magical lamp, deviantART by MaithaNeyadi

The Perfect Gift

by Paige Duke

Under cover of darkness, a girl ran to the dumpster behind the beat-up Shell station. She looked around to be sure she was alone, but she needn’t have worried. There was no one out yet at 3 a.m., and the gas station clerk was snoozing. No one watching to see her bruises, the tear in her hoodie, or the curious thing she pulled from her bag to toss in with the other garbage. And after she was free of the thing, still no one to see her sprinting away, away, away.


 

Today was the day, Ted could feel it. Today he would find the perfect Christmas gift for Alison. As he walked down toward the strip of boutiques on Main Street, stuffing his hands in the pockets of his puff coat against the November chill, he saw how it would be. Christmas morning, she’d wake beside him, after a night at his place of course—she’d be staying over by then, definitely—and pester him about her present, the twelfth one, the perfect one. He had the other eleven picked out and wrapped already, sitting in a cheery pile beneath his Charlie Brown Christmas tree they’d put up together after Thanksgiving. So Christmas morning, wearing her vintage kimono robe (Day Four’s present), Alison would lean into him and beg him for her perfect gift with that way she pouted at him.

Ooh, he shivered just thinking about it. That’s where the vision stopped, though, because of course he didn’t have the perfect present yet. But he would. Today was the day; he could feel it. Something about his hair. It was the first good hair day he’d had in more than a month. The static electricity just messed with it at this time of the winter. He’d brush it, not brush it, wash it, not wash it; nothing he tried made a difference—not even his Brooklyn pomade—it would stick straight up like he’d rubbed a balloon over it. But not today. Today when he’d put the brush to it, it lay down perfectly and stayed that way.

So, his unshakable optimism led him through one store after another. He first tried the boutiques, because he’d heard Alison and her girlfriends talking about them over their long lunches. He hated how those things just dragged on, but there was usually a pretty intense make-out session at her place after, so he just powered through. But what the girls failed to mention was how damn expensive everything was in those shops. He couldn’t afford more than a comb or a nail file after all the other eleven presents. No, that was not perfect present material.

Ted tried the antique shops next, his spirits still holding. Alison loved antiques. Nothing in her apartment was from Target, except maybe a basket or something. She had a thing about baskets—organizing in general. He’d tried to start picking up his own place more, hoping that might encourage her to come over more. To stay over.

But the antique places were a bust too. They weren’t as expensive, but everything was just . . . old. Right, but not the right kind of old. Like cracked plates and dusty magazines and shit. No. That wasn’t right for the perfect present. So Ted kept walking and looking in windows, feeling his hopes draining with every step. Then it was sleeting and he felt his hair frizzing and he was about to call it quits. He must have misread the perfect-hair-day sign.

He was headed back to the car when he saw it—the old Shell station. He couldn’t believe the place was still open, it looked in such bad shape. Back in his freegan days, Ted and his buddies from the Meetup.com group would dumpster dive there for the overflow from the vegan place next door. They’d come across some good stuff there sometimes, Huck had even found an old Lomo camera once that was in perfect condition. People didn’t know what they had, just chunked that stuff. Plus, he’d met Alison at the Shell. He’d stood in line behind her, overheard her trying to buy a pack of American Spirits, but she’d left her card at home. He saw again how he’d stepped up beside her and said to the clerk, “I’ll take two packs,” as he laid a bill on the counter. She’d smiled up at him, blonde, pretty, and those full lips.

Ted found himself walking toward the dumpster. He felt stupid, sure. Dumpster diving for the perfect gift? But this was the day and he’d tried every place else, after all. He looked around to be sure no one was watching him, slipped inside the rickety fence, and peered in at the trash heap. There were boxes turning soft with the sleet, mounds of takeout wrappers, food scraps. He stretched on tiptoe to see if he could catch sight of anything else. And he did see something. A glint of metallic light, glistening with a sheen of wetness. As he strained to see further, he saw its curved shape. It looked promising. He reached in and hooked a finger around the thing, it had a kind of loop.

Ted pulled it out, feeling by its weight that it was right. The thing lying in his hand made his chest grow warm. It looked like an antique! Like a gravy boat, only fancier and with a spout on it. Its copper-colored lid had scrollwork-type decorations and foreign script on the sides. He tried to pry the top off, but it was stuck. Even when he brushed the sleet off with his flannel shirt, he couldn’t make it budge. But that didn’t matter. He felt it. He grinned and turned to go home, clutching the thing in the crook of his arm, oblivious to the unnatural heat of it against his puff coat.

It was perfect. Alison was going to love it.

Genie Not Included

by Dani Nicole

Ten years and the lamp hasn’t moved. I watch it, polish it, and leave it just like I’m supposed to. Just like the king told me to.

I still look at the entrance to the cave like some gorgeous, beautiful, breathtaking woman is going to walk through it. I would ask her on a date, but she would probably say no considering I don’t really shower anymore. The lake water in the cave is all I can use. But after I asked her on a date and she said no, I might ask her if she could watch the damn lamp and give me a break. Maybe she would feel sorry for me and say yes.

This is what my mind resorts to in the dark hours of the dark cave of the dark life of being the dark lamp watcher.

All the king’s orders are because of some stupid myth that one day, maybe, just possibly, there is a slight chance that the lamp will shiver and a big ass-genie will come popping out of it.

Holy hell, I would love to see that. I kind of wish he’d wait until the hot girl shows up and surprise the crap out of both of us, just before we were about to kiss. Then when he asked me what my three wishes were, the first one would be just another damn minute so I could finish the job. It’d be pretty awesome to show off my wooing of the ladies in front of an all-powerful genie.

But I have a feeling genies aren’t the type to cater to your every need. After all, they only give you three wishes. They’re not going to sit around until you make up your mind. So I’d have to have all three wishes ready. But I’ve only thought of one wish so far.

Ah, to hell with it. It’s not real anyways. And I’m just some stupid kid sitting on the floor of a cave covered in mold. I’m not sure if I smell like mold, or if I’ve been here so long the mold smells like me.

What I need to focus on is dinner. A rat skitters across my feet and I stab it with my blade. I used to flinch at the sight of blood, at the sound of bones crushing. Now it’s an everyday feat, and a necessity to staying alive in a cave full of rodents and fish.

I reach in my sack for the box of matches. When I pick it up I know I’m in trouble. It’s entirely too light. I slide the box open. Yep. Empty. Fantastic. Now I’ll just have to wait for the king’s lackeys to deliver more supplies in the morning.

Maybe Archibald will come. I like that guy. He always sticks around to chat. Kind of gets that whole isolation thing and how it makes you batshit crazy and whatnot.

I inhale, holding the rat carcass in my hands, letting the blood run to the ground. I really don’t like rat sushi. But I really don’t have a choice. I inhale, bring the rat to my lips, and swallow bile. I hold my breath and bite down.

Disgusting.

Revolting.

I never–

What was that?

I suspend the rat carcass in mid air. It hangs in limbo as I stare at the small golden lamp, sitting beneath the light on its stone sanctuary. Nothing about the lamp looks different. It hasn’t moved. Pivoted. Broken. That means that my ass is still covered, and also that I’m seeing things.

Great just more proof that I’m batshit cra–

There it is again.

I throw the rat on the ground. Stand up. Walk to the lamp. After ten years I’ve never touched it. I’ve never dared to break the king’s rules. But suddenly I am filled with an overwhelming urge to pick up the lamp. I want to hold it. I want to trace the intricate scrolling with my fingertips.

I stop inches from it, squatting so I’m at eye level.

“Hello,” I say to it, because when you’ve been in a cave for ten years, sometimes you talk to inanimate objects.

The lamp sits there mockingly, glimmering under the light.

“To hell with this,” I say.

But just as I turn to walk away, the ancient lamp starts to shake.