Thursday, November 30, 2006
However, for those of you who like your literary agent blogs nice and polite, and who probably spend your afternoons wishing puppies could talk, you all are in for a real treat. Because today I am going to dissect a really good query letter and extoll its virtues. Let us all learn from Emily Conrad, who was both gracious enough to send me a good query letter and generous enough to let me use her as a guinea pig. A really good query letter writing guinea pig.
Without further adieu*, here is her stellar query letter with my comments in brackets.
Dear Mr. Bransford:
[spells my name right, goes for the proper "Mr. Bransford" approach, which is always appreciated, doesn't call me Mr. Brown. Also, the salutation is in the same font as the rest of the e-mail, showing me that she did not just tack it on to a generic letter]
Sixteen-year-old Hannah's faith was seriously injured by the accident that killed her sister, so when her chance at popularity – senior Will Raditz – moves into the basement, she sets aside following God to fit in with boys, friends, and fashion trends. [Gets right to the point, condenses the essence of the plot into one sentence, and hooks me right away. Popular guy moves into the basement -- what's not to like???] Eventually, she must decide: is it time to pull the plug on faith? The 67,500 words of my inspirational young adult novel The Boy in the Basement follow Hannah's unique and often humorous journey to the answer of this question. [Boom. Tight, concise three sentence opening paragraph. Tells me the plot, genre, and leaves me wanting more.]
I graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh's French and creative writing programs in January, 2005. While at the university, one of my short stories won the Eighteenth Annual Writing Competition. My poetry was published in Bellowing Ark (summer, 2004), and in The Wisconsin Review (summer, 2005). [Good solid writing credentials. Won awards, has been published in journals]
I chose to submit this novel for your consideration after I saw Emily Ever After listed on your MySpace page as a novel you wish you had represented. [Researched me individually! Not a generic query! Knows her work is up my alley!] Not only did I enjoy reading the book, but it is similar to my writing in that it represents a Christian who makes mistakes as she struggles to follow her beliefs in a world where it is easier to join the crowd. [Pulls my own preferences back to her own work. Subtle and effective.] You can read the first chapter of The Boy in the Basement on my website, www.emilyconradauthor.com. [Has a website!]Upon your request, I am prepared to send the complete manuscript. [Finished the manuscript before writing the query]
Thank you for taking the time to consider representing my work. I look forward to hearing from you. [Polite and professional]
Needless to say, I asked to see the manuscript in ten seconds flat. While any agent would be extremely lucky to have a client like Emily and she is a very talented writer, ultimately we did not make an agent/client match. BUT STILL. That one's on me and my oft-flawed personal taste, not on Emily, and I'm confident she'll find the right agent. She deserves a big salute for writing such a great letter and for conducting herself so professionally.
Now I'll let you get back to wishing puppies could talk.
*This was a joke, I know it's "ado."
Thursday, November 16, 2006
I don't know what is in the air or the water or the pumpkin pie mix these days, but people are being excessively polite lately. Not excessively polite as in they're infused with the holiday spirit, more like politeness so excessive that it's no longer polite.
I've been getting tons of query letters from people asking me if it's ok to send me a query letter. Yes. You heard correctly. A query letter to see if it's ok to send a query letter. Not a letter to see if it's ok to send a manuscript (which is what a query letter is), but literally emails that read "May I send you a query letter?"
Now, I don't know if you can tell from these posts, but I am a philosophical person. I don't need to be contemplating the nature of the universe while I am sitting at my desk at 8:07 in the morning. I don't appreciate being prompted to ponder the infinite, mobeus-strip implications of receiving a query letter to see if it's ok to send another query letter. I mean, what if I say yes? If I say yes, that it's ok to send a query letter, then when I receive the next letter I will have received two query letters and I never asked to receive two query letters. Or what if I say no, you can't send me a query letter? But by receiving the first letter I had already actually received a query letter, thereby invalidating my denial. DO YOU SEE WHAT THIS DOES TO ME?
In the end I always just delete the meta-queries or throw them in the trash. Save it for the philosophers, people!
So please, I beg of you. Do not make your prospective agents ponder the nature of the universe early in the morning. Just send the query.
And another thing! (can you tell I'm fired up this morning?) Do not send your emailed queries with the read receipt thing turned on! It smacks of intrusion and makes me think you're the type of prospective client who is going to send a 600 page manuscript and then email me two hours later asking me if I've read it yet. You don't need to know when or where or how I read your email. Just know that I've read it. Unless of course I was unable to do so because my brain was stuck in an infinite loop thanks to a meta-query.
Tuesday, October 31, 2006
We here at Curtis Brown Ltd. receive a surprising number of query letters addressed to "Mr. Curtis Brown," many of whom speak to the fine reputation Mr. Brown enjoys in the industry and his many successes past and present. Um, folks, Albert Curtis Brown died during the Roosevelt administration. He's not going to represent you.
However, if Albert Curtis Brown were alive today (which, again, he isn't -- seriously, don't write to him) he would probably be appalled at the number of disreputable agents out there, people who prey on writers who are just trying to live out their dreams of becoming a broke published writer. I can understand how difficult it is for an aspiring author to tell the difference between a good agent and a bad agent, but there are sites that can help.
First and foremost is the Association of Author's Representatives (www.aar-online.org). All members of the AAR adhere to a canon of ethics that respect your rights as an author (these are posted on the AAR website). Even better, there is a searchable database on the site that you can use to find good, reputable agents. (Yes, I'm in there, and don't act surprised.)
Aside from the list, there are a few telltale clues that should tip you off to your prospective agent's intentions: You should never, ever pay money up front. Reputable agents work off of commissions, and they only earn money if they sell your work. Also, if you do sign with someone, your agent should be very clear about where they are sending your material -- you should be kept in the loop.
So, beware of the baddies. But also DON'T BE PARANOID. I can't emphasize this enough. There are good, nice agents out there who want to work very hard to help make your dreams come true. Some agents might even wash your car and bake you cookies (ok, I made that part up). But don't let a few bad publishing apples ruin your perspective. You're going to need to trust your new agent, so don't turn into a paranoiac.In honor of Halloween, please feel free to post your own publishing horror stories in the comments section.
Thursday, October 26, 2006
1994. Such an innocent time. We thought flannel was cool and we were so jaded, man, with that whole life thing. Like Ethan Hawke in Reality Bites.
Also in 1994, a little picture called "Pulp Fiction" was released and, like radiation after a nuclear explosion, we are still living with its aftereffects. Don't get me wrong -- I like Pulp Fiction. But I personally believe we should quarantine every copy of Pulp Fiction until its damaging effects on aspiring writers have been successfully contained and eradicated. Then, scientists and social historians could apply for a special license to see Pulp Fiction, but only if they swore under oath that they would never, ever try and replicate Quentin Tarantino's witty/pop-culture laden/nonsensical dialogue.
I've been seeing a lot of dialogue like this lately:
"Dude, you're just like Trostsky."
"Like Trotsky. You know, Trotsky was this revolutionary guy. He was like this charismatic figure and he was way ahead of his time. He founded the Red Army."
"Isn't Trotsky Russian?"
"You're missing the point, man. Trotsky was this charismatic guy, but Josef Stalin got rid of him and he was exiled from the country. To Mexico."
"Do they have vodka in Mexico?"
"When he was in Mexico he was murdered with a motherfucking pickaxe. A motherfucking pickaxe! Can you believe that shit?"
"Do you know what they call a quarter pounder with cheese in Mexico?"
THIS IS NOT GOOD DIALOGUE.
I know, I know. It would be cool if Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta said it, but this type of dialogue has no place in a book.
Writing dialogue in a book is not like dialgoue in real life, and it is not like dialogue in a movie. Tarantinoism does not work. Banter, particularly the quick back and forth kind, almost never works in a book. Dialogue in a book needs to build toward something, and it needs to take place in a manner that furthers plot and character development. If two characters have a conversation just for the sake of being clever, it's, well, it's whatever the opposite of clever is.
So please, support my campaign to quarantine Pulp Fiction. Don't do it for me. Do it for the children.
Wednesday, October 25, 2006
I get a lot of opening lines like this: "Have you ever wondered if everyone around you is a flesh eating zombie, only they have developed supernatural powers to seem like actual people but when they're talking to you they're actually sizing you up to see if you would taste good?" Why, yes, clearly. I mean, who doesn't wonder if everyone around you is a flesh eating zombie sizing you up for dinner. In fact, I was just thinking that.
Do not use rhetorical questions in your query letters. Not only do they reflect lazy writing and beg a negative response ("Nope, I don't wonder about that"), they make your book sound hopelessly mundane. Just look how some great works of literature wither under the dark power of the rhetorical question:
"Have you ever wondered what would happen if you joined a whaling ship, only it was piloted by this guy who wasn't really into whaling but he mostly wanted to just go after a white whale?" (Moby Dick)
"Have you ever had a day where you just wanted to take a moment and think about a lot of things?" (Ulysses)
"Did you ever just want to get away from it all?" (Robinson Crusoe)
Rhetorical questions are a powerful force for evil. They feel no pain and can't be reasoned with. Do I wish rhetorical questions would temporarily assume human form so I could tell Mr. Rhetorical Question that he is bad writing and should never allow himself to be used in any letters, particularly ones addressed to me because they are a sure-fire sign of a query letter gone astray and I will probably not want to request a manuscript if he is in the letter? Yes. Yes, I do.
Wednesday, October 18, 2006
Life. It's deep, right? I mean, just look at the word. Life. Wow, man. Just, wow.
Here's the thing about real life. Real life is boring. Do not write about real life.
Let me put it another way. People say rap is "real." Rap isn't real. Rap is a fantasy world. As I always say: Consider the Wu. The Wu Tang Clan have created an elaborate fantasy world based upon martial arts mytholgoy, Al Pacino movies and, I'm told, cash ruling everything around me. These geniuses accomplish the impossible: they make Staten Island seem cool. (Of course, you could call any place "Shaolin" and it would seem cool. Like I said, they're geniuses.)
People call rap "real" because it deals with real life issues (i.e. the aforementioned cash ruling everything around me), but the best rap takes those real issues and places them in a fantasy world that adheres to its own moral code. When you take the completely boring trials and tribulations of real life (i.e. cash ruling everything around me) and place it in a foreign surrounding (i.e. Shaolin), that credit card debt and those student loans aren't mundane, they suddenly appear poignant and powerful. (Bless you, RZA. Bless you.)
Don't strive to write about real life as it is actually lived. That's boring. Take life to the next level. Put real life in a strange world or filter it through the gaze of a unique character. When you put real issues in a strange world a funny thing happens: your book seems more real.
Now, my intention here is not to tell you to write gangsta rap inspired fiction (although, actually, that's not a bad idea). Think about the unique worlds crafted by your favorite writers -- even the ones that take place in "real" life. Great books are transporting. They take you away to a new place before they bring you back to what you know.
To put it another way still, when a sales rep goes to a chain and tells the buyer about the books on the upcoming list, they need something to point to that makes a book stand out. They need to be able to say, "This is what makes this book different." A unique character, a unique way of telling the story, a unique plot, a unique world, something, anything that sets a book apart from the thousands of other books that are published every year.
And I'm here to tell you: real life isn't enough. Now go write me some gangsta rap fiction.
Saturday, October 7, 2006
Some of my favorite (not in a good way) query letters are the ones where an author attempts to show off his or her powerful grasp of the English language by cramming as many big words into their letter as humanly possible. The result ends up being something like this:
"Our protagonist, a multitudinously faceted lothario, possesses prodigious, grandiose idealism for an altrustic society in which humankind discredits its pedantic epistemological pursuit of ..."
You get the idea. I have a message for these authors:
Put the thesaurus down. Just put it down. You might hurt someone with that thing.
You must remember that we literary agents were (almost) all English majors at one time. We know the big words. And frankly, I'm very happy to have left those big words behind in college, where they belong. Reading these types of query letters takes me back to late nights writing papers on literary theory, and that's not a happy place. I'd much rather read a Steven King novel than Wittgenstein.
So choose the best words for your query letter (and your book), not the biggest or most obscure. It's a book, not a term paper!
Friday, October 6, 2006
Every now and then I hope to post blurbs about some of my clients in this space. First up: Jack Lopez!
Jack grew up in Los Angeles, and as a teenager he took to the ocean and become an accomplished surfer. After receiving his MFA from UC Irvine, Jack published a collection of essays, CHOLOS AND SURFERS, and a short story collection, SNAPPING LINES. Jack teaches creative writing at CSU Northridge.
People often ask me how agents find their clients, and one of the best ways (and most common) is through referrals. A year or so ago I had lunch with Jack's immensely talented editor at Little, Brown, Alvina Ling, and, recalling my love of California, a few months later she sent Jack my way. Jack had just finished his debut novel, IN THE BREAK, and when I read it I was stunned. It was (and is) one of the best young adult novels I have ever read, and I immediately knew I had to take on Jack as a client.
IN THE BREAK is about a young man, Juan, who helps out his best friend Jamie after Jamie beats up his stepfather. Along with Jamie's sister, Amber, the trio run away to Mexico, having crazy adventures, falling in love and surfing along the way. I can't recommend this novel highly enough, for adults as well as teens. It's just a great book. IN THE BREAK has a spare, powerful prose that becomes intensely lyrical (in an awesome way) during the surfing scenes, and it's funny, real and, of course, very cool.
Jack is currently at work on his second novel, which I can't wait to read.
Tuesday, October 3, 2006
So you like books, you have an eye for good writing and that English degree isn't getting any more marketable. Or maybe you've received a bunch of rejections to your query letter and thought, "Oh yeah? Well what qualifies YOU to reject me? Is there literary agency school? Do you even have a law degree?" Nope. Here's what it takes.
First, I'm assuming you live or are moving to New York, (or, more specifically, Brooklyn, Queens or New Jersey, because you won't be able to afford Manhattan!). Yes, I live in San Francisco, but I'm already taking up one of the five or so spots in San Francisco. Sorry about that.
Becoming a literary agent is sort of like becoming a blacksmith. In the olden days you didn't go to blacksmith school, you worked as an apprentice to an established smith for a very long time, learning the trade, getting up early to start the kiln, and fetching the blacksmith's hard tack. Usually the apprentice was only given room and board. And then, one day, when he had learned all the blacksmth could teach, the apprentice could go forth and open his own shop. This is basically how it works with literary agents.
In order to become a literary agent you have to first become an assistant to a literary agent. And actually, in order to become an assistant you often have to first work as a receptionist, as an intern or in the mail room. Believe it or not, there are about 700 applicants for every assistant job. Assistants answer the phones, keep track of contracts and payments, read queries, and fetch their bosses' hard tack I mean coffee. In the process the assistant is actually learning a great deal about the business -- who the important editors are, the terms of publishing contracts, what books work and what don't, how to spot a good project, etc. etc.
After two or three or four or five years as a lowly assistant, if you have proven yourself able, and you haven't bungled too many follow ups, you may be allowed to take on a client. Or two. But no more. And then, a couple of years later, if you have done well with those one or two clients you might be allowed to take on a few more. And so on.
And then you're on your way to fame and glory, right? Well, not so fast. Keep in mind that a young agent is up against a crop of very experienced agents with deep contacts and a polished resume. Being a young agent is a long, hard slog. You have to find diamonds in the rough and read millions of manuscripts and, honestly, have a good deal of luck. But eventually, I'm told, you get there and then all of a sudden you wake up and half of your clients are on the New York Times bestseller list. Or you wake up one day and decide a job at the bakery isn't looking so bad. You know. Either way.
Does this mean that all agents are manifestly incompetent because they did not go to agenting school? Actually, no. As old fashioned as it may be, it's actually a pretty good system. Assuming you work for a reputable literary agency, by the time you are given the go-ahead to take on clients you know a great deal about the business, you have experienced colleagues to draw upon and you've networked relentlessly with your fellow publishing assistants. You really have to prove yourself. If you manage to work your way up to be an agent it shows a certain level of dedication (or insanity).
So if you still wanna be a literary agent, good luck to you! But don't quit your night job.
Friday, September 29, 2006
Special Topics in Calamitous Query Letters
Viking's edition of Tolstoy's WAR AND PEACE is 1,424 pages. Vikram Seth's A SUITABLE BOY checks in at 1,488 pages. Heck, the book that I'm reading right now, Marisha Pessl's SPECIAL TOPICS IN CALAMITY PHYSICS, is 514 pages (including the final exam at the end of the book).
Some great works of literature have been very, very long. Expansive. Epic. Bigger than a breadbox. This does not mean that you should write a long query letter.
Maybe it's the Fall air that is making people wax poetic about life, the universe and everything (certainly the fall air is making me a more frequent blogger), but I've been getting some really, really long query letters lately. People sit down and write long, luxrious odes about their works, detailing every plot twist, the habits of each character (major and minor), and the deeper psychological meaning that is revealed by their narrative. Don't make this mistake!
The purpose of a query letter isn't to tell an agent about every single plot twist in the entire book. It's not to describe the main character's motivations (apparent and hidden) or their complete life story. A query letter only has one purpose: To make an agent want to read more.
The best way to pique an agent's interest is to be as succinct as possible. Confession: I may like long books, but I'm a lazy query letter reader. I am much more likely to give my full attention to a short letter than a long one. A short letter shows respect for my time and a deference to my abysmally short query-attention span. But most importantly, a short letter is much more likely to be interesting, because the author has agonized over every word and every sentence to make sure they convey as much as possible.
Final Exam (#2 pencils only): What is the essence of this blog post?
Answer: Even if your book is 1,500 pages long, your query letter does not have to be.
Thursday, September 28, 2006
It always cracks me up when people send me a letter addressed to "Agent Bransford." Not "Dear Nathan" or "Dear Mr. Bransford." No. "Dear Agent Bransford." Needless to say, as I'm perusing a large stack of letters in my office, wearing my sensible work attire and sitting comfortably in my standard office chair, I do not feel anything like a secret agent. But whenever I receive an "Agent Bransford" letter it makes me imagine myself in some sort of a cape or mask, saving authors from disadvantageous contract language and/or preventing some sort of global literary catastrophe.
So no, I am not a secret agent, but today I have a case that would be worthy of a Bond-esque literary agent with super-secret hidden X-Ray vision powers. I subscribe to the newsletter "Kirkus Discoveries," which comes out every week or so -- it's a listing of some of the best self-published books that Kirkus has recently reviewed. I have no idea how Kirkus finds these gems or how they have the time (I usually like to think that they spend most of their time honing their notoriously snotty reviews and laughing like hyenas), but I have found some very, very good books this way.
Anyway, today Kirkus Discoveries came out, and there's a very interesting book called FOUR OF DIAMONDS that I would very much like to read. The first line of the review is "A young man stumbles his way to enlightenment in the wilds of the Australian outback." I mean, who wouldn't want to read that? I'd really like to find the author and ask for a copy of the book to consider for possible representation. But there's one problem. I can't find the author's contact info anywhere online.
Maybe I lack proper Google-stalking skills. But still. Take this as a public service announcement from Agent Bransford: "Kids, if you're an aspiring author it is absolutely imperative that you have a Google-able website or a myspace profile or both or SOMETHING so people can easily find you by searching for you and your work. Opportunity can't knock if opportunity can't find your door! Also, eat your vegetables."
Now, if you'll excuse me, I'll be off saving the world, one query letter at a time.
Friday, July 28, 2006
Ah, query etiquette. As I mentioned in a previous posting, your number one goal in writing a query is to convince people that yes, you have a great project, but also that you're SANE. You're cool. You're not going to go crazy on your agent. You won't freak out if they don't email you back in five minutes. You have social skills. You're going to win "Client of the Year Awards."
You don't want to tell your agent how sane you are (because that would be an insane thing to do), you want to demonstrate your sanity by being a calm person at every stage of the query process. All of the answers to the below questions have that goal in mind.
Q. Is it ok to follow up on a query?
A. You're well within your rights to follow up on a query. But I would advise against it. If you haven't heard back in two months, you can assume it's a no. Agents are very, very busy, we get tons and tons of letters and emails, and the unfortunate fact is that while you have one letter to think about and worry over we have several hundred to deal with every single month. So if you haven't heard back in a while I'd just let that one go.
The exception to this rule is if an agent has specifically requested your manuscript and you haven't heard back in two months. In that case it's ok to send in an exceedingly polite letter or email inquiring about the status.
But never call to follow up. Always send a letter or email. It's much less of an imposition and thus much more polite.
And never act annoyed no matter how annoyed you are. Be understanding and patient. It's much better in the long run.
Q. If I get a rejection, is it ok to ask for suggestions on other agents?
A. I'm not sure how other agents feel about this, but I'd advise against it. When I really really like a project only I don't specialize in that particular genre, I will occasionally suggest an agent who might be more appropriate. I'll volunteer that information without being asked.
But if I just passed on a project, I don't want to be an imposition on another agent who will then have to take the time to consider something I just rejected. There's an awkward dynamic at play there -- by recommending something I just rejected, I'm sending a message to another agent that essentially this isn't good enough for me, but hey, I'll pass it off onto you.
So I'll always answer "no" when someone asks if I have recommendations.
Q. I've written five books, should I tell the agent about all of them in my query?
A. No. Pick the best one and don't even mention the rest. If you've written five unpublished books, you're not showing the agent that you're an amazingly productive writer, you're advertising that you haven't been able to find an agent for any of them. You don't want an agent to think that. Pretend this is your first book.
Q. If an agent just rejected my query is it ok to send them another project?
A. Not immediately. There's nothing worse than reading a query, deciding it's not for me, writing a polite letter or email and then five minutes later receiving a query for the sequel. Wait six months -- by that time the agent probably will have forgotten that they rejected another one of your projects and will be much more inclined to give your new project a fresh look.
Q. Is it ok to write queries to different agents at the same agency?
A. This is complicated. In theory there's no harm in writing separate queries, but one thing you have to keep in mind is that agents often share assistants (who often have the job of reading queries). So if you happen to query two agents who share an assistant you might be advertising that you are sending out blanket queries. Agents don't want to feel like you sent a letter to everyone in town.
So if you are going to send queries to agents at the same agency choose one and write to them first. If you get a rejection make sure you wait a while before you try again with another agent. And make sure that you've researched each agent individually and tailor your letter appropriately.
Q. Is it ok to send a thank you note to an agent after they rejected my query?
A. I've never changed my mind about a project because someone wrote a very nice thank you note, but good thank you notes have definitely made me feel guilty. So if you want revenge on an agent, a nice thank you note is the best weapon.
Wednesday, June 21, 2006
Most depictions of agents in popular culture fall into two categories: the Ari Gold fast-talking hustler who is vainly trying to be one of the boys, and the bloodsucking leech who attaches itself to the author to extract that 15 percent; Or, possibly, both. It sounds pretty dire. But if you talk to authors about their agents, you might find something pretty strange -- most authors love their agents. Why is that?
It's very difficult to fully describe the range of functions of an agent, but one of the most important aspects of the author/agent relationship happens at the very beginning. Agents sift through the mass of queries and letters and projects to find projects he really believes in. From the author's perspective, this usually means that in a sea of rejections and adveristy the agent is the first person who really truly believes in the author's talent and potential. Being an author is really, really tough -- there's a lot of rejection throughout the process, and sometimes even their friends and family don't believe in them. Knowing that there is someone who believes in them is invaluable.
Once the agent has found a project, he shops it to publishers. A lot of expertise and networking goes into this. Agents have lunches with editors and network relentlessly so they know who is buying what, what's working and what's not, and where and to whom they should submit. It's more art than science, but since publishers will generally only accept submissions from agents it's a crucial step.
If there is an offer on the book, an agent will negotiate the advance and the terms of the contract. Again, there's a great deal of expertise that goes into this. Agents know how to get better deals than authors could get on their own. They know what rights to hold onto, how to get editors to increase the advance or royalties, how to negotiate the contract to protect the authors' interests, and often the simple fact that the author has an agent automatically ensures that they'll get a better deal simply because the publisher knows they can't mess around.
Once the contract for the book is signed, there are other rights to deal with, such as film and translation. Some of the bigger agencies, such as Curtis Brown Ltd., have their own foreign rights and film departments, and can be very effective in selling film and translation rights. The smaller agencies usually still work to sell these rights through other agents with whom they are affiliated.
After everything is all signed and finished, the agent continues to track the book to make sure things are happening as they should, to make sure the author's money is being paid on time, and just generally keep on top of things. The agent will also work with the author to craft a long range vision for their work to aim for the greatest success down the line.
So in short, what does an agent do? A good agent is part business advisor, part creative director, part lawyer, part salesman, part negotiator, part life coach and part psychotherapist.
Now let's hug it out, bitches.
Monday, June 19, 2006
Finding an agent can be daunting, but there are resources that can help:
Literary Marketplace (LMP) - a massive tome that lists everyone in the industry. Since very few agencies have websites it can be very useful if you need contact information. Check out your library, they may have a copy.
Association of Authors' Representatives (aar-online.org) - the website of the AAR has a database of reputable agents, and you can search by genre and whether an agent accepts email queries. Everyone in the database follows the AAR canon of ethics.
Publishers Marketplace - sign up for the free Publishers Lunch emails to familiarize yourself with industry news and the latest book deals. You can use this as a resource fo find agents. If you can afford it you can also subscribe to the site, which allows you to search a comprehensive database.
Jeff Herman's Guide - provides a list of agents and some advice on how to find an agent.
Your favorite books - always check out the acknowledgements section to figure out who represents your favorite books. Use these names to personalize your query letter (i.e. Because I'm such a fan of X I thought I would write you about...)
Thursday, June 15, 2006
Yes, I represent short story collections. But. Rather than pitching your short story collection to an agent, who will likely be reluctant to read your work from the get-go, I would focus on trying to get your stories published. Once you have had some success publishing stories it will be much easier for you to find an agent - one of the best ways to find an agent is to be able to say that you have been published in some very reputable magazines or journals.
Tuesday, May 30, 2006
First off, ask yourself if you want a response. Do you want to know if you've been passed over or are you fine just assuming you were passed over if you haven't heard anything back in a few months?
If you want a response, you should go the old fashioned way. Write a letter to an agent, print it out, and include a self-addressed stamped envelope. If you don't require a response, you can try emailing agents -- but don't expect that an agent will ready your letter or that they'll respond. Most agents delete e-mailed query letters without reading them, and the rest read them and then delete them unless they're interested.
Try to target your search to agents who are just starting out or seem less experienced. The big agents don't really bother with query letters because they already have a full list, and they only take on sure-thing new clients. So try to find out who is just starting out, and you'll have a much better chance that 1) your query will be read and 2) they'll take you on as a client.
The letter itself should be short, to the point, and free of gimmicks. Just tell your story in a straight-forward fashion. It should be no longer than a page. Be concise. If you're a good writer, the agent will be able to tell immediately just from reading the way you describe your story. Try to sound as sane as possible.
One thing you can do to attract an agent's eye is to actually research them and tailor your letter to that particular agent. Find out what other writers they represent. If you have a thriller, find out who represents some of your favorite authors, and tell them what a big fan of you are of their client's work. This works particularly well if you're a fan of a lesser-known author and can draw a connection to your work (i.e. I see you represent so and so, and since I'm such a big fan I thought I'd contact you about...). Check the acknowledgements of your favorite books to figure out who represents whom.
A few query letter don'ts -- Don't be too boastful. Don't say you are a published writer when you self-published. Don't compare yourself to Dan Brown or Stephen King or any other super-famous author of the moment. Don't tell the agent that your work is going to be the next ..1 New York Times Bestseller. Lastly, don't ask rhetorical questions. So many letters start off along the lines of, "Have you ever wondered what would it would be like if you found out everyone around you is an alien?" My response is always "Um, no, not really." And try your utmost best not to call a prospective agent -- they're going to want to see your work before they talk to you, so don't try calling first. Let them contact you.
Let me know if you have any other questions about query letters or any other aspect of book publishing. Good luck!
Monday, May 29, 2006
For novelists, the first step to finding a literary agent is writing a book. You should have a finished manuscript -- even if a prospective agent loves your work, they're still going to want you to finish the whole thing before they send your work out to publishers. If your project is nonfiction, you should have a polished book proposal with killer sample chapters ready to go.
When you're finished, it's very important to make sure you absolutely have the best work possible and that you have revised it to death. It's very easy to get caught up in the rush of finishing your first draft, so definitely celebrate that accomplishment, but then get to work on making the manuscript better.
The best way to find an agent is through a referral from an existing agented writer. Mine your personal connections and degrees of separation. Go through your friends and friends of friends to see if anyone knows anyone remotely connected to the publishing industry.
If you don't know anyone, or those friends of friends haven't e-mailed you back, try to make your own connections. Attend a writer's conference or join a group, something, anything to get you one step closer.
If that doesn't work and you've exhausted all of your options, you can try sending agents query letters. It's rare for the query letter route to work -- I've seen thousands and thousands of query letters, and of those I've only taken on two as clients**. But hey, you have a chance, and if you gotta do it you gotta do it.
I'll run down the dos and don'ts of query letter writing in a later post. In the meantime, best of luck on your search for the right agent!
(Please feel free to send questions about book publishing my way -- I'll do my best to answer them.)
**UPDATE 11/13/07: I originally wrote this post a loooooong time ago, and I want everyone to know that I have since taken on several more clients through the query pile. I still feel that referrals are a more advantageous path toward representation, but I don't want to give people the impression that I never take on people from queries. I do!
Friday, April 28, 2006
"Beck, you know I embrace nature," Crystal said. "But could you tell me why I’m knee deep in kudzu?"
"Because I’m a big puffy wuss," I answered, as I pulled my foot out of a kudzu snare. I squeal at the sight of big bugs. I'm afraid of the dark, afraid of snakes. And I am hugely afraid of cute guys."
Crystal tripped over a rock and said a word I didn’t think her mom would like hearing, then she grabbed my arm. “Okay, now tell me where the kudzu fits in.”
"Did you read my yearbook last year?" I asked as I stared up into the tallest oak on the planet. Jesse's favorite tree. Of course, for my little brother, favorite tree means tree mostly likely to result in multiple broken bones when fallen out of.
"Hel-lo, we have the same yearbook."
"No, did you read what people wrote in mine?"
"Yeah, I guess; nice stuff -- right?"
I walked around the tree looking for the side that offered the best first climbing spot. "Very nice," I said. "In fact, 'nice' was the word used most often, though 'quiet' was a close second. One guy even called me ‘bookworm,’ though I think it’s because he was a little shaky on my actual name." I wondered if Jesse usually brought a bucket or something to start his climb.
"There is nothing wrong with being nice and quiet." Crys grabbed my arm so I would look at her. "Besides, what does that have to do with Goliath tree here?"
"Xena is not nice," I said. "Lara Croft is not nice. Nice is one step away from invisible. I want to be daring. Maybe wild, or dangerous – and I want it to happen this year."
"And the tree?"
"I'm going to climb it. Why did you think I wore all these clothes in bazillion degree weather? It’s protection."
Crys looked up into the tree and frowned. “You should have worn more clothes and maybe a parachute."
"Right," I said. "Tree climbing is risky, dangerous -- daring.”
“But, Beck, tree climbing is so third grade,” Crystal said. “If you want to be gutsy and wild, I think you should start by doing something mature. Like telling Scott that you think he’s a hottie.”
“You’re the one who thinks he’s a hottie,” I said. “I think he’s a pig. Besides, I’m not quite ready for interpersonal courage.” Crystal opened her mouth, probably to offer some other horrifying suggestion but I put up my hand. “I have to start somewhere. I choose here. Give me a boost."
Crys boosted and I scrambled. At no point did I look like an Olympic gymnast but I managed to get to the first branch and I was pretty proud -- until I looked down. I totally know why they tell you not to look down from heights. I almost hurled on Crystal's head.
"Is that high enough?" Crystal asked. "Do you feel wild yet?"
"No, I feel queasy," I said. "Now, don't talk to me because I can't look down. I'm going up." Once you're in a tree, it's not all that hard to get higher up. By the time the branches started to get too thin to make me feel good about putting my bulky body on them, I was feeling pretty daring and a little shaky. Still, trees are cooler than I thought. I spotted a squirrel's nest and bird's nest. Since neither one resulted in any adorable wildlife trying to poke my eyes out, I assumed they were empty.
"This is great," I yelled down to Crys. I noticed my voice sounded a little trembly and high.
"Are you ready to come down now?" she yelled back.
Was I? I wasn't sure. Looking through the thick foliage made me feel like some kind of magical wood nymph. But I was starting to get branch butt from sitting so I was probably done. "Yeah, I'm coming down."
In order to get down, I really needed to look down. That was still not good. I didn't spot the branch I needed to slip down onto. Instead, I'm pretty sure I saw sudden death leering up at me. "I changed my mind," I yelled to Crystal. "I'm going to live up here."
"What are you talking about?"
"I can't get down," I wailed. "I can't even look down without getting the golly wobbles."
"Do you want me to go get help?"
"No!" Something like this would spread like wildfire. I would not only still be Miss Wuss, I'd be Miss Doofus T. Wuss.
"So you’re going to live in a tree? I bet I can guess what people are going to write in your yearbook this year."
Sometimes I hated Crystal. "Go get Jesse," I yelled. "He's climbed this stupid tree a million times; he can talk me down."
While I waited, I tried to recapture the magical wood nymph feeling but I just felt like a big weenie. "It's okay," I advised myself calmly. "I'm making a slow start but that is no reason to give up on the plan. I did climb up the tree!" I looked around my perch again -- up was daring. That's when I heard the first rumble of thunder.
Tall trees on top of hills are not good places to wait out a thunderstorm. I didn't need anyone to remind me of that. I leaned forward on the branch I was until I was resting on the branch on my belly instead of my butt. Then I twisted around so that my legs dangled from the same side of the branch and slowly eased downward, feeling for another branch with my feet. I wasn't finding any.
"I got up here," I grunted as I eased down a little more. "So I know there's a branch down there."
I felt around a little more. No branch. I scooted down a little more and slipped. I grabbed at the branch but my weight was too unbalanced and the bark only sandpapered my fingers as I fell. I grabbed for two different passing limbs as sticks scratched at my face and arms but I couldn’t hold onto anything. Finally I snatched at one wrist-thick branch and snagged it, jerking myself to a stop.
My momentum was a little too strong for the skinny branch and I heard a ringing snap as it cracked along the base. I watched the branch tear slowly loose from the tree, leaving a long ugly wound. I felt around desperately with my feet as the branch ripped lower and lower -- then I was falling again. I was nearly halfway through the tree's canopy before I slammed into a thick branch. It hurt but I was stopped.
I pulled myself up onto the branch and sat. I was a lot closer to the ground now, though still too far to jump without picking up a broken leg. I realized it was raining. Not a lot of rain was making it through the leaves to hit me, but the rain reminded me that I was still sitting in the tallest tree on the highest hill in a thunderstorm. A crackling boom encouraged me to try another climb down.
I eased over onto my stomach again, though this time my aching body complained a lot more about it. I was going to have some nifty bruises from this adventure. Once again, I slipped downward slowly, feeling for a branch. My toes struck something hard and wide and I almost whimpered in relief. I let myself slip more until both feet were flat on the branch.
I felt the hairs on the back of my neck rise and the skin on my arms tingled. Lightning makes you feel like that. The storm had found my tree. I let go of the branch and jumped as an explosion blasted in my ears. The lightning must have hit the tree but I was already airborne.
The air felt thick and alive as I plummeted toward the ground. The tingling covered my whole body. More branches slapped at me but I barely noticed them.
The ground slammed into my feet and I bent my knees and rolled to absorb the shock. My gym teacher would be so proud, I thought. Then my rolling picked up speed and I tumbled dizzily down the hill.
When I hit the bottom of the hill, I was gasping and dirty -- but almost giddy over being alive. Nothing even felt broken! I sat up, wiped the muddy dirt off my face and looked around grinning. Now, that’s what a wild woman does for fun!
I was facing a thick stand of trees. The grin slipped off my face. Jesse's oak is the only big tree for miles, so I couldn't be facing a forest -- but I was. I had rolled down the hill into total impossibility. So I did what any girlie girl would do in my position. I fainted.
I didn’t faint long. I’m not that wimpy. Still, the rain was over and the sun was past the midpoint and moving slowly behind the hill. It had to be two o'clock, at least. I wondered why Crystal and Jesse hadn't found me. Then I remembered the woods. They were still there -- thick and gloomy dark in the early afternoon light.
I stood slowly and looked around. The hill looked normal enough, mostly covered with scrub grass and weeds, though I could clearly make out the muddy track where I'd torn my way down. I saw Jesse's oak at the top of the hill. It didn't look damaged so I guessed the lightning hadn't hit it after all. But everywhere else I saw thick forest.
Just inside the woods, I spotted a wide path so I edged slowly toward it. Nothing scary happened when I entered the woods; it just got a little cooler and the air picked up that dusty leaf smell. I was hesitant to walk out of sight of the familiar hill and tree. I sat down on a fallen tree that lay crumbling to bits on the forest floor.
Maybe I knocked myself unconscious when I jumped out of the tree and everything after that was a dream. Except that I'm not sure unconscious people have dreams.
Then a really sick thought hit me. Maybe I'm not unconscious from the fall. Maybe, just maybe, that lightning bolt hit me and I was in the hospital, comatose, with tubes crammed up my nose. With my nose, if I had tubes crammed in there, I hoped no one was visiting me. I must look like Porky Pig.
My stomach clenched with a new thought: I could be dead. Dead would be bad. I don't want to be a dead 16-year-old virgin. I know some religions believe you can have sex after you're dead but I'm pretty sure mine doesn't. So I really wasn't ready to be dead. I was also babbling inside. And maybe hyperventilating. Do dead people hyperventilate?
I put my head between my knees and breathed slowly for a few minutes. I needed to concentrate on being lost. I was just lost. No reason to think about how I got lost. I would get unlost. I'd find Crystal and Jesse looking for me. And we'd go home and listen to Mom and Dad yell at me awhile for climbing trees in thunderstorms.
I know if you get lost in the woods, you're supposed to sit still and wait for someone to find you. But I didn't think anyone was going to be launching a search party here in Neverland so I figured I was on my own.
"Step one, survey the surroundings." I thought my voice would be good company. Wrong. Too shrill, too panicky. I sat still and listened. The first thing I noticed was… nothing. There was a whole lot of nothing here. No bird noises. No squirrel noises. Just -- water running somewhere. That made me realize I really had to pee. Dead people do not pee. I am so not dead.
Following water downstream is a good tactic when you're lost. "Step two," I whispered. "Make a plan and take action." I stood up, knocked a clod or two of dried mud from my jeans and headed for the sound of water.
I found a wide, fairly slow creek. I hustled behind a bush and took care of the peeing problem, my muddy clothes cracking with my movements. Then I walked upstream a little and knelt down. The water was sparkling clear until I washed my filthy hands. Isn't creek water supposed to be icy? This was almost warm. "Maybe a hot spring," I whispered. "Or something really, really big peed in it." I laughed at that a little longer than it deserved. Dead people don't get hysterical. I'm sure of it.
I splashed some water on my face and watched it drip back into the stream, brown with mud. That's what decided it for me. Wherever I was, I had a long walk ahead of me and these clothes were disgusting. Suddenly all of my hysterical energy focused on getting clean.
I looked around and saw nothing but empty, silent forest. So I stepped closer to an alder bent over the water and slipped off my sneakers and banged them together to shake off the mud. In honor of "practically the end of summer," I wasn't wearing socks. The damp leaves felt cold against my feet.
I looked around again, then skinned off my muddy jeans. I knelt at the water and used a wet rock to scrape off most of the mud. I pulled off my white cotton sweater, actually Mom's sweater, and soaked it in the creek. When the mud washed away, I saw long rips down one sleeve. If it turned out that I wasn't dead, Mom would kill me. My tank shirt looked pretty good so I left it on, along with my bra and panties.
I waded into the slightly deeper water in the middle of the creek. It was only thigh deep. I sat on a flat-topped rock jutting from the water, leaned back, and rinsed out my hair. With my hair clean and warm water running over my legs, I felt almost human again. In fact, I felt a little wild sitting in the middle of a stream almost naked. “That’s right,” I said. “I’m wild. I’m a wild woods woman.”
Finally, I sighed and slogged back to shore. My sweater and jeans were going to take a while to dry so I decided to try "lost in the woods 101" and just sit around. Who knows, maybe someone would come along and rescue me?
I wondered if I should try to formulate a plan of some sort for night. Even if I followed the creek downstream, I probably wasn't going to run into any people before dark. It was just too quiet here to make me believe that there was a thriving community nearby. I had no food, but plenty of water – well, assuming I wanted to drink it. What if I wasn’t the only thing peeing in that water?
I also didn't know jack about what kind of things you can eat in the forest. Unless I ran into a McNuggets tree, I was going to get very hungry.
Across the creek, the bushes parted and a large animal lumbered over to the water. The fact that I didn't wet my drawers is testimony only to my having unloaded in that very water earlier. This thing had a long toothy snout like an alligator, but its body was huge and thick like a bear with lots of crazy long fur in a patchwork of gray and brown. I sat frozen, staring at it and praying it would just get a drink of water and go quietly back to the nightmare it had slipped out of.
That's when it looked up at me. For an instant we stared into each other's eyes. Then it snarled and leaped into the water toward me. That broke the spell. I was on my feet and running before the first splash had settled.
I could hear the monster splashing and snarling behind me, and not far behind me either. I fought the urge to look back like some 50's horror-movie star. People who look back, die. Rocks and sticks bit into my bare feet but it didn't slow me down. I could hear the thing gaining. I could almost feel its jaws clamping down on me.
I darted around a thick tree and almost slammed into a huge deadfall. It was taller than me and densely grown over. I could never climb that. I was dead. I was so dead.
I spotted one small perfect break in the wall of brush, close to the ground. I dove for the hole. The sharp sticks and rough bark scraped my bare skin bloody but I was through. The deadfall shook and shuddered as the monster slammed into it from the other side. I scrambled to my feet and kept running.
The ground was growing steeper and rocky, chewing the soles of my bare feet. I wondered if the monster was good at tracking blood. I heard it howl and I knew it was gaining again -- it had gotten through the deadfall. I scrambled faster but I wasn't going to be fast enough. I'd never won a race in my life; it didn't look like I was going to make the first today.
I scrambled past a boulder, hearing the monster's claws on the rocks below me. Suddenly a strong arm slipped around my waist and jerked me behind the rock. I yelped and struggled, kicking my bare feet into what I hoped were my attacker's most delicate resources. He gasped but his grip didn't slack off. "Be still." Warm breath tickled my ear. "I will not hurt you." A second arm wrapped around me and I spotted a sword in his hand.
A sword was good. I totally approved of a sword. I would have approved even more of an AK-47 but a sword was a nice, too. I stopped struggling just as the monster rocketed by. I had a split second of hope that it would just keep running but it spun and faced us.
The thing squinted at us, then past us, then all around the whole freaking rock. It sniffed the air and wrinkled its snout in a snarl. It took one more step toward us and I felt the arms around me tighten. Then the monster shook its head and turned to race up the hill and over. My legs went so weak, I was very glad for the arms holding me up.
The arm holding the sword dropped away and I was a little sorry to feel it go. The arm around my waist stayed but shifted so I could finally see my rescuer. He was older than me, more man than kid, but still young judging by the sparse five o'clock fuzz he was sporting. His hair was dark like his eyes and the rest of him matched his strong arms very nicely. "Are you hurt?" he asked gently.
I wasn't sure how to answer that since there didn't seem to be any part of me that didn't hurt badly. I just stared at him like a big idiot for a minute. He eased away a bit and began to look me over. I was suddenly very aware that I was standing there in a skimpy tank shirt and granny panties in front of a fully-grown hottie. My mother would so not approve. I looked down at myself. My clean skin was filthy again and hashed with scrapes and scratches.
"Where are your shoes?" he asked, horrified. I'm just a fuzz above stark naked and he obsesses about my shoes? Actually my feet were starting to have a word with me about the trip from the creek. I sank down to the ground and looked at them. They were bleeding hard from several puncture wounds. I wondered if you could get a tetanus shot here in Bizarro World.
The hottie knelt down beside me and touched my cheek very gently. "Do you speak?"
I looked up into his beautiful eyes and burst into tears.
I may be a wimp but I’m not usually a crier. Of course, I don't usually get chased by monsters so I decided that my hero could just wait a minute. Besides, I couldn't stop.
I felt his hand patting my back like I was a baby in need of a burp. "You do not have to speak," he said and I'm sure I detected a desperate edge to his voice. Apparently girl crying is kryptonite to guys in this world too. "Many people talk far too much, anyway." He rambled on about the value of silence for a bit longer, marking time with his pats on my back.
Finally I sniffed a bit. I really needed a tissue. Even a sleeve would help. I sniffed again and managed to croak out, "I can talk."
The back patting stopped. "Why were you crying?"
I stared at him. I had tumbled into wonderland with no white rabbits in sight. I'd been chased by Franken-Cujo. My feet felt like I'd been buffing calluses with a belt sander. Dampness from the ground was soaking through my granny panties, which was decidedly gross. And I suddenly realized that I was really, really hungry. "I've had a bad day”.
He blinked at me a bit. "We cannot stay here," he said. "The beast will be back eventually. There is much blood here."
"I'm going to leave a lot of blood anywhere I walk," I said, making this the longest conversation I'd had with a cute guy in my entire life.
That's when he picked me up and we started back down the rocky slope. I know I've seen guys carry girls around a million times in the movies. But those are movie girls. They must weigh, what? Maybe a hundred pounds counting hair gel. Plus, when the guy starts to wheeze and stagger, the director just yells, "Cut!" Guys on television do not carry girls like me. I may be short but I'm sturdy -- like a hundred and forty pounds of sturdy. This guy carried me like I carry my cat.
I wasn't sure if this was the coolest thing I'd ever experienced or if I was scared out of my mind.
"Um," I said, dazzling him with my wit, no doubt -- and folks wonder why I'm quiet. "I left my clothes and shoes near a creek. That way."
"The earth's blood waters," he said. He wasn't even puffing.
"Can we get them?"
For a guy who was babbling minutes ago, he could sure turn into the strong silent type fast. Of course, if I were hauling me around, I wouldn't waste oxygen with a little chat either.
I settled against his chest -- it was a very nice chest -- and decided to go with the moment. One of the nicest things about his chest is that is wasn't overly clothed. He was wearing some kind of leather muscle shirt with a slit down the middle and leather laces to close up the gap…only he hadn't bothered to close it. I was grateful for that oversight because when I laid my head against his skin, I could feel his heartbeat. Which was nice and kind of drowsy.
"What's your name?" I asked, my voice a little mumbly.
I didn't wake up until we reached the creek. He knelt and put me down very gently next to my clothes. "How did you know where I left my stuff?"
"Your trail was clear," he said. "We must work quickly. We do not want to be near the earth's blood when night falls."
"Yeah," I agreed. "It was a little exciting here during broad daylight.'
"Beasts are dangerous," Garin said as he rummaged through a leather pack he was carrying. "But they are not very bright. There are many creatures that would not have been fooled by a simple spell -- not when your blood scent was so strong."
"A spell? A spell?" The only time anyone talks to me about spelling is when Mom nags me about my homework. Sure, spells fit right in with everything here in wonderland but somehow that just pushed me over the edge. "We do not have spells where I come from. Monsters do not chase us. This is not happening. It's not. Totally not. Ow!" The disgusting green stuff Garin was slathering on my feet stung!
"The pain will pass," Garin said as he rinsed the green glop back off my feet with warm water from the creek. That didn't seem like good germ management but I decided to let it go. I could always soak them in hydrogen peroxide when I got home.
"Where are we?" I asked very softly.
He frowned slightly. "Next to the earth's blood waters."
"No, I mean globally." I waved my arms around. "Where is all of this? What is this forest? What is this place? How did I get here? How do I get home?"
Garin stared at me a moment, then began to bandage my feet with questionable looking rags from his knapsack. "This is the Forest of Eire. I do not know how you got here, nor where you are from. I am not a seer." He smeared green goo over the scratches on my legs and my breath whistled from the pain. "I am sorry."
I wasn't sure if he was sorry for the pain or for not being a seer. "Isn't there a spell for sending someone home? Maybe some ruby slippers? A yellow brick road?"
He smiled at me slightly and moved on to hurting the heck out of my arm scratches. "You talk a great deal for a girl I thought was mute." Then he ran his fingers lightly along my jawline, which sounds really cool but stung like blue blazes. Was there anywhere I wasn't scratched?
I blinked away tears at the sting of the green goop. "That's something I don't hear very often," I whispered.
"What is that?"
"That I talk a lot," I said. "I tend to have trouble talking to, um, male people."
Gavin looked startled. "Were you cloistered?"
"I don't know what that means," I said. "Does it hurt?'
He laughed hard for a moment. Then wiped tears from his eyes and said. "I often wondered that. Don't worry…" He leaned in close to my face. "I won't let anything hurt you."
Up close, his eyelashes were incredibly long. I almost reached out to touch one. But that was a little too intense. "Look," I said, scooting back and clearing my throat. "You've got this great hero vibe going with the sword and all. And carrying a super chunk like me is no small thing. And you've got really, really nice muscles." I cleared my throat again. "But this has been a weird ride so far and I'm not ready for…well, for much of anything else today."
Garin wiped a damp rag across the scratch on my face. "You need to get dressed now. We have to go."
I winced in advance as I stood up to grab my stuff but putting my weight on my feet only felt a bit like the ache my feet get after a long walk. "That green gunk is amazing," I said as I wiggled into my damp jeans. Even when I tugged my damp shoes onto my bandaged feet, it didn't hurt at all.
"Gunk, goo, slobbery stuff," I explained. "The crap you put on my feet."
He stared at me for a moment. "Oh. My mother is very good with herbs for healing. She showed me how to make the gunk." He pulled Mom's sweater off the branch and handed it to me. "We must go now." I followed him, pulling the sweater over my head. I managed about one step with the sweater wrapped around my eyes before I stumbled. Garin caught me and switched to leading me by the hand. He had nice hands. Warm. Big. Just the right amount of callus.
My stomach growled. "You wouldn't have a granola bar in your bag would you?" I asked.
"I do not know what that is."
"It's a hunk of cereal.. And probably some really scary preservatives. Sometimes some fruit and nuts. Chocolate if you're lucky," I explained. "It's good for preventing starvation. I know I don't look like I'm in danger of starving. But I might be."
He glanced back at me. "You're hungry?"
"Right, I missed breakfast to go tree climbing so the last time I ate it was yesterday," I said. "Before I went crazy."
He let go of my hand to root around in his pack while he walked. I missed the handholding so much I almost told him to forget the snack. Then my stomach growled in protest at the very thought. He handed me a piece of hard bread. Like a big honking crouton. It almost took more effort to eat it than my stomach was willing to go for, but I finally crunched down the last bit.
The shadows had darkened considerably and I stumbled. I had to do it twice before Garin took my hand again. He seemed to have no problem slipping between the trees in the deepening gloom. Although my stomach was asking for something a little more friendly than stale bread, I was really more tired than hungry. I tried to avoid looking too clumsy as I followed him through the trees but it was getting harder.
Finally I spotted a warm glow cutting through the dark trees. Could we be near Garin's house? I hoped he had a friendly mom with soup. We stepped into a clearing next to a cottage. Actually, it was more like a hut. Really, shed wouldn't be a totally insulting description of it. It was getting harder to picture soup as I stared at it.
A fire was burning in front of the shed but that definitely was not a mom tending it. It was a scruffy looking guy with a mean scowl.
"By all that's bright, what do you think you're doing?" The guy demanded. He had a long nose that he poked toward us like a crow with an attitude problem.
"I think I am coming home," Garin said. The way he said "home" sounded like sarcasm to my expert ears. "To eat and sleep."
"Don’t be daft," the thug said. "What are you doing bringing a witch here?"
"Witch?" I yelped.
"She is no witch."
"This is the Forest of Eire, Garin. Of course she’s a witch,” He shouted. “You know the easiest spell in the world is to make a witch look vulnerable and beautiful." Beautiful?
"She is not a witch."
"Are you sure? Are you willing to bet your life on it? Are you willing to bet mine?"
"I am as sure of her as I am of you, Lore" Garin said. "And I know she is tired and hungry, as am I. Is there food?"
The grouch crossed scarecrow arms and did the glaring thing for a moment. Then he grunted and shrugged toward the shed. Garin led me inside. It didn't look any less shed-like on the inside except that it had a fireplace of sorts. That gave it a more permanent look than it deserved. A kettle sat close to the fire.
Garin scooped some kind of stew from the kettle into two bowls. He handed me mine with a hunk of bread. Then he sat on the floor near the fire and started shoving the stew into his mouth with the soppy bread. Apparently they didn't do spoons.
I dabbed at the stew as I sat beside Garin. I couldn’t identify all of the vegetables and I probably didn’t want to know what the meat was considering the only wildlife I’d seen today tried to eat me.
"Who’s that?" I asked.
Garin looked around the room as if I might be seeing visions. "We're alone."
"Outside; who’s the grouchy guy outside?"
"We are traveling companions, of sorts. I met him after I left home."
"Why did he say I was beautiful?" I knew I was obsessing but this was a new event for me.
Garin looked at me oddly. "You are beautiful."
"Oh, god," I whispered. "I'm dead."
"I'm dead. There's no other explanation. Hot guy rescues me. Hot guy carries me around. Hot guy says I'm beautiful. It's heaven. Except for the monster. I am absolutely sure there should not be monsters in heaven. So I must be like halfway between heaven and hell. Purgatory! That's it. This has got to be Purgatory."
Garin took my hand and held it between his. "I have seen many dead people. They do not breathe. They do not move. And they do not talk. You are not dead."
"I guess if I were dead, you'd have to be dead, too," I said. "That would stink."
"The dead do tend to smell," Garin said seriously. "Very bad."
This whole conversation was surreal. "Maybe I'm having some kind of drug trip. I rolled down a muddy hill -- there could have been mushrooms on it. Don't some mushrooms make you see things?" I said.
"Do you have visions?" Garin asked. He wrinkled his forehead a lot when I talked to him. My grandfather does that, but it's because he's kind of deaf.
"No, no visions," I said. "Unless all of this is a hallucination and I'm really still lying under a tree with my head split open."
"You are in my camp," Garin said softly. "At the edge of the Forest of Eire."
“Maybe,” I agreed. “Unless I’m in a coma.” I scooted closer to Garin. “Does my nose look big?”
The door to the shed, um, cottage opened and Lore came in and headed toward the stew pot. He didn't look a lot happier than he had outside. When he glared at me, I felt exactly like I'd been caught doing something and I edged away from Garin a little.
"A pet witch," he muttered. “I thought you were smarter than that.”
"And I would expect you to show more instinct for survival," Garin said mildly. "Do not keep insulting my guest."
"Since when is the truth an insult?" Lore growled as he dumped stew in a bowl.
"The truth," Garin said, no trace of amusement in his voice now. "Suggests you would not want a fight with me, Lore.”
Lore took a step toward us, then hesitated and flopped to the floor instead, slopping a bit of stew onto his already grimy clothes. He began cramming soppy bread into his mouth at a stomach-turning rate. Then he turned and looked me over. "If you're no witch, where did you get those clothes?" he asked, showing me some half-chewed food.
"The mall," I snapped. "Where I wish I was now."
"I know of no Mall," he said. "And I know all the villages within four days travel. Is Mall a witch town?"
If I was a witch, I can't see myself being tripped up by this guy's clever questioning. I just rolled my eyes. "I'm not a witch. I've never been a witch -- not even for Halloween. I was a pink fairy princess once, but I was in Kindergarten at the time."
Lore snorted in a particularly unattractive way and went back to cramming food in his mouth. Garin sighed and said, "We need to sleep. Tomorrow I must find a way to take…" Then he paused. "What is your name?" he asked me.
"You don't know her name?" Lore bellowed, spraying spit our way. "I hope you didn't give the witch your name." I was starting to really hate this guy.
"My name is Rebecca," I said. "But only my grandmother calls me that. Everyone else just says Beck." Well, those people who remember my name for more than five minutes.
Garin smiled and nodded. "Tomorrow I must take Rebecca home."
My hero. I just hoped he could do it. Lore grumbled as he carted his bowl back to the hearth and wiped it with a grimy rag – which, by the way, was the same thing Garin had done with ours. It made me a little queasy to think about having eaten out of one of those germ factories. The Lore rolled out some kind of thin mat near the fire and lay down.
Clearly these were luxury accommodations, though I was so tired I didn't really care. Garin rolled out a matching mat, and then gestured for me to come and lay down. The only problem was that he was already lying there.
"You want me to sleep with you?" I squeaked.
"The fire will fade," he said. "By morning it will be very cold. I do not have enough bedding to keep either of us warm if I divide it."
Okay, that made sense but sleep with him? It was okay. I was a modern woman, sort of. I'm sure he just wanted to sleep. My heart was pounding by the time I snuggled down beside him. It was very toasty under the covers. When Garin slipped his arm around me, I almost passed out, but other than that it was very comfy.
I lay very, very still for a while. Lore was snoring, loudly. The snoring didn't seem to bother Garin because his breathing was deep and even in my ear. I had been really tired before we went to bed, but if I were any more awake laying there, I would have levitated.
That's when I realized I had to pee. Badly.
I seriously doubted this shed had plumbing. They probably just peed in the bushes or used an outhouse. Unfortunately, outhouses are usually out. I did not want to go out. Not alone. I decided not to think about it. I concentrated on breathing deeply and evenly. Mind over matter. I was totally comfortable. I didn't need to pee.
I was going to wet my pants.
Normally, I might have picked pants wetting over wandering around in a monster-infested forest but normally I'm not sleeping smooshed against a guy. A good-looking guy. A good-looking guy who thought I was beautiful. Not that I'm still obsessing about that.
I wiggled out from under Garin's arm and slipped out of the bedroll. If he had woken accidentally I would have asked where the potty was. But he didn't. I would never again believe all that "warriors sleep with one eye open" stuff. Warriors sleep like big noisy rocks.
Nighttime in the woods is seriously dark. The embers of the fire in front of the shed offered a little light but it didn't stretch very far. I decided against hiking around looking for an outhouse and just peed near a brushy spot by the side of the shed. It's very hard not to pee on your shoes in that kind of situation. When I got home, I was going to clean the toilet every day for a month in gratitude.
I pulled up my jeans and slipped out of the bush, right into someone. I shrieked.
"Don't be afraid," Garin's voice said in the darkness.
"You scared me half to death," I gasped. "Did you watch me pee?"
"Rebecca, it is a very dark night and I am not an owl."
"Oh, right." We stepped around the shed into the dim light of the dying fire. "I guess I did wake you after all."
"I am sorry I did not show you where the bucket was," Garin said.
"Well, that would have been nice," I admitted. "But I'm not sure I could have peed inside with you guys."
"We should go in and sleep."
"Yeah," I said but I wasn't quite calmed down enough to try cuddling again. "So, have you always lived out here in a shed?"
“No,” he said softly. “I am from a small kingdom that borders the forest."
“Oh,” I said. “Do they have monsters there too?’
“No,” he said as he walked closer to the dying embers of Lore’s fire. “The beasts live only in the Forest of Eire.”
“Then why would you want to be here?”
“I knew my father would not look for me here,” he said staring into the fire.
"You’re honked off at your Dad?" I asked.
“Mad – is your dad mean or something?”
Garin shook his head. “Not really. My father wants me to assume the duties of my rank but I’m not ready to be closed up in a castle for the rest of my life arguing with other kings over stray cattle.”
“Other kings?” I said. “Your dad is a king?”
"I'm dead," I said.
"You should not dwell on death," Garin said. "It is bad luck."
"But you don't understand," I said, stepping away and heading toward the dying fire. "A handsome prince rescues me and thinks I'm beautiful? This cannot be real." I was still obsessing the teensiest bit.
"If the men of your village do not think you are beautiful," Garin said softly, stepping very close to me. "They are fools." He put his hand on my face and I could see those beautiful eyes in the firelight. He was going to kiss me. If he kissed me, I didn't care if it was a hallucination. I might not even mind being dead.
I closed my eyes and tilted my face up to his. And someone grabbed me from behind.
Chapter 1 (Decisions)
“What do you mean, ‘it’s best for him to go?’”
“My dear, as I have explained repeatedly, he has boundless potential. We both know this, but in order for him to realize it, he needs to go. He can’t stay here his whole life. Kayden’s not a child anymore.”
Josie Verus’ sandy-blonde hair had a slight hint of grey, highlighted by the sunlight streaming through the window in her tiny kitchen. She had soft features, rounded hips reminiscent of a curvy youth, and kind, hazel eyes that danced with life. Her usually delicate, warm demeanor began to turn into a heated fury with the suggestion that her only son leave their little town of Alexandria. The now repetitive argument was finally coming to a head after years of discussing his future.
Kayden stooped low beneath the dusty window outside Josie’s kitchen. The old pane was cracked just enough to allow their voices to carry to his devious ears. He’d heard their arguments before but they’d never been so specific… He spoke lightly to himself so they wouldn’t hear. “Anymore? I just turned seventeen, Mom. Go where?”
“You see, that’s the thing; you haven’t really explained anything!” she exclaimed as she pointed her finger at the old man they affectionately knew as Uncle Henry. “Hasn’t it always been your incessant rambling that true education occurs outside the classroom?” mocked Josie in her best impersonation of his tendency to preach. “Why is Summit any better than anywhere else?”
Kayden slipped on the grey, wet gravel along the edge of the little cottage. He gathered his balance and gritted his teeth in hopes they didn’t hear his clumsiness. “Summit? Yeah, like they’d have anything to do with me.”
Henry smiled gently at her. “Yes, dear, that’s true.” He paused to regroup his cluttered mess of thoughts and explain himself. His tone became that of an emphatic orchestra conductor. “I do believe a complete education has to occur beyond a school’s controlled atmosphere but I also believe his path can’t fully be revealed unless he ventures out into the world. That’s why Summit is the perfect place for him. He won’t be stuck in a classroom learning nothing but theory. It won’t be like his schooling here. We have to look at this as an opportunity, not a threat.” His voice became calm and sympathetic. “Nothing will ever change for him in Alexandria. You know that. Eventually you have to let him grow up.”
“You don’t know any more about his future than I do. Let’s not pretend to be clairvoyant, shall we? This is complete guesswork on both sides so don’t pretend it’s otherwise,” said Josie. “You have no idea what awaits him out there.”
Kayden leaned in closer as their voices lowered. “Out there?”
“That’s the point: neither of us do. The only thing we can know for sure is that he’ll waste away in this small town. He needs to find out for himself.”
“Find out what? What the hell are they talking about? Uncle Henry may know some people, but I’m pretty sure even he couldn’t get me into that place. Why would I even want to go to Summit? It’s for the spoiled kids, like Henley and Willium.”
Henry had the gift of persuasion which squelched the heated animosity in any argument. To others, it made him seem like he had a hidden agenda behind his actions. In this instance, Kayden’s mother was less than amused. She was protective of her son and furious with the change in Henry’s previously consistent feelings toward his education. She was so worked up over the argument that she spilled her glass of wine. She jumped up and began scrambling to wipe up the red stain that had begun to seep into the butterscotch rug of her humble dining room. Kayden caught the slight hint of a smile as she tried to clean the stain from his old, dusty jacket. He’d never seen her act more like an adolescent, happy she ruined it.
“I’m not sure Kayden would even be interested,” grumbled Josie as she continued to scrub the crimson spot. It didn’t appear to be coming out. The weary muscles in her arm tensed at the sound of her voice. Her eyes fell to the floor in disgust as the words escaped her lips. It was only a matter of time before she gave in.
Kayden had seen that same look many times before. He rolled his eyes. “You’re such a pushover.”
That was the loaded response Henry needed to hear. It was too late. Josie couldn’t take her words back now. They were an inadvertent signal that she wasn’t going to hold her ground. Kayden could see that he was fighting back the smirk that threatened to spread across his face.
Henry was an older man who had the appearance of someone who had put his body through a great deal of pleasure over the years. The enjoyment had finally caught up with him, though. He was stoutly, appearing at times to be older than he actually was. His ragged, gray hair was loosely combed and his eyebrows were in desperate need of a trim. His cheeks had started to droop a little from what used to be a chiseled, sturdy face. His once athletic legs looked slightly shaky with the additional weight he had steadily added over time. Despite his disheveled appearance, there was no questioning his wisdom and cunning. Henry always had an angle, a point to get across. He knew just what buttons to push in order to get his way and still leave the other person with an unexplained feeling of satisfaction. His parlor tricks never seemed to work on Josie, though. She was much too passionate when it came to Kayden and she knew Henry better than anyone else.
“Dear, I know it’s been incredibly difficult raising a young man without a true father. His Phaedon dad should have been around.” Josie’s muscles clenched at the mention of a father. She was still resentful after all these years for having to raise Kayden on her own. “It may be difficult to hear, but a young man has to find himself before he becomes an adult.” Henry sighed. “He can’t do that while he’s living here with his mother. Alexandria, while safe, is no substitute for real world experiences.”
Kayden peaked careless overly the sill to see how much wine was left in the bottle, his left eyebrow cocked upwards. “Phaedons? Since when do they talk about fairy tales?”
“Don’t start with that!” She leapt forward until she was within arms’ reach of the old man. “You’re not even his real uncle. You don’t get to waltz in and act like you’ve been the one raising him for the past seventeen years.” Henry must have seen the burning passion in her eyes as he cautiously waited for her to calm down. There were too many glass objects around for his comfort level. She was visibly furious, but still looked guilty as soon as she exploded. He was the closest thing Kayden had to a father. Henry had made very difficult decisions in the past to ensure he was able to be there for her son.
Kayden barely understood what was going on but he could tell that she was arguing out of fear. She would never admit Henry was right, even if he was only doing what he thought to be in Kayden’s best interests. It had been so hard raising him alone, but she clearly wasn’t ready for it to be over yet. And now he was forcing her to turn this chapter of their life before she was done reading.
Kayden was still a young man, but they both agreed he should have the final say. “I know you have more ideas up your sleeve,” she said accusingly.
“That’s not exactly a vote of trust, is it? We’ve already had this argument and we’ve made all the arrangements together. It would be hard to back them out now.” His debonair smile was irritating and even though Josie was well aware of his games, they were still hard to resist.
“What’s your ulterior motive?” Josie’s penetrating stare bore into him, challenging him to hold his ground. Henry looked into her eyes and matched her gaze as long as he could, but he never answered the question. Instead, he kissed her on the forehead before heading out the door.
Kayden waited for him to get out of earshot before he stealthily found his way to the porch. Luckily, he’d replaced the creaky boards just last week. Henry hadn’t even bothered to shut the front door. He wondered if Henry knew he was there the whole time.
He continued on into the living room where Josie nearly jumped from her
skin at his sight.
Kayden smiled but didn’t actually acknowledge her presence. He walked into kitchen and grabbed the one of the apples from the counter. He glanced at the back door and waited to hear footsteps. There weren’t any.
“I’m gonna go find Logan!” Again, he waited to hear footsteps… Nothing.
“Let me know if you guys come to any conclusions!” Still Nothing.
“It will just be good to know when you guys have my life all figured out!” He slammed the door behind him and didn’t wait to hear a response.
As he crossed through the wall of greenery leading to the road, he finally heard footsteps back in the kitchen.
Chapter 2 (The Savior)
A group of four, crooked shadows crept over the hunter green field where Logan McReedy was enjoying his last afternoon of freedom in Alexandria before he left for Summit. The day had been unseasonably warm and it was only proper that Logan take some extra time and enjoy the fruits of Mother Earth’s labors. The vast ocean of trees closing in on the uneven field were turning from their bountiful, full-summer form into a cornucopia of colors, eventually leading to their barren, stick-like appearance in the winter. The cold, leafless images had, unfortunately, become a trademark of Alexandria. It was once just a quiet village nestled into the cliff tops along the southern ocean, unknown to most people and flourishing with small town, community spirit. Now it seemed a mere shell of itself as tourists marked it as a wintertime delight to get away from the hustle and bustle. He hated the commercialism that consumed the tiny town during those few, cold months. It was like someone had stolen the true character of the town he had grown up in.
The particular group headed his way was not a surprising sight to Logan, but it was still something he wished to avoid. Avoidance didn’t appear to be an option, though, as they were now only fifty meters away. He decided to stand his ground to see what became of the situation. The shadows belonged to a small set of young thugs who liked nothing more than throwing around their over-inflated sense of entitlement. Logan was, without question, the smartest kid in school and time after time had denied their requests to cheat off him. Mickey Tanner was the largest of the four and, naturally, had become the leader in their caveman-like culture. Reilly Chevus was the slimy, stout bully and the other two were the Laughlin twins, Tim and Lauren. Their collective families unofficially ran the town as the local elders and, therefore, the boys held a certain aura about them. They felt as though they could to do what they wanted, when they wanted, without the need to explain themselves.
Logan wasn’t the largest guy of all time, but he didn’t run from a fight. He also wasn’t afraid of taking a beating if he had to. Any lack of strength was overshadowed by a fearless abandon of self-preservation. He liked fighting. It was something physical to escape his usual bookworm persona. For that reason, he was never shy to throw his wiry frame around, even if it got him into trouble. Since there didn’t seem to be anyone around to watch, the risk to his self-esteem was also considerably lower.
“Where are all of your friends?” shouted Mickey.
Resisting the urge to begin what seemed to be an unavoidable spat that would leave him in shambles, he kept his mouth shut and looked down like he didn’t hear them.
Reilly chimed in at the top of his surprisingly high-pitched voice, “Don’t shy away now, smart guy! You’re never that quiet in class. It’s different when you don’t have Kayden and Willium around to fight your battles for you, isn’t it?”
Instead of getting into a debate with a bunch of power-bloated, trust fund brats, Logan stretched out his lanky frame and made as if he was going to ignore them and head back home. He really didn’t have the energy to martyr himself today.
Mickey apparently decided Logan wasn’t allowed to turn his back on them. “You don’t get to run away this time.”
A snicker of laughter started behind him quietly and before he knew it, the football they’d been tossing back and forth pelted him in the back of the head. As he fell forward, he remembered thinking that turning his back on scum like them probably wasn’t the most intelligent move he’d ever made. The next thing he knew, an oversized, dirty boot with a thick, ridge-filled, rubber sole began pushing his face deep into the mud of the soggy field. Judging by the immense pressure, he guessed the oversized foot belonged to Reilly, as there was no way the rest of them combined could have weighed enough to match the steady force being applied by the anvil sitting on his skull. Logan could feel the breath leaving his body and wondered if he would really die of suffocation. It wasn’t exactly the honorable death he had pictured for his obituary.
He ignored the throbbing spot on his head, twisted out from under the foot, and grabbed Reilly’s ankle. The obese boy was surprised by the swift movement. Logan twisted with all his might and sent the overweight hoodlum to the ground with a splattering of mud sitting just beneath the layer of thick grass. He started to get up before the others jumped in, but he was already too late. They were closing in before Reilly had hit the ground.
The next moment would happen in a blur, but depending on who was telling the story, it would be incredibly different. According to Kayden, the knight in shining armor appeared at the top of the hill and rode in on a cloud of white mist. Trumpets sounded as he charged into battle and angels played hymns to his valor.
In reality, as the twins launched themselves at Logan’s muddy head, a flourish of blue flames seemed to spring up from the ground, ready to consume the four boys. Even Mickey was scared enough to take off running in fear for his spoiled life. Logan never saw how it had happened, but later Kayden explained that he had taken some incendia berries from his Uncle Henry’s house. He had begun tossing them when he saw Logan’s predicament. While Reilly had tried to get back on his feet, Kayden had caught Mickey in the jaw with a wild punch. The brutes were gone before Logan was back to a standing position.
The little berries that exploded into blue flames upon impact were one of Kayden’s favorite things about Alexandria. He didn’t understand how the seeds spread so well, but the strange, twisted wood of the incendia vines could be found growing wildly throughout town. After all, the berries would burn up anytime they fell to the ground. Logan, of course, knew the answer and had told him at one point, but Kayden hadn’t paid attention.
“You could’ve killed me!”
“Yeah, maybe… but what a way to go,” chuckled Kayden. “Oh, come off it. It’s not like I was aiming for you. I could have just left and not worried about saving you… again.”
“You have an interesting definition of saving, Chief,” replied Logan as he shook his head. “You know we’re going to hear from the elders for that one. Before long, the whole town will have their own version of the story that’ll be passed around Growley’s like a new beer on tap.”
“First of all, I’m pretty sure Growley’s hasn’t had a new beer since alcohol itself was invented. And second of all, the elders can shove it. I don’t care if I hurt their precious little angels’ egos. Mickey keeps acting like he can order everyone around and someone has to put an end to it.”
Logan’s eyes grew wide as he said, “Well, excuse me, Your Elegance. I didn’t realize you were holding court. You do understand the little angels you refer to will eventually run the town, don’t you?” Logan didn’t wait for a clever response. “Look, you didn’t have to help out, anyway. It’s just going to lead to trouble.”
“Yeah, I’m sure you were about to corner them.” Logan began to imagine how he would’ve ended up had Kayden not been around to pull him out of the mud. Most of their childhood youth had been spent in similar situations. Kayden was always the one doing the saving and Logan would never admit it, but he probably wouldn’t have seen his seventeenth birthday without him. On the other hand, about ninety percent of Logan’s troubles were probably brought on by Kayden in the first place, so it roughly evened out in his head. The skinny kid was incredibly fragile, despite his scrappy attitude. He was sick all the time and, despite missing more days of school than anyone, still managed to be at the top of their class. He constantly missed weeks at a time without losing his grasp on the subject matter.
Logan knew Kayden’s biggest fear was that he knew he couldn’t always be around to protect his friend. Kayden was a rebel, as his reputation went, but Logan always felt more like the little brother that had to keep him grounded. Sure, Kayden brought on some of the trouble, but he was also the only one that would get Logan out of it. He always knew Kayden didn’t particularly relish the responsibility, though, and would obviously rather spend his days chasing girls at Growley’s.
The underlying truth hiding in their banter was how their lives were about to change forever in very different ways. They were no longer the headstrong teenagers without a care in the world. Logan was leaving town to attend Summit tomorrow; Kayden was not.
It was an incredible honor to be accepted to Summit. Only a small percentage of kids were invited to attend. World leaders—be it scholars, kings, doctors, or scientists—all came from Summit. The most promising youth came to realize their destiny in the unique school. They were whisked away from the boredom of their mundane high schools after their sophomore year to prepare for their future greatness.
Logan had gotten in the old fashioned way—by earning it. His incredible book smarts had earned him one of the few scholarships offered. Kayden, however, didn’t have such an option. Logan was trying to mask his excitement about the opportunity. He understood that Kayden was trying to avoid the unavoidable wave of misery to follow once his best friend left.
“Look, man. I know it’s going to be tough staying here—”
Kayden cut him off, “You know there is something I’ve been meaning to ask you.”
“Are you still going to be such a tool after you start chasing some of the rich girls at Summit?”
They both started chuckling, but Logan knew Kaydn was using the joke to get around the uncomfortable conversation. He suspected Kayden really did want to go and he didn’t want him to be left behind in their small town. He didn’t want to lose his friend, and he really wanted Kayden to see what all the fuss was about. In his head, it wasn’t just another high school like Kayden kept saying.
“In all honesty, you can have all the glory and what not. You’re just going to have to learn how to talk to girls without me. I’ll just have to steal them when I come to visit, though.” Kayden smirked. His confidence was not without merit—the girls always seemed to love him.
“And how exactly do you plan to win those ladies over? Your charming good looks? Your family’s hidden wealth? How about your prestigious name?”
Of course Kayden had no fortune and his family’s name couldn’t get him a loaf of bread, but Logan’s judgment of his looks was purposefully off base. After all, there was a significant difference between the two. Kayden was built proportionally well for his above-average height. His tan complexion, dark hair, and striking brown eyes that seemed a slightly lighter shade in the fading summer sun completed the well-rounded package. He’d never had difficulty getting girls and Logan couldn’t envision it being terribly different at Summit. Logan was long and lanky with dark blonde hair, a round baby face with an awkward smile, and light blue eyes. In many ways, he seemed very plain next to his confident friend.
“Okay, then, a beer at Growley’s says Galena Flaherty is sitting on my lap by the end of the night,” said Logan. He was trying to match Kayden’s confidence, but it would help if he believed it himself.
“Well, let’s see. You owe me a drink for saving your tail tonight already, and Galena Flaherty doesn’t even know you exist.”
At that moment, Josie’s voice began echoing in Kayden’s mind loud as day. “You need to come home right away. We have something to talk about.”
He seemed to wake up from a trance and raised his head. It was reverberating loudly against the cool summer breeze as he rubbed his forehead. Thankfully, the voice disappeared. “Josie just told me I need to stop back by the house before we head to Growley’s. Sounded urgent.”
Logan’s twisted facial expression gave away his distaste for the thought of someone roaming around in his mind. “Doesn’t it bug you that your mother can just talk to you through your mind whenever she pleases? It would creep me out. Imagine if you were on the toilet and she just started talking to you. Between you and me, my mother probably shouldn’t hear the thoughts in my head while I’m on the toilet.”
Kayden laughed. “It’s not actually like that. She can’t hear my thoughts. She doesn’t even enjoy having the power because she is too straight-laced to have fun with it. I’ve actually only felt it a few times. It must really be important. It must have to do with her fight with Henry.”
“Either way, it still seems creepy,” said Logan.
Kayden ignored his complaint and the boys crossed the field under the Alexandria sun; their last afternoon of youth setting quietly behind them.
Chapter 3 (Growley’s)
The boys marched to Josie’s modest, country-style house where Kayden had grown up. They went up the drive, passing the abundance of flowers that Josie took so much pride in. Their destructive dogs, Satchel and Cooper, came running up to Kayden’s side as he passed the old pecan tree. His mother had never gotten even a single pecan off the decrepit tree. The squirrels emptied it every year before she got around to picking them. Logan began tossing sticks with the dogs like he always did, but kept his distance from the house.
“I’ll stay out here with the Satch and Cooper to let you guys have your family moment. You sure you want me to wait?”
Kayden smirked and walked into the house. He had no intention of staying in tonight. Theirs was an old, decaying cottage that had been passed down through three generations so most of it was in poor shape, despite Kayden’s amateur repair work. The cliffside location overlooking the ocean, however, was breathtaking. From their vantage point, they could see the sun set perfectly into the water. The spiritual event would turn the whole sky rich, carmine pink for thirty minutes each night. Kayden remembered watching it throughout his youth as he dreamed of being a pirate out on the open seas.
Kayden entered the kitchen and sat down at the dinner table that was humorously too big for the two-member family occupying the house. It was another family heirloom Josie had inherited with the house. Had it not been for the extravagant family hand-me-downs, which were often nicer than the house itself, they really would’ve struggled. Henry helped out when Josie would let him, but for the most part, they made it work living off her meager beauty shop salary.
Josie seemed to tip-toe across the room as if she was literally walking on eggshells. He noticed her precautious body language and knew this wasn’t about him forgetting to feed the dogs. There was something bigger on her mind. He brainstormed for anything he’d done that would have caused this level of anxiety, but nothing came to mind.
“Kayden, there’s something I need to tell you and then there is something we need to discuss,” said Josie in the most calming voice she could muster as she entered the kitchen. Her hair was more frazzled than he was used to seeing and her dried mascara revealed she’d been crying.
“What is it? Where’s Uncle Henry?”
Josie became visibly frustrated. “Look, I know how important Henry is to you, but I need your undivided attention right now. Is Logan outside with the dogs?”
“Yeah, we were headed out.”
Kayden watched her bite her lip on passing any judgment as she knew it meant they were headed to Growley’s. She had never approved of his inclination for the bar, especially being only seventeen, but it was a small town and nobody paid much attention to underage drinking unless it caused problems. She obviously had more important things to discuss than his nightlife activities.
“Do you remember what I told you about your father? I realize I haven’t told you much. I’ve done a pretty thorough job of ensuring that… I had my reasons.” She looked down and to the right as if she was ashamed.
Kayden knew there was more to their story but he had never pushed to find out more than he was told. He couldn’t bear the sight of his mother crying. “He was a cowardly piece of shit who left us. What else could I possibly need to know?”
Kayden watched her focus on staying calm. Apparently, she wasn’t going to join him in his hatred for his father right now. There would be plenty of time for that later. “I won’t argue with you about that, but there is something more you should know. Your father—”
“Look, it’s been seventeen years. I’m pretty sure anything you have to tell me about my loser father can’t be that important if you’re only bringing it up now.” Kayden started toward the door. He wasn’t in the mood to deal with this right now. He was about to lose his best friend to school and his mother wanted to talk about her pathetic partner in what he imagined to be a one night stand seventeen years ago.
“SIT BACK DOWN AND LISTEN TO WHAT I HAVE TO SAY. THIS IS HARDER FOR ME THAN YOU REALIZE.” The telepathic voice splintered through his head so much that it gave him a short, blinding headache, leaving the room in momentary darkness. He slowly turned from the door and sat back down feeling dejected and a little scared. “Twice in one day?” he said under his breath.
Her tear-soaked eyes returned to their normal hazel color as she dried them with her sleeves and ignored his complaint. “Your father left and there’s nothing we can do to change that now. However, there is more to the story than you were ever told. He had a… gift; something I never told you about.”
Kayden was confused. Where is she going with this? She’s never been open about him before. She practically went crazy any time I brought up his name and now she was openly sharing secrets? What kind of gift could that worthless prick possibly have?
“Your father was a Phaedon.”
She paused to consume his entire reaction. An unsettling silence filled the room. Kayden was focused on her eyes, but they seemed to be frozen in a mix of emotions he couldn’t describe. He shifted his stare to an empty space on the wall. Everything he knew about his broken family faded into a cloud of lies behind his mother’s suddenly deceitful face. His hatred for his father shifted to a concentrated elixir of outrage for his mother’s deception.
“Why did you hide that from me? Are you telling me I might be—”
Now it was Josie’s turn to cut him off. “We don’t know for sure. Look, I’m so sorry I never told you.” He knew she was trying desperately to avoid the word lie. “I was very hurt by your father and I didn’t want to be reminded of him. It was too painful. However, I should have told you. Yes, it is possible that you, in some ways are, well…”
“Ageless? Eternal?” said Kayden angrily. “Yes, I’ve heard the fairy tales. I know the terms.” He stared her down.
The fading sun was descending over the edge of the cliff on its path to the ocean. Burnt orange rays were hitting Kayden’s disheveled face displaying his sparkling brown eyes as he searched for what to say.
“I know this is a lot to take in. I talked to your Uncle Henry today and he thinks you should attend Summit, considering what you might be. He already talked to the school and they said they would make a special exception for you.”
“Where in the hell is this coming from? How about a clue? I’m just going about my life and then one day before I’m left alone in this little town without my friends, you decide it’s time to drop a bomb. What do you want me to say? You’re telling me I might live forever and hey, while I’m at it, I should attend Summit? You’ve kept this hidden this from me for seventeen years so why are you revealing this now? You know what? I’m guessing Uncle Henry is the only reason you’re saying anything to me at all. I can’t believe you would do this.”
“Kayden, I love you more than life itself, but that doesn’t make me perfect. I don’t pretend to have all the answers. I have made, and will continue to make, mistakes, but I would never purposefully hurt you.” The sun was now completely gone and he was sure she was beginning to see his anger starting to boil over. He knew his overactive eyebrows always exposed his true emotions. She abruptly took a step toward the door, anticipating his reaction. She knew he was going to storm out even before he made the decision.
Sure enough, the piercing in his head erupted wildly. He threw down the wooden stool without saying a word and for a moment, their eyes met.
“Kayden, please don’t shut me out. I’m praying that someday you might understand why I waited to tell you. You’re the most important thing in my life. I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me.”
He felt betrayed by the one person he had unconditionally trusted. Kayden turned around, slammed the door open, and headed north with Logan urgently trying to keep up. Josie followed helplessly as her only son disappeared into the night. They began the short walk down the back alley and through the timber toward the town square.
Alexandria was quiet that evening. The light wind was whistling through the trees and the only sound of life was the random dog howling in the background. Logan kept looking at him strangely as they walked. He was used to Logan thinking he was a little crazy and out of control, but there was something else in the moonlit gleam in his eye.
“How is it possible?” Logan asked in disbelief. “I’ve known you my whole life. Quite frankly, the idea of you being a Phaedon seems like a joke. Are you feeding me a story? I mean… how could you be?” Logan seemed to wince at the very mention of the word.
Kayden tried ignore the crazy undertones of Logan’s questioning.
“Wouldn’t there have been some kind of sign? What about your Mom? What did she say? I mean, is she absolutely sure?”
There was a long pause as Kayden, for possibly the first time in his life, seemed completely clueless how to handle the situation. Kayden was viciously searching for his usual poster boy grin and cocky reply, but they eluded him.
Kayden took long, slow strides along the dirt path leading to Growley’s. He was taking his time passing through the cobblestone back alley of the aging stores just outside the town square. He wanted some time to process what had just happened so he walked in silence.
They passed by the post office and then by the library where Brietta Benson worked. Kayden was distracted by Logan’s sudden change of focus. He knew his friend was longing for those beautiful almond eyes lurking inside. Logan had spent most of his youth quietly chasing after her to no avail. Of course, she probably hadn’t noticed since none of the “chasing” involved an actual exchange of words. Kayden always tried to sooth his ego by saying she just wanted someone who was going to settle down and grow old in this little town. He was too big time. Yeah, that was it…
As he caught Logan’s break in concentration, Kayden looked up from his own thoughts and stopped abruptly. The sly grin Logan knew all too well started to form at the corners of his mouth. He stared at his friend for a moment without saying a word. Then, calmly as ever, Kayden finally spoke, “You know what I find funny?”
“I find it pretty funny you’re so concerned about your best friend, yet as soon as we get near the library you start thinking about Double B.”
“Her name isn’t Double B and I wasn’t even thinking about—”
“I believe tonight’s events have taught us a lot.” Kayden enjoyed the fact that, despite Logan’s overwhelming intelligence, he never seemed to be able to keep up with Kayden’s quips.
Logan hesitantly responded, “What do you mean?”
“Well, between you daydreaming about some library broad and me having to save you from a beating again, it just goes to show…”
“It just goes to show what?”
“Apparently I am the better man. It makes sense. I probably should live forever,” he said with a smug grin that made Logan want to take a swing at him.
“You son of a bitch!” Logan lunged at Kayden, but he was too strong and quick. Kayden grabbed him by the back of his neck as he dodged to the left and threw Logan playfully to the ground. Kayden was always extraordinarily fast when it came to sports, but situations like this showed how quick he actually was.
“I was worried about you, you selfish bastard,” yelled Logan from the ground.
“Get up and take your beating like a man. Besides, you have bigger things to worry about; like calling your shot,” laughed Kayden.
“Come off it. There’s no way you win tonight. I’m leaving for Summit tomorrow. That’s got to count for something.”
Kayden and Logan had been playing a game for as long as they’d been able to drink at Growley’s. The rules of the game were incredibly simple, yet the game had become increasingly difficult over time. They had decided that it wasn’t enough fun to merely impress girls. Instead, their competition was more challenging and required more creativity. They named the game was “Call Your Shot,” and the point was for each of them to pick out a girl for their opponent upon arrival. The first one to receive a kiss from their respective girl won. The key to the challenge was in the selection of the girl. It would be very easy just to point to someone the opponent had no shot with, but the boys had learned the game was more fun if they each had a fighting chance. Of course, Kayden always argued that it was skewed since every girl was fair game for him. Upon the kiss from the girl in question, the winner would announce his victory; thus, the name. Once victory had been claimed, the losing party had to then buy shots for the table—another reason for the game’s title. It was a common occurrence for Kayden to walk away with victory, but Logan had a good time playing, and every once in a while was able to sneak away with a win. They never revealed the game to anyone else or news of the game would spread fast and all the girls of Alexandria would know the routine.
“Tonight is going to be an easy win. Darlings are going to line up to buy me drinks tonight. All I need to do is say I’m leaving for Summit tomorrow and it will be an assembly line of girls,” Logan said, puffing out his chest.
As they opened the door to the pub, the living organism of Growley’s came spilling out into the night. The noise was deafening in comparison to the otherwise quiet street. Kayden coolly replied, “You think so?”
Growley’s Pub was the oldest building in Alexandria. It was built over 176 years ago as a library. It had taken on numerous roles including a morgue and a courthouse. The building had been used for multiple purposes because it was large and there hadn’t been a lot of money for new construction back in those days. However, as time went on and new buildings eventually sprung up, Growley’s had been reborn as the first pub thirty-five years later. It was a perfect match as it already had plenty of cooler space originally used for the morgue. This was the dirty little secret of the pub every local conveniently chose to forget.
When someone walked into Growley’s they were hit with billowing smoke from the front section of seating. The folks at the front tables could be found smoking all sorts of various cigars, pipes, and other strange weeds to combine in a twisted, bronze-colored haze. The smoke swallowed patrons whole, like a provocative perfume luring them closer. It smelled so interestingly toxic that they couldn’t resist searching for more. However, once past the cloud, the rest of the bar opened up into a spectacular lodge atmosphere most people wouldn’t believe until they saw it for themselves. The structure was made of teak, all the way up to the high, vaulted ceilings. Most patrons swore they were in an ancient church complete with cobwebs working their way up to those remarkable rafters. Toward the middle of the floor, there were three flat steps leading up to the most astonishing, nature-inspired bar anyone had ever seen. The bar itself was actually the twisted stump of a large redwood. It was sealed with a clear substance to protect it, but the roots stretched below the ground and made an unpredictably uneven floor. It was hollowed out in the middle for the bartender’s workspace and all of the liquor was hung from above like ornaments on a glamorous holiday wreath. The counter was another thick slice of the trunk, finished and placed on top of the hollowed base to create the unique alter of alcohol.
If Growley’s beauty wasn’t enough of an attraction, the pub’s history was enough to capture anyone’s attention for some great story telling. Supposedly, Alexandria was actually founded by an old sea captain named Growley many years ago. He came to the little spot by the bay and fell in love with the cool, summer temperatures by the water and the cold, snowy winters that followed. He decided he was done sailing and instead of selling his ship, he sank it in the bay. Nobody understood why he sank the ship, but it was a favorite topic of speculation. He built the first structure in Alexandria, his home, in the very spot Growley’s now stands. The house was supposedly destroyed during a tornado leaving only the redwood stump in its place. Years later, a library was built in his honor and the history of the building followed. On most nights, the boys loved to hear the guests twist the story to their imagination, but not tonight.
Kayden’s ability to process the earlier events and still keep his confident demeanor was remarkable. Nobody could tell from looking at him that his entire life and existence had been twisted into a mess of confusion. Of course, if there was one place Kayden felt completely at home, this was it. He didn’t think of Growley’s as a pub; he thought of it more as a safe haven. He was just as happy to sit peacefully in front of the fireplace with a book as he was partying.
His overly dramatic entrance wasn’t premeditated. Like most things for the brash, self-assured youngster, they just seemed to happen. The smoke slowly cleared a path for Kayden as he moved through the haze in the front of the building. He scanned the room as he moved past the bar and on to the back tables. The usual glances from some of the Alexandria girls didn’t faze him a bit. It was no mystery why Kayden was so successful with the town’s women. His tall, athletic build was framed by wide, commanding shoulders. He had a sharp jaw and a smile that exposed the wild, confident spirit within. Kayden was blessed with Josie’s strong features and naturally tan skin. He dressed shabbily at best, partly because he didn’t care and partly because he hadn’t grown up with any money. His clothes never seemed to be a focal point of the attraction, though.
Kayden had a huge grin on his face as he saw Willium and Henley sitting at a table with a couple of drinks in front of them. Henley Mannus was one of their oldest friends. She had lived on the other side of town in one of the big houses for most of her life. She was the only daughter of the richest man in Alexandria. Her father, Patrick, was the sole beneficiary of his family’s collective wealth and he flaunted it whenever he could. Somehow, despite her father’s arrogance, Henley was able to mature into one of the nicest people anyone would ever meet. She was generous to a fault, which exquisitely contradicted her extravagant upbringing. Summit was not an option, but rather a requirement, for her because Patrick was on the board of trustees and was happy to pay his daughter’s way. He was not one of the town elders, but everyone knew he would buy his way in if possible.
Willium Cassidy was the son of one of the town elders, and even though he was a shoe-in for the governmental old boys’ club, he’d done everything in his power to distance himself from it. His interest wasn’t in the affairs of their small town, but rather on the much bigger political picture overall. He had cropped hair and a face that reminded Kayden more of a whetstone than actual skin. His rugged, square jaw and protruding muscles would make any grown man proud.
Kayden had gotten to know him pretty well over the past few years as Willium had saved him from big trouble a number of times. The most memorable was when Kayden had flooded Dan Mulligan’s crops. The sick and twisted farmer had been harassing Henley when she walked home from school. He had told her how pretty she was in outfits only a princess should wear. Kayden hadn’t trusted his inappropriate banter and believed it was just a matter of time before Mulligan got too boozed up and took advantage of the young, innocent girl. He went on to claim he had destroyed the crops for fun since he hadn’t liked him anyway, but Willium believed he had done it for no other reason than saving Henley from the disgusting old man. Either way, the old man had gotten the message when his entire years’ crops were completely destroyed. Willium had convinced the town elders to be lenient since Kayden had only been protecting a friend.
“Well it’s about time you two finally made it happen,” announced Kayden. “I can’t wait for the power couple to start owning this town.” Logan chuckled as he pulled up a stool.
Willium sat very quietly with his usually half smile, half smirk. He always seemed to be quite amused with Kayden’s fearless approach to otherwise delicate subjects.
“Seriously, I just want to make sure I get a good seat at the wedding because that will be a party like no other,” he continued. “I can already imagine drinking the top shelf liquor on Patrick’s dime.”
Henley shot a glare at Kayden from across the table. She tried to look threatening, but her doll-like appearance was entirely too sweet to pull off any level of hostility. Henley was a shapely blonde with a natural smile that could light up any room. In many ways, she reminded him of a younger version of his mother, only extravagantly rich and much more fashionable. At first glance, she could easily pass off as the stereotypical trust fund brat, but it only took a little time to realize how thoughtful she actually was. On personality alone, you would never be able to tell that she was heir to one of the largest fortunes in the country.
Her irritated stare turned into a safer, more annoyed look of amusement. “Kayden, you should learn to keep your mouth shut.”
“Now honey, there’s no need to get all worked up. I’m just expressing my joy in seeing you guys finally start to figure out what everyone else has always known.”
“Just because you’re distraught over your own catastrophic attempts with the girls of this town doesn’t mean you need to pick on everyone else.” Despite her lavish good looks, he had never pursued her because he knew how Willium felt. Kayden was loyal to his friends. They fought too much to really go down that route anyway.
Kayden leaned sideways in his chair and smiled, exposing his perfect teeth and deep-set brown eyes. His shadow looked intimidating as the lanterns behind him flickered downward over his frame. With supreme confidence, he turned to face the giggling girls at the bar looking his way. Looking back at Henley, he replied, “Yeah, I’ve been struggling.”
A loud chuckle finally came to Willium’s chiseled face as he rocked back in his chair. Logan rolled his eyes and started to get up from the table.
“Okay, I’m ready for a drink. Who needs?” Kayden peeked up at his skinny friend from the corner of his eye. “Yes, yes, I know. I was speaking to everyone else,” Logan replied quickly.
“No, thanks. I’m still working on this one.” Henley cradled her drink in her perfectly manicured fingers and smiled. Willium answered by shaking his empty glass and cocking a brow.
“I’ll come with,” said Kayden with a grin.
Kayden was excited to get the game started and couldn’t think about anything else. He was already perusing the room as he walked up the stairs towards the giant redwood stump.
“All right, all right, who’s it going to be?” Logan asked.
“I’m not sure yet. I have to make it interesting, since it’s your last night and all.”
“Does that mean that you’ve decided to stay?”
“Now, now, stay on topic. As always, you have a small mountain to climb in this competition, so you’ll need to keep your concentration.” Kayden accepted Logan’s silence as agreement.
The two boys had extremely different methods of choosing their opponent’s challenge. He knew Logan had already chosen his target earlier when they had first come in. His approach was to pick someone who would be painful for Kayden to go after. Logan always tried to find someone that would completely annoy him in hopes that it would buy him enough time to win. A genius strategy could not guarantee victory in this game, though. A certain amount of charm, which Logan didn’t typically possess, was required.
“There you go! There’s your prize,” Logan announced as he pointed to the far corner of the cavernous building. Logan was pointing at Shayla Roberts.
At the mere sight of Shayla, Kayden’s stomach sank. Utter disdain was probably an understatement for how he felt about her. Even as a child, she was on her way to becoming Alexandria’s biggest gossip artist. She was constantly in everyone else’s business and loved to announce anything she learned from the mountaintops for all to hear. Shayla basically stood for everything Kayden hated about a small town.
“I can tell from the look on your face you’re excited about tonight’s game,” Logan said while he ordered two dark beers and the wheat beer Willium was drinking.
“I’ve always wanted a challenge.” Even Kayden was having a hard time figuring out how he was going to pull this one off. “Well, I guess tonight’s game is going to be especially interesting.”
“That one!” exclaimed Kayden abruptly with his outstretched finger pointed toward the door of the bar. He watched Logan’s fearful cringe in reaction to the excitement in his voice.
Logan handed over some paper bills to Diane the barkeep. She’d been at Growley’s longer than the boys had been alive. She was a short, cheerful, dark-haired woman who’d seen it all. She spoke the truth, even if it was painful, and she had taken a liking to the two boys. Diane was smiling at Kayden as she’d obviously seen the game enough times to figure out what was going on.
“You’re going to give that boy an ulcer!” cried Diane.
Logan finally gave in and appeased them both. There, just entering the bar and finding a small booth near the front with some friends, was none other than Brietta Benson. Logan turned ghostly white. They watched as all of his blood rushed to his feet and his hands started pouring ounces of frigid sweat.
“Th… tha… that’s just not right Kayd,” Logan said after a long silence.
“Sorry, Logan. You know the rules. There’s no turning back now.”
“You know this is—”
“This is going to force you to stand up and be a man. Do it. I’m sick of watching you drool after that girl for the past five years.”
Kayden knew he’d just broken about a hundred unwritten rules between men, but it was completely justified in his mind. His best friend needed a nudge in the right direction and he was providing that good little nudge.
Logan didn’t stand out from a crowd. He was of average height with an average build. He had messy, dark blonde hair and a round face that made him seem younger than he was. His nice persona and underwhelming looks often found him in the friend zone. He looked quietly over at Diane and said, “He will have a double shot of Serilla.” Logan had already laid the cash down on the bar as he shot a sneer over his shoulder to Kayden and slowly walked away to meet his doom.
Kayden couldn’t believe the brass he had just witnessed. It was the most courage Logan had ever displayed in all the time he had known him. Kayden now had to face the music himself. Serilla was a backwoods concoction that could bring a man, especially Kayden, to his knees. It had the taste of half vodka, half tequila, and half pure evil. He knew it was mathematically impossible, but it was the best way to describe something so horrid. He’d had many battles with the fire-water and all he had ever learned was to distrust and hate it with all his might. As Kayden thought about the awful liquor, it occurred to him the same description could be applied to Shayla. Not only had Logan just ordered him the worst thing ever created by man, but he had also set him on a course to dance with his own personal demon. She was a miserable pain that wouldn’t go away. Unfortunately, he couldn’t just take that particular poison and quickly be done with it.
“To hell and back,” whispered Kayden with a sly little grin that might have been only for him. He drowned the shot and, with all the force in his body, tried to keep a straight face. It was like someone had lit a large, flaming torch and tossed it recklessly down his throat. He headed back to the table as the burn spread to his extremities. Willium and Henley were watching him while Diane gazed in silent amusement.
“I don’t know what’s gotten into you two, but that double didn’t look like something to mess with. Was that Serilla? What the hell did you do to Logan?” asked Willium in disbelief.
“I told him Henley was finally coming to grips with her crush on him.” Kayden chuckled. He was still fighting back the burning feeling.
Henley calmly looked over at Kayden with a sparkle in her eye and said, “You think I don’t know what you two are up to? You think I don’t know about your little game? You’re disgusting and I hope you get what’s coming to you.”
“Darling, if it makes you feel any better, you were the muse that started this game,” said Kayden. “You never knew it at the time, but we watched two guys hard up on impressing you try their turn, so we decided the noble thing to do was to take bets on who would win; payment being shots, of course. Strangely enough, Willium, who wasn’t even playing, won, if you do recall.” He knew how to turn on the charm and he watched as Henley fought back a smile. “From that event, we came up with a fair, rule-based competition for ourselves.”
“That’s supposed to make me feel better? I couldn’t care less about the games you little boys play.”
Kayden knew she was only trying to sound tough. His mind was starting to dance carelessly and he could already feel the near immediate effects of the Serilla. That was something to worry about.
“What am I, chopped liver?” asked Willium. “I’ve known you for as long as Henley and she’s the muse? Somehow I feel slighted.”
Henley turned her attention back to Willium and gave him a stare that made him look down at his glass like a lectured child.
“So, as long as the secret is out about your amusing sport, why not give us the scoop? What’s going on?” prodded Willium.
“Well, since our game is ruined, I guess I could give you a play by play. You see, our hero,” Kayden nodded in Logan’s direction, “is busy trying to find enough nerve to talk to his Everest.”
“No way! He is not going to finally take a shot at Brietta, is he?” cried Henley in disbelief.
“Atta boy! Our little Logan is finally growing up and being a man,” said Willium.
“What are you talking about? Being a man? Wasn’t it just five minutes ago you were telling me about your adventure killing an itsy-bitsy spider?” mocked Henley. She looked overly proud of her dig as Willium promptly gave up a rough smirk.
“Anyway… Seeing how it is Logan’s last night, I felt it was only fitting to raise the stakes of our little pastime. Tonight, he has to face his fears and romance our elder scarlet.”
“That only explains half the story. What is your end of the game?” Willium asked.
Kayden looked down as he painfully admitted, “Yeah, Logan had his own trump card up his sleeve. Shayla Roberts is now my problem.” Willium and Henley began laughing hysterically and almost fell out of the clunky wooden chairs.
“You have to seduce Shayla Roberts?” Henley exclaimed as she continued to laugh loudly.
“Dude, you hate Shayla. Everyone hates her. The girl is a walking tabloid. How in hell are you going to stomach being around the little vixen?” asked Willium.
“Well, for starters, you are going to have put up with her for a while as well. I’ll need to bring her over to the table.”
“Tell me you aren’t serious,” Henley exclaimed. “Exactly how much Serilla did you have?”
“I’m a little unsure why we are the ones who have to suffer in a bet that you made with Logan.”
“What can I say, guys? I can’t win the match from across the room.”
There was a moment of silence while they desperately searched for any alternative to her at their table. Finally, Willium decided to make the best out of a bad situation. “All right, if we’re going to make it through this, we’ll need a little help.”
Henley watched him out of the corner of her eye while he headed to the bar.
Kayden leaned back in his chair, took a swig of his drink, and smiled at her.
“Don’t give me that look. There is nothing going on. You may have some sort of twisted fantasy about the two of us ending up together, but that doesn’t make it true,” Henley said.
“I’m just sitting here minding my own business. I’m not even entirely sure what you’re referring to.” Kayden’s crooked smile continued to antagonize her.
* * *
On the other side of the spacious tavern, Logan was hard at work. He had downed another drink before he had gotten up the nerve to approach the table. He nervously strode to the tall corner booth, ignoring the steady flow of sweat beads engulfing his palms.
“I’m not sure I should do this, but I’m actually going to lead with, ‘Haven’t I seen you at the library?’” said Logan with suppressed tension.
Brietta, caught by surprise, giggled a little and responded, “Well, I do have to confess, I’ve never quite heard that one before. Are you a fan of our humble library?”
“I also have to confess. I’ve only been there a few times, but I definitely think it’s the best one around—”
Brietta cut him off mid-sentence, “That was me, giving you an out, not me looking for an answer. Why don’t you sit down?” she said with an innocent, but controlled look. “What are you drinking?” she asked as he sat down at the rickety old table.
“Um… I’m having a Timberlager,” Logan replied. He was trying to play it cool and suave but it just wasn’t happening. She made a motion to the waitress to get him another. He was overpowered by her beautiful almond eyes dissecting his every move. She had an interesting tic, like she was trying to read his facial expressions like a book when he spoke. It was provocatively adorable and Logan was completely at her mercy. She had total control of the conversation from the minute he got near the table. He was helpless. This girl was going to be the end of him.
“Logan, it seems interesting you chose now to come and talk to me rather than at the library where you’ve seen me before.” She waited for him to respond. Even Logan knew this was a loaded question. He paused to take a quick drink of his lager.
“Well, if I were to introduce myself to you in the library, I would have to be charming and smart. Here at the bar, I can get away with only being charming.” He was particularly proud of himself for the clever answer.
He thought she looked amused, but she wasn’t doing him any favors. “So, when does the charming part start?” She continued to giggle as she said it. She had to know how hard she was making him work for it. “Besides, from what I hear, intelligence is more in your wheelhouse.”
Logan swallowed hard as he acknowledged his lack of wisdom in trying to hit it off with an older woman without help. He realized he wasn’t going to be able to outsmart his way through this conversation. She continued to smile in return, but it was becoming evident her interest would soon run out.
“Well, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I’m intelligent, but I was able to trick Summit into letting me attend,” Logan said, his voice trembling.
“That’s not exactly what I’ve heard. Didn’t you actually earn a scholarship? By the way, that’s typically something to lead with when you’re hitting on a girl.”
Brietta brushed back her long, straight, brown hair off her shoulder and leaned her thin frame into a close, flirtatious position. She was beautiful, without question, but her beauty was overshadowed by her intelligence. Most guys in town were too intimidated to ask her out. It would appear to be a pretty lonesome existence, but it didn’t seem to bother her.
Logan, furiously fidgeting with his hands under the table, found a fresh batch of courage and responded, “So, tell me, is it a bad thing if the girl is actually giving pointers on how to approach her?” His honesty and self-deprecating joke seemed to hit the right spot.
“It’s comforting. Are you actually this honest all of the time?”
“Although I’m sure Kayden would be telling me to shut my mouth right now, yes, I believe I am. For better or for worse.”
“Kayden Verus?” asked Brietta with an interested expression on her face.
Logan had seen this look before and it didn’t sit well with him. “Yes, do you know him?” he asked, even though he was sure he didn’t want to hear the response. He imagined taking her back to the table only to watch her fall for Kayden.
“No, nothing like that. He’s just interesting. I’ve met his mother and I’ve read about some of his local exploits.”
Logan felt a little more at ease, but he still wasn’t sure how he felt about her interest in Kayden. “His exploits?”
“You know, the scandal with Patti Finnegan, the numerous fights with the elders’ children, the alleged event at Dan Mulligan’s farm… He isn’t exactly shy about being the local news.” She looked a little embarrassed but Logan couldn’t understand why.
“I suppose that’s true. Kayden certainly isn’t frightened of finding the spotlight,” chuckled Logan. “Would you like to join me at the table we have in the back?” He was a little surprised by his newly-found valor. Kayden always said not to be afraid of the moment. Was this what it felt like to be him around girls?
No. Kayden wouldn’t have to try so hard. It would just come naturally. He’d flash a smile, say something shocki