Fiction

Darker Stars BETA: Chapter 5 Healer

Footsteps clapped in my direction, and the door swung open. My shoulders tightened, and my face flushed out of empathy for the man, Mr. Calcott. I knew what it was like to be close to a brother, or in his case, sister. Though, I suspected he hadn’t intended his conversation with Father to be overheard.

My lips tensed into a guilty smile.

Father frowned. “Mr. Calcott, this is my daughter, Silvie.”

The man’s lips twitched as he stared at me. I braced myself for words of anger, directed at me for eavesdropping. But, instead, the man knelt down before me.

“Silvie Hall,” he said.

My heart lurched at the rasp in his voice. He sounded like he was about to cry.

He lifted his arms in the air, as if he were going to circle them around my knees, but then dropped them and clasped his hands together.

“Please, please, Miss Hall. I am a Chascadian man, like your grandfather was. I was there for his funeral. I saw you with the baglamas.” His dark curly hair touched the floor and muffled his words as he bent lower and pressed his hands to my feet.

My mouth opened and closed. What kind of person would I have to be not to feel bad for this man? The pain in his heart had torn it in two ragged pieces.

“You are a Remnant Transporter, the only one,” he continued in his thick Chascadian accent. “If what your father says is true, then you can help me. You can find my sister and begin her healing.”

I sucked in a breath. I’d accepted what would become my vocation years ago, but I couldn’t believe it was happening so soon.

“Enough,” roared Father. “Sylvie is only sixteen under our timeline, a child. I will not have this responsibility forced upon her.”

The man sat back on his heels and tilted his head. “Is that so, Mister Hall? Or is it that you are afraid to lose her as well?”

Father’s lips curled into a scowl.

My head snapped back and forth between the two men. I wanted to say something, but the onslaught of emotions that tugged at my heart also juggled the words in my brain.

“I’ll see you out, Mr. Calcott,” Father said. His sudden slackness of jaw made his expression alarmingly calm. But the fury in his eyes was undeniable. He pulled Mr. Calcott to his feet and, after a long look at me, he dragged the man through the hallway.

“Remember me, Miss Hall!” called out the man, pressing his hands to his chest. “I beg you—do not forget Chascadia.”

My fingers shook so violently that I almost dropped the plates of cake before he and Father disappeared around the bend in the hallway. My breath came and went in gasps. I left one of the slices of vanilla cinnamon cake on Father’s desk, next to a folder of papers and an instrument that looked like a tiny telescope.

Mother smiled at me from the corner of his desk. I brushed dust from a metal frame that was as cold as it was dusty. This photograph of Mother was from the same year as the photograph of her I kept in the bathroom, one of many Father had taken after they married.

“What do I do?” I whispered.

The cowardice in me wanted to hide behind Father’s explanation that I was too young to undertake the mission Mr. Calcott requested. Mother would have left immediately—as soon as she’d gathered enough information for her search; and the hospital would have a new resident when she returned.

These thoughts followed me as I moved on to Madeline’s room. White hallways streaked past me as ghosts of the man’s voice echoed in my ears—the struggle and desperation in his plea for help. I hadn’t even asked for his sister’s name, and I knew Father wouldn’t tell me.

I stopped at a door lined in chains. Tiny bell-shaped charms dangled from delicate metal links. None of the doors had interior locks, but the residents didn’t seem to mind. What bothered them more was being alone, isolated behind closed doors, which is why many of the residents left their doors cracked open during the day.

The door to Madeline’s room was closed.

“Madeline,” I called out with a quick rap at the door. The bells jingled and rang cheerful, high-pitched notes. “Are you in here?”

I hesitated, uncomfortable with opening doors on people, invading their privacy. But also concerned for their safety. Without looking inside, I opened the door a crack, causing the bells to sway and jingle. I enjoyed the music they created almost as much as I appreciated their announcement to Madeline that someone was opening her door.

“Madeline?”

“Come in.”

I exhaled a breath and swung the door open.

Madeline sat at the foot of her bed with her legs crossed. Her carrot-colored hair was braided and hung down her back. Edges of bone from her thin frame stabbed at the fabric of her sleeping gown. She faced a screen mounted on the wall.

“Were you watching something?” I said, following her gaze.

“Yes,” she said mildly.

“Has it ended?”

She shook her head.

I frowned and walked up to the screen. It was dark and blank. I pressed a fingertip to the glass. It was cold, as if it hadn’t been powered on recently. When I turned around to face her, gray eyes that were slightly out of focus were looking past me.

“What were you watching, Madeline?”

“A memory.”

“A memory? Then why were you looking at the screen?”

“The pictures in my head are clearer when I pretend I’m watching some else’s life projected on a screen.”

My mouth dropped open. This was the most Madeline had hinted at her travel talent, at least to me.

When my lips closed again they stretched into a wide grin. “You’re playing back your recordings?”

Madeline blinked, then nodded. She patted her fists to her head. “I’m trying to remember. It’s in here somewhere.”

“What are you trying to remember?”

She turned and looked into my eyes. Then, as if acknowledging my presence for the first time, she smiled.

Her head tilted to the side as she took in the open door behind me.

I whispered another apology and swallowed. “Madeline, do you have the Detail Technician talent?”

She smoothed her fingers along her braid and stared at me with an intense focus. Her eyes roved from my face to my hands where I still held the slice of cake.

“Yes.” Her breath was quick, her words almost a whisper. “I see pictures, and I know there are more. But I can’t find them.”

I pressed a hand to her shoulder, grimacing at how her bones stuck out from beneath muscle and skin. But my heart thudded against the insides of my chest. Detail Technicians were able to record what they saw and heard by burning sounds and images into their minds where they would remain, stored, for long periods of time. When needed, travelers with this talent could retrieve the sights and sounds and play them back in perfect detail. Learning the talents of the recovering Lost when they were well enough to communicate them to me was one of the best parts of my job.

“It’s okay, Madeline,” I said. “You don’t have to find the pictures right now. You’re here with us, at the hospital, and you’re safe.”

I set aside my curiosity and focused on calming Madeline’s agitation. As much as I wanted to know more about what pictures she wanted to retrieve from her memory, those questions would need to wait. I wondered whether Javis already knew the answers, given how much time they spent together.

“Thank you,” she said, her breath slowing as she relaxed.

I smiled at how her eyes never left the slice of cake. “I brought you breakfast,” I said, pulling my hand away from her shoulder. I offered the plate and a plastic fork.

Her eyes brightened. She brought the cake to her nose and inhaled deeply.

“Javis made it,” I said.

Madeline’s cheeks pinked and her lips quirked into a grin. “For me?”

My shoulders tensed. I took a deep, calming breath, hoping Madeline hadn’t noticed. The recovering Lost were emotionally impressionable, and so those of us who worked at the hospital had to be as calm as possible at all times, which meant making great efforts to keep our own feelings in check.

But how could I tell Madeline that Javis hadn’t been thinking of her when he made the cake? That he’d baked it for me?

The pink in her cheeks gave her a healthy glow, and I liked seeing her feel better. I didn’t want to ruin that.

She looked up at me with concern in her large, gray eyes, still expecting an answer.

“He made it for both of us,” I said while trying to make my smile convincing. “Javis baked the cake for my birthday, but I’m sure he knew I’d share it,” I muttered quickly. I had mentioned to him that Madeline would love a slice, and he didn’t deny it.

She dug the fork into the slice and took a dainty bite. Her eyes widened. “I know these flavors. Vanilla—” She took another, larger bite.

Her brow, red with strands of copper and gold, pinched into a sharpened arch above her left eyelid. “And cinnamon?”

“That’s right,” I said, my voice suddenly sounding far away. “Is there anything else I can get you? Maybe a glass of milk?”

Madeline shook her head. She took one more bite before uncurling her legs from beneath her and carrying the plate to her desk. She opened the bottom desk drawer, which held a small refrigerator and placed the cake inside.

“Are you full? Already?” I grimaced. It was no wonder she was so thin. I would have brought her a few more slices if I knew she’d eat them.

“I want to save some for later, for Javis.”

“For Javis?”

She bobbed her head. Her eyes crinkled at the edges. “If Javis baked the cake for you and me, then he was not thinking of himself. Which means he didn’t get any.”

The skin of my cheeks slackened as I felt them grow warm. I’d been so concerned about myself and getting to the hospital that I never offered Javis a slice. The perception and ability for empathy—the reasoning, even—of the Lost travelers never failed to amaze me. All this from a girl who, moments ago, was staring at a blank screen trying to remember.

I pressed my lips together, taking in short breaths through my nose as I calmed myself—not for anything Madeline had done wrong, but to soothe my embarrassment for what she’d pointed out that was right.

“Javis would love that,” I said, finally. “I need to go—to make my rounds. But if I see him, I’ll let him know to come visit you.”

“Thank you, Silvie.” She wandered back to the foot of her bed and resumed her sitting position.

“Oh, wait,” I said, eyeing her sleeping gown. “Before Javis visits, you may want to get dressed for the day. Is it okay if I close the door so you can do that?”

If I hadn’t been paying careful attention to her reaction, I wouldn’t have noticed the slightest of nods, given before she directed her attention back to the screen.

Continue the adventure with Chapter 6, to be posted April 15. Read Darker Stars from the beginning, and learn more about its serialization here.

Flash Tales Release Day!

This collection is special to me because I feel like I could tell a personal story about each piece. I wrote the fable,”Morning and the Moon,” as a gift to a family member, and “What a Clown Reads” was my first creative work that won an award. I’ve read from the manuscripts of each story at open mics, and now I’m sharing them with you.

Discover the magic of music, sail with a feisty pirate, and view the stars and moon in a whole new light. Stories range from middle grade adventures to tales that can be enjoyed by teen readers.

Download for Kindle, Kobo, iBooks, and more.

As with all my releases, I’d love to know what you think. Please consider helping me get the word out by leaving a review.

Darker Stars BETA: Chapter 4

Sloe did not follow his mother up the stairs of the Clock Tower to its lofted quarters. He rounded the hallway at the base of the staircase and passed by the family’s shower room. The door to his bedroom was open, revealing an unmade bed and posters of worlds beyond his own. At least that’s how it was meant to look.

He halted before the doorway and pressed his hand to an invisible barrier. It glimmered and warped at his touch, blurring the scene of the unmade bed and posters. He smiled when he heard a bolt unhitch, the classic kind that signals the unlocking of a door—completely unnecessary for the technology but satisfying to hear.

He entered a room that had very little resemblance to the scene on the illusory door.

Sloe’s bed, positioned in the room’s center, was not only made, it was pristine with perfectly cornered sheets and blanket crafted in dark shades of green. A labyrinth of shelves, black and white Aborealian trunks, and writing desks surrounded the bed and branched outward to the walls of the room.

The wall farthest from the door curved in a half circle, following the interior curvature of the Clock Tower. The walls were bare, except for the strips of light that glowed along the upper angles that met the ceiling.

Sloe opened one of the trunks and pulled out a sweater and an old pair of dress slacks that were faded and worn. He folded the black and gold funeral robe and dropped it, along with his used shirt and slacks, in a basket next to the trunk.

He combed his fingers through his hair and would have considered adding a dab of cologne if he’d had any left. He’d used the rest of it last time he’d visited Raven. Since asking his mother for more would have spiraled into another awkward conversation about dating, he made a mental note to himself to bring it up later with his father.

After shaking the tension from his hands, he turned to leave the room. From this side, there was a space on the wall that looked like an entrance to an unlit tunnel. Sloe pressed his hand to the space and stepped through.

He exited the Clock Tower before beginning the climb, up along its exterior surface. Timepieces glowed as he touched them and faded when he moved on. He stepped over light bulbs and electrical wires, and dodged gears and other fixtures that stuck out from the tower.

Sloe stopped in front of an hourglass. The Clock Tower had many versions of this timepiece, but only one of them represented the world of Aboreal. His hand landed on an hourglass with alternating streams of black and white sand. The glass between the two metal ends of the timepiece glowed brightly, spraying beams of light across the purple sky.

Crackling and popping sounds filled his ears as fingers of electricity wriggled across his hand. He pressed forward, letting the currents absorb him and pull him through, into a tunnel filled with blue and purple light.

When the crackling subsided, he stepped into a world with a violet-blue sky that had no moon or stars. Without a sun to orbit, there was no day or night. The sky swallowed and reflected back light from the vegetation below. Lights from streets and homes added to the world’s brightness.

Sloe breathed in the air and smiled up at the violet-blue sky. In a way that had always made him uncomfortable, this world felt similar to home.

He followed a path toward a horizon of green grasses and trees, colors absent from the Clock Tower’s landscape. Felines roamed the street, mewing and licking themselves clean. Rabbits and other lapine creatures hopped along the grasses, some stopping to eye him curiously before springing forward and scurrying away. Each animal’s fur was either the darkest of night or the brightest of snow, with no shades in between.

The path widened as Sloe reached a village. Though this was not his first trip to Aboreal, he marveled at the likeness of the homes. They were constructed with different building materials, in a range of sizes, but they all had the same basic shapes, with defined tops and bottoms. Pointed roofs sat upon rectangular bases, all houses that looked nothing like the mangled mess of the Clock Tower where he lived. Compared to homes like Raven’s, he often wondered at how his parents had considered it livable.

Sloe reached a house made of brick and stone, built twice as tall as it was wide. A brassy beam ran along the edges of its pointed roof tiled with a material that had been cut from Aborealian trees.

He bounced in place and shook his hands again to release the edge from his nerves, then knocked on the door.

When the door opened, a lump formed in his throat.

Light from inside the home haloed a young woman wearing a fluffy purple hoody and matching sweatpants. Her glossy black hair was gathered in a loop at the top of her head and set in place with a comb of glittering flowers. Shining black eyes, the color of onyx, opened widely with recognition. “Sloe!”

“Hey, Raven.” He scratched the back of his head. “That, um, funeral thing finished sooner than I expected. Want to hang out?”

“Of course. I’ll be right out. I’ll just let my parents know I’ll be gone for a while. Do you know where we’re going, in case they ask?”

“Oh, um.” Sloe frowned, thinking. “I hadn’t planned that far ahead. We can go wherever you like.”

Raven leaned a shoulder against the doorframe. “So, basically, you want me to tell them it’s a surprise?”

“Sure.” He grinned. “That would work.”

“I doubt it,” she said, lowering her voice. “If they knew we left Aboreal as often as we do, we wouldn’t be seeing each other again.”

Sloe swallowed. “Then we’ll stay here, maybe hang out with your parents. We could play cards or something.”

“Oh no, anything but that. Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it.” She spun around, leaving the door open with Sloe standing outside.

He smirked at not being invited inside. The last time he visited Raven and her parents, he felt like he was on a date with Raven’s father. Like he was interviewing for a position to be the man’s best friend. That was the last time Raven let him physically enter the house. She’d made sure they’d gone out ever since.

“Okay, we’re good.” Raven returned smiling and slightly out of breath. “They’re helping Snow with his lessons. That should give us plenty of time.”

She slipped her arm through his. “Ready?”

Sloe smiled as they walked together to the exit portal that led back to the Clock Tower.

“Where’d you tell your parents we were going?”

“They didn’t ask, specifically. So I said I was going out with you and that I’d be back to help clean up whatever mess they were making with Snow’s lessons.”

Sloe laughed. Technology and calculations had changed so much since his parents last had lessons, too. The worlds were different and in a constant stage of discovery and change.

“Well, in that case,” he said, “let’s try someplace new.”

He memorized Raven’s grin, and the way the crackling purple sparks framed her face, as he accessed the portal and pulled them through.

Moments later they were still arm-in-arm, holding on to the Aborealian hourglass attached to the Clock Tower.

Raven smiled up at the purple sky. “This world doesn’t look much different than Aboreal,” she teased. “Should we ground?”

Sloe shook his head. “Not if we leave fast enough. The rumbling will still happen here without us.”

“You don’t want to tell your parents where we’re going either?”

He shrugged. “If we don’t like it, we can come right back and try someplace else. What’s the point of wasting time in between?”

Raven nodded slowly.

“We can always go back to that world with the air balloons,” he said. “You liked that one. But if we do, we might miss out on something better.”

“Then how do we choose?”

“I don’t know. But we’ll have to hurry before the impact of our arrival hits and knocks us off the tower.”

Raven hesitated.

“Which one looks interesting to you?” said Sloe.

Her eyes flashed to a sundial with a clear gnomon—a triangular blade sticking up from the center—with a matching crystal rim along the dial plate. She twisted her body to where she could reach out and touch it. But it did nothing in response.

Sloe placed his hand above hers. The sundial began to glow.

“Where does it go?” whispered Raven.

“I don’t know, but I feel it singing to me. It will be easy to unlock.”

“What kind of world do you think it will be?”

“I really can’t say.” He grinned. “Let’s find out.”

His words faded as the crackling heightened and waves of electricity allowed them to pass through.

Continue the adventure with Chapter 5, to be posted April 11. Read Darker Stars from the beginning, and learn more about its serialization here.

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Darker Stars BETA: Chapter 1 Legacy

Inheriting a baglamas that travelled through time would have made me smile on my birthday, had I not received it at my grandfather’s funeral. The rounded body of the instrument shined with centuries of wear. Its wood sat smooth and heavy in my hands. Trailing my fingers across its strings, I lifted my head to Father and frowned.

“I’m sorry, Silvie. I wanted to save this for later, but you’ll be expected to be seen with the baglamas.”

I ran the back of my hand across my eyes, careful to keep the tears away from the spaces above my eyelids. “Another reminder of Grandpa Plaka and Mother,” I said.

Father held his arms open to me. I took a long look at him before falling into them. His hands puckered with wrinkles. The lines of his once smooth face sagged at the edges. His hair had no streaks of gray like Grandpa Plaka’s had, but that brought me no comfort. Father was getting old. Before long, he would be gone too.

“You will be fine,” he said. His voice trembled. “We will be fine.”

“Valcas,” called a woman from outside the door. “Please accept my apologies, Mister Hall. You and Silvia are needed. The laurel ceremony is about to begin.”

Sniffling, I let go of Father and looked up at the woman. Her hair was braided and wrapped in a crown around her head. Combs accented with laurel leaves bound the braids together.

“Of course, Madam Sideris,” said Father. He took my arm in his. “We will go now.”

The bare skin above the woman’s eyelids pinched and twisted in my direction before she left the room. I couldn’t tell whether she did so out of jealousy, or whether she knew my secret.

I exhaled a breath and looked up at Father. He straightened his frown and tugged at my arm. Together, we followed Madam Sideris outside, to the burial grounds of Chascadia.

We passed through thick folds of people, some openly grieving and others looking on with widened eyes, their smiles somber. All were assembled in rows facing a hollowed rectangle in the ground. Dust and dirt gleamed copper beneath the sky’s golden light. A sun eclipsed the teardrop moons that were present both day and night.

A woman stood at the edge of what would become my grandfather’s grave. She looked at me with eyes that lacked expression. Her lips pinched together the way Father’s did, with no hint of smile or frown. Like most of the women present, she wore a loose dress, belted at the waist with braids of gold.

“That’s Madam Gazis,” Father whispered. “The reigning leader of Chascadia chose her to officiate the ceremony.”

I nodded, though I was admittedly not up to date on who currently governed Chascadia. If they were somewhere in the crowd they certainly didn’t flaunt their positions. Mother once told me a story about meeting Spyros and Andriana Tagma who ruled when Mother was still alive. I made a mental note to learn more about Chascadia’s history when I returned home, to Edgar.

I was more interested in what Madam Gazis held in her arms. A chest made of marble lay open, its lid pulling against the hinges. Garlands of fruit, sculpted into the marble and inset with colored glass, decorated the walls of the chest. I craned my neck, looking for what was inside. But it appeared to be empty.

Softly, I brushed my thumb along the strings of the baglamas, enough to absorb comfort from their presence but with too little pressure to produce sound.

Madam Gazis’s gaze flickered in my direction. She, too, appeared to be made of marble, but with the bronzed features of Earth’s Mediterranean. I froze, worrying she’d heard a vibration in the strings.

She looked past me and lifted her chin. “Welcome, everyone,” she called out.

A calm stillness spread across the crowd.

“Today we honor the life and death of a man dear to Chascadia,” continued Madam Gazis. “He was a traveler, a Remnant Transporter, and a Healer. Basileios Plaka.”

Moments of silence followed as those to my left and right bowed their heads. I dipped my chin toward the ground, but my eyes stayed focused on the chest.

Madam Gazis inhaled as she lifted her arms. “I present the burial trunk, the coin for which was donated by the Hall family.”

I turned to Father and frowned. He hadn’t mentioned the trunk to me, and I couldn’t help feeling left out of something important. I wondered whether Javis knew about the burial trunk. My teeth clenched together. Where was he?

“Are there any items that the family wishes to be buried with the deceased?” Madam Gazis spoke loud enough to address the crowd, but she lowered the trunk toward me.

I pressed the baglamas to my chest.

“The baglamas was all Plaka kept close to him,” said Father. The tremble in his voice twisted at my stomach. “He kept no sword or firearm at his belt. He was a man of peace.”

Madam Gazis nodded, eyeing the baglamas.

Father cleared the emotion from his voice and pressed a hand to my shoulder. “My wife, Plaka’s daughter, is also deceased. The instrument belongs to Silvie now.”

A shift in the crowd accompanied murmurs. My cheeks flushed pink as I took in the guests’ awkward glances.

Madam Gazis’s lips formed a polite smile, but not fast enough to disguise the twitch in her nose and pinching of skin above her eyelids. “Do you wish the burial trunk to remain empty?”

Father’s face paled, but he said nothing.

“Very well,” she said, tilting the lid of the trunk forward.

“Wait!”

I whipped my head to the right, searching for who had spoken. One of the guests, a woman with dark eyes and short white hair, pushed her way through the crowd. Studded boots crunched against the ground, sending streams of dust behind her. White locks brushed the collar of her black and gold robe. Her eyebrows were so white that, at first, I mistook her for a Chascadian. But as she neared, they became visible against her copper complexion. Her eyelashes, too, were as frosty as her hair. But nothing was as icy as her demeanor.

I sucked in a breath. “Is she Aborealian?”

Father’s sickened expression transformed to one of relief. “Ivory,” he whispered.

“We can’t let Plaka believe we weren’t thinking of him, Valcas.” The woman—Ivory of Aboreal—held up a clear plastic tube so that it was visible to everyone present. She bent its middle until it popped. The stick glowed orange.

“Put this inside your trunk,” she said to Madam Gazis. “Let the light guide Plaka to the great beyond, in hidden times and places those of us have yet to travel. Or whatever mushy stuff people say at events like this.”

I snickered at Madam Gazis’s look of bewilderment as she watched the yellow-orange light stick land inside the burial trunk. The skin beneath her chin wobbled as if she’d just swallowed something dry and distasteful.

But she didn’t argue or reject Ivory’s offering. She bowed and gently closed the trunk. And then she tightened its straps until the clasp clicked in place.

Ivory winked in our direction and smirked before turning and disappearing into the crowd.

Still as a statue, Madam Gazis stood by as four Chascadian men marched forward with a body wrapped in a shroud. A lump formed in my throat as they lowered Grandpa Plaka into the grave. One of the men reached out and accepted the burial trunk from Madam Gazis and placed it alongside the body.

I tried not to look at Madam Gazis who seemed relieved that she was no longer burdened with the weight of the trunk. Her fists rested at her hips, the same way my Grandpa Plaka’s had when he observed something serious.

Instead of covering the hole with dirt, another set of men followed, carrying a flat stone that was as wide and tall as the arm span and height of the largest of the men. On the stone was a painting of a man in a cloak playing a wind instrument, probably an ancient flute. Engraved on the stone, beneath the painting, was my grandfather’s name along with the inscription Healer and Singer of Time.

With the stone set in place, two women stepped forward with a crown of laurel and rose gold. Together, they bent forward and placed the crown at the foot of the stone. The smaller of the two women touched her lips to her fingertips and then pressed her hand to the crown.

“A symbol of this man’s contributions as a healer,” she said. Her voice was somber and sweet. She stood and clasped her hands. “Since we were unable to mark the exact time and place of Basileios Plaka’s death, we commemorate him here where his body will remain and rest.”

An icy chill trailed along my spine. If they were unable to figure out where and how he died, then how were they sure this was his body? And who delivered it to Chascadia? I wanted to ask Father what he thought of what the Chascadian woman had said, but one look at his grief-stricken face told me that now was not the best time.

Gently, Father squeezed my arm. “The last of your family to receive such a burial was your great-grandmother, Dara Plaka, a Remnant Transporter like your grandfather, mother, and you.” His voice was thick.

He pinched the bridge of his nose before continuing. “Are you ready for the exit procession, Silvie?”

Unfortunately, the day was far from over. I still had to make it through the reception. I glanced at my timepiece and sighed, wondering where Javis could be and whether Father would rebuke him for his absence during the burial ceremony. I doubted it, but I suppose everything has its first time, and I looked forward to witnessing such a moment.

“Silvie?”

I managed a smile. “Yes, Father, I’m ready.”

Arm in arm, we followed Madam Sideris and Madam Gazis out of the burial grounds and back inside the funeral hall. Eyes from the crowd gazed reverently, not at me or Father, but at the baglamas I held at my side.

Rows of Chascadian men greeted us inside the hall where we were led to a table filled with delicacies, the same foods Grandpa Plaka brought to Edgar, my home world, during holidays and special occasions. There were plates of sugared figs, sliced and layered with slivers of Chascadian beef, alongside platters of fish stuffed with fried cheeses. Bowls of olives and vegetable salads dotted the spaces between rolls of minced lamb wrapped in leaves. It smelled wonderful, especially the tangy sweetness from the cakes made with lemon and olive oil, the best food I’d ever tasted. I scooped a small slice of cake onto my plate. Under the circumstances, I wasn’t sure my stomach would be able to handle any of it.

I settled into a chair next to Father to soak up the quarter of my heritage I knew the least about. Grandpa Plaka was from this world, Chascadia, whereas my parental grandfather, James Hall, was born of Earth. My Mother, Calla Winston-Hall, was born of a different part of Earth. And then there was my paternal grandmother, Sable Hall, formerly known as Sable of Aboreal. That made me one-half Earthling, one quarter Aborealian, and one quarter Chascadian, a veritable intergalactic mutt.

I sighed and closed my eyes. Tinkling from stringed instruments floated across tables. Though I longed to join the musicians, I’d already tied the baglamas to my belt. Playing the instrument resulted in more than music if one was not careful, and I wasn’t sure how cautious I could be in my present state, especially given how much I longed to be somewhere and somewhen else.

I nibbled at the lemon cake and slouched in my seat. After scowling at Javis’s empty chair, I amused myself by studying the Chascadians. The men who’d greeted us wore what my mother called tuxedos, formal suits with cummerbunds hugging their middles beneath jackets with satin-lined lapels. Matching satin stripes ran down the sides of their trousers. Each man wore his hair tied in a tail, and a sash with a medal over his jacket. It was an attractive combination, so it didn’t surprise me that tuxedos were common to both Earth and Chascadia.

Father’s attire was quite different. He usually wore dark trousers with a shirt and leather jacket. But, today, he wore a jewel-encrusted cloak clasped over a formal suit. The cloak was similar in style to the black and gold robe Ivory wore, but it was brighter and trailed several feet behind him. It looked ridiculous next to all the tuxedos, and I hoped he hadn’t asked Javis to wear something similar.

My own dress was unlike those worn by the majority of female guests. I wore it because I thought—or, rather, I hoped—it would make me invisible. I smoothed my hands across my lap. The dress was a gift from Mother, a simple black sheath with a belt that was perfect for attaching the baglamas. But it didn’t make me stand out any less—for reasons that had nothing to do with the dress or the baglamas. The true culprit was on a place the dress couldn’t hide, something plainly visible and drawn on my face.

Like Madam Sideris, the other Chascadian women did nothing to hide the fact that they had no eyebrows. Most glances cast my way were laced with suspicion. But some of the younger women openly admired the paint applied to the spaces above my eyes, where one’s eyebrows should be.

All of this was forgotten when Javis entered the room.

“Late, as usual,” I grumbled to no one but myself. The seats on both sides of me were empty. Father had gone to get glasses of honeyed kraspota for the toast to Grandpa Plaka.

As annoyed as I was, I couldn’t stop smiling. Javis’s gait of arrogant ease mesmerized the women—young and old—as he looked back and forth among the Chascadians with his deep, brown eyes. I sighed, grateful he hadn’t worn a silly cloak like Father, and then beamed a smile of gratitude as my younger brother approached our table.

“I’ve been waiting forever for them to look at someone else besides me,” I whispered. “You missed the entire laurel ceremony! What took you so long to get here?”

“The hostess out front wouldn’t stop talking about how sorry she was. You would have thought her family member had just died.” He crossed his arms, grinning as he scanned the room. “Tough crowd? I thought Chascadians were known for their warm hospitality.”

“Me too,” I said, shrinking beneath more stares due to my proximity to Javis. “I’m not sure they like me much, though.”

He laughed. “Why should they? You’ve inherited Grandpa Plaka’s legacy. That makes you prime marriage material. Come on, Silvie. Haven’t you noticed the guys looking at you?”

I wrinkled my nose. “Matchmaking at a funeral is disgusting.”

“Not to that guy over there,” he said, nudging me. “Though, there’s no way he’s Chascadian.”

“You’re terrible.” I half smiled in the direction of a figure with coal-black hair falling over his eyes and ears. He definitely wasn’t disgusting, but there was something different about him. Squinting, I added, “You’re right. Are his eyes really light purple? Weird.” Attractive, too, but I wasn’t going to admit that to Javis.

“Yeah, so? You’re one of the few women here with eyebrows.” He snickered. “Well, sort of…”

“Enough,” I hissed.

Before he could reply, Father shoved a drink in Javis’s hand; his eyes were sharp with disappointment tinged with warning.

Madam Gazis raised her glass and offered a few words of kindness before encouraging us to drink to the life and death of Grandpa Plaka.

I thought about the woman who’d knelt at his grave and said they’d been unable to mark the time and place of his death. I hadn’t seen the body beneath the shroud.

If he’s truly dead, I thought as I raised my glass in his honor and sipped at the sweet drink.

Continue the adventure with Chapter 2, to be posted April 1. Read Darker Stars from the beginning, and learn more about its serialization here.

Signed copies of Travel Glasses, Insight Kindling, and Time for the Lost at Eastridge Barnes & Noble—Limited Supply!

books-and-swagI had so much fun signing books with South Bay Writers at the Eastridge Mall Barnes & Noble. The bookstore is in east San Jose, not far from the convention center that held the first Silicon Valley Comic Con. They have a limited number of signed copies of all three of my series books.

If they run out, let one of the store representatives know. I’m happy to visit the store and sign more.

Winners of IAN’s Outstanding Young Adult award!

The Independent Author Network’s picks for the Outstanding Book in each of its awards categories are in, and I got an exciting email this morning! Here’s what they said:

Our judges can’t pick one!

We are pleased to announce that your books, Travel Glasses and Insight Kindling, are the co-winners of the Outstanding “Young Adult” in the 2016 IAN Book of the Year awards.

IAN Outstanding YA 2016 Travel Glasses Insight Kindling

This also means both books are in the running for IAN’s Book of the Year! The top three places will be announced Sept. 1.

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SBW TALKBOOKS INTERVIEW OF ROBERT BALMANNO

SBW TalkBooks recently completed its first group read of 2016. This January, the book club read Embers of the Earth, a dystopian coming-of-age story written by the vibrant and personable Robert Balmanno. He’s contributed numerous works for publication, including nine novels, over the last 38 years. Read on to learn more about this author’s work and influences, as well as his person-to-person approach to sharing his books with others.

Synopsis

The Year 519 A.G. After Gaia. Civilization needs a restart. The Gaia-Domes, technology-rich, oppressive, and fanatical are collapsing. Contending religions and sects roil the planet. Semilliterate primitives, decimated by environmental catastrophe, struggle to comprehend their obscure roots and uncertain prospects. A brilliant youth, groomed for the task from childhood, is sent by the New Rebels on a 12-year odyssey to uncover archives that will enable him to construct a new alphabet and write the Foundation Document for a postlapsarian world. But can he successfully complete the mission without losing his faith, his principles, or his life? Drawing on what Joseph Campbell called the monomyth narrative, Embers of the Earth chronicles a future where ecology is destiny, revolutionaries are venerated as goddesses, family secrets have global repercussions, and the reluctant hero is a teller of tales who sparks an underground cultural revival by refusing to tell lies about humankind’s past.

Live Interview Recap

Embers of the Earth reads as a stand-alone novel, but it’s also the third book of The Blessings of Gaia series. What led you to write these books?

The Blessings of Gaia is a quartet of books that includes September Snow, Runes of Iona, Embers of the Earth, and my current work in progress. While writing September Snow, I came to the realization that there would at least be a trilogy. A library patron inspired the name of the first book, after which I watched a show that commemorated Earth Day. That’s when the story idea clicked. There’s been more of an interest in climate change since then.

Some of us thought Embers of the Earth might fall within the science fiction or climate-change fiction genres. Who’s your intended audience?

I consider the Gaia books to be dystopian with a crossover into sci-fi, but I see them as closer to general fiction than sci-fi.

How did you come about meeting and working with your editor and publisher?

I met my editor, Adele, at the East of Eden Writers Conference. There, I had the opportunity to speak with literary agent, Elizabeth Pomada, who was also in attendance. After reviewing a favorable rejection letter about one of my books, Elizabeth pointed out that the letter said to cut 20% of the book, and then pointed across the table and introduced me to Adele. Intense rounds of editing went on for eight months, and my book published with a small publisher in Berkley in 2006.

Did your travels and studies influence your creation of Gaia?

Absolutely. I lived and studied in Scotland and moved back. I’m a semi-Luddite, and one of my themes for the books is the dangers of a non-critical, non-careful, overwrought embrace of technology. Oral transmission of knowledge and information is different from written transmission.

When I created this new world, I gave characters Greek and Roman names, as well as made-up names. Talia, for example, is a made-up name. I even named one of the characters after a reader (with permission) who was really excited about the book.

What writers made an impression on you?

A lot of writers influenced me. I’m a huge fan of George Orwell and his book, 1984. I also love works by Margaret Atwood, Albert Camus, Thomas Hardy, and William Faulkner.

If you could talk to any of your favorites right now, who would it be?

This question reminds me of an idea I had, and still have, for a play about an event that happened in 1945. George Orwell waited at a café in Paris to meet Albert Camus, who didn’t show up. My idea would be to capture what would have happened had they both shown up.

What does being “independent for your writing” mean to you?

I believe in being autonomous when doing my work. In other words, I’m not connected to a certain organization.

How do you approach marketing your books?

I have my own marketing plan and have done more than 200 book signings. I participate in meet and greets and seek out local support. I develop relationships with booksellers and readers that way. I really love getting their feedback.

Author Bio

Robert E. Balmanno earned his bachelor’s degree in Political Science from the University of California, Santa Barbara, receiving Highest Honors. He attended the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, where he did post-graduate work in Politics, International Relations, and Philosophy. Later he attended postgraduate studies at the University of London, King’s College, Department of War Studies.

Balmanno served in the Peace Corps in Dahomey in West Africa from 1973 to 1975. He worked training bulls to plow fields and pull carts in a region where no outsiders have ever been before—the place where the New World practices of voodoo originated among the Adja people of West Africa.

Between 1975 and 1978 Balmanno traveled through Europe and Asia. He’s dedicated his life to producing contemporary literary fiction, with a recent switch to the genre of science fiction.

Learn more about him and his books on Goodreads and Amazon.

Don’t miss the next TalkBooks group read. Connect with us on the SBW Goodreads page.

Holiday Story Hop

Holiday Story HopI’m excited to be part of the 2015 Holiday Story Hop. There are at least twelve authors on board. I’ve posted my story below.

Enjoy and Happy Holidays!

Click here for a full list of authors and stories!

 

“Yellow Snow Cones”

I turn up the heat in the car and flip through radio stations until I find one that doesn’t play holiday tunes. Today wasn’t so bad, but I could care less about reindeers with abnormal noses or snowmen come to life. They can jingle their jolly at millions of other listeners who started rocking their bells before Thanksgiving.

The snow that lines the sides of the road is caked with mud and ash. I’m surprised we had work today and that the snowplows had made it through. Schools closed and so did daycare. Poor Ma.

I yank the steering wheel to the right to make the turn on Ma’s street. I hope to find her all in one piece after spending the day babysitting Anna.

After parking in her half-hidden driveway, I grab Ma’s shovel from her front porch. I dig out a path from the porch to the car so that it will be easier for Anna to walk back with me. When I reach the car I look back at the driveway and sigh. Might as well shovel the rest of the driveway too.

Finally, I prop the shovel back on the porch and ring Ma’s doorbell. The wreath on the door stares back at me as I wait for someone to answer.

Ma opens the door. “Come on in, Michael.” Her hair sticks out all over her head like she forgot to pull a comb through it. But she’s smiling.

“You two had fun?” I say.

“Oh yes, we’re in the middle of making snow cones.”

“Sounds like something Anna would like in the dead of winter,” I say. Who needs a warm fire and a mug of cocoa when you can burn the chill from the inside with more ice?

Ma leads me to the kitchen where Anna sits pouring yellow liquid over small bowls of shaved ice. Anna wears matching socks and her pigtails are wrapped with ribbons; it’s an improvement over what she looked like when I dropped her off this morning.

“Thanks, Ma,” I mutter.

“Daddy!”

“Hey, what are you making over there?”

“Lemon snow cones. They’re so yummy!” she says, swirling yellow all over a fresh bowl.

“You know what that looks like, don’t you?”

I blanch at Anna’s blank, innocent look. “Huh?”

“Never mind. Let me guess, lemon?” My lips pucker before I can hide my expression.

She wrinkles her nose at me. “Yup.”

“Why not cherry or sugarplum or gingerbread mocha? Don’t you think that would be better? More Christmassy?”

“But I looove lemon, Daddy!”

I shake my head. She’s too much. “Why do you love lemon?”

“Because it’s yellow. And I looove yellow because it’s the color of sunshine and ducklings and school buses and dandelions aaand…” She pauses. Her large eyes are opened in round circles, and her chin’s pointed up at me like she expects an answer.

“And lemons,” I say, squinting down at her.

“Yes, lemons! I looove lemon!”

Love and circular arguments aside, what type of kid likes lemons? Consider jelly beans, hard candies, and lollipops. Cherry and orange go first, followed by grape, leaving the sad little lemons and limes last. They wait, like the last two kids waiting to be chosen for a kickball team and hoping to avoid the embarrassment of being left on the island.

Not Anna, though. Not my kid who loooves lemon.

How do I explain that lemon is an underdog flavor, unwanted and unsupported, and that her snow cones remind me of a dog taking a leak on the side of the road? I think quickly, before she has a chance to ask me to taste anything.

“Anna, let’s go for a walk.”

“Okay!”

Ma looks at me like I just made Ebenezer Scrooge cry. I’m no Tiny Tim, so I figure maybe I’m Marley or one of the ghosts—the one that looks like the grim reaper, maybe.

“Come on,” I say. “Grab your mittens and boots. We’ll be right back to clean up the mess, Ma.”

Once outside, I point out the different types of snow. “See that, Anna. That’s fresh, white snow. And that over there is brown. That means it’s dirty. You don’t want to eat that.”

Anna giggles. “Eww.”

It isn’t long before we come across a patch of yellow snow—a big, round splotch that dips in the center.

A mitten-covered hand tugs at my coat. “What happened over there?”

I look at her, right in the eyes. “That’s where a dog peed,” I say, smug with adult knowledge about such things. “What do you think of your lemon snow cones now, huh?”

Her left brow crinkles before her eyes fill with tears. Before I can ask what’s wrong, she starts sobbing. “I didn’t m-make them for me. I m-made them for Mommy to p-put by her grave.”

The sensation of blood leaving my face overwhelms me and makes me dizzy. I sink to the ground, kneeling to be on eye-level with my daughter. “Anna,” I say, wrapping her in my arms. “I’m sorry, but I don’t understand. Why would you want to make lemon snow cones for Mommy?”

“I wanted to make something that I could keep in the snow, that wouldn’t melt all winter. And in her favorite color.”

My mind spins with memories. Joni, my late wife, had loved the sunshine, springtime, and buttercups. Bogged down by the season and the cold, it was as if I’d forgotten her and her favorite color. Several years had passed since her death. I hadn’t made the connection. But Anna had.

“I’m sorry,” I say again, wiping Anna’s eyes. “Let’s go back to Grandma’s house and get the snow cones. We’ll take them to your mother’s grave tonight. Forget what I said about the yellow snow. It was stupid.”

She sniffles and nods her head. “Okay, Daddy. Is it still okay for me to like lemon?”

“Of course,” I say. “You’ve made me love it.”

❄❄❄

Final Echoes of Winter CoverWant more FREE stories of the season?

Return to the holiday story hop or download Echoes of Winter, a collection of YA winter tales.

Book 1: Twelve Days to Christmas by L.A. Starkey
Book 2: Christmas Seasoning by DB Nielsen
Book 3: Merry Chris Witch by CK Dawn
Book 4: Wrapped in the Past by Chess Desalls
Book 5: Butterflies in the Snow by D.E.L. Connor
Book 6: The Darkest Night of the Year by Tim Hemlin
Book 7: Cold Hearth by Kelly Hall
Book 8: Code X by W.J. May
Book 9: Good Saint Nick by Lu J Whitley
Book 10: Soaring by K.K. Allen
Book 11: A Spirit’s Last Gift by Kathy-Lynn Cross
Book 12: Winter Trials by K.S. Marsden
Book 13: The Edge by Fleur Camacho

Attempt to Improve Prose with Poetry

Never stop improving, right? I’m reading a book on writing poetry to help make my stories more tangible. So much meaning can be packed into this form of writing, with room for additional interpretation–which is exactly how I like to read and write fiction. For example, I have three different interpretations, as well as multiple tones, in mind for the following poem I wrote while practicing. I hope you enjoy your own personal reading of each line.

Pretense
Learn the etymology of my meaning.
Feel the presence of my light.
Hear the voice fill the emptiness I’m dreaming.
Note the absence of my fight.
Claim the measured rest when my heart stops beating.
Lose the credence that is sight.
Learn the etymology of my meaning.
Feel the presence of my light.