Legend Haven provides a safe space for nerds on Black Friday.

Nothing scares me more than crowded shopping malls. Crime? No. Disease? No. The collapse of civilization? Nope. It’s crowded shopping malls that freak me out.

Which is why I am going to spend Black Friday online with a bunch of other introverted nerds at Legend Haven 2022.

It’s a free conference for fiction writers with lots of great talks from publishers, authors, and more.

I’ll be doing a talk on the power of humor in writing. That’s right, I’m doing a talk! Speaking to large crowds of people doesn’t bother me, just please don’t ask me to shop with them!

For a description of my talk and all this conference has to offer, go to: https://legendfiction.com/legendhaven-2022/

I hope to see you there!

Short Story: A Mid-death Crisis

Happy Halloween!

The night was black, the wind howled, and Stacey was home alone. She was a curvy, gorgeous, seventeen-year-old blonde and the envy of every other cheerleader at Cherry Creek High.

She only drank diet Coke and always used a straw to avoid smearing her lipstick. On that particular night, she was taking a quiz in the back of Teen Glam magazine that would supposedly reveal her secret celebrity crush.

As she colored in the answer bubble under “Avocado Toast”, the phone rang. She decided to let it go to voicemail. It was probably for her dad who was out for the evening. She was completely and totally alone.

The phone rang again and Stacy ignored it.

It wasn’t until the phone rang a third time, that she rolled her eyes, threw down her magazine, and marched over to pick it up.

“Hello?” she said.

Heavy breathing sounded from the receiver.

“Hello?” Stacy repeated.

She heard only a few more heavy breaths. She slammed the phone down.

That was weird. Must have been a wrong number.

She had barely stepped away when the phone rang again. She twirled around, grabbed the receiver, and shouted, “Hello?

For a few seconds, the breathing continued, then a low, gravelly, demonic voice said, “I’m watching you.”

The hairs on the back of her neck stood on end. She looked around the kitchen.

“Whe-where are you?” she breathed.

But the stranger hung up. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a shadow move outside the kitchen window. She charged forward, cast the curtain aside, and saw… nothing. Just the gentle branches of the dogwood, dancing in the night breeze.

The doorbell rang. Stacy swung around in the direction of the sound. She was blonde but not an idiot. There was no way she was going to answer that.

Some psycho was toying with her. She was going to call the police. She grabbed the wall phone. She pushed the nine button. Just as she was about to double-tap the one, she heard a voice coming from over her shoulder.

“The police aren’t coming, Stacey.”

She froze in terror. She didn’t want to turn around, but she could feel his breath on the back of her neck. It wasn’t warm like the breath of a living being, but cold like frost.

She stood, petrified. The voice… it was that same evil, awful voice she heard in the receiver…

“Aren’t you going to turn around?” the specter asked impatiently.

Stacey did so, slowly.

A cloaked figure towered over her, his black robe billowing in some non-existent breeze. Beneath his hood was only a great yawning darkness.

Stacy screamed and shrank down against the wall, blocking her face with her hands. The evil creature let out a low laugh as it raised some sort of weapon. Then it struck.

“Ouch!” Stacy cried, grabbing a scraped patch of skin on her arm.

The creature raised the weapon for another blow and this time, Stacy got a look at it.

It was a…cheese grater? The cloaked demon monster was trying to murder her with a cheese grater? Stacey kicked it in the knees.

“OOF! came the gravelly voice as it stumbled over. Stacy ran across the kitchen and withdrew a butcher knife from one of the drawers. Then she swung back toward the creature holding it out defensively.

“Don’t hurt me!” the specter begged, throwing the cheese grater to the ground.

“Are you kidding me?” Stacey exclaimed. “Why were you trying to kill me with a cheese grater?”

“It was supposed to be my signature weapon!” the specter explained.

“Lame!” Stacey answered.

“I wanted something unique, you know?” the specter defended. “No one else uses a cheese grater.”

“Um… because it’s stupid!” Stacey exclaimed.

The specter hung his head in shame and then seemed to dissolve into the air leaving Stacey alone.

The police did a thorough investigation but could find no evidence of the attack. Stacey’s dad attributed her story to hysteria induced by his recent divorce. He firmly reprimanded her for acting out and the matter was dropped.

The following evening, he had to leave her again to have dinner with a wealthy client.

“Don’t go, Dad!” Stacey begged. “I don’t want to be here alone!”

“Look Stacey,” her dad sighed. “I know you’re upset about what happened with your mom, but that doesn’t give you the right to act out. Now I have important business things to attend to. If I hear one more word about this serial-killer-with-a-cheese-grater nonsense, you’re grounded.”

So Stacey was alone for the second night in a row. It was even darker, windier, and generally creepier than the previous night. Stacey placed the entire knife block on the table next to her, picked up Teen Glam magazine, and proceeded to read an article about how mashed avocado made an excellent chemical-free shampoo alternative.

The phone rang. Stacey ignored it. It rang again. Still, Stacey ignored it, shrinking behind her magazine slightly. Again and again, it rang and again and again. Stacey picked up her butcher’s knife and continued reading.

Finally, the doorbell rang.

Clutching her weapon in both hands, Stacey sank underneath the kitchen table.

The bell kept ringing over and over again with increased ferocity. Stacey kept her gaze fixed on the kitchen entrance.

Finally, the doorbell stopped. Stacey waited for what seemed like forever before coming out from her hiding place.

Tap! Tap! Tap!

Stacey squeaked and twirled around to face the back door.

Tap! Tap! Tap!

Someone was definitely outside it trying to get in.

Stacey couldn’t stand it anymore. She ran to the door, raised her knife, and threw it open. No one was there.

Suddenly, a cold, corpse-like hand grabbed her wrist and twisted. Stacey screamed and dropped her knife.

“Why weren’t you answering my calls, Stacey?” came the low, gravelly voice.

Stacey slowly turned around to see the specter looming over her. His clammy hand forced hers into a fist and then peeled her thumb into an upright position.

Stacey’s voice caught in her throat. She couldn’t move, couldn’t scream, couldn’t breathe. This was the end. With his free hand, he reached into his flowing robe and withdrew… a garlic press.

“We have some pressing matters to attend to,” the specter’s gritty voice proclaimed.

He tried to clamp the pressing end over Stacey’s thumb, but it wasn’t quite the right shape, she jerked free, scooped up her knife, and fled across the kitchen.

“Seriously!” Stacey exclaimed. “You’re trying to murder me with a garlic press? O-M-G! You are like the worst serial killer EVER!”

The specter hung his hood in shame and then vanished before she could further insult him.

The next day unfolded like the previous. The police found no evidence of the attack and her father accused her of acting up. Again she was left alone and again the specter attacked.

This time he tried serrated barbeque tongs that left her with a barely-visible scratch on her nose. Stacey didn’t bother reporting the incident. No one would believe her and despite the specter’s air of undead horror, she was beginning to think he didn’t actually pose much of the threat.

It became a ritual eventually. He would try to kill her with some ridiculously inefficient weapon she could easily counter with a butcher’s knife. She would point out his “lameness” and he’d vanish in shame. The most dangerous thing he tried using was the curved double-sided blade from the food processor. Unfortunately for the specter, the curve on the blade made it awkward for stabbing.

One evening, he found Stacey with most of her kitchen implements in use. She was mixing some greenish batter while referring to a recipe in an open magazine on the counter.

Frustrated, he came up behind her and whacked her on the head with a spatula.

“Oh hey!” she said, turning and snatching the tool. “I was looking for that.”

“What are you doing, Stacey?” the specter demanded in his gravelly, undead voice.

“Trying this new recipe for slimming avocado cookies,” she explained. “Do you want to lick the spoon?”

“What?” the specter demanded.

She shoved a wooden spoon into the yawning cavern under his hood. Even in his ghostly form, the specter could taste the sweet avocado batter. He patted his waist, his body beneath his flowing robes was already skeletal so he couldn’t exactly slim down more. Still, the cookie dough brought out his natural glow and he was surrounded by a slight halo of blue light.

“Wash your hands,” Stacey ordered. “And start rolling the dough into one-inch balls like this.”

She demonstrated, rolling the dough between her palms.

The specter, having nothing better to do, did as she asked. He hadn’t washed his hands in three hundred years and Stacey’s exfoliating avocado hand soap completely cleared the dried bits of flesh from his skeletal hands. He felt positively radiant.

They spent the evening baking together. It was the first time the ghost had ever correctly used cooking implements. He realized he liked it.

“I don’t know if I’m really into this killing thing,” the specter admitted as he gobbled down the last avocado cookie.

“So why do you do it?” Stacey asked.

“I don’t know, it’s what all my friends do,” he shrugged.

“Just because everyone else is doing it, doesn’t mean you have to,” Stacey lectured. “You just need to find your unique you and do that.”

“My unique me?” the specter questioned.

“Yeah,” Stacey continued. “There’s a quiz in Teen Glam that will help you figure it out.”

She started rummaging through the recycling bin until she found the issue she was looking for. She opened the quiz and handed the undead serial killer a pencil.

Twenty questions later the specter learned that his “unique me” was a “pastry chef/philanthropist”.

With Stacey’s help, he gave up on his murderous ways and went to culinary school where he became a master of every imaginable kitchen implement and used avocados in ways no one had ever dreamed. He had found his unique self and though he was dead, he’d never felt so alive.

A South Jersey Fairy Tale

Please don’t read this to your kids. Nothing about South Jersey is child appropriate. 

There is a four-letter word that I am absolutely sure none of you have ever read. If you ever did read it, you would be so utterly horrified and offended, you would instantly die of a heart attack. Unfortunately, the offending word is part of the standard vernacular in the Northeastern United States, which is where today’s story takes place.

The word has multiple meanings determined by context, making it difficult to translate into standard English. To preserve the realism of this story, I have maintained the natural use of this word in the dialogue of my characters. But to ensure that the delicate eyes of my West Coast readers are not scathed, I’ve censored it like so @#$!. 

You’re welcome.

South Jersey, 2006

Kevin lived in a one-room house with a hole in the roof. He had inherited the house from his great aunt. He hated it. It smelled like mildew and had strands of yellowing wallpaper peeling down the interior. If that wasn’t bad enough, there was shag carpet in the bathroom. Kevin had no choice but to live there. He was jobless and couldn’t afford to eat, let alone get a new place. 

The house’s only redeeming feature was that it was hidden in the Pine Barrens. Few dared venture there for fear of the infamous Jersey devil, so no one could gawk at Kevin’s misfortune. Kevin was pretty sure that his great aunt was the Jersey Devil and with her passing, no one had anything to fear. 

Now, because Kevin was too poor to buy food, he survived by eating penny toads and other endangered wildlife. He could have gone to the food bank, but he couldn’t stand the idea of some long-lost high school acquaintance recognizing him there. 

What he wanted, more than anything else in the world, was an Italian hoagie. Sometimes, as he lay down to sleep, he would stare up at the crumbling popcorn ceiling, imagining the cold cuts and spicy oregano. That hoagie was his biggest dream and greatest ambition. If he could only get that hoagie anything would be possible. 

One day, as he was out swallowing penny toads, he looked skyward. He was trying to look at the moon, but couldn’t see it thanks to the thick layer of smog that covers the Garden State. 

“I’d give anything for a hoagie,” he bemoaned. 

“What the @#$! are you doing?” came a voice from over his shoulder. 

Kevin spun around to see a woman standing behind him. She looked furious, she sounded furious, but Kevin knew that this was not the case.

You see, in South Jersey, “What the @#$! are you doing?” can mean anything from “Are you alright, sweetheart?” to “You are literally an idiot.” 

Context told Kevin it was probably the former.

The woman’s skin was tanned from hours of shore time. Her dark brown hair was thrown back in a half-hearted ponytail, with many strands escaping. Her mouth was frozen in a scowl and if that didn’t make her look angry enough, she was wearing dark brown eyeliner all around her eyes. She was wearing a Philadelphia Eagles jersey, with capris and flip/flops.

Kevin responded by blinking a few times then saying: 

“I was studying the local wildlife.” 

“Do you think I’m stupid?” The woman snapped. “Why are you eating toads?” 

“Why are you on my property?” Kevin demanded. 

“You call this dump property?” the woman returned. 

“Get out of here before I call the cops!” Kevin cried. 

“Call the @#$%ing cops,” the woman continued. “I’ll tell them you were eating the @#$%ing wildlife.” 

The argument escalated, Kevin and the stranger hurled the vile word back and forth, until they’d established mutual respect. When things finally settled down, and the woman said, “Alright fine, here’s what I am going to do for you.” 

“What are you talking about?” Kevin snapped. 

“What I am going to do to help you solve your problem,” she continued. 

“Wait, what?”

“Will you shut the @#$! up and listen?” the woman snapped. “My name is Madison, I’m the guardian fairy of South Jersey and I help losers like you solve your problems.” 

“Oh @#$!,” Kevin groaned. Which in this context probably meant, “I wonder if this woman needs help,” or “Perhaps I am the one who needs help.”

“I said shut it,” Madison snapped. She pulled a tiny pouch out of her purse and handed it to Kevin. 

“There’s an empty field behind the Wawa on Trout Ln,” she explained. “It’s yours now.” She pulled some papers out of her purse and gave them to Kevin also. “What you’re going to do is plant these seeds on that field.” 

“The @#$! is this?” Kevin mumbled, which meant, “can you please provide me with some clarification?”

“They’ll grow into houses, which you can sell.” 

“Okay,” Kevin nodded skeptically. He wondered if eating the penny toads had made him delusional. 

“Now pay attention because this is the most important part,” Madison continued. 

Kevin stared blankly. 

“You paying attention?” Madison demanded. 

“Sure,” Kevin nodded. 

“Okay, I’ve only given you one field. Once you’ve filled this field you must bring the leftover seeds back to me.” 

“Right,” Kevin replied. 

“‘Cause if you don’t I’m going to curse you, understand?” 

Kevin nodded. 

She shook Kevin’s hand. “It’s been a pleasure,” she smiled and then disappeared. 

Kevin would have thought the entire interaction was a dream. But he found the bag of seeds next to bed the next morning, along with the deed to the field behind the Wawa. 

It was crazy. He’d never try it. What would happen if some distant acquaintance saw him planting sunflower seeds behind the Wawa? He wasn’t sure he could stand the shame of it. Then he thought of all the Italian hoagies he could buy if he got into real estate. The year was 2006 and the real estate market was booming. 

He waited until dark then slipped his hoodie on and started walking. He only planted one seed that first night. Then, reprimanding himself for his idiocy, he ran away home. 

But as he walked past the Wawa a few days later, he noticed a frame in the field behind it. Someone was building a house in the exact place where he planted the seed. Curiosity nipped him and so that evening he returned and added two more. The giant homes sprang up so quickly, it was about three days from the time he planted a seed to the time a home was complete. 

They were massive houses, all identical, with white siding and lawns that looked like emerald carpets. They covered the field in neat rows. Kevin could not believe his good fortune. He claimed one of the homes for himself and the rest he sold. He continued planting houses until every plot in his field was occupied. 

Kevin feasted on hoagies daily and was able to live quite comfortably with the money he’d earned. But the little bag of seeds wasn’t empty and Madison had not returned to retrieve it. He began to wonder how much richer he could be if he bought another field and used the remaining seeds to expand his real estate empire. 

He spun the idea around and around in his head until it became his biggest dream and greatest ambition. Of course, Madison’s warning about the curse gave him pause. He weighed the benefits and potential drawbacks. In the end, he decided to purchase a second field. 

The evening after he did this, his doorbell rang. It was Madison. 

“Nice work,” she said. 

“Thanks,” Kevin replied. 

“I’m here for the leftovers,” she explained. 

“Oh, I um, actually used the entire bag,” Kevin said. 

She raised a cynical eyebrow. 

“Did you?” she replied. 

“Yup,” Kevin nodded. 

“Are you @#$!ing with me?” Madison accused. In this context, it probably meant, “Are you sure you are being honest, sweetheart?”

Kevin shook his head. 

“Remember that thing I said about the curse?” Madison reminded. 

“Yeah,” Kevin affirmed. He was fidgeting a bit wondering if he should come clean. But then he imagined owning his own real estate empire. Of dressing in a fancy suit and smoking cigars and being driven around in a limo. How bad could the curse possibly be? 

“Honest, I used them all,” Kevin answered. 

Madison narrowed her eyes suspiciously but left shortly thereafter. 

Kevin created a second development, then a third. Watching his cookie cutter mansions pop into every open space in South Jersey filled him with such exhilaration he couldn’t stop himself. 

Kevin bought some farmland. The couple who owned the land sobbed as they signed it over. It had been in their family for generations. Unfortunately, the land was no longer lucrative as a farm and so they had no choice but to sell. Three days later, a new development grew in its place.

Kevin grew wealthier, but it wasn’t enough to satisfy him. He could no longer be satisfied with one Italian hoagie. He needed ALL of the Italian hoagies. When the owners of some of the fields he desired refused to sell, he bought some government officials and had them invoke the almighty power of eminent domain. Soon it was hard to drive anywhere in the state without seeing fields of the architectural abominations. 

One day, Kevin was playing poker with a group of associates. These associates consisted of other real estate moguls, mafiosos, government officials, and some people who fell into all three categories. They were all smoking massive cigars and laughing heartily at their brilliance. 

The door flew open. 

Kevin paled when he recognized Madison through the wall of cigar smoke. 

“So you used them all up, did you?” Madison growled. “You think I’m stupid? You think I don’t see @#$!ing houses springing up everywhere?”

Kevin opened his mouth to answer, but what came out wasn’t English. It wasn’t any human language at all. It was a loud HONK. 

Kevin looked across the table into the confused faces of his associates. 

One of them stood up and pointed a stern finger at Madison. 

“Honk!” he cried, then fell backward in alarm. Then everyone was honking and hissing at each other.

Their necks began elongating, and their heads turned black, except for their cheeks which became white. Their flapping arms became great brown wings and when they waddled out of the club, they were entirely goose. 

To this day, Kevin and his associates can be seen wandering around South Jersey. They fight with each other and hiss at people and cover every field in crap. Madison’s curse didn’t change them much at all.

Thursday Limerick: Random Research

A scientist applied for some grants,
So she could teach bugs to wear pants.
But she was denied, 
And the reason supplied:
It is impractical to dress ants.

This experiment raises important questions like when making pants for insects, do you add four or six leg holes? I’m thinking maybe the first set of legs should be considered arms. It could also be that insects have four arms and two legs, in which case you’d need to make them four-armed sweaters and two-legged pants…

(Katy stares into the abyss pondering life’s most important questions.)