Sunday, March 30, 2014

Sunday’s Serving – The Willow and the Stone

            Elijah noted his friend's drawn expression and the dark circles under his eyes.  He waved him into a chair across from the desk before taking his own seat.  He opened a drawer and drew out a bottle of whiskey and two glasses.
            "Mrs. Short would not approve," Leo grinned.
            "Strictly for medicinal purposes only," he agreed and poured.  Both men took a gulp and grimaced as the alcohol traced a line of hot fire in their guts. 
            "Let me guess.  Geraldine and her friends?"  Elijah asked.
            Leo gulped another swallow as if for strength.  "Nothing overt.  They spy on me and whisper when I walk by."
            "I look in Geraldine Short's eyes and see Jim Jones and David Koresh looking back.  She got the messiah complex all right."  Elijah shuddered.
            "You're in no danger.  The Rock won't dare get rid of its only doctor."
            "You know," began Elijah, his voice hesitant, "maybe if you didn't visit your sweat lodge so much, some of the hostility might diminish."
            Leo's eyebrows rose.  "Deny my beliefs in favor of theirs?  I can't do that."
            "I don't expect you to.  But maybe you can taper back a bit."  He frowned.  "They are whispering about you.  They say you go out there almost every day now when you're finished tending the crops."
            "Something's happened.  I had a vision..."
            The wonder on his face made the doctor lean forward.  "A vision?  Of what?"
            Leo returned to the present.  He smiled.  "A man of science doesn't want to hear about spirit messages."
            "On the contrary.  I think you'll find me a more sympathetic listener than most.  I'm serious," Elijah insisted, noting Leo’s amused disbelief.  "Scientific pursuits don't necessarily preclude spirituality.  I once considered becoming a minister instead of a doctor."
            "Really?  What changed your mind?"
            "I found it easier to heal broken bodies than mend hurt souls."
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Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Giving Up on Someone

Writer/speaker Wayne Dyer has said, “Friends are God's way of apologizing for your family.”  I have to admit, I’ve been blessed with some pretty awesome friends.  I’m not always a great friend myself, but there are those who have chosen to overlook my shortcomings and remain steadfast.  For that, I am eternally grateful for your understanding. 

As for family ... I’ve been blessed in that realm for the most part too.  However, there are those who have certainly come up short, at least to my way of thinking.  Unfortunately, it has finally reached the point where I’m having to walk away from the most hurtful of those people. 

I can overlook a lot.  Had this particular situation involved only myself, I would have let it go.  However, it affected my beautiful, special needs son who deserves nothing but love and support.  I’m here to tell you, you don’t set up my kid for hurt and disappointment and not expect to get a strong reaction from Mama and Daddy.   

It’s not an isolated incident.  It’s been going on for two years, more if you count the snide remarks, looks of embarrassment, and almost complete disinterest in his life.  Yes, he’s different from the other kids, the ones you rain gifts and time on.  Yes, he can be difficult to reach and understand.  But you don’t ignore him.  You don’t continuously forget him.  Not if you want to keep him and his parents in your life. 

Others have made monumental efforts to spend time and energy on our amazing little guy.  They have gone to great lengths to make him smile, to learn about his disability, to ask what they can do to help.  But not the people I thought I could count on.  All I ever really asked was for them to take maybe five minutes to call or send a card on the kid’s birthday.  For the second year in a row, his birthday came and went ... and these people were nowhere to be found. 

But that’s okay.  My sweetheart has plenty of others who recognize his gifts and love him even when he’s not behaving like a sweetheart.   To those two people who cannot be bothered, you’re excused from our lives. 

It’s time to walk away.   I didn't decide to do this lightly.  My husband and I discussed it at length, and gave these people plenty of chances to do better.  They chose not to, so I feel I've been left with no other option.  I have to protect my precious boy.  I know I’ll be sad a bit later at how this turned out, though right now I’m too angry to feel that way.  But as I said, I am not setting up my child to be hurt by individuals who cannot find time or space in their hearts for a child who already has so many challenges ahead of him.  He deserves better.  Much, much better. 

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Sunday’s Serving – Lilith’s Return


She thought it one of the most warm and welcoming churches she’d ever set foot in, but Lena still experienced a heaviness in her stomach.  She was demonkind, supposedly not welcome here.  Alex had lectured her about the strength of faith, that the trappings of religion were nothing without intent present in those who used them.  She’d preached her own gospel time and again until the words were nearly burned in Lena’s brain.

“This crucifix can’t hurt you.  This holy water can’t hurt you.  They are only objects, nothing to be feared.  I have faith my daughter is good.  I cannot harm you with these baubles.  And Lena, if you do not believe in their harm, they really are only baubles.”

There had to be truth in that.  Through the years, Lena felt nothing more than slight discomfort touching such things.  Yet she’d seen Alex destroy demi-demons with those same objects.  Alex’s faith that she performed holy work made the icons destructive weapons that no demon could stand again.  In her hands, the symbols of the Church won every battle that Alex waded into.  Conviction was an unstoppable force, and Alex Williams Lasham wielded it like the Archangel Michael’s fiery sword.

Lena sat down in the backmost pew.  Her temples ached fiercely.  She bowed her head and closed her eyes to pray as she’d done countless times before, often without her parents’ knowledge.

She believed in God.  One couldn’t face the reality of demons and not be a believer.  Being one of the profane herself, Lena had more faith than many she knew who attended services regularly.  She hoped the Almighty could forgive her condition since she’d had no control over it.  Though she’d rejected the bloodbath of being a full-fledged member of the Segreto, Lena believed she’d conducted herself with basic decency.  Surely she couldn’t be damned because of an accident of ancestry.

Dear God, I am not evil simply because my existence can be traced back to Lilith and the Fallen.  You have to know this.  I am as good as any human.  In fact, I am kinder than many who have no demon blood in their veins.  I don’t want to hurt anyone except those who would destroy us all.  I don’t like feeding on misery.  Tell me I’m more than the sum of my parts.  Tell me I’m not doomed to hell for all eternity simply because I’m descended from those who do delight in the pain of others.  I’m begging you for a sign.  Something I can show my mother so she’ll see she has nothing to fear from me. 

Lena had lost count of how many times she’d sent out that prayer.  This time, as with all the others, she received no answer.  Perhaps there would never be one, and Alex would go to her grave in agony because she’d brought one of demonkind into the world through her own womb.  Lena didn’t like thinking such things, but she’d learned to live with the notion.  Still, she couldn’t help but plead her case yet again.

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Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Perils of Taking a Stand

Having an alter-ego with many fans has been an amazing learning experience.   My alternate identity is something of a brand now, and as such it gets a fair amount of scrutiny.  Probably the hardest thing I’ve had to adjust to is openly sharing my beliefs and ideologies. 

Fans of writers, musicians, and anyone in the public eye like to think they know the people they follow.  They tend to want them to behave a certain way.  If that public persona does not act the way a substantial number of fans prefer, the backlash can be incredible.  Sales tank, people make a public fuss on Facebook, and you can become persona non grata in an instant.  It gets ugly. 

Alt-Tam is not allowed to discuss certain things because of the potential repercussions to her book sales.  Anyone looking to grow a successful business or maintain their clientele should follow this rule as well.  Only political pundits can ignore this, because they make their name and brand on supporting their party’s interests.  They thrive on preaching to their existing choirs.  But let’s face it; there are not many Rush Limbaughs or Glenn Becks out there.  Most of us have to keep our appeal broad and not offend the general public if we want to succeed. 

Case in point:  A musician friend of my husband makes a big deal out of his party affiliation.  He uses his Facebook account to not only trumpet his favorite politicians’ rhetoric but to also blast the opposing party’s every move.  He calls the other side names.  He calls the other side’s supporters names.  He belittles, with inflammatory language, any small detail not in keeping with his beliefs.  He does not encourage thoughtful debate, only complete agreement with his stance.  He takes great joy in using his ‘freedom of speech’ to find anything and everything to bitch about when it comes to the opposite party. 

Guess what?  It has royally bit him in the ass to the tune (pun intended) of few to no bookings.  He’s not playing gigs these days. He is not making a living.  He is hurting.

Even those bands or prospective clients who might agree with him do not want to hire this man.  Yes, he has every right to share his convictions.  He has every right to be adamant about what constitutes right or wrong in the arena of politics.  But employers and clients also have every right to refuse him work because they find his stance offensive.  That’s the way it goes. 

Another example is a local barbershop where my husband used to get his hair cut.  The barbers in that particular place are very good at what they do.  They are also very vocal about their feelings on politics; feelings my husband does not share.  So guess what?  He stopped giving them his business.  He got sick of hearing how dumb his candidates and party are.  No doubt it has cost them other clients as well. 

Obviously there are lines one will draw, and rightly so.  My alter-ego recently had to make a stand.  One of my followers made a comment on Alt-Tam’s blog that offended many of my other readers.  As much as I did not want to say anything that would probably cost me a fan, I had to.  Damage was being inflicted by this person, and it had to be stopped.  So I crafted a carefully worded rebuttal, explained my blog was not a place where people could be belittled, and warned that future derogatory language would be dealt with swiftly.  I gritted my teeth and posted it.  Just as I thought might happen, the combative commenter was offended and tried to publicly shame Alt-Tam on social media.  However, the rest of my readers quickly weighed in to support me.  I apparently chose the right battle to fight, and from a couple of comments, managed to attract a few more readers in the process.  The person who posted offensively may very well choose to leave awful reviews on my books in retaliation, but she is one of many readers.  Hopefully, it won’t hurt things too much. 

Share your thoughts and beliefs with your family and like-minded friends.  You do deserve to be heard.  But if you would grow your career and business, if your bottom line depends on your public persona, then you really do need to keep divisive subjects out of the public discussion.  Be professional.  Think about how you would feel hiring someone who believes the opposite of what you do.  Are you going to give business to someone who insists on giving you their opinion without caring you might feel differently?  Do you want to be that person who makes others uncomfortable to the point that they avoid using your services or supporting your work?  Of course not.  You want success.  You work hard for it, too hard to trip yourself up in such a way.  Play the game and play it smart.     

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Sunday’s Serving – Lilith


            “I have a question,” Jacob said.  “What if the woman in there isn’t Lilith?”
            “She’s still demonkind, isn’t she?”  The words escaped Alex’s mouth before she realized what she was saying.  Her heart sank.  The brothers looked at her, their expressions unchanged.  She rubbed her forehead and shrugged an apology.  “Open mouth; insert foot.  I guess old habits die hard.”
            “You take one step back for every two steps forward.  You Segreto types are sure hard to train.”  Amazingly, Jacob grinned and winked at her.
            She grew suspicious.  “I don’t suppose that’s part of the reason you’re so gung-ho to come with me?”
            Colwyn shrugged.  “Let’s just say we’re committed to protecting you from bad demons and good demons from you.”
            Alex felt too used up to react to his comment or protest when he again headed towards the house.  His grin fading, Jacob patted her on the shoulder.
            “Come on.  Let’s do what we came to do.”
            She nodded, a little rocked by his touch.  She followed him up to the porch where Colwyn waited for them.  As soon as they joined him, he knocked on the door.
            Footsteps clumped on the other side.  Alex tensed and felt the brothers beside her do the same.  The door opened, and the additional demon recognition thrummed so violently she shook.  The last of her exhaustion fled as the silhouette of a woman appeared at the doorway.  Alex readied to fling the holy water in Lilith’s face. 

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Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Want a Little Cheese With that Whine?

Being a writer is hard, no matter your level of success.  For someone who writes well enough to win contests and glowing reviews, but fails to attract a publisher for years on end (that would be me), it’s heartbreaking.  For someone who gets published but sees little in the way of sales despite more glowing reviews, it’s rough (me again).  For a writer who attains success, opening up the proverbial can of worms where haters are concerned, it’s still harsh (my alter ego can tell you all about that).
There is one rule where all that is concerned, however.  Writers are not allowed to whine about their burden.  Not because they have no justification to do so, but because it will attract the worst kind of attention possible.   It’s got to be in the top three of the Writer’s Commandments:  1.  Thou shalt keep writing no matter what; 2.  Thou shalt market your writing at every opportunity; and 3.  Thou shalt not whine about writing matters, whether they be yours or anyone else’s.
A writer recently and spectacularly broke that rule in a column published by the Huffington Post.  You can read that here, but I’ll give you a quick rundown of how Lynn Shepherd ignored the third commandment. 
In her article titled ‘If J.K. Rowling Cares About Writing, She Should Stop Doing It’, Ms. Shepherd went on a diatribe about how the noted author of the Harry Potter series needs to stop writing adult fiction.  She boo-hooed about how Rowling’s Cuckoo’s Calling is crowding out better writers in the sales of the crime novel genre  simply because she is J. K. Freakin’ Rowling.
Here is a little bit of the ‘personal plea’ Shepherd puts out to Rowling:
...when it comes to the adult market you’ve had your turn.  Enjoy your vast fortune and the good you’re doing with it, luxuriate in the love of your legions of fans, and good luck to you on both counts.  But it’s time to give other writers, and other writing, room to breathe.
As you might imagine, the rest of the article is a lot more of the same.  Shepherd calls into question Rowling’s ability to write well while admitting she has not read any of Rowling’s books.  It’s a very public temper tantrum from a writer who does not have the success she apparently craves.  And the backlash is huge.
First of all, the comments on the article are appropriately withering.  People are jumping all over Shepherd for daring to comment on books she has not read.  They are yelling sour grapes, which is exactly what the article reads like.  They are, in short, issuing written spankings galore.
Then there is the even more deadly backlash from which Shepherd’s career will probably never recover.  I checked on her two books on and saw exactly what I expected to:  a large amount of one-star reviews, many of which mention her Huffington Post article.  One reviewer openly admits she didn’t bother to read the books but “...if the author's HuffPo article taught me one thing, it's that I don't have to read a book in order to judge it.”  Sales of both books are pretty much in the toilet to judge from their rankings.
I’ll admit I’ve wanted to go on my own rants about my lot in writing more times than I can count.  Frustration is normal, and jealousy will rear its ugly head.  However I contain those complaints, letting only trusted friends and family in on my poor-me moments.  After I vent, I pick up my wounded pride and move on.  I do not bemoan poor sales of books.  I do not bitch about how my writing is so much better than that of overly-hyped mega-sellers.  (I do NOT include J. K. Rowling in that list, by the way.  She is awesome.)  Nor do I scream about how readers of my own bestselling stuff just don’t ‘get it’ when they complain about something I’ve written.  Not in public, anyway.  Because, as Ms. Shepherd is no doubt learning right now, that is certain death for an author’s career.  Her only hope is to write under a pseudonym now.
Take note, any would-be author or current writer out there now.  Bitching about another’s success simply because your own writing hasn’t made you a household name is not going to win you any fans.  You might get notoriety, but you won’t find success going that route.  I think that might hold true for other aspects of life as well.  No one likes a whiner, even if you offer cheese to go with it.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Sunday’s Serving – Willow in the Desert


 Night fell like a dread cloak over the desert, bringing dropping temperatures.  Carli never failed to marvel at how cold the desert could become.  She huddled in her coat as she and Leo walked hand in hand to the west end of town, her slung AR-15 swaying under her arm.  Her backpack was heavy with mostly ammo and water.  The food rations were light; she’d be hungry for the majority of this trip.  Leo was similarly provisioned.

As the gate came into view, she gaped at the clustered people gathered there.  Under the floodlights and the flicker of torches it looked as if all of Freetown had gathered to see them off, the herd of wide-eyed faces like a grouping of ghosts.  Everyone apparently understood how serious the situation might be.

“I guess they’re throwing us a bon voyage party,” she murmured to Leo.

“Looks that way, though not as good as the one we gave ourselves.”

“Pig,” she said with no rancor.  Once they'd calmed from the terrible vision they'd shared, the lovemaking had been intense.  And very satisfying.

As they approached the crowd, the townspeople shuffled back to make way.  Hushed mutters of ‘good luck’, ‘be careful’, and ‘Godspeed’ greeted them as they walk through.  At the end of the group stood the guardhouse where Arner and his half-dozen handpicked troops waited for them.  Also in attendance were Elijah, Betty, and Gordon.  Carli noticed half a dozen Becomings standing guard just outside of the opened gate.

Elijah stepped forward and hugged Carli.  “This never gets easier, seeing you two off.”

Leo gave him a rueful chuckle.  “Maybe we’ll have the good sense to retire after this one.”

Elijah’s grin as he looked at Carli was a brilliant flash of white in the semi-darkness.  “I strongly doubt that.  Be careful, okay?”

“You too.”  Carli grabbed him for another hug, and then gave Betty one too.  “Are you going with the children to the base?” she asked the prematurely aged nurse.

Betty beamed; the expression made her almost attractive.  “They can’t leave their Ma behind.”

“They’re in good hands,” Carli affirmed.  She turned to Gordon, who twitched nervously.  “You’ll be fine.”

He managed a shaky smile.  “I’ll do my best.  Be careful, okay?”

“Always.”   She wished Gordon wasn’t so sensitive about being touched.  He looked like he needed a hug too.

Leo finished his goodbyes, shaking hands with well-wishers.  The couple turned to Arner and nodded.  He gave his attention to Pearson.

“Lock down as soon as we’re out.”

“Yes sir.”  Pearson gave him a snappy salute, which Arner returned.

The recon team stepped out of Freetown, and almost immediately the gate began to trundle shut, squeaking along on its wheels as it cut them off from their settlement.  The team paused to watch as loved ones and friends disappeared behind the dull, gleaming metal.

As she always did when setting off to attack a Pyramid, Carli wondered if she would live to return to the civilization she’d helped build.  This time she also wondered if there will be a Freetown to return to. 

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Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Building A Character

Please note:  I did not title this, Building Character.  It’s Building A Character, as in developing a fictionalized person for a story.  I am definitely not someone to consult when it comes to developing good personal characteristics...unless you simply want to go in the direction opposite of me. ;)

Since my first book was published, many aspiring authors have asked me for writing tips. I don't claim to be the last word in writing any more that I do in how to conduct one’s life, folks. But I can share what works for me, and if I have the good fortune to help anyone else out there realize their writing dreams, I'll be pleased as punch.
When I get an idea for a story I'll jot that idea down. However, before I write the first sentence of the story itself, I create the main characters. For me, the greatest plot cannot survive poorly realized heroes and villains. Well-developed, multi-faceted people will bring your book to life as nothing else can.  You can have a story, but without the people to make that story happen, you got zilch.
Building a character is not as simple as giving your hero blond hair, blue eyes, and a love for pizza. I get to know my characters better than I know myself. Getting acquainted with them inside and out gives them depth, turning them into fully realized characters that sometimes write the story for me. In fact, they've been known to hijack my work. And in every case, they have turned it into something better than what I originally planned.
I'll show you how I build a heroine from the ground up. Allow me to introduce Wenda, a fairy who doesn’t know she’s a fairy, living among humans.  She comes from a planned series of YA books tentatively titled Dragonfly.
Physical attributes are easiest to start with, so that's where I go first. Height, weight, body frame, and face get me started. I frequently use the appearance of a celebrity or someone I personally know as a guideline to help me get a good visual of the character. I'll even reference a stranger in the coffee shop if that person entrances my imagination.
Here are Wenda’s vital stats:

Height:      5’3”/Weight:  98 lbs
Sex:           Female
Hair:          White-blond, iridescent highlights, long and wavy

Body:        Long, lithe, thin (almost painfully so); looks like a breeze would knock her over

Face:        Long, thin features with overlarge eyes; humans call her an alien; forest green eyes, very exotic looking

Mouth:    small bow mouth

Age:          12 

Next, I take a peek in the character's closet and list what's in there, including accessories and shoes. A character's style can tell you a lot about them. In Wenda’s case, she dislikes unnatural fibers and shoes.  She’s even allergic to synthetic fabrics, a clue that she’s not quite like the rest of the people surrounding her.
Dress:       prefers very light and natural fabrics, synthetics make her itch with a rash

Shoes:      slippers when she must wear any; barefoot when able 

Now we move on to mental and emotional makeup. I find picking out imperfections first and foremost is an excellent jumping off point to getting to know my new friend. Yes, your hero/heroine must absolutely have imperfections. He/she is a cardboard cutout of a person without them. Everyone is flawed and watching your hero struggle to overcome his flaws is a huge chunk of the entertainment for your readers.
Wenda’s Imperfections:  Skin has ethereal white tinge, she looks ‘different’ and is easily bullied; rarely stands up for herself but will defend her ‘grandmother’ the woman who took her in as a baby (who may be half-fey)

See? We already have a conflict brewing outside of the plot line, spicing your story nicely. Now you can get into the character's strengths. Wenda is also smart, protective, brave, loyal, and puts others' well-being ahead of her own.
Also illuminating a character are her habits and hobbies.  Wenda’s first act upon getting home from town or school is to kick off those hated shoes.  She checks on her grandmother, who she lives with.  Wenda’s grandmother is considered a witch or wise woman, depending on who you ask in town.  She’s continually concocting herbal remedies and Wenda is happy to help her or, if the grandmother is quite busy with her medicines, making their dinner.   

Wenda also enjoys walking alone in the forest, climbing trees to look over the town near where she lives, or daydreaming by the nearby creek.  Because she is different from most, she keeps to herself a great deal.  Sometimes the things she imagines come true. 

Next I want to know about this character’s home and living conditions. Think about how you would view a character living in a singlewide trailer furnished with thrift store items. This opens up new insights. Why does he live this way? Is he hiding his wealth from greedy family members? Showing everyone else how money doesn't really affect him? Ridiculously frugal because he fears not having enough in the future?
As mentioned, Wenda lives with her grandmother, or the woman she believes to be her grandmother.  Their home is small and simple without many luxuries, located just outside of a grim little industrial town.  I am still musing over the time and exact location of this place right now, but I will have that locked down before I begin writing the book.
Birthplace and date are also important to note. Region and cultures vary widely as do the mindsets of certain decades. A character born to hippies in the sixties is going to have a vastly different outlook on life from one born in the technologically booming decade of the eighties.
Wenda was born in the land of Faerie, located in a different dimension from the World of Man.  She has vague recollections of her earliest years, but has forgotten that she is not human or that her few memories are of another land. 

What I want to know most about my characters are their motives. What is it that drives them? What do they desire most? In Wenda’s case, she wants people to like her and stop picking on her, to be a good granddaughter for her elderly grandmother, to get far away from the town she lives in, and to somehow be ‘more’...though she’s not quite sure at the outset what ‘more’ is.
So in a nutshell, here are the main points I use when building a character:
What's in the closet
Home and living conditions
Now that I have the basics of my heroine, I next devise a timeline of her life from birth to the point where the story begins. This is where I discover the life-changing events that shaped her into who she is now.

Year 0:  Wenda is born to the king and queen of the Faerie along with a twin brother; twins are almost unheard of in Faerie, so their birth is regarded as a great omen; however the Seer Faerie sees early death for the boy and death for Wenda before her 20th birthday 

Year 5:  The children are always supervised in hopes of forestalling the curse upon them; however a traitor faerie bewitches their nanny; the children manage to wander into the World of Man and are cut off from Faerie, PROLOGUE, the boy dies in our world but Wenda survives, taken in by old grandmother who sees things of the next world 

Year 12:  Bullied and teased for being different, Wenda meets a stranger only she can see; the stranger is from the land of Faerie, her back itches as wings are forming, story begins

Typically, my timelines for characters are much more in depth.  However, Wenda is quite young to start with, so the timeline is shorter than the norm.  More may be added as I continue to work on other characters in the series.  Characters who are adults get a great deal more information in their timeline as every major event from their history is noted.
This may seem a huge amount of work, and it can be. Will I use all the information I've gathered about Wenda in my book? Probably not. Some of it will never show up in the story at all. But I now know every nuance of her personality and how she'll act in any situation I throw at her.
This in-depth method of discovery means I have never been at a loss when writing from any character's point of view, nor do my characters do anything at odds with their personalities. Taking the time to thoroughly develop them makes writing easier for me in the long run.
This is my process of character development. It works well for me, but I readily admit it might not fit everyone. We all have our own styles of writing, and no doubt you'll find yours.


Sunday, March 2, 2014

Sunday’s Serving – The Willow and the Stone


            Renee and Carli sat on the brick steps to a porch of a long-empty house while they enjoyed a late afternoon feast of raw corn and beans.  Birdsong serenaded their meal.  From her vantage point, Renee watched Virginia’s Lake Moomaw glitter in the sunlight.  The surroundings reminded her of home in the Carolina mountains.  In past years the chill that signaled summer's farewell sent the Johnson family to Thorpe Lake in North Carolina for their annual fishing and camping trip.  Her family, which consisted of her father Richard and three older brothers, centered life around sports.  She never knew her mother.  Sue Johnson died in a car accident when Renee was less than a year old.
            By the time she turned 16, she'd grown to six feet.  Her father, a former defensive lineman for Duke University, encouraged her and her brothers to excel in sports.  She proved to be a natural athlete and a star in every sport she tried, whether sliding home to score another victory for the softball team or speeding across the finish line at track events.  Only her oldest brother David brought home more trophies.
            Her successes in sports didn't extend to her social life however.  She felt isolated in the high school locker room surrounded by the other girls who giggled over men, make-up, and clothes.  She made no overtures to gain their friendships.  The idea of romantic liaisons with men first baffled, and then repulsed her.  Though many of her male friends approached the attractive brunette, she held them all at arm’s length. 
            Her close-knit family supplied enough activities that she didn't worry about that aspect of her life.  She missed them all; her father's encouraging smile, David's raunchy jokes, the bright laugh of middle brother Ross, and Mark's competitive spirit. 
            What she wouldn't give to have just one more autumn with them!  A lump formed in her throat.  Ever practical, she thrust memories of happier days away and swallowed the lump.  Not going to happen.  Stop thinking about it.
            She coughed and went back to sharing her travel plans with a dreamy-eyed Carli.  "I figure around central or south Florida we can hole up for the winter.  It'll be warm enough, and maybe we can bag some deer or fish.  The swamplands should be thick with food.  Hey, are you listening to me?"
            Carli straightened from her slumped posture, the blonde's faraway look replaced by outright fear.  Renee’s confusion chilled to terror as Carli extended a shaking finger and pointed at the street running in front of them.  A man on the other side of the cracked asphalt stared at them.
            "Oh shit," Renee whispered. 

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