How to Be a Movie Star is here!

In October of 2015, I released a story about a Grumpy Gus and the asexual stoner hipster who just wanted to love his face as hard as he could.

Now, today, I return to this little world I created. I hope you have as much fun as I did while writing this story. Josy is sunshine, Quincy is in over his head, Gus is…Gus, and Casey is still taking photographs of every single meal to post on Instagram, oh my god, what the hell.

How to Be a Movie Star, the sequel to How to Be a Normal Person, is here!

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How to Be a Movie Star: The Return of Gustavo Tiberius

I have made no secret of my love for Gustavo Tiberius. He is, in my opinion, one of the best characters I’ve ever written.

It was such a joy to be able to write about him again, and to see the friendship Josy thrusts upon him, much to his chagrin.

And so here, for my last blog post before the release of How to Be a Movie Star, a little excerpt where Gus is…well.

Gus.

For those worried about spoilers, fear not: this doesn’t give the plot of the book away.

February 12 is almost here!

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Gustavo scowled. “It had actually better be life and death. If it’s not, I will have my revenge.”

“It is,” Josy moaned, flopping down on the counter, laying his head on his arms.

“Is something wrong with the movie?”

“No. Worse.”

“Is someone sick?”

“My allergies gave me trouble yesterday, but I took a Zyrtec. But that’s not it. It’s worse.”

“Did someone die?”

“They might as well have! You’re getting warmer!”

“Is someone about to die?”

“Yes!” Josy cried, lifting his head. “And it’s me!”

Gustavo stared at him before nodding slowly. He leaned to the left, looking over Josy’s shoulder toward the front of the video emporium. Josy followed his gaze. The sidewalk was empty.

“I always knew this would happen,” Gustavo said. “I’m glad you’ve come to me.”

“You knew?” Josy asked. “Goddammit. Did everyone know?”

“I don’t know about anyone else. But I figured it out right away. I mean, it makes sense, if you really think about it.”

Josy frowned. “It does?”

Gustavo nodded. “I mean, it was bound to happen sooner or later. You’re in too deep.”

“How do you know that?” Josy demanded. “I didn’t even figure it out before today!”

“Because I know many things,” Gustavo said. “It’s what happens when you read encyclopedias.”

“Whoa,” Josy breathed. “I didn’t know that. Encyclopedias sound amazing. I’ve never used one before because I live in the twenty-first century, but still.”

Gustavo leaned forward on the counter. Josy felt better already. “First thing you need to do is to make sure you’re not being followed.”

This was good advice. “I wasn’t. No one even stopped me for a picture, which was really disappointing. I think I let those two girls who wanted my autograph go to my head. I’m a fame whore now.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about. But it doesn’t matter. The second thing you need to do is destroy all your credit cards. They can trace you that way.”

Josy’s eyes widened. “They can?”

“Yes. Everything is traceable. Which brings me to the big one. You’re going to have to ditch the phone. That means no more social media.”

Josy gasped. “I can’t do that. What happens if someone posts a picture of their colorful sushi and I don’t see it?”

“It’s a price you’ll have to pay,” Gustavo said gravely. “If you’re going to go off the grid, you need to cut all ties with who you used to be.”

“Gustavo, no.”

“Josy, yes. They will find you unless you do exactly what I say.”

Josy was getting paranoid. “But—but what if I only looked at Instagram, like, three times a day?” He shook his head. “No, that’s crazy. Maybe twelve times a day.”

Gustavo scoffed. “You obviously don’t care if you die, then.”

“I do! I do care if I die!”

Gustavo slammed his hands down on the counter. “Then you need to start acting like it! Maybe a few years down the road when you’ve established a new life under a different name, you can think about making a new account, but only if you remember one thing, and one thing only. Are you ready to remember that one thing?”

Josy nodded furiously. “So ready.”

Gustavo leaned forward. “Here it is: selfies will get you killed.”

Josy took a step back. “No. That’s not… that can’t be true.”

“It is. If you’re going to go into hiding, then you need to remember that Josiah Erickson is dead. Whatever new name you pick for yourself, that is who you’re supposed to be. You’ll need to shave off your beard—”

“Anything but that! Why are you doing this? Why are you tearing me apart?”

“I’m trying to save your life!” Gustavo shouted. “The Hollywood Mafia is after you, and now that you’ve finally come to me to get free, I am doing everything I can. But you’re not listening.”

“I am listening! I swear. But you’re—wait. What.”

Gustavo squinted at him. “What what?”

“Who is after me?”

“The Hollywood Mafia.”

“They are? Why?”

Gustavo threw up his hands. “I don’t know! Probably because you’re in too deep! You’ve sold your soul for fame and money, and now you’re about to pay the price!”

Josy didn’t know he’d done any of that. It was a good thing he’d come here. “But… it’s just a movie!”

“That’s how it starts. First it’s a commercial. Then it’s a part in a TV show where you play a corpse.”

“Oh no,” Josy whispered. “I did those things.”

“And then you get the starring role in a movie about having sexual relations with animals—”

“Hold up. Time out. That’s not what the movie is about.”

“You made out with a man dressed like a lion.”

“Yeah, but it’s whimsical. Grady is an imaginary friend that became real who reminds my character of his one true love. It’s kind of like Calvin and Hobbes.”

Gustavo snorted. “Calvin never wanted to fuck the tiger.”

Josy gaped at him. “That’s—I don’t know that I’ve ever heard you say fuck before, man. It’s tripping me out. Also, that sentence really messed with my childhood memories.”

“And now you’re coming to me for help because you know the Hollywood Mafia is after you because you’ve stumbled upon their terrible secrets.”

Josy blinked. “That’s not why I’m here.”

 



How to Be a Movie Star: Making Friends as Adults Sucks Balls

There is a type of person so diabolical, so evil that the very mention of them causes the hair on the back of my neck to stand on end, and my toes to curl.

No, I’m not talking about sociopaths.

Or psychopaths.

Or even cannibals.

Worse.

I’m talking, of course, about extroverts.

gasps

(I kid, I kid.)

(Mostly.)

Imagine, if you will, the scariest situation in the world for someone like me who is absolutely not an extrovert: going to get a haircut. The very idea of small talk causes me to borderline panic, but then to have to engage in small talk with a stranger who has scissors in their hands while I’m pretty much blind (given that I have to remove my glasses), and it’s the stuff nightmares are made of.

(first world problems, I know, boo hoo.)

But small talk is a necessary evil. When we’re kids, even the shyest of us can make best friends forever over a simple question like do you want to play video games?

But when we’re adults, it’s so much harder. We’ve lost the sense of wonder and ease we might have had as kids, and given in to cynicism and distrust. When someone appears to actively trying to be my friend who I don’t know, I tend to be convinced they want something from me. (What, exactly, I have no fucking clue, because sure, I have some expensive furniture, but I also have Fallout bobbleheads that I love just as much, and also a really big TV? For my video games, of course, and no, you can’t have any of that. It’s mine. WHY ARE YOU TALKING TO ME?!?)

This is a particular conundrum Josy, the star of How to Be a Movie Star, finds himself in, though from the complete opposite perspective as me. Sure, like me, he has his small group of friends in Casey and Serge and Xander, and that’s just fine with him. But unlike me, Josy is an extrovert, and not everyone understands him. They have the cynicism that comes with adulthood. Josy doesn’t always see the forest for the trees, but I think that brings out the goodness in him. He’s the type of person you’d expect to break out in song and dance because he’s so happy. That still doesn’t help in the act of adulting, however.

When he meets Quincy for the first time, he’s unsure of how to ask for them to be friends, even though he really, really wants them to be. As he goes on to say, he has a friend-crush on Quincy and doesn’t know how to deal with it.

Thankfully, Josy has a secret weapon.

And that secret weapon is called Gustavo Tiberius.

When I decided to write Movie Star, I went back through How to Be a Normal Person and zeroed in on the sections where Josy and Gus interacted. In Movie Star, a year has passed since the events of Normal Person, and I wondered what Gus and Josy would have taken away from their time together, and if something more would have come from it.

Much to my delight, I discovered it did.

(Much to Gustavo’s dismay, of course.)

In fact, next to the primary relationship between Josy and Quincy, the relationship between Gus and Josy is the most important aspect of the book. Josy wormed his way into Gus’s life and never really left, though Gus repeatedly threatened him. Their dynamic is one I did not expect, but was delighted to see grow as big as it did. They couldn’t be more different. However, I think that’s what brings them together. Gus is there to help Josy work through his confusion over what Quincy is to him exactly in a positively Gus-like manner.

Which brings me to another aspect of Josiah Erickson:

He’s demisexual.

A demisexual is a person who does not experience sexual attraction unless a strong emotional connection is formed. It could be argued he’s also demiromantic, which is romantic attraction instead of sexual attraction.

I’ve written ace characters before: Morgan of Shadows, Casey, Gus (perhaps), Kelly Bennett in the upcoming Heartsong. Just because a person identifies as ace doesn’t mean they don’t have sex. Not everyone is sex-repulsed.

Casey is, which is why there was no sex in How to Be a Normal Person.

There isn’t sex in How to Be a Movie Star, either. Oh, there are frank discussions about sex and sexuality, but at no point does the relationship turn sexual on page. This was done by choice, but it doesn’t mean Josy is like Casey at all. He just has other things he focuses on that he considers more important in terms of a relationship.

Sex scenes aren’t always pointless, and under a skilled hand, they can add to the narrative. But if you don’t feel the connection between the two characters unless they consummate their relationship explicitly on page, then I’ve failed as an author. Sex isn’t the be-all and end-all. Smut has a place, just not in this specific story.

(But boy oh boy, wait until you see what happens in Why We Fight, Corey/Kori’s book. Let’s just say I surprised even myself. Yeesh, I’m gross.)

But don’t allow yourself to think it’s because ace people don’t fuck around. We can and do. We can enjoy it just like everyone else. The term asexual doesn’t mean one specific, regimented set of rules. You may not understand that, but that’s okay. In 11 days, you’ll get to hear Josy’s point of view on it all, and I think he’ll explain it better than I ever could.

(So long as he doesn’t get distracted by pretty much everything given that he’s probably stoned.)

Next week, I’ll post an excerpt. And then the following week, the book I swore I’d never write comes out.

I can’t wait for you to see what happens when we return to Abby, Oregon.

It’s almost February 12!

tj

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How to Be a Movie Star: Mental Health & Me (& You)

I’ve been up front in my struggles with my mental health. It wasn’t always that way. For a long time, I thought myself weak. When I was younger, I wrestled with depression and crippling anxiety. I thought it was something to be ashamed of. I didn’t know why I felt the way I did, and therefore, didn’t know how to ask for help. I had the naïve hope that it would go away on its own, and that I might grow out of it. Some do.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case for me. Oh, it didn’t worsen as I got older, but then it was already pretty bad to begin with. I tried therapy in my 20s, and was burnt by it when the therapist I went to turned out to be extremely unqualified. It wasn’t until I started this crazy writing journey that I found a way to channel these dark thoughts into something more productive.

(To be clear, this isn’t me stating I was cured by any stretch of the imagination; it doesn’t work like that. I’ve since learned from medical professionals how to better manage my depression and anxiety. The beginning of my writing career was merely a stop-gap for it as it gave me focus.

I’ve written about characters with mental health issues before. Probably the best example is Tyson Thompson (formerly Tyson McKenna). In Bear, Otter and the Kid and Who We Are, I wrote about his growth, about him trying to find his way. But it wasn’t until his own book, The Art of Breathing, that I realized just how destructive his behavior could be. It wasn’t his fault. Of course it wasn’t. Yes, he could be manipulative, and yes, he sunk lower before pulling himself back up, but the circumstances of his life and his own mind and body working against him led him to make some of the choices he did, both good and bad.

You know Josy, the narrator of How to Be a Movie Star. You’ve met him before in Normal Person, and I’ve talked about him in the last couple of blogs.

Today, I’d like you to meet Quincy AKA Q-Bert, the author of monster porn, and the man who’s getting ready to make his first film.

I think at almost every point in an author’s career, we write a character who’s also an author. I’ve tried to avoid it thus far because I didn’t want to come off as self-serving or self-congratulating. Ask an author about their craft, and we’ll never shut the fuck up about writing. It’s a gift. It’s a curse.

I don’t write monster porn.

I haven’t directed a movie.

(Yet.)

I’m not Quincy. If anything, I’m more like Gus than any of the other characters I’ve written.

But Quincy is…well. There are shades of me in him. He’s jittery and nervous, and does have mental health issues. And, like me, for a long time he was ashamed of it. But in a move I wished I’d done when I was younger, instead of being cowed by it, he decided to weaponize it, to drag it kicking and screaming into the spotlight, to show it in all its ugliness. He has a large social media following, and in the narrative of Movie Star, it’s shown how public he is about his struggles. He has good days. He has bad days. He has very bad days. It was important for me to have him do this given the stigma behind mental illness. The more people talk about their own issues, the more it’ll give others with the same problems a chance to have a voice, to open a dialogue. What works for him (and in turn, me) won’t work for everyone. Maybe not even most people. But I wouldn’t allow myself to gloss over it, given how important I think it is.

That being said, I wrote this novel as a comedy. Life is funny and strange and, at times, downright awful. While I would never make light of mental health, I knew I needed to walk the careful line between actually having something to say about versus sounding like I was making light of what Quincy went through when he was younger.

It helps to have someone like Josy. I think we all need a Josy in our lives. Their romance is slow and sweet and absurd and everything I could ever hope for in these two. They don’t heal each other. That would be extraordinarily disingenuous, and it would lessen what Quincy did with his life before he met Josy. But they do help each other. They, and their friends around them, prop each other up and remind themselves that it’s okay to have good days. It’s okay to have bad days. It’s okay to have really bad days so long as we remember we’re all in this together. Sometimes we need to be reminded of that.

And speaking of togetherness, one last thing:

I know straight readers (both women and men) make up a large portion of my audience. I’m thankful for that. For the most part, I think my hetero-readers would never think of fetishizing queer people. They are supportive and kind and while they might not understand completely the struggles of being queer, they can appreciate our voices.

That being said, I wrote How to Be a Movie Star (and Why We Fight, coming in May) with my queer audience in mind. Which is why How to Be a Movie Star has this dedication at the beginning:

This book is dedicated to all my queer readers.

You deserve every happiness.

Never stop fighting for what you believe in.

Next week, I’ll be discussing the absolute horror of trying to make friends as adults, and why I wanted to write another asexual character, and how sex (or the lack thereof) plays a part in asexual stories. See you then!

Pre-Order How to Be a Movie Star today! It releases February 12th!

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How to Be a Movie Star: Humor, Smoking the Doobies, and Trigger Warnings

By the time How to Be a Movie Star comes out, it’ll have been almost a year since I released a comedy. My first book of 2018 was A Wish Upon the Stars, which, while still comedic, was the big, climactic finale of a much larger story about friends, family, and kicking ass and taking names.

But in terms of pure comedy, the last one would probably be Until You, the wedding of Paul and Vince Auster at the beginning of 2017 (more on them in the coming months, but be forewarned: they’re a gross married couple now and it’s amazing). Yes, there was the entire three book Destiny Fuck Yeah! Verania arc, but they came with a sharper edge than their predecessor, The Lightning Struck Heart.

(And now that I think about it, it could probably be said that if you don’t like a specific sub-genre I write in, all you have to do is wait until the next book I publish because it’ll probably something else entirely. Manic, manic, manic.)

It’s a good comparison, though: the Verania series, the At First Sight Series, and the How To Be books. In essence, all are comedies in one way shape or form.

But to me, there are some major differences. The Verania series is very…bombastic. It’s in your face, and absolutely not for everyone. The comedy in the At First Sight could be said to be along the same vein, though possibly dialed down a notch or two.

How to Be a Normal Person, and in turn, How to Be a Movie Star, are comedies of a different kind. While they still have their moments, the humor tends to be a bit more subdued. On a scale from one to ten, if Verania is a ten, I’d put At First Sight at around a seven, and the How to Be books at a five. And this is entirely intentional.

There’s a beat to comedy, a rhythm. If you’ve ever seen a comic live at a show, you could almost set a metronome by it. It hums along hitting specific beats. Writing comedy is similar. There’s a strange little dance one does with words while writing a scene filled with humor that I love. And there are times when I have to pull myself back when writing Normal Person or Movie Star, knowing that if I start banging on the drums too loudly, it’ll lose a bit of the magic that fits with these books. There’s a cadence to writing the How to Be books, and it’s a different beat than I normally dance to, but I dig it immensely.

If you’ve read Normal Person, you’ll know that Gus isn’t exactly the typical comedic hero. He’s grumpy, he’s very strict with his regimented daily life, and doesn’t like it when things go off the rails and out of his comfort zone. I had to be very careful when writing him, because I didn’t want it to seem like I was making fun of him.

The same goes with Josy. Josy is…well. At first glance, he’s a typical stoner dude bro. That was the draw of him, the attraction. We’ve all seen movies or TV shows with the stoner side character. When I made the decision to write this book, I wondered if I could sustain a side character like him throughout an entire novel without it seeming like I was being slightly…cruel? He’s not smart. He’ll be the first to tell you that. He’s like Vince Auster, at least a little bit. But there’s so much more beneath the surface of him (much like with Vince) and it’s important to me that it not read as if I was mocking him. It’s one thing to have the reader be in on the joke with the character. To lose that insight is something else entirely. He’s not real, I know, but man, do I hear his breaths and his beating heart. I can’t wait for you to meet him for real this time.

And speaking of stoner dude bros.

Look. These books are pro-marijuana. It’s not in your face about it, but these characters aren’t shamed for the choices they make about what they put into their bodies. The story is set a year after the events of Normal Person, which puts it in 2015 when marijuana for recreational use was just approved in Oregon and made for sale starting October 1, 2015. Everyone in the book who uses marijuana does so as an adult in a state where it’s legal to do so. (Granted, given when the story is set, California hadn’t quite caught up with the times, so the “legality” might stretch a little there toward the beginning of the book.)

Don’t smoke weed?

Great! That’s absolutely your choice.

Smoke weed?

Great! That’s absolutely your choice.

I understand that it’s not for everyone. I understand some people don’t like even reading about it. That’s okay. If that puts you off, then this book is not for you. But please, please don’t do what happened after Normal Person came out and send me messages/emails/tweets about how you wished the characters didn’t smoke/consume any marijuana-related product (“Drugs are bad and they shouldn’t do drugs and I don’t like it when they do and it ruins the book!”). I won’t be shamed by including this aspect of the story, and you’ll be just wasting your time. Cool?

Cool.

One final weed-related caveat: Josy is white. Casey is white. They both smoke out. I, as the author of their story, 100% understand this comes from a place of privilege (within the confines of fiction), as it does for me as well (in reality). People of color have been prosecuted for decades for the very same things the characters in this book take for granted at the advent of the legal weed culture. I mention that in the book, at least peripherally. I wanted to address it more, but it started bordering on tokenism and frankly, sounding unintentionally sanctimonious on my part. Just because these characters exist in a bubble of sorts by no means meant to detract from the racial disparity of the so-called “war on drugs.”

Lastly, something I never do: a trigger warning. While I understand why some stories need them, I am always hesitant to include them because I think it can detract from the story. Some people weren’t happy I didn’t include a trigger warning with Olive Juice, and while I can respect their opinion, I will also respectfully disagree. I think the magic of a story is in the discovery of the journey.

It doesn’t help that the cutesy trigger warnings that some romance novels have now that drive me up the fucking wall. Be warned, this story contains rough-and-tumble Alphas with hearts of gold, and a vomiting cat that hangs from ceiling, har, har, har.

Stop. Doing. This.

Seriously.

Stop it.

(Yes, I am aware I just told you not to shame me for weed positivity and now I’m shaming people for something equally ridiculous—I contain terrible multitudes.)

That being said, I told myself a long time ago if I ever wrote a story containing/discussing/referencing two different types of events, I would warn for them. One of those events is in this book, at least in part.. Skip the next paragraph if you don’t want anything spoiled for you.

In Movie Star, there is a brief discussion of past suicidal ideation regarding Q-Bert/Quincy. It lasts a couple of paragraphs in a discussion with Josy, and the Q-Man talks about how he overcame the ideation with professional, medical and familial help. He didn’t harm himself, but he thought about it when he was in his teens.

And that’s it for this week! We are getting so close to our return to Abby, Oregon, where the residents are going to have stars in their eyes when a major Hollywood production*** comes to town to film. I can’t wait to show you what Gus and Casey and Lottie and the We Three Queens are up to now, and to show you how a demisexual stoner finds the love of his life with a neurotic writer of monster porn.

(***this is not a major production. it’s actually quite small and will probably fall apart quite easily.)

Next week, I’ll be discussing the mental health aspects of Movie Star, and why it was important for me to include this aspect, given my own history with anxiety and depression.

If you haven’t pre-ordered How to Be a Movie Star, what the hell are you waiting for? I’ll helpfully provide the links to do just that below.

Pre-Order How to Be a Movie Star today! It releases February 12th!

Add on Goodreads: https://goo.gl/vzNZES

Pre-Order Links:

Dreamspinner: https://goo.gl/3VwoLq

Amazon: https://goo.gl/onzcHD

Kobo: https://goo.gl/FX7Rw2

B&N: https://goo.gl/7efPoz

How to Be a Movie Star: I Can't Believe This Is Real

Tj, will you write a sequel to How to Be a Normal Person?

Nope!

You should write more about Gus and Casey and the We Three Queens!

Nah.

Tj, are you going to write anything more about Abby, Oregon?

*singing*: Noooooo!

For over two years, I said I would never, ever, ever write a sequel to Normal Person. I love that book. When I finished it back in early 2015, I felt so damn happy. Gustavo Tiberius is my favorite character I’ve ever written. I don’t even know if I can even explain why, exactly. I just…Gus is life, to me. I love most of what I’ve written, but there’s only a few books that I’ve finished the first draft and thought: goddamn, this is something special. (Contrary to the belief of some, I am my own harshest critic and don’t think everything I write is perfect, or even good, at times.) Since Normal Person, I’ve written only two more books where I finished the first draft and didn’t want to change a damn thing about it. One is a book you’ll read in 2020, my big Tor debut The House in the Cerulean Sea.

The other?

How to Be a Movie Star.

Why does this story exist at all?

It’s because of my own ridiculous brain. I had an idea at the back of my mind for a long time, where I would write about this agoraphobic dude who never left his apartment, and made money by writing monster porn. HIs love interest would be a guy who delivered his groceries. Grocery dude was going to be demisexual. I was getting ready to consider plotting out that story when I had the most terribly wonderful thought.

Have I ever written a character who identifies as demisexual before?

My brain supplied the answer rather helpfully: Why, yes! Yes, you have! Josiah, one of the Three Ironic Amigos is demisexual? I wonder what he’s up to?

No. No, no, no, nononono—

God-fucking-dammit.

So, yes. I am a liar, because in 32 days, you’ll get your sequel to How to Be a Normal Person, something I swore I’d never write.

And man, I tell you what: it was harder than I expected it to be for one simple reason: I, as a human being, am a sarcastic, acerbic asshole. And Josiah Erickson—Josy to his friends—is 100% pure sunshine, someone who is unfailingly optimistic, and doesn’t let anything get him down. Due to my own hang ups, people like that rub me the wrong way in real life. The world is doom and gloom! Everything is going to shit! We’re all going to die! I am not Josy in any way shape or form.

So imagine, if you will, me, as I am, writing a character such as Josy for an entire novel. Anytime I wanted to slip into my usual sarcasm with a pithy retort, I had to stop myself, questioning if this is something Josy would really do, or really say. He’s not Paul Auster. He’s not Sandy/Helena. He’s not Sam of Wilds. He’s not even Gus, but that’s kind of the point. He’s his own real person, and any attempt to sabotage that with something that I might have written for any of those other characters was like slamming into a brick wall.

And god, did I need that.

We curate what we want people to see of ourselves online, a glossy image that doesn’t always reveal the full truth. I announced rather publicly (and in a bit of a snit) in 2017 that I was getting uncomfortable with how certain…exuberant… readers were crossing lines and speaking on things I did and my appearance as if they had any right to, as if they knew me personally. It made me uncomfortable, and I made the decision to step back from posting anything personal on Facebook and the like, deciding to keep things, for the most part, only related to my books.

But I was having a rough go of it for a little while, something I didn’t talk about publicly. While the first half of 2018 brought the biggest news of my career in the form of two big book deals, I was wrestling with anxiety and depression, something I’ve done all my life, but reared its ugly heads with vengeance. When I made the decision to write How to Be a Movie Star, I needed it to be happy because I needed to be happy.

Therefore, in this book, there is no angst. There is no manufactured drama. There is a moment of miscommunication, but it’s resolved within pages. This story (and the one that will follow this summer, Corey/Kori in Why We Fight) is a celebration of life and happiness, of dreaming big and loving as hard as you possibly can. It was cathartic for me. I’m still going to be a sarcastic asshole, but Josy taught me that it’s okay to just…let it go. He made me smile. And I hope he’ll do the same for you. I’ve centered myself again, using tools (and medication) that medical professionals have given me. Self-care is important, and it’s a philosophy Josy lives by.

Over the next four weeks, I’ll be posting weekly blogs covering a few different things: mental health (and it’s relevance to this story), marijuana use (it’s absolutely not for everyone, but I won’t be shamed for including it), how the comedic beats in this series differs from Verania and the Tucson Crew, and if you’ll finally, finally get the answer to that question many of you had for a long, long time: are they sisters or are they in a polyamorous lesbian relationship?

Pre-Order How to Be a Movie Star today! It releases February 12th!

Add on Goodreads: https://goo.gl/vzNZES

Pre-Order Links:

Dreamspinner: https://goo.gl/3VwoLq

Amazon: https://goo.gl/onzcHD

Kobo: https://goo.gl/FX7Rw2

B&N: https://goo.gl/7efPoz

A Look Back, and a Glimpse of the Future

2018 has been a roller coaster.

In January, I found myself preparing for the final Sam of Wilds Book, dealing with the emotional fallout of The Consumption of Magic (“TJ HOW DARE YOU DO THIS TO US???!!”), and wondering just how out of my depth I was with trying to break into the YA market with a book about queer superheroes and the boy named Nick who writes fanfiction about them. I didn’t know what would come of it, if anything, and figured all I could do was hope for the best.

I’m glad I took the chance. The biggest thing that’s ever happened to my career took place in the first half of 2018. Chances are if you’re reading this, you know what I’m talking about so no need to brag about it more than I already have. I’m thrilled, terrified, and can’t wait for what the coming years will bring.

But that’ll come soon enough.

Here’s a quick recap of my 2018 releases (along with something you might not have known about each book):

A Wish Upon the Stars

ebook: https://goo.gl/fvBieU

audio: https://goo.gl/gnGsg5

I love this ending because it is an ending. I never imagined when writing The Lightning-Struck Heart that it’d grow into a four book series about family, friendships, and the depths this dude named Sam would go to in order to protect king and country. I’m pleased with his story and I was happy I was able to finish it without too much muss and fuss. It was a monstrous undertaking, but I learned a lot from it. I get a ton of questions about when I might go back to Verania for Justin’s book, but as I’ve said before, I need a good long break from this world before I consider going back. Keep in mind Wish was just released this year; it’ll be a couple more years before I do anything with Justin. I won’t forget him, though. Promise.

(In this book, a long with the addition of Gary’s twin brother Terry, we were also going to meet their parents. But as I got through their introduction, I realized that there were too many characters, so I made the decision to cut them and save them for later. We’ll meet them in Justin’s book.)


Ravensong

ebook: https://goo.gl/u2dxHL

audio: https://goo.gl/JXPJz6

Ah, the wolves. Sort of the same story here. When I wrote Wolfsong, I had no idea it would grow into what it did, except by this I mean in terms of sales or the rabid fanbase around it. Who knew people liked angsty werewolves? Y’all are a bunch of masochists. I’ve talked previously how hard this book was to write given that I tried too much to make it sound like Wolfsong, and while frustrating, it taught me more about my style of writing than any other book I’ve written, especially when I was forced to start over to make it Gordo, not Gordo via Ox. It was a tough lesson, but I’m glad I figured it out when I did.

(Elijah was originally going to be saved for book 3. In part of the initial outline, I was going to make the Omega aspect of the book the complete main focus with only Mark having been changed and having Mark and Gordo go off on their own as Mark sunk further and further into madness. It would have been a much darker story, and I scrapped it because it would have meant the pack as a whole was barely in the book at all. And then Elijah’s history became twisted with Gordo’s own, and it wouldn’t have made sense to save it for later.)


The Bones Beneath My Skin

ebook: https://goo.gl/YFXXV8

audio: https://goo.gl/7jbTgX

Please buy the audio. Please buy the audio. Please buy the audio.

ahem

Now that that’s out of the way, my first foray into self-publishing was a success, so thank you for that. Sci-fi is always a harder sell in MM romance, so I appreciate people coming along with me on this journey. I had a blast with this book, and Art and Nate and Alex are characters that I’ll look back on fondly. It was a long road for Bones, from when I first started writing it to when it was actually published, but I’m happy with how it turned out. It’s a different kind of love story, and I am so happy with how it came out. In addition, Greg Tremblay is a fucking master, and the audiobook is just fantastic (please buy it).

(There was a long moment when I started getting ready to write Bones that I considered making Artemis a boy. Since I already knew how it was going to end—”And I come in peace”—I worried that people were going to expect that he should get his own book too. He could be queer and fall in love with an earth dude! I didn’t want that. And it helped that the dynamic between Artemis as she was and Alex made the story feel more…authentic? So girl Artemis it was.)

And just this week, I released Blasphemy! which has no literary value and which I love to pieces. I will be writing more about Satan and God and Jimmy and teenage Jesus at some point. I think making it a free series that I visit every now and then seems doable. It was fun to write, and allowed me to clear my head.

2019 is right around the corner. Big, big things are coming, and I’ll tease a little below. If you want to go into everything blind, then feel free to skip this section.


February 12: How to Be a Move Star—This is literally the happiest book I’ve ever written. Me, a cynical pessimist, made the terrible decision to write the happiest, most optimistic character I’ve ever created. And goddamn if I didn’t love it. Josy is a fuckin delight, especially when he’s lamenting how hard it is to make friends as an adult.

June: Why We Fight—The last At First Sight book, and finally we’re getting Corey/Kori’s story. You will never look at eggs again without being scarred for life, and also there is a sex scene involving absolutely no touching, a door, and dirty, filthy talk from one Professor Jeremy Olsen.

September/December: Heartsong/Brothersong—Nothing will ever be the same. You won’t see the hits coming, and when they do, you won’t believe your eyes. The Green Creek series started out about a lonely boy named Ox. I thought it would stay that way, and it does, at least in part. However, the last two books are really about three Bennett brothers, and their love and faith in each other. I aim to answer a deceptively simple question: what happens when that faith is stretched to its limits?

And that’s it, for now. I need a break. I’ll be stepping back from most social media until the first or second week of January. I’ve worked my ass off this year, and need to take a breather. Nothing to worry about, it’s something I do almost every year. I think of it as my yearly retreat from being TJ Klune.

When I come back, it’ll be to kick off this crazy ride all over again. Thank you for making 2018 my biggest year yet. The trust you’ve put into me as an author is humbling, and something I won’t forget. I wish you and yours a very happy holiday season.

Hendrix Rustic Christmas 2018.png


Blasphemy!

Straight up: if you are extremely religious and/or find the idea of Satan as a main character to be offensive, this is not the story for you. You have been warned up front. You are 100% allowed to have a boner for Jesus, but please don’t leave comments about how offended you are and blah, blah, blah. I don’t have time for such nonsense.

In addition, I would like to make a request. I thought about charging for this. It’s near 20K words, and I thought maybe a buck or two would make sense. However, I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve had a very good year (thanks to all of you!), so I ask that you consider throwing a buck or five toward the LGBTQ charity The Trevor Project in lieu of any payment to me. They are a wonderful organization who could use every cent they can get. Every little bit helps, and just think! You’re doing it in the name of Satan.

Trevor Project Donation Link:

https://give.thetrevorproject.org/give/63307/#!/donation/checkout

And finally, you can read Blasphemy in a few ways: The entire story is below, or you can download the PDF or Mobi file (if you’d like epub, you can convert the PDF by using Calibre:

BLASPHEMY! PDF

BLASPHEMY! MOBI

Thank you for making 2018 my biggest year yet! Some big things are on the horizon, and I can’t wait for you to see what’s next.

Happy holidays (and hail Satan):

tj

Art by: Einat Keshet, Kirsten Maat, Mariana Avilez

Art by: Einat Keshet, Kirsten Maat, Mariana Avilez

            It was a Tuesday when Satan realized he didn’t want to get up for work.

            Granted, in Hell it always felt like Tuesdays. That was part of the torture. Everyone agreed that Tuesdays were the absolute worst, and therefore, Satan had made a decree six thousand years ago that it would always feel like a Tuesday. It’d gone over well with the demons.

            But it was actually Tuesday when Satan pulled the covers back over his head. The screams of the damned filtered in through the open window near his bed. It should have made him feel better. It didn’t. 

            There was a knock at his bedroom door.

            He ignored it.

            The knock came again.

            He ignored it once more.

            When it repeated for a third time, Satan shouted, “What!”

            “Sire?” a voice came. “It’s time to get up.”
            “I know it is,” he snapped.

            “Oh. Well. Just making sure you knew. You have your conference call first thing, and I know how you hate to be late for anything—”

            “I am the Lord of the Underworld,” Satan snapped in response as he pulled the covers off his head. “I am never late. I arrive exactly when I want to, and that makes it always on time.”

            “Uh. Right, sire. Exactly. May I enter?”

            Satan sighed. “If you must.”

            The door opened.

            A small man entered. He had a pencil thin mustache. His name was Carl. Satan often wondered if what would have happened if he’d known that being named Carl and growing a pencil thin mustache was an automatic ticket to Hell. Would he have shaved? Applied for a name change? He didn’t know. Hell was filled with many men named Carl who had pencil thin mustaches. Satan should have thought that one through more when he’d negotiated with God for the rights of souls. It’d been God’s idea to give him all Carls with mustaches. It’d seemed like a good deal at the time. Now, Satan realized it was just another big fuck you from the man upstairs.

            And speaking of God, it was actually Tuesday, which meant his first order of business was going to be a conference call with the asshole himself. As if the day couldn’t get any worse.

            “I hate everything,” Satan muttered.

            “That’s the spirit,” Carl said cheerfully as he stood in front of a massive bureau. The doors were blackened and made of human skin. It was an antique Satan had found in a shop in one of the lower pits of Hell on a trip a few centuries ago. “And what would sire wish to wear today? Something terrifying, perhaps? The Cloak of Eternal Hangnails? The Jeans of Unholy Neoconservative Politics? Ooh, there’s always the Overalls of Diabolical Misery. You haven’t worn those in a long time.”

            “That’s because no one wears overalls anymore.”
            Carl nodded. “True, but you’ve always been such a trendsetter.”

            Carl wasn’t wrong. The minions of Hell had been all abuzz last year when Satan had showed up to the office in the Coat of Terrible Atrophy. Designers had been quick to replicate the coat and they’d practically flown off the shelves. A few of them actually had flown, given that one designer decided attaching wings would be a good idea. That had been a mess that’d taken almost a full week to clear up. The designer of said coats had been sent to the dungeons for his crimes.

            The problem with that, though, was sending anyone to the dungeons should have filled Satan with a sense of accomplishment. But it hadn’t, and at first, Satan had just ignored it. Everyone was entitled to have an off day, after all.

            But it’d only gotten worse.

            He found himself growing more and more apathetic toward his responsibilities. Where once he’d found joy in torture, now it seemed like too much work. Even wielding the whip with the little metal spikes on the end didn’t do it for him as it once had.

            Surveying the Kingdom of Hell was something he always looked forward to. He’d once loved going from realm to realm, peeking in on the goings on. But even the Lava Fields Sponsored by the NRA looked dull and boring now, the same old same old. It was just lava filled with guns. It’d lost its luster a long time ago.

His human resources representative, a terrible woman named Cheryl, had suggested that he consider therapy, but he’d scoffed at her. He didn’t need therapy.

            (It didn’t help that most of the therapists in Hell had once been in charge of queer conversion camps on Earth. They were just awful, awful people, and he didn’t think they could help him. Still, there was a bit of happiness involved anytime one of them showed up in Central Processing. The looks on their faces when they found out that most queer people automatically went to Heaven simply because they were queer was divine.)

            “Sire?” Carl asked.

            “The jeans,” Satan said, knowing that if he didn’t pick something, Carl would, and one of the big reasons Carl was in Hell at all (aside from his name and mustache) was because of his horrific fashion sense. Carl had spent most of his time on Earth wearing a fanny pack and sandals with socks. Yes, he’d also lit a retirement community on fire, but that failed in comparison with his choice of outerwear and facial hair. Satan had thought of banishing Carl several times, but he loathed the idea of having to train someone new. Carl knew him and knew him well.

            “Excellent choice, sire,” Carl said. He pulled the jeans from the bureau, grunting as he did so. They were heavy and long, seeing as how Satan was fifteen feet tall. Satan thought about helping the struggling Carl, but he just watched him instead. He hoped such a little thing would bring him joy. Carl managed to get the jeans out completely, but then collapsed to the floor in a heap, the material laying on top of him.

            “Don’t worry,” Carl gasped. “I’ve got this.”

            Satan didn’t worry, not one bit. Not about this at least. And he didn’t feel joy at all.

            Carl somehow escaped the confines of the jeans. He stood up from the ground and dragged them toward the bed. He was sweating, but that made sense: it was ninety-seven degrees in the bedroom, just as Satan liked it. “There we are,” Carl said, setting the jeans up on the bed. “Up and at ‘em! I have a feeling today is going to be an awful day.”

            “I don’t need you to cheer me up,” Satan muttered as he put his feet on the ground. He winced as he flexed his toes, hearing them pop and crack. He hadn’t slept very well the night before. He’d been preparing for today’s conference call, acting out conversations in his head, practicing rebuttals and retorts so that God would know he meant business. It was not lost on him that this was his own version of actual Hell. God always had the upper hand, and never let Satan forget it. And though God had kept his mouth shut so far, Satan knew it wouldn’t last much longer. God tended to get involved even when he wasn’t invited to provide his opinion on a matter. Today was probably going to be the day the dam broke, and Satan wasn’t ready to deal with his shit.

            “Of course you don’t,” Carl said, grabbing Satan by the hand and pulling him off the bed. “Now, you overslept a little, so there isn’t time for breakfast. However, I put coffee in your travel mug, and also put a muffin in a baggie for you to eat on the way to the office.”

            “I hate muffins.”

            Carl snorted. “So you say, and yet you eat them whenever I make them for you.”

            Satan scowled down at him. “Only because you don’t know how to make anything else.”

            “Too right. If only I hadn’t listened to the monsters in my brain who told me to burn everything in sight, I might have opened a bakery.”

            Satan hesitated. “Is…is that something you want?” 

            Carl shrugged as he dragged the jeans off of the bed. “I guess. But it doesn’t matter now, does it?”

            Satan frowned down at him. “You can have a bakery if you want.”

            Carl stared at him. “What?”

            Satan rubbed the back of his neck. “I mean, you stay in the house all day, waiting for me to get home. What do you do while I’m gone?”

            “Well, I mostly sit around replaying my entire life and wondering why my father didn’t love me enough to come to my T-ball games, and if that would have stopped me from wanting to light things on fire—”

            “You can have a bakery.”

            Carl gaped at him. “I can? But…but that’s so nice.”

            “I can be nice when I want to,” Satan muttered, hating how defensive he sounded.

            “I know,” Carl said quickly, the jeans evidently forgotten. He’d long since gotten used to Satan’s nudity, even though it’d taken him a long while to get over the fact that Satan had a very large penis. “But it’s just…” He squinted up at Satan. “Are you feeling all right, sire? You’ve been…rather cordial lately.”

            “I have not.”

            Carl blanched at the halo of fire that bloomed above Satan’s head. “I didn’t—I mean no offense, sire.”

            The halo faded as Satan breathed through his nose. “Forget it. It was a bad idea.”

            “No, no,” Carl said. “It’s…good. I would love a bakery, if you think you could spare me during the day. It’d be a lot of work, but I think—”

            “Maybe not an entire bakery,” Satan said, trying to regain some control. “Like, a cart. Or something.”

            Carl nodded furiously. “That’s worse and is almost a mockery of my lifelong dream. Thank you. I would love a cart. Or something.”

            Satan felt a little better. “It would be heavy and hard to push around.”

            “The wheels could be square,” Carl said helpfully.

            “Right. Square wheels. And you would always be out of something that everyone wants to order.”

            “Oooh,” Carl breathed. “I’d have to apologize profusely and give discounts on other items to make up for it. That sounds perfectly terrible.”

            “Yes,” Satan said. “Exactly. And you would have to sell cake pops, which are the most pointless confectionary in the history of existence.”

            “Right?” Carl said. “Why are those even a thing? It’s cake on a stick. Who the hell does something like that?”

            Satan felt better. He hated when people called him nice. He was anything but. He was the Dark Lord. The Snake in the Garden. The Evil Blight upon the world. He wasn’t nice. He wasn’t cordial. He was the monster who haunted the dreams of the innocent. He stripped the flesh from their bones and drank their blood as they begged for mercy.

            (Though, a little voice reminded him, he didn’t actually drink blood anymore, seeing as how it gave him heartburn. Oh, the joys of being ancient. It never got any easier.)

            “Good,” Satan said. “Then you can have your cart with square wheels. I’ll put in the order today. I just got new stationary that I’ve been looking forward to using, and this will do nicely.”

            Carl grinned up at him. “Thank you, sire.”

            “Whatever,” Satan muttered. “Dress me.”

            He stood in front of the mirror, studying himself as Carl scurried around him. He flexed his arms, enjoying how douchey it made him look. His body was strong, and though he’d let himself go a little, he was starting to like the swell of his gut, the way his thighs looked like thick slabs of concrete. His entire body was a violent shade of red, and while that sometimes limited his fashion choices (he hated when something clashed with his skin), he’d grown to love himself for who he was. He barely even remembered what he’d look like in Heaven, though God was always quick to remind him of the muscle twink he’d once been. And while Satan had never been too fond of labels, he sometimes wondered if he was a bear now, like the type who could be called Daddy. He’d never spoken those words aloud, sure that he’d never hear the end of it.

Still, he didn’t look half-bad, or so he told himself. The horns on his head were black and sharp, his teeth white and straight, and though his nose was a little big, ever since he’d gotten his septum pierced, he’d found himself okay with it.

“Daddy bear,” he muttered to himself.

“What was that, sire?”

“Nothing,” he said quickly. “Ignore what I just said, or I’ll stick nails through the bottoms of your feet.”

“Didn’t hear a word,” Carl said easily. “Lift your leg for me, please.”

Satan did, and Carl began to pull on the jeans. He tried to zip them up and button them, but Satan knocked his hands away. He didn’t like Carl’s hands so close to his junk. It was the mustache. It was horrible.

“Hmm,” Carl said, eyeing him up and down. “Still missing something. Ah! I know. Suspenders of Discontent. They would go perfectly.”

Satan grimaced. “Jeans and suspenders? Are you sure? That would look—”

“Like you’re trying too hard to show off your body inappropriately in a workplace environment that will make everyone uncomfortable?”

“Oh. Right. Yes. Fetch the suspenders.”

Carl did.

By the time he’d slung them over Satan’s shoulders and clasped them to the tops of the jeans, Satan was feeling a little better. Perhaps today wouldn’t be too bad after all.

*****

            “Make terrible choices!” Carl called from the door. Satan nodded at him as he walked out from his house onto the brick sidewalk, his travel mug in one hand, a muffin in a baggie in the other. The coffee tasted like ass, just the way Satan liked it. The muffin didn’t look that bad either, though he’d never say it out loud.

            He thought about whistling as he walked to work, but then reminded himself that he was the Beast Who Brings Misery to All, so instead, he scowled at everyone he saw.

            “Bad morning!” a demon called to him as he walked by. He stopped to admire the demon’s work. On a raised stone dais sat a large wooden device known as the Rack of Infinite Doom Sponsored by Dick Cheney. The demon spun the crank, stretching out a man whose continual screams only grew louder the more the binds around his wrists and arms pulled.

            “Bad morning,” Satan responded. “Who’s this?”
            The demon stopped the crank before wiping his brow. “Keith Martins.”

            “His crimes on Earth?”’

            “He was mean to dogs.”

            Satan glared at the screaming man. Satan had a fondness for dogs, even though the only ones that found their way to Hell were poodles. He had no qualms about torturing people who were cruel to animals. “How long have you been at it?”

            The demon looked down at his watch. “Um, it’s been…thirty-seven hours.”

            That was a long time. Still. “Make it a month.”

            The demon smiled crazily. “Will do, sire! You can count on me!” He immediately started spinning the crank again. Satan wanted to stay and watch, but he was already late, and God would never let him hear the end of it if he missed their call.

            He walked along the River of Gross Pollution, pleased to see the amount of toxic waste barrels. They’d ran into troubles last year when one of the demons had reported to him that the river was almost clean enough to drink from. They’d redoubled their efforts and had made it one of the more noxious places in all of Hell. It smelled grotesque, like spoiled meat sitting in the sun for far too long.

            There were flashes of light above him. He looked up to see the Pneumatic Tubes of Doom Sponsored by Insufferable Vegans Who Feel the Need to Shame Those Who Eat Meat. Demons were being summoned to the Earth above, appearing mostly to down-and-out humans at crossroads who were interested in trading their souls for all matter of things. It was really rather shocking just how easy it was for people to give away something so important, yet so intangible. It was mostly men, of course, seeing as how men were fragile little creatures who acted tough but usually crumbled at the smallest inconvenience. It mattered not to Satan. A soul was a soul. There was a time when Satan himself had gone up through the tubes, but then Hell had continually expanded, and he just didn’t have the time he once did to harvest the souls himself. He missed it, though he understood that being the big boss meant he had to delegate certain responsibilities.

            He stopped momentarily near the park to watch a group of personal injury attorneys doing yoga. There were more personal injury attorneys in Hell than any other profession, and they wailed and screamed as they were forced into the kapotasana pose, their backs bending harshly, their legs folded underneath them. “Bad morning!” the yoga demon called over to him before turning back to the attorneys. “Oh, look! Someone was involved in a minor car accident but claims they were somehow permanently injured and there’s no one to represent them.”

            A ghostly apparition appeared in front of them, the translucent outline of a man wearing a neck brace. The man said, “I know we were only going two miles an hour in a parking lot, but I’m so hurt, I can’t even make love to my wife anymore. Won’t someone help me get financial compensation that I’m absolutely not owed as I’m committing insurance fraud?”

            The attorneys cried out in horror when they realized they couldn’t get out of their yoga positions to get to the man to sign him as a client. It was wonderful.

            Satan nodded at the yoga demon and continued on. Maybe today wouldn’t be so bad after all.

*****

            The office was abuzz when he stepped off the elevator. His secretary and office manager, an older woman named Donna, was there to greet him. On Earth, Donna had murdered six of her husbands for their life insurance money, earning the moniker of the Black Widow of Sacramento. She’d poisoned each of them and then played the part of the grieving widow, all the while using the money she’d gotten for extravagant purchases, such as a yacht and the original puppet used in the television show ALF.

            Satan adored her.

            “There you are,” she said, looking down at her off-brand tablet that only worked sometimes given the WI-FI was spotty. It was Hell, after all. “Bad morning. I thought I was going to have to push your conference call back.”

            “Oh, he’d just love that,” Satan grumbled.

            “Probably,” Donna agreed. “But he loves everything. He’s God, after all.” She fell in step beside him as they walked toward his office in the corner. “There are a few other matters of importance, though they can wait.”

            “Like?”

            “The demons in West Hell are still pushing to unionize, and their appointed union leader wants to talk to you.”

            “Of course he does. Tell him I’m busy.”

            “Oh, I have,” she said. “For the last year. But it’s best that you get it done and over with. You don’t want a revolt on your hands.”

            Satan scoffed as they walked through the hundreds of cubicles that filled the thirteenth floor of Hell, Inc. He kept his smile to himself when some of the office demons shouted in frustration when their computers needed to update yet again. “If they tried to revolt, I’d just destroy them all and make more demons.”

            Donna rolled her eyes. “And find yourself in the same position in another year. What harm could it do to just listen?”

            He glared at her.

            She ignored him. “And then there’s the League of Christians Who Cite the Lord’s Name in Their Twitter Bio and Then Don’t Act Christian At All in Their Twitter Posts.”

            Satan groaned as they reached his office. “Again? Evangelicals are the worst.”

            Donna patted him on the arm as he held the door open for her. “They aren’t very happy they ended up here.”

            “Well, they shouldn’t have acted like assholes. I swear, when Twitter was invented on Earth, I was not prepared for just how many people would be sent here because of it. You would think people who had the Twitter name of LoveJesusSoMuch would know not to be racist or homophobic, but here we are.”

            “I’d be fine if we said we never received their request,” Donna said, typing on her tablet. “Oops. Would you look at that. Their memo is in my spam folder where no one actually ever looks. Oh well.”

            “You’re my favorite,” Satan said, sitting down in his chair.

            “I know.” Donna stood on the other side of the desk, tablet clutched against her chest. “You look tired.”

            “It’s Tuesday,” he reminded her.

            “I still don’t know why you get so nervous about your conference calls with him. He’s not so bad. And he seems to care about you quite a bit. I can’t fault him for that.”

            “He’s just so…so…”

            “Forgiving? Magnanimous? All-knowing?”

            “Smug,” Satan decided on.

            “I can see that,” Donna said. “I can’t imagine being him and not being smug. But you shouldn’t worry so much about it.”

            “Easier said than done.”
            “I suppose. I’ll put the call through when it comes in. Do you need anything else from me?”

            Satan shook his head. “No. That should be fine for now.”
            “Eat the muffin,” she called over her shoulder as she headed for the door. “You get grumpy when you’re hungry. Oh, and love the suspenders by the way. Very dashing. If you were straight, I’d probably make you fall in love with me, take an insurance policy out on your life, and then murder you and use the money to buy a chain of semi-successful chicken restaurants.”

            Satan was absurdly touched. “Thanks, Donna. I don’t know what I’d do without you.”

            She winked at him as she closed the door.

            Satan sat back in his chair, rubbing a hand over his face. He took a sip from his coffee, grimacing at the taste. It was perfect. And that reminded him. He reached into his desk and pulled out a large, flat stone. He held up a finger, watching as a black claw grew out from the tip. He scraped the claw against the stone, the letters flaring brightly. Once he’d finished the memo, he waved a hand over it. Instead of square wheels, Carl’s cart wouldn’t have wheels at all. He’d be forced to push it wherever he went, and it would take forever to get anywhere. It was perfect. The stone dinged in his hands when Donna confirmed receipt of it.

            It was only a moment later when the phone beeped. “God for you on video chat line one,” Donna said, voice crackling.

            Satan sighed. “Put him through.”

            “Putting through.”

            The monitor on his desk lit up with a red screen. In the center, spinning slowly, was a graphic of himself, wearing a suit, his arms crossed over his massive chest. He was scowling, of course, because he hated having his picture taken. The words HELL, INC were underneath.

            And then the screen went white.

            Like, blinding white.

            He grunted and covered his eyes. “I told you not to do that.”

            “Fuck you, man. I totally got you again. Feel that heavenly light, you little bitch. Feel it all over you. Drink it in, for I am the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.”

            “I hate you so much.”
            “Shut up. Whatever. You love me.”

            “Turn it down.”

            “Oh, is the pretty light hurting Satan’s wittle eyes? Aw. There, there, wittle Satan. I’ll turn it down for you.”

            The light faded.

            Satan dropped his hand and glared at the screen.

            There, with a dipshit grin on his face, was God himself.

            He was wearing a white suit, sitting back in a white chair. His beard was made of little fully clouds, and he was grinning, the corners of his eyes crinkling. “Hey, man.”

            “Hi,” Satan said, fighting a begrudging smile. The idea that God and Satan were enemies was a human one. Sure, they had their disagreements, but it wasn’t anything they couldn’t get over if they tried hard enough. Yes, God was smug, and could be a dick about it, but Satan could handle it. And even though dead wild horses would never be able to drag it from him, he had a soft spot for his brother, their history be damned.

            “How are you?” God asked.

            “All right, I guess.”

            God arched an eyebrow. “Huh.”

            That wasn’t good. It was too early for one of God’s huhs. Satan crossed his arms over his chest. “What?”

            God shrugged. “You look tired.”

            “Fuck you, I don’t.”

            “Yeah, a little. You’re—medammit.” A loud crash came from somewhere off screen. “Sorry, man. Hold on a second. I swear to me, don’t ever have children. They drive you up the wall.” God stood from his chair and stepped away off screen. “Jesus! Jesus Christ, you better not be making a mess in the kitchen. We just had it cleaned!”

            A surly response came crackling through the monitor. “I’m not! And don’t tell me what to do! You’re not even my real dad. Joseph is! When he and Mom get back from their vacation, I’m going to tell them you never let me do anything.”

            “You do that,” God said. “See how far it gets you. And you know I’m your real dad. Your mom was a virgin when I put my seed of light inside of—”

            “Gross! Stop it! And that’s not how pregnancy works. You made sure of that!”

            “Just…I’m making a very important call right now. Please keep it down. I promise when I finish, we’ll go ride unicorns or something. We’ll make a day of it.”

            “I hate unicorns!”
            “Jesus, I’m warning you. Lose the tone.”

            “Or what, you’ll send me to Earth and let me die for more sins again that aren’t even my own? Real original. Oh, hey, guys, of course you can nail me to a piece of wood. I’m here for you, after all!”

            “That’s it. You’re grounded!”

            “You can’t ground me! I’m calling Mom!”

            “Do it, then! And you tell her that you think she wasn’t a virgin. See how that goes.”

            “I’m going to hang out with my friends. At least beggars and whores understand me!”

            Somewhere deep inside the cloud castle God lived in, a door slammed. God sighed as he reappeared on screen, sitting back down in his chair. “Sorry about that, man. Sharing custody is hard. Joseph and Mary have been gone for a week. It feels like a year.”

            “He’s still acting like a teenager?”

            God rolled his eyes. “He is a teenager. He asked me a while back that he wants to be sixteen for a little bit. Said he didn’t get the chance to act like a kid on Earth. I allowed it, thinking it wasn’t going to hurt anyone. Worst decision ever.” God shook his head. “Kids, man. Can’t live with them, can’t allow them to be crucified or you’ll never hear the end of it.” He paused, rubbing his beard thoughtfully. “Maybe I could send him down to you for a little—”

            “Absolutely not,” Satan said.

            “But—”

            “If you do that, I swear to you that I’ll never forgive you.”

            “Yeah, yeah. Fine. You just enjoy seeing me suffer.”
            “That’s because I’m Satan.”

            “Right,” God said. “Anyway, how goes it, man? You doing okay?”

            “I’m fine.”

            “Uh huh. Want to try that again?”

            “I told you to stay out of my head. Just because you created me does not mean you get to fuck around in there.”

            God snorted. “Now you sound like Jesus. Fine. We can do this the old fashioned—” He sneezed into his hand. He pulled his hand back, grimacing as he looked down at it. “Aw, man. I just made another galaxy. Gross. Fucking Allegra’s not working. They’re doing construction down the hall, and the dust is just everywhere.” He wiped his hand off on a tissue before crushing it into a ball and throwing it in the trash.

            “Don’t you want to put that in the sky?” Satan asked.

            “Nah,” God said. “For all I know, it’d end up having another place like Florida in it. Don’t need that happening. I can barely keep up with the real one as it is.”    

            “What is up with that place? Even I don’t like going there.”

            God shrugged. “I was high when I made it. Had this real dank herb. Thought it seemed like a good idea. But, like most ideas when I’m high, it didn’t turn out like I thought it would. Same with those plastic packages scissors come in. I mean, how the hell are you supposed to open it? You can’t use scissors because they’re in the package. It’s a philosophical conundrum, man.”
            “Eh, I use those down here now. Perfect torture device.”

            “Of course you do. You’re welcome.” He sat back in his chair. “Since you won’t let me in your head, you’re gonna have to tell me what’s going on.”

            “Or I don’t and we can hang up and pretend this conversation never happened.”
            “Right,” God said dryly. “Because that’s going to work.” He sobered. “You know the only reason I agreed to give you the Kingdom of Hell was on the promise that we’d have these weekly talks. It’s not therapy, but—”

            “It better not be.”
            God shook his head. “Nah, I wouldn’t do that to you, even if I’m pretty much the most qualified being in all of existence. I just…I want you to be happy.”         

            “That sounds terrible. And you also want everyone to be happy. It’s kind of the point.”

            God sighed. “You know what I mean. Fine, then. Not happy. Fulfilled. I want you to have a life of fulfillment. I always have, even when you were up here. Sure, we argued a lot, but you were still one of my angels, man. I want the best for you.”

            Satan fidgeted in his chair. “I know. And you don’t need to worry about me. I’m fine.”

            “Huh.”

            Satan groaned. “What now?”

            God sat forward in his chair, elbows on the desk. “How’d the date go on Saturday? You like him?”

            Oh, himdammit. Satan had hoped he’d forgotten about it. He should have known better. God had a tendency not to forget anything. He could be a wrathful dick that way, always smiting this and smiting that. Granted, it’d been a long time since he’d rained destruction down on the Earth, but still. It didn’t take much to set him off. And when he got a bug up his holy ass, he made it his mission to see it through. Even Satan had been a little appalled with the whole flooding and destroying most of humanity thing.

            Hence Joey, who had appeared in Hell a few weeks back. Satan should have known God had a hand in it.

            Joey had been…well, not charming, exactly, and definitely not sweet. He’d been a hired hit man on Earth, and per his intake sheet Satan had perused before their date, he’d killed upwards of fifty-seven people, mostly mob-related.

            And while Satan could be into that, it was all he talked about.

            Literally.

            From the moment Joey sat down, it was all about him: how many people he’d killed, the ways in which he killed them, which were his favorites, and which ones he wished had gone differently. Satan usually loved a good story about death and destruction, but it got old after the first hour. When Satan had tried to steer the conversation in a different direction, Joey had appeared confused. It was only then that Satan had learned that Joey absolutely didn’t know how to talk about anything else. Satan had considered taking him home and fucking him before banishing him to one of the lower pits. But then Joey had been rude to a lovely little demon waitress, and Satan had been completely done with his bullshit.

            “It didn’t work out,” Satan said coolly.

            “Huh,” God said again. “I really thought he’d be the one. Sucks, dude. My bad. I thought I was getting better at the whole matching making thing.”

            “You’re not.”

            God shrugged. “Well, you win some, you lose some. You got laid, at least.”

            Satan picked at his muffin. “About that.”

            God sighed. “Seriously, Satan? Come on. It was a sure bet. Even if he was a terrible person, you could have at least boned him and gotten it out of your system. What the hell.”

            “I didn’t want to bone him!”

            “Why not?”

            Himdammit. He wasn’t going to let this go. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

            “Well, tough shit. We’re going to.” His expression softened. “Look. I know things have been a little…busy for you lately. I get that. Free will is obviously working in your favor these days. I should have seen that coming, but what can you do? Give a being the right to be an asshole, and chances are, they’re going to be an asshole.”

            “I am busy, thank you for noticing—”

            “But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take some time for just you, man.” God tapped his fingers on his desk. “There’s something to the idea of self-care. When was the last time you did something just for you without worrying about anything else?”

            Satan blanched. He tried desperately to come up with something to refute God, but his mind was blanking. He opened his mouth to speak, but no sound came out.

            “Yeah,” God said. “That’s what I thought.”

            “I don’t know why you care so much,” Satan growled.

            “Bullshit you don’t. I’m your big brother. Of course I care about what happens to you.” He sat back in his chair. “I love you, man. I know we’ve had our differences in the past, but I hope you remember that I’m always here for you, no matter what. We’re family, you know? It’s my job to call you out when you start acting like a jerk. And frankly, that’s exactly what you’re being right now. Maybe I should come down there for a bit. A little divine intervention. We could get high, laugh a little, knock back a couple of beers, swap stories about—”

            Satan was alarmed. “No,” he said quickly. “Absolutely don’t do that. I don’t need you to—”

            “Satan.”

            “God,” he said flatly.

            God threw up his hands. “Then what is it? You don’t want to get laid. You don’t want to hang. It’s always work, work, work with you. Come on, man. That’s not sustainable for a happy existence.”

            “I don’t want a happy existence. I’m the Dark Lord of—”

            “Blah, blah, blah. That doesn’t do fuck-all for me, and you know it. You get to be happy just like everyone else does. And it’s time you start realizing that. Look at me.”

            Satan tried not to, but this was God, and he pretty much listened to most things he said. “What.”

            God leaned forward again until his face was practically pressed against the screen. “What is it you want? More than anything.”

            “I don’t want to talk about it.”

            “Satan.”

            “Would you knock it off?”

            “Satan. Satan. Satan. SatanSatanSatanSatan—”

            “Jesus Christ.”
            God laughed. “He already left. Can’t save you now, dude. Tell me.”

            Satan deflated. “If I do, will you drop it?”                

            “Yes,” God said promptly.

            “Liar,” Satan muttered.

            God sniffed. “I never lie about anything.” He frowned. “Well, most things. The Crusades were kind of a mess, but I don’t know if that was entirely my fault.”

            Satan looked toward the door, making sure it was shut. It wouldn’t do to have anyone overhearing. Granted, he could just annihilate anyone that did, but by then, people would be talking, and he hated trying to chase down rumors.

            He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I’m…gah.” He scrubbed a hand over his face before glaring at God. “You can’t give me any shit for this.”

            God held up his hand solemnly. “I swear to me I won’t.”

            “Okay. It’s like…just.” He lowered his head to the desk, his horns knocking against the stapler and tape dispenser. “I might be a little lonely.”

            “What was that?” God asked. “Couldn’t quite hear you. Connection must be bad.”

            Fucking liar. He raised his head but refused to look at the screen. “I might be a little lonely,” he said through gritted teeth.

            “Ah,” God said. “I see.” And the funny thing about that was Satan knew he could see it. He could see everything. He knew what Satan was going to say but was still allowing him to say it himself. Whatever else God was, he could be a good guy when the situation called for it.

            “Stupid, right?” Satan mumbled, picking again at the muffin.

            “Not at all, man.” Satan jerked his head toward the screen to see God smiling quietly. “It actually makes sense.”                

            “Really?”

            God nodded. “I kind of figured you felt that way. It’s been building for a while, huh?”

            “A little,” Satan admitted. “I don’t know why.”

            “You don’t?” God asked. “I thought it was obvious.”

            He blinked. “It is?”

            “Pretty much, man. You’re not human, and even though I love those messy little fuckers, they are by no means perfect. And they’re not even the best thing I’ve created. Go ahead. Ask me. Ask me what the best thing I created was.”

            Satan sighed. “What was the best thing you created?”

            God leaned forward again and whispered, “You are.”

            “Get the fuck outta here.”

            God laughed. “I’m being serious! I get it, man. I was right where you were at one point, you know? I was the ruler of all things, and it was so medamn boring. I mean, sure, it was fine for a while, floating through infinite darkness, but you can only take so much before you want a change. So then I made the angels, and they were all right, I guess. Weirdly vindictive, but that’s something else entirely. And then I had a little fire and brimstone left over, and thought: why the fuck not? I made you, and it was honestly the best thing I’ve ever done.” He paused, considering.  Satan didn’t like the smile that was forming on his face. “I’m like your dad that way.”

            Satan groaned. “You are not my father. I don’t have a—”

            “Brother-Dad!” God crowed. “That’s what you should call me from now on. In fact, I demand it. Do it. Call me Brother-Dad. Just once.”

            “Fuck you.”

            “Please?” God asked.  “I want that more than anything.”

            “I won’t.”

            God sighed. “Fine. Be that way. I get it, though. It can be tough being at the top of the food chain. You’ll always think with anyone new you meet that they just want to use you for something. I mean, fuck. Do you know how many prayers I get per day for the most asinine shit? That’s not what prayer is for! I’m not a fucking genie granting wishes.”

            “And yet, you could still do it,” Satan pointed out.

            God waved a hand at the screen. “Meh. If people got whatever they wanted whenever they wanted it, they wouldn’t be able to appreciate the little things. Humans are, for the most part, good, but they don’t have patience. That was my bad. I should have given them more. But Eve was a little dick who did not deserve Adam, which is why I made him Steve.” God stared at Satan. “And then you had to pull that whole snake-in-the-tree bullshit. Don’t think I’ve forgotten about that, dude.”

            “Oh, here we go again. That was one time!”

            “Yeah, yeah, whatever.” God grimaced. “Eden never would have worked out, anyway. Utopic bullshit. I was too young and idealistic. Man, did I learn my lesson real fast.”

            “I don’t know if you did,” Satan said slowly.

            God stroked his beard. “Eh. Trial and error, I guess. Humanity is a work in progress. A couple of days ago, I was seriously considering wiping the whole thing out again and starting from scratch. On Sunday, even! The most holy of days!”

            “What changed your mind?”

            God shrugged. “I looked in on this kid in Pakistan. Fifteen years old. Has his mom and sister. Dad’s up here with me. Kid was working his butt off to keep the family afloat while still going to school. Wants to be a veterinarian. And for some damn reason, no matter what life throws at him, he manages to stay optimistic. Good kid. Bright. I think he’s got a big future ahead of him.” God shook his head. “That’s the funny thing about humans. Just when you think there’s no hope left, you find these little beams of light. Makes you think. At least it did for me.”

            “Yeah, I’m sure he’d love to know the only reason humanity wasn’t destroyed was because of his boundless optimism.”

            God chuckled. “Wouldn’t want it to go to his head like some people.”

            “I’m going to pretend that wasn’t directed toward me.”

            “Denial,” God said. “I like it. So.”

            “So,” Satan said, not liking God’s tone.

            “Lonely, huh?”

            Satan didn’t respond.

            “Think we should do something about that?”

            “We?” Satan asked dangerously.

            God grinned. “You know I like to meddle.”

            “I know,” Satan muttered. “And I swear to you that if you even think of trying to get involved, I will storm the Gates of Heaven and bring my wrath upon you.”

            “Promises, promises,” God said. “And I doubt you’d make it past the Pearly Gates. Peter’s got this new security system installed. State of the art. Has lasers that sound like puppies barking when they fire. It’s adorable. And deadly.”

            “He’s so fucking weird.”

            “Right? I dig it, though. I mean, who the fuck comes up with puppy lasers? It’s gnarly.” He sobered. “If you don’t want me to get involved, I won’t. On one condition.”

            “Of course there’s a condition.”

            “Yeah, well. I’m God. It’s sort of my schtick. It’s not a big deal, though, I promise. Here’s what I want you to do, okay?”

            Satan tried not to show how eager he was, but by the look on God’s face, he failed miserably. Smug motherfucker. But there was a warmth in his chest at his brother’s smile, and he knew God was the only being who would tell it to him straight. And as much as he bitched about it, Satan knew he needed to hear it every now and then.

            “You need to put yourself out there more,” God said. “Take a chance, you know? Joey probably wasn’t the best fit, but you’re either in the office or touring the Hell realms making sure everything is still on fire or whatever. You don’t take time for anything else, especially yourself. Join a soccer league or take a pottery class. Meet new people without the crown of Hell on your head. Yeah, you’re the supreme leader and all that, but it’s okay every now and then to let your guard down and just have fun, you know?”

            “Fun,” Satan repeated. “Your advice for me is to have fun.”

            “Yeah, man. Get out there. Do something different. When was the last time you just took a day for you without worrying about anything else?”
            “I…” He was appalled when he couldn’t easily answer the question. Surely it hadn’t been that long, right? He’d taken a vacation, but that was…what. Three, four thousand years ago? Woolly mammoths were still a thing, so that had to be then. “Holy shit.”

            “It’s what I drop in the toilet bowl every morning at nine fifteen,” God agreed. “Let me ask you something.”

            Satan was still dazed. “What?”

            “When was the last time you were happy? And I’m not talking a fleeting feeling. When was the last time you were well and truly happy? First thing that comes to mind. Don’t think hard about it. Go.”

            “Summoning,” Satan said promptly, surprising even himself.

            “Going up to the crossroads? People asking for shit in exchange for their souls?”

            “Yeah…yeah. I liked the negotiating. They wanted something I could give them, and they had something I wanted. It was…I don’t know. There’s just something I like about the commerce of it. It was good. Made me feel like I was doing something important.”
            “All right, all right,” God said. “Here we go. Getting back to basics. See? That’s a start, man. You’ve been stuck in a rut. I get it, probably better than anyone else. We think we’re supposed to be a certain way, and we do it for so long, we forget how to be any way else. You gotta break free, you know? Why don’t you do that? Take a day and just answer some summons. Worst thing that happens is that it’s not for you anymore, and we’ll have to figure something else out. But at least you’ll know, right?”

            “Right,” Satan said faintly. “I guess I could.”

            “Yep,” God said. “Awesome. So we have a plan. You’ll answer a summon to Earth, and next week, we’ll talk again about how it went and—”

            “Whoa, whoa,” Satan said, suddenly alarmed. “I can’t just do it now. I have responsibilities! Unions! Hypocritical Twitter bios! I have to plan so that I—”

            “Satan.”

            Satan sighed. “What?”

            “There’s always going to be an excuse,” he said gently. “Always something that needs your attention, and we’ll be having this same conversation for the next century. If not now, when? You got this, man. Hell won’t fall apart in because you took one day for yourself. You’ve earned it, okay? Trust me on that.”
            “I’ll think about it.”

            God smiled ruefully. “I suppose that’s good enough for now.”
            “And if I do it, you won’t be involved.”
            “Of course not,” God said. “I mean, who the fuck am I? Only the Divine Creator of all the things. What the fuck do I know?”

            “Asshole.”

            “Bitch.”

            “Literal motherfucker.”

            God grinned. “I love you, dude.”

            Satan didn’t fight the smile this time. “Yeah, yeah. I love you too.”

            “Damn right you do. Okay, enough mushy stuff. Let’s talk business. Last week, we were talking about you taking the entire American South since they’re mostly a lost cause. You still good with that?”

            “So long as it doesn’t include Florida.”

            God rolled his eyes. “Yeah, no. They’re on their own from here on out. Fucking wasteland, I shit you not. Anyway, let’s move on to white people who call the police on people of color for no other reason aside from being racist dicks. You got the special area opening for them, right?”

            “Yep. Should be ready by next year. We’re constructing waterslides, but instead of water, it’s spoiled mayonnaise.”
            “Fuuuuck me,” God breathed. “That sounds amazing. I might need to come down for the grand opening just to see that shit. You’re so fucked up for even thinking of it. I love it.”

            Satan warmed at the praise.

*****

            That evening, he left the office, making sure Donna would be on her way out soon. She waved him off, telling him that she had to file a couple more reports before heading home.

            He felt a little lighter than he had when he’d woken up. As much as he hated to admit it, God tended to have that effect on him. And he did have a point, much to Satan’s consternation. He was stuck in a rut. He didn’t know how he hadn’t seen it before. Now that it’d been laid bare for him, it was so damn obvious. And it wasn’t like he liked being lonely. He could have his pick of anyone he wanted, man, woman, or other. But sex was sex, and while it was good, he realized he wanted something more. Someone he could talk to. Someone who didn’t care about who he was in Hell. Someone he could come home to and bullshit about their day with while making dinner and listening to the screams of the damned filtering in through the open window above the sink. He didn’t think it was too much to ask for. And while he couldn’t think of anyone off the top of his head who fit that description, God was right. He would only find such a being if he put himself out there more. Took more chances. Maybe he’d join one of the billion speed dating groups in Hell.

            He came to a fork in the path near the park. Going left would take him home. Going right would take him to the summoning tubes.

            He hesitated.

            And then said, “Fuck it.”       

            He went right.

*****

            The demon shift supervisor looked as if he were about to pass out when he saw Satan approaching. He paled and almost dropped the clipboard he held in his claws. “S-sire!” he cried out, causing the other demons to stop and turn with wide eyes. “This is a surprise! I didn’t know we were expecting a visit today.” He looked around frantically until he found his assistant who was shaking his head wildly.

            “You weren’t,” Satan said. “Just thought I’d stop in for a little bit. Maybe answer a summon or two myself. No big deal.”

            Everyone stared at him.

            “Answer a summon?” the supervisor squeaked. “You?”

            Satan frowned. “Is that going to be a problem?”

            “No! No, of course not, sire. It’s just…you’re you. You have demons for that! Surely you wouldn’t want to waste your time on something so measly as a summon.”

            Satan narrowed his eyes, his halo of fire beginning to burn above his head. “Are you trying to tell me what I can and cannot do?”

            The supervisor almost fell over, a tremble rolling through his entire body. “I would never presume to—”

            “Then keep your mouth shut lest you find yourself on the receiving end of my wrath,” Satan snarled at him.

            “Y-yes, sire!”

            The halo faded. “Good. Now, then. Which tube can I use? Is my old one available?”

            The supervisor frantically flipped through the papers on his clipboard. “666 is still up and running, sire. We upgraded it with the others last year.” He looked up from the clipboard, swallowing thickly. “I’m…it’s just that, are you sure?”

            “I am,” Satan said. “Do I need to be nude, or is what I’m wearing sufficient?”

            “It’s fine,” the supervisor said hastily. “You look wonderful. Magnificent. There has never been a vision such as—”

            “Stop talking.”

            The supervisor snapped his jaws closed. His tail curled around his legs, the black tip twitching.

            He heard the other summoning demons whispering as he walked along the path that led to the other tubes. They wouldn’t look him directly in the eye, each of them bowing low. A few fell flat on their faces. Satan struggled to keep from laughing at them. He was supposed to be putting himself out there, making new friends. “Hello,” he said mildly. “Nice to see you. Hello. Looking good. Hi, there. Love what you’ve done with your teeth. Hey. Hello. Supervisor.”

            “Yes, sire,” the supervisor said, running to catch up with him.

            “How many souls have we acquired today?”

            “Seven thousand six hundred and twenty-nine.”

            “Seems low.”

            “Tuesday,” the supervisor said. “Everyone hates Tuesdays. We’ll be back up beyond ten thousand tomorrow, guaranteed.”

            “Good.” He stopped in front of tube 666. He reached out and touched the plexiglass, allowing himself a moment to fondly reminisce. Oh, he’d been so young and foolish, thinking that he could have that life forever. If only he’d known what he’d end up becoming. The younger version would be so disappointed in the office drone he was now. He’d been so evil and gung-ho. It hurt a little to think how far he’d let himself fall. Maybe God actually had a point for once.

            He pressed his hand against the screen next to the tube. It lit up brightly as he pulled his hand away, the words WELCOME BACK SATAN! appearing on the screen. The door to the tube slid open as the words disappeared. He frowned when the screen started glitching into static.

            The supervisor rushed forward. “Stupid things, you just gotta give them a little—” He slammed his fist against the screen. Nothing happened. He did it again. Nothing happened. He bent over, his face close to the screen. “Huh. That’s weird.”

            “What is?”

            The supervisor stood back up. “It looks like it’s corrupted, like something is interfering with—oh, there it goes. Must have just needed a moment to reboot itself.”

            The static disappeared and was replaced by the words:

SUMMON INCOMING

LOCATION: TRUTH OR CONSEQUENCES, NEW MEXICO

SUMMONER: JIMMY DAVIDSON

AGE: 21

REASON FOR SUMMON: WANTS A BILLION DOLLARS AND ALSO SOME NACHOS

            “They never change,” Satan muttered.

            “Are you sure about this, sire?” the supervisor asked. “Surely you don’t want to waste your time on something so…insignificant. I can switch it out for another human who isn’t so frivolous with their soul.”

            “This will do fine,” Satan said. “I might even give him a piece of my mind. Who the hell would give their soul away for nachos?”

            “And a billion dollars,” the supervisor added helpfully.

            “Yeah, that’s not going to happen,” Satan said. “I think he needs to be schooled in the proper etiquette of summoning demons. And he’s going to get it from the master himself. I will have his soul, the putrid little tchotchke that it is.”

            He stepped through the door into the tube. He turned around and wasn’t surprised to see the demons had gathered before him. They were all staring at him with wide eyes. He sighed. “Don’t you all have work you should be doing?”

            They scattered like cockroaches.

            The supervisor was frowning down at the screen next to the tube again.

            “Is there a problem?” Satan asked.

            The supervisor shook his head slowly. “No, just…I guess it’s been so long since this tube has been used, it was bound to act up a little. Probably nothing. Are you ready, sire?”

            “Fuck yeah,” Satan said, sounding more confident than he felt. “Let’s rock this shit.”

            The door slid closed.

            A panel lit up on the plexiglass in front of him. Words appeared; READY Y/N?

            He hit yes.

            The tube began to shake.

            He closed his eyes, and a moment later, rocketed toward Earth.

            He laughed the entire way up.

*****

            When he opened his eyes, he was in the middle of nowhere, standing at a dirt crossroads. It was night, and the sky above was filled with a field of stars. It’d been a long time since he’d seen them. He often thought the sky was God’s greatest creation. It was so vast and could make one feel the smallest they’d ever been.

            He breathed in Earth air. It was cool and sharp without even a hint of brimstone. It felt good in his lungs.

            The crossroads had fields stretching out on either side of him. In the distance, he could see the faint lights from the town of Truth Or Consequences. Crickets chirped, and an owl called out from somewhere in one of the fields.

            He turned around slowly, trying to find who had summoned him.

            There was no one there.

            “What the fuck,” he muttered. Then, “Hello? I’m here for whoever summoned me?”
            Nothing.

            “Seriously, not cool,” he said. “You can’t just summon and ditch. That’s not how these things work. Have some tact. I’m very busy, and I don’t like it when people pull this shit.” He looked down to make sure he’d been pulled to the right place. Sure enough, in the center of the crossroads, dirt had been disturbed, meaning the proper items had been buried. Maybe whoever it was had changed their minds. It happened. He’d just have to go back and try—

            That’s when he saw it. Movement behind a boulder a little further down the road.

            He sighed and turned his face toward the sky. “You can come out. I know you’re there.”

            “Holy. Fucking. Balls,” a voice said, and from behind the rock, rose a man who was supposed to be Jimmy Davidson.

            Though, man might have been a bit of an overstatement. He barely looked old enough to drive. Satan was taken aback by the sight of him as he stepped out from behind the rock. He was wearing tight black jeans and a fucking midriff t-shirt with a sports logo on the front. It wasn’t until he got closer that Satan was able to make out the words in bedazzled letters: POWER BOTTOM.

Satan choked.

            Jimmy was a skinny thing. His dark hair was messy, though Satan thought that was by design rather than accident. His nipples were obviously pierced, and there was a little trail of hair that went from his belly button down to the top of his obscene jeans that left absolutely nothing to the imagination.

            And since Satan was a consummate professional, he did not stare at the obvious bulge in Jimmy’s jeans. He was here to broker a deal, nothing more.

            Jimmy’s jaw was dropped as he approached Satan, gaze crawling up and down slowly, stopping at his crotch. If he wasn’t red already, Satan would be worried that he was blushing. He almost crossed his arms over his chest when Jimmy’s gaze lingered there but managed to keep his arms at his sides.

            “Who are you?” Jimmy breathed. He stopped near Satan, looking up at him with wide, dark eyes. “Are you my dreams?”

            “No,” Satan said, his voice thunderous. “I am your nightmare. I am the thing that lives in the dark. I am the—”

            “I want to climb you like a motherfucking tree, holy shit.”

            “—evil that…lurks in the…what.”

            “Who are you?” Jimmy demanded. He looked antsy, fidgeting from one foot to the other. “Are you my demon? I mean, you look like a demon. You’ve got the horns and the sneer and the fucking crazy ass eyes that are, like, totally glowing. What’s your name? I’m Jimmy.” He looked up at Satan through his eyelashes, tongue swiping over his lips. “But you can call me whatever you want.”

            “What,” Satan said again.

            “Oh man,” Jimmy said. “Suspenders with no shirt is totally my new sexuality. Fucking look at you. Goddamn daddy bear right here, I shit you not. Turn around.”

            “What.”

            Jimmy twirled his finger impatiently. “Turn around. I want to see if the back is as good as the front.”

            “I’m not going to turn around!”

            Jimmy pouted, sticking out his bottom lip. “But…but why?”

            Satan glared at him. “I’m not here to be ogled.”

            “I don’t know what that means,” Jimmy said. “Is that demon for something?”

            “What? No, it means—”

            But Jimmy was already walking around him. “Oh hell, yeah. The back is as good as the front. Look at that ass. I would just put my whole head in that and motorboat the shit out of it. So bouncy.”

            Satan whirled around. “Would you stop it?”

            “Stop what?”

            “Objectifying me!”

            “Um, then why are you wearing jeans and suspenders and nothing else? I mean, when I wear something like that, I want people to look.” His brow furrowed. “Am I making you uncomfortable?” He gnawed on his bottom lip. “Sorry. Sorry. I promise I won’t touch you without your consent. Consent is important. Can I touch you?”

            “No!”

            “Oh,” Jimmy said. “That…sucks. I want to poke your stomach. It looks so soft.”

            “I’m not soft.” He sucked in his stomach as best he could.

            Jimmy frowned. “It’s okay if you are. I like it. Total dad bod. Hey, question.”
            Satan could barely keep up. “What?”

            “I’ve been very, very bad.” He batted his eyes. “Would you ground me?”

            “What in the actual fuck,” Satan said.

            “Exactly,” Jimmy said. “What in the actual fuck. What’s your name? Is it something cool like Derek?”

            “Derek,” Satan repeated. “You think that my name is something cool like Derek.”

            “I don’t know,” Jimmy said. “I’ve never met a demon before. I don’t know what their names are. Derek seems like a demon name. I knew a Derek once. He went to jail when the police found out he had murdered a bunch of people. I was pissed he’d ghosted me, but then I felt better about it because I didn’t want to be murdered. Win win!”

            Satan wondered if they knew the same Derek. Probably. That guy was a fucking asshole. “Demons aren’t named Derek.”

            Jimmy deflated. “Oh. That sucks. What’s your name, then?”

            He puffed out his chest and told himself he wasn’t putting on a show. “My name… is Satan.” He looked off into the distance, wanting to make sure this idiot was suitably impressed.

            “Whaaaaaat,” Jimmy whispered. “Like the Satan?”

            “Yes,” Satan said. He put his hands on his hips. He wasn’t posing. He wasn’t. And so what if his halo of fire appeared? It did that sometimes.

            “Oh. My. God,” Jimmy said. “I summoned the Satan? Like the literal devil?” He threw his hands above his head and began to shimmy his hips. “Fuck, yes! I’m so good! Ha, suck it Dad who said I’d never amount to anything if I didn’t apply myself! I got the fucking Devil all up in this shit!”

            “Are you done?” Satan asked. He wasn’t charmed, no matter what random thoughts were going through his head, consisting of such phrases as so fucking adorable and what a moron.

            “No,” Jimmy said. “I’ve still got a few shakes left.” And he did just that, bopping his hips from side to side. “Okay, now I’m done. Hi, Satan! I’m Jimmy. Jimmy Davidson.” Ridiculously, he held out his hand.

            Satan stared at it.

            Jimmy wiggled his fingers

            Satan sighed the long suffering sigh of the put upon. But then he shook Jimmy’s hand, the human’s much smaller than his own. But his skin was warm, and if he lingered for longer than was completely necessary, there was nobody there to call him on it. He was just entertaining the little brat. Yes, the fact that he was so impressed by Satan was a plus, but he was used to that. Most beings cowered before him. The fact that this weird human seemed to be ecstatic over it was a strange feeling.

            “There,” Jimmy said, pulling his hand away. “Now that we’ve been properly introduced, Satan—may I call you Satan?”

            “No. You may refer to me as The Lord of All—”

            “Good. So, Satan. I have a question.”
            Satan rolled his eyes. “Of course you do.” He expected this. Jimmy would ask how this all worked, what he would need to do in order to get what he wanted, how long he’d get with his soul before it belonged to Hell, the whole nine yards. Satan began to prepare his sales pitch, ready to tell Jimmy that while a billion dollars was out of the question, nachos were certainly doable.

            So imagine his surprise when Jimmy asked, “What’s your favorite color?”

            He blinked. “What?”

            “Is it red?” Jimmy nodded. “I bet it’s red.” He waved his hand at Satan. “Because of your whole…thing. Unless.”

            “Unless?”

            Jimmy began to pace back and forth. Satan was no surprised to see the number on the back of his shirt: 69. “Unless it’s not red because you already get enough of that every time you look in the mirror.” He glanced at Satan. “And fuck me, if I looked like you, I’d look in the mirror all the time. Probably jerk it too, but I digress.”

            “What the hell,” Satan mumbled as he stared at Jimmy.

            “Is it black?” Jimmy asked. “Nah, that’s probably too easy. You look like something a horny goth princess would draw and put on Tumblr, so I bet it’s not.”

            “A horny what and what?”

            “Green,” Jimmy said, stopping in front of Satan. “I bet it’s green. Your favorite color is green. I know things like this. My grandmother was psychic before she went to jail and died in a knife fight over toilet wine. She told me it skips a generation, so I have the sight like she did. Your favorite color is green and your favorite food is…worms.”

            “Are you always like this?” Satan asked incredulously.

            Jimmy shrugged. “Mostly. I don’t know how else to be but me. But since I’m pretty great, I’m okay with it. And that’s not my ego talking. It’s the truth. At least I think so.”

            “My favorite color is not green. And I don’t eat worms.”

            “Oh,” Jimmy said. He squinted up at him. “Are you sure?” 

            “Yes. My favorite color is blue, and I like lasagna.”

            “Wow,” Jimmy said, sounding impressed. “You’re so international. Lasagna. Fancy as fuck. I had lasagna once in Tulsa. It was eye-opening. I’m glad we’re getting to know each other. This is fun. My favorite color is suddenly red, and my favorite food is cock.”

            Satan gaped at him.

            “Too much?” Jimmy asked. He nodded. “Too much. My bad. My favorite food is actually pizza, but you know how it is. Red is my favorite color though. It’s like blood. Did you know that blood being blue in the body is just a myth? It’s always red, just different shades. The only reason we see blue in our veins when we look at them is because light penetrates the skin and illuminates them, and blue and red light penetrate at varying degrees of success. Our eyes make us see the blue. Crazy, right?”

            “What are you talking about?”

            “I know! It’s nuts! I didn’t think that was true at first, but I didn’t want to find out on my own because that would mean cutting my own skin, and I hate getting scratches. It hurts.” He shook his head. “Weird, huh?”

            “I…don’t know?”

            “That’s okay, Satan,” Jimmy said. He reached up and took Satan’s hand again. “I can teach you about that kind of stuff since you belong to me now. Come on! Let’s go sit on the rock and talk about life and feelings and if size matters. I really hope it does, because I can see you’re proportional everywhere.”

            Satan was so gobsmacked, he didn’t even pull away as Jimmy dragged him toward the boulder he’d been hiding behind. “I don’t belong to you.”

            Jimmy looked back at him. “What? You don’t? But I summoned you. That’s how it works.” He dropped Satan’s hand and started to climb up on the boulder. He couldn’t quite make it and grunted as he slid back down. He frowned, took a few steps back before getting a running start. But he had too much momentum, and sailed right over the boulder, landing with a crash on the other side as he squawked.

            Satan gave very serious thought to running away as fast as he could.

            He didn’t.

            Jimmy’s head appeared on the other side. “I’m okay!”

            “Oh,” Satan said. “Good. I was so worried.”

            “Aw,” Jimmy said. “That’s nice of you.”

            “I was being facetious.”

            “Sexy facetious,” Jimmy said as he climbed up on the boulder.

            “That’s not a thing.”

            “It is if you believe it enough.” He patted the rock next to him. “Sit.”
            “I think I’ll stand if it’s all the same to you. Now, about the reason you summoned me.”

            Jimmy shrugged. “We don’t have to talk about it yet. I have so many questions.”

            Satan sighed. “I’m not going to tell you the point of existence. That’s for you to—”

            “Ew. I don’t care about that. That’s stupid. There are bigger things to focus on.”           

            Bigger than the meaning of life? Satan suddenly felt out of his depth. He’d never been one for philosophical discussions. They bored the shit out of him. There was a reason why he’d sent Descartes packing after only three days, shoving him up to Heaven and making him God’s problem.  But since he couldn’t go back without a deal in place (the demons would immediately start talking, and he’d never hear the end of it), he knew he’d have to at least get through this.

            “Fine,” he grumbled. “But we’re going to make it quick. I’m on a timetable here.”

            Jimmy nodded. “Totally get that. My boss at Pizza World says the same thing. Well he did before he was arrested for stealing from charities for sickly orphans.”

            “Does everyone you know end up in jail?”

            “Wow,” Jimmy said. “I never thought about it that way. Mostly, I guess. Weird, right? I wonder why that is. Anyway, let’s move on to the big stuff. You ready?”

            He wasn’t. “Yes.”

            “You could sit by me,” Jimmy said, patting the rock beside him.    

            “Or I could just stay right where I am.”

            Jimmy rolled his eyes. “I’m not going to bite.” He grinned razor sharp. “Not unless you want me to. Still want to touch your tummy.”

            “Not going to happen.”

            “But…but it’s right there.”

            “Ask your questions!”

            He started pouting again. Satan thought about spanking him, but he thought Jimmy would enjoy that too much. Satan would probably enjoy that too much. Tuesdays were very fucking weird.

            “Okay. Ready? Here we go. What is…. your favorite movie?”

            “That’s not a question.”

            “It is because I ended it as one. Didn’t you hear the way my voice rose at the end of the word movie? That means it’s a question. Do you not have questions in Hell?” He balked. “Do you not have movies in Hell? Oh my god, have you ever seen a movie?”

            “We have movies,” Satan said. “There’s one theater that only plays Transformer movies in slow motion.”

            Jimmy grimaced. “That does sound like Hell.”

            It was one of their best forms of torture. Satan couldn’t wait to get his hands on Michael Bay. It was only a matter of time, especially since God had already promised Satan he could have him. “It is.”

            “Are those your favorites?”

            Satan shook his head. “No. I…is this really what you want to know? Like, you just summoned the Devil himself, and you want to talk about movies?”

            “Yup. That’s what you do on first dates. You ask questions to get to know the other person before you fuck them. Oops. Sorry. Boundaries. You ask questions to get to know the other person before you make love to them.”

            Satan’s eyes bulged. “This isn’t a first date!”

            “Not with that attitude it’s not,” Jimmy said. “I learned on the Internet that if you believe in in your dreams hard enough, they’ll sometimes come true. Dream big, my man. Favorite movie. Annnnnnd go.”

            Satan threw up his hands. “Maid In Manhattan.”

            Jimmy stared at him. “What.”

            Satan scowled. “It’s a good movie. Jennifer Lopez doesn’t get her due as an actress. Her comedic timing is impeccable.”

            Jimmy said, “What.”

            “It’s a good movie!”

            “Uhh, if you say so. Okay, your turn.”

            “My turn for what?”

            “You get to ask me a question now,” Jimmy said. “Remember? That’s how we get to know each other since this is a first da—I mean, since we’re friends. Yes, friends. That’s what this is.”

            “We’re friends?” Satan asked dubiously.

            “Aw, thank you. That’s so nice of you to ask. Of course I’ll be your friend.” And then, as if Satan wasn’t standing right in front of him and couldn’t hear him, he muttered, “Gonna friend all over your tummy later, that’s for damn sure, just you wait and see.”

            Satan wondered if this was some kind of joke. If the demons were fucking with him. If they were, he was going to destroy them all as soon as he got back. It was going to be slow, and painful, and they would all be screaming.

            “Whoa,” Jimmy whispered. “You’ve got fire on your head again. Wicked awesome.”

            Satan snuffed out his halo of fire before it could grow. “What is your favorite—”

            “Do you have wings?” Jimmy demanded. “I’ve always seen pictures of you with wings. Is that a real thing? Can you show me? Oh my god, can you fly? Can you take me flying?”

            “No, I will not take you flying.”

            Jimmy nodded sagely. “Because you don’t have wings.”

            “I do,” Satan said. “I just left them at home. They’re too big to wear every day. Only for special occasions.”

            “But this is a special occasion.”

            “It’s really not. And besides, you move around too much. I would probably end up dropping you.”

            Jimmy gasped, his hands going to his throat. “You care about me.”
            Satan was bewildered. “How did you get that from—”

            “You won’t take me flying because you’re too worried you’ll drop me.” Jimmy sniffled. “Gosh, that’s so nice of you. But you don’t have to worry about that. I trust you and your gigantic muscles. And even if you do drop me, I know you’ll catch me like I was some maid in Manhattan.”

            “If this is you playing some trick on me,” Satan muttered to God, “I’ll never let you hear the end of it.”

            “Who are you talking to?” Jimmy asked. He looked around wildly. “Are there other demons here? Are you all going to take advantage of my young, nubile body? Oh nooooo. Please. Nooo. Anything but that.” He winked at Satan.

            Satan felt uncharacteristically flustered. “I’m not—there’s not going to be any advantages taken. I was talking to God.”

            Jimmy started choking. “God is real?”

            Satan blinked. “Of course he’s real.”

            “Sounds fake, but okay.”

            “I’m real. Why the hell would it be so impossible that God is real too?”

            Jimmy shrugged. “You’re standing right in front of me. God isn’t, so.”

            “That’s—that’s not how it works!”

            “Sure it’s not,” Jimmy said easily. “Whatever you say, Satan.” He laughed. “Oh man, I can’t believe I’m talking to the Satan. That’s so nuts. Let’s recap! Your favorite movie is Maid In Manhattan, you rock suspenders, and you have wings, but you won’t take me flying because you’re too scared you’ll drop me since you care about me so much.”

            “That’s not—”

            “I feel like I know so much about you already,” Jimmy said dreamily. “We’ve got this, like, connection. I’ve never felt this way about anyone before. I thought I did once, but it turned out to be food poisoning. Do not eat tacos that you get from a truck on the side of the road. I learned that lesson the hard way.”
            “Are you high?” Satan asked, sure that was the only explanation.

            Jimmy made a face. “Ew, no. I don’t like drugs or alcohol. My brain is already screwed up enough as it is. I don’t care if other people do that stuff, but it’s not for me.”

            “Your brain isn’t screwed up,” Satan said, lying through his teeth, only because it felt like the right thing to do.

            Jimmy looked as if he had stars in his eyes. “That’s the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me.”

            “It is?”

            And, remarkably, Jimmy seemed to curl in on himself a little, the bluster and bravado fading away. He gnawed on his lip again. “I’m not exactly…you know.” He shrugged awkwardly.

            Satan sat down on the rock next to him, making sure there was enough space between them. It lasted maybe two seconds before Jimmy scooted over, their legs pressing together. “That’s better,” he said. Surprisingly, he kept his hands to himself.

            “What are you not, exactly?” Satan asked against his better judgment.

            “It’s not a big deal. Let’s talk about something else.” He brightened. “I know! Tell me something that no one else knows. Like, a secret.”

            Satan rubbed his jaw. “A secret, huh?” What could it hurt?

            Jimmy nodded furiously. “And you have to make it a good one. Nothing dumb.”

            “Hmm. Okay. Let’s see. Ah! You know the word colonel? C-O-L-O-N-E-L, right? As in the military.”

            “Right,” Jimmy said.

            “But it’s pronounced kernel, like from corn. It makes no sense whatsoever. There’s no r.”

            “Right.”

            Satan puffed out his chest again. “I did that.”

            Jimmy was suitably impressed. “You did? Holy crap. That’s evil.”

            “Yep,” Satan said. “I know. And you know how when you write down the word Wednesday, but you always have to sound it out as wed-nes-day to make sure you get it right, even though you know how to spell it?”

            “You did that too?”

            “Sure did,” Satan said. “Just chipping away at the psyche slowly. That’s part of the game.”

            “Wow,” Jimmy said. “I can’t believe I never noticed how mildly inconveniencing that is. It totally makes sense now that would be because of you. Good for you, Satan. You sound like you’re really awesome at what you do.”

            “I try,” Satan said. “Some days are harder than others.”

            “Why?” And as if Satan would notice, Jimmy scooted closer until he was completely pressed against him. “Is it tough being the King of Hell?”

            Satan let him be. The brat was probably cold. His little shirt wasn’t going to keep him warm, especially since the later it got, the more of a chill there was. It had nothing to do with the fact that Satan liked him right where he was. That wasn’t even remotely close to what it was. “Sometimes,” Satan said. “There’s a lot I have to worry about. New people coming all the time, getting stuff ready for a certain family that’s currently in charge of America. It takes a lot of work to keep Hell running smoothly.”

            “Sounds like it,” Jimmy said. “What do you do for fun when you’re not watching Jennifer Lopez pretend to be a maid?”

            Satan winced. “I…work a lot. I haven’t really had time for anything else lately.”

            “Oh,” Jimmy said. “I totally get that. I work twenty hours a week at Pizza World, and I’m exhausted by the time I finish. I guess it’s pretty much the same as you. I can’t believe how much we have in common already.”

            “Not even close.”

            Jimmy ignored him. “Well, if you had more time, what would you do for fun?”

            Satan hesitated. It felt like the conversation with God all over again, which was ridiculous, given that God rarely wore shirts proclaiming him to be a Power Bottom. And the fact that Jimmy wasn’t the creator of the known universe. “You sure you want to hear this?” he asked.

            “So sure,” Jimmy said. He sounded like he meant it.

            “Well, I like to go walking.”

            “Where?”

            Satan shrugged. “Everywhere. There’s so much to see in Hell. I don’t think even I’ve seen everything. It seems like I’m always able to find something new. A few months ago, I came across this little valley filled with venomous snakes the size a school bus. They were constantly eating each other and then fucking to make more snakes so they could eat even more. It was really pretty.”

            “It sounds like it,” Jimmy said, and Satan believed him. “I saw a snake once, but I ran away from it because it was scary. It turned out to be a stick, but I didn’t know that until six months later when I realized it was made of wood.”

            “That’s…quite a story.”

            “Thank you,” Jimmy said. “It’s one of my best. It really shows the type of person I am. I’m so happy you loved it. What else do you like? Do you like mini-golf? I’ve always wanted to play mini-golf, but I’ve never gotten the chance. It looks like fun.”

            Satan looked down at him. “What? Really? Why?”

            Jimmy picked at a threat on his jeans. “I don’t know. Seems kind of dumb to go by myself, you know?”

            “What about with friends?”

            Jimmy groaned. “Yeah, I don’t have many of those. Not that I’m a bad person!” he added quickly. “Just, I’m a little…intense.”

            “That’s one way to put it,” Satan said.

            “Yeah, I know. But that’s okay. I figure one day, I’ll find someone who doesn’t give a crap that I act all weird most of the time. I mean, there has to be someone, right?”

            “I think so,” Satan said quietly.

            Jimmy beamed up at him. “Awesome! I like talking to you. You’re so cool.”

            “I’m really not.”

            “Well, I think you are, so it counts.”

            “I’ve never played mini-golf,” Satan admitted, feeling his face grow warm. “We have four hundred courses in Hell, and the cup where the ball is supposed to go is too small for the ball to fit. I just never went. Haven’t had time.”
            Jimmy laughed. “That sounds hysterical. Oh, man. I bet it pisses everyone off.”

            “It does,” Satan agreed. “That’s kind of the point of torture.”

            “Do you ever torture people?”

            Satan was shocked at the bright gleam in his eyes. “Not as much as I used to.”

            “Do they deserve it? Like, are they murderers and bad people and stuff?”

            “And stuff,” Satan said. “And if they’re down there with me, they usually deserve it.”

            “But you’re a good guy,” Jimmy said, sounding confused. “Why would it be so bad to be with you?”

            “It’s Hell,” Satan said dryly. “It’s kind of the point.”

            “Doesn’t sound so bad to me. Sure, the snake thing isn’t that great, but you have movies and mini golf. It sounds like Albuquerque. I’ve been there a few times. Have you ever been?”

            “To Albuquerque? On occasion.”

            “Whoa,” Jimmy said. “I wonder if we were ever there at the same time. That’s crazy to think about, huh?”

            “Yes,” Satan said. “This is certainly crazy.”

            Jimmy squinted at him. “Is that one of those things where you say one thing but mean something else entirely?”

            “No.”

            “Was that one of those things where you say one thing but—”

            Satan put his arm over Jimmy’s shoulder, pulling him close. “Stop it.”

            “So warm,” Jimmy mumbled, pressing his face against the side of Satan’s stomach. “So soft. Question.”

            Satan sighed. “Go for it.”

            “Have you ever gotten into a fight? Do you know karate?”

            “Yes, I’ve gotten into a fight. No, I don’t know karate.”

            “Did you win your fight?”

            “Yes. I’m Satan. I win at everything.”

            “I don’t know karate either,” Jimmy said. “I tried to go to a class once because there was this asshole who kept picking on me. But then I got bored after the first five minutes and decided to go get a McFlurry instead. It had M&M’s in it. And then the asshole tried to fight with me again, so I kicked him in the balls and he didn’t get back up for a long time.”

            “What was his name?” Satan asked through gritted teeth.

            “The asshole? Why?”

            “Just tell me.”

            “Bobby Gordon.”

            Satan twitched his fingers against the rock. Bobby Gordon was now marked for Hell when he died. Satan would enjoy his arrival.

            “Anyone else give you crap?”

            Jimmy shrugged. “A few people, but I can handle myself. They think I’m crazy. I probably am, at least a little bit.” He blinked slowly. “But I think that’s okay. That doesn’t make me a bad person.” Then, “Unless you want me to be. I can be so bad—”

            “I bet you can,” Satan said.

He pulled his arm back when Jimmy stood on the rock. He almost fell over the side, but Satan caught him by a belt loop. He walked around behind Satan, and said, “Do your horns hurt?”

            “What? No.”

            “Oh. Can you feel it when people touch them?”

            He frowned. “Why? What are you—”

            Jimmy jumped onto his back, using his shoulders to climb up. Satan grunted when he got a foot in the side of his neck. He was about to tell Jimmy to get the fuck down before he hurt himself when he felt hands wrap around his horns.

            And he immediately melted into a puddle.

            Not literally of course, though he could do that too if he wanted. His horns were very sensitive, and the kid was tugging on them lightly.

            “Oh my god,” Jimmy whispered. “Are you purring?”

            Satan coughed roughly. “I’m not purring.”

            “You were!” Jimmy said, and then rubbed his hands up and down Satan’s horns.

            Satan’s eyes started to flutter shut before he forced them back open. “Would you stop that?”

            “You liked it,” Jimmy said cheerfully. He sat down on Satan’s right shoulder, his legs dangling down onto his chest. He poked Satan in the cheek. Satan snapped his teeth at his finger, and Jimmy laughed as he pulled his hand away. “This is so cool.”

            “What is?”

            “This whole thing,” Jimmy said. “Like, I never thought when I came here that I’d get to meet someone like you. You’re rad.”

            “Thanks. I think. Why do you want a billion dollars?”

            He felt Jimmy stiffen on his shoulder. “You’ll think it’s stupid.”
            “Probably. You wanted a billion dollars and some nachos.”

            “Yeah. My bad. I was just super hungry. I forgot to eat before I came out here.”

            “And the money?” He reached up and held onto Jimmy’s ankles to keep him from kicking his legs. The bones felt small and delicate underneath his hands.

            Jimmy sighed. “It’s just…well. Like, the friends thing, you know? I thought that if I had money or whatever that I could have friends. People would like me because I could buy them stuff.”

            “Those aren’t real friends,” Satan said. “They’d just be using you.”

            “I know. But maybe it would only start that way, and then after I buy them whatever they wanted, they would just like me for me instead of running and screaming in the opposite direction because I said something stupid. I told you it’s dumb.”

            “A little,” Satan said. “But I get it.”

            “You do?”

            “Yeah. People tend to run and scream in the opposite direction whenever they see me too.”   

            “That’s because you’re the devil.” He heard the smile in Jimmy’s voice and knew what was coming next. “A handsome devil.”

            “You just couldn’t resist, could you.”
            “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. Nelson Mandela said that.”

            What the fuck. Satan let it slide. “You really want a billion dollars?”

            “I don’t know,” Jimmy said. “What would I have to give you in return?”

            “Your soul.”

            “Huh,” Jimmy said. “That doesn’t sound so bad.”

            Satan groaned. “It is, you dolt. Don’t you get it? If I own your soul it means when you die, you’ll come to Hell.”

            “Yeah,” Jimmy said. “But you’ll be there, so that’s good with me. We could totally play mini-golf! Ooh, and watch Jennifer Lopez movies!”

            “I’m not going to take your soul,” Satan said.

            He felt Jimmy sag on his shoulder. “What? Why not?”

            “Because you don’t really want that.”

            “Yes, I do!”

            Satan pulled Jimmy off his shoulder, settling him down in his lap. He realized almost immediately how bad of an idea it was when Jimmy wriggled back and forth and whispered “So proportional” in an awed tone.

            “Listen, Jimmy.”

            Jimmy sighed. “Dammit, now you sound like a dad, but not in in the good daddy way. We’ll have to get to that later, I guess.”

            “You don’t want to do this.”

            Jimmy glared at him. “Why not? It’s my soul. I can do whatever I want with it. It’s not like I use it for anything. What’s it matter to you?”

            “Because you’re a good person,” Satan said. “I can see that.”

            “Oh,” Jimmy said. He lay his head against Satan’s chest. “You can?”
            “Yes. There are…certain people, people who you know are destined for big things. Sometimes, you can see the light that burns within them. It’s blinding.”

            “And you think I’m one of those people?” Jimmy asked, sounding incredulous.

            “Yeah,” Satan said. “I do. Your light is very bright.”

            “That means I’ll go to heaven when I die,” Jimmy said.

            “Exactly.”

            He scrunched up his face. “But what if I don’t want to? I think I’d rather go to Hell, you know? So we can hang out, or whatever. If you won’t take my soul now, maybe I’ll just do bad stuff so the light goes away. What do I have to do? Murder someone? I don’t know if I can do that. I mean, I like blood or whatever, but murder is gross. Unless it’s a child molester. If I kill a child molester, would I go to Hell? Or would that give me more Heaven points? Nah, scratch that. I can’t kill anyone. I think it would make me too sad. And I won’t hurt animals, because I that’s just mean. Unless it’s a goat, because fuck those guys.” He brightened. “I know! I can rob a bank!”

            “You’re not going to rob a bank,” Satan scolded him. “Don’t make me tell you again.”

            “Or what? You’ll spank me?”

            “Yes,” Satan snarled. Then, “No, I—would you stop moving!”

            Jimmy did. “I don’t get it. You keep saying Hell is bad, but you’re in Hell, and you’re not bad.”

            “I’m the worst,” Satan snapped at him.

            “Nah,” Jimmy said. “You’re pretty great.” He was then distracted by pressing his hands against the slope of Satan’s stomach. “So gooooood,” he breathed.

            Satan let him touch. There was no one else around. What harm could it do? And, if he was being honest with himself, it felt nice to have someone close like this. It’d been a long time. Too long. Maybe God had a point after all.

            “I like you,” Jimmy announced, apropos of nothing. “Just so you know.”

            “Wonderful,” Satan said flatly.

            “And I think you like me too.”

            “I don’t.”

            “Liar,” Jimmy said fondly. “So you’re not going to take my soul?”

            “No. I’m not.”

            Jimmy nodded. “That’s fine. I can just summon another demon and give it to them instead.”

            Satan grabbed him by the shoulders and lifted them up until they were face to face. “You will do nothing of the sort. If I ever hear you tried to summon one of my demons again, I will make your life a living—”

            Jimmy kissed the tip of his nose.

            Satan gaped at him.

            Jimmy grinned.

            “What are you doing?” he demanded, shaking him slightly.

            “You looked so cute with your serious face,” Jimmy said. “I wanted to kiss it. So I did. I like your nose ring.”

            “Stop that.”

            Jimmy did it again, smacking his lips loudly. He pulled away and then froze, eyes widening. “Oh no,” he said. “Are you even queer? I didn’t even think to ask! Oh man, I’m so sorry if you’re not. I mean, you could be if you wanted to, and by the time I’m done with you, you’ll—”

            “Shut up,” Satan growled, setting Jimmy back down on his lap. “Yes, I’m queer. All higher beings are. Heterosexuality is unnatural. It should only be used for procreation, and nothing more.”

            “Whoa,” Jimmy said. “They sure got that wrong in the Bible, huh? God didn’t write that?”

            “No. He didn’t.” Satan sighed. “He has a shirt like yours.”

            “God’s a power bottom?” Jimmy exclaimed. “That’s awesome! I mean, I’m probably better at it. You know those bucking bronco machines in bars? I once stayed on one for four hours at the highest setting.” He blinked innocently up at Satan. “What’s that? You say you don’t believe me and a demonstration is in order?”

            “I didn’t say anything.”

            “You were thinking it,” Jimmy said, tapping the side of his head. “Psychic, remember?”

            And for the life of him, Satan wondered if that was actually true because he had been thinking it, much to his dismay. Except the bucking bronco machine had been his own dick and Jimmy’s thighs had been a vise and—

            “Nope,” Satan said, standing abruptly, knocking Jimmy to the ground. “Nope, nope, nope. Time for me to go.”

            “What?” Jimmy said, pushing himself up. “But I haven’t gotten my wish yet!”

            “And you’re not going to,” Satan growled. “It’s time for you to go home. Don’t let me catch you out here again, or I’ll…I’ll—”

            “Send me to Heaven and I can see just how much of a power bottom God is?” Jimmy asked.

            Satan saw red. Granted, he usually saw red, but this was red. The idea of Jimmy on his knees in veneration while plowing into God was almost more than he could take. He knew God wouldn’t do that to him, but Jimmy would certainly try. And he hated it. He’d never been one for jealousy, but it was pissing him off more than he cared to admit. If he were smarter, he’d go back to Hell right this second and forget about Jimmy Davidson entirely.

            The problem with that was Satan had never been the smartest being. Which is why he opened his mouth and said, “Fine. You want a billion dollars and some nachos in exchange for your soul? You want to be so fucking stupid to think that’s a good idea? You got it.”

            “Eh,” Jimmy said. “I changed my mind.”

            Satan sagged in relief. “Thank you for finally seeing—”

            “Oh, no,” Jimmy said. “I’m still going to sell my soul. But I don’t want a billion dollars and some nachos anymore. I want something else.”
            “What?” Satan asked, suddenly frightened as to what would come out of this little asshole’s mouth.

            Jimmy crooked his finger, beckoning for Satan to lean down.

            He did.

            They were eye level. He really was pretty. If only things could be different, maybe they could—

            “Instead of a billion dollars and some nachos,” Jimmy said, “I’d like to sell my soul to you so that you’ll be my boyfriend.”

            “What,” Satan said, “in the fuck.”

            Jimmy nodded. “Yep. I’ve thought about it for a long time—”

            “Define a long time, you little—”

            “—and have weighed the pros and cons about the entire situation—”

            “Oh, the pros and cons, have you? I’m sure you—”

            “—and I’ve come to the conclusion that you and me are pretty much destined to be together, seeing as how you need me and all—”

            “I don’t need you. I don’t need anything.”

            “—and so, in conclusion, I’d like to sell you my soul and then we can date and do stupid stuff that couples do like read to each other in the park and then just fucking bone into each other like it’s nobody’s business. I’m talking nasty ass fucking, so much so that we’re covered in fluids that are better left undescribed. You’ll just rail into me and destroy my asshole, and I’ll call you daddy and I’ll be your baby boy because I think that sounds nice. And when we finish, I’ll make you tea because you look like you need someone to make you tea, and then you can tell me how amazing I am and that you can’t imagine your life without me.” He smiled. “Okay, I’m finished. Your turn. I’ll take constructive criticism if you have any to offer, but please keep in mind that I’m fragile.”

            “Bullshit,” Satan said faintly.

            Jimmy shrugged. “You’re right. I tried being humble once, but it didn’t take. It’s not my fault everyone else can’t appreciate the entire Jimmy experience. I think you can, though. Thoughts? Questions? Concerns?”

            “You don’t want to know the thoughts I’m having.”

            Jimmy nodded sympathetically. “Because they’re dirty. Don’t worry, I can take it.” He stared pointedly at Satan’s crotch. “At least, I think I can. You know what they say, if at first you don’t succeed, get a bigger butt plug.”

            “Not dirty thoughts,” Satan said, lying through his teeth. “I’m not going to be your boyfriend!”

            “Oh,” Jimmy said. He rubbed the back of his neck. “Uh. Okay? That’s…cool. I respect your choice and your autonomy. I mean, it sucks, and I’m devastated and will probably never get over it, and when I die and go and have sex with God, I’ll try not to let myself wish it was you, but—mmph.” He blinked around Satan’s hand covering his mouth.

            “Stop. Talking,” Satan said.

            The brat licked his hand.

            “I don’t want your soul,” Satan said. “That’s not—fucking shit. Okay, fine. Listen. This was one date, okay?”

            He felt Jimmy smiling against his hand. He struggled not to smile in return.

            “You don’t have to give me your soul. We can go on another date and see how it goes. If we decide it’s something we want, we can talk about it then. Deal?”

            Jimmy nodded frantically.

            Satan sighed as he dropped his hand. “Fine. But I’m very busy. I don’t know when I’ll have time to—”

            Jimmy kissed him.

            It wasn’t fierce. It wasn’t aggressive. It was a sweet press of his lips, there and gone again before Satan even knew what was happening. Jimmy was blushing in the darkness as he pulled away.

            “Wow,” Jimmy whispered. “I feel like Jennifer Lopez now. I get it now. I truly get it. I’m a Maid in Manhattan.”

            Satan kissed him this time. He felt Jimmy gasp into his mouth as he lifted him up off the ground, holding Jimmy’s thin body against his own. The brat was warm, and Satan’s hand spread against the bare skin of the small of his back. He groaned when Jimmy grabbed onto his horns, holding him in place.

            “So good,” Jimmy said, kissing his cheeks and nose and chin. “Holy shit, I can’t believe Satan is my boyfriend. Can we go inside a church and tell everyone just to see what happens? I bet they would all just die. Literally.”

            “This was a bad idea,” Satan muttered, but he didn’t let Jimmy go.

            “Nah,” Jimmy said. “It was the best idea. And just think. Now that this situation has been cruci-fixed, we can go cruci-fuck! Hurray!”

            “Oh my God,” Satan mumbled as Jimmy attacked his mouth again. “Why are you like this?”

            But he was smiling.

            And for the first time in a long time, he felt the quiet rustle of his own soul, a little pinprick of light.

*****

            By the time the sun started to rise, Satan had blue balls.

            It was entirely unpleasant.

            But he couldn’t entirely be upset by it, seeing as how Jimmy’s lips were swollen, his face flushed prettily. They hadn’t gone far, Satan not wanting their first time to be in the middle of the desert in New Mexico, for fuck’s sake. He’d learned rather quickly that Jimmy was very hands-on: on his chest, on his nipples, on his stomach, on his dick through his jeans.

            “I have to get back,” he said, kissing Jimmy goodbye for the billionth time.
            “Nooo,” Jimmy mumbled. “Stay here.”

            “Can’t. I have to go to work.”

            “Take the day off! You’re the boss.”

            He pushed Jimmy’s hands away gently. “I know, but I need to be there. I’ve been gone longer than I planned.”

            Jimmy looked unsure. Satan hated it. “You’re…you’re going to come back, right? You’re not ghosting me? Just saying what I want to hear to get away? I hate it when that happens.” He kicked a rock, dust billowing up around his feet.

            Satan put a finger under Jimmy’s chin, lifting his head. “I’m not. I promise.”

            “Okay.” Jimmy shoved his hands in his pockets. “If you say so.”

            “I do. Trust me when I say I can find you anywhere.”

            Jimmy swallowed, pupils dilating. “I like it when you make threats sound like sex.”

            Yep. Time to go. If he didn’t leave now, Satan wasn’t going to be responsible for his actions. “Don’t do anything stupid,” he said. “If I hear you tried anything, you’re not going to like what happens when I come back.”

            “Spanking?” Jimmy asked hopefully. “That would be the bee’s knees. Big ol’ daddy hand smacking right on my—”

            He needed to run. Now.

            He kissed Jimmy once more before turning around and heading back to the crossroads. He took a deep breath, willing away his erection because he did not want the demons to give him shit for it.

            He turned back toward Jimmy.

            Jimmy waved, wiggling his fingers.

            Satan frowned. He would’ve expected more of a fight.

            He closed his eyes and felt the pull of Hell rising around him. And just before he disappeared, he heard footsteps running on the road toward him. He opened his eyes and—

*****

            He was in Hell.

            The door to the tube slid open in front of him.

            The demons scattered away.

            He stepped out, glaring at the supervisor.

            The supervisor said, “Sire? How did your trip go? I didn’t see the soul come down. Was there a problem with—”

            The panel next to the tube lit up. A voice rang out. “CONTAINMENT BREACH. CONTAINMENT BREACH.”

            “Well fuck me,” a voice said from behind them.

            Satan whirled around.

            Jimmy stepped out of the tube, jaw dropping as he looked around at the hellscape before him. “This is so cool!”

            “What is that?” the supervisor screeched. “Kill it! Kill it with fire!”

            Satan kicked him as hard as he could. The supervisor landed in a pool of lava and died a horrible death. Satan didn’t feel bad at all.

            “Whoa,” Jimmy said. “That was awesome. Hey! Hi!” He waved at the demons that were gathering around them. “It’s nice to meet all of you. Is one of you Derek? Half of you look like you could be a Derek. This is fun. “I’m Satan’s boyfriend, Jimmy!” He cocked his head, brow furrowing. “I guess that makes me the Queen of Hell in some way.” He curtsied. “You may bow before your—ack!”

            “What are you doing?” Satan hissed, grabbing him by the collar of his shirt and jerking him forward.

            Jimmy shrugged. “I missed you already so I decided to come with you so I didn’t have to miss you. I’m very needy that way. I hope you’re prepared for that. I have a feeling our relationship is going to be extremely codependent.”

            “That’s…you can’t…you’re not supposed to be here!”

            “And yet here I am. Wow, it’s not as warm as I expected. I thought Hell was eternal fire and damnation and blah, blah, blah. This is so great. Hey, look! Mini-golf!”

            Satan dragged him toward the tube. “You have to go back.”

            “No thank you,” Jimmy said, digging in his heels. “You can’t treat a queen this way.”

            “You’re not a fucking queen!”

            Jimmy sniffed. “Rude, but I’ll allow it. Let’s go back to your house and you can take me on a tour of your bed. You should know that I can do the splits. I feel that’s very relevant to the conversation at hand. Oh, you have to be a Derek. You got Derek eyebrows.”

            “I am Derek, actually,” a demon said. “Thank you for the compliment.”

            “You’re welcome,” Jimmy said. “Keep up the good work.”

            “You’re going back to Earth,” Satan snarled. “Right this second.”

            “That’s one idea,” Jimmy said. “I have a second. Ready? We could play It’s Almost Winter. Here are the rules: I’m a tree, and you’re the squirrel who has to fill me with your nuts so you don’t die.”

            Satan paused. “That’s a real game?”

            “Of course it is,” Jimmy said. “I wouldn’t make something like that up on the spot, no sir! And another rule is that we have to play it for at least six hours.” He stood on his tiptoes, his face near Satan’s as he dropped his voice. “I have a very quick recovery time, Mr. Squirrel.”

            “Move!” Satan shouted at the demons as he threw Jimmy up and over his shoulder. “I have important business to attend to!”

            Jimmy was laughing hysterically, and Satan didn’t feel bad at all when he swatted him hard on the ass.

            “You go back after,” Satan said.

            “Of course,” Jimmy said. “I’ll go back right after.”

*****

            Jimmy, as it turned out, was a fucking liar.

            He didn’t go back.

            In fact, he stayed.

            And Satan couldn’t find the strength within him to send him back.

            He didn’t know what that made him. An idiot, for sure, but he suddenly found himself not caring at all.

            Especially when Jimmy decided that having sex in his office was something they needed to do the following Tuesday. “Would you stop that?” Satan hissed as Jimmy choked on his dick underneath his desk. “He’s going to call any minute!”

            Jimmy didn’t stop. In fact, he seemed to make it his singular mission to deep throat as much of Satan as he possibly could.

            Which is why Satan was groaning when God appeared on his screen.

            “Oh my me,” God said, eyes wide. “What are you doing? Are you—”

            “Nothing!” Satan cried, sitting forward and grunting as Jimmy tugged harshly on his balls. “Nothing is happening! I’m totally—ooohhh fuuuuuuck.”

            “Dude,” God admonished. “Not cool. I did not need to see what your orgasm face looks like. Holy shit.”

            Jimmy popped up from underneath the desk, wiping his mouth. “I recognize that voice,” he said, as if he hadn’t just swallowed Satan’s jizz. He leaned forward and stared at the screen. Suddenly, he smiled. “Terrance! Hey!”

            God gave him a jaunty little salute. “Hi, Jimmy. How are you?”

            “Pretty good, pretty good. I just got face fucked within an inch of my life—”

            “Terrance?” Satan asked, putting his dick back in his pants. “Who the fuck is Terrance?”     

            Jimmy pointed at the screen. “That’s Terrance. I thought you were supposed to be talking to God? Terrance is the one I met last week who told me I should go summon a demon at the crossroads. He came into Pizza World last Tuesday and told me how easy it would be to get whatever my heart desired if I just buried some graveyard dirt and chanted a bunch of shit.”

            Satan breathed heavily through his nose. “And you just believed him?”

            Jimmy shrugged. “Sure, why not? He tipped me seven hundred dollars. He obviously knew what he was talking about.”

            “Obviously,” God said, a shit-eating grin on his face. “Oh, how the Lord works in mysterious ways.”

            “I hate you so much,” Satan grumbled, pulling Jimmy back into his lap. The brat settled down against his chest like he belonged there.

            “I doubt that,” God said. “Remember what I said, dude? You deserve every happiness. I meant it then, and I mean it now. I won’t take up much of your time. Seems as if you have your hands full.”

            “Not yet,” Jimmy said. “We’re still working up to that.”

            Satan sighed deeply.

            God’s expression softened. “Every happiness. Never forget that. We can talk next week, okay? I promised Jesus I’d take him out cloud fishing today. He’s bitching about it, but—”

            “I am not!” Jesus cried somewhere off screen. “I just don’t see the point. It’s like you don’t even know me! I wish I was never born and then died and then was reborn again!”

            God sighed. “I can’t wait until his mother gets back. I am not cut out for this shit.” He shook his head. “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”

            “Bye, Terrance!” Jimmy said.

            God winked at him. “Bye, Jimmy. I have a feeling we’ll talk again soon.”

            The screen went dark.

            “Nice guy,” Jimmy said. “Weird that you know him too. When is God calling?”

            “You want to get out of here?” Satan asked.

            Jimmy tilted his head back, looking up at him. “Really?”
            Satan nodded. “I hear there’s a new mini-golf course that’s opened. Haven’t been to it yet. We could check it out?”

            Jimmy was up and off his lap, already running toward the door. “Fuck yes! Donna. Donna! Satan and the Queen of Hell are taking the rest of the day off. You’re in charge. Do whatever you want! Blow some shit up, girl, you got this. I believe in you!”

            And here, in the bowels of Hell, Satan smiled.

*****

            They were kicked out of the mini golf course after the fourth hole when Satan was discovered putting his dick in Jimmy’s hole for the fourth time.

            And wouldn’t you know?

            They lived happily ever after.

 

THE END?

 

           

           

           

 

           

           



           

           

           

           

           

           

           

 

 

           

           

           

           

             

           

           

           

How to Be a Movie Star: First Look

Once upon a time, I wrote a book called How to Be a Normal Person, about a grumpy Gus and a asexual stoner hipster. Released in 2015, I loved the story so much that I vowed never, ever to write a sequel, no matter what. Some stories, I told myself, are perfect just as they are.

Fast-forward to 2018, and I am a liar and a fat mouth.

Because I wrote a sequel.

I’ll have much to say on the topic (the hows and the whys), but I’ll start that in January. For now, just know that I would have never written more if I thought there wasn’t a story to be told. And boy, is there ever a story to be told. In these weirdly dark and trying times, I wanted to write the happiest novel I could, because Josiah Erickson demanded it be that way. I learned a lot from him, and I can’t wait for you to see the love that blooms between him and Quincy.

Without further dudes, here is your first look. (Oh, and the book is now available for pre-order everywhere!) How to Be a Movie Star will be released on February 12th, 2019.

Pre-Order Links:

Dreamspinner: https://www.dreamspinnerpress.com/books/how-to-be-a-movie-star-by-tj-klune-10182-b

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/How-Be-Movie-Star-Klune-ebook/dp/B07KD8J2V1/ref=sr_1_22?ie=UTF8&qid=1543334000&sr=8-22&keywords=tj+klune

Kobo: https://www.kobo.com/us/en/ebook/how-to-be-a-movie-star-2

B&N: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/how-to-be-a-movie-star-tj-klune/1129855467?ean=9781640807822

Add on Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/39925990-how-to-be-a-movie-star

Blurb:

Josiah Erickson wants to be a movie star. The problem with that is so does half of Los Angeles. But he’s on his way, what with memorable roles as a TV show background cadaver and a guy in a commercial for herpes medication. All he needs is his big break. And that break may come in the form of a novelist who goes by the enigmatic name of Q-Bert.

Q-Bert, who is ready to make his directorial debut in a film Josy would be perfect for. Q-Bert, who Josy may or may not have a friend-crush on, and potentially something more. Being demisexual can be confusing.

From the City of Angels to the small mountain town of Abby, Oregon, Josy will give his all to make sure his dreams come true—even the ones he never thought possible.

Cover by Reese Dante:

HowToBeAMovieStarFS_v1.jpg

Chapter 1

NOW, IT could be said that Josiah Erickson was an actor of the highest caliber. Granted, there were only two people who’d said this in his lifetime, but he believed them completely. They had no reason to lie.

First, his fourth-grade music teacher, the incomparable Mr. Stefan Alabaster IV, who, on the first day of auditions at Cornerbrooke Elementary School in Wooster, Ohio, told his breathless students that he had come from Akron to mold them into the Next Big Thing. He was going to be ruthless, he said, and his critique would be sharp. “There is no time for tears in theater,” he said, straightening his ascot. “Unless, of course, the script calls for it. In that case, there is always time for tears.”

Josiah was enthralled.

And when he won the coveted role as a block of American cheese in a production on the importance of the four food groups, he couldn’t have been more excited. “You must be the cheese,” Mr. Stefan Alabaster IV told him. “There can never be anyone more cheese than you in this entire world. Do you understand me?”

Josiah did. He’d never understood anything more.

His costume had been a particularly violent orange, one that would have been offensive had it been seen outside of a fourth-grade production of health food in a small Ohio town. It was made of Styrofoam and smelled of paint and glue. The fumes made Josiah dizzy, and he usually spent the rest of his day after rehearsal with a headache. It was near impossible to move in, and he ended up falling more than he stood. Mr. Stefan Alabaster IV, as any good theater director should, solved this dilemma by shoving a broom up the back of the costume and telling Josiah he was absolutely not to move. “Sometimes,” his director said, “we must suffer for our craft.”

In his acting debut, Josiah Erickson had one line and delivered it with the grace of a wheel of gorgonzola: “It’s not cheesy to want to be healthy.”

At least seven people in the audience of dozens chuckled.

It was a monumental moment for young Josiah. He understood, then, his destiny.

He would be a movie star.

After he booked his first commercial in La La Land in 2011 (a one-day local production where Josiah told the undoubtedly rapturous viewers who were awake at two in the morning that no one sold mattresses like the Mattress Dictator: “Because he will take all your decisions away so that you have no choice but to do what he says and get a good night’s rest!”), Josiah returned to Cornerbrooke Elementary with a copy on a VHS tape, sure that Mr. Stefan Alabaster IV would want to see what his mentee had achieved in such a short amount of time.

The problem was that Mr. Stefan Alabaster IV was no longer the music teacher/theater director at Cornerbrooke Elementary. He had found himself starring in what was perhaps his greatest role, that of a resident of the Federal Correctional Institution in Elkton after embezzling almost fifty thousand dollars from the Wooster City School District. If he were lucky, he would get time off for good behavior and be released in eight years to supervised probation.

But Josiah thought Mr. Stefan Alabaster IV could take comfort from the fact that he was listed under the Notable People section on Wooster’s Wikipedia page, regardless of his crimes. Josiah himself had been on it for sixteen hours before someone had gone in and taken his entry off.

It might have been the greatest sixteen hours of his life up until that point.

Announcing Lovesong: The Podcast

Kirt Graves and I are proud to present TJ Klune’s Lovesong: The Podcast, a six episode event available now for free for all podcast apps.

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Episodes 1 and 2: Kirt Grave’s narration of the short story Lovesong, set after the novel Ravensong

Episode 3: Kirt interviews Derrick McClain, narrator of How to Be a Normal Person and Olive Juice

Episode 4: Kirt interviews Michael Lesley, narrator of the At First Sight and Tales From Verania series

Episode 5: Kirt interviews Greg Tremblay, narrator of the upcoming The Bones Beneath My Skin

Episode 6: Kirt interviews author TJ Klune



The Bones Beneath My Skin: The First Chapter

Over the past few weeks, I’ve made my sales pitch to you, the reader. I’ve told you what went into The Bones Beneath My Skin, how crazy it is, how it turned out to be the most hopeful thing I’ve written. I believe in the good in people, and even though things can seem dark these days, I have hope that we’ll find our way through.

This story contains my hopes for the future, and what we can all achieve if we work together.

Instead of trying to tell you more about the hows and the whys, I’ve decided this last post before the book releases on October 26 will be to show you what lays ahead. I am so pleased to present to you the entire first chapter of the The Bones Beneath My Skin.

It’s time to let the story speak for itself.

tj

Pre-order:

Amazon: https://goo.gl/a5DsfC

(*Note: Paperbacks will be available *exclusively* from Amazon, and will go up for sale starting October 22nd)

B&N: https://goo.gl/k5XmLH

Kobo: https://goo.gl/WpmcUn

Smashwords: https://goo.gl/bYb716

iBooks: https://goo.gl/FZc2Dk

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chapter one

He sang along with the radio.

Something about taking a sad song and making it better.

After, he laughed until he could barely breathe.

 

 

He crossed into Douglas County just before another song ended. There was a news break at the top of the hour, every hour.

A singer named Selena had been shot at a hotel in Texas. He’d never heard of her before.

TAROM Flight 371, leaving Bucharest and heading for Brussels, crashed shortly after takeoff. All sixty people on board died. An investigation was underway. Terrorism was not suspected at the moment.

The comet discovered last year, Markham-Tripp, was getting closer. Already it could be seen if you knew where to look, but no worries, folks. It’s going to swing right by us before heading back out into the great beyond.

And there was still no official word on the helicopter that went down outside of the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center in Northern California last week. The cause was still under investigation, though it was implied it was related to that big storm that blew through the area. Officials weren’t saying if there were any fatalities.

And now for the weather. It’s gonna be a beautiful day, would you look at all that sunshine, can you just believe it?

It was March 31, 1995.

He continued south.

 

 

The air outside grew cooler the farther he went into the mountains. The sun warmed the hand he hung out the window. The blue sky stretched on and on. There were clouds, but only a few.

Nice day, he thought. Of course it is. That’s the way things go.

He hit the town in late afternoon. There was a sign, old and faded. It’d been there since he was a kid and his parents had taken him up to the cabin for a few weeks during the summer. It said:

 

Roseland, Oregon

Pop. 827 Established 1851

Elevation 2345 ft.

Gateway to the Cascades!

 

He passed by a diner. A church. Shops on either side. Some of them were open. The town wouldn’t hit tourist season for another month or two, but they’d be ready. People driving up from the bigger cities looking for an escape from the heat and grind would spend their money, take their photos, and then disappear back from where they came.

The air was filled with the scents of pine needles and earth. It was like he was ten years old again and his mom and dad were still in love, love, love. They would laugh and sing along with the radio. They would play road games. I Spy. Twenty questions. The license plate game where you’d try and get all fifty states. He’d learned early on that that was impossible. The most he’d ever gotten was seven. That had been a good day. One had been Maine, an impossibly faraway place.

He saw the sign for the gas station before the gas station itself. It spun lazily, but not before he caught the words BIG EDDIE’S GAS AND CONVENIENCE. He breathed a sigh of relief. It was good to see that some things remained the same. Even after everything.

He pulled in, the tires of the truck hitting the thin black cord. A bell dinged somewhere inside the station as he stopped next to the pump. He turned off the truck, listening as the engine ticked.

He ran a hand over his face before opening the door, setting his feet on the ground. He stretched his back, hearing it pop. He was only twenty-seven years old, but gone were the days when he could sit in a car for hours without a problem. His muscles pulled. It felt good.

The glass door to the gas station swung open and a large man walked out, wiping his hands on a rag. If it wasn’t for the smile on his face, the man would have been alarming. He’d never seen anyone that size anywhere else. Must have been the mountain air.

“Well, look who the cat dragged in,” Big Eddie Green said, his voice a deep timbre. “Nate Cartwright, as I live and breathe.”

Nate forced a smile onto his face. “Big Eddie. Good to see you’re still running this dump.”

“You watch your mouth,” Big Eddie said, but he was still smiling, his teeth a little crooked but endearingly so. He held out a large hand streaked with a bit of oil. Nate didn’t mind. He held out his own. Big Eddie’s grip was firm, but he wasn’t trying to be an asshole about it. He wasn’t like that, at least not that Nate knew. He hadn’t seen Big Eddie since he’d turned twenty-one, the last time he’d been up to the cabin. And it wasn’t like they were friends, though Big Eddie could make friends with just about anybody he set his mind to. There was something about the way he smiled that put Nate at ease. It was familiar, this. Heartbreakingly so.

“Heading up the mountain?” Big Eddie was already moving to the pump. “Unleaded okay?”

“Yeah, it’s fine,” Nate said, leaning against the truck. He glanced inside the gas station window. There was a kid inside bent over the counter, scribbling furiously on something, his tongue stuck out between his teeth like he was concentrating really hard. “Jesus, is that Benji?”

Big Eddie laughed. “Yeah,” he said, and Nate could hear the fondness in his voice, rough and sweet. “Sprouting up like a weed. His ma and me can barely keep up with him. More than a handful. Crazy, right?”

“It is,” Nate said because he was supposed to agree with it. That was how conversation worked. That was how people talked to each other. He wasn’t so good at that. And now that he was running away to the middle of nowhere, he didn’t think he’d get much more practice at it than this.

The gas pump hummed.

Big Eddie whistled as he looked in the bed of the truck. “Quite a few supplies you got back here. Planning a long stay?”

Nate shrugged. “A while, anyway.”

The smile softened. “Real sorry to hear about your folks. That… well. I don’t know much else to say beyond that. Must have been tough. I can’t imagine what that’s like, so I won’t insult you by pretending to.”

Nate wasn’t sure what to say to that. Tough, sure. Oh yeah, it’d been tough. Murder-suicides usually were. His father had come to his mother’s house, feeling hurt and ornery like he usually did when he drank. There’d been a fight. Neighbors said they heard shouting but thought it was the TV or just a regular old domestic that they couldn’t find the wherewithal to get involved in. Nate didn’t blame them, especially when his father had gone out to the very truck Big Eddie and Nate were leaning against, grabbed his shotgun, hoofed it back inside, and blown his ex-wife away before turning it on himself.

It’s hard to do, the detective had told him, sounding soft and worn. Committing suicide by shotgun. But Nate’s father had found a way. Sat in a chair, propped it between his legs. The barrel had gone under his chin, and he’d used his big toe, of all things, to pull the trigger. It’d been a mess.

At least Nate assumed it had been. He hadn’t been inside his mother’s house after. His brother had taken care of all that. There are services, his brother told him over the phone. It was the first time he’d spoken to his brother in years. They come in and clean up crime scenes. They charge you out the ass, but they take care of what they can. They can’t get it all, of course, but that’s what contractors are for. They’d fix up the house before it got put up for sale.

And later, they’d spoken one more time. Dad left you the truck, his brother said. Mom left you the cabin.

Oh was all he could say. Oh.

What he’d wanted to say was how could this have happened? How did it get this far? Sure they’d had their problems—they were divorced, for fuck’s sake. But his father had never raised a fist. Not to anyone. He hadn’t been the nicest guy, but he’d never hit them. Or her. Not once. That wasn’t who he was.

“Yeah,” Nate said to Big Eddie. “Tough.”

Big Eddie nodded. “You get the water turned on?”

“Called a couple of days ago. They’re supposed to come tomorrow. Generator will take care of the rest. Shouldn’t be too cold. Not for long.”

“Oh yeah. Snow’s gone. Mild winter this year. Christmas was sixty degrees, if you can believe that. I take it you’ll want me to fill the gas canisters you got back here.”

“If you could.”

“Will do, Nate. You been up there since—”

“No.”

Big Eddie nodded slowly as he lifted the empty canisters out of the truck. “Your ma was out here. Last September, I think. Brought one of her girlfriends. Josie? Is that right? Josie?”

“Joy.”

“That’s right. Joy. They were cackling like a pair of old hens. Stayed up there for a couple of weeks. Didn’t see them when they came back down. Your ma was happy, Nate. In case you needed to know.”

“Thanks,” Nate managed to say because wasn’t that the consolation he was looking for. She’d been happy. She’d been laughing. He hadn’t heard from her in years, but hey, she’d been having the time of her life. Fucking good for her. “That’s… nice. Thanks.”

“She talked about you, you know,” Big Eddie said like it was nothing, like they were shooting the shit. “Said you were big-time. Living in Washington, DC. Reporter or something.”

“Journalist,” Nate corrected by force of habit.

Big Eddie took the pump from the truck and put it down into one of the canisters. “Journalist. That’s right. A journalist. Working for the Post. She seemed awfully proud of that.”

Nate wanted to laugh. He wanted to scream. He wanted to smash his hands against the truck and demand Big Eddie shut the fuck up about things he didn’t know about. Sure, maybe his mother had been proud, maybe she’d been talking out her ass, but what gave her the right? She’d done nothing when his father had told him to get the fuck out, that he wouldn’t have a fucking faggot for a son. She hadn’t spoken a goddamn word in his defense while his father had shouted that he’d get fucking faggot cancer like all those other queers. She’d done nothing when he’d looked at her, begging for her to say something, anything. Her eyes had been wide and shocked, her bottom lip quivering. But she’d stayed silent, so she’d stayed complicit.

They’d been standing in the doorway to the cabin, hadn’t they? They weren’t even supposed to be up there. They’d already told him they were getting a divorce months before, so the fact that they were together at all was confounding. He’d been frantically trying to cover himself and his boyfriend at the time, their skin slick with sweat, his heart racing. He’d felt ashamed for reasons he couldn’t quite understand. He wasn’t doing anything wrong. He was an adult. He was allowed to be in the cabin with whomever he wished, but he’d felt bad at the look of disgust on his father’s face, at the way his mother’s eyes were wet. He’d felt awful.

He and the guy left after that. Hastily, overnight bags stuffed but not zipped up. His parents hadn’t even looked up at him from where they sat at the kitchen table. He’d forgotten one of his hiking boots. It’d been sent to him in the mail two months later. No note, no return address, but he’d known it’d come from his mother.

He’d thrown it away.

The boyfriend hadn’t lasted long after that day. Another couple of weeks. It didn’t matter. It wasn’t serious. A distraction, that’s all it’d been.

He’d gotten the cabin.

He’d gotten the truck.

That was fine. They were dead, and he’d gotten two things that were essentially useless to him.

Maybe he’d burn them both. He had time now that he didn’t have a job.

How wonderful for her that she’d been proud. How fucking grand.

“Great,” he said, voice even. “I’m glad to hear that.”

Big Eddie hummed under his breath. The first canister filled up, and he moved to the second one. “You got a phone hooked up there?”

Nate shook his head.

“Got a cell phone?”

He did. “Why?”

“Give you my number. In case you need something. You being up there all by yourself, things could happen, Nate. Just being cautious is all.”

“Doubt it’d work up there.” His service was already spotty as it was, being this far into the mountains. It probably wouldn’t work at all by the time he got to the cabin.

“Still. Better to be safe than sorry.”

Right. Nate went back around to the driver’s side door. The phone was sitting on the bench seat, a red Nokia, the screen cracked down the middle from where he’d dropped it on a sidewalk while trying to juggle a couple of coffees. Big Eddie spouted off his number, and Nate dutifully typed it in, saving it under EDDIE.

Big Eddie hoisted the gas cans back into the bed of the truck before he wiped his hands on the rag he stashed in his pocket. He glanced at the pump, then said, “That’ll be $36.50, unless you need anything else from inside. Last stop before all that nothing.”

Nate shook his head, pulling his wallet out and finding his debit card, something he’d only gotten a few months ago. They were new, and it boggled his mind a little how much easier it was than cash or a check.

Big Eddie grinned at him again. “Be right back.”

Nate watched him go.

The sun was low in the west. It’d be dark in another couple of hours, and he was itching to get back on the road. He had another hour to go, the last half of which was on bumpy dirt roads that weren’t great to navigate in the dark. He should have gotten an earlier start, but his hangover was harsh this morning, his tongue thick in a mouth that felt stuffed with cotton. Even now he had remnants of a headache, the last little gasps of something that had dug deep into his brain for most of the morning.

Big Eddie was inside the gas station, saying something to his son. Nate watched as he ran a hand over Benji’s head. Benji knocked it away, and Big Eddie chuckled. He said something else, and Benji glanced out the window. Nate gave a little wave. The kid waved back, his arm thin, his whole body shaking. Big Eddie laughed over his shoulder as he came back out and didn’t see his son scowling at his back.

“Math,” Big Eddie said as he approached. “It’s not going so well.”

“Sucks,” Nate said. “Never understood that much myself.”

Big Eddie handed him his card and receipt. “He doesn’t get why he needs it if he’s going to be running the station. I told him he needs to set his sights a bit higher than Roseland. He wasn’t too happy about that.”

“Sometimes you need to let them do what they think is right.” Nate instantly regretted the words.

“Yeah.” Big Eddie rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “I suppose. I just—it’s being a parent, I guess. You want the best for your kids, to see them spread their wings and fly. He’s going to do great things, I think. One day. I just don’t know if he can do them here.” He shrugged. “You’ll know one day. When you got kids of your own.”

That wasn’t going to happen. Nate didn’t have the patience for kids. He didn’t like them, and they didn’t like him. It wasn’t in the cards. But he said “Sure” because that’s what he was supposed to say.

“I better let you get on, then,” Big Eddie said. “I know you’ve still got a ways to go. I could stand out here jawing all day. That’s what the wife says. And her sisters. And Benji. And most of the town.”

Nate bet he could. Big Eddie was just the type—friendly and open. Nate wasn’t like that. Not at all. He put his wallet back in his pocket. “Thanks. I appreciate it.”

Big Eddie shook his hand again. It was a little tighter this time, like he was trying to tell Nate something without actually saying the words. “You need anything, you give me a holler, you hear? Those supplies won’t last you forever. You need something, let me know, and we can meet halfway. Save you a bit of a trip.”

“You don’t have to—”

“Nate, just take it for what it is. Kindness. Sometimes people need it, even if they don’t know how to ask for it.”

Looking away, Nate cleared his throat. “Thanks. I will.” He turned for his truck.

Before he pulled out, he glanced back into the gas station. Big Eddie was bent over the counter next to his son, frowning down at the paper. Benji was doing the same. It was strange how obvious it was they were related. Like father, like son.

Nate pulled out and left Roseland behind.

 

 

There was a sign, barely visible behind a gnarl of greenery, trees and bushes growing wild. If you didn’t know it was there, you wouldn’t even see it, or the turnoff. Nate almost passed it by accident, distracted by a deer moving off in the trees to the left. He hit the brakes a little sharper than he meant to, the seat belt digging into his hips. The tires squealed against the pavement, and he looked in the rearview mirror to make sure he hadn’t just pulled that asshole move in front of another car.

There wasn’t one. He hadn’t seen another vehicle since he’d left Roseland.

HERSCHEL LAKE, the sign said. 15 MILES.

An arrow pointed toward a dirt road.

He sat there on the road, in the middle of the forest in the mountains, for far longer than he should have.

And then he hit the blinker and turned the truck onto the dirt road.

 

 

It was smoother than he expected, which meant Big Eddie had been right about the mild winter. If it’d been normal, there would have still been snow on the ground. It wasn’t surprising to see spring snowstorms come ripping through, the air different than the winter squalls. It always felt more electric in the spring, the snow falling on blooming flowers, the reds and violets almost shocking against the white.

But it was easier this way. He hadn’t thought to put chains on the truck’s tires when he’d set out from Eugene after meeting with the estate attorney. He’d flown in from DC. The attorney had picked him up from the airport, given that his brother had been busy. Or so he’d said. Nate knew better, and he could tell the attorney wanted to ask questions (whywhywhy), but somehow, he’d minded his own business. He’d been balding and talkative, saying how sorry he was about Nate’s parents in one breath, and then talking about the Trailblazers in the next.

“Didn’t see you at the funeral,” he’d said at one point.

“Don’t expect you did,” Nate had replied, staring out the window.

“No money,” the attorney said later. “People always want to know how much money they’re getting. Just be up front with you about that now. Everything went to your brother’s family. His kids. College ain’t cheap.”

He didn’t want their money.

He didn’t even want the cabin or the truck.

But he’d taken them anyway because there was nothing else left for him.

“Sign here,” the attorney had said. “Sign here, initial here, and here, and here, and would you look at that, you’re the proud owner of a 1974 Ford F100 and a cabin on four acres in the middle of nowhere. Congrats. Shelly, would you make copies for Mr. Cartwright.”

His secretary had popped her gum loudly and done exactly that.

He’d been given keys. Front door. Back door. Shed. Two for the truck.

He’d been given copies of all the paperwork.

He’d been shown the door.

“Let me know if you need anything,” the attorney had said, both of them knowing this would be the last time they’d ever speak to each other.

The truck had been sitting in the parking lot, dropped off by his brother a couple of days before.

It was white with green trim. The tires looked a little bald. There was a gun rack against the rear window, the same one that had held the shotgun his father had used on his mother and then on himself. Nate had stood in that strip mall parking lot, staring at the gun rack for a long time.

He’d stayed in Eugene for a few days, making phone calls from the room he’d rented at the Motel 6. Calling for the water to be turned on. Paying for a few more months at the storage locker back in DC. His mail was forwarded to a PO box that he could check monthly.

And just like that, Nate Cartwright’s life was all wrapped up in a neat little bow.

He’d stayed one more night in the Motel 6, staring up at the ceiling, listening to the trucks out on the highway passing by at three in the morning.

The next morning, he’d been at Walmart as soon as it’d opened, buying everything he needed to stay away for a long while. He hadn’t even winced at the amount he’d spent when it was read to him. It didn’t matter.

He hit a pothole.

The truck’s frame shuddered.

He slowed. He didn’t want to get a flat tire this far up in the mountains. He didn’t have a spare.

Herschel Lake had once been a popular tourist destination in the fifties and sixties. Where there’d once only been a handful of cabins, there suddenly were dozens. Vacation rentals, second homes, all set far enough away from each other to feel just out of sight from the rest of the world, Herschel Lake and the forest around it would echo with people on picnics or kids in the lake, jumping off docks or rope swings.

It’d fallen off in the late seventies, the company that owned most of the cabins going under. Things had fallen apart. The BLM had come in and purchased most of the land, but nothing had been done with the rental cabins. They’d been left to rot.

Nate’s parents had come up in 1980. They’d fallen in love with the area and found a cabin for sale, farther away from all the others. An elderly man was being moved into a retirement home by his kids, and they wanted the cabin sold. A couple of months later, the Cartwrights had a cabin in the woods.

He’d been thirteen the first time he’d come to Herschel Lake.

The quiet had scared him.

He’d gotten used to it after the first week.

Going home after had always seemed so loud.

It’s what he wanted now. Quiet. Room to think. To figure shit out. He needed to decide what was going to happen next.

His first glimpse of the lake came twenty minutes later, a flash of sun on the water. He blinked away the afterimages that burned in his eyes.

He thought about stopping. About taking off his old pair of Chucks and putting his feet in the water. It’d be cold. The lake was fed from streams that came from farther up the mountains. The air was already considerably cooler than it’d been even in Roseland. Maybe it would shock him. Cause his brain to reboot.

But the sun was getting lower, and the sky was starting to streak. He wanted to make it to the cabin by dark. He still needed to get to the other side of the lake.

He drove on.

 

 

The first stars had appeared overhead by the time he reached the long driveway to the cabin. He’d turned on the truck’s headlights ten minutes before, the thick trees blocking out much of the dying sun. He’d rolled up the window too, telling himself the chill on his skin had only to do with the mountain air.

He used the signal again as he turned onto the road to the cabin. Force of habit. There was no one else out here.

The driveway was a little rougher than the main road. The truck rattled and groaned. The beam cast by his headlights jumped, bouncing through the trees. He kept the speed low, listening to his meager belongings bounce around the bed of the truck, the gas canisters scraping loudly.

And there, as it had been fourteen years ago when he’d first laid eyes on it, was the cabin.

It wasn’t anything grand. Single story. A small porch. Two bedrooms, one slightly larger than the other. Two bathrooms, both of which had showers where the water was either scalding or ice. A perfunctory kitchen with a stove and an ancient refrigerator. A living room with a couch his mother had insisted upon, saying they weren’t going to live like savages out in the middle of the woods, could you imagine? And that had been an ordeal, having that thing tied down to the back of the truck with bungee cords, bringing it up the mountain only to find it didn’t fit through the front door. There’d been a moment of panic, his parents getting those looks on their faces, the ones that said someone was going to start yelling, but then Nate’s brother had pointed out the rear doorway was larger, and they’d made it work. A cushion had torn and the paneling around the doorway chipped, but they’d finally made it in, all of them laughing, sweat dripping down their faces.

Nate’s favorite part of the cabin, however, had been the books.

The cabin had been sold as is. The elderly man’s children had taken everything of sentimental value but had left other things that Nate couldn’t believe. The head of a deer—an eight-point buck—mounted on the wall in the living room, its eyes shiny and black. (“Take it down,” his mother demanded almost immediately.) Dozens of cans of Spam. (“I don’t think it ever expires,” his father muttered, squinting at the pantry.) Two packs of cigarettes, both opened and missing a few. (“Don’t tell Mom,” his older brother warned. “I’m going to smoke the shit out of these.”)

And the books. So many books.

They lined the old set of shelves on the far wall in the living room. Hundreds of them, most of them Westerns by Louis L’Amour (The Burning Hills and High Lonesome and Hanging Woman Creek and Under the Sweetwater Rim). There were a few books he’d barely gotten to look at before his mother had snatched them away from him (Teacher’s Pet and Perversity and Anything Goes), the women on the covers half-dressed and posed salaciously, the covers promising to tell the story of how Judy stayed after class and earned her diploma through special tutoring or how a love-starved temptress gave in to her insatiable desires. Those books were gone quickly.

But the rest were fair game. And his summers became Westerns, frontier stories of cowboys and Indians and red plateaus under the scorching sun. He’d take a book or two and disappear into the trees for the day, eating blackberries for lunch, his fingers and lips a tacky purple, the pages stained by the time he headed back toward the cabin.

He’d been happy here. He’d been free.

And maybe that’s why he was here again. Maybe that’s why he’d come back. Nate Cartwright hadn’t been happy in a long time. Things had been simpler when he’d been thirteen or fourteen or fifteen years old, his body changing, zits on his forehead, voice cracking, hair sprouting in places where it hadn’t before. He’d been an awkward kid, all gangly arms and legs, perpetually pushing his glasses back up his nose. His brother had bitched and moaned about being away from his friends and girlfriend again, his parents were already checked out mentally, but Nate had just grabbed the books and gone away for hours, sitting at the base of a tree, sometimes reading, sometimes pretending he was a settler on the frontier, that he was in the wilds, the cabin he’d built somewhere behind him, and he was alone, truly alone, just the way he liked it.

Maybe that’s why he’d come back here. To be alone.

It wasn’t because he was trying to find some last connection with the two people who had cut him out of their lives. Of course not. He’d gotten over that a while ago. The fact that they’d left him the cabin and the truck hadn’t meant a damn thing. Maybe their guilt had gotten the better of them. It didn’t matter. Not now. Not anymore.

The cabin was dark.

He was exhausted.

If his mother had been here in September, it wouldn’t be too bad inside. He’d open a couple of windows to air it out, maybe wipe down the thin layer of dust that had settled. But it wouldn’t be much. For that, he was thankful.

He turned off the truck. The headlights went dark.

The stars blinked above as he opened the door.

The sky was red and pink and orange.

The surface of the lake looked as if it were on fire.

He heard birds in the trees, the lap of waves against the shore.

He stepped out of the truck.

Gravel crunched under his feet.

The door creaked as he closed it behind him, the sound echoing slightly.

He went to the back of the truck and grabbed his duffel bag. In the side pocket was a flashlight that he’d put there earlier after his shopping spree. He clicked the button on the side, and the beam flashed on. He shined it in the bed of the truck until he found one of the canisters Big Eddie had filled for him. He reached in and grabbed it too, shirt lifting slightly, a line of thin skin pressing against the cold metal of the truck. He shivered as he pulled the canister out of the truck.

He walked toward the cabin, trying hard not to think about the last time he’d been here. The guy had been sucking on his neck as they stumbled toward the porch, one hand in Nate’s back pocket, the other under his shirt and rubbing against the hair on his chest. He’d always been on the lean side, but at twenty-one, he’d been making daily trips to the gym. He’d been harder then, more defined. His dark hair had been newly cut, tight against his skull. He’d been groaning at the teeth sinking into his neck, the tongue dragging along his skin. They’d lost most of their clothes as soon as they got inside, the guy on his knees, Nate’s pants around his ankles, his cock being swallowed down into wet heat as he leaned against the door, head back and eyes closed.

His parents had shown up unexpectedly two days later.

“Give me the key,” his father had snapped, eyes blazing. “Give me the key, and don’t let me catch you here again.”

He was a shadow now. Thinner, his hair shaggy. His shoulders were a little bony, sharp. He was softer, too. He hadn’t had time for the gym like he’d had before. It’d all been cups of coffee and sitting in front of a computer, working the phones or shouting questions at some senator who tried to walk as fast as he could, a thin smile fixed on his face as if thinking that affair he’d had or the money he’d embezzled would just fade away if he ignored the kid demanding to know why, an electronic recorder held toward his face, cameras flashing again and again.

Nate had caught his reflection in a store window not that long ago and wondered who the man staring back at him was. The man with the sharp cheekbones, slightly sunken cheeks. The man whose blue eyes looked faded and cold. The man sporting three-day-old stubble on his face that made him look dirty and tired. The man with the wrinkled shirt and purple lines under his eyes and no job because he’d fucked up big-time and did something he never thought he was capable of, and here he was, a useless degree and six years on the street beat, chasing down stories that didn’t matter while daydreaming of breaking something wide open, a scandal that would rock the city to its very core. He had Pulitzer dreams on a lower-middle-class salary that barely kept him afloat in a city that bled red, white, and blue, oozing in time with the beat of a diseased heart.

It had been killing him.

So yeah. His brother had called him again. He’d been spinning his wheels. He’d heard cabin and truck and thought why the fuck not. He had some savings, enough to get by for a little while. He broke his lease on his tiny apartment, packed up his shit and sent most of it to storage, and headed west.

Best damn idea he’d had in a long time.

He’d figure things out. He’d take a few days, clear his head, and then he’d sit down and figure things out. He always did. He was good at it when he allowed himself to be.

He walked to the side of the cabin, heading toward the back where the generator sat inside a small storage shed. He fumbled with the keys, the flashlight slipping slightly, the beam pointing at his feet. The gas canister sloshed against his leg. His footsteps were soft in the grass.

He found the key he needed for the shed, thankfully marked S in the tape that wrapped around the top. There was FD for front door, BD for the back. There was one marked BH for boathouse, the wooden structure next to the dock on the lake. They’d never had a boat and had ended up only using it for storage. He’d have to take time to clean it out later. To see what had been left behind.

The shed was—

He stopped.

The metal of the gas canister’s handle dug into the skin of his folded fingers.

The padlock hung open on the shed door.

The door was open slightly. Just a sliver, really.

That wasn’t—

He shook his head.

It was fine. His mother had forgotten to latch it all the way when she’d been here last. An honest mistake. Hopefully nothing had happened to the generator in the interim. The winter had been mild, but there had been snow. And rain.

He went to the shed door, setting the canister in the grass.

He reached, and just to be sure, he closed the padlock. It clicked. Locked. He slid the key into the keyhole and turned it. The padlock popped open.

Honest mistake. She probably had been distracted. Maybe Joy had been calling for her and she just hadn’t slid it closed before turning back toward the cabin.

Except when he opened the shed door, he was hit with a wave of warm air. As if the generator had been running. Recently.

He frowned.

He stepped inside the shed. Reached out and touched the generator. The metal was hot to the touch. Not a fluke.

Had she left it on this whole time?

But that couldn’t be right. Even if she had, it would have run out of gas months ago. Even with all the lights off in the cabin. It wouldn’t have—

There was the unmistakable click of a gun being cocked.

Something hard pressed against the back of his head, digging into his scalp.

A voice said, “You’re going to set the flashlight on the ground. And then you’re going to bring your hands up slowly. Lace your fingers on the back of your neck. If you try anything, if you reach for something I cannot see, or if you don’t do exactly as I’ve said, I will put a bullet in your head. Without question.”

Everything felt sharp around Nate. His vision narrowed. His heart thumped wildly in his chest. There was blood rushing in his ears. His mind was utterly blank, bathed in a sheet of white.

He’d been mugged once. In Bethesda, down in the Metro. There’d been a small knife and a look of desperation on the man’s face, eyes darting back and forth. He’d demanded Nate’s wallet. “Now,” he’d chanted. “Now, now, now, man, I swear, you need to move, give it to me now.”

It’d felt the same. There was fear, sure, and it was causing his muscles to freeze, his brain shorting out with what felt like an audible pop. The knife hadn’t been anything to sneeze at, a pigsticker with a sharp blade, and somehow—somehow—Nate had managed to hand over his wallet. The man had snatched it from his hand and taken off.

People had kept walking around him as if nothing had happened.

He’d stood there for a long time.

Eventually he’d moved. He’d found a Metro cop and filed a report. “Probably won’t ever see it again,” the cop had told him. “It’s a pain in the ass, but just cancel your cards and get a new license. It won’t ever turn up.”

He’d done exactly that.

His wallet had never been found.

It’d been leather, a gift. Nothing extravagant. And he’d had twenty bucks in it. But that was all.

But for months after, every time he’d gone down into the Metro, he’d kept an eye out. He didn’t know what he’d do if he found the guy again, if he saw him on the train. Confront him? Say, hey, remember when you held a knife to my stomach and took away my sense of security?

Of course he’d never seen the guy again. It’s not how those things happened.

But it was that same fear. Like he was outside of himself. He felt separate. Mechanical. He knew it was cold, but he didn’t feel it anymore. He knew the inside of the shed was warm, but that was a thing of the past.

Now it was only the gun against his head.

The deep, hoarse voice at his back.

He bent slowly, the press of the gun barrel never leaving his head. He dropped his flashlight. It bounced on the floor of the shed with a wooden thunk.

He stood again, moving as though he were underwater. He brought his hands back up behind his head as he’d been told, the keys pressing against his neck.

They were taken from him before he could lock his fingers.

They jangled somewhere behind him.

The gun barrel never wavered.

He gripped the back of his neck tightly.

He said, “I don’t have much money. My wallet is in my back right pocket. You can have whatever’s in it.”

“You have anything else on you?” the voice asked again.

“No.”

“Who do you work for?”

And that—that was not a question he was expecting. He couldn’t process it. He didn’t understand. He said, “I don’t work for anyone.”

“Bullshit,” the man growled, sounding angrier. “Are you alone? Who else is with you?”

“No one.”

“Who knows you’re here?”

He blinked rapidly. “Uh—Big Eddie. From the gas station in Roseland. My brother probably.” He swallowed thickly. “The attorney who gave me the keys. That’s it.”

“What the fuck are you talking about?”

“You asked who—”

“You came from the Mountain?”

“I drove up the mountain, yes. It’s how I got here.”

“You’re lying. How did you find us?”

“I didn’t find anyone.” He was starting to sound a little hysterical. He couldn’t help it. His throat was starting to close, and panic was clawing at his chest. “My parents died and left me the cabin, and I drove up here to get away, okay? That’s all. That’s it. I had nothing else, and this is it. This fucking cabin. That goddamn truck. It’s all I have left and—”

Another voice. This time female and younger. “I think he’s telling the truth.”

The barrel pulled away slightly. “I told you to stay inside the house.”

Nate closed his eyes.

“I know,” the girl said, and Christ, she sounded so young. “But here I am anyway.”

“He’s lying.” The barrel was back. “What did I tell you about this?”

The girl sighed. “That there’s no such thing as coincidence. Everything happens for a reason.”

The man coughed. It sounded painful. “And now he’s here.”

“Maybe he’s meant to be. Maybe he’s—”

“Don’t.”

“You’re still hurt. You should be resting.”

“I told you, I’m fine. We need to figure out who he’s working for. They could be—”

“Is he going to piss himself?” The girl sounded far too curious. “Isn’t that what happens when you get really scared? I read in a book that you can lose control of your bowels and—”

“Art. Get. Inside. Now.”

“No. I won’t leave you. You promised.”

The man made a noise that sounded pained. “God. I know. Okay? I know I promised, but we can’t take chances. There’s no such thing as coincidence. If he’s here, then it’s for a reason. And we need to—”

“She’s right,” Nate heard himself say. “I’m not lying. I swear, I’m not—”

The gun barrel was back. “Don’t you talk to her,” the man snarled. “Don’t you ever talk to her. Tell me how you found us. Tell me who else is coming.”

“No one,” Nate croaked. “There’s no one. This is my parents’ cabin. They’re dead. This is my only home now. I can’t—”

The gun barrel fell away.

Nate heard the man step back away from him.

He gulped in a deep breath. It hurt his throat.

“Keep your hands where they are,” the man said. “And turn around slowly. I will shoot you if you don’t do what I say.”

Nate almost laughed hysterically.

Instead, he turned.

There in the dark was a man with a very large gun pointed in his direction. The man himself had short black hair that was almost a buzz cut and dark eyes that watched every move Nate made. He was older, lines around his narrowed eyes and mouth. He had stubble across his cheeks and jaw. His skin was pale, and his hand was shaking slightly. He had an arm wrapped around his waist, a big hand holding on to his side. He wore jeans and an open flannel shirt. Nate could see the skin and hair on his chest and stomach, and what looked to be a thick bandage on the man’s side.

And next to him was a little girl.

She wasn’t scared. Not like the man whose leg she stood next to, a hand wrapped in the hem of his shirt. She wasn’t angry like he was either. Instead she looked merely curious. Her hair was blonde and pulled back into a loose ponytail, with escaped tendrils hanging around her ears. She had big eyes and a little upturned nose. She wore a shirt that had a Care Bear on it. It swallowed her small frame.

The man was large. He had a few inches on Nate. He seemed almost as wide as he was tall. He dwarfed the little girl, the top of her head barely coming past his waist.

“Howdy, partner,” the girl said. “My name is Artemis Darth Vader. It’s nice to meet you, I reckon.”

“Art,” the man growled down at her.

“You said I have to act normal, Alex,” the girl said, staring up at the man. “Normal people introduce themselves. I read that in a book.”

“What the fuck,” Nate said faintly.

“I also told you that you need to not talk to strangers,” the man—Alex?—snapped at her. The aim of the gun went off to the left. He looked as if he was swaying.

“He’s not a stranger,” the girl said, suddenly looking down. “His name is Nathaniel Cartwright. He lives in Washington, DC.”

“How the hell did you—is that my wallet?”

She glanced back up at him. “Yes. This is your wallet. Very astute.”

“How did you—” He hadn’t even felt her take it.

“You said we could have it. Oh boy. You were right. There’s not much money in here. That’s too bad. I like money. It smells weird.”

“Art!” the man barked again. “Get inside the house. Now.”

And then, just because Nate’s night couldn’t get any stranger, the man’s eyes rolled back up in his head and he collapsed to the ground.

The gun fell from his hand.

“I told him not to push it,” the girl who’d introduced herself as Artemis Darth Vader said. “He needs to listen to me more.” She looked up at Nate. “Nathaniel Cartwright of Washington, DC. I’d sure appreciate it, hoss, if you could mosey on over here and help a fellow cowpoke out. Need to get this guy into the cabin over yonder.”

Nate did the only thing he could.

He passed out too.

Bones: Humor, Action, and the Tensest Scene I've Ever Written

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I know humor. I do. I can write funny like nothing else. (Though, to be fair, some people will disagree with that; can’t please everyone). Even in my darker works, I like moments of levity. It helps to keep the weight of the story from collapsing completely. Even the Immemorial Year series, arguably my darkest work, had moments of light courtesy of a certain robot and a mutt named Bad Dog.

But I, as the author, have to be careful with humor, especially in the heavier moments. You don’t want to run the risk of ruining an angst-filled moment with some dumb joke. (Thank god for my editors.)

Humor plays a part in The Bones Beneath My Skin much like it does in, say, Wolfsong/Ravensong. It’s not the absolute focus, but there are the lighter moments.

That isn’t to say Bones is a dark book; it’s really not. Yes, there is angst, but it stems from the we’re enemies at first but now we’re something else while also getting shot at trope I played with. It certainly doesn’t help (hurt?) that Alex is a bit of an asshole. He has his reasons (Artemis Darth Vader, namely), but even he learns to crack a smile at some point (though he’ll never admit to it). I’ve said before that this story is one about hope, and I didn’t want to take anything away from that with unnecessary contrived angst.

Humor is easy. Angst is too.

Action….not so much. Action scenes, much like sex scenes, need to be choreographed and the writing crisp and clear so the reader knows exactly what’s happening. If it’s not, it turns muddled and can only distract through confusion. (How did Character A get the gun? Why are Character A and B fucking face to face when they were just having tea and talking about bowling?)

And action creates tension, especially when it’s done well. You’re reading a romance: chances are the characters will make it out just fine. But when you’re in the moment, breathlessly reading through the pages, I want there to be the thought in the back of your mind that’s whispering what if they don’t make it out?

Which is why I’ll say this about Bones: there is a scene toward the latter half of the book involving a single gun, a card table, and a game that no one wants to play. I am absurdly proud of this scene because it’s the most tension-filled thing I’ve ever written. It was one of those scenes that I’d thought of even before I’d begun the story (sort of like Sam running off Kevin’s back and jumping down on top of the Great White in The Consumption of Magic). I remember finally getting to the moment, and doing the whole thing in one day. I was sweating by the time I finished, and when I sat back, I uncurled my toes and let the tension out of my shoulders. I was exhausted. It felt like I’d been riding the same roller coaster again and again and again. Trust me, you’ll know the scene when you get to it. Buckle up, bitches.

This book has more action then what I usually write. The idea, after all, was wanting to write an action movie, so that’s not surprising. But what was surprising was just how much joy I got from blowing shit up. I probably should be a little more concerned by how good it made me feel, but that’s another story for another day.

In The Bones Beneath My Skin, the bad guys are really bad, the good guys are running for their lives, and a little girl can do things with her mind that no little girl should be able to do. I’m posting this on October 18th, which means we are fifteen days away from release. I hope you’re ready for something a little…different.

(but still super queer.)

Next week, I’ll have my last sales pitch. If I haven’t convinced you by then, well. What are you even still doing here?

tj

Pre-Order Bones, out October 26th:

(paperbacks will go on sale Monday, October 22nd exclusively at Amazon)

Amazon: https://goo.gl/a5DsfC

B&N: https://goo.gl/k5XmLH

Kobo: https://goo.gl/WpmcUn

Smashwords: https://goo.gl/bYb716

iBooks: https://goo.gl/FZc2Dk

Bones: Setting, Angst and Toxic Masculinity

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Sales Pitch: Part II

(part I was published last week and can be found here: http://www.tjklunebooks.com/new-blog/2018/9/24/first-look-the-bones-beneath-my-skin

Why are these blog posts about The Bones Beneath My Skin sales pitches?

Simple, really: I’m self-publishing this book. I am a seller of goods, and you are, as my audience, my customers. I am selling you on this story given that I’m pretty much doing this on my own without the backing of a publisher, by my own choice.

(Not that that’s a major difference than what I’m used to, but that’s a story for another day.)

Ahem. Excuse me. The tea I’m drinking is scalding.

Anyway.

I’m selling you on this idea—this story of three lonely people who gravitate toward each other—because a) it’s my livelihood and b) I’m fucking proud of this novel and the work I’ve put into it.

So here we go.

The first part of the book is set in Roseland, Oregon. Chances are if you’ve read most of my work, the mention of that town sends chills down your spine or, at the very least, causes you to want to throw empty boxes of Kleenex at my head.

The town has been mentioned a few times in other books (see Murmuration), but it was the primary setting for my novel Into This River I Drown. That book was…well. A lot. And by a lot I mean a lot of fucking angst. (If you haven’t read it, that’s okay; aside from the setting, Bones and River don’t intersect at any point and have nothing to do with each other. Though if you want your soul crushed and kind-of put back together by the end—albeit in a different shape—consider picking it up!)

(Look! I’ll even help you out with a link: https://www.dreamspinnerpress.com/books/into-this-river-i-drown-by-tj-klune-2752-b )

River was a love story, between two men (well, one of them was a man): Benji and Cal. But it was also a love story between Benji and his father, Big Eddie. Big Eddie died before River began under suspicious circumstances, and Benji was drowning his grief. I wrote it as a way to process my own grief in the death of my father. I think it’s a good piece of writing, if a little overwrought. Hell, it won me the Lambda Literary Award in 2014, so I’m not complaining.

So imagine my surprise when I started writing The Bones Beneath My Skin with no particular destination in mind, only to have my lead character find himself returning to the summer cabin his parents left for him in their wills…outside of Roseland, Oregon. It’s set a couple of decades before River, and then all of a sudden, there Big Eddie was, pumping gas at his convenience store. It wasn’t planned, but I was pleasantly surprised to find how easy it was to write Big Eddie again. So I went with it, knowing Roseland wasn’t going to be the entire book.

(And for those concerned: Bones is nowhere near the level of angst of River. Angst was never going to be the focus of Bones, though it does have some. Yes, you’ll probably cry, but it’s going to be where you least expect it. Trust me on that.)

So, I had my setting, at least for the first part. The reader (much like the characters) won’t stay in Roseland for reasons I won’t reveal here, but it was interesting to return to this little town I had no plans on revisiting again. I thought I’d put them through enough in River.

Which brings me to something else I’d like to talk about, if you’ve got another moment. In River, the relationship between Benji and his father Big Eddie is a focal point for the story. These two men love each other completely, fully, and without reservation. They’re also not afraid to show affection with each other, or show their emotions. I wanted to carry that over to Bones, like I’ve carried it over to much of my other work.

We live in (at the time of this writing) the year of our Lord 2018, and there is still a stigma about men (straight, queer or somewhere in between) showing emotion or affection with each other. It’s so goddamn odd to me to think that as young boys, we’re told to be strong and brave and that men never cry or even come close to it. Toxic masculinity is like a disease: it spreads from generation to generation, and it’s literally one of the dumbest things in the entire fucking world.

It’s something I’ve made a conscious effort to avoid in my works. Guys are allowed to be affectionate with one another and others without it needing to be romantic in nature. Here, in The Bones Beneath My Skin, Alex comes across as gruff and hard, willing to shoot first and then….shoot again. And then he might ask a question or two, but it’s unlikely. It’s armor, though, and flimsy armor at that. The moment Nate Cartwright meets (read: stumbles upon a situation involving a gun and a break-in) Alex and Artemis Darth Vader, it’s evident just how protective Alex is of the little girl who follows him around like a shadow.

Dudes are also allowed to cry when they’re angry or sad or whatever. Seriously. I know it might seem like this wild and crazy idea, but guys do cry sometimes. Fuck you if you think we can’t show emotion. I will 100% prove you wrong and cry all over your stupid face.

And now that I’ve threatened you, please buy my book? I promise it’ll be worth it.

Thus ends my second sales pitch.

Next blog post coming Saturday and will be about Artemis Darth Vader, and why her voice is the one I heard first. It’ll also include the second excerpt, and will be up at www.joyfullyjay.com

Thanks,

tj

Pre-Order Bones, out October 26th:

(paperbacks will go on sale Monday, October 22nd exclusively at Amazon)

Amazon: https://goo.gl/a5DsfC

B&N: https://goo.gl/k5XmLH

Kobo: https://goo.gl/WpmcUn

Smashwords: https://goo.gl/bYb716

iBooks: https://goo.gl/FZc2Dk

First Look: The Bones Beneath My Skin


So here it is: a sales pitch from me to you. If you’re reading this, chances are you’ve read at least one of my books. Whether only one or all of them, I want to tell you about my last book of the year, and why it’s important to me. Cool?

Cool.

(And how nuts is it to think that this is my first non-sequel book since Olive Juice in April of 2017?)

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Back in late 2015/early 2016, I had this idea.

I wanted to write an 80s movie, but in book form, a sort of homage to ET, The Goonies, to the Stephens/Stevens: both King and Spielberg. It was going to be about a group of teenagers, facing something paranormally unexpected, and there would be action and the nostalgia would be insane and—

Then Stranger Things came out, and I said “Motherfucker.”

(In case you haven’t seen it, Stranger things is all the things I just described turned up to an eleven—ha, ha, ha, I’ll be here all evening, folks.)

It happens, sometimes. I had a story idea about the afterlife, but then the television show The Good Place came out, and did everything I was thinking of much, much better. I had an idea for a western about a town of outcasts coming together, but then Godless came out on Netflix and did it much, much better (the town in that show was all badass women).

Is there anything new under the sun?

Apparently not.

So I shelved my 80s idea, much to my dismay.

But something about it stuck with me for a long time, specifically the girl who was going to be the center of my original story. Oh, it was still going to be a queer romance, but the girl was going to be the third main character.

And for some reason, she just wouldn’t leave me alone.

It wasn’t until I was deep into one of my Wikipedia spirals (I could spend hours on that website, and sometimes do), that I came across something that I hadn’t heard of before, sparking a new idea.

L’appel du vide.

It’s French. It means the call of the void.

It’s not quite suicidal ideation. The idea of l’appel du vide is that we have something hardwired into our lizard brains, something a little… dark. Have you ever been driving down the road and seen a semi coming in the opposite direction and think what if I turned my car into it and hit it head on? Or you’re standing at the edge of a cliff or on the ledge of a building and think what if I took another step? For the most part, it’s just a thought, a flicker, there and gone. We don’t act on it because we want to live.

I was entranced by this notion, because it’s not about wanting to die so much as it is the what if?

And it was that thought, the what if that I couldn’t get out of my head.

When I went back to the story idea, I thought what if?

What if I aged up the two main characters, but left the little girl young, and instead of friendship, the dynamic between the three leads was more father-daughter?

What if I moved the time from the 80s to the 90s?

What if instead of an homage to a period of time that we all remember more fondly than it actually was, I instead turned to that weird ass fucking time a decade later?

What if, what if, what if.

If you think about it, the nineties were fucked up. I came of age in the 90s, discovered I was queer in the nineties. Presidents stuck cigars inside women in the 90s and then talked about it all over TV as they were impeached. We thought computers were all going to shut off or blow up or something at midnight of December 31st, 1999. Death came to Waco and David Koresh in 1993. In March of 1997, a group of people believing there was a UFO in the tail of a comet called Hale-Bopp committed suicide under the direction of Marshall Applewhite. There was no UFO, at least not one that the rest of the world knew of. Satanic panic—started in the late 80s—grew worldwide by the 90s.

Like I said: fucked up.

And I had found a home for the book. Instead of 80s nostalgia, I would write a 90s action movie. Shit would blow up! There would be car chases and gun battles and dastardly villains who want nothing more than to have the little girl returned to them, the little girl capable of a great many things that defy logic. Enemies would become friends and friends would start to love each other, all set against the backdrop of what is essentially one large chase scene stretched over 385 pages.

So that’s what I did.

(and I also made it very, very queer.)

What I didn’t expect was to write a story imbued with so much hope. Even though it’s set in the 90s (1995, to be exact), I live in today’s world. And it’s a world filled with anger and cynicism, vitriol and hate. It’s exhausting. I turn on the news, and I immediately turn it back off. I open Twitter, and immediately click away. Someone is always shouting. Someone is always screaming. People are always dying or being marginalized or being taken away from their families when all they want to do is find a place to be safe. And how privileged am I that I can turn away from it, at least for a little bit? Very, obviously. I know that. I do.

I’m a cynical person by nature. It’s just who I am. I’m not going to make excuses for it. Sometimes, that bleeds into what I write. Which is why I made it a concentrated effort to avoid that with Bones. This little girl, this Artemis Darth Vader, is special to me. She’s not…normal. I won’t tell you exactly why, but she has a perspective that most don’t. She sees the goodness in people, even in the face of evil.

Nate, the main character of the three, is lost. His parents are dead, his father having murdered his mother and then killing himself. His brother wants nothing to do with him, partly blaming Nate for what happened to their parents. Nate’s fired from his job as a journalist because he royally fucked up, crossing an ethical boundary that should not have been crossed. He comes back to Roseland, Oregon (wherein we meet a younger version of an old friend of mine, say hey, Big Eddie) to try and put himself back together.

Only the cabin isn’t empty as it should be. And this sets off a series of events that starts small, but then grows and grows and grows until it potentially affects the entire world. Alex, Artemis Darth Vader’s protector, can’t trust anyone but Artemis. He too has seen the evils of men, and he’s lost much. He’s angry and scared, though he tries to hide it. He’s also desperately lonely, and on a mission that will only end in heartbreak for him. Or so he thinks.

Hope, though. It’s all about hope. Identity and hope. Who we are, what we’re doing, where we’re going. I wonder, sometimes, if we’re getting to a breaking point, where we won’t be able to turn back. If we’re already damned because of what goes on in the world, and all that we’ve done or allowed to happen. Bones is me trying to reconcile with these feelings. I want to believe we can be better than we are now. And it’s this thought I ran with when I wrote this book.

Bones is funny. And sad. And sexy. And weird. And while the bones of a typical (if it can be called that) TJ Klune book are there, it’s unlike anything you’ve read from me before. Go big or go home, I told myself. So I went big. Like, really big (which you’ll soon find out).

I’ll talk more about the book in the coming weeks, but for now, I’ll post a little taste below, from the first chapter of The Bones Beneath My Skin. Long time readers of mine? This one is for you. (and for those asking, this is a standalone with no sequel/prequel/sidequel in sight; one and done.)

tj

Pre-Order Bones, out October 26th:

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**Note: Paperbacks will be available *exclusively* from Amazon, and will go up closer to the release date.

Excerpt:

“Well, look who the cat dragged in,” Big Eddie Green said. “Nate Cartwright, as I live and breathe.”

Nate forced a smile onto his face. “Big Eddie. Good to see you’re still running this dump.”

“You watch your mouth,” Big Eddie said, but he was still smiling, his teeth a little crooked but endearingly so. He held out a large hand streaked with a bit of oil. Nate didn’t mind. He held out his own. Big Eddie’s grip was firm, but he wasn’t trying to be an asshole about it. He wasn’t like that, at least not that Nate knew. He hadn’t seen Big Eddie since he’d turned twenty-one, the last time he’d been up to the cabin. And it wasn’t like they were friends, though Big Eddie could make friends with just about anybody he set his mind to. There was something about the way he smiled that put Nate at ease. It was familiar, this. Heartbreakingly so.

“Heading up the mountain?” Big Eddie was already moving to the pump. “Unleaded okay?”

“Yeah, it’s fine,” Nate said, leaning against the truck. He glanced inside the gas station window. There was a kid inside bent over the counter, scribbling furiously on something, his tongue stuck out between his teeth like he was concentrating really hard. “Jesus, is that Benji?”



Ravensong: A Look Back & What's Next

Note: Spoilers for Wolfsong, Ravensong, and Lovesong. If you haven't ready any or all of these, click away as this post will reveal major spoilers.

In the original outline of Ravensong, Chris and Tanner were executed by Elijah in the streets of Green Creek upon the arrival of the hunters. Unable to take the loss of their friends after Elijah was defeated, Jessie and Rico left the pack, breaking ties, wanting to escape the wolf world. The plan after that, vague though it was, was to have Jessie and Rico show up again in Heartsong, as hunters of sorts.

For some reason, I thought this was a good idea.

And now, looking back, I have no fucking idea why.

Because that's stupid.

And I realized that just as soon as I started writing. Seeing the younger versions of Rico, Tanner, Chris and Gordo all together and how they stuck by his side when he was abandoned by the wolves made me realize that not only would killing off half of Team Human be unnecessary, but it would be a weirdly cruel thing to do, given all Gordo had been through. While these books are very angsty, there needs to be a line. It's one thing to slog through angst; it's something else entirely to drown in it.

So I didn't kill them.

I just hurt them.

A lot.

(also in the original outline :Joe was infected along with Mark and Carter and turned Omega, but it was too much and took the focus away from Mark and Gordo.)

Hi, and welcome to my TED talk, where I'll be discussing a few key points in the story, what part made me unintentionally laugh my ass off (and got edited out), why I had to go and "ruin" Thomas and Elizabeth (what one angry tweeter wrote to me, yay!), the twist at the end, and what happens next.

First things first: Gordo was always going to lose a hand. That was not up for debate. That scene was one of the first I thought up. Oh, it changed a few times as to who was actually going to be the one doing it, but it was always going to happen.

Shortly after, there was a scene that made me just fucking die that ended up being cut, given how my editors thought it really went too far and undercut the seriousness of what happened to Gordo, and the gravity of his moment with Thomas. (And ultimately, they were correct in making me cut it.)

He wakes up, right? He asks where his hand is. Joe has to point out to him with no small amount of trepidation that Carter might have...gnawed on it a little while Gordo was passed out. And eaten parts of it.

I just...I don't know, man. I still laugh at it now. Fucking stupid, right? But it just seemed so Carter for reasons I can't quite explain. Alas, cutting it was for the better.

Second: Elijah. I have a...well. Let's just say I have a complicated history with religion. I tend to think most organized religion is no better than a cult (but you do you). I went in one direction with the idea of religion in Into This River I Drown, though it was vague enough that it wasn't meant to represent any one faith. But I have this fascination with those who use the supposed words of God as a weapon. It's a queer dichotomy, given how two people can so vastly differ on how they interpret scripture. In the end, Elijah, so indignant and righteous in her faith and fury, failed. And with the death of her and her clan, I think the backbone of the hunter movement was broken, though there might be some stragglers out there still causing up trouble. Which, honestly sucks because while she was obviously bad, she was such a cool character. She wore the skin of a werewolf, for fuck's sake.

Third (and this is a big one): Thomas and Elizabeth Bennett. Look. I get that people adored them in Wolfsong for the most part. I did too when I was writing them. But as I get older, I'm less and less impressed by perfection, and more interested in imperfection and flaws. Take away the fairy-tale shine, and what lies underneath? That's what I want to know about.

Thomas, especially, made bad decisions. Did he make them for the right reasons? Only time will tell. I think he did, but I still think he went about it the wrong way. With Gordo and Ox, Thomas messed up a bunch. He listened to the wrong people. Even worse, he trusted the wrong people. And Elizabeth, put in a desperate situation (as seen in Lovesong), had to make a choice. Follow him or let him go? She chose. Again, was it the right decision? Or was it made for the right reasons?

People are complex. What you see isn't always what you get. Ox saw the Bennetts one way. Gordo saw them another. Does it make one of them right over the other? I don't know that it does. But it was important to me that Gordo called them out for their manipulation of Ox. Looking back, Ox wasn't given a choice in the matter when Joe gave him his stone wolf at such a young age. Had he known, he most likely would have made the same decision, but I needed Gordo to be the voice of reason for this. It was important to me.

And coming back to Elizabeth, the reason the short story Lovesong exists is because of the scenes between Gordo and Thomas. Gordo was given a chance at forgiving Thomas, but what about Elizabeth? I didn't think it was fair, especially given how Thomas was her mate. I didn't want to take away from the momentum of the story, or Gordo's perspective, so I decided to give Elizabeth her moment in the spotlight. I like how it turned out. 

(And to that angry tweeter who accused me of ruining Thomas and Elizabeth: eh.)

Fourth and finally: the ending. That scene between Michelle Hughes and Robert Livingstone? I love it so, so much. It's short, only a few pages, but it has so much to it, especially revealing the identity of the timber wolf as being Gordo's half-brother. And though I've done twists before, there's just something so satisfying about this one, given that you, the audience, are now in possession of knowledge that the characters aren't. It'll create a different kind of tension, and every interaction will be heightened. Who is this wolf? What happened to him? Where did he come from? What does he know? When will the pack find out, and how will Gordo and Carter react? WHAT THE FUCK IS HIS NAME???? (lolololol)

(Also, for those upset that Carter also has a dude as a mate, die mad about it. Everyone is queer.  This pack is a goddamn Pride Parade, and I don't care if you hate it. Write your own werewolf story with hetero sex if it upsets you that much.)

But stepping back from this knowledge is the first glimpse of Robert Livingstone in the present day. What does he want? Are we to take him at his word that he only wants his son and nothing more? I guess we'll have to find out, won't we?

Speaking of.

Heartsong.

I'm going to be very close-lipped about it, much more than I was with the lead up to Ravensong. It's...different. With sequels, there is a always a strange desire to go bigger and darker, upping the action and the violence. I...didn't do that. Heartsong is a quieter book, more focused on Robbie and Kelly than anything else. Oh, shit goes down, sure, but there was something... innocent(??) about the two of them that I wanted to explore in more depth. It also gives Chris, Tanner, Rico and Jessie more of a chance to shine.

And it will bring the relationship between Carter and Kelly to the forefront. They'll need each other for what's coming. Because Heartsong is built around a deceptively simple question: What happens if you can't trust the people around you?

And that's it.

That's all I'm going to say about the wolves until next summer as we approach the release of Heartsong in September of 2019. Thank you, though. Thank you for being part of this journey. Thank you for letting me tell these stories. I'm proud of them. And I can't wait until we head back to Green Creek again, and hear our pack singing us home.

tj

 

 

The Bones Beneath My Skin Pre-Order

On October 26th, a message will be delivered.

And everything will change.

Announcing my last book of the year: The Bones Beneath My Skin, an enemies-to-lovers queer romance where things blow up, bad guys are really *really* bad, and a little girl who calls herself Artemis Darth Vader might be the key to saving us all.
This will be my first self-published work, and I can't wait for you all to see what I've saved for last.

Pre-orders are now available:

Amazon**: https://goo.gl/a5DsfC

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**Note: Paperbacks will be available *exclusively* from Amazon, and will go up closer to the release date.

Lovesong: A Green Creek Story

Lovesong-banner-blue-1.jpg

Lovesong

A Green Creek Story

By TJ Klune

Author's Note: This is part of a series meant to be read in order, starting with Wolfsong followed by Ravensong. If you haven't read both books, this will spoil major events. You've been warned.

 

packpackpack

Wolf Paw Print.jpg

 

i.

When she dreams these days, it’s always in shades of blue.

She’s in an endless forest. The trees stretch toward the starry sky. She feels the cool grass beneath her bare feet. The moon is bright. It’s full, of course.

She’s not alone.

She can’t see him, but she knows he’s there. She hears him breathe.

She turns her head to look for him, but there’s nothing but a flash of white disappearing into the woods.

When she wakes, her face is wet.

ii.

The first time he makes her laugh is when he tells her he thinks she’s pretty.

She laughs at him. It isn’t cruel. She’s shocked. It’s startled out of her, and she can’t stop it, even if she tries.

He’s not hurt by it.

He laughs too, blushing as he looks away.

iii.

When she’s pregnant with their first, he turns into a possessive asshole. He growls low in his throat at anyone who touches her belly.

When she’s had enough, she smacks him upside the head and tells him to knock it off.

He blinks in surprise, the orange light fading in his eyes.

“Sorry,” he says, sounding sheepish. “I don’t know why I do that.”

She takes his hand and presses it against her stomach. For a moment, nothing happens.

She winces when she feels him kick (Carter, she’s already thinking, Carter, Carter, Carter), but any discomfort falls away at the look on his face.

He’s awestruck.

iv.

When death comes for them, it’s swift and brutal. She’s in the Bennett pack, yes, and she’s the mate to a future Alpha, but she is a mother first, and her instincts are to protect her unborn child.

She kills that day. She takes the lives of at least six people who have come to their territory with anger in the hearts and bullets of silver. The first is a large man standing above a dead wolf, one of the little cousins. He doesn’t see her coming. Her jaws close around his neck and she twists, the bones cracking under her fangs.

The last person she kills is a woman. She raises her gun toward the once and future king.

She doesn’t get a chance to pull the trigger.

There isn’t much left of her by the time Elizabeth Bennett finishes.

When all that’s left is smoke and memory, she feels it.

All that they’ve lost.

It’s Richard Collins who notices first.

She doesn’t understand him. She never has. There’s always been something… off, but Thomas laughed and told her she was seeing things.

When her mate howls, there’s a change in the cadence. And that’s when it hits her.

Thomas Bennett looks at her with bloodred eyes.

v.

Carter comes, and there’s pain, bright and glassy. It’s real, and she feels it with a primal satisfaction as it tears through her. This is her pain, this belongs to her, and no one can take it away. She relishes in it as sweat drips from her brow.

They’re few, now.

Their pack.

But she hears them whispering in her head, and it’s love and strength and yes yes yes.

And with a cry of relief that sounds like a song, the boy comes into the world.

The first.

But not the last.

vi.

They’re making a mistake.

She knows they are.

She tells Thomas as much.

“How can we do this to him?” she asks. “How can this be all right?”

Thomas rubs a hand over his face. He’s tired. He’s got bags under his eyes and a few days’ worth of stubble on his cheeks. He was always going to be the Alpha, but it happened much sooner than anyone would have expected. She thinks he would give it all up just to have their pack again.

He’s a good man, but right now, she doesn’t understand him.

“We have to keep him safe,” he says with that familiar stubborn set to his jaw that she loves and despises in equal measure. “It’ll be better for him if he stays here. The wolves… they don’t trust the humans. Especially this human. They think…they think Robert did something to him. To his tattoos. A fail safe. Just in case.”

“You can fight for him,” she says. “He’s not like his father.  If you do this, you will put him on the path that you’ll regret in time.”

She’s never been demure. She’s seen other mates to Alphas, subservient and quiet. That was never her. If Thomas asked that of her, demanded her silence, she would tear him limb from limb.

But she’s going to lose this one.

And what’s worse is that she’s going to follow him.

She doesn’t know what that makes them.

Doesn’t know what that makes her.

“I know that,” Thomas says, sounding tired. “But they don’t. And I have a duty, Lizzie. An obligation. My father….” He shakes his head. “I am the Alpha of all. I don’t have a choice.”

She wants to tell him he does. He could give it up, let someone else worry about the fate of the wolves. She wants to tell him they can’t do this. They can’t break apart their pack. Not after everything.

But she doesn’t.

And she will regret it for the rest of her life.

“This is going to destroy Mark,” she says quietly. “He’ll never agree.”

Thomas’s eyes flare red. “He will. I am his Alpha. He’ll do what I tell him to.”

“And then he’ll never forgive you.”

The redness disappears, and all she feels is blue. It’s an ocean of sorrow, and she knows how much this is hurting him. It’s still no excuse. “I know,” he says. “But I have no other choice.”

She loves him, but she thinks he’s a liar.

vii.

Kelly is… different. He’s quieter. He comes early, and it’s over quicker than she expects. There’s pain, but it’s not like it was with Carter.

He doesn’t cry.

She thinks something is wrong.

But he’s breathing and blinking up at her as he’s placed in her arms.

“Hello,” she says. “Hello, my little child.”

viii.

With Joe, things change.

She can’t quite tell how she knows, but even in the womb, it’s not like it was with Carter and Kelly. There’s a sense of something more. She feels guilty about thinking that way, and it’s not until she speaks with Thomas that she understands.

“Alpha,” he says simply. “I think this one is meant to be the Alpha. Richard thinks so too.”

And oh god, that terrifies her.

ix.

When Joe is returned to them, he doesn’t speak. His eyes are vacant, and he doesn’t respond.

She doesn’t know what to do.

She hates Richard for what he’s done.

She hates Thomas for allowing it to happen.

She hates the wolves in this place. It’s not home. Maine was never going to be home, and now one of her sons is hollowed out and dark. She thinks about taking them and running far, far away.

She doesn’t.

She kisses his cheeks.

The tip of his nose.

His chin.

Carter and Kelly curl around him.

But it’s like he’s gone.

She doesn’t know how to get him back.

x.

It’s all candy canes and pinecones.

Epic and awesome.

It’s boom and rawr.

It’s a strange boy named Ox.

She doesn’t know what to make of him.

She loves him, though. Almost right away.

And for that reason alone, she wants to keep him away.

Death, she thinks as she listens to her son speak for the first time since he was returned to them, always comes for the wolves.

And when Joe comes to her, when he says he wants to give Ox his stone wolf, she agrees, knowing how manipulative it will be. Ox doesn’t know the truth. He doesn’t know what it means. But her son is speaking, and his eyes have life in them, so much life that she can’t deny him anything.

She doesn’t sleep much that night.

xi.

She starts painting again.

It’s angry at first. Savage. Harsh lines and slashes of color.

It doesn’t feel like enough.

xii.

She doesn’t tell them where she’s going. They’re distracted. All the kids are in school. Mark and Thomas are on conference calls in the office.

She walks into town. The forest smells like it always has. The dirt road crunches under her feet.

She thinks of what she’ll say.

Of what she’ll do.

She doesn’t know how he’ll react.

GORDO’S, the sign says.

She smiles to herself.

There’s no one at the front desk.

She rings the bell and waits.

It’s discordant, the first time she sees him. He’s not like he was. He’s harder. She thinks he hates her, and she deserves it.

His tattoos flash.

“Gordo,” she says, and is surprised when her voice cracks.

His eyes darken. “What the fuck are you doing here?”

She says, “I’m sorry. For all that we did to you.”

“Fuck you. Get the fuck outta here.”

She nods. “Joe, he….”

“Thomas already told me. I said no.”

She says, “Thomas never took another witch. They asked. They begged. He told them no. He told them he already had a witch.”

It’s unfair of her. To do this. To say this. It’s calculating, and she can see the moment it lands. His expression stutters before he looks at her coldly. “I don’t care.”

“It was wrong,” she says, and she wants to touch him. To take his face in her hands and smooth out the angry lines. “What we did to you. We were young. And scared.”

“You’re only saying this because you need me to help out with Joe,” he snaps at her. “Where were you before this? Years, Elizabeth. It’s been years.”

“So many times,” she says. “So many times I picked up the phone, wanting to hear your voice. But I—”

He laughs, and it’s the bitterest sound she’s ever heard. “But you didn’t. Out of sight, out of mind.”

Yes. That’s exactly what it was. And the truth hurts. “We… made mistakes.”

“Fuck you. And fuck your mistakes.”

She doesn’t know this man. This furious man. She doesn’t know him, and it’s all her fault. “Mark—”

“Don’t,” he snarls at her. “Don’t you say his name.”

She blinks as she takes a step back. “I’m sorry. I just….” She shakes her head. “I love you. I don’t expect you to believe me. And I understand why you wouldn’t. But I love you, Gordo. I do.”

He laughs, and oh the hatred she hears in his voice. It’s like poison. “Yeah, you sure showed me just how much you loved me. All of you did.”

She turns to leave, not wanting him to see her cry.

She stops when he says, “Ox.”

She swallows thickly, looking out the front of the shop to the street.

He says, “Leave him out of this.”

“I think it’s already too late,” she whispers.

“Already got your claws in him,” Gordo says in a dead voice. “Of course you did. Wolves ruin everything they touch. I won’t let you do that to him.”

She doesn’t look back.

xiii.

In the end, though, he comes.

She wonders why.

She doesn’t know if she’d do the same if she were in his position.

Joe is trapped in his shift. Not quite boy, not quite wolf.

And Gordo comes.

She’s a wolf, and her instincts have kicked into overdrive.

She snarls at him.

He rolls his eyes.

Thomas says, “Ox. He needs Ox.”

Gordo’s shoulders sag in defeat.

xiv.

Later she’ll find out he told the boy that it’s real.

That monsters are real.

That it’s all real.

He’s right, of course.

Elizabeth knows monsters.

xv.

Maggie Callaway is a wonderful woman.

She’s fierce.

And smart.

And stronger than she gives herself credit for.

When they meet for the first time, Elizabeth understands then just how someone like Ox can exist. It’s because of his mother.

And they grow to be friends, Maggie and Elizabeth. She hasn’t had a woman as a friend in a long time. It’s… nice having someone like her. Someone who doesn’t quite realize Elizabeth is essentially a queen. It’s easier that way.

When she finds out they’re wolves, Maggie is shocked.

But it only lasts for a day or two.

She comes to the house one day not long after.

They sit at the kitchen table, sunlight coming in through the window. It’s just the two of them. Elizabeth relishes this contact. Is hungry for it.

Maggie says, “He’s part of this, isn’t he?”

Elizabeth nods slowly. “I think so.”

Maggie curls her hands around her mug of tea. “He’s special.”

“I know.”

“A mother always thinks that about her child. But….”

“It’s more than that with Ox.”

She looks away. “His father never thought so.”

“His father was wrong.”

Maggie nods. “Why? Do you know? Does Thomas?”

No. They don’t. But it’s there all the same. She reaches out and touches Maggie’s wrist. She’s not quite pack—not yet, at least, not like Ox is—but Elizabeth can’t ignore instinct. She’s pleased with her scent being on this wonderful woman. “He’s going to do great things, your Ox.”

Maggie smiles. It trembles to the point of breaking. “He doesn’t hear that enough. I try to make him understand.” She hesitates. Then, “Ox tells me you’re a painter.”

Elizabeth blinks. “I am.”

Maggie seems shy when she says, “That’s so nice. Do you think… do you think I could see? I don’t know anything about art, but I know pretty things when I see them.”

They spend the rest of the day together.

When Maggie is murdered in their territory, Elizabeth is close to tearing the world apart.

xvi.

It’s quick when it happens.

One moment she’s snarling, her tail twitching, her teeth stained with Omega blood.

And the next, it breaks within her like glass, the shards embedded in her skin.

Her breath leaves her body like she’s been kicked in the stomach.

She takes a stumbling step forward, her wolf mind thinking no and mate and Thomas Thomas Thomas.

She runs faster than she’s ever run before.

But she’s too late.

Joe is on his knees, his head tilted back.

His eyes are filled with fire.

He is the Alpha.

Which means—

xvii.

They come from far away.

Michelle Hughes doesn’t.

Elizabeth is thankful for that. She doesn’t know what she’d do if Michelle showed her face in Green Creek. She’s jumbled up with Osmond and Richard Collins in Elizabeth’s mind, and even if that’s not fair, that’s how it is.

She is the wolf mother. Those who come to pay their respects are in awe of her. She accepts their condolences. They touch her hand and her shoulders. She’s barely able to keep from recoiling.

They leave her be… before.

Alone. With him.

Thomas has been bathed, the blood washed away.

His skin is pale.

She says, “How could you leave me like this?”

She says, “I hate you.”

She says, “Oh, oh, oh.”

She says, “We were young once. And you were smiling. I remember that. Your eyes were wide, and you said you had something to offer me. I knew what it was, and even though I was scared, I knew it was right. That I would say yes. Because there was no one else for me. There never has been. And you… you left me here. Why?”

He doesn’t answer.

He can’t.

He’s gone, gone, gone.

She closes her eyes, trying to find him. Trying to search along the bonds that stretch between them all. If he’s there, even the smallest part of him, she would know. Especially in this place. It’s different here. Stronger. More powerful. Her mother told her when she was a child that all those who leave are never truly gone.

But she can’t find him.

There’s a ragged, gaping hole where he should be.

xviii.

He burns in the forest at night.

The wolves sing their songs for the fallen king.

Hers is an aria of blue.

xix.

After, always after:

They break apart.

Three years.

One month.

Twenty-six days.

And for the first part of it, she knows only the wolf. It’s not fair of her, to be so lost in her grief. She has a pack. She has her sons. But when they leave, she doesn’t know how to handle it.

Before they leave, she tells Gordo she’ll kill him if anything happens to them under his watch.

She’s lying.

She’s tired of death.

She wants to tell him she loves him. That Thomas loved him.

But she can’t make the words come out.

That’s on her.

She is wrong in this.

But Gordo is gone.

Not long after, she shifts and doesn’t turn back for months.

xx.

Alpha, she tells Oxnard Matheson, and she’s never meant it more.

xxi.

When her sons return to her, she doesn’t recognize them.

Oh, she knows their scent. She can feel them along the bonds, but it’s different.

They’re men now. Harder than they’ve ever been before.

But it’s not until she has Carter and Kelly in her arms that she knows they’re still her children. “Mom,” they whisper against her neck. “Mom. Mom. Mom.”

“My boys,” she whispers back. “I love you so.”

xxii.

She stares down at the headless body of Richard Collins.

She should be filled with rage.

She’s not.

It’s only sadness.

She says, “You took much from me. From us. But you were just lost, I think. You were never going to win.”

It’s not forgiveness.

But it’s something.

xxiii.

Grief is a funny thing. There are days when it feels like it’s fading, like it’s nothing more than a low buzz at the back of her mind.

But then one little thing can set it off all over again.

She’s in the office, dusting the bookshelves. It’s mundane. It’s easy. It allows her mind to wander. Richard has been dead for six months, and she’s learning how to just be again. She smiles more these days. She laughs sometimes. Her pack is strong, and the wolf mother is proud. Green Creek is settling once again, and though she knows it might not last, it’s enough for now.

She’s startled out of her thoughts when she feels him.

It’s as if he’s standing right there.

She can smell him, and it’s woodsmoke and pine and pitch.

She whirls around.

There’s no one there.

Except….

There’s a book on the floor.

She says, “Is that you, dear? Please.”

There’s no response.

She lowers herself to the floor next to the book. It’s old. The cover is blank. It takes her a moment to recognize it for what it is.

When he was courting her, he would read poetry to her. He thought it was romantic. She thought it was ridiculous, but she loved him for it.

His favorite poet was Pablo Neruda. Because of course it was. The patron saint of pretty words.

She picks up the book from the floor.

There’s a piece of paper inside.

She opens the book.

She sees the poem printed on the page.

 

…something started in my soul,
fever or forgotten wings,
and I made my own way,
deciphering
that fire,
and I wrote the first faint line,
faint, without substance, pure
nonsense,
pure wisdom,
of someone who knows nothing,
and suddenly I saw
the heavens
unfastened
and open…

 

It was one of the first he’d read to her.

She laughed at him, feeling her face warm. But he was so earnest about it, so—

And oh, here it is again, this grief. Here it is, biting and clawing and tearing, saying I was always here, I’ve never left, and I am going to consume you.

She can barely breathe.

The book falls back to the floor.

The piece of paper inside falls out.

The smell of him is stronger than ever.

It’s choking her.

“What’s this?” she asks, and if she listens hard enough, she thinks she hears him say, My love, my wife, it’s all that remains.

She picks it up, hands shaking.

It’s a single page, and when she opens it, she sees it’s dated.

A week before he died.

She doesn’t want to read it.

She does anyway.

And in that familiar scrawl, it says:

To my beloved:

I am not a perfect man. I have made mistakes. Many, many mistakes. I regret most of them. I did what I thought was right, and hindsight is proving me wrong.

But none of these regrets are you.

You have made this life worth living.

You have given me a family.

You have given me a home.

I don’t know what the future holds. I don’t know what will happen. But I know that our pack is strong, and we will face whatever comes.

I don’t know what I’d do without you.

You keep me honest.

You keep me whole.

You don’t let me get away with anything (even when I want you to!)

Everything good in me is because of you.

And here, on our anniversary, I want you to know that I

And that’s all there is.

It’s unfinished.

She reads it again and again and again, and when she finally looks back up, the smell of woodsmoke and pine and pitch has faded.

xxiv.

There is a door.

A door to everything.

xxv.

It begins to build again.

She thinks the territory is cursed.

That all they will ever do is fight.

For a brief moment, she wonders if it’s worth it.

But it’s fleeting.

Because she is a wolf mother.

And she will do everything she can to protect what’s hers.

xxvi.

When she loses Carter to the Omega within him, when Mark shifts, eyes violet and bright, she understands real hatred.

She hates those who want to take from her.

xxvii.

There is a door.

It’s in Ox’s mind.

And it needs to be shattered.

So they do just that.

She sees him, briefly, sitting in front of the door. His fur is white and his eyes are red, and she hears Gordo say oh, but this moment isn’t just for her.

It’s for all of them.

And it tears at her.

In her head, there is a flash—PackLoveWifeBrotherSon—but it’s gone before she can grasp it.

The door breaks apart.

xxviii.

There is an ending.

But it only leads to a new beginning.

They are now at war.

Robert Livingstone will rise.

Michelle Hughes has made her choice.

And the Bennett pack will answer in kind.

She watches from the porch of the house at the end of the lane as the Omegas gather nervously, looking frightened and unsure.

Carter grumbles when the timber wolf follows him wherever he goes, growling at anyone who tries to come close. She wonders how long it’ll take for him to figure it out. She laughs when Carter snaps at the wolf, telling it to fuck off. The wolf ignores her son as it presses up against him. Carter doesn't push it away.

Kelly and Robbie are sitting side by side on the porch steps. Kelly glances at Robbie before looking away quickly. Robbie does the same a moment later. Their gazes never meet. She’s reminded of her and Thomas. Robbie is a good man. Kelly is very lucky.

Rico, Chris, and Tanner are working on Ox’s truck. They jostle each other as they curse at the engine. Chris and Tanner are healing. They’re so fragile. She wonders if they’ll ever take the bite. It’s their choice, but she needs to convince them. She doesn’t know if it’s her place.

Mark and Gordo are walking back from the blue house. Mark reaches out and takes Gordo’s remaining hand in his. She thinks Gordo will pull away. He doesn’t. The raven on Mark’s throat seems to flutter its wings.

Ox and Joe stand before the Omegas. They’re speaking quietly, their voices soft but exuding undeniable power. The Omegas stare up at them reverently.

“It’s the calm before the storm, isn’t it?” Jessie asks from beside her.

Elizabeth glances at her. “Yes.”

Jessie nods, looking out at their pack. “Is it always going to be this way?”

Yes. “I don’t know.”

Jessie reaches over and takes her hand. Elizabeth squeezes it gratefully. Jessie says, “It doesn’t matter.”

“It doesn’t?”

Jessie shakes her head. “We’re going to be here. No matter what. Always. We’re pack.”

Elizabeth believes her.

xxix.

That night, they sleep together in the living room, the couches pushed back and blankets and pillows spread out on the floor. The Omegas are in the basement, resting calmly knowing their Alpha just above them.

“I’m not going to get naked,” Rico tells them seriously. “Last time I did that, Carter grabbed my junk in his sleep, and I don’t want Bambi to kick his ass for touching what belongs to her.”

“Oh please,” Carter snaps. “You wish I would touch your junk.”

“He’s like twice your age,” Chris tells him. “You could call him Daddy if you really wanted.”

Papi,” Rico says with a sniff. “You would call me papi.”

“So gross,” Kelly whispers as he lies against his brother. The timber wolf growls, but Carter slaps him across the head, and it subsides. It lays down next to Carter, even as he sighs.

“Does Bambi call you papi?” Tanner asks. Then he grimaces. “You know what? Don’t answer that, I don’t want to know.”

“Oh, she calls me a lot more than that. Screams it, even—”

“I could call her and ask her,” Jessie says, settling down next to Elizabeth. “Find out what she thinks.”

“No,” Rico says quickly. “Absolutely no need to do that. In fact, let’s never talk to her about anything I say when she’s not here, because of… reasons.”

“We have our own house,” Gordo grumbles to Mark. “I don’t know why we just don’t go there.”

“You like having sleepovers,” Robbie tells him. “Even though you complain and make that face and—”

“I will light you on fire,” Gordo threatens. “And break your fucking glasses.”

“All bark and no bite,” Mark says, kissing the side of his head.

Gordo rolls his eyes but doesn’t argue further.

Ox and Joe are in the middle. Their hearts are beating in sync, and it flows through all of them. Elizabeth is beginning to drift off when—

“Everyone in town thinks we have orgies,” Rico says, apropos of nothing. “And I don’t tell them otherwise. Just so you all know.”

There are shouts of horror that lead to a pillow fight.

Elizabeth closes her eyes and smiles.

xxx.

When she dreams these days, it’s always in shades of blue.

She’s in an endless forest. The trees stretch toward the starry sky. She feels the cool grass beneath her bare feet. The moon is bright. It’s full, of course.

She’s not alone.

She can’t see him, but she knows he’s there. She hears him breathe.

She turns her head to look for him, but there’s nothing but a flash of white disappearing into the woods.

Except this time, when she wakes, her face isn’t wet.

She looks to her pack.

They’re sleeping deeply, all tangled together.

She—

Woodsmoke.

Pine.

Pitch.

She sits up.

There is a lovesong howling in her head.

She stands slowly.

She hears the clicking of nails on the porch outside, the wood creaking.

As if a heavy animal is pacing in front of the door.

She steps over the others carefully. She takes the shawl hanging from a hook next to the door and wraps it around her shoulders.

She takes a deep breath.

And opens the door.

The porch is empty.

The air is cold as she steps out of the house, closing the door behind her.

She listens.

And in the distance, there is a whisper.

It says, Something started in my soul, fever or forgotten wings, and I made my own way, deciphering that fire.

She steps off the porch.

The grass is cool under her bare feet.

The stars above are bright. The moon is almost full. It pulls at her.

But she doesn’t shift.

The trees sway as she walks through the forest.

She thinks that she will decipher that fire.

Here. At last.

Because grief is fire. It burns until all that remains are charred bones of a life that used to be.

She’s not alone as she walks. She can’t see them, but she can feel them.

She comes to the clearing.

Here, once, a boy told her he loved her.

Here, once, she kissed him.

Here, once, he kissed her.

And here, once, he burned as the songs howled him home.

After he was nothing but ash, when his embers had cooled, she’d returned alone, an old stone wolf in her hands.

She’d dug through ash and dirt.

She’d buried the stone wolf there, deep in the earth.

And there it remained.

Except—

She sits in the middle of the clearing and waits.

The lovesong is roaring through her.

She doesn’t wait long.

She sees orange eyes in the trees around her. Dozens of them.

Hundreds.

They pace through the trees, never coming closer.

They are protecting her here.

She knows many of them.

The ones she doesn’t know came before her, but they are hers all the same.

She sees a flash of red, but it’s not the one she’s waiting for.

“Abel,” she whispers, and the wolf howls.

She closes her eyes.

There’s a puff of hot air against her face.

She smiles.

“Hello, dear,” she says, and her voice breaks.

She opens her eyes.

Before her stands a great white wolf.

In his jaws, he holds a stone wolf.

He lays it down gently at her feet. He nudges it toward her.

Here he is, once again, giving it to her.

“I buried it,” she tells him. “Because I thought it was a piece of me for you to take wherever you’d gone.”

He snorts and shakes his head, eyes bright. He sits on his hindquarters, towering over her. She tilts her head back to look up at him. He presses his snout against her forehead, and she says, “Oh.”

There are bright flashes of light.

She hears his voice.

He says, “I’m sorry. For everything. That I had to leave you. That I had to leave our family. I never wanted to. All I ever wanted was to be with you. You are the moon. You pull at me. You make me howl. You make me sing.”

And suddenly I saw the heavens unfastened and open.

He says, “I have loved you since I’ve known you. And I will love you forever.”

The lights grow brighter. It’s blue like sadness, but there is the sweet green of relief shot through it, and she knows that no matter what happens next, she will have had this moment.

The lights fade.

And there before her sits Thomas Bennett. He’s nude, and his skin is unmarked. Death has healed him.

The cry of joy she gives echoes around them. The wolves in the trees sing out in response.

She tackles him.

He laughs.

His skin is warm.

His arms wrap around her.

He kisses her cheeks.

The tip of her nose.

The top of her head.

He’s strong.

And vital.

And—

“This is a dream,” she whispers against the hollow of his throat.

“It’s close to one,” he says into her hair. “You’re asleep with our pack. You are safe and sound. But this… this is a gift. It’s a gift from our territory, for all that we’ve been through. One last chance until we meet again.”

She allows herself to break.

He holds her as she sobs.

His voice is rough when he says, “Hey. Oh, Lizzie. Hey. Shush. None of that.”

Her chest hitches as she lifts her head.

His smile shakes. His eyes are wet.

She has so much to say.

So much to tell him.

She decides on “You fucking asshole.”

He blinks in surprise as she smacks his chest. “Hey! That hurts!”

“I don’t care,” she growls at him, feeling her teeth lengthen. “You—you bastard.”

She gives in to her rage.

He takes it, for a little while at least. After a time, he grabs her hands and holds them tightly. “Would you stop it?”

“Why?” she demands. “Why did you do what you did? Why did you have to leave us? Leave me?”

He sighs as he lets his head rest against the grass. He’s still holding her wrists, and she marvels at how real it feels. He says, “An Alpha is a leader, but even more so, a protector. In the end, he or she puts their pack above all others. An Alpha will do anything to keep their people safe.”

Oh, she’s heard that time and time again, hasn’t she? Of course she has. Being the mate of an Alpha saw to that.

She slides off, lying on the grass next to him. He lets her go. She turns her head to press her forehead against his shoulder. She breathes him in. “I wish you never….”

“Became the Alpha?”

“Yes.”

“I know.

“It’s not fair.”

“I know that too. But look at what you’ve made for yourself.” He laughs quietly. “This… pack of ours. The wolves. The humans. They’re strong.” His laughter fades. “And they’ll have to be. All of you will. Because of what’s coming.”

She closes her eyes. “Can you tell me what it is?”

“I don’t know.” He sounds frustrated. “It’s… a feeling. A storm. It’s on the horizon. Everything will change. For you. For all the wolves. Ox….” She feels him shake his head. “It’s lost in the storm. He’s important. All of you are important.” And then he whispers, “Robbie will…” but nothing follows.

She asks him what he means.

He doesn’t know.

“It’s not fair,” she says again, unable to keep the bitterness from her voice. “Why does it have to be us?”

“Because of who you are,” he says quietly. “You are the Bennett pack. And your song will always be heard.”

The wolves around them begin to whisper through the bonds.

They say pack and pack and pack.

She listens.

He sits up, head cocked.

And then he says, “Chase me. I love you, chase me.”

He shifts, the grind of muscle and bone loud in the clearing.

She doesn’t think twice.

She shifts too.

They run together in the woods. She nips at his heels. At the tip of his tail. He snaps playfully back at her, weaving in and out of the trees. She runs, he runs, they run together, and it’s like it used to be, before. When they were young and had nothing to be afraid of. She hears him laughing in her head, and it’s so happy and bright that it makes her heart thrum.

The other wolves run around them, always just out of sight. She feels them, recognizes them, bright sparks in the darkness that she hasn’t felt since the hunters came and took them all away.

They run.

They all run.

He says, LoveWifeMate

He says, you are here you are here you are here

He says, i am too and no matter where you go

He says, no matter what you do

He says, i will always be with you because i love you i love you i love you

She sings her lovesong into the trees and sky, and it’s blue and green and the territory around her quakes with the power of her voice.

Green Creek shudders and shakes with her call.

Toward the end, the wolves around them begin to fade.

They’re not gone, just… returned to the earth.

To the moon.

She knows she doesn’t have much time.

She shifts, panting as she falls to her hands and knees.

She looks up as the white wolf turns to her.

She whispers, “I forgive you.”

And she means it.

He tilts his head back and howls.

It echoes through the woods.

In it, she hears keep them safe keep them safe and tell them tell them tell them their father loves them and and and we will be together again one day one day we will be together and we will run as packpackpack.

And then he steps forward and presses his snout against her forehead and she says, “Oh.”

The world explodes around her.

xxxi.

She opens her eyes.

She’s in the house.

Her pack breathes deeply around her.

It was a dream.

It was all a dream.

It stings more than—

“Mom?”

She sits up.

Joe and Carter and Kelly are awake. They’re watching her in the dark. Joe’s eyes are red. Kelly’s are orange.

Carter’s are violet, but he’s in control.

“Hey,” she says, trying to crawl out of the memory of the dream. “Are you all right? What’s the matter?”

“He was here,” Carter whispers.

Kelly nods, eyes wet. “We felt him.”

And Joe says, “We can smell him. It’s—” His eyes widen. “What’s that?”

She looks down to where he’s pointing.

In her hand is a wolf of stone.

The one she’d buried years before.

“Mom?” Joe asked. “Did he…?”

“I think he did.” She wipes her eyes as she sets the wolf on the floor next to them. She opens her arms. Her children come to her, pressing their faces against her. They’re big, her sons, but somehow they make it work. She sees Ox open his eyes, but he doesn’t speak as he watches them. She says, “I had the most wonderful dream. Would you like to hear it?”

They all nod.

And so she tells them.

xxxii.

The sun rises on a new day.

Everyone is asleep again.

Surrounded by her pack, she watches the light begin to filter in through the window. It feels like healing. Or at least the start of it.

This pack is different than the ones that have come before.

She thinks it’s for the better.

And no matter what comes next, the world will hear their songs.

There will be peace. This she promises to herself.

Eventually, she picks up the stone wolf, tracing it with her finger.

“One day,” she whispers to it. “One day, my love. I will look upon your face, and all will be well.”

And though she thinks it’s just a trick of the early morning light, she swears the eyes of the stone wolf flash red.

end

(The wolves will return in Heartsong, coming September 2019.)

 

 

Lovesong: The Soundtrack

First and foremost: thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you for the love you've shown Ravensong. It's been out for just over two weeks, and I've been blown away by the reception it has received. I love this pack of wolves and humans very much, and to see them embraced like they've been means the world to me.

But their story is not over. Not by a longshot.

On September 1, the wolf mother will speak.

 

Lovesong-banner-blue-1.jpg

To be clear: Lovesong is a short story that I'll be releasing for free here on my website. While I know that people will want it to be much, much longer than it is, this story was a two-fold exercise for me: one, to keep it a certain length (5K words, which I failed miserably at) and two, to reconcile with what I think are the sins of the wolves while giving Elizabeth her moment.

I'll discuss this in more detail when I do a wrap-up blog on the how's and why's of Ravensong after Lovesong comes out, but in short, I think Thomas and Elizabeth allowing Joe to give Ox his stone wolf was done for selfish reasons. The debate can go on and on whether or not Ox had any choice, and I often fall on both sides of the argument. Ravensong was meant to take away the shine of Wolfsong, to show the dirt and grime just underneath the surface. Lovesong adds to that, from the perspective of someone who contributed. Were Thomas and Elizabeth wrong? Maybe. Did they do it for the right reasons? I don't know. To Ox, they were infallible. To Gordo, they were monsters. How thin that line is, in the end.

But that'll come later.

First, is Lovesong.

Here is the mini-soundtrack list I made while writing this story. You'll see a couple of familiar artists from the Ravensong soundtrack, one that goes back to Wolfsong, and a new one that I think fits Elizabeth and Thomas perfectly. I'm sure some enterprising reader will make a Spotify playlist for this so I don't have to try and figure it out. (At least I know what Spotify is now, so shut up.)

Thanks again for loving my wolves almost as much as I do.

packpackpack

 

Sleeping At Last

Bad Blood

we study our story arcs, inherently good

or were we broken right from the start?

 

Dinah Shore

I'll Walk Alone

i don't mind being lonely

when my heart tells me you are lonely too

 

Red

Hymn for the Missing

sometimes i hear you calling from some lost and distant shore

i hear you crying softly for the way it was before

 

Jasmine Thompson

Like I'm Gonna Lose You

so i'm gonna love you like i'm gonna lose you

i'm gonna hold you like i'm saying goodbye