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Friday, October 31, 2014

Words Reveal What Masks Conceal

When I was in the seventh grade, my English teacher assigned us a creative writing project for Halloween. We were to compose short stories, which we would then read aloud before the class, coupled with a competition of sorts in which the students would vote on who had written the best one.

Now in my pre-teen years, I was not what you would term the most popular kid in school. Perhaps it was those horrible "Student-of-the-Month" photos of me hanging in the main hallway, which they somehow always managed to take right after gym when my hair was flying every which way, or perhaps it was the oxford shirts and corduroy trousers in which my mother dressed me because I refused to participate in ridiculous wastes of time like school-clothes shopping. It certainly didn't help that in addition to being smart and studious, I was also very, very shy, which led many to believe that I was stuck-up. I suppose if you're naturally adept at making conversation, it's difficult to understand that other kids might not be.

You can therefore easily picture the scene in the classroom that day: the anxious adolescent girl slouched in her seat, sweat drenching the armpits of her button-up shirt as she watched the clock, fervently hoping that time would run out before her turn came. You can imagine my nervousness when, five minutes before the bell, my teacher called me to the front of the class, the last reader to go; my terror as I stumbled up to her desk clutching the half-sheets of paper on which I'd scrawled my assignment. As usual, I had pushed the limits on the suggested length - my story was at least twice as long as anyone else's - and the only saving grace of this enforced public humiliation, I thought, was that I would undoubtedly run out of time to finish it before the lunch bell rang. 

Tucking my loose hair back behind my ears and focusing my eyes firmly on my papers, I began to read. It turned out that reading wasn't so bad; unlike giving an oral report, you didn't actually have to look at any of the other students. And it was a decent story, I reflected as I flipped through the pages, concentrating hard on not losing my place. At least my classmates were sitting silently, which made them easier to ignore.

At last I reached the climax of my tale, which was where it turned gruesome. The main character had gotten trapped in a fire, and I remember describing, in disgusting detail, the sizzle of the hairs frying on his arms as the hot flames neared. I remember describing the flames devouring his flesh, great flaps of it falling from his skeleton as his skin seared away. And I remember the silence of the classroom; I remember it breaking, the moans and groans that swelled all around me as I depicted my main character's excruciating demise, only to be interrupted by the harsh clanging of the bell.

No one stirred; no one rose; no one left. I glanced at my teacher, who nodded. The other students sat rapt while I finished my story, and they applauded when I was done. There was no question that I had won the contest.

I was pleased that my story had gone over well, of course, but it wasn't until the following week, when other kids were still coming up to talk to me about it, that I understood that I had somehow made an impression that went beyond my gruesome, graphic horror story. It was as if I had revealed that somewhere beneath that classic nerdy exterior was a real honest-to-goodness person, a kid who thought about things like destruction and death, and flames eating flesh, and how best to describe such horrific events.

I've never been big on Halloween, myself. I've never liked the pressure of having to pick out a costume and then explain why I chose it; I've never even understood the appeal of dressing up and playing pretend. I have other ways of exploring my dark side. Nowadays you won't find me in a starched, striped shirt, or in old-fashioned slacks, but don't be fooled by the sweats and sports bra in which you'll typically see me lounging about the house, because that's not who I am, either. It's just a costume; an innocuous mask meant to show nothing, to reveal nothing, to suggest nothing. My thoughts are inside me. They can never be exposed by a mere choice of outfit.


Tuesday, October 28, 2014

New Goodreads Review of On Hearing of My Mother's Death!

Byron Edgington (, author of The Sky Behind Me: A Memoir of Flying and Life, has posted his review of On Hearing of My Mother's Death Six Years After It Happened on Goodreads. I read it yesterday, and his remarks about the book are so kind that I'm still blushing - in fact, his only complaint is that the book is too short (see my remarks following the review):

"Here we have an extended essay/memoir on surviving a parent’s psychosis, inventing a life and then learning of the death of the long-forgotten parent many years after her passing. It’s much too easy to compare such works as Ms Schafer’s to other neglected childhood fare: Jeannette Walls ‘Glass Castle,’ Christina Crawford’s ‘Mommy Dearest’ etc. Too easy, because the parents in those memoirs cannot be easily forgiven; they can only be easily explained. Their cruelty stems from ambition, neglect, the depredations of poor parenting skills. Ms Schafer’s mother, on the other hand, offers a much more subtle, we might say inexplicable source of her wanton neglect and cruel treatment: mental illness and its untreated ravages.

Lori Schafer is an accomplished writer at the apex of her craft. Her images and reflections shimmer on the page: “grilled cheese and tomato…butter-brown bread…’ including good alliteration and excellent use of sentence length variation, she keeps readers moving forward. “The sidewalks were empty. I was empty.” Beautiful stuff.

Transitions are well done, despite many flashbacks and oblique references. Only one time, at an end chapter, and a reference to ‘Lila’ did this reviewer lose the thread, but then it picked up again.

Schafer’s use of a fictional device inside her memoir is very well done. She writes as ‘Gloria,’ to explain the horrors of a childhood in crisis, while giving herself a bit of remove as the writer. It’s an excellent device, and it works very well. It’s also entirely understandable. Much like any child will have an invisible friend, or a security blanket, Schafer has Gloria.

The writer’s voice stays consistent throughout, shifting with subtlety between the teenage, angst-ridden Lori and the determined older Lori living in a car in Berkeley and making her own way. “I was learning,” she writes, scraping for bottles and cans in Berkeley “…like the poor man’s Santa Claus.”

There are a few loose threads: We’re never told what happened to ‘Sandra Johnson.’ Indeed, none of the siblings’ lives are explained. There’s a reference to Schafer’s own concern about being poisoned, a thinly-veiled worry that she might have acquired her mother’s mental illness, but this is not addressed or enlarged. We don’t hear about mom’s own family history, or what may have contributed to her instability, only that ‘Judy Green-Hair’ is a serial marrier. Just open a vein, as they say; readers want more details.

Indeed, one critique of this memoir may be that it’s too darned short, that readers want to know much more about who this writer is: how did that young woman survive all she did? What resources did she uncover in herself? How’s she doing now? Has she finally found ‘a safe place?’

Wordsworth wrote, ‘…the child is father to the man,’ and we must assume he meant mother to the woman as well. If so, at the end of her fine memoir, Lori Schafer pays tribute to that young mother of herself. This is a good, fulfilling memoir. I just wish it was longer, darn it. Four stars, only because it’s too short."

Byron Edgington, author of The Sky Behind Me: A Memoir of Flying & Life

Although it's not an unqualified five star review, I'm really very pleased with it because Byron's feedback actually gave me a great idea. It's true that there are certain parts of the story into which I do not delve, in particular, regarding my mother's family history, or what ever happened to my sister. I can't provide answers to those questions simply because I myself don't know the answers. My mother's parents died when I was too young to know them; I don't remember her sister and was merely acquainted with my uncle. I know very little about my mother's life before me, and virtually nothing about the rest of her family. Likewise, my sister and I fell out of touch even before I left home, and as to Sandra Johnson, she's a mystery that will forever remain unsolved.

But at no point do I ever make any of this clear to the reader. Most people, I think, see "family" as constituting a group of people; a set of relations with whom one shares varying levels of affection or bonding. For me, "family" meant Mom. She was it; there really wasn't anyone else to fall under that heading. So it frankly never occurred to me that I might need to explain why I wasn't talking about those larger family issues. But, of course, Byron is absolutely right; readers will be curious about those aspects of the story, and even if I have no real answers to give them, I like the idea of explaining why.

And this, of course, is one of the beauties of independent publishing. I'm not bound to someone else's contract, or to a print run of thousands of copies that are already stacked and waiting in warehouses. So why not add another chapter? Even with my current crazy schedule, I can probably even get that done before the release date, and start fresh with an improved version of the story. A good idea is a good idea - even if it wasn't my idea!

So thank you, Byron, for taking the time to detail what you thought was missing from my book. Your feedback is greatly appreciated, and I hope you'll be glad to know that someone is listening.

Goodreads Book Giveaway

On Hearing of My Mother's Death Six Years After It Happened by Lori Schafer

On Hearing of My Mother's Death Six Years After It Happened

by Lori Schafer

Giveaway ends November 23, 2014.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter to win

Monday, October 27, 2014

Squirrel Revolution: A Whimsical Look at the Effects of Human Activities on Our Furry Little Neighbors

Sheriff Wiggins scowled and hung up the phone with a bang and a sigh.

“What is it, Sherriff?” his scrawny young deputy Sam inquired automatically, gazing dreamily out the window as if his thoughts were roaming among the tree-lined streets of the town.

“Pete Grundy says he saw a funny-lookin’ squirrel,” the Sheriff answered.

The deputy guffawed, his attention abruptly reclaimed. “A squirrel?”

“A squirrel,” Wiggins affirmed. “Claims he saw it run and then jump clear across Old Logjam Road, from one side to the other, without touchin’ ground.”

“That ol’ Pete,” Sam smiled, chuckling and shaking his head as if reality really was sometimes more amusing than dreams.

“Come on,” the Sheriff ordered. “We’re goin’ to check it out.”

“Why, Sheriff!” Sam answered in disbelief. “You know Grundy shoots whiskey daily startin’ at noon.”

“Sure ‘nough. But it’s only nine,” the Sheriff replied, angling his clean-shaven chin towards the clock on the wall.

“Since when do we concern ourselves with critters like squirrels?” the deputy demanded suspiciously, his eyes narrowing like a magnifying glass attempting to focus a beam of sunshine into a ray of kindling fire.

“Since Grundy asked me to, and since I owe him a favor,” Wiggins replied flatly, his manner clearly indicating that the discussion was closed, leaving Sam to wonder under what circumstances and in what capacity the Sheriff had found himself in the debt of the town drunk. “Besides,” he added, in somewhat conciliatory fashion, “I been meaning to set up a speed trap on that road for a while anyhow; it won’t hurt us none to keep our eyes open while we’re out there.”

Their watchful eyes nabbed numerous speeders, but no peculiar squirrels, only the rather ordinary ones who rushed heedlessly across the highway in an effort to evade the vehicles which, resplendent and rickety alike, cruised recklessly around the curves of the road as if it were their own private racecourse. When the daylight at last began to dim underneath the generous canopy of trees, and suppertime was drawing near, Wiggins decided to collect his antsy-pantsed deputy and call it a day. Sam had wandered off a little ways into the wood; was taking a leak at the base of a tough-looking shrub when the Sheriff heard him calling softly, “Come and take a look at this, Sheriff.”

Wiggins snorted, stamping his foot impatiently. “You got nothing there I want to see.”

“Not that!” Sam replied in a huff, hastily zipping up his trousers. “There’s a funny creature over here.”

At that, the Sheriff stepped over the guardrail and strode the dozen paces into the wood to join his befuddled deputy. Squatting on the ground not ten feet in front of them, staring intently at the strangers, was a bushy-tailed brown squirrel. The Sheriff nearly scoffed; made ready to call Sam a fool for having a conniption over a common squirrel, when he, too, noticed that there was something strange about it. Its face was all wrong. Its eyes weren’t off to the side, but on the front of its head, like a cat or a dog. And it didn’t look at you like a squirrel normally did either, the way their eyes never seemed to focus on anything, but more like a larger animal might, as if it recognized you for what you were.

The Sheriff and his deputy both stood gaping for a time at the oddly formed creature, until at last, evidently becoming bored with the contest it had so obviously won, it bounded nonchalantly away, leaving the two men standing dubiously dumbstruck at the edge of the darkening forest. Finally Wiggins nodded to himself as if in affirmation and said, “Let’s go,” to Sam, who at once hurried toward their waiting cruiser and its reassuring promise of punctual homecoming.

Wiggins had just cranked the engine when the whoosh of rubber rolling rapidly over asphalt assaulted their ears from around the bend right behind them, forewarning them that another speeder was approaching. Tensely they waited in anticipation of the day’s last catch, Sam quickly raising the radar gun to clock the offender. But when the unfamiliar sedan flew past them in a flurry of dead leaves and loose pebbles, the Sheriff didn’t punch the gas, but instead sat gazing at the road in an apparent stupor until Sam elbowed him in the arm.

“Come on, Sheriff, don’t you wanna nab that guy?” Sam prodded anxiously, perplexed by this unnatural ruffling of the Sheriff’s usual unbreakably calm demeanor. “Looked like an out-of-towner, even!”

Wiggins paused before speaking, removing his hat and running his fingers distractedly through the fine bristles that lined his short-shaven head. “Thought I saw something,” he said finally, reaching for his holster and stroking it as if for reassurance. “Flyin’ up over the road as that car went by. Like a small animal jumping. Jumpin’ on awfully big legs.”


The Sheriff spent most of the following day on the old-fashioned telephone at the stationhouse, playing unmusical tunes with its big square buttons while he scratched notes and doodles in the margins of his giant desk calendar. Who did you call about deformed squirrels? Luckily he had a buddy in the capital, who, with no small reservations, cleared him to talk to his buddy at the capital who might know something about someone who might know someone he could maybe talk to about it. Sam’s amusement with this prolonged process had wilted by late morning, and by mid-afternoon, he was heartily bored.

“Come on, Sheriff,” he whined, peeling the chipped ivory paint from the windowsill while Wiggins sat fiddling with the phone cord, on a seemingly interminable hold for the nineteenth time that day. “Let’s do somethin’, huh? What makes you think anybody cares about the squirrels around here, anyway?”

The Sheriff silenced him with one finger as the phone burst briefly into life. A moment later he was holding his hand over the mouthpiece and gloating, “Washington cares, that’s who. They’re connecting me now.”

Sam listened with greater interest while the Sheriff recounted the story of the two squirrels to the party in Washington, wondering if they had already sent for those men in the white coats to fetch his boss when the call was over. But the conversation seemed peaceable enough, and the Sheriff satisfied as he concluded, “Yes, I sure will do that. Yes, I’ve got the number. Thank you, sir.” He returned the big plastic receiver to its proper place, rubbing his ear in discomfort as he did so, and then tilted back in his chair and gazed thoughtfully out the window that Sam had so lately been denuding while the deputy fidgeted in his boots, awaiting an explanation.

“Well, what did they say?!” he finally exploded, when none was forthcoming.

The Sheriff didn’t answer, but merely continued tilting back in his chair, and then leaning it forward, and then back again while the floorboards creaked irritably beneath his shifting weight.

“How much do you know about evolution, Sam?” he said at length, bringing the chair to a halt and last giving the flooring a rest.

Sam shrugged. “Not much,” he admitted.

“Well, I learned about it in college,” Wiggins replied casually.

“You mean in those two years you were at State?” Sam scoffed.

“Those two years is what made me a Sheriff, and you a deputy,” Wiggins answered scathingly, causing Sam to cringe and blush. “Matter of fact, I learned all manner of useful things in those two years. See, every so often in nature there’s a mistake called a genetic mutation. Most of ‘em are bad, but every so often they’re advantageous to the creatures that get ‘em, and they have lots of babies and pass those traits on to all their children. You know, like with giraffes. The ones with long necks could get better food, so nature kept favorin’ ones with long necks until they grew into what you see today. Get it?”

Sam nodded, his self-esteem blissfully restored.

“Well, what do you suppose might happen if there were somethin’ in a creature’s environment that was real dangerous? Maybe it’s a deadly disease; people who were naturally immune to that sickness would outlive the others, wouldn’t they? And then pass their genes on to their kin, making them immune, too?” Sam nodded again, thinking that maybe you did learn some pretty interesting things in college after all. “An’ if the disease was bad enough, and widespread enough, eventually only the people who were immune to it might be left. Now what do you suppose is the most dangerous thing in the world to a squirrel?”

Sam thought a moment, scratching his skinny thigh nervously with spindly fingers before his face lit up in comprehension. “Rabies!”

“Well, that’s not a bad answer,” the Sheriff conceded. “But most often you don’t find ‘em dead from rabies, do you? You find ‘em dead…”

“…on the road,” the deputy finished the sentence, face glimmering with the hope that he finally understood the point of the Sheriff’s protracted speech. “So a squirrel that grew big legs could jump high over a road and wouldn’t get hit by cars.”

“Exactly!” Wiggins replied. “And you know what else? I been thinkin’ ‘bout that other funny squirrel we saw, the one with eyes up here, that looked right at you?” he said, gesturing towards his own steely grays. “See, that ain’t natural for a squirrel. A squirrel is a prey animal; I mean, other creatures eat it. And normally a prey animal has eyes on the sides of its head, so it can see all around it, like, and tell if somethin’s comin’ after it. Predatory animals, like a wolf or a lion, they got eyes more facing forward; they get better depth perception that way, which makes ‘em better hunters. So if a squirrel’s got eyes in the front of his head, I can only think of two reasons for it. One, it helps him figure out how close cars are, and how fast they’re comin’, so he knows whether it’s safe to cross the street or not.”

“You always see ‘em runnin’ back and forth, like they can’t decide!” Sam interjected excitedly.

“That’s exactly right, an’ that’s how a lot of ‘em get hit. They start goin’ and then stop.” He paused. “The other possibility is that maybe the squirrels are learnin’ to hunt.”

“That’d sure be a sight,” the deputy said with wonder.

“It sure would,” Wiggins replied, gazing out the window again in troubled contemplation, as if wondering whether, even now, a giant squirrel with big teeth and a bigger appetite was approaching their small and poorly defended shack.

“But wait a minute, Sheriff!” Sam exclaimed after a thoughtful moment, tearing the Sheriff away from his disturbing fantasy. “What did Washington say about it?”

Sheriff Wiggins waved his hand dismissively. “They said they were trained squirrels of a different breed from some travelling Russian circus. Said a bunch of ‘em escaped into the wild, and that it was nothing to worry about.”

Sam resumed his struggle to comprehend the Sheriff’s complacency, scratching his leg even more vigorously before moving on to his hairless chest. “But if that’s all it is, then what’s the big deal? They’re just foreign squirrels.”

“The big deal, Sam,” the Sheriff replied, his steely eyes glinting, “Is that they told me to call again if I saw any more like it. Now when did anybody in Washington tell you to call them again unless it was somethin’ really serious? Russian squirrels, my ass. I’d sooner believe that ol’ Pete Grundy went on the wagon.”


Agent Matthews scowled and hung up the phone with a bang and a sigh. “There’s been another sighting,” she said gruffly to her colleague, who was intently scrutinizing a complicated computer graph at the desk beside hers.

“Where?” Collins answered, creasing his eyebrows into an arch that wiggled like the lines connecting the plot points he was examining so closely.

Matthews slapped a spot on the map that hung on the wall beside her, frowning as if she found it irritating or even offensive.

“That means it’s spreading,” Collins declared unnecessarily, glancing back at his graph and its dancing maze of circles and arcs. “Almost every state now. What kind was it?”

“Them,” Matthews corrected him, pressing her temples as if to stave off an impending headache. “The jumper and the one with the funny eyes.”

“Both in one place? That’s odd.”

“The Sheriff who called said it was on a busy rural thoroughfare. Everyone in town takes it as a shortcut to the next town over. He’d set up a speed trap on it.”

“Sounds conducive to both varieties, then.” Then, dropping his voice to a troubled whisper, Collins inquired, “No more of that other kind yet, are there?”

“Not yet,” Matthews replied in an equally hushed tone, discreetly leaning towards her partner as if confiding a top secret. “Speaking of which, we should head up to the test site before the trials are over.”

It was short ride on the elevator from the orderly cube of fluorescent-lit underground offices to the dim, thickly-forested surface where the site had been constructed. A man in a loose, long-sleeved lab coat stood hunched over a clipboard taking notes. He was wearing violet earplugs, presumably to cut the loud rumble of motors that echoed like a pride of full-grown lions chasing a fleeing gazelle. But when he saw Matthews and Collins approaching, he signaled for a stoppage, and the two sedans, two pickup trucks, and two motorcycles that had been revolving in great loops around them shuddered to a halt.

“Did you get him yet?” Collins queried.

The operator consulted his notes. “Eight times. At least once with each vehicle.”


“No effect,” he smiled with obvious admiration.

“Where is it now?” Matthews inquired, scrunching up her nose as if trying to pick up its scent.

“On the inside, at the west end.”

The agents lifted their binoculars and directed their gazes accordingly. The test site was an oval track, constructed of thick asphalt and built in the midst of a dense wood that had been domed and walled round about to keep out curiosity-seekers who might venture this far into the forest. Even as they watched from their vantage point in the center, they observed the crane dumping the pile of acorns on the outside of the track, while the various vehicles resumed their ceaseless race around it. In a few moments, a bold squirrel emerged snuffling at the edge of the wood, evidently smelling the nuts across the way, and sprinted across the road just as one of the pickups was approaching. All three of the observers flinched as the furry animal was brutally crushed under the truck’s heavy tires, its body toppling backwards in the windy wake of the two-ton machine. But even before the vehicle had rounded the next bend, the squirrel had shaken itself and was on its feet again, resuming its race to the other side of the road as if it had merely lost its footing.

“Remarkable!” the man-in-charge exclaimed as they watched a heavy metal cage plop precipitously down on the animal as it frisked about the pile of acorns it had mastered through its desperate courage.

“I still can’t believe that it could… that it could function like that,” Matthews said with awe, slapping her fingers against her forehead as if trying to force her brain to comprehend what was happening.

“It is incredible,” the supervisor agreed. “But not entirely without precedent. Didn’t you ever have a hamster as a child? Those creatures can flatten their bodies enough to crawl underneath a door.”

“But this…!” Matthews interjected, wiping her sweat-fogged glasses with her blouse. “This is an extreme adaptation, isn’t it?”

“Extreme circumstances produce extreme measures,” the supervisor theorized with affected superiority. “What manner of animal survived following the asteroid which drove the dinosaurs to extinction? Small furry mammals; ratlike creatures. And what is a squirrel but a glorified rat?”

He smiled complacently and went back to his notes as Collins and Matthews turned to go. But halfway to the elevator they heard muffled yelling and looked back to find the supervisor frantically waving his arms in order to catch their attention. “Wait, I nearly forgot!” he shouted over the noise of cars that was again resonating throughout the dome. “The litter that she bore last week. It seems that she’s passed it on.”

The agents gaped, their mouths hanging open like ill-conceived flytraps. “The offspring are the same?”

“It appears so, now that they have grown. But they would have to be, anyway, to have survived in the womb during the trials, wouldn’t you think?” Again he smiled broadly, as if pleased with the impressive accomplishments of his subject of study, while the agents retreated towards the elevator.

The following week, Matthews and Collins were still puzzling over the data from the track when another call came in from Sheriff Wiggins.

“Yes, Sheriff,” Matthews answered breathlessly. “Have you seen any more of those odd squirrels?”

“No, not those,” the Sheriff responded. “But a real funny thing happened night before last. You see, I got a call from Ol’ Lady Teasdale asking me to come out ‘cause she’d run over a squirrel. Squished it good, she said. Now if it were anyone else, I’d tell ‘em to go hang, but she’s a dear, tenderhearted thing – the kind that calls the fire department to fetch a cat out of a tree – and she was real upset, cryin’ and all ‘cause she’d hurt a poor defenseless creature, so I said I’d go.”

Wiggins paused to take a deep breath while Collins and Matthews bent over the telephone like children preparing to bob for apples. “Now here’s the strange part. When I got there, it turned out she hadn’t exactly run over the squirrel; it was more like she had parked on top of it. And she was jes’ standin’ there starin’ down at it lyin’ quietly under the wheel, so I says to her, ‘Well, I don’t see that there’s much we can do about it now ‘scept give it a decent burial. If you’ll be so kind as to lend me your keys, Ma’am, I’ll, uh, release it and set free its heavenly soul.’ And that makes her stop cryin’ so she hands over the keys and I get in the car and reverse it a couple of feet, and Ol’ Lady Teasdale starts screaming so loud I think I’ve run over her foot so I stop the car and jump out.

“When I get to her, she don’t look hurt, but she’s still hysterical, shouting, ‘It’s a miracle, Sheriff, a miracle! Call the pastor!’

“ ‘Wait a minute now,’ I said, ‘The pastor’s probably busy workin’ out his sermon for tomorrow, so let’s not disturb him unless we’re sure we got to – what miracle are you talkin’ ‘bout here?’

“ ‘The squirrel, Sheriff! It just jumped up and ran away, not even hurt.’

“An’ I looked down and sure enough, that squirrel was nowhere to be seen. I checked the ground an’ I checked the car an’ I checked all around the yard an’ I even checked the bottom of the old lady’s shoes but that squirrel weren’t nowhere. And the weird thing is that I know I saw it flattened there under that wheel, and, as a matter of fact, I pulled out a little tuft o’ grayish-brown hair from her tire, which proved we weren’t both seein’ things. I even searched the driveway for a hole that it mighta been layin’ in, but there wasn’t one, and her tires were solid, too. And I jes’ plumb can’t understand how a simple ol’ squirrel could survive that kind of crushing unless it had like, a rubber skeleton, or organs that could flatten themselves, or move out of the way when they wanted to, or somethin’ sophisticated an’ unnatural like that.”

Matthews and Collins examined one another searchingly. “Well, naturally that’s ridiculous,” Matthews said shakily into the speakerphone, her voice barely inclining to a whisper. “There must be some other explanation. A rational one,” she added hastily.

“Well, I am sure glad to hear you say that, Ma’am,” Wiggins replied with feeling. “Because I tell you what, I’d be darn scared of a squirrel that had eyes like a wildcat, could leap over a two-lane highway in one jump, and not even be injured by a ton of metal lyin’ plumb on top of it. With as quick as they make babies, creatures like that would overrun the country in no time,” he concluded sagely.

“We appreciate your call,” Collins snapped, cutting off Matthews, who was on the verge of agreeing with the Sheriff. “Call us again with any other news.”

The clash of the phone being reinserted into its base rang out in the comparative silence that followed.

“I think maybe you were right,” Collins said slowly, after a long pause. “Nothing else we’ve tried so far has worked. Maybe there is something to be done with the owls.”

“Everybody likes owls!” Matthews exclaimed hopefully. “But if they evolve to catch the super-squirrels, won’t they become like, super-owls?”

“That’s a chance we’ll have to take,” Collins answered grimly.

“Just imagine…” Matthews said faintly, almost dreamily, “All this, a result of people driving automobiles. Automobiles driving evolution!”

And back at his office, Sheriff Wiggins was installing bars on the window of the stationhouse and saying to his deputy, “I don’t care what you call it, Sam. God, Nature, evolution… it sure does work in mysterious ways.”


Originally published in Separate Worlds, June 2013.

Cover photo attribution: and

I actually had the idea that sparked this story a number of years ago. I don’t recall how I came up with it exactly, but one day I started thinking about the evolutionary process and how it relates to the impact of man on the environment. There’s no doubt that humans are greatly, if not solely, responsible for the extinction of a large number of species, hunting and habitat destruction being two of the primary means by which animal and plant life have gravely diminished in a world in which humans have become predominant. However, if there’s one thing that evolutionary theory teaches us, it’s that life is incredibly adaptable. Remember learning in school about the changes that took place in the moth population during the Industrial Revolution in England? Within a very short space of time the predominantly white moth population became a predominantly black one – because moths had a greater chance of survival when they were better able to blend in with their new, sootier environment. And they reproduce quickly enough to put those physical adaptations in place in the blink of a human eye.

So it seems reasonable to suppose that similar changes would occur in other species whose environments have been severely impacted by human activities. Indeed, it may be those species that are best able to adapt to a human-dominated landscape that will continue to thrive into the next century. The ant. The cockroach. The pigeon. The squirrel.

I actually think it would make for an interesting scientific study, if anyone were sufficiently motivated to do it, to monitor the world’s population of squirrels and track whether they’ve adopted physical or cognitive adaptations in response to alterations in their environment. We think we know how squirrels behave. We see them running halfway across the street and then suddenly scurrying back when they see a car coming, which is how they get hit half the time. But what about the ones we don’t see, the ones who are too smart or too nimble to get caught in traffic? What if there really is something else going on behind the scenes? Look out! It’s a Squirrel Revolution!


"Squirrel Revolution" is also available as a FREE eBook; you can download it at your favorite eBook retailer.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Feral Skunk

You've heard of feral cats, but feral skunks? True, I'm afraid - if you can't tell by the smell. In my backyard they like to trade off taking advantage of the well-protected nest in the woodpile. A new litter of kittens with their mom is inevitably followed by a new litter of baby skunks with theirs! This one was on its own, but you can bet pretty soon we'll be seeing a black-and-white caravan trailing up and down the hill.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

State of Micronesia, 2016

My flash fiction story “State of Micronesia, 2016” has been published in Every Day Fiction:

I had the inspiration for this story some time ago when I ran across a newspaper article about the Federated States of Micronesia, an island nation which is evidently one of the first to feel measurable and potentially disastrous effects of climate change. There is, in fact, a very real fear that the islands may disappear as sea level rises; this article presents a good summary of the situation as the Pacific Islanders see it: ( Now, I have since read contrasting viewpoints – including the view that Pacific Islands that are constructed from coral reefs are in no danger from global warming because the reefs will merely grow as sea level rises, and that the disastrous predictions being made by local governments are motivated by a desire to extort financial assistance from the world’s wealthier powers. However, as such arguments ring to me of the “climate change denial” that is still unfortunately so vocal and widespread, I’m not sure I’m willing to buy the science behind them without greater confirmation of its accuracy than some article somebody posted online.

In any case, I thought it was a concept worth exploring. Because even if the Micronesians are in no danger of losing their homelands, no one can deny that other populations have, in fact, already experienced significant, even culture-altering shifts in their native environments, particularly the Inuits of North America and other arctic peoples. Yet much as we like to believe that this problem only impacts those whose lives revolve around the ice or the sea, it affects all of us. The polar vortex that brought unusual bitter cold across the North last winter, and is expected to again this winter, the ongoing heat and drought out here in California – these are not merely matters of pleasant vs. unpleasant weather. At some point they will begin to affect our ability to provide for ourselves. And how are the Canadians keeping warm when the temperature drops to forty below? By burning fuel. How are agricultural products transported to California’s millions of residents? By fuel-burning trucks. We are not merely battling climate change; climate change itself may actually increase our demands on the planet. And I, for one, am not convinced that our technology is going to be able to keep up with the pace of our environmental destruction.

My story was not well-received by the readers at Every Day Fiction – and frankly even I would agree that many of their criticisms were justified, particularly in the way I’ve portrayed the grandfather character. He is almost a caricature. And I did, in fact, think long and hard about that when I was writing the story. But in the end, that was how I saw him: as an outdated, outmoded, one-dimensional Old World character. Because to me, only such a man would persist in denying what we see happening all around us.

State of Micronesia 2016

Friday, October 24, 2014

Dead Flies and Sherry Trifle

Author, blogger, and all-around great guy Geoff Le Pard ( has just published his first novel Dead Flies and Sherry Trifle.

It’s summer 1976 and hotter than Hades

Harry Spittle, nineteen, is home from university, aiming to earn some money to go on holiday and maybe get laid. He expects he will be bored rigid, but the appearance of an old family friend, Charlie Jepson, his psychopathic son, Claude, and predatory wife Monica changes that. As his parents’ marriage implodes, Harry’s problems mount; before he knows it he’s in debt up to his ears and dealing in drugs. Things go from bad to worse when he is stabbed. He needs money fast, but now his job is at risk, his sister is in trouble and he has discovered a family secret that could destroy all he holds dear. The only way out appears to require that Harry join forces with the local criminal mastermind. Can Harry survive to see out the summer? Can he save his family? Can he regain some credibility and self-respect? Most importantly, will he finally get laid?

Now I've been following Geoff's blog for a while, and it rapidly becomes apparent when you read his depictions of his various adventures that he's a born storyteller. Still, when Geoff posted the first few chapters of his novel on his blog a while back, I was even more impressed than I expected to be. There's such cleverness to his fiction - I described it as containing numerous "zing" moments that made me turn pink and a variety of other colors! If you like that style of writing, I encourage you to click the book cover above to be taken to the Amazon page, where you can preview several sample chapters and judge for yourself. Please also note that the paperback is forthcoming if Kindle books aren't your thing. It may also make you feel good to know that Geoff is donating the proceeds to his local youth charity, Streatham Youth and Community Trust.

I myself am really looking forward to reading the rest of Dead Flies and Sherry Trifle, although alas, with my current overabundance of work, it may be Christmas before I get to it. So if you do decide to check it out, let me know what you thought - or better yet, leave a review and let everyone know what you thought :)

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Careful: A Love Story for the Middle-Aged

We were getting old.

It struck me rather abruptly one day late in autumn when Michael called to tell me he wouldn’t be coming by as he usually did after work on Fridays because he’d thrown his back out.

“I can come out to your place if you want,” I’d volunteered bravely. It was nearly a two-hour train ride out to his house in the suburbs.

“Thanks, but that’s okay, Kate,” he’d assured me, a trace of his customary good humor shining through his sullenness. “I can’t really do much anyway. Just lie around all day…” he grumbled, in a tone that suggested that he found his infirmity personally insulting.

I knew how he felt. Every year, it seemed, some new aspect of my body threatened to fail. Often I found myself longing for the days when the only effects of aging that I fretted over were my graying hair and wrinkling skin. You don’t worry so much about little things like your appearance when you’re hobbling because some vital body part has stopped working again.

It was unfortunate I’d found him so late, I reflected the following week as I tidied up the tiny studio in which I lived and worked, crammed tight with a queen-sized bed and a king-sized desk and not much else. The apartment of a person who didn’t often entertain visitors; who until recently had expected to spend her middle age alone. A woman who, at forty-five, nonetheless caught herself giggling like a schoolgirl knowing that he would soon be there. Who, anticipating his pending presence, for a multitude of marvelous moments, still felt young.

I smiled. The frenzied desperation of our lovemaking rivaled that of any teenager. We always hurried into it, as if aware that our youth was failing, that soon we might lose either the desire or the ability to make it happen. As if it were the most important thing in the world to get done before we were incapable of doing it anymore.

A rough thumping noise leaked in from the hallway and I leapt clumsily across the room, landing precariously at my doorstep on one trembling foot like an uncoordinated kid on a hopscotch board. Breathlessly I yanked at the door and threw it open as wide as the arms with which I intended to greet him. He entered cautiously, holding his body stiffly upright. I’d been prepared to spring as soon as he knocked, but seeing him still hunched painfully over, I caught myself; patted him gently on the shoulder instead.

“Hmph!” he grunted irritably. “You don’t have to treat me like an old man!”

“Then you should stop acting like one!” I joked, kissing him wetly on the cheek.

“Says Miss, ehhhh! My knee! And ehhhh! My hip!” he retorted pointedly.

That was the noise I made when my joints hurt. I was making it pretty often these days. On bad days I wondered how old people ever even did it. Sometimes walking seemed like too much effort, let alone all the aerobicized contortionism that went with sex.

“Yeah, yeah,” I said sarcastically. “I’ll still never be as old as you, so there!” He had me beat by six months, a fact I delightedly refused to ever let him forget. Playfully I stuck my tongue out at him. He stuck his out back, so I licked it and we both laughed.

“Can I get you a beer?” I offered.

“Oh, god, yes.”

I went into the kitchenette, fetched a bottle from the fridge, and divided it between two glasses, humming some stupid romantic ditty softly to myself and grinning at my own cheerful idiocy. Broken or not, I was happy to see him.

He had sat down on the edge of the bed. I handed him his beer and he took it, downing half of it in one draught. He still seemed to be in pain. I fondled the back of his neck sympathetically, my fingers tingling over the swath of razor-trimmed bristles lining the base of his skull.

“When did you buy the sofa?” he inquired abruptly, taking in the contents of my small apartment with half a glance. I had by undaunted effort and ruthless rearrangement carved out space for a loveseat off in one corner of the main room.

“Someone who was moving out left it behind, so I grabbed it,” I responded, perhaps a little too quickly. It was only partially a lie. I had only paid fifty dollars for it, and the man who was vacating had helped me angle it awkwardly up the stairs.

“And the new bed? Did someone leave that behind, too?” he queried suspiciously, his brow creasing into a multi-layered frown as he sampled the cushiness of our new sleeping arrangement with his one free hand.

“No, I bought that,” I confessed, blanching slightly under his piercing gaze.

“How come?” he demanded, shooting the question at me as if I were a suspect under police interrogation and causing me to glance guiltily away.

“Oh, I just thought it was time we lived like grownups,” I answered vaguely. “The futon was so low to the ground, you know? Made it hard to sit and get dressed.” I’d noticed him having trouble with shoes sometimes. I wasn’t sure if it was due to stiffness in his spine, the effort required to bend around his growing gut, or the combination of both.

“What you mean to say,” he pronounced with an aura of mature dignity, “Is that you thought that after my back’s been out, I might not be able to get up and down off a short bed anymore, isn’t that right?”

“Huh,” I said, extremely impressed by his perceptiveness. I didn’t see any way I was going to win this argument. But I had to think for a second before rejoindering excitedly, “Wait until you see how I fixed the toilet!”

He looked horrified; began struggling to get up. “Kidding! Kidding!” I said, forcing him back down onto the bed with all of the strength it would have required to subdue a newborn kitten.

“You should be nicer to your elders,” he said, wincing.

“I am nice.” I took his glass from his hand and set it on the nightstand, then pushed him gently on the chest while supporting him by the shoulders until he was prone on his back on the bed. I lay down beside him and fondled his arm. It seemed the safest place to touch him.

“Listen, Kate,” he said. “All joking aside, I’m not really sure I’m up to – stuff – today.”

“Then why did you come over?” I kidded.

“Because it’s Friday, of course,” he answered smoothly.

“Just part of the routine, eh?”

“That’s right.” But his eyes twinkled when he said it, and I twinkled to see it.

“You’d better watch it, sweetie,” I teased, poking him playfully in the ribs. “I might start to think you actually like me.”

“I do like you.”

“Well, in case you’re interested, I like you, too,” I answered, nodding my head in affirmation.

“That’s good.”

“I think so.”

“Well, all right then.”

We smiled shyly at each other. I got up to get us another beer. When I returned he was still lying in the same position, as wretched as a sickly old dog and twice as pitiful.

I set our beers down and snuggled up beside him on the bed, placing my hand softly on his chest.

“It’s getting late... Would you like to just go to sleep now?” I said kindly, realizing with a start that this would be the first time we’d gone to bed together without having sex and that I wasn’t really all that bothered by it.

“I’m sorry... I guess I’m not very good company tonight.”

“I’m glad you’re here,” I reassured him. “Want me to help you undress?”

“I can do it!” he responded, seeming a little disgruntled.

“I know, but it’s all romantic and junk if I do it.”

So he let me help him out of his shoes and shirt and pants, and then I wiggled myself into the lacy pink chemise that delicately covered up my sagging this and drooping that while he scooted awkwardly up into the bed and under the covers. I ducked under the blankets, too, climbed astride him, and drew the comforter over us both. I gazed down at him fondly, this man who was aging as fast as I was and with no greater grace. But there was something appealing about him, too, this new, old, fragile Michael. Perhaps all ages have their own special beauty.

His pelvis was directly underneath mine, and I guess I must have made a telling motion because he said again, “I really don’t think I can . . .”

“I’ll be very gentle,” I promised. “I’ll do all the work. Just tell me if it hurts.”

And so I slid him into me, oh, so very slowly and gently, with no sudden or rapid movements, and then, with just the slightest of motions, I gradually let him out, and at length brought him back in again. This went on for a very long time. At long last, I finally felt him tense up, and finish, without hurting anything, and that pleased me immensely. And as we were lying down to sleep, I said to myself, This is how old people do it. Carefully. And I smiled.


“Careful” is an excerpt from my forthcoming novel My Life with Michael: A Story of Sex and Beer for the Middle-Aged. The piece has been heavily modified to make it self-contained, but the theme is essentially the same as that of my book: how aging changes our view of sex and romance and the people with whom we want to share them.

It’s a cute story, I think; one of my sweeter pieces. This is my favorite line:

“So he let me help him out of his shoes and shirt and pants, and then I wiggled myself into the lacy pink chemise that delicately covered up my sagging this and drooping that while he scooted awkwardly up into the bed and under the covers.”

Paints quite the romantic picture, doesn’t it?

“Careful” was originally published in e-Romance in May 2013.

Copyright © 2013 by Lori Schafer

My Life with Michael is scheduled for release in paperback, eBook, and audiobook on February 6th, 2015. It will be available for Kindle pre-order on November 7th, 2014. For more information, please visit the book's webpage or subscribe to my newsletter.

"Careful" is also available as a FREE eBook; you can find more short story excerpts from My Life with Michael at your favorite eBook retailer.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Detention! A Memoir Excerpt

“Steinberg! Schafer! Detention!” Mr. Cooper shouted furiously, his nearly bald pointed head bristling with a temper I had never witnessed before. That possibly no one had ever witnessed before. Normally he disregarded his students entirely and went on, in spite of the constant conversation and ill-concealed catcalls, with his physics lectures as if the classroom were empty, or perhaps irrelevant in the face of so much captivating science. But today we had somehow pierced the thick shield of his academic armor and prodded him into unanticipated and unheard-of disciplinary action. I testily kicked aside the pile of tiny paper airplanes that had grown at my feet during the course of the class and glared at my friend Josh, the one who’d gotten me in trouble. I was a good student; a nerd, most said. I’d never had detention before.

“My mom’s gonna freak,” I whispered nervously.

“Good luck with that,” he said, his face going pale.

“It might be all right. But only because it’s you.”

He grinned his characteristic sideways grin, so full of charm, so full of crap. I never could understand what my mother saw in him. Always strictly polite to his elders, laying it on thick with the ma’ams and sirs which had already gone out of fashion, he was arguably the biggest troublemaker of all of my friends, and definitely the one most likely to try to get me naked. Yet he was the only one she’d still let into the house. Would even leave me alone with him in the bedroom, staying tactfully away from my open door. Almost as if she wanted something to happen.

I gave it to her straight as soon as we emerged from the classroom, before Josh, in spite of his valiant attempt to breeze briskly down the hall with all of the craft and subtlety of one of his paper rockets, had even managed to escape from her sight. “Josh and I were fooling around in class and got detention. I have to come back after school.”

Her lips twitched. I could see the internal conflict boiling within her, picture her cheeks reddening under her makeup as we tiptoed through the crowded corridor, drawing furtive glances from curious students. I didn’t blame them for staring. It wasn’t every day you witnessed an otherwise fairly normal teen-aged girl being escorted to class by a conspicuous and over-dressed middle-aged woman. Kids I didn’t know would pounce on me in the bathroom, nearly dissolving into hilarity at finding me for a moment alone and ripe for ribbing. “Aren’t you the girl whose mother has green hair and comes to school with her?” they would snicker.

“It isn’t really green,” I would argue. “It’s supposed to be blonde; something just went wrong during the coloring.” It was more of a greenish tint than anything. The kind you get from swimming often in a chlorinated pool. Personally, I didn’t think the hair looked anywhere near as stupid as the sunglasses. Wearing mirrored sunglasses indoors is surely not the way to avoid drawing attention to yourself when you’re convinced that your ex-husband and adult daughter are stalking you.

She gritted her teeth, grinding them audibly as if literally chewing over the idea. “Then I guess we’ll have to come back after school,” she muttered bitterly, surrendering to painful necessity.

“Thanks. Otherwise I might get kicked out,” I replied pointedly, hoping she’d catch the implicit threat of it. I’d already missed more than a month that quarter and could, according to school policy, be failed across the board purely on the basis of unexcused absences.

Someone had noticed, taken pity on me. Was it one of the string of psychiatrists my mother had sent me to, each of whom I had at length convinced that I was not the crazy one? Was it one of my teachers, someone who understood that honors students don’t suddenly stop showing up to school for no reason? Was it my guidance counselor, who had been in the office the day my mother had tried to force me to sign the papers saying I was dropping out?

They’d made arrangements, the school board had informed her officiously. One of the teachers – the English teacher I’d had freshman year – had volunteered to take me in, and if she didn’t let me come back, they would force the issue. I’d been touched. I barely remembered Mrs. Silverman; recalled more vividly the handsome, witty boy who’d sat next to me during her class and who had eventually become my first boyfriend. I wondered what it would be like to live with her, her and the other troubled student she’d allegedly taken under her wing. Who would even have imagined that a close-knit suburb could hold two such students?

Even my mother, so bold in the face of imaginary enemies, was unwilling to risk official intervention. She’d let me come back. With conditions. I can’t even guess what she told the principal and the superintendent – whether she in fact convinced them that I might be in some sort of danger, or if they merely thought it best not to chance it, never suspecting that the woman to whom they had admitted entrance was more dangerous by far than any of the nonexistent murderers she feared. But they had permitted it, this insane adult intrusion into the lives of unwitting high school students. As long as she stayed outside the classroom, not in it. Inside, they’d insisted, would be too distracting. But as a goodwill gesture they had commandeered for her a set of her own chairs, one parked outside of each of my classrooms, that she might not grow weary during her dull and lonely vigils. What kind consideration, I’d thought bemusedly. How nice that they’d made an effort to ensure her comfort.

“We’re going home now,” she announced. “You can skip P.E.”

“I still have to come back for detention, Mom,” I reminded her.

“I want to go home for lunch,” she insisted, grabbing me awkwardly by the elbow while I slipped my book-bag over my shoulders.

I didn’t argue. I succumbed to her clutch and followed her silently, listening to the swish of her floor-length skirt as we traversed the corridor towards the parking lot where the student vehicles were stored. We passed the vice-principal, a friendly-faced giant of a man, along the way. I nearly forgot myself and smiled. Following my first string of poorly explained absences, he had tried to be kind to me.

“Schafe!” he’d exclaim when he passed me in the hall, punching me gently on the shoulder with his beefy fist.

“Huff!” I’d answer back, grinning, with the kind of liberty in which only kids who were sorely pitied could safely indulge.

But that was before this, before I’d had a permanent, round-the-clock guardian. Now he didn’t speak; barely even glanced at us as he edged cautiously away, retreating as far as possible against the wall, as if afraid to pass too close or too suddenly. The way everyone did. I didn’t blame them for that, either. They were right to do it.

We reached the double-doors that opened onto the parking lot, barred gates of freedom before which I would have cowed had I been alone, but she approached them boldly, as if it were her inalienable right to pass unhampered through the forbidden exit. It was a closed campus, but the hall monitors stepped politely aside to let us by as they always did, even if they didn’t know about us. Parent with child. Free pass; no questions asked. Submission to parental authority was automatic, guaranteed. Indisputable.

An overcast sky was gradually divesting itself of lukewarm spring rain, sending tiny rivulets of rainwater along the curves of my skull and down the back of my neck like the tickling tendrils of an unseen vine. I’d cast the hood of my raincoat aside, as I always did now. I didn’t like the way it restricted my peripheral vision. Our windshield was spattered thickly with raindrops, but she didn’t turn on the wipers; drove instead in half-invisibility, whether in an effort to conceal or be concealed, I couldn’t say. She had covered her badly transformed hair with a plastic rain-bonnet, of an old-fashioned design I’d never seen before and haven’t seen since. It reminded me of the handkerchief with which she’d attempted to cover up her previously long and curly chestnut hair that night we’d run away from the house, only a week before my stepfather, utterly bewildered at the sudden turn of events, agreed to move out. It hadn’t done much to alter her appearance. I was noting carefully now the effectiveness of her various disguises. Preparing myself for when I needed one.

She fixed us sandwiches, grilled cheese and tomato, the butter-browned bread and melted cheddar infusing our kitchen with a near-heavenly scent. I hesitated before biting into mine, unsure if the meal would be suddenly snatched away, as my breakfast had been, on suspicion of it being poisoned while her back was turned. And unsure also, if one of these days it would be she who had done the poisoning. But she sat down and ate with me, apparently satisfied with the attentiveness of her own preparation, and I took that to mean that my lunch was safe. I wondered whether my dinner would be.

At two-thirty I packed up my homework and reminded her that we needed to go. “In a minute,” she said vaguely, sitting taut and erect on the sofa in the hip-hugging jeans she’d changed into and snapping briskly through the pages of a woman’s magazine. By a quarter to three I was nervous.

“We’re going to be late,” I said.

“We’re not going,” she yawned with affected nonchalance, rising casually from her seat to check the lock on the front door.

“I have to go, Mom.” Inside I was panicking. “I can’t let Josh sit for detention by himself.”

Even the mention of her favorite didn’t move her. “Then you shouldn’t have gotten detention,” she answered blithely, nodding to herself in undoubting affirmation.

I inhaled so sharply that my lungs burned with the force of it. Rose slowly from the table where I’d been studying. Deliberately donned my lavender raincoat, my hands shaking, sweat forming along my hairline like condensation over a steaming pot. Chose my words carefully, not wanting to suggest more than I meant.

“I am going to school.”

I nudged past her to the door, placed my hand on the knob, and gave it a yank. She yanked back, all of her considerable might concentrated on the bones of my wrists, dislodging my grip from the door and sending me crashing through the sheetrock, leaving a nearly woman-sized hole in the wall.

“What do you want from me?!” she yelled nonsensically, as if I were a disobedient child having a fit of temper.

“I want my life back!” I shouted, conscious of the melodrama of it, my pathetic cry, but aware, too, that there was no elegant way to express what I wanted. And no hope of making her understand it even if I found the words with which to explain it.

She didn’t answer, but swung me forcibly around again, causing me to hit the opposite wall of the foyer sideways, leaving a smaller, skinnier trench in the sheetrock. And then grabbed me by one hand, dragged me out to the car, and threw me inside as if I were an uncooperative luggage bag that had been carefully packed but still refused to clamp shut.

I swallowed, rubbing my wrist, relief flowing through me like the midsummer rainshower that so briefly releases the nearly constant tension of northeastern summer skies. I could still make an appearance at detention, might still be able to graduate on time and get out of this hellhole once and for all. She backed blindly out of the driveway and took off, far faster than usual. But not in the direction of my school. Towards the border, the state line.

“I could take you away,” she’d told me once, smugly, after the first time I’d made a break for it and had to be hauled forcibly home. “Take you to the airport and fly you anywhere I want to; somewhere no one will ever find you. And I am your mother and there is absolutely nothing that anyone could do to stop me.” She’d smiled complacently, humming cheerfully under her breath. Pleased with her cleverness, the infallibility of her plan, her power.

I held hard to my seat and harder to my fear. I focused on it, drew strength from it. I didn’t speak. In silence I awaited an opportunity, a happenstance, a careless moment, while she screeched around wet, sandy curves, slamming me sideways, partly restrained by the seatbelt that was intended to ensure my safety but which was hemming me in, trapping me in the car with her like a circus animal in a travelling cage.

“You want a life?” she snarled unexpectedly as we approached a glaring red stop sign, barely tapping the brakes. “I’ll kill us both!”

But my left hand was already on the latch of the belt strapping me into the vehicle; my right hovered by the door handle. I felt her fingers snatching at the vinyl of my jacket as I jumped and rolled uncontrollably out onto the pavement. I heard her cursing violently behind me as the car shuddered to a noisy halt. The backyard backwoods of New England sprawled out before me and I sprinted into them, clawed my way through branches and brambles and pricker-bushes, and came at last to a tall wire fence that I climbed awkwardly, my full-grown feet too large for its twisted footholds, and then jumped, catching my jeans on its pointed peak and tearing them nearly the length of the seam, scraping bits of the soft flesh underneath.

I stopped. Listened. No sound of pursuit came to my ears. I stopped breathing. Listened again. Scanned the sky and tried to judge my direction from the clouds hiding the sun. Took a tentative step, my footfall crackling the underbrush. Listened again and heard nothing. Looked and saw nothing, nothing but trees and bushes and pine needles and the slivered remnants of last autumn’s leaves finally freed from the cover of snow.

And then began trudging the miles through the woods back to town.

I didn’t make it to detention. I covered my ripped pants with my jacket and dragged my torn, tired body back through the deserted hallways of the school, leaving dirty footprints on the freshly polished floors and fingerprints on the classroom doorknob that rattled uselessly in my battered hands. Josh told me later that Mr. Cooper hadn’t shown up, either. Apparently he’d forgotten all about assigning us detention. Had viewed it, perhaps, as a temporary, meaningless distraction from an important lesson in physics.

* * *

“Detention” is an excerpt from my memoir On Hearing of My Mother’s Death Six Years After It Happened: A Daughter’s Memoir of Mental Illness, available in paperback and audiobook on November 7, 2014 from retailers worldwide, and available now for Kindle pre-order on

"Detention" is also available as a FREE eBook; you can download it at your favorite eBook retailer.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Poisoned: A Memoir

“I’m sure you didn’t mean anything by it,” she whispered conspiratorially, clutching at the wires crisscrossing her torso as if they were lifelines. “You didn’t really mean to hurt me, did you?”

I didn’t answer. I had no answer for her.

She raised herself; bent her back up off the angled, starched-sheeted bed, the skull-flattened pillow. “You won’t get into any trouble. I promise,” she assured me in her most persuasive tone, leaning towards me as if greater nearness would bring her closer to the truth.

I glanced at my mother, ragged now from our endless day of blood tests and EKGs, pitiful with probes attached to her chest and hands. Then averted my eyes and stared instead at my own hands, knuckles white on the edges of the uncomfortable folding chair on which I perched by her bedside, and wondered if they were even capable of doing her harm. Thought that if they were, that surely they would have done it already.

She bent her face close to mine, the urgency in her voice betraying the calmness of her countenance. “Just tell them what you gave me, sweetheart,” she pleaded.

Her breath stunk of metal fillings and stale cigarettes, and I backed involuntarily away. Hasty and harrowed, to her my retreat conveyed confession and it prodded her on, encouraged her investigation.

“It was poison, wasn’t it?” she whispered excitedly, almost hopefully, I thought. “Just tell me what kind!”

Why was she so obsessed with poison? I speculated, not yet comprehending that it was impossible to rationalize the irrational. She refused to eat at home anymore because the food might be poisoned; preferred the anonymity of restaurant fare. But then it was in my orange juice or her coffee, might have been sprinkled like salt on the eggs or buried deep in the butter, this mysterious killer toxin, by some even more mysterious killer who stalked us, who intended inexplicably to do us harm.

“It’s not too late,” she urged. “If you just tell them what it was, there might be an antidote. They could still save me!” She smiled at me and conscientiously ran her hands over her scalp, smoothing down the short blonde hair she’d had colored and cut in fruitless disguise.

Sometimes I even considered the possibility that she herself was guilty of administering the poison she so terribly feared. If that was the real reason why she kept snatching my meals away at the last second, in an attack of conscience over attempting to murder her own daughter. Even I had begun to look suspiciously at my food; wondered whether I should refuse it, no matter how many meals I had lately missed. I was gradually absorbing her paranoia, cinching it to my core like the belt around my sagging jeans.

“It’s not going to go well with you if something happens to me, you know,” she snarled, all at once dropping her coy sweetness. “I’ve left evidence. They’ll be able to prove it was you. You’ll be locked up for good, I guarantee it.”

I listened to the quiet bleeping of the machinery at her bedside and eyed the doctor staring curiously from the hall, the doctor who had been sent away after admitting they hadn’t been able to find any physical cause for the searing pains in her chest, the shortness of breath. My co-conspirator, no doubt.

“And don’t forget about Bellevue,” she spat. “I’m your mother and I can still have you committed. Maybe it would be good for you,” she concluded nastily, sneering her contempt of my supposed sanity.

It shivered through me, this worst of her threats, the familiar fear of the powerless pitted against the powerful. I imagined myself again, sealed into a strait-jacket, shrieking wildly in protest, proving my lunacy thereby. Being trundled into some dark hole and left there forever to rot, to die, while she roamed freely about, seeking, perhaps, another child, a youngster, a victim more susceptible to accepting her incomprehensible illusions.

“So are you going to tell me or not?” she snapped finally, whipping her head around as if to startle me into the truth, her hands clasping the bed’s guardrails, steadfastly refusing to misbehave in public, in front of witnesses. Hanging on to the cold steel as if afraid she might forget herself again, as she had lately made a habit of doing; bruise my wrists with her claw-like fingers, or box my ears with the flats of her palms.

I bowed my head as if in contemplation, perhaps in prayer. Gazed directly into the once-familiar mud-brown eyes, hollow now, as they had become in recent weeks, vague and empty and occupied elsewhere, in vast regions of runaway imagination that I couldn’t see, couldn’t possibly perceive.

I meditated whether I should try to explain it to her, the irrationality of her suspicion. How could I have poisoned her? I was sixteen, and the internet hadn’t been invented yet. I wouldn’t have known what kind of poison would work on a person, even if I’d had access to some. And how would I have bought it, with her watching me twenty-four hours a day, even while we slept?

I stared unwaveringly into them, the eyes so unlike my own, so nearly inhuman yet not animal either; alien eyes. And abandoned the hope of persuading them with my useless reasoning. Her world had an impenetrable logic all its own.

“I didn’t give you anything, Mom,” I said, turning away.

She cursed out loud. I didn’t look back.

She surrendered. Accepted the doctor’s discharge and took me home. But she eyed me mistrustfully as she ordered me into the king-sized bed we now shared.

“I can’t force you to admit what you did,” she conceded as she lay down, fully dressed, on top of the blankets. “But I still know you did it.”

She clasped her hand hard to her chest and let out a gasp, as if in pain. And almost I wished I had relented and confessed to the uncommitted crime, I pitied her so.

* * *

“Poisoned” received an Honorable Mention in The Avalon Literary Review’s Spring 2014 Contest and was published in that issue. The piece is an excerpt from my memoir On Hearing of My Mother’s Death Six Years After It Happened: A Daughter’s Memoir of Mental Illness, available in paperback and audiobook on November 7, 2014 from retailers worldwide, and available now for Kindle pre-order from

It's interesting to note that "Poisoned" is actually an alternate version of a flash fiction piece that I wrote and had published in the amazing Journal of Microliterature in November 2013. At the time I had decided to beef up my writing resume by seeking publishing credits, which are naturally far easier to obtain if you write short stories than long novels. However, short work requires more ideas - a multitude, in fact - and as my fingers flashed across the keyboard day after day, the idea well ran dry and I very quickly found myself searching through my brain for memories I could transform into fiction. As It hadn't yet occured to me that I would be writing a memoir, the original story wasn't about my mother and I at all, but rather concerned the relationship between a husband and wife when she is taken mentally ill. You can compare the two versions by reading the original along with my commentary here. Which do you like better?

"Poisoned" is also available as a FREE eBook; you can download it at your favorite eBook retailer.