The Good Neighbor

There are a few Phoenix Rising spoilers, so be forewarned.


About once a year, I am reminded that I have neighbors. More than once if the roads are dangerous due to inclement weather and people resort to appealing to the mercy of their neighbors for food, matches, or even a little entertainment. I’ve taken to staying at the hospital when the weather is going to be bad; Not only does one avoid these little inconveniences, but I never know when they’re going to need me.

I have trouble sleeping. Not because of guilt or “demons,” or any nonsense like that, but habit. I wake at eight AM like clockwork, even when I fall into bed at seven. I work overnights, so I don’t know exactly why this is. If I got to bed after eight, I can steal a few hours’ light sleep. Also if I let the dog into bed, it’s easier to stay asleep. Or people, but those encounters are few and far-between (I’m shocked I am saying that). In fact, it’s always been easy to sleep when someone is with me.

I wake up at ten-thirty with my arm wrapped around the dog. I went to bed alone around six and I don’t remember him jumping up with me. I try semi-successfully to go back to sleep. I don’t have to work tonight; I have two days off. After about half an hour, I’m awake, debating whether I should go to the ranch while I’m off. I should. It’s been a few weeks since I last went.

I throw on some pajama pants and decide not to decide until after breakfast and coffee–especially coffee. I set it to brew espresso and pop some bread in the toaster. I’m about to let Smiley Beast out the back door, but he plants his ass at the front door, staring at it expectantly, as if that were the routine. He woofs–he never really barks–and someone knocks.

“You’re turning out to be useful,” I say.

Before I open the door, I look down at my bare chest. I hope they like what they see, because I’m not about to run upstairs to put on a shirt. I regret that decision–only mildly–when I open the door. Mrs. O’Keefe, my eastern neighbor (house-wise, not ethnicity-wise) stands on my porch. Her eyes are wet, her lips parted in distress. She looks slightly taken-aback and blushes at the sight of me.

“Doc–Doctor Adams…” she pauses to swallow and sniffle.

“Is something wrong? The kids?” She has two young children. Being “the doctor next door,” I’ve seen them often for small scrapes or a bout of strep. I once had to pull her daughter from the river running beyond our back yards, which endeared them to me somewhat.

“The kids are OK–they’re at school, but…” She sniffles again. “The cops just called. They say Rick’s been in a serious accident. I need to go to–to…”

I nod. “Do you need me to drive you? How can I help?”

“Are you working today?”

“No, not for two days.”

“Could the kids come here after school?”

That’s a bit more of a commitment than I anticipated. I’m more willing to drive to St. Joseph’s and perform surgery on her husband. But, of course, I agree. I supervise kids at the ranch all the time. And, as far as I know, these two are not damaged.

I smile at her, and she breaks. She covers her mouth with a hand and turns away to conceal her sobbing. I’m groaning inside as I step out onto the porch and pull her into a hug.

“Don’t be scared.” The words well up into my throat: I’m sure he’s fine. Everything’s going to be alright, but I’m not about to lie to her like that. The patient that kept me so late into the morning had been an MVA: a college kid pinned to the seat by the steering wheel. He was lucky the steering column didn’t impale him. On second thought, he wasn’t; He suffered until the moment he was anesthetized and died several hours later, while I was removing one of his lungs.

I’m certainly not about to tell her that, either.

She falls still and turns to me a bit, which reminds me I am a half-naked man, living alone (dog excepted). I step back, trying not to look like I’m retreating. She knows I’m gay, I’m sure of it. Just in case she didn’t catch it that time I got sloppy with a date at the neighborhood potluck, I put a bit more of a lilt into my voice.

“Be strong,” I say. “Your kids will be safe here. Go, be with your husband, but take care of yourself as well.” I pause. I don’t want her to accept, but… “Would you like some coffee before you go?” My espresso maker only makes one cup at a time.

She shakes her head. I smile. We confirm the phone numbers we have for each other are correct. When she turns to leave, her expression is almost haunted.

I return to cold toast, but the espresso is the perfect temperature for sipping. I stare at the toast for a moment, then pick up the phone and dial Nick. He doesn’t answer. Not a surprise. I text him: Do me a fav & check ER for OKeefe. Status report?

I chew on the cold toast, staring at the phone. When the screen goes dark, I turn to Smiley Beast. He’s staring at the toast.

“What do kids like to do these days, anyway?”

He whines and inches forward, smiling up at me. I pop the last bite in my mouth and brush the crumbs on him. He licks them off his nose gratefully.

I love dogs.


Nick is a pediatrician. How that happened is beyond me, because when he decided that path, I had never even seen him around a kid before. In order to give a status update, he would have to go all the way to the ground floor and bribe a nurse. Bribing a nurse is the easy part; Finding time to go down to the ER (and avoid getting reeled in to help out) would be the challenge.

It does not surprise me that it is a quarter ’til three when Nick replies:

Not good.

I shove the phone back into my pocket as the school bus pulls up.

“Dr. Todd!” Kaylee hits me with a hug.

Ricky doesn’t share her enthusiasm. He trudges down the bus steps. I can’t tell if he’s upset about the car accident or he’s just hit the age of being perpetually taciturn.

“Did your mother call you?”

He looks away when he nods. I look him over. He’s got to be thirteen now, carrying a little extra weight. That will shed as he grows, I’m sure. I remember what I was like at his age–but I don’t want to. I put an arm out and pat his shoulder. I steer them toward my house. Smiley Beast is sitting next to the mail box. He refuses to leave the yard.

“Puppy!” Kaylee shrieks. “Is he yours?”

“Yes. Go say hello.”

She runs and throws herself around his neck. I pull Ricky short.

“What exactly did your mother tell you?”

He shrugs. I ape his shrug, showing him how useless a response it is.

“She said Dad was in an accident and she doesn’t know how bad it is.”

I nod and we start to walk again.

“Do you know anything?”

“I know what your mother told me.” It’s not exactly a lie.

“Is he going to be OK?”

“I’m not his doctor, Ricky. I have no idea.” 100% truth.

Kaylee stumbles in the driveway, hitting her knees hard. She looks like she is about to cry, but Smiley Beast begins to lick her face in earnest. She giggles instead. I smile. That has got to be the most reassuring sound in the world. I bend as I pass and lift her into my arms.

“Dr. Todd, when is Mommy coming back?”

“I don’t know yet, sweetheart.” Calling her that leaves a sour taste in my mouth. Sugar? Honey? Sunshine? Sunshine. She wraps her arms around my neck as I carry her inside. I experience this more often than most childless men, but the children in post-op are so rarely in the condition to be carried, and the situation so rare, that it’s a heart-warming feeling.

Ricky follows close behind. He has put his hand out, and Smiley Beast is cantering to get under it. He must be perpetually taciturn…

I deposit Kaylee on a stool at the breakfast bar. She spins the barstool. I make a mental note to buy stationary stools before having kids, then shake my head. What am I thinking?

“Hungry?” I ask. “Snacks?”

Ricky shakes his head. He leans down from the stool and devotes his attention to pulling Smiley Beast’s face into a wider smile. I smirk. I waste literally hours doing the same thing.

Kaylee puts her front hands together like paws and sticks out her crooked front teeth. I raise an eyebrow.

“I’m a rabbit!”

This hits me harder than I would have thought. It makes my heart ache. I force myself to smile. “I can see that. Would you like some pellets?”

Her face falls. She doesn’t know the word, and fortunately doesn’t catch on that I am offering to feed her shit. Which I guess is good. She perks back up and says, “Carrots!”

I reach into the fridge and plop the ten-pound bag of carrots onto the counter. Her eyes shoot wide.

“Do you have any baby carrots?” she asks. “Mommy gives us little baggies.”

“I don’t have any little baggies, but I can peel and cut these.”

Ricky slides off the stool as I pull out the cutting board. He takes a few steps toward the living room, gazing at my ninety-inch TV.

“Can I watch TV?”

I point back at the stool. “Your mother said homework first.” Now, that’s a lie.

“I don’t have any homework.”

“Lies.” I give him a penetrating glare, knife in hand. He sits and pulls his bookbag into his lap.

“That also reminds me…” I pull out my phone to text Mrs. O’Keefe. A text from Nick is waiting for me. There aren’t any words, just an arrow followed by a series of dashes:


A flatline.

I ignore it and text Mrs. O’Keefe:

Your children are safe.

I follow it with a picture of Kaylee with carrots hanging out of her mouth and Ricky over his homework.

Her kids are the last thing she should worry about right now.


I dig a pile of blankets and a couple of pillows out of my linen closet.

“Have you heard from my mom?” Ricky comes up behind me.

“Not yet.”

“So… we’re staying here all night?”

“Looks like it.” I shovel half the burden into his arms. A shadow crosses his face. He grabs my sleeve as I pass and leans close.

“If you touch my sister, I will kill you.”

He is very intimidating, clutching a pillow to his chest. I purse my lips to prevent barking a laugh. “I’m gay.”

He looks taken aback. “Oh.” He settles back on his heels. “Then… if you touch me, I’ll kill you.”

“That’s fair.” I continue down the stairs as if he had not said anything.

Kaylee is rolling on the floor, trying to teach Smiley Beast to roll over. I laugh at them as I spread a blanket over the love seat and toss a pillow at the head. I tuck the bottom blanket around the cushions with hospital corners.

Ricky tosses his blankets on the couch, kicks off his shoes, and jumps on. I pick the pillow off the floor and throw it on his face.

Kaylee dances over and jumps onto the love seat. She bounces a couple of times, falls on her butt, and pulls the top blanket to her chest.

“Can Smiley Beast sleep with me?”

“Oh, no,” I say. “Smiley Beast sleeps with me.”

“Tuck me in!”

I purse my lips and glance at Ricky. He rolls over, facing the couch. I tuck the blanket around her. She grabs my arm and pulls me down.

“Sing me a lullaby.”

“Oh, swee… Sunshine… I can’t sing.”

“Dad can’t sing, either,” Ricky grunts into the back of the couch.

Well, I can’t argue with that. I sink down next to her, racking my brain. “Uhh…” I know a wide range of classic rock that may be appropriate for a child, but a familiar refrain tugs at the back of my mind. As soon as I place it, I close my eyes. There’s a lump in my throat. I push the song away, but it continues to intrude my thoughts.

Hush…” I have to swallow the lump in my throat before I can continue:

Hush-a-bye, don’t you cry

Go to sleep, you little… sweetie

When you wake, you’ll have

All the pretty little horses

Dapples and greys

Pintos and bays

All the pretty little horses

Kaylee yawns and curls against me. “Pretty song…” she murmurs. “I don’t know this song.”

“My mother used to sing it to me.”

To prevent any questions, I begin to sing again. She is asleep by the time I finish. I extract myself without waking her. I peer down at Ricky’s face. He’s staring straight ahead with wet eyes. I don’t imagine he needs a lullaby. I ruffle his hair and go into the kitchen. The light on my phone is glowing–a text.

I’m outside.

I grab two glasses and a bottle of Scotch. I open the front door without a sound and step onto the porch with Smiley Beast on my heels.

Mrs. O’Keefe is leaning against her car, arms wrapped around herself, wearing a thousand-mile stare. I sit on the top step. She pulls her jacket close around her and sits next to me.


She shakes her head. “I’m going back to the hospital. I need to…” She clears her throat. “I need to make arrangements.”

I pour myself a glass. She turns to the door, which I left ajar enough for Smiley Beast to slip in.

“How are they?”

“Perfect.” I smile. “They’re smart, healthy, not too loud. You did a wonderful job.”

She smiles. “I wasn’t alone.” Her face falls. I can see her throat working as she chokes back tears.

“You’re not alone now,” I say. “I know it doesn’t feel like it, but you’re not.”

Covering her face, she falls against my shoulder. “I can’t do this,” she sobs. “It’s… just… too… much…”

I put my arm around her and rub her back. I am fully dressed this time, and she does not recoil. She drops her hands and sniffles.

“Have you ever lost anyone?”

My throat stops working for a moment. “I have lost… everyone.”

“What do you mean?”

I take a deep breath and a gulp of Scotch. “My kid sister–she was three. My mother, my father… The first man I ever fell in love with…” I’m tempted to include the only woman I ever loved, but I resist. “You don’t… get over it. You don’t work your way through it. You choke on it, every time you ever think of them. It’s like… an allergic reaction.”

“So… What do you do?”

“I don’t talk about them. I don’t think about them.”

“Can we talk about them now?”

She wants to focus on my pain instead. I see this all the time when I lose a patient. I unscrew the bottle and take a long draught.

“My sister was three when she died. AIDS. My dad had it, too. He died a few years later, just after my mom.”

“Did she have AIDS, too?”

“No, she had a heart attack. My mom and dad, they were never together.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

“Me too.”

“And the man?”

His face floats into my mind, as clear as if he stood before us. “Faust.” I love the feel of his name in my mouth. I find myself saying it too often at the most inopportune moments. “Captain Faustinelli. He was so…” I shake my head. “Phew!” I take another draught.

“How did he die?”

“KIA. Shot in the chest, probably nicked the superior vena cava. I couldn’t…” I shake my head again. “I couldn’t save him. I should have known that.”

“You were there?”

“He was my CO.”

“You didn’t get in trouble?”

“Sure I did. I was discharged. I didn’t–uh… We didn’t have a chance to really do anything, though. I think I regret that the most.”

“He didn’t know how you felt?”

“Oh, he knew. It was all over my face. I’m surprised no one else saw it. If they did, they didn’t dare… From the moment I first laid eyes on him, he had me wrapped around those fingers…” I purse my lips. I could feel the pulse throb in my cock. I clear my throat and change the subject. “I tell you what, I don’t want the kids to be on the list of things you have to worry about right now.”

“What do you mean?”

“You have enough on your plate. Don’t tell them just yet.”

She stares at me as if I had just committed treason.

“Tell them, you don’t know what’s going to happen–which is true. It’s not a lie.”

“But… how am I going to pull that off? It could be on the news… a friend could call them…”

“Do you know I have a ranch?”

“A what?”

“A ranch–a horse ranch, about three hours from here. Just on the other side of the mountains. Cell phone signal sucks ass out there, but it’s beautiful, and I even have a pony small enough for Kaylee to ride.”

She gapes at me.

“It will buy you enough time to make arrangements and get your affairs in order. The kids will be safe and will have a good time. I can bring them to the hospital when we come back. They will be none the wiser.”

Closer her mouth, she stares at the ground. She nods.

“I have just one more suggestion.”

“What’s that?”

“Don’t go back to the hospital tonight. You can take the kids home or join them on the couch, but there’s really nothing you can do after-hours, and you need sleep. You look exhausted.”

She puts her hand on my arm and rubs it as if I were the one who needed comforting. She nods again.

“OK,” she sighs. “Paperwork can wait until morning.”

Like a typical child, Kaylee loves horses. Also like a typical child, the moment I lifted her onto Lola’s back, the poor girl froze up. She stayed behind at the stables, and Ginny volunteered to teacher her how to groom, while Ricky and I rode out.


All morning, I had felt like he wanted to ask me something, but resisted. I wonder if he knows about his dad–or if he had overheard his mother on the porch.


We are alone. I have a hundred fifteen acres, and we’re about a mile from the ranch.

“How old were you when you knew you were gay?”

The question is not at all what I expected. I get a funny kind of smile. “I… was…” I racked my brain for an identifiable event. “The first time I remember being attracted to a man, I was fifteen.”


Oh? Is he disappointed?

“Isn’t that a little late?”

“It is, actually, but I came from… well, here. I grew up on this ranch; I was very isolated. I didn’t see anyone I could really consider attractive until I moved to the city. I was fifteen. He was a friend of my fathers, a Black man.”

“You like Black men?”

“I like all sorts of men.”

He falls quiet.

“Why do you ask?” I already know the answer. “Do you think you might be gay?”

“Oh, no, not me.” He’s a bit too quick to answer. “But I have this friend, Eddie. Some of the kids at school make fun of him. They call him gay.”

“Is he?”

“I don’t know. He’s only eleven. Isn’t eleven too young?”

I shrug. “I know several men and women who say they always knew. They never needed a… a moment of realization. Then again, there are fully-grown adults who have their moments, or begin to consider it.”

He chews on this in silence. We come to the crest of a hill. There is a small herd of deer about a quarter of a mile below us. I pull my horse to a stop and hold out my hand. Ricky stops as well.

“Have you ever had deer meat?”

He shakes his head. My rifle is strapped to my saddle, in case we encounter a starving cat or rabid coyote. I promised I would keep them safe, even against those highly-unlikely scenarios.

I dismount and pull the rifle free. Ricky dismounts a little too heavily. I’m afraid he is going to spook the deer, but they continue to graze lazily. I beckon Ricky away from the horses and lie on my belly. He does as well.

“Have you ever been hunting?”

He shakes his head.

“Have you ever fired a gun?”

He shakes his head again. I bite my lip, debating between edible deer meat and a memorable experience.

I pass him the rifle.

“Don’t touch the trigger until you are absolutely ready to fire.” I walk him briefly through grip and aim and where to shoot the deer for a quick drop and unspoiled meat. He’s not going to hit one, but he looks excited.

“Now, line it up and begin to squeeze the trigger. Slowly–you should be surprised when it fires.”

He’s holding his breath. I open my mouth to tell him to breathe, but I’m interrupted by the gun firing. The herd scatters.

“I hit it!”

Sure enough, there is a single buck, unmoving on the ground.

“Holy shit, Ricky. That was perfect!”

We walk the horses back, the buck hanging across my saddle. I allow Ricky to carry the unloaded rifle over his shoulder. We are silent, but buzzing with excitement. The conversation does not come back up until I am cleaning the deer. I am covered in blood.

“What’s it like, being with a guy?”

I swallow hard before I reply. “Not much different from being with a girl.”

“You’ve been with girls, too?”

“Yes, long ago.”

He looks over his shoulder, toward where Ginny and Kaylee are scrubbing down our horses. We can hear them talking and laughing, but we can’t see them. “Was it with Ginny?”

I snort. “No, it wasn’t Ginny.”

He falls silent again, then in a hushed voice, “Are you big?”

My face burns. There’s nothing in my mouth, but I choke nonetheless. I shrug.

“Can I see it?”

“No.” I pause to look at him. He is so, so young. I realize what he’s going through; I should have seen it sooner.

“I’m almost fourteen,” he says as if he can read my mind.

“Almost fourteen is still far too young to… to be considering such things. Fifteen was far too young…” I had never thought of it that way before, not until lookin at this boy. “It would be wrong–”

“What if I wanted it?”

I lean over the dead buck and bite my lip. I almost draw blood. “You don’t know what it is you’re asking.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, for one, it hurts, especially the first few times. Especially at your age.”

He tilts his head. “You were doing it at my age?”

I close my eyes. I can’t believe I let that slip. I lower my hand into a puddle of blood and watch it run up the grooves of my skin. My throat is tight. “I didn’t want it… I was younger than you, half your age, even. I never wanted it.”

His face reddens. “But… I trust you.”

“Don’t trust me,” I say quickly, shaking my head. “Just don’t. It doesn’t matter… trust doesn’t matter, or if you think you want it, if I do what you want, it would be no different from what was done… to me. I would never be able to live with that.”

He looks heartbroken. Emotional overload. Fuck, I shouldn’t have said anything. I should have avoided the topic altogether. He’s trying to swallow, but he can’t. Forgetting my hand is covered in blood, I wipe my face. When I feel the wetness, I recoil.

Ricky laughs. My face is burning, but after a moment, I laugh too.

What else can you do?

The drive back to Colorado Springs is quiet. Kaylee sleeps most of the way. Ricky stares out the window at the mountains passing by. After a few half-hearted attempts to engage him in normal preteen conversation, I abandon the effort. We can see the roof of St. Joseph’s when Kaylee’s voice surprises me.

“Dr. Todd?”

“Yes, sweet pea?”

“Is Daddy in Heaven?”

I take a deep breath and hold it. Ricky’s eyes grow wide.

“Why do you ask that?”

“Because he told me he was last night.”

“You saw your father last night?” My throat is tight. I glance at Ricky and he looks as confused as I must. “When?”

“Right after you sang me a lullaby. You got up and went outside. Daddy laid down next to me. He told me he was in Heaven, and I don’t have to be scared of anything.”

Ricky squeezes his eyes shut. His shoulders begin to shake. He pulls his collar up to hide his face in his shirt. He had known all along; I could tell by the concern in his eyes as he stared at Kaylee over dinner. He must have heard me talking to their mother on the porch.

I’m shocked he is able to hold it together as well as he is; I was a hot mess when my parents died.

“Well, Sunshine…” I don’t know what the fuck else to say. “If that’s what he told you, it must be true.”

I don’t believe in Heaven.


One year later, Ricky O’Keefe appears at my door. As I predicted, he lost the extra weight as he shot up five or six inches. I let him in, and he follows me to the kitchen. I’m trying my hand at making sushi. I haven’t been able to get the rice sticky enough, so I have just been popping bites of raw fish.

“I think I’m gay.”

“I recall having a similar conversation with you last year.” I heap a sloppy roll onto a plate and place it on the bar. He picks it up and inspects it. I slide him a set of chopsticks. He makes a few clumsy attempts at holding them before I take his hands and show him how.

“I’m not sure,” he continues. “But I’ve been thinking about–you know–about guys. But girls, too. Is that weird?”

“Not at all.”

“How will I know?”

I shrug. “You don’t have to. It’s not actually all that important.”

“What do you mean?”

I wave my hand. I’m not even sure how to describe it. “Go with how you feel. If you have a crush on a boy, date the boy. If that doesn’t work out, and you start to like a girl, date the girl. No one says you have to be exclusive.” I pop a piece of sashimi in my mouth, and realize I misspoke. “To one gender,” I correct myself. “No one says you have to be exclusive to a gender. When you’re not exclusive to the person you’re dating, that tends to cause problems.”

“Do you have a boyfriend?”

I shake my head. Donning a tone of analytical superiority, I say, “I have crippling commitment issues due to a paralyzing fear of loss.” At least, that’s what Nick says when he’s had too much to drink.

“Because of what happened when you were a kid?”

I suddenly don’t have an appetite anymore. “I’d appreciate it if you’d never bring that up again.”


I slide him the plate I was working from. He picks at a few choice pieces, more for practice than hunger.

“You said last year… that… you wouldn’t mess with me because I looked so young…”

My face burns. I glare at him. This is the last conversation I want. Ever.

“Is it different now?” He is taller. He is going to be handsome. But he’s still so young. His eyes are still innocent. I shake my head.

“What about when I’m eighteen?”

“Ask me when you’re eighteen,” I say a little too quickly. I sound dismissive.

Ricky’s face twitches. I can tell he has to force his smile. “I’ll be back, then.”

He slides off the stool, and I walk him back to the door. As I reach for the handle, he grabs my shirtfront and yanks me down, jamming his mouth against mine. Appalled, I try to pull away. Something clicks in my mind. He has the opportunity to develop normally, an opportunity I never had. I don’t want him to shun that, or fear it. I indulge him calmly as I pry his hands loose. When I straighten up, he stares at me, wide-eyed. His hands are shaking.

I pull the door open and point out.

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colossus Flint Ranch Salvage

Voice-Building Exercises

(reposted with typos corrected)

When a writer is just starting out or trying to improve their writing, the best way to improve is to practice. Practicing will help finding your voice. New writers – or writers who have never gone under an editor’s knife – usually have either an over-abundance of voice (too informal) or not enough voice (too robotic).

The easiest way to practice is to write short stories. Short stories tend to be very difficult to write. The easiest way is to go in with a plot or theme in mind. I recommend going with a story that had already been written.

To begin, pick the opening scene of a TV show or movie. Make notes of the main points of the scene, especially how it opens and closes. Re-write the scene, but not word-for-word. Capture the environment, the characterization, sensory details from one character only (you can do a different character in a different exercise). Vary sentence lengths and sentence structures (simple, compound, complex, etc.). Keep it between 500-2,000 words.

When you finish, send it off to at least one beta reader who knows what they are talking about – a published writer, an editor, a teacher, or a professional beta. Re-write/Revise following their recommendations.

Unfortunately, you can’t do anything with these exercises. The story and characters belong to someone else. The next exercises are fair game, for the most part:

Choose a song or narrative poem and write a short story based on the story. Make bullet points of the main points or the theme, turn them into plot points, and write a story. Make the length of the story complement the length of the song or poem. Use the same follow-up as before.

The last step (before 100% original pieces), would be using a non-narrative poem. Write an original story based on the sensory details, tone, and theme. Keep it short, about 800 words.

For example:

TV show: Firefly (opening scene to any episode)

Narrative poem: may i feel e e cummings

Non-narrative poem: First Fight Then Fiddle Gwendolyn Brooks

I would love to see your suggestions on developing a writer’s voice, or even examples of your exercises!

My Writer’s Toolbox (Publishing the Manuscript)

Welcome back! In this volume of My Writers Toolbox, I will show you the various tools (programs and people) I use to get a book from my computer to my readers.

I use WordPress (as you can see), Twitter, and sometimes Facebook to share my content, post about how much I love or hate it, and interact with other writers. I don’t use Facebook as often, because it’s how I keep in touch with people I actually know/once knew. My content is frowned upon by a large percentage of that population.

I use my beloved editor (beloved as an editor), Michael Keenan, after my first round of revisions/rewrites. I went without him for Two Guns, and I’m regretting it. Alas, we must do as our budget allows. For the next book, I’ll save specifically for that.

I also have a small army of beta-readers, and I’m often seeking more. I’d like to add more diversity, as the majority of them are white women. I involve some of them in every step of the process, which I guess makes them alpha-readers.

I have a cover artist, Brian Bullard, who also happens to be my brother. Not only does he do some incredible original work, but he can also emulate other styles pretty well. Recently he emulated Audubon for L. M. Bryski’s Book of Birds and Heather Stillufsen for my SweetNOTHING. Contracting an artist is the best way to get an original and fitting cover, but also expensive. Cover designs can be purchased cheaply (I mean, like $30 USD), but you also run the risk of someone with similar content or in the same genre purchasing that design as well.

I also have a cover designer, who shall remain nameless (but who is also related to me), who does my cover formatting and interior design for paperback. My interior design is very simple and clean. If you’re looking for more professional or complex interior design, I recommend Sean Hoade.

For eBook formatting, I downloaded a program called Calibre e-Book Management, which is FREE online. Although it looks daunting, it is very easy to use: Just upload your .doc, covert into .mobi, and you’re good to go. You can preview it for formatting errors on their eReader simulator. These can also be emailed directly to someone’s Kindle, as long as your email address has first been placed on their safelist on Amazon.


Now Amazon requires user to use their software to convert files. This means you can either format your Word document to upload directly (which I’m not familiar with), or you can convert your .doc into an .epub using Calibre, then use Kindle Previewer to convert it into a .mobi.

Once my books have everyone’s seal of approval, I use Amazon KDP to post my eBooks and CreateSpace to publish my paperbacks. CreateSpace is much cheaper than LuLu, they have a matte feature, and I’ve never received a mis-printed book (although I have with LuLu). Both Amazon and CreateSpace are free to set up; All costs are deducted from the product price.

For marketing, I’m afraid you’re going to have to look elsewhere. Although I’ve nailed down the writing and publishing process, selling still eludes me.

I hope I have been able to show you something new and interesting, or give you a bit of food for thought. If you have success with other people or programs, please give them a shout-out in the comments!

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My Writer’s Toolbox (writing the manuscript)

All writers need a toolbox, whether literal or metaphorical. A toolbox consists of the items, skills, and reference materials (and sometimes people) one needs to write. This toolbox may also evolve at different steps of the project.

My first draft toolbox is pretty simple: pen and paper.

OK, maybe it’s not so simple.

  1. A notebook (spiral bound or legal pad, college ruled)
  2. A pen. I’m writing the Heather Stokes universe in blue gel pens.
  3. Post-its. I always have them on me at all times, for whims, notes, and short outlines
  4. My iPod, or my laptop on YouTube. It’s difficult for me to focus, so music in the background helps.

I throw other things in as I need them:

  • Notepad, an Android app I downloaded to my phone, for those rare cases I don’t have Post-its. I have over a hundred notes
  • visual representations of my character models (pictures of Kat Dennings, anyone?)
  • Google/Wikipedia searches (latest: “gunshot wound scars healed”)
  • coffee or cider (Angry Orchard)

I revise as I type the scene up, which could be anywhere from the moment I’m finished to weeks later. I used to use my computer at work, until I suspected my managers could mirror. I bought an ASUS laptop with Windows 10 and Microsoft Office Suite. I use MS Word to type my texts and Google Drive to back them up and make them available wherever I am-including on my phone.

None of these are necessary. When I was dead broke, I used OpenOffice, which is free and has almost all the functionality of MS Office. If you are too broke for that, you can use your local library to sign up for a GMail account. GMail is free and comes with Google Docs, which saves automatically. *mind blown* If you happen to get out of being broke or get a computer, you can access it anywhere you get internet.

I also use other books extensively. Sometimes I want to capture a certain voice, or imitate the tone of a certain scene (James Patterson’s Kiss the Girls, Alice Hoffman’s Practical Magic). Sometimes I need to see how other writers frame narration and dialogue (Karin Slaughter’s Triptych) or use a certain type of punctuation (the em-dash in Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park-first page FTW!). I also go for advice or inspiration (Stephen King’s On Writing). I also keep a copy of Strunk & White’s Elements of Style and the “Little, Brown Book (Which Is Neither Little Nor Brown)” close at hand, so I can reference the more technical aspects of writing.

I print my manuscript out to continue revisions/editing/rewriting. Back to pen and paper! Every once in a while, I try to use color-coded highlighters to mark certain things, but I never stick to this. Plain old proofreading symbols and scribbling notes does the trick.

I try to keep a single .doc for my manuscript, so I don’t get confused. Having multiple .docs of COLOSSUS once proved catastrophic when I was fixing typos in one and uploading the other into Amazon! I keep a separate .doc of deleted content that I am reluctant to part with; I will synthesize those into another work later. For Two Guns, I actually added a great deal of the content back in my final revisions.

DO NOT DELETE CONTENT. DO NOT DELETE CONTENT. DO NOT DELETE CONTENT. I don’t care how bad you feel about it; You’ll feel even worse when you stop feeling bad. But that’s a post for another time.

Also a post for another time: MY WRITERS TOOLBOX (PUBLISHING THE MANUSCRIPT). And by “another time,” I mean tomorrow.

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Now Available! Phoenix Rising – SALVAGE

The Phoenix Rising novellas narrate the development of a young boy named Thatch into the serial killer Avery Rhodes – introduced in COLOSSUSFlint Ranch

FLINT RANCH tells of his years at his uncle’s ranch, where one fateful night his happy childhood is plunged into a nightmare of abuse and neglect. The abuse ends as suddenly as it begins, in an incendiary climax.

Thatch’s struggles continue in SALVAGE.

Overwhelmed with Salvageguilt and shame, Thatch’s mother sends him to live with the father he has never met in a city on the opposite side of the Rockies. He begins to experience what he never thought possible: A normal life. That is, until he realizes his father has a few secrets of his own. As he navigates life at a new school, a new city, wrestling with shame and sexual awakening, he finally begins to consider his future and how he fits into the world.

SALVAGE is currently available as a Kindle eBook and on Kindle Unlimited.



The apartment was the opposite of Flint Ranch. It felt claustrophobic and dingy. The air reeked of cigarettes from a neighboring apartment. On his left, the kitchen was tiny, floored with cracking vinyl. On his right was a hallway with three doors. The master bedroom was at the end, the bed made crisply and the carpet recently vacuumed. The hall bathroom held a small shower, a rust-stained sink, and a toilet. Across from the bathroom, a door opened into an office. The desk pushed against the wall was the only spot in the apartment that was cluttered. Bookshelves lined the far wall. A couch was pushed against the wall opposite the desk. A pillow and folded linens sat at one end.

“You’ll be in here, unless you would prefer the living room.” Wren leaned against the doorframe. “I hope you don’t mind; I won’t be able to get the bed in for a few more days.”

Tears welled up in Thatch’s eyes as he stepped inside the office, no longer an office, but his bedroom. His throat grew tight. This was too good to be true: this man, a stranger in all but blood, welcomed him into his home without reluctance, without demanding anything in return. Thatch sat on the couch and looked up at his father, convinced he would see some kind of regret on. Even worse, he could change his mind. Wren’s gaze travelled around the room, wondering, perhaps, what it looked like to fresh eyes, but there was no regret.

Thatch followed his gaze, but did not get any farther than the door. All of his anxious thoughts dispersed. He took a deep breath.

“D-Dad?” […] Wren blinked, realizing “Dad” was his name now. “Can… Am I allowed to close the door?”

Wren looked down at the brass doorknob. Thatch’s throat grew tight as his father reached down and turned it. “Of course.” He reached around and pressed the other side. “You can even lock it, if you don’t wish to be disturbed. I never shut this door, so it should be easy for me to remember to knock.”

Thatch did not catch these last words. He was staring at his father with open-mouthed disbelief. Wren furrowed his brow. It became difficult for Thatch to breathe, as if a heavy weight settled on his shoulders. Sliding off the couch, he tugged at the doorknob, turned it, locked it, unlocked it. He swallowed. Tears began to stream down his face.


Sniffling, Thatch slowly closed the door on his father’s concerned expression. He locked it. There was no screaming. No one banged. It didn’t shudder with kicks. A sob escaped his throat as his head swam with a new sensation. He stood with his hand on the knob until his legs threatened to buckle, expecting the door to be shoved open and torn from his grasp. In the hall, Wren’s soft tread faded toward his bedroom.

The door did not move. Running his fingers into his hair, the lump in his throat dissolved into heaving gasps and sobs.

Thatch was finally free.

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Salvage, chapter 1

Yesterday I announced the release of Phoenix Rising – Salvage. Here is the first part of the first chapter, in which Thatch meets his father, Wren Chares, for the first time. Wren Chares is modelled after James Callis (Battlestar Gallactica, Eureka).



Age 15

            Thatch’s first memory of his father is a painful one.

Wren Chares had emigrated from Greece just after World War II, when he was a teen. One could hear it in the way he said certain words. Thatch did not know this the first time he met his father in the waiting room of the Child Services building.WrenChares

He scrutinized every face that entered the office. Since he grew up avoiding thinking about his father, he didn’t know what to expect. He certainly did not expect to meet a lean, bespectacled man, about half a foot shorter than himself. His black hair was slicked-back with pomade. The brown suit he wore was faded and darned in several places. His olive complexion inspired a mixture of curiosity and confusion: Thatch had always believed his darker skin was the result of working outdoors.

Wren Chares and Thaddeus Adams were not even introduced. Their eyes met as Wren crossed from the door to the counter. There was a hushed exchange, Wren presented his passport, and the clerk presented him with a clipboard and a pen. With a couple of signatures, Thatch had a father.

When the clerk pointed at him, Thatch sank into his chair, face burning. As shocked as he was with his father’s modest appearance, he knew his father must be equally as shocked with his son’s–in a more unpleasant fashion. Thatch’s nose was flattened and crooked after being broken repeatedly, a livid purple spread from the bridge, blackening both eyes, fading to green, then yellow. His split lip had scabbed, but he could not stop chewing at it, causing it to bleed again. The welt from the gas can was a bright white line down the left side of his face.

“Hello,” Wren said. His smile looked like it hurt. It faded as he eyed the young man, inventorying his injuries.

Thatch stood and shrank under Wren’s scrutiny. He imagined the little man walking out of the building without another word. Thatch swallowed. He would take the bus back to Meeker, hitchhike back to Flint Ranch hanging his head. Back to the house where his mother could not look at him without bursting into tears, and he could not sleep without screaming himself awake.

“Well,” Wren said, breaking his delusion, “you look to be otherwise in good health.” He looked at the papers in his hand. “It says here your name is Thaddeus.” Thatch had never heard his name with the second syllable stressed before. “Do you have a nickname? Thad? Teddy?”

“Thatch,” he mumbled.

“I didn’t catch that.”

“Thatch,” he repeated louder.

“Thatch?” Wren furrowed his brow. “What kind of a name is ‘Thatch’? Did they use you to patch a roof? Is that what happened to your face?”

Thatch’s throat tightened with anger. Tears pricked at his eyes, but he swallowed them and drew up to his full height. Now he imagined being the one to walk out the door without another word.

“Well, do you even like ‘Thatch’?” Wren asked.

The question and his father’s kindly tone took Thatch by surprise. He deflated. He had never considered that before. “It’s what people call me,” he replied. He could not recall a time he had ever been called anything else. The only reason he even knew his full name was the teacher calling it on the first day of school, and they were always promptly corrected.

“Do you like ‘Thad’?”


“Well, what about Todd? It’s mature, and… well…” Wren struggled to find an inoffensive way to phrase it. “More sophisticated.”

Thatch squirmed at the idea of responding to a different name, but could not conjure a valid reason to argue against it. He looked down at the little man, wondering what he would know about sophistication and why he should care how his name sounded. Wren returned his gaze patiently. The interest in his eyes made Thatch shrink again, although it was nothing like the interest with which Jed had looked at him. Wren’s gaze was more appraising, like an auctioneer or vet. For some reason, this worsened Thatch’s discomfort; At least with Jed, Thatch could always tell what he was thinking.

Torn between apathy and an almost-overwhelming desire for this man to like him, Thatch nodded, lowering his eyes. Wren grinned approvingly and put his hand out.

“Todd Adams,” he said, “I’m Wren Chares.”

Thatch’s face flushed. He had been pronouncing his father’s name “Cherries.” He clasped his hand, then let go, but Wren did not release his grip. His father donned an assertive expression as he took Thatch’s hand in both of his and would not release it until the young man returned the pressure. Wren gave him a tight-lipped smile, but his eyes were bright. He released his son and nodded toward the door.

Stunned, Thatch stared at his hand. Did his father just teach him how to shake hands?


(That’s my name now.) He hurried out the door after his father, down the stairs, and out into the chilly mid-morning air. The social worker who had picked him up at the bus stop had parked behind the building early that morning. Everything seemed still and quiet. The front of the building opened onto a busy street. Thatch had always thought Meeker was a busy city. The noise and movement of Colorado Springs planted him to the doorstep. It even smelled strange, toxic.

Wren waited for him on the sidewalk, far too close to the moving cars for Thatch’s comfort. He descended slowly to join his father, then tried to stay close to the side of the building. Wren beckoned him closer to the street, into the direct sunlight. Thatch hesitated, imagining the little man grabbing his shirt and swinging him into oncoming traffic.

Swallowing, Thatch stepped forward. Wren put a hand on his shoulder and turned Flint Ranchhim until they were face-to-face. He squinted at his battered face in the light.

“Did all this occur during the fire?”

“Yeah,” Thatch lied.

“Any burns?”


Wren reached into his blazer and pulled out a white pocket kerchief. “Hold this,” he said, passing it to the young man. “Look at me.” He resumed his assertive expression and placed a hand on the side of Thatch’s head.

Thatch’s heart pounded, eyes darting nervously to the passing cars. Surely he wouldn’t attempt anything in such a public place? He furrowed his brow as Wren took his nose in his other hand. His skin smelled like soap and motor oil.

“Relax. Look at me.” The moment their eyes met, Wren wrenched his nose with a crunch!

Thatch doubled over with a loud groan. Blood began to pour down his lip. Recalling the kerchief, he pressed it to his face. When he straightened, Wren stepped forward to take his face in hand again, but Thatch recoiled, slapping his hands away.

Wren frowned, then collected himself with another tight-lipped smile. “Much better,” he announced. “Come along.” He turned and began to walk.

Thatch’s nose throbbed, radiating around his skull. He ran his fingers over the bridge gingerly. It was no longer flattened and felt relatively straight. His face flushed, ashamed at his aggressive reaction. The anger in his chest dissolved.

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Release Announcement: Phoenix Rising – Salvage

Although many of you are chomping at the bit for the second My Name Is Not Heather Stokes novel, Two Guns, it’s not ready yet. Soon, but not yet.

HOWEVER, the second Phoenix Rising novella, Salvage, IS ready. The cover was just completed today, thanks to my brother and cover artist, Brian Bullard.

Phoenix Rising – Salvage will be released Friday, August 19th Salvageas a Kindle eBook. (As of right now, I do not have a release date for a paperback.)

Description: Fifteen-year-old Thatch is now free of the horrors of Flint Ranch, sent away by a mother who can’t stand the sight of him to live with a father that he’s never met. Rejected and traumatized, he must learn to navigate city life, a new school, and the father-son relationship he had never before dared to dream of.
Flint Ranch

If you are wondering what Thatch has escaped and how, check out Phoenix Rising – FLINT RANCH, available as a Kindle eBook (click cover for link) and in paperback.

Phoenix Rising is a series of novellas narrating how an innocent farmboy named Thatch grows into the notorious serial killer known as the Phoenix.



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