State of the Thing: WTF Edition

Greetings from the other side of the apocalypse, readers.

(^The inside of my house, helpfully providing me with a real life demonstration of a post-apocalyptic setting.)

Okay, it’s not really the apocalypse. I just got internet back this week and there are no roaming bands of cannibals in my town, though it was pretty touch-and-go there for a few weeks.

Most of my readership lives in the Panhandle area, so you’re probably pretty familiar with the story here. If you’re from outside the area, here’s a summary:

SHIT. GOT. FUCKED.

Now here’s a slightly longer summary:

In early October, a small tropical storm in the Gulf of Mexico level-grinded its way to a Category 4 hurricane practically overnight. People in low-lying areas at risk of storm surge evacuated a day or two beforehand, along with others who were either more scared or more responsible than the rest of us. Those of us who stayed hunkered down with memes, booze, and a few cans of year-old spaghetti-o’s left over from the last hurricane scare (as dictated by official Floridian hurricane preparation customs), and we made nervous jokes on Facebook right up until Michael landed as a might-as-well-be-Category-5 and blew all our power lines and cell phone towers away.

If you don’t live in Florida and you’re wondering why anyone would even chance staying, please understand that “there’s a tropical storm in the Gulf” is pretty much a constant and unyielding truth in the month of October, as enduring a fact of life as “water is wet,” the “sky is blue,” and “Marvel makes better movies than DC.” This thing was supposed to hit as a category one, maybe a three. By the time it maxed out at a 4.9, it was simply too late to leave. This storm was a BB pellet that we didn’t realize was actually a bullet until it was an inch from our foreheads.

We rode out the storm in our cement disaster shelter, which is built partially into the ground and has a small window with a view of the side yard. We watched a massive tree whip back and forth, alternately threatening our shelter and our neighbor’s house before it finally toppled away from us, splitting the neighbor’s house in two. Luckily, they’d evacuated. We watched a chunk of roof land in front of our bedroom window and took guesses on whose it might be (spoiler alert: it was ours). The window rattled in its frame, the cat howled, the alarm at the school nearby shrieked, and all of that was just barely audible above the roar of the wind and the snapping of trees.

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The dead forest that was left in our backyard. That crumpled gray building? That’s our shed.

When the wind finally settled, we were left with a totaled den (roof torn off, ceiling collapsed), a busted window and water-damaged living room, a tree on the roof of our dining room, a crushed shed, an uprooted sewer pipe, and a house open to the elements. We stayed one night in our sweltering bedroom with the door shut and a pistol on the nightstand in case looters got an early start. Little sleep that night as helicopters criss-crossed the sky overhead and the school’s alarm kept on until midnight. We had no cell service to check on anyone else we knew who had stayed–my in-laws, our friends, our co-workers. First thing in the morning, we packed up what we needed and what we didn’t want stolen in our absence and swerved our way around fallen trees and under drooping power lines to my in-laws to make sure they were okay, then we got the hell out of town, mostly via precarious off-roading.

In the weeks after, we were nomads. We went first to my aunt’s in Alabama, then to my mom’s, spent a night in my sister-in-law’s ex-husbands’s mother’s rented beach house (I’m not making that up), on to my sister-in-law’s apartment while she was out of town, then to my dad’s, then to my parents-in-law’s house, and finally to a borrowed camper in our own backyard. We lived out of suitcases and traveled with a box of canned goods in the car.

At least until I got into my first-ever accident when my car was run off the road into a drainage ditch two weeks after the storm, forcing me to rent an SUV for a while.

Somewhere in the midst of all that, I went out of town for a weekend convention.

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I was incredibly lucky that my inventory and set-up supplies survived. Much of my personal library did not.

I also did my first-ever public book reading and signing event at the Panama City Publishing Company Museum, which was fun and not at all terrifying for a socially awkward person.

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I mostly managed to keep a straight face while reading! Also, over-grown roots was not the badass post-apocalyptic hairstyle I’d always imagined for myself.

I say all that to explain that writing got shifted to the back-burner for a bit, but life experiences are an important part of writing, and I sure as hell wracked up a lot of them in the past couple of months.

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For example, I couldn’t have imagined just how much insulation gets absolutely everywhere in a destroyed/dilapidated environment.

Writing didn’t take a backseat permanently, however. Because I’m a masochist and I’d committed to it before the storm, I did participate in NaNoWriMo despite the current chaos of my life. I had to write at weird times in weird places, but I finished by the skin of my teeth and am now 50,000 words deeper into the Nightlands re-write than I was.

Moving forward, I think my next goal will be to polish up Part I and start shopping it out to beta readers. I’ve also started rewrites on Part II. I’m still looking to finish/publish sometime next year, but it may end up being a little later in the year than I initially anticipated.

Finally, if you’ve managed to stick through this lengthy post full of personal BS so far, I think you deserve a small sample as a reward:

The opening of Nightlands, straight (and potentially typo-ridden) from the re-write.

“You can always come back.”

The words crackled and hissed from a mouth full of ember and char, ashes spilling from soot-stained lips with every syllable, plumes of smoke shaping each word.

The man’s flesh sagged, bloodless and gray. His single dark eye stared into some endless nothing beyond her. A crater marred the left side of his face from the slant of his cheekbone to his forehead, and inside that ragged hole, hellfire pulsed in the ruined meat of his brain. A tiny flame roiled in the divot where his eye should have been.

He stepped back through an open doorway. Firelight gleamed across the polished brass star pinned to his chest, beckoning her. She couldn’t help but follow out into the night.

Flames kissed at the shadows. Smoke swelled against the sky. Around her, neat rows of familiar houses and shops withered, devoured beneath roaring fire.

“Always.” The rasping word sent sparks skittering against the dark. “Come back.”

Smoke pooled around her and heat blistered her back. She’d find no escape in returning the way she’d come, knew that if she turned around, she’d find a pillar of flame rising from the jailhouse.

Ahead of her, the Sheriff reached swollen fingers toward her, palm up. Asking.
Offering.

Her fingers twitched, but she curled them to a fist and closed her eyes to the ruined world, the ruined man. Tried to will the heat and ash and death back into oblivion.

“Come back.”

Another voice, graveled and dark as the earth’s most hidden depths. She whirled in search of its source, her eyes snapping open—

—to find the thin shadows of her bedroom.

Her fingers clenched in her sheets. Every scar carved into her skin ached with memory. Warmth tingled in her veins and then vanished, left her chilled. Her nerves hummed with an adrenaline surge echoed in the drumbeat of her heart.

If she wanted, if she allowed herself, she could slide from the bed without a single creak from the mattress, could slip into shoes and navigate the midnight dim until she’d found her way to open air, as open as the air could be pressed so closely between the brick facades of buildings. She could wander the quiet streets, which were never quiet enough, or run them until her lungs burned or find her way to dangerous places with bad people she could stir into a fight. She could jar the restlessness from her body with exertion or violence or pain and return again with the morning light—empty. Purged.

But she had promised herself that she’d learn to be still, and so she tried to inhale the calm and quiet around her, exhale the frenetic energy of places and times now passed. Sterile city light slithered between the slats of the blinds and sliced ribbons from the darkness, paled the walls just enough that she could see the borders of her new world.

When the thunder of her pulse had softened and the jitter in her limbs had stilled, she eased from the bed and switched on a lamp.

First, her hands sought the bottle of whiskey on her desk, splashed a few sips into the glass beside it, then found the rifle tucked under the bed. As her fingers began to work the weapon apart with the mindless, almost meditative flow of muscle memory and the first stinging sip settled her thoughts, the blood-and-soot stained dream faded until a single detail leapt with sudden, jarring clarity from the chaos.

Somewhere in that unconscious dark, before the dead man and before the fire, she’d seen the glow of golden eyes, like dwindling twilight suns, searching for her. Judging her. Eyes she had seen before, but only in the tangles of other dreams, haunting her like an ill omen.

A chill slithered up her spine. She tried to chase it back with another long sip. Sometimes, she reminded herself, the traumas she dreamed in the night didn’t belong to her at all.

“Come back.”

She searched again for the warmth in her blood, the phantom presence that had once seemed to hum just beneath her skin.

Nothing. Emptiness. Silence.

That final voice that had whispered from among the flames was somehow both more and less a ghost than everything else that had haunted her dreams.

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