“It’s a major award…”

No leg lamps here. Instead, I present my original story that won the grand prize in Highfield Press’s Autumn 2015 contest. Here is “Connection”…

The crack of the first volley chases tiny black birds from the treetops. Squirrels scurry toward those places where squirrels tend to hide. I too jump, even though I knew it was coming. I just didn’t know when. But now, at least, I know where they are in the service. Notable words of commendation have already been spoken. The flag folded and presented. It’s all very ceremonious and dignified. My grandfather would have been proud.

The second round of gunshots echoes the first. Seconds later, the third and final volley sounds and reluctantly fades. One last brass button on my wool overcoat, and I turn toward the source.

The sound of autumn beneath my highly-polished shoes fills the void as I amble through the cemetery. Pleasant as it might be, the familiar crunching of dry leaves being returned to the soil isn’t my focus. The opening notes of Taps beckons me to make an appearance. The solemn bugling billows up from just over the next hill, bringing with it my pride. As I make my way passed row after row of granite headstones, I know I’m late. I’ve almost missed the ceremony entirely. But for reasons that are solely mine, I’m in no hurry to join the show already in progress. My spiritless gait reflects my motivation, or lack thereof. It can’t be feigned.

“They’re playing your song, Grandpa Joe.” I’m on the fence about whether he can hear me. But I don’t yet want to give in to doubt, so I speak the words as if he were walking broadside. Our connection had always been strong, but circumstances have never been as they are now, and I’m not sure where it stands.

Take away the stone markers, clumps of dried flowers and miniature American flags poking up from the ground like patriotic dandelions, and the cemetery would look very much like the property where we used to hunt upland game. When I was younger, pheasants were my grandfather’s nemesis, and the weather on the best days was just like this. The air crisp. The sky filled with shades of orange against a blue backdrop as trees let go of their summer green.

“You know, Josh,” he would sometimes say as we hiked the hills and valleys, shotguns cradled in the nooks of our arms, “you don’t have to follow in my footsteps. There are safer places than the Corps to hang your hat.”

Even now, as the familiar words are replayed, my mind remains unchanged. There was no other path for me. I was always going to follow in his footsteps whether he wanted me to or not. I was not going to be deterred. Not then, and not now.

The final note of Taps fades out over the valley. When it’s gone, the crinkling of leaves takes up the soundtrack to my stroll. I imagine the pastor offering the final prayer, wanting to send folks away with hope in their hearts instead of despair, but he’s still out of earshot. My plan is to get there just in time to see everyone, but not a moment sooner. Relatives not seen for years will have come from several states away. Hugs will be doled out like charity pamphlets as everyone rises from the rows of chairs setup uniformly beside the coffin. Respects will be paid. It won’t be long before the tears will be drying up and tissues tucked away for the next occasion warranting a dry eye.

A large maroon canvas emerges beyond the crest of the hill. My pace slows even more, and the next breath I take is edged with resolution. The tent’s shadow comes into view, and within it, the crowd is clad in blacks and dark greys. All familiar faces, solemn, yet staunch. My aunt Gweneth is there with her teenage girls. They’ve gotten so big. It’s good to see my father’s cousin, Richard, and I wish the circumstances were different. Even my grandfather’s younger brother, Bill, who’s been confined to a wheelchair since a grain silo accident in ’98, has made the trip. My parents are in a corner, huddled in quiet conversation with the pastor.

Five men dressed in various military regalia stand with their rifles against their chests. My attention is drawn to them, and I recognize two from my grandfather’s VFW post. I think another man is from the recruiting center in the strip mall beside the bookstore downtown. Ironically, he’s the one that recruited me, as if I needed recruiting. The faces of the other two men look vaguely familiar, but their names escape me.

I make my way toward the crowd.

No one stops me as I approach the tent. No one even notices, and it’s a strange sensation. I move through the crowd until I reach the foot of the casket, its glossy finish a steel blue, its handles polished silver. It’s a casket worthy of a decorated Marine back from Afghanistan, early and against his will. My grandfather would be proud.

My enlistment photo, where I’m seated full of determination in front of Old Glory, my cover a brilliant white and my navy blue jacket tightly pressed, sits propped on an easel beside the coffin. It’s a larger version of the one gracing my parents’ mantel, perched beside the encased flag from my grandfather’s funeral. I suppose a second wood and glass triangle will be joining it soon.

My eyes trail to the headstone marking the grave beside mine. Five years of wind, rain and snow have softened the slab’s rough edges, smoothed its finish. Seeing my grandfather’s name etched in the formidable stone brings out a modest smile. It’s when a hand comes to rest on my shoulder that a wave of relief cleanses me. I feel his touch for the first time in years, and I know everything’s going to be okay. The connection is still there.

 

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This story is dedicated to the bravery, sacrifice and memory of LCPL Joshua B. McDaniels. Rest in peace, soldier. Your work is done.

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A New England State of Mind

So my current WIP is set entirely in Massachusetts, primarily on Cape Cod. (Simply ‘The Cape’ to those of you fortunate enough to be personally familiar with the area). Since the location is very prominent in the story, I have been submersing myself in all things Mass/Cape Cod lately. Everything from photos I took on my trip to the area in the fall of 2014, to nautical maps of the coastline, to my new 2016 New England wall calendar (which has brilliant photos, but no description of what or where the photos are. WTH?), all for the sake of staying in that New England mindset while I write.

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But somehow, it doesn’t seem like enough. I’m finding that I would really like to take a quick weekend trip back there and do a little more research, soak up everything the area has to offer. Or at least as much as I can in two days. Eat the food, drive the streets, talk to the people and take a thousand more photos. But on the other hand, I keep asking myself, ‘who do you think you are, Hemingway? Jack London?’ We have this thing nowadays called ‘the Internet.’ People don’t travel for novel research anymore. Anything you would ever want to know about an area or culture is only a few mouse clicks away. Go ahead. Google it and I bet you’ll find what you’re looking for.

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Still, there’s just something about the authenticity of first-hand research that makes me think the novel would benefit greatly from a quick trip; to really infuse the essence of New England and Cape Cod into the story. But then, I also love to travel, so maybe that part of me is subconsciously encouraging the trip, passing itself off as the writer in search of authenticity. Who knows? Maybe it’s a little bit of both. Either way, with or without my own trip, I hope to provide readers of my next book with a little journey to an area I fell in love with long before I ever visited.

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Saying Goodbye to an Amazing Year

As we kiss 2015 goodbye, I have to say, I’m a little sad to see it go. From a writing standpoint especially, this has been one hell of a year. I experienced so many firsts, crossed so many things off my bucket list that made 2015 an incredibly memorable year for me. From signing my first book contracts for both BONE WHITE and BLACKENED, to then seeing those books on actual bookstore shelves, to sitting on convention panels and giving a workshop to a writer’s group. I survived my first public reading in front of a small, yet very supportive audience and was asked by a former college professor to come back and speak to a couple of their classes. The icing on the proverbial cake was seeing a promotion for BONE WHITE triple its projected amount of sales, making it a best-seller on multiple sites.

And while none of this is allowing me to say goodbye to the day job, I am having a hell of a lot of fun with it. But truly, none of it would even be possible without an incredibly encouraging and faithful support group behind me. From my ever-supportive wife and kids who allow me the time and money I need to chase this crazy dream, to my mother who still champions my every achievement, to my publisher who has opened so many doors for me, I thank you all. Your encouragement is appreciated more than you know.

I would also like to thank my ever-patient and supportive friends who no doubt get tired of my exhaustive, yet essential promotion, yet never cut me loose because of it. To the reviewers who have taken the time to offer kind words about my writing, (and a little constructive criticism from time to time), I thank you. Keep it coming.

And finally, to anyone and everyone who has shelled out hard-earned money to purchase any of my labors of love, I thank you wholeheartedly for taking a chance on me. I hope to never disappoint.

With the greatest support group any writer could ever ask for, I am more than excited to see what 2016 has in store. I’m not sure it could possibly live up to 2015, but I can’t wait to find out. Best wishes to all of you and Happy New Year!