Meeting Your Heroes (apparently takes more nerve than I have)

From the time I learned to read until my early thirties, I read books from various genres of fiction. Mainstream best-sellers, mysteries, thrillers, adventures, a few classics here and there. Pretty much everything except romance and Sci-Fi. When it came to horror, I was a King, Saul, Koontz kind of guy. Once the 90s were over, however, and I’d blazed my way through most of their stuff, I got bored and went through a dry spell where I didn’t read much horror at all. So around 2008 or so, when the horror bug bit me again, I turned to that all too helpful tool called Amazon, searching for what everyone else was reading in the horror world. Eventually, I ended up purchasing three paperbacks to get me started: Brian Keene’s Dark Hollow, Bryan Smith’s Depraved and Wrath James White’s The Resurrectionist. And let me assure you, my life would never be the same.

I read Keene’s Dark Hollow first and thought, ‘Holy crap! Is this what I’ve been missing out on?’ It was so much different from King’s sometimes slogging prose. It was fast-paced, concise, thrilling. Then I read Smith’s Depraved and thought, ‘Holy crap! This is what I’ve been missing out on!’ More of the same. A modern take on horror. Finally, I read White’s The Resurrectionist and thought, ‘Holy shit! What was that???” (Let me just say that, while Mr. White is a very talented writer, he’s not for everyone, folks.) So for the next year or so, I went back and forth reading everything of Keene’s and Smith’s I could get my hands on. And that, my friends, is when I decided to take a break from writing heartfelt stories of everyday life and dip my pen in blood and start writing the horror. And I haven’t stopped since.

Fast forward to July of this year, where I had the surreal experience of attending a convention with these two horror masters. While I ended up in the same room with both Keene and Smith numerous times over the weekend, passed them both in the halls here and there, I never once spoke up and said hey, much less introduced myself. No fear of me embarrassing myself by being a fanboy, because, well, I’m just too shy for that nonsense. Besides, I’d convinced myself that the last thing they wanted that weekend was one more nobody kissing their ass. Especially an aspiring horror author. But, it was still cool spending a weekend in the company of these two, not to mention numerous other masters of the horrific that I have discovered and befriended over the years.

So why am I telling you all this? Jump ahead to next weekend. Imaginarium. Louisville, Kentucky. I’ve attended this con every year since its inception. And this year, I’m looking forward to it more than ever. Why, you ask? Well, because this year’s guest of honor is none other than Mr. Brian Keene. While I recently found out that we will not be sharing any panels that weekend (probably a good thing considering I’d undoubtedly get too nervous and make myself look like a wannabe amateur), I will, in fact, be doing a signing with Mr. Keene on Saturday afternoon. Though I’m sure he’s not nearly as excited about it as I am, I think I can handle it without embarrassing myself. Hell, I might even say hello to the man. But blabbering on and on about how his books not only brought me back to horror, but ultimately influenced me to start writing horror myself? Not a @#$% chance. Baby steps, people. Baby steps.

Until next time, my friends…


Temporarily Stepping Away From Horror (Or, Watch As I Bite the Hand That Feeds Me)

Yes, you read that right. I’m temporarily putting down my bone-handled pen that writes in blood for a softer, more gentle one. A pen that actually writes instead of scribbles and scratches. I’m sure you’re probably asking yourself, ‘why the hell would he do that right now?’ I know I’m asking myself that question. Especially at a time when things are really taking off for me as a horror author and my reach is continuing to expand internationally. (Love you too, Canada!) And the answer is very simple, if not a little cliché. The heart wants what the heart wants. Here, let me explain…

My current project, which at this time is still homeless, is an absolute labor of love. It’s a story I originally told way back in 2008 while in college. Back then it was in the form of a screenplay. As the years have come and gone, the plight of the Taylor family has stayed with me, periodically tugging at my shirt lest I forget about them. The problem with a screenplay is that, if no one actually takes it to the screen, then nobody hears the story. It’s like that proverbial tree that falls in the woods. So last year I decided to tell their story a different way. Through a novel. Which at this point in time, is about 90% ready for submission. (unless one of my remaining beta readers blows it up)

Now dramatic (dare I say, literary) writing is nothing new to me. It’s what I used to write almost exclusively. Love, loss and this sometimes screwed up thing we call life. Especially when my sky was much darker and complicated. Almost all of the stories in my Swallowing the Worm collection are this type. Plus, I actually have another similar novel about halfway done. It tells an equally ‘close to my heart’ story that I truly hope sees the light of day at some point. So although it is a labor of love, The Winding Down Hours is not a one-shot deal. I would actually like to pursue two lines of alternating genre releases. As much as I enjoy scaring people and raising their heart rates, I also like to tug at those heartstrings and make them feel as well. (Some might say that my desire to make people cry can be attributed to the same mental deficiency that urges me to scare them.)

But have no fear, my readers of the dark and macabre. I am also currently hard at work on my next horror novel as well. And I think you’re gonna like it. So those of you who choose to voraciously devour your books alone, at night, with the lights off, during a thunderstorm, be patient. It’s still coming. And those of you who have always supported this endeavor of mine, but value your sleep too much to pick up one of my books, I’ll have something for you to try out real soon.

Till next time, my friends…

Putting a Nice Stained, Moth-Eaten Bow on My First Scares That Care Weekend

Waking up on a Monday morning (@#$%!) after a con is kind of like waking from an intense dream. Or, a nightmare if it was a horror con. Only a good type of nightmare. The kind where you fight real monsters and kick their ass. Which is what we did at the Scares That Care Weekend in Williamsburg, VA last week. First and foremost, the convention is a charitable one, put on by Scares That Care, a charitable organization that raises money for those who fight childhood illness, burns and breast cancer every day of their lives. Check out their website for more info… Do it. Do it now. (or after you read the rest of this. That would be fine.)

Waking up the Monday after a Scares That Care Weekend is not much different than waking up after any other con. You’re just a little more groggy and have a little less comprehension on whether or not it was all real. I mean did I actually see Oderus Urungus from Gwar singing 4 Non Blondes karaoke? The cannibalistic Pluto (Michael Berryman) from The Hills Have Eyes sitting at a bar sipping mixed drinks and chatting with people over a plate of wings? WWE’s The Boogeyman (dude is scary!) lifting up an elderly woman like he’s about to perform a BoogeySlam, only to set her back down with a hug and a kiss after the photo’s been snapped? (I’m not even getting into Father Gabriel (Seth Gilliam) and his insistence on not knowing whose head Negan bashed in on The Walking Dead’s season finale. I have my doubts.) Like I said, it all seems unreal. But my wife assures me that it was, so I’ll go with it. She hasn’t steered me wrong yet.

One thing I know that positively happened was that I did a reading for three people. Yes, three. And technically one of them was my wife, Julie, so I did a reading for two people. Yes, two. And technically one of them was my publisher. So yes, I did a reading for one very interested and enthusiastic listener. ONE! The room was so empty it created an echo, but the show must go on, so it did. My last reading drew about fifteen listeners, so apparently I’m heading in the wrong direction. But, I will say the doors had just recently opened to kick off the festivities, and everyone was still excitedly rushing around to take photo ops with their favorite authors/actors/cosplayers. So let’s chalk the lack of audience up to that, shall we? Anyway, the one audience member is an aspiring author who listened intently and asked her questions enthusiastically. We still took up almost the entire allotment of time, so she didn’t complain.

Speaking of authors, there were many great ones at this event, including one of my all-time favorites, Mr. Joe R. Lansdale. (why we don’t celebrate this guy’s birthday as a national holiday is beyond me.) He was incredibly down to earth and very cool to talk to. A natural storyteller of both fiction and non. As much as I love his books, I could sit and listen to him talk for hours. And I told him so as I thanked him for still doing these types of events and sharing his experiences even though he doesn’t need to at this point in his career. But no, I didn’t fanboy. I kept it in check and had a very short, cordial conversation with the man. I also met and shook hands with a few other authors I read, follow and respect in the business…Jonathan Janz, David Bernstein, Kristopher Rufty, Ronald Malfi among a handful of others. All authors you should be reading if you like contemporary horror. I, myself picked up a crap ton of books. At one point it was almost an even swap…sell one, buy one. Which is why I rarely make money at these things and will probably always need a day job.

Speaking of the business end of things, overall, sales were pretty good considering we were located upstairs and quite a few people we spoke to downstairs didn’t even know there was upstairs vending. Probably did as well as most cons I’ve attended where I was right in the middle of things. (It’s amazing how much interest is piqued at a horror convention when you mention one of your books came in at #11 on Horror Underground’s Top Twenty list for 2015.) As well as we did, my goal for next year is to be in the thick of things. (note to self…it will mean getting over your damn insecurities and finally introducing yourself to Brian Keene!)

Anyway, it was a great weekend filled with charity, good will and all things horrific. And if you’re into that sort of thing, they’re doing it again next year. But you’ll have to book your room early, because the host hotel fills up quick. (And then it doesn’t. And then it does again. And then it doesn’t. But I digress.) A HUGE thank you to my publisher, PlotForge Ltd. Been trying to get to this con the past two years and it took their help to make it happen. I am grateful beyond words. Thanks also to fellow authors C. Bryan Brown and Terri-Lynn Smiles for hanging with me all weekend. I couldn’t ask for two better people to share table space with.

Now, back to work on the next book so I can keep attending these things!



Monica 0078BW.jpeg

So I’m hanging out at this gathering of semi-local authors a couple months ago and what to my wandering eyes should appear? But a room full of creative types who like to drink beer. And rum. And bourbon. And wine. But I digress.

 One of those creative types (whose drink of choice I completely endorse) has just released a new book titled, On A White Horse. Author of 20(!) books in all, I am joined today by the prolific, the talented, Ms. Monica Corwin.

 Welcome Monica! Please tell us a little about yourself, your books and what we can expect when we pick one up.

Well I’m a twenty-nine-year-old single mother. I started writing seriously during my time in the military and have never really stopped almost 10 years later. I have a three-year-old daughter, twenty typewriters, and more books about King Arthur than my local library.

I mainly write paranormal romance, but occasionally I dabble in contemporary erotica if I need a change. When you pick up one of my books you should expect an NC-17 rating and a kick-ass female character. Other than that it’s a free for all. I love the paranormal genre because I can go anywhere, do anything, put my characters in limitless situations. I think this is something my readers value in my books.


You’ve just released the second book in the Revelations Series, On a White Horse, with plans for two more. Can you tell us about that series specifically?

This series is a fun one. Basically the four horsemen of the apocalypse (who are actually women) decide they don’t want to end the world and start trying to live human lives. But, as usual when immortals dabble with humans, things happen and plans go awry. The first book, On a Red Horse, featured War. On a White Horse features Conquest. The third will focus on Famine and then the fourth on Death.

Paranormal romance is a growing and very popular genre these days. Can you tell us what it is about the genre that interests you?

As I mentioned before it’s limitless. I try to go outside the box. In my books readers will find sci-fi elements (like in my futuristic paranormal series The Soul Program) and I’ve even been known to do some time-travel (King Takes Queen). Paranormal romance isn’t just the vampires and werewolves everyone assumes. It can be so much more.


Now when you curl up with a glass of wine and a good book on those cold winter nights (and there are a lot of them in Northern Ohio), do you primarily pull from the paranormal romance bookshelf? And if not, what other genres do you pull from?

Well I do read a lot of PNR because I believe strongly that to write in your genre you should know what’s out there (and I enjoy it). I also love fantasy novels (Anne Bishop, Jacqueline Carey, Terry Brooks), YA novels (Julie Kagawa, Maria V. Snyder, Kelly Creagh, Maggie Stiefvater), travel memoirs, beat novels, non-fiction biographies. I pretty much reach anything that looks interesting to me. That’s how you find the best stuff.

Have you ever dabbled in fantasy or YA as a writer?

 I’ve not ventured much outside PNR. It’s easy to write what you know, however, I do plan on maybe trying my hand at a mystery or spy thriller one day. When I get more courageous.

I have numerous writers in my audience, Monica, and if they’re anything like me, they’re probably interested in hearing how other writers operate. So what is your writing routine, and are there certain atmospheres or objects that help bring out your muse? A certain type of music in the background, a special mug with a special something in it, etc.

Oh man. I was just talking about writers and their routines the other day! I don’t really have a set routine. I find I work better at night so usually I will sit down and write at 9pm or so. I also write better outside my home (if during the day) so a jaunt to the local coffee shop is usually in order when I’m trying to crack down on my word count. Other than that I usually like to have a beverage (usually coke) but nothing really necessarily specific.

Now, before I let you go, I’ve learned that besides reading and writing, you have a couple of very intriguing interests, one of them being pencils. The other, which I find very cool, is your passion for antique typewriters. Tell me how you were first drawn to this hobby and a little about your collection.

Well, it fits right in with this interview! I was smack in the middle of the worst case of writers block I’d ever been in. I hadn’t written anything for months and for you writers you know how awful that can be. One of my friends suggested I try something new…write a different way. I thought about it and found a dirty pre-war (that’s WWII) on CL for $20. I cleaned her up and that was one my best writing days ever. I now have WAY more than I have room for but they all have different typefaces, different key strike feel, I can’t have just one. I do love pencils as well. I like to handwrite sometimes too when I’m not feeling words. Sometimes you just sit down at the computer and think ‘nope, not gonna happen’. That’s when I like to hand write. It sort of connects you physically with the paper and the words.

Finally, what’s coming up next for Monica Corwin, and where can we learn more about you and your books?

Well I’m currently working on a stand alone paranormal romance called In My Blood because I need a little break from my two main series. After that my next book will be the second installment of The Soul Program called Sins and Lies. This one is fun because it’s a futuristic take on Dante’s Inferno with a reaper and a sin eater. If you want to keep an eye on what I’m working on check my Pinterest. I always story board there when I begin a new project.

My links are as follows:








The Muse (guest post by Mr. Todd Skaggs)

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, children of all ages…today I have for you a very special treat. I have commenced with beating my controlling personality into submission and handed over the keys to the blog to fellow writer, Todd Skaggs. He wants you to know that his blog, Cooking For One, is not a cooking blog and that this collection of thoughts, photos, rantings, music and other assorted crap that amuses him can be found at Show him some love, won’t you? And without further ado…

The Muse

The concept of a muse has prevailed among creative types since they first graced the text and lore of the ancient Greek. Later adopted by the Romans, the Muses, still considered goddesses in the Pantheon, solidified their place in the collective unconscious of any one sitting in front of a keyboard at 12:01AM when they have to be up in five short hours to report to their “day job.”

The Muses–sometimes three, sometimes nine depending on which dead poet you consult–are the source and blame in most cases of inspiration or lack thereof.

But what is inspiration? That’s a good question.

Duh, Todd. That’s why you’re writing this post, isn’t it? To tell us what inspiration is and how to bottle it?

Maybe. The problem with that is, what inspires me may completely turn you off from doing anything creative in the least. None the less, as writers and wordsmiths, I think it only helps us in the long run to delve a little deeper in to this topic. If only to have a backup plan for when the Muses decide to pile in to a VW microbus and follow Phish around the Pacific Northwest on their tenth “farewell we mean it this time” tour.

I don’t think the type of writer you are matters in this conversation either. The planner with their spreadsheets and pages of notes and outlines or the pantser with their freshly cracked knuckles huddled expectantly over the keyboard will find the same sort of spark. Oh sure, the source is different for everyone. But that spark…that spark is unmistakable.

You know it when it hits–at least I hope you do. For me, as a consummate panster, the inspiration usually comes in the form of a movie. Not some reconstituted bilge water from Hollywood. No, the movies I’m talking about are the ones in my mind. The ones that threaten to take over my waking life so completely that some of the basic societal norms are overlooked. In the midst of working on a piece, I once showed up for work fully dressed, minus the shirt I had neglected to put on under my winter coat. For me it’s a movie that plays out. And when that movie starts, I know I have a limited window to capture the essence of that movie or it’s gone.

But Todd, you haven’t really told us what inspires you or how you know you’re being inspired.

I can’t tell you what inspires me. I don’t know where the stories, or blog posts, or poems actually come from. And if you’re being honest, you probably didn’t really expect me to.

I can tell you, though, what makes me receptive to the inspiration.

Being still. When I am in a place where I can be still, I find that ideas start flowing more freely through the theater of my mind. I see snippets of a scene, like a movie trailer. I write them down or describe them to the tape recorder. If I am awake, I very rarely find myself without a tool upon which to preserve those initial sketches–whether a notebook, recorder, or the voice memo app on my phone, I am seldom without a means to capture some facet of the story. It may be the barest of shells of the story. An outline which threatens to make me a planner. It may be the first and last paragraph of a piece. It could just be a title and a plot point.

The key is, it doesn’t matter what we’re fed. As authors true to ourselves, we have to have some way of recording even that faintest spark of inspiration.

I’m going to let you in on a little secret. I wrote everything above that came before this paragraph over two weeks ago. And it’s probably bullshit. That’s not to say that it might not resonate with you. I hope that it does. One of the things that inspires me as a writer is the hope that something I write will inspire some kind of creativity in others.

But I don’t have a muse. I find inspiration in the things that take my breath away. Like this:



This picture is from my family’s farm in Kentucky. It’s not nearly as breathtaking as the real thing–trust me on that. When something takes my breath away, it causes me to remember something very simple–living in the now. When I live in the now, I see beauty all around me and things fall in to place. That story arc….the remnant of an idea that I was fighting with as I was getting ready for work–all of it clicks in to one glorious place.

When that happens, I have to write. As much as I need to have that breathing start back up again, I have to expel those creative energies.

The inspiration is there. Inside me. It always was. I just have to stop long enough, be still long enough, to listen. And act.

And I guess, looking back over this, that whole bit near the middle about being still was pretty on point. Looks like I just needed to get out of my own way and let the words fall where they may. Full contact writing is never an easy thing to get used to. And if you’re going to heed the call of the Muses and actively seek your source of inspiration, you should take up your shield an armor. The battle you will fight to get those words to page is not without peril.

But the reward…that’s the good stuff. It’s why we do what we do and court the Muses in the first place.



Treetops (Or, Why Jackson Pollock Has Nothing on Me…)

I have this interest that very few people are aware of. It’s a bit different, but then all the great ones always have been. Here goes…(deep breath…exhale)…I like to take photographs of nature. Ah, you say, so does everyone else. And you would be correct. But my interest goes beyond the everyday photos of a duck on a pond or the purple of Spring’s first rhododendron bloom. What I enjoy is taking photos of treetops. From the ground up. Here, let me show you…


 Utilizing the sky as a canvas, the treetops add a splash of color against it. To me, they resemble abstract paintings, each one beautiful and different. Mother Nature’s own Jackson Pollocks. Just like any other photos, the results are altered by the amount of light and shadow…


 Every season offers a different canvas, a different palette of colors to choose from. Autumn presents a very broad palette…


While Winter can be stark, yet just as remarkable…

(and no, this is not a B&W photo)


 Now, I could go on and on about why I enjoy photographing treetops, (it’s like painting the sky)but I’m not an art instructor. And as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words. So for me, these speak volumes…








(I seemed to have misplaced most of my Spring and Summer treetop photos. They’re stunning and probably on my old laptop. When I come across them, I will post them at a later date.)


The First Rule of Write Club…

Writing, like boxing, is an individual sport. Unless they’re co-authoring a research paper or in the rare case of attempting to collaborate on a novel (many of us like the idea of this, but fear the execution), writers generally spend countless hours working solo, locked away in self-induced solitary confinement. True, there may be other people around at times, (if they’re writing at a coffee shop or local drinking establishment) but the writer won’t know these people personally. There’s no pressure to keep up conversation with them, nor match them shot for shot while trying to forget someone. To the writer blistering their laptop’s keyboard or feverishly draining their pen’s ink onto notebooks, those other people may as well not even be there. The only company a writer keeps whilst writing is that of their characters. Hemingway probably said something like that once, but nobody really knows for sure.

But every once in awhile (like every third Wednesday or second Saturday of the month) we writers like to seek out the fellowship of other like-minded souls, which often comes in the form of a writing group. If you’re considering joining a local writing group, keep in mind that just like any other club, there are both pros and cons to the association. And above all else, there are rules. Unspoken as they may be, there are definitely rules that govern writing groups. Especially if the group is to be successful. And if you don’t want it to be successful, then why bother?

Ergo, the rules of write club are as follows…

  • The first rule of write club is you DO talk about your writing group. Especially to other writers. There is no need for secrecy here, and gaining new members occasionally is actually beneficial. There is the potential of a group becoming too large, but if kept to a manageable size, the broader and more diverse the group’s members in terms of experience and level of knowledge the better. Like with any good business, you want your group to thrive and grow. New blood is seldom a bad thing.
  • The second rule of write club is that continued attendance, while not mandatory, is strongly encouraged. While life dictates that one must miss a meeting from time to time, a group can only function with purpose if those within it show up and participate on a regular basis. If members aren’t showing up, the integrity of the group is hampered and the work being done within it suffers. (Then Rule #1 comes back into play)
  • The third rule of write club is you must demonstrate goodwill at all times. When requesting a critique from others, you must be willing to accept said feedback graciously, regardless of your level of agreement. Most often, the critique you receive will be legitimate and useful, if not favorable. But this won’t always be the case. Just keep in mind that while you may not agree with the feedback, it shouldn’t be taken as an offense or an all-encompassing indictment of your writing ability. It’s one person’s opinion, and you know what? You even asked for it. Learn what you can from it and move on.
  • The fourth rule of write club is, if you are continually asking for feedback, you must be prepared to offer it as well. Reciprocation is paramount, and with more substantial feedback than simply ‘I liked it.’ Feedback like this wouldn’t help you, and it won’t help anyone else, either. Take the time. Do the work. They did it for you.
  • The fifth and final rule of write club is that everyone must do their part in making all group members feel secure enough to speak openly within its confines. If any member doesn’t feel comfortable speaking up, either at the fear of being ridiculed, their thoughts brushed off or otherwise, they won’t get their questions answered. Not only won’t they get the benefits of being in a writing group, but they won’t grow as a writer, either. And honestly, isn’t that why most of us join a writing group in the first place?

So there you have it. Now spread the love.

The Importance of the Opening Chapter (Or, How Much is Your Money/Time Worth To You?)

How important is the first chapter of a book? Oh, I don’t know. How important is that first bite of steak you’re about to drop $30 dollars on at the new steakhouse everyone’s been talking about? It’s all about first impressions. If that first bite is too rare, full of gristle or just plain bad tasting, are you going to continue eating it or are you going to send it back for something else? For me, I’m sending it back. I rather like my money and if I’m going to spend that much of it on a meal, that meal better be everything I hoped it would be.

The same goes for the first chapter of a book. Like my money, my time is important to me. My ‘books to be read’ stack continues to grow by the day. I’ve already resigned myself to the fact I’ll never get through them all. The reality is there will still be unread books on my shelves long after I’m dead and gone. So when I pick up a new book, that first chapter better interest me. It doesn’t have to be the best piece of writing I’ve ever read. It doesn’t have to lay the entire story at my feet. But it better at least pique my interest. It should compel me to read on for one reason or another. Preferably because I care for the characters already, though that’s not an absolute requirement of mine. A chapter that simply makes me wonder ‘what’s gonna happen next?’ will suffice. Otherwise, like that bad steak, I’m sending that particular book back for something else. And I’ve done this more than a few times.

Now some people will say, ‘give it a chance. It might get better.’ But no. First impressions, remember? Right or wrong, I figure if the author can’t come up with a compelling first chapter, how interesting could the rest of the book be? And how much time do I want to waste ‘hoping’ the book gets better. Remember that growing stack of books I mentioned? Well, they’re not going to read themselves. And if somebody is going to read them, I would prefer that somebody be me. I was the one, after all, who shelled out the cash for them in the first place. Otherwise, think of all the great steak I could’ve bought instead.

Wanna Play a Game?

Here’s how it works:
Take a look at the bracket. There are 64 movies listed that will go head to head. For example, The Godfather will go up against Rocky, Talladega Nights will compete against The Jerk and so on. Votes will be cast to determine everyone’s favorite between the two. The movie with the most votes will move on to the next round. We will continue this for the next couple of weeks until there is only one movie left standing.
Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to decide NOW (before voting starts tomorrow, 3/9) which of the 3 movies you think has the best chance to win it all. At the end, if the winning movie is in your list of 3, then you have a chance to win either a gift card  to Amazon or Starbucks or your choice of 3 signed books.
It’s easy, it’s fun, so let me your top 3 and get ready to start voting tomorrow!
MMM Bracket

“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.