Writing

Brass sundial, back garden, kale tree, arugula and lavender in bloom, May 2019

Retread #7: Gardening is Like Writing (and vice versa)

We’re still in the throes of painting the living room, after living with ugliness for nearly 27 years. (More than a quarter century!) The project has finally reached the actual painting stage, after weeks of surface prep. (Painting Secret #1: Surface prep takes way longer than painting, especially in old houses). So I’m still mining old posts. This one is from October 2013.

While cleaning up the debris from a recent windstorm [in October 2013], I thought, “This is sort of like editing — removing elements that obscure the beauties of the garden, analogous to deleting superfluous prose that obscures the niceties of plot and character.”

So are there other similarities [between gardening and writing]?

Scads of them: both are acts of creation, both involve a certain artistry, faith, hope, hard work and luck. Different types of gardens (herb, vegetable, rose, and rock gardens, for example) are analogous to fiction genres such as mystery, fantasy, and romance. Planning and planting a garden is very like starting to write a novel. There is an intention, but the conclusion is by no means guaranteed. Bad weather and the gardener’s lack of skill can prevent a happy outcome; in writing, the same results from the writer’s lack of skill and consequent lapse in enthusiasm. The metaphors of pruning and weeding as editing are obvious.

The difference is that a garden consists of living things. A failed garden is not a barren one; it’s just taken over by opportunistic plants, a.k.a. weeds. A failed novel is just a static text file or unvisited pile of paper. (The paper may eventually turn into a kind of compost heap, but that’s another issue).

That’s the most important difference between the two, I think. A gardener works in the whirl of the natural world. Weather, bugs, birds, deer, squirrels and raccoons leave their marks. Plants grow with incredible vigor or die unexpectedly. The garden changes in ways unintended by the gardener. Out there, I know I am not working alone.

In the writing room, there’s just me and my imagination. If I don’t spin something up from the black well, there is no progress. Yes, sometimes my characters have wills of their own. Sometimes dialogue writes itself. Sometimes the plot goes off in an unexpected direction. Writing in the white heat of obsession is an amazing experience. But I have to be present and willing to work, or nothing happens.

Gardening is real. There is nothing more real than dirt under the fingernails and the scent of lilies on a July evening. Virtual gardening is an impossibility; you have to get away from the screen. And writing, I’m coming to realize, is the same, for me anyway. In order to create original, long-form prose, I need hours of off-screen time, but achieving it is a lot harder than stepping out the door and picking up a spade, rake or set of clippers. I don’t know how to kindle the spark of obsession that makes writing the first priority.

Then there’s the question of success. Can a writer claim to be successful if no one reads or appreciates their work? I don’t think so. But I don’t care what anyone thinks of my garden. People do say nice things about it, and I like that, but if no one saw it or commented on it, I wouldn’t care. As long as I see beauty there at regular intervals, and healthy plants going through their annual cycles, I know I have success as a gardener. But in the absence of positive signals from others about my writing, it’s really hard to convince myself that I’m a good writer. And there is no simple way to elicit those positive signals. If you give someone a basket of vine-ripened, homegrown tomatoes, they are apt to thank you and praise your generosity. A 500 page novel, on the other hand, is a gift that demands [the receiver’s time and attention], and [it] does not always result in squeals of delight.

I was a gardener before I became a writer, and I will be a gardener as long as I am physically able, but I’m not sure I’ll always be a writer. The garden wins in the end.

Now, in 2019, I no longer believe that a piece of writing is nothing more than marks on paper or electronic blips on a screen. Writing is spun out of the writer’s brain, heart, and spirit, just as plants come from soil, water, and sunlight. Until the words are written down they are intangible, but no less organic for that. The marks and blips are only the medium.

And in 2013 I forgot to mention how well the physical aspect of gardening complements writing. It gets me away from the desk and computer, outside into Nature, and makes me pay attention to flowers, scents, and creatures. The exercise I get from gardening isn’t like a gym workout or going for a run. It’s incidental to the main activity, which may be raking leaves, shovelling compost, hefting the 20 kg sack of magic dust, holding a balanced position while tying a string to a stake, or bending and straightening in order to weed, plant, or just check on what’s going on.

While I’m in the garden, the writing part of my brain enters an inactive but receptive state in which new ideas can emerge without any pressure to crank out words. The trick, of course, is to remember them, but that’s easily done by means of a grubby little notebook and pencil stub in the pocket.

For me, gardening and writing are the perfect combination. Summer is prime time for gardening, and winter is ideal for writing. Dormant ideas can mature while I weed and deadhead, to grow and bloom in the dark time of the year.

manuscript and notebook She Who Comes Forth work in progress

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To be or not to be? Maybe not!

I’m reading a lot of posts these days about “crutch” words, weak words, and other words that writers should avoid. One of these pariah words is “was.” “Was”? Really? The past tense of the word designating existence or essence? “I am what I am” and similar declarations come to mind. I remembered a post I wrote in 2012 about this very topic. Instead of reposting it, I reworked it here to explore the issue in a more nuanced way.

In a recent meeting of my critique group [in 2012], someone said that “was” imparts an inherent passivity to a sentence or paragraph. I agree that the true passive voice often used in academic writing, as in “A was killed by B,” has (almost) no place in fiction writing. But does that apply to any instance of “was”?

This is a tough one [for me].  You can’t just sweep through a piece of writing vacuuming up every instance of “was” (or its plural cousin “were”). The easiest targets are instances of the true passive voice, such lumpy atrocities as “The sandwich was eaten by him.”  But what about “The house was red”? I don’t think “The house had been painted red,” is any improvement. “Had been” is “was” in disguise, isn’t it? “Was” (a three-letter, one-syllable word!) is indispensable in certain situations.

And what about “is”? “Is” is just “was” in present tense, but I don’t hear anyone accusing it of excessive passivity (probably because most fiction is written in the past tense).

Reading something about standards for metadata [in my job at the time], I found the following:  “Contexts are of two kinds: Events in which (or as a result of which) something changes, and States, in which they don’t.” In fiction writing, descriptions of linked events are desirable because they contain action, but descriptions of states, in which nothing changes, must be regarded with suspicion and kept to a minimum. As though description is an ever-present irritant, like ants at a picnic.

With respect to my fellow writers [I argued in 2012], before counting instances of  “was” (or any other word) in a sentence or paragraph, the critic should ask whether that sentence or paragraph reads smoothly and contributes to the story. “Was” after all, is the past tense of the verb “to be.” Being something or having a specific quality is inherently not an event but a state. I am old. You are young. He was young once. We will all be dead some day. Which is why it’s stupid to quibble about every instance of  “was”.

Okay, end of sermon circa 2012. Back to 2019. The nub of the problem is events vs. states. All you can do with a state is describe it. Describing something or someone in past tense is bound to require the word “was.” But too much description in a novel or story is about as welcome as ants at a picnic. Excessive description is surely the stuff readers skip (harking back to Elmore Leonard and his much-quoted rules).

Instead of devising some sort of circumlocution to avoid the forbidden word, maybe we should focus on chunks of description in which it’s found, and ask ourselves if they’re necessary.

This is the paragraph a couple of my fellow critiquers pounced on back in 2012, with the offending words emphasized:

Soon we were clear of the harbour and the treacherous ledge near its entrance.  By now it was plain that it was going to be one of the blue and golden early autumn days that are a blessing of this coast.  There was a steady breeze, a little south of west, ten knots or so, I estimated.  The waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca were dark blue, the mountains on its far side blue as well, their peaks white with eternal snow.  The sky, which had been a cold turquoise when we set out, was flushed with pink and gold, and as we prepared to raise the sails the sun rose, flooding the world with colour and warmth.

As someone pointed out, every sentence has an occurrence of “was” or “were.” After some denial and grumbling, I made changes, reducing the instances of “was” and “were” from six to three (although “had been” is a member of the “was” family. This is how the paragraph looks in the published version of the book (except for the italics, of course).

By the time we left the harbour and cleared the treacherous ledge near its entrance, it was plain that we were to have one of the blue and golden early autumn days that are a blessing of this coast.  A steady breeze blew, a little south of west, ten knots, I estimated.  The waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca were dark blue, the mountains on its far side blue as well, their peaks white with eternal snow.  The sky, which had been a cold turquoise when we set out, flushed with pink and gold and as we prepared to raise the sails the sun rose, flooding the world with colour and warmth.

Better, but not perfect. Returning to that paragraph yet again, with a freshly sharpened editor’s scalpel in hand, I could do the following (added words in ALL CAPS):

Soon we were clear of OUTSIDE the harbour and past the treacherous ledge near its entrance,  By now it was plain that it was going to be one of the blue and golden early autumn days that are a blessing of this coast.  There was a steady SOUTHWESTERLY breeze a little south of west, ten knots or so, I estimated, RIPPLED the dark blue waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. were dark blue, the mountains on its far side blue as well, their peaks white with eternal snow.  The sky, which had been a cold turquoise when we set out, was  flushed with pink and gold, and as we prepared to raise the sails the sun rose, flooding the world with colour and warmth.

I deleted the weather forecast and the narrator’s musings, and whisked the snow-capped mountains out of sight. Here is the result, cleaned up:

Outside the harbour and the treacherous ledge near its entrance, a steady southwesterly breeze rippled the dark blue waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The sky, a cold turquoise when we set out, flushed pink and gold, and as we prepared to raise the sails the sun rose, flooding the world with colour and warmth.

Not a “was” in sight. Even I have to admit it’s better. I could work through the entire book (Islands of the Gulf Volume 1, The Journey), making improvements like these. But I’m not going to. That book is beyond the editing stage. It is what it is.

Image by Bischoff49 from Pixabay

Retread #5: The Rules of Writing: Fun to Make and Break

A sudden painting project means at least one more retread for the blog. I saw a post about Elmore Leonard’s writing rules recently, which brought to mind this post from February 2012. No grumpiness warning needed.

Recently [in 2012] CBC Radio issued a challenge to its followers to write sentences breaking Elmore Leonard’s ten rules of writing. I suspect the assumption was that the results would be examples of really bad writing, and therefore chuckleworthy.

Setting the challenge aside here, I wonder if that assumption is justified. Surely it depends on what kind of thing a writer is writing. Rules that apply to gritty, hard-boiled urban fiction may be totally wrong for romance, or fantasy, or Literature with a capital “L.” There may be a few fundamental rules that apply to all writing, but I’m not sure that Elmore Leonard’s list qualifies.

I have to admit, this topic of Rules of Writing is one that I find hard to leave alone. It’s like salted nuts, or maybe like a burr, because I find such rules irritating. Never mind whose rules they are; as soon as I perceive that someone is pontificating to writers (even other writers), I go into combat mode, or at least argument mode. A year ago the Guardian newspaper published writing rules by a large number of writers. Some are quirky, or just funny. From Canada’s own Margaret Atwood:  take two [italics mine] pencils with you on planes, in case one breaks and you can’t sharpen it because no one can take a knife on a plane any more. (But are those little stick-it-in-and-twist pencil sharpeners confiscated by security, I wonder?) See what I mean about arguing?

So what about Mr. Leonard’s rules? I agree with a few of them, such as the one about avoiding adverbs (words that end in “ly,” including “suddenly”) — and not just to modify “said.” Ditto exclamation points and dialect.  Also, I would add, italics.

But I think some of the rules are too restrictive. Yes, it’s best to carry dialogue with “said,” but sometimes you need another word, as when a character doesn’t just say something, but splutters, groans, sighs or mutters. Words like these add texture and juiciness. They should be used sparingly, like spices, but not banished from a writer’s vocabulary.

Come  to think of it, Mr. L. uses “never” way too many times in his rules.

Weather and description. Mr. L. says never to start a book with weather and to avoid descriptions of people, places or things. I think it’s a matter of degree. Having your character stand there like a dummy while you give a verbal snapshot of their clothing, hair and accessories doesn’t work. But readers want to know something about your main characters, including what they look like. The trick is to create vivid images of them by slipping details into sections of action or dialogue, so people don’t even recognize the descriptive bits as such.

As for weather and places, these can be opportunities for “beautiful writing,” the kind that gives the writer a frisson when he or she reads it over at the end of a writing session. The trouble is that readers don’t always share those frissons and often skip over those sections to find out what happens next. Sad but true, at least for plot-driven books. Writers of the literary type may get away with beautiful writing, because they attract readers who enjoy that sort of thing.

Rule #10 is one of those sneaky lines that gets remembered and quoted; it’s also guaranteed to induce anxiety in the insecure writer (and just about all of us are insecure at some point). “Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.” So what parts are those? Here is my quick top-of-brain list of what to look for in your never-ending revision sessions:  1. Long paragraphs that contain extended descriptions or backstory, even though the writing is beautiful. Consider cuts or moves. 2. Extended sections of dialogue with no action, especially those where the speakers are not identified. 3. Long action sequences of the sort where all hell breaks loose for several pages. They may be crammed with verbs, but when they go on and on, the little movie-maker in the reader’s brain gets tired and wants a break. Have your characters go for a drink and talk about the weather.

Image from Pixabay

Retread #4: Hey, There’s That Dog Again!

Continuing the “retreads,” posts from my archives, here’s one from July 2014. It was read by only one person on its first outing, as far as I can tell. And this was before a dog joined our household. Now, with four retreads, I have enough wheels for a vehicle. Oh wait — I might need a spare.

Our dog, Nelly the Newfoundland, at Genoa Bay in January 2019.

I’m a big fan of Gary Larson’s Far Side and rue the day he stopped drawing those bizarre and wickedly funny cartoons. One of my favourites shows a couple of typical Larson cows discovered in the act of drawing a meat chart of a human figure. The caption reads: Farmer Brown froze in his tracks; the cows stared wide-eyed back at him. Somewhere, off in the distance, a dog barked.

I recently read a review of a book I’m reading — Guy Gavriel Kay’s Under Heaven — taking the author to task for ending a scene with the “ultimate cliche” of a dog barking in the distance.

I googled the phrase, wondering just how much of a cliche it could be. A 2010 article in Slate listed authors from James Joyce to Jodi Picoult who have put variations on this barking dog into their novels. Kurt Vonnegut used it consciously as a kind of leitmotiv in Slaughterhouse Five.

Side note: compiling this information is a lot easier now that ebooks can be searched for particular words or phrases. I’m betting the average reader would hardly notice these recurrent dogs (except as they are used in Slaughterhouse Five, where they are meant to be noticed).

Eventually, an uneasy feeling crept into my ruminations. Could there be — oh, surely not! — a barking dog somewhere in the Herbert West Series, written by one A. Driscoll? I pulled up the books on Adobe Reader and searched on “dog.” And there it was, in Islands of the Gulf Volume 2, The Treasure. Young Herbert West, during an awkward “date” with a girl called Violet, hears a dog barking in the distance when he should be carried away with the thrill of kissing Violet.

Well, dang!

So really — what’s going on here? Why do so many writers, including quite a few highly-regarded ones, make this barking dog an accessory to scenes in their novels? In my case, it was unconscious. I lived the scene as I wrote it, and I heard that dog. Revisiting this scene in the course of multiple revisions of the text, I never considered deleting the dog.

That Larson cartoon is a parody of the Moment of Crisis, as when Farmer Brown realizes those cows are Up To Something Serious. Even while laughing at the cartoon, I was reminded of similar moments in various novels, where a terrifying realization breaks upon the protagonist. They know I’m a fake. He’s planning to kill me. Those things aren’t human.  Here, the barking dog is more than a filler; it’s a reminder of the ordinary world in which the terrible thing is happening, highlighting the contrast between the mundane and the terrible.

If you find a barking dog in a piece of your writing, put out the dog and reread the paragraph. If its fine without the dog, leave it out. If a necessary tinge of poignancy is missing sans dog, let it back in.

Things other than dogs may serve the same purpose if the presence of a dog is either implausible in the situation or the writer is dutifully trying to avoid cliches. Consider the following:

A bird sang far away, and another replied, nearby.

A little breeze stirred the curtains.

A moth bumped against the lampshade.

A burst of laughter erupted from the street.

A siren wailed in the distance. (This one may be just as common as the dog).

On the other hand, the barking dog may be seen as a secret detail that unites a diversity of writers. William Faulkner, Jackie Collins, Chuck Palahniuk, Stephen King and Henning Mankell are all members of the Order of the Barking Dog. So am I.

Cartoon image from:
https://www.commonsenseevaluation.com/2016/01/21/cartoon-of-the-day-farmer-brown/

About Writers…Slouching through the Mire.

Here is a post by Roger about some of the tough parts of being a writer. Be sure to read to the hopeful end!

heroicallybadwriter

Some things have to be said. Not in an upbeat way, nor in a method as if lecturing a group of new students. Somethings require airing not as a rallying call or a rousing appeal to follow things’ my way and all will be well’.

Some things need to be warned about.

If a writer doesn’t go through the following experience they are either very lucky, blessed, not telling the truth, or not writing properly.

Of course I am writing about those dread episodes when everything seems either pointless, hopeless or fearful. (The latter turns up after success and the writer fears they will never better that).

These demons come in various forms; for instance either in a slough of grey despondency when even opening the cover of the laptop seems to be a supreme effort, OR the sharp pain when you happen to spy someone else’s (never mind who)…

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The Ice Cream Truck from Hell ~ Afterword

As the infernal ice cream truck’s taillights vanish into the night, I thought I would answer some of the questions readers might have about the story without even realizing it.

What gave me the idea for the story? Late one afternoon years ago, possibly in September, I heard the unmistakable sound of an ice cream truck’s unmodulated tune close to my house. That was weird, because I’d never heard one around here before — or since, come to that. There is a popular public beach not far from here, and maybe ice cream trucks visit it in summer. Maybe one of them turned on its music en route. But it was the wrong time of day and year — odd enough to make me wonder about it. The phrase “ice cream truck from Hell” popped into my mind uninvited. And I’m pretty sure the tune it was playing was the one known as “Brahms’ Lullaby.” Apparently it is in the repertoire of real ice cream trucks, like this one.

A couple of years later, I started writing the story, but abandoned it after a few pages. It stayed in my mind, though, and when I recently read a couple of serial stories on Beetleypete’s blog, I decided to try writing one myself. I remembered the ice cream truck story and publicly declared I was going to finish it and get it blog-ready by the end of April. And now I’ve done it.

For some reason, I had the devil of a time (ha ha) writing the story. For one thing, it kept trying to be in first person, with Will as the narrator. I didn’t want to do it that way. I’ve written a bunch of novels in first person. I love first person. But I wanted to do this in third person, from Will’s p.o.v. but not narrated by him.

Once I wrestled it into third person, I had to deal with the Graveyard Scene. “What graveyard scene?” readers will ask. The one I deleted. The boys were to hide in a graveyard after running away from the devilish driver of the ice cream truck. I thought this would be a nice little twist, since graveyards are usually considered anything but refuges, especially at night. I even had Doof camping out in a graveyard, behind a mausoleum. But it just didn’t work, geographically or logistically. When I cut the graveyard scene, the whole thing began to come together.

Something I’ve found while editing recently, is the effectiveness of moving paragraphs and sentences around. Not deleting and rewriting, just changing the order. Of course, some deleting and rewriting is needed after doing these shifts, to clean up the seams and edges, but it’s amazing how shuffling blocks of text around can improve the flow of a piece of writing.

Finally, those header images. I put them together on Canva long before I finished writing the story. The time and effort I invested on them was an incentive to get the damned thing (ha ha) finished. One of them is kind of comical, the other creepy. I couldn’t decide which one to use, so I kept both of them, using the comical one for the first three parts and the creepy one for the last four.

Thank you to everyone who read the story and offered encouraging comments. I can feel Will and Doof wanting me to keep writing their story, but so far I’m resisting. (But will Doof ever want to get away from Mr. Phlogisto? How did Blaze, Pyro, and Ember come to work for him? And what about Will? Does he continue to defy his dad’s bullying? Does he ever meet up with Doof again? Hmm.)

Finally, here’s a discussion from 2006 about annoying ice cream trucks. The sixth item, by someone called Olena, sounds eerily familiar!

The Ice Cream Truck from Hell ~ Part 7

Three shapes surrounded them as they approached the ice cream truck. In the uncertain light from a distant streetlight and the multicoloured whirl of the ice cream cone on top of the truck, it was hard to make out their faces. All three wore black coveralls with some sort of red symbol on the breast pocket, the same outfit as Doof’s. One of them might have been a girl.

I’m dreaming, thought Will. This is a dream, so don’t worry, just go with the flow.

“Blaze, Pyro, and Ember,” said Doof, pointing to each of them in turn. “This is my friend Will.”

“Another new hand?” said Blaze. He pushed his face close to Will’s, close enough that Will smelled something like hot motor oil and saw a tiny tattoo on the boy’s cheek. Three points joined at the bottom. A trident, same as the symbol on their uniforms.

“N-no! Not me!” Will backed up a couple of steps. “I was just talking to Doof.”

“Doof! That’s not his name. He’s Ash.”

“I got a new name. That’s part of the deal.” Doof was still wearing that goofy grin.

“Okay, Ash, how about we get your friend a treat? What would you like, Will? Popsicle or ice cream cone?” Ember was a girl. She had a trident tattoo as well.

Remember, you’re dreaming. “I’ll have an ice cream, please.”

Ember jumped into the back door of the ice cream truck and appeared in the sales window. “I recommend Cinnamon Glow. It’s one of our starter flavours. You wouldn’t be able to handle Sulphur Surprise, never mind a Brimstone Sundae!” She popped a scoop of bright red ice cream into a black cone. As she handed it to Will, her sleeve pulled up, revealing an iron bracelet that looked too heavy for her wrist.

The ice cream glowed like a live coal, but tasted cold. As Will swallowed, his sinuses filled up with hot cinnamon, like he’d just swallowed a handful of red heart-shaped candies. He shuddered and took another lick. He couldn’t stop.

“Who do you guys work for?” asked Will.

Blaze, Pyro, and Ember looked at each other. “The Boss,” said Blaze.

“The man downstairs,” said Pyro.

“Mr. Phlogisto!” said Ember.

A sharp snap-crack sounded nearby. “Heya, heya, kids! Time to pack up! Nothing doing here.” That buzzing voice again. Blaze, Pyro, and Ember scrambled toward the truck and the figure that stood near it. It was freakishly tall, probably because of the two upward-pointing projections on its head.

“I’ve gotta go, Will.” Doof’s head swivelled back and forth between Will and the ice cream truck’s driver.

Will threw the remains of his ice cream cone on the ground, where it burst into flame and vanished. He turned to Doof.

“Do you know where this ice cream truck comes from?”

Doof nodded.

“Doesn’t that bother you?”

“Not as much as coming home and seeing my dog hung up dead.”

“Well, I guess I won’t be seeing you at school anymore,” said Will.

Doof nodded again, with a smirk.

“Do you get paid? Like a real job?”

“Room and board,” said Doof. “But that’s not all—”

A sharp snap-crack sounded nearby.

“Hey Ash! Time to go. The Boss is getting impatient. ‘Bye, Will!” Will wasn’t sure who said what as the three piled into the truck.

“Okay, I’m coming!” Doof’s voice broke Will’s trance. “Not just room and board,” said Doof, “They grant wishes! I wished for a dog and—” He glanced at the truck, whose engine fired up, shooting flames out both tailpipes. “‘Bye, Will. Maybe I’ll see you again someday.”

Doof held out a hand. As they shook, Will saw a bracelet just like Ember’s on Doof’s wrist. “C’mon Gryph!” Doof ran to the truck and jumped in, the dog hot on his heels. The doors banged shut and the service window slammed down.

The driver stood near the truck. A pair of glowing red eyes focussed on Will. He felt their heat moving around his face, exploring it, memorizing it. The figure lifted a hand and pointed at him. A grin appeared below the eyes. A whip cracked, shooting purple sparks into the air around it.

A dream, it’s only a dream. But something curled around Will’s ankle, hot and stinging. He turned and ran until his chest was about to explode and he tripped and fell.

The truck rolled down the road, leaving Will lying there, quivering, alternately hot and cold. That frenetic music floated back to him, slowly fading into the distance. Lullaby and good night. Did we give you a fright? We’ve got fire and ice. You don’t have to be nice… The music turned into a siren. Now the ice cream truck was an ambulance from hell. Its mission was hurting, not helping. Only those that deserve it.

Will turned and shambled in what he hoped was the right direction. It seemed a lot farther than he remembered. A patrolling policeman spotted him and took him home.

Will’s Mom kept him home from school the next day His head ached and his stomach roiled queasily. When he felt well enough to get up, it was almost supper time. Putting on his socks, he noticed a narrow red line around his left ankle. It tingled when he rubbed it.

His dad was in the living room. The newspaper he was reading descended a few inches when Will came in. “Feeling better, son?”

Will nodded.

“Ready to tell me what you were doing last night?”

Will shrugged. “Not really.”

Will’s dad folded his newspaper and stood. “Answer me properly. You were with that lowlife kid, weren’t you? Harold somebody. Am I right?”

Will stared at a headline. Fire at Shady Grove Trailer Park. One Man Dead.

“Actually, Dad, you’re wrong.”

THE END

The Ice Cream Truck from Hell ~ Part 6

That night, Will dreamed a dog was barking, barking, barking. Then he was awake. His clock said 3:09. What a weird time to be awake. He didn’t have to pee, but he went and did that anyway, to make being awake feel normal. Before getting back into bed, he looked out the window. Just in case.

Faintly illuminated by the light on the street, a dog sat on the front walk. A big dog, really big, wearing a collar that glowed in the dark.

The dog from the ice cream truck.

Will pushed the window open and leaned out. The dog raised its head and looked right at him with eyes that glowed like a flashlight whose battery was almost dead. It had something in its mouth. It dropped the thing onto the pavement, a dark, shapeless object, not very big. Shapeless until the dog nosed and pawed it into a recognizable shape.

A baseball cap. Doof’s ball cap?

“Doof?” Will hung out of his window and looked around. Why would the dog have Doof’s cap? If Doof was nearby, he’d be wearing it. The dog settled down on its haunches again. It was waiting. Waiting for Will. The dog wanted him to go with it.

Will pulled on some clothes and crept down the stairs, just like the night he’d sneaked out to meet Doof and look for the ice cream truck. Except this time he didn’t stop every time a step creaked; he just hoped his parents wouldn’t wake up.

The dog met him halfway between the back door and the driveway. It was carrying Doof’s cap again.

“Do you know where Doof is?” asked Will. The dog’s collar wasn’t spitting sparks this time, but it was glowing a faint orange, same as the fur on the backs of the dog’s legs and its tail. It turned and trotted toward the street, where it stopped as if waiting.

Will followed the dog, who loped purposefully along, heading toward that fringe of downtown where the boys had first had a good look at the ice cream truck. This time, the gas station was closed and dark. No one was around. They crossed the train tracks and headed toward the empty lot where the truck had been that time.

There stood the ice cream truck, with its kaleidoscope of flashing lights. Will stopped and stared at it, but the dog kept going. When it realized Will was no longer close by, it stopped and looked back at him.

The dog turned and shambled toward Will. It thrust its snoot up and shook the baseball cap. Its eyes glowed dark orange, but Will thought they looked sad. Sad and impatient, as though the dog was thinking “How long is this chump going to stand there?”

“Okay,” he said, “I’m coming.”

As they approached the ice cream truck, a figure detached itself from its black shadow and came toward them. The dog lurched into a run toward it. It was Doof. He wore black clothes that looked like some sort of uniform.

“Hey, Will,” said Doof. “You got my message. Good boy, Gryph!” This to the dog, who capered around him. Doof took the ball cap from its mouth, shook it out, and put it on his head.

Doof held a popsicle that glowed like it was red hot, but he put it in his mouth and licked it. He grinned. “Delicious.”

“What… what’s it taste like?” said Will.

“Red hot cherry ice,” said Doof. “Want to try?” He held out the popsicle.

“No. No, I don’t. Did you buy it?”

“Nope. It was free.” Doof gestured toward the ice cream truck, whose lights dappled the trees, the grass, and the pavement with splotches of yellow, orange, and red. Music welled from the truck, low and menacing.

“I thought something bad happened to you,” said Will.

“Something bad, something good.” Doof took another lick of the fiery popsicle. Little drops of molten flame dripped from it, hissing when they hit the grass.

“I even went to your house—I mean, your dad’s house. His house trailer.”

Doof pulled the popsicle from his mouth. “You saw my dad? Talked to him?”

“I thought you might be sick or something.”

“Sick! I would have been, if I’d stayed with that bastard. Maybe even dead. I know places to go. I can look after myself. I have friends.”

“You mean those guys?” Will pointed to a couple of shapes near the ice cream truck.

“Maybe. But this guy for sure.” Doof put his hand on the dog’s head.

“I told your dad you wanted a dog,” Will said. “He started yelling at me to get lost. I ran away. I was scared.”

“He killed my dog,” said Doof, throwing the popsicle stick into the bushes. It burst into a shower of sparks that lasted for a few seconds and winked out one by one. “That night we came out here. Well, he wasn’t really my dog. He just hung around the trailer park, but he was my pal, you know? My dad—that bastard killed him and hung him up behind the trailer. I saw him hanging there when I got home. That was when I decided—”

“Geez, Doof. I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”

“Well, things are different now. Now I have my pal here. Name’s Gryphon, Gryph for short. Come and have a popsicle. Or an ice cream. First one’s always free.”

“You sound like you work for… them. Whoever they are.”

Doof grinned. “I sure do. Come on.”

The Ice Cream Truck from Hell ~ Part 5

Doof wasn’t at school on Monday. Or Tuesday. On Wednesday, Will went to the school’s office to ask if Doof had been reported sick. The lady who usually sat in the office wasn’t there, but Will heard people talking in the Principal’s room, whose door was open.

“I think it’s time we did something about the Duffy boy.” Will’s ears pricked. The Duffy boy, that was Doof. “He’s missed three days already this week and I’m pretty sure I know why.” Will recognized the voice of Ms. Lacy, the school’s guidance counsellor.

A man rumbled an answer. Will couldn’t understand what he said, but he knew it was Mr. Springer, the Principal. “What about the mother?” Mr. Springer must have turned or talked louder, because Will heard this just fine.

“She’s not in the picture,” said Ms. Lacy. “I gather she’s left the home. It’s just Harold and his father. They live at that Shady Grove Trailer Park. Not a great place. I think something bad happened last summer. I think that boy is in trouble.”

“We don’t want to act prematurely,” said Mr. Springer.

“Better to deal with the child welfare people than the police.”

Ms. Lacy appeared in the doorway of the principal’s room. Will ducked behind the counter and out of the office before she could see him. Was Doof in some sort of trouble? Why would Ms. Lacy think they might have to deal with the police?

After school, Will decided to go to Doof’s house and see if he was okay. Maybe he had a bad stomach bug or something, and no mom to look after him. Or maybe he’d gone back to the ice cream truck and the driver had done something to him. The Shady Grove Trailer Park was in the opposite direction from Will’s house, the part of town that Will’s dad called “the local slum.”

The trailer park’s name was the nicest thing about it. The trailers were old and looked like they were sinking into the ground. A few of them had little patches of grass and flowers outside, but most were surrounded by weeds and junk. Will asked an old lady if she knew where Mr. Duffy lived. She stopped sweeping her walk and stared at him.

“What you want with him, kid? He’s kinda mean.”

“Well, actually, I’m looking for Doof, uh, Harold. His son.”

She frowned, clutching the broom. “Haven’t seen him around the last few days. Maybe he run off too. Wouldn’t be surprised.” She frowned. “Tom Duffy’s trailer’s right at the back.” She pointed down the dirt road. “Just go to the end of the road. That’s the right place for him, all right.” She snorted.

Doof’s dad’s trailer made the others look good. It had once been white, but now was a mottled grey. Bags of garbage slouched near the door, the steps were broken, and a rusty barbecue with a missing wheel leaned nearby. A couple of crooked posts held up a dirty sheet of corrugated fiberglass over the entryway.

Will stepped up to the dented door and knocked. Nothing happened. He made himself knock again, louder, and waited, looking around. A wreck of a car peeked out of a thicket of bramble bushes. Behind the car, an old brown blanket hung from the branch of a tree. Something about its shape bothered him, but before he could get a better look, a couple of thumps sounded from inside the trailer, followed by shuffling. The door creaked open.

Mr. Duffy was a big man. His stomach loomed over Will like the moon, a T-shirt cratered with stains and holes. Will waited for him to smile, but he didn’t.

“Who’re you and what do you want?” Mr. Duffy’s voice sounded like it came out of a bowl of thick oatmeal.

“Uh, I’m Will. I’m looking for Doo— Harold.”

“Don’t know where he is. Little bugger should be at school. You too, kid.”

“School’s out for the day. He hasn’t been there all week. That’s why I came. I thought he might be sick or something.”

“‘Or something.’ That kid’s never sick, except in the head. He’s not here.”

“I guess he’s missing then. Don’t you think you’d better call the police?”

“I don’t talk to cops. Don’t you sic the cops on me. Kid’s probably gone to visit grandma. Now get lost!” He started to close the door.

Will felt a kind of sneaky relief. He’d tried. Now he could go home. But Doof had never mentioned a grandma.

“Mr. Duffy, did you know that Doof—I mean Harold—he really wants a dog?” The words popped out of Will’s mouth before he knew it.

“Dog!” Mr. Duffy made a gargling laugh. “No damned dog here. Not any more. I don’t like dogs, I don’t like cops, and I don’t like you either. Get lost before I run you off!” He slammed the door so hard, the posts holding up the fiberglass shuddered and a clump of rotten pine needles fell off it.

Will could go home now. Except he wasn’t done. He had to find Doof. That meant telling the police. Or finding the ice cream truck again.

By the time Will got home, he was tired and looked it. His mom poured him a glass of milk and gave him a couple of cookies. After eating and drinking, he went to his dad’s office and knocked on the door.

“It’s me, Dad. Can I come in?”

“Yes, you may come in, Will.” His dad looked at him over his glasses from behind a big pile of students’ notebooks. “What is it? I’m pretty busy.”

“Doof’s gone missing. He hasn’t been at school since last week. I’m kind of worried about him.”

“Doof?”

“My friend Harold Duffy. He came for supper one day, remember? Doof is his nickname.”

“I don’t approve of nicknames, Will. And I don’t approve of that boy, either. He struck me as a questionable type. I’m not surprised he’s left school. You’d best find some better friends.”

Will shrugged. “Doof’s my friend right now. I want to make sure he’s all right. Do you think I should tell the police that he’s a missing person?”

Will’s dad shook his head. “Waste of time. The police won’t listen to you. The boy’s parents are the ones to report him missing. But I’m sure he’s all right. That type is always all right, as much as they care to be. Don’t waste your time worrying about him. I very much doubt if he’s giving you much thought. Now, please excuse me, young man. I have work to do.”

The Ice Cream Truck from Hell ~ Part 4

The ice cream truck sat by the side of the road, music cranked low, the ice cream cone on its roof spinning and flashing a kaleidoscope of colours against its dark purple. Up close like this, the cone didn’t look like plastic with a light bulb inside. It glowed all over like it was made out of white-hot rock, with a spiral of dark red lava from top to bottom.

The door slid open and someone jumped out. The driver. There was something spidery about the figure, something not right about its proportions.

“Heya, hey!” it said, in a voice that sounded like an amplified buzz. “Come on, you kids!”

Will’s stomach lurched. Was it talking to them? If Doof hadn’t been there, for sure he would have run away.

But no, the spidery figure was turned away from them. “Get busy!” it buzzed. “I feel customers coming!”

The service window in the side of the ice cream truck clattered open. Red lights showed a menu board and a couple of employees getting ready to sell whatever kind of ice cream and treats the truck had on offer. The employees must have been short; only their heads showed above the counter.

“They’re just kids. Let’s go see what they’ve got.” Doof stood but Will pulled him back.

“Maybe they’re kids, but that other guy isn’t. Didn’t you see him? He’s really weird looking.”

A gang of teenagers jostled down the road and stopped in front of the ice cream truck, yelling orders for Frosty Flamesicle and Sulphur Surprise. Just like the cone on top of the truck, the treats glowed like hot coals. The teenagers waved their popsicles and ice creams, tracing lines of light, laughing and daring each other to eat them. One took a lick and then another.

“Oh man, that smarts! Love it!”

“I’m gonna catch fire, but I can’t stop eating!”

“This one’s wild!”

“Look, I’m a fire-breathing dragon!”

Their exclamations faded away as they moved down the road. “See, it’s okay,” Doof said, jumping up. “Say, have you got any money?”

Will didn’t want to get any closer, but Doof was more than halfway across the street.

“Doof! Wait, come back!” Will’s voice felt as though it was being sucked away. Doof didn’t stop but slowed, his shape blending into the dusk. I’m scared. Will stomped down that thought and ran after Doof.

“Look, there’s a dog!” said Doof. A black form near the truck unfolded into a dog shape and turned its head toward them. A big head on a big dog. Really big.

Dogs loved Doof. He was always making friends with random dogs. But this was no ordinary dog. Dark orange flames floated behind it. Sparks shot from its studded collar.

Doof started toward the dog. “Hey, boy,” he said. “Come here.”

It shambled toward them. Its eyes glowed and little sparks popped out from its fur, like one of those happy birthday sparklers.

Will grabbed for Doof’s arm, but he was too far away. The dog came closer. He didn’t look mean, just weird, with the cloud of little lights around him, like dust.

“Come on, boy!” said Doof. “It’s okay, I won’t hurt you.”

Then the spidery guy looked over at them.

“Heya, heya, heya! Dog!” The voice rose to a buzzing screech that hurt Will’s ears. It did something to the dog too. He stopped and whined.

“Heya, heya, heya! Boys!” The tall black figure glided toward Will and Doof. It looked like it was put together from pieces, arms and legs snapped into the body, head bobbling on top. Its movements were both smooth and jerky, like it was worked with strings.

“Heya, heya, heya! We got treats for you!” Its voice twisted like wires, wrapping around Will’s head.

“Doof, let’s get out of here! Let’s go!”

Doof looked back at Will. Will could see he was scared too. “But the dog—”

“Never mind the dog. He’s their dog. Come on!”

The dog lurched toward them, jaws open and dripping fire.

Run!” Will yelled. But Doof just stood there, watching the dog.

Then the guy moved, snapping a whip that shot purple sparks. The dog shambled slowly toward him. Doof finally turned and ran. The dog howled, a sound of empty loneliness that froze Will’s heart.

Three blocks later, Will sneaked a glance over his shoulder. No one there, just a faint glow of departing lights. The ice cream truck was gone. So was the dog.

Neither of them said anything until they were back at the corner of 12th and Maple, where a streetlight shed its cold light on the pavement.

“What is it?” asked Will. “It’s not really an ice cream truck. Who was that… guy? And that dog came after us.”

Doof had been looking at his shoes while Will was talking, but now he jerked his head up. “The dog was trying to get away. I’m going to go back and help him.”

“Whaa—? That’s stupid! He was helping that weird guy. They were trying to catch us.”

“No, he wasn’t. That dog needs help.” Doof sounded a lot older, almost like a grownup. “You’d better go home, Willy. You’ll get in shit for being late.”

“I’ll be in sh— shit for being out at all,” said Will. “Don’t your parents mind you being out late like this?”

“Parent. Just my dad. He doesn’t care much.”

Will thought about Doof’s weird lunches and frequent absences from school, his lack of concern about being late for meals. “Where’s your mom?”

“Gone,” said Doof. “Since last summer.”

“You mean… she died?” Will found himself whispering the last word.

Doof jerked his head up. “No, Willy, she didn’t die. She’s just gone.” He shrugged. “I dunno where.”

“Geez,” Will breathed. He couldn’t think what else to say.

“Okay, now you know. So how about if you go home.”

“But you can’t stay out all night! Come home with me. You can sleep in my room. Mom won’t mind.”

Doof made a sound that wasn’t really a laugh. “Maybe not, but what about your dad?”

Will didn’t say anything.

“Go home, Willy.”