“Starter Kit” was my first pro-rate sale, my only connection to an award-nominated collection (Lucy A. Snyder‘s chilling tale “Magdala Amydala” won the Stoker Award for best short story that year), and the first time I ended up in a table of contents with some writers I’d admired growing up and continue to admire. That the anthology came out through Apex Books also makes me unreasonably happy.
For all of these reasons, and maybe more, “Starter Kit” is one of two short stories I receive frequent comments (overwhelmingly positive) from the public (the other one will be discussed Monday when this series resumes after the weekend) so it’s appropriate that these two stories close the collection.
I share a bit more in the actual introduction to the story in my collection, so no need to repeat myself here. And so, without further delay, here’s the first couple hundred words of “Starter Kit.”
Rodget stepped into his foyer after a long day at work. He hung up his coat and gave his waiting wife a quick kiss. Already, he sensed something wrong, and when he saw Little Belljy looking at him with expectant, wide eyes, a sense of dread fell over him.
“It’s the tank,” his wife said.
Rodget squatted down, meeting his seven-year-old son eye to eye. “What’s up?”
“There’s no movement. I can’t see anything. Mom says it’s ruined, but I don’t think so.”
Rodget sighed. “Let’s take a look.” He followed his boy into the bedroom. The pressurized glass tank took up one entire wall. Unlike the tank he grew up with years ago, Belljy’s offered a backlit night monitor, computerized zoom, and other modern upgrades.
Rodget stepped up to the tank and squinted through the glass at the thick, milky white swirl contained within. From here, everything appeared normal. Glowing. Thriving. Hauntingly beautiful in its own exotic way. But the real damage wouldn’t be visible to the naked eye.
Rodget leaned over the tank’s mini-computer and called up the first set of coordinates. Frowning, he pulled the magnifier screen up to eye level and glanced at the numbers on the readout 357, 285, 13—one of hundreds of coordinates identifying growing civilizations. Two days ago, several had progressed to the space-exploration stage. From there it would only be a few more hours to faster-than-light travel. Just yesterday, Belljy ran into the room, excited to tell him that three of his planets had discovered each other and opened negotiations for trade.
Bracing himself, Rodget slid the magnifier left. The screen showed flashes of gas giants, rocky terrain, black holes, blinding suns. He synched the numbers in the upper-left corner of the magnifier to match… 357, 285, 13.
A smoking black ruin of a sphere centered on his screen, and Rodget couldn’t hide his disappointment. He stabbed the magnifier button several more times, closing in on a major city, hovels still smoking from the radiation, the bodies of tiny specks piled atop each other—broken, blackened, torn apart.
“Backstage Pass is, on one hand, a deeply personal story. Released as a “Seventh Star Single” (a 99 cent short story you can still order here, though buying the collection is a much better deal) just a few weeks before Haunting Obsession in 2012, the story was inspired by my encounters through the years steeped in pop music fandom. I tried to channel the general friendliness and surrealism of that group, some of the wacky personalities one can encounter whenever the obsessed gather together to…well…obsess together.
Although I call this a personal story, the tale is full of inaccuracies, exaggerations, and outright lies. The protagonist writes for Rolling Stone, lives in New York, and is part of the publicity staff of the object of his admiration (a southern rock belle named “Fiddle Dee-Dee”).
It was a challenge to capture the tone of these escapades and use those episodes in a sci-fi tale, and I even included cameos of real people by name in what I hope they find flattering representations (“Mary Kay,” whom I told you about in my Fade excerpt, appears in this excerpt) but the story is pure fiction beyond the general truth that people can get lost in their hobbies and obsessions.
However….that said….I thought, for this excerpt, I’d pick the moment from the story that happened very much as depicted (and recalled as best that I could). Though still fictionalized, much of this scene really did happen, with minimal fictionalization to hide the name and identity of the guilty party. I suppose “Tony Stoker” may one day want to speak to me, but probably not. The lesson remains true–don’t act “cray-cray” around a fiction writer. We just can’t help ourselves.
The Setup: In the hours following the brutal murder of pop star “Fiddle Dee-Dee,” avid fan Jared Price discovers, to his horror, that he’d actually met and interacted with her murderer months before. As the realization hits him, Jared flashes back to…
Ten months earlier—Chicago, October 29, 2010
Jared stood near his friends, Mary Kay, Jamie, Rick and Michelle, still seated at the table where they’d viewed the track-by-track live performance, essentially loitering in the club after Dee’s jazz album release party. While Dee handled the official press backstage―such as it was―they waited for the coast to clear to hold a private meet n’ greet with Dee.
Tony Stoker (dubbed by Dee’s fans as “Stoker the Stalker”) also waited, his camera with its telescopic lens hung from one shoulder while he cradled a huge scrapbook against his chest. His gaze darted to their table, around the room, and back again. Tony frequented the newsgroups, so he knew their names. And he knew they had special access.
But they knew his name, too. And they knew he didn’t have special access. At this stage in her career, Dee often showed her few devoted fans incredible consideration, but if she bothered to keep a blacklist, Tony Stoker’s name would occupy the top slot.
Jared knew Tony Stoker by name, but not on sight. As they shook hands, Tony exclaimed, “Oh, you’re Jared Price! I’m Tony Stoker. You’ve been doing her website, right?”
Jared broke eye contact and stared into his drink. Damn! Now what? “Dee … Fiddle Dee-Dee … is just one of my clients. I write a syndicated music column. Recently, Rolling Stone and Billboard invited me to submit some reviews.” He braced for Tony’s next question.
Tony didn’t disappoint. “So … you guys going to meet with her tonight?”
“Nope, definitely not,” Jared answered, hoping he didn’t sound as much a liar as he suspected.
Tony’s arm fell across the back of Jared’s shoulders. “Buddy, can I tell you something?”
Jared flinched at the man’s piercing, brown-eyed stare―the look of someone who operated on a different plane from the rest of the world. “I think Dee-Dee is a goddess,” he oozed. “Her voice has the power to heal, to hurt, to affect our world. Maybe that’s intense, but that’s how I feel.”
Unfamiliar with how to handle whack jobs, Jared hoped understatement was the proper way to go. “Yeah, uh, that comes off a bit intense.”
Stoker the Stalker thrust the scrapbook at him. “I’m a professional photographer, but this book is just my Fiddle-Dee-Dee shots.”
Opening to a random page, Jared saw eight consecutive shots of Dee on stage, virtually an identical pose, taken rapid-shot. Why display so many shots of the same moment? Because he’s a whack job. Still, can I really judge another’s level of fanaticism?
Jared flipped the page. “Here’s one of her coming out of her hotel in Wisconsin last year. I waited in the lobby for six hours.” His finger dropped to a photo of Dee, a large canvas hat over her head and dark glasses hiding her eyes. Tony caught her mouth open in a frozen snarl aimed at the cringing blonde next to her. Lisa.
Jared knew about the fight, but few others did. He wanted to slug the slimy leech.
The Stalker’s voice droned on. “After about four hours, the bellboy asked me if I wanted something to eat. I told him I was fine.…”
“Everything okay here?” His “date,” Mary Kay, wandered over from their table. Though Mary Kay was “very gay,” they play-dated at concerts.
He read the questioning look in her eyes. “Just fine, MK. I was telling Stoker here,” he emphasized the name, “that Dee’s calling it an early night.”
“Yep!” She ran with the lie. “We were talking about hitting a dance club. Chicago’s got a wicked night life, and we wanted to do something positively sinful.” She flashed a mischievous smile.
Jared took her hand. “I like how you think. But first, I need to find the restroom.” He turned toward Stoker, who looked miserable. “Want to go clubbing?”
“No … I don’t think so. Maybe I’ll hang out for a few more minutes.”
“Suit yourself.” He headed for the Men’s Room.
Once alone, he pulled out his phone, found the D. Pat Cell entry and hit Talk. He kept Fiddle Dee-Dee’s name entered under an abbreviation of her little-known birth name, Deana Patterson. Last thing he needed was to lose his phone and for someone to find her name and number.
“Hello?” A familiar southern drawl.
“Dee? It’s Jared. Sorry to bother you.” He always apologized. Fiddle Dee-Dee deserved the proper respect. “We’re down here, but a guy named Tony Stoker latched onto us. He’s not taking the hint. Tony is―”
“The creepy photo guy?”
“Uh … yeah. Should I tell him we’re meeting later?”
He heard her sigh. “Shit, no! I don’t need to deal with him tonight. Look, I’m almost done with the reporters. I’ll send the bouncer down. He’ll pretend to kick everyone out. You wait behind, and after Stalker-man leaves, the bouncer will escort you upstairs. The bouncer’s name is Lenny. He knows your name. I told him he can trust you to point out who’s in our group.”
She trusts me. A childish flush flowed over him. “Sounds good.”
The ploy worked.
Inner Strength (subtitled for this collection “A Rebecca Burton Short Story” referencing the recurring character of my paranormal thriller series) was the second story written for Strange, Weird and Wonderful magazine. Whereas the first time, Able Bodied was selected from a slush pile, this time D.L. Russell invited me to write an original story for an issue in which I would be featured. Being a naturally humble person, I took him up on his invitation immediately.
This is also the only story where I recorded an audio version of me reading the entire thing. I have no idea where that file is now, and thinking back, I’m fine with it being lost forever. Few things are more awkward than trying to read a bedroom scene that you wrote yourself. Now you know.
The story was later reprinted in the magazine’s Best of collection A Big Book of Strange, Weird and Wonderful, Volume II. I am very proud to have been a part of that magazine’s short history and lament its passing. Fortunately, D.L. continues his efforts as the editor in chief of Black Books Publishing and as a brilliant author in his own right. I look forward to seeing what’s next for him.
Setup: This scene is the second one in the story. Todd Burton had his daughter “Becky” Burton for Halloween overnight as part of his visitation arrangement, and it’s the next morning. (During the first scene, Becky dances to a Fiddle Dee-Dee song and that’s not the last time you’ll hear about Dee n this series) He must now drop her off at his ex wife’s house, and as he does so, he is wallowing on his failed marriage and current circumstances.
Todd Burton maneuvered the van down the narrow side streets of their neighborhood. Her neighborhood. He had not so much as stepped up to the front door in eleven months, but he still often thought of it as their home. If this was still our home, I wouldn’t be dropping Rebecca off in front of the house and heading on to run errands on my own. I’d gather everyone up and we’d head off to a movie, just the three of us. He shook his head, clearing the melancholy. He spent little enough precious time with his daughter, and he hated when runaway thoughts dampened that time. He adjusted the reflector attached to the rearview mirror, allowing him to look all the way to the back of the van. Rebecca no longer sat in the middle row of seats. Since the separation, she preferred to go all the way to the back of the van, the couch-like seat at the rear, and stretch along its entirety, eyes locked on her video screen.
Rebecca caught his gaze upon her and smiled. She wiggled her fingers lazily at him and returned her attention to the game in progress. At least she seems happy. He pulled up, parallel to the curb, and stared across the lawn to the modern suburban home. Two stories, three bedrooms, plus a loft, the perfect home in which to grow a family.
Todd sighed. He just wished he knew what he could do to change things. He heard the words, heard the excuses, watched the love of his life shake her head and shrug. “I just don’t love you anymore.” How does that even happen? He always figured there was someone else, though he never saw any indication, and Rebecca never revealed anything about a new “Daddy” in her life. But the alternative—that their life together was a lie from the start—was too devastating to face.
Todd released a deep breath, swung open the driver’s side door, and stepped onto the street. His gaze traveled across the front porch, over the driveway. The gray Ford Taurus sat peacefully in the two-car driveway, the usual oil stains spotting up the pavement of the space next to it, without so much as a telltale drop of fluid or tire track to indicate the comings and goings of someone new.
Eyes still on the house, he stopped in front of the passenger door and popped it open. He thought perhaps the blinds behind the windows shook just a bit, indicating someone inside had noticed their arrival. He braced himself to hear the familiar voice of his soon-to-be-ex wife offer some sort of awkward greeting from the porch.
Todd flashed back to another time, long ago, when Olivia normally drove the “Errand Runner,” a name Todd had affectionately dubbed the reconditioned green van during one of his geekier moments. Settling into the passenger seat, Todd channeled his best Harrison Ford voice. “Firing up the sublight engines on the Errand Runner, honey.” Olivia would roll her eyes and shake her head, inserting the key and waking up the grumpy engine, but she always flashed him an affectionate smile that warmed his heart. The same smile that made him fall in love with her in the first place.
Now, Todd waited for Rebecca to emerge, knowing she needed a few extra seconds to disengage herself from her Nintendo DS, but time stretched beyond the norm. Annoyed, he called into the dark quiet of the van. “Come on, Rebecca, save your game and let’s go!”
He knocked insistently against the solid steel siding, knowing the noise would penetrate her concentration, even through headphones. He listened for any answer.
“Becky?” The silence alarmed him. No thumping of feet from the back of the van, no telltale “bleeping” of electronic noise to indicate the obvious preoccupation of his little “nerd in the making.” Not even her usual cry for patience, “I’m saving, Daddy!”
“Hey, string bean, save and quit, girl! Now.” Though relatively roomy, Todd hated struggling his 6’2” and 240 lbs of bulk around the middle row to the back of the van. Maybe she just didn’t hear me? Did she fall asleep?Maybe she found it a bit too comfortable today.
Todd placed a foot onto the first step and shoved his head into the compartment for an un-obscured view to the back.
Or so he thought.
Instead of the back seat, he saw a fantastic, unreal image—and froze.
Hovering in mid-air was a large, gaping “maw” of a portal, surrounded by a border of green glowing energy. The wavering oval gaped open about four feet high and perhaps two feet wide, encompassing what looked like the mouth of a cave, lit from within.