On the morning that he became a fugitive from justice, Lee McCabe awoke with two persistent sensations in his consciousness. The first was the sound that Apache helicopters make when they land in the desert, and how the dust swirls beneath them as they raise up little tornados of sand. The second was the smell of a woman’s strawberry shampoo.
As he struggled awake—alone in the small bedroom of his rented trailer—Lee realized that the sound was not that of an Apache helicopter but the rumbling of an approaching motor vehicle. Sounds carried a long way this far from town, especially on a Saturday morning.
A funny thing about flashbacks: they come unbidden, and at the most unexpected times.
One moment I was standing in Walmart, and the next moment I was not: I was a twelve-year-old boy again, crouching beside the outer wall of a darkened house in a long-ago suburb, hoping that the shrubbery to my right and my left had adequately concealed my presence. A malevolent creature was intent on taking my head. He—or it—had an entire sack full of them.
Jason Kelley is a young, struggling filmmaker looking for his first big break. When the semi-famous cable television ghost hunter Simon Rose approaches him about a freelance project, Jason is understandably thrilled. He isn’t fazed by the fact that his assignment is a walk down the Shaman’s Highway, an eleven-mile stretch of rural Ohio roadway that is reputed to be haunted by malevolent spirits, hellhounds, and demonic forces. Jason is an agnostic in regard to the supernatural. He isn’t prepared for the reality that awaits him on his walk through eleven miles of night—nor the more human violence and heartbreak that he will face along the way.
Not long ago on their podcast, authors J. Thorn and Zach Bohannon talked about the power of brand identity as it applies to the heavy metal band Iron Maiden. They pointed out that Iron Maiden has never really changed its secret sauce. The band was formed in 1975 and is still going strong. (The band members are now in their sixties.) There are new Iron Maiden fans who weren’t even born yet when the group was playing its first concerts.
Iron Maiden has never achieved sweeping mainstream popularity, as did Sting in the 1980s, Michael Bolton in the 1990s, Britney Spears in the 00s, and Taylor Swift today. Almost everyone, regardless of whether they’re into music or not, has at least heard of Sting and Bolton, Spears and Swift. Lots of people have never heard of Iron Maiden.
In less than ninety days I will reach my fiftieth birthday. While I am technically not quite there yet, I believe that I’m close enough to engage in a bit of reflection on that milestone.
There is a tendency to dread those birthdays that end with a zero. How many times have you heard someone lament over the fact that their thirtieth or fortieth birthday looms right around the corner? Black balloons are now a common gag meme of 40th birthday parties.
I have been fortunate in this regard. I was in my early twenties when I recognized the inevitability of my own aging. I remember turning twenty-three in 1991 and thinking “Hey, I’m not a teenager anymore. But then, I haven’t been a teenager for three years.”
The gap between twenty-three and eighteen is fairly large. At twenty-three, I recognized that there was now an entire cohort of young adults and semi-adults who were considerably younger than me.
And that’s the way it goes, increasing exponentially as you age. For the first few decades of your life, it seems that everyone is older than you, because most people are. Then one day you wake up at fifty and you realize that you are now “older than average”. (The median age in the US was 37.8 years in 2015.)
But there is more than one way to interpret being “older than average” (or older than the median). Perhaps a bit of gratitude—yes, gratitude—would be in order.
Throughout history, many, many people have not managed to live a full half-century. One of my classmates died at the age of nineteen, another at twenty-nine. Neither of them saw thirty, let alone fifty.
Assuming that I make it to my fiftieth birthday in three months, I will have lived longer than many historical figures. Martin Luther King died at the age of thirty-nine. Robert F. Kennedy, at forty-two. Alexander Hamilton, the father of the US federal banking system, lived to age forty-seven.
The number of famous writers who never saw age fifty is legion. F Scott Fitzgerald, one of my early role models as a writer, never saw his forty-fifth birthday. When I was in college, I was a huge fan of H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. H.P. Lovecraft only made it to age forty-six.
The above list is obviously just a starting point. I won’t even begin to list the actors, musicians, and visual artists who died young, from causes both natural and unnatural. We would be here all day.
Realizing that you’ve had much more time than so many other people gives you a sense of perspective about your own life. Especially as you’re approaching the age of fifty.
I don’t want to turn this piece into an abridged autobiography, but you may find something of yourself in the next few paragraphs. Suffice it to say that I have had a good life. But this is not to say that every decade has been equally good. I have had my ups and downs, in other words.
Many people report that their childhood and teenage years were miserable. Not me. My childhood was a happy one, filled with sandlot baseball games, quality time with my parents, and weekends spent fishing with my grandfather. My grandfather was a World War II veteran who delighted me with tales of naval combat in the North Atlantic. He passed in 1998—around the time I turned thirty—and I still think of him every single day.
I had a basically positive high school experience. I was not the captain of the football team, and I did not date the head cheerleader. But I did have my own little niche in the ecosystem at my high school. I made friendships that I still enjoy today. My home life was nurturing, loving, and secure. Those were good years.
My twenties were wonderfully chaotic. My work gave me the opportunity to travel all over the world, from Japan to Mexico and Brazil. I fought my share of battles, winning some and losing others. When I was twenty-five, I was suddenly fired from my job, and spent six weeks scrambling before I landed a new, better one at a substantially higher salary. One month into the new job, my duties required me to interface with the man who had fired me at the last job, just weeks ago. No hard feelings on either side, we got along fine. Talk about irony.
I spent the entire decade of my thirties working for a single large corporation. Those years were calm, and occasionally dull. But I had many opportunities to learn, and much space for personal development. If my twenties were my chaotic decade, my thirties were my foundational decade.
During the first half of my forties, I experienced some significant setbacks, some my fault, others not. Issues with death and aging (of loved ones).
The last few years have been much better. I am cautiously optimistic about the decade ahead.
Optimism, though, will not cloud my assessment of what is. I will resist the temptation to deny the reality of my upcoming birthday. You know what I’m talking about here. In recent years, it has been fashionable to approach milestone birthdays with a sort of forced bravado. “Forty is the new thirty,” and whatnot. I believe this trend started with the Baby Boomers, who believed, or wished, themselves to be forever young. People of the World War II generation knew much better how to accept and act their age.
I will admit that I sometimes miss that delightful chaos of my younger years. When you are twenty or twenty-five, you can be suddenly stirred by a wide range of passions. It is a roller coaster ride. Today I am slower, more deliberate.
And what about mortality? The inevitability of my own death doesn’t disturb or frighten me. By the time you reach fifty, you’ve already lost many people you love. That makes you view your own death in different terms. When you reach that unknown territory, you’ll have plenty of companions on the other side—whatever you perceive that other side to be.
And as for this world: By now I’ve done everything that I really, really wanted to do—or at least that I still want to do. When the time comes to blow this taco stand, I’ll peacefully yield to the boatman.
During my last checkup appointment, my dentist informed me that my teeth were in good shape, and would probably last me the rest of my life without the need for dentures or other major dental work. “Your teeth have lasted you fifty years with few problems,” he said. Then he wryly smiled. “And you won’t be needing them fifty years from now.”
Yes, fifty years from now, I won’t be doing much of anything. It is possible that at the age of one hundred I will be living out my few remaining days in an assisted care facility. I hope not. I’ve watched several loved ones endure long, lingering deaths in hospitals and nursing homes.
I don’t fear the sudden, fatal heart attack at the age of fifty-seven or sixty-five. (In fact, that is the way I would prefer to go.) But I do fear the drawn-out torture chamber of the hospital room.
I am not a scientific utopian. Medical science is reasonably competent at fixing the routine biomechanical ailments: broken legs, hernias, etc. But if something is really, really wrong with you, your days are still numbered. I speak here from the experience of friends and loved ones.
I suspect this will always be the case. Scientifically created human immortality is a trope of science fiction novels. But science hasn’t even cured AIDS, cancer, or heart disease yet. Most scientists believe that the natural human lifespan has a hard limit around 115 or 125. But now ask yourself: Do you really want to spend fifteen or twenty years in a nursing home? I’d prefer to check out earlier, when I’m still physically strong, and in possession of all my wits.
But while death is now on the horizon, it probably isn’t waiting for me at the next mile marker, or the one after that. Fifty is not ancient; it is not even elderly. With a bit of luck and proper self-care, I might realistically have twenty-five years of full, productive years ahead of me. (During the last U.S. presidential election, the three major candidates—Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and Bernie Sanders, were all seventy-something, or very close to seventy-something.)
Still, twenty-five years is not all the time in the world. It is significantly less time than I had before me twenty-five years ago. I’ll try to spend the next twenty-five years more purposefully and reflectively than I spent the previous twenty-five. I will try to be kinder and gentler with others, to think of the big picture more often, and not just the distracting details that are right in front of my nose.
And with that I’ll close. After all, there is still work to be done, and the clock is ticking.
"The Van" is a short story a crime story that about a trip from Ohio to Florida that goes horribly wrong, because of two dangerous strangers. Troy is a divorced father. He is driving his daughter, Ellie, from Ohio to Florida. After a summer spent with her dad, Ellie must return to her mother and stepfather for the school year. Troy has enjoyed the summer with his daughter. But now he has to protect Ellie (and himself) from an unforeseen menace. "The Van" is available on Amazon Kindle. (Sample below)
* * *
Troy noticed that the two men standing in the adjacent line of the crowded restaurant were eying his thirteen-year-old daughter, Ellie. The men were both in their mid-thirties, probably only a few years older than Troy. But unlike Troy, they were big, hard men, dressed like painters or roofers. Both had full beards. One was blond, and the other had black hair.
Their interest in Ellie was more than simply casual, and they were making little effort to be discreet, let alone secretive. Troy met their stares and neither of them turned away, as grown men would ordinarily do when caught in such an act of impropriety. On the contrary, they were laughing and ribbing each other while they looked at Ellie.
Troy and Ellie were waiting in line in the Julep’s BBQ, just north of Knoxville, Tennessee, during the evening rush hour. This was one of Troy’s last dinners with his daughter, at least for the summer, and he didn't want it to be spoiled by two random perverts. And there was also the very real possibility that these two men would turn out to be a significant problem, rather than a passing annoyance.
She’s only thirteen, Troy thought. What kind of men look at a thirteen-year-old girl that way?
Nevertheless, he turned his attention back to his daughter.
“Do you know what you want?” he asked her. He was somewhat relieved to see that Ellie seemed not to have noticed the men’s attention.
“When we stopped here in June, you had the pulled pork, I think.”
Ellie nodded, after giving the question the full attention that it deserved. “I’ll have the pulled pork again.”
Julep’s was one of those establishments where you place your order at the counter, fast-food style. It was hot and crowded at this hour of the evening. The last week of August in eastern Tennessee.
Troy was an outsider in this part of the world, even though he had made numerous trips this way since Ellie’s mother had remarried and relocated from Ohio to Florida. Knoxville was one of the logical stopping places along the long southerly trek down I-75, and of course on the way back north.
“Will you eat here on the way back from Florida?” Ellie asked. They were the next ones in line.
“No,” Troy said. “Julep’s is our restaurant. I’ll stop at Wendy’s or Hardee’s or Chipotle, but not Julep’s.”
Ellie smiled. “Maybe I can come back with you. Mom doesn't really need me.”
She said this in a light-hearted manner. They both knew that Kylie loved Ellie. But Kylie loved her daughter in her own way, at a different intensity. Different people had different ways of loving, of expressing their love. This was a matter that Troy and Ellie had discussed at some length over the summer.
“We can just go down to Gainesville and I can come home with you, then,” Ellie pressed. “I’ll pop in and say hi to Mom—and to Joe, I guess.”
Troy put his arm around his daughter’s shoulder. She hadn’t yet acquired that don’t-acknowledge-me-in-public attitude that teenage girls so often adopt toward their parents between the onset of puberty and the end of high school. It gratified Troy when Ellie said things like that, and he was more than a little glad to see that she still loathed Joe, Kylie’s “new” husband of three years—even if Joe wasn’t, on balance, such a bad guy.
“I wish you could,” Troy said. “But we both know how it has to be.”
Troy glanced over at the adjacent line. The two men were still there, still looking at his daughter. They were just out of earshot, given the buzz of the busy restaurant. But there was no doubt about what they were doing, whom they were looking at.
Troy stepped around Ellie and placed himself between his daughter and the leering men. Don’t give them anything to look at, he thought.
Troy wished he were the sort of man who could simply walk over to the men and tell them to look elsewhere, and be confident that his words would carry the necessary weight. But there were two of them; and the truth was that either one of them would be more than a match for Troy. He wasn't that sort of a guy, but he would protect his daughter however he could.
He turned back to Ellie and noticed that her cheeks were reddened. She looked up at him knowingly. So she had noticed the two men.
Troy was also suddenly aware of what Ellie was wearing: shorts and a halter top. It was summer, after all; and they were on a long drive through the South. Moreover, Troy still saw Ellie as the little girl she had been just a few years ago, eating cereal in front of the television in her pajamas on Saturday morning, her smile showing the gap of a missing baby tooth.
Wanting to freeze time in place, he hadn’t fully acknowledged the changes that had taken place. Had he not made that mistake, he thought, he could have made sure that his daughter dressed more modestly. Then she wouldn't have drawn the attention of these two perverted men in their thirties.
So he had failed to protect her twice: first, preemptively, and now, that these two men were actively making her uncomfortable.
Troy took a deep breath, and put his shoulders back, as if trying to expand his five-foot, nine inches to a brawny six-four. Ridiculous, and probably transparent, even to Ellie.
“Don’t worry about those two,” Troy said. There was no need to specify which two he was talking about. “I’m here.”
Ellie nodded and looked up at the lighted menu board behind the counter. The young woman at the cash register nodded for them to place their order, and they stepped forward together. Troy felt more inadequate than he had in a long time, probably since Ellie’s mother had first left him...
Yesterday I wrote about some of the changes I've witnessed at YouTube over the past year. I also talked a bit about some of the successes and challenges my own YouTube channel has faced. Since I began my video readings on YouTube in 2016, I've purchased some new software and equipment that vastly improves both the video and audio experience. I've also had some time to think about how a fiction author should be using the YouTube format. And then I got to thinking: Why not blow up my whole YouTube channel, and start over? So that's what I did: I deleted all 400+ videos from my channel. I'm starting over during the upcoming week. Here's what you can expect moving forward: I will still be reading my existing (as in already published) novels and short stories. So look for new video serializations of '12 Hours of Halloween', 'Eleven Miles of Night, 'Blood Flats', etc. I'll be reading from novel and short story projects that are in-process (not yet published). I'll also be reading some new serials that I've been developing especially for online serialization. These are structured as 6- to 15-minute "episodes". The model here is television: Each episode will have a complete story arc, and be connected to a larger story arc. Finally, I'll be adding commentary before and after each reading. Once again, this is a lesson learned from the TV format. When you tune into an episode of 'The Americans' or 'Hawaii Five-O', a narrator first brings you up to speed on what happened last time. Each episode closes with a brief teaser about the next episode. Anyway, it should be fun. Stay tuned for more details.
Yet another major company, Cisco, has yanked all its ads from YouTube. This is a continuation of the ad revenue implosion that began last year on YouTube, otherwise known as the "adpocalypse". Companies are concerned about their ads being run on videos featuring extremist, controversial, or risqué content. There were several high-profile cases of this occurring during 2017, and many corporate advertisers canceled their ads. In response, YouTube began to curate its ad-eligible content more stringently. I'm not completely unsympathetic to the corporations. Most people would understand that companies don't want their ads running on videos that feature, say, the advocacy of neo-Nazi or radical Islamist ideology. Nor would companies want their ads running alongside pornographic content. (Pornographic content is verboten on YouTube, but some of it inevitably slips through.) In the wake of the adpocalypse, the complaint from many YouTube creators was that YouTube's response to advertiser concerns amounted to throwing out the proverbial baby with the bathwater. For a while, any channel that discussed controversial topics in the news--from any viewpoint--saw its videos demonetized. Then the algorithms were made even stricter, and even cooking channels (in one example that I am familiar with) were deprived of ad revenue. Then, finally, YouTube demonetized all "small" channels. YouTube's execs decided that every channel in the partner program had to be very carefully vetted. And that simply isn't possible if you don't set some minimum standard threshold for subscribers/views. (There are millions of channels on YouTube, many with only a handful of subscribers.) My channel was demonetized in the final round of cuts. I never had anything controversial or even mildly sexual on my channel. (I use my YouTube presence to host video readings of my novels and short stories.) But throughout the latter half of 2017, I neglected to post much new content, as I have been "rebalancing" what I do on social media. (This is a challenge for every fiction author, by the way.) My channel always had a very small native following on YouTube; most of my video views result from my videos being posted on Facebook and this blog. As a result, I was demonetized for being "too small" to warrant the time needed for individual vetting. I'm not bitter about any aspect of this, starting with my channel's limited popularity. The most popular channels on YouTube have always been those based on adolescent comedy, video gaming, makeup tips, and politics. The audience trends younger, and the most popular YouTubers are invariably under 35. A middle age author reading his fiction is only going to attract so much attention within the YouTube ecosystem. I've always been realistic about that, and I've never had any illusions about being the next Pewdiepie or Philip DeFranco. Nor was I upset about the demonetization. I never earned more than a few dollars here and there in ad revenue. My purpose in being on YouTube is to spread the word about my fiction, not to sell ad space for Procter & Gamble or Taco Bell. So when YouTube informed me that I was about to be demonetized, I didn't exactly put my house up for sale or call the bank for an emergency loan. That all said, the recent and ongoing changes do make me wonder how much longer YouTube can survive in its current form, as a video hosting site for the masses. With the push toward curated content, YouTube seems to be trying to remake itself into a Hulu or a Netflix, with highly polished, rigidly curated content. But this was never YouTube's niche. And it's reasonable to ask: What can YouTube realistically offer in this regard, that isn't already offered by Hulu, Netflix, or Amazon Video? Many of the top channels on YouTube (the ones receiving millions of views and subscribers) display moderate performance and production values. But they can't compete with what Netflix and Amazon are doing. For example, I enjoy watching Philip DeFranco. He provides some insightful commentary on current events, from a refreshingly non-partisan perspective. The guy is whip-smart, and he puts a lot of effort into what he does. Nevertheless, his videos still have an amateurish feel about them. Philip DeFranco is not a professional journalist, but rather a very talented amateur one. But talented amateurs, of various levels and various niche concerns, have always been what made YouTube so interesting. If you want something polished and curated, there are already plenty of sources than that. YouTube maintains our interest with with its rough edges. Yes, sometimes these rough edges are controversial viewpoints. But sometimes they are delightfully obscure hobbies and obsessions, like the YouTube "polyglot" community, that is dedicated to serial language learning. YouTube has also been an invaluable platform for visual and musical artists who do not yet have a major worldwide following. Thanks to YouTube, I discovered Motion Device, an indie rock band that specializes in covers of the hard rock songs I remember fondly from my 1980s youth. During the first round of the adpocalypse last year, a YouTube executive pointedly reminded advertisers that YouTube "is not TV". Hear, hear. But if YouTube does not become TV, can it remain viable as an advertising platform? And if YouTube does become just another online television network, will it still be worth watching? These are the questions.