Riding Solo

Wednesday morning, I woke up at 4:30 A.M.

On purpose.

Who does that? I mean, the stars are still out, for heaven’s sake.

My cat was judging me. I think she wanted me to climb back into bed with her and go back to sleep for a few hours. Or pet her. She doesn’t really care if I get any sleep, so long as I stay in bed and keep her warm.

But, I couldn’t go back to bed. I had an adventure to start, and sadly, a very large number of adventures start at 4:30 A.M.

I think it might be a requirement.

By 5, the last of my bags were packed, my snacks were in the car, and my little car and I were headed down the road on our way to St. Louis. This was my very first solo road trip, and it was great fun!

For the first ten minutes.

Then I realized there was no one to pass me snacks.

Or open my water bottle.

Or start the audiobooks.

Having a second pair of hands in the car is actually very handy, come to find out.

Despite the lack of someone handing me snacks whenever I wanted them, the drive went exceptionally well. Long highways, cloudy skies, almost no traffic, and beautiful, rolling country for as far as I could see.

Especially in Kansas. I swear, once you hit Kansas, you can start to see the curvature of the earth. Not a bump in sight.

I’m kidding.

I love you, Kansas.

Just not enough to stay.

But not even Kansas lasts forever, and in the late afternoon, I reached paradise.

Or Missouri. Whichever you want to call it.

I knew for sure I was getting close when I stepped out of the car to get gas and felt like someone had wrapped me up in a steamed towel and pushed me into a sauna. Have you ever tried to breathe through a hot, wet towel?

It is not easy.

I think Missouri might be trying to very subtly murder me. Agatha Christie style. Someone should say something.

Heat aside, I am so excited to be here! This weekend is the Realm Maker’s Conference, and many exciting things are all set to happen! (Including the meeting of a very special author. Squeak! Pictures to come!) I will be sure and let all of you know how things go and post as many pictures as I can remind myself to take. Until then, wish me luck!

 

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Boba Tea and The Last Sin Eater

I love boba tea.

Specifically, raspberry coconut boba tea, although I am not opposed to other flavors.

My sister introduced it to me originally. I don’t remember her exact words when she took me to the shop for the first time, but I’m sure it was along the lines of, “This is the best, most heavenly drink on the planet, and you haven’t really lived until you’ve tried it.”

That’s what I tell people now when they admit they haven’t tried it yet. I get enthusiastic.

I think it scares them.

Oh well.

Obviously, there isn’t much correlation between raspberry coconut boba tea and The Last Sin Eater, but just now, they are stuck in my mind together. Does that ever happen to you? You read a book somewhere, either on the beach in Portugal or in the corner of your library at home, and the book takes you straight back to that spot when you open it next. It also makes you hungry for that ice-cream—or raspberry coconut boba tea—that you had the last time.

Books carry memories. One of my favorite authors described it like flypaper . . . they catch your memories and keep them close between the covers until you can come back for them.

I have plenty of books that carry very vivid memories for me. Howl’s Moving Castle will forever remind me of a dimly lit, very empty dining hall in Scotland and the bread and cheese I lived on for a week there. Tarzan of the Apes reminds me of Portugal and hostel rooms. Jane Eyre reminds me of a hammock in the pines and the shocked look in an adult’s eyes when I assured her that yes, little twelve-year-old me was indeed reading this enormous book. And loving it.

And last Sunday, I devoured The Last Sin Eater while sipping (and chewing) on raspberry coconut boba tea on a sunny bench outside the movie theater.

Yum.

This wasn’t my first time reading this deeply profound book. My favorite books are always read and reread many times, and I can safely say that The Last Sin Eater is and always will be one of my all-time favorites.

The story begins with Cadi Forbes, a child growing up in America in the mid-1800’s. Her clan, a close-knit group of immigrants from Wales, have settled in the mountains, forming an exclusive community that is wary of strangers and ruled absolutely by the cruelty and vicious leadership of Brogan Kai.

Cadi, barely ten years old herself, is haunted by the death of her younger sister. When her grandmother dies as well, she is once again faced with the reality of death and the overwhelming, crushing consequences of sin. In a society that understands the purity of God and the weight of sin, and yet has no concept of grace or forgiveness, Cadi is constantly surrounded by guilt and blame over sins that she is sure will haunt her forever. Only the Sin Eater, a man doomed to take the sins of the entire clan upon himself, can possibly help her, and she begins a frantic search to find the elusive man.

This deeply emotional and moving book brings to light the beautiful reality of what Jesus Christ did for mankind on the cross, and the sobering truth that no one but Jesus can take away our sins. Not even a Sin Eater.

It was no accident, no coincidence, that the seasons came round and round year after year. It was the Lord speaking to us all and showing us over and over again the birth, life, death, and resurrection of his only Begotten Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ, our Lord.

 

Muslin

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They bring me satins and silks, embroidered dresses and lace that’s too fine to touch, too fine to wear. We’ve put a high price on my offer of marriage, but they can pay it, these men from the south. They come with golden cloth, with silver woven into scarlet, and I watch them as they parade their wares for me to see. My uncles insist that today is a celebration, a ceremony to honor me as I choose a husband. I know better. There is no ceremony, no honor in this farce. The wares my suitors have brought are bribes, not gifts.

This is an auction, and I am the chattel being sold.

One of the men, a pale-faced Beyran from the west, takes my hand, running my fingers along the length of damask silk he’s brought. I shudder at the cold clutch of his fingers and pull my hand away, looking instead at the tamed leopard another has brought. Their eager, hungry eyes follow my every move, and I wonder privately what would happen if I allowed myself to scream the way I want to. I don’t want this. Our kingdom is desolate, our people dying. We need wealth, a savior, and these men have the means to offer it to us. But surely, surely we have something better to sell.

Something other than my body, my soul. My life. I’m a prize to be won, still young enough to be beautiful, just old enough to be desirable. They all want me as their wife. Every one of them.

I want to be sick. I want their feverish, devouring glances off of my face, and I want my palace to myself again.

I paused, running my fingers over an ivory stool, and someone pushes a length of cloth into my hands. Muslin. Muslin? It’s poor fabric, poorer than anything I’ve worn since I was a child, sneaking from my rooms to run in the streets with children who longed for freedom as much as I did.

Muslin. I would give anything to wear muslin again, to run the streets and forget my duty and my birthright.

I’ve never wanted either.

The cloth—and the memories it brings to the surface—has made me stupid. A touch on my elbow brings me back to myself, and the man who gave it to me says softly, “It’s not much of a bid, your highness, but I thought it would catch your attention, at least. What do you think?”

I choke.

Will.

I stare at him, too horrified to say anything, too ashamed to push him away and run. He takes my arm, guiding me away from the crowds, smiling disarmingly at my handlers. They’re none too happy about their prize being removed from the buyers looking her over, but the silver tattoos on his hands and shoulders buy him a moment. Wealth, especially now, means everything. He pulls me out onto the terrace, into the cool wind that smells of rain and dust from the plains, and smiles at me. “Enjoying your auction? I must say, you have some tempting offers.”

I color. Only he would have to courage—the audacity—to call the ‘ceremony’ inside what it really is. It’s been fifteen years since I’ve seen him, fifteen years since we ran the streets together. A wealthy robber’s brat and a starving prince’s daughter. The beggar with the blue blood, he used to call me. I loved him then, for his bold tongue and his cheeky smile, but he’d disappeared, leaving me to my hell, and I’d never really forgiven him for it. “All of them more tempting than a bolt of muslin,” I tell him archly, hearing years of bitterness behind the words.

He feigns a hurt look. “You don’t like my gift?”

“Not particularly.” He would believe me, I think, if my face wasn’t so red. “I don’t like having my time wasted.”

“Ah.” He glances at the curtained doorway, a frown furrowing his dark brow. “Then you are not going to particularly appreciate what’s about to happen next.”

As if in response to his words, an explosion rocks the terrace, and the curtains between me and my potential suitors catch fire. Women begin to scream from the courtyard below, and I hear the frantic shouting of men who know they are about to lose all the wealth they’ve brought so very far. Will jerks me away from the door, pulling to the far side of the terrace, and utters a piercing whistle. When it’s answered from the ground he looks at me. “That’s my part done. Shall we leave it at robbery, or would you like me to add kidnapping to my list of crimes?”

I freeze, a thousand thoughts racing through my head in a single heartbeat, and hear myself say firmly, even before I’ve really made up my mind, “Kidnapping. Definitely.”

He grins, suddenly looking less like a robber and more like the boy I knew. “Perfect. After you, your highness.”

Of Mice and Fairies

Today, my new book, Of Mice and Fairies, is being released to the world.

It’s very exciting.

And intimidating.

But mostly exciting.

My gorgeous, wonderful, talented sister, E. Noel, illustrated Of Mice and Fairies for me. She’s an artist.

Like, a real one.

It’s super cool.

My mom always told us that we should publish a book together. When I was still writing stories in the notes section of my iPod touch and E. Noel was drawing dogs that were basically boxes with ears, my mother was sure that we were destined to work together. Like, we were written in the stars, kind of destined. Somewhere in the midst of my clumsy writing and my sister’s odd drawings, my mother saw greatness. We were going to publish something together, she was sure.

I laughed at her. And told her that it was never going to happen. I didn’t want to be a writer, and I would never publish a book with my sister.

Of Mice and Fairies is dedicated to her.

I have eaten my words.

As an added bonus, and because I love you all, the Kindle versions of both of my books—Of Mice and Fairies and The Birdwoman—are available on Amazon for FREE for the next few days! I truly hope you all enjoy this special piece of my heart!

Little House in Brookfield

Last week, I went shopping. Thrift store shopping, if we’re being specific. Thrift stores are lovely because you can find everything, anything—or nothing, depending on the day. I thoroughly enjoy browsing through several different stores in a single trip, perusing their bookshelves in search of something I don’t already own. It’s a treasure hunt, one that can end in nothing or everything.

Last week, it ended with Little House in Brookfield.

I grew up listening to my parents read The Little House on the Prairie books out loud to me and my siblings. The stories of Laura Ingalls and her family are intrinsic parts of my childhood, stories I’ve been listening to—and reading—for as long as I can remember.

Little House in Brookfield is almost as embedded in my mind. The story, instead of being written by and about Laura Ingalls Wilder, is instead about her mother, Carolina Quiner. This book, and the others in this series, are based on a collection of letters written to Laura by her aunt Martha, Ma’s sister. The research done by Maria Wilkes brilliantly recreates Ma’s childhood in Brookfield, Wisconsin.

Although written with the same simple, charming style as The Little House in the Prairie, Carolina Quiner’s childhood was very different from her daughter’s. Her father, Henry Quiner, was lost at sea when she was four years old. For her mother, grandmother, and four siblings, life is a constant struggle to keep their farm running, their family together, and enough food on the table.

As frustrating and difficult as such an uphill climb is for this small family, they still manage to face every day with an amazing amount of cheerfulness and faith. Ma’s steadying presence and silent strength is a cornerstone of the Little House series, and it is easy to see where that strength and character was developed. Her own mother is a rock in their home, despite dealing with the grief of losing her husband and the struggle of providing for a family alone. The kindness of a stranger, the help of old friends, and the prudence of a woman able to make something out of nothing keeps their family afloat. Old dresses are made new, toes show through the scuffed leather of shoes that are old and worn, and flour becomes a luxury they are not sure they can afford, and yet, life continues. Christmas is celebrated, birthdays are somehow made special, and family grows strong through the hardships.

 

Little House in Brookfield is a beautifully written story of love, hardship, and triumph. If you have loved the Little House books as much as I have, cherished them through your childhood and treasured them as long favorites, this is definitely a book for you. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

Each time they came to the mill, she wished she could climb up a pile of grain and touch the ceiling right before she slipped down the other side of the pile and skidded to the floor in a rush of barley, corn, oats, or wheat.

Fences

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I turn my horse for home when the first stars come out. We follow the fence line, crunching through snow that’s ankle deep and crusted with ice. Another storm rolls on the horizon, black against the fading twilit sky, but there’s plenty of time to make it home before it hits.

I pass three herds on the way back. Most of them are humped up against the cold, huddled together to escape the gale screaming down from the mountains. The skies are clear tonight, but the cold snaps in the air, and I can feel the ice in the wind. The last few storms have been from hell itself. The ice froze the gates shut, drove the cattle to the furthest corners of their pasture, and burned my hands with frostbite. The storms keep Keller’s men from my ranch as well. They’ve gotten worse in the last months, threatening me, my wife. They want the land, of course, my family’s ranch. They’ve taken over most of the valley now. None of the ranchers have stood up to them.

Only Kati and I.

But tonight, another storm will block the valleys, and his men will leave us alone. I’ll be inside when the storm hits. Our ranch house is drafty in the winter, and the roof leaks worse every year, but Kati and I are happy. When we light the fire and close the shutters, snuggling together on the couch beneath the quilts she stitched before we got married, I hardly notice the drafts. It’s always warm when I come home, and the fire and the lamps are always lit. It’s a good welcome after the cold of the pastures.

Except the windows are dark when I ride in, and there are horses tied in the yard.

Baby Groot

Last autumn, I stole an acorn.

Or rescued one, depending on your point of view. Adopted, salvaged, liberated. Pick one.

Or don’t. Either way.

The point is, I was walking home from work and found an acorn on the ground. Since this was in the city and any acorns that manage to sprout are mercilessly mowed down by lawnmowers or simply torn up to save the landscaping, I rescued him.

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Let’s go with rescued. I like that word the best. Okay?

Cool.

When I got home, I wrapped him (yes, definitely a him) in a damp paper towel, zipped him into a plastic baggie, and stuck him in the back of my fridge.

Where he stayed.

For six months.

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Every once in a while I zipped the bag open to check on him. He turned brown almost right away. And black. Definitely had mold in there, too. I changed the paper towel once and let him do his own thing. He’s an acorn. He knows what he’s doing.

Then, after months and months and months (okay, it wasn’t that long), he finally cracked.

Literally.

Once the crack was large enough to see a root growing through it (and it was warm enough to sustain life in my little house), I planted him.

Considering how long it took for that tiny little root to appear, I figured it would be at least a week or two before I saw any action. Oak trees are slow movers, after all. Right?

Wrong.

Three days later, Baby Groot made his appearance. (Look how cute he is!)

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And, considering it took years (not really) for him to incubate, he seemed to be in a serious hurry to grow up.

Why can’t they just stay babies?

Now he’s a toddler (I think) and spends his days mooching on my kitchen table and catching some rays when it isn’t too windy outside. Or raining. Or hailing.

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Don’t judge. He’s still a baby. I’m allowed to be overprotective.

Who knows. Maybe one day he really will grow up, and I’ll plant him outside and let him grow all on his own.

But not for a while. A few years. No need to hurry things.

Lullabies

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He falls asleep when the sun sets, and I cradle him in my arms as I watch the last of the light fade from between the buildings, the deserted streets. The sky grows black, cold against the color of a rising moon. I leave the window at last and lay him down in the sports bag I salvaged for him, tucking the thin blanket against the cool night. The office building we’re hiding in hasn’t had heating in more years than I can think to count, but the ceiling of this room is intact, and the walls. Even the window isn’t broken, although the desk was flipped against one of the walls. The claw marks in the wood are old, and there is no blood. So tonight, we’ll sleep here. Maybe tomorrow too. Not longer.

The desk is oak. This must have been a CEO’s office once, or some Vice President. I pushed it against the door after we came, and who knows, it might hold out.

If they don’t come through the window.

I leave him sleeping and go stand by the window again, leaning against the glass. Cities are dangerous now. Too many people are filtering back in, searching for places to live among the rubble. Railway tunnels, old buildings, the sewers. They gather, and the Hunters find them.

But we’re not staying long. I came here for supplies, for baby clothes and whatever else I can find. When I’m finished foraging, we’ll leave again. Tonight and tomorrow. That’s all.

I press my forehead against the glass and close my eyes. I can hear them in the silence, even through the walls. The Hunters. Their cries echo among the buildings, shrill as the scream of a seabird on the coastline. They came for the cities first, in the beginning. People said heat drew them. All those bodies in one place. Most don’t travel in groups of more than two or three because of it. Even families split apart.

Most families, anyway.

I glance over my shoulder, watching the sports bag sway gently. I hung it on the legs of the desk, just like a real cradle, and he’s been quiet as a mouse in it. Not that he ever is very loud. He doesn’t cry very often, not loud, and especially not at night. I worried about that, in the beginning. I’ve never had any family, only him. Two is more dangerous than one, but one mother and a baby can’t give off that much heat.

At least, that’s what I tell myself when the Hunters are screaming.

I leave the window and go sit by his cradle. My sleeping bag and the backpack I carry with me everywhere are tucked up beneath the desk, next to where I hung his cradle, and I curl up and rock him gently, waiting for the night to end. When he shifts and begins to fuss, I sing for him. All those stupid lullabies I remember from listening to the radio. My voice cracks, and I don’t remember most of the words, but it’s better than listening to the Hunters shriek. After he falls asleep again I keep singing, more for the sound of my own voice and the familiarity of the words than anything else.

Somehow, the night isn’t so dark with a lullaby.

Schindler’s List

Some books are difficult to read.

I won’t deny that. There are some stories in history that people would rather forget. Evil is a definite part of our past, and I think it is easier for us to swallow in fantasy, TV, and fiction than it is in stories that ring true. We’d rather have magnificently evil villains safely trapped between the pages of a book than remember that there were—and are—men and women that were equally as vicious and terrifying. Men who really were set on destroying the world.

And yet, if we cover those stories up, if we forget them, then we will also forget the men and women who stepped up to oppose that evil. The true-to-life heroes who risked their homes, their lives, and their families, to stand in the gap and protect those who couldn’t protect themselves.

Those stories—those men—should never be forgotten.

Schindler’s List is one of those stories. A true-to-life account of a man living in the midst of Hitler’s reign of terror, the story of Oscar Schindler, an unremarkable—and somewhat unscrupulous—businessman who found himself trapped within the horrors of Nazi Germany. His industrial factories saved him from military service and made him a valuable member of the Nazi party—a man who could have survived in perfect comfort and profited from the hatred around him.

And yet, amid a sea of people choosing the easier road, Oscar Schindler saw worth in the men Der Füher had deemed worthless. He began to collect them in his factories, Jewish men and women who he insisted were vital to keeping his machines in order, his production moving.

Men and women who knew next to nothing about the work he swore could not be done without them.

They survived on his ingenuity. As the war progressed and hatred ran deeper, it became more and more difficult to convince the Nazi regime that his Jewish employees were vital to the war effort. Bribery triumphed where reason couldn’t, and by the end of the war, Schindler’s entire fortune had withered to almost nothing. In the last few months, his ‘factories’ ceased even pretending to work, instead hunkering down in an effort to survive a nightmare that was quickly coming to an end.

1,200 Jewish men and women were saved from concentration camps by Oscar Schindler, and his story lives on, not as the story of a virtuous hero, but as the tale of an unremarkable man who, when faced with the worst that humanity could produce, chose instead to demonstrate it at its best.

Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire.

Oyster Diving

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The sky is dark when we take the trails to the caves. The trees hang over the path, stirring restlessly in the cold wind, and I can hear the ghosts whispering among their leaves. I don’t like to leave so early, not when the sun is still hidden behind the mountains, but we have a long walk to get where we’re going, and every minute of daylight counts.

We can’t afford to waste the sun.

Jamal takes the lead. He’s walked this path so many times, I think he could follow it with his eyes shut. The darkness doesn’t bother him, and he only laughs at me when I tell him that I can hear the dead singing about the graves we left them in. The dead, he tells me, are very happy now. They are buried deep, and they don’t live to starve and beg and sell their riches for pennies. The dead are happier than we are.

I don’t believe him. We sell our wares for pennies, and I have gone to bed hungry many nights, but I can stand on the cliffs and smell the sea air and hear the gulls crying on the wind. I see the stars when I drift off to sleep, and when I dive among the caverns and collect the oysters we sell, I can taste the salt of the waves on my lips.

I am hungry, yes. But I am alive. I don’t envy the dead, even those who have died well and are buried deep.

The horizon has turned pink above the trees when we reach the chasm, and the trees sing quietly of dawn and waking, of sunshine and scattered rain. The voices of the dead are silenced, and I can remember why I always beg to come with Jamal when he hunts.

He ties the rope he is carrying to the trunk of a sturdy tree and tosses the rest into the cavern. The sun peeks over the tops of the trees, and I slip over the edge of the rocks and down into the darkness below. I have trusted my life to this rope many times, always praying to whatever gods come first to my mind that it will not choose to break this time. Jamal laughs at me for this too. He says the gods don’t care for oyster divers, and besides, a fall even from the height would not kill me.

I don’t believe him. I fell once, when I was too young to hold on, and I nearly drowned then, even though I had only twenty feet left to drop.

But I don’t fall this time, and the rope does not break. The water is cool here, and the waves are gentle and seem to welcome me back. As the light grows, the water takes on a translucent glow, green light dancing on the rock walls and soaring, vaulted ceiling. I tread water and watch Jamal come down to join me. He carries our knives, and the string bags we collect the oysters into. The single beach on the far end of the cavern is littered with the shells of previous weeks. Our ashes are there too, where we’ve lit fires to cook our spoils. The oysters themselves are not what we come all this way for, although we bring plenty home for the families to eat. The treasures they carry inside them, black and silver and opal, are what we come for, and the money we get for selling them in the open market keeps our family from starving to death.

Jamal has never liked our trade. He says that one day, he will find a pearl so large and so perfect that it will sell for much more than pennies. Then he will take a boat and get off our island and never come back.

When he talks like that, I shut my mouth tight and dive again, blocking out the sound of his voice. I will never leave our island, and I like the trade I’ve chosen. I like swimming in the lagoon with the rocks over my head and the oyster beds beneath me, and I like bartering in the market for the treasures I’ve found. I could find a thousand perfect pearls, and I would still get up before the sun is awake and listen to the ghosts whispering in the trees as I make the trek to the caves.