Sunday, April 30, 2017

Opening the gate: 12 HOURS OF HALLOWEEN, Reading #43

From my YouTube channel: Jeff defies the possessed pin oak tree to open the gate for the ghost girl:

There are times when you have to seize the initiative in an opportune moment of courage, before excessive contemplation of the circumstances forces you to change your mind. 
Without further comment, I ran in the direction of the gate, and tried my utmost to ignore the sounds of the crackling branches, and the blood-chilling groans of the massive pin oak. 
It wasn't a long run; my sprint carried me to the gate in a matter of seconds. 
I stood before the gate, and the big oak tree. I could feel the earth beneath my feet vibrating now: The tree’s roots were pulsating in the loam and clay underneath the lawn. 
I knew it would be better to ignore the tree and focus only on the gate, but I couldn't resist. I gazed up at the trunk of the tree. About fifteen feet up, near the lowest of the oak’s branches, I saw the impossible.
In the middle of the trunk, the gash of a large grimace proved for once and for all that this was no ordinary oak tree. I could see teeth inside that mouth—in the darkness they appeared to be the same color as the bark, but they were long and serrated. 
I also saw two eyes—these were only slightly lighter than the bark, but clearly distinguishable. The eyes rolled downward to look at me.
Another reverberating, furious sound issued from deep within the trunk of the pin oak. The bark began to crack; the pin oak seemed to sense what I was about to do, and it wanted to stop me....

Monday, April 24, 2017

The autopsy: LILITH: Chapter 3 reading

From my YouTube channel: a reading of Chapter 3 of LILITH:

Dr. Arthur Koenig was in his late fifties. Koenig wore a beard like that of the late C. Everett Koop, the U.S. Surgeon General under President Reagan. Despite his idiosyncratic facial hair, Dr. Koenig was one of the best forensic pathologists in the region. Alan had worked with Koenig on a number of cases. Alan was relieved when he learned that Koenig had been assigned the autopsy of Robert Billings. It was the morning after Grooms’ late-night drive to the home of the murdered man, and he was running on fumes due to sleep deprivation.
Dr. Koenig was silent as he dug the slug from Robert Billings’ head. Robert Billings’ body lay naked on the examination table, surrounded by the antiseptic smells and cool temperatures of one of the autopsy rooms in the Hamilton County Coroner’s building. 
Although the rest of the body had been examined, the autopsy was focused on the bullet wound, the obvious cause of death. There was no other damage to Robert Billings’ body—no marks that would suggest a fight, or the forceful restraint of a man who knew that death was near. And the blood work, rushed through the lab in the wee hours of the morning, showed no signs of incapacitating chemicals. 
According to all the forensic evidence available thus far, Robert Billings had undergone no trauma at all, until someone had shot him in the head and instantly ended his life.
There had been no exit wound, leading Alan to believe that Lilith had killed Billings with a small caliber like a .22. Moreover, a .22 had been used in the previous killings....

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Insights of the world beyond: 12 HOURS OF HALLOWEEN: Reading #41

From my YouTube channel: 

I was afraid of this girl, as I was afraid of so much we had seen tonight. But I also sensed that if she was offering her insights to us, they might be useful.
“Can anything out here,” I asked tentatively, “can anything out here really hurt us?”
“Oh yes,” she said, turning to me again—and again I saw a brief flash of solid black where the whites of her eyes should have been. “You must be very careful. You aren’t—where you came from anymore, but you already know that, don’t you?”....

Thursday, April 20, 2017

The ghost girl's request: 12 HOURS OF HALLOWEEN, Reading #40

From my YouTube channel: Reading #40 of my 1980s coming-of-age supernatural thriller, 12 HOURS OF HALLOWEEN:

I looked at Bobby and shrugged. We didn't know yet if the girl was dangerous. In either case, I didn't intend to let Leah face her alone.
I followed Leah, stepping across the ditch and onto the lawn. Bobby followed me without further protest or comment. 
“Why are you crying?” Leah asked the girl. “What’s wrong?”
“I can’t find my parents!” she said, with a loud sob. 
“Where do your parents live?” 
I let Leah ask her question, but it occurred to me that Leah had failed to make an important connection: This girl’s parents probably didn't “live” anywhere anymore. 
“They’re supposed to live here!” she cried. “This is where my family’s apple orchard is supposed to be.”
I might have heard something once about the land around here having been an apple orchard a long time ago. There was evidence for this in some of the street names. The street we were walking down was Applegate Drive. And we had planned to take a shortcut through Old Orchard Lane—before our way was blocked by Mr. Dolby’s bear.
But all that was a long, long time ago, if it had ever been at all. This was a memory that this girl—if she was indeed around our age—could not possibly possess. 
Leah said: “You know, I heard something about this land being an apple orchard.”
“I heard about it, too. But do you know how long ago that was?”
I wanted to get away from this girl on the swing, even though she did not appear to represent an immediate threat to us. If asked, I wouldn't have been able to put my objection into words at that time. Having thought about it over the years, I’ve since decided that there was simply something unnatural and vaguely indecent about the dead and the living mixing in this way. 
The corpses writhing in the mud were still fresh in my memory, their desire for our life force naked and unrestrained. I’ve read in the intervening years that when spirits appear to the living, they never do so idly. A ghost always has an agenda, a desire. Spirits, when they appear to us, always want something.  
But Leah seemed so fascinated with this girl. And as I’ve already told you, I was quite fascinated with Leah. That was what kept me there, even though my better judgment told me to move on...

The inspiration behind OUR HOUSE

This is the new "from the author" blurb on the book's Amazon description page:

A few years back, I heard a (true) story about a young couple purchasing their first home. The American dream come true.

There was only one problem: The owner of the house was a middle-aged couple, and the wife didn't want to sell the home. She had an obsession with the house, in fact.

The realtor advised the young couple to back out of the sale, suggesting that the middle-aged woman might be dangerous.

The young couple didn't listen. They pushed forward and bought the home.

After the young couple moved in, strange things began to happen: Threatening messages were scrawled on the driveway. There were petty acts of vandalism in the middle of the night…

Creepy! I thought.

That story formed the seed of OUR HOUSE. In this novel, you’ll meet the Hubers, a charming couple in their early thirties. The Hubers and their young son move into the house at 1120 Dunham Drive.

And you’ll also meet the Vennekamps: the middle-aged couple who used to own that same house.

Deborah Vennekamp doesn't want to let go of the house at 1120 Dunham Drive. 

Because the house at 1120 Dunham Drive holds some very deadly secrets. 

These are secrets that Mrs. Vennekamp wants to remain buried, and she’ll do anything to frighten the new owners away.

The inspiration behind LILITH

This is the new "from the author" blurb on the book's Amazon description page:

LILITH is a ultimately a novel about the practice of “catfishing”, only with a deadly twist.

The idea for LILITH came from the following question: What would happen if a serial killer started preying on men who use online dating websites? 

The serial killer would, of course, begin by dangling the profile of a beautiful woman in front of her victims. She would target men who were socially awkward, and therefore, eager to believe the online ruse.

LILITH is a police procedural and a murder mystery.

But it’s also a tale about wishful thinking, and how loneliness can make people vulnerable, sometimes with deadly results.

Join Detective Alan Grooms of the Ohio Department of Criminal Investigations (ODCI), as he and his partners pursue the serial killer called “Lilith”… first across the Internet, and then through the dark underworld of Cincinnati, Ohio. 

The investigation begins: LILITH: Chapter 2 reading

From my YouTube channel: Detective Alan Grooms of the Ohio Department of Criminal Investigation (ODCI) makes an initial investigation of the crime scene:

Interstate 75 ran right through the heart of Cincinnati. Alan knew he was getting close to his destination when he passed the vast complex of the General Electric Aviation plant. The plant had been alternately expanded and downsized throughout the years, and now—to the best of Alan’s knowledge—it was focused on the manufacture of aircraft engines for the export market. During the Cold War years, this plant had placed Cincinnati high on the Soviet Union’s target list in the event of a thermonuclear exchange.
Following the directions provided by the Explorer’s GPS, Alan turned off on the exit immediately south of the GE plant. He made a right turn off the exit down a main thoroughfare of old residential buildings and a few gas stations and all-night markets. Then he took a left onto Rosemont Avenue and saw the flashing lights of the police cruisers.
Alan saw at least two black-and-whites in front of Robert Billings’ house, both bearing the insignia of the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Department. Despite the late hour, it made for a chaotic scene. The lights from the patrol cars flashed kaleidoscopically across the fronts of the surrounding houses, and there was already a crowd of curious neighbors, gathering to see who was going to jail, the hospital, or the morgue.
Alan parked the Explorer on the street just down from one of the black-and-whites. (He now noticed a third patrol car.) As he approached, he was stopped by a female deputy. Twentysomething and blonde, she was neither Deputy Lee nor Deputy Page. The name on her badge was L. Hall.
Alan showed his badge and asked Deputy Hall, “Are Deputies Lee and Page around here? They’re supposed to be my contacts. I spoke earlier with a Sergeant Rayburn.”
“Inside the house,” Deputy L. Hall said, motioning Alan toward the front door.
The house, like so many houses in Cincinnati, was built into a hillside. The topography down here was distinct from the flatland country where Alan lived. Cincinnati had been built into the hills on the north side of the Ohio River basin. Robert Billings’ house was one of a line of turn-of-the-twentieth century row houses. Alan had to walk up two flights of chipped concrete steps, and then through a chain-link gate that had been left open. 
He was about to step inside the house when he heard the sound of a woman sobbing. He looked down to the street level and saw an older woman—perhaps sixty or seventy years old—sitting inside a patrol car. Another female deputy was making awkward attempts to console her. Alan guessed that the woman was Robert Billings’ mother. Or, more properly, had been.
Alan knew that he would have to make a point to talk to her—during the investigation phase, of course, but also tonight. His efforts at consolation would be no more effective than those of the female deputy, perhaps; but he would let Mrs. Billings know that he intended to catch her son’s killer or killers.
The front foyer of the house was mildewy. The ceiling was high and water-stained. There was an old-fashioned open radiator in the front hallway, and wainscoting that should have been replaced long ago.
“Detective Grooms?” a voice said...

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Writing About Sex in Fiction (or Not)

The pulp writer John D. MacDonald once declared that no fiction writer needs to graphically describe the sex act in a novel or short story. Everyone knows what the sex act is, after all—and what it’s like. (And if you don’t know, then maybe you need to read less, and get out more.) MacDonald assessed that to write in detail about sex is a bit like writing in detail about Christmas. “You’ll just bore everyone,” MacDonald declared.

I tend to agree. Most of the sex in my fiction is implied, and takes place “off camera”. I’ve strayed from this rule only on rare occasions—and I’ve always regretted it. Like MacDonald, I’ve never felt the need take readers through a blow-by-blow account of the details. 

Perhaps I’m relying on my sensibilities as a reader—and viewer—in this regard. I’m a huge fan of the FX spy series,The Americans. The Cold War drama is one of the best shows on TV, with complex characters and compelling storylines—not to mention a killer premise.

At the same time, it sometimes seems that the writers and producers of the show are deliberately trying to fit as many flashes of Keri Russell’s butt as possible into each episode. 

Don’t get me wrong: Keri Russell has an awesome derriere. But her skills as an actress are so prodigious that her butt seems little more than an afterthought in the big scheme of things. She totally nails the difficult role of Elizabeth Jennings, the middle-class Washington D.C. travel agent and suburban mother who is actually a Soviet sleeper agent. There are few Hollywood actors whom I would like to meet, but I would like to meet Keri Russell—and not because of her butt. I am genuinely blown away by her acting.

Likewise, The Americans has a tendency to drag out its sex scenes. Sex is often a key plot element on The Americans, so the occasional bedroom scene is by no means out-of-bounds. But when I can count the number of sexual positions performed in each episode, a plot device has become something else. A spy drama should not become a film version of The Joy of Sex. 

But what about novels that overdo it? One of the more egregious fictional examples of overindulgence to come to my attention of late is Ken Follett’s 1991 novel, Night Over Water

Night Over Water is a thriller set on the eve of World War II. The setup is a transatlantic flight filled with thieves, vagabonds, and spies. The book is a page-turner—until Ken Follett decides to take two to three pages to describe a sex scene. And he does this multiple times throughout the book.

Call me a prude, but I don’t need to know that a male character’s erect penis is “purple” and “swollen”. Nor do I need an in-depth description of erect nipples and female secretions at the moment of arousal. I’m not offended or shocked by such things, mind you; but what’s the point? 

I checked the Goodreads reviews of Night Over Water, and I saw that a number of reviewers criticized Follett for all the sex—not because it was crude or excessively libertine, but because it was sexist:

“indulgent sex scenes with every woman desperate for a man and every man reluctant, but passionate, toward a woman…it loses a star…over sexualization of its female characters. Ken Follett makes certain we know each woman's cup size and we can't escape that this is a man writing women.”

Ironically enough, Ken Follett, a British writer, is a champagne socialist who also fancies himself a feminist. Make of that what you will.

Follett is usually a solid thriller writer. Eye of the Needle is one of my all-time favorite thrillers (even though it does include a gratuitous reference to male-on-female oral sex). I think this reviewer sums it up best:

“Follett's plots are always fun but he is also known for his obligatory smut scenes with too much gratuitous (and often silly) detail.”

The takeaway? Unless the writer is creating explicitly erotic material (a task which has never been my interest or calling), his detailed descriptions of sex will probably subtract much more from his work than they could possibly add. 

It’s probably enough to begin a sex scene with a passionate kiss, and conclude with the couple getting dressed afterward. Let the reader’s imagination fill in the blanks of what takes place in-between.

Our House (thriller): Chapter 1

From my YouTube channel: Jennifer Huber gets a first look at the dream home with the dark secrets.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The Ghost Girl: 12 HOURS OF HALLOWEEN, Reading #39

From my YouTube story channel:

12 HOURS OF HALLOWEEN: A NOVEL:  On Halloween 1980, three young friends go out for "one last Halloween" in a suburb that becomes a surreal landscape of terror.

Chapter 12

Even from a distance, something seemed unnatural about the girl who was sitting in the tree swing.
First of all, there was the situation itself: Here it was, Halloween night; and although this section of the neighborhood was without trick-or-treaters, we knew that it must still be within the scheduled hours for the activity. Despite all that had happened, we had not been gone for much longer than an hour, we estimated. 
Why would the girl be sitting in a tree swing in someone’s front yard on Halloween night?
And then there was the dress: Girls hadn’t worn dresses like that since before my grandparents were born. No—scratch that—since before my grandparents’ grandparents were born. It was a dress not from any point in the twentieth century, but from much earlier.
The tree swing hung from the branch of a large tree in the middle of someone’s front yard. The house was a simple one-story ranch house. We were in the older part of the neighborhood now, on one of the streets that conjoined with Shayton Estates. The houses on this street dated back to the immediate postwar era, when builders throughout the country had scrambled to provide housing for all those returning GIs.
But this girl would have looked out-of-place even in that era. Her white dress extended nearly to her ankles and it billowed at the bottom. This was a dress from back in the days when women wore full-length undergarments.
As we approached, she continued to swing in the dark, her hands gripping the swing’s thick ropes, her long dark hair cascading down her back. 
Her skin was pale. And it might have been my imagination, but it was faintly glowing in the moonlight. 
We stopped in front of the house. The girl was a sight to behold. It wouldn't do to simply walk by her without comment.
“Don’t talk to her,” Bobby said. “She’s a ghost.”....

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Mr. Robbie's Secret: a short story

Thirteen-year-old Tyler Beckman was surprised, and then saddened, when his favorite teacher disappeared from his quiet corner of western Pennsylvania in a violent manner. Tyler had seen the signs of what was coming; but he did not make the inevitable connections between the dots. Tyler did not recognize that Mr. Robbie was something other than what he purported to be. 

The tall teacher was roughly the same age as Tyler's mother and his Uncle Steve, somewhere in his mid- to late-thirties. Mr. Robbie wore his hair longish (in contrast to Uncle Steve, who, a decade after his discharge, still adhered to a military-style buzz cut). 

Mr. Robbie occasionally spoke to the students in conspiratorial terms, but only to a point. Because the real point was always literature, and Mr. Robbie was always eager to get back to that point.

The class clowns and bullies didn't disturb Mr. Robbie's class. Tyler didn't know if this was because they were afraid of him, or because they were loath to disappoint him. Tyler grasped that any number of teachers could inspire the first type of fear. Rare was the teacher who could inspire the second.

As he paced before the class, waving his long arms in expressive gestures, Mr. Robbie had a way of drawing you in. An anecdote about Shakespeare would give way to something about Steinbeck. Then Mr. Robbie would catch himself and say, "Oh, yes, that's right: You haven't read any Steinbeck yet. But we're going to cover The Pearl next semester; and you're going to love it; I promise.

Even at thirteen, Tyler could recognize and appreciate Mr. Robbie’s atypical-for-a-public-school-teacher passion. But there was something more personal between teacher and student at work here: Mr. Robbie had told Tyler that he had talent. No one had ever told Tyler that before.

The strange men, who would later have a hand in Mr. Robbie's sudden departure and subsequent end, appeared in early winter, the week after the holiday break ended. 

Tyler noticed them for the first time one day after lunch. He was standing at the edge of the playground, breathing in the cold air, when he saw the two men sitting in the black sedan. 

They were parked within a stone's throw of the schoolyard, just beyond the range that would provoke a concerned citizen to place a precautionary call to the police. The large black sedan with the tinted windows did not belong in this bedroom community of Pittsburgh, where pickup trucks, minivans, and five-year-old passenger vehicles predominated. 

Nor did the men belong: The hulking figure in the front passenger's seat was little more than a male shadow. The large man in the driver's seat was wearing a dark sport coat. His head was shaved and he wore sunglasses. When Tyler looked at him, the sunglasses stared back, expressionless. Tyler looked quickly away. 

Tyler's first thought was that the two men might be perverts, child molesters. Both Uncle Steve and his mother had warned him about such creatures. He had been told many times to be wary of unfamiliar adult males, to refuse all offers of rides and favors from male strangers. Little did Tyler know that the two men had absolutely no interest in him or any of his peers. It was Mr. Robbie that they were looking for. 

Tyler was the only child of a single mother. An objective observer would have said that Jennifer Beckman made a valiant effort under far from ideal circumstances, both economic and otherwise. Tyler's mother was always busy, always at work, or coming and going from work. With no college degree and no specialty, she bounced from one low-margin opportunity to another. She waitressed and worked retail. She had done a few stints in "light manufacturing".

Tyler's relationship with his father was sporadic and distant. Tyler wasn't completely sure if his parents had ever been married, or were merely "together". Either way, his father was basically absent from his life.

Tyler did have Uncle Steve, though: his mother's brother, one year her senior. Uncle Steve was a machinist and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom. 

Steve had square features, a ruddy complexion, and thick forearms. He did his best to provide fatherly advice, to fill in, where he could, for Tyler's absent father. He usually did so imperfectly. But Tyler understood; Uncle Steve had problems of his own. He was divorced, and had a daughter named Eliza, whom Jennifer predicted "would be a real handful in a few years."

From what Tyler could see, Eliza was already a "handful". She was a freshman at the high school in Tyler's school district. She had little time for her younger male cousin, but plenty of time (according to rumor) to smoke behind the school with a rough crowd of girls, and go riding in cars with older boys. When Tyler and Eliza did communicate more than a passing word, she usually chided him for always having his "nose in a book." Tyler supposed that he was indeed a bookworm, thanks to Mr. Robbie. And if that made him even less interesting to Eliza, then so be it.

And for that matter, Tyler was aware that Uncle Steve would have preferred a different kind of nephew: someone more like himself, a boy who preferred hockey and football, a boy who would have shared his daughter's disdain for an adolescent who focused so much on books.

But Uncle Steve was the best he had, and Uncle Steve, in turn, was doing his best. It would therefore be petty of Tyler to resent him. After many months of contemplation of late (Tyler had found that reading naturally led to all manner of contemplation) Tyler had finally accepted the score: There would be no fairytale reprieve here: His parents would never reconcile, his father (if the speculations of his mother and Uncle Steve could be believed) was "shacking up" with various other women.

Nor was he likely to acquire a sympathetic and nurturing stepfather. For a while after Tyler's father had left, his mother had occasionally dated. These outings with men had gradually become rarer, such that Tyler could no longer recall the last time his mother had had "a date". He grasped, at some basic level, that an early middle-age woman with a thirteen-year-old son was not exactly in high demand among her male counterparts.

But Tyler had Mr. Robbie. Mr. Robbie had happened along and into Tyler's life at the opportune time, during the previous year, as Tyler entered junior high. Mr. Robbie was the English teacher for both the seventh and eighth grades at Tyler's school.

It was also at this time that Tyler's body had been exploding with puberty, and all that entailed: a sudden obsession with girls and women, and the restlessness and rebelliousness of a male alley cat. Those energies might have been channeled in any number of destructive directions--if not for Mr. Robbie.

Tyler had never really read for pleasure before. Why would he, given the endless array of videos and video games that the Internet offered? Reading was for old folks, fuddy-duddies like his Grandfather Beckman, whom Tyler saw almost exclusively on Thanksgiving and Christmas. Grandfather Beckman read one of the local Pittsburgh papers, as well as the Wall Street Journal. He barely looked up from the latter, even when he had company. Tyler did not want to be like Grandfather Beckman.

Then Tyler read Johnny Tremain for Mr. Robbie's class, followed by The War of the Worlds, by H.G. Wells. 

Although both books bore the stuffy description of "classic", they had kept Tyler glued to their pages while he read them—and he read both at a blistering pace, finishing far in advance of the deadline for each book.

The idea that a book could open a sort of parallel universe was entirely new to Tyler. It was especially appealing to a boy whose primary universe left much to be desired.

Tyler kept reading—at first only the books assigned for Mr. Robbie’s class, and then additional books, which he read on his own time. Since Tyler knew nothing about books and literature, he asked Mr. Robbie for guidance.

Tyler made his first request sheepishly, half expecting the teacher to react with bafflement or annoyance. The teachers at Tyler’s school weren’t exactly tyrants; but many of them, it seemed, had long since lost enthusiasm for their jobs. Mr. Robbie seemed different.

Mr. Robbie was different. “Oh,” he said, in a tone of mildly pleasant surprise. “You want some book recommendations for your personal reading? Why sure, I can do that. Gladly.”

As Tyler stood beside the teacher’s desk in the empty, after-hours classroom, Mr. Robbie made a list of “must-read” books for pre-high school age readers. There were eleven books on the list, which was to be the first of many.

“Some people might think that The Lord of the Flies is a bit too harsh for junior high,” Mr. Robbie said, handing over the list and noting the fifth title down, “but I disagree. In fact, The Lord of the Flies is a book that everyone should read before they get too far along into adolescence, in my opinion.”

After thanking Mr. Robbie profusely, Tyler exited the classroom, feeling oddly thrilled with the list in his hand. He was looking forward to the books, of course, but there was more to it than that.

Never before had an adult shown an interest in something that Tyler was interested in, and shared his interest with equal or greater passion. Tyler’s mother was so tired at the end of most days that she wanted to do nothing more than zonk out in front of the television. And Uncle Steve—well, Uncle Steve had his own set of interests, few of which Tyler shared.

Tyler knew better than to think of Mr. Robbie as a surrogate father. He would, from time to time, fantasize about the single teacher striking up a romance with his mother, which would culminate with the two marrying. They were more or less the same age, after all. But when the two finally met at their first parent-teacher conference, there was no indication of fireworks on either side. That had been a pipe dream, an understandable but deluded fantasy.

No, any attempt to cast Mr. Robbie into the role of father would likely end in disappointment and humiliation. But earlier that year, Tyler had heard the term mentor, and he now had a general grasp of that concept. It might not be too much of a stretch to say that Mr. Robbie had become his mentor.

The reading list that Mr. Robbie assigned to Tyler's eighth-grade English class included Shakespeare's Macbeth, and some of the more "accessible" short stories of Ernest Hemingway. These, too, were completely unfamiliar to Tyler, and therefore opened up entirely new worlds.

During the autumn of his eighth grade year, Tyler took what was, for him, a monumental step: He began to experiment with writing stories of his own.

The stories seemed good enough to Tyler—decent, at the very least. Nevertheless, he knew that he was both biased and handicapped as a judge of stories that he had written. Surely Esther Forbes had not known that Johnny Tremain was a good story until someone else had told her so. H.G. Wells, likewise, couldn't have known if his tale of a Martian invasion was exciting, or simply hokey. Wells might have had an idea, sure. But only a detached reader could have told him for certain. 

Jennifer would have read Tyler's stories if he had asked her. She might have done so grudgingly, though: She had so little spare time. Moreover, his mother wasn't an avid reader. Once in a while Jennifer picked up one of the tabloids or glossy magazines found in the grocery store checkout lane: National Enquirer or Cosmopolitan. Jennifer never read books, at least as far as Tyler could discern.

Tyler briefly contemplated the possibility of showing his stories to Uncle Steve or his cousin Eliza, and then dropped the idea just as quickly.

Tyler's logical test reader was Mr. Robbie. But asking Mr. Robbie to read his stories—which weren't class assignments—would represent a certain level of presumptuousness. That was what Uncle Steve called, "getting too big for your britches." 

Big britches or not, Tyler decided that he should take the plunge. He approached Mr. Robbie in the same way he had approached him about the initial reading list, showing up in his classroom immediately after the end-of-the-day bell. 

Only this time, Tyler showed up with a handful of pages printed off from the computer and laser printer that the nearby library made available to local students. The papers represented two months’ worth of Tyler’s monthly printing quota. 

“I’ve written some stories,” Tyler said timidly, “I was wondering if you would be willing to take a look at them.”

There was a long pregnant moment in which Mr. Robbie appeared nonplussed, and Tyler believed the situation could swing either way. Tyler would later conclude that the teacher simply needed a few seconds to thoroughly assess what was going on: Tyler had not previously revealed that he was writing fiction.

“I’d be glad to,” the teacher finally said. “Give me about a week, okay? I’ll let you know when I’m ready. Then we’ll meet again here, after school.” 

When Mr. Robbie delivered his feedback (the teacher was good to his word, summoning Tyler in a week and a day), it was neither overblown nor patronizing. The pages that he handed back to Tyler were filled with red pen marks and notations.

“You’ve made a good start here,” Mr. Robbie said. “I’ve made some notes in the margins. I found a few logical inconsistencies and clunky dialogue—but that’s normal for a beginner. And, of course, a few typos. The good news is that you seem to have an intuitive grasp of story concept, plot, character, and pacing. Those are the essentials. The rest is mechanics, which you can correct with time and practice.”

After thanking Mr. Robbie for his time and his feedback, Tyler asked, “How long before I can be a writer?”

Mr. Robbie leaned back in his chair. “Well, you’re already a writer, correct? You’re writing, after all.”

“You know what I mean,” Tyler ventured. “I mean a real writer. One who gets paid.”

Mr. Robbie smiled. “Yes, I suppose I do know what you mean.” There are no guarantees, of course. But if you continue to work hard like this, if you continue to study and refine your craft, then you should be producing professional-quality work by the time you’re in your mid-twenties. That may sound like a long time at age thirteen, but you’ll be way ahead of the pack if you can do that. Most ‘new’ writers are actually in their thirties.”

“How much money will I make?” Tyler blurted out.

How could Mr. Robbie, who likely came from a wealthy, more educated background, possibly understand the importance of money to a boy whose mother was working literally all the time? Uncle Steve was always worrying about money, too.

Nevertheless, the question felt crude and stupid. Tyler regretted it as soon as he had spoken, and hastened to apologize for his lapse.

“No, no,” Mr. Robbie said, “that’s quite all right. Nothing wrong with being practical. The truth, though, is that I can’t give you an exact answer. While I can reasonably estimate that you’ll be writing at a professional level of quality by your mid-twenties, I can’t say when, if ever, you’ll be making any real money at it. There are a lot of factors involved in achieving success as a writer. I should also tell you that the publishing business is changing, and it will change even more by the time you’re twenty-five.”

This struck Tyler as measured advice. It seemed to him that when adults gave you feedback, they were either hypercritical, or excessively patronizing. Mr. Robbie hadn’t fed him one of those standard platitudes, like, “You’re special.” 

This so-called “self-esteem obsession” in particular drew the ire of Uncle Steve. “Everybody gets a trophy!” Uncle Steve sometimes mused. “At least, that’s what they want kids to believe nowadays. Well, I can tell you from experience, everyone most definitely does not get a trophy.”

When Uncle Steve went on like this, Tyler sometimes wondered why his uncle would think that Tyler, who had no father to speak of, who lived on the hourly wages of a single mother, would believe that everyone got their trophy.  

Uncle Steve also did not think much of Mr. Robbie, as it turned out. The two men were not well acquainted. But in the microcosm of their little town in Greater Pittsburgh, they occasionally crossed paths. Each man knew who the other was, and they had exchanged greetings, Tyler knew.

“That Mr. Robbie strikes me as kind of an oddball,” Uncle Steve said. When Tyler pressed him to elaborate, he said, “I don’t know—kind of a hippie, I guess.”

Mr. Robbie was not a hippie, at least in the traditional meaning of that word. He did wear his hair a bit longish, though, and many of the women in town (not to mention some of Tyler’s female classmates) had crushes on him. Mr. Robbie’s unmarried and apparently single status was a source of constant speculation.

“He’s a pretty boy,” Uncle Steve said. “I’ll give him that, Mark my words, though: something about that guy ain't right.”

As his final winter of junior high progressed, Tyler also began to suspect that something about Mr. Robbie wasn't quite right. 

The presence of the secretive men in the dark sedans was becoming more common around the school. For a while Tyler wondered if he should say something to one of the teachers; but what would he say? So far as Tyler could tell, the men were breaking no laws. They were accosting no one.

Mr. Robbie began to react strangely to the presence of the men, in a way that only gradually became apparent to Tyler. For one thing, Mr. Robbie stayed sequestered in his classroom during the lunchtime hour, instead of walking out onto the playground to mingle with the students, as had previously been his habit. When he left the school at the end of the day, he pulled his coat collar up over his cheeks, lowered his head, and hurried to his car. This wasn't at all like Mr. Robbie, who had practically sauntered about in the past.

Mr. Robbie even began to make subtle changes in his appearance. He started a mustache, which didn't at all fit his boyish face. He trimmed his hair. Whatever Uncle Steve had said about him before, Mr. Robbie certainly wasn't a hippie now.

Then he picked up the habit of wearing sunglasses whenever he left the school building. Sunglasses were mostly unnecessary in western Pennsylvania in winter, except on those few days when bright sunshine reflected off the fallen snow. Most of the winter days were cloudy, however; and Mr. Robbie wore his sunglasses even on cloudy days.

The men in the sedans—there were three or four of them who apparently rotated—also wore sunglasses. It was as if Mr. Robbie were joining the men in the dark sedans. 

In late February, when Tyler strongly suspected that something was wrong with Mr. Robbie, the teacher summoned him to stop by after school and talk—as if they were to have another discussion about the books Tyler should read, or the stories he was working on.

But Mr. Robbie’s purpose was to tell Tyler goodbye, albeit in a roundabout way.

“Don't tell anyone,” Mr. Robbie said, “but I may need to...take a leave of absence soon."

Tyler was immediately alarmed, and then immediately crestfallen. 

“You’re—you’re leaving?”

“Shhh,” Mr. Robbie said, holding one finger over his lips. “Remember: This is our secret. No one else knows.” Mr. Robbie paused, and looked about the empty classroom, to make sure that they were completely alone, that no eavesdroppers were hovering in the doorway. “Not even the principal of this school knows—not yet.”

Tyler started to ask why, and to form counterarguments. Everyone loved Mr. Robbie—at least all the students did.

“No, no,” Mr. Robbie shushed him. “It’s complicated, and I can’t tell you the reasons. Moreover, it’s better…it’s better that you don't know the whole story. But I wanted to say something to you, given the interaction we’ve had over the last year and a half. I wanted to tell you to continue your reading and your writing, Tyler, even after I’m gone.”

Tyler felt himself begin to grow frantic. Mr. Robbie was speaking as if he were dying, rather than simply taking a leave of absence from his teaching position. 

“Please don’t ask me for details, Tyler. I understand why you’re upset, though. You and I are a lot alike, you know.”

“We are?” Tyler’s mood was momentarily brightened by the thought that he and Mr. Robbie were alike, and that Mr. Robbie thought so.

“Yes, we are. For starters, we both love books. Also, both of us have had to grow up without a father. My father took off when I was young, too, Tyler. I don’t believe I’ve ever told you that, but it’s true. Look after your mom, Tyler. My mom…my mom lives in Cleveland. I should go visit her, I guess.”

That was more or less the end of Tyler’s last one-on-one meeting with Mr. Robbie. The next week, Mr. Robbie simply did not show up for school one day. The principal gave the students no explanation. For the first few days without Mr. Robbie, the principal himself taught a few of the literature classes, and other days the hour allotted for English was like a study hall, in which they were assigned independent readings. 

Then a new teacher showed up. His name was Mr. Fleming. Nothing about him was terribly objectionable; but he was stiff and formal, and he conducted the class as if it were a forced march for teacher and students alike. He was no Mr. Robbie.

Tyler, now rudderless, tried in vain to find out what had happened to Mr. Robbie. None of the other students had any information. His mother did not even know that Mr. Robbie had gone. Uncle Steve merely shrugged and said, “A guy like that, well, anything’s possible. Your Mr. Robbie never really fit in around here. I suspect that he’s simply moved on. People do that sometimes, you know.” What Uncle Steve did not say—and did not have to say—was, just like your father.

Tyler took the bold step of asking the principal, Mr. Cahill. Tyler cornered Mr. Cahill one day as he was walking out of the administrative office.

Mr. Cahill sighed. “Tyler, I understand that you were close to Mr. Robbie. But sometimes teachers don’t teach forever in the same district. Granted, it’s kind of unusual for a teacher to vacate his position in the middle of the school year, but yes, it happens. Why don’t you give Mr. Fleming a chance? I think you’ll learn a lot from Mr. Fleming.”

Tyler reflected that Mr. Cahill’s response had a lot in common with Uncle Steve’s remarks. They both suggested that Mr. Robbie had “moved on,” but neither one confirmed the truth. Tyler quickly reached the conclusion that neither man—Mr. Cahill as well as Uncle Steve—knew the absolute and entire truth.

Then the full truth came out. It was reported that Sean Tierney, a former low-level associate for a branch of the Irish mafia in Boston, was shot to death in Cleveland, outside his mother’s house. 

Tierney had not seen his mother for well over a decade. He had gone to prison as part of an FBI sweep of the Boston underworld. Then he had entered the witness protection program and was set up with a new identity. 

A reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette broke the news that Sean Tierney’s contrived identity had been John Robbie, and that John Robbie had been a teacher in a semirural school district just outside Pittsburgh. 

There was much more information about Sean Tierney, aka John Robbie. Sean Tierney had been a minor player in the Irish mob. He had killed no one, though he had consorted with killers. As was also revealed, he had likely been involved in the intimidation of rival gang members. 

The RICO statutes governing the prosecution of organized criminal networks are notoriously harsh. Sean Tierney might not have been a murderer; but his involvement and complicity in an organized criminal enterprise made him liable to be punished like one. 

Facing the threat of decades behind bars, Tierney decided to take the deal that the federal prosecutors offered. In exchange for a much-reduced sentence, he had agreed to reveal what he knew, and whom he knew. 

Sean Tierney became a government informant, and thereby, a marked man. 

Beyond institutional walls, the government could not guarantee the safety of Sean Tierney. He therefore agreed to become John Robbie. Tierney had also agreed to sever all contact with anyone related to his old identity—including his mother, his only close living relation.

Such was the price that Sean Tierney agreed to pay for his life and his freedom. No one would have disputed that the price was steep. But this is the nature of membership in the mob.

The mob, however, did not forget Sean Tierney. It took them years, but they eventually traced him to the person of John Robbie, an English teacher in suburban Pittsburg. 

When John Robbie determined that his old associates were getting close, he notified his government handlers that an extraction would be necessary, along with yet another identity. 

Before his exfiltration, though, he made one sentimental indulgence that would cost him his life: He traveled to Cleveland to see his mother. He had long planned to see her at least once more, whatever the risk. The man now named Robbie made a decision: Seventy-nine and in poor health, Martha Tierney would not live long enough for her son to immerse himself in yet another identity, and wait for the mob to forget about him. (The mafia would never forget, he knew.)  

 “While in prison,” the Post-Gazette reporter wrote, “Sean Tierney earned his bachelor’s degree in English and a teaching certificate. He also began work on his master’s.”

That explained—to some readers’ satisfaction, at least—why John Robbie had been a teacher. But the final lines of the article revealed an item of information that struck the majority of the Post-Gazette’s readers as far more significant: 

“Sean Tierney might have been shot as he arrived at his mother’s house. Instead he was killed on the way out, after completing his visit. For that small mercy we can thank providence, or perhaps the sentiments of a mob hit man who also loved his mother.”

The revelation that John Robbie had in fact been Sean Tierney created a furor in the community. Everyone had an opinion, it seemed.

There was no ambiguity regarding Uncle Steve’s opinion. “See? I told you that guy Robbie was a scumbag. And now it turns out that he was a real scumbag, an honest-to-goodness gangster. All that stuff he knew about books—well, it turns out that he did most of his reading in prison!”

Jennifer, meanwhile, was simply relieved that her son had been spared any danger. Jennifer had questions, though, as did many parents in the school district: Why had John Robbie, or Sean Tierney, or whatever his name was, been entrusted with the instruction of children?

The answer was that despite his conviction under the RICO laws, Sean Tierney had practically been a nonviolent offender. There was nothing about his crimes, moreover, that suggested a tendency to harm or exploit children in any way.

And he did have a bachelor’s in English, a teaching certificate, and a portion of a master’s.

John Robbie’s educational attainments did little to mollify Uncle Steve, who was struggling to save for Eliza’s college education. 

“Convicted felons get a free ride, while decent, hardworking taxpayers have to scrimp and go into debt. It isn’t right,” Uncle Steve fumed.

The outrage spread throughout the community. A law firm in Pittsburgh floated the idea of a class action lawsuit against the government and the school district. A few parents joined, in hopes of a payout. 

When it became clear that the lawsuit would likely go nowhere, the anger intensified. By April, a few heads rolled. The school district official who had agreed to the John Robbie scheme was fired. Someone in the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections was demoted. 

Tyler had few opinions about the legal maneuvering that followed the case of Sean Tierney/John Robbie. Once Tyler learned the basics of the case, he assiduously avoided news of the scandal in the papers, and on the Pittsburgh news websites. He refused to use the name “Sean Tierney”, even in his private thoughts. 

Early on, out of sheer curiosity, Tyler did venture online, where he found a picture of Mr. Robbie in his past life as Sean Tierney. It was a mug shot taken when Sean Tierney (Mr. Robbie) was arrested once during his early twenties, on a misdemeanor charge. 

The sullen young man in the picture looked only vaguely like Mr. Robbie. They might have been two different men. As far as Tyler was concerned, they were two different men.

After peaking in the news with a bit of coverage on CNN, the emotional intensity of the Sean Tierney/John Robbie case died down, even in the community where the latter had been employed for a relatively brief while as a junior high school English teacher. 

Other stories, other scandals and tragedies, had moved to the forefront by Memorial Day. During the first warm weekend in May, a heroin user had caused a head-on collision on the Pennsylvania Turnpike that killed a vanload of elementary school children on a field trip. Two weeks later, a young man of twenty used a high-capacity semiautomatic pistol to kill his parents, his sister, and four of his classmates at a community college outside Philadelphia. 

That summer, as he prepared to enter high school, Tyler continued to read—and write. After Mr. Robbie first disappeared, he had briefly feared that his enthusiasm and application would wane in his mentor’s absence. These fears turned out to be misplaced.

To the contrary, the opposite occurred: Tyler read and wrote more obsessively than ever. The library had become virtually his second home. He seldom went anywhere without a book or a notepad—or both.

Tyler didn't miss the irony, and he wondered if his efforts might be a form of denial—a way of avoiding a final mourning of Mr. Robbie. (Tyler had cried several times when he learned the full truth, as he might have cried for a dead father; but he did so only alone in his room. His tears were as secret as the feelings that he now felt constantly in the presence of girls, and the solitary acts that these feelings sometimes compelled him to carry out, also alone in his room.)

Uncle Steve made a few attempts to foster a closer bond between Tyler and Eliza. “You might be a good influence on her,” Uncle Steve said. When it became clear that Eliza had absolutely no interest in spending much time with her younger cousin, Uncle Steve lashed out in frustration, adopting the guise of a concerned male role model:

“Books are okay,” he told Tyler, “but you can’t make a living on them. Almost no one can, anyway. Not unless you’re like—Stephen King, or that woman who wrote those awful teenage vampire books a few years ago. 

“It’s okay to read books for school,” Uncle Steve went on. “I wish Eliza would do more of that. But you ought to take up hockey or football. Something to round you out.”

When Tyler responded with a noncommittal shrug (Tyler knew better than to argue directly with Uncle Steve), his uncle played his trump card: 
“I know that you’re doing all this—carrying a book around with you all the time, writing all those stories that you make up in your head—because of that teacher. But can’t you see that he was only leading you on? He was using you, Tyler.”

Tyler merely shrugged again. Mr. Robbie had saved his life. Well, maybe that was hyperbole. But at the very least, Mr. Robbie had given his life a direction, a passion. It was something that he might never have found otherwise, surrounded by his classmates and the less passionate teachers at his public school. And he would never have discovered any of the books, the desire to write stories, by hanging around with his mother, Uncle Steve, or Eliza—much as he loved them. (Tyler loved his mother, anyway. He merely liked Uncle Steve, and he was mostly indifferent toward Eliza).

“Say, do you want me to teach you how to throw a football?” Uncle Steve asked. “I used to be pretty good at it back in the day. I played running back and linebacker in high school—in the very same high school that you’ll be attending in a few months.

Tyler duly thanked Uncle Steve for his offer, then proceeded to beg off. He had a new stack of books from the library. One was The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexander Dumas. It was as thick as the local telephone book, and Tyler couldn’t wait to dig into it. He also had Dracula—the original novel written by Bram Stoker more than a century ago. 

Remembering Uncle Steve’s references to the Twilight series, he thought: no teenage vampires for him. He was going to read the original vampire story, the one in which the vampires were anything but romantic.

What would Mr. Robbie say about these latest books? he wondered.

Mr. Robbie had given him a gift, but Mr. Robbie’s secret had ultimately been too enormous for them to overcome. Someday, he would have to find a way to forgive Mr. Robbie for his failure—his betrayal—even as he loved him for that gift.

Tyler also realized that he now had a secret, too. His mentor was not only a dead man—a ghost to the world—but a man whose very identity had been a fake. 

Or had John Robbie been the real man, and Sean Tierney been the fake? 

Strictly speaking, John Robbie had been a concoction, a name and identity that someone in the witness protection program had made up from thin air. 

Inside his mind, Tyler would always go back and talk to that ghost, that fake identity. He would ask him about books and he would show him stories. Tyler, after all, had no one else. 

That was a secret that would be worth keeping in the years ahead, a secret that he would have to protect and maintain at all costs.