Upon seeing a news story about his death, Jason visits the scene of the crime for answers.
I didn’t care about being made fun of for eating cake while watching the Friday night news. Everything was more fun with cake. It was part of my end of the week ritual after my shift at the hospital. What wasn’t part of my routine was dropping my plate while seeing news about myself.
“In a strange turn of events, the serial killer known as the Isolation Cleaner has changed direction with their latest victim, Jason Sizemore,” the TV news reporter announced. Two paramedics dragged my disfigured and waterlogged body out of the river in the video clip that popped on the screen. “Police say, Jason Sizemore, Caucasian, male, age 27 is the youngest victim of the serial killer who in the past has only targeted senior citizens who lived alone. Jason was found earlier today along Green River at Fort Dent Park in Tukwila. Police are asking for any information.”
“This has to be a mistake,” I muttered as I replayed the clip on my DVR. “I must be imagining things.”
But I wasn’t mistaken. The news didn’t change when I rewatched it. I took a deep breath and decided I needed to know more. I searched online for directions to the park–a 15-minute drive–and grabbed my jacket, leaving my cake on the apartment floor. It’s not like I had any roommates who would complain.
Finding the scene was easy enough thanks to the bright yellow crime screen tape blocking a section along the Green River. I was surprised to find that there weren’t any officers posted there. I was hoping to speak to someone, but I took advantage of my fortune and crossed the tape. There had to be some clue still around to tell me what happened—anything as I wadded into the water.
What I did find was a bright flashlight in my face.
“What are you doing here?” the voice demanded.
“I’m Jason Sizemore, and I’m the person the police said they found earlier,” I explained, trying to see who I was speaking to, but she kept the light on my eyes. “There has to be some mistake because I’m not dead.”
I tried to step forward, but she ordered me to, “Stay right there.”
“I’m staying right here,” I reassured, raising my heads while using one to shield my eyes.
“I tried to go to your house, but the address was fake.”
“I’m a private person.”
“But here you are. I had to go to great lengths to find you.”
Wait. Great lengths to find me? I thought. I had to ask, “What do you mean you went to great lengths to find me?”
“I hired some performers for a short film, which was the news clip of the police finding your body. Then I visited the local news station under the pretense of a story for my podcast. I set up a backdoor into their systems to keep tabs on them for when they would air a story about the Isolation Cleaner and replace it with you.”
As I listened to her tale, I began recognized the voice. “You…”
She cut me off. “You got pretty cocky calling into my podcast explaining the Isolation Cleaner to me, like how you got off watching the news of your accomplishments while eating cake. But, you’re not the first serial killer I’ve tracked down and ended because I’m the Pacific Northwest Podcaster.”
I moved to run, but I wasn’t fast enough for her stun gun. I face-planted into the river, with the water filling up my lungs, unable to move.
This week’s short story was inspired by the writing prompt: “Your name, age, height, weight, and race all flash across the T.V. screen. You look in horror as you see your dead body being dragged out of a river as a reporter announces that you’ve been brutally murdered by an infamous serial killer who has been on the run for years.”
For my take, I thought I would have the prompt be a trick to lure out the real serial killer by another one, with the return of the Pacific Northwest Podcaster. One idea I had was to reveal her sooner with her interviewing him, but I decided it was best to keep the twist as late as possible.
A group of librarians in possession of a book that can make characters come to life decide to have a big Halloween party and in true literary fashion, everything goes wrong.
NOT EVERY DETAIL OF EVERY PLAN GOES ACCORDINGLY. EVEN PROMPTS TO TELL A STORY COULD TAKE AN UNEXPECTED DIRECTION AS KATIE WAS ABOUT TO LEARN TONIGHT. THIS YOUNG-ADULT LIBRARIAN COULD EXPRESS COUNTLESS WORDS OF JOY FOR HER LOVE OF HALLOWEEN–EVEN IF IT FELL ON A DREARY WEDNESDAY. BEING IN THE MIDDLE OF THE WEEK WASN’T GOING TO DIMINISH HER DETERMINATION FOR MAKING THIS YEAR THE BEST HALLOWEEN EVER, ALL WITH THE HELP OF AN EXTRAORDINARY BOOK.
“Damn right,” Katie Haines confirmed as she walked down the library aisle’s of fantasy books while holding the aforementioned book. The gold lettering title, “Unbound Words,” provided a mystical sparkle that contrasted the book’s thick, black, leather cover. “Now, describe me.”
KATIE WAS AN IDEAL CANDIDATE FOR REACHING THE BOOKS ON THE TOP SHELF WITH HER SLIGHTLY ABOVE AVERAGE HEIGHT FOR A WOMAN AS SHE GRABBED SOME BOOKS BY NEIL GAIMAN. HER MOUTH WAS WIDE, WITH SLIGHTLY-PROTRUDING CANINES, AND HER EYES WERE AN UNUSUAL SHADE OF TOPAZ. HER FACE GAVE THE IMPRESSION OF A PLOTTING FAIRY WITH HER SHORT HAIRCUT AND A SPRINKLING OF FACIAL FRECKLES, MAKING HER PURPLE GLITTER FAIRY COSTUME A PERFECT MATCH.
“Not bad,” Katie complemented tonight’s narrator.
While holding the Unbound Words book, Katie opened the books she seized. A tornado of words and letters gushed out from the pages, popping out several fictional characters.
“Welcome to the Halloween Party of the Century!” Katie greeted with a dramatic flair. “We got food and drinks in the main lobby along with a DJ. There’s going to be a murder mystery game later tonight, so be sure to put your name in the hat by the punch bowl if you want to play. Have fun!”
Katie made her way to the main lobby area, randomly dancing along the way. The 19,000 square foot library was able to pack a party. Earlier in the day, the staff got in trouble with the fire department for having too many people. Patrons came all over for the library’s extravagant character photo opportunity session oblivious to the fact that the staff pulled the characters out from books.
Only the librarians knew the truth and not even their families. When they found the Unbound Wordsbook a few weeks ago, they swore never to discuss it with outsiders. The staff was able to pass off the fictional characters as cosplayers without any problems. None of the characters could leave the library or harm real people. Though, one observation the staff made that they had no explanation for was that many of the characters would act uncharacteristically, like Dracula being a nice guy.
Katie returned to the lobby area, where the rest of the library staff gathered around the snack table. At the same time, the Mad Hatter commanded the DJ booth. It was 9:30 pm, and the library was closed for the day, allowing the staff to have their private party. Katie stuffed her face with a piece of chocolate cake as the branch manager, Chuck Barkley, strolled up to her.
“I must admit, I’ve been rather impressed with how you’ve handled the unbound book,” Chuck praised. “Other than getting in trouble with the fire department for having too many people earlier today, there haven’t been any problems. Your creativity has kept everything thing in check and increased patron satisfaction.”
“Thanks, Chuck. Does that mean I’m getting a raise in the spring?”
Chuck laughed. “If the budget allows and nothing goes wrong.”
THE KAY PHRASE HAS BEEN SPOKEN.
“The what the what now?” Katie mumbled.
WHENEVER EVERYTHING IS GOING RIGHT, EVERYTHING MUST GO WRONG. IT’S A RULE OF STORYTELLING.
“The narrator has a point,” Chuck agreed.
“But this is a party. Nothing has to go wrong,” Katie pleaded.
The music scratched to a stop.
“Let’s all get mad now!” the Mad Hatter laughed as he played a record backward.
All of the fictional characters covered their ears, but their effort was futile. The demonic noise had crawled into their ears. They began to laugh uncontrollably. Then, the laughter turned into madness as they all began to release their inner-crazy by destroying their surroundings, fighting each other, making loud noises, beating their chests, and so forth.
The librarians flipped over a table and ducked down behind it.
“How do we get them to stop?” one of the librarians asked their group.
“If any of them touch the unbound book, they disappear,” another librarian, Amy, reminded everyone.
“But there’s too many of them,” Chuck remarked. “We need a way to kill them off at once.”
Katie glanced around the room. On the new arrives stand was a biography of American novelist George R. R. Martin. “How about we get a writer known for killing off characters.”
With Unbound Words in hand, Katie duck and ran, narrowly avoiding food and furniture, as she grabbed the biography. She cracked open the book, and in a swirling storm of words, George R. R. Martin came to life. While Katie wasn’t a super-fan, she noticed something was off, like it wasn’t really him, and more like a stunt-double.
“Golly gee willikers, we got ourselves a mess here,” George spoke in a high-pitched voice.
Katie slapped her forehead. “Of course, the book decides to mess his character up completely.”
“Hey, there. Words can hurt people too, you know,” George sneered, reminiscent of Robin from the 1960s live-action Batman television series. “I might be different, but I can help.”
“Then, can you kill off all these characters?” Chuck needled.
George mockingly laughed as he pulled out a tiny DOS computer the size of a smartphone from his pants pocket. “Can I kill all these characters.” He finger poked a paragraph worth of keys in a second with one hand while the other held the tiny machine. “Get a load of this.”
Dozens of white blobs erupted, taking the form of white-out white octopuses with baseball bat sized paintbrushes in each tentacle. The octopuses charged at the unruly fictional characters, brushing them out of existence. When the octopuses wiped away the last character, they turned on each other, cleaning themselves out.
“Thank you,” Katie said and then bopped the fake George on the head with the book, disintegrating him back into words.
“How are we going to clean all this up?” Amy grumbled.
Katie picked up a copy of Cinderella that had serendipitously managed to get tossed into the lobby. “That’s what Fairy Godmothers are for.”
This week’s short story was vaguely inspired by the writing prompt: “There are some fictional characters you absolutely detest. You’ve even gone and made a list of them. Now all you have to do is hire the most ruthless killer of fictional characters you know; George R. R. Martin.” As you can tell, I basically had George save the day by killing a bunch of fictional characters to keep it in line with my universe.
I’m working on a book staring Katie and the Unbound Words book, which has her deal with an enormous problem the book causes. If you missed it, I wrote about Chuck in another short story, Moral Compass.
Thank you for your support and reading this week’s short story!
Get a tour of the new Shop Contemporary retail space with manager Garrett Colton in this video I did for Oklahoma Contemporary. As Garrett shares, “The premise behind the shop is a microcosm of what we’re doing as an arts organization.”
Until you’re able to visit Oklahoma Contemporary, you can shop online.
The Study is a wine pub with a coffeehouse vibe and no pretentious attitudes. In my interview with co-owner Ian Bennett, Ian provided an overview of the Film Row venue, what types of drinks they offer, how they’re able to provide over 60 wines, and their cozy design. Plus, Ian went over their COVID-19 policies and practices.
I took advantage of YouTube’s new chapter feature so you can skip around to the different sections. I’ll have to update some of my older videos to feature chapters.
When I was chatting with Ian while I was setting up for the interview, when he was talking about his wife, I was like, “I should interview your wife for my science show,” and said, “You have.” I didn’t realize that his was wife was Dr. Elaine Hamm. If you want to see Elaine’s Yes! Science! profile, click here.
If you want to check out The Study for yourself, you can visit their website at http://thestudyokc.com or in-person at 701 West Sheridan Avenue in Oklahoma City.
Thank you to my supporters on Patreon for helping to make Uncovering Oklahoma possible, especially during these times! Supporters get awesome rewards, like early access to my episodes. Big thanks to superstar supporters: Lynn and Steve Keller-Kenton Family and Revolve Productions. You can join me and get exclusive access to the un-cut interview with Ian.
The writing group Janet is a part of takes a turn for the weird when two strangers interrupt with peculiar questions and challenges Janet’s curiosity to walk through a mysterious golden door.
There was no time nor day that Janet Nguyen looked forward to the most then Sunday from 2 to 4 pm–even more than her sixteenth birthday tomorrow. She exclusively reserved the weekly two-hour block for the library’s teen girl writers’ meet-up. The eight girls were eclectic in numerous aspects, which Janet loved the diverse voices, genre fans, and writing styles. Fantasy and alternative realties sparked Janet’s passion the most. Even though everyone was different, they were all united by their passion for sharing stories.
Making the group jibe smoothly together was their leader (or coach as she preferred), Brigit. Janet would find herself enthralled whenever Brigit talked about home in Egypt and Egyptian history. While as fascinating as Brigit was, about once a month, she bought in a special guest. A few months ago, their coach brought in an international travel writer to talk about her profession. Then last month she was able to bring a famous YouTube science teacher to discuss proper science in fiction. Janet was able to learn and be inspired by every guest.
Today, they weren’t expecting a special guest, but two busted into the room with energetic enthusiasm. Everyone stared at the newcomers. The first was a man in a white suit with pink outline accents and a woman in a cotton red dress–the kind one would wear to work–holding a tablet. Both had raven-black hair, with man’s short and messy and the woman’s long and free-flowing.
“Hello, everybody!” the man greeted with a booming flair. He slapped both hands on the table, looked everyone in the eye, and asked, “What does it feel like to write?”
Something about their appearance and accent made Janet think they were Norwegian. They were quite peculiar, Janet thought. Who asks a room full of authors what it feels like to write? Janet looked to her coach for her reaction. Brigit had her arms crossed with her back leaning against the wall, making Janet suspect Brigit planned for these guests.
Janet half expected Ashley to jump up with an answer. When she didn’t, Janet looked over at her. A dreamy adoring gaze covered Ashley’s face. With no one jumping in, Janet stood up, as custom when speaking in the group. “It’s beautiful.”
The women in the red dress typed on the tablet while the man focused on Janet. He grinned. “What’s beautiful about it?”
“The impact the stories have on people,” Janet explained, firm in her conviction. “Like, how you can change the world, or simply bring joy to one person.”
The man copied Brigit’s crossed arms and posture against the wall as he stood next to the coach. He turned to her. “You got a smart group here, Brigit.”
Brigit nodded. “Thank you, Loki.”
Loki turned to the woman in the red dress. “What do you say, Raven? Do you like her?”
“Janet Nguyen appears to be a suitable test candidate,” Raven commented, looking up from her tablet at Brigit and Loki. “I’ve already placed the attachment on your door, Brigit.”
Brigit stood forward. “Excellent.” She snapped her fingers. “Janet, would you go through that door?”
The group of girls turned around. A lavish golden door with a round top and encased in a matching metal frame stood tall in the back of the room. Attached to the side by the door handle was a red box the size of a brick. The door wasn’t there earlier, and none of the girls had ever seen their coach bring it before.
Janet turned to her coach. “Where did that door come from?”
“You’re a writer,” Brigit told her. “Use that curiosity of yours and open it.”
Janet took a deep breath and walked toward the door. The whole room had their eyes glued on her, which Janet could feel them watching her like a lab rat. She gripped the glistening golden lever, pushed it down, and carefully open the door. A bright golden light washed over her.
Bridget woke up in her bed with a hazy head. The morning sun broke through her purple silk curtains, slashing across her face and adding to her disorientation.
She grabbed her black, cat-eye plastic-framed glasses from her nightstand and put them on. Her vision got worse. She took them off and could clearly see her various figurines of fairies and dragons on the black bookcase across the room. She did a double-take and put the glasses back on. Again, she couldn’t see. Everything was in focus when she wasn’t wearing them.
“That’s weird,” Janet mumbled.
She tossed off the purple blankets covering her, revealing her black jeans, dolphin t-shirt, and red sneakers. She even had her bra on, which no matter how tired she was, she would’ve taken it off, along with her shoes. Then it dawned on her. It was the same outfit she was wearing yesterday at the writer’s club.
“That was a dream, right?” she questioned.
Before she could answer, her parents burst into the room with a breakfast tray with a plate of French toast, scrambled eggs, turkey bacon, and a chocolate cupcake decorated with a flaming candle. Janet smiled at the sight of her favorite foods.
“Happy Sixteenth Birthday!” her mom and dad shouted in unison.
Janet’s dad brought the tray to her. “Blow out out your candle.”
Janet blew out the candle, her breath releasing an icy wind that sprinkled snowflakes on her father’s arm. Janet slapped her hand over the mouth when she saw what she did. Her mother began to cry.
“She has magic powers,” her mother cried in Korean to her husband. “I thought she would turn 16 and not reveal any magic. Now they’re going to take my baby away.”
“Who’s going to take me away?” Janet demanded in English. “What’s going on?”
“You know what’s going to happen,” her father chastised as if she should know. “Magic is illegal. The government is going to detect your magic and arrest you.”
“What?” Janet snapped. “You can’t be serious?”
A massive bang of wood breaking erupted from downstairs. All three of them jumped from the sound of the intrusion.
“Magic is active on the second floor!” a voice commanded from below. “Apprehend the caster!”
Boots pounded on the wooden steps. Her father sat the tray on the nightstand, ushering his wife to the side of the room, providing a clear path for the squad of army troops that stormed into the room. Janet stared, dumbfounded and anxious, at the four armed men and women as they raised their guns her. Janet’s parents embraced each other, turning their heads away from the scene. Janet’s jaw dropped in confusion as to why her parents would uncharacteristic be so willing to give her away. Why aren’t they doing anything?
The soldiers exchanged confirming glances before tasing Janet unconscious.
The harsh cold from the concrete floor woke Janet up this time. She found herself alone, behind bars, in an abandoned prison. From the lack of modern amenities, she bet the government decommissioned the place decades ago. The only light entering the cell was from the yellow, flickering fluorescent light in the hallway and the glow of the full moon behind her barred window.
With a grasp of her surroundings, she inspected herself. She wasn’t bleeding, so that was good. Nothing felt broken either. She hadn’t been forced into a different outfit, but a stiff metal collar was now around her neck.
Janet desperately wanted to call out to confirm if she was alone or not, but she didn’t want to alert the wrong people. Part of her wanted to be alone to process how she had ice breath, why her parents betrayed her, and what was going to happen to her next. She got an answer to latter, though, when someone tapped on the window bars. She let out a tiny screech before she noticed the cute teenage boy. His green eyes twinkled with a sparkle of kindness.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you,” he apologized in a hushed voice.
“Who are you?” Janet whispered back.
“I’m here to break you out.”
With his bare hands, he ripped off the window bars like a person opening a tight jar and gently tossed them on the pavement outside. “Like so. Now come on before the patrol checks in,” he said still keeping his voice quiet.
“How did you do that?” Janet asked astounded.
“Vampire super strength. I’ll explain more later, but we need to get you to safety.”
Janet grabbed his outreached hand. He whisked her into her arms and flew into the sky. Down below, a pair of soldiers arrived examining the damage. The vampire put a hand around her neck, crushing the collar and letting it fall onto the Arizona desert.
“They won’t be able to track you now, and you’ll be able to use your magic again,” he explained. “But don’t the moment you do use any magic, they’ll be able to track it, so don’t cast anything unless absolutely necessary.”
“Okay, I won’t,” Janet assured. “I don’t even know how anyway.”
“If the council is right, it should come naturally for you since you’re the chosen one. The one whose sixteenth birthday falls on a full moon. The one destined to overthrow the fascist anti-magic government.”
“What the fuck?” Janet cussed, confused. She wasn’t one to swear, but the transgression felt justified. “I’m what?”
“It will all make sense when you meet with the Council of Casters.”
The name hit Janet like a crashing car of familiarity. She took a hard look at her savor.
“Is your name Zadicus?”
“Why, yes,” he replied, impressed. “How did you know?”
“Because I created you! I create this whole world where magic is normal but illegal. This all happens in a story I’m writing. But how is this possible?”
Zadicus shrugged. “Perhaps the council will have the answers you seek.”
“Brigit…” Janet uttered. “Zadicus, take me to the downtown library.”
“At this hour? They’re closed. I should get you to–”
“No, take me to the library,” Janet insisted. “I have the feeling someone will be there waiting for me.”
“As you wish.”
Zadicus changed course, flying toward the city, out of the desert. Along the journey, Janet noticed all the public art in her town was gone, and anti-magic propaganda replaced the billboard advertisements. “Protect Our Children: Root Out the Casters.” “See Magic? Say Something!” “Make America Magic Free.” Janet wanted to barf.
As requested, Zadicus slowly landed Janet by the downtown library. As she suspected (and secretly prayed), the golden door stood outside by the main entrance of the modern design building. Loki, Raven, and Brigit played a game of cards from a patio table beside the door.
Brigit sat her cards on the table. “Looks like we all lost. She came back much sooner than excepted.”
“Perhaps another time, her path will take a detour,” Raven chimed in as Janet marched up to the table with her fits balled up.
“How the hell did you make my book come to life?” Janet demanded.
“Science you wouldn’t understand,” Loki responded with smug superiority.
“Whatever…Just get me home.”
“Go through the door and pretend nothing happened,” Brigit explained with a seductive calmness that made Janet relax her hands. “Emphasis on the latter.”
Janet huffed in relief and opened the door. Like before, a golden light swept over her as she stepped through. Janet found herself back in the library, walking through the door as if she had been plucked out of time and space to visit another world and returned precisely where and how she had left. She turned around, looking through the doorframe back at the writers’ club.
“Is something supposed to happen?” Ashely snidely remarked.
“And that’s the power of using distraction to create intrigue,” Bridget proclaimed. “While Loki and Raven had your attention, none of you noticed the librarian wheeling in my door. You all thought it was magic. Now, I want you all to remember this lesson for your own stories. You can set up plot elements without revealing them right when they happen. Distracting your characters will distract your readers too. That’s all for this week. I hope to see you girls again next week.”
As the girls gathered their belongings, Janet closed the door, making sure not to cross through the frame. Loki and Raven left the room with the group, making Janet the last one to go with Brigit holding the door open.
As Janet left, clinging tightly to her backpack, her coach whispered, “I hope you were especially inspired, Janet.”
Extending past 2,100 words, this is my longest short story so far this year. This story was inspired by two different writing prompts. The first was, “‘Hello, everyone! What does it feel like to write?’ Everyone in the room looked at the newcomer who had just burst in. They were quite peculiar, after all, who asks a room full of authors what it feels like to write? But you were willing to humor them, so you stood up to answer the question.”
Using the first prompt, I got to the point of the golden door, but over the week, I couldn’t decide happened to Janet on the other side until I got inspired by another prompt: “In a world where magic is real but illegal, you’re being hunted down for showing magical prowess on your birthday.”
With that second bit of inspiration, I had the other side be one of Janet’s stories. As long as this story turned out, there is room to make it longer. I make a joke at the end with everyone being surprised Janet got back so fast.
Thank you for reading! I hope you enjoyed this week’s short story.