Saturday, January 25, 2020

Serial Saturday: "Priscilla Sum" Part 5

Part 5

I opened the front door and my nose filled with the most delicious, savory aromas. I could hear meat sizzling in a pan, and Mom chatting with Zella, the lady who sometimes comes over and cooks for us when Mom isn't in the mood.

"There she is!" boomed Dad's voice, as he emerged from his office upstairs. His hair was pulled back into a short, low ponytail, pulled halfway through so his hair bunched at the base of his neck. "How was school today, honey?"

I set my bag against the stairwell and heaved a sigh of relief. "Fine," I replied. "I learned something cool today." My cellphone buzzed with a text. I checked to see who it was, and the name Tony brought back memories of seeing him just before the session in Natural Sciences. All in a moment, the weight of it crashed into me, and I physically stumbled a little as Dad put his hand on my shoulder.

"That's great, Pris!" he said. "I can't wait to hear about it over dinner."

I leaned into his touch as we walked toward the kitchen together. No matter what kind of cologne Mom gave him, or how many showers he took, Dad always smelled salty and musty, like the sea. "Speaking of which," I said as we entered the dining area, "What is for dinner?"

Zella stood at the stove, busily stirring smoking things in a large pan while she also slapped flat rounds of dough onto a hot griddle. Meanwhile, Mom placed the finishing touches on a beautiful salad. She smiled at me as she passed the bowl over the counter.

"Take this to the table, would you, sweetie? We're making your favorite--Lemon chicken gyros with tzatziki and falafel."

My mouth was already watering at the smell, never mind the suggestion of what was to come. "Wow!" I said, as Mom followed me into the dining room with a pitcher of water. "What's the occasion?"

We sat at the table as Dad and Zella brought the rest of the meal in serving dishes. Mom busied herself filling the glasses and fussing with spreading the napkin over her lap without really looking at me.

"No occasion, really," she said. "I just knew this meal would be easy and it's something we all like."

Dad took the seat next to her and leaned over to plant a kiss on her cheek. His large hand practically swallowed hers as he caressed it. He gave me a wink. "You're our daughter," he said, "Isn't that a good occasion to make a meal you like?"

I grabbed a flatbread and started loading it with ingredients. "I guess so," I muttered.

I heard Mom give a little sigh like she wanted to say something, but they kept eating in silence.

"So, Priscilla," Dad started the conversation instead. "What interesting thing did you learn in your classes today?"

Mom gave a little cough. "Patrick..." she muttered, giving me a sympathetic look.

It took me a moment to remember my dismal morning, and the failed test, not to mention the way I'd just unloaded on Mom over lunch.

"It's okay, Mom," I said. "Really, I'm over that now." I grinned. "I've got another chance at passing a quiz--and this one really counts for something!"

Mom set her fork down and glanced at me. "Oh?"

I nodded. "We had a visitor in Natural Sciences today--some representative from an archaeological expedition is offering an all-expenses-paid trip out to a dig site in the Mediterranean, and all we have to do is pass a test and submit and essay!"

I'd expected them to at least start peppering me with questions right away, since I knew at least Mom was of Mediterranean descent, herself--but neither of them uttered a sound. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Mom catch Dad's eye and shift her eyebrows. His wiggled in response. It was that kind of "micro-communication" they carried on around me that gave me a sense of admiration that they could have such a close relationship, while at the same time driving me nuts because I had no idea what might be "said" in the slightest twitch!

"That's amazing, dear," Mom said in a low, even voice. "Archaeological digs are costly, arduous things. What is included in this all-expenses-paid guarantee? Is the college putting up funds for this venture?"

I shook my head and stabbed a chunk of cucumber from my salad. "No, some foundation is paying for up to five students and a chaperone to fly out and stay for a week on the island."

The conversation stalled again, and I could hear the wind rattling against the windows. The temperature in the house hadn't changed, but just the sound of it sent a shiver down my spine.

Dad set down his fork and leaned his elbows on the table. He cradled one fist in the other, pressing his hands so that his biceps flexed. "Island?" He echoed my comment--a bit needlessly, I felt. "What island is this? What kind of foundation pays for a bunch of students to spend a week in the middle of the ocean?"

I swallowed the bite of falafel in my mouth. All the elation and optimism I'd felt just minutes ago deflated. "Okay, geez! I get the picture! The organization is called Fortune Research and Educational Development, and the trip is being sponsored by the Daeva-Staite Foundation--but I haven't done any research yet. I'll get to it tonight, if it makes you feel any better."

Both parents seemed to relax a little bit. Mom dabbed the corner of her mouth with the napkin. "No need to get defensive, Priscilla. We appreciate hearing about these things you're doing for school."

"Daeva-Staite..." Dad mused, "That sounds familiar."

Mom gave him a little smile. "The Daeva-Staite Foundation was one of the donors at the adoption agency event last night."

I shrugged. "See? That at least proves they're not some shady front that wants to dupe a bunch of college kids."

"Priscilla!" Mom spoke, and I felt another blast of cold air down my spine as she frowned at me. She had a glare that could freeze boiling water, as Dad would say. "We weren't at all suspicious, we just wanted to know." Her features softened into a smile. "That's great that you're getting a hands-on opportunity to pursue your interest in archaeology. What was the name of the island you'll be going to?"

I sighed away all of the tension that had been building over the course of the conversation. Of course, my parents were only wanting to be parents! "It's really cool! I guess it used to be part of ancient Macedonia, and got separated from the mainland over time. The presenter called it Fourtouna, or something like that."

Both my parents froze stiff for several seconds. I saw it again, the micro-communication, flickering silently over their faces.

Finally, Dad nodded. "Cool," he mused, biting into another gyro.

"That's wonderful, Priscilla," Mom said, with her best smile as she speared a bite of salad. "I hope you do well on the quiz and the essay."

"Yeah, I can even help you study," Dad offered, reaching to put a hand on my shoulder. "After all, I know a lot of stories about Ancient Greek lore and whatnot!"

I caught Mom's eye, and we held a silent conversation of our own. With just a flick of my eyebrows, I could let her know that I was thinking about our conversation over lunch. "Yeah, thanks Dad," I shrugged off his touch. "But I think I'm going to try using other sources for this one."

"Oh come on!" he cajoled. "You used to love my stories! From the day you moved in with us, you would beg me to tell you all about those ancient times, and every night you'd fall asleep to the sound of my voice. Don't you remember?"

I winced. He was right, of course--but that was my problem, wasn't it? "I know, Dad, and it was great when I was little... But," I sighed, "honestly, now that I'm majoring in a degree that deals with a lot of ancient past, I'm kind of realizing that those stories you told might have been so memorable that it's making it hard for me to retain and memorize real facts from the textbooks and assigned readings--the things my professors are expecting me to know." I gave him an apologetic grin. "I just don't think, with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity like this, I can afford to fudge any details, the way you do with your stories."

Dad kept a cheesy grin under his thick beard, but I could tell he was a little disappointed at my response. He coughed a little and ran his thumb alongside his nose, a sure sign of his discomfort. "Okay, I get it. So maybe I get a little excited when I start telling stories, and maybe right now I can understand you're anxious about the quiz, and about doing it well." He reached over and took my hand, giving my palm a gentle squeeze. "What do you say, after the quiz is done, we revisit this topic, and I can get back to telling you about how the mighty general Vasilia Ton Thyellon took on the forces of Ereipia and vanquished them on the plains of Sithonia, granting victory to the Spartan settlers--"

I raised my hand, wagging my head slowly. "No," I gave him the answer before he could go any further. I swallowed hard, fighting for each syllable coming out of my mouth. It was one thing to complain about it to Mom--it was another, saying it right to my dad's face! "Dad, I think I'm old enough that I don't need bedtime stories anymore."

His gaze dropped to his nearly-empty plate. When he spoke, his voice came out more rumbly and husky than usual. "Oh... Okay."

Thunder rumbled in the sky outside, and the mood around the dinner table withered.

I set down my fork and wiped my mouth with the napkin.

"I'd like to be excused," I mumbled softly.

Mom calmly slid my plate toward herself. "Go ahead, dear," she said. "Pat and I will wash up."

I escaped to my room as the torrent of emotions crashed over me. My thoughts tumbled over one another. I wasn't sad, though I did feel like crying--was I lonely? Worried? Confused? Torn between wanting the companionship my parents had always lavished on me, and yet also wanting to make those changes that would allow me to become my own independent person?

I pulled out my phone and opened Tony's text.

"Good luck studying! You're going to blow the rest of us out of the water with that essay, I just know it. Meet at Study Hall before Ancient Civ tomorrow?"

I texted back "Sure" and glanced at the pile of books in my open backpack on my desk. I didn't feel like reading any of them right now, not even to get a glimpse at what I was supposed to know for this quiz next Monday. I got ready for bed and lay there, clutching one of my throw pillows to my chest. The room seemed so dark and empty, with the mood I was in. The spring storm crashed and raged outside--not unlike the thoughts clamoring and raging inside my head.
In spite of what I'd told Dad downstairs, this would be the first night in a really long time that we didn't go through our typical "good night" routine, of him wishing me good sleep with a multitude of flowery well-wishes, and me responding right back with more of the same. Instead, I lay awake until I heard my parents creeping past my room to go to bed, themselves. They were whispering to each other quite intensely, but I couldn't hear what it was about.

One question superseded the others, as I finally dropped off to sleep: Did I make the right choice?


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Saturday, January 18, 2020

Serial Saturday: "Priscilla Sum" Part 4

Part 4

I suppose with all his showmanship, Mr. Montaine might have expected it to be dead-silent for the best effect. I had to wonder what his experience might have been like in the other colleges they toured. Certainly the professors who had been here for long enough knew better than to leave a room full of late-teenagers hanging for too long. Absolutely not one person in the room cared remotely about this vague and nebulous "opportunity to make history."

"Whatever, dude!" came a voice from the back. "Just as long as it gets me the credit, I don't care!"

Laughter and chatter elevated in the room, and Mr. Gorden had to stand up and give us all "The Look" before the unruliness dissolved.

Montaine looked a little unsettled that he couldn't command the room like he expected, but he forged ahead with his presentation. "Now, there are five main roles our expert archaeological team sets up at every dig: the historian compiles any records and texts and deals in the linguistics and pictorial significance of each find." He flicked through the slides till he came to a photo of a young woman with her hair pulled back, peering very closely at a tattered parchment. "The engineer," he flicked again, and a pair of dirty, suntanned men with mud-drenched tank-tops, jeans and boots stood around a large piece of what looked like a small generator, "ensures that all the mechanical equipment at the dig works smoothly." Then he flipped to the next photo, showing a couple of guys around a laptop inside a tent. You could see the rings of sweat around their collars, but they didn't look very dirty. "These days, we even have a computer tech person, who operates the imaging technology and the software that keeps track of all our logs. The geologist," three people gesturing to a map spread out on a table, "is the person who makes the call as far as where we're digging, or how deep, how far, the topography, and whether or not a place is a viable location, according to the research from the historian, and finally," Montaine flipped to the slide where a man in a floppy cargo hat ran a brush over what looked like the end of a bone, "the archaeologist, the one who knows the difference between dirt and discovery." He switched the photo, and we saw a whole group of people smiling for the camera, gathered around a large tyrannosaur skull.

"Which brings me to our purpose for being here," he said at last. "We have five roles, and that means five lucky students from this very university will have the chance to come on an all-expenses-paid trip to our latest dig in Fourtouna, and gain hands-on experience in modern-day archaeology." He rocked back on his heels, pleased with himself. His eyes still wandered the room, never settling too long on one face or another. "I’m sure you all have many questions, so for this purpose, I’ve brought along one of the archaeologists assigned to the Fourtouna dig.” He waved to the wings, and a man clambered up on stage. He had sleek brown hair, a tall forehead, and round glasses—not really the mangy, grungy types Montaine had shown us on the slideshow, but it only took one glance for me to notice him in the group picture, standing behind the skull and grinning over the top of it. It was definitely him.

“Dang,” Wendy whispered in the row behind me, “he cleans up nice!”

“Hello, Chicago-U!” He smiled and waved at us. “My name’s Scott and I’ve been on digs with FRED for the last three years.” He glanced over his shoulder and chuckled. “Yeah, we’re not always that dirty! The beauty of the organization is that it always has members on standby, for just about every role, so that if for any reason one of us has to go home—whether for personal emergencies, family emergencies, whatever—they can go, and someone else will be flown out to take their place so the work can continue.” He gestured to himself. “Now in my case, when Ed invited me out to answer questions on his college tour, of course I jumped at the chance. I met my replacement, brought her up to speed, then took the next flight out of Greece.” He sighed. “Man, it was hard to leave. I wish I’d brought pictures with me to show you, but I suppose you’ll just have to imagine it while I do my best to describe it.” He shrugged, giving a twinkle-eyed half-smile, the way Tony would make a face when he wanted me to do him a favor. “So? Ask away!”

Hands shot up, and he pointed to one.

A girl with flawless skin and silky, straight hair leaned forward. "What will accommodations be like on the dig? Would we stay in, like, a hotel or something?"

Scott bobbed his head. "As much as the world is becoming more and more developed, and there is less and less of the world that would actually count as remote, unfortunately the island of Fourtouna is pretty well disconnected to the mainland, so all of our personnel will typically camp out on the site, and facilities might consist of a hose for showering, and a pit for doing one's business." He did his best to remain polite, but several people booed, some guys laughed and hooted at the reference, and the room threatened to dissolve into disorder again.

Another hand raised. “So, like—what’s the big deal about this place, man?” The rumbling voice of our current track star, Fred, drawled the words as he spoke.

Scott still had that cheesy grin. “Let me tell you! Our historian team, led by Julie, whom you saw earlier, had done some great work in finding out about the early Macedonian cultures, and the people group who settled in that area. You see,” he began gesturing with his hands, drawing us in, inviting us into his narrative. “Fourtouna wasn’t always an island. Erosion from rivers and a few earthquakes over the centuries were just some of the factors that wore away at the land between that bit and the rest of the continent. We know it because there are wild land animals on that island, and how could they get there without swimming several miles? Also, the flora that grows on the island matches that of the nearby Macedonian coast. Plus, I mean, really!” he threw his hands wide in a shrug. “The temple we’re trying to find is rumored to be so massive, there is no way the early Macedonians could have shipped everything onto that tiny island, just to build a temple in the middle of the Aegean Sea, when there was plenty of land elsewhere!”

Scott nodded to Mr. Montaine, who flipped the slide to a digital map of modern-day Greece, with dark lines overlaid to denote the "ancient coastline", proving that the island was indeed close enough to the land that it might have been connected.

Of course, this idea, plus the revelation that we'd be looking for a temple brought out the objections on the grounds that some were worried their parents wouldn't let them go if it was going to be a religious excursion, as opposed to an educational one.

Scott shook his head. "I'm not saying that we're going to try to convert anybody to any kind of religion--the gods that these people supposedly worshipped were a part of the extended Ancient Greek pantheon, a lower tier, if you will. Whether or not that holds any significance with anybody, I can promise that FRED will approach the situation purely from a scientific and historical standpoint--the value in the discoveries alone and what they'll tell us about this ancient culture is far more important than any religion or belief system!"

That wasn't enough for the likes of Tina Yarrow, a student well-known for having very strict parents and a rigid set of morals and principles by which she functioned, even in college. She stood up, her mid-length skirt hem hanging straight down to her calves and her dark-brown hair impeccably curled, and loudly declared, "Mr. Gorden, I don't think my parents would approve of my going anywhere near a pagan temple!" She slung her hand-sewn book-bag over her shoulder and sauntered toward the door.

Several of her friends nearby stood to follow her, and a few others slipped out with sheepish glances over their shoulders. The guys in front of me stirred and stood as well.

"Come on," one said to his buddies. "If we're not out at Stagg by four, Coach is going to make us run extra laps around campus!"

I checked my phone. 3:42. I felt the surge deep in my gut. I could leave now, in the swell of activity, and make it over to the Study Hall to get help with my math homework.... or I could stay here and learn more about the thing that was actually a functioning focus of my major.

By the time I could see the stage clearly again, Montaine was back at the microphone, with Professor Gorden at his side. "All right, those of you who need to leave now, we understand, this session has gone on quite a long time, and we certainly don't want you to miss out on your education."

Gorden leaned in and added, "Given that this session has gone over our allotted time, everyone late to class can let their teachers know to email me if there is any trouble, and I'll accept full responsibility."

That settled it. I relaxed back in my seat. Who cared about math, anyway? This was infinitely more interesting!

The remaining audience had reduced by about half when things quieted down.

"Thank you to those of you who are showing their interest by remaining after all this time," said Montaine. "I can already tell you that such commitment will be of great value, not only to FRED and the success of this dig, but to yourselves. There is not a business or organization in the world that would not jump at the chance to capitalize on such thorough dedication!" He held up a sheaf of papers. "This is a small exam I've prepared, based on everything you can learn about the Macedonian culture and ancient civilizations. There is also an essay portion attached. Anyone who is seriously interested in being a part of the student team can come forward and collect a copy of the exam prep packet from your professor. Those with the top scores and the appropriate academic focus for each of the five roles I've discussed this afternoon will be considered, and the essay portion will be a strong deciding factor in choosing which students will be chosen for the Foundation-funded excursion!"

I focused on that paper. As soon as Gorden dismissed us, I was one of the dozen or so students who lined up in front of the stage for a copy.

I saw Chelsea Perrit ahead of me, and Derrick Gifford making his way down. With their majors in Computer Science and Mechanical Engineering, respectively, I knew they'd be good fits. Tony with his anthropology focus and me with History--that would just leave space for a geology major, and we'd all be making the cut, I was sure of it. When I got my paper, I scanned the list of resource materials. Some of them I knew I'd seen at home, and the others would be easy to procure from the library--no way was I going to bungle this exam like I had the last one!

I set off down Woodlawn Avenue, headed for Nichols Park. The sun was already at the brink of the horizon, bathing everything in a orange-golden glow. A chill breeze brushed the back of my head, and I tucked my chin deeper into my chunky scarf for warmth. Two right turns and a left, and I passed by the gate leading down to my house. The fact that my backpack was now full of thick books didn't matter. I was too excited about the prospect of actually going on my first real archaeological dig, before I'd even started my senior year!

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Saturday, January 11, 2020

Serial Saturday: "Priscilla Sum" Part 3

Part 3

I managed to avoid my parents all night and into the morning. I could pretend it wasn't intentional--I just didn't feel comfortable around them at the moment.

Walking back to campus, I could feel the bitter gusts of wind cutting through my jeans and freezing my legs. I ducked through the doors of the Swift Building and paused to let the blood run back into my extremities. Ancient Civ 301; Here goes nothing, I thought, taking a deep breath and pushing open the door.

Many classmates were sitting at their desks staring dejectedly at the sheafs of paper in their hands. Professor Heathers caught my eye from behind her desk and waved me over.

"Ah, Pris! Good, you're on time--I'm just giving everyone a few minutes to look over the results of that quiz on the decline of Sparta we took a few weeks back. Here's yours," she handed me a wrinkled packet and waved me off.

I forced myself to hold the papers face-down until I reached an open seat, next to my study-buddy, Caroline.

"Moment of truth," I murmured softly, flipping it over onto the table in front of me.

A large, black "B-" captured my attention, complete with a smaller "29/36" circled underneath it.

"Oh hey, Pris; what's up?" Caroline's voice reached my ear. She must have noticed the expression on my face.

I slumped over the table and let my head fall into my hands. "What's up?" I grumbled back at her. "B-minus, that's what!" How could I have missed so many? I scanned through, checking for Ms. Heathers' markings. "I thought I had this in the bag! I swear, we went over this stuff--" I pointed to one of the multiple choice questions. "See? 'Where did the first battle of the Second Messenian War take place?' The answer is in the name, right? The Battle of Deres--don't you remember figuring out where that was?" All the information I had been studying for my various courses swirled and eddied in my brain. How could I have missed such an important detail?

Caroline shook her head. "No, Pris--we didn't locate it. That's the whole point, that's why there is the option 'D. The precise location is unknown.' The other choices are just red herrings." She caught another correction further down the page. "The Battle of Thermoplyae? Wait a minute..." she checked her own test. "Yeah, I don't see how you could have missed that one. See? I still have the text evidence notes." She dove into her backpack and pulled out the familiar stack of index cards. I had one just like it, back in my desk at home. "See? The answer is 'B', taken verbatim from the textbook." She squinted and gave me a pitying smile. "Did you change your notes after we studied so hard?"

"Of course I didn't!" I didn't recall ever writing such a statement--but we had made the exact same stack of cards, so why would I write something different? "I answered everything exactly how we memorized it."

Caroline was flipping through to my paragraph responses, liberally annotated by Professor Heathers. "Yeah, Pris--like here, where you say that Sparta remained free and independent through the first century CE, when in fact the Spartan state was absorbed by the Roman Empire in the mid-first-century BCE."

I frowned. "The Roman Empire?" I struggled to remember anything about the Roman connection. The markdown rankled me. I couldn't think straight. All that ran through my head when I thought of Sparta was the image of my dad, his tank-top twisted in an X across his torso, the long hair flying as he shouted in his reenactment of the brave, elite Spartan forces during the different battles. "Through it all," he had told me once, "Sparta remained a state unto herself. Not even Alexander the Great could vanquish her spirit. The most he could do was ignore her, and she kept to herself, so long as no one tried to dominate her again."

I saw that same mentality in the words of my paragraph response--and noted the disapproval from my professor for those "isolationist views." I lost credit on my test because my dad was an unforgettable storyteller.

"All right, everyone!" Professor Heathers called for our attention. "That's enough reviewing. Take your results to heart, and see what habits or strategies worked, what didn't, and try to discover what else you can do to improve your score on the next test. Moving on!"

Two hours later, I'd made it through Ancient Civ and then a College Algebra tutoring session, and then it was time for lunch. I hefted my bag onto my shoulder and trudged off campus, feeling like Sisyphus and his stone--every time I made just a little progress, something would happen to push me all the way back to the beginning, forcing me to start the learning process all over again. I'd had about enough of it.

I dropped my bag next to the couch and slouched my way to the table in the sunroom, where Mom had set out a plate of fresh-grilled panini. I pushed my plate aside and plopped my elbows on the table to catch my head.

"Priscilla?" I heard Mom's voice. "What's wrong?"

Everything's wrong! I wanted to whine at her. You're wrong--I'm wrong... I just knew she would try to tell me that I was being overdramatic.

Her hands caressed the back of my neck, a cooling sensation that spread through my whole body. I sat up so she could see my face.

"I bombed a test today when I should have aced it," I answered. "I'm just so frustrated!"

Mom tilted her head, her dark eyes radiating comfort and concern. "You failed, darling?"

I sighed. "Well, not totally--I still passed, but I got a way lower score than I was expecting."

"Did you not study correctly for it?" She took the chair next to me and set sandwiches on the two plates in front of us. "Were you too distracted by other things?"

"That's not the problem," I huffed. "I studied with Carrie--she's got the best study techniques of anybody I know--but when it came down to actually answering the test questions...." I trailed off and took a bite out of my sandwich. The pungent garlic and basil in the pesto warmed my tongue as I chewed. I swallowed and finished my statement, "I really think it's because of the way you and Dad would talk to me about history. I got those details mixed up with the things that we were supposed to memorize from the textbook, and hence it counted as a wrong answer on the test."

Mom chewed and swallowed a delicate nibble, dabbing at the corners of her mouth with a napkin before speaking. "Priscilla, dear, your father and I have worked together in the field of archaeology and ancient civilizations for much longer than some of your professors have been teaching these college courses--I would not think the information we've learned in all our travels, firsthand from many expert sources, would contradict your educational sources so badly!"

I pulled a piece of turkey out of the middle of my sandwich and ate from my fingers. "And yet, here we are. All those stories you would tell me about Ancient Greece and the Mediterranean civilizations were so compelling that those things stuck in my brain when it should have been the information from the textbook that would at least enable me to answer the test questions accurately!"

"They weren't all stories, though," Mom answered, keeping the same even tone through the whole conversation. "Most of what we told you was accurate."

I frowned. "Then how do you explain the fact that some of the information directly contradicted the historical records quoted in the textbook?"

Mom always sat with perfect posture, not a single movement out of place. It made me feel stiff and plastic just looking at her. She regarded me over half a sandwich. "Maybe it is not we who are inaccurate, but these textbooks are outdated and in need of upgrading."

I wagged my head. "That may be true--but, outdated or not, the quizzes and exams are tied to the textbooks, and if I want to get a good score, I have to go with what the textbook says, and--for now, at least--ignore the fanciful stories spinning through my head."

Mom continued eating her sandwich in silence, as did I. Talking about those old bedtime stories reminded me of seeing the face in the rain the night before, and I nearly brought it up to Mom, just to see what she thought it might be, but after a few minutes of uncomfortable quiet and just biting and chewing, I decided against it. This was a moment to put aside my studies and just munch on good food while staring out the window from which we could see at least two whole neighborhoods to the north of us, and I didn't want to do anything but sit there and soak up the view.

All too soon, the break was over and it was time for me to head back to campus for my afternoon classes.

I made it all the way across campus to Stuart Hall a full ten minutes before class would begin. I had just rounded the corner down the hallway to Mr. Gorden's class when I saw the lanky boy with the thick dark hair that I'd been missing for the last couple days. I sped up to meet him just a few doors down from our destination, and nudged him from behind with my shoulder.

"About time you showed up, stranger!" I needled him.

Tony turned around, and the moment I saw his face, I regretted trying to make a joke of it.

He was pale--not just It's cold outside blanched, but like I shan't expect to live long pale. That and the fact that the skin around his eyes and ears was a brilliant red gave him a ghastly pallor. Suddenly I could tell what adults meant when they said someone "looked green." I dropped my grin and went in for a side hug. "Hey, are you okay?"

He put his arm around me, at least. "Yeah, I'm fine. Hey, sorry I didn't respond to your texts. I've been kind of... out of it, lately."

"Yeah, the TA--Ryan--gave me my notes back and said that you'd been, like, sick or something?"

He gave a wry smirk. "Yeah, that's the short version."

I squinted at him as we sauntered into class side by side. "Is there a long version?" What was happening to my friend, and why couldn't I figure it out sooner?

"Yeah, so..." Tony stopped and turned to face me so he could bring his voice down really low, "I have this... condition--a blood disorder, really--that crops up sometimes as it affects my immune system, particularly my liver, kidneys, and pancreas, and I get toxins building up in my bloodstream and I'm really susceptible to illnesses--"

My jaw dropped and my eyes got wider. "Oh my god, Tony! Are you dying?"

He snorted, but there was no missing the glint of fear in his eyes as I said it. "Not anytime soon if I can help it! I have to take a bunch of medication, and I get infusions of enzymes and things that will help--but the doctors keep telling me that it's only a matter of time before my body just deteriorates beyond what these treatments can offer." He watched me stand there, paralyzed by shock and horror. My own friend--dying by inches, and I never knew! He threw his arms around me and pulled me into a real hug then, holding me tight, as if to reassure me that his muscles still held a great deal of strength. "I promise, Pris, I'm not dying yet," he whispered in my ear. "And when it happens, I know I've made my peace with it."

I hugged him back, clinging to him as I tried to process this information. How could he be so calm? I knew if I had to live every day under the shroud of facing my own death, I'd find any and every way possible to fight it or avoid it, at all costs!

Mr. Gorden called us all to our seats from the front of the room. I saw that Edgar Montaine was back, and a few others with him, fiddling with the projector at the front of the room. The first slide came up, at the front of the room, and the title sent a thrill down my spine: FOURTOUNA: A FOUNTAIN OF ANCIENT HISTORY.
Once we were all seated and hushed, Mr. Montaine stood at the lectern and leaned close to the microphone.
"Yesterday I introduced you all to the basics of what I and my organization are trying to do in and around Macedonia. Today, I've invited some friends out to share with you more firsthand details of the dig on Fourtouna, and one more opportunity to join us to find treasures that haven't been seen or touched by humans for hundreds, if not thousands of years--every discovery could be the find of a lifetime! Are you ready to make history with me?" His eyes seemed to scan the entire room until they came to rest on Tony and me. His voice dipped even lower as he murmured, "Do you think you have what it takes?"


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Saturday, January 4, 2020

Happy Birthday Upstream Writer!

Wowee! Six years already? Gee whiz! What a ride it's been!

All right, so last week's Upstream Update kind of gave you a look back over some of the things I've accomplished in the last year--at least as far as the writing is concerned. Let's just go over a few "blog stats", though, for old time's sake, shall we?

Okay, for starters, I did pretty good in terms of numbers--not as stellar as in the first few years, but not too shabby! I managed to publish 80 posts over the last year, and the blog got over twelve thousand hits--that's roughly a thousand a month! 

One of those posts was my 800th post-- "The Sheriff's Showdown" Excerpt: "A Home In Phantom Gulch" is an excerpt from the third book in the A Writer's Tale series. For those who don't know, it's based on a serial story I wrote on a whim for National Novel-Writing Month, and it tells the story of stymied author Laura, who tries her best to start yet another story on a magical typewriter, and ends up opening a portal that leads to the physical worlds of different stories she'd abandoned in the past, so she finds herself a main character in settings and conflicts of her own creation, and must survive in order to make it back to the "real world." In The Sheriff's Showdown, she ends up in a Wild Western town and has to help the Sheriff convince the rest of the townspeople to stand up and defy the dastardly outlaw who has run every other sheriff out of town--or killed them, just to show the people who "really" runs the town. This particular excerpt, then, is more of Laura getting acquainted with the different characters and settling into her new "reality." She'd just come off a spaceship from the last book, see, so there's a bit of "culture shock" involved!

Meanwhile the post from this year that has the most views by now... is not even one that I wrote! Instead it was a guest post I hosted, as part of a "blog hop" during a "cyber convention" I participated in for the first time this year--it was fun, definitely a learning experience, and I am confident that if they run it again in the coming year, I would definitely take the opportunity to share about my stuff and network some more! The post is here: OWS CYCon Presents Science Fiction Romance Author Hywela Lyn

The last notable stat has to do with my Reader's Reviews. I've already said that I managed to write 17 Reader's Reviews this year (actually, at the time it was 16, but I just barely squeaked that last one in!) but do you want to know which review out of those 17 ended up with the most views?

It's The Tannis Project by Daryl J. Ball! A rather quaint and fascinating take on the whole idea of vampire lore--Ball gave his vampire character a blog, and so readers are treated to a series of "posts" composed by a 200-year-old vampire, regaling us with stories of his own escapades, while debunking common "misconceptions" about vampire myths and legends. I'm not usually "into" stories that are just about vampires (I mean, having a vampire side character in a paranormal/supernatural genre story doesn't bother me) but I found Tannis to be an engaging character and the whole thing was rather pleasant to read! 

Some other posts of note from 2019 that might be worth your while:

The Last Inkweaver: An Excerpt Comparison--Rewriting The Last Inkweaver took up most of my year, and there were several times when I didn't know if I would make it all the way through. After all, this was the third time I'd actually attempted rewriting something, and I hadn't yet finished a complete rewrite of anything in my life! But I did, and I was intensely pleased with the results--so pleased, in fact, that I posted this excerpt comparison to show just how much improvement there could be!

Introducing the OWS CyCon!--The term "CyCon" stands for "cyber convention", in essence, a group attempts to set up pages and groups on various social media or website forum platforms, to function like "booths" at a live convention. It works... mostly. In theory. During the week leading up to that weekend "convention", I joined about twenty others in a week-long blog hop, which we all responded to similar prompts, and swapped around blogs, so that we were all hosting someone else, while a different person "hosted" our posts. On this particular post, you'll find links to my guest posts, as well as the posts I hosted on my blog. (There are also other things mentioned, like my "Author booth" and the "event page" and whatnot, but I don't believe those links are viable anymore...) It was a fun time, and I got to host authors I'd never heard of--but after that event, these people are definitely on my "book radar"!

Red The Wolf--This was the serial that took me just about all year to finish and post! I had no idea from the outset just how long it would be. All I knew is that I wanted to write a story about a girl who could shapeshift into a wolf, and served as the Guardian of a mountain town. Things are all right, and only the villagers of this one town know that the Wolf that shows up sometimes, when someone is in peril, is a good sign and a friend to them, and only a select few know that the girl and the Wolf are one and the same (the rest all think it must be her pet or something)--but things fall apart when she ends up in the custody of an unscrupulous scoundrel who'd been stealing from the village without anyone knowing--and she finds herself stuck in the form of a wolf. 
I had many scenes that I tried out for the opening of the series, and a lot of those scenes didn't end up making it into the "final" story at all--originally conceived as a submission to an anthology, I wound up patching together an "abridged" version in time for the deadline, and then moving on to rewrite and produce a "full version" that was slightly different from the submitted story, which I then had to wait until after the anthology's release to start posting! But now it's all on the blog, and you can see it there! (And if you're curious to read the "abridged" version, to compare it--I highly recommend the anthology! It's for charity--all proceeds are going to a worthy cause!)

Storytime Saturday/Dreamtime Authors Presents!--Look carefully, as there are TWO hyperlinks there! Speaking of the anthology, Dreamtime Damsels and Fatal Femmes, presented by the Dreamtime Fantasy Authors--over the course of August, clear through till October (because there were so many!), I joined my fellow authors in running a promotional series of sorts, where twice a week I would share a short excerpt (some shorter than others!) and a list of 10-20 "fun facts" about each of the submitted stories in the anthology! I'm not sure how well it worked at the time--but if you're interested in finding out more about what you might find in this anthology, these two post series (since the two I linked above contain links at the bottom to all the other stories available) are the perfect sample size!

The Prince and The Rose--Yes, this is a post from FOUR YEARS AGO, but it's linked to all the other posts, including the ending which I wrote and posted this year, so it still counts! Yes, it's taken me that long to first of all decide that I wanted to write more, then also to decide how I wanted it to turn out--I think I'm really enjoying putting twists on favorite fairy tales! We all know the story of a fearsome, horrible beast that once was a prince who becomes just as ugly on the outside as he is on the inside, and the brave, selfless girl who comes into his life and dares to see what no one else would acknowledge... But how would the story be different if the beast-prince actually did see the error of his ways and try to turn his life around--but it was the girl who remained "closed off" from him and steadfastly refuse to acknowledge anything but the appearance of something she couldn't stand? Flipping the trope on its head sure is fun, I'll say that much!

Well, that's enough of a look back--now it's time for a Look FORWARD into the year 2020!

My "token word" for 2020:

I've spent the last couple years fighting to "catch up" with things, wrestling with, namely, The Last Inkweaver and wondering what I'm going to do next, getting fatigued with writing and treating it like an optional hobby, even though there is not a day that goes by that I don't actually feel like writing at some point... I just end up procrastinating until I run out of time for it, which doesn't help anybody!

That's over. Starting now, I'm going to prioritize my writing more. I'm going to approach it with a list of "must do's" and make each word count. No more letting it slide, or wondering if I'm "going to feel like it," I'm going to make time and I'm going to get things done. I have a lot that I might want to do (as you will soon find out) so I can no longer afford to "waffle around" about it!

I'm also going to make the effort to be more intentional with my reading. Too often, I found myself mucking around with other things, and "not having time" to read--and consequently, my writing suffered. There is the principle that "writing is like breathing out, as much as reading is breathing in," and I definitely see that a lax attitude about one will definitely affect the quality of the other!

For once in my life, I've actually set a reading goal! That's right--I've given myself a list of 20 indie books to read, getting through my TBR list by hook or by crook, and I'll also make plans to ensure that I will successfully read no less than 30 library checkouts this coming year--which means I intend to read 50 books in 2020. I haven't achieved that many since 2016--I figure I'm due! And if this works--hey, I can get through my TBR list in only a couple years, instead of forever!

Coming This Year!

Speaking of reading and "Reader's Reviews"... I've come to realize that the past few years, I've used a pretty consistent model as far as formatting my blog posts and stuff... but the few years before that, I hardly knew what I was doing! Therefore, one of my big projects I'll be tackling in January is bringing my first 3 years' worth of posts (I think there are more than 300 of them...) up-to-date, with functioning links, relevant thumbnail images, and making them look spiffy in general. It's going to be tedious, but I think, in order to maintain a consistent look for my blog, it definitely needs to happen! So feel free to click through those old things, see how I'm doing so far, and please do drop a line to cheer me on! That would be the BEST EVER, and it would really make this whole thing feel worthwhile! 

Also beginning next Saturday and hopefully continuing on till the end (which might take a couple months!) is the series Priscilla Sum. Those of you who have been around for a while might remember a couple years back when I tried to start it after finishing The Clan of Outcasts... but it kind of "bombed" and I stopped after only a couple installments--first of all because it wasn't getting the hype and interest I thought it might generate, and second, because I wasn't 100% sure on where I wanted to go with it.

Well, now I'm sure, and I spent part of October and November jotting down notes for it, clear to a possible resolution, so if it works out, I should have the whole thing completed at least by March.

Why that specific date? Well, the fact that Priscilla Sum deals with Greek mythology fits rather well with a proposed anthology theme, one that I've already bought into, even though I haven't really finished the series yet. I may submit that, or if it's not ready or I get to the end and I don't feel completely confident with it, I have 2 other stories on backup, one of which has already been published in a limited-release anthology before, so I know for certain it's a good fit.

The third thing I'll be up to right away in the new year is editing The Last Inkweaver for publication! That's right! I'll be looking into different options for the coming year, whether it's going to be the traditional route, or self-publishing. I think if I did traditional, I'd be concerned with over-committing myself, agreeing to do certain things in a certain time frame, and winding up being unable to deliver. By the same token, self-publishing is a lot of effort and up-front costs and whatnot... So the question remains, is that really the best option for me?

At any rate, I'll be getting my ducks in a row for that one, so that the minute an opportunity presents itself, I'll be prepared to jump on it, at least!

Meanwhile, as the ball starts rolling for The Last Inkweaver, what other work might take prominence as my main WIP?

I have options!

I could go ahead and start plotting and plugging away at the next book in The Wordspinner Chronicles series (oh yeah, The Last Inkweaver is only the beginning!), tentatively titled The Story-Healer's Song. The thing I'm not sure about is whether or not to move ahead with a series no one has seen yet... but then again, I don't want another 2 years to pass between books in this series, so if I'm publishing The Last Inkweaver this year, I most definitely have to get a jumpstart on Book 2 as soon as possible!


I dunno, write a sequel to Princess of Undersea three years later? This is still something I'm mulling over. I've known ever since I teased it all out in "What Happened To Simon" that it might be fun to do a sequel, turning the young runaway trying to escape the ruthless ringmaster of a traveling carnival, a la "Pinocchio"... But then just the other day I was looking over my list of "ideas that might someday become projects", and especially after "The Dragon's Mark" and "Red, The Wolf", I did have this idea jotted for a re-telling of an Aladdin-style story...

Well, suddenly my brain wanted to use some side characters from "What Happened to Simon" and expand the world beyond the coastal kingdom of Crossway--a region in the style of the Australian "outback" known as "Outwest" (even though it would be covering the eastern portion of the continent...) where the outlaws rule supreme. Wouldn't that be a perfect substitute for a "den of thieves"? So then I had my third book. And just wait till you learn what I have concocted in place of a genie in a lamp!

It didn't take long to decide that I was going to need a fourth book, and the fairy tale that would tie in would be "Snow White." Only instead of a jealous queen wanting to do away with her innocent young step-daughter... A jealous "step-daughter" from Undersea would be used by certain enemies to do away with the innocent young Queen Ylaine! That part struck me as genius, since I really did think that if the series lasted this long, Nathan definitely ought to be able to spend a little more time as a merman, more than his brief stint in Princess of Undersea. But maybe that's just me...

So it's either sequels all around... or I can just continue the trend of "move on to the next thing" and give a prior project the rewrite treatment, something like Merely Meredith, the Fairies Under Glass duology, or even Laurel of Andar. Too chintzy, though? What do you all think? I welcome any input!

Anyway, while all this is going on, I will also be working towards finishing The Writer's Tale series. Not sure if I'm going to officially publish that at some point, but at least it will feel good to be all the way done. Also, it will all be available on Wattpad for you to read, whether or not I publish it for real. I also have two anthologies I've submitted to that will be releasing this year, so you have that to look forward to! One of them will be a limited run, so you won't want to miss it when it goes down!

To apply all of these ideas under the notion of INTENTIONALITY, then, it's going to require a lot of pre-planning and setting things up. That means:

-Writing blog posts ahead of time;
-Planning blog post releases so that I can get them written ahead of time, instead of cobbling something together at the last minute;

-planning days when I'm going to be writing certain projects, spacing things and balancing them so I don't get "burnt out" but I also don't want to slack off, either! I can't afford it, with how many things I want to write and finish!

-writing things down in my planner ahead of time; I picked one of those up for the first time in June, and it's been nothing short of amazing to have space to write things down every day--except that the one I chose was just a short, cheap one so I know I'm going to have to get a bigger one at some point, to have room for everything!

-I've already figured out that the time between thinking that I want to write at some point today and actually sitting down and writing because now the Muse has arrived and the words flow easy is about one hour... so if I had a more consistent writing time, I could start the process of getting myself into the "headspace" for writing, with enough time so that when the block of time comes, I'm ready!

There's a lot I need to do, and I figured that blogging about it will help with the accountability factor--don't hesitate to leave me a comment asking questions about things, or letting me know that you're following this and rooting for me, because those questions and comments really do a great job of keeping me motivated--and with all that I want to accomplish this year, I'm going to need that motivation more than ever!

As we head into a new year and a new decade with fresh perspective...

Catch You Further Upstream!