Friday, May 22, 2015

Friday Fricassee

Why, hello, unseasonably chilly Friday in May!  No, I'm not going to let you affect my mood, thank you.

(Seriously.  It's way spring now.  Right?)

So I want to talk about first person present.

While this tense has existed as long as the English language, it's a relatively new "thing" in literature.  I first encountered it in Hunger Games, and it was a bit of an oh-well-huh-how-about-that moment for me.  I've spent most of my reading life in third person past, to the point where I didn't even want to read anything in first person (past).  Somehow, it didn't feel like it was as much of a story to me.  Or something.

Now?  I adore Hunger Games, and I adore other things that are written in first person present, too (like Rae Carson's Girl of Fire and Thorns trilogy, which I adore to the moon and back).  And, lo and behold, I've written some novels in first person present.  In fact, I recently converted a novel from third past to first present.  And I like the added edginess.

But.

I've been hearing (from industry folks who know) that first person present is not dearly beloved by all--and that, in fact, some editors will be completely turned off if they crack open a manuscript written in this tense.

Imagine that.

So here I am, in the midst of the WIP-from-hell--and it's written in (you guessed it) first person present.  I didn't sit down and say, "Okay, Authoress*, I think it would be a smart marketing move to write this next story in first person present." Honestly--and I'm sure this is true for many of you as well--I simply begin writing in whatever person and tense feels right in the moment.  It just...happens.

Of course, it wouldn't have happened had I never encountered it before.  Because there's something a bit less than natural about it.  When we think of a grizzled storyteller sitting by the hearth on a winter's night, we don't imagine him beginning, "The cottage sits in a quiet thicket, and I peer out the window as the sun rises..."   What we really expect to hear is, "A long time ago, in a quiet thicket, a cottage sat hidden from view..."

Right?

And apparently, some editors out there feel the same way.

Personally, I don't get all attached to a tense.  Once the WIP-from-hell is actually a finished draft (BULLETIN! I THINK I'VE GOT ABOUT FIVE CHAPTERS TO GO!), I'm probably going to convert it to either first or third person past.

Yeah, that'll be fun.

Anyway, I don't feel strongly one way or the other--I'm simply responding to rumblings I'm hearing from the powers-that-be.  Ultimately, if someone loves my story and wants it in a different tense, I'm totally okay with that.  I won't even bat a clichéd eyelash.

What are your thoughts on this?  Do you enjoy reading in first person present?  Have you written anything in it?  I'd love to know how others feel about this tense thing.

Which brings me to my Very Bad Joke, but I have to say it anyway:

Past, Present, and Future walked into a bar.  It was tense.

MUAH!



*Okay, I don't actually call myself that.  Because, well, it's not my name.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Secret Agent Critique Guidelines

Guidelines for Critique on MSFV:
  • Please leave your critique for each entry in the comment box for that entry.
  • Please choose a screen name to sign your comments. The screen name DOES NOT have to be your real name; however, it needs to be an identifiable name.  ("Anonymous" is not a name.)
  • Critiques should be honest but kind, helpful but sensitive.
  • Critiques that attack the writer or are couched in unkind words will be deleted.*
  • Cheerleading IS NOT THE SAME as critiquing.  Please don't cheerlead.
  • Having said that, it is perfectly acceptable to say positive things about an entry that you feel is strong.  To make these positive comments more helpful, say why it's a strong entry.
  • ENTRANTS: As your way of "giving back", please critique a minimum of 5 other entries.

*I can't possibly read every comment.  If you ever see a comment that is truly snarky, please email me.  I count on your help.

May Secret Agent #ALT-1

TITLE: Crystal Clear
GENRE: MG Contemporary

Crystal slid against the back wall of the shed. "Go away, you stupid dog," she whispered so the kids standing outside wouldn't hear. She peered through a space in a broken board and saw her old best friend with a tall, dark-haired boy she didn't recognize. Her heart pounded. Thank goodness she slipped inside before Fiona spotted her. The last thing she wanted was for Fiona to find her hungry, grubby, and hanging out near Nan's grave.

Fiona clapped her hands. "Come!" The dog ignored her. Crystal figured he knew she was inside the shed and he wanted Fiona and the cute boy to know it too. The boy walked to the dog and clipped a leash to his collar.

"You go, kid," Crystal whispered.

"We're outta here, Mutt," the boy said. This time the dog obeyed, whether it was because of the leash or because he was bored with the shed, Crystal didn't know. When the dog turned and the boy led him to the gate, Crystal let out a breath she didn't even know she was holding.

"That was creepy," Crystal heard Fiona say as she looked over her shoulder.

"It was probably a squirrel," the boy said. "Anyway, we don't have time to find out. Your mother will kill you if your duffel's not packed when she gets home from the hospital."

Hospital? Crystal thought. Now that was a place she knew well.

May Secret Agent #50

TITLE: Nitpicky Corners: The Doppelgangers
GENRE: MG fiction

The class went wild. Girls squealed, boys did chest bumps right in the bleachers, and impromptu homework confetti filled the gym. It was, after all, the best thing that ever happened to the sixth grade in the history of Westside Elementary. One girl fainted. Reed jumped up to scream with the others, but while still mid-jump with his fist in the air, reality smacked him back down to the bench. This would change his life.

Weeks earlier, when Mrs. Baker divided the class into two teams for the all-school Quiz Bowl, nobody took it seriously. Nobody ever did.

‘I mean, who cares,’ said Bri, checking her fingernails, each painted a different color. Still, she was glad when she was placed on the same team as Reeder Rabbit. Having Reed, the class brain, meant that her team could sit back and enjoy the win. “No work – all glory,” she shrugged. But that was before Gretchen Goodwin visited the school.

Suddenly, everybody was taking the Quiz Bowl seriously. This year everybody cared.

The caring started when Principal Grant called for an assembly in the gym. Climbing the metal bleachers, Reed could tell something was up. Mr. Grant looked typical: like a bundle of dirty laundry. His pants were buckled under his ample middle, his shirt not ironed, and his wide necktie had a mustard stain, even though it was only eight in the morning. But Mr. Grant was standing straighter than usual and was smoothing his hair with his hand.

May Secret Agent #49

TITLE: Keeping Time
GENRE: YA Light SF

Some Timekeepers saw the Schedules as a rigid set of rules never to be broken, but I figured a little creative interpretation never hurt anyone.

The dust was thick in the air and heavy on my tongue as I inhaled. With every breath, history took root in my lungs. A flowery perfume tried to hide the musty scent, but the smell of years long gone still lived on in the antique store.

“Change of plans,” I said as my assignment partner rounded the corner of the aisle. He jumped out of the way to avoid sending a teetering pile of old books crashing to the floor.

Trent sighed. “Why do you always do this, Mik? What was wrong with the original plan?”

“Do you really think just prompting him to buy a book from her would be enough?” My gaze drifted towards our target. “It's too simple for a guy like that. We’ll need something a bit more drastic to get through his thick skull.”

Thirty-year-old Joseph Bolland stood on the far side of the store with stiff shoulders and a straight back. The window behind him, dirtied with years of grime, let in very little light. Even with the dingy overhead lamps, the wine decanter in his hands was barely visible.

I ran through my mental checklist for matchmaking assignments. The briefing was on point with almost everything, but it had failed to mention Joseph was a real jerk.

Trent’s voice sliced through my annoyance. “What’d he do to piss you off?”

May Secret Agent #48

TITLE: Blacktop Oracle
GENRE: Paranormal

Dust swirled around Coop’s head like pollution, clinging to his hair, his skin, and his eyelashes. Grit lined his nose and tickled his throat, but he loved it. Except for the tedium of bodywork. He stopped the sander and ran his gloved hand across the fender. A grunt got his attention, and he turned to Mac, sitting with his cast up on a case of WD-40.

Coop placed the sander on the ground and pulled the dust mask from his face. “What?”

“Don’t go on many dates, do you?”

Mac was famous for causing whiplash with his topic changes, but Coop had learned to go with it. “Huh?”

“A car is like a woman.” Mac shifted in his chair to ease the pressure on his leg.

Coop wiped his arm across his forehead, mopping the sweat gathered there. He had no response to that. Mac’s wrinkled gaze homed in on his, and he realized the old man wanted one. “Yeah, how so?”

“A woman must be handled gently.” Mac ran his calloused hand lightly, almost lovingly, across the fender. “Caressed in a way that soothes rather than offends. A car is the same way.” Mac was full of…little bits of wisdom.

Coop looked at the sanded spot, his mind struggling to follow.

“Take that blasted glove off.” Mac’s gravelly voice landed on Coop’s last nerve, but he ripped the glove off.

“Now, run your hand across that spot you’re sanding, from right to left.”

May Secret Agent #47

TITLE: Weight of Metals
GENRE: YA, Urban light SF/Fantasy

At breakfast my dad explains the irony of the civil war and the blood of names. He gets passionate about human rights and his voice keeps time with that patriotic cadence, but on an empty stomach, it's all static to me.

We ride to school together, winding back roads through a hybrid of urban street life and rural farmland to First Coast High. Most of my friends had his U.S. History class last year. They tell me he's a hard ass. I know this. He admitted he hit my mother once before she left. She's never come back.

Two weeks remaining in my senior year and there are three shoving matches at lunch and a whole lot of whistles blowing. I work through my sandwich quietly while Aryana stares at me over her Sunkist.

"Bae, what's wrong with you?" she says, swallowing. "You ain't saying nothing."

"Chilling."

"You listening or nah?" she burps. "Why that thot, Lena, in your face yesterday?"

I gather my trash. Lena's at the next table over and makes eye contact when she hears her name. Her caramel legs always slide so smoothly from beneath her cheerleading skirt. Her fingers move over her cell and mine buzzes. Aryana blocks my view.

"You ratchet," she says, loudly, but it's drowned out by my boy yelling my name.

"Bruh," Mack says, panting. "Your pops!"

"What about him?"

"He was breaking up a fight, caught one in the face, and swung back," he says, miming the motions. "I saw them put him in handcuffs."


May Secret Agent #46

TITLE: SHINE BRIGHT, MAD GENIUS
GENRE: Upper MG Contemporary Mystery

The store, with its sun-dappled aisles lined with glowing jars of beets and pickles, was not the place for a reunion, if Saskia could even call it that. Nor was it the right occasion. After a whole summer stocking inventory, Uncle Peter had left her in charge for the first time, and she needed to focus on customers, not old neighbors.

And definitely not a former best friend (emphasis on the “former”) who’d moved away to a different school, and stopped writing to Saskia altogether. Nope. Chloe Lim might have walked into the store thirty-two minutes ago with her little brother March in tow, but she could not expect to walk back into Saskia’s life as if the last three years hadn’t happened.

Saskia splayed her fingers across the cash register, glancing at the side where the Lims had settled into their old positions. Most people would have the social graces to leave once the small talk— hi, parents dropped us off, now live ten blocks away, starting at Hadfield High too, umm—died. The Lims, however, were content to linger in silence, oblivious to Saskia’s irritation. Chloe, face masked by a black helmet of hair, bent unmoving over some detective novel, and March was equally absorbed gluing stamps into his album. At least they were keeping to themselves.

The wind chimes sounded. Customer. Saskia snapped her attention to the entrance. Despite the summer heat, the customer wore a battered fedora and a trench with bulging pockets. He wasn’t a regular.

May Secret Agent #45

TITLE: Ratman's Revenge
GENRE: middle grade urban fantasy

I jerked to a stop in the middle of the dog park and stared at the woods. The trees huddled in the distance like giant green aliens. Their branches swayed in the breeze, motioning me over. The leaves flickered in the sun as if a million green fingers were reaching out, begging me to come inside.

Whoa. That’s freaky weird.

Oh man, my friends would be stinking jealous if I went exploring in the woods without them. Sure, they were probably swimming in that freeze-your-toes-off lake at camp right now—lucky turds. The only water I’d get to swim in this summer was in the bathtub. But maybe this time, I’d have the best story to tell when they got back.

Sweat dripped down my face and I wiped it with my t-shirt. I shaded my eyes with my hands and stared at the creepy-cool woods.

Mom’s warning blared in my head. I mean it, Cody, she’d said a bazillion times. It’s too dangerous. Gangs and drug addicts hang out in those woods. You’re never to go in there. Understand? Never. Promise me, Cody.

Yeah, I’d promised, but that was ages ago. I’m almost a teenager now. That’s different.

Sandy, my golden retriever, ran up with a tennis ball clamped in her mouth. I grabbed the slimy ball and pitched it across the park. “Go get it!” She raced off with her tongue flapping.

I turned back toward the woods. A green and brown blur darted through the shadows at the tree line then disappeared.


May Secret Agent #44

TITLE: COWARDS AND CAPES
GENRE: YA Urban Fantasy

The bolt of lightning struck without warning. Glenn shielded his face as Charlie squealed and fell sideways on his bike. Charlie was unconscious as soon as he hit the pavement, shattered glass and milk strewn all around him. There was blood, too, escaping from some unseen head wound and stretching its crimson fingers inside the white liquid.

Glenn scanned their surroundings for some sort of explanation. The sky was empty and the street ended in the weeds, a single house left standing on the cold, desolate lot. The whiff of burnt flesh in the air soured Glenn's stomach with guilt.

Charlie had heard a rumor about someone seeing lights on inside the derelict house on Malum Street. Electricity was as stupid a ghost to chase as the superheroes that snuffed it out, but Charlie had begged for a look and Glenn had relented. The previous deliveryman had been shot for a sack of onions just three blocks away.

"Charlie." Glenn bent and slapped him across the cheek, once and firmly.

One of Charlie's legs was still pinned underneath a tire that was slicked with translucent goo. The fall had ruptured the eggs, too. Glenn grabbed a handful of sweater and pulled Charlie away from the bicycle.

A voice reached out. " Boy."

 Glenn gasped and turned, clutching Charlie's bulky body like a shield. He reached for his shoulder holster and missed the revolver's grip entirely. Glenn got hold of it on the second grab and scanned the street for a target.

May Secret Agent #43

TITLE: The Mountain and the Fountain
GENRE: MG Fantasy

The sky changed, then everything changed.

Crimson above her…. Josephine felt cold. So…..cold. Goose bumps covered her arms…her legs…shivered. She closed her eyes, then opened them again. She cried out…but no sound came. Josephine in an icy veil…high above the village of Halliwell. People were running …fighting…screaming in a blur of chaos. Flames roared and leapt from buildings…sword crashed against sword… arrows flew…panic. The water from the Fountain…..stopped. Smoke rose like a wicked hand…reaching for Josephine…rising closer…closer…burning her eyes….filling her nostrils with the pungent smell of death….Must…get….away.

Josephine crushed her eyelids together and shook her head as hard as she could. She opened her eyes - and the moment had passed. Sitting in the window seat beside Tuckster, her dog, she loosened fingers which were clutched tightly into the ribbons on her Float Day costume. A breeze through the open window replaced the bitter smell of smoke with scented layers of mown grass and garden flowers.

“What was that?” a shaken Josephine asked the dog as he did that sideways head turn thing that dogs do. She looked out to see bright blue summer in the sky, broken only by the Light which rose from the Mountain, as it always had. Josephine tried to calm her mind and still her pounding heart.

“See you later, kid,” Tobbs, Josephine’s older brother, called from the path as he started to the village. Josephine raised a shaky hand to wave at him. Standing was tricky, as her legs still shook.

May Secret Agent #42

TITLE: SKIN DEEP
GENRE: YA Paranormal Romance

Words are the most vicious things. No, that's a lie. It's what people do with them that’s evil. They can be sweet, caring, sad. They're not mean and thoughtless by nature. But those who speak them can be.

“I bet Zoe’d spread her legs for me,” a guy behind me says.

His buddy nudges his side. “Just say something science. Chicks love that.” Chicks also don’t like guys who look like Neanderthals.

I wish my friends hadn’t convinced me into going to the party.

Trees blanket the backyard, blotting out the moon's light, though the lights and campfire provide plenty of illumination. The cool, crisp air of the outdoors mixes with the sizzling burgers, hotdogs and chicken cooking on the grill. Groups have taken root both in and outdoors. Some are swimming in the lake, others dancing around the fire, and I saw a video game tournament going on in the living room.

“It’ll be fine, Zo,” my best friend, Jenny, says coming up behind me. “No one’s going to remember.”

Tell that to the classmates who teased me about it. Poor little Zoe, can’t read. Which, not true. I can. It’s just hard.

She runs a hand through her black, perfectly curled hair, the golden bracelets jingling against her skin, their color enhanced by her darkness. Looking around she says, “There are plenty of other guys here to take your mind off things.” Of course, we’re back onto that now.

“I just want a nice boy.” Or girl, but I doubt she’d like that.

May Secret Agent #41

TITLE: Tarot Traders
GENRE: YA Urban Fantasy

Toria winced as she flicked a lit match into the fireplace, setting ablaze her forty-ninth tarot card and all remnants of her old alias. A haze of smoke wafted into her dingy apartment. The stench of burned plastic scorched her nostrils. The clock struck midnight and her Erin identity ceased to exist.

January first, her rebirth day. Once again she turned eighteen, but today she became Kaity.

Sweat beaded on her brow, but not from the open fireplace. Hair clung to her clammy forehead. She clawed at her death metal T-shirt, raking her nails over her heart in vain as she sank to her knees. Unbearable pressure squeezed the pulsing organ. Her heartbeat accelerated as she raced backward through time.

Slow, deep breaths offered the only relief. She forced an image into her mind: a massive cathedral dwarfing the surrounding city.

Sevilla,” she whispered as her body collapsed.

Her eyelids pinched shut. She chanted her destination over and over. The new penthouse apartment awaited, already fully stocked. One massive time travel hangover from now she’d be herself again, only better.

The toes always went numb first, losing touch with the retreating ground. Heat roared up her legs as if a bonfire were devouring her. Her limbs flailed, resisting the combustion inside her. Yet her mind held steady because she’d chosen this path.

The phoenix can only rise from the ash.

She clung to that image, that city she longed to wake up in, certain the repeated year would be worth the agony.

May Secret Agent #40

TITLE: DOUBLE DARE
GENRE: YA Contemporary

Tree limbs creak above my head and storm clouds cover the moon. I pull on my running shoes and get ready to take off from the bottom step outside my house.

Laces tight, I grab the heart-shaped locket around my neck and hold onto it. Inside is the picture of Mom after she won her last race. Broke the UW record. Her face is radiant. Victorious.

Before chemo turned her into a skeleton and she died. I let go of the locket and want to scream out to someone in the dark, but there’s no one there. No one to cheer me on to beat her records. No one to love me like Mom did.

A light flashes on inside the house. Please don’t let my stepmother come out here.

The porch light clicks on.

Oh God, here she comes. My heart pounds and I get the jitters.

The front door opens and the clacking of my stepmother’s high-heeled slippers echoes across the wood porch. “Raz, what’s wrong with you?” She shouts, so half the neighborhood can hear.

I take a deep breath and whirl around to face her. “Nothing’s wrong.”

Expensive perfume envelopes me like a trap and her designer robe flaps in the breeze. Even this early, her hair and makeup are perfect.

She glares at me. “Oh, yes, there’s something wrong with you, girl. What were you doing standing outside your father’s room? Leave him alone. He’s fine.”

Her voice softened, as if she cares about me, but I know better.

May Secret Agent #39

TITLE: THE LAST PRINCESS
GENRE: MG Contemporary Fantasy

I looked in wonder at this little old lady squinting at me with the greenest eyes I’d ever seen. “Who are you, my fairy godmother, or something?”

“Your’n? No. And a faerie’s about the worst choice for a godmother you could possibly pick. Don’t you read?”

“Of course I read.” I lifted my chin. “The complete Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Anderson—”

“Piffle and poppycock!”

“But—”

“Those’re mostly bedtime stories for children, girl. But who told those stories to the Grimms, eh?” She winked and cackled.

“What do you mean?”

“You’re a hard nut to crack, Cat Brökkenwier, and no lie.” She crushed another walnut in her hand. “Sprites and brownies and elves! Goblins! Trolls! They’re all real. Or were. Most have gone a’hiding.” She pointed a gnarled finger at me. “’Cept you know how to find ’em.”

I just stared at her, the hair on my neck standing up. “How?”

“Because you’re one of ’em.”



#



They say, “Be careful what you wish for – you just might get it.” Yeah, they might’ve mentioned that before my dreams came true. Before I found out what I really was.

Because life was a lot simpler when I was just a normal twelve-year-old girl – well, normal- ish. Instead of castles and princes and faerie folk, my ordinary life was filled with homework and a little brother and the family plant business. And all I could think about was being somebody else.

I picked up a colored pencil from the floor beside me and squinted at my medieval studies homework.

May Secret Agent #38

TITLE: The Purple Wars
GENRE: YA Contemporary

The dining room is where the ghosts and monsters play. That’s what Jacob said back then, our necks curling around the half open door, eyes blurting fright. Twelve years on, it’s still my least favourite room in the house; it’s where adults endure dinner parties, where serious topics are discussed, and it smells of calla lilies instead of brownies and popcorn.

And it’s the only room in the house where I can’t see the Purple Woods.

So when Dad and Coach Kominsky invite me to take a seat at the solid jarrah table, the cream-cushioned chairs imprinted with the bums of ghosts, I wrap my arms around my chest and respond with a brisk, “I’m good here.”

Of course it’s Coach K who starts talking in his clipped Czech accent. Abrupt, cutting; the words may as well be tennis balls smashing into my chest. Even now, at the point of ambush, I’m pretty impressed by his perfectly round shaved head—no freckle, bump or indent daring to blemish it.

I grip the high-backed chair; add some flint to my stare. “How can you say I’m not good enough, Coach Kominsky?” My voice wobbles. The earth shifts beneath my feet. “I’m only seventeen—”

“Seventeen and a half, Harper,” replies Coach, fingertips tapping each other. He’s trained me to become a world class tennis player for over five years and I don’t even know his first name.

“Dad?” Dad glances at me, but for him it’s like staring into the sun.

May Secret Agent #37--Removed

disqualified

May Secret Agent #36

TITLE: The Luxury Run
GENRE: Young Adult, Light Science Fiction

The only thing that stood between me and the rest of my life was a door handle. A pretty plain one considering the enormous opportunity that waited behind it. Even the room it led to was deceptively normal, just a typical waiting area with teal flowered wallpaper and black chairs that looked fancier than they did comfortable. But I wasn’t fooled. After what Sienne had told me, this place could hold the key to changing everything around for my family.

“Do you have an appointment?” I looked over at a small open window where a woman sat holding a clipboard. She wore a white button-down shirt embroidered with a Uessay flag.

“Yes, I- I do. Last name, Whitaker, first name, Carina. My appointment was for 4:30.” I walked over to the desk and showed her the flier. She scanned it quickly with her lips pushed together.

“We give away appointments if you’re more than fifteen minutes late.”

My eyes widened as they shot to the clock. “Then I’m just in time...” With one minute to spare.

“Fine, fill these out.” She handed me the clipboard with a stack of forms on top. I looked around the room and took a seat in the closest empty chair. Releasing a deep breath, I glanced over the first sheet before lifting the pen off the top of the clipboard and scribbling down my name, address, birthday, height, weight, and projected year of graduation.





May Secret Agent #35

TITLE: The Crescent Scar
GENRE: YA contemporary

Nothing is ever what it seems on the surface. As we pull into the driveway, snow skates across the windshield at 90 mph, while wind makes the car shudder. My entire life has been uprooted, sucked out of one world and into the next where I am like a puny atom in a universe of complete and utter turbulence.

"Are you angry with me? Is that it?" Katherine says, peering through the windshield toward the grey, storm-tossed waves. She's squeezing the life out of the wheel, knuckles white. "I don't have a better solution, so this has to work. It's the best I can do!"

"I'm not mad, Katherine. I didn't say a word." No reply. Not surprising since we've been on the road for three days straight, almost Kerouac style but without the fun parts. Tons of time to talk things over, although we didn't. I absolutely did not want to move away from everything familiar, specially not from warm California to frigid New England, home of those Puritans, but I try not to let that stuff show. I'll do anything not to set her off because unlike most mothers, the Katherine I love is no longer in her right mind.

"Haven't you done enough?" she continues. "What are you trying to tell me?"

As she stares through the sleet-pelted windshield past frantic wipers, I recognize that she isn't talking to me at all. She's ranting at the storm, at the sea.

May Secret Agent #34

TITLE: Drew Horrible
GENRE: MG fantasy

Drew Horrible pulled his robe tighter around him, clutching a small crumpled paper in his left hand. A chill snaked down his spine. The light from the cave ceilings above had dimmed to a soft glow, taking its warmth with it. But it was more than the frosty night air that set his teeth chattering.

“Fangs of Apollo,” Drew sighed, surveying his war-torn appearance. His father would not approve, and now he’d have to sneak into the castle through the kitchens to avoid a vicious scolding, and he was already late as it was.

He clutched his paper tighter, taking cover behind a precariously leaning orange tree. Its fruit looked more purple-ish than orange.

Great.

Something else for his dad to yell about.

From Drew’s spot in the garden behind the fruit trees, the castle’s eastern wall stood clearly visible. Light poured from the row of windows, where the banquet was surely almost underway.

Ugh. The banquet.

Drew brushed his hair from his eyes. The paper in his left hand peeked up at him innocently. Ever since he’d received the note that afternoon, a dull ache had clamped on to his head with relentless tenacity. Un-crumpling the note, he read his father’s words for the hundredth time:


Andrew,

All eyes will be on you tonight, so look sharp, and take care not to slouch like a Commoner, as you are so often in the habit of doing. Also, I have a surprise announcement concerning you, so you’d do well to pay attention.

May Secret Agent #33

TITLE: ARTHUR AND THE HEADLESS KNIGHTS OF THE FLYING ROUND TABLE
GENRE: Middle grade Arthurian retelling

Stale sweat inside the executioner’s mask soured my nostrils, forcing me to breathe through clenched teeth. It stank, and so did Fay for making me wear this musty hood backward to keep her precious tunnel secret.

Rats squealed, drowning the trickling of water down slippery walls, as Fay jockeyed me through yet another puddle. They must have recognized her, because they scurried away faster than a fox leaving a henhouse with takeout.

A rumored shortage of rat tails, the key ingredient for spell-casting in my half-sister’s also-rumored magic practice, kept Camelot’s rodent community on high alert.

Inspired by blindness, I sang, “Three blind mice . . . see how they—ouch.” Fay’s elbow ribbed my dream of becoming a minstrel.

I rubbed my side. “Why drag me along?”
“To keep whatever’s stealing teenage girls from their beds at night from catching me.”

Goose bumpers. Collywobbles swamped my stomach as I remembered the haunting scream from the Stonemason’s wife upon waking to find her daughter missing yesterday. “But you’re not in bed. You should be safe.”

“Not if I’m hunting it, I’m not.”
I yanked off my makeshift blindfold. “How can I stop it from catching you without a sword?”

She ruffled my hair. “No worries. I’m a faster runner than you. Besides, you’re madder than a bag of ferrets if you think I’d let you wave a sharp object around in the dark.”

Horse apples! Hoodwinked into missing Saturday Night Juggling to become beast bait. I debated leaving, but recent chivalry lessons on Damsels in Distress dictated I stayed.



May Secret Agent #32

TITLE: Aubrey and The Forest of Clementville
GENRE: Middle Grade Fantasy/Adventure

Aubrey sat on the wooden floor in just his red plaid PJ bootoms. Dangling from his neck were his father's dog tags and gold cross. The ones he was given a few years ago. He looked around at the moving boxes scattered around his room checking the marker writing on them. He was trying to locate one particular box. He saw ones marked toy, comics, baseball stuff and then the one with his name and a big heart and star on it. Getting up he picked up the box and took it to his bed. Opening it he rummaged throught until he found a small rosewood box he was given years before. Slowly opening it, he removed a picture of his Dad and himself on his father's shoulders. Beneath the photo were the medals that Dad was awarded, a Purple Heart and Bronze Star. He loved to look at the picture, the medals and remember his Dad. Picking up the photo again, he was taken over by sadness. He had beeen told that his father had been on heck of soldier and had thought of others before himself. He was a hero, saving the lives of the men in his unit. Aubrey still didn't understand that. All he knew was he needed him now and he wasn't around anymore.

As his fist tightened around the wooden box, the rising sun rays peered throught his bedroom window in the aprartment he and his mother had in the city.

May Secret Agent #31

TITLE: EMERGENCE
GENRE: YA sci-fi adventure

Of all the chores, she hated this one the most. Joey pulled a helmet over her head and fastened the latch to her anti-radiation suit. All this work, every Monday, just to get the weekly post.

After flipping on her oxygen tank, she hit a red button on the wall. A buzzer sounded, the air whooshed from the room, and the thick steel outer door of her home opened. Almost instantly, a glare of blinding light stung her eyes. The sun’s flare raged today, no different from yesterday, and the same forecast as tomorrow.

Joey slid down her visor. A deep crimson sky reflected in the tinted lens of her old spacesuit, which still bore the tag from Goodwill. She trudged across dusty earth, a cloud of scarlet haze kicking up as she stopped. While peering through shaded glass, she imagined the land as her mother described it. The reddish tint, which covered the parched countryside before her, transformed to crisp green meadows and pools of turquoise shaded water. Heavy layers of gray smog gave way to puffy white clouds.

She grinned when a ray of sun glinted off the monstrous dome of the fully enclosed Sector-A. Her arm lifted, blocking the shimmer. Even from this far, beyond the rows of curved metal roofs, she could see lavish streets, neon lights, and people. No suits, flowing clothes, all under thick protective glass.

Joey turned from the neighbors she’d never meet and moved toward a steel box fixed upon her outer bulkhead door.


May Secret Agent #30

TITLE: Middledom
GENRE: Middle Grade Fantasy

As she leaned precariously over a parapet on top of the castle’s west tower, her Royal Highness Princess Seraphina Violet Augusta, fifteen years of age and known as Violet, was thinking about words she liked—peregrine, ripple, moonbeam, savory—how they rolled smoothly around her mouth, while other words, like duty, needlepoint, stringent and quadrille, were sharp and hard, like stones hitting a wall. During her history lesson, she had been trying to compose a poem to help her remember Lavonia’s royal lineage, but it was impossible to rhyme Adelfred—another sharp and stony word--with anything.

Making a spyglass of her hands, Violet surveyed the road. The wind snatched strands of hair from her braid. The north tower bell began to ring. Violet ignored it. St. Dumplegarter’s Traveling Players were due to arrive and she wanted to be first to see them.

If her older sister Lily had been with her, they would be competing to see who could spot the players first. Of course, Lily, whose eyes were as sharp as an eagle’s, would win, as she almost always did. Rose, the youngest, would never willingly climb to the top of a tower as it involved both exercise and heights.

The castle was currently in a state of uproar due to Lily’s impending coming of age ball. Violet had high hopes for the traveling players, especially since the ball was sure to consist of lengthy reception lines, dull foreign nobles and shoes that rubbed blisters on her toes.












May Secret Agent #29

TITLE: The adventures of Finn Farrow and the Intrepid Time Travelers
GENRE: Middle Grade Fantasy

Finn Farrow had found the old comb in his sock drawer. The silver was dark with tarnish and the teeth were brittle and discolored. His dad had told him it was a miniature time machine. Probably so he wouldn't throw the disgusting thing out.

The boy angrily threw his socks into his suitcase. He should be outside with his friends! They had ridden down to the creek to go fishing, celebrating the arrival of summer. And next year they would be freshman in high school. They were practically adults!

But not Finn. No, he was packing. He couldn't believe his dad was making him go to Egypt for the summer to dig for old useless artifacts!

A ray of sun peeked through his curtains lighting up the intricate design etched in the fine silver. A woman in long dress brandishing a sword covered the handle of the comb.

Finn remembered his dad telling him not to touch it. "It's not a toy. It very old. It has been passed down generation to generation. And someday it will be yours. I wonder where it will take you. I wonder who you will meet."

Finn tossed the comb on his desk. His dad always irritated him with his ridiculous stories of his travels to Ancient Egypt.

May Secret Agent #28

TITLE: Eve of Destruction
GENRE: Middle Grade Historical Fiction

July 1967

I sat on the edge of my bed reluctant to begin the day. Had I dreamt yesterday? Mary Elaine's pool party had been the best in every way - from the postcard-perfect weather to the walk home with Stephen. Wait, did Stephen really promise to drop by later in the week? He seemed happy when he left - jumping down the stairs and running up the street. In all my thirteen years nothing this cool has ever happened to me, Meggie Fallon!

But that was yesterday. Today will not be so cool, guaranteed. I don't know exactly what it will bring - maybe more of Dad's unpredictable rants or Mom's stubborn silence. But one thing I know for sure, yesterday's coolness is about to be replaced by reality.

I looked across the room at my older sister, Bernadette. She turned fifteen in May. Bernie was still asleep - or pretended to be. The clock radio on our bureau read 7:05. No wonder I could hear the twins downstairs. They never slept beyond 6:30. Their three-year-old footsteps clambered up the steps.

"Meggie, Meggie, Mommy said you have to get us breakfast." Robbie and Joan burst into my room.

"Knock first, please," I whispered to them." And don't wake up Bernie."

Robbie stepped back over the threshold and banged the door frame with his toy hammer. "Knock like this Meggie?" He asked with a mischievous grin. I gave him "the look," then smiled in spite of it.

May Secret Agent #27

TITLE: Ramble
GENRE: Middle Grade Adventure

I run. Flat-out, my legs stretching as far in front of me as they can. I twist my head to get a look and see that not only is his massive gray body keeping pace, but he’s closing the distance between us. I can’t outrun him.

The barb at the end of his tail glints in the sunlight, and I feel the sweat turn cold beneath my fur. I look around desperately, praying for a small hole or crevice to appear in the wall in front of me that I can duck into but that will be too small for the Squirrel. But the wall stretches hard and unbroken as far as I can see. And I’m too far from the den to cry for help.

Soon I am at the wall, and there is nowhere else to go. I turn to face the Squirrel, preparing to duck as he raises his barbed tail high, blocking out the sun . . .

“Jenny! I told you not to wake him up!”

I come to slowly, not quite sure where I am. My heart is still sprinting, the blood pounding through my head. I can feel the hand that shook me awake resting warm against my side.

“I know, but I never can tell if he’s having a happy dream or a sad dream. And he was whining and jerking really hard.”

I lift my head off the bed and gaze up. Even though she doesn’t know it, my female human probably just saved my life.











May Secret Agent #26

TITLE: Riley Cooper Tween Inventor
GENRE: Middle Grade Contemporary

Rule number one in the Riley P. Cooper Scientist Handbook: inventors work alone

It sounded like a line from a magician’s codebook, but with friends like mine it applied here too. See, as an inventor, I’d made some really mind-blowing things. But, if I told my friends about my latest creation, Mel would have given me her junior cop lecture and Angus would have dragged me all the way to the bank.

Did that sound snobby? I’ve never sold my inventions, so I wasn’t rich. I was just a regular sixth grade kid, with two best friends, and all the drama that went along with them.

I couldn’t break my own rule. Which was why, when I saw the brown box by my front door, I needed an excuse to get out of our regular after school snack and homework session on Angus’ driveway. Without making them curious, of course.

“Hey guys, I’ve got something to do. I’ll meet you back out here soon,” I said.

“What are you making now, Riley?” Angus asked.

Clearly my talents weren’t in the art of deception. I could tell from the gleam in his eyes he wasn’t going to make this easy.

“Nothing, just playing around with stuff.” I focused on my front door so he wouldn’t see me smile.

“Mind if we watch the genius work?” he asked.

“It’s not really a good time. I’m working on something very delicate,” I said.

“You’re the only genius I know who makes fart guns."

May Secret Agent #25

TITLE: QUEST FOR THE KALEVALA
GENRE: MG Fantasy

A gazillion white cardboard boxes block my escape route from this funky-modern Finnish kitchen. Looks like I’m going to have to unpack my way out if I want to shoot hoops. Mom’s already working like a maniac—paper flying over her shoulder as she unwraps stuff—so I slice open a box. Two moves in the past four years make me the king of unpacking.

She rolls up a pile of brown paper and says, “Oh, Hen, I forgot to tell you, I found you a mowing job!”

“Seriously? Like moving to Helsinki wasn’t bad enough, now you think I need a job too?”

“I’m not asking you to pick up forty hours a week.” She plops a wooden spoon onto the pile of kitchen tools on the counter. “Just an hour helping out a nice elderly neighbor and fifteen euros for your trouble.”

“Not the creepy old Finnish lady.” I wipe my dusty hands on my basketball shorts. “Does she even speak English?”

“Henry James Rollins,” Mom says.

I cringe. Why did Dad have to name me after some punk rock geezer?

Mom narrows her eyes at me from her nest of papers. “Be nice! Mrs. Lönnrot speaks English as well as you do.”

“Oh come on, Lawn-rot? Even her name creeps me out!”

“It’s a very old, non-creepy Finnish name,” she says, her eyes giving me the familiar you’re-one-nudge-from-fouling-out stare.

“Have you ever seen her in the sunlight? Maybe she’s a vampire. No, no, I’ve got it—an evil enchantress!” I shudder dramatically.

May Secret Agent #24

TITLE: The Shattered Watch
GENRE: Middle Grade SF

The Kendrick family had a hard time following the rules. Carson always thought this strange because as time travelers, they had a lot of them. Rules about how to Travel (always take someone with you), where to Travel (locations had to be carefully chosen to avoid attention) and even what to wear while Traveling (clothes that could blend into most time periods).

Maybe it was because there were so many rules that everyone seemed to break more than they followed. So on his thirteenth birthday, when Carson wanted to bend them just a little bit, he was surprised to find no one would let him.

“I’m sorry, but you have to watch the shop,” Aunt Harriet said as she pulled him down the stairs to the first floor landing. “The rest of the family will be at the meeting.”

“It’s my birthday, I’m old enough to go now.” Carson braced his feet against the doorway. He had seen someone on a TV show do this once to escape an attacker.

“Not until the ceremony tonight.” Aunt Harriet tugged his arm and frowned when he didn’t move an inch. She obviously hadn’t seen the show. “It’s the rule.”

“It’s just eight hours,” Carson pointed out, but the look on her face made him move on to his next tactic. “What about when I can come to the meetings? Who will watch the shop, then?”

She shrugged. “We’ll close it, probably. Or have the meeting at night.”

May Secret Agent #23

TITLE: Revelation
GENRE: YA Historical Romance

Masks cover only so much. I twirl the silk-wrapped stick and watch the attached mask circle above my hand like a bird. Flawless dove feathers rise from the right corner. I brush my fingertips along the edge. It tickles, and I smile. I used to adore dressing up, pretending I could be whatever my imagination desired. I raise the mask over my face. It has been years since I believed I could have anything if only I imagined it.

Still, I cannot stop the music that rises in my head or the image that forms in harmony with it. Me sitting at a beautiful piano as I press down my left hand to sound the chords that open the second movement of Schubert’s Fantasie, the Adagio. Somber clouds of sound expand and pull me from the tedious present until my fingers clench. The stick propping up the mask cracks in two.

“Angelique,” Maman says, my name sliding like silk in her perfect French marred only by a hint of disappointment. She accepts the broken pieces. Her lips pinch then ease as she turns back to the seamstress and waves her hand up and down the dress. “It looks exquisite.”

Maman requires no mask. She has perfected the art of pretending we are better off than we really are.

Thick raindrops plunk on the banquette. I hear more than see them beyond the front window of our cottage on Dumaine.

May Secret Agent #22

TITLE: The Greatest Show in the Sky
GENRE: YA SF

From the outside, it doesn’t look like a house of Freaks.

The big white house sits on a sprawling lawn of green grass. Night blooming Moon Flowers dance in potted plants on the porch. Their petals raised to the silvery light of Ithaca’s two moons. A tricycle sits beside a tree with branches spreading as far out as they go up. Swings hang on either side of the thick trunk. Further back, a garden is surrounded by a white picket fence, a doll laying forgotten by its gate. Its like a fairy tale.

My eyes catch hold of a root cellar door. My heart leaps. There! That’s where the monster will be, I think. A delicious chill travels up my spine. Imagining what kind of Freak Marcello found imprisoned in the dark places of this big, beautiful place.

As if in answer, two figures bolt around the corner of the house, running for our van. Marcello’s hood flies back, and he doesn’t bother trying to fix it. The beefy man beside him keeps stride, even though he’s carrying a squirming sack over his shoulder.

“Quick, kid,” Wes revs the engine. “Get the door.”

Closing my fingers around the handle, I slide the door open just as Marcello and Axel skid to a halt, throwing themselves inside the vehicle.

“Go, go, go,” Marcello waves, gasping for breath.

The van lurches, pulling away from the house in a spray of gravel.

May Secret Agent #21

TITLE: MARKED
GENRE: YA Fantasy

Lexi zipped her jacket as she followed her dad into the auto shop. Men in greasy coveralls crowded the three work bays, while orchestrating their way around vehicles in various stages of repair. Uncle Lucas rounded a sports car, gaze trained on a stained rag as he wiped his hands.

“We need to talk,” he said to Dad.

“The truck?” Dad’s voice was slightly louder than the power tools and music.

“That, too.”

Dad and his brother were close, often huddled in private conversation. Normally, Lexi didn’t pay much attention, but recently she’d overheard the word gift. Maybe they were discussing a car for her graduation. A girl could hope.

Sometimes Dad and her uncle invited Lexi’s younger brother to their discussions, but no matter what bodily harm she threatened the brat with he never revealed anything. He only puffed his chest out and said, “Man stuff.”

One way or another, Lexi would get answers.

Uncle Lucas, smelling like exhaust with BBQ undertones, stopped in front of Lexi. He wasn’t a large man, only 5’10”, two inches taller than her.

“Enjoyed your article in the school paper about the declining wolf population,” he said.

“Thanks. Was hoping you’d let me interview you for the next one in the series.”

“I’d love that.”

Since he was also a freelance wilderness guide, he’d be perfect. Uncle Lucas shared her love of all things animal. It wasn’t 'man stuff,' but it was theirs.

May Secret Agent #20

TITLE: Here Comes the Sun
GENRE: YA-Contemporary

Spring 2000

Everything I learned about England came from my mother:

Don’t eat the meat.

Wear bright colors.

Beefeaters don’t talk.

Where she received her education is beyond me as the woman has never left the states, but it didn’t stop her from repeating ad nauseam while I packed. And now that I’m on the plane, all I can think about is the fact that I’m dressed like a sunflower on crack and am craving a cheeseburger. Honestly, though, I’ll pretty much think about anything to distract my brain from realizing I’m on a plane with fifty of my classmates who pretty much hate me. Sunflower on crack it is.

The plane is loud. The whirring of the air. The stewardess pushing the drink cart up and down the narrow aisle. The sound of fifty teenagers who all know each other chattering on happily as we zoom across an ocean. And the sound of one hundred or so people not at all associated with Naperville Academy groaning at their discontent. And I want to tell them that I hear them and totally understand. I'm embarrassed for my class. For myself. For my generation. And I just want to curl into my seat and sleep away this entire flight. But I can't. Mainly because I'm sitting next to the chattiest girl in my class. And to her left, covering the window with her gigantic shoulders, is Jennifer, the very person who turned me into a social pariah.

May Secret Agent #19

TITLE: The Last Artican
GENRE: YA Fantasy

It was winter that I feared the most. The cold wind that brought white powder down upon the ground and the eerie quiet that muffled any sound around me. It left my senses dull and lacking. Winter was the only place safe anymore.

“Tabor, are you sure your magic intends to lead us deep into these mountains?” Delah, my guardian was a Fury. Never changing. Never growing older, but bound to protect those they served with their lives. She was always second guessing my feelings, and I suppose she had every right to. I was still young and hadn’t developed my powers yet. “It seems a strange place to find the origins of your birth.”

“You found me in these mountains when I was a baby, now my magic is drawing me back. This is a perfect place to search for answers.” I pressed on through the thick snow, hoping that I was right. The feeling in my chest, the burn that my magic produced was becoming stronger the further we pushed north. We had to be going the right way.

The peak of Mount Erined loomed over head. Its jagged rocks and barren slopes seemed dead to me. The wind whipped around me, howling through the cliffs like screams of agony. It took all that I had to ignore the thoughts of my mothers dying breath that kept me away from this forsaken place for so long. I wouldn’t let her die for nothing.

May Secret Agent #18

TITLE: IMPERFECT LIVES
GENRE: YA contemporary thriller

The walls of our three-story colonial could withstand force-five gales, but did nothing to muffle Mom’s sobs from the adjoining room, or Dad’s frenzied pacing in the hall outside my bedroom.

I dragged a pair of jeans over my boxers and sat on the edge of my bed, staring at my clenched hands. Stop it already.. Not that my jumping in would make any difference. I walked to the door and leaned my forehead again the cool wood, as Mom continued to sob.

David would know the right thing to do. But, if he were here, we wouldn’t be in this mess in the first place. And I wouldn’t be sitting here missing my twin and listening to my parents tear each other apart.

Something heavy thudded against my bedroom wall, followed by the sound of glass shattering. Dad stopped pacing. “What the hell, Terese?” A pause, then, “Oh, for God’s sake, get a grip! He’s not coming back.”

Dad was great at stating the obvious.

Mom’s answer was too low for me to hear, but I didn’t need to. Their arguments always ended with Dad either sleeping on the couch or leaving the house. Lately he’d been leaving more often.

I buried my head in my hands. Damn you, David. Why the hell did you do it?

Dad’s footsteps paused outside my door. I waited for him to continue toward the stairs. He hadn’t set foot in my room since David died.

May Secret Agent #17

TITLE: What Happens After Ever
GENRE: MG Fantasy/Humor

  1. Must love frogs.
  2. Doesn’t smell like brussel sprouts.
Princess Gemineen took a last look at the numbered items and tucked the worked-over parchment back into her gown’s sleeve. Once a bucket list of characteristics she hoped her “true love” would possess, these were the only two that hadn’t been scratched out. Now, watching from the back of a shallow cave with her hired dragon shifting nervously from foot to foot, she thought even those seemed like long shots. She wondered if this would be just another of her many failed attempts to find the one who could break her curse.

The dragon scratched its butt and sighed. “He’ll show. Right?”

As dragons go, he wasn’t the most imposing—smallish, more teal than forest green, and his jittery nature evoked an unhealthy bout of second-guessing. As it had in other circumstances, Gem’s weathered, sixth-edition, pocket-sized copy of The Godmother’s Fairy Tale Companion~ The Definitive Source for All Things Fairytale, had helped her narrow places to find a dragon-for-hire. She settled on one offering a special—five hours rental for the price of four at a rate better than Gem had found elsewhere in the greater tri-kingdom area. The dragon’s demeanor created doubts, but she had little choice. Her royal allowance was dwindling. She couldn’t afford to be picky.

They’d haggled a bit before settling terms. She knew to be cautious—half now, half when the job was done—having been burned by a dragon once before.


May Secret Agent #16

TITLE: THE ARDENT
GENRE: MG SCIENCE FICTION

The tongues of fire were so close they were licking Gia's skin.

“You can't do, you can't do it. . . ” Adam's hushed chant only made her more determined to hold on to the burning branch.

Gia gritted her teeth. “Shut up, stupid! Poppa will hear you. You want to get us in trouble again?”

“We'll only get in trouble if you tell him, tattletale,” Adam whispered.

The last of the flames flickered and died. “At least I'm not a wimp—I can hold a burning stick all the way until it goes out.” Gia crossed her arms across her chest and looked triumphantly at her twin brother.

Adam's face flushed, and he glared at her with the profound indignation of a seven-year-old. “At least I'm not a girl!” he shot back. “And I can hold fire; I did hold fire—”

“Now, kids, only I get to tell stories around here,” Poppa's voice came from behind.

Gia spun around as her grandfather stepped into the light. His long, willowy shadow weaved into the trees, rippling unevenly with the flickering light of the flames. He was carrying an armful of sticks he'd collected in the woods. He walked past the abashed Adam toward the bonfire and stopped abruptly a few feet away. Crouching, he tossed the wood into the fire. Then, he looked over his shoulder at the twins. The crackling brightness illuminated the side of his face where a faded scar trailed a jagged line from above his brow down to his chin.

May Secret Agent #15

TITLE: The McNifficents
GENRE: Middle Grade

In a large pink farmhouse at 238 Emery Road, lived a most unusual nanny: Lord Tennyson, a middle-aged mini schnauzer with white whiskers and a royal pedigree. This morning our fine gentleman was herding the six McNiff children from the pink house into the old red farm truck for the first swim of summer vacation.

The task was never easy. The children clambered into the truck with towels and sand buckets, jostling and elbowing for their favorite seat and fighting over who got to hold Lord Tennyson.

"Sit with me!" Naughty Mary yelled, grabbing him out of Ezra's lap.

"Hey!" Ezra said, pulling him back.

While he understood his appeal, he did not appreciate small hands digging into his side and inevitably pulling at his fur.

"It's my turn!" Mary shrieked, elbowing Ezra in the shoulder.

"Ow!"

Mrs. McNiff, whom Lord Tennyson called Honey (because that’s what Mr. McNiff called her), looked in the rearview mirror. This was Lord Tennyson’s cue to wriggle loose, shake out his fur, and sternly look each McNiff child in the eye.

Mary gave Ezra one of her black-eyed looks, but fell silent. Honey smiled as they rumbled down the dusty country road, while Lord Tennyson's heart swelled. He loved Honey and would do anything for her affection.

No, his job was not an easy one as worthwhile work never is, but he did not doubt his child-rearing abilities, for he knew he was a rather spectacular dog.



May Secret Agent #14

TITLE: THE PANDORA DEVICE
GENRE: Middle Grade Fantasy

“There was something odd about that summer camp where your parents met,” Grandma said. Her gray eyes swept the room with the sad look she got when she talked about the past.

I followed her gaze over the stacks of newspapers, ringing us like yellowed skyscrapers. They formed a nest with just enough room for Grandma’s recliner and a bench for Lindsey and me. Lindsey had come over to make origami cranes, and Grandma was helping us cut the newspaper for folding.

“What was odd?” I asked.

She hesitated, and I could see the questions brimming, creasing the wrinkles in her face into worry lines.

“I can’t remember, Stella.” Her hands fell weak on her lap. “But I found something yesterday. It’s by the sink. An old box that belonged to your mother.”

My mother? A surge of excitement zipped through my feet, and I jumped up so fast the origami cranes scattered to the floor.

Lindsey followed me through the mounds of boxes and baskets lining the hallway, and into the kitchen where neat piles of dishes, pots and pans covered every surface.

“Your grandma has amazing collections,” she said, her blonde braids swishing as she peered at the stacks. I could tell she was itching to explore them again, but something inside me was drumming hurry, hurry.

I scanned the room and found a rusty box beside the sink. Faint letters scratched in the lid spelled “Franny.”

“My mother’s name.” The words stuck in my throat.

May Secret Agent #13

TITLE: Field of Violets
GENRE: YA Contemporary Romance

It was three days since I’d quit taking my Risperdal and Xanax. Maybe four. I’d lost track. Dr. Rolf and my parents would kill me if they knew. Even I was a little worried after last night, because my brain wouldn’t shut down and let me sleep. My nerves were wound so tight, one more turn and they might snap. Then all the feelings building up in me would spill out. There would be no stopping them.

From the back seat of Dad’s Land Rover, I squinted at the rain that flooded the streets of Orono, Minnesota. My head nodded from lack of sleep, while outside, another Sunday morning trip to church droned by. Backyards hidden behind tall wooden fences, the deserted soccer field, and that mini mart where we always stopped for two large coffees and my Dr. Pepper.

Dad steered out of the mini mart’s lot and back onto the main road.

“Can you see okay?” Mom leaned forward and gripped the dashboard.

Dad turned up the wipers full blast. “We’re fine.”

I didn’t get why she always freaked out when he drove. But I would sit back here, sip my pop, and keep my feelings to myself—along with my new secret.

They’d warned me about withdrawal, and I’d always taken my meds—one of each, every day, like the bottles said.

Until now.

Between my parents’ heads, the wipers squeegeed rain from side to side over the windshield—back and forth—in rhythm with my right leg—up and down.

May Secret Agent #12

TITLE: OXYGEN
GENRE: YA Sci-Fi/Romance

“Grey, wait up,” Ellie calls to me as I step onto the flagstone path at the front of the school. She rushes toward me with her arms full of books and a messy stack of bright red flyers. The wind shifts as she approaches and I adjust my stance so the gust blows the dark curtain of my hair securely onto the side of my neck. A windy day used to be my nemesis, but I’ve been concealing my scars for years and consider myself an expert at it.

“You can make it, right?” Her beaming smile falters only slightly when she trips over her own feet. Luckily, I’m able to catch both her and her teetering pile before they hit the ground.

“Of course,” I say squinting into the light of the afternoon sun as Ellie closes her eyes and lifts her chin toward the sky. “I wouldn’t miss your birthday party for anything. Turning seventeen the day after we graduate could not be more perfect.”

She’s still absorbing the rays when she answers, “In just a few weeks you’ll catch up. Besides, nothing beats having a birthday on the planet tour. Maybe you’ll have a new admirer to get you a present.” My face flashes hot but she doesn’t notice as she rushes on, “Whoever came up with the idea of letting graduating students tour the planet for three months before choosing a life path is a genius. Seriously, I would kiss him if I could.”

“I believe you’ve mentioned that before.”

May Secret Agent #11

TITLE: WHEN SHE FINDS HIM
GENRE: YA Contemporary

Kathryn pushed away the wall and swatted imaginary flies. Words with wings.

Not now. Go away.

The voices mocked her: Look at them. Losers. You want to be one of them? You want to be a loser? What’s wrong with you, curls?

The eternal question. What was wrong with her? Was she a loser? Did her dad running off before he’d even met her label her one? Right now, Kathryn didn’t know what to believe.

As she rolled the skateboard back and forth under her right foot, she brushed aside her tangle of ginger curls and peered through the store window’s ice cream–topped P. Red and white striped clerks sponged off sticky counters and swept up the litter of straw sleeves and soiled napkins. She spotted several classmates at a back booth. Throngs of teens piled around shared bowls of frozen sweets. Her vision lingered long enough to spy one blond head then the other. The Watson twins.

Too bad there’s no disinfectant to wipe clean the entire crew here.

While her eyes probed the crowded creamery, she missed the curious gaze of Isaac Watson. His soft stare offset the icy scrutiny of his sister. He observed this strange girl outside, her tangle of ginger curls, her puffy red ski vest.

Kathryn shifted her attention, half seeking him, half avoiding the Watsons. A tingle rose from deep inside her. An anesthetic serpent. Sparks and pings journeyed along her bony jaw, continuing to her scalp’s carroty outline. She scratched absentmindedly at her cheeks.

May Secret Agent #10

TITLE: Megathon
GENRE: YA Light SF

Nick swore softly when he saw the length of the lunch line.

Buried in the bowels of the Special Mission, the staff canteen attempted to compensate for the underground location with a brightly lit mock-rustic decor. He spotted his mother at her usual pine table in the corner. She’d already finished her meal and was sipping a grainy coffee. She caught his eye and waved something at him.

A postcard.

A smile spread across Nick’s face. Forgetting about food, he hurried over.

“This came for you today.” Her tone was disapproving.

Nick reached for it eagerly and examined Riordan’s latest find.

It was the best one yet.

Riordan’s postcards were his only link to his Southworld home in Sunnybeach. This time his friend had sent a black card with the word PARANOID written in bold white script across it and a pair of white cartoon-like eyes underneath. Where did Riordan find this stuff? He turned it over. The usual ironic message was scrawled in his friend’s hand.

“Please hurry, why don’t you come back?”

His best friend knew perfectly well Nick would go home to Southworld in a heartbeat, if only it were that easy.

“It’s all very well for Riordan,” his mother raised a perfectly manicured eyebrow. “But he’s safe in Sunnybeach.”

Nick continued his scrutiny of the postcard. Paranoid Eyes. It was too much. Only Riordan would have the nerve to mock the all-seeing Eyes, who gripped Northworld in an icy clasp of fear. Northworld.



May Secret Agent #9

TITLE: Head Games
GENRE: YA Science Fiction

When I woke up, nothing felt off except for the massive headache. I winced as I lifted my head to look around, and quickly dropped it back on the pillow. I was alone, which was weird, because what parents leave their sixteen year old daughter--their only child, I might add--to wake up alone at The Center. The Center. I hated that name, but it fit the private hospital where I was staying.

The whole place was anonymous and sterile. The ceilings were high with inlaid lights shining as white as everything else in the room. There wasn’t any artwork hanging on the walls, but a shelf held a single white flower in a glass vase. The smell of ammonia masked any sweet scent it may have had. A chill crawled up my back. Even the sheets, which I knew were soft and expensive, seemed to scratch my bare legs. I hated this place.

I closed my eyes, wishing the pain in my head away and trying not be angry that I was even here. It’s not like there was anyone I could blame, and as far as hospitals went, The Center was the nicest in Southern California. I counted to ten the way Mel was always reminding me. Mel was my father’s publicist, but you would think she was his therapist from the amount of time she spent telling me how to deal with problems I didn’t realize I had. When I got to three, I yelled for a nurse.

May Secret Agent #8

TITLE: Arrano
GENRE: YA Fantasy

My head was a mute confusion, the fear like a candle flame about to ignite an inferno. Blood pounded in my ears, and my lungs felt as if they’d been lassoed with chains. I had hours before my transition, so why did I feel like it was me about to go through the torture of the marrow in my bones disintegrating? I thought of Nelson and then Dash and everyone else in the house. I had to watch them all go through it first, making the anticipation for my own change like a slow pour of lava down my throat into my chest. I didn’t want to be alone at the end. What if I couldn’t get through it all by myself?

I looked up at the skylight in the ceiling, the panes of glass more than twenty feet wide. My parents had built it years ago, allowing us to fly up and away into the sky after our transition. It was an escape hatch of sorts, but there was never a true escape from who we were.

At sunset my bones would hollow out, leaving my body light enough for flight. Feathers would cover every inch of my skin, and I would sprout wings in place of arms. I would become an Arrano eagle.

I stared at the clear blue sky, its beauty lost in what awaited me. What awaited all of us.

I pushed the coffee table against the wall and shoved the couch back. The shag rug wasn’t soft enough.

May Secret Agent #7

TITLE: A Sexuality
GENRE: YA romance

Patrick Johns worked twelve stinking hours in broken air-conditioning while wearing a tampon shirt.

A tampon shirt.

When his boss Gary barked at him to go home, he told Patrick, quote/unquote: “Don’t worry, Paddy. Ya get to wear the shirt next time as well!”

Patrick looked at Gary like Gary should explode. Or the shirt. Either way.

‘The shirt’—a hot pink polo—featured an enlarged picture of an unwrapped tampon on the back.

To advertise feminine hygiene products to customers seeking fuel.

Patrick was certain they’d never actually stocked tampons at the garage shop.

But Gary’s life and business partner, Yvonne, had acquired a marketing diploma from a suspect institution—with the help of a discount off a shopper-docket—and assumed she was now equipped to market crap. The tampon shirt was Phase 1.

The bloody shirt was two sizes too small for Patrick. He had to keep yanking it down to cover his hairy stomach. He did not appreciate the volume of giggles from the giggling girls this morning. Today, he even got giggles from the school boys.

And as the sun’d risen higher, the heat of the day had slammed into him through the towering shop windows, turning the synthetic shirt into something like a giant leech. It made a slow thwick sound each time he peeled it off his sweaty skin.

People stared. Some fell onto shop items, in hysterics.

May Secret Agent #6

TITLE: The Skateboard Knight
GENRE: MG Fantasy/Adventure

Somebody is watching me. The tiny hairs on my neck stiffen and I can almost feel eyes boring into my back. It must be this house. It looks like the set of a horror movie.

“Close your mouth, Al. It isn’t that bad. It just needs a little work.” Mom’s blue eyes sparkle beneath the baseball cap that covers most of her blonde hair. She acts like an excited kid going to an amusement park.

“You’re kidding me, Mom.” She expects us to live here? “It’s Dr. Strange’s Sanctum Sanctorum.”

“You read too many comics.” She runs up the rickety front steps of the house where she grew up—Grandfather Dinklehoffer’s.

I hoist my comic book collection, all two hundred copies, sealed, tagged, and boxed, from the passenger seat of the U-Haul and slam the door with my butt. My skateboard slides to the floor and my stomach twitches like a mouse being eyeballed by a hungry cat. I get that strange feeling again and glance over my shoulder. That’s when I see him—a decrepit garden gnome.

He peeks through the swaying grass, so overgrown it looks like the African Savannah. With chipped and faded paint on his hat, he must be as ancient as this house, which is older than dirt.

I swear his eyes follow me.

“Come on, Al Let’s get started. All it needs is a little TLC. And the price is right—free.”

“Geez, Mom, this place needs a bulldozer, not a vacuum cleaner.”

May Secret Agent #5

TITLE: The Floaters
GENRE: Contemporary YA

When I slip the miniature, green Croc on his left foot he knots a small fist in my shirt and screams. The high-pitched shriek sends a little girl cowering between her mother’s dark jeans. Another boy covers his ears, a small, plush monkey dangling from his fingers. Max’s teacher rushes to the door, slamming it shut, caging us in.

I am braced for this moment, as always, but today it hurts. Today, of all days, it wrecks me. I look around for help, shaken, but I realize it’s just the two of us here. He’s counting on me.

Taking a deep breath, I fold him into my arms. His body stiffens at my touch and he fights me with strong convulsions. I squeeze tighter and speak softly into his ear.

“It’s okay Max. It’s gonna be okay, buddy.”

He screams, louder this time. The sound slices through me. My heart races and hundreds of tiny needles stab at the soft flesh under my arms. His hand claws at the back of my neck, his eyes wild, chaotic. The urge to reach in and grab him nearly overcomes me.

“Max,” I say evenly. “Max, you’ve got to calm down.”

He frees his arms, swinging them wildly. Teachers and parents quietly herd the children away from the large, wooden cubbies and into the preschool classroom. One of the Hungarian moms looks at me with pity as she rounds the corner, her perfectly painted eyebrows arched sympathetically.

She knows this shouldn’t be my problem. We all do.



May Secret Agent #4

TITLE: HIGH-TECH MEADOWS
GENRE: Middle-Grade Light Sci-Fi

BOOOOOOMM.

I shot straight up in bed. Tingles ran down my spine like jillions of electrons dancing the cha-cha.

Hail pelted our house, and the wind moaned. Being jolted awake by thunder three nights in one week was way past ridiculous. The green LEDs glowing on my alarm clock read 10:49. I’d only slept thirty minutes at best. I was so done with storms.

“Anyone home?” I called out into the darkness.

Nobody answered. Totally expected that.

Heating up my own dinner every night and telling myself when to go to bed was one thing, but dealing with lightning bolts that ripped open the sky and pummeled the roof with hail!? Earlier this week, I sent Mom an email asking if it was legal for a twelve-year-old to be home alone during a storm.

Her reply:

Emilie-

Yes. I checked.

~Lisa

P.S. You should wait the storm out in the big closet downstairs.

A coat closet. That was the only comfort available to me.

Just as my feet hit the floor, lightning crackled and flashed again. BOOOOOOMMM. Holy thunderclap! I jumped back in my bed like when I was a little kid afraid of the alligators on my floor at night. The thunder rumbled in my chest. My heart shifted into turbo-mode. The angry lightning bolt must’ve hit something in my backyard. Please. Not the treehouse.

Another flash and POP. The mighty thunder crash vibrated my cello strings. Eerie notes played by a phantom cellist lingered in the air, mixing with the storm noises.

May Secret Agent #3

TITLE: Case File of a Tomboy Princess
GENRE:   Middle Grade Mystery

Dear Dairy,

It’s not easy to escape from the long arm of the law, and it’s impossible to escape from Grandma. Really, it’s not my fault I ran, the cop had a mustache. Mustache = Whiskers. I hate whiskers. All kinds. But more on that later…

I was just writing the cold hard truth of my life. But there was exactly nothing to write about. So My BFF Jimmy and I decided to hide very innocent like and spy on a few neighbors from Grandma’s tree house. Exciting detail: We are camping out in Grandma’s tree house in exactly seven days!

Anyway, I decided I couldn’t spy without a cute outfit. So I was a tad bit delayed. I stuffed Mom’s hot pink high heels with a whole lot of Kleenex. I grabbed my matching rock star wig and ran to the tree house. I was prepared to rock it out or spy. Except I don’t know how rock it out since I’ve never taken dance. Just boring old soccer in my world.

June 1, 9:15am

Jimmy had binoculars. From Grandma’s tree house we could see everything, which is whole lot of nothing. But we did spot out Grandma’s butt which is kinda large, and Mr. Neimeyer’s hairy chest. And then there is the graveyard on the corner with the spooky house right next door. Note: Graveyards contain dead people. We are officially scared of dead people since they are dead.



May Secret Agent #2

TITLE: GEEK CAMP
GENRE: Upper Middle Grade Mystery

You wouldn’t call me “gifted” unless awesome video game skill counted. According to Mom, it didn’t. But here I was, headed to a camp for math and science nerds.

The bus bumped up a steep, narrow road and stopped in front of a small building surrounded by trees. Hartland Mountain Science Academy. The camp was run by this private school for smart kids.

The thought of spending a week surrounded by brainiacs made my hands clammy. But I’d signed up to take my favorite thing in life to the next level by creating games. I couldn’t back out now. And anyway, my best friend and gaming bud, Aaron, was here too. Together, we’d defeated Endermen, armies of space marines, and the Orcs of Mordor. We could handle camp full of geeks.

Probably.

I followed the backpack in front of me off the bus and looked around. To my right, campers and counselors stood in the shade near the tree line. To my left, a smaller group stood by the walkway that led to the building. “I bet those are the gamers.”

Aaron and I walked over. I was about to say “hi” to a chunky, red-headed guy when a sleek convertible rolled up.

A guy wearing dark, mirrored rock-star sunglasses got out of the passenger seat. He had a scowl on his face, black hair that stuck out in every direction, and the thinnest, most beautiful MacBook I’d ever seen tucked protectively under his arm.

Red elbowed me. “That’s Brent Kagon,” he whispered.