Category: Stories

Geysers, Mudpots, Hot Springs, and More

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surreal

Our second day in Yellowstone, we explored the many watery wonders that the park holds.

old faithful

The first stop was Old Faithful, the famous geyser that erupts about once every two hours. I’d heard a lot about it, but I wasn’t expecting to be as awestruck as I was. I literally got tears in my eyes when I saw it erupt, steam billowing out in front.

strange ripples

In fact, the whole time I was in Yellowstone I felt that same awe, like I was in a completely different realm, a totally different world.

bubbling mud

Right by Old Faithful, there are lots of other geysers, springs, etc. Walking around the paths was really surreal, steam billowing up on all sides, water sprouting and bubbling up from the ground wherever you looked.

otherworldly

Also, the colors were marvelous! Because of bacteria, the springs sometime looked deep green, orange, etc. I’d never seen anything like it before.

mammoth springs

A lot of places in Yellowstone, like Mammoth Springs (above) were so magnificent they made me think of ancient epics, stone thrones, and all of the lives that came before our own.

Wildlife at Yellowstone National Park

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bison

I’d barely driven a mile into Yellowstone National Park when I saw a bison by the side of the road. Wow, it was enormous. I mean, I knew they were big, but the animal looked bigger than the car! A hulk of a thing, the bison lumbered along the road’s edge. A few cars pulled over to take photos (I did too, a ways ahead). You could tell who’d been in the park awhile because the people in those cars zipped right past. Bison? Been there, seen that. It’s amazing the things we get used to.

Later we saw bison by the hundreds in Lamar Valley. They dotted the plains—little red calves trotting alongside the shaggy brown adults. Biplab said they seemed a lot like cows—placid and docile, but later he saw a video of a bison charging a grown man and flipping him up in the air with his horns. Maybe not so docile after all…

bison in action

I didn’t get too close, but I could have stared at those bison for hours. They’re fascinating, especially when you’ve never seen them before except in movies. One thing I learned about them is that their heads are so huge and their necks so thick because they have to push snow aside in the winter to get to their food. (Also, bison are different from buffalo. Bison only live in North America.)

Besides bison, we saw herds of elk, a black bear and her cub, a spring fox, a coyote, yellow-bellied marmots, and all sorts of interesting birds (I’ll have to look up their names).

close up of elk

I was somewhat relieved that we didn’t see any grizzlies, but we were close to one when we wandered the paths around the famous geyser, Old Faithful. Just when we were about to head back the way we came, we saw two rangers hop out of their car, guns in hand. They took off, and we didn’t see them again until we’d been walking for a few minutes. Then we saw them coming back from the direction they’d gone in, coming toward us. We stopped to talk.

Apparently, a grizzly had been spotted in the same area we were in, just five minutes earlier. The rangers had wanted to drive it away, to a different location with fewer people, but they hadn’t spotted the bear. We didn’t either, though we were very aware of our surroundings after that conversation.

It used to be that people went to Yellowstone and fed the bears. Can you imagine?! Now, they don’t do that, but we did see a few people get pretty darn close to the black bear and cub that we saw (they wanted good photos).

I wonder what all the bears (and other wildlife) think of us humans. I wonder if that grizzly wishes it could watch Old Faithful in peace.

Carwash: a Tourist Destination

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Before leaving Illinois, Biplab and I decided to take our truck to the carwash. It was something we’d each been putting off for a while. It just seemed like it was going to be another chore (most of the carwashes we knew of were DIY).

But that was before we found out about the Delta Sonic Car Wash in Downers Grove.

My uncle Eric told us about it. Biplab and I were planning to have lunch with him before leaving Illinois, and since we were running so last-minute, we ended up bringing Eric along on our errand. A good thing we did!

The first carwash we’d decided on was a dud. It was all automated, and after it sprayed the truck with green, blue, and yellow suds, the rinsing mechanism didn’t kick in. So the truck looked like a giant snowcone.

Then Eric says he knows of a carwash that has all the bells and whistles, just down the block. I’d only been to a carwash once before in my life when I was a little girl. Biplab had never been to one before. We had no idea what we were in store for!

We get to this carwash, Delta Sonic, and first of all, it’s packed. A good sign. Also, there are lots of attendants around. A plus. Human interaction is way better than machine interaction. (The automated system at the last place kept saying to drive forward, but as soon as we did that it told us to reverse!) An attendant waves us forward onto the conveyer belt. Biplab puts the car in neutral and then we sit back, relax, and enjoy the show! Boy, what a show!

There were giant bubbles. There were strobe lights and sound effects. There was water. There was heat. Biplab, Eric, and I were all seated in the cab of the truck, windows rolled up to keep from getting sprayed with suds. Normally, it might have been stifling to have the windows up on such a warm day. But we were having too much fun to care.

Eric and I were laughing like crazy, and Biplab was taking a video of the whole thing (and us), saying, “This should be an American tourist destination!”

The carwash did feel like a theme park, or–when the noisy dryers kicked in–like an airport runway. “What destination’s up next?” Eric said. “LA!”

When we made it to the end, it was sort of tempting to go through the carwash again. Amazing how a chore can turn into so much fun. All three of us were like kids again.

The Hazel Tree: A Fantasy Novel

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These days, I’ve been writing a fantasy novel. I probably won’t be posting much–if any of it–on my website, but I’ve included below my current “pitch,” or, in other words, the description that you’d find on the back cover. If it hooks you, and you want to know more, let me know. I’ll be looking for beta readers once I have more of the novel completed, because I want to find out what works and what doesn’t. If you’re not interested, but know someone who might be, please pass along the information to them!

Here’s the pitch:

“19-year-old, orphaned Hazel, with her light brown skin, black hair, and penchant for daydreaming in the forest, sticks out from everyone else in her village. She doesn’t want to settle down, get married, live as a fisherman’s wife; instead she wants to travel, see the world, and find answers to questions that have troubled her since childhood.

Hazel’s aunt and uncle love her, but they’ve never explained the long-ago deaths of her parents. And, these days, they’ve gotten increasingly over-protective. Why is it that her cousins–all boys–can do as they wish, but ever since she got her period, Hazel has been treated as fragile? She’s fed up with it.

So, when travelers come to town for the annual fair, Hazel jumps at the offer to join them. Her skin thrills at their talk–cities built of blown glass, babies born from citrus flowers, birds with feathers of moonlight, magic. Plunged into an adventure that takes her to a second world–the one her father came from–Hazel soon realizes that it’s on the brink of revolution, and somehow, unbelievably, the public wants to rally around her.

Assassins slip like foxes through the trees, hunting Hazel down, and if they find her, then not only Hazel, but also the entire world she grew up in, is in grave peril.

Readers who enjoyed A Darker Shade of Magic, Daughter of Smoke and Bone, and Robin: Lady of Legend, will find themselves enchanted by The Hazel Tree.”

Mice in the Walls

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(WARNING: This is a fictional, scary story. Read at your own risk.)

There were mice in the walls. Melissa could hear them every night, scratching away, building their home in her ceiling. When she sat at her desk, writing, she could hear one of them scuffling in the papers on her bookshelf. Scattered around the house, she saw little bits and pieces of the afghan her mother had knit her, obviously chewed off by the mice. It was distracting, thinking of these little creatures living in her house, chewing through her things. She wanted them gone.

Melissa didn’t really want to do it herself, but she lived alone so there was no one to do it for her. For a while she put it off. She pretended that the scratching was just tree branches scraping at her window. She turned her music up high. And that worked okay, for a while. But then she started seeing the mouse droppings. They were all over the place. She opened a cupboard where she kept casserole dishes, and the bottom of it was speckled black. She found mouse droppings on the floor, and the kitchen counters.

She was worried she’d get sick from the droppings; she’d read up about mice online, and had seen that they could spread just as many diseases as rats. Maybe the bubonic plague wasn’t around anymore, but there were still things like hantavirus that mice spread, that could kill you by drowning your lungs in water. Some people kept mice and rats as pets, but she didn’t know why. Not when they were carriers for that sort of stuff.

In her mind, Melissa envisioned the mice dancing in the kitchen sink, getting into the fridge and digging their teeth into her cheese, crawling over her legs as she slept. She shuddered. She decided she would buy mousetraps.

They arrived in the mail about a week later, a package she was simultaneously excited and disgusted about. When Melissa was little, her parents’ house had gotten mice, and they’d decided to do something about it. They’d put traps in all the closets, and caught at least ten mice in total. She remembered her brother holding one of them up by the tail, dangling it in front of her face, trying to get her to scream. She remembered the black, glassy eyes of the dead creature. It reminded her of a zombie.

Just holding one of the shiny, metal mousetraps in her hands made her think of death, made her imagine a mouse trapped under the bar, fighting to get free. She didn’t want the mice in her house, but she didn’t exactly want them dead, either.

Taking a deep breath, however, Melissa gathered her resolve, got a jar of peanut butter out of the fridge, took out a knife, and slathered the peanut butter onto the traps. Then, one by one, careful not to catch her own fingers in them, she pulled back the “kill bar,” as it was labeled, and positioned the other, hooked bar, so that each trap would go off as soon as a mouse even touched the peanut butter. Very gently, she set two of the traps in her kitchen, and two of them in the study.

She knew for sure that they frequented those rooms, because she’d heard them there. The trouble with putting the traps in the study and the kitchen, however, was that they were out in the open. Melissa couldn’t sit in her study without seeing the metal traps. She couldn’t go into the kitchen in the morning without holding her breath, wondering if she’d see a half-crushed mouse under her kitchen table.

Her appetite disappeared. Eating became a chore, instead of something she enjoyed. Taking a bite of cereal in the morning, she’d feel sick, imagining a mouse in it, drowning. Chicken for dinner tasted dry in her mouth. Even her peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch made her think of mice. Whenever she was in the kitchen, she couldn’t help looking at the traps.

Two days after setting them, at midnight, just before Melissa was going to sleep, one of the traps sprung. But the mouse wasn’t quite dead yet; it was just injured, and making a mewling noise, like it was in pain. She didn’t know what to do, so she called up a friend, who told her that she needed to put the mouse out of its misery. The friend recommended using a broom.

The thought of killing a mouse herself, not using a trap, but with a broom wielded by her own hands, was enough to send a cold shiver through her body. Her body went alternately hot and cold; her arms felt weak. I can’t do this, she thought. But the only other option was to wait several hours for the mouse to die, and she didn’t want to be in a house with a dying mouse. She knew she wouldn’t be able to stop thinking about it, and wouldn’t able to eat, or get rest either. So she went to the closet, and took out a broom.

It took a few tries, mostly because she feared hearing bones crack. She didn’t hit it hard enough at first. But eventually, the deed was done. She put plastic bags over her hands, and disposed of the dead mouse, and the trap, in the outside garbage can. Then she went inside, washed her hands for good measure, and got into bed.

Sleep didn’t come easy. She imagined the other mice in the house, and what they’d do when they’d realize that one of their kind wasn’t coming back. She could hear them in the ceiling, and pictured them scratching through it, falling onto her bed when she was asleep, scratching her awake.

Her dreams kept her tossing and turning throughout the night. In the morning it was no better. She went into her study to open the blinds, and there were two dead mice in the two traps she’d laid there. She jumped about a foot when she saw them, and had to leave the room a moment to regain her composure. Maybe it was something she’d never get used to. Maybe it was good that she couldn’t get used to killing things. But maybe it was terrible that even so, she was still setting the traps.

Still, she thought, she was the one paying rent, buying food. The mice had no right to dwell in her walls, and get into her rice, and–she stopped herself. It was like she was having a conversation with the mice. They were getting into her head. She felt a little crazy.

When she went into the bathroom, later, to take a shower, brush her teeth, and pee, she had to check the toilet bowl twice before sitting down. She could have sworn she’d seen a mouse swimming around down there. She shuddered, and peed quickly.

Things got worse. Melissa started to not like coming home, anymore, because almost always, she was greeted by a dead mouse in the kitchen, or the study. She went through more plastic bags than she could count. And she started to think, what if these mice came back to haunt her?

She started imagining giant mice, the size of large pigs, coming into her room while she slept. She started thinking, what goes around comes around. If she’d killed so many mice (at least seven), then how could she complain if they decided to kill her? What if they started laying giant traps, so they could catch her the way she’d caught them?

It got to the point where she not only didn’t like coming home, she dreaded it. Mostly, she just went there to sleep, but she was considering moving out entirely, and staying at her friend Fiona’s house for a while. Her dreams were getting worse, and worse. She hoped they were just dreams, at least. She kept waking up after seeing eyes–big, round, black, glassy eyes–staring into her own. Whiskers would brush her cheeks. And then she’d wake, gasping.

Little things during the day, too, were starting to make her jump–dishes shifting in the dish rack, the creaking her own feet made on the wooden floors.

Finally, after talking to a coworker about the whole situation, she made up her mind. She’d move out. She was done. She’d stay at Fiona’s place, and Fiona would help her move out. Melissa called her up, and the plans were made. It was decided that after Melissa got out of work, that very same day, Fiona would pick her up, and they would go Melissa’s house to get all of her essentials. Melissa would move into Fiona’s place temporarily, and find a way to sublease her own.

Five o-clock, Fiona got off work, picked Melissa up, and they drove to the mouse-infested house.

Fiona went straight inside, no hesitation. She wasn’t worried about mice. She’d had worse problems to deal with before. She said, jokingly, “Wait here, Melissa. I’ll make sure the coast is clear.” But she didn’t come back outside.

After waiting a few minutes, idly checking the mail and looking up at the darkening sky, Melissa decided to go in. Fiona had probably just been joking anyway. She probably hadn’t meant for Melissa to actually stay behind. So, thinking that it would be the last time she’d have to do so, Melissa stepped through the front door.

An odd smell permeated the place, like dull urine, and wilted spinach. “Fiona?” she ventured, calling her friend. No reply. And then she turned, and saw them–seven giant mice, sitting in a row in her kitchen, looking straight at her.

You’re right, they seemed to be saying to her, you won’t have to cross that front door again. You won’t be leaving here after we finish with you. The question is, fast or slow? Two hits? Or six? Either way, we’re hungry, and you’ll be good food.

Behind them, Fiona, seemingly oblivious, gathered kitchen things, and put them into a big duffel bag. She hummed to herself, and then she noticed her friend’s presence, and said, “Melissa? Are you going to help me or what?”

Melissa just stood there, struck dumb, and the mice began to advance.

3ffa7fce75cb608f_640_seashells

Shells

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This story takes place not so many years ago, along the coast of the Atlantic, in a place where the cliffs are jagged, and the tide comes in high. A girl lived in a house there, by the shore, not too far from a small town. Her name was Emily, and she loved nothing more than to walk down to the beach with the two border collies, Ginger and Nutmeg. They’d run and run, chasing each other joyfully in the sand; then they’d circle back and would rest by her side for a few minutes, watching the ocean.

It was a wonderful place to daydream. Emily went there whenever she got the chance. Even at night, when some said it was dangerous. But she had the dogs, and they never let anyone get close to her. It could certainly be eerie sometimes. Alone, day or night, things emerge that are hidden otherwise.

One particular evening, the dogs on either side of her, sitting on one of the rocks overlooking the ocean, Emily felt something different in the air. The wind rustled. In the distance it howled, banging screen doors and jangling chimes. The night was full of this untapped music, as if one movement might tilt the world forward into a chaos of sound and action. Even the lapping of the waves was like a prelude to something louder, a rolling drumbeat, starting slow, then crashing over you.

She hummed a tune meant to be comforting, but that instead seemed to match the mood of the night.

As the wind died down, and her focus came back to the ocean in front of her, Emily saw–not far from where she sat–a little girl, walking around picking up seashells, then putting them in the pockets of her dress.

She was a wisp of a thing; it would almost seem she wasn’t there, but for the footprints she left behind in the sand. After her pockets must have been very full, and heavy, the girl started walking towards the ocean, and the next thing Emily knew, the girl was gone.

Evening after evening it happened this way, with the little girl (shy-looking) wandering around picking seashells, and Emily and the dogs watching. Finally, after a few weeks of this, Emily called out to her.

“Excuse me,” she said. “What’s–what’s your name? Why are you collecting these shells?”

She almost expected no answer; maybe she was just imagining things; maybe the girl didn’t really exist.

But no, she paused, looked right at Emily, and said in a soft voice, like a ripple, “I’m one of the sea folk, and it’s my job to gather these shells and bring them to new places.”

Emily had always wanted to believe in the sea folk; her grandmother had told her stories about them. She’d told her that sea folk spent their days as kelp, in the ocean, or as mussels on the sides of rocks, or as silvery fish flitting through the waves. In the evening, they would sometimes emerge in human form, and what they did on the shores was always mysterious, and only whispered about. Emily had always loved the stories, and could hardly believe that here, here in front of her, was one of them!

Her jaw dropped, and she just stared at the girl, eyes wide with astonishment. “I–I always wanted to meet one of you, but I wasn’t really sure it was true. My grandma told me about you. She said that sea folk take different forms during the day.”

“Yes,” the girl said, “In daylight, I am foam, light and airy. I’m pleased that you love us sea folk so. Tell me, is there anything you long for? I can make a wish come true, for one such as you.”

The wind picked up again, until Emily could barely hear her own voice. A wish! she thought. A wish! How can you even decide? But still, the words came out of her. “I want to be like you,” she said, “able to roam all the oceans, to see the shores of the world.”

The little girl looked at Emily, long, and then she said, “Well, I can’t make you one of us, but I can do this.” And she touched her lightly on the cheek. It was like being touched by sunshine on a warm day, she was filled with such calm, the deep sort of peace that lulls you to sleep.

Everything faded out almost entirely; the dogs barking was faint in the background. Her mind mixed the scene of the ocean with her dreams, everything a swirl of watercolors, the clouds drifting apart and reshaping into sheep, that lumbered down out of the sky. She climbed atop then, and they carried her, gently, into the ocean.

If anyone had been watching that day, from one of the clifftops over the beach, they would have seen a strange sight. They would have seen Emily lit up, brilliant with colors–gold, peach, turquoise–and they would have seen all of those colors wrap together, cradling the girl in their midst. Then, well, they might not have believed what came next. Because Emily was gone, and in her place was a beautiful, lovely conch shell. And the little girl who had been standing by Emily picked up the shell, and with it in her hand, she swam out and disappeared into the ocean.

So it is that when you pick up a conch shell and put it to your ear, you hear the sound not just of waves, but also of a sort of whisper, or a low humming. You can hear in the shell that quiet stirring, that soft sound of dreamers, of longing, of all things mysterious and magical.

Career Choices

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Starting junior year in high school, if not earlier, people start asking about your career plans, what you want to do with your life. And the simple answers you may have given as a kid (fireman, doctor) aren’t enough anymore. All of a sudden, you need a plan. All of a sudden, you need to really have purpose, to have a clear idea of your strengths and weaknesses, your employability. Of course, lots of people are still floundering at this age (and beyond).

To help us kids decide what we wanted to do, my English teacher in my junior year of high school gave us a survey. At the end of it, based upon your answers, the survey would point you to a few potential jobs.

It was fun–the suspense of it all, wondering what direction you might be given. There were the obvious ones, like the girl who loved animals and medicine and was suggested, “veterinarian.” And then there was the guy who got “clown,” but it didn’t really count because he’d made up mostly fake answers.

I put a lot of thought into the questions and my answers, even though I already knew I wanted to be a writer.

The survey had other plans for me. “Nun,” it suggested, “or Forest Ranger.”

Detention

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This story goes back to my high school days, and a woman there, Ms. Bane1, who I could easily see being my arch-nemesis. My first memory of her, she’s standing on stage, addressing all of us freshmen at an assembly.

Bane said to us, “Your best memories, from these days, will be of the dances. Homecoming, King of Hearts, Prom. You’ll cherish those photos, those times. It doesn’t get any better.” She waxed eloquent about football games, pep rallies, school spirit, but most of all, these dances, and how they would be the pinnacle of our high school experience.

Yeah, right. In fact, I remember little from those dances, other than A) I was never asked to one, B) some people spent ridiculous amounts of money on dresses, and C) the choice of music was typically atrocious, most people not dancing, but actually checking out the tables with food, and wandering around hallways hoping to spot their crush.

Dances had always been like this. Boring. In middle school, we had Friday Night Live, and with the exception of those few people who were already somehow dating–and thus would slow dance together–everyone else would stand around awkwardly, or play cards in the corridors.

The fact that this woman, Ms. Bane, one of the administrators, believed a dance could and should be the highlight of schooling, was to me, a sad concept. Wasn’t school more about the classes? Wasn’t it supposed to be about how much we learned? I guess you could learn what grinding is, at a dance (what the administration referred to as “juking”…it was banned, but still happened all the time), but not much else.

Anyway, the whole assembly was pretty much a waste of time, and I wished I wasn’t missing out on my English class. But that was high school for you–the important things sometimes lost in the un-important.

I figured, at least, that I would never see Bane again, or have to interact with her, because the administration was like a world apart, hidden behind the closed doors of their offices. She wouldn’t ever have anything to say to me. But I was wrong.

Time passed, one year after another, and one day, towards the end of senior year, the spring concert rolled around. It was always one of my favorite events. I loved listening to all of the songs the chorus would perform; they had such beautiful voices, the music would bring tears to my eyes.

Now, most teachers brought their classes to the concert, but my class for that period was Home Maintenance and Repair. I was one of only two girls. Out of everyone, less than a handful of us were interested in going to the concert, so our teacher just wrote us a note explaining that we had permission to go on our own.

We traveled through the tunnel that separated the two buildings of our campus, and emerged into an empty hallway, close to the auditorium where the concert would be held. Everything was quiet. We didn’t spot any of the security guards who typically were around during passing periods, making sure no one was wearing too short of shorts, or too revealing of tank tops. We were almost there, almost at the auditorium, maybe one hallway away, when a voice shouted, “Stop!”

We stopped, halted in our tracks like guilty teenagers who don’t know what they’re guilty of. And none other than Bane comes speed-walking up to us, the lady who I’d thought I’d never see again.

“What are you all doing on your own?” she demanded. I handed her the note from our teacher, and explained the situation. She barely glanced at it, then thrust it back to me.

“The policy is students can only go if accompanied by their teacher,” she said. “I’m sorry, but you’ll have to go back to your classroom.” The sorry was not spoken sincerely.

I started to pipe up, explaining again that we had permission, and that we wouldn’t cause any disruptions, when she held up her hands, interrupting me.

“Do you want a detention?” she said.

I shook my head. All of us shook our heads.

“Then you’ll stop talking right now, and go back to your class.”

This woman was ridiculous; I hadn’t liked her from the first. And now she wanted to keep us from this concert? For no good reason? I made eye contact with the other three who were with me, and they went back into the tunnel, trudging towards our class. I hesitated, staying where I was, still thinking, but I really want to go to that concert. Bane frowned at me, clearly aggravated.

“Do I have to say it again?” she said. Like I was nothing more than some dumb kid. I’d had enough.

“I’m going to the concert,” I said, “and I bet you can’t catch me.” Then I bolted. It was marvelous. The crowd in the auditorium was easy to blend into. No one gave me away. I enjoyed the concert. I didn’t even care if I’d have to face a detention later. In my opinion, it would be well worth it.