Wednesday, July 23, 2014

July 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.

July Secret Agent #ALT-1

TITLE: The Past is History
GENRE: YA

You can’t save other people.

That’s what I told myself. Jon and his friends crowded together on the far side of the bonfire. They shouted into the night, laughed at jokes I couldn’t hear. The party had peeled into two – girls around the fire, boys in a rowdy knot just beyond.

A beautiful night. A party just for me. It was my 17th birthday.

Although I guess if it had really been for me, Jon might’ve been by my side, kissing my neck, sighing onto my skin the way he sometimes did.

A glass beer bottle shattered against the squat stone wall that ran along Chess’s driveway, and the cloud of boys cheered. They seemed far away, only visible in orange fragments through bursts of flame.

Chess straightened next to me, lifted her neck high like she might yell something to them, but instead she shook her head and muttered, “A******s.”

Dennis Lawson floundered among the boys. He shoved his hands in his pockets and fidgeted, a blond wave of hair standing at attention at the back of his head, an unfortunate cowlick. He could’ve been reading their lips, that’s how hard he studied their expressions, his own smiles curling into place seconds too late. The delay reinforced the obvious: he didn’t belong. Dennis caught my eye and I looked away, pissed. I wanted to leave him to his own fate, thinking he deserved everything he got, but, of course, that was only partially true. I also hurt for him. And burned with shame.


July Secret Agent #50

TITLE: Read At Your Own Risk
GENRE: MG Fantasy

Sixth grade should’ve been a fresh start for Simon. A new year, a new him. But six months after September, March rolled around and he knew each trashcan by brandname.

Pulling a banana peel from his hair, Simon climbed out of the cafeteria garbage. He was an average twelve-year-old, not too short, not too tall. His brown eyes matched his dirty hair, and his bony shoulders made him narrow enough to fit inside lockers. But, he could lick his elbow, and that was pretty cool.

“Next time stay out of my way, Thriftstore!” Kyle Davis warned. His flock of friends snorted with laughter, all round and large like their leader. With a kick of Kyle’s foot, the cafeteria door flew open and they waddled into the hallway.

Simon shook candy wrappers from his shirt. “If I left Massachusetts, I’d still be in your way.”

The late bell tolled and Simon slipped. Stumbling out of the cafeteria, he yanked a sandwich bag from the bottom of his shoe and skidded toward his English class. To his dismay, tuna fish had coated his sneakers and he fell no less than four times in fifty feet.

“Nice of you to join us, Mr. Tanner,” Mr. Holland commented over his shoulder. Simon plopped into his front-row desk and copied the list his teacher was scrawling across the board. It contained all of the mythological beasts from their reading assignment— Mystical Wonders of the World’s Legends by Margaret Egan, chapter two, pages seven to thirty-six.

July Secret Agent #49

TITLE: Tag, You're Dead
GENRE: YA Thriller

BRANDY

Friday, 8:00 PM

“I can’t choose,” Brandy Inkrott said. “I want to kill them all.”

“Tag,” her mother said from her brocaded antique chair. “You want to Tag them all.”

“No. I don’t.”

“Either way,” her father said, “I’m afraid you have to pick one.”

Brandy studied the images of the teenage girls on the screen. Brunettes. Blondes. Asians. Hispanics. Light-skinned. Dark-skinned. Every one of them gorgeous. Every one of them middle-class. No-names. None of them like her. “They’re all so perfect. Can I pick more than one?”

A woman’s voice pierced the air, emanating from Surround Sound speakers. “The price for two would be extravagant, Ms. Inkrott. Plus, Tagging more than one Runner would be difficult. Almost impossible.”

“I don’t care. I can do it.”

Her father shrugged. “If that’s what you want.”

“I suggest this,” the woman said. “Play this time with one. If you are successful you may play again, and then you can go after two. I know it’s tempting when you see all those beautiful faces, but you’d be setting yourself up for disappointment.”

“What do you know?” Brandy said. “You’re probably some fat old lady in a trailer park somewhere. I could Tag you.”

Silence sizzled over the speaker.

“I’m sorry, Madame Referee,” Brandy’s father said. “She didn’t mean it.”

“Did so,” Brandy said.

“Bran, honey, please.”

The girls’ faces on the television disappeared, replaced by only one, which took up the entire surface of the eighty-inch screen. The woman shown there was incredible.

July Secret Agent #48

TITLE: TERROR'S IDENTITY
GENRE: Young Adult Fiction

At sixteen, guys are supposed to be tough, right? But when Mom pounds up the stairs shouting, “Aidan! Maya! This is it! We’re leaving…now,” tough isn’t what I feel. I hug the hallway wall because the openness of the balcony railing all of a sudden makes me dizzy. Usually I like to lean over to see what’s going on in the living room below.

Maya gets the easy job. She just calls our dog, Zeus, to her side, while Mom lowers and raises the window blind over the kitchen sink to signal that we’re ready.

Since the kitchen is in the back of the house and faces Lake Michigan, I’m not sure why we need a blind on that window. But, hey, it does work for giving signals, I guess.

Mom says it makes the window look complete.

I focus on finding our cat, Kramer, who must know something is up, because he’s hiding behind the water heater in the basement and doesn’t want to come out. A lot of pulling and coaxing later, I have my buddy in my arms hiding his head under my left elbow. Of course, we’re both covered in dust and I sneeze all the way up the stairs.

Mom’s jaw muscles swell from clenched teeth and she’s three shades paler than normal. Makes my gut twist on itself. Damn all terrorists to Hell. And damn Dad’s undercover job.

“Calm,” I tell myself. “Breathe,” I tell myself.



July Secret Agent #47

TITLE: The Culloden Immortals
GENRE: YA Romance with speculative twist

I always failed at ordinary.

Ordinary wouldn’t give me weird, freaky, come-true dreams or a scar that ached when something god-awful was about to happen. And ordinary would’ve snuggled under the warmth of my down comforter, especially on a rain-soaked Sunday. Instead, I dashed down the stairs with iPod in hand, prepared to hammer out six miles in under forty-two minutes, all the while praying the twinge in my scar was weather related.

Mom sat at the kitchen table, reddish-blonde curls boinging in all directions. She squeezed her forehead, like trying to stave off a headache. Without looking away from the paper, she handed me my phone. “Sweetheart, do us both a favor. Humor your father with a response.”

Dad’s text read: Love the hills and they’ll love you back. Before I’d finished reading his pre-workout advice, the phone chirped again. Be one with the mud.

“He's obviously bored,” I said. “Maybe he should consider buying a newspaper.”

Mom pointed to the headline of the Sports section: WMSU Football: Coach Siefert Under Fire after 23-3 Loss.

I skimmed the article implying Dad’s contract wouldn’t be renewed next year.

Tiptoeing around his potentially foul mood, I tapped out a quick reply: Got it Dad. Have a safe flight. Love your mud-loving, puddle-jumping machine.

As I tightened my ponytail, pins and needles prickled the two-inch scar between my thumb and wrist. Dr. Gruen said scar tissue after my post-snakebite surgery caused arthritis, but I’d connected the dots – my scar only hurt when a freakish incident lurked nearby.


July Secret Agent #46

TITLE: Shadows of Elfland
GENRE: YA historical fantasy

Henry crept along the forest trail, searching for the tracks he'd seen near the village. The lingering presence of magic prickled over his skin. He paused, rubbing the scars circling his wrist. Drixton was supposed to be his haven, a place he could pretend to be normal. He wasn't going to let the Fay destroy his life. Not this time.

He brushed aside crisp, fresh-fallen leaves, revealing deep paw prints as large as his hand. The villagers had little chance against such a beast. Henry smiled wryly. Depending on the creature, he might not do much better, but at least he had some idea of what he was facing. He touched the iron knife sheathed under his waistcoat. The weapon's weight anchored his courage, and he jogged in the direction of the tracks until they vanished onto rocky ground.

Scrambling up a stony outcrop, he surveyed the woods below. Life rustled and fluttered through the treetops, and the distant spire of the village church pricked the sky.

Henry bowed his head, opening himself to the forest. Its heavy, patient energy seeped into him: a slow pulse, the heartbeat of ancient trees. No nearby magic disturbed the steady rhythm, not even the flickers of lesser Fay inhabiting the deep caves and glades. The watchful stillness raised the hairs on the back of his neck.

He shivered and fumbled for his pocket watch. Almost noon. Time for his rendezvous with Domin. Perhaps his friend was having better luck.

July Secret Agent #45

TITLE: ULTRA/VIOLET
GENRE: YA Science Fiction

Violet paced under the transparent ceiling, wishing the sun would sink faster. She squinted, looking up. If only a cloud would block the sun for once. But the sky was always a painful bright blue.

It wouldn’t be long. Thirty-five minutes and 42 seconds and counting until it cooled enough before they could go. She untied the knot of purple hair on top of her head and retied it. She had tested the invention so many times; she had filled a whole notebook with the results. But she still was nervous. This was the first time she was going to climb the Globe. On the outside.

“Violet?”

Her mother’s voice filled the bedroom.

Violet ran out the door and down the hall to the double spiral staircase. Her mother had created the stairs to look like the DNA double helix.

She was waiting for Violet near a silver bookcase in her lab.

“Do you want to go in the Agri-Dome for one more practice run?” she asked.

She opened the glass-paned cabinet door, revealing dozens of books and looked at her with one eyebrow raised.

“No, I’m ready,” Violet said.

Her mother closed the cabinet door and then smoothed her white lab coat.

“Let’s begin,” she said in an official tone. “What is the question that created the invention?”

Violet took a deep breath and wiped her sweaty palms on her lab coat that had a purple jellyfish pattern all over.




July Secret Agent #44

TITLE: The Crystal Bearer
GENRE: YA Fantasy

If things went how Ghuli desired, she would swing through the air in the next few minutes. Otherwise, she would have to explain to her watchmen why breaking her arms and legs was a good use of her time. She sat on a high, steady, blue willow tree branch deep in the forest, tying a cluster of its switches together as the sun heated her skin.

She only had a few minutes left before Cyan found her, so she clutched the ridged bark as she stood, then pressed her long, brown feet down against the branch. She stretched her arms out in front of her, the tied switches dangling just an inch below. Ghuli held her breath, stepped down onto them with her right foot, closed her eyes, and stepped with her left. She fell through the air for two seconds before the switches jerked tight beneath her feet, eliciting screams and laughter from her as she moved through the veil of blue switches. She swung upwards until she stared up at the wraps bound around her feet, the hem of her un-dyed woolen skirt sucked against her shins. Then, she fell back through the same switches, grasping her makeshift swing as it scooped her up in the other direction. Her black curls shielded her eyes and mouth as her body lay suspended in the air for another long second before she swung forward again.

After minutes of swinging, she locked eyes with her First Lieutenant Watchman as she fell forward.



July Secret Agent #43

TITLE: Forever and Ever After
GENRE: YA Fantasy

I know my index finger can't wield the all-consuming power of life and death, and yet, at this very second I feel like my entire existence is one keyboard tap away from beginning or ending. Dragging footsteps, followed by a shriek of "Caroline!" echo down the hallway. I instinctively lunge for my bedroom door, knowing I locked it, but still desperate to double check the bolt. The door knob rattles violently while I lean against the wooden frame.

"Caroline, open this door!" On the other side, my mother bangs her fists, and for a split second I wonder how she found out, but then I realize it doesn't matter. She can't stop me. Not this time. Another slam, but this time I hear her groan. That full-body contact, shoulder pound against the door makes me cringe. So does her half sob and slurring.

"Pleassshe," she whispers, and I know she is sliding down my door from the brushing sound against the frame.

Whipping around to face my laptop, I frantically click on the Unity Prep e-mail, my eyes darting through each word. I need this, please, please accept me. I'm holding my breath when I first see centered at the very top of the page the Unity Prep coat of arms, a fierce lion and a delicate white dove balancing the golden shield with the word Legatia carved upon it. Below the crest is the Latin phrase, "In Honorem Omnium." I can only exhale when I see my happily ever after:






July Secret Agent #42

TITLE: MY BEST FRIEND RUNS VENUS
GENRE: MG Science Fiction

It wasn't the first time Kade had hacked the Venusian maintenance system, but it was one of the best. If he had to put a number on it (and there was very little he didn't put a number on), he'd give it a 9.7. The 9.8 and 9.9 scores were reserved for something epic he hadn't thought of yet, and 10.0 was for the day he would finally reprogram how his robotic body looked.

Still, assuming he didn't get caught, his skills today would land him on a totally different planet. Maybe that deserved the 9.8 slot after all. If Tamika would hurry and get here, he could ask for her opinion.

Kade straightened against a metal door embedded in a burnt orange mountainside and flicked his left wing. A line of glowing text scrolled across his view: 5:03:34pm. He'd checked the time fifty-three seconds ago, but whenever he wasn't reading data, he felt lost. The adults called it unhealthy. Healthy people could watch a sunset without calculating its luminosity every thirty seconds. Healthy people sounded boring. Besides, the numbers comforted him. Nobody got weirded out by seeing their own hands all the time, did they? His numbers were just that -- an extra set of hands. Or wings. Or whatever.

Kade froze. His sensors detected a deep clunking sound that echoed across Venus's stone-hard surface. Low volume, maybe twenty to thirty decibels. It can't be an adult, can it? They're already off Venus for the night. He tensed and scanned the rocky pillars around him.

July Secret Agent #41

TITLE: Stairway to the Past
GENRE: YA Time travel

Jason swore as he jabbed his hand with the screwdriver he was using as a lock pick. “This looks so easy on TV,” he mumbled as he sucked the wounded hand. No blood. Well, that was something. He tossed the screwdriver to the floor and sat back on his heels.

“I suppose I ought to wait for the locksmith, like Mom said.” He rocked on his heels for a moment, staring at the locked door. He’d told Mom and Dad they shouldn’t buy such an old house. Things in an old house were so….old. Down the hall, his bedroom, with some of his things still packed, was calling.

“Nah! Going to drive me crazy.” Grabbing the screwdriver again, he tackled the lock once more. The click echoed in the empty hallway and Jason jumped to his feet, fist pumping his success.

The door handle turned slowly with a B movie screech, but the door barely opened.

“I thought Mom said she’d get someone in here to open it. You better not break it or you’ll be in trouble.”

Jason hadn’t heard his younger brother, Tyler, come up the stairs.

“You’ll be in trouble if you don’t get out of here,” said Jason, through clenched teeth. Then he stopped. His brother was probably as bored and lonely as he was. More so, since Tyler had always been more of an extrovert and had many friends back in Richmond. “Look. I’m not going to break anything.

July Secret Agent #40

TITLE: Harletia: Rise of the King
GENRE: YA Fantasy

April 15, 2163

“I don’t care who your parents are, what you think you have that makes you special, or if you’ll never pick up another sword again post-graduation! If you can’t handle a blade, you are in-sig-nificant,” Mr. Henderson, our dueling teacher, enunciated. Holding a clipboard, he paced back and forth as two of our classmates fought. In my wrinkled white shirt and long blue pants, I half-observed the match with the rest of my class while tapping my nails against the mats on the ground. It wasn’t that I was disinterested; the battles hyped up my adrenaline as much as the next girl’s, but this whole class period had been spent watching instead of actually practicing. I liked practicing. Surreptitiously, I glanced at the clock and noted that there were fifteen minutes left before school ended and we were allowed to go home.

Mr. Henderson was an ex-White Guardsman in his forties who’d been the dueling teacher at our school ever since I’d attended, probably longer. Gym class as a whole was purely optional after sophomore year, but any student expecting to graduate had to have four stamps of dueling on their transcript before being allowed to walk across the stage. Blowing air out the side of my mouth, I watched the girl get flipped on the ground by her male opponent. Mr. Henderson wasn’t fazed by gender, weight, or height ‘because you never knew who would be sizing you up’. His words exactly.

July Secret Agent #39

TITLE: SHATTERED
GENRE: YA dark contemporary

I can do this.

I can.

Ponytailed girls dressed in blue and white cheerleader uniforms, ringed in light like the angels in those old paintings you see in museums whisper to one another as I pass by. My cheeks flame and I cast my gaze down.

Don't think. Walk. One foot in front of the other.

The crowd opens as I approach, absorbing me into their center then spitting me out on the other side like they’ve tasted the ashes of my remorse and found me too bitter. A group of what I can only assume to be freshman boys, pokes one another in the ribs and drags their black-soled shoes along the shiny floor making scuff marks on the newly waxed surfaces. I maneuver around them. One sticks out a foot and I trip, my bag flies off, skittering along the dirty tiles and coming to rest up against an olive green painted locker dented from years of abuse by the hard kicks of bad grades or lost football games.

The sensation of flying comes to an abrupt end as I land spread-eagle, the breath knocked out of me as I belly slide until the top of my head grazes the three-vent holes at the bottom of the locker.

My stomach---full of spoon-stirring fiends who threaten to expel the Cheerios I had for breakfast---churns. Laughter bounces off my back as I scramble to retrieve my dignity and my bag before I’m trampled by the swarm.

July Secret Agent #38

TITLE: The Dolphin Nexus
GENRE: Upper MG Magical Realism

A streak of iridescent silver flickered past the port side of the tour boat. Waves of eager onlookers rushed to get a glimpse at the elusive shape. All except Irene. She shied starboard.

"Typical tourists," she muttered. Scanning the numerous sandals-with-socks feet, she estimated the majority had never seen an ocean let alone a member of the Delphinidae Family, so she humored their dolphin fervor.

"Well, folks," said the yellowtoothed tour guide. Locals called him Cap’n Crunch, but Irene only used Jimmy’s nickname when he annoyed her. "That there’s a sight we don’t see just ev’ry day.” His cheeks crinkled around his gray eyes as he aimed a wink her way.

I do, Irene thought, offering Jimmy a tiny smile. A dolphin pod used the cove behind her house as their own private vacation spot.

"Wow,” breathed a girl about Irene’s age. She dripped in giftshop jewelry: hoop earrings dangled from her ears, a silver dolphin jumping through each circle; a tail fluke pendant hung from a chain around her neck; and dolphin charms jingled around her wrist. The only thing unadorned were her sandals, which, at least, she wore with no socks.

Talk about overkill, Irene thought, clutching her own three-pronged coral pendant.

Sunlight reflected off the girl’s rhinsetone dolphin barrette. Irene shielded her eyes from the flare with a sigh. Dolphin Girl shifted her focus to glare at her. Irene had a knack for reading people like books, and this girl’s expressions were a graphic novel painted in vivid contrasting colors.

July Secret Agent #37

TITLE: Fractured Spirit
GENRE: YA Romantic

From my hiding place, at the back of the church, I watched as people dressed in their Sunday best, filtered in. Soon the only seats left were those reserved for immediate family. There were so many flowers that someone had cleared a path to the altar.

Two hundred people speaking in hushed tones filled the air with a steady hum. When it suddenly got quiet, I looked to my left and found Father Andrew standing only a few feet away. It was time. I got in line next to my mom. She took my hand and squeezed. I tried to smile but it came out like a grimace. With my free hand, I brushed at my new dress for imaginary lint so no one could see my hands tremble. On cue we walked down the center aisle, me with my head slightly bent so as not to make eye contact with anyone.

At the front of the church, we slid into the pew and waited. Despite, my best efforts I could not avoid looking at the rectangular box that held what was left of my dad. Over the next hour, I tried to take comfort from the many kind words and prayers but it was no use.

My mom, sat to my left. Her eyes glued to the coffin while her hands destroyed one tissue after another. I looked to my right and pretended not to see the tears in my cousin, Justin’s eyes. Next to him, his sister, Jenna, cried openly.










July Secret Agent #36

TITLE: The Wildness in Mellie Feye
GENRE: YA Magical Realism/Fairy Tale Retelling

I'm hunting blue eyes in the grassy, brackish water when vibrations pulse against my legs. Faster and stronger than the soft ones from the scallops I'm hunting or from the sting ray swimming fifty yards to my right. Standing thigh-deep in Sand Blast Bay, I look behind me into the strong Florida sun. A boat is heading toward my sandbar, hip-hop reverberating off the water. The music means they're not here to fish. Or if they are, they have no clue. A party boat.

Just ignore the boat, Mellie, you're here to reach your quota. Not bask in the sunshine and quiet.

The sapphire of scallop eyes flash in the water. I go under, blinking to clear the salt and sun from my eyes as I push bay grass aside. The scallop clicks its two shells together, an underwater butterfly fluttering deeper into the mucky bay floor. I grab it and bag it.

When I break through the surface, goosebumps race down my arms. I was underwater for less than a minute, but in that time, everything has changed. Bruised clouds swallow the sun. A menacing wind slaps me.

Mama.

I glare at the sky, wondering what I did to bring this on as I wring water out of my Fish Shack tee shirt.

The boat slows, I guess whoever's on it sees me. The nearest shore is two hundred yards away. I wade toward the twisted pines.

The stereo cuts off as it gets closer. I touch the oyster knife strapped to my leg.

July Secret Agent #35

TITLE: Heritage Blade
GENRE: YA Urban Fantasy

Seven stories high, Jay paced the ledge of a building like a caged panther; anxious, eager, and irritated. How the hell did a four-legged, supernatural, killing-machine the size of an F150 vanish? Magic was an easy answer but transport spells left remnants—potent ones. He would’ve sensed something like that a county over.

“Not like it took the metro,” he reasoned. The pounding behind his eyes intensified and he pinched the bridge of his nose. If he hit one more dead-end, he’d shoot something. Or himself. In the face.

Think, idiot.

Howlyngs weren’t the Einsteins of their kind. Eat, sleep, repeat.

But this one’s smart enough to hide.

Damn thing must’ve gone underground after its last kill attracted Primetime attention. The newscast flashed through Jay’s mind; a sobbing mother pleading for clues about whoever mutilated her daughter. There was no who.

He gripped his sword, banishing the memory, and scanned the skyline. The Near North Side rose around him with buildings transformed to solid shadows by the overcast night. Sirens crested and faded like the tide. The tangy scent of the lake drenched the air, and the wind belted him with bitter cold, cutting through his leather armor. October in Chicago—arctic.

Jay returned his attention to the streets. Police found the girl’s remains in the alley below. She’d been a petite thing. The howlyng wouldn’t stay sated for long.

There was one trick he hadn’t tried. It would expose him to the beast but prevent another innocent having their throat ripped out.

He stood. Desperate times…

July Secret Agent #34

TITLE: Shattered
GENRE: YA

Her father was going to be furious when he found out.

Auriella fingered the end of her braid as she walked, head lowered. She just needed to get there and get back unseen. Then she could figure out how to tell her father in a way that would make the truth not be so awful. As if that would be possible. Her father couldn’t stand disobedience, and she couldn’t stand disappointing him. Which made what she was doing tremendously stupid.

Pushing that thought to the corner of her mind, she glanced down the castle hallway and released the breath she’d been holding. Not many were up and about this time of morning, the other castle guests no doubt having enjoyed their revelry late into the night. Lucky for her. She descended the stairs and strolled into the castle yard, seeing only a few servants. So far, so good.

She tugged her cloak tighter, more to hide her presence than to ward off the morning chill. As long as no one ran into her, she’d be fine. She had to go. Auriella huffed out a sigh. As if a vague longing to do something would be enough of an excuse to appease her father. She would have to deal with his anger when she returned. That truth jumbled in her head, clanking against her justification the way her father’s sword did on metal.

Saints above, just get on with it.

July Secret Agent #33

TITLE: Modified
GENRE: YA SF

Tuesday, fourteen-hundred hours. I should be home studying remedial biotech. Instead I’m slapping at fire ants and adding a new layer of sunburn to my peeling skin. Watch duty. Honestly though, the only thing I’m watching seven hours into my shift is the back of my eyelids.

My left hand is on my rifle, my right is on the two-way radio, but my mind is trying to stay on the topic of mitochondria. I think I have a fifty-fifty of spelling it right, but otherwise all I remember about the critters is that they’re crazy small and apt to mutate. But I don’t dare study out here, in the open. The Family already suspects I’m losing faith. Today especially, on the eve of my sixteenth, I can’t afford to give them evidence.

I crack my eyelids to make sure I’m alone. All I see is a whole lot of familiar-looking nothing. A hundred meters down the knoll is our private patch of West Kentucky, all bleached bones and cracked earth. The compound sits two full kilometers away, so obscured by heat lines that there’s no way for Dad to see my disobedience. Still. He has ways of knowing the unknowable.

The Family still calls this place a ranch, but we haven’t grazed cattle since I was in diapers. As I understand it, Dad shot all the horses too. His is the gospel of loaded guns and hidden knives, of looking behind you, and especially above, because you never know. . . .

July Secret Agent #32

TITLE: Welcome to Duckworld
GENRE: MG realistic fantasy

“Mooooooookieeeeee! Come here, boy!”Mrs C's nervous flip-flops fluttered across the top of the deck. It sounded like she was dancing on top of my head. That's because I right there. Hiding under the deck.

And yes, Mokie, even when it's drawn out as long as a six foot leash, still rhymes with “Smokey.” To make matters worse Mokie is short for “Mokus” which is Hungarian for squirrel. I'm named for an animal that’s so stupid it'll run back in front of a car after it’s made it safely across the road. It makes “Bozo”sound smart.

And speaking of names, here’s another one for you: Capragonoleono. It sounds like a swooping butterfly looks. CAP-Ruh-GONE-oh-LEE-Ah-no. And you're seeing right. Four o’s , two a’s, and one e, jammed into a thicket of Pick-Up-Stick consonants. Mr C and Mrs C is short and simple so I'm sticking with it.

Wait a minute...just one minute...here they come...Mr C's shoes. Each step sounds like the period at the end of a sentence. And now, just for me, Mr C's siren whistle. He learned how to do that in the middle of New York City traffic. But there's nothing taller than a two story building out here in the burbs. I'll bet every dog that's watched too many Animal Planet shows about border collies and sheep will come running. All this hub-bub is over a tub. They want to give me a bath.

“Miles! Emma! Did you see which way he went?” Now Mrs C's called for back-up. The kids.

July Secret Agent #31

TITLE: Ellis in Kibblestan
GENRE: MG Fantasy



"We are the Voyagers, campers of goodwill.

The vulture is our symbol, but we never eat roadkill.

We always stick together, our loyalty is high.

As long as we're united, like vultures we will fly!"

Vulture Voyager Theme Song



The group of boys laughed as they hollered the words around the afternoon campfire, but Ellis' lips barely moved. He should have been happy. His troop had taken first place at the Vulture Voyager Survival Games. He'd passed all his wilderness exams. And he'd proudly received the Regurgitating Raptor Patch to sew on his Vulture Vest that proved he was no longer a fifth-grade Fledgling—he'd flown up to full Vulture rank. But instead of enjoying the campout's closing ceremony, he stomped off toward his tent, kicking up gravel along the way.

This campout was even more important than the one in second grade when he had graduated from the humiliating Egg rank. He was now a Vulture. It was a big deal. A way big deal. And Dad should have been here to see it, like all the other dads.

But he wasn't. He had to work. Again.

Ellis trudged up the sloping ground toward the blue tent he shared with his best friend, Colin. It was zipped tightly shut, but that didn't muffle his dachshund's lonely whimpers coming from inside.

Oh Philecia. He wouldn't have to lock her up like this if she'd just act like a normal dog, instead of some freakazoid.







July Secret Agent #30

TITLE: Pandora
GENRE: Chapter Book

One soft night on Buttermilk Farm, a tiny calf struggled into the world. Farmer Johnson and his hired hand, Verbal, held watch in the barn. Mrs. Johnson soon joined them. She loved all of the cows. She knew every cow by name, even though they all looked remarkably alike.

“I’ll name her Pandora,” said Mrs. Johnson. Something told her this calf would be full of surprises.

From the very beginning, Pandora knew she was different. Some might call it fate. Some might call it destiny. Pandora didn’t know what it was called. She simply knew it was there.

The first thing Pandora heard Farmer Johnson say was, “Well, well, would you look at that?”

Mrs. Johnson said, “Oh, dearie me.”

Verbal said, “What in tarnation?”

The comments from the humans didn’t bother Pandora. Her mother’s reaction did. Pandora’s mother, Buttercup, looked at her new baby. Then she fell over in the straw in an earth-rattling faint. 

Pandora was two days old when Farmer Johnson placed a halter around her head and led her out of the barn. She blinked in the bright spring sunshine. When her vision cleared, Pandora’s heart leaped with joy. She stood in a large pen with dozens of calves, just like her. Or so she thought.

Farmer Johnson removed Pandora’s lead rope. Pandora hurried over to meet the other calves. But to her surprise, they all ran to the far side of the pen. They huddled together in a tight knot, shaking and quaking.




July Secret Agent #29

TITLE: STEAL THE SKY
GENRE: YA Fantasy

Horses and sailors crowded the public docks. The sleek beasts sidestepped down the narrow gangplank, tossing their heads, giddy to be free of the ship. The sailors dodged the hooves with a wariness earned through smashed toes. Despite their unruly cargo, the sailors had the jovial gait of men and women who’d sailed through the jaws of a monster and lived to tell the tale. Without asking, I knew they’d sailed across the deeps to make the harbor. Even the horses smelled of the waters where Kryannians lived.

My mother leaned against a post, talking to the captain of the horse ship. He wore a black coat trimmed in silver, but instead of a sash of office, a bandoleer with two pistols crossed his chest. A curved sword hung from his hip. My mother smiled and canted her hips. Without interrupting, I loaded the wooden crates into the dory boat without complaint. I’d already worked a full shift, but if we took too long, we’d have to drag the boat across the mud to get home.

“You bloody Kaeber!” My mother’s shriek cut across the docks, and I spun to see the captain with his grubby hand around my mother’s wrist. Fire raged across her face, and his sky-blue eyes blazed.

I drew the derringer from my pocket. The hammer cocked noisily into place, catching his attention even over the clatter of horses. “Unhand her.” The captain leaned away, eyes on the barrel.

“No need to go off yer riggin’ boy.”

July Secret Agent #28

TITLE: Of Madness and Folly
GENRE: Upper MG Contemporary

Before the woods and the blood and the police chase, we had a plan. Sort of.

The thing about plans is, well, they never turn out the way we plan. One surprise, one twist, one turn, and a plan becomes a pickle. Now, a pickle is a different matter. I don’t like pickles—the food or the conundrum. They’re slimy, sour, and they appear without warning, like on a cheeseburger or in a mystery.

Or the night before Halloween, when my friends and I felt like decorating the neighborhood, “to make it more festive,” we said.

Our target: The Oakwood Mansion (the biggest house in Wisconsin, and maybe the world).

“I think we have over two hundred rolls. Let’s let these rich peacocks know we don’t want them in our neighborhood anymore.” Milton Hansen, my friend who turned unimportant pranks into D-day, closed the minivan’s trunk and hopped into the passenger seat. My older brother Jamie pulled away from the Mini Mart and began the two-minute journey to the Oakwood Mansion.

“Why don’t we want them in our neighborhood?” I asked, poking my head between the front seats.

“Because they’re rich, and we don’t like stuck-up rich people,” Milton said.

“How do you know they’re stuck up?”

“Nevermind, Pete,” Jamie said. “Milt’s excited. That’s all.”

We parked in the neighborhood behind the mansion to avoid suspicion and unloaded the minivan. Our preparation for destroying Oakwood Mansion included walkie-talkies, black attire (better suited for robbing a bank), and a pre-vandalization scout of the intended target.

July Secret Agent #27

TITLE: BEAST
GENRE: MG/UF

If Dad hadn’t died falling from a roof when I was a baby, Mom wouldn’t have kept me chained to my room so much. She expected me to be as careless. So, I had forbidden plans to go to the reopening of Arrowhead Lake, home of the beast.

She just didn’t get me.

“Quit riding your bike fast. You'll fall and bust your skull open on a rock,” she said, as if we had boulders in our yard.

“I’m twelve.” I hit the brakes, sliding to an intentional halt.

“You getting smart with me?” Mom stood on the porch with her hands pressed against her hips. “Look what you did to my yard.”

Grass had lifted away from the dirt. Awesome! I smirked.

“Think it’s funny? Well, you can put your bike up for the day. How’s that Mr. Knievel.” She walked to the driveway, glaring at me with narrowed brows.

“Who’s Knievel?”

“Just do as I say.” She pointed to my bike’s prison.

“Whatever.” Mom always ruined my fun. Don’t run. Don’t jump. Don’t, don’t, don’t. She believed everything we did in life had dire consequences. But the only results I ever saw from my “reckless behavior” was her grounding me.

“I’ll be home late,” Mom said as she got into her silver beater-with-a-heater. “I’d better not hear talk about you running around town. Hear me?”

“Yep,” I answered while putting my bike up. She waited for me to lock the shed before backing out of the drive.

July Secret Agent #26

TITLE: Butterfly Moon
GENRE: MG Magical Realism

It was a night of the Butterfly Moon. The sharp buzz of the cicadas had given way to the soft chirping of crickets, and the butterflies that gave the summer moon its name had retreated into the trees. Moon Watcher lay in the soft grass, left hand behind her head, studying the patterns of the stars.

She found the shape of an eagle first, high in the eastern sky, diving into the southern horizon. She traced the eagle’s shape with her finger, following the triangle of stars that formed the bird’s western wing to… a snake, she decided. Still using her finger, she traced the snake west until—

“What are you doing?”

Moon Watcher jumped at the sound of her mother’s voice.

“You’re supposed to be helping your sister. Spirits help me! Can you do nothing right? We have a hundred things to do before her wedding tonight, and you’re out here gazing at the sky.”

Moon Watcher stood up and brushed the grass off the back of her shift. At ten summers of age, she knew better than to say anything when her mother’s voice was all sharp edges. Tonight, thanks to Rain Dancer’s wedding, it was sharper than an obsidian blade.

“Now, get back home and help your sister. She’s almost dressed and needs you to do her hair and paint. The moon is nearly at its peak. We don’t have much time before the ceremony.”

Moon Watcher trudged up the hill toward the family’s homestead.

July Secret Agent #25

TITLE: Discord
GENRE: YA Paranormal

The ocean is restless tonight—waiting for another sacrifice. My eyes stay glued to a spot about thirty feet out. I know whose bones lie beneath that turbulent surface, deep down amongst the rocks, even if no one else does.

Sometimes when I’m sitting by my window like this, staring into the Atlantic, my heart aches for home. For Croatia, where I would lull myself to sleep at night looking out my open window and across the Adriatic—waters that look like a blanket of snow at sunset.

We lived there for nearly ten years. It was home. And we were happy.

I unlock my arms from around my knees and fold myself off my bed. The darkness of the house surrounds me as I move downstairs, the carpet silent under my feet. I pass by the living room, still illuminated by the flickering light of the television. Dad sags in the recliner I never see him leave, though he must. Sometimes his clothes are different. I pause in the archway.

“Dad, did you eat dinner?”

He lets out a breath that could only be some kind of attempt at a grunt and holds up a half-eaten bowl of popcorn.

“Popcorn isn’t food, Dad.”

His eyes don’t leave the television. I shuffle off to the kitchen to make him a sandwich. He hasn’t spoken a word since he scattered my mother’s ashes into the ocean three years ago. He just sits in that chair, in that always dark room, mindlessly staring at the television.

July Secret Agent #24

TITLE: The Beamer Boys
GENRE: YA Dark Contemporary

I stared at the Sun, big and golden as it dipped towards the horizon. It was cool, watching it shade the darkening blue sky with strokes of pink and purple. It reminded me of the watercolor paintings I did in art class last semester. Unlike the junk I created, it was worth admiring.

My best friend Donovan sat next to me, but he couldn’t see how beautiful it looked. He was sobbing, and tears blurred his vision. I blinked my eyes dry as he cried, trying to stay strong as he crumbled to pieces.

“What happened, Donovan?” I asked him. “Please tell me. I’m all ears.”

He cried harder, mumbling a bunch of stuff I couldn’t understand as the summer heat beat down on us. I felt like a human hot dog, cooking inside of my clothes like beef hissing on a hot grill. Sweat trickled down the curve of my back. My pits got moister by the second.

I tried to take another sip of my Seven-Eleven Double Gulp, which probably contained enough Pepsi to supply an entire kid’s birthday party, but I couldn’t get any of it down. The lump in my throat, hard as stone, kept getting in the way.

I frowned as I noticed that Donovan hadn’t touched the equally oversized Slurpee I’d bought him. It wasn’t easy traveling with it to Lewami Park.

July Secret Agent #23

TITLE: Tales of Sand and Stars
GENRE: YA Fantasy

The Sultan’s coins are stamped on one side with an image of his smiling, benevolent face. Stamped on the opposite side is an image of the palace executioner’s platform. Two conflicting images, one coin. I try to find the balance of these dualities in the tales I tell, tales of camels, sandcats, scorpion dragons, falcons. Really, they are tales of truth, tales of people.

Tonight, the tribe is under my spell before I even begin, their eyes on me, on my forearms swallowed by bracelets, my fingers layered in rings, my neck weighed down by chains of gold and silver.

Only one tribesmember is not focused on me. Six-year-old Chuka torments a scorpion hatchling with a palm leaf, until my friend Ilya steps to the side and squashes the scorpion under her sandal.

“Apologies, Nima Storyteller,” she says, using my formal name. It makes me sound like an old crone, not a girl of seventeen. “You may not like the death, but we know the young, harmless scorpions grow to become dangerous.”

I nod. Imperiously, maybe, because my stance on the platform, and the shadows and light dancing on a sea of faces around this fire, the jewelry, the discs of metal embroidered into my skirt—all of these things demand imperiousness.

The stone platform cools beneath my feet, which are bare as ritual dictates. I breathe in the collective hush of my tribe, holding it in my lungs like a prayer waiting for the stars’ acknowledgement. Then I begin.

July Secret Agent #22

TITLE: RATMAN'S REVENGE
GENRE: MG Urban Fantasy

I stood in the middle of the dog park, staring at the woods in the distance. The trees huddled together like giant aliens, studying me for some crazy experiment. The leaves flickered in the breeze as if a million green fingers were reaching out, begging me to come inside.

So cool.

Mom’s warning blared in my head for the millionth time. I mean it, Cody. It’s too dangerous. Gangs and drug addicts hang out those woods. You’re never to go in there. Understand? Never.

Geez. I stared at the trees. Never? Like never ever? But maybe there were bike trails in there. Or a fishing pond. Maybe a Superhero’s secret hideout! Oh man, my friends would be stinking jealous if I went in the woods without them. This time, I’d have all the great stories to tell when they got back from summer camp.

Sweat dripped down my face and I wiped it with my t-shirt. Matt and Zach were probably swimming in that freeze-your-toes-off lake at camp right now. Those lucky jerks. The only water I’d get to swim in was in the bathtub.

Suddenly the hair on my neck stood up and I had a weird feeling someone was watching me. I looked all around the park. My dog was chasing her tennis ball, but there was no one else. When I turned back toward the woods, that weird feeling seemed stronger. Was someone—or something—hiding in there?

Maybe Bigfoot!

July Secret Agent #21

TITLE: Renascence
GENRE: YA Contemporary

I’m shackled now. Wrists and ankles connected, a chain running between my arms and legs, hooked around my middle. I have to shuffle my feet to walk. The Investigator holds a door for me. I pass into sunlight and squint.

He leads me to a cruiser and opens the back door. I see another officer in the passenger seat, but he doesn’t turn to look at me. My left foot catches when I lift it. Too high. I’m not used to these chains. There were cuffs before, silver and sharp on my skin. So much metal. I hadn’t thought about that, how metal always feels cold. Once in the car I glance back at the jail. An officer is standing by the door, smoking. There’s no window. The whole building is more than dim. It’s dark as a grave.

“Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely,” Millay wrote.

Three days I have been inside that cement grave, but I am neither wise nor lovely.

Three days, I think. Or maybe only two. I don’t have a bed yet. The holding cell is always lit, night and day. But I was arrested on Wednesday, and I’ve had eggs for two meals, so I think it must be Friday.

Mom would say it’s a sign, that I’m like Jesus, going into a tomb for three days and then emerging into the light.

But I have little in common with Jesus.


July Secret Agent #20

TITLE: JANUARY IN SHADOW
GENRE: YA Contemporary Fantasy

For all I knew, I could be anywhere: a goat pen, a ski gondola, backstage at the San Francisco Ballet. This is how all my days begin. Once I even woke up the men’s room of a nightclub, which is several kinds of unfortunate when you’re a fifteen-year-old girl.

This time, my first clue to my location was the smell of mildew — and a girl’s voice, close by.

I opened my eyes. I lay curled on the floor of a garden shed, between a dusty leaf blower and a barrel of cobwebby rakes. The girl’s trembling voice drifted in through the half-open window. Was she… swearing?

Yes. Yes, she was. At first experimentally, then with more confidence and passion.

This could be awkward.

I stood to peek outside. All at once, wings exploded into a wild, breathy flutter. A bird knocked a flowerpot off a shelf, buzzed my head, and swooped out the window. The cursing outside broke off. I held my breath.

The door flew open. Framed in it stood a girl about my age, with flyaway brown hair and freckles across her nose.

Her eyebrows lifted. “What are you doing in my shed?”

I’m used to lying, after three years of it. But this one was tough. Every excuse I could think of was stupid.

Oh, is this your shed? I thought it was my uncle’s shed. Weak.

I’m doing a research project for school... on sheds... Even worse. And besides, it was summer.

July Secret Agent #19

TITLE: Lang Sawyer and the Den of Nostromo
GENRE: MG Fantasy

Here's the thing about finding out your great-great grandfather Tom Sawyer was a big time monster hunter, that he killed Dracula, and that your Dad's running the family business out of the former Indian cave behind your house.

(You know, in case that ever happens.)

The thing to remember? It's not all fangs and glory. It's a hit-or-miss proposition.

Like literally, hit or miss. Sometimes you hit the crossbow target your Dad sets up for you in the backyard. And sometimes you miss. And hit your neighbor's poodle.

In the tail.

Yeah, that was a thing.

The upside? Leaving ordinary seventh grade life behind to jet to Peru and track a deadly creature called the Mapinguari.

But there were drawbacks. Hunger being one. Sweat, too. That's what has my attention on the afternoon of our first full day in the Amazon rainforest. Late afternoon. Heat still in the triple digits. Everywhere green on green, the sun strafing the leafy canopy.

Dad skids to a stop in front of me and points at a spot on the ground inches from my right foot. I attempt to wring the sweat from my already-drenched St. Louis Cardinals baseball cap.

"Freeze, Lang," he says.

Ironic.

I don't know much about the jungle, but I've read about the snakes. Fire hose-sized ones. With a proclivity for squeezing people until their insides turn to Cheez Whiz.

"Python?" I ask.

Dad scowls and jabs his finger toward the ground. "No. Some sort of track. And it's a big one."

July Secret Agent #18

TITLE: Marked
GENRE: YA Urban Fantasy

Lexi closed her car door and zipped her jacket as she followed her Dad into the auto shop to check on his SUV. Men in greasy overalls crowded the three work areas, while orchestrating their way around vehicles in various stages of repair. Uncle Lucas peered around the hood of his 1957 Chrysler Diablo before rounding it, his gaze trained on a stained rag as he wiped his hands. “We need to talk.”

“The truck?” Dad asked, his voice barely audible over the power tools and music.

“That, too.”

Dad and his brother were close, often huddled in private conversation. Sometimes, they invited Lexi’s younger brother to their powwows, 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.”

Uncle Lucas stopped in front of Lexi, smelling like exhaust with BBQ undertones. “Enjoyed the article in your school paper about the declining wolf population.”

“Thanks. I was hoping you’d let me interview you for the next one.” Since he was a freelance wilderness guide, he’d be perfect for a follow up piece.

His wide grin crinkled the corners of his eyes. “I’d love that.” He shared her love of all things animal. It wasn’t ‘man stuff’ but it was theirs.

Uncle Lucas gestured at Dad. “Give us a minute to talk.”

“You know where to find me.”

July Secret Agent #17

TITLE: Elliot Fears And the Phobias
GENRE: MG

“I'm just getting into bed, mom.”

It was, I say without fear of contradiction, the biggest lie I had ever told my mother in my entire eleven years. I mean sure, I'd told her some rather substantial untruths in the past, you don't get to eleven without some fibbing here and there, but nothing of this scope or sheer falsitude.

I was as far from “getting into bed” as physically possible. I was in the back seat of an SUV barreling north on the New Jersey Turnpike, about to go to play in a battle of the bands competition in Manhattan.

My parents were out of town. They had trusted my well-being, their home and all belongings contained therein to the hands of my older brother Jason who was sixteen and happened to be driving said SUV. He also sings in and pretty much runs the band.

“Okay, honey,” my mom said. She and my dad were at my aunt Missy's wedding which Jason and I had lucked out of having to go to because we couldn't afford four plane tickets to Daytona, Florida, where they were having the ceremony.

I hate weddings. Jason tells me to get used to them because he intends to form a cover band to play other people's songs at weddings to make “ends meet.” I'm 11. My parents drive me to and from fifth grade and pay for our internet connection. My ends are met.

July Secret Agent #16

TITLE: Life Set Sail
GENRE: YA Time Travel

I shut my eyes and inhale the moist Florida air. Nothing beats the aroma of rain and freshly cut grass. It’s earthy, sultry, and smells nothing of the stuffy portable classrooms I’ve been stuck in all day.

"Are you sure you don’t want a ride?" Levin asks, sneaking up from behind and wrapping his arms around my waist.

I look up at him through my lashes, “No, my Mom’s already on her way.”

He kisses the tip of my nose and whirls me around so we’re face to face. I suppress a giggle and grab the straps of his backpack. Pulling him closer, I stand on my tip-toes and reach my lips to his. “But, thanks for the offer,” I say. He kisses the freckles on my cheek. “Anytime.”

“Hey, bitches, get a room!” Heather exclaims as she walks by. I groan and swat at her with my free arm. She chuckles and pulls me away from my boyfriend. Shoving a finger in my face she mimics our homeroom teacher from this morning, “Now remember, kids. Sex can wait…mas-ter-bate.”

I roll my eyes and grab Levin’s face firmly with both hands. “Oh, really?” I say, and plant a long drawn-out slobbery french kiss on him. She shakes her head in disgust. “Ew. I really didn’t need to see that, Mae.”

Levin smirks and laces his fingers through mine. “Feel free to do that anytime,” he whispers. My cheeks flush scarlet the second his warm breath touches my skin.



July Secret Agent #15

TITLE: The Astrum Wars
GENRE: YA Science Fiction

Eli Kim had one cardinal rule as a human on Perspia: Keep a low profile.

He kept his head down as he approached the commercial district.

It was early, a time some still called “the break of dawn” even though one of Perspia’s two suns always blazed overhead. Eli hadn’t seen a true dawn in his seventeen years, and he didn’t see the point of holding onto such concepts.

As far as Eli was concerned, those notions died with Earth.

Plus, he never really understood old Earth colloquialisms. What did dawns break? It seemed almost violent.

Eli trudged up a steep incline towards the checkpoint outside the market. Sand sifted under his feet, but he balanced lightly. Desert covered the planet, a landscape where only the hardiest survived. Eli still fell under that category, even if his parents hadn’t been so lucky.

Don’t go there, he told himself, closing his eyes against the painful thought and taking a deep, steadying breath. He was good at these personal pep talks. They kept him moving forward.

Eli entered the moving walkway that held the humans-only line. He glanced at the other entrance where every other alien in the Astrum Federation queued up. They were not provided with a mechanized path, and some of them huffed out tired breaths as they trudged uphill.

The walkway was not meant as a luxury, it was barred on either side with chest-high barriers to keep the humans single-file once they entered. If anyone became irritable, they could be easily isolated.

July Secret Agent #14

TITLE: Alex and Alejandro
GENRE: Chapter Book

I know when it’s coming now, every day at the same time, the “ Alex stop fidgeting” from my teacher. Ever since Bobby moved to Chicago, I’ve been fidgeting more. Mom says it’s because I’m bored.

Miss Higgninbottom rose from her seat as I squirmed in my chair. She looked at me, at the classroom door, and then back at me as the door opened. Principal Miller entered through the doorway with a new kid. The kid has dark skin, black hair and his eyes looked like two pieces of candy. Not like Skittles. More like the chocolate candy Mom gets from Dad in heart shaped boxes on Valentines days.

I could tell it was coming. She was going to tell me to stop fidgeting I knew it.

“¡Buena dìas,” she said. “That’s Spanish.”

Great, now she’s telling me to stop fidgeting in another language.

“¡Buena dìas means good morning in Spanish,” Ms. Higginbottom explained. “Class, can you say it to our new student Alejandro?”

We all said “¡Buena dìas,” but not as good as Ms. Higginbottom did.

She clutched the new kid by the shoulders, holding him like a trophy. “Alejandro and his family come from Mexico; he is bilingual, which means he speaks both English and Spanish.”

The new kid wiggled as she went on and on about Mexico. She didn’t loosen her grip the whole time.

Alejandro would you like to tell the class how old you are in your native language?” Ms. Higginbottom asked.

“Ocho,” he said.

“Ocho means eight,” she explained.



July Secret Agent #13

TITLE: NOTHING BUT SKY
GENRE: YA HISTORICAL

Coins plinked one after the other into a worn fedora passing through the crowd. The masses lining the old farm road paid to see a show, and if that meant watching me fall to my death, so much the better.

Children sat atop their father's shoulders, the late afternoon sun melting the creamy treats in their hands. Red-cheeked women adjusted their hats, and fanned themselves wildly, praying for any kind of breeze. For most people the chaos would be a distraction, but the crowd, and their lively shouts, only spurred me on.

Nathan and I snuck through the masses. Our roadster sat just twenty feet away.

"You ready, Grace?"

Stepping over weeds and discarded handbills touting, "The Greatest Flying Circus west of the Mississippi," I winked and pointed in the direction of the car. "Race you."

Leather goggles bounced around my neck as I ran. I pulled them over my eyes, securing the back against my dark knot of hair. Without a roof, the wind would tangle it in seconds.

Whispers in the crowd murmured the same thing: I was insane.

They were wrong.

I simply refused to be like other girls who mindlessly milled around downtown Lincoln. Half of them without jobs or goals for the future. President Coolidge promised change, but Nebraska was still the same since he took office. There was proof of it everywhere. Along the streets, grief covered the scarred faces of young men who lost limbs and friends in the Great War.

July Secret Agent #12

TITLE: KEEP YOUR EYES ON ME
GENRE: YA Contemporary

Three months ago I watched a stranger die, so I know what death looks like. In fact, I remember what it sounds like, what it feels like, too. That's how I know that the disheveled guy sprawled across the back aisle of Greenbrook’s Gas Mart is, most certainly, not dead.

There's no blood on his clothes, just a film of dirty paint spackle on his jeans and a yellowing stain on the back of his crinkled white T-shirt. He reeks of stale beer and sweat. Nothing like the smell of singed rubber or sunbaked asphalt that tends to rise up in my nightmares of the accident.

“Dude, you okay?” I nudge the side of his shoulder with my foot. One of his hands stutters in response, fat-knuckled and callused. It triggers the memory of a certain twelve-year-old’s tiny fingers twitching in the fading afternoon light, and I have to look away.

I thought the hardest thing about tonight was going to be sneaking past my older sister, Cecelia, as she studied in the kitchen for her latest nursing exam. Little did I know it would be a random drunk guy passed out at a mini-mart that would get my nerves twitching with guilt. I don’t have time to mess with “adults” who can’t handle their booze when I’ve got places to be.

I step over him and slide his right leg out of the way so I can open the freezer door. Instantly, I’m greeted with the grounding crispness of artificially cooled air.

July Secret Agent #11

TITLE: Keys
GENRE: Contemporary Middle Grade

The ambulance in front of Beacon Middle School should have been Baxter’s first clue things were about to change. Wedged between the first two yellow school buses, its flickering emergency lights were dim in the morning light. Baxter, having just arrived, noticed Morgan, a girl from his sixth-grade science class, and approached her.

“What happened?” he asked.

“Iris Wellington was stung by a bee,” Morgan said.

“Kind of overreacting with the ambulance, aren’t they?” Baxter asked. “Was it a freakishly mutated killer bee?” He withheld the amusement he felt at his own joke as an uneasy feeling came over him. Plus, he kind of liked Morgan. He didn’t want to seem insensitive.

“Iris is allergic to bee stings,” she said with a dirty look. “I heard they couldn’t get to her meds. Someone messed with the nurse’s desk and the keys were missing.”

Baxter’s stomach lurched. A dark feeling cascaded over him like a wave. “Is she okay?” he asked.

“You see the ambulance, don’t you?” she said. “What do you think?”

Morgan paused to consider Baxter. “Sounds like something you’d do,” she said. She turned and walked off.

Baxter had a really bad feeling about what was going to happen next.

* * *

Later the same day, they all sat opposite Mr. Vinyu, the vice principal, in his office. Baxter’s mom and dad sat on either side of him. His mom, her eyes red from emotion, was hunched over her crossed legs. His dad was resting his forehead in his hands.

July Secret Agent #10

TITLE: MY ADVENTUROUS TIME AS A TEMPORARY GHOST
GENRE: Middle Grade Fantasy

I’ll never forgive the jelly donut that turned me into a ghost, though I will always wonder what type of filling it had. Cherry maybe, or grape? I hope not grape, that stuff tastes like cough medicine.

The day was cold, at least cold for me, wearing only a t-shirt and my black and pink skull and cross bones hoodie. Quite an ironic ensemble for the day I got to meet the Grim Reaper. Well, I guess I technically met the Grim Reaper the next day. The air stung a little when I breathed, so I pulled up the collar of my shirt to cover my face. It only gets cold like that for a day or so in south Texas, and I almost wished I had brought my dorky blue jacket with the hippos on it. Almost.

I stomped my legs up and down while I waited for the school bus. The sun hadn’t really come up yet and it was that awkward time of morning when it’s bright enough to see, but not really daytime. The cars rumbled along Bluebonnet Street as all the parents left for work. Can we just take a moment and think about the name of my street. Bluebonnet. You’d be hard pressed to find a more Texas name for a street. Do they even have bluebonnets in other states? Thinking about that is probably sacrilege against Texas. Maybe I should recite the Texas pledge a couple times to absolve myself.

July Secret Agent #9

TITLE: ONLY THE DEAD
GENRE: YA Paranormal

I never should have left the house. I debated this even as I sat shivering on one of the stone-cold benches planted along the perimeter of the fair.

It was the last weekend of July and too cold to be considered summer. Or maybe it was just me. No one else seemed bothered by the weather. They all wore dresses and board shorts and faded t-shirts. Only I looked like I was ready to go camping in the Himalayas with my overstuffed jacket and frayed gloves.

“You okay, Callie?” My best friend Jai asked in his too-concerned voice as he sorted our ride tickets. He glanced in my direction with a lopsided grin. “You look like you’re going to puke.”

“I’m not.” I fiddled with the ring around my thumb, and watched the reflection of the strung lights flicker in the puddles on the street.

Normally, I loved the food on sticks and games no one ever really won, and the way people raced from one ride to the next. I loved the smell of barbecue and spun sugar. I even loved the awful music pouring from the house of mirrors and the roller coaster that creaked and whirred around bends and loops.

But this year, I hardly saw any of it.

I only saw the colored flyers on every wall. Flyers with the word MISSING and a photograph below it. Because whenever you heard a story about eleven girls gone missing in your town, you tended to think about it. And I did.

July Secret Agent #8

TITLE: NO MORE BLUES
GENRE: YA Magic Realism

The piano appears on our lawn the morning after our mom left. I am swigging orange juice in the living room, trying to decide if I’m going to take Mom’s car to school, and then I pass by the window and there’s the piano, sitting on the grass all straight-backed and confident as though it’s a Marcel Duchamp sculpture on display at the MoMA.

I drag Angela from the kitchen out to the yard.

“Well, you said you wanted to start playing,” I tell her.

“I didn’t picture it happening this way,” Angela says. She taps the key farthest to the right, and it dings out a little note. It sounds like a shy kid speaking out in class for the first time. She plays a few more, and they’re clearer, louder, coming at us in layers. A passing car honks at the three of us: the piano, my sister, and me.

“Mercedes, try it,” Angela says.

I clunk my hands down in the middle of the piano. A couple of friendly Florida lizards scatter across the driveway in response to the mess of sound.

“Brilliant.” Angela smiles. She looks at the keys again, and I think she’s getting ready to stay there and compose a symphony, or maybe a rock opera. But the door to the other half of the duplex creaks open and shut, and we’re in the presence of Rex, our neighbor and landlord, a bearded industrial freezer of a man who never likes to be left out of the neighborhood activity.

July Secret Agent #7

TITLE: The Chat Room
GENRE: YA Suspense

Five years ago nobody thought I'd live to see my seventeenth birthday. But here I am, eating large doses of chocolate cake, and unless you know where to look, you can't even see my scars.

Even more of a miracle, I've convinced my over protective policeman dad to let me have a party. I had extra leverage this year. It's my parents' twentieth wedding anniversary today, so Mom demanded a celebration of her own and talked Dad into taking her out for dinner.

I shove the last chocolate crumbs into my mouth, and place my empty plate next to the silver tray with the knife that Mom used to cut the giant cake slabs
.
My sister, Lia's plate is empty too. "I'll load them into the dishwasher." She leans across to take my plate and accidentally bumps the knife so it clatters off the silver tray, straight onto my bare foot with the drying nail polish.

"S***!" Blood is seeping out.

Lia's eyes widen. "I'm so sorry. I'm such a klutz."

Dad bends to look. "It doesn't seem that deep."

Mom comes back with disinfectant and a pressure bandage.

Lia crouches next to me. "Oh Mindy, I've ruined your birthday."

I put my arm around her. "No, you haven't. You'll hardly even see the bandage once I put my shoes on."

"But it must hurt."

"Don't worry. I've had worse."

Everyone goes quiet. I guess like me, they're remembering back to the accident, to the time I almost lost my life.

July Secret Agent #6

TITLE: Blood Rose Rebellion
GENRE: YA historical fantasy

London, April 1847

I did not set out to ruin my sister’s debut.

Indeed, there were any number of things I deliberately did not do that day.

I did not pray for rain, as I knelt in the small chapel of our London townhome that morning, the cold of the floor seeping into my bones. Instead, I listened to Mama’s petition for successful spells and sunshine. Peeking through my lashes at Elizabeth’s placid face, I yearned to ask for disquiet, disorder, and torrential downpours—calamitous words that might have eased, a little, the restless crawling in my heart. But I swallowed the words unsaid. Even should God heed such a treacherous prayer, my father would not. And though Papa’s weather magic would cost him a headache, Elizabeth would dance under clear skies.

I did not argue with Elizabeth, when she banned me from the ballroom where she and Mama were laying the final grounding for her illusions. “You’ll break my concentration,” she said, “and spoil my spells.”

But then I did not go to the nursery, where I was expected to improve my sketching while James studied his Latin. Instead, I lingered (Mama would say loitered) in the lower hall, watching the servants scurry back and forth with their brooms and buckets and cleaning cloths, in feverish preparation for the ball.

I did not rest, as Elizabeth did.

And because of those omissions, I was in the hallway when Lord Frederick Markson Worthing came calling.

July Secret Agent #5

TITLE: Darcy Towers
GENRE: Middle Grade, Contemporary Mystery

I wanted to win it for more than just the giant bag of Red Vines, but to feel like I was part of something again; beyond being the new kid, even. It was a scavenger hunt, only on the library website. Some kids were having problems finding things, but not me. I was­­­­­­ a clicking and scrolling queen and libraries were my specialty.

“Red Coyotes for the win,” I yelled, shooting my answer sheet up in the air. Several counselors shushed me. We were in the library after all. When the librarian came to check my answers the entire room froze, waiting for the verdict. My head lit up with tingles.

“Snap, Lauren. How’d you do that so fast?” Shahad whispered.

“My mom worked at the library. We’d go all the time,” I whispered back. “It was this thing we did: Find a book on the computer, get it from the stacks, and flip to page thirty-three.”

“What’s on paging thirty-three?” Shahad asked, jabbing Claire so she could hear me too.

“The answer to a question.” It made me giggle thinking of the good old days.

“What question?” Claire wanted to know.

I giggled again, “Who would win in a fight: The Headless Horseman or the Easter Bunny? The answer is the first full sentence on that page. It’s really funny.” We were all laughing now and it got even rowdier as the librarian declared us, the Red Coyotes, the winners. Six boys, plus Claire and Shahad, all piled in on me, shrieking.


July Secret Agent #4 (redacted)

(redacted)

July Secret Agent #3

TITLE: AGENTS OF STEM
GENRE: Chapter Book (Adventure)

Marie Curie slid across the living room floor chasing the red dot that scurried up and down a wall, zig-zagged across the floor, and disappeared beneath the sofa. She flattened out her furry body and tried to squeeze in after it.

“Marie Curieeeee, over heeeere,” called Maya as she pointed the laser back to the middle of the floor. The gray-haired cat quickly jumped to her feet and resumed her attack.

“You better watch out, Maya. You know lasers can burn her eyes, right?” said Maya’s next-door-neighbor, David. “I saw a YouTube video where this guy used a laser to burn his initials onto a piece of wood, so maybe you shouldn’t be playing with that thing on the wood floor.”

“This laser is pretty weak. It runs on tiny batteries. See?” Maya unscrewed the back of the laser pointer and removed two small button-like batteries and held them out to David. “Staring into this kind of laser is a little bit like staring into the sun - definitely not good for your eyes, but your eyeballs won't melt." Maya replaced the batteries and screwed the laser back together.

David laughed nervously. "So this laser can’t burn a hole in one of my ‘bots no matter how hard I try?” David pushed his black-rimmed glasses up, but they slid right back down the bridge of his nose.

“Nope, you need a stronger laser for that. Some of the most powerful laser beams are made up of light particles, or photons, that are invisible to our eye.”

July Secret Agent #2

TITLE: Vestige
GENRE: YA Speculative

I'll never stop hating the ice and blood. I see it when I sleep, so I don't sleep much. This time, insomnia caught up with me just in time for class, so I didn't even get to finish my essay. That's a shame, because the world needs it. The title page is beautifully formatted.

It wasn't a restful nap. I'm still sweaty and gross, and the air bites, even though the sun is high and bright. That just makes it worse, like it's mocking me. I really wish I’d grabbed a jacket before I left the dorms this morning as I crunch and kick through yellow leaves, cutting across the quad, weaving through a copse of trees, their limbs are sparse and skeletal this late in the Oregon October. Red brick buildings, trimmed with white paint, border the grass.

Everything is normal, but I can’t shake the feeling that the nightmares followed me back. I keep waiting for the grass and the trees to freeze over, for the people sunning in the quad to start shrieking, blood streaming from their eyes and down their faces. Nothing happens. So far, so good. No blood, no ice, no shrieks. Still, the day is young—no, it's more middle-aged, but there's some time for the world to go to hell. I avoid looking into anyone's eyes, afraid they'll see the nightmare playing in mine like a movie.

My muscles are tense, like my body's preparing to run without asking me first. Traitor. Saboteur, even. My chest thrums.


July Secret Agent #1

TITLE: Withering Spring
GENRE: YA Dark Fantasy

A nightmarish sight lay in front of her – corpses littering the ground like broken dolls, some missing limbs, others just appearing to be in deep sleep. The stream nearby was red with blood. The stench of rot invaded her nostrils, and it took Liane all her self-control not to retch into the earth. To calm herself, Liane remembered the cardinal law of the Universe: life is a circle, and everything that happens to you has happened to someone else at least once before. No one is unique in their existence, and a person’s journey through life is nothing but stolen events patched up from stories of long ago.

“I know it’s hard, little snowflake, but we have to do this,” said Arlene, one of the Wise Women.

Swallowing the lump in her throat, Liane nodded. She didn’t want to do this anymore than the other Chosen of Isamilli did, but they had to nonetheless. Find the corpses of Eksian soldiers, say a prayer for them to send them on their way, mark the body, and move on. Afterwards, the battlefield would be set on fire so that the god of summer, Verem, would purify the souls before they reached the Garden of Eden, the realm of the Gods, where final judgment would be passed down on them.

Liane stepped forward and began her rounds. It wasn’t the first battle she’d seen, but it was the first massacre.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Please Don't Call Me Miss Snark

I have an annoying tendency to forget that my readership isn't static--that there are constantly new readers, new contest-enterers, new comments, new Twitter followers.

Inevitably, the newer folks will sometimes refer to me as "Miss Snark."  It's not a big deal--I'll answer to (almost) anything.  But I do want to point out that I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, Miss Snark.

If you're too new around the writersphere to know about the illustrious Miss Snark, PLEASE LOOK HERE NOW.  Her blog has long since been retired, but it remains an excellent source of information for the serious aspiring author.

If you start reading, it'll suck you in and get your juices flowing.  You've been duly warned.

At any rate, my blog is called MISS SNARK'S FIRST VICTIM because I was, in fact, HER FIRST VICTIM.  If you haven't read my victim story, take a moment now.

Here's the thing--Miss Snark left a huge imprint before she de-blogged herself.  (Actually, she's still at large; she's a real, honest-to-goodness literary agent.  Most of her fans are fairly sure they know who she is, but there's a code of silence.)  I would never deign to imagine that my influence or prowess is anywhere near hers.  So I get a little twitchy when folks call me "Miss Snark".

For the eternal record:  I am not, nor have I ever been, Miss Snark.  I do not aspire to imitate, impersonate, or irritate her in any way.

Please call me Authoress.

That is who I've been since I started this blog.  That is who I will continue to be until I--gasp--unveil myself.  Which will, in a perfect universe, occur when I debut.

(I said WHEN, not IF.  If I'm here to keep you inspired and encouraged, then I've got to talk the same talk about myself, right?)

Know what makes me happy?  The fact that, when I google "Authoress", I see this:


Look at that!  I'm second in line, right after Merriam-Webster.  I may not see my REAL NAME floating around out there, but dad-gummit, it's pretty heady to hold the #2 spot on Google for Authoress.

At any rate, A WARM WELCOME to everyone who is new!  If you've called me Miss Snark at any point, please don't apologize!  Like I said, it's no big deal.  It's just that I could never fill Miss Snark's stilettos, and I'd rather not be confused with her.

Do we have an accord?*




*You have to say this in a Jack Sparrow voice.  Always.