In my first update as a published novelist, I described some of the misconceptions I had and the reality of publishing a novel. In the second update, at the three month mark, I gave further updates. I stand by my three month update and not much has changed.
Oh. Other than:
BOOK TWO COMES OUT IN SEPTEMBER!
That’s right, only six months after the release of my debut novel, I’ve done well enough that my publisher, Force Poseidon, is putting my second book out. The current working title is “Ares and Athena” and it releases on September 9th, 2021. Even better, this is the first sequel they’ve published! For those of you counting along at home, that means I will have published two books in just under a year. Not too shabby for someone who considered the publishing of their first book a fluke.
But how is it going? Really?
Well, let’s address the elephant in the room: I’m still not on my own private island surrounded by enormous piles of money.
Alas, I’m not fabulously wealthy and still have to work for a living. However, as I have learned, money isn’t the only measure of success in publishing. Let’s look instead at the more tangible ways one can measure success as an author. I’ve almost doubled the number of reviews on Amazon and GoodReads over the last three months while still hovering near the 5-star level, which I consider a strong win! (One quick plug, if you’ve read the book, please review it on GoodReads and Amazon so more people can be introduced to Pantheon.)
Sales are slowing, but that’s to be expected six months later. The initial blast of marketing has faded and I’m down to word of mouth as my main marketing strategy. That said, I anticipate a small bump in sales as the second book releases from folks who see marketing for the sequel and want to start at the beginning. My social media presence continues to grow, aided and abetted by my “Confessions from the Trail” series, which is now being published on Medium as well.
And yes, the hard work continues! While I have a generous six months until publishing, there’s a lot of work left to do. My editor and I will iterate on the book as we nail down a perfect copy. I’ll send copies to my beta readers for one last sanity and grammar check. Then it’s a marketing hustle: build an advanced reader list and send them copies to review, promote my book on social media, look for local(ish) conventions I could attend to promote my work, keep releasing blog posts as I go through the process, and of course finalizing the cover art and title to release in advance of the publishing date. I’ll also be reading fellow author’s books and providing feedback and reviews in hopes they return the favor. (Hey, it’s great to be on a team!)
Oh, did I mention I have a full-time job while doing all of this? Because I’m about to level up in my day job as well. So, while I’m really excited to have a publishing date, I also know my weekends slept slacking off are over for the next few months.
It will be fun.
It will be stressful.
But I’m fueled by my passion for writing and my drive to achieve.
As I stated in “How I Got Published!” I was turned down many times when I first tried to get published a decade ago. “A good author with a compelling plot, but because you cannot publish on our schedule, you would not be considered commercially viable” is soul crushing to read. At the time I received that rejection, I couldn’t commit to writing a book every 18 months due to my work commitments. To be fair, I still can’t make that kind of commitment and expect my third book to take much longer, since “Ares and Athena” was 90% complete when I signed the contract for “Pantheon.” But the books will keep coming out and I’m so excited and grateful for the opportunity.
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Welcome to my twentieth and, likely, the final post in the Confessions from the Trail series! I started this series as a way to pull back the curtain and show people a sport that many will never even attempt. I started with “Chasing the Ultramarathon” and talked about failing to accomplish my goal three times. I wrote two follow-up pieces called “But Why?” and “Being Comfortable With Being Uncomfortable” to explain the lure of the ultra. I’ve also talked about ultramarathons’ details: gear, lingo, nutrition, pre-race traditions, race weight, and tapering. I’ve written about my journey through a sick week after Thanksgiving, critter encounters, the “pain cave,” and the training run that put me in the ER, followed by two weeks of quarantine in the final push to race day. And, of course, I’ve talked about my races: BUTS Bearly Heavy Half, Bear Bait 25k, and the big finale, Mississippi 50.
It’s been a long road and I’ve enjoyed having a platform to talk about a sport I love. But now the race is run and it’s time to close this series out by answering one last question: “What do you do after the race?” For me, there a few things I have to do, a few things I should do, a few things I should do but usually don’t, but as with my pre-race traditions, I’m mostly trying to stay sane! I’ll also close with a “so there I was…” and tell you about my colossal failure at MS50. Learn from my mistakes, folks!
Things I should do: take a moment to sit and stretch, eat a reasonable post-race snack (like a banana), then head to my hotel for a shower and real meal with some protein. Possibly reflect on my accomplishments.
What I actually do: stagger through the finish line to a kind volunteer who throws a medal around my sweaty neck. Proceed to eat my body weight in cookies and bananas. Lay down in the dirt to contemplate my life choices and entire existence. Decide I can, in fact, move a little. Stagger to my car. A quick shower at the hotel and then I stagger to an eating establishment to consume my weight in fatty food, gulp down a beer (two if someone else is driving). Finally, I go back to my room and pass out.
Exception: Ironman Orlando I managed to shower and go out to the Universal Studios parks to see the recently opened Harry Potter World. Rock and Roll NOLA I was able to get my butt showered, gulp down a beignet and Coke, then go on a TWO HOUR WALKING TOUR OF THE FRENCH QUARTER. I’m a dumbass sometimes.
What you definitely shouldn’t do: Of course, in my second Ironman Orlando, I spent part of the afternoon attempting to disassemble our bikes and accidentally put the (very dirty) cogs of my bike through my unprotected foot. I had about a second of shock where I could pull the bike out of my foot, look at, see exposed bones before the pain hit. How I managed to text my spouse after, I’m still not sure, but I think it was something along the lines of “SOS/911, help. Foot blood bad!” He reappeared moments in a panic. The panic did not resolve when he saw that I was bleeding bad enough to soak through the towel on my foot.
This is where I learned that my spouse loves me very much but is very freaked out when I’m hurt. I was thrown in a wheelchair (I could still walk) and he missed two exits for various hospitals before finally making the turn off for one in his panic. I, on the other hand, was in the back of the rental van calmly calling my boss to tell them I’d be on limited duty when we got back. Shock is a hell of a drug.
Oh boy. The things I don’t post live to Twitter… Let’s start this off with a “so there I was” and I promise this whole story is actually true as opposed to 10% true.
As I mentioned in my Mississippi 50 race report, I drove to the race in full dark and followed my GPS. It was a dry and dusty route in and I strongly suspected my GPS sent me further south as I saw two cars turn off the paved roads further north. Additionally, in previous years where I’ve done this drive, at sunrise, I turned towards the start further north of where I turned in the morning.
When I left the race area that afternoon, I had spotty cell service and my GPS turned me in a different direction. My poor, abused brain just assumed that was to the more northern turn and, since a truck ahead of me turned that way, I followed along. My GPS, however, told me to turn away from the path the truck followed. I had a half-second where I considered following the truck but trusted my GPS. This was the wrong choice.
I now found myself not on a dry, dusty trail but a wet, muddy trail. I hit one patch where I felt my Subaru’s All Wheel Drive get me my money’s worth and again, had a half-second where I thought, “this is wrong” but, my dumb post-race brain decided to continue. Maybe a mile later, I found myself axles deep and high centered in thick, goopy, shoe-sucking mud. I was about 4 miles from the race start and 2 miles from a paved road with spotty cell service.
I called my insurance for roadside assistance and they dispatched a tow truck. A few minutes later, I check the status and it shows the service has been canceled. I frantically call the tow service and they canceled it because they’re too far away. It’s now 3 pm and I know the sun will set in 2.5 hours. I also know I am physically incapable of walking even the two miles to a road. I manage to connect a call to my insurance again, begging them to find another tow service.
Difference between finishing a half marathon and an ultramarathon: after effects. By this point, I am shaking violently. Normally I shake a little after a long run/race, but now I’m cold, exhausted, and quite literally in the middle of nowhere with only the food and water left over from my race.
This would be the point I realize that I was in deep shit.
While I wait for a wrecker that may or may not appear since the road ahead of me isn’t much better than what I’m sitting in now, I start making my contingencies. If I start shaking harder or I feel light-headed or I start vomiting or my hands go numb, I will call 9-1-1. Otherwise, I’m going to wait. If the wrecker can’t make it, I’ll call 9-1-1. I have no idea what they might be able to do, but if I can stagger to a paved road, maybe someone can at least give me a ride to my hotel. None of the towns close by are big enough to support taxi services or an Uber driver.
I won’t lie, I cried. I curled up in my passenger seat, huddled under my towel and cried while I tried to text family or friends, anyone who would reassure me that I would be ok. The pain cave at mile 27 has nothing on sitting in my stuck vehicle, my ability to get out uncertain, and knowing full well I have no one to blame but myself. I will probably have nightmares about this for a while.
Fortunately, the tow truck arrived and hauled me out. He told me how bad it was up ahead and said he’d lead me out so he could haul me out again if I got stuck. Of course, my luck, THE TOW TRUCK GOT STUCK ON THE WAY OUT. Y’all, I can’t even make this shit up. He hauled himself out and I drove halfway up a bank to get past that point. Once we reached the paved road, I thanked the tow truck drive profusely and went on my way.
I finally got back to my hotel four hours later than expected and in a bad way. With no more food, water, or ibuprofen, I was in pain and deep calorie debt. I managed to get my shower and food, but the whole calamity was a real damper on my day.
Learn from my screw up. Your head won’t be on right after a race this long. You will be tired and weaker than you will expect. I highly recommend bringing a friend, pacer, or crew to help you at the end of the day and make the good decisions your poor tired brain can’t.
Will I race the trails again? Most certainly. Will I write race reports in Confessions From the Trail? Probably? But for now, we’ve run the race and are at the end of the road. I hope you’ve enjoyed this series as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it.
Happy trails and enjoy the journey!
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Welcome back to the wild world of ultramarathon training. By this point, you’ve read all about my current training cycle, my successes at the Bear Bait 25k, my semi-failure at the BUTS Bearly Heavy half, the pain of training in times of COVID, and the ups and downs as I chase down that ultramarathon goal. Its been a long journey: four attempts with three failures over five years, an ER visit, and enough self-doubt to sink a person. But let’s not bury the lede:
I FINISHED AN ULTRAMARATHON!
Today you’re getting my full race report for Mississippi 50 – 50k (31.1 miles) Race
Like all races recently, they’ve done a good job adapting to the times. They had to cancel the traditional pre-race dinner, but other than that, it was the same brisk in-and-out of years past. I had my packet in less time than it took to drive the 10 minutes from my hotel to the pickup location. Like most ultras, the goody bag was very stripped down: a few pamphlets for local stuff I chucked immediately, a shirt, and a flexible cup.
Packet pickup is in Laurel, MS, but the race is held in the Desoto National Forest at the Longleaf Horse Trails, a 40-minute drive south. Half the drive is on paved county roads; the other half is on rough dirt roads that are not easily navigated in the pre-dawn, a factor that will come into play after my race.
Gosh, I love this course! It’s smooth with almost no technical spots. My only gripe is a perennial gripe: the damn puddles! There are five or so creek crossings and while you can cross some of them without getting too muddy/wet, there are two that you have to run through. My feet were a disaster from all that soaking.
For the 50k course, we did two laps on the big loop (20k) then one smaller 10k loop to finish. Each lap took me past my car, where I had my gear set up to assist me as I ran. I have run the 20k loop on all my previous attempts but never had to take the 10k loop, which was all new trail to me.
Weather: Sheer perfection! At the 6 am race start, it was a cool 49F, but it was perfect weather and sunny by my second lap. By the last 10k lap, I was running in a tank top and it was a beautiful cloudless 64F.
Trail conditions: Overall, great, but there was a 4-mile section that had burned the day before. There was a smoky odor lingering in the air and I worried my previously trashed lungs would react, but I had no issues.
Terrain: Flat! It is relatively flat and I only logged 1,700’ of elevation gain over the whole 30+ miles. For reference, at BUTS Bearly, I had logged that in just the first six miles.
The aid stations are conveniently spaced and while they have made some changes for COVID mitigation, there was still a broad array of snacks available, including a cooked strip of bacon I ate at mile 27 that was pure mana from heaven. One aide station just past mile 4 and just outside the burned-out areas another was at the head of an out and back section, so you hit it at just past 8 miles and 10 miles as you entered/exited the out and back. There was one final aid station at the start/finish. Since this was a looped course, I came through that aid station three times during the race and finished at the aid station.
Did I hit the Pain Cave?
Yes. Fucking, yes.
Kind of a big “duh, of course” for this one. On my last two races, I was well trained for the distance and either didn’t hit the pain cave point, or I stepped a toe into the cave, but a snack pulled me back out. To give you an idea, I’ll break it down by mileage with a rough estimation of how/what I felt.
Mile 8: I wasn’t in the pain cave, but I met a man that I had passed and been passed by a few times over the last five miles. He asked if he could follow me a bit since he was “mentally in a dark place.” I told him, “ah yes, the pain cave, I’m intimately familiar, follow as long as you want.” He followed quietly for a bit, but we got to chatting, which seemed to pull him out of his pain cave and delay me hitting mine. It turns out, this wonderful man is a trauma therapist specializing in PTSD. We talked a long time. The whole race, in fact.
Mile 14: my first dip into the pain cave came not long after finishing the first lap. I did some mental math, realized I was roughly 1,000 calories behind, ate a snack; it went away.
Mile 20: physical pain in my feet and knees dragged me in but chatting with my new friend and pacer helped pull me out.
Mile 25: just after the end of the second lap and into the third, we found ourselves on new trails and entering the unknown. Physical pain is increasing and starting to affect both our moods. He gets quiet and I’m gritting my teeth.
Mile 27: we are both into the unknown as neither of us has ever run further than a marathon. My feet and knees are screaming on the downhill and we’ve slowed to a brisk walk with occasional bouts of a shambling jog. I get a cooked piece of bacon around here that pulls me out for a few minutes.
Mile 28-30: I have no idea. By this point, I can only manage a brisk walk because my stomach is cramping now so bad it almost felt like early labor. I want to stop. I want to sit down for a minute, but my new partner and I both acknowledge that if I sit down now, I’ll never stand back up under my own power.
Fortunately, mile 30 connects you back to the first big loop and I now know not only where I am but that we are no more than a half mile from the finish. We both broke into a pained jog, each of us tripping on the smallest things, but we staggered across the finish line.
Everything after mile 25. Possibly anything after mile 17. Because of my trip to the ER, my two 20+ mile training runs were wiped off the board. I never made it further than 17.5 miles in training and no more than 23 miles over 48 hours. I had never run longer than a marathon and that was ten years ago. While I’ve run the big loop, I’ve never run the little loop, so that was an unknown as well.
Huge shout out to my pacer back home who pushed me to run further on my Friday runs; I think running more miles back to back really helped build my base, even if I never got my longest runs in.
No crew for this race at my distance, but there was limited access for pacers on the 50 miler’s last 10k lap only. Honestly, I’m not sure I would have needed a pacer.
The finish line:
It was the post-COVID ultramarathon standard: flash your number, get your medal, grab a snack if you need it, and they send you on your way. The only change here was that Zac, my new friend for the last 20 miles, and I snapped pictures for each other to commemorate our first ultra finish. We gave each other a quick fist bump of triumph and parted ways.
7:29 for 30.6 mi (GPS mileage was just shy of the billed 50k, which is the usual way of things).
My goal was to finish, hopefully sub-8:00. To have finished was a win; to finish half an hour ahead of my goal was a triumph.
I knew the course and terrain I faced and built my entire training plan around it. That bit me in the butt when I did BUTS, but I was 100% ready for this race, even after losing two critical weeks at the end of the training cycle. A day later, I was up and walking around with no problems. Heck, I was speed walking through the Dallas airport in heeled boots without problems. Two days later, I started running again with no issues. My new technique of taping where my bra chaffs worked great, not one single problem there. That said, if it had been much warmer, I would have sweat the tape off and been in trouble the last few miles. I’ve got a few blisters and one incident post-race, but overall I’m thrilled with how well this all went.
I did have one colossal screw up after the race which deserves its own post. I had already planned a “After the Race” post but now its also going to include a “learn from my f*ck ups” section.
The Gear List:
My gear lists so folks can see what I’m carrying and how it changes between courses and weather. As usual, some affiliate links, most aren’t; I am not sponsored by any specific companies.
Mask: Under Armour Adult Sports Mask – required to run. Must wear items for check-in, race start, and going through aid stations. This mask is what I was wearing when my office was hit with COVID and I never got it. Not sure if it’s magic, but I’m sticking with these until I can get vaccinated.
Top: Nike Women’s Dri-Fit Element Long Sleeve Running Top – This one is a good top (45-55F) or middle layer (<45F). Plus, thumb holes and it covers half my hand.
Tank top: Infinite Tank workout top from Nike. It was great as an only layer later once it got warmer (>60F), but it does well as a base layer too (<60F).
Bra: SheFit ULTIMATE SPORTS BRA – a qualified “good.” I like that you buy based on cup size and both the chest band and shoulder straps are adjustable; it’s probably the most comfortable sports bra I have. That said, the metal loop that holds the chest band tab tears my back up after 5 miles. I now put two strips of sports tape under the tab and it works perfectly.
Tights: Curve ‘n’ Combat Boots Empowered Black (V1) – As with my bra, it’s not desired as running gear, but it fits me well and does the job. These are designed as weightlifting tights and the dimensions are for a woman with thick legs. Like, babe, you are squatting 225lbs as a warm-up and the squat boots/thighs are strong and the waist is small! They fit me perfectly, but if you have a more traditional runner’s body, then they may be too baggy or slip while you run. Since I cut down to race weight, these slipped a bit the first 2-3 miles but after that I sweat enough that they stopped slipping.
Socks: Balega Blister Resist Quarter Socks – These are thick and comfy, but the “blister resist” is only as good as how well you lace your shoes and how wet your feet get. At some point, no sock/shoe combo will save you from everything.
Shoes: Altra Olympus Trail Shoe/Altra Lone Peak Trail Shoe – The Olympus have the thickest soles of my trail shoes which were good for keeping my feet comfy over the first 25 miles. I switched to my Lone Peaks, which have a thinner sole and are lighter weight, for the last loop because they were dry. I appreciated drier feet and probably saved myself from more problems, but the thinner soles meant I felt more as I ran.
Gaiter: Altra Trailer Gaiter – Designed specifically for Altra trail shoes and fits well (will not work on other shoes!). They kept out the small sticks, rocks, and debris of the trail.
Hat: My trusty finishers hat from the River Cities Tri a few years ago. It wasn’t cool enough to need a warmer hat.
Vest: Ultimate Direction Ultra Vesta 4.0 – This is my “new to me” but “older model” vest I got on sale for half price. There’s a new version, but I’m glad I gambled on buying this one as it’s been a real champ. Lots of easily accessible pockets, good bottle holders, and the bladder holding set up keeps it from rattling around or slipping its loops like my other vest. Not as easy to access the bladder for refills once it’s on, so I had to completely remove the pack AND bladder to refill between laps. Not super convenient, but I don’t feel like I lost a lot of time and almost all packs will be like this.
Liquid Salt/Carbs: Gatorade Endurance Formula Powder – purchased with coupons on the Gatorade website, which is good because I still don’t love it. It’s not as strong a flavor as regular Gatorade and it does well for replacing salt/carbs quickly but… I dunno, maybe I’m too picky, I don’t love it. But, I’m kind of a cheapskate and won’t buy anything new until I finish this container. Note: I also refilled with Heed at one aid station, which was WAY sweeter and I’m happy to stick with my Gatorade mix.
Snacks, self carried: Both the Honey Stinger Organic Energy Chews (caffeinated version) and the Honey Stinger Organic Waffle. These were tough on the last two races due to the cold, but this time the temperature was perfect. The chews were easy to consume and the waffle broke like it was supposed to. Maybe too easily because I think I inhaled a few crumbs as I ran.
Sacks, from aid stations: Rice Krispy bar, a mini Snickers, a bag of potato chips, and a strip of cooked bacon. For real, I don’t need a finished picture; I need an action shot of me charging uphill, bag of chips in one hand and the other stuffing a handful of chips in my mouth like some kind of running raccoon/trash panda.
GPS: Garmin Forerunner 945 – Y’all know I love this watch and I’ve talked about it before, the good and bad. I didn’t have any tracks walk-offs today and I’m confident in the recorded distance/time accurately. I set it up for a few of my closest friends to be able to track the run. There is a way to push the track to Twitter, but I didn’t need that many folks following along live. The LiveTrack was hit and miss, my Mom was able to follow just fine, but my husband’s link didn’t work.
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Here is the first look at Pantheon’s sequel, “Pantheon 2: Ares & Athena,” which released on September 9th, 2021. Just like The Memo and Make It Three while there are no spoilers, but I highly recommend you finish reading “Pantheon” prior to reading as the characters and their roles will make much more sense that way.
Murphy – 0130Z/0430L, 20 APR
US Marine Corps Staff Sergeant Murphy Hawkins rolled over in his narrow rack, snuggling up to the furry body next to him and relishing the warmth.
“Good morning, Zora,” he said with a smile. He ignored the gnawing hunger in his belly and his hand lazily patted his dog’s face, scratching under her fuzzy chin.
Zora sat up, her weight depressing the center of the canvas cot. She gave him a smile, tongue lolling out in a happy doggy grin.
“Aww, come on pupper, don’t get up yet.” He glanced at his Ares watch and groaned. “We got fifteen more minutes before we need to be up for the patrol.”
Zora stared back at him, one ear pointing straight up, the other flopping down. Belgian Malinois breed standards dictated that both ears should be “stiff, erect, and an equilateral triangle.” Her slightly drooping ear had almost been enough to disqualify her from the Military Working Dog puppy program. Murphy thought it gave her a roguish look. Given that Zora was the only female he loved, he was glad she made it through the working dog selection program despite what some might consider her “deformity.” He scratched the floppy ear.
“Okay, girl, okay. If you insist,” Murphy said to the dog, rising. “We can get up.”
Zora hopped off the cot as he rose, circled his tiny room, nose whuffling at the piles of dust strung along the floor.
Murphy gave the floor a disgusted look. The insidious moon dust grit drifted in despite how often he swept. After his many deployments, his hatred of sand was growing to epic proportions.
Murphy and his team had been in Syria for five weeks and he was still struggling to adjust to the change from his home in north-central Florida. Florida had a sultry, humid spring and sandy clay dirt, but this part of Syria was hot, dry, and coated in the damned moon dust. Murphy dressed, closing the last Velcro tab on his body armor and grabbing Zora’s armor.
“Here, girl,” he said quietly. Zora sat obediently in front of him as he gently lowered the canine flak vest onto her back. Hands swift and sure from long practice, he affixed her buckles and gave a final scratch of Zora’s ear before he snagged his guns, checked both magazines, and opened his door.
Zora sneezed and Murphy squinted into the pre-dawn gloom. Its smells and sounds of the Al Assad suburb of Damascus assaulted both man and dog. Around him, other doors in their make-shift urban camp were opening, and his security team members gathered for their pre-patrol briefing. Murphy eyed the dirty courtyard where they gathered. Sunrise was at least an hour away and dim lamps illuminated cobblestone roads. The door beside his hootch opened and the last two members of his team stumbled out, yawning and fastening body armor buckles.
“Okay, team. Keep the radio discipline strong. My team is ‘Red’ and you’re ‘Blue’ today, Gonzo.”
Gonzales gave him a gap-toothed grin.
“Same deal as yesterday,” Murphy continued with a wry smile. “The LT, who will be ‘Red One,’ wants us patrolling the eastern blocks while Blue Team goes west.” The new second lieutenant nominally led Murphy’s team and their sister team, at least that’s what the manning roster said on paper. But Murphy was a highly experienced NCO and was breaking in the fresh lieutenant so he didn’t hurt himself or others.
Everyone knew Staff Sergeant Murphy Hawkins had been living the traditional NCO ritual of gently guiding the new lieutenant since the young officer had arrived only three weeks before, his body armor still pristine and smelling like the plastic bags it came in. Second Lieutenant Alex Anderson was a model graduate of the United States Marine Corps Officer Basic School, gung-ho and full of fresh book learning, but no combat time at all. Plus, he was a whiny pissant. The team had been forced to politely allow the young man to believe he was in charge while Murphy systematically field trained him to be a worthwhile officer.
The men bent to double-check guns and gear pouches full of ammo. Murphy’s second in command, Sergeant Gonzalez, unclipped the lead from his own dog, Bali, preparing for departure.
Murphy gave him a quick fist bump. “Good hunting, Gonzo.”
Gonzalez said, “Cheers, bro,” with a smile that displayed the new gap in his grin where he’d lost a tooth the week before. Not from enemy contact, but after a patrol where he’d gotten accidentally clocked in the face with a rifle butt trying to film a video for social media. Rather than allowing himself and Bali to be removed from the team and sent to the rear and a dentist, Gonzalez had pulled out the severely loosened tooth himself with his multi-tool and gone back on patrol the next day.
Bali joined Zora and the two frisked briefly across the sandy alley before returning to their handlers.
“Questions, comments, concerns?” Murphy asked the group when they’d finished settling their gear. He ached for a cigarette, but his two-week stash had run out the week before and they hadn’t had the luxury of running to a 7-11 since arriving. Murphy reminded himself that his life in the Corps was only two more months. In two months, he would transfer to the Navy.
“I got a question, Sarge—what’s the chance we find some pussy on our patrol?” Lance Corporal Strake asked with a leer.
“About as high as finding some damn Cope longcut, Strake,” Murphy told him.
“And that’s the reason why you’re still a damn terminal lance, Strake,” one of his men muttered too quietly for him to catch who said it.
“All right, fuck faces, any real questions?” Murphy asked. If Strake was feeling his oats this early, it was going to be a long day. Young Marines love four things: the Corps, women, booze, and tobacco. In that order.
Heads shook in compliance. “Right. High fives, team, then let’s move out. And I swear to God, if you fuckers forget your MREs again, you will fucking starve. I’m not sharing with stupid people again.”
“Sorry, Murph.” Rawlins called from his right.
The team exchanged their traditional quick round of high fives and moved out.
Their eight-man squad, comprised of two fire teams, moved into the streets of suburban Damascus. Each fire team consisted of a grenadier, an automatic rifleman, a rifleman, and a designated marksman, and the team leader. In the case of his group, Murphy and Sergeant Gonzalez were both canine handlers and team leads. Usually, fire teams didn’t have a K9 partner, or “fifth man,” but for their mission in Syria, Murphy’s teams did. Zora and Bali were charged with sniffing out bombs and bomb-making supplies as well as taking down suspected terrorists as they fled. They also provided an intimidation factor. While the terrorists Murphy and his team sought were usually fearless, something about two fierce Malinois scared the shit out of the Syrians. Additionally, Murphy was a trained Arabic speaker, able to interpret and interact with the local community. Between his Arabic and Zora, he was the ideal team lead.
The first hour of their patrol was simple. The same mind-numbing monotony Murphy’s teams had experienced for the last few weeks. Theoretically, they were hunting suspected terrorists hiding in and around the outskirts of Damascus, but so far, their daily searches had been fruitless. Murphy let his mind wander as Zora loped ahead, sniffing the courtyards and alleys ahead of the team.
Six weeks ago, he’d been in the office of the Commandant of the Marine Corps. General Sterling had interviewed him personally on his pending award of the Navy Cross. Murphy had been both pleased and embarrassed to find out he was being awarded the Navy and Marine Corps’ second-highest honor for action during his last deployment to Afghanistan. He had sat stiffly in the chair offered to him, body nearly rigid, and uncomfortable during the whole interview.
While he knew the interview was merely a formality, a chance for the Commandant to get to know him before awarding the medal, he had been nervous. The Commandant had asked him about his time in the Corps as well as what Murphy thought of his future. Murphy knew damned well the Commandant had expected him to say he was staying in the Corps. The general officer couldn’t have looked more shocked had Murphy slapped him in the face when he said he was transferring to the Navy in three months.
He’d demanded to know why Murphy would leave when he was so obviously needed in the Corps. Murphy, as calmly as he could, told the general he had always wanted to be a Navy SEAL. Murphy had been irked to learn that his recruiter had lied to him and that Marines were ineligible.
The Commandant had a murderous look for a fleeting second before acknowledging that a man who’d earned the Navy Cross was surely good material for the SEAL program. By the end of the conversation, he’d even offered to write a letter on Murphy’s behalf to the acceptance board. Murphy had smiled politely and thanked him, fully expecting it to be a polite formality—until the General called his aide in to take Murphy’s name, home phone number, and the date of the in-service SEAL selection board. A genuine smile had broken across Murphy’s face before he departed with a handshake.
Murphy scanned the dark, narrow, sludge-filled alley in front of him with a strange, unsettling feeling. Roughly fifteen meters down the alley he could see movement behind a stack of rugs. He whistled quietly and Zora heeled, pressing against his leg. He motioned silently for his team to stop, the hair on the back of his neck prickling. Murphy listened carefully, ears straining to catch any sound. He caught voices speaking in hushed English, a rarity in the outskirts of Damascus.
“No, Yaʿqūb, it must be in less than two months,” a voice said nearby. “If the bombs do not go off, and inside your nation of infidels, then the plan will not work.”
Murphy silently motioned his team forward and gave Zora the sign to search out the voice. They had been searching for high pay off targets for five weeks and this was the most promising lead he and the team had thus far.
“No, three months is not soon enough. If we are to show our strength, it must be two weeks or less.” The voice paused, clearly listening. “Yes. Good then. Until tomorrow, may Allah bless you.”
Murphy’s team flanked the walls of the narrow alley, moving steadily and stealthily forward towards their high payoff targets. For a brief moment, the only sound combat boots on sand.
“Damned infidels. They still believe we are on the same side but agree to their half of the destruction. By coordinating bombs in both their nation and ours, we can show how far reaching the power of the caliphate,” Murphy heard the voice say in Arabic.
Cold fear dropped leaden into Murphy’s belly. Terrorists in Syria coordinating with a group he could only assume was on American soil? The thought horrified him. He signaled to his team. On his count, they would break down the small wooden door they had surrounded. Murphy tapped his throat mic, calling his lieutenant, by now at least three miles in the opposite direction.
“Red One, Red Four, possible contact with HPTs. Coord for an extract to interrogation, twenty mike,” he whispered.
“Copy. Stand by, coordinating,” the young man’s voice replied. The lieutenant might not be the most seasoned veteran, but he was good at coordinating.
Murphy nodded to his team and counted down with his fingers.
A press of bodies burst through the door, Zora hot on their heels. Murphy followed, running with a practiced gait that minimized the rattle of his gear, the butt of his rifle held tight to his shoulder and in the ready position. Before he could cross the threshold, chaos erupted.
Angry shouts in Arabic came through the door as Murphy entered. He flicked his ballistic glasses off his nose and looked through the tableau. Two men in traditional long kaftans and loose pants held guns that we directed at Murphy’s men and Murphy’s team had their weapons up, tense with tightly leashed lethality. Both groups were tense. Zora growled at the men who were seemingly more terrified of her than his men.
“Put down your weapons,” Murphy barked out in Arabic. Slowly, the men complied. Murphy felt a loosening in his tension, but the hair at the back of his neck still prickled. “Hands in the air,” he told them. Their quick compliance bothered Murphy.
Murphy’s eyes flicked over the room, noting bomb-making supplies scattered across makeshift worktables. He gave a sharp nod to Rawlins, who was breathing hard at his right. This was exactly the thing they’d been sent to catch. He wanted to relax, but something in the two men’s speedy compliance nagged at him.
“Cuff them and we’ll bring them to the courtyard. LT has an extraction in twenty,” Murphy told his men. They restrained the two men and marched them out the door.
As Murphy exited, gunfire erupted in the dark, narrow alley.
Murphy’s mind went into overdrive as he watched the men controlling the terrorists drop, bullets tearing through their bodies. Murphy tapped his mic. “Red One, Red Four, contact three miles east of base, two men down,” he shouted. Without waiting for a response, Murphy pressed forward to look for shooters from the doorway. Before he could get his barrel through the doorway, Zora leapt forward.
“No!” he yelled at her. A bullet struck her and she emitted a pitiful yelp as she fell. “NO!” Murphy roared. He’d been scared and angry to see his men ambushed, but seeing Zora felled by a bullet drove the fear from a cold fury in his belly, directly into his heart.
Heedless of the hail of bullets, Murphy darted forward. His mind in overdrive, he saw Zora laying on the ground next to his two men and the terrorists. He knew that Rawlins was at his back, ready to provide suppressing fire for his two downed men. Murphy dropped into a baseball slide, stopping next to Zora. He lay his body over hers as he scanned for targets. At one the end of the alley, he could see a group of armed men rushing toward them with weapons drawn and point at his team.
The swarm of oncoming men outnumbered and out-gunned them. With only Rawlins and Murphy able to fight, the five armed men approaching them would be a match, even for two Marines. He eyed the room they had just exited. It wasn’t perfect but might provide a measure of cover, of safety, for his team while they unscrewed this mess.
“Red One, Red Four, I say again, contact three miles east of base, two men down.” Murphy raised his own gun, squeezing off a burst of gunfire. “Requesting any available air support for E-CAS.” Getting emergency close air support was a long shot at best and risked his life almost as much as it offered support.
Rawlins yelled wordlessly and Murphy looked back. At the opposite end of the alley, another hostile group was running towards Murphy and his men. Chips of mud wall and dust rained down on Murphy as the men opened fire.
Pushing down his fear, Murphy tried to rally his thoughts. He knew he and his men would soon be overrun and would likely be killed. He needed a safe place from which to fight and, hopefully, get a little airpower rained down, two-thousand pounds at a time.
“Red Four, stand by for E-CAS.” The lieutenant’s voice was calm as it crackled through his radio.
“Copy,” Murphy growled as he dragged Zora back inside the building, crouching low. He thanked any god he could name the hostiles were terrible shots and he could make it to even this small measure of safety unharmed. With Zora out of the middle of the alley, he rejoined Rawlins, who crouched over their two injured Marines and the handcuffed terrorists.
“Cover me, I’ll drag them both inside,” Murphy yelled.
At Rawlins’ nod, he grabbed each man by the handle on the back of their armor and pulled them inside the door while Rawlins’ gun sprayed a blast of covering fire. One of the men, Swanbourne, was still conscious but was bleeding profusely from both legs. Murphy tossed him a medical kit and quickly made sure the man’s gun was at hand.
“Stop the bleeding, then be ready,” Murphy said and darted back out the door. “Rawlins, pull back, we’ll use the door frame for cover. I assume they won’t shoot their own,” he nodded to the two terrorists still in the alley. Murphy leveled his gun, aiming down the alleyway.
The smaller man bolted for the door and Murphy gave him a quick high-five when he settled against the doorframe. Murphy glanced around the small room, taking in each man and Zora. The building’s meager walls would provide only a small measure of protection. He needed to pause this fight long enough to get them to safety.
Incongruously, his mind went back to the Commandant’s office once more.
Zora gave a quiet whine, almost inaudible in the rising gunfire and shattering of concrete around them. Murphy’s mind sought safety. He drew in a deep breath and released it, picturing some place safe. In his mind, he felt as if he was reaching for that safety. Without conscious effort, Murphy Jumped himself, his three men, and Zora into the office his mind had sought.
At his desk in the Commandant’s office, General Sterling was reviewing paperwork late into the night. His first wife had hated when he worked late. His second had used it to sleep her way through half of Quantico. The third merely accepted it as part of being the general’s wife. Regardless of the havoc it created in his personal life, he enjoyed the peace and focus it gave him when reviewing critical documents.
When four sweaty, dusty men and a dog suddenly appeared in his office, he gave a yell of surprise as he stood so fast he knocked his chair over. A career spanning thirty years in the Marine Corps had taught him to expect the unexpected but the sudden arrivals strained his calm. He gave the bloody, dirty heap of men a quick glance and recognized one of the dust-covered men.
“Staff Sergeant Hawkins?” he asked with more calm than he felt.
Murphy heard a voice calling him but ignored it. He was focused on what was in front of him. Breathing hard, he searched Zora’s chest with shaking hands, seeking the bullet hole. He found only a small line of scarlet where the bullet had grazed her. Murphy ignored the sudden quiet that followed the chattering of gunfire as he pulled gauze from his pack and pushed the wad onto the wound, securing it with a second roll.
He turned to his men and rocked back in confusion. Adrenaline allowed him to ignore the sudden fatigue weighing him down, but it didn’t account for his confusion. Where was the building they had just been in? Still ignoring the voice calling to him, assuming it was the lieutenant in his earpiece, he took in his men. His heart rate, already racing from the adrenaline, ratcheted up another notch when he noted blood now seeping across their uniforms.
“Sergeants Hawkins!” a voice bellowed, finally pulling his attention away from his team.
“LT, I need just another goddamn minute to sort this cluster out and we can talk about extraction,” Murphy said into his mic.
“No, Sergeant, I don’t think you need an extraction. I think you’ve got it under control,” the voice told him.
A gentle hand clasped his shoulder and Murphy tensed. His skin still burned with adrenaline, his breath was harsh, and his hand started to move without conscious thought as he stared at the carpet in front of him.
Sudden realization sunk into Murphy.
Carpet. Quiet. Clean. Things that meant he was safe. The arm moving to do violence slowed.
Murphy expelled a ragged breath, vision focused on the deep blue carpet under his hands. He looked up from his men, his focus finally taking in the rest of his surroundings. The Commandant’s plush office surrounded him and his battered team; he could feel the grit of Syrian sand digging into his knee where it pressed into soft carpeting. Darkness crowded in as Murphy pulled a whining Zora close.
“Nancy,” General Sterling called to his open door, knowing full well his secretary was there despite dismissing her hours ago. “Call Marco Martinez at Limitless Logistics. Tell him I need him in my office, right now. Tell him,” General Sterling paused a moment and gave a wry smile, “the Pantheon is expanding.”
I hope you enjoy this first chapter! I will start releasing additional info about the coming sequel in a few weeks. In the mean time, I would love to hear from you on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or by email! Stay up to date on the latest KR Paul news by joining our mailing list. As always, thank you dear fans!
“I refuse to fail again. After all, I want to see the void blink.“
Wow. What a week!
Sunday was Valentine’s Day, a holiday for which I feel ambivalent at best. I dislike the commercialization of it, it all feels performative, and I just plain have terrible luck with Valentine’s Day.
It started in High School. I was supposed to go on a church youth group ski trip that happened to fall over Valentine’s Day. The young man I was seeing, upset that I wouldn’t be around, dumped me. I went on the trip anyway and, of course, broke an ankle. Even worse, while in the ER, I picked up strep throat and spent the entire seven-hour drive from West Virginia back to North Carolina puking my guts out while trying to keep my foot propped up. There have been other Valentine’s Day mishaps, blizzards, and fights, but that really set the tone for my perception of the holiday.
It should come as no surprise that Valentine’s Day 2021 started as a trail run and ended in the ER.
For those of you who have only recently started following me, on Sunday, I was three weeks out from running the Mississippi 50k, a feat I have attempted and failed three times before, but the lure of completing it keeps drawing me back. It’s been a struggle at times, but last week I felt like I was really dialed in and the last few weeks before the race would tick by easily.
Then life happens. Remember my last post? “And in this, the era of COVID, meeting with the wrong person could wreck my lungs and put me in the cardio penalty box for six weeks.”
Oof. Big oof.
Sunday was supposed to be a 20-mile run, one of my last long runs before taper started, and I was excited to burn some calories before chowing down on the delicious dinner I had planned. Friday’s run had been an easy and steady six-mile run with no problems. But on Sunday, by the end of the first mile, I knew something was wrong. I spent a few miles trying to resettle my vest, adjust my bra band, and do anything that would ease the tightness settling on my chest.
By the first water stop at 5 miles, I was in a mental boxing match with myself and deep in the pain cave, something I had been staving off until at least the 10-mile mark recently. At mile six, I had to make the decision to quit my run. I was breathing hard. Harder than I should for how low my heart rate was. I was constantly stopping to walk and catch my breath. Even after readjusting my vest and bra, I still felt like I had a band around my chest.
At mile six, I acknowledge what I had been trying to ignore: I couldn’t breathe.
I can run through a lot of pain. In fact, my notably high pain threshold and lack of self-preservation are exactly what makes a good endurance athlete. But while the pain cave can be ignored, a distinct lack of oxygen cannot. I staggered back to my car and went home, resolved to try again on Monday.
An hour later, I got the first text: “Bad news… I just tested positive for COVID.”
I’m sure there is a compound German word for “the feeling of dread when your subconscious fear has been confirmed.” COIVD has been an ever-present threat for almost a year now and I have been fortunate. I got sick once back in November, but it was, mercifully, only strep throat. I have been careful. I’ve diligently worn my mask at work, at the gym, even while running when I’m near others. I look like a dork, but a safe dork.
I spent the new hour working with my coworkers to identify who had been near who, who needed to get tested, and how to move forward with folks on quarantine. The whole time, my breathing became more and more labored. Another hour and a phone call to my nurse later, I was on my way to the ER.
The ER staff was amazing; I’ll give them that. I was taken back to a room in under five minutes and saw a doctor almost immediately. Based on my symptoms, they did a rapid COVID test, but everyone acknowledged the rapid tests have a high false negative rate this early (based on when I had contact with the three positive folks). Unsurprisingly, it was negative; however, I was in a bad way, so I was essentially told, “look, you *do* have COVID. Go home, quarantine from your family. We’ll retest later.” They gave me an inhaler and I drove home, my mind whirling.
COVID affects the lungs and heart… as an endurance runner, I kinda need those to be in perfect working condition.
Dazed, tired, and scared, I told my family what I’d been told by the doctor and we worked out our plan. We split which parts of the house I would use and what they would use, plus where we would wear our masks.
You know that first second after the drops start on a rollercoaster? That was Sunday. Monday through Thursday were the rest of the ride, whiplash and all.
I spent Monday and Tuesday too sick to do much more than stagger to my computer desk, my bed, or the bathroom. I had to use my inhaler regularly and the emotional toll on my family was staggering. My kiddo’s birthday is soon and we’d planned a party this weekend, which we then had to cancel. More than a few tears were shed over that.
On Wednesday, a couple of monsters snuck up from work and I spent the day battling them while finally letting a few of my very close friends know how sick I was.
With every puff of the inhaler, I wondered what might be happening to my heart and lungs. The occasional burning feeling in my lungs or heart palpitations scared me, but I was too fatigued to do much more than lay on my bed worrying. I was sad I might have to drop out of Mississippi 50, thus failing to complete the distance for the fourth time. My doctor helped calm me down a bit as we talked through my symptoms and what I could expect. He recommended a second test to confirm, but with as hard as it had hit, he ordered three other tests from the same swap.
On Thursday, I got the utter delight of having the full depth COVID swab. I’m not a fan. It didn’t hurt, but it was very uncomfortable and unpleasant. I spent the rest of the day wondering what the results would be. The ER doctor was insistent that I had COVID. I had COVID symptoms. But I never had a fever and I never lost my sense of taste or smell. It was such an odd feeling while I waited. Fortunately, by the afternoon, the results were back: I was negative for COVID again. And two strains of flu and a common respiratory infection. Stumped, the doc and I walked through what I needed to do now (spoiler: wait until my 14 days had elapsed) and what my family could do (come off quarantine, yay!).
What a rollercoaster. COVID! No COVID! I feel like the rollercoaster cart is pulling back to the loading and unloading area, but I’m not off the ride yet. I have six more days of quarantine to ensure I don’t start exhibiting (additional) symptoms and I’m trying to do my job from home.
Where does this leave me for running Mississippi 50? Well, at this point, I still plan to run in the race. My health has improved each day since Wednesday and I feel confident I’ll be out running as soon as my quarantine ends. Which, of course, is the start of taper week. I’ll miss my two 20+ mile runs.
It’s unfortunate that my last two weeks to push through long runs are shot because I can’t leave my house. But I have eight months of training behind me. As my thesis advisor would say, “the hay is in the barn.” All I can do now is make good nutritional choices, keep my focus, and keep up with a good bodyweight strengthening program until I’m allowed back out. It’s not ideal, but it’s the hand I’ve been dealt.
And I refuse to fail again. After all, I want to see the void blink.
PS – during my downtime, I decided if/when I recovered and finished that f***ing race, I’m getting a new tattoo. I spent some time sketching out the design ideas below. I’m not set on any of of them yet, but I’m narrowing down what I like. So if you wondered why they were all plague doctor themed, now you know.
PPS – I finished Mississippi 50k and got my tattoo!
A Pantheon Thriller short story
Hello all! Happy Saturday before Valentine’s Day. Tonight I’m giving you a quick look at some of Limitless Logistics’ beginnings. Just like The Memo, while there are no spoilers, there’s mild foreshadowing. I highly recommend you finish reading Pantheon prior to reading as the characters and their roles will make much more sense that way.
Haven’t bought it yet? You can find it in both paperback and e-book on Amazon.
Make It Three
Hera absently brushed at the dried crust of blood on her otherwise immaculate peacock blue mini dress. She kicked one low heel irritably as she stared into a three-dollar Manhattan, silently cursing the bastard who couldn’t be bothered to remember she preferred champagne cocktails and spent outrageous amounts on a beverage she would barely sip. She pushed the drink away and caught the bartender’s eye.
“Champagne cocktail, love. Pomegranate syrup and twist of lemon,” her rich voice carried across the bar.
“Yes, miss.” The bartender glanced once, for only one moment, to a darkened corner where the only other patron sat before he went to the task of concocting her drink.
Hera absently brushed at the blood on her skirt again and pushed away the memories of how it got there. Men die every day, she knew that, but she didn’t like seeing it first hand and fumed to have been sent to Vietnam on a supply run twice in as many weeks.
The clinking sounds of serious bartending filled the almost empty bar for a few peaceful moments and Hera let her eyes close. Her morning had been – eventful – and now, at two in the afternoon Washington D.C. time, she was bone weary. Hera was starting to recognize the wearisome drag of a calorie deficit and knew she should eat, but she elected to drink her calories instead. There was still work to be done.
The sound of glass sliding across granite brought her eyes open.
“You’re in luck, miss,” the bartender told her. “I might be the only bartender in Washington that keeps pomegranate syrup on hand. We have to make it in-house, you know.”
“I know, dear. It’s why I come here,” Hera said and gave him a warm smile, basking in the glow of the appreciative smile he gave her in return. She brought the cocktail to her lips and sipped delicately with lips painted blood red, looking at the bartender through lowered lashes. “Pure ambrosia,” she told him “thank you.”
“Miss,” he said with a nod, but there was a hint of swagger in his step as he headed down the bar to polish a section of granite with the spotless white cloth tossed over his shoulder.
Hera smiled into her drink and took another sip. A flutter of lashes, a full bosom, the right siren red lipstick, and a mini dress went a long way towards getting what you wanted. God bless the fashion of the sixties, even when the world is a shit-show, she thought. Her free hand drifted to the dried blood on her hem a third time and brushed at it briskly. Realizing what she was doing, she drew her hand back and tucked an errant blond curl back behind her ear.
“Glenmorangie twelve, neat please.”
Hera eyed the young man who slid into the padded leather barstool a few seats down from her. He gave her a nod and a grin.
“Twelve, hmm? Looking for something your own age, love?” Hera asked, a sly grin catching the corner of her mouth.
He gave her an appraising look before answering. “I’d go a tiny bit older, but I’m not sure I can handle it, miss.”
Hera gave a rich, throaty laugh. “Well played. Get him the twenty-one, on my tab,” Hera told the bartender. “I’m Ada Ward,” she told him.
“John. John Page,” the young man answered.
Hera leaned forward and took him in. Dark hair the color of rich chocolate, golden hazel eyes that spoke of a certain warmth in his soul, and a charisma that was rare in someone so young.
“Hmm,” she murmured and ran a finger down her jawline, “come sit with me. You sound like you could hold up your end of a conversation.”
If her eyes glanced to the darkened corner of the bar, he didn’t notice as he moved down to sit next to her.
“So, John Page, what brings you here today?”
“I hear only the most beautiful of women come here,” he told her. “The really special ones come at two in the afternoon on a Sunday.”
A thrill ran through her. “Oh, you’re the one I hear about then?” She quirked one eyebrow and licked her lips.
His eyes narrowed briefly as they followed her tongue. “Yes, I think I am.” He took a heavy swallow of his scotch.
“It’s nineteen sixty-nine,” she said and the corner of her mouth twitched up slightly, “and I hear that in this fabulous year, men like you do extraordinary things.”
“Yes, I do, honey,” he assured her, his eyes darkening.
She bit her lip, something fierce and hot blooming in her. “Think you could show me?” she asked, her voice breathy with expectation, not all of it contrived.
He flinched back. “Here?” he asked, his voice rising in pitch. “Now?”
She dropped her head over her drink and looked up at him through her lashes. “Why not here? Why not now?”
“Wow, that’s fast but, yeah, groovy.”
The fool held out a hand and, mentally bracing herself, she took it. A flame of lust lay over the top layer of his thoughts and she tried not to chuckle. Underneath was a mélange of dominance, trepidation, and intense focus. He was precisely the kind of man she adored, even if he was wrong for her. She saw him flinch slightly at the contact and wondered what he felt form her.
“Follow me,” she said and hopped off her chair. She gave the skirt of her mini dress a tug and pulled him after her, towards the bar’s washrooms. She cast a quick glance at the bartender and gave a convincing giggle. They plowed through the bathroom door in a tangle and she snagged the door, throwing the latch to lock it against anyone following them in.
She turned to him, her face suddenly sober and serious. “Can you Jump?” she asked briskly.
“Jump?” he asked and took a step back.
“Teleport? Move from place to place in a blink?”
His brow furrowed. “Is that what this is?
Hera nodded, her crimson smile widening.
“Yes? I think so,” he said, still sounding slightly confused.
“Show me,” she said and held her hand out again.
He inhaled sharply but slapped his hand into hers. No sooner had he made contact than they appeared in another place. The granite and gold of the bar was replaced with a spacious, modern apartment. A low mustard colored gondola sofa sat on a green shag carpet and faced a low slung table, covered in a high-end record player and hi-fi speakers.
“Impressive,” she told him with a smirk. “You are what your reputation says.” She released his hand and walked to the small box of vinyl records. She idly thumbed through them, judging his taste.
Hands landed lightly on her shoulders and skimmed down her arms. “Impressed?”
“Yes, as I said.”
“Can I show you more?” John’s voice was pitched lower and held a commanding note that made a hum of lust shoot through her again.
She couldn’t see the smirk on his face but could hear it in his voice.
“No, but I think I can show you more,” she said as she turned.
His face held the hopefulness of youth; he was hopeful that he knew where this was going, but unsure if he could really talk her into his bed.
She gave his shoulders a sharp shove and they Jumped back to the bar’s bathroom. He tumbled back into the row of sinks.
“What the hell, girl!” he said as he thumped to the tiled floor. He struggled to his feet and faced her again.
“I guess I’ve done a better job keeping what I can do a secret than you. You’ll have to work on that if you come work for me. My name is Ada Ward, but I go by the military code name ‘Hera.’ I do what you do, only,” she gave him a smirk, “quieter and better. I was in Vietnam earlier this morning.” She paused; her hands straying to the bloodstain on her hem. “Their night, I suppose. But no one knows except a very small group.”
She approached him, her hands drifted to his collar, straightening it, and lingering for a moment.
“I think you’d like working for us, John Page. Come finish your drink, then you can come back and discuss business with us. Unless you can’t perform with a little liquor in you?” Her wry smirk expanded into a full grin.
He inhaled sharply. “Girl, you–”
“Don’t say anything you’ll regret, John Page!” she said. Her flashing eyes narrowed, but her grin remained. She relished his flustered muttering. Watching him go from arrogant and swaggering to unsettled and complacent ignited something in her. Hera sashayed out of the bathroom, John trailing behind her.
Their drinks lay untouched on the bar and Hera nodded once to the bartender. He nodded deeply enough that it was almost a bow.
Hera snagged her drink and held it up. “Will you join us?”
“Us?” John stammered, reaching for his own drink.
The man who sat in the darkened corner of the bar rose, buttoning his jacket as he stood. John’s eyes widened as the man unfolded himself from behind the corner booth. Even across the room, he towered, his physical presence commanding the whole room.
Hera pursed her lips as she watched him saunter up. He was a tall man and thick with muscle that pressed against the seams of his dark suit. His square cut, intensely masculine jawline had drawn her in year ago, but now she could only think of how he set his jaw when he was arguing with her, stubbornness etched into his bones.
“John Page, Morgan Ward. He goes by his military code name, Zeus,” she told John with a demure smile she didn’t feel.
John gave her a quizzical look. “Ada Ward? Morgan Ward? He’s your husband.” It wasn’t a question and he looked dumbstruck.
“Indeed,” Zeus said, his voice a bass rumble that filled the bar. “I’d like you to consider joining us at Limitless Logistics,” Zeus said and passed him a card.
“Limitless Logistics? What’s that?”
“Just like its name, a logistics company with no limits.” Zeus looked askance at Hera. “We are military, but recent,” he paused, considering his words, “shifts in politics have shown us that we need to be a separate entity. Out from under military control.”
Hera stood rigid, willing her hands not to drift to the blood on the hem of her micro-skirt. She let her face and mind go blank, refusing to let the horrors she’d seen just that day or in any of the past weeks enter her mind.
“But…” his confused voice trailed off. His brows furrowed. “Just how many people do you have in this Limitless Logistics. I can’t imagine there are that many of us.”
“You’d make it three. I do so love when there’s three,” Hera told him with a wink. She fought down a smirk when Zeus frowned at her.
“But, I already have a job–”
“With the United States Army, yes, we’re aware. You’ll still be an Army officer.” Hera looked at Zeus, who nodded. She set her jaw. “We’ve had a few problems in the past, with brass pushing us around. Our new deal allows us both leeway to recruit and the privilege of being a general officer.” She gave him a quick smile. “You would be promoted to general and a contractor as well.”
“Contractor?” he asked, voice full of incredulity.
Hera was amused and reassured that he latched on to that and not the offered rank.
“What like a mercenary?” A layer of panic lay on John’s voice.
“No, man. God, no!” Zeus laughed, hand slapping onto Hera’s shoulder as he shook with mirth.
Hera took the gesture in stride, smiling pleasantly at John. It probably wasn’t retaliatory for her flirting with John; Zeus knew that she, at least, would never stray. It was likely Zeus had forgotten her entire morning Jump to Vietnam or was deliberately ignoring the blood on her skirt so he didn’t have to listen to her weep over it. If she didn’t need him for so many reasons, she’d be tempted to wring his well-muscled neck.
“We utilize people like you, with special skills to move things. People and things, different places in the very special way we do.” He gave John’s shoulder a light jab. “Ring me up in the morning. We’ll talk it over and if you agree, I can expedite your paperwork. I assume you’d like that little incident in Mexico cleaned up as we move you over?” Zeus asked slyly.
“Uh, yes, that would, uh–” John stammered. “How did you even–”
“Not here, man. We can cover that tomorrow. Have your girl phone me in the morning. We’ll meet again.” His grin widened. “Until then.” With a wink to John, Zeus clapped a hand on Hera’s waist and they blinked out.
“Morgan!” Hera scolded him when she recognized their penthouse living room. “You really shouldn’t–”
“I shouldn’t?” he asked, cutting her off furiously. “Oh, don’t tell me what I shouldn’t do, girl! Taking the boy back to a bathroom? What were you getting at?” Zeus shot her a jealous glare which she returned with interest.
“Please, Zeus, don’t you even start trying to make me out to be the unfaithful one. Oh, and you!” She pointed a finger at his nose. “Two years of marriage and you still can’t remember that I hate bourbon? Buy me champagne next time, you ass. Maybe I’ll remember not to drag men to the bathroom like some common slut!” She stalked to the bedroom, her stride jarring her angry hands as they tugged at her mini dress zipper as she went.
“Are you coming or not you pig?” She shot over her shoulder. The fire of anger was replaced by the passionate blaze that had been growing in her all afternoon.
Zeus groaned in fury but unbuttoned his coat and loosened his tie as he followed her to their bedroom. “You’ll be the death of me, girl.”
“Hardly!” She told him, shimmying out of the mini dress and grabbing his shirt collars. “Your fat mouth and paranoia will be the death of you if a filthy sailor’s disease doesn’t get you first! And don’t you lecture me. At least I,” she stressed, “am faithful. I just get my engines revved up where I can while keeping my clothes on!” She gave him a filthy look.
“Oh, go have your own affairs, you harpy. We’re only married so you can run this company,” Zeus growled as he clamped hands on the ones gripping his collar.
“A marriage vow means something to me, Zeus, even if it means nothing to you!”
His hands released her at her words. They both knew how the other felt. Most days, the small grain of love still remaining burned more than it soothed.
“I hate how much I love you,” Zeus grumbled as she slipped his pants off.
“Same, you bastard,” she told him as they tumbled into bed.
I hope you enjoy this little vignette and would love to hear from you on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or by email! Stay up to date on the latest KR Paul news by joining our mailing list. As always, thank you dear fans!
Hello and welcome to the doldrums. With only five weeks to go until the Mississippi 50, I’ve hit that horrible intersection of “I’ve come so far” and “I still have so far to go.”
Five weeks is a miserable length of time away from a big event and I hit a doldrum like this with every major race or bodybuilding show I’ve done. With five weeks, you find yourself close enough to the event that you can start feeling like it’s soon, especially relative to the amount of time you’ve already trained and prepared. In this case, I’ve been training for the last five months. Five weeks is close enough to feel those nerves driving you inexorably forward to the start line. But five weeks is still a long enough amount of time away from the starting line that you can still mess it up. One wrong foot placement on the trail could knock me out with a sprained ankle. A poor lift in the gym could wreck my back. And in this, the era of COVID, meeting with the wrong person could wreck my lungs and put me in the cardio penalty box for six weeks.
I also find myself in the doldrum grind. I have been doing this for five months. I know my local trails by heart. I know what I need to eat and drink. The challenge of nailing down those things is gone and it’s a long five week grind to the starting line. Part of my brain tells me, “You could stop; you could throttle back and coast in from here. What’s the difference between a 17 mile run and an 18? Or only 15? Heck, just skip this week; you’re legs are tired enough.”
Fortunately, I have failure to spur me on through this last month into taper week. As I’ve written about in “But Why?,” “Being Comfortable with Being Uncomfortable,” and my most popular post, “Chasing the Ultramarathon,” I have failed to complete the ultra distance three times now. In 2016, I had to drop down to the 20k distance a mere week out because my body was falling apart. In 2017 I gave myself a freaking heart murmur and my doctor wouldn’t clear me to race the ultra distance. In 2020, I started training for the 50k distance but knew months out that I couldn’t make the distance and only signed up for the 20k.
Those failures burn me.
Not like the warm flickering of a candle. They burn in me like a spark ignites a forest fire. My ambition is the tinder of a dry forest floor and at five weeks out, the flames are licking at the branches. I will finish this race. I will make the distance. I will crawl across the finish line if I have to because I won’t accept failure again.
So many people are afraid of failure. Terrified and paralyzed by the very thought of failing. But I ask you: if your goals don’t include a risk of failure, are you really achieving your potential?
Maybe there are folks out there who are truly happy staying safely in their personal bubble. But, me? I need goals. I need a challenge. I need the risk. Hell, I need to know I’m walking to the edge of the cliff and staring into the void. I want to know that when the void stares back, the void blinks, not me.
The failures are what drive me out of the doldrums. It’s what silences the little voices that tell me to take it easy. The fear of failing, again, is what will drive me through to taper week.
Because when I toe the starting line on March 6th and I stare into the void of covering 31.1 miles with a goal of 8 hours or less, I want to see the void blink.
Update: I ended up in the ER, on bed rest and quarantine for two weeks the weekend following this post. I missed my two longest runs but still finished Mississippi 50k in under 8 hours. It was such a significant emotional event, I even got a tattoo to commemorate it. The void stared hard, but in the end, it blinked, not me.
Last week I wrote about plotting out your story via index cards. Whether you’re a Plotter or Pantser, there’s a lot of goodness in that method. Today I want to show you some of what I do before the index cards come out.
I know I was all excited on Twitter and here recently because I had finished making cards for my “Hades and Persephone” project, but don’t let that fool you into thinking that it’s really the first step in crafting a story. Every author is different, but I have several steps I have to get through before I can even think of putting scene cards together. I’ll break it down into the steps, but I plan on only focusing on a few of them today. I’ll add additional posts later to add more detail to some of the steps.
Step 1: The Idea
Here’s the toughest part of writing. You can be taught grammar, spelling, style, how to structure a story, and how to edit. But if you don’t have the idea, that creative spark for a story so compelling readers can’t put it down, then you have nothing. You can be taught how to draw out that world that exists only in your own head, but I can’t teach you what doesn’t exist.
But when you have the idea — whew, friends — we’re in for a ride!
This step can take me anywhere from two seconds or years as I let a story percolate in my mind. In all honestly, I sometimes complete Steps Two and Three while gnawing on Step One.
Step 2: A Single Sentence
Later in the process, I tend to refer to this sentence as my elevator speech. But at the beginning, it’s your plot captured in one sentence. It should be the answer to “Oh, you’re writing a book, what’s it about?” when asked by a stranger and have only the span of an elevator ride to explain.
For example, when I have to give the one sentence, short version of Pantheon’s plot, I typically say: “Loggies who can teleport are superheroes.” Six words, that’s it. But it hooks you and it’s the foundation for everything else.
Step 3: Characters
Whether you write plot/action driven stories or character driven plot, you still need compelling characters to fuel your story. I spend a good measure of time developing characters before writing the plot. After all, it’s tough to write character interaction and that fabulous conflict if you don’t know how a character would react. For Pantheon, I have meticulously kept files on all my characters.
Seriously, even characters who don’t exist in the universe yet had sheets and backstories that inform their actions and choices.
The outline is fairly basic, with only a few questions, but the more I learn who these characters are, the more detail and depth I can add. Currently, most of my notes go into one of my precious notebooks. The basic details go on the front, but as I learn a character, I fill in more details and where I want their plot to go gets filled in on the back of the page.
A note about the “aesthetic” section: this is an odd one to explain. To me, each of my characters has an aesthetic, a vibe, if you will. I use this section to fill in sensory information reflective of each character. While I never directly write this vibe, that would be weird, I use the sensory information to add subtle layers of depth to scenes. Certain characters have certain description tags that are either consistent throughout or their changes to indicate the character is undergoing a personal change. No more on that… I’d hate to spoil something accidentally.
I have the aesthetic block, but I also utilize Pinterest as a visual reference and each character’s “mood board” is often up on a background tab while I write them. The reminders help me both in the initial writing and later as I edit in depth.
Val’s board makes a good example. Her character has a lot of rage and for good reasons! I represent her with reds, fire, and the natural, chaotic energy present in a thunderstorm.
Step 4: The Arc
I wrote briefly on the Arc in the index card post and showed most Western stories follow the same three act plot arc.
Act 1 – sets your world, introduces your characters, and hooks them into the action. Many authors use this to introduce their characters in their natural habitat, with things existing in a state of harmony or stability before they have the inciting incident. Me? I’m a sucker for the cold open and typically punch readers in the face with a big fat plot hook right away. Readers will catch on to what “normal” used to be later and you know damn well I’ll use the friction between “normal” and “now” to drive that plot.
Act 2 – I think of Act 2 as an ever escalating set of obstacles. It should set the stakes and drive the characters toward the climax of Act 3. I also like adding in a good disaster/crisis to align all my characters against their Big Bad.
Act 3 – I use Act 3 to finalize any powers a character may have, letting them finally get a grip on them. The other option is to allow them to resolve one subplot point so they can head into the climax with one step forward and two steps back. This is your story’s climax and where the charters should be fighting the big fight. It should resolve your main conflict and set the characters on their future path. Of course, I’m a jerk, so if I know that the book is part of a series, I leave enough unresolved points to fuel the next book.
As you can see in the picture above, I use percentages (by word count) to describe when an action point should occur to keep the plot moving. There’s something to be said for having a quick lull in the action for readers to catch their breath but, I don’t want them to languish through unnecessary plot. I use the high points to expand on my single sentence plot description. Knowing what types of action should happen in each act, I can add more detail and specificity.
And NOW you can start writing those scene cards! Once you have the act framework, it’s easy to break into the associated plot points. I don’t hold rigidly to a “this is my inciting incident” and “this is obstacle number one,” but those parts are sometimes reflected in the color scheme I use.
I really hate to burst the bubble of anyone who thinks I just sit down and write or that the story goes from inspiration straight to plot on paper (or a Word Doc).
Super quick post tonight because my Muse has me in her glorious grasp. Sometimes you sit on a story for ages. A week. A month. A year. More.
And some days, the dam cannot be held back any longer. Today is my day. This Hades and Persephone story has gnawed at me for years. Last week I ripped the story’s scribbled pages out of my ancient green notebook and started transferring it to a real notebook. I violated the prime rule of authors: We horde beautiful notebooks. We never, NEVER write in the notebooks.
Well, I’m writing in that notebook now. Not only that, I’ve started index cards for each scene. I’ve finished Act I’s note cards! I’m not waiting. I have the time, the energy, and the muse.
Let the words flow!
Let’s be honest, the “here’s how I build my plot” blog post is the writing blogger’s equivalent to the beauty blogger’s ubiquitous “my daily skincare routine!” post. Like, sis, no one asked, but ok, I’ll watch. Why? Because it’s at least mildly interesting to see what other writers (or beauty bloggers) do differently from our own techniques and it’s great to learn someone else’s best practices. Maybe you’ll find something new you love.
In this article, I will walk you through the difference between a “Plotter” and a “Pantser,” the basic exercise for building scenes, how I’ve made that work for me, and how it can help you break your writer’s block.
Plotter or Pantser?
If you are not a writer or new to writing, you are probably wondering, “WTF is a Plotter or Pantser?” It’s ok. The first time I heard those words was sitting in an author panel at DragonCon. (Pretty sure I was wearing a Wonder Woman costume too, but that’s neither here nor there.) Jim Butcher and another author were debating the merits of plotting your entire story before you write (“Plotter”) or letting it free flow and going by the seat of your pants (“Pantser”). I realized that I wrote my first novel (still unpublished) and the first draft of Pantheon by the seat of my pants and not knowing how either story would end was a major problem for me as I wrote. However, as my writing style evolved, I grew from a “pantser” to a plotter, mainly by using the techniques I describe here. By the time I was writing Pantheon 2: Ares & Athena and Born, Not Bitten, I was a fully fledged plotter with a stack of index cards to prove it.
During the panel, Jim Butcher recommended “The Fantasy Fiction Formula” by Deborah Chester, his writing professor from school. My kind, wonderful, and supportive spouse immediately bought it for me and I’ve been using it ever since. It has a ton of useful information, but one of the things I keyed in on was her information on building scenes. I took the information she provided and built on it. Now, using her basics, I have my own technique for plotting.
If you are a Plotter, I think you can get real utility out of my technique. But hey, if you’re a freewheeling Pantser, stick around as you still might take something away from this, especially when I talk about the dreaded writer’s block.
What Deborah Teaches:
While I highly recommend getting a copy of “The Fantasy Fiction Formula” because the whole book is loaded with good information, I will be focusing on the scene building from Chapters 5 and 8. In Chapter 5, she notes that successful scenes all contain a “goal, conflict and resolution” (pg 88). In Chapter 8, she goes on to describe the four ways in which a scene can end: “Yes,” “No,” “Yes but,” and “No, and furthermore” (pg 129-132). A “Yes” means the conflict is resolved. “No” means the characters are at an impasse, but they could find a resolution as the plot progresses. A “Yes but” scene leaves the conflict mostly resolved but sets it up for further conflict later with the unresolved portions. Finally, a “No, and furthermore” scene is the worst-case scenario and sets up your major plot points, disasters, or turning points.
I like her technique because it helps me frame the scene, know what the outcome should be by the end of the scene, and where it fits in the larger story. It also helps me keep from having too many low conflict scenes in a row. If everyone agreed all the time, it would be a boring plot. I also use a very formulaic set up for pacing to keep from dwelling too long in Act I or skip building something important in Act II. I don’t hold too rigidly to the standard set up. You all know I love a cold open and dropping straight into the action, but you can see from Pantheon’s set up, you hit your “35% first pinch point” spot on in the Syria scene.
How I’ve Expanded the Technique (AKA – The Index Card Method):
I like how the book lays out scene setting and having both a goal and resolution, but I needed a way to capture that information that worked for me. I, being a huge dork, keep index cards around the house. I also don’t like building my plot on a computer, favoring the handwritten word, usually in a notebook. So, I combined a little bit of all of these elements.
I tend to daydream out a lot of my plot before I ever write it down. As I’ve stated before, Pantheon was “written” while I drove the 15 hours round trip from school home every few weeks while getting my masters. Val, Powell, Hank, Damarcus, and Mandy were fully fleshed out people/personalities in my head before I ever put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. The problem, of course, is my fallible memory. Now I keep my pre-made plot index cards that also capture the best elements from “The Fantasy Fiction Formula” and my own tracking system.
Each card has the following pre-written: scene, goal, conflict, decision, result, character(s), and POV. Those first four come directly from “The Fantasy Fiction Formula,” and the last two are what help me track who is in the scene and whose head we’re in.
Scene: A basic title for what is going on.
Goal: This is what I should get out of the scene, my goal for the reader.
Conflict: Who is mad? Who is fighting? What is driving the tension in this scene?
Decision: Did we win? Did we lose? Is someone dead?
Result: a very shorthand version of “Yes,” “No,” “Yes but,” and “No, and furthermore,” so I can frame the intensity level of the scene.
Character: Any and all characters present in the scene.
POV: Who’s point of view takes this scene.
Other notes: Once I capture all my scenes for a book, I will order them and number them. This helps me keep track later and usually a scene number will become the chapter number. As I continue to flash out a scene and its details, I’ll put additional notes on the back.
Color coding: I also color code my index cards once I have a better idea of how the plot is structured. It helps me identify high points in the writing and make sure it flows logically.
White: Normal scenes
Yellow: Catalyst, climax, or plot turning point scenes
Orange: These are not scene cards, but cards that indicate what elements must be in place before the next act begins. Almost always placed directly before a yellow card.
Green: Conclusion cards. Like the orange cards, they don’t describe a scene but, based on what I want to happen in the next novel, describe all the elements or points that have to be made before the end of the book. It would suck really bad to have an amazing plot twist or idea but have to rush the foreshadowing or plot flow because I didn’t include it in an earlier book. (I’m looking at you Star Wars sequel trilogy…)
Converting Index Cards to Written Plot:
You’ve got this massive stack of cards, now what? Now you write! You have all the elements you need to write a scene. If you aren’t like me and don’t pre-write full novels in your head like a psychopath… then you have the basics from which you write your novel. Sit down and expand on the information contained in your card. You will find that when you know what the scene’s goal is and where the conflict lies, writing it out becomes so much easier. With the addition of the orange and green element cards, you can ensure you don’t miss anything, adding key information early, which gives it a more organic feel than adding it back in on a second or third draft.
How It Helps Break/Avoid Writer’s Block:
Ok, Pantsers, listen up! I love you free-flowing, character-following folks, but as a former Pantser, that can set you up for failure when it comes to writer’s block. If you have to follow a chronological flow, you can get stuck. You may know what the end is supposed to be, but if you are on A and the conclusion is Z, you still need to write B through Y.
This is where my method of plot framing helps kill writer’s block. Why do you care about B through P, Q, R if you already have a card for S through Z? Don’t feel motivated to write a scene? Skip it! Move on. Go to the scene you know and you’re vibing with today. Grab that card and put the verbal meat on its bones. No law says you absolutely must write the plot in order.
“But Kay, how do I keep track??” Easy friends! You ordered your cards, right? Put a scene number down? Cool, save the file with the scene number. Then, when you are able to write those scenes that are blocked, you know where to fit in the previously written scenes. For example, in Pantheon’s third installment, I have over thirty scene cards, but the only chapters I have written are 1, 3, 10, 11, 14, 15, 18, and 19. I’ll get there with time, but for now, I like that I can pick up a card I’m feeling that day and work it out without feeling pressure to link two scenes.
The index card technique may feel like it’s adding rigidity and structure to the plotting process. Still, by framing your plot with scene goals in mind, you actually give yourself flexibility later in the writing process. It takes a little more time in the beginning because you need to prep cards, but I feel that it pays dividends later as I can let the creative process happen without stressing about how a scene fits or if I need to tweak a goal. The result is a more organic writing flow and a more impactful writing style. I use it to create a fast moving, addictive plot that readers can’t put down and the method helps me side steps writer’s block.
If you’re curious how I construct plot before the index cards, you can find that in my “What Happens Before the Index Cards” post.