Fond Farewell to a Friend

I ought to be doing a hundred things but instead I’m messy crying in the supermarket parking lot.

This isn’t going to be one of the things I write with jokes or jetpacks or monsters. This is the other kind. A little over a week ago, I lost my best friend. Bruisersaurus Rex, the Chihahuanator. Bruiser. My co-pilot and best dog buddy. He’s gone.

It’s not real. It can’t be real. I can hardly stand how real it is.

Clever comedians make jokes about pets being heartbreak on layaway. Everything you love, you will eventually grieve– or you’ll leave them to grieve you. It’s a fucked up bargain. We really should read the EULA more carefully.

Before Bruiser, I wasn’t really a dog person. I had a (short) list of dogs I liked but I wasn’t the “SHOW ME PICTURES OF YOUR SMOL BOY PLZ” dog lover that I am now. It’s only after losing Bruiser, that I think I know why that was. We had a dog when I was young, a yellow lab that we got as a puppy. Her name was Sarah and she was a great dog. She was hit by a car and died. I was probably about six. Old enough that my mom decided I was ready to understand death. Memories from that young get mixed up with feelings. What I remember is a bloody blanket wrapped around her and sobbing in the failing summer light.

Here’s a pet for you to adore, kid. Now, go get your shovel because it’s not going to last.

I used to tell people that when I lost Bruiser I would fall to pieces for a month. I knew it would hit me like the falling star that killed the dinosaurs. What I didn’t expect is that I’d lose him less than a week before I had to fly to Anaheim and work with a team to make one of the biggest and most important awards shows for science fiction and fantasy writers happen, the 2023 Nebula Awards. I had this event I’d worked on for months that was really important for me personally and professionally, and then I had this unexpected and stunning amount of overwhelming sad. Falling to pieces wasn’t an option. I cried (a lot) for a couple of days and then I needed to set it aside and get the job done.

Don’t worry. Grief waits up and it finds you in supermarket parking lots.

I adopted Bruiser over thirteen years ago. I was 29 years old and like most 29 year olds, I was a disaster of a person. I had a house for the first time in my adult life with the room and backyard to have a dog. He was a second-chance rescue shipped up here from Bakersfield, California. A year-old, they guessed. He was skin and bones with mange on his great big ears. When I got to him in the tour of the humane society, he didn’t bark or run to get my attention. He sat, broken and lonely in the middle of his pen. His eyes told me his whole story. He’d been hurt and abandoned. He didn’t trust anyone and he wasn’t going to beg or pretend to be one of those carefree cartoon dogs. He was imperfect and he needed patience. I loved him immediately.

For a while, years before I adopted Bruiser, I tried to do this thing where I would look at myself in the mirror and say, “I love you.” It was the most absurd self-help-y weekday afternoon talkshow stitched pillow bullshit. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t even do it with a silly voice. Growing up the way I grew up, with a lot of :gestures vaguely at a chart of trauma, abuse, and neglect:, I had a blackhole where most people have self esteem. Where many people have some notion of unconditional love or whatever the kids are calling it these days, I didn’t. The love I had came with warning labels. The love I had was Halloween candy with razor blades and needles.

And then I found Bruiser.

With his head floomped on my chest and his small heart thump-thumping next to me, I got to love something that not only wasn’t going to hurt me but loved me right back. I couldn’t be the husband or the friend I am today without that. I’d still be a skittish half-broken collection of traumas and deflections in a trench coat. Every day, I told Bruiser I loved him. Every day, I sang songs I made up about him while I cooked in the kitchen and he prowled underfoot for dropped treasure. Every day, I hugged him and he nestled beside me. I grew up with Bruiser. I became better. I accepted him and all of his quirks and he accepted me and made me think, “hey, maybe someone else might do that too.”

They should stop the world when your best friend dies. They should shut it all down. Not today, sunshine. Stay right fucking there, moon. Bruiser is gone and he deserves a better tribute than I can give him.

It’s so deeply weird not having a dog race to greet me when I come in the door, not having a pair of giant ears to pet within arm reach. He was — is– so much a part of my identity. My writing bio always lists some version of “little dog owner” or “little dog wrangler.” My wife and I have a second dog but it was Bruiser that made me a dog person. My first big short story sale is about a man and his dog after the world has ended. The main character has this long list of nicknames and terms of endearment. That dog is very much Bruiser. I cannot imagine how I write or live without him. I know that I will but the physics of it, the fumble-y wobble-y uncertainty of every day without my best friend, is unfathomable still.

We knew for weeks that we were going to lose Bruiser. He got sick in a hurry– cancer, it turns out– but for a couple of months we knew. By the end he couldn’t stand long. He couldn’t see or hear. He couldn’t eat. He was in pain and we knew. I thought when he was gone I would let out this great earthquake cry. I thought all my bones would break and I would fall. He was sedated in my arms when he went and all I could manage was crying and saying, “oh buddy, oh. Oh, oh, buddy.”

I wish I could write the most Epic Dog Tribute. I wish I could invite you into all of my Bruiser memories and give you a glimpse of how special and amazing he was. I wish I could shave off just a fraction of my affection and share it. I wish I could shave off just a fraction of this hurt. All I can do is express how much I loved him though and even then, I don’t think I can do that well enough. Not yet.

After Bruiser was still in my arms and I set him down one last time, I cried until my body ached from it. Muscles I didn’t know I had were sore for days.

I ought to be doing a hundred things but instead I’m missing him and that’s okay.

What I remember about Sarah, the dog that died when I was six, is my older brother’s tears. He ran away from the rest of us and wailed and my mom explained to me, because I was old enough to understand death, that my brother had never properly grieved our father. I understood even then that what we feel for our pets is about them and about more than them. I learned unconditional love from Bruiser and now he’s teaching me unconditional grief.

I loved Bruiser and he loved me. I accepted him and he accepted me. Our family grew but at the beginning, it was just the two of us. I told my now-wife on one of our first dates, “we’re a package deal.” You can’t have me without Bruiser. I will write so much more about him. I will cry so much more— so much more— for him. But for now, with my salty cheeks and aching guts, this is what I have.

Goodbye, buddy.

Glitter Hurt Hello – A Personal Essay

Content Warning: Allusion to childhood abuse and trauma

I read submissions guidelines this morning and they said they don’t want any “unresolved trauma.” I didn’t know you could put that in a bullet point list. After “Westerns” and before “Vampires.”

One thing you learn as a creator in the 2020s is that it’s never a good idea to express yourself in public when you’re angry.


Writing for me has always been a paradox. Words are logical concrete objects, but emotions aren’t. The moment you manage to take a feeling and wrangle it into nouns and verbs it becomes not-a-feeling. It becomes a story that progresses and makes sense and resolves.

It’s my favorite thing.

It’s the worst thing.

Most of the time when I’m writing a story, I’m trying to break it. I’m booby-trapping the resolution. I’m setting words, these long algebraic variables, into dissonant order. I’m crafting a story for you that, if I do it right, shatters upon consumption and tears you up with shards of emotion. For that magic trick to work, the story needs to make sense and be pleasingly story-shaped because brains are phenomenal gatekeepers. My right hand distracts with concrete objects. Tension that progresses, characters that evoke familiar archetypes, so many patterns. All about that monomyth bullshit, baby. And then, my left hand punches you in the heart.

I’m doing this because I love you.

I’m doing this because I’m always expressing myself in public when I’m angry.

Maybe other writers aren’t like me but how else can you explain the impulse to make someone cry from a sad scene? Or to make someone scared to walk out of a dark movie theater? Storytellers are warlocks. We find some part of the human experience and we conjure it for an audience in new familiar ways. We are, I’m sorry to say, manipulators and we are, I’m proud to say, the most generous priests. We’re giving you catharsis and excitement and an escape from the day-to-day but every last bit of it is completely fake. Manufactured and revised and marketed. Except the parts that we sneak through. The parts that are more true than real life.

I recently got a rejection.

(One thing you learn as a creator in the 2020s is that it’s never a good idea to talk about your rejections in public.)

I recently got a rejection, and it said my prose and grammar wasn’t where they’d like it to be. But I digress.

Imagine that your life is a mirror and imagine that trauma is a fist that punches it dead center. The glass breaks at the point of impact and the mirror stops being a mirror. It becomes a lot of mirrors. Tiny, jagged mirrors scattered on the ground with bigger pieces still holding onto the frame but fragmented now. So, you stand in front of all of those mirrors and wonder: who are you now? You’ve stopped being you and become instead a contradiction of plural yous.

My mirror broke a long time ago. I’m not even sure that it was ever a perfect single reflection. Could be that it came from the factory damaged. I’m accustomed to being a few dozen paradoxes in a trench coat. I’m strong and I’m weak-kneed. I’m hilarious and clinically depressed. Hard to say if this makes me a good writer or a basket case of mental illness because the answer will always, inexorably, be both.

I love writing stories with my whole heart.

Writing stories is my most masochistic addiction.

I am a junkie for solving puzzles. I like things to fit. I like themes and I like cause and effect. I tinker with words and lines and structure and think deeply about the impact of white space on the page and sentence cadence, eye movement, assonance, cognitive lexicology, and reader immersion. I play with recursive phrasing. Sentence length. I angle words just so that you need to slow down and choke on them. I come to my word processor a deeply intentional and meticulous mad scientist. I come to my word processor seeking ecstatic non-verbal abandon.

Me and my broken selves. Me and my contradictions.

Spend much time reading my work and you’ll see a lot of weird shit. I crash words together like a drunk at a demolition derby. I take hard turns and big swings. I get accused of writing too “literary” or too “genre.” I use dirty words and words you might need to google to be sure I’m not making them up. My spaceship got lost in your pretentious poem and my philosophical exploration of theodicy skulked into your sword and sorcery.

Here’s the secret: all of it is me. One of me. Several of me.

Here’s the secret: all of it is unresolved trauma.

When you’re a kid and some unthinkable terrible thing happens, you lose your story. You get to school, and someone told your teachers about it already. You get to school, and your classmates have been whispering. You cry and you tremble because you can’t help it and when they ask you why, you’re not allowed to lie. Even if you wanted to, you don’t know how yet. Lying about things that big takes practice. What happened. What you felt. Her eyes closed. Her body still. Everyone staring. Memory that will never make sense but the best you can do is chopped up incomplete sentences. Grammatically incorrect. It makes sense in ugly busted prose. And you’re so, so young and your mirror won’t ever come back together but you’ll learn to lie.

Trust me.

How are you doing, they’ll ask you, and you will learn to tell them what you need to tell them so you can keep going. But not when you’re still a wet-cheeked raw nerve. Your hurt is broadcast. Your hurt is communal property, the stuff of rumor, and cautionary tales. The agency you get, you steal it. You learn magic. Look at my right hand while my left hand reaches out for you. Laugh at my jokes while I fight the ghosts trapped in my bones. You hurt yourself so you can beat them to the punch. You fictionalize.

In writing a story, second person is a great device to create emotional distance. You’ll learn this. You’ll master it.

I was nine years old, but I was also younger. It happened once, but it also happened a hundred times. Unresolved trauma is a contagious thing. Unresolved trauma brings friends, so it doesn’t have to be lonely.

Content warning: child abuse. Content warning: violence. Content warning: sex. Content warning: mental illness. Content warning: 9 out of 10 Adverse Childhood Experiences and poverty and drugs and alcohol. Content warning: Hi.

I was nine years old, and I loved Star Wars and comic books. I was nine years old when it happened—fist-shaped trauma, the first time, but not the first time, and not the last time– but I was still nine years old. I was jetpack paramedics. I was Teenage Mutant Ninja Overdoses and I played Nintendo and I ran hot-faced downstairs so he couldn’t get his hands on me again. Laser sword lunchbox suicide watch. Chop chop cartoons and forever scars. Chop chop.

Chop chop.

The first time I wrote about my unresolved trauma the teacher said it wasn’t believable. Now the submissions guidelines say I better not. Teachers and editors and agents and publishers and readers, they all have opinions about my unresolved trauma. If only the pieces fit. If only I was one me. If only my grammar was prettier.

I had never used the phrase “unresolved trauma” to talk about my old friend the fist-shaped impact until I saw it in the submissions guidelines. But I am accustomed to euphemisms and vagary because my unresolved trauma makes other people uncomfortable (it always has) and because my choice of words, the order of my sentences, my drunk crashed contradictions, it’s the agency I stole back. I choose what to say and who to say it to about my fucking life. I am a punching bag and this is the only uppercut I’ve got.

But paradox, remember. Always a paradox. I am private and I am guarded, and I am standing in front of you begging you to listen to me, to like me (please like me). I am concise copy and a compelling bio for a book jacket, and I am all too often an emotional enigma to my friends and family. I am popping antidepressants and cracking wise. I am functional and I am stubborn, and I can persevere until it catches up to me again and I can’t.

One thing you learn as a creator in the 2020s is that you’re selling yourself as much as your creation. Hashtags and identity silos are algorithm friendly. I am fucked up and unlucky, made of defective genes, chronic illnesses, hands and eyes and prescription medication in all the wrong places, systemic poverty, neglect, and a few dozen bigger unresolved traumas all crowded into a trench coat, clawing for purchase in an industry that will pay me poorly and respect me less and I am sincerely and incredibly privileged. If I wasn’t privileged, if I didn’t have societal biases and entrenched systems to favor men that look like me, I would be dead or in jail like my brothers.

In group therapy sessions with the other unresolved trauma-shaped children at county facilities we one-upped each other. If you only got beaten up once, you were a Johnny Come Lately. Come back when you had permanent injuries. If you only had one set of foster parents, you might as well be a Toys R Us Kid. I would not earn a gold medal in the unresolved trauma summer games. I would not even make the team. To the hallway whisperers (and that old writing teacher) I am unbelievable until I am only pitied but in group therapy sessions, the future ghosts looked at me like “what the fuck are you doing here, normie?” The paradox is I am unlucky-lucky. I am damned-blessed.

I am resentful-proud. I am grateful-furious. I am trauma-joy.

The contradictions are truer than their distinct parts. I love my contradictions. I didn’t always. I was deeply ashamed of either my Serious or Unserious tendencies. I was embarrassed by my dysfunction and the unresolved traumas no one wants in a slush pile. It’s taken me so many years to learn that my unresolved trauma makes me better. It makes me understanding. It makes me kind. My heart is so full of wounds but it’s bigger than the world.

If you don’t want my unresolved trauma, you don’t want my empathy and you don’t want my humor.

If you don’t want my unresolved trauma, you don’t want my passion and you don’t want my beauty.

If you don’t want my unresolved trauma, you don’t want me.

Me and my cattywampus prose. Me and my insufficient commas and run on sentences. Slivers of mirror sharp enough to cut. My messy voice.

I wonder, who else don’t you want?

What must that be like to dodge trauma or always resolve it as if emotions that big could be made into concrete objects, set into a neat row, and be concluded? Subject. Verb. Immaculate grammar. What must that be like to write a story without putting your truth in it? What gossamer sweet marketing drivel would that be?

I mean, I get it. Unresolved trauma is a bummer. It’s a hook on the end of a line that will pull at you, pull at all of your dark places, make you feel things you didn’t consent to feel. No one wants to read that, right? No one wants to read about chronic illness or disability or mental health or racism or poverty or death or misogyny or injustice or “politics.”

One thing you learn as a creator in the 2020s is that your anger isn’t valid, and your unresolved trauma isn’t welcome, and no one likes a Gloomy Gus.

So, smile more, silly. And for godsakes, never, ever subtweet.

The success rate in publishing hovers around 1% give or take. If you want to survive, kid, ninety-nine of your peers have to fail. It’s carnivorous and it’s bleak and I resent it more for the ninety-nine of my peers that I’m praying will drop out than for myself.

I read the submissions guidelines and I wanted to never write another word.

I read the submissions guidelines and I wrote 2000 new ones.

I can’t stop writing any more than I can resolve my trauma.

(And I wouldn’t want to.)

It’s a wonderful world. It’s a tragic world. I hold on with all my selves. I accept it, and my myriad reflections, best I can. And I write about it. For those of us misfits that can’t help but be who we are, let’s write. For those of us misfits that keep trying (even though sometimes we can’t), let’s just submit somewhere else with all of our love and unresolved trauma forever.

What the fuck else can we do?

News and the Nebulas

I am a very busy space cadet, y’all. A handful of cool updates:

  • I’m an assistant producer for the 2023 Nebula Awards Ceremony. I KNOW, RIGHT? I am working with some of the Greatest People to celebrate other Greatest People. It’s a tremendous honor, a lot of work, and a great time.
  • I will be at the Nebula Conference in Anaheim (because, assistant producer) in DAYS. Say howdy if you see me. Or hi or any other greeting you prefer. I appreciate all greetings.
  • I am actively querying my novel VERTIGO PUNCH. Part of that querying process means eyeballs that are unfamiliar with my website might be looking at my website which is really embarrassing because I have been so busy writing and assistant producing I am a lax webpage updater. But if you see this and you’re an agent or agent-adjacent and you wonder “can we trust this guy” I can assure you there are multiple pictures of otters on my website. It’s been a little while but they are present and they are adorable.
  • I am working full speed ahead on other projects that are Cool and Exciting. I might forget to post about them but they are happening and we should all be quite enthusiastic about it. I know I am!


News and Nightmare Magazine

Oh boy! I’m very pleased to share that my story “Home” is in the new February issue of Nightmare Magazine. Subscribers already have it but if you don’t subscribe you can buy the issue right now or wait for it to be published on the website later in the month.

I really need to update my webpage! I’m behind but it’s in the queue, I promise. For now, if you see this and you wonder “hey where can I get all of Erik’s demented fictions and etceteras?” check out About Erik.

A handful of other quick updates before I go back to the writing cave:

  • I have launched a newsletter, PDX Write Week, that compiles a weekly list of literary or writing events like readings, workshops, or signings in the Portland, OR area. It’s free! It’s a great way to support writers! You can sign up here: bit/ly.pdxwriteweek. Tell your friends!
  • I’m proud to say that I am now leading a team of intrepid social media posters for the Willamette Writers Buzz Team. This means when you see me posting too much on Twitter, it’s for the community and not– as one can be forgiven for assuming– wasting time. Willamette Writers is a great organization and you should check them out and follow all their social medias and stuff.
  • I am working through revisions on my current novel right now with Plans and Schemes for unleashing it forthcoming. Stay tuned.
  • Finally, I’m thrilled to be assisting NY Times bestseller and all-around brilliant writer Chelsea Cain in running a writing retreat NEXT WEEK in Maui. Aloha!

More when I can!

Check your crawlspaces,


CROOKED v.2 Launch Day! (and updates!)

It’s Crooked v.2 launch day! You can get a copy here! Also, my esteemed and very clever editor, Jessie Kwak, put together this sweet quiz you can use that gives you an idea which of the 18 (!!!) amazing science fiction crime stories you should start with. If you pick Guardians of the Galaxy, then Reservoir Dogs, then Fear & Loathing you end up with my story, “Terminal Sunset.” Which, yeah, that tracks.

A couple other quick hits. First, I have updated my About Erik page because that thing hadn’t been updated in almost 9 years. Second, the About Erik page notes something I want to call out: I am a writing mentor at Working Title. That means I give editorial feedback and creative coaching in a variety of forms. I’ve been doing this with a growing stable of writing mentees for much of 2022 but I neglected to mention it on my personal webpage because oops! We’ll be doing a lot of cool stuff leading up to and through NaNoWriMo so stay tuned!

Expect more news imminently! I am launching newsletter things! I am plotting! There are schemes!

Get Crooked – Updates End of Summer 2022

I have been a very busy writer this summer and I have news!

First up, this weekend at WorldCon in Chicago the Zombies Need Brains anthology NOIR — which contains my story “Blackhole Suicide!” — will be properly and festively launched with a party and a reading. I’m pleased to say that with some careful manipulation of schedule dynamics and financing I will be in attendance, reading and signing at some of these events. (With apologies to the wonderful Chicago people I know outside of the con — I’m afraid I will be in and out, jetlagged and generally useless). WorldCon attendees should check out the events and say hi! Details here!

Second, I am excited (and very remiss in announcing here) that I was accepted into the Viable Paradise workshop in Martha’s Vineyard this October. For a week I will study and learn from incredible authors and editors and commune with eldritch forces far beyond the capacity of human minds to comprehend. Viable Paradise is a fellowship that I am honored and excited to join with a pedigree that includes some of my favorite writers and people. Future award-winning bestselling badasses will be my classmates and dark gods in the briny depths shall gurgle my name. Good times!

News item number three is that I get to be in a *&%!ing awesome space crime anthology edited by glitter boot superstar Jessie Kwak. Crooked v.2! I’m one of the “…And More’ writers up there on that cover and I gotta say the other writers involved are intimidating and very cool. It’s a gang I am insanely excited to run with. The story I have in there, “Terminal Sunset” is a lean mean pressure cooker of a job on the edge of going very wrong starring a young Kate Hadon (aka the protagonist of “Blackhole Suicide” and other Things TBA). Hadon has less than four hours before the planet she’s on is incinerated by solar storms and a lousy soon-to-be-ex boyfriend to double-cross. Featuring a dog! And ice cream! And the first meeting between Hadon and a future friend and co-conspirator! It’s taut. It’s tense. It can be pre-ordered soon! Watch this space (and the website linked above)! I will be talking A LOT more about this!

Fourthly, I want to crow about a sale I recently made to Nightmare Magazine. This is a dream market for me and as much as I love writing sci fi with face kicking and ample hijinks, deep dark horror is an undying (undead?) passion. I spent more of my youth reading horror novels than fantasy or science fiction and it remains my first love. I don’t know when my story, “Home”, will appear yet but when I do…

…I am preparing Bigger Things (or maybe just more Consistent Things) for updating readers on my goings-on! Did you know I’m doing editorial consulting/mentoring? And I am doing more cool stuff within the writing community? I have so much to tell you about in fact, that I will be launching a newsletter soon, giving this website a much-needed facelift, and leveraging some of my anemic author social medias more. Coming soon! A writer with a proper communication strategy.

Buy My Stuff! Summer 2022 Edition

Oh how novel, a blog post! Not a social media thingy or a newsletter whatsit but an old fashioned straight out of 2007 web page update. Wild.

I have two things to share with you, oh denizens of 2007 and the rest of you luddite sociopaths that can still look at text on a webpage without a TikTok eel party or quick emoji reacts.

We’ll begin, obviously, with the adorable kitten of it all: Space Toucans 9Livez. “But wait!” you say out loud to yourself for some reason you should really be a little bit self conscious about, “what is this Space Toucans business, Erik?” Space Toucans is the all-new not-really-different-between-the-covers name for the Space Cocaine anthology series. (I’ve promoted this before. I was in two prior volumes.) We decided if we called it Space Toucans and still filled it with vulgar stories already illegal in certain states, that would make web searching and promotions and all that a little less awkward and DEA-scrutiny-earning. I have a lovely story in this volume that I read at our launch party with a funny voice. People laughed! I have proof. Get your copy today! If you want a signed special edition from me personally, I can hook you up. Email me! (Ask your grandparents how that works.)

Next up is the Zombies Need Brain anthology, NOIR! I have a story in that one that I’m very proud of called “Blackhole Suicide.” Like all good stories it’s about PTSD, party drugs, space farmers and a badass with cool guns that flirts with a robot while investigating a murder. More of my patented anti-capitalism and feelings propaganda. Fun fact! This story serves as a tease for a novel I’m polishing right now and, fickle publishing gremlins willing, will soon be double-tapping into your eye holes. Tell your friends!

Story Notes on Merely Players

Me and my Digby

You never really know what your story is about until you finish writing it and sometimes not even then. Sometimes you don’t figure it out for years.

In 2015 I signed with a literary agent and I thought “here we go!” I’d been studying, writing, hustling for my whole adult life. I had a manuscript I was very proud of and a whole lot of optimism. Over the next few years I wrote two more books and my agent submitted all three of them to editors. We got some positive notes but nothing sold. Ultimately, in 2018 my agent left the business and, with three books that were effectively dead to publishers and no agent, I almost quit writing. I poured everything I had into the work that didn’t sell, into the proposals, and the grace I needed to survive rejection. I was crushed.

A couple weeks ago Kelly Sue DeConnick was a guest instructor for the Bad Dream Factory writing workshop masterminded by Chuck Palahniuk and Chelsea Cain that I’m privileged to be the TA for. Someone asked her advice on coming up with ideas. She said, (and I’m paraphrasing here, so apologies for not capturing her full Kelly Sue-ness), that ideas aren’t the limiting factor. What you really need as a writer, what’s really in short supply, is time and courage. I’d never heard it phrased quite like that before and I haven’t stopped thinking about it since. In 2018, my courage was gone. I still had ideas, still put in the time, still wrote, but I was missing something.

At the bottom of my courage, I made a choice to start again with the fundamentals. I had a certain comfort level with novels as a form. I’d written 8 books before the one that got me an agent and 10 total by 2018. None of them got cover art or shelf space at Barnes and Noble but I at least knew I could throw hours and hard work into my keyboard and make something novel shaped out of it. What I was less sure of were short stories. I’d written some in college but rarely since. My agent said short stories were a waste of time but when he was gone and I was starting over, I committed to short fiction. I felt like it might be a good way to rediscover my love of writing and a way to connect with the speculative fiction community at a time when I felt most isolated. I tried out a few ideas that didn’t come together and ultimately stuck on this one about a lonely traveler in an empty world that finds a hint that someone else is out there.

In retrospect, the subtext isn’t even a little bit subtle.

With “Merely Players” I wrote my loneliness, my sense of purposelessness after that “here we go!” crashed into “what do I do now?” Jester, the main character, is an actor without a stage or an audience. He’s a comedian in a world without laughter and he asks himself, is he even alive if he doesn’t do what he’s meant to do? The same issues I grappled with as a discouraged writer in 2018. Jester scours the desolate landscape of my post apocalyptic world for batteries like I scoured my reserves for the courage I was missing.

I included an adorable dog sidekick because who doesn’t appreciate an adorable dog sidekick and I used Christmas as a counterpoint to the grim post apocalyptic reality Jester inhabits. What I didn’t know writing “Merely Players” is how much more it resonated with me– and maybe for readers– in a post-Covid world. Jester marvels at all the useless strip mall commerce that’s left behind when all the people he misses are long gone. Quarantined through 2020, I mirrored these same feelings. I would have gladly traded the boxes of old CDs in my office for a night laughing with old friends.

In early 2019 after polishing and sitting on “Merely Players” for several months– call me the Cowardly Lion, Kelly Sue– I finally submitted it. It was my first ever short story submission (in college, I wrote for classes not sale) and I picked the publisher I thought was most likely to reject it in a day or two so I could just get it over with. That didn’t happen. The story made the second round and I found myself awkwardly not mentioning that to the publication editor at a cocktail party at Norwescon. I finally got my rejection and submitted it to the two next publications on my list and they passed quickly and efficiently. I used it in my application for a writing workshop that I got waitlisted for and even though any writer not completely out of batteries might have taken that as a sign that it was a good story that just hit tough competition, I was not that kind of writer and with my battery light blinking red stopped submitting it anywhere. I decided it was probably a terrible story after all and I was a terrible writer after all and wallowed in ridiculous self pity. I worked on other stories and other submissions with limited confidence but effectively gave up on “Merely Players.”

Quick aside: don’t do this. Believe in your work and keep trying. I was a Sad Writer Dwelling in Darkness. The character in my story had more courage than I could manage then. Jester, I’m sure, would have offered me a song and dance and given me a hug.

I mentioned my truly self-destructive and not at all logical defeatist attitude about submitting short stories to my friend Luke and he told me I might try, you know, submitting a story to more than 3 places before I gave up and listened to Concrete Blonde in Self Pity Town. I figured I’d show him how foolish that kind of thinking was and sent off “Merely Players” to Escape Pod in October of 2020. I got the acceptance not long after. It was picked to be the Christmas story for 2021 so I needed to be patient for a very long year but that patience has delivered me an extraordinary gift.

People read the ending of “Merely Players” different ways. In the end does Jester find his audience or do his batteries just run out? I intend that answer to be a personal one, different for each reader, but for me right now listening to the incredible narrator Karlo Yeager Rodriguez bring this story that so transparently mirrors my writing journey over the last 3 years to life, I think Jester has just enough courage to get his happily ever after.

And I think maybe I found the courage to move on too.

This silly, sweet, sad story that will almost certainly never mean as much to anyone else as it means to me wouldn’t be possible without Divya, Mur, and Ben at Escape Pod plucking it out of slush and making it shine or without Karlo who I think might understand a little something about little dogs. Recognition also to my wife who still cries when she reads or hears it, my dog who has tolerated years of nicknames, and my friend Luke who was right. Thanks also to Chuck and Chelsea for taking in a stray Cowardly Lion and to Kelly Sue for helping me finally see what my own story was really about.

Merry Christmas to you and yours and cheers to 2022, may it give us what we all deserve. The trick, my friends, is leaning.