Quarterly Review: Jan-Mar 2017

Something I tried a year ago on YouTube was a “quarterly review” video, to look back over the previous three months and examine different areas of my life. That didn’t really pan out. But given the fact that I have the images I used for the video, still, and I’m trying to open back up to the online community, let’s try it again in writing.

I have a lot of books. If I took a “shelfie”, I’d need to take several photos, because my room doesn’t allow me to fit my books in one place. (The curse of an attic room – slanted ceilings!) That said, there aren’t a lot of books jumping out at me that I’ve read over the past three months – none more so than Words for Pictures by Brian Michael Bendis. To explain it simply, it’s about the art of writing comics and graphic novels. I won’t claim Bendis is the best person to teach this stuff, but I’ve enjoyed several books he’s worked on, and I already had the book, so I gave it a shot. At the very least, it provided a good starting point for understanding the process a bit better. I have a couple of other books on the subject that need to be read properly – Making Comics by Scott McCloud and Writing for Comics and Graphic Novels by Peter David – so it comes down to availability and need for each person when they’re choosing which one to read first. Words for Pictures was, in a word, accessible.

Picking one movie out of everything I’ve seen this year so far is difficult. I go to the cinema every week. It’s a tough choice. La La Land is up there as one of the most enjoyable, but I think I preferred Get Out – and Moonlight was technically a better movie. Get Out definitely has the benefit of recency over a lot of the others I’ve seen – John Wick 2 was brilliant – but I think it was also one of the most interesting movies I’ve seen in a long time. Dark and funny, with an incredibly strong cast. I’ve been calling it Rich, Old White People are Scary: The Movie since I saw it. So hey, let’s say it was my favourite and pretend that I’m not just forgetting other movies.

This is where things get really tough for me, because I don’t always find new music. On a recurring basis, this one might be impossible to keep up. But this time around, taking a quick look at the most recent additions to my iTunes library, one song stands out: All Good People, as covered by RANGE a cappella. It says a lot to me about the current state of things in the world, and feels very much like a rallying call for being a better person in a better community of awesomeness – the very thing that drew me into the Nerdfighter community years ago. (It also helps that I am 300% obsessed with RANGE at the moment.)

My events this year (at least, from January to March) are sorely limited in scope to three iterations of The Geek Mart. They weren’t always big and exciting. But February. Oh boy February. We had a convention in to sell tickets (Shurikon – they were lovely). That brought a lot of people. We hadn’t had an event that busy in a while. Circumstances always got in the way, but now Dublin City Comics & Collectibles were involved, and Predators Ireland were on the prowl with flyers in the streets. It was probably my best month for sales – at least as far as I can recall – and it made it properly believe that I could do this sort of thing. Maybe not for a living (my sales were good, but I wouldn’t make a living on what I earned even if I did that well every weekend of the year…) but as a start? It was wonderful. And, even aside from the obvious benefits of money (which got put away to pay off my share of my K-Con hotel stay!) it was a fun event for the buzz of excitement that came with all the people. The Geek Mart has been a home-away-from-home for me for a long time, and it felt like it was just waiting for something like the February event to happen.

Okay, so I wrote a fair bit at the start of this year, so I’m actually going to give two answers to this one. My absolute favourite was A Death in the Family. I’ve written about that a lot on this blog lately. I’ve never been happier with a book that I published. But I also had a few short stories that I loved when I wrote them. My two favourites in that category, that I can’t pick between, are The Hat Collector, about a guy who has a hat for every occasion (including a Thinking Cap and a Chef’s Hat), and The Monochrome Marriage (which ties in to The Local Necromancer and A Death in the Family), about a man who kills himself and then his wife. (Yep, you read that right.) I fell in love with the ideas of those short stories, and I feel like A Death in the Family deals most honestly with who I am now. I also love my pitch for it to potential readers: it’s about a guy who gets a job as a Grim Reaper to pay off his parents’ supernatural mortgage.

So, a little late to the game for this one – I’ve already had my first two events for the quarter. But let’s look at the rest. Two more Geek Marts, including OUR BIRTHDAY. An 80,000 word writing target for this month. A comic script to finish for one artist. A comic script to write for another. A book to edit. Articles to pitch. A podcast to start. Videos to record and edit. A documentary to edit. A blog to revive. They look like little things when they’re put down on paper like that, but it all screams to me as a lot of work. So there’s the other thing: take care of myself. I know how I get when I give myself too much to do, and it’s only become apparent in the last few months how much is too much for me to handle in an out-of-work environment.

So I’ll take it somewhat easy. I’ll focus on one thing at a time. This month, the book edits and some writing. I’ll take on some of the work for the documentary. I’ll plan articles, and send off pitches every week. I have to, to start doing something to look after the other parts of me that can so easily be ignored (like the desire to do well professionally.) We’ll have our birthday party in May for the Geek Mart. And by then, hopefully, I’ll have made a change in my life that means something more than words getting lost online.

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K-Con

K-Con was a weekend of firsts. First time travelling across the country to spend a weekend with friends. First time behind a table at a convention. First time an under-performance in sales wasn’t totally depressing. There’s a lot to talk about. And it starts with a journey to set up a table.

There were a few hours of panic on the Friday immediately before the convention, when the Bus Eireann strike in Ireland suddenly Irish Rail and Dublin Bus. This was an issue, given we were all planning on getting the train down to Kerry. Thankfully, three of the people I was bunking with for the weekend were able to drive down, another got a coach, and I was picked up by the very lovely Jason Browne and his partner from my house. A five hour drive later, we were there… with barely enough time to set up. I have a lot of experience in setting up my table. I finished in ten minutes. A dinner and a couple of drinks later, we were in bed for Day 1 of K-Con.

Missing from photo: fancy hat

Completely out of the hands of the organisers, the convention itself was very quiet. A lot of it can be blamed on transport strikes. It was also a new convention, in a town that lives on country rock music.

It’s just as well, then, that there were still a lot of awesome people on the scene over the weekend. The lovely Meg, AKA Without a Stitch, was sharing our apartment over the weekend in Kerry, so we go to witness her putting together her amazing 18th century Peggy Carter cosplay. I won’t lie: I audibly squealed when she showed up on Saturday. And that was after seeing her finishing up the hat and ironing the dress the night before.

I was also joined at my table by one of the lovely members of the Dublin 2019 team, who were busy giving away free books downstairs. (And she even bought a book, which was awesome!)

The weekend was filled with people like her, enthusiastic about the event and up for a chat at the table. We met a few wonderful kids over the Saturday and Sunday, from the cutest little fan of Supergirl and the Flash, to a couple of young comic creators who Tracy introduced to one another.

Seeking the full convention experience, we gave Saturday night to the Cosplay Ball. Myself, Gareth Luby and Tracy Sayers headed down together, to meet up with Meg and a few others we knew were heading out for the evening. Things got… interesting.

(Psst, there’s a video that won’t embed properly…but here it is.)

We can’t explain the horseman, but we did appreciate his sudden appearance on the dance floor.

A big shout-out has to go to Tina, who was the driving force behind the organisation of the ball. She put together the prom-photo display on the day, and made sure to mingle as much as possible.

She was one of the reasons I was able to get so involved in the comic community a couple of years ago, too. I met her in person by complete chance the day before my Masters’ orientations day in 2014, and she was the first person I interviewed for the documentary I was making for my thesis, along with her partner Stephen. She secured my group press passes for Dublin Comic Con in 2015, and that was the final push I needed to throw myself headfirst into this community.

After a long night, we prepared for Day 2 of K-Con.

And boy-oh-boy was I tired. I like to think that the expression I’m wearing in the selfie I took is part exhaustion, part excitement. In reality, it was mostly exhaustion. In a complete turnaround from my stand-all-day attitude on Saturday, I sat for most of Sunday.

It was quiet. Very quiet. Apparently there was also a Kerry GAA match on, so we knew better than to get our hopes up. We just had the chats, spent time with each other, and took a look at what other artists were selling. (I avoided heading downstairs to the Trading Hall, because I knew I’d only want something.) I’d like to take this chance to thank everyone who picked up a copy of any of my books over the weekend, especially A Death in the Family – I was so ridiculously excited about that book, so it meant a lot that people were picking it up.

We were interviewed by Geek Ireland during the day – I’m hopeful we’ll see that video soon, and that I didn’t babble too much! – and spent a lot of the rest of the time watching Gareth work on his commissions.

Most of Gareth’s commissions for the weekend were done on blank variant comics – proper comic on the inside, but an otherwise blank cover. He was colouring them with Copics, which meant watching him blend the colours together for a while.

Gareth’s art really picked up a lot since I first met him in 2015. I have a commission from that day, and the difference in his work over an 18-month period is astonishing. Other people seemed to agree, with him receiving more commissions than he could possibly complete in the weekend (thankfully, Tracy had already thought of that and began taking postal bookings!)

Now, obviously there’s some bias in how I look at Gareth’s artwork, because he’s a friend of mine. But you can see it for yourself. He’s posted a couple of his more recent commissions on his Facebook page – and if you’re reading this early enough, you can still get one at a reduced rate – including the wonderful commission of Supergirl and Flash dancing.

Spending the weekend with my friends really made K-Con something special. The past few months haven’t been the easiest, with a less-than-successful job hunt to occupy my subconscious, so it was nice to be able to unwind with them, both behind the tables and back at our apartment. We played Cards Against Humanity and watched movies, and I had to deal with Gareth’s scare-tactics to help me get rid of the hiccups I’d beaten almost instantly. We stayed up talking until late at night.

Every story has to end, of course. Every weekend rolls into Monday, and like thousands of travellers before us, our road led us through Moneygall for a pit-stop.

It was a full and exhausting weekend – and I don’t envy Gareth the drive to-and-from Kerry – and while the sales were the best, it was still one of the best weekends I’ve had in a long time. And that’s what conventions are supposed to be about. There’s so much focus on money, and whose cosplay is the best, and the drama between attendees in this small community of ours, that sometimes it can be hard to remember why they’re worth such a massive undertaking. But there are always friends to be found, and good times to be shared, games to be played and memories to be made.

Next stop:  The Geek Mart.

 

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First Convention: K-Con 2017

In 2015, I went to my first ever convention: Anime Dublin. I followed this up for my thesis by attending four more conventions  during the summer, and one more in November of that year. I reduced my convention numbers significantly in 2016 – I needed to attend so many the year before to record at them, but I was only attending for fun last year. That said, I did also begin taking part in The Geek Mart every month, with my responsibilities as an organiser growing the more I went.

Roll on 2017, and my first convention behind the table. K-Con, Kerry’s first big convention, takes place on April 1st and 2nd. While smaller than Dublin Comic Con, in sharing the same owners the level of hype and interest around it is growing. There are some obvious concerns among seasoned traders as to how well things will go for them at K-Con, but all new events need to be tested by somebody.

That’s where I come in, as a small press indie author looking to make a start on the convention scene. I’ve so far only arranged for two tables of my own this year – K-Con and Dublin Comic Con – with a possibility of appearing at a few smaller events throughout the summer outside of my Geek Mart responsibilities. Given that this is the first event of the year, though, and my first convention ever, I’ve pushed myself to bring something new and interesting – the book I keep talking about in every post I write: A Death in the Family.

I’m also putting together a lot of short story booklets, which I started bringing to The Geek Mart late last year. They vary in genre, from supernatural tales like The Local Necromancer and Swipe Right for Blood Lust, to Superhero stories centred around Pocket Powers (consumer-friendly consumable temporary superpowers) and some tales that are downright weird, like The Rabbit Hole and The Hat Collector.

One thing I like to keep consistent is my brand: I’m a storyteller. While I’ll have prints with me, my main focus for the convention will be on selling stories. The strange little ideas that I get, whether they become a full book like Balor Reborn or Stepping Forward, or a short tale like Stairway or Hanging Up the Scythe, have generally gone down well in the past, and I think there’s an audience for them. In my experience with small markets so far, there’s always someone willing to try something new.

This isn’t to say that I’m expecting I’ll do phenomenally well. There’s just no way of judging that. But unlike a lot of people who worry about this convention because there are only a few guests, I’m cautiously optimistic that the arrival of a new convention in Kerry will at least bring a few people who want to take a shot at some of what the Irish small press scene is offering. For the most part, it’s comics – lots and lots of really well produced comics.

There are a few of us who started with prose fiction, before we tried our hands at comic scripts. And there are a few of us attending K-Con who’ve never had big conventions before.

I’ve attempted to do some research on how to prepare for this – a remarkable short book called Working the Table provided some stellar insights – and I’ve spent almost a year at The Geek Mart figuring out pitches for stories, working on how to get someone to at least act upon their feint interest in a book to pick it up and read the back. It doesn’t always lead to sales, and that’s okay – it’s a good step in the right direction if someone can move beyond their hesitation to look at a book.

It’s going to be a long weekend at K-Con. There’ll be lots of travel involved, and more than a fair amount of standing around talking to people (hopefully), and then evenings of trying to mix recovery time and socialising with other con-goers and other vendors.

Maybe my experience browsing at conventions will help. No doubt eight years of retail (selling books, of course) will come in handy. And I imagine even the year-and-a-bit I spent working at Qwertee.com’s warehouse will find a way of being useful – being on my feet all day, for a start.

I’d like to sell a lot of books. There’s no point hiding that fact – everyone wants to do well at a convention when they’re behind the table. Just as important, I’d like to come away from it having had a good time, feeling like I did something right with the weekend, and figuring out how to make the most of Dublin Comic Con in August. A first convention is scary, but it has to happen eventually. And, I think it’s important to remind myself that a year ago I didn’t have a single book in print – and now I have five. Con-goers are excellent motivators.

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The Happy Pear | Flash Fiction

For years, people bought fruit from Imelda without realising that it was special. She knew, but she kept it a secret. She didn’t think a street market was a good place to unveil to the world that things were not always as they seemed. Then came along The Black Pages, the global directory for everything magical, mystical, ghoulish, ghostly and fantastical. Imelda adored it. She could find her nearest witch if she had a problem with self-animating brooms. She could find a real medium to help her ask her mother for the recipe to her famous chilli con carne. And, when she plucked up the courage, she could place a listing in the book for herself, and her mystical wares.

On a busy market street, she sold fruit. For years, she had regular customers. She made a small living for herself. Then magical beings came out of the proverbial closet, and she found herself having to admit to them that things weren’t exactly normal as far as her fruit was concerned. Now, with the newest copy of The Black Pages appearing spontaneously around the world, she had a new challenge: sell to customers who already knew what she did.

“What’s this do?” a man asked her.

“Apples? They help for calm. Stress is one of the biggest contributing factors to ill health, after all, so eating one of my apples every day will help keep the doctor away.” She smiled pleasantly. She didn’t like to shout like the other people at the market. She suddenly found she didn’t need to, either. The crowd was coming to her.

“And these?” a woman asked, holding up a lemon and lime.

Imelda chirped, “The lemons are for bitterness, and the limes to feel uplifted. Excellent palette cleansers when life feels a bit too much. Add sugar and water to the juice of the lemons and you have some pretty exciting lemonade.”

Selling her fruit was never any easier, but it did come with certain drawbacks. She couldn’t leave. She hoped that she wouldn’t need to use the toilet throughout the day – she had a specially trained bladder, anyway – but she knew she’d have to eat her own wares just to stay on her feet. She took a bite from a calming apple as the crowd swelled around her.

“The pears are for a little bit of happiness, especially when everything goes wrong,” she told a man as he picked up a few in his hands.

“Is this normal?” he asked her.

She hadn’t considered that. Normal was a relative term, to her. It felt normal to her to eat plenty of fruit throughout the day. It felt normal to her to look to different foods for different moods. She still turned to chocolate when she felt miserable, no matter how many pears she had in stock.

Imelda shrugged to the man, calm as could be with half an apple in her stomach. “It’s normal to me. Maybe it’s not natural, but that’s how we make change.” He looked at her sceptically. She could tell he was having difficulty with the concept of magical fruit. But she could also see a sadness in his eyes. “Tell you what, take a pear on the house. Try it. But make sure you eat it before it goes off. The magic sort of…breaks.”

“Breaks?”

“Well, you know, the pear will make you feel a bit sad.” She pointed around at different fruits on her stall. Others were listening to her warning. “The apples will make you stressed and flustered. The lime will make you melancholy. Gentlemen really don’t want one of the gone off bananas, let me tell you that.”

Someone chuckled, and she supposed it must have been funny. The man took the pear gratefully, and the crowd filled in his space.

Imelda was not used to this amount of pressure. When her apple was gone, she began to eat a pear. She felt she needed the smiles to keep her going. She tried her best to fill every order, whether it was for sensual strawberries or apathetic white grapes.

But she couldn’t shake the feeling that the man had come to her as a last resort. She hoped to see him again. She was used to having regulars. She wasn’t used to wishing she had them. Imelda wasn’t sure if she had feelings for him, or if she just felt things about him. He was handsome, and he was sad. The former made him easier to look at, and that only made the sadness shine through.

Her father had been good with feelings. He could tell someone’s mood just by looking at them. He supposed that maybe he was a bit special, but he didn’t see it as being particularly useful when he worked as a landscape photographer. He said he didn’t have the capacity for social work.

Her mother, on the other hand, was just a wonderful chef. Imelda wondered if she was magical, but she had been assured on several instances that she was just a regular human who loved a good meal.

Imelda grew up with their passions. Food was special to her. Moods were special to her. Eventually, she learned to combine the two, almost entirely by accident. It worked best with fruit, but her homecooked meals always made people feel better about themselves, no matter the ingredients.

She thought that all of this could make running the market easier. She thought that mood fruit would help her make a difference in the world. But as the day came to a close, she couldn’t stop herself crying. Tears streamed down her face. Customers continued to arrive, buying out most of the rest of her stock.

The man returned to her as she was packing up. “It worked,” he said to her, then paused. “Are you alright?”

She nodded, but she didn’t believe it. She looked for her pear, for a boost, and dropped it immediately to the ground. “Gone off,” she said under her breath.

The man placed a comforting hand on her shoulder. “But it does work,” he reminded her. “Just like you said. And people wanted it, whether you were charming and upbeat, or crying in their faces.” She tried not to wail in his face. She tried not to weep when he bought her remaining pairs. She tried not to whimper when he suggested that his sister help run the stall tomorrow.

And, she realised, she laughed when he wiped away her tears. Some magics, like human kindness, were stronger than others.

The Happy Pear is part of a collection of stories about a magical phone book that exists within the supernatural community – The Black Pages. These stories related to my new book, A Death in the Family, which launches at K-Con on April 1st. Read about the book below:

Benjamin Cooper is about as close to death as someone can get, without actually dying. Literally.

In the wake of the Worst Year of the Century, the Coopers are visited by a man straight out of folklore, Death himself. Ben is forced, by way of fulfilling a supernatural debt, to take over the mantle of Reaper.

But life as Death is more complicated than Ben could ever imagine, and perfectly executing every order is rarely an easy task.

A Death in the Family is a tale of paying for others’ decisions, seeking to understand dying, and falling hopelessly in love.

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Making the Cover of A Death in the Family

One thing I like about independent publishing is getting to create my own covers. I don’t normally share the process – it’s often not very interesting – but this time I turned to actual illustration to get the cover for A Death in the Family created. And it all began with a selfie. Or two.

Let’s pretend I don’t look exhausted before I even got to work creating the cover, and move on to selfie #2.

With those two pictures taken, I had to do something to make the cover look more like I needed it to: a part human, part skeletal.

Insert dodgy nose job. I had to keep my face about the same size, which meant losing some of the middle part of my face. But it’s okay. I was planning on losing that, anyway. I was also originally going to just use some digital photo magic, and keep the entire thing looking like a photograph, but when the complexity of the skeletal face dawned on me fully, I moved towards illustration. But before that, I made my eyes red. (Fun fact: the rest of my eyes were red by the time I finished creating the cover, because that’s what happens when you look at a screen on full brightness all day without taking the appropriate breaks.)

The first step in the illustration process was the eyes. Lines were drawn in around them and shaded to allow for some depth and detail, and the eyebrows were made thicker than my own. I also kept the eyes red – there’s a reason within the book for it. The hair is also different from mine. I should also add, when I illustrated the cover, I was creating a Caucasian character, but my protagonist – Ben Cooper – is never described as being of one ethnicity or another.

Between versions of the cover, and on the suggestion of my brother, I turned the skin grey. It’ll make sense as the rest of the cover is built up over this one small segment. But with the upper face drawn, I had to turn to the thing that made me illustrate the cover instead of using photographs: the skull.

I built up the skull from the teeth – hence the look on my face in the second photo. Laying the teeth was important. Each one was drawn separately and then moved about as necessary. They were also made larger than my teeth, to help them stand out on the cover more easily. The shape of the skull was then drawn in over the photograph, and detail was added for shading and for the necessary holes in the front of the skull – where the jaw separates behind the teeth, and the nostrils. (Super professional science talk, I know!)

Combined, they make up an almost complete face, and it’s easy to see where certain details get cut off along the way. We’re almost at the point where the bad nose job gets covered up. But first, make the head a little less naked.

 

The hood for the robes was added in in several pieces. The top and bottom were placed in front of the face and skull illustrations, with creases added below for depth, and a lighter shade added over the sides of the face to give it more shape – before it was just a bunch of colour splashed onto a page in approximately the right shape in some instances. The hairline is covered up at this point.

Enter the Scythe. Taking up the top half of the cover, the Scythe allows for the divide between the flesh and bone elements of my now-illustrated face. (I’m told it doesn’t look too much like me, anymore, and I’m hoping that’s a good thing.) The addition of a sheen, I hope, makes it look more metallic in nature.

At this point, the illusion becomes more complete. The Scythe covers the dodgy nose job, and dulls the colours of the face a bit more. All that’s left are: the background colours, the text on the cover, and the erosion effect. I have a fondness for erosion on book covers, but rather than go for the peeling-away look that I used in the creation of the Rebirth Cycle books, I went for something a little more like broken glass. (Which is, in fact, an edited tree stump, sourced from a royalty-free image site, and edited until it was no longer a tree stump at all.) The end result is this:

I was insanely proud of this cover. I put a lot of work into it, and when the books showed up at my house, it felt like the work really paid off.

And of course, every book needs a spine and a back cover. The thing that one needs to remember when producing a wraparound cover like this is that it’s better to have the front cover spill onto the spine a bit, rather than risk the spine spilling onto the front. (Even if it means there’s some of the spine on the back cover, the important thing is that when readers look at the front of a book, they aren’t seeing something that doesn’t belong there.) I usually avoid that issue altogether by making my image wrap around the entire book, spine included, but it didn’t feel right for this one – especially not when that would mean giving the Scythe a define length. Space should also be reserved on the back of the book for a barcode, should you be adding one. Some publishing sites will generate these for you, and will indicate where you will need to keep clear on the cover.

Interested in reading the book? Find out more about it below, and follow the Facebook event for further updates. It launches at K-Con on April 1st.

Benjamin Cooper is about as close to death as someone can get, without actually dying. Literally.

In the wake of the Worst Year of the Century, the Coopers are visited by a man straight out of folklore, Death himself. Ben is forced, by way of fulfilling a supernatural debt, to take over the mantle of Reaper.

But life as Death is more complicated than Ben could ever imagine, and perfectly executing every order is rarely an easy task.

A Death in the Family is a tale of paying for others’ decisions, seeking to understand dying, and falling hopelessly in love.

 

 

 

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Coping with Unemployment

I finally got back into YouTube today, with a video about coping with unemployment through writing and creativity. It feels weird being so candid on YouTube, but it felt necessary to actually get myself making videos again. There was so much I wanted to talk about, and this one big thing that I didn’t want to talk about.

Unemployment isn’t fun. It isn’t good for my mental health. It isn’t good for my bank account. (Though I have learned the art of being frugal where it counts – I don’t buy a ridiculous amount of things anymore.)

I managed to get a grip on things as January progressed. Writing short stories, applying for different types of jobs, that sort of thing. I developed a rhythm in the week between The Geek Mart every month and my writing group meet ups every week, and in February – when I got myself into the habit of drawing every day – I started a six-week course on storytelling in comics and graphic novels.

I’m not sure how I would have handled the situation if I wasn’t interested in creative activities. I don’t know how most people manage. All I know is how to maintain the status quo that is the storm isn’t my head when things aren’t going well.

***

The music from this video is “Relaxing Piano Music” by Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com) – licence in the video description. The thumbnail was inspired by Roly. The video topic came from The Collab Club.

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The Misfortune Teller | Flash Fiction

Life was meant to come with some surprises. Science had made it easy to predict certain things, like the gender of an expected baby, the potential spread of cancer, the risk of any number of genetic diseases, the likelihood of someone being able to survive a car crash. It often seemed easier to predict the bad than the good. For Clark Monaghan, that statement couldn’t have felt more true. He had a listing in The Black Pages, the directory for everything magical, mystical and fantastical. It was revised from a former position he had once had, and by its nature was more popular. He sometimes wished the book never existed.

Clark could never beat his customers to work. He arrived every morning with a cup of hot coffee to a crowd. Not an orderly queue, but a mob waiting for answers. He knew he didn’t need to show up early for them – they didn’t get in until he’d had his coffee – but he figured if he couldn’t beat them, he could at least beat rush hour traffic.

His first customer was an electrician. The demographics of Clark’s customers would reveal a pattern of dangerous occupations, and often some scepticism. “Does it really work?” the man asked.

Clark nodded. “I don’t list myself as the Misfortune Teller for nothing,” he explained. “But I can only tell you one thing. The same thing I tell everyone else.” The man nodded. “Before we begin, you must know that this can be incredibly distressing. The information you receive today, it will change your life. Morbid curiosity is not enough to justify this expense. You will know that which humankind was never meant to know. Do you wish to continue?”

The man nodded again. “I have a daughter. She’s only five. I have to know.”

They held hands. The electrician was, by Clark’s gauge, only slightly uncomfortable with it. He had seen worst reactions. He had seen some people enjoy it perhaps a bit too much. But the holding of hands was an essential part of Clark’s process, a process that was as entirely unique as Clark’s gift.

He closed his eyes. Every living being had an aura. Clark could sense it. That wasn’t special, at least not for The Black Pages. But within that aura, Clark could find something else. He reached for it, in a way only he could, through space and time, around logic and reason and winding through intelligence. He avoided madness and chaos, and eventually reached that one, powerful piece of information that only he had so far managed to locate within an aura.

He opened his eyes, picked up a quill from the table beside him with one hand, and pricked the man’s arm that he still held firm. The man flinched, but stayed still as a trickle of blood began to write upon his arm. A date, a time, and nothing more.

The man looked at it uncertainly and began to cry softly. Clark noted that he was a quiet crier. Tears, but not snots. “That’s quite a long time to go,” he told the man. “Your daughter, she’ll be nearly sixty by then.” He smiled warmly at his customer. He did not know the man’s name. He didn’t like to read about his customers in the obituaries. He tried to avoid their names within their auras, too, and was sometimes successful.

“That’s really when I’ll die?” the man asked. Clark nodded. Sometimes, it wasn’t such a misfortune. He was maybe falsely advertising to some people.

“The date can be washed off at your leisure. I advise doing so before heading to work or speaking to your family.”

It went that way for everyone. Not necessarily with the same results; a lot of the people who came to him had shorter lives ahead of them than they had intended for themselves. Many of those tried to fit as much life into that time as they could, which often resulted in a terrible, deadly accident at the exact time Clark had given them.

Life was surprising that way.

A woman with only a few weeks to go asked him the question that many of those with short lives had on their minds. “How do you know?”

Clark knew she was smart. He knew she knew about the magical world once so magically hidden from everyone else. “I used to be a Grim Reaper,” he explained. “Then, I was in a terrible accident, after I’d left the job. Lost my head, quite literally. A necromancer put me back together, which didn’t much please people. I think those two things, and the fact that my mother used to work in this very room gave me something of a unique outlook on life.”

He smiled at her. She smiled back. “Maybe we’re lucky to have you,” she said quietly. He would have liked her to live longer. He thought maybe he could fall for her. She was half his age, not that he was keeping track anymore. He didn’t know her name, only that of the type of cancer she had. She knew she would die soon. She just need clarity, she’d told him.

“Maybe I’m lucky to have people like you. Death is often unwelcome. There aren’t many like you who are so aware of how inescapable it is.” She left, her imminent date still imprinted upon her arm. She was his last for the day. He needed more coffee. He always wondered if going alone looked at weird to other people as it did to him.

He did not go for coffee.

Instead, he grasped his hands together. His aura flared up within his mind’s eye. It was complicated and jagged, sometimes threatening to throw him out. No one liked Clark’s aura, not even Clark himself. Whether through the guiding of souls or the replacement of his own, his aura had become something of a menace.

And whether through his own failure, or a lack of an ending, he could never tell when he himself would die.

And that, he thought, was just one of the many ways life could be cruel.

The Misfortune Teller is part of a collection of stories about a magical phone book that exists within the supernatural community – The Black Pages. These stories related to my new book, A Death in the Family, which launches at K-Con on April 1st. Read about the book below:

Benjamin Cooper is about as close to death as someone can get, without actually dying. Literally.

In the wake of the Worst Year of the Century, the Coopers are visited by a man straight out of folklore, Death himself. Ben is forced, by way of fulfilling a supernatural debt, to take over the mantle of Reaper.

But life as Death is more complicated than Ben could ever imagine, and perfectly executing every order is rarely an easy task.

A Death in the Family is a tale of paying for others’ decisions, seeking to understand dying, and falling hopelessly in love.

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