A bit from Forever and Farewell

Since edits are going pretty good, I thought I’d share with you one of my favorite parts from Forever and Farewell. There’s a bit of abusive behavior in this and some strong language, so be forewarned. Otherwise, enjoy!

* * *

The Real Bad Day, as Lauren thought of it later, came in early October.

Once upon a time, she loved the fall. Loved the leaves as they slipped into their golden moments, then falling like soft rain, caressing and tickling her skin under the arms of old and wise silent things.

She loved Halloween as a teenager and the joy of giving treats to wildly exuberant kids, She loved dressing up, loved costumes and being someone other than her own awkward self for a day. She loved that no one could see her face, even if they still knew who she was.

She loved the promise of winter in the air, the crisp stillness that could come with a windless morning, that first chill bite before the ice and snow made winter a miserable pain, the wood smoke from chimneys sprawling out upon the breeze.

She loved curling up with a cup of apple cider and a throw on her parents’ patio, listening to the rain. She loved pumpkin spice, the scent of raw pumpkin when it was carved, pumpkin bread, pumpkin seeds, salting them so much her mouth hurt. She loved rolling in the leaves with Hot Sauce, their Labrador, now long gone. She loved knowing Thanksgiving and Christmas were just around the corner, seeing the Halloween decorations slowly come out.

Now her love for the fall came with a bitter remembrance of all the things she enjoyed, just out of her reach. True, her experience hanging out at Delaney and Adrian’s during Halloween the year before had been a big step forward, but it was just a taste of a life and love gone by.

The morning of the Really Bad Day, she headed for the gas station to fill up. Lauren was determined to try and get to Polson to shop for Halloween candy. She was going to… well, maybe not give it out herself, but she could set it out in a little bowl, perhaps, or give it to Adrian and Delaney to add to their supply. Shopping in Polson wasn’t so bad for her, for some reason. Delaney mused sometimes that it was because when Lauren was completely surrounded by strangers, everybody looked, as opposed to just furtive glances and whispers from the people she knew. “Maybe,” she’d say, “it’s easier because you know you’re never going to see those people again. Besides, at the big box stores, there are a lot weirder people to stare at than you, sweetheart.” That hadn’t really been a comfort, but it made Lauren giggle to think about it.

At the pump, she thought about maybe getting some decorations in Polson too. Just a few small things for the windows. Maybe a little ceramic pumpkin and some clings. Buoyed, she smiled happily and decided after the gas was done pumping, she’d run inside and treat herself to a pumpkin spice cappuccino. She hadn’t drank one of those in years and years.

But the little SUV pulling up to the pump next to her changed that. Three kids were inside, monkeying around as their mom first stopped, then pulled down her visor to check her makeup in its mirror. Before she got out, she rolled down her kids’ windows and pulled the keys, just being a good mom, especially given the unusually warm fall weather.

The boy closest to Lauren shushed his brother and his sister, and whispered something quietly enough that she couldn’t hear. Lauren knew, just knew, the kids were talking about her, and her good mood crumbled. Just a little bit, but the edges were coming down. Then the kid, a spiky-haired boy with thick glasses, leaned out the window and asked, “What’s the matter with your neck?”

“Damian!” his mom scolded, but from inside the car came the tittering of the other children.

Lauren willed the gas to pump quicker. “It’s okay,” she whispered, more to herself than the mom.

“It looks like someone ran over your back,” the boy added.

Lauren gave up on the gas, stopped the nozzle, and replaced it. She hurried around to her side of the car as the mom called out an apology, but Lauren was already getting in.

That would have been bad enough to send her into a funk, but maybe not bad enough that she couldn’t get to Polson and redeem the day. But her passenger side window was cracked just a hair, and as she dug out her keys from her pocket, the mom snickered too. Just ever so faintly, and she tried to cover it up with a cough, but there it was.

One of the great horrible truths of the universe was that adults wanted to laugh just as much as children. They were only held back by the thinnest veneer of fear that they’d be laughed at too, and when that was scraped away, all that was left was the raw dark amusement of pissing in someone’s face when they could get away with it. Lauren lived with that cold realization every waking moment of her life.

Tears burned a hot path down her cheeks, and she jerked out of the parking lot, almost nicking a Bronco as it reversed at the same time. The guy hammered on his horn and that made her feel even shittier. Still the day wasn’t done being awful.

When she should have stopped at the town’s lone traffic light, she rolled through, and like the universe wanted to just slap her silly, one of the Sheriff’s Department’s cruisers eased around the corner, settling in behind her gamely and following her home.

Still crying, she swung her legs out of the car in time for JB, the town’s overweight, blustering sheriff, to lean out. “Y’all blasted right through that red, Ms. Olmstead.”

Her mouth worked, but all she could do was whisper a muffled apology.

JB gave her a long once over, sucked on his teeth, and said, “Need me to call someone?”

No, she wanted to shout. Adrian and Delaney were working a project in Twin Bear, one of their first in a week or two. Don’t bother them, please don’t bother them.

“Well,” JB said lamely, “if you’re getting’ the weepies, just pull it on over next time, okay?”

She nodded, got out, and jogged for home, hoping she didn’t slam the door too hard when she came in. She did, though, and JB stayed another minute, watching after her, still making that teeth-sucking sound now and then. After a minute, he got out, walked over to her Buick, checked to see if the keys were still in the ignition, and locked her door before shutting it. In her haste, she’d left it open.

Half an hour later, Lauren lay on the floor, looking up at the ceiling and sobbing silently so hard her whole body was shaking-

Just a party.

You’ll love it.

Would you do one thing for me?

Make that sound again.

It turns me on.

Look at her, she loves it.

Don’t you know how much I care about you?

Don’t you love me?

-but she didn’t whimper, wouldn’t whimper like those earliest days, wouldn’t let herself go all the way back down the hill. But she couldn’t move either, and just willed herself to breathe, to push away the pain little by little until she could think straight again.

A car door thumped outside, and she heard Aubrey thank someone before the engine revved back up and slowly faded. Home from work, she thought, then Dudley flooded her mind again, laughing, laughing, laughing.

A knock, first soft, then harder. “Lauren?” Aubrey asked, then louder, again. “Lauren, hey, it’s me, Delaney called me because I guess the sheriff called her. Are you okay?”

Her eyes were volcanic. Her throat was raw but she didn’t remember screaming. In her mind was a wisp of a man a world away, someone she would never see again in her lifetime, never speak to, never hear from, but who tormented her every single minute of every single day if she wasn’t careful, and today she hadn’t been.

No, she was not okay.

Aubrey pounded on the door again, calling her name. She tried to whisper to him, tried to respond. There was silence, and then a muffled, “Delaney. She’s not answering. Is there a spare key…? Okay, got it.”

She couldn’t let him see her like this. Couldn’t trust him. Oh God, no, no no no.

“Please,” Lauren murmured. “Don’t come in.”

From the side of the building, she heard him tossing rocks, frantically trying to find the fake one she kept there with her spare key. He was talking to Delaney, keeping her on the line. His words were unrecognizable, but terse, scared. Then a shouted, “Got it,” and he was coming back to the front door.

Lauren scrabbled at the hardwood floor. Her bladder was full and tight and she was terrified she’d pee herself but she couldn’t move-

“Would you be my first, Dudley?”

Slick smile, his fingers in her. “Sure, roll over.”

“I don’t want it like-”

“Don’t you want to make me happy?”

“Yeah, I guess, but-”

“It’s okay. It’ll all be fine.”

Pain, ripping pain, she wasn’t ready and he was so rough.

-and the key was in the lock and she could finally make a sound, a wailed “Nuuuuhhhhh,” and Aubrey was inside, crossing the room, sweat dripping off his forehead as he knelt, and she was terrified, so terrified, her eyes wide open and she waited for him to feel her up, paw at her breasts, maybe jerk her pants down-

“Your tits are so weird.”

-but Aubrey was taking her hands and he was seeing her without a mask and she tried to cover her face. His eyes opened wide, he was saying something, and then he was shooting towards her closet and ripping it open, grabbing at something on a shelf. Her box of medical masks.

In just a few strides he was beside her again. “Lauren, I’m going to lift your head.”

She didn’t understand why, but then he was slipping the mask on before his hand trailed down, and she waited for him to touch her like Dudley had, like they all had.

But his fingers just touched hers, soft, tentative, and he squeezed her hand.

She waited for more, drawing sharp, fast gasps for air, crying, fighting to cling to the floor, but he wouldn’t leave her side. He just held her hand and stroked her hair, his phone somewhere on the floor, Delaney’s voice forgotten on the other end.

Lauren’s gasps settled into soft hiccups. The spasms wracking her body lessened, and she closed her eyes against the sunlight trickling through the picture window. Her mind settled as much as it could, but she was still terrified, still shocked beyond all measure there was a man in her house that wasn’t Adrian or her dad. He was dripping sweat on her, and he stank of body odor permeating through his deodorant, and he was beautiful and terrifying.

Aubrey helped her sit up, her eyes still focused on him, and she whispered, “Don’t hurt me.”

“I won’t.” He brushed hair from her eyes and tried to smile for her.

“Not like the rest of them,” she murmured. Sleepy. So sleepy. She sat up harder. “Bathroom.”

He helped her to her feet, her hobble even more defined after the hours she spent on the floor. As Lauren closed the bathroom door behind her, she muttered, “I’m okay now, you can go.”

“I don’t-”

“You can go!” she shouted as she fumbled her pants down, barely making it in time.

He did step away from the door, but spoke loud enough that she could hear. “Lauren, I know that’s what you want, but until Delaney gets here, I don’t think I should leave. If you hate me tomorrow, that’s fine, but I think someone needs to stay here for you. I’m… I’m sorry.”

Her tears ran out. She stayed there for another half an hour, shifting from hip to hip so her legs didn’t go numb. Aubrey was still out there somewhere, and she was ashamed, but the terror had abated and the voices were subsiding. He didn’t say anything, but she heard him cleaning up after her – picking up the spilled contents of her purse, sweeping up a glass cup she’d knocked over when she crashed to her knees and then the floor, and running a couple of dishes under tap water and scrubbing them. Twice more, he spoke to Delaney, quiet, hushed conversations that sounded reassuring. Every five minutes or so, he knocked on the wall next to the bathroom, making sure Lauren was okay. She answered him with morosely positive grunts, placating him just enough to leave her alone again.

And then finally, thankfully, Delaney was there and rushing into the house. All Aubrey said was, “In there.” Delaney popped open the bathroom door and slipped inside.

Miserable, red-eyed, and weary, Lauren barely glanced up. “I… had a bad one.”

Legally Blind #14 – Food, Glorious Food

I’m a terrible cook.

I don’t want to be, but I am. I wish I could blame that on being blind, but we’ve got plenty of neat little tips and tricks to help cook food I should really be better about following. A lot of cooking while blind is just following common sense stuff that’d be smart even fully sighted – setting timers after you’re done cooking to make sure your burners are off and cool, being extra careful your handles are turned inwards and your pans centered, etc. Little things like that are worth paying a little more attention to when blind, because it’s not always so easy to notice when things are still on or you’re about to spill a mess of spaghetti sauce over your stove (been there, done that).

Here are some assorted tips I’ve either learned, been taught (either by the CCB or by Montana’s Blind and Low Vision reps), or have found out by horrible, horrible mistakes.

-Knives were surprisingly tricky for me completely blind when wearing sleep shades at the CCB. I never seriously cut myself, Keeping them pointed in one direction in a drawer is a must, but for cutting, I invariably use the ones from my chopping block, because I’m more familiar with where they’re at. You’re also not in any danger of cutting yourself by putting them into a block

Wash knives immediately. It’s something I’m terrible about doing, but I shouldn’t be, because in a sink full of dishes, errant knives are a royal pain in the… well, hand.

When you’re chopping or slicing, take time to orient your food in such a way that it’s not close to the edges. Elementary, right? Except when you go chasing that carrot slice or chunk of chicken, you’ll know it’s never far. I’ve also been doing a bit of side research on this topic, and the brilliant AFB website has some great tips for kitchen cooking, including this gem for knives: if you don’t know what side is sharp, rock the blade against your chopping board. Most blades are slightly curved, and will rock if it’s the sharp edge.  Thought that was neat.

-Large print instruments are great and all, but sometimes it’s just not feasible. In that case, I highly recommend sticky dots of various sizes and textures. These are generally available through your state’s vocational rehabilitation services, but they’re also widely available on Amazon and elsewhere. I use these on a lot of things in the kitchen, especially my microwave (the buttons on it are inscrutable, so I put dots on the start, stop, and set time buttons), my oven’s temperature gauge (I put dots at 350, 400, and 450, with another on the notch at the top), and on my electric heat’s thermostat at about 55 degrees and 72-ish, which are the low and highs I like in fall and winter).

-Spices are tricky business because it can be really hard to guess how much you’re actually tilting into whatever you’re measuring or cooking.. I have a particularly hard time with pepper and larger flake-like spices. The proper solution for this is two-fold – use your hand to better figure out how much is coming out of the bottles. I’d also recommend measuring spices above a bowl – even measuring by hand isn’t foolproof, so it definitely helps to avoid waste.

-Use your other senses when you’re cooking. Meats can be really tricky, but so long as you’ve got a finger, you’ve got a pretty good gauge of how done meat is – generally. Try this the next time you’re frying chicken or a burger – poke the middle before, during, and after it’s done. Make note of the differences. When it’s done just right (again, usually – exceptions to this will come in a sec), there will be a bit of springiness to the meat. Overdone meat will have a slightly crisper, caked-on feel to it, and has less give to it. Underdone meat is hard to describe in words, but if you have a bit of arm fat, it has the sort of feel that a chicken wing under your arm does.

Now… thicker meats are hard, and unfortunately, I’m not your best Sherpa for them. Personally, I like to beat the hell out of my meat (shaddup) in order to make sure it can be cooked evenly with ease, but I understand that’s not always ideal for steaks and what not. For that, I’d recommend looking up tips from the NFB or AFB.

You’d also be surprised at how much you’ll learn about cooking and baking with your senses of smell and hearing. Take something as simple as tea – there are three very distinct stages of water boiling, and it’s never so apparent as when you’re heating water up in a kettle. A soft boil is kind of a faint gurgle, a hard boil is pretty obviously a bubbling roil, but in between is the sweet spot, a calmer moment when the water isn’t doing anything at all. Listen for that, and you’ve got the perfect water every time.

French fries have a distinct certain aromatic explosion when they’re just about ready (when baked – I don’t fry generally). Most things with a crispier outside and frozen innards will follow that same general formula – it takes some practice, but get in the habit of checking your timers when you really start to smell foods like fries, chicken nuggets, or the like. It won’t vary much if you’re staying to the same general servings.

-Crock pots aren’t just amazing for bachelorhood, but they’re really damn handy for this blind guy, too. Anything you can cook in one pot without fussing all day with burners or ovens is great, but I wish more crock-pots came with the old-timey twist knobs instead of digital buttons for their displays.

I’m also stupidly fond of Foreman grills for a lot of reasons, but also largely because there’s no fuss about it. You pop the plates in, slide a grease trap into place, and you’ve got consistently cooked foods every time so long as your foods sizes are relatively equal. It’s also a great way to completely forego the problem of errant grease spattering everywhere, and since I”m not overly fond of grease anyways, that’s a double bonus for me.

-Don’t shy away from recipes because they require techniques you haven’t encountered yet being blind or low vision. This is something I need to do more often myself. For example, I don’t cook a lot of pork because I have so little experience with it. There are resources and forums out there for the blind, not to mention dozens of Youtubers looking for their next great B&LV cooking tip video. And try starting smaller, too, so you’re not wasting as much food on experiments.

I might revisit this blog post idea in the future, but for now, I think that’ll do it. Blind and low vision friends, feel free to toss your hat into this ring – and don’t be afraid to correct me where I’m wrong or offering bad advice. Like I said at the beginning, I’m a godawful cook, but I’m sure having fun trying to get better.

See you next time, and stay tuned for news about Forever and Farewell, my upcoming romance novel! First draft is done, and it should be in your hands possibly before Christmas!

Revising On Hallowed Lanes

I’m sorry to say that as it stands, On Hallowed Lanes just isn’t good enough to share. The travelogue and central plot are good, but the other half of the backbone and a great deal of problems surrounding one of the main characters just feel juvenile and half-assed in a way that can’t be fixed in edits.
 
I won’t push mediocre work. I just won’t. Business-wise it would make more sense to have three novels out this year rather than two, but not if that comes with the cost of releasing something I know I can do better.
 
My plan is to maybe revisit this one in the spring. There are too many elements of the story I actually like not to rewrite it. But I’ve already spent three months trying to pound this sucker out and that’s a problem. It needs to be redone when I have other projects out the door. If I gut the story-within-the-story element, it should bring the novel back down to a respectable novella size, maybe 60k words or so as opposed to the 90k it’s at right now.
 
For those of you waiting for the next Rankin Flats adventure, sorry. You’ll have to wait a while longer.

A tidbit from Forever and Farewell

Here’s a little unedited taste of a special romance novel I’m working on. Enjoy!

The Real Bad Day, as Lauren thought of it later, came in early October.

Once upon a time, she loved the fall. Loved the leaves as they slipped into their golden moments, then falling like soft rain, caressing and tickling her skin under the arms of old and wise silent things.

She loved Halloween as a teenager and the joy of giving treats to wildly exuberant kids, She loved dressing up, loved costumes and being someone other than her own awkward self for a day. She loved that no one could see her face, even if they still knew who she was.

She loved the promise of winter in the air, the crisp stillness that could come with a windless morning, that first bite from the air before the ice and snow made winter a miserable pain, the wood smoke from chimneys.

She loved curling up with a cup of apple cider and a throw on her parents’ patio, listening to the rain. She loved pumpkin spice, the scent of raw pumpkin when it was carved, baking the seeds and salting them so much her mouth hurt. She loved rolling in the leaves with Hot Sauce, their Labrador, now long gone. She loved knowing Thanksgiving and Christmas were just around the corner, seeing the Halloween decorations slowly come out.

Now her love for the fall came with a bitter remembrance of all the things she enjoyed, just out of her reach. True, her experience hanging out at Delaney and Adrian’s during Halloween the year before had been a big step forward, but it was just a taste of a life gone by.

The morning of the Really Bad Day, she headed for the gas station to fill up. Lauren was determined to try and get to Polson to shop for Halloween candy. She was going to… well, maybe not give it out herself, but she could set it out in a little bowl, maybe. Shopping in Polson wasn’t so bad for her, for some reason. Delaney mused sometimes that it was because when Lauren was completely surrounded by strangers, everybody looked, as opposed to just furtive glances and whispers from the people she knew. Maybe, she’d said, it’s easier because you know you’re never going to see those people again. “Besides,” Delaney added, “at the big box stores, there are a lot weirder people to stare at than you, sweetheart.” That hadn’t really been a comfort, but it made Lauren giggle to think about it.

At the pump, she thought about maybe getting some decorations too. Just a few small things for the windows. Maybe a little ceramic pumpkin and some window clings. Buoyed, she smiled happily and decided after the gas was done pumping, she’d run inside and treat herself to a pumpkin spice cappuccino. She hadn’t had one of those in years and years.

But the little SUV pulling up to the pump next to her changed that. Three kids were inside, monkeying around as their mom first stopped, then pulled down her rear view mirror to check her makeup. Before she got out, she rolled down her kids’ windows and pulled the keys, just being a good mom, especially given the unusually warm fall weather.

The boy closest to Lauren shushed his brother and his sister, and whispered something quietly enough that she couldn’t hear. Lauren knew, just knew, the kids were talking about her, and her good mood crumbled. Just a little bit, but the edges were coming down. Then the kid, a spiky-haired boy with thick glasses, leaned out the window and asked, “What’s the matter with your neck?”

“Damian!” his mom scolded, but from inside the car was the tittering of the other children.

Lauren willed the gas to pump quicker. “It’s okay,” she whispered, more to herself than the mom.

“It looks like someone ran over your back,” the boy said.

Lauren gave up on the gas, stopped the nozzle, and replaced it. She hurried around to her side of the car as the mom called out an apology, but Lauren was already getting in her car.

That would have been bad enough to send her into a funk, but maybe not bad enough that she couldn’t get to Polson and redeem the day. But her passenger side window was cracked just a hair, and as she dug out her keys from her pocket, the mom giggled too. Just ever so faintly, and she tried to cover it up with a cough, but there it was.

One of the great horrible truths of the universe was that adults wanted to laugh just as much as children. They were only held back by the thinnest veneer of fear that they’d be laughed at too, and when that was scraped away, all that was left was the raw dark amusement of pissing in someone’s face when they could get away with it. Lauren lived with that cold realization every waking moment of her life.

Tears burned a hot path down her cheeks, and she jerked out of the parking lot, almost nicking a Bronco as it reversed at the same time. The guy hammered on his horn and that made her feel even shittier. Still the day wasn’t done being awful.

When she should have stopped at the town’s lone traffic light, she rolled through, and like the universe wanted to just slap her silly, a Highway Patrol sedan eased around the corner, settling in behind her gamely and following her home.

Still crying, she swung her legs out of the car in time for JB, the town’s overweight, blustering sheriff, to lean out. “Y’all blasted right through that red, Ms. Olmstead.”

Her mouth worked, but all she could do was whisper a muffled apology.

JB gave her a long once over, sucked on his teeth, and said, “Need me to call someone?”

No, she wanted to shout. Adrian and Delaney were working a project in Twin Bear, one of their first in a week or two. Don’t bother them, please don’t bother them.

“Well,” JB said lamely, “if you’re getting’ the weepies, just pull it on over next time, okay?”

She nodded, got out, and jogged for the door, hoping she didn’t slam the door too hard when she came in. She did, though, and JB stayed another minute, watching after her, still making that teeth-sucking sound now and then. After a minute, he got out, walked over to her Buick, checked to see if the keys were still in the ignition, and locked her door before shutting it. In her haste, she’d left it open.

Half an hour later, Lauren lay on the floor, looking up at the ceiling and sobbing silently so hard her whole body was shaking-

Just a party.

You’ll love it.

Would you do one thing for me?

Make that sound again.

It turns me on.

Look at her, she loves it.

Don’t you know how much I care about you?

Don’t you love me?

-but she didn’t whimper, wouldn’t whimper like those earliest days, wouldn’t let herself go all the way back down the hill. But she couldn’t move either, and just willed herself to breathe, to push away the pain little by little until she could think straight again.

A car door thumped outside, and she heard Aubrey thank someone before the engine revved back up and slowly faded. Home from work, she thought, then Dudley flooded her mind again, laughing, laughing, laughing.

A knock, first soft, then harder. “Lauren?” Aubrey asked, then louder, again. “Lauren, hey, it’s me, Delaney called me because the sheriff called her. Are you okay?”

Her eyes felt hot and dry even as she still wept. Her throat was raw but she didn’t remember screaming. In her mind was a wisp of a man hundreds of miles away, someone she would never see again in her lifetime, never speak to, never hear from, but who tormented her every single minute of every single day if she wasn’t careful and today she hadn’t been.

No, she was not okay.

A Taste of On Hallowed Lanes

Warning – here there be spoilers for both Bone Carvers and Band of Fallen Princes. Turn back now, lest you scald your virgin eyes. Still hanging around? Good. Here’s a rough chapter from On Hallowed Lanes. Late in the story, this one doesn’t deal with a lot of plot-heavy stuff, but is a good slice of what you’ll find the book to be about, roughly in terms of its travelogue style (though I want to flesh out the Jasper National Park bits in edits) and what to expect from its main characters. Enjoy!

Had they known there was a fire ban in effect, Garrett might have pushed for them to spend their planned time in Jasper National Park in a hotel instead of camping. Instead, they were too busy bickering over postcards and packages to their friends and families to notice the huge, glaring signs as they paid their fees to enter the park  Garrett was firmly on the side of mailing some of the packages in the town of the same name as the park, but Brianna was set on the notion that the expenses would be staggering and they should just hold off until they were back in the States.

“Brianna,” Garrett said in what he hoped was approaching a reasonable, tolerating tone, “If we cram so much as a napkin in the back end of this SUV, we won’t be able to see through the rearview mirror. And we still have Vancouver and St. George to go through yet.”

“So we’ll rearrange. And what do you mean, to get through? You make it sound like you’re going to war, not vacationing with your wife.”

Still trying not to make little strangling motions with his hands, Garrett said sweetly, “I did rearrange. This morning. You were there. You helped. You sat on the curb and directed me.”

“Oh, now I’m not helping enough?”

The park employee helpfully waved at them. “Hey. You can go on through now.”

Brianna whipped her head so hard to gaze at the man, Garrett wouldn’t have been surprised if she started spitting split pea soup. “Thanks.”

“And enjoy your…” But Brianna was already pulling forward, and the park employee sighed. “…stay in Jasper.” She adjusted her uniform, reaffixed her smile, and waited for the next car, full of happier Australians.

Back in the Durango, Brianna squeezed the steering wheel as she leaned forward and grimaced. “Stupid road butt ache’ll never go away.”

“We’ve got the travel pillows-”

“Yeah, so my knees can bang up against the steering wheel every time we bounce over a pebble. Right.”

Garrett gestured at the mountain spines rising all around the gently curving road. “Oh look, hey, wow, nature, beauty.”

“Same damn mountain range is in Montana,” Brianna snapped.

That stopped him. He thought they’d been mock fighting. But there was a serious edge to her voice. “Okay. Hey. You want to just keep going through the park, that’s fine. I’m sorry I suggested it.”

“I…” Brianna blinked and ran a hand across her forehead. Her fever was back, and with a vengeance. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that. Any of that.”

“Are you okay?” He had to bite back a comment on PMS. God knew that wouldn’t help defuse the situation.

“I… yeah.” She glanced around at the mountains. “They really are beautiful. I didn’t… I want to be here.”

“If you don’t, just say it. We can keep going or go home. But remember what you said to me about not wanting to go anywhere if I’m going to be miserable? That works for you too.”

“I know.” Her tone was harsh again, but she softened it immediately. “I know. I think once I can get out and stretch, and we can do some hiking, I’ll be good. I don’t mean to be bitchy.”

“Hey, it’s not like we haven’t been spending a couple of weeks within feet of each other. Bound to happen.” I guess, he mentally added. Seemed like they were snapping at each other or walking on eggshells more than they were actually talking.

But the Rocky Mountains really did bring back a soothing calm to their world, and in a hurry. The well maintained four-lane highway switched into a single lane road, the groves of aspens gave way to bare-bottomed, top-heavy firs, and with their windows down, the sharp wafting pine scent reminded Garrett of his own cabin. A pang of homesickness washed over him, unexpected and sharp in its longing. As much as he loved the Flats and the state in general, such a feeling had only ever belonged to his family in Florida or when he had to take time apart from Brianna. Homesickness was not something he’d ever applied to a place before. It was new. Beautiful, in a way.

Brianna finally, reluctantly agreed that they should get their friends’ packages out of the way, and they made the titular little town of Jasper their first stop. The postcards were surprisingly reasonable, the packages markedly less so, but at least the Durango was largely livable again. The packaging and mailing took up a solid hour, during which the ghostly child wandered away. Neither Garrett or Brianna seemed to notice their dampened moods lifting, but their snapping and verbal bites eased into a more comfortable quiet as they finished their business.

Cheery Jasper seemed like a bit of a tourist trap, but in a national park, that was to be expected. Still sore from their long drive, Brianna wanted to take a walk, so they wandered the town’s main street. Traffic was fairly light – it was noon-ish on a weekday – but a handful of people meandered here and there, largely hitting up the varied gift shops and a women’s clothing store. Neither of them felt like much shopping after their days at the West Edmonton Mall, so they kept their purchases to the town’s small Super A grocery store. There, they stocked up on some of their favorite camping staples – chocolate, marshmallows, and graham crackers for S’mores, cheap hot dogs, a pound of hamburger, condiments, and a loaf of bread. They debated on eggs for the mornings, and decided to risk it. After Garrett ran out to check their drink supply, they added a gallon of water, a few six packs of beer they hadn’t yet tried on the trip, and a couple of bags of ice.

Back at the SUV, Garrett unloaded the cooler while Brianna hoisted the bags, glancing around at the scenery, humming a little. When he turned to start loading their drinks, the sight of her there in the sun holding the grocery bags brought back a memory in a rush. Gently, he took the bags from her, set them on the ground, and embraced her, his hands finding each other around her back and not letting go for a full half a minute.

“What’s that for?” she asked as he pulled away.

He scratched his chin. “I hate to bring it up.”

“It’s okay. Tell me.”

“After Danny died… I was being kind of a selfish ass. I should have been focused on you, and all I could think about was that we were pulling apart.”

She smiled sadly. “I remember. Hard days.”

“Yeah. Then there was this morning, I woke up, and you were heading for the door, trying to be sneaky and not wake me up. And I thought that was it. That was the moment I’d lost you.”

She frowned, trying to remember, and shook her head. “I don’t-” Then it dawned on her. “Oh right, I wanted to have dinner with Rose and Ed. Do something normal again.”

“Right! And you left a note for me on the table. I was so wrecked I couldn’t even read it.”

A laugh bubbled out of Brianna, pretty and soft. “And all it said was something like ‘gone for groceries. Dinner with E and R?’”

Garrett’s own smile gleamed as he lost himself to the memory. “Murphy thought you’d gone too. He was just standing there, watching over me curled up on the couch. And when you walked back in, I… I don’t even know what I thought. I was so wildly confused. Everything in me said you would run. I thought for sure it was over and up until then, I might have thought you’d be better off.”

“Garrett-”

“No, let me finish. I know in my head I’m not good for you. But that day, when you came back, it was the first time I didn’t care. I knew I had to have you in my life. Even if it means someday something horrible happens, I had to stop thinking I needed to push you away. I know I’ve tried a couple of times since then, but… I’m glad you always came back.”

For that, she gave him a kiss and a hug of her own. Into his ear, she whispered quietly, “Will you do something for me tonight?”

“Anything.”

“Would you read your vows again for me? Please?”

His vows. He’d written them the day after their first date, though at the time he hadn’t known they’d someday become the words he’d speak to her on their wedding day. They were words of love and gratitude, ill-written in his childish handwriting and badly spelled, but still the greatest and hardest words he’d ever put down. There was more to them – instructions for her if something happened to him and a few contacts and phone numbers – but the words were the important part.

“Of course.”

Unfortunately, he didn’t get to keep his promise to her. He would make good on his word the next day, but their first night at the Pocahontas campsite north of Jasper belonged entirely to the strange Rogier Mesman.

* * *

After setting up their tent at their campsite, they headed first for Whistlers Mountain, which not only afforded them views of the surrounding valleys and mountains, but had a chairlift over to another peak which sounded amazing in theory. But only an hour into their climb up the beautiful trails cutting through groves of trees, Garrett caught sight of a pair of squirrels racing diagonal rings around a fir and was laughing too hard to see the sharply jutting rock right in front of him.

The ankle wasn’t broken, Brianna told him but he wasn’t going any further up the mountain, either. There wasn’t much they could do for the ankle up there on the mountain aside from letting him rest for a bit, but a pair of youthful parents leading a small horde of children and teenagers crossed paths with them not long after they started down the mountain gingerly. The father and his oldest boy hustled back down to their van for a first aid kit. Brianna bandaged Garrett up, and by that point, a ranger had been notified and was on his way with a pair of crutches.

Red-faced and feeling more than a little stupid, Garrett tried to pay the couple, but they insisted that it was their duty as Good Samaritans. That got them a ferocious hug from Brianna, and a mumbled, almost bashful round of thanks from Garrett to all the kids and their minders. They looked after the family as they charged up the hill, all smiles and shrieking and laughter and laughter. Brianna turned to start down the trail, but it was a long minute before Garrett tore his eyes away from the family. Had Brianna really doubted he wanted a family with her? Good God, he was ready for eighteen kids right then and there.

The ranger walked with them back down to the Durango. An irritated, grumpy man, he pointed out several of the mountain ranges around them as they walked, grunting the syllables like he was a sergeant belting out the morning’s commands to his troops. When asked where they could get firewood for a campfire, he stopped completely, practically up on the balls of his feet like he might take a swing. He told them, his words clipped, that if they’d read the signs, they would know there was a fire ban in effect. At the parking lot, he took back the crutches, gave Garrett a once-over, and muttered, “Next time, don’t be an idiot.”

It was, by and large, some of the soundest life advice they’d received in Canada so far.

* * *

Back at the campsite, Brianna made Garrett rest and elevate his foot while she made up a makeshift ice pack to treat his ankle. He grumbled that he was fine and that he could go hiking if she wanted, but she turned that right back around on him and asked what he’d want o do if she was the one who had been hurt. That shut him up for a while before they started in what they should do with the burger and dogs they’d bought now that they couldn’t cook them.

The solution for that came from the Halls, two retirees from southern California traveling North American national parks much the same as Brianna and Garrett were traveling Alberta. They were parked in a nearby RV hookup site, and struck up a conversation with the younger couple while they were strolling around the campsites. Garrett offered them the still-chilled foods in danger of spoiling, but the couple instead offered to cook dinner at their campsite. It worked out well for both parties, since Garrett and Brianna had the food and the RV had a stove.

With full stomachs, Garrett and Brianna headed back for their campsite. A man strolled along the road, his long coppery hair tied up in a bun atop his head with a rubber band. His lips cracked apart in a smile as he ambled towards them, bony knees bobbing up and down rhythmically, as though he were keeping time to a tune inside his head. “Wotcher, folks!”

Brianna gave him a polite, friendly smile and a wave. “Hi there!” Garrett echoed her, but his hands were full with the cooler, even more packed now with snacks and plastic baggies full of leftovers. The Halls had been as doting as long-lost grandparents.

“Name’s Rogier.” The stranger pronounced it raj-she. “I smelled the food down in my camp. I thought I would take a stroll, see if I could find the source of this magnificent scent.”

Rogier’s accent was all over the place. Garrett couldn’t pin down if he was French, French-Canadian – which accent they’d heard from a few travelers in Edmonton – or someone doing a bad impression of a New Orleans accent. Rogier never quite settled on any one of those, brutalizing his consonants and trying to sing his vowels.

“Well,” Garrett said uncertainly, but Brianna jumped right in.

“Would you be interested in a bite? We’ve got plenty of food.”

“I would love some, if you do have extra.”

Brianna gestured at the cooler. “Sure! Got a last name, Rogier?”

“Mesman. And your name, kind lady?”

“Brianna. Moranis. And this is Garrett.”

Garrett grunted something vaguely approaching friendly and headed towards their campsite. Rogier trotted along behind them like a puppy, glancing all around with wide eyes and an easy smile. “Americans!” he exclaimed when he saw the license plate on their SUV. “Just out for a Sunday drive to our national park?”

Brianna laughed politely. “Something like that. We’re on our honeymoon. Traveling through Alberta and a bit of British Columbia.”

“Get out,” Rogier exclaimed. “Your honeymoon? Congratulations!”

Garrett settled the cooler on the wooden table, and Brianna opened it to offer him a burger, a small bag of chips, and a beer. Rogier made what should have been a short meal into a grandiose affair, asking them question after question about their trip and where they’d been. Not long after he started talking, the ghostly young teenager flickered through the woods, walking towards Garrett with a sullen expression on her face, like she’d been told she was grounded.

One beer for Rogier quickly became three after an hour, and when he finally finished off the chips, he gave the cooler a mournful glance. “You’ve been such good hosts, and I’ve nothing to offer you,” he said. “Can I at least take a picture with you both? I’d love to have this moment to remember you by.” When Brianna cheerfully agreed and Garrett reluctantly nodded, Rogier patted his pockets and swore. “I must have left my camera back with my truck. Perhaps you could take one and send it to me.”

Brianna hopped up and dug out her cell phone from the Durango. The three of them stood together, doing a variety of goofy smiles and poses. Brianna insisted on giving him their leftovers, and finally Rogier bid them a good night. When he was out of earshot, Brianna said quietly, “You sure weren’t friendly.”

“He wasn’t exactly shy about wanting something from us, Brianna. I don’t think our neighbor was such a nice guy.”

“What, you’re pissed about me giving away our food? Garrett, I’ve seen you leave a twenty-dollar tip for a Coke.”

“No, not the food. Did you see the way he got you to dig out your cell phone? He was looking to see what kind of model you had.”

“Oh come on, that’s a stretch,” Brianna protested as she ringed one of their solar lamps around the driver’s rearview mirror. It would be dark soon, and they’d want the light.

“Really? When you got up to grab some napkins from the car, did you see him cataloging the stuff we had inside? Brianna, he was practically drooling.”

She laughed and crossed over to him, cupping his cheek with one hand. “Baby, relax. You see the rotten shit people do so much, you’re imagining it now. Some people are just… people. He needed food and company, we gave it to him. That’s all. You’ll see.”

* * *

The small pup tent retained some of the day’s warmth even after the night threatened to drop down into freezing temperatures. Brianna snored softly – well, for her, anyways – tucked away in their roomy two-person sleeping bag, a travel pillow tucked under her neck. She dreamed of her father and Ransom Galbraith, an old nightmare by now, still wicked but lacking its sharp ugliness. When she came to the part of the dream where Ransom came around the corner of the door, his gun in hand and moving faster than her own – unlike real life, when she’d managed to draw on him first and put down the psycho fuckstain – she whimpered and came awake, aware for the first time that she was alone.

Just gone to the bathroom, she thought blearily. He’ll be back in a second. Then she heard the voices.

* * *

Given the soft solar lamplight, there weren’t many places Garrett could have sat in waiting comfortably, so he took up a position near a tree further in the darkness, hoping like hell a bear didn’t make him its dinner.

Just as he thought, someone kicked dirt on the road an hour later. For a moment, he thought it might be the Halls – it was coming from their direction, and the thought of the elderly couple being the ones to show up and steal from them would have made an amusing twist. But no, Rogier was just being clever, circling the whole camp and coming around from the other side.

Almost lazily, Garrett rose to his feet, keeping loose. Rogier tested the Durango’s back hatch. No luck. The back door on the passenger’s side. Still nothing. The front passenger door? That was unlocked. Garrett had left it that way.

Though not as trained in wilderness tactics as he was in urban stealth, Garrett had enough practice moving through the woods silently from various cases with Murphy that he effortlessly crept up on Rogier until he was just feet away, still ringed in darkness. “You’re a disappointment, you know that, Rah-jee?”

The would-be thief jumped hard enough to bang his head on the oh-shit handle. “Motherfuck-”

“Keep your voice down,” Garrett whispered. “Accent’s gone, huh?”

“Fuck you,” Rogier muttered. Now he sounded just like a thousand other Canadians they’d heard in Alberta – that is to say, he had little accent at all.

“You know what I’d do to you right now if it wasn’t for my wife? I’d break every bone in your good hand. We already gave to you, and you’d take more.”

“If the choice is a lecture or the bone-breaking, I’ll take the pain.”

Garrett grinned in the darkness. “There was a time I would have obliged you, asshole. But that woman in there, my wife, she still believes in goodness, in decency. I love that about her and I never want it to change. I’m not about to break her heart and neither are you.”

“So… what?”

“In that side compartment, there’s a notepad and a pen. Get it.”

Rogier scuffled around and came up with both. “Okay?”

“Write her a thank you. A nice one, but keep it short. It’s cold and I want to go back to sleep.”

“I don’t get it.”

“You’re going to thank my wife for the food and her generosity. Leave it under the windshield wiper. Then you’re going to vanish, whoever the fuck you really are. If I see you again tomorrow, I’ll get you alone and make good on all my threats.”

Rogier scribbled out a note. Garrett approached out of the night, took it from him with two fingers, gave it a cursory look, and passed it back for him to put it in place. Garrett gestured at the road, and the man took off, practically running. A flick of the Durango’s lock later, and Garrett was headed back for the tent.

At the flap, he stopped to take off his shoes, and stepped in gingerly so as to not drag the muck of the forest floor with him. Brianna was as he’d left her, snoring, her arm outstretched across his side of the sleeping bag. He lifted it gently and slid in with her. She murmured a sleepy question, and he quietly told her nature had called. With a mumble of something unintelligible, she slipped back into the void, and soon he followed after her.

* * *

In the morning, across the table as they ate Fig Newtons and boxes of tiny cereal dry, Brianna couldn’t stop smiling at him. Garrett tried to frown, found it was an abject failure, and finally asked with an amused lift of his lips what she was smiling about.

“Nothing,” she said. “Just thinking about how good people can be in this world.”

And she was. Not Rogier, not like Garrett thought she meant, but him. Always him.

Legally Blind #13 – Driving Again (Sorta)

Ever since I went legally blind, I have to be choosy about the games I play. With modern HD televisions and gaming graphics came an unfortunate byproduct – fonts so tiny that they’re completely unreadable by me. While developers are slowly learning how to implement things like “color blind modes,” there’s still no great solution to the font size problem, even nearly a decade after it first started to crop its ugly head. Even then, the “color blind” name is a misnomer, since there are wildly different variations on each individual’s color blindness.

This leaves me having to pick apart videos of games I’d like to play to see if it’s feasible for my eyesight. User interfaces aren’t likely to see marked low-vision improvements until a big advocate gets a foot in the door with game developers – it’s not feasible for the business to stop and adjust their games in development for the sake of low-vision gamers. Sony’s done something fascinating with the PS4 in that they’ve implemented a zoom feature, enabled in the system’s disability settings, but it’s not a perfect solution – you can’t act while the zoom is locked in, and in action-heavy games that require quick reading of text, that’s not ideal. Still, it’s a huge step in the right direction, one I hope is being improved upon by system programmers.

One of the unfortunate casualties of my post-legal blindness was racing games. With the sheer speed of the games and the often sudden corners, I was left unable to play an entire genre. Disappointing, but in the late aughts, this changed.

A Microsoft-owned developer by the name of Turn 10 cranks out a series of racing games called Forza just about every year now. I liked the look of the games from a distance, but figured they weren’t really for me. But one of the big flags they waved for the third Forza was accessibility.

“Sure,” I thought. “And by accessibility, you don’t mean for the legally blind.”

In fact, that wasn’t the case. What they meant by accessibility was ease of use for people new to the racing genre. This included a lot of neat-sounding stuff, like racing lines that showed you where to brake, make your turns, or put the hammer down. Most importantly, though, it had a neat little rewind feature – screw up badly in a race, and you can just reverse time in small chunks to correct your mistake.

A lot of gamers boo-hooed this as a cheat for gaming babies. But I was curious. If I could correct my mistakes driving in a racing game, theoretically I could actually play the game, regardless of how terrible I was. I bought Forza 3, popped it in, and I’m not kidding when I say I had one of the great emotional experiences of my adult life within the first few hours.

I was driving again.

Sure, it wasn’t the real thing. There was no feel of the tires gripping the road. Most of the cars sounded exactly alike and more than a few drove fairly similarly too. And everything around the fringes was definitely not low-vision friendly (especially in Forza 4, which had some of the most awful contrasting color schemes in its main menus that you could imagine – hint, black on white is never a good choice). But in-game, I was behind the wheel again, and not just in a few cars, but hundreds of them.

I knew the differences. Forza wasn’t going to cure all the mild depression that comes with being legally blind in a small town. The game wasn’t going to whisk me off to a bookstore, or let me drive aimlessly for no good reason other than to see some random site on my bucket list. But what it did do was offer me a taste of what I was missing – feeling the wheel between my hands has never been so close to me as Forza 3 or 4.

Fast forward to 2017. I managed to make enough writing this year to afford a decent computer capable of running many new games on mid-to-high settings, leaving me excited about the prospect of what I could play. It’s been a neat year – with my magnifier turned on and certain games in windowed mode, I can play a lot of PC games that were, before now, inaccessible to me. It’s not a cure-all – loads of games don’t want to work with magnifiers, but you’d be surprised at how well I’ve adapted. And with the ridiculous PC game sales that happen on Steam and elsewhere, I’m not lacking for things to play when I have a few extra bucks.

And best of all? Microsoft’s started putting its Forza games on PC – and Forza 7 is just over the horizon (it’s a clever joke if you’re familiar with the series. Oh, piss off, it is!). I look forward to running off the road, smashing into other cars, whacking walls, and being an absolutely terrible driver – then getting to do it all over again.

Thanks for reading.

 

 

Legally Blind #12 – The Hunchback of White Sulphur

I’m not staring at your boobs.

Well… yeah, okay, I kind of am, but it’s not on purpose. Please don’t slap me. It’s a disease, and not some sexually perverse one. It’s called ankylosing spondylitis.

Before you ask, no, it’s not really tied to my eyes at all, but my diagnosis did actually come about as a result to a visit with my amazing eye specialist Dr. Patricia Cosgrove (who will warrant an entire blog dedicated to her and the fine folks at Medical Eye Specialists in Bozeman, MT, with whom I’ve been a client for about two decades).

About eight years ago, I started to develop chronic pain in my left shoulder, which was initially diagnosed as complications from a torn muscle thanks to a sedentary lifestyle. I lost most of the range of motion in that arm, and despite working out and trying to rehab it through the years, it’s still only at about 80% of its normal range of motion. Not great, but initially just irritating.

About three or four years ago, I started to develop an irritating constant crick in my upper back and neck, which developed slowly into constantly tensed shoulder muscles and a slight stoop to the angle of my neck. I literally could not relax my back muscles – still can’t, by and large. If you want to try to emulate this, do a sit up, hands reaching for your toes as far as they can go. Feel that stretch in your muscle when you hit about the three-quarters mark? That’s the way I feel on a minute-to-minute basis. Not fun.

But that wasn’t the end of it. About two years ago, when I laid down at night, my back would remain tense until I felt an odd little shuffle in my spine, a sort of forced relaxation of the bones there that would leave me gritting my teeth and practically shouting from the sudden jab of pain. If you’ve ever fallen and felt your spine accordion, that’s what it felt like every night when I went to bed, along with a distinct pop of some of my vertebrae. Now that was worrying.

And here’s something I didn’t realize was wrong with me until I was treated – I was tired. Not your average, every-day fatigue, but bone tired. I slept at least ten hours a day, something I’d done since my sophomore year of college, and I still felt sleepy almost every day. More on this in a second.

Me being an idiot, though, I figured it was just a posture thing. After all, I’m a fat man with a sedentary lifestyle, so hey, of course I’m going to suffer a bit of back pain, right? No need to get it seriously looked at. I had a couple of x-rays here locally, got a prescription for some mild painkillers and a muscle relaxant, and figured the problem would work itself out.

A few weeks or months on, and I go to visit Dr. Cosgrove for a regular eye appointment (well, regular for me – I’m guessing most of you don’t have to endure the dilation and half-an-hour of lights shining in your eyes to make sure your lattice structure isn’t shredding like toilet paper after a Taco Tuesday). Dr. Cosgrove read over my recent updates to my case history, and saw the discomfort when I had to put my chin in the Mickey Mouse contraption she uses to shine her eyeball cooker of a flashlight into my retinas.

We went over the history of my back pain, and I expected her to say what me and every other medically trained individual thought – live a healthier lifestyle. Instead, she asked if I’d been to see a rheumatologist, which aside from sounding like something only an elderly person would need to see, is extremely hard to spell. It’s the “a” instead of the “o” that gets me. Anyways, I kind of laughed her off and told her I’d just lose some weight and it wouldn’t be a problem anymore, but she told me if I had what she thought I might be diagnosed with, that it could severely affect my eyes somewhere down the line, either through infection or inflammation (or something similar – I’m not great at the medical science part of this).

I wasn’t laughing so much anymore. We scheduled something with Dr. John McCahan out of Bozeman Health, who took a long look at my back, my posture, and my case history, and agreed it was worth testing for.

I’d been in some pain for a while, but getting those tests done by the lab in Bozeman is maybe only third in terms of pain to some of the worst of my migraines and my infrequent fights with bursitis in my hips (which may have been related to an unnamed hip disease I found out I had at the same time as ankylosing spondylitis was diagnosed).

Getting my blood drawn wasn’t really the problem, but if you’re an aspiring lab tech and your future patients tell you it’s going to be easier to draw blood from their hand instead of the crook of their elbow, please do them a favor and listen. Don’t look at it as some personal challenge. The guy must have jabbed me eight times in the arm before deciding I knew what the hell I was talking about.

The real pain came from the X-rays I had to take – and I had to take a bunch of them. Holy shit, even the memory is making me want to break out sweating. There were a few that could be taken standing, which was fine, except the x-ray tech kept telling me to stand up straighter, which – spoilers! – isn’t possible for me anymore. I kept trying to tell her I can’t, but she was new and, more dangerously, obstinate, mostly because she’d never had to deal with a case like mine. Story of my fucking life when it comes to doctors.

The real, unsweetened pain came when she told me to lie down on the x-ray table. I treid to tell her I needed something to prop up my head, but she said that would taint the x-rays. Couldn’t be done, she said. I tried. I laid there shaking like a leaf, sweat from the muscle spasms rocking my body forming little lakes under my head and rolling down to my bare ass hanging out of the two-sizes too small “one size fits all” hospital gown.

Also, screw hospital gowns. Give your big patients sheets, or big beach towels, or something less humiliating than that crap.

Anyways, there I was, trying to bite back a scream when spasm after spasm was hitting me like ocean waves, and all the while this baby-fresh x-ray tech is telling me, N”no, no, you have to lay down straighter, you have to try harder to hold still.” I’m biting my tongue, because not only am I in just miserable amounts of pain, but Creed comes on the goddamn radio. Creed. As if my misery wasn’t complete enough.

Finally, the x-ray tech sighs in annoyance and calls down her supervisor from an extended lunch I’m guessing took place in Vietnam, considering how frigging long it took her to show up. She sees the distress I’m in, calmly tells me to try it one more time (which turned into another three or four times), and then they finally realize, oh, hey! This guy in pain might know that he’s actually in pain and needs a pillow to brace his head if they want to get an x-ray. Shocker!

I came out of there something like two hours after I went in, white as a ghost and having sweat so badly I could have drank a gallon of water. And probably did – I drink water like a camel even under the best of circumstances. But the tests were done, and I was called back by McCahan’s office to tell me a few weeks later I sure did have this funky disease called ankylosing spondylitis.

So… that aside, what is AS? It’s basically an inflammatory disease. My dumbass healthy cells got confused somewhere along the way and started attacking my spine’s healthy cells, confusing them for outside invaders. Sort of fitting – I’ve been playing video games my whole life, and now my white blood cells are playing their own game of Space Invaders inside my body as some sort of gross fit of karma coming back to bite me in the ass – or spine.

That’s a very basic definition, though, and the reality is a bit weirder than that. The AS has actually caused spinal growths on my vertebrae, leaving me with an upper spine as stiff as a board from the base of my shoulder blades to my neck. I have a limited range of vertical movement in my neck, which fluctuates a little, but not by much. It’s not something that will heal, at least not with modern medicine. Maybe someday they’ll implant me with some sort of Terminator spine, but I’m not counting my breath.

The treatment is basically a means of creating a holding pattern in my body – I can’t improve, but they’ve essentially halted the disease in its tracks through treatments. This treatment unfortunately has one big drawback – my immune system is now, effectively, as useless as a condom with a hole poked in it. Sure, it’s there, but it sure isn’t doing a whole lot.

That said, the effects have been astounding. As I mentioned before, I didn’t realize how tired I used to be until I was diagnosed and treated. Where I was sleeping ten to twelve hours a day, I’m now sleeping maybe six or seven, tops (with an occasional nap thrown in). I’m up every day by about eight o’clock at the latest, no matter how much I might want to sleep in. I’ve got a fire in me now that I just didn’t have before, and I feel the need to go, go, go.

Better sleep and more energy has put me in a better mood, too. Though I’ve slipped on losing weight, I still feel like I’m energized spiritually to do it, to get out on the track and push myself.

And in the most visible sign of improvement, I wrote. And wrote. And wrote. From June of 2016 to May-ish of 2017, I produced five novels averaging about 110k words apiece. Counting rough drafts and synopses, in the last year and a half, I’ve produced well over 1.5 million words. I’m not bragging about this – I could and will do better, because I’ve been graced with all the free time a person could ask for and very few responsibilities except to myself and my dogs. Given that amount of free time, i should be producing a book nearly every other month, if not faster.

But it’s a hell of a start considering I spent the last six years prior to 2016 doing little more than shitting, eating, sleeping, and consuming media.

I write all this especially to those of you males in your late twenties who might be suffering from chronic back pain. Get yourself checked out. Don’t be satisfied until you have a solution for your problem, and I’m not just talking painkillers or muscle relaxants here. Find out if there’s real treatment before it leaves you staring at chest level the rest of your life – which, believe me, leaves you pretty wanting in the dating department.

And to those of you with boobs, boy, am I sorry.