My next book is finally announced! A Few Beautiful Minutes, a lyrical picture book exploring the science and wonder of solar eclipses, will be published by Little, Brown in Fall 2023.
I’ve been enamored with solar eclipses since I saw the 2017 eclipse, and I’m thrilled this book will be out ahead of the next North American total solar eclipse. Getting a book published by Little, Brown is a dream come true, and Khoa Le’s illustrations are brilliant and moving. I can’t wait to see what she creates!
I’m incredibly grateful to my agent, Leslie Zampetti, who has believed in this book from the start and has helped make it what it is, and to Hallie Tibbetts and Deirdre Jones at Little, Brown Young Readers for bringing to life. And many thanks to my critique partners whose fingerprints are all over this book and the rest of my work.
The current Writers Co-op Show Case prompt is Interior. This story is my contribution. Please visit Writers Co-op and read them all. Maybe submit your own piece for the next Show Case. The easy-going guidelines are: any genre, approximately 6-1,000 words, emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org by Monday, February 7, 2022. The next prompt is:
And please share these worthy works with your family and friends!
by S.T. Ranscht
I don’t know why I come here.
Every time Shannon found herself on the front walk that was more cracks than pavement, staring up at the three-story Victorian, she had no idea how she’d gotten there, either. If she’d driven, she couldn’t see where her car or the road she must have taken might be. It was as though the house had materialized in front of her. Or maybe she had materialized in front of the house.
There were no other buildings among the gangly trees huddled in thirsty tangles leaning toward the decayed fence that was almost half as tall as the house. Long ago, the fence must have surrounded a vibrant landscape of flower gardens and vegetable patches separated by expansive lawns crossed by gravel paths. There must have been twittering birds flitting from branch to branch. Now, nettles and scraggly bushes snarled together to choke the path and scrabble up the walls. Silence hung from the trees.
Even with its faded yellow paint peeling like a three-day-old sunburn, the house looked friendly — almost welcoming. Although she didn’t remember ever opening the front door, Shannon knew this house. Things might be rearranged or in slightly different condition from the last time she was inside, but she knew its secrets. She felt their weight.
Closing her eyes, she thought, I should leave.
As had happened so many times before, when she opened her eyes, she was in the living room. Age-darkened wallpaper might have boasted cabbage roses and scissor-tailed swallows. Or maybe brain corals and sea monsters lurked just below the grime. Plaster above picture rails mapped the ceiling with hairline fractures and the floor with crumbles and dust.
Her feet carried her across the scuffed, worn boards to the fireplace, where a thick blanket of cold ash, dead evidence of a living past, lay beneath the grate. Pressing her shoulder against the wall beside the mantle, a narrow gap opened. She squeezed into the space behind the fireplace, and the gap vanished. Relief swaddled her. She was safe here, but she couldn’t stay. She faced the decrepit lengths of wood nailed into the hidden wall, a cockeyed mockery of ladder rungs.
A whisper of dread woke something in her brain, but she wasn’t sure if it was a memory or her imagination. She climbed.
Halfway up the wall, she paused at a window overlooking the backyard. Beyond the broken-down fence, a chain of shadows advanced among the trees. They were coming. They came every time she was here, and she never welcomed them.
Would they get in this time?
Did I bolt the front door?
She wanted to go back and check, but somehow she was in the garret at the top of the house, watching the invaders push through the fence into the yard. They didn’t always get that far. Her heartbeat pulsed behind her eyes. Could she get to the door before they did?
Her rush to the stairs skidded to a stop. The top step hung above the wreckage of the others on the floor fifteen feet below. Panic-tinged confusion swirled around her as she spun searching for a way down.
The lift! She ran back to the garret. There, in the corner. More a dumbwaiter than an elevator, it allowed her to fold herself into it and lower the box to the ground.
Extricating herself, she raced to the front of the house. Unknown people, lips pressed straight, eyes hooded, crowded past the window next to the door. Before she could reach the knob, it turned. The door creaked inward.
Shannon threw herself against the door and twisted the deadbolt latch. Outside, commotion surged forward calling her name, banging on the door, the walls, the windows. She fled to the fireplace and pushed next to the mantle, escaping into the gap.
She would stay there until silence returned.
Shannon’s mother wept from exhaustion and fear that her daughter was no longer within reach. Every day for a year, she had come to sit beside her bed, reading out loud, telling her about her family and friends, what they were doing, how much they missed her. Today, for the first time, the doctor suggested they start considering “alternatives” to life support.
She knew in her heart there was only one alternative.
Here’s my response to the Writers Co-op Show Case prompt Galaxy. Please visit Writers Co-op and read them all. Maybe submit your own piece for the next Show Case. The guidelines are: any genre, approximately 6-1,000 words, emailed to email@example.com by Monday, February 7, 2022. The next prompt is:
And please share these worthy works with your family and friends!
A Fairy Tale
by S.T. Ranscht
Rumors slunk down the gentle hillsides of the Deep Woods to spread through the encircling villages. A ravenous monster — beast — creature of some sort had awoken to begin devouring all life within its widening range.
The truth was, no one knew how long the unnamed fear may have been awake or lain dormant before the rumors, or even if it had always been there or had arrived from some foreign land beyond their knowledge. Throughout their history, few from any of the villages were willing to enter the Woods. They were too dark, too suffocating, too terrifying. Children played on the safe side of the tall fences and walls their villages had built between the residents and the dense expanse of trees from whence their water sources flowed. Hunters and woodcutters kept their homes in sight whenever they plied their trades beneath the shadowy boughs at the Woods’ fringy edges. And the rare fools who thought to pass through the Woods’ center to get to the other side were never seen again.
Olaf was not a fool. Everyone he met agreed he was odd but brilliant and quite as far from foolish as it was possible to be. Olaf was an inventor. Villagers from far and wide sought his help from the time he was a young man, not yet old enough to establish his own home away from his parents’. People hired him to solve problems from building better rodent traps to improving their fields’ irrigation systems.
That was how he met Elea. She accompanied her father when he came to Olaf seeking a way to retrieve stricken prey and errant arrows without having to follow them into the Deep Woods. Their meeting turned to courtship, and by the time he fulfilled her father’s commission, they were pledged to one another. During their long — but childless — marriage, his devoted wife was fond of saying, “Olaf is no stranger than you or I, but his brain is unlike any this land has ever seen.”
While Elea was still alive, he created machines that eased her work to keep their household clean and warm. With one, he replaced the wash board she used at the river with a large water tub on legs that stood in the kitchen. Olaf installed a set of paddles in the tub that agitated the laundry when cranked by hand. A pair of hand-cranked rollers attached to the outside of the tub wrung the wash water from the clothing. Another of his inventions ran a grid of clay pipes beneath the plank floor of their little house to connect the kitchen stove to a stove in the bedroom and the fireplace in the main room. Heat that traveled through the pipes warmed the floors, and thence their feet.
When Elea fell ill from a disease that seemed to afflict people in every village surrounding the Deep Woods, doctors determined the illness had come from water tainted at the source. They had no treatment to offer. Village leaders came to Olaf begging for a filtration system that could eliminate the problem. Olaf worked day and night to devise one. It altered the water rather than filtered it, but his success came too late to save his beloved wife.
With Elea’s death, Olaf took his grief into his workshop and locked his attention on the problem in the Deep Woods. Knowing better than to hike into the Woods, he built an airship powered by wind, steam, and hot air to gain an aerial view and at least a chance of evading capture by whatever deadly presence lurked within. Aboard Elea’s Revenge, once he knew the enemy, he was confident he would be victorious.
He wondered if the tainted water could be used against the creature, and tried mixing it with some of the peculiar powders he had collected over the years. Most of those attempts accomplished nothing, but when he mixed the dark gray and yellow powders with a little of the water and struck a flint over it, the mixture sparked and burst into a swirling stream of flame and smoke and ash accelerating toward the ceiling. Curious. He set about making as many barrels of the mixture as the airship would hold.
Gnawing, echoing hunger growled through the nagging hollow in the creature’s gut. It couldn’t hear. It couldn’t see. It had no memories and no dreams. It hungered. It wasn’t starving. It simply expanded and absorbed what it encountered. But no matter how constantly the creature fed, it was never enough. It was as though the life it consumed provided insufficient nourishment. Or worse, an entirely wrong kind of nourishment. But it didn’t question. It just fed.
Olaf steered Elea’s Revenge toward the crown of the Deep Woods, ascending the hillside amidst the humming, ratchety-purr of the ship’s engine. Evening breezes pulled her dozen swollen sails beyond the reach of the Woods’ gnarled branches while the descending sun pushed the airship’s shadow across the glinting canopy.
The shadow crested the hill and vanished into a circle of darkness so deep it might have been a tunnel to the center of the world. Matte black, it had no visible features except its shape and size. Olaf watched in horror as it crept outward, inexorably extracting the ring of ancient trees that leaned into the void.
The airship’s bow dipped steeply toward the ground, shaking Olaf from his disbelief. The inevitable destruction of his world was suddenly clear. Turning the ship hard toward the creature’s edge, he pulled Elea’s Revenge up, gaining speed as it seemed flung from the scene below.
He lashed the tiller to circle the creature far enough away to resist its pull, but near enough to hope to kill it, and lit the first barrel’s fuse. Seconds before it would ignite the mixture, he hefted it overboard. It fell and fell and fell. In the instant before it faded into the gaping maw, it spit a shower of sparks. The creature made no response.
Olaf stood in stunned silence. Choosing the only option with any hope of success, he ran from barrel to barrel throughout the hold and on the deck, lighting all the fuses. Taking control of the tiller, he turned Elea’s Revenge toward the creature and aimed the prow at its heart.
“I owe you this, my love.”
The ground beneath the encircling villages shook. Houses shivered. People ran outside to see what might have happened. All who looked toward the Dark Woods saw the column of flame and smoke and ash racing into the twilit sky. As it separated from the Woods, the darkness at its tail blotted out the emerging stars, and still it accelerated upward.
What they would not live to see happened over eons far, far from their world: A swirl of stars gathered in the creature’s wake, colliding and giving birth and sorting themselves into a vast community around the creature itself. Whether to be eaten or thrive might never be known.
A recent Writers Co-op Show Case presented six successful views of Failure. My revised version is below, but I hope you’ll visit Writers Co-op and read them all. Maybe submit your own piece for the next Show Case. The guidelines are: any genre, approximately 6-1,000 words, emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org by Monday, January 24, 2022. The next prompt is:
And please share these worthy works with your family and friends!
Who is Failure?
by S.T. Ranscht
Pointing at one bubble shape on the monitor and then the other, “Two placentas,” the doctor announced. “Fraternal twins. Do you want to know their sex?”
The woman and the man looked to each other. He took her hand, his nod scarcely noticeable. Smiling, she said, “Yes, we do.”
“One son, one daughter.”
The man closed his eyes and inhaled deeply. He lifted his face heavenward and breathed out, “Thank God, a son.”
“And a daughter,” the woman added.
“As a precaution,” the doctor admonished her, “to lessen the chances of another miscarriage — considering your age and barring chromosomal problems — this time you really must take the pre-natal vitamins. Cut out caffeine and alcohol. No smoking or drugs.” He made a note to the file. “I wish you lived closer to a hospital.”
The man looked puzzled. “But those other five were all girls. This time is different.”
“Is it?” the woman asked.
The doctor shrugged. “Let’s start by seeing if you can make it through the first 20 weeks. Then there’s reason to hope.”
Together the woman and the man started working on the nursery at the end of week 20.
Now, almost four months later, they stood in its doorway admiring the room they had painted and furnished to embody the woods where Hansel and Gretel had conquered a wicked witch. The man had built a gingerbread doll house for his daughter and a bas relief climbing tree against one wall for his son. The woman had painted a mural of trees with birds and woodland creatures all the way around the room.
On the son’s side, the man added a child-sized tool kit and sporting equipment from every team sport he had played growing up. On the daughter’s side, the woman displayed dolls and stuffed animals and framed photographs of women Olympic athletes. In the center, they placed a rustic bookshelf the man had built filled with books they had chosen together.
“This is a room children will grow up strong in,” he said. “They’ll know they can do anything. Be anything.”
The woman gasped. “It’s time to go,” she said.
“Meet your daughter,” the nurse said as she placed the first baby on the woman’s chest. The man leaned over them to see his daughter’s face.
“She’s perfect,” the woman said.
“She’s so tiny,” the man said. He looked up to watch for his son.
The doctor whispered something to the nurse, who came to take the man by his arm. “Will you come with me for just a moment please?” she asked. She left him in the hall and closed the door behind her.
Silence hung in the air until the woman’s wail pierced the door.
The man had taken the tools and sporting equipment out of the room as soon as they brought the baby home. When he started taking the climbing tree down, the woman said, “Please leave it. Girls can climb trees. I used to climb trees.”
The man never went into the room after that.
Now, cradling the girl in his arms the man said, “She never looks me in the eye. Don’t two-year-olds look people in the eye? Is she blind?” He handed her to the woman.
The woman passed a purple stuffed dinosaur over the girl’s face. The girl followed it with her eyes. “She’s not blind.”
“Shouldn’t she be saying at least a few words by now?” the man asked. “Shouldn’t she know how to walk?”
The woman’s voice wavered, “Children learn at different rates.”
The man’s eyes filled. “What’s wrong with her?” He left the house. He did not pick the girl up after that.
The woman held her daughter inches in front of her. The girl’s eyes drifted across and up and down, but never focused on her mother’s face.
The woman’s eyes filled. She put the girl to bed with the purple dinosaur.
“She’s four years old. Why doesn’t she talk yet? Is she deaf?” Fast and hard, the girl’s father smacked his hands together.
The girl’s mother jammed the blade into another potato, guillotining it against the cutting board. “She’s not deaf.”
“Then what’s wrong with her?” he asked yet again, peering into eyes that saw but didn’t comprehend. He turned his back and left the kitchen.
Wrong with her. The girl smacked her hands together. Again. And again. Again and again. And again and again.
The knife clattered on the counter and the girl’s mother stooped to hold her daughter’s hands apart. “Stop,” she said, begging, “Don’t you understand me?”
The girl’s arms yanked away. Her legs lurched her unsteadily out of the kitchen, her hands flapping beside her shoulders like wounded birds. Stop. Stop. Stop.
“Of course the school can’t handle her,” the girl’s father grunted from behind his cereal box. “She doesn’t talk and she can’t understand any better than a wild animal. Look at her.”
Look, look, look. Undeniably no longer a girl, the young woman stood in the doorway, one foot stamping, stamping, stamping, driven by the hammering thrust of her head-banging bounce. Body wild. Inside see me. See. See. Face swiveling toward him, eyes locking on his for one sticky instant as, arms outstretched, her hands smacked together.
He looked away.
The young woman’s mother smoothed the school’s letter on the table. “It says there’s a school over in Columbus could take her. Says it’s expensive, but they could help her.”
“You know I can’t pay for some expensive school.”
“Or they can send someone to show us how to help her.”
“How much is that?” he asked.
“ ‘No cost to you.’ ”
“Do that one. They can show you how to help.”
The young woman smacked her hands together. Help. Help. Help.
The young woman’s arms flung semaphoric gibberish above teetering steps defying direction.
Her mother hung back while the home care worker followed close. “When Angeline can’t stop herself,” the worker instructed, “she needs someone to help her.” From behind the young woman, the home care worker embraced her to clasp her arms against her sides and pressed one hand on the top of her head, compelling her feet to stand.
Eyes wide, the young woman alerted. Solid. Body silent listening. I am real. Do they see me?
Her mother fretted, “What if she feels like you’re over-powering her? Can she even understand what you’re doing for her? Won’t that make her want to keep away from you?”
The worker smiled. “She has developed an awareness of people outside herself. Although it might not be possible for us to understand how Angeline judges our interactions with her, she can recognize how her body is reacting even though she can’t always control it.”
“But she can’t tell us what she’s thinking.”
“It’s true she hasn’t developed language the way you and I understand it,” the worker said. “No one is born with language. We usually learn to communicate by watching and listening to people speak — their facial expressions, body language, words and inflections. Your daughter doesn’t read our faces or bodies or vocal tone, but as an infant, she developed her own language.”
“Her own language? Then why doesn’t she speak?”
“The language of her thoughts would be based on emotions, wants and needs, and primarily visual stimuli rather than words she hears you saying. Her syntax wouldn’t be the same as our spoken language.”
“What does that mean?”
“Her thoughts might be more metaphorical than literal. She might identify objects or feelings as combinations of things she knows that give them fuller symbolic meaning than their names would.”
Angeline’s mother tried to meet her daughter’s eyes. “Will we ever be able to understand her?”
“Many non-speaking autistic people learn to read. If you can teach Angeline to read, you may unlock her ability to express her thoughts. It might not be with speech, but she might use a spelling board or sign language you develop together.”
“I don’t know how to do that.”
“Let’s help her learn to be still, first.” The care worker released the young woman.
Angeline remained standing as she was for three heartbeats before staggering on.
Days and weeks repeated until the home care worker’s help moved on.
“So she’s gone. She gave up,” the father accused.
The mother wrung her hands. “She said we don’t need her anymore.”
“Right,” he said, “a total waste of time. The girl still doesn’t talk. She still can’t understand anything that’s going on. She’ll never be anything.” He shook his head watching her lie on the ground.
Still. Sunshine feels my face and fills me. Heart music carries me. Sky presses my arms and legs lying on leafy bed. My body smiles.
They fail seeing I am not failure. I am real.
Her mother sat down beside her with a picture book and took her hand. “Look, Angeline, I want to show you something.”
Angeline’s father stopped shaking his head and watched.
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