Embrace Rejection

The following work is a transcript of the keynote speech for Rock Valley College’s 35th Annual Writing Awards Ceremony, delivered by WNIJ broadcaster and author Dan Klefstad (Shepherd & the Professor).


Congratulations in advance to the writers who will be recognized tonight. I look forward to reading your work and sharing the stage with you at future author events. And to those who don’t receive an award: Take heart, you will be recognized one day. And, one day, you might even get the publishing contract your novel, academic paper, or memoir deserves. But I think we should all prepare ourselves for an industry that is structured to say No to your work.  That’s the default. Your job is to be so brilliant you force publishers and agents to flip the switch when they encounter your words.

I’ve published many times, but I’ve also been rejected hundreds of times. In 2016, I got my first traditional contract for a novel – actually, a fictional memoir — about a woman who’s a veteran, cop, and single mother.  I realized I’d need some reviews, so I sent another round of query letters. The reviews couldn’t have been more varied. They ranged from “Unconventional and refreshing” to – quote — “It read like the ramblings of a crazy woman, and for a short amount of time that’s fine, but not for 267 pages!” Then she added: “Many thanks to the author for providing me a digital copy of this book.”

I am living proof that bad reviews and rejection letters will make you stronger…if you let them. One of the people who inspired me is not a writer, but a freelance I-T worker featured on NPR’s “Invisibilia” podcast. His name is Jason Comley, a 30-something who spiraled into depression and paranoia after his wife left him. She found someone who was taller than he was and wealthier. Comley’s feelings about himself got so bad that he became afraid to leave the house and meet new people. In his words: “I had nowhere to go, and no one to hang out with… so I just broke down and started crying.” Comley realized he was afraid, so he asked himself: afraid of what?

“I’m afraid of rejection,” he realized.

So Comley resolved to get over his fear. He decided to make a game out of rejection, and this is what I recommend you do. He made a point of getting rejected at least once every day by someone. After a while, it felt good to get rejected all the time because, as Comley put it: “I disobeyed fear.”

Disobeyed. Comley really hit on something there. I never thought that fear depended on our obedience. But it does. And it’s not like fear is the criminal justice system – it can’t lock you in prison if you disobey. There’s no enforcement mechanism! And if nobody can prosecute you for disobeying fear… then rejection is an empty threat.

So how does a writer play Comley’s rejection game?  You write something, you submit it to a publisher. Pick a publication you aspire to be in or an agent you want to represent you. Then pick several more. Write, submit – don’t even wait for the replies because those take weeks. Write, submit, and embrace the “No thanks” emails when they start coming in.

And remember: The publishing industry has No as its default. Even after you get a good edit, the gatekeepers who are flooded with manuscripts will try to find a reason to keep you out. Dare them to. Because content is subjective and if they don’t like your work now, they might like it later. Or another publisher might take a chance with you.

It’s worth pausing for a moment and reflecting on all the times publishers got it wrong. They said No to authors who’d go on to be blockbusters. JK Rowling’s Harry Potter pitch was rejected a dozen times. John Grisham’s first novel, A Time to Kill, got 24 rejections. Stephen King rejected himself initially — He threw out the first chapters to, Carrie. Fortunately, his wife fished the crumpled pages out of the garbage and made him finish it, which he did. Then it got thirty rejections. The list goes on and on, so I’m guessing several people here could – eventually – land a major contract or get into a prestigious journal. You just have to keep trying.

Some of you may have been studying the market for the type of writing you do. You have a pretty good idea how your manuscript will fit in, and you can tell an agent or publisher at least three titles that resemble your work. That’s a benefit because publishers would rather repeat someone else’s success than take a chance on something unfamiliar. If you take this route, I hope you make lots of money. There is no shame in playing it safe and cashing a check. It means one day you’ll have the freedom to take a risk, to experiment, to try to advance the craft in the way you think it should go. When you’re ready to do this, that’s the book I’ll read.

For those here who don’t care about the existing market and who insist on being original… you’re after my own heart. You’re the writer other writers will love – and maybe even give you a couch to sleep on when your meal ticket dumps you. One day, and it may take a really long time, enough of the reading public will catch up to you. They’ll like how you test the limits of their expectations – even their patience. They’ll appreciate how you helped them see the world differently. But for many years, all those risks you’re taking with form, character, and plot will be poison to publishers. And when you do finally publish, the reviewers will savage you.

Embrace their attacks. Any professional reviewer who takes the time to bash you in public has at least taken the time to read your work. You got under their skin and they will remember you.

(lean in) Send them another book. Let them shoot you full of arrows again. Someday, long after, they’ll encounter you at a writer conference or online chatroom, and they’ll see you survived them. You kept writing – despite their criticism – and managed to find an audience and build on it. They couldn’t keep you down. They will respect that.

A moment ago, I said “You managed to find an audience and build on it.” This is inevitable for any writer, or any artist, who has talent and keeps working to improve. Malcolm Gladwell writes about the theory that it takes 10-thousand hours to become a master of your craft. He explores this in his book Outlier. In one chapter, he calculates all the hours the Beatles rehearsed privately and played publicly before their landmark album Meet the Beatles came out in 1964. Ten thousand hours. In another chapter, Gladwell calculates all the hours Bill Gates wrote computer code – starting in high school — before co-founding Microsoft in 1975. Ten thousand hours.  I think it’s safe for you to expect a similar time investment. The Beatles were in their early 20s when they hit it big. Bill Gates was the same age.

How old are you?  Take a moment and think how many hours you have been writing and re-writing in class or on your own time. You might be closer to 10K than you realize.

At some point in your efforts to get published, you’ll walk into a bit of luck. I’m a big believer that people who strive make their own luck. The agents and publishers who have the power to keep you in obscurity just can’t help themselves when they see someone struggling to get their manuscript through the door. In my case, a handful of agents offered advice – They took precious moments from their day to write me an email saying why my manuscript wasn’t working for them and offered suggestions for improving it. If this happens to you, treat that advice like gold. Thank them, revise again, and then re-submit.

Speaking of submissions… Industry insiders will tell you they don’t like it when you submit to every publisher who handles science fiction or horror or literary criticism. They do have a point when they say “Hey, we invested valuable time reading your submission and then you went with this other publisher (or agent).” My thoughts on this are simple and direct: They have all the power. You are at a disadvantage. You need to do what’s best for your manuscript, so I recommend you don’t become too concerned when they complain about investing a little time in you. THAT’S THEIR JOB. Now, you can play fair and say in your query letter that you’re submitting to everyone and that you’ll inform them when you get an offer. Do this but know you don’t owe them anything more.

Let’s fast forward a few years. You have a brilliant manuscript and got a professional edit. You finally found a publisher who believes in your book or article and signed the contract. Congratulations — Welcome to the world of literary promotion!

You might know that each author must be the chief marketer of their work. Even large publishers with marketing staff can only do so much. Most publishers will give you resources and advice, but they don’t have the staff to sell your book. So how do you pick up their slack and start selling?

You can spend a lot of money paying for marketing services and, believe me, there are a lot of people out there who offer various packages and rates – and none of them can offer you any metrics on how successful their services are. Let’s be clear: marketing is an art not a science. With this in mind, I’ll tell you what I’ve learned through my own experience, and that begins with this: Never pay for promotion.

I’ve never paid a penny. But I have spent many more hours marketing my writing than actually writing. I still don’t know how I feel about that, and I cannot point to any metrics saying my marketing efforts are paying off. But I feel like I’m moving the ball forward and that’s got to mean something. I’m still in the game. I’m… here… after all, so I must be doing something right. So what did I do?

I looked up book bloggers. These are readers, just like you and me, except they maintain blogs containing their reviews plus other cute features like “First Line Friday” or “Short Story Sunday” or “Monday Memoir.” Each one has a TBR or “to be read” stack that’s a mile high and I wanted to see if they’d move my book up. So I pitched them with the following line: “Looking for extra content for your blog? How about an email Q & A?”  And a surprising number of bloggers jumped on this. They sent me a list of questions, I answered within a day or two, and – Voila – there’s my interview on their blog, plus my photo and a link to the Amazon “buy page” for my book.

It was the easiest thing I could do with my time, and now I have bloggers who are curious about me and my work. And it only takes one if they’re part of a network, so I recommend you focus on these. Many bloggers have agreements with other bloggers where they share posts on their websites, and then post the links on Twitter, Facebook and other social media. Let me give you an example:

Two years ago, Love Books Group reviewed four of my vampire stories that will be included in my next book. This Scottish blog gave me a good review, included a photo of me, and links to my other work available on Amazon. That’s not remarkable. Here’s what is:

18 UK-based bloggers shared it on their sites and tweeted it. Each member of this network averages 15,000 Twitter followers, and they’re also active on Facebook, Pinterest and Instagram.

15,000 x 18 equals… I don’t care what the number is, THAT is a network that’s too important to ignore.

It includes blogs like Chat About Books, Keeper of Pages, Linda’s Book Blog, Between the Lines, Bits About Books, and Swirl & Thread. Each of them got to know me after I pitched an interview. Then I pitched my first vampire story “The Caretaker” and three of them gave enthusiastic reviews.

In my experience, when one of them likes you, you’re in. It’s not necessary for them to like everything you write. The blogger at Swirl & Thread, for example, doesn’t like vampires. Keeper of Pages loved my story “The Caretaker” but was not happy with my novel Shepherd & the Professor.  This experience taught me something about what works and what doesn’t with certain readers.

That’s how I got free publicity and laid the groundwork for sales of my forthcoming novel. If you write creative fiction, I recommend you get in this network or something similar. If you’re an academic writer, find a journal that gets quoted in popular media. And in both cases, be sure to let your local media know about the attention you’re getting — because reporters tend to chase the same stories and, depending on what else is going on in the news, you might be the story for one day.

It seems ridiculous to have to say this, because you’re all polite people, but being nice makes all the difference. Sadly, not everyone gets this, and I feel sorry for the writer who responds angrily to a bad review. The bloggers I know consider an attack on one an attack on all, and they will shut out any author who insults them.

When I saw this on Twitter, it resembled an excommunication. I felt certain the offending author’s writing would never again see the light of day, and he would die frozen and alone knowing it was his own damned fault. Which, of course, it was.

It doesn’t need to end this way. Don’t like that two-star rating? Suck it up and say “Sorry it wasn’t your cup of tea,” and thank them for their time. If the reviewer had a specific complaint, consider that when you write your next book or article. Then pitch them again.

It’s worth noting that amateur bloggers devote enormous amounts of time reading books and maintaining their sites. Ever wonder why? The ones I know don’t get paid for reviews, although they make a little money from selling ad space. They do it because they love books so much that they need to share their feelings about them — even to total strangers. They also enjoy getting to know authors. They really want to shout your name from the rooftops. All you have to do is give them a reason to do so.

Another way to promote your writing is through podcasts. Authors writing on any subject can reach new audiences by producing their own podcasts or getting invited on better-known ones. Any podcast that allows you to read an excerpt and talk about your work is worth investigating. A very well produced one lives on the Rockford Writers Guild website. Their “Guildy Pleasures” podcast features two Pushcart-prize winners, plus excellent emerging authors. I was the first guest, reading five of my vampire stories. Podcasts are great for authors because they’re sharable on social media, and you can track metrics like “full listens.” But the audience is getting more and more sophisticated so there’s less tolerance for schlocky production than, say, a decade ago. If you get invited to a podcast, make sure you do your part and rehearse the excerpt you want to read, and make sure you know exactly how you’ll answer basic interview questions like “What inspired you to write this book or article?” Nobody wants to listen to meandering answers, and nobody wants to hear an author stumble their way through a reading.

The same applies to bookstore or radio appearances. I can’t tell you how many times I attended events where an author showed up and it was clear they weren’t prepared. Or they stood, chin down, quietly reading their words without any emotion or emphasis. Remember: You have one chance to make a good impression on your audience – so knock ‘em dead.

I hope I made a good impression with you. One day when my career has stalled, and you’re headlining a publishing or academic conference, I might want to hitch my wagon to your rising star. In the meantime, I’ll do what I can to help your career. If you think it may help to drop my name, feel free to do so.

I gave you A LOT of things to remember tonight. The short version is: write your very best work, get a professional edit, get 100 agents to reject you, pay nothing for promotion, be nice, and rehearse.

Thank you for inviting me. And remember me when you’re famous!

Elevens (2001)

(Excerpt from the novel Fiona’s Guardians by Dan Klefstad)

 

“You count the money. I’ll count the blood.” Daniel pushes the open case of dollars toward Jesús who in turn opens a large cooler releasing a cloud of mist. The cooler is tied to a dolly. Daniel’s gloves lift blocks of dry ice, revealing pint bags labeled O negative, A negative, A positive, B positive, etc. All will be consumed during a single meeting of Fiona’s extended family. The O negative is for her.

“All good.” Daniel replaces the ice and shuts the lid. “Let’s do this again sometime.”

“You got it.” Jesús shakes hands and nods toward the twin-engine plane fronting a skyline of red rock formations. “Baron, huh? What’s it cruise, 200 knots?”

“I’m not a pilot.” Daniel grins. “I just hire them.” He tilts the dolly back while Jesús opens the door. “I need a steady source for O negative. What can you get me every other week?”

Jesús shrugs. “80 or 90 pints. Maybe 100.”

“Get me 100 and I’ll pay 200 bucks a bag.” Daniel pushes his cargo into the morning sun. “See you in two weeks?”

“You got it. I’ll have 100 for you.”

Outside, today’s pilot – Bud — opens the baggage door. When Daniel unstraps the cooler, each grabs a handle and lifts. Bud groans. “This feels heavier than what we agreed.”

“131.5 pounds, like I told you.” Daniel grunts through his teeth.

Bud puts his end into the cabin. “Same as my daughter who flew with me yesterday. Course, she’s at the age where she’d kill me for telling. You got kids?”

“None that I weighed recently.” Daniel looks at his watch. “It’s after six. Let’s go.”

Bud starts the engines. “Sedona traffic, this is Baron One-One Two-Two Alpha taking off runway Two-One, left turnout.”

That you, Elevens? It’s Boxcar on your six. Where you headed?

“Goin’ to Chicago with all that money I won last night.” He turns onto the taxiway.

Me too.”

“Uh, I recall you leavin’ more than you came with.”

“I meant Chicago. And I was doin’ all right until you dropped triple Jacks. I’m staying at the downtown Hilton. Sure would love a chance to get my five hundred dollars back.”

“Game on!” A smile creeps across Bud’s face. “Of course, we could bet that five hundred on a race to Chi-Town.”

“Hmm. Where you stopping for fuel?”

“Garden City, Kansas.” Bud enters the runway. “Wanna make it double or nothin’?”

“That’a Texas-sized 10-4.”

Bud opens the throttle and the engines roar in stereo. Seconds later they’re airborne, white wings disappearing into a cerulean panorama. He looks in the mirror at Boxcar’s Mooney lifting off. “So, Mr. Strange, what’re we haulin’ today?”

Daniel is so entranced by the Mars-red surface he almost forgets his “business” name, Robert Strange. “Uh, lab samples. Tissue. Can’t say much beyond that.”

“Long as it ain’t stem cells – or clonin’.” Bud shakes his head. “So sick of people playin’ God when they should be worshipping Him. You a church-goer?”

“It’s been a while. I might come back.”

“Don’t wait too long. Never know when Judgement Day will arrive.”

“So why do they call you Elevens?”

“My lucky number. Born November 11. On my eleventh birthday I went to church for the first time and got moved by the Holy Spirit. At twenty-two, I became a father for the first time. And at the age of thirty-three, after wandering in the desert so to speak, I came back to Jesus. Yessir, born again.” He pauses. “Of course, you heard about my last winning hand.”

“Three Jacks.”

“Which was the eleventh hand of the game.” His right hand goes up. “God as my witness, I kid you not.”

Daniel wrinkles his forehead. “I’m trying to remember the significance of eleven in the Bible. All I remember are twelves.”

“Right, the number of apostles, and the age Jesus was when he questioned scholars in the temple. Plus, twelve sons of Jacob who formed the twelve tribes of Israel. Yep, the good book likes an even dozen. But eleven is connected to the main event for people in my church – hold on.” Bud listens to frequency traffic for several seconds. “Chatter on the east coast. Reports of a plane crashing into a skyscraper.” He shakes his head. “Where were we?”

“Eleven in the Bible.”

“Right. Eleven appears less often in scripture but when it does, it usually signifies judgement. Take the Book of Genesis. In Chapter 11, mind you, mankind rebels against God and builds the tower of Babel. God responds by confusing their language – literally, they start babbling, and the result is chaos.” He pauses to listen again. “The apostle John had eleven visions in connection with the final judgement. And the Gospel of John tells of eleven promises God makes to mankind, beginning with everlasting life if you believe in Christ and ending with a call to obey Jesus. My takeaway: Eleven is a sign to get right with the Lord before Judgement Day.” Listening again. “For the sake of completeness, I’ll note that our savior was 33 when he was crucified.” He presses a headphone tight against his left ear. “Another plane hit the World Trade Center – South Tower this time – and now they’re saying both were airliners. Looks like an attack of some sort.”

“Let me hear.”

Bud switches to an AM channel and they listen silently for several minutes. The news gets worse as reports come in about another airliner crashing into the Pentagon. Even the distance of two time zones can’t deaden the reality that the nation is under attack. There’s confusion about a fourth plane which, at first, was headed for the White House but now lies burning on the ground in Pennsylvania. Aboard each plane, the hijackers shouted “Allāhu akbar” – 11 letters spelling “God is greatest” — as they used boxcutters to slit crewmembers’ throats. Now the media is sharing voice messages from those trapped in the burning towers. Daniel keeps swallowing to quell the emotions rising in his throat. Bud just lets his moans, groans, and tears flow unchecked. He improvises a prayer:

“Dear Lord, it’s Elevens here, your perennial sinner. I know we haven’t spoken directly about my little gamblin’ problem, but I’d like to make sure we’re square. If this is your Final Judgement, please have some mercy and take this flawed but well-meaning servant to sit by your side. If, however, this is a trial you’ve set for us, I’m ready to show my devotion by givin’ up cards. Just, please, give me a sign. Show me the way.” He turns to Daniel. “If you need help prayin’ – maybe you forgot some of the words – I can help.”

“I’m sure my fate has already been decided.”

Bud looks forward. “And Lord, let’s not forget our quiet friend here, Mr. Strange. He may be a mystery, but I’m guessin’ his intentions are just as noble as mine. That, I believe, makes him worthy of your protection. Amen.”

Albuquerque Center to all aircraft: All flights are to immediately land at the nearest facility. This is a nationwide order from the FAA. Repeat: Land immediately.

“Ask for a sign, receive one.” Bud clears his throat. “Albuquerque Center, this is Baron One-One Two-Two Alpha. Message received. Over.” He spreads a chart across the control wheel. “No long runways in front of us, so we’ll have to turn around.”

“No.” Daniel holds a pistol in his right hand. “Keep going.”

“You out of your mind? I’ll lose my license – and my livelihood.” Bud’s eyes land briefly on the gun. “Careful with that trigger. We’ll both die if you pull it.”

“I’m not pulling anything so long as you keep flying.”

Bud sighs. “Mr. Strange, you’re makin’ a big mistake. And it’s a hell of a thing to do, dragging me into whatever scheme you got going on.” He glances back. “I’m guessin’ that’s not lab samples, is it? What are you into, drugs?”

“The less you know, the safer we both are.”

“Sounds like you’re in deep.” Bud softens his voice. “Look, man, it’s not too late. I’ll testify in your favor if you just give me the gun and let me follow orders.”

“We’re all obeying someone, Bud. Just get us to Garden City.”

“And then what? You can’t take off. All flights are grounded!”

“Let me worry about that.”

Barron One-One Two-Two Alpha, Albuquerque Center. Turn around now and land at Sedona. That is an order.

Daniel pushes the gun closer. “Don’t acknowledge.”

Bud exhales and puts both hands on the wheel. After several seconds, he shakes his head. “The Lord is testing me today. With signs I do not like.”

“When we land,” Daniel adjusts his tone, “I’ll pay your second installment early, and we’ll part ways. The world has no time right now for this little problem between us.”

“Problem? You hijack my plane and call it a ‘little problem’? That is a breach of trust, my friend, and comes at a time when my very identity is shaken to its core.”

“Identity?”

“Eleven has always been my number — whether it’s cards, horses, or life events. Then this morning happened. I woke up and said, ‘It’s the 11th of September, gonna be a good day.’ But clearly, it’s not. It’s a shitty day for everyone – possibly the worst in our nation’s history. That’s one sign.” He points at the gun. “Next, I’m held up by a Colt M1911. And now,” he punches his door, “111 miles from Sedona, we get intercepted.”

“What?”

“LOOK OUT YOUR GODDAMN WINDOW.”

Daniel’s jaw drops when he sees an F-16 with its flaps open and gear down, slowing into formation. Its pilot raises a hand, finger pointed down.

Barron One-One Two-Two Alpha, this is Captain “Spike” Ripley of the United States Air Force. I’m in visual contact and will shoot you down if you fail to comply with the following order: Land immediately. Repeat: Land immediately.

“There’s nowhere.” Bud is sweating. “NOWHERE TO FUCKING LAND!”

Daniel snatches the chart. “There’s a private strip on a mesa up ahead.”

“What’s the heading?”

“25 miles straight ahead.”

“Length?”

“What the mesa?”

“RUNWAY.”

“2,900 feet.”

Bud snatches it back. “Shit, that mesa looks half the size of Sedona. It’ll be like landing on an aircraft carrier – which I’ve never done before.”

Baron One-One Two-Two Alpha, this is your final warning. Land immediately.

Bud’s voice cracks. “Don’t shoot, Captain! Gimme two seconds.” He switches on the landing lights, decelerates, and snaps his fingers at Daniel. “Airport elevation.”

“What?”

“FEET ABOVE SEA LEVEL.”

“4,700.”

Bud clears his throat. “This is Baron One-One Two-Two Alpha, descending. God bless you, sir, and God bless the United States of America.” He glances over. “I’m assuming there’s no tower at this little outpost we’re shootin’ for.”

“Correct.”

“Well, brace yourself, because crosswinds are gonna be a problem.” He scowls when he notices the gun again. “Put that away.”

“Are you calm now?”

“Fuck you.”

Daniel complies and settles into his seat as the runway comes into view, sitting atop a block of crimson stone. The approach is fairly calm until a quarter mile out, when a gust knocks them off target. Bud’s knuckles are white as he raises the nose and straightens out against the crosswind. Back on track, he finally lowers the wheels, adjusting for the extra resistance which now appears to come from everywhere. At 500 yards, the plane shakes violently while Bud struggles to stay on target. At 200 yards, he pulls back on the wheel, keeping the nose up, while gunning the engine to stay above the rim. At 50 yards, a giant gust pushes the plane below the runway. Bud yanks back again and accelerates sharply as the rocky face grows bigger. Nearly above the rim, Daniel sees another plane above them.

“Shit, that you Elevens? I’m on top of you.”

“THE FUCK, BOXCAR. ABORT LANDING.”

“Pulling up.”

Too late. The Baron’s wheels catch the rim and collapse, causing them to skid diagonally across the runway. They knock aside a parked helicopter, then hit another plane before smacking into a hangar. As he slowly regains consciousness, Daniel hears a gurgling sound. Turning his head, he sees Bud’s eyes staring down at a long piece of metal in his throat. The gurgling slows to intermittent choking before Bud finally goes silent. Next, Daniel turns to the right and sees his arm hanging out the window, bent the wrong way. A piece of bone sticks out through his bicep.

***

“Daniel.” A familiar voice, but not the one he hoped for. His eyes open to see Søren Fillenius leaning over him, eyes piercing the narcotic haze. He snaps his fingers and waves his hand in front of Daniel’s face.

“Stop it.”

“There he is.” The hand withdraws. “That must be powerful stuff they gave you.”

Daniel looks at the tubes hooked up to his left arm. “Where’s Fiona?”

“Really? I come to your rescue, and she’s all you think about?” He shakes his head. “She’s not coming.”

“Rescue? Bullshit. You’re here for the cargo.”

“I did salvage some A positive. The rest will go to waste because the elders canceled the meeting. I suppose you’ll blame the pilot for our having to reschedule.”

“Waste? Take the O negative to Fiona.”

Søren looks indignant. “I’m not your mule – or hers.”

“You piece of shit. I nearly killed myself to deliver that.”

“Well well, the truth comes out.” Søren’s face comes closer. “I’ve got some truth of my own to share.” Two icy hands grab Daniel’s face and turn it to the right. “Look at what’s left of you and tell me you’re still useful.”

Daniel’s breathing accelerates when he sees the stump wrapped in bandages. “That’s up to Fiona…”

“She and I have already spoken.” Canines appear as Søren’s voice changes to a snarl. “I’m to estimate your value and decide whether you stay employed or remain here. Permanently.”

“I have a new source.” Daniel struggles to speak. “100 bags of O negative every two weeks. That, plus Atlanta and Cleveland, and Fiona is set.”

“Where is this new source?”

“Sedona. All we have to do is hire a new pilot.”

“All the planes are grounded.”

“For just a few days. The economy would collapse.”

“100 bags of O neg, huh?” Søren regards him carefully. “Add 100 of A positive to each flight and I’ll let you live.”

Daniel’s vision fades as the drugs take hold again. A warm, fuzzy feeling spreads throughout his body, and the pain that was rallying begins to recede. At this point, he could care less if Søren brought him home or drained him dry. He wonders if heaven feels this good, and kind of wishes he could slip away forever. Would Elevens be there? His prayer for protection should carry weight, right? With St. Peter or whoever guards the gates? If, however, he must stay here it better be with a steady supply of this shit. The label on the drip bag was hazy but it might’ve said Dilaudid. Maybe Jesús could add a few bags of this, too. Get rid of the bad dreams. Allow him to forget everything.

The shadows gather again. Søren’s voice sounds like it’s coming from an old phonograph. Soon, all Daniel can hear is his own shallow breathing. Sure ain’t hell, that’s for certain…

###

A Siring

By Dan Klefstad


“I was starving, I couldn’t help it.” Camilla wipes blood from her chin and points. “He’s in the car.”

“How could you be starving?” I put my stump in one jacket sleeve while my left arm hurriedly finds the other hole. “You had at least six pints before you left the house.”

“Okay, then, he was delicious. What’s wrong with enjoying a meal?”

A Corvette convertible sits at the edge of the park, red finish partially lit by a perfect half-moon. I lower my voice. “Front or back seat?”

“I put him in the trunk.”

“Please say the interior isn’t white.”

“Okay. It’s some other color.”

“Don’t play with me.”

“You’re the one who’s playing.” Her bare feet make no sound on the grass. In contrast, my loafers seem to find every leaf that gave up the ghost during the recent drought. I shine a light on the driver’s seat. “It’s like Jackson Pollack was here. Fiona was never this messy.”

“You don’t work for her anymore.” She folds her arms. “And I like Jackson Pollack.”

“Did you forget our agreement? I raise money to buy blood and you don’t kill people. We don’t need police sniffing around.” I open the trunk and see a man in a polo shirt and plaid shorts. He looks 35, maybe 40.

Camilla leans against the fiberglass body and runs her hands over it. “I want this car.”

“We have to ditch it.” I reach into the man’s back pocket and take out his wallet.

“Oooh.” She sidles up. “Make it look like we robbed him. Clever.”

Camilla’s been watching a new police show. Maybe it’s an old one, those procedurals are all the same. One minute in, someone finds a body. After the first commercial detectives arrive, and five minutes later something threatens to derail the investigation which leads to the climax. A quick, pithy observation follows, and it ends at 22 minutes. The wallet opens and my thumb lands on metal. Oh God, no. Please, no. I put the flashlight between my teeth. “Fuck me.”

“That’s not in our agreement,” Camilla snaps back. Then she groans as her hands encircle her belly. “I’m too full anyway.”

“You killed a cop.”

“Okay.”

I stare at her, flashlight dangling from my teeth. Finally, I remove it. “Cops never stop looking when one of their own… Oh, Jesus Christ.” I slam the trunk and turn away, gathering my thoughts. Camilla is only six months old, but Fiona warned me she’d never learn caution. I can’t believe I signed up for four years of this.

“Is that what I think it is? Cool.”

It’s best if I hide the body several miles from the car, but I haven’t used a shovel since losing my arm. And Camilla? She’s allergic to manual labor. But, just now, I remember a secluded lake about a mile from here. Perhaps we could find weights to keep him down…

BANG

“What the fuck?” I whip around to see smoke curling up from a pistol. Camilla can’t stop laughing at the hole in her left hand. “I shot myself.” Her excited eyes meet mine. “Coppers back home don’t carry these.”

“Give it to me.”

“No, I’m gonna keep it.”

“You have no need for a gun.”

“We’re in America now.” She waves it in front of me. “Everyone needs a gun.”

“Camilla, I need you to give that to me.”

Her face moves right up to mine. “You’re not the boss.” I feel the barrel against my ribs. “I am, remember?”

“If you kill me, you’re on your own.” I stare back. “Think you can survive by yourself?”

Our standoff lasts several seconds. Finally, she grins. “You’re right.” She turns and walks away. “You’re always right.” She tosses the gun in the bushes. “Good luck with this mess.”

***

It’s after seven when I get home. Camilla’s been asleep since 5:30. Everyone else on our street is scurrying to work, or wherever normal people go in the morning. In the kitchen, I pour myself a scotch, then remember the final item on my list before waking at eleven to check our investments. I walk down the corridor and turn the handle to Camilla’s room to make sure it’s secure. I always order the bolt installed on the inside to protect my employer when they’re most vulnerable. To her credit, Camilla always locks it. So, there’s hope. When I return to the kitchen, I see a letter from Rome on thick, faded stationery.

Dear Daniel,

How’s life back in the States? Is Camilla behaving herself? Despite her wild ways, I have every confidence you’ll guide and protect my progeny during these difficult early years. I just hope she’s paying you enough. Speaking of money, please find the enclosed check which should help with surprise expenses. I do hope we work together again someday. My current guardian isn’t even close to your level.

All the best,

Fiona

 

The check is for $10,000, not much in our world. Still, it would be enough if I were to buy a one-way ticket to the Equator where the sun shines twelve hours every day. No doubt, a spurned Camilla would die pursuing her revenge. Fiona, ever more cautious, would send human assassins, but most working today have less experience than me. I could stay hidden for years thanks to secret deposit boxes filled with cash, false passports, and gold. I’m still calculating the exact number of years when I hear her voice:

“Hey.”

I turn and see her door slightly open. My eyes immediately go to the window shades to make sure they’re down. “Yeah?”

“Can you come here for a second?”

I walk to the entrance and see a teary eye staring out. “What’s wrong?”

“I’m sorry.”

“For what?”

“For being… difficult.”

“I’ll forgive you. Just give me a day or two.”

She sniffles. “It’s just that I feel so unprepared.” Her eyes roll. “That’s probably really obvious to you. But I’m finding it hard to adjust to… this.”

“I understand. Fiona said it took her a couple decades. Try to get some sleep.”

“I can’t.”

This is new; Fiona always slept through the day. “Want some B positive?”

“No. What are you drinking?”

“Whisky. You wouldn’t like it.”

“Can you sleep with me – just for a little while?”

“Umm…”

“I know it’s not part of our agreement.”

“I’ve never slept with…”

“A vampire?”

“Yeah.”

“I just need someone to hold me.” An icy hand takes mine. “Please?”

I follow her in and lock the door. We face each other for a few seconds — she in silk pajamas, me in slacks and a button-down shirt – before she lifts the covers and slides in. I remove my shoes and lay down next to her.

“Spoon me?”

The last time I did this, I had two arms and one grew numb. For the first time, I learn one arm can be a benefit. I press my chest against her back and immediately feel her relax.

“Please don’t leave.”

“You mean, stay all day with you?”

“No, you can go once I’m asleep. Just don’t take off permanently. I don’t know what I’d do on my own.” Both her hands press mine against her chest. “God, I hate being so dependent.”

“Everyone depends on someone.”

“Who do you depend on?”

“I left myself open for that. Touché.”

She turns to face me, eyes searching mine. “You know I’m here for you. I just need to know what you need.”

***

The next evening, I’m reading the news, swiping at my tablet, when something catches my eye: a story about a body, drained of blood, in an alley. Enraged, I push open her door and hold up the tablet. “You did it again.”

She’s in her closet, topless, sifting through dresses. “Hello, that door still means something. What do you want?”

I step in. “Someone sucked a body dry last night. It’s all over the news – we’re exposed.”

“I didn’t do that.”

“Then who did?”

She’s smiling when she faces me. “Congratulations!” She kisses my cheek. “We’re parents.”

“What?”

“It’s a miracle.” Still smiling, both of her hands take mine. “Remember that cop from two nights ago?”

“The one you killed, and I dumped in the lake?”

“I’m calling him Austin – hope you like the name. He’s alive and living nearby.”

My breathing becomes shallow as I extract my hand and grab her upper right arm. “Are you saying you sired that cop?”

“We sired him. We had sex and I gave Austin some of my blood…”

“His name was Officer Jared Brown and we had sex after you killed him.”

“I don’t remember the order — I don’t know how this works — but aren’t you happy? We have a son.” She tries to move, looks at my hand gripping her arm, and fixes her gaze on mine. “Let go of me.”

“Walk me through it. You were alone with him in the car, and you drained him. When did you give him your blood?”

“I can’t REMEMBER.” She yanks herself free. “Really, I thought you’d be happy – at least for me. I didn’t think I could sire someone.”

“Camilla, listen: You brought a being into this world that we can’t protect…”

We brought him into this world.”

“…and once the police catch him, they’ll start looking for others…”

“But you can teach him to survive – like you’re teaching me.”

“STOP ACTING LIKE I’M HIS FATHER.”

Blood pools in her eyes as her body shakes. She points toward the door. “Get. Out.”

I point at her before I leave. “We will talk about this tonight.”

“GET OUT OF THIS HOUSE.”

***

Finally, an order I agree with. Fiona’s check is still on the kitchen table. I pocket that and grab my tablet. Before leaving, I open my go-bag and feel all the way to the bottom. I pull out a pistol, a trophy from a battle that now seems ages ago. The magazine contains regular bullets. Reaching back inside, I find the other mag containing wood-tipped rounds. One through the heart is all that’s needed.

A moment later, I’m driving to the neighborhood where the latest body was found. I’m testing that TV trope that says a criminal always returns to the scene of his crime. It takes several minutes to find the alley, which still has pieces of yellow tape on the ground. I get out, put the gun behind my belt, and begin walking, occasionally looking through a thermal imager. It takes ten minutes to find him. He’s still wearing the polo and plaid shorts, although this time he’s 28 degrees and walking several paces behind a woman registering 98.6. He glances back once, briefly making eye contact. He knows I’m there for him. Still, inexperienced and consumed by hunger, the two-day-old continues his pursuit.

I quicken my pace, already thinking beyond the ultimate crime of rendering mortal what was supposed to be immortal. No doubt, Camilla will come after me for killing “our” child – for shattering the illusion that this creature would bind us forever. She’ll disregard her own safety, and the universe will act accordingly; there’s a reason most vampires die before their first year. Still, a longing has settled in, one that threatens to haunt me for the rest of my life. She certainly got to me with that fire in her eyes, and the smell of her hair. How each breast felt when I held it. How she tasted.

This is all my fault. I broke the first rule of guardianship, and the consequences couldn’t be clearer for all involved – including me. But perhaps I’ve been wrong all along. I’ve made a career out of helping others cheat death. Now, for the first time, I see mortality as a gift. It forgives, wipes the slate clean, and allows you to forget difficult memories. For this, Officer Jared or Austin or whatever you call yourself — You are welcome. Just stay dead.

###


You can find Mr. Klefstad’s novel, Shepherd & The Professor, online, here.