Friday, November 14, 2014

Lulu's Christmas Story

Congratulations to local author Ludmilla Bollow on the release of her new book, Lulu's Christmas Story, a true story of faith and hope set during the time of the Great Depression. 

I met Ms. Bollow when I spoke to her writer's group, the Raconteurs, some time ago. It's always a thrill to see writers get a book  out into the world, especially a memoir which, in my opinion, is a gift to future generations. 

Christmas is eagerly awaited by Lulu, a young girl living in a small Wisconsin town during the Great Depression. Anticipation is transformed into anxiety when Daddy loses his job, doubts about Santa flicker, and that Shirley Temple doll seems further away than ever. Mama reveals her own brutal Christmas as an orphan, adding new worries. But it's Lulu's deep faith and vibrant hope that keeps her looking forward to each new day and the glorious gift of Christmas.  In her touching memoir, Ludmilla Bollow, an award-winning playwright and novelist, recounts the year before her family's toughest Christmas. There's a haunting encounter with freaks at a circus sideshow, the heartbreaking loss of the town's recluse who was committed to finding true love, a disastrous Thanksgiving at Grandma's, and, of course, the long-awaited Christmas!  Lulu's spirit of love and joy radiates throughout this emotive recall of family life during hard times.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

A Million Readers

Recently I received this vase of gorgeous flowers from my publisher with a note saying "One Million Readers! Congratulations, Karen! What an incredible milestone. From Everyone Here At Lake Union."

What this means is that from the time my husband and I uploaded two of my books to Kindle in July, 2009, until now, one million of my books have been sold. Some of them have been sold through Amazon Publishing's traditional publishing house, others through the self-pubbed division, and still others through Brilliance Audio or foreign translations. The majority, though, have been through Kindle, something I'm very proud of. 

It's hard to believe, isn't it? I'm an average woman who lives in a suburban Wisconsin village. If you passed me in the grocery store, nothing about me would stand out (except that my lips might be moving, as I mentally work out some dialogue in my current WIP). It's unfathomable even to me that my stories, the things I've dreamed up all my life, have gone from my head into written form, and from there to readers all over the world. One million times and counting.

To take you through my journey, I have to mention my very own patron of the arts, my husband, Greg McQuestion. He supported the dream and believed in me while I wrote novels and tried to get them published, unsuccessfully, for over a decade. I was agented twice and had a few close calls (a story for another day), but for a long time it looked like it just wasn't going to happen. Greg kept the faith, never suggesting I give up. Not everyone's spouse is so supportive, I know.

In 2009, I read a short article about another unpublished author, Boyd Morrison, who had such good luck self-publishing on Kindle that his formerly rejected novels were picked up by a big traditional publisher. My first reaction was--You can do that? Upload a manuscript? And people will buy it and read it? It seemed too good to be true. Self-publishing had a major stigma then. It was thought that only the truly desperate, those deluded souls who couldn't write worth a damn, would resort to such a low. Even knowing that this was the prevailing attitude, the idea of putting my books on Kindle intrigued me. I especially liked that I could do it and keep a low profile. I wouldn't have to peddle books out of the trunk of my car. They'd just be on Amazon, available. I figured that if no one bought them or they got all bad reviews, I'd just take them down and no one would be the wiser. 

That first weekend, Greg and I uploaded two of my books. There were no directions, no instructions for formatting ANYWHERE. I'd never actually seen a Kindle and I only knew one person who had one--the wife of a guy my husband worked with. Uploading the books was a bear. Getting the formatting right was a particular trial. We worked on this project the entire weekend and there were still some flaws--paragraphs that didn't indent properly, chapter headings that wouldn't center. By Sunday night we both said the hell with it and decided we were done. The stress level between us was so high that I sometimes joke that we almost got a divorce after that particular weekend. I remember Greg saying something to the effect that he hoped it would be worth it. 

And then, within a day or so of uploading, I sold four books. I looked at the webpage that showed my sales, and couldn't believe it. Four people had spent money to read a book I'd written. How did they even find it? I called Greg at work to ask if he'd mentioned my Kindle books to his co-worker and he said no, so that meant those four people were complete strangers. They had no reason to buy my books, and yet they did. I still get teary thinking about it.

The first month I made $30, the second month $300, and it just kept growing. And the majority of the reviews that trickled in, one by one, were positive. At the end of 2009, I wrote about my experience in my blog and tried to convince other writers I knew that they should publish on Kindle. For the most part they didn't, which was a shame, but as for me, I was off and running. We put the rest of my books up as quickly as possible.

Some time after that a small production company got wind of my novel, A Scattered Life, and optioned it for film (the option has since expired, but hey, it was exciting while it lasted). Then, Amazon, which had started its own publishing house, contacted me, wanting to acquire A Scattered Life. I opted not to get an agent, negotiating the contract myself after reading a book detailing how to negotiate a book contract, (I happened to get the book from Amazon). 

The new version of A Scattered Life came out in September 2010, after having been edited and given a new cover. It was the 22nd book they published and only one of two books published by them that month. The other September book was my buddy Raymond Bean's book, Sweet Farts.

Since then, Amazon Publishing has acquired seven more of my books and it's been a happy partnership. I've been on Good Morning America and had my story featured in the Wall Street Journal. My name was mentioned in Entertainment Weekly. All pretty mind-blowing for an introvert like me. This was the early days of ebooks and I was happy when other authors' successes eclipsed mine in a big way and the focus shifted to them. 

So, a million. I admit that it's an incredible milestone, but I have to tell you that the thrill, which is huge, was every bit as huge for those first four sales. I used to try to imagine people as they read my books. With the first four, I envisioned four people reading in a doctor's waiting room. As my sales got bigger, my imagined locales changed to accommodate the growing numbers.  At one point Greg said, "Can you imagine if this gets to four figures?" When the number of books tipped from 999 to 1,000, we were giddy. I can't even imagine a million readers, but the idea makes me smile.

Periodically either Greg or I will say, "If it all ends tomorrow, I can't complain." And I mean it. If it all ends tomorrow and I don't sell another book, I can't complain because I've already gotten more than I deserve. Not that I want it to end, you understand. But if it does, I'll keep writing because that's where it started. I love writing novels so much I would do it for free. In fact, for years I did do it for free. You might even say that between the postage to New York, and the paper, and the ink jet cartridges, and everything else, that I PAID to write. 

So thank you to anyone who has ever purchased or read one of my books. A special thanks to those who left reviews, especially the good ones. All of you rock! And, I'm convinced there's a special place in heaven for book bloggers. It's a room only for them, like those special rooms for sky club members at the airport. From what I've seen, as the door open and shuts, the chairs are extra comfy and there are lots of free refreshments. Book bloggers deserve that and more.

My gratitude for the whole team at Amazon Publishing is immense: Jeff Belle, Daphne Durham, Sarah Tomashek, Alex Carr, Jessica Poore, Vicky Griffith, Jacque Ben-Zekry, Courtney Miller, Brian Mitchell, Lael Telles, Thom Kephart, Brooke Gilbert, Nikki Sprinkle, Katy Ball, and legions more, (I'll kick myself later for those I've missed--my apologies!), but I'm especially grateful for Terry Goodman, senior editor extraordinaire, the man who first noticed my novel, A Scattered Life, and went on to publish that book, and seven others. When Terry retires, others will do his job, but no one can take his place. 

Now I'm off to write...

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The making of HELLO LOVE by Karen McQuestion

This is Anni, an adorable little dog who lives in Miami. Her human-mom is my niece Shelly. For months I heard stories about Anni and I received the cutest pictures. The photos were titled things like, "Anni being lazy" & "Anni in her sweater" & "Anni looking guilty." Besides being oh-so-cute, Anni has a very sweet personality. Believe me, this dog is much loved and the love goes in both directions.

Around the same time as I was hearing about Anni, a friend made an offhand comment that, "Dogs are the new baby," which struck me as being exactly right.

I'd long had the thought that it would be fun to write a novel from two alternating points of view, especially if the characters didn't know each other, but kept crossing paths again and again. As a structural device, this would enable the reader to know more than the characters, which is always fun. As the story took shape in my head, I realized that a lost dog would play a role in the book, and the image of Anni popped up. I asked my niece for permission to use her dog in my book, and she said yes. For inspiration, I tacked up photos of Anni next to my desk.

The resulting novel, Hello Love, came out yesterday. I think the cover designer did a wonderful job finding a stand-in for Anni. The dog on the cover is precious. Look at that face!

Add caption

Book description: 

A year after the death of his wife, Christine, Dan is barely holding on. But one thing gets him through the long, lonely nights and that is his cherished dog, Anni. When she is stolen from his front yard, Dan and his daughter, Lindsay, are devastated. Meanwhile in another part of town, Andrea Keller is recovering from the heartbreak of a messy divorce. After she rescues a defenseless dog from an abusive tenant, her life changes in ways she never could have anticipated.

Dan and Andrea cross paths again and again, only to keep missing each other and the opportunity of a lifetime. As Anni works to find her way home, can she bring together these two lost souls desperately in need of a second chance at happiness?

Here's Anni, playing it cool, but secretly thrilled with her new celebrity status.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

The Big Keep by Melissa F. Olson

Today on the blog, my friend author Melissa Olson talks about one of the challenges she faced writing her hot new crime novel, The Big Keep

Take it away, Melissa!

Hello everyone, and thank you so much to Karen for letting me appear on her blog today. I’ve published two (almost three) urban fantasies before this, but The Big Keep is my first foray into writing a straight-up mystery. And as I was working on the book, I found myself facing a unique challenge: writing someone’s marriage.

See, as an urban fantasy writer, I’ve tended to blow right through the sections of my books that involved romantic relationships, because I’ve only really written relationships that were either about to begin or very near the beginning. I can write flirting, and banter, and even foreplay*.

However, for The Big Keep, I found myself writing a fully-formed, already-in-progress, five-year-old marriage. And I realized that writing a marriage is almost like writing a whole other character. But unlike most characters, who you can put together using bits and pieces of people you know, writing a marriage is…tricky. Because no one outside of a relationship really knows what goes on inside it. And because every marriage is wildly different, maybe even more so than people.

Lucky for me, my protagonist, Lena Dane, spends much of The Big Keep avoiding her husband, Toby. She’s pregnant, you see (this happens on page 1, so I have spoiled nothing), and although she and her husband are happy, she’s totally unprepared for motherhood. She has, in fact, spent much of her recent time trying not to think about having kids. So Lena does what she always does when faced with an uncomfortable truth about herself: she runs. She throws herself into her work as a private detective, and into her new case trying to track down a missing writer.

And how does Toby react to that? Well, not with a whole lot of surprise, because he knows exactly who his wife is. When I was “building” this couple, I came up with the character of Lena first, and then once I understood her and what drives her, I tried to come up with a male character who would complement that, complement her, but also challenge her a little, push her toward being the best version of herself. That was my way in. So I actually created Lena, then the relationship, then Toby. And I’m really pleased with how my lead couple turned out. I’m not going to lie, I’ve also got a bit of a crush on Toby. Too bad he’s just perfect for Lena.

*I cannot, however, write erotic scenes. I run out of synonyms really early in the process.

Melissa Olson was born and raised in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, and studied film and literature at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. After graduation, and a brief stint bouncing around the Hollywood studio system, Melissa landed in Madison, WI, where she eventually acquired a master’s degree from UW-Milwaukee, a husband, a mortgage, a teaching gig, two kids, and two comically oversized dogs, not at all in that order. She loves Madison, but still dreams of the food in LA. Literally. There are dreams. Learn more about Melissa, her work, and her dog at

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Cover reveal for HELLO LOVE by Karen McQuestion

Yesterday I received an email from my brilliant (and very patient!) editor, Terry Goodman, with the heading "HELLO LOVE - FINAL COVER."  I opened the attachment, saw this cover, and fell in love. That face! Who couldn't love that face?  

I think all the back and forth with Terry (who served as mediator between me, the team, and the cover designer) was well worth it. I hope Terry agrees. It's not easy being the man in the middle. :-)

As an added bonus, author Claire Cook generously gave the book her endorsement (you can see it at the top of the cover). Claire is, of course, the bestselling author of the book MUST LOVE DOGS, among others. If you haven't read any of her books yet, you'll definitely want to check them out.

But now back to HELLO LOVE. This is the story summary:

From the bestselling author of The Long Way Home comes a charming novel about loss and the faith that restores broken lives.

A year after the death of his wife, Christine, Dan is barely holding on. But one thing gets him through the long, lonely nights and that is his cherished dog, Anni. When she is stolen from his front yard, Dan and his daughter, Lindsay, are devastated. Meanwhile in another part of town, Andrea Keller is recovering from the heartbreak of a messy divorce. After she rescues a defenseless dog from an abusive tenant, her life changes in ways she never could have anticipated.

Dan and Andrea cross paths again and again, only to keep missing each other and the opportunity of a lifetime. As Anni works to find her way home, can she bring together these two lost souls desperately in need of a second chance at happiness?

The book comes out September 16th, but is already available for pre-order. I see from the ranking and the "Also boughts" that the book has gotten some orders already, which thrills me to no end. I hope readers enjoy the book as much as I love the cover!

Thursday, June 12, 2014

My Writing Process

Author Lesley Kagen, or as she's known in my house "New York Times bestselling author, Lesley Kagen" invited me to take part in a blog roll wherein authors share their writing process. How could I say no to a New York Times bestselling author?

If you're not familiar with Lesley, you should be. I'll quote author Heather Gudenkauf who said it better than I could:

"Lesley Kagen is one of my favorite authors and I especially love her novels WHISTLING IN THE DARK and GOOD GRACES. Lesley has this magical ability of making her characters come to life on the page. Lesley’s newest project, a novella entitled THE UNDERTAKING OF TESS will be released this summer. I’ll be first in line for this one!"

This is Lesley's take on her writing process.

Now, let's talk about me. 

Right now I’m writing a young adult SciFi romance novel called Under the Stars (at least that’s the working title).  This is one of those books that is big fun to write. I wake up every morning and think, Oh good, I can work on my book today!

Well, first of all my work, unlike others of its genre, is written by me as opposed to all those other authors. (Sorry, couldn't resist!)
Here’s my more thoughtful answer—I have a readable, linear style, and my books tend to have elements of humor and/or fantasy.

I follow the ideas as they take shape in my head. I once did a blog post titled WHERE DO YOU GET YOUR IDEAS? which covers this exact topic.  

I try to write every day with a goal of 2,000 words each time. As for how I start my books: usually I get an idea involving a person in a certain situation. As I write, I feel my way through the scene which leads to the next scene and the next. The act of writing fiction often feels the same as remembering to me. Sometimes I’ll go to bed at night stuck at a certain point in my novel-in-progress (maybe even a little panic-stricken), and in the morning I’ll “remember” what happens next. I suspect my brain is working overtime.

It doesn't work if I try to force an idea I’m not enthused about. I also have problems when I take a break from writing. More than a day or two away from a book and I lose my train of thought and it gets hard to get back into the story.


I love the line in the book Charlotte's Web that says: "It is not often someone comes along that's a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both."  With that in mind, I've chosen three authors who are like Charlotte.

Kay Bratt - It was a stroke of luck that brought Kay and me together. She messaged me on Facebook and introduced herself, something which was complete unnecessary because I'd read some of her books and was already a fan. Since then, I've decided that her books just keep getting better and better. I especially love, love, love her series, Tales of The Scavenger's Daughters. Don't be deterred by the fact that her novels are set in China. Her stories pull you in, and the history and cultural details are skillfully woven into the narrative. Check out her books and go read about her writing process. You won't be sorry.

Maria Murnane - I met Maria in NYC at a publishing function and was a little intimidated by her, if I have to be honest. In the movie, Miss Congeniality (one of my favorites), Miss Rhode Island, Cheryl Frasier, gives a speech at the end calling the Sandra Bullock character, "The nicest, sweetest, coolest girl at the pageant." That describes Maria exactly. Add that to the fact that her books are compared to Bridget Jones's Diary and you'll know she's a also terrific writer and funny too. Go check out her novels and read about her writing process too while you're at it!

Christopher Herz - Christopher's last name means "heart" in German, which is so appropriate. Once I commented via email that my mom was recovering from a health scare and he sent her a black and white cookie along with a nice note. The thing is--they had never met. He was just doing something nice to be nice. I still think about that and smile. He's written three books and they cannot be neatly slotted into any category. I can tell you that I love his rich use of language and his spot-on descriptions. When the scene is set, you are there. Sometimes, though, his novels  make me a little squeamish, the same way I feel about Chuck Palahniuk's books (you've probably heard of FIGHT CLUB). But always, always, Christopher Herz's novels linger in my mind and I find I'm still connecting the dots days later. Go and see for yourself! 

Friday, June 6, 2014

What I'm working on right now:

When I first starting writing books, I spent a lot of time circling around, unsure of how to get to the heart of the story. My first novel took more than two years to write and I revised it for months after that. Lately, though, I've been writing like I have a guillotine over my head, one that could drop at any moment. I feel an urgency to get stories down as quickly as possible. Part of my new fast-writing philosophy I can attribute to inspiration from authors Dean Wesley Smith and Rachel Aaron. Also, writing novels just feels more doable than it has in the past. Even when I get stuck, I know it's part of the process and I push through. Having done this before, I know I can do it again. That confidence translates to speedy writing. And so, for the second time this year, I am nearly done with a book.

This particular book is a young adult, SciFi novel. If all goes well, I should have a completed draft by the end of the month. Between now and then I will be avoiding the Internet. I can distract myself just fine, thank you very much.

In the meantime, I'm doing something I've never done before--posting the first few pages of a work-in-progress. Keep in mind that this is a rough draft. I don't think there are many obvious errors or typos, but there might be. Right now I'm just concentrating on soldiering through to the end. There will be time for revisions and polishing and endless tweaking later on. 

Happy writing, happy reading, and happy June!


“Nowhere to go but out,
       Nowhere to come but back.”
                                                        The Pessimist, Benjamin Franklin King, poet

 A piercing light flashed across the sky and plunged to the earth, landing in a farmer’s field.  The old dog, Mack, who had been peeing against the side of the barn, saw the disc-shaped object crash and bounce, skidding thirty feet and throwing dirt as it went.  A high-pitched humming and faint glow came off the object, arousing his curiosity, and he trotted out to take a look. Getting closer, he approached cautiously, nose to the ground.  The object was the size and shape of his water bowl, iridescent in color and topped with a shiny dome.
            Mack circled around, sniffing while he inched forward, his eyes glowing from the reflection of the object’s light. As he watched, the top popped open with a gentle hiss, leaving a snout-sized gap. At the same time, the lights on the object dimmed then went off entirely.  Utterly fascinating.
The old dog was sure his boy, Lucas, would want to know about this. It had been a longstanding tradition that Mack brought back anything of interest from his explorations, something that never failed to delight the boy.  He always got an enthusiastic rub behind the ears for his trouble, and sometimes a treat, but as curious as Mack was, he was also wary of this thing. It didn’t smell like anything he’d ever encountered before. Under different circumstances, he’d have marked the spot and brought Lucas back later during a walk, but the boy hadn’t gotten out of bed in a long time and the dog knew the other people in the house wouldn’t help. All of them, except the girl, acted as if Mack were a nuisance. Sometimes he even had to remind them to fill his food bowl. 
            The night sky was bright with stars and a nearly full moon, and as his eyes adjusted he let his nose get closer for a good whiff. Metallic, almost like blood but not quite. And there was something else too, something which he couldn’t quite place. So very odd. Of all the millions of smells he knew, this wasn’t one of them. He knew the scent of humans, Lucas being his favorite. The boy’s sweat after working in the fields or coming home from ball practice signaled his arrival before he even came into view. Later, when things changed and Lucas had less energy for their walks, the boy’s smell became tinged with a medicinal odor which seeped out of his pores and clung to his clothing and hair. The relationship between the dog and his boy changed too, with Lucas having barely enough energy to pet him, and the others shooing Mack out of the room at every turn. And now Lucas slept around the clock. It just wasn’t right.
            Mack heard the creak of the screen door opening right before the woman’s voice rang out. “Mack? Where are you? Get back here now!” Her tone was impatient and he knew if he didn’t return to the house soon, she’d lock the door and he’d be stuck outside until morning. He yipped a quick response before quickly sticking his nose into the opening at the top of the disc-shaped object in order to commit the smell to his olfactory memory. This time he caught a different odor: something alarming, something alive. At the very second his brain grasped this fact, a shapeless something flew out of the craft, latched onto his nose and shifted straight up to his eyes. The sensation was stronger than a breeze, almost like a splash of water to the face, but not exactly like that either. He stepped back, blinked, and shook his head trying to get the thing off of him, but it was stuck, covering his eyes and making his vision murky. Panic-stricken, he panted and trembled, feeling it seep through the membranes to the back of his eyes. A split second later, he felt nothing. It was gone. He whined to himself, a sound of relief.
            “Mack! I mean it!” Her voice pierced the night air. It was the sound of aggravation and bone-weary tiredness, but the dog only heard the finality of it. He barked to let her know he was on his way, then turned and raced back to the house.

Chapter Two

“Emma, it’s getting late.” I looked up to see Mrs. Walker in the doorway with her arms crossed, trying her best to do an impression of a stern parent. “Were you planning on staying all night again?”
Really? She had to ask? After all this time, she still didn’t get it. If my own mother didn’t mind if I was here night and day, what was her problem? “Yes,” I said, looking down at Lucas, lying still in the bed next to me. I wasn’t going to leave him. Not now. Not ever.
            “Okay,” she said, giving in and turning around. I heard her in the kitchen, setting up the coffee for the next day, then emptying the dishwasher. Lucas’s hospital bed had been set up in the dining room, right in the middle of the house. Lucas’s parents had no idea how much I’d heard of their private conversations, their many discussions concerning me and Lucas and his so-called impending death. All of it reached my ears. I knew they didn’t want me here in their home. They resented my imposition on their family. They felt I was stealing time from them, taking precious final moments with their son. But they didn’t have the heart to keep me away.
 During the school year Mrs. Walker had made a good case for me to go. I had school to attend in the morning, homework to do in the evening. I’d already dropped out of all my extra-curriculars, but I didn’t want to miss school. When Lucas got better, he’d be finishing high school. I was a year behind him originally, but with all the time he’d taken off for the treatment of his cancer, he’d have a lot to make up. If all went well, we’d wind up graduating together. Back then I reluctantly left his side to go to classes and tried to concentrate on my subjects, but found it nearly impossible. My grades should have taken a hit, but I think my teachers felt sorry for me, the girlfriend of Lucas, the guy who was valiantly battling cancer, so they took that into account and gave me grades I didn’t quite deserve. All of the teachers loved Lucas. He was the golden boy of Westridge High: blond curly hair, football star, honor student, great personality, always smiling. It was a small country high school and everyone knew him. Everyone liked him too. All the guys were his buddies. All the girls wanted him for their boyfriend. But none of those other girls could have him. He was mine.
And I was his. I was his savior, the one he hung on for. He’d said as much, back when he was speaking, and even now, when he was comatose, I could tell he knew I was there, right by his side. I spoke to him and stroked his hair and when Mr. and Mrs. Walker and Lucas’s brother Eric weren’t around, I did more than that, kissing him and caressing his skin, hoping somehow to reach him. Hoping he’d find the emotional thread that linked us so I could pull him away from the next world and back into this one.
When Lucas and I had started dating at the end of my sophomore year it was pretty clear I wasn’t his parents’ first choice for their son. It didn’t matter that I was an honors student and used my best manners; they were still stuck on the fact that my mother and I lived in a trailer park off the highway. That, and the fact that I am, and always have been, completely father-less. The first dinner at their house, Mrs. Walker had asked, “What does your dad do, Emma?”
Lucas shot his mother a disapproving look, but I was ready with my standard response. I shrugged and said, “I don’t know. I’ve never met him.” My mom had told me that my father had been an international student at the university where she’d once worked as an administrative assistant. They’d had a fling for a few weeks and then he was gone, back to where he came from. Mom was vague about his country of origin, but judging from my coal black eyes, olive skin, and dark hair it was likely he was Middle Eastern. My mom wasn’t much for long term relationships. She’d always had boyfriends, but none of them were keepers. One had shown me how to hot-wire a car and the best way to roll smokes. That guy was named Owen. He didn’t last long before Mom found out about his outstanding warrants and gave him a kick to the curb. Her taste in men was questionable, but at least they never lived with us.
So the Walkers looked down on me. Once, when we were in the next room I overheard Lucas’s mother say, “She follows him around like a duckling, like she’d be lost without him.” Lucas wanted to confront her about this, but I talked him out of it. This was back when I still thought I could win them over. But it never happened. Lucas and I were together for over a year and the entire time they hoped we would break up, but we didn’t.
 I didn’t think too much of them either, for two reasons. First of all, for as many problems as my mom had, she was the perfect mother as far as I was concerned because she didn’t try to claim credit for everything I did. Sometimes I’d hand her my report card or show her a paper I wrote and she’d practically cry with joy. “Brilliant,” she’d say, hugging me. “You are absolutely brilliant. I’m so impressed.”
Not like Mr. Walker, who took credit for everything Lucas did, bragging, “He takes after me.” Or worse yet, smugly telling Lucas, “See, I told you if you studied, you’d get an A.” And then he always had to add, “Now don’t get complacent. You still have to keep this up for the rest of the semester, you know.” No kidding, Sherlock.
So that was the first reason I wasn’t a fan of Lucas’s parents. The second reason is that they gave up on him so easily. Sure he had cancer, but big deal, people had cancer and overcame it all the time. It was a shock for everyone when he was diagnosed, but Lucas was athletic and strong. All you had to do was look at him and you knew he’d survive. He was life. Lucas could run like the wind. I’d seen him lift a ninety pound calf like it was nothing. It was unthinkable that he’d die. I just knew this was a temporary bump in the road. Something to beat. We had plans, the two of us, and dying of stupid cancer wasn’t part of them.
But both of his parents had given up on him right from the start. They always thought the worst, selling his car when he became too sick to go to school. As if he’d never drive again.
His mother couldn’t look at Lucas without getting teary-eyed. And Mr. Walker was devastated to learn the treatment would leave Lucas sterile, as if passing on the family genes meant anything at a time like this. Mr. and Mrs. Walker had hushed conversations about statistics, and treatment plans, and numbers. Always the numbers. They’d say, “The numbers didn’t look good. They’re not in the range.” Their negativity was everywhere, seeping from room to room, poisoning the air. Later on they started talking about funerals and how they didn’t want him to suffer any longer and I had to put my hands over Lucas’s ears to keep him from overhearing. The last member of the family, Lucas’s fourteen-year-old brother Eric, started to avoid everyone, including me and Lucas. When he wasn’t doing chores or going to school, he was out in the barn, tinkering with old cars in his workshop. He holed up in there like he hoped to come out someday and find everything fine again. A classic avoidance strategy.
I was the only one dealing with this in a sane way. The only one. After Lucas went into a coma even the visiting nurses tried to undermine me. They’d point out how much weight he’d lost, how his skin tone had changed, and point out his shallow breathing. One of them, a tall woman named Nancy, put her hand on my shoulder and talked to me like I was a first grader. “See how sunken his eyes are?” she said. “And how non-responsive he is?” She pinched his wrist and Lucas did nothing but lie still like playing dead. “I’ve done hospice care for a long time, honey. This is the beginning of the end.” She went on to say he might have as much as a week, but that if we were lucky he’d slip away sooner than that. “Poor baby has suffered enough.” She told me they were doing something called palliative care. He had a catheter for his pee and a patch for pain relief and that was all. “Not much urine,” she said, showing me the bag. “And what there is, is dark in color. His body is shutting down.”
I didn’t bother to respond to her, but after she left I whispered in Lucas’s ear, “Don’t listen to her. You’re going to get better. We’ll show her.” Once he went into the coma, they stopped giving him food or water, but when they weren’t looking I dribbled water into his mouth and wiped a wet sponge over his parched lips. Screw Nancy and her wise proclamations. She didn’t know a thing about Lucas. After he made his miraculous recovery, I’d tell him all about Nancy—her ridiculous scrubs covered in cartoon panda bears, how she called everyone honey, and the way she always bustled in humming some nameless tune, acting like she knew it all.  
Because I had a few things up my sleeve that I hadn’t told anyone. Mainly that I was calling in outside forces. First of all, I’d been praying like no one on the face of planet Earth had ever prayed before. I’d never been one for prayer, but when things got serious I put it into overdrive, imagining God on the other end thinking, hmmm…Emma doesn’t usually pray. This must be serious. I could almost feel God making a plan for everything to work out just fine.
So that was the first thing.
The second thing I’d done was visit Mrs. Kokesh, right after school let out for summer vacation a few days earlier. She lived as far from the center of town as the Walkers did, but in the other direction. With my backpack strapped on, I rode my bike to her house. By the time I arrived I was out of breath, my legs like jelly. Her two-story house was rambling and falling down, white paint peeling, porch sagging. Moss growing on the roof. The place was reportedly haunted. Mrs. Kokesh sold produce from a stand by the road during the growing season, which generally didn’t start until late June in this part of central Wisconsin, but mysteriously, her vegetables were always ready before everyone else’s.
 She also did magic, for a price. I’d heard the stories for years. Tales of dying pets brought to health. Love potions that really worked. Magic candles which affected everyone who breathed the vapors. A spell that ended a drought. But things backfired too, and if she didn’t agree with your motives, you might get what she thought you needed instead of what you asked for, and some of it was pretty nasty. That was the story anyway. I didn’t know anyone who’d actually gone to her, but the stories, they went round and round. I saw her once at the gas station filling up her ancient Buick, and she just looked like an old lady to me, all hunched over and wearing lots of layers of clothing. It was her disguise, they said. She looked like a harmless old biddy, but really she was very powerful.
I made the decision to visit right after Lucas went into a coma and Nancy said he was as good as gone. I still had my faith, but things were looking really bad; even I could see that. All the stories I’d heard at school had made me a little afraid of Mrs. Kokesh, but after biking all that way, there was no way I was turning back. I got off my bike and let it drop to the ground, then went up the steps to the porch and knocked on the door. She answered like I had an appointment, greeting me by name and ushering me inside. She wore a shapeless brown dress with a droopy fabric belt.  “How do you know my name?” I asked.
“Small town,” she said, shuffling past a staircase and down a dimly-lit hallway. “Pretty girl like you stands out. Especially when you’re with the Walker boy. Him with his blond hair, you so dark.”
“You know Lucas?” I’d followed her into the kitchen where she gestured for me to take a seat. I pulled out a chair and set my backpack on the floor next to my feet.
She nodded and got a glass from the cabinet and a pitcher of lemonade from the fridge. “I know everyone in this nothing town, but he is especially memorable. I’ve had a few girls come with him in mind, asking for love spells.” She set the glass of lemonade in front of me. “One said she’d loved Lucas since the third grade.”
I wrapped my fingers around the cold glass, but didn’t drink. “Did you do it? The love spell?”
“Hah!” Mrs. Kokesh said. “What do you take me for? This magic stuff is nothing to fool around with. It can’t be wasted on high school crushes.” She crooked one scolding finger toward me and leaned across the table. At this distance I could see every wrinkle on her face, the lines crosshatched like badly-drawn artwork.
“So your magic is real. It works?” I said.
“Of course it works, but it’s serious stuff. Not to be trifled with.” Behind her a gray tabby cat jumped off the floor and onto the kitchen counter, sniffing at the open pitcher of lemonade.
“Your cat?” I pointed and she turned to look. “Is he supposed to be up there?”
“He’s okay,” she said, shrugging. “Just curious.”
I tightened my grip on the strap of my backpack. It held all the money I had in the world. A lifetime of babysitting cash, Christmas gifts, and last year’s strawberry picking money. “I came today because of Lucas.”
“You want him cured.” She raised one eyebrow. “You’re in love with him and you want the cancer gone.”
 “Yes.” I couldn’t believe my luck. Here I’d been afraid to come and she’d welcomed me right in. I didn’t even have to ask. She knew immediately what I wanted and said it like it was no big deal. “Can you do it?”

She tilted her head to one side, regarding me carefully. I held her gaze, keeping very still, afraid to break her concentration. Right now it seemed like I had a shot and I didn’t want to blow it. Behind her the cat wandered to the end of the counter; I heard a soft thud as he landed on the floor. She tapped her fingers on the table for what seemed like the longest time, and finally she said. “There is a potion that can be used to save a person’s life.”
I exhaled in relief. “So you’ll do it?”
“I can do it, of course, but I’m seeing that something else is going on that might be a problem.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
Mrs. Kokesh shook her head. “I’m not sure. It is out of my area. I’ve never seen anything like this before.” She smiled. “All of the universe is connected, you know. Every living being is part of the fabric and all of the energy is intertwined. I’m feeling something impending with your boy. A disturbance in the force, isn’t that what they call it?” She cackled as if she’d told a joke.
“I guess,” I said slowly, unsure of what she was saying.
“Okay, I’ll tell you what.” She slammed her hand on the table. “What the hell. I’ll do it. I have to warn you though, he may not come back the way you want him to.”
“What do you mean?”
“He might not be the Lucas you know and love.”
“Like what would be different?” I asked.
“You’re asking me? Ha! I have no idea,” she said. “People who’ve been near death, they come back different. Sometimes more serious, sometimes more careful. Or he might be more spiritual and want to become a priest.” She raised her eyebrows. “Are you prepared for that?”
I could tell she was messing with me now. I said, “Lucas would never become a priest. The Walkers aren’t even Catholic.”
Mrs. Kokesh shrugged. “Just an example. Don’t get so bent out of shape. People change even under the best circumstances. And when you pull them back from death’s door, well, that’s no small thing. Maybe he’ll be not so smart or not so strong. His brain has probably been oxygen deprived so who knows what’s happened there. This potion has its limits. You still want to do it?”
  “Yes,” I said. I’d take Lucas back any way I could get him. I unzipped my backpack and took out everything I’d heard she might need: a photo of Lucas, a lock of his hair, and a small vial with a rubber stopper containing a bit of his saliva. I took them out and lined them up on the table.

“You come prepared,” she said, nodding her head in approval. She held the vial up to the light. “His spit?”
“Good.” Mrs. Kokesh stood up abruptly, the legs of her chair scraping against the grooved linoleum. “You give me your phone number and I’ll call you tomorrow when I have the potion ready.” She grabbed my full glass of lemonade and poured it into the sink.
I stood up, zipping my backpack. “You can’t do it now? I can wait.”
“It’s not like making cupcakes,” she said gruffly. “You don’t just whip these things up. I’ll call you tomorrow as soon as it’s done.”
I pulled some paper out of my backpack, wrote down my name and cell number, then slid it across the table. Without even looking at it, she folded it and stuck it in the front pocket of her baggy dress. “Okay then,” she said, grabbing my arm and pulling me out of the kitchen. “Off you go.”  
Before I knew it, she’d guided me through the long hallway and pushed me out the front door. Once I was on the porch, the door slammed shut abruptly behind me. She never even said good-bye.  “Thanks,” I called out, picking up my bike. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
The next day I biked back as soon as she’d called. Mrs. Kokesh was ready for me, sitting on the top step of the front porch with a paper bag on her lap. When I approached, she handed the bag to me. “As promised,” she said, her voice grim. “But I have to warn you, I have a bad feeling about this.”
I opened the bag, and saw that it contained an empty pickle relish jar, the label still on it. “I don’t get it.” I looked at her quizzically. “What is this?”
“The potion is at the bottom,” she said. “There’s not much, but you don’t need much.”
I held it up to the light. Sure enough, a small puddle of clear liquid coated the bottom of the jar. For some reason I’d been thinking it would be blood red. This looked like nothing. Like she was selling me water. I tilted it back and forth and watched it slosh from side to side. “What do I do with it?”
“Spread it over his eyes and put it on his lips,” she said. “Then press your lips to his and seal it with a kiss.”
I tried to get a read on her expression. “Really? Or are you kidding?”
“I never kid about magic.” An orange cat came around the corner of the house and jumped up next to her. She absentmindedly stroked his head. “The eyes are the windows to the soul. The lips are the doorway to the body. You need both.”
“Do I say anything after I do it?”
“What would you say?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t have to say anything.” Mrs. Kokesh cleared her throat, aggravated. “Just wipe it over his eyes and lips, then kiss him,” she repeated impatiently. “Why does everyone want to make it more complicated than it is? You can follow directions, can’t you?”
“Yes,” I answered, and then remembered something. “You said you had a bad feeling?”
Mrs. Kokesh nodded. “Something’s not right about this whole situation. I don’t know what it is, but I’m getting a sense things may go haywire.”
My heart sank. After all her talk, it sounded like this might not even work. “But I can still try it, right?”
“Of course. Wait, I’m seeing something odd now.” Her nose wrinkled as she concentrated. “I’m seeing you in the belly of the whale. You and Lucas both.”
“The belly of the whale? Like Jonah in the Bible?”
“Not quite.” She shook her head. “It’s gone now. I can’t tell you what it means. Just be careful.”
“I will.” I wasn’t planning on not being careful. I dug into my backpack and took out my money. “How much do I owe you?” I asked.
“No charge.” She stood up, brushing off the front of her dress. “I wish you the best of luck, Emma. You’re gonna need it.” She went into the house and the orange cat followed her, scurrying in just before the screen door slammed shut.
That had been earlier today. Ever since, I’d been waiting to be alone with Lucas, but someone was constantly hovering. First the visiting nurse came (not Nancy, thankfully) with more morbid talk and then both of Lucas’s parents hung around on and off all evening. I’d taken to sitting in the recliner off to one side of the room, but as soon as we were alone, I always moved and sat on the bed right next to him. Eventually, I knew, they’d go upstairs to bed. Lately Mrs. Walker seemed to not sleep much at all, coming down several times a night to check on Lucas, and offering to relieve me so I could go home.
As much as I disliked Mrs. Walker, I had a certain respect for her too.  She stayed up later than anyone else, checking on Lucas during the night, and getting up at dawn to join her husband out in the barn.  Mr. Walker had a job during the school year, but over the summer both of them were all about the farm. They’d hired an extra man to fill in so they could be with Lucas throughout the day, but still, Mrs. Walker had to be exhausted.  I couldn’t wait for her to finish up and make the trek up the stairs, but first she let the dog out, and then she busied herself in the kitchen. When she finished emptying the dishwasher I heard her wiping off the kitchen counters, scrubbing at a stubborn spot and sighing. From past experience I knew this would be the last of it. Next she’d open the back door to call Mack back inside, lock up for the night, and head for bed.
But before that could happen, we heard a noise from outside: a huge thud followed by an echoing ricochet. I lifted my head trying to figure out what it was. Fireworks? A shot gun? No, it was more muffled than that. Almost vibratory. Mrs. Walker stuck her head in the doorway. “Did you hear that, Emma?”
“Yeah, I did. It sounds like it was near the barn.”
“What was it?” Her forehead furrowed.
“I don’t know,” I said, shaking my head. “It was almost like something hit the ground.”
“I hope that dog didn’t get into anything.” She left and I heard her open the back door and call out, “Mack? Where are you? Get back here now!” Mack barked in return and she waited before calling for him again. Her voice was harsh, and I knew if he didn’t come quickly, she’d leave him out for the night. Once or twice I’d let him in even after she told me not to. He had to pay the price for not listening, she said. But I was too tenderhearted to leave him outside. He was Lucas’s dog.
Luckily, Mack came back inside before Mrs. Walker gave up on him. I heard her scold him for not coming when she’d called. Before long he’d wandered in by me, taking refuge on the floor between Lucas’s bed and my recliner. I reached down to pat his head. Mrs. Walker came in to give me one last set of instructions. “If anything changes with Lucas, come and get me,” she said. “Right away.”
“Yes, of course.”
“And don’t you let that dog up on the bed,” she said. “I found dog hair on the blanket yesterday.” Her eyes narrowed at me, accusatorily.
“It must have been on someone’s clothing when they leaned over the bed,” I offered.
She softened. “Well, maybe. Good-night, Emma.”
“Good-night, Mrs. Walker.”
She left to go upstairs. When I heard the water running in the bathroom above, I prayed to God again, this time promising anything if he’d give Lucas back to me. After Mrs. Walker padded down the hallway to her bedroom, I lifted Mack onto the bed, where he nestled into the space between Lucas and the railing, resting his head on Lucas’s shoulder. He knew the drill, the right way to lie so he wouldn’t hurt Lucas. Mack was a mutt, all black with a white spot on his belly. The only part of his mixed breed that could be identified was border collie. Lucas said that the border collie part was what made Mack so smart.
I stroked Lucas’s cheek. “Hang in there, Lucas. It’s all going to be better soon.” He didn’t bear much resemblance to the boy who’d stolen my heart the very first time he smiled my way.  I could still picture him leaning against his locker, talking to the head cheerleader, Madison Walinski. She was talking frenetically, flipping her hair back, and doing her fake laugh. Her usual self-absorbed routine. Lucas was nodding like he was listening, but anyone could see from the trapped look on his face that he was just being polite. When he glanced my way, we locked eyes and an understanding passed between us—sympathy from me, resignation from him. He flashed me a smile and it was like the heavens opened up and cast a beam of light my way. Such a beautiful boy. Impossibly beautiful. From that moment on, I wanted him. And then, I got him. And that, I thought, was the end of the story. My own personal happy ending, which turned out not to be so happy when cancer interfered.
The chemo had taken his beautiful curls and only a bit of fuzz had grown back. The lack of hair made his face look even more gaunt, like skin stretched over a skull. His hands and feet were always cold now and almost bluish in color. It didn’t matter what he looked like though. I loved Lucas more than I’d ever loved anyone in my life. I couldn’t live without him.
I found the relish jar in my backpack and unscrewed the lid, then tilted it and dipped two fingers into the potion. Please, God, let this work. Mack whined like he knew something was up. He lifted his head to watch as I wiped the potion onto Lucas’s eyes. The movement of my fingers caused Lucas’s eye lids to lift and they stayed open a crack. Was I supposed to actually put the liquid in his eyes? I wasn’t sure. I added a little more, carefully moistening the open space below his lids. Then I dabbed the rest on his lips. Curious, Mack worked his way forward on the bed so that his muzzle was alongside Lucas’s head.
“Yes, boy,” I said to Mack. “I know this is weird. Don’t worry. I’m not hurting him.” I screwed the lid back on the jar before leaning over to kiss Lucas on the lips, then pulled back to see what happened. Lucas still laid flat on his back, his hands exactly where they’d been positioned by the nurse after she’d turned him. His breathing was still shallow and there was no expression on his face. I watched carefully and then gave him another kiss. “I love you, Lucas.” Absolutely nothing had changed.
 For some reason, I’d been thinking the potion would work immediately. It didn’t have to be a total cure. I would have settled for a twitch or a smile. Anything that told me he’d made the turn away from death and back to me. A feeling of disappointment overwhelmed me and I felt my eyes fill with tears. The kiss had left a bit of the slippery potion on my lips and I went to grab a tissue out of my backpack. Mack whined a little bit while I cleaned up my face. “It’s okay boy,” I said. I still had some liquid left in the bottom of the jar. “We’ll try again later.”