Ask Ceil – Fear and Courage


This is a “lost” Ask Ceil I found while going through my extrmely disorganized Google Drive Writing folder. Enjoy.


Dear Ceil,

Things I’m afraid of: Everything

Things I’m not afraid of: Anything

See the problem?

Fear and Courage in Fort Collins

Dear Fear/Courage,

I totally understand. I have talked with no less than four people this week alone about doubt, fear, and asshole-like courage.

So, here’s my armchair-psychology, bullshit personality analysis, because I really don’t do any other kind.

I believe that all humans have three modes:

1. In Your Face.
2. Mainly Cowering.
3. Everything’s Really Quite Fine Thank You For Asking.

The problem here is a) identifying which mode you’re in right now; and b) realizing that you can switch from one mode to another in a moment, with very little provocation.

See, we might start out having a Fine Day, so that’s what you prepare for. Then suddenly, In Your Face Person emerges and tries to overthrow the Hallmark store, because the candles weren’t marked. “What the hell? How am I supposed to BUY these candles if I don’t even know what the price is? Don’t you understand that you’re making more work for everyone? Where is the efficiency? Where’s the sense of responsibility to the customer? Why do you hate humanity?”

Then again we might be Fine, and then someone says something about that dress we’re wearing. “Don’t you like it? I mean, yeah, it’s kind of a busy pattern. Maybe all my clothes are horrible? I’m a terrible person and I’ve made all the wrong life choices. Why do I even bother getting out of bed. I’ll just ruin everyone’s day. Do you happen to have a dark corner I can sit in, while I stare into my soul?”

You can also go directly from one extreme to the other. You start off conquering the world, only to realize you suck:

“I would never rely on people the way Sally does. She’s too needy.” [Subtext: I am God. I want for nothing.]

“You know her kids are all sick, and both her parents are dying.”

[Silence. Realizes I’m an asshole. Stabs self. Dies. Happy about it.]

Or you’re having a terrible day, and then…

“Hey, cheer up. The world is full of kittens and sunshine, and small elves who make cookies from love and angel wings!” [Dots i’s with tiny happy faces hugging each other.]

“I’ll cheer up when I’m good and ready, you mindless loon! You foolish simpleton! I am King of Sadness! I will dominate your ilk from my miserable throne! You will rue the day you spake at me!” [Kinda feels better.]

Here’s my advice: Go with it.

Everyone has bad days. If you have friends who don’t get that, they’re not your friends. You have friends that have bad days, and you don’t cast them into the pit of desolation, do you? No, you don’t. So they probably won’t do it to you, either.

And don’t cast yourself into the pit of desolation, because you should at least be as nice to yourself as you are to your friends.

Unless, of course, you want to go into the pit; in which case, here’s a box of tissues and the complete DVD set of Little House on the Prairie. Cry accordingly, if only at the rich fullness of Michael Landon’s hair. We’ll catch you later.

Guaranteed Win

First published on Magnificent Nose as part of a Flash Fiction series called “Spooky Election Day”, October 25, 2013

In the fluorescent lights in front of the school, Thomas Faherty’s face floated, pale yellow, above his charcoal suit. Gripping his briefcase, he greeted Daryl with all of his tolerance and the impressive, pressed-on smile he used during the campaign.

Daryl handed him a sagging grocery bag that crinkled when Thomas looked inside.

“A chipmunk?”

“That’s all I could get.”

“D’you shoot it yourself?”

“My kid.”

“He’s a good shot.” Thomas flashed newly-whitened teeth. “Good to know.”

Thomas reached in the bag. He pulled out his bloodied hand, and smudged his forehead with it. “All set.”

Daryl’s eyebrows furrowed, and a crease appeared on the right side of his mouth.

“Oh,” Thomas waved his hand in the air, swatting away doubt. “It’s just a ritual thing. Doesn’t mean anything.”

“Kinda weird, Tom.”

“Thomas,” he corrected. “Let’s go.”

Their feet tapped crisply in the hallways as they approached the gymnasium. Entering, they were quick to locate the battery of voting booths, pushed to the wall.

“This one!” Thomas declared, as he threw open a booth curtain to reveal the computer inside. He reached behind the monitor and turned it on.

“While this is starting up, rub a little of the blood on the back of the computer, will ya?” Thomas asked.

“Gross, man.” Daryl crinkled his nose.

“Are you going to help me or not? I have to light some candles.”

“Do I use a paper towel, or what?”

“I don’t care if you rub the whole chipmunk on the back panel. Just do it.”

Just about to importantly storm off, Thomas heard Daryl ask, “What do I get to run when you win this thing, again?”

“Parks. Parks and recreation.”

“Outside stuff. Cool. Kids’ll like that.”


Thomas set his briefcase on the floor and reviewed the spell’s requirements. Darn. He needed a star. Looking around, he spotted one high on the wall. “Be a STAR!” it proclaimed, pictures and names surrounding it.

He dragged a table to the wall, and stretching as far as he could, we was able to rip it down. Awkwardly climbing down, he placed the star on the floor and wiped his brow with a handkerchief. He took five candles from the briefcase and placed a candle at each point of the star. He lit all five, and standing in the center, recited a short Latin verse. He then blew the candles out and returned to Daryl.

“Chipmunk’s back in the bag.”

“Oh.” Thomas didn’t care. “OK, let’s try this thing.”

“What do we have to do?”

“Hm. Not sure. How about you try to vote for Wagner.”

“Not for you?”

“No. If you vote for Wagner, I want to see if it changes the vote for ME.”

“Oh. OK.” Daryl ambled to the computer and inserted the cartridge that accessed the ballots.

“Vote for Mayor,” the computer screen read. “Please select a name from the list below.”

“OK. I’m going to hit ‘Wagner’, right?”

Thomas nodded.

“Ok. Now it wants to know if I’m sure.”

“You are.”

“OK. ‘Yes.’” Daryl turned around and smiled his accomplishment at Thomas. “It’s done.”

It only took another three seconds for Daryl to disappear in a puff of smoke.

“Oh, shit!” Thomas ran to the computer.

It read: “You have voted for ‘Faherty’. Thank you for voting! Have a nice day.”

Thomas sat down on the ground. “Dammit!” His hands pressed his forehead, sliding his eyelids up, his eyes cartoonish and unblinking.

“Who saw me with him tonight?” He got up and began to pace. “How did he get the school key? Did he tell anyone where he was going? Did he say who he’d be with?”

Thomas sat back down and put his head in his hands. He knew he’d have to get rid of that computer. He also knew he’d have to visit Daryl’s family.

“Ugh. Time to go get the gun. I hate doing this.” Looking at his hands, he realized they were now covered with the blood from his head. He began to wipe them off on his pants, and pushing out a breath, he stood up again.

“Damn chipmunk. Shoulda gotten a lamb.”

Birthday Surprise

Also first published on Magnificent Nose, on June 6, 2014.

The refrain of the birthday song was wobbly and askew; young and old crowded the table of Tommy Hinterforce, now aged nine, as he thought earnestly about his wish. He blew air and jots of spittle over the field of buttercream and extinguished ten candles (one for good luck). Janet Hinterforce, eager for the company to be gone, hurried to his side and began cutting slices. It was after she’d cut the fourth one and lifted it onto a plate that a severed finger rolled out of what was to be the next piece, intended for Jeremy Thussleman, a loud child with early onset body odor.

Janet jumped back and screamed, upsetting the small ficus tree behind her, and knocking it into her husband Foster, who–after the song–had resumed a heated conversation with Philip Swagel over the merits of legalized prostitution.

Foster Hinterforce grabbed the ficus and moved closer to his wife, in a protective stance. Assessing the situation did not take long. He summed up the whole business thusly:

“Jesus, is that a finger?”

–and he was just loud enough to get the attention of four 9-year-old boys, a bored 7-year-old girl, and the other two adults, including Filomena Richardson, whom no one really liked, but she had the best back yard.

“It just rolled out,” explained Janet, “It’s not mine.” And she showed everyone her hands, so they would believe her.

The children immediately ran over, and Philip had to smack away Alex’s hand, on its way to examining the digit for firmness and texture. Sabrina, Alex’s younger sister, asked, “Should we call the police, daddy?”

“How much’d you pay for that cake, Foster?” Philip ignored his daughter. “You know, you can probably sue. Emotional distress. Finger comes out of a cake like that. What if we’d already had some?” Philip’s eyes rested on the four slices of plated cake. “What kind of filling is that?”

Foster raised his eyebrows at Philip and began to nod when Janet asked, “I wonder if someone needs it back?” and then she specified, “The finger,” as though she might’ve meant another thing.

“Can’t do nothin’ with it now,” said Filomena, who had assumed it was ok to help herself to a third glass of the Hinterforce’s brandy. “Thing’s been baked. Can’t sew on a finger that’s been baked.”

“Are you sure?” asked Janet.

“Pretty sure,” said Filomena, who was watching her son, Jack, run his finger along the outside of the cake so he could gather the icing border and lick it from his finger, then repeat. “Got to keep it on ice. Oven’s just about as opposite of ice as you get. Prob’ly the capillaries are all shrunk and fried up, like tiny worms.”

Filomena had a way with words that no one really appreciated.

“Maybe someone on the Internet knows.” Janet pointed her phone at the finger to take a picture, but then considered her lighting. She moved about 30 degrees to her left and found an angle that properly showcased the finger’s meaty quality and brownness.

“Can… this… finger… still… be… used? Found… in… grocery… store… cake. Already… baked.” she recited as she typed. “OK. Posted. Someone will know. Someone always does.”

“Why don’t we move on to the gifts while we’re waiting?” said Foster.

“Good idea,” said Janet, and began to pile the gifts next to Tommy, who had lost interest in the finger, and had begun throwing things for his Russian Blue cat to chase down. He tossed a small velcro ball at Sabrina, who was idly peeling the paint off the deck’s surface, and it landed in her hair. So did the cat. Sabrina yelled the cat off her, and sullenly moved to the most unoccupied corner of the backyard deck she could find.

“You should call the bakery, at least,” Philip explained to Foster. “I mean, you wait too long and they’ll say you put that thing in there just to get a free cake.”

“It’s not like I have a finger laying around. I mean, they probably know whose finger it is. That’s not the type of thing that goes missing unnoticed.”

“Well, they might think it’s a fake finger,” said Philip, still staunchly on his own side of the argument.

“I wonder if it IS a fake finger,” Filomena thought aloud.

“Oh, someone answered,” yelled Janet, who hadn’t stopped looking at her phone since she’d first posted her picture. “It’s a friend who…oh, I forgot. I have a friend that works at Channel 4 News. They want to know if we’d like to be interviewed. He’s thinking of putting together a story about body parts found in confectionary items in our area, and that we might be eating someone’s organs and such. Oh my God, that sounds horrible.”

She eyed Tommy, who was now tossing shredded wrapping paper around the deck. Colorful, torn bits flew like kites with tape tails. “But still. An interview.” Janet always wondered if she should’ve been an actress. “I should clean up a bit.”

A siren, which had been in the distance, grew louder until it became apparent that a fire truck had parked in front of the house. Two men dismounted from the cab of the truck, and approached the house.

“Come ‘round the back!” Foster yelled through the open screen door. “We’re on the deck!” To the group he asked, “Do the firemen come for torn off fingers now?”

“Police are prob’ly busy,” Filomena answered. The words hung long enough without conversational supplement that she felt perhaps her expertise was being doubted. “I used to cook for Hose House Number 9,” she further offered as qualification. “So, you know.”

Calling from below, a ruddy man with greasy hair said, “Is this the place with the finger?”

“Yes, sir,” answered Janet, and she waved without knowing why.

He nodded to the other firefighter and mounted the steps. “Someone saw a post online? Called the police, but they were busy.”

“Oh,” said Janet. “That makes sense,” and glanced at Filomena.

“Did you call the bakery yet?” the firefighter asked. Then he said, “FIloMEna! What are YOU doing here?” Filomena hugged the firefighter, whose name was now known as “Johnny”, and everyone thought it odd that she seemed to be getting attention, even though it wasn’t her house and she was so strange.

“Wasn’t there a thing about a guy who was killed last week, lost all his fingers?” asked the younger firefighter. “They say drug crime is getting really bad.” And then he suddenly experienced a chill down his back, making everyone uncomfortable, a few believing that the back deck was now haunted by the owner of the finger.

“Weren’t those just the finger tips, last week?” Johnny answered.

“I can ask online, if you want,” explained the younger firefighter. “They always know the answer.”

“They really DO,” exclaimed Janet, “but you can just share my picture and put your question. That way, they know how much finger we’re talking about.”

Johnny’s phone rang, and when he was done talking, explained to the group, “Looks like I have to take it in to the lab myself. They’re short-staffed, what with all the killings on the North Side.”

“Wait. They might need the finger for the news interview,” said a concerned Janet.

“Just make sure you preserve it properly,” said Philip. “If they want to sue, we have to make sure all the evidence is just right.”

“We probably won’t sue, I don’t think,” said Foster.

“But you might,” answered Philip.

“There’s going to be a news interview here tonight?” asked Johnny. “I’m sure I can wait until that’s over. Does my hair look ok?”

“We better put that thing on ice if we’re going to keep it for a while,” said Filomena.

As they were talking, one of the velcro cat balls had missed its intended destination and landed directly on the cake. Foster yelled as Russian Blue–almost in slow-motion–jumped on the table, sniffed at the finger, took it, and disappeared down the steps and into the woods. They tried to get the cat, but it was too quick.

“Well,” said Philip after a moment, “You won’t get your money back now.”

Janet, poking at her cell phone screen, was suddenly crestfallen, “He says we need the finger before he’ll send a news crew.” She burst into tears and ran into the house.

Foster shrugged.

“I’ll have to call this in,” said Johnny. “Hey Fil, what are you doing after?”

“Nothing,” replied Filomena. “Want to stop over? I have pie.”

“Sounds good.”

Foster thanked his guests as they left, and turned on the news while he was cleaning up. Gang violence was the first story. Janet came down to join him.

“So,” Foster said to her, “We have a NINE year old.”

“I know,” she replied, as gunshots were heard from the news video in the background. “Nice party.”

“Everything was wonderful,” said Foster. “I’m so lucky.”

Pines Against the Sky

I keep finding stories that were published elsewhere that I’d forgotten. Here’s one that was published on Magnificent Nose in early 2013. I’m just going to put the first few sentences and link to it, because there are photos that accompany it. When I get a chance to download those photos and put them here, I’ll publish the whole thing here and edit this comment. -Ceil


I wanted you to know that I’m in St. Louis. (I just drove. This is where the car ended up.) Not feeling as sunny as postcard picture. I’m sorry I ran away. I need some time. I don’t recognize the voice in my head anymore. The driving was nice. Very quiet. More later. El

Read more here…


This was published on Halloween of 2014 as part of a Flash Fiction series for The Magnificent Nose. For some reason, this is one of those stories I can’t get out of my head, long after writing and publication. I was never sure the ending made sense completely, but I liked the idea of the story ending on a bit of an obsessive note.

You wake up lying on the floor. You’re on your side. Blurred faces gather around you. “He has a hammer!” a woman yelled.

There’s a sharp pain in your thigh. You lean back, shoulders stiff. You slide the tool from your body.

A moment ago, you were in the hardware store. Before that, you were talking to your wife on the new phone.

It was a bright spring day. You spoke with the mailman. Sure steps picked out a new path: up the hill, down the alley, past the machine shop, toward the old church that’d been converted into art studios.

It was on the ground. You picked up the cell phone. No contacts. No texts. No accounts had been set up.

There were pictures, though. A couple in front of a water tower, kissing; a student at the nearby campus, licking the face of a statue; a woman’s naked torso; a grandmother and a baby, cheeks smashed into each other; a gaping man in front of a shiny car.

You brought it to the local carrier. You had it configured to your network.

“Finders, keepers,” as they say.

“There are, like, three lamps that match the description you gave me,” you said to her. “I’ll take some pics and send them. Tell me which one you want.”

“Good idea!”

Lamp #1 wasn’t it. Neither was Lamp #2. You stood in front of Lamp #3, goofy smile, thumbs up.

You clicked the button.

You were gone.

“Grab the hammer!” you hear a woman say. Shapes shift into forms, lines crisp and colors saturate. First, you see a man with his tongue out.

His face appears frozen in a licking motion, eyes always pointed in one direction.

There’s the woman and her baby, both with faces compressed, also frozen.

There’s the gaping man! There, the kissing couple!

They are all bent over you, a horrifying display of cheerful madness! Their faces, stuck in a moment in time: a moment they chose to preserve.

The naked woman is there; now you’re able to see her face. She’s the only one who can speak, but her body is contorted in the twisted shape she’d photographed herself in.

Struggling to your feet, it seems like there are others, but then you realize they’re reflections. The eight walls are all mirrors.

You catch a glimpse of yourself. A goofy face. Thumbs up. If you are horrified, if you are terrorized, you don’t look it. Your overwhelming dread is only made worse by your inability to recognize the feelings on your face.

You see the licking man in one of the mirrors. He grabs the hammer and runs at you from behind. You duck, but he goes for the mirror.




He slams the hammer over and over. A spiderweb of facets emanate from the impact point.




Glass falls to the floor behind Licking Man. Some of the glass flies into his mouth; a few shards just miss his wide-open eyes.

The hammer plunges through, finally. The mirror shimmers, a sheet of cascading glass. Licking Man is in shock.

The naked woman shuffles her way to the opening, bare feet over cut glass.

Hello? HELLO!” she yells. She steps out into a hallway that seems to be furnished with carpet from a 1960’s hotel: tan, with brown and gold graphic elements. There are dark wood doors–about 20 of them–and an elevator at the far end.

Slowly, you follow her. The others accompany in silence. Gaping Man turns to look at you, and you can see his fillings.

At the elevator now, Naked Woman presses the button. “Down.”

The doors slide quietly open and you all step in.

There’s one button on the panel. It has a star. You press it. The doors slide closed, and you hear a mechanical noise above you as the elevator descends.

At the bottom, the doors slide open.


Across a wide room you see a reception desk. A woman with severe hair, glasses, and bright red lipstick is writing. She does not look up until you approach the desk.

Annoyed, she grabs a microphone to her left.

“Clean up in the lobby!” she yells in a gravel voice into the mike.

Please help us! I can’t stay like this!” cries Naked Woman. “Yours is the only voice I’ve heard in a year.”

The Receptionist looks almost sympathetic as she shakes her head. “Oh, honey, I know. It sucks. But I’m not management. I’m just the help.” She glances over her shoulder at a sign that everyone is just now noticing. “Welcome to the Devil’s Sin Engine!” it proclaims.

“Folks like you power some of the worst human traits,” she says matter-of-factly, “If we didn’t have the narcissism you generate, well, the world’d be a much better place. Sorry.”

Just then, a mob of giant ogres arrives. You try to fight. There must be a way out. You can’t just be stuck, you think. Not like the others. You’re not like the others. You’re special. You have to be.

You strike an ogre and grab his bat. Another one swats at your head and misses. You run. There’s a fountain, and a directory. Fifty-four floors of assorted sins. You see a light. You find a door and push the handle. Everything turns white.

You wake in an ambulance. Concussion, they say. From what? you ask. We don’t know, they say. We found you on the floor.

Your home office has the regular things. A desk. A chair. A window. A printer.

Also, a corkboard, covered in pictures: A licking man. A naked woman. A gaping man. A woman and her grandchild. A kissing couple. You’d printed them all out. Across the first one is the word “Missing” and September 6th, four years ago. Your wife is concerned, but you can’t stop looking; you have to find them all.


Here are two articles I got published in 1997, when I used to be a freelancer for The Strip District News and The Southsider (both now defunct).

In 1997, one of my dreams (still is) was to be a paid writer – possibly a freelance reporter. I walked into the offices of the Strip District News and asked if they needed people to contribute articles. They offered me $40/article, which was fine by me. I could write on any topic I chose, as long as it was related to the Strip or the South Side.

Since I’d just moved to Pittsburgh, I took a tour with a new tour group in town, Just Ducky Tours (they are now a Pittsburgh fixture).



This following article was published in The Southsider, though the venue was in the Strip District. Thinking about it now, I’m guessing their page layout person must’ve gotten these two stories mixed up, because they are both from September 1997, and the duck tour story is closer to the South Side of Pittsburgh than it is to the Strip.

Though I’d recently left a brief career in music retail to work in manufacturing, I missed having music as part of my everyday life, and I still wanted to find a way to get back into it. The paper allowed me to review bands, and I think they were considering making it a regular column. (I don’t have the article, but one of my favorite experiences was going to see/review Spider Rondinelli and the Jazz Giants. After the show I hung out with Spider for a bit and was invited to something that I will compare to a 1920’s speakeasy: it was an apartment on the second floor of some apartment building, and a giant guy stood outside – the bouncer, I guess. “She’s with us,” said Spider, and I was allowed entry. We stayed there drinking and talking until 4am. But I digress.)

Here’s an article wherein I review The Vibro Kings’ performance at Nick’s Fat City on August 7th, 1997. I have a dim recollection of the evening. It looks like I had fun.



I had a handful of other stories that were published, but somehow I didn’t save copies of those, unfortunately. I would’ve liked to have seen what I’d done.

Thirty Minutes Ago

He took a photograph of Judy and the Empire State Building.

It was the perfect day.

She was finally happy, he was finally done with classes. They wandered around midtown, struck by the percussive wind of speeding taxis, listening to the rubble of conversation and clomping strides, dousing themselves in the saturated hues of signs and clothes against city gray.

He: pointed at windows of music and candy.
She: bent her gaze high at glass and lines, at columns and relief.

Hopes tumbling into each other, they kissed amid flowing rivers of unblinking strangers.

That was five years ago, when she bent down to pick up her phone, and she smiled a smile that rang through him like church bells.

Two years ago that she moved to Montana.

One day ago that he found out about the engagement.

Thirty minutes ago that he took down a box, where he had a photograph of Judy and the Empire State Building.