Hey, all. I wanted to do a giveaway here on GA for Bending the Iron because this was the first place the story was posted. It’s been through the wringer since then. The published version is vastly different. It's better structured, packs a more substantial punch, and travels in directions I hadn't originally anticipated. Just some evidence of what a highly skilled editor will do for you. (Thank you, Deb!)
Bending the Iron (originally titled Remodeling), releases August 19th from Carina Press. It was the supportive and insightful comments I received on GA that encouraged me to send it on for publication. I have all of you to thank.
If you’re interested in a copy, leave a quick comment below—a “count me in” will do just fine—and on Sunday evening I’ll throw the names into a hat and pick three at random. I have the book in PDF and ePub formats.
Blurb: Michael feels trapped. In his conservative, poor hometown where he has to keep his sexuality hidden. In his dead-end job. In caring for his alcoholic grandfather. Everything changes when he meets Eric, the new curator for the railroad museum. His curiosity about the passionate man quickly gives way to an intense attraction--one that Eric happily returns.
Carefree and refreshingly confident, Eric guides Michael to places he's forgotten, reminding him that it may not be too late to follow his dreams for something more in life. But the truth is, Eric knows exactly how it feels to be stuck in a bad situation. A failed relationship has left him with personal demons that may hurt his connection with Michael.
To give their future a chance, they both must fight being trapped in the past.
Have a teaser from Chapter 1:
Michael killed the truck’s engine just as the train rumbled past, its piercing wail stinging his ears, even in the closed cab of his pickup. A few seconds later the trembling began, rocking the asphalt, vibrating up through the ravine and into his seat. Sighing, he glanced at his watch. The Alle-Kiski four o’clock, right on time. From the street in front of the bar, he had a decent view of the tracks, and he tipped his head back against the seat and counted the cars as they rocketed by. It had been his habit since childhood—railroad car counting. Funny how some routines never left a person. Like the routine he’d been following every evening for the past three years: bouncing down potholed back roads from their farmhouse to the Hickory Hotel to fetch his grandfather, Pete, from the bar. Michael had no idea if the Hickory had ever been a proper hotel. That bit of knowledge escaped most people in town, even the ones who worked there. He imagined the three floors above the dingy bar might have been rented rooms at one point in history, at the height of the steel boom, but those days were long gone. The only thing booming in Hickory these days were the hunting rifles. Michael watched the caboose speed past and realized he’d lost count at some point during his daydream. He climbed out of the truck, grumbling under his breath about stupid habits, drunken grandfathers, and dead towns that didn’t know they were dead, and splashed through a series of rain puddles to make his way to the door. Brushing the muck from his jeans accomplished little. The dirt just stuck to his hand and rubbed off in his dark hair when he combed it back. “Hey, Rob,” he said as he passed out of the cool September air and into the smoke-filled room of the Hickory—where four in the afternoon looked exactly like four in the morning. Smelled the same too, like fried food and stale cigarettes. “How’s it going? Looks like a slow day.” Michael counted three older men in the place, seated as far away from each other as possible. The afternoon crowd came to drink, not socialize. Rob nodded at him from behind the long scarred piece of mahogany that served as the Hickory’s bar. He was polishing the wood, something he did nonstop, but it deserved the attention. That slab of mahogany might be the most valuable thing in the whole building. “Yo, Mike,” Rob called, drawing out his name. “IC Light?” “No,” Michael scoffed. “You know I’m working night turn this month. All I need is my boss to smell alcohol on my breath. The bastard’s looking for any excuse to give the foreman job to that Delaney kid. Christ, I don’t think Delaney’s even old enough to buy a beer.” “Yep.” Rob nodded. “Them uppity kids do a year or two at the community college and think they’re some high and mighty shit, that’s for sure.” They did. Which didn’t stop Michael from being so jealous he could barely breathe when Delaney started talking about the courses he’d taken, and how he was going back—to a four-year, next time—and finish that degree. He had a plan. Didn’t they all? Michael kept his own plans to himself. For what they’d ever amount to, he’d save himself the ridicule. He waved Rob off when the older man pushed a frosty mug in his face. “Nah, I told you, I’m just here to get Grandpap. Speaking of the old man…” Michael turned in a circle, squinting at the pool table in the corner. A half-empty mug of beer sat in the center of the green felt, and a cigarette was smoldering in a glass ashtray nearby. “Where is he?” “Pete?” Rob squinted at him. “He ain’t here.” There was irony in being upset that he couldn’t find his grandfather at his favorite bar, but Mike couldn’t dredge up a smile. Pete not drinking at four in the afternoon wasn’t a good sign; it was trouble for sure. “Didn’t he show up today?” “Right on time when I opened at eleven,” Rob confirmed. “But then that kid from the museum came in for lunch, they got to talking, and next thing I know, Pete’s following him back to work.” There were just enough clues in Rob’s sketchy explanation of events that Michael felt the tension leach out of his shoulders, and he blew out a relieved breath. “Don’t know what kid you’re talking about, but yeah, if Pete had a chance to get back in that museum, I know he’d grab it.” “Hasn’t been the same since they threw him out.” Rob smiled and went back to polishing the bar. “And I don’t know what the kid said to him, but your grandpap left with a spring in his step.” Michael leaned on the bar. “So who is this guy?” Rob pointed the stained rag at him. “The new curator at the Railroad Museum. About your age, I guess, but he talks like some college professor. Actually, I like him, even if he is one of them uppity know-it-alls. He talks with you, not down at you, you know what I mean? From what he said, and from what Maggie let slip when she was in picking up her order last night, the foundation hired him to redo the second floor model room.” Michael let out a low whistle, not unlike the Alle-Kiski four o’clock. “No shit? They’re really going to try to bring that dinosaur back to life?” He took up the mug of draft beer without thinking. “I didn’t think they had the money.” “Some grant came through is what I heard, and one of the museum’s old benefactors got a bug up his butt about restoring the model to its ‘former glory.’” Rob’s rolled eyes said plenty about his opinion of that. “Well, it was pretty special in its day,” Michael felt the need to say. The model room of the Hickory Railroad Museum, tucked away under the eaves on the second floor, had been a mysterious and fantastical place to Michael when he was a kid. A haunted place, full of dusty, shadowed corners, and home to a miniature world that spanned not only place but time. Tiny trains chugged through lush valleys and farms, between mountains and coal mines, along rivers, and into and out of the oil-boom communities that were nothing more than derelict ghost towns these days. At one corner of the giant diorama, a pair of steam engines crisscrossed through a miniature steel mill, and even passed a glassworks that looked enough like Hickory Glass to make Michael shudder. The trains skirted town after town, rolling first through gaslit streets where horse-drawn buggies waited at the crossings, then later bisecting clusters of more modern buildings that shone with cheery electric lights. The museum’s only full-time curator, Maggie, had started complaining a few months ago about how Michael’s grandfather loitered on the second floor, sneaking whiskey out of a flask he kept hidden in his pocket as he circled the diorama, watching the trains. His nonsensical mumbling had a tendency to scare the few children who came around. Sensitive to the museum’s plight—they needed every admission dollar they could get—Michael hadn’t fussed when she’d asked Pete to stay away. His grandfather had accepted the news with pursed lips and few words, but Michael knew he grieved the loss. The little railroad made Pete happy. That magical miniature world, so real in every detail, gave a fleeting sense that a person could control events. That time and space were fluid. And its predictability soothed rattled nerves: the trains ran at precise intervals, the lights flashed steadily, and even the overhead lights dimmed and brightened, mimicking day and night. It was a bit like being God, Michael supposed. Watching people rush like ants to and fro, caught in an endless loop. He came back to himself to find half the beer gone from the mug and a frosty mustache on his upper lip. Frowning, he set the glass away and stepped back. “About how long ago would you say he left?” Already he could see the disapproval flashing in Maggie’s eyes. She treated that museum better than she would her own baby. She’d never say an unkind word to Pete—she fancied him a war hero, which he was if anyone wanted to get technical—but she gave Michael a good tongue-lashing whenever the mood took her. As it happened, the mood took her often. “You need to keep a better eye on him, Mike,” she liked to scold. “One day he’s going to drink himself right off the edge of that ravine. He’ll drown in the creek, if the train doesn’t roll over him first.” “That’s a fact,” Michael would mutter under his breath, because it was, and there was no arguing it. Especially when that fact was an old, bitter drunk who kept Michael chained to a decrepit house in a nowhere town because there was no one else to watch out for him. Not that Michael would ever wish ill upon his grandfather. But babysit him? Keep a better eye on him? Pete was a grown man, a veteran of two wars. He’d put all three of his children in the ground, and his wife too. His Social Security kept him comfortably fed (and watered) and his Medicare paid for enough prescription arthritis meds to fell an elephant. He’d lived a long, full, difficult life. Michael figured if he wanted to tie one on until his Judgment Day, he had the right. Rob considered the question and checked the clock hanging on the wall over the bar. “About one o’clock, I think. Couldn’t say for sure. It was during the lunch rush. I didn’t check the time when they left.” “All right,” Michael said. “So three hours at least. I guess I’ll head over there and rescue Maggie and the new college punk from Pete’s clutches.” Rob doubled over in wheezing laughter. “Maggie, maybe. But wait till you meet this kid. I think Pete might need to be rescued from him. The guy never shuts up. I mean it. He came in for lunch three times this week, and I got two words in the whole time.” Michael nodded. He knew the type. “Loves the sound of his own voice, huh?” “Well…” Rob scrunched up his face. “That’s true, I suppose, but when you say it like that, it doesn’t sit right. He’s interesting to listen to. Knows things about this area even that old bag Maggie had no idea about.” He nodded, pensive. “Polite too. Honestly polite, not just going through the motions. I can sense bullshit, you know.” “Huh,” Michael answered. “Spent a lot of time talking to your grandpap about Hickory. All respectful like. Pete appreciated that. So did I.” Rob would. He’d been a ten-year Navy man during Desert Storm. But to most everyone in Hickory, he was just a bartender. Most folks thought he’d always been a bartender. Proof that history didn’t always define a person as much as they’d like it to. “Even the kid’s earring and the, you know—” Rob gestured at his own jeans and T-shirt, “—clothes he likes to wear didn’t seem to bother him, and you know how conservative Pete is.” Oh yes. Intimately. “An earring?” Michael asked with a smile in his voice. They weren’t exactly rare in Hickory—on a man, anyway—but infrequent enough to turn heads. “Mmm. His hair’s kind of long. Curly. And he dresses in hippie clothes, like those sprout-eating wackjobs out west. You know, in Oregon.” “Oregon,” Michael said, letting some sarcasm leak through, “is crawling with sprout-eating hippies.” “I let him know a lot of people around here don’t go in for that sort of display.” “Yeah? How’d he take that?” Rob’s casual shrug didn’t match the annoyed glint in his eye. “Laughed his ass off.” Michael liked this mystery man more by the minute. “Damn liberals,” Rob muttered and set off down the bar, swiping his towel over the wood. “Thanks, Rob,” Michael called as he headed out the door. The moment his lungs latched onto fresh air, he coughed, as if his body were trying to expel the poison he’d just spent ten minutes breathing. Or he was experiencing a delayed reaction to Rob’s description of the long-haired, earring-wearing, hippie-dressing college boy who had whisked his grandpap away to the museum. Rob’s had been a spotty description, and peppered with a healthy dose of ignorant prejudice, but that didn’t matter to Michael. Or, more precisely, to his imagination—because the truth was he had a weakness for longish curly hair and intellectuals who knew their history. And an even greater one for men. It was the sort of detail he didn’t broadcast. Not when the only path he walked—or drove—led from his house, to work, to this bar, and then back. One continuous loop with no hope of escape. Wouldn’t be many places to go if a secret like that got out. The Hickory Hotel and the Railroad Museum lay cattycorner from each other at the southern end of town, right where the abandoned buildings of Academy Steel began their lazy sprawl down the valley. Appropriately, a railroad crossing abutted the museum property, still in use by the Allegheny Valley Railroad, the Aliquippa River Railroad, and a half dozen other railways that eked out a profit moving coal, ore, and freight across the state. The museum architect hadn’t been the fancy sort, but the building had quiet character, still solid after a half a century of visitors and the relentless march of decay and waning interest. Michael jogged across the intersection, checking both ways out of habit, but didn’t see a single car, and hiked up the steep incline to the museum’s entrance. Western Pennsylvania’s Premier Railroad Museum, the weathered sign read. Admission $5 Adults and $3 Children under 10. Maggie’s rusty silver Chevy was the only car in the parking lot. No. There was another car, hidden around the back, near the warped metal door that marked the rear exit—a black jeep, mud splattered up to its side mirrors. The passenger door stood wide open. Throwing a quick glance around, Michael passed the entrance and continued around to the Jeep. “Hello?” he called. Far away, a train whistle sounded. Frowning, Michael checked to make sure the locks weren’t set, then shut the door firmly. It squeaked as he swung it closed. Around the front, Maggie was propping the front door open with one foot while she stood smoking a cigarette. She smiled at Michael, an open nonjudgmental smile that had him stumbling a little as he climbed the hill. It was rare to find Maggie in a good mood. “Hey there!” she shouted. “I was wondering when you were going to show up.” “You could have called if he was being a bother. You have my number.” “What? No!” Maggie dropped her cigarette and stomped on it with her sneaker. “He’s being great. Eric’s put him to work, and I swear the old coot couldn’t be happier. Eric’s some kind of history expert. He knows this area like the back of his hand, and Pete’s eating it up.” Michael could have added that the flask of scotch in Pete’s pocket might be contributing to his grandpap’s jovial mood, but didn’t. It wasn’t as if Maggie didn’t know. “Yeah?” He gave a wry smile. “I hope Eric knows not to trust him with anything sensitive or valuable.” Irritation flashed in Maggie’s eyes, and Michael braced himself for whatever lecture she was sure to unleash. He deserved it for saying something so unkind, true or not, and Maggie didn’t disappoint him. “If you made more of an effort to help him find something to do besides shoot pool and drink beer at the Hickory, ‘trusting’ him with things wouldn’t be as much of an issue.” “He’s a big boy, Maggie.” Was he the only one who remembered that? Maggie blew her heavy bangs off her forehead, then pushed the whole mass of hair away from her face, which had the unfortunate side effect of stretching the buttons on her blouse to their limit. “Yeah, I know. You try, Mikey. I’m not saying you don’t.” Funny. Michael was pretty sure that was exactly what she’d just said. “It’s just…well, go up and look at him. He’s so happy up there working on the trains. And it isn’t as if there’s a lack of work to be done.” True. The diorama had been deteriorating for years. Michael didn’t envy this new kid, Eric, his job. Where would he even start? “So,” he said, following her inside and leaning a hip against the counter when she slid behind it, “you let him back despite the drinking, huh?” “He ain’t drunk,” Maggie said, gloating. Michael snorted. “Next you’ll say he’s voting Democrat.” “Okay, funny guy.” Maggie smirked. “Go take a look for yourself.” That would mean setting eyes on this Eric guy, and Michael was curiously reticent to do so. “Okay. Are the stairs unlocked?” “Yeah, yeah.” Maggie waved him on. “Eric’s been moving supplies and equipment in all day. It’s propped open.” Michael nodded and stepped through the vestibule into the museum proper. Immediately he felt ten years old, his eye drawn, as it had always been, to the live displays, where curious children could set small lines of railcars to and fro down a pair of simple tracks. The hours he’d spent here could probably be measured in days, pressing buttons and flipping switches while, outside, real trains thundered by on the crossing. As Maggie promised, a cardboard box propped the door to the stairwell open, and up above, out of sight around the curve of the concrete steps, he heard people talking. A deep, lyrical voice asked a question—the words indistinguishable—and his grandfather answered in his familiar graveled tone. It carried down the stairs clearly. “Thank you. I appreciate you giving me the opportunity, Eric.” Michael’s brows shot up into his hairline. It wasn’t often Pete found someone worthy of a thank-you. He started up the steps, knowing the moment his footfalls had been detected. Pete’s gray-haired head appeared over the railing, and he smiled, gesturing Michael up with an impatient wave. “There you are, Mikey.” Michael winced. “I was Mikey when I was ten, Pap.” “You’re still Mikey to me, you big baby.” Pete muffled a phlegm-filled cough in the crook of his elbow, but his eyes twinkled with a mirth Michael hadn’t seen in ages. He made it to the top of the landing, and his grandfather reached up to clap him on the shoulder. There had been a time when they’d been the same height, not too many years ago, but age and osteoporosis had taken some of Pete’s impressive size, and now he barely stood five foot eleven to Michael’s six foot three. Faced with Pete’s grin, Michael smiled back. “How’re you doing, Pap? I got worried when I couldn’t find you over at the Hickory.” “Sorry. I got caught up. I’ll be ready in a jiffy. Just let me put a few things away.” He turned and hurried down the aisle, calling over his shoulder, “Eric, this is the grandson I was telling you about.” “The famous Michael,” the deep tenor said. The voice knifed through Michael like an engine whistle, raising goose bumps on his arms and seizing all the air from his lungs. He gulped some back in before turning to greet the speaker. “The mysterious Eric.”
[Bending the Iron at Amazon or Carina Press]
Thanks and good luck!