A Muse Bouche Review: February 2020

Romance Issue of 2020!

Dear Reader,

Happy 2020, everyone!

Thank you for joining us for another rare sojourn!

Get your chocolate fountain, your strawberries, bananas, and your oysters, because we’re all about l’amour in this issue! Our focus genre is Romance, and we welcome you to come along as we explore it from the varying perspectives of our amazing crew!

Personal trials have brought about a few changes to the regular staff, and to our beloved partners we remind them we have guest spots open! Contact us via our Twitter feed, our website, or one of the members directly in you’re interested in a guest spot.

Warmest Regards,
The A Muse Bouche Review team

A Muse Bouche Review Logo

Feature: B.A.D. Guide to Romance    (Paul Grealish)    Satire
THE BENCH Part 2    (Jess K Hardy)    Fiction
Timea and Makar Part 1   (Renée Gendron)  Fiction
Remember the Day    (Packy Smith)    Poetry
Not Your Mama’s Romance    (Crystal Kirkham)    Opinion
Dinner For Two    (Alexandra Gardner)    Novel Excerpt
COLD HUNGER    (D.W. Hitz)    Fiction

B.A.D. Guide to Romance


Paul and Cat

Dear Subscriber ‘Sunset_Paint_Stripper.’

So you’re writing romance, but you stink at it. That’s okay! A lot of people rush into the genre without really understanding what’s required. It’s not all sexy loggers and thermometers. Let’s dig in.

The word ‘romance’ comes from the Latin for ‘Oh, my, how wonderful and grand, just lovely. Lovely.’ The first romance novel was published in 1679 by Jebediah Kneeguard, but it contained no love scenes and mostly consisted of lists of farm equipment produce sold to market. It wasn’t a big seller, so the genre remained dormant until the 1700s.

Tropes are a big part of romance and its important to understand them, even if you choose not to use them. ‘Enemies to lovers’ and ‘the love triangle’ are well known. ‘Enemies to shoot-out’ and ‘the love non-Euclidian geometric shape’ are less common. Feel free to explore and make tropes your own. Try ‘the randy sewage diver’, ‘trapped in a cave with limited air’ or ‘friends to occasional correspondents’. Unleash your inner romantic!

Times have changed, of course. You can’t always rely on old movies for ideas. Trapping a partner in a net, using robots to hunt them down across a broken post-apocalyptic landscape, or getting ‘funky’ at a ‘disco’ — it’s outdated stuff and nobody needs it.

Finally, remember that emotion is the beating heart of romance. Big, brash, bold is what you want. Take the reader on a journey through hunger, passion, fear, lower-back pain, the whole gamut. And remember: your Patreon contributions stopped last month, so if you could get on that, I’d appreciate it.

Your Loyal Guide,
Byron A. D’Ysmal,
CEO – B.A.D Writing Services*

*As found etched on a bathroom wall by Paul Grealish during a Nine Foot Nudist gig down at that place that used to be a Barnes & Noble. The one where your sister said she saw Judd Nelson, but you knew Judd Nelson was in your tool shed and you couldn’t tell anyone.

(Catch Part 1 in last month’s issue)

by: Jess K Hardy (T: @JessKHardy2000)



This has been, without question, the longest seven days of my entire life. Something happened last week. Only, I have no idea what it was.

This is what I know: 1) Noah touched me. 2) Noah touched me twice. 3) I liked it, a lot. 4) I want him to do it again. 5) When I winked at him (obvious move, I know) he blushed. He very clearly blushed, cheeks red as cherries.

This is what I do not know: 1) Literally anything else.
It’s driven me mad all week. Is Noah bi? He could be bi. Or he could just be more affectionate than the straight men I know. Not that I know very many straight men on any deep level. It’s not by choice. I don’t have anything against straight men, just most of my friends are queer. Most of my friend are queer. I really only have one friend. Aside from Noah, that is. Noah, Noah, Noah—

“Dad, where’s Sophie? I’m bored.”

Max startles me so thoroughly I knock my coffee thermos over beside me. It rolls to the end of the bench, and into Noah’s open hand.

“Jumpy?” he asks me, green eyes narrowed in amusement.

“Ha. Right. Oops, I just—” I stutter, hopelessly.

“Hey, Max!” yells Sophie as she grabs Max’s hand and pulls him toward the tire swing.

Noah takes his seat beside me on the bench, tilting my thermos from side to side. “I think you’ve had enough of this. Want me to hang onto it for you?”

I snort. Honestly snort at him. I am exceptionally disappointed in my complete inability to keep my cool. This is ridiculous. It’s still Noah. Just Noah. The same guy I’ve sat next to every-other week for the last six months. The same guy who smells like soap and pine and is so sweet to his daughter sometimes it makes my heart ache.

He’s only touched me, completely platonically by the way, and I can barely look at him without wanting his hands on me again, immediately. I’ve also masturbated more in this last week than I have in the last year. Like an obsessed teenager. I have blisters.

“You’re looking good today.” My eyes flash wide. “I mean well, you’re looking well. Is that a new shirt?” Jesus tapdancing Christ.

He looks down. “Yeah, it is actually. Just got it yesterday. You don’t think it’s too tight? It feels tight.”

This is hell. I’ve sinned, died, and now I’m wandering the seventh circle of hell.

“No, it looks good. Perfect.” Hell.

He smiles, bright as the sun itself. “Thanks, man. You look good too. New haircut?”

Is he flirting with me? He has to be. All of it. The smiles, the shirt, commenting on my hair. This is very clearly flirting. Or at least it would be, if he was bi. And if he is bi, it’s really unforgivably rude of him to flirt with me like this and not tell me he’s bi.

But if he’s not bi, I have got to pull myself together. Noah and I have been growing closer—as friends—and maybe this is just how straight male friends talk to each other nowadays. Times are changing. People are more evolved. And I have never been so confused.

I clear my throat. “Just had it cut the other day. Thanks for noticing.” I take my thermos back from him, not at all accidently brushing my thumb over his. He doesn’t flinch. What is happening?

“I have some interesting news,” he says and I nearly pass out.


He nods once, firmly. “Jennifer is now officially dating the twenty-year-old next door. Publicly.”

Ah. It all makes sense now. He’s just hurt and irate and hiding it under ten layers of charm and pleasantries and tight shirts. “That’s gotta be awkward, for Sophie. I mean they’re practically the same age.”

At the moment, Sophie is trying to push Max on the tire swing and laughing this full-bellied guffaw every time the tire swings back at her and knocks her over backwards into the sand.

Noah practically growls, “I’m not sure I can adequately express how furious I am that some piece of shit loser who fucks other men’s wives and still lives in his mother’s basement will be spending more time with my daughter than I will.”

I wince. “He lives with his mother?”

“That’s what you’re most outraged about here?” Noah asks, incredulous.

I hold my hands up in surrender. “Hey, I’m outraged by the whole thing. I promise. Somehow that just seemed the most remarkably sad.”

And like a balloon losing air, Noah sags, shoulders slumping, bravado slipping through the cracks in the bench. “It fucking sucks, man. I’m so fucking pissed that I’m half-tempted to grab Sophie right now and just disappear with her. This is the thing about divorce, you lose control, completely. It’s hard enough to raise kids right these days, but to know that when your kid isn’t with you, you have absolutely no control over what happens to them, who they spend time with, what is being said to them, what kind of lies they might be hearing about you.” He shakes his head. “It’s really fucking me up. You are so lucky Pierce is such a good dude.”

He’s right. I am lucky. Pierce and I are still very close friends. And we agree completely on how we want to raise Max. I never worry about Max when he’s with Pierce. Never. It’s an awful feeling now, imagining what this must be like for Noah. How much he must worry all the time.

“I’m so sorry, Noah.”

“Me too,” is all he says.

We sit together, quietly watching our kids play as morning drifts toward afternoon. I notice they’re whispering, Max and Sophie, occasionally glancing our way. Scheming.

“Do you see that?” I ask Noah, nodding toward the sandbox where our children sit and devise.

A corner of his mouth ticks upward. “What do you think they’re talking about?”

“World domination?”

“Which one of us would be more delicious to eat?” He offers and I nearly choke on nothing at all because Noah would, without question, be delicious. To eat. In my mouth. Lord help me.

As it turns out, we’re both wrong.

“Daddy?” asks Sophie. She’s pulled Max back to the bench with her and she sways in place, hands behind her back, smile sweet as sugar.

“Yes, baby?” says Noah, one brow raised.

Max is staring at his shoes, blushing.

Sophie takes a sharp inhale, then blurts, “Next time you’ve got me, could Max and I have a sleepover?”

“A sleepover?” Noah repeats.

“Yeah! We wanna sleep together,” exclaims Sophie loudly. “And you and James could sleep together too.”

Noah barks a laugh, Max drags a foot through the sand, the sun continues to shine, and I lean forward, shoving my head between my knees.


“James, are you okay?” He looks like he’s hyperventilating. Maybe I’m laying it on a bit too thick, but ever since I touched him last week he is all I’ve thought about. And now that Jennifer’s gone public with her kindergartener, I figure, fuck it.

I’ve never taken what I wanted. I’ve never even asked for what I wanted. And look where that’s gotten me. So, fuck it all. I’m still young enough, single, free, and for the first time in years I know exactly what it is that I want. I want him.

James emerges from his swan dive with a penny clutched between his fingers. “Yeah, just dropped a penny.”

Right. “So glad you found it.” I’m smiling at him. He’s blushing. It’s fucking adorable.

“Yeah, Dad. Can we?” Max has joined my daughter in pleading for a sleepover.

“Did you know about this?” James asks me, suspicious.

I shake my head. “Not a clue, I promise.” Although I think it’s the best idea my kid’s ever had.

“Please.” Sophie draws the word out for a solid five seconds, her tiny fists clenched at her sides.

“Give me and James a chance to talk it over, okay,” I tell her. “Go play.”

Grumbling, the kids return to the monkey bars.

“What do you think?” I ask James, squinting up at the sky as the sun ducks behind a cloud.

He takes a beat, then: “It seems…harmless.”

I turn to find him staring at me, considering, calculating, putting the touches and the flirting and the sleepover together into some equation he doesn’t have the answer to. Shit.

I need to tell him. I need to give him something here. He’s a smart guy. A smart gay guy who’s probably spent his entire life trying to figure out if other guys are gay or bi or interested or not. And here I am, a friend, a confidant, and someone who’s decided unilaterally that I want something more and he has no idea. I need to say something. I mean, fuck, he may not be interested in me at all anyway.

I glance around, the kids are too far away to hear us and the few other adults at the park are sitting on their own benches, on their phones or looking blankly into space, maybe even living out their own sexual identity crises. Either way, they definitely aren’t paying any attention to mine.

“Noah, is there something going on? Is it Jennifer?”

James looks concerned now, worried. I want to tell him, I need to tell him, but what do I say? Hey James, remember when I touched you last week? Well, it made me hard. Or One time, in high school, I kissed a boy and now I want to try it again. With your mouth in particular.

I have no clue how to start this conversation. And it’s not like this is just some guy I found in a bar either. This is James. He’s a friend. Maybe my only friend. And our kids adore each other. I could really be fucking everything up right now if I do this wrong. I need to be okay with him saying ‘no thanks.’ I need to be okay with how embarrassed and disappointed I’ll be when he does. It’ll be fine. I’ll be cool. Super cool.

“Noah?” James looks like he can’t decide if he’s worried or amused at this point. Is it all just written all over my face? “What is it?”

“I kissed a boy once,” comes out of me fast, like it’s one long word.

There’s a moment of silence, then James inhales sharply, opens his mouth, and shuts it again.

I steel my nerve, my cheeks burning. “I was seventeen, he was older. It was a game, nothing romantic. But,” fuck, this is so hard to say out loud. It shouldn’t be this hard, “I really liked it.”

James blinks, some unreadable expression on his face, then he says, “All right.”

I blow out a deep breath and plow forward. “I…I think I might be bisexual.”

“That’s…interesting,” he replies.

I groan, leaning forward to bury my face in my hands. “Fuck.”

“Hey,” he touches my back, carefully. “I’m here. I’m listening. Are you trying to come out to me?”

My voice is muffled. “Not really.”


I groan again, my face still securely hidden in my hands. “I think I like you.”

He removes his hand from my back.

“Shit. I’m sorry,” I whisper. I am an idiot. Why did I think he’d be interested in some short, sad, sexually confused divorced dude who told him not two minutes ago that his wife is now dating the shitbag who destroyed his marriage? He probably thinks I’m just pissed and trying to get back at her or drown my anger in something new and dangerous. The thing is, though, I’m not. Like, solidly not. I really like James.

His hand returns to my back, making short soothing strokes along my spine. “It’s okay,” I think he says but all I can focus on is his hand on me. “It really is. But you should maybe sit up, though. People are starting to look.”

There is only one expression on his face now when I finally sit up and look at him, compassion.

“Noah, this is a really big thing, what you’re telling me.”

“I know. I know it is. And I know I’m springing this on you out of the blue.”

He snorts, a smile breaking through his attempts to keep his expression serious.

“Dude. Come on.”

“You’re right. I’m sorry. It’s just, nobody has ever come out to me before and you said ‘springing’ and I’m a child and also I’m,” he’s stumbling over his words, “excited. A little.”

Now I’m smiling. “You are?”

He nods. “I am. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I think I like you too, Noah.”

To be continued…

Timea and Makar Part 1

by Renée Gendron (@reneegendron)

The goddess stood in front of a row of smiths, surrounded by men and women with soot-covered cheeks. Humidity hung in the air, coating everything in a slick layer of grime.

A plaited black queue fell between his shoulders. The soot splotches on his face brought out the brightness in his eyes. “Goddess Timea,” Samuli said, removing his linen cap.

“Our forges do not burn well.”

A coil of spiked steel churned against the lining of Timea’s stomach. This was not right.

Did the Variod’len cool the hearths? Or those upstart gods in the Dousseni or the Taul’esse? Those Taul’esse always looked for ways to needle the Frinnaie.

Timea stepped forwards, the cracked ground dusted her boots, and the dozen smiths gathered around her made way. She entered the smithy, a building held up by stone and wood columns and two of the walls opened to the street. The shade provided no relief from the weight of the air. Three stone forges stood in the centre of the workshop with an unfinished sword cooling in a bucket of water. Horseshoes hung on the walls.

She walked to the bucket, removed the sword and inspected it, feeling its weight and balance, then slicing the air with it. “What have you been using, Samuli?” she asked.

“Same as always. Coal from the Elzaz Ridges.”

The smiths lined the edges of the workshop. One dozen worried gazes fell on Timea.

“It has good balance.” She gave the sword a firm shake then turned it to inspect its horizontal edge.

Samuli’s lips parted and revealed a gap-toothed smile. “Used the same technique my father taught me.”

She glanced his way. “Which is?”

The smiths stared at one another. A woman shifted her weight, scuffing the heel of her boot against the ground. Samuli’s lips pressed shut, and he lowered his gaze. A bulbous nosed man with chubby cheeks coughed and smoothed his eyebrow with his finger.

‘The smiths of the Vale of Olps took their secrets to their graves,’ that was the engraving on a brass plaque over each entrance of the town. That what was etched into the hearts of the smiths.

She could peer into their minds, learn their secrets. She could offer coal that burned hotter. Instead, she turned her head towards the cold forge and smiled inwardly.

“We’ve been experimenting with different steels,” Samuli said, “but we can’t get the heat high enough to forge them well.”

A tingle caressed Timea’s nape. Slow. Tender. Brushing over the small knot of bone where her shoulders met her neck.

A thrill shot through her and the inward smile became outward. She lifted her gaze from the forge, and he gaze felt to the man leaning against a support beam of the smithy. Her pulse tripped.

Arms folded across his chest, Makar leaned his arm against the beam, back to the street. His dark eyes fixed on her, the sun reflecting off his closely-shaven head. He shifted his stance, and the bright-grey light of the overclouded sky brought out the angles of his cheeks and the dark circles under his eyes.

Another migraine. It was written in the tight lines around his mouth, the way he couldn’t focus his eyes and shied away from the overcast sky.

Too many prayers, too soon.

She shot him a worried glance, but Makar brushed it off, sending another wave of tingles up the length of her spine.

Soon. Love. Soon. After the work is done. After the people are cared for and content.

Timea returned her gaze to Samuli, who had straightened.

“It has to do with the cupellation process,” Samuli said. “Helps purify the alloys.”

Timea inclined her head at Samuli as he described the need for higher temperatures. She sent Makar a pulse of heat, an invisible burst that landed on his lips and stole a glimpse of him.

Makar’s full lips parted in a languid smile and that told her what he had on his mind.

It had been weeks. Eight painfully long weeks, they’d only stolen kisses but never been truly alone together.

A second tingle of electricity pulsed at her nape, tracing the length of her neck to the base of her skull, leaving behind a wake of delicious goosebumps.

“Goddess Timea?” Samuli asked.

She cleared her throat and straightened, tiny pulses still teasing her skin. She sent Makar a wave of heat, one that teased the top of his upper leg and swept down his thighs.

Makar’s chest expanded in a long breath. His arms fell to his sides, and he shifted his weight. His eyes widened to the size of Wopen Moon. The spark flared into an inferno.

Soon, love. We’ll be together soon. She already tasted the sweetness of his kiss.

“How’s this?” Timea asked. She waved her hand, and a stack of coal appeared.

A round-faced smith raised her eyebrows. A burly man slapped a tall man a on the shoulder saying knew it would all work out. Elated voices filled the workshop.

Samuli stepped forwards, placed some coal on the forge, and pressed the billows.

A woman with a dirty cream shirt and a leather apron reached for a pair of tongs and collected an unfinished dagger from a workbench.

Sweat trickled down Timea’s back.

To be continued…


This story is an introduction to my world and my writing. It is part of the world of Book 1 Series 1 (A Gift of Stars) but is independent of the book.


Keep an eye out for my crowdfunding campaign. I’ll launch it in mid to late February 2020. You’ll have access to more stories and more of my book A Gift of Stars. Feel free to check out chapter 1 on my website: http://reneegendron.com/stories/a-gift-of-stars-section-1-chapter-1 There are multiple sections of chapter under September and October 2019.

Chat with me at @reneegendron

FB: https://www.facebook.com/ReneeGendronauthor

Remember the Day

by: Packy Smith (@packysmith)

As a writer, I know very little about romance writing. It’s not my forte. I can create relationships in my writing that have all sorts of functions: friends, enemies, frenemies, acquaintences, kindred spirits, rivals, and even lovers, but I’ve never tried my hand at writing a purely romance driven story. Perhaps one day I might give it a go. Today is not that day. I do, however, have a slight hint of amore in my everyday thought processes which allows me to give writing something romantic a go. What follows is my best attempt. It’s cool if you like it. It’s cool if you don’t. Regardless, it comes from the heart and is chock full of pure lovey-dovey-ness as only I could present it.

“Remember the Day”

A Romantic Poem by Packy Smith

Remember the day we both came clean

Remember the day you remade me

Although the time we’ve had hasn’t been long

It’s never really mattered to me

That spending time with you feels like no time at all

When I am unsure, nearly every day, I think of you

On the verge of collapse, crumpled inside, I rely on you

I put headphones on to pass the time till I’m with you

Remember the day our stars were crossed

Remember the day our hearts were sent aloft

Love in me is love in you is love that’s true

You have always mattered to me

Remember the day we said I do

Not Your Mama’s Romance

by: Crystal Kirkham (@canuckclick)

When you hear someone say the words “romance novel”, what do you think of?

If you say it makes you think of a book with cookie-cutter story, no real plot, stale characters, and a half-naked Fabio type on the cover, then you are not alone.

For the longest time I, and many people like me, dismissed romance as nothing more than cheap grocery store stories for bored and sexually frustrated housewives. You know, the ones whose husbands fondled the TV remote with more intimacy than they did their wives.

I’ve read plenty of romance with strong plots and great characters in my time. Stories where the romance is important, but there is more going on than that. Yet, that stereotype has always remained stuck in my head and is often the reason many people refuse to admit that they read romance.

But why?

Opinions can be difficult to change, especially when this is the image that is often still portrayed by the media of the romance genre. Not to mention nearly every Hallmark movie ever made. However, while that type of romance novel does still exist, that is not everything romance has to offer.

The landscape of romance novels has shifted.

Romance has long been one of the best-selling genres of escapist fantasy for a reason. People want to fall into a story where they can forget everything but the world in front of them. Sometimes what they need is that story we’re thinking of, a simple romance, but sometimes they need something more.

Once only on the fringes, stories where romance is a driving factor in a greater plot has been behind this change in the genre. Not only are the plots and characters improving, but romance is showing up more often in other genres like fantasy and science fiction. As readers discover these stories, it is their purchases helping to bring these novels into the mainstream of the romance genre.

People want to read about something more than a damsel in distress who needs a big strong man to save the day. They want stories about strong women and smart men. They want stories about people solving problems, overcoming hurdles and coming out victorious, and not just a story about people “falling in love”.

Stories are starting to reflect that more and more. Sure, escapist fantasy can be easy and there will always be a place for those that classic romance, but there is also a need for relatable characters, more diversity, and storylines that step outside the classic romance box.

One such series that that made a big splash is the ‘Outlander Series’ by Diana Gabaldon. It’s historical time-travel with all those wonderful traditional romance elements. With a strong female protagonist and a fascinating plot line that is about more than falling in love, it’s easy to see why it gained such popularity.

I’ve discovered romance stories like ‘It Starts With A Kiss’ by J.L. Peridot. A romance novel that takes place on a space station with wonderfully imperfect characters and a great science fiction plot. It had the kind of science fiction story that I would read even without the romance aspect.

Another story that came across my desk recently was A.R. Vagnetti’s ‘Forgotten Storm’ that is as focused on a battle between supernatural elements as it is on the romance of the main characters. This isn’t simply an incredible fantasy, but a story that treads into the realm of erotic romance with the well-written, descriptive sex scenes. However, the romance in this story only serves to elevate the fantasy aspects.

These stories? They are not your mama’s romance—but they could be. They could also be the stories that bring you to the realization that romance shouldn’t be a dirty word in terms of stories. There is so much more than the stereotype we think of. This is something that I knew in the back of my mind, but now it is a fact I embrace. I even went as far as to write a romance novel, ‘Falling Light’ coming early 2021.

It is time for us to stand up and say that we do read romance. We need to help people see and understand that there is far more to this genre. This is a genre for anyone who wants a bit more love in their life.

Dinner For Two

by: Alexandra Gardner (T: @agardner_author)

Excerpt originally from Hunter’s Mark, book two in the Light of Chaos series, by Alexandra Gardner. Full novel available March 20, 2020.

“You’re buying,” Jeph said after the waitress seated us at a table.

“What! But you picked this place—and it looks expensive.”

He shrugged. “You’re the one that wants to wine and dine me. I said I was fine, but you insisted.”

I scowled, pulling my wallet from my pocket and leafing through the tips I’d made last night. It wasn’t much, but it would cover a meal. “Fine. But you get one thing. That’s it.”

Jeph flipped through the menu, his grin making my stomach curdle. It was his is that a challenge, precious? grin. “Hmm. I’m not sure which one I want.” He slid the menu toward me, tapping the milkshakes section. “Pick one for me.”

“You pick,” I snapped, getting sick of his shit. “You’re the one eating it.”

“Pick one. I’m indecisive. We’ll be here all day if I have to choose.”

I eyed him, knowing he was full of shit, but I was too exasperated to keep arguing. With a sigh, I read through the different shakes. They all sounded really good, but I was a sucker for cookie dough and dark chocolate myself. “This one,” I said, pointing to the menu.

“Mmm, that one does sound good,” he agreed, nodding and flipping through the menu again, looking at the burgers.

“Don’t. You. Dare,” I gritted out.

He didn’t look up from the menu, but his eyes glittered with mischief.

“Hello, folks,” the waitress said. “What drinks can I get you started with?”

“Water,” I said, still trying to glare holes in the top of Jeph’s head.

“I’ll also take a water,” he said, smiling broadly at the waitress. “But I’m ready to order now, if that’s okay?”

“O-Oh,” she stammered, aura turning pink with infatuation. I wanted to stab her. “Certainly,” she said, smiling shyly. “Whenever you’re ready.”

“I’d like this one,” Jeph pointed to something on the menu. “And this one as well. Also, can I get a bacon burger?”

I was going to kill him.


“And bring two plates, please,” he said.

She jotted that down before running off to put in the order.

“Do you want to die?” I asked coolly. “Because that’s how you die.”

Jeph smirked. “Are you threatening me, precious?”

“You bet your ass, I am.”

“Keep talking dirty,” he whispered. “I like it when you’re feisty.”

I didn’t dignify that with a response, tapping my foot impatiently. The food was going to take a while, and we had places to be. A shake alone might’ve been quick, but a meal would make this take longer.

The waitress dropped off our waters, asking, “Do you want the shakes now or after your meal?”

“Now, please. Thank you.”

She beamed at him, and my scowl deepened.

Now, please. Thank you,” I mimicked when she left.

Jeph arched a brow. “You doing okay over there, precious? You look like you’re about to blow a gasket.”

“I’m just peachy.”

“You don’t look it.”

“Keep flirting with the waitress and she just might try to crawl into your lap. My eyes don’t want to be burned with the disgusting sight of you creeping her.”

His eyebrows shot up. “I’m not flirting with her.”

“Yeah? Then what’s all the smiling and the manners? You wouldn’t know how to be nice if your life depended on it.”

A slow smile spread across his face. “Are you…jealous?” Jeph asked slyly. “Because if you are, I think I like this side of you.”

I scoffed. “I am not jealous.”

“Hmm,” he hummed, eyes still twinkling with amusement.

“Here you are,” the waitress said, setting the milkshakes in the middle of the table. “Do you need anything else?”

“No, thanks,” Jeph said, eyes boring into mine. “We’re good for now.”

“Okay, just flag me down if you need me.” She looked from him to me, aura flaring puke green with jealousy.

“We won’t, but thanks,” I said sickly-sweet. “Your other tables look like they might be low on water, though.”

She glared at me before turning on her heel and stalking away. Perhaps I was being petty—I’d never been rude to a server before, considering my own job—but she really was neglecting her other customers just because she had goo-goo eyes for Jeph. Her unprofessionalism pissed me off.

Yeah, because that’s why you’re irritated.

Jeph whistled under his breath. “And I’m the one who doesn’t know how to be nice?” He tsked, swapping around the shakes and putting the cookie dough one in front of me. “Eat up.”


“Food. You eat it.” He pulled the long spoon from my shake, scooping it up and holding it out to me. “Nom-nom.”

“I’m not eating something I didn’t even—”

My words cut off on a moan when the shake touched my tongue. Jeph, asshole that he was, had fed it to me mid-sentence. His self-satisfied grin annoyed me.

“Now, are you going to eat it by yourself, or am I going to have to feed it to you?” he asked.

“You’re such an ass.” I snatched the spoon from him, taking the next bite by myself.

“If you say so.” He grabbed his own spoon, eating his shake.

“I do say so—and why is this so good?

“Aren’t they? This place is my favorite—first time dining-in, though.”

I eyed his shake. “Which one did you get?”

“Fudge something or other,” he mumbled around a spoonful.

“Is it any good?”

He pushed the shake toward me, and I dipped my spoon in, stealing a bite.

“Mmm,” I moaned. “That one’s good too.”

“It’s not bad,” he agreed.

“Here’s your bacon burger,” the waitress said, interrupting us, her back to me. “Is there anything else you need?”

“Just that other plate.” Jeph said.

She put it down, smile forced. “Here you are.”

“And can we get the check?”

“Sure thing,” she said, walking away.

Jeph cut his burger in half, transferring half of it and the fries to the other plate before sliding it toward me. “Here.”

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“You need to eat.”

“I don’t!”

“Sam, please.”

“Fine,” I grumbled, pulling the plate to me and dunking a fry in my shake. Of course, it was delicious.

“Thank you,” he said before biting into his burger.

The waitress dropped off our check, not even bothering to say anything this time. I reached for it, and Jeph slapped my hand away, putting it in front of himself.

“You didn’t actually think I’d make you pay for it, did you?” He pulled his wallet out and slid a credit card into the little slot at the top. “I’m not a complete douchebag.”

“I didn’t say—”

“Oh, don’t give me that. You think I’m a dick, and I am.”

“You said it, not me,” I mumbled, taking another bite.


by D. W. Hitz (@dustinhitz)

“Screw you, Harry!” Sam screamed. It was almost a catch-phrase, as many times as she’d told me that over the past three weeks. “I know it was my fault Hunter died. And Roberts. And Samuels. The whole trip was my baby!” Her hands wrapped the sides of her face, the thickness of her mittens overwhelming her profile.

“I’m not saying it’s your fault,” I said. I kind of did say it was her fault, but I could tell at this point that was not going to help our situation.

Sam glared at me. Her face pulsed with rage. She turned and zipped the tent shut. She moved into the center, where the heater brought the air close enough to freezing that you could actually feel the cold’s pain instead of being numb to it. She looked down to the heater. We both did, gazing at its life-giving warmth as if it was a real fire.

“I don’t know where we go from here,” I said. “That was the last bit of fuel, so the buggy isn’t going to move. The cold is killing the batteries. I expect they’ll be dead in less than twenty-four hours.”

“I know, I know.”

“And when the batteries go, so will the heater.”

“And then us.”

“Yeah. And then us.”

“This planet is going to kill us. And it’s all my fault.” Sam’s head shook.

My adrenaline subsided, and as much as I was angry, I felt bad for her. “Yes, it’s your mission, and you chose this planet to explore, but we all signed up for it. We all knew the risks. We all believed that the cure might be here.”

Sam was silent. The soft chirp of our distress beacon teased through the thickness of our solitude.

“Eat something,” I said. I held a plate of food out toward her. The small strips of raw meat were frosted on their ends. “Just– you need to keep your strength up. For both of our sakes.”

Sam glanced at the plate and back to the heater.

The howl came again. That damned howl. Over the rush of wind and snow, the jagged screech of the creatures’ voices ached my ears. They weren’t far. Had they been this close before? We had always covered our tracks, taken a round-about trip back to basecamp. We had always had the fuel to do that before. Surely, this one time when fuel was low, and we took the shortcut– this can’t be the time they chose to follow us.

My eyes met Sam’s. We both looked at the tent’s door. No, they hadn’t been this close. They followed us back.

Sam’s mouth opened to speak. My mittened fingers jumped to my lips to sign for silence.

“Did they–” Sam muttered.

“Shh,” I whispered.

The howl ripped through the tent, bolstered by a second, and a third. Louder. Closer.

“Over here,” I whispered. I motioned for her to join me away from the door. If they were going to break in, better to have a little distance.

Sam stood. Her face rocked from the door to me, and she slid one foot and then the other in my direction. The compacted snow beneath the tent squeaked under her steps. The beacon chirped, seemingly annoyed that she was not moving at its tempo. Another howl, and her face went to the door while her feet kept moving.

“No,” I whispered.

Sam’s sliding foot grazed the heater. The glowing, foot-high cylinder rocked and toppled onto the tent floor, clanking into the beacon, shouting to the beasts, “Over here!”

“Shit,” Sam muttered. She darted toward the back of the tent, as the crunch of snow rose from outside.

“Behind Samuels,” I pointed to edge of the enclosure, beyond the remains of our teammates. “Under the blanket.”

Sam climbed over the frozen corpses of Hunter and Roberts. She took care to avoid Roberts’s exposed and butchered leg. She bounded silently over Samuels, and I tossed her the blanket.

Sam covered herself and looked at me, waiting. She held her hand up, waving me to her. I shook my head and picked up my knife. As a howl cursed the night air from just beyond the tent’s entrance, I walked to the door.