Fiction

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I’ve written three novels. They’re hard to classify, but I’d call them humorous contemporary fiction. They’re meant to be fun!

You can find information on all three books, along with links to their full downloads, on my Novels page. If you click on any cover, that will take you to the book’s Amazon page, where you can read the first few chapters of each book for free.

But if you want to read something now, here’s an excerpt from Chapter 3 of my second novel, Freaks of Nurture:

Excerpt from “Freaks of Nurture” by Andrew Glassner

Chapter 3

Cassiopeia May Stephenson changed her name on the day she bought a big box of old James Bond videotapes. A 13-year-old athletic girl with red hair and a ponytail, she had a pug nose, green eyes, and strong legs from years of playing soccer.

Every Friday afternoon, Cassie’s mother Darling left work early to pick up her daughter as school let out. Together, mother and daughter drove around Minneapolis neighborhoods, looking for hand-lettered sheets of paper or brightly-colored poster board tacked onto telephone poles. These were the holy grail of weekend garage sales: small enough to slip under the radar of some of the professional buyers, but big enough to warrant advertising.

They located each sale, so they wouldn’t waste time the next day navigating some of Minneapolis’ more confusing neighborhoods. That night, they unfolded the same street map that Darling bought years ago at a corner gas station, and planned out their route. Ten minutes to location one, fifteen minutes shopping, twenty minutes to number two, ten minutes there, until they had a complete and efficient itinerary.

Cassiopeia always went to sleep anxious and excited. The next morning she woke her Mom at 7, they had a quick breakfast, and then they hunted and gathered until noon or 1. For their traditional wrap-up, they lunched at Eggs All Day, where they discussed their finds and speculated on the more unusual objects’ histories. Then they returned home and Cassie showed her discoveries to her father, Pierce, who did his best to understand his daughter’s odd tastes.

Cassiopeia liked toys with lots of moving parts, and old building toys. Over the years she assembled an impressive collection of Lego and Erector pieces by buying lots of inexpensive, incomplete sets.

Her mother was drawn to little tokens that got her to wondering about their previous owner’s lives. Darling’s prizes were a well-used kitchen tool, a picture locket, or a pair of earrings. She particularly liked items that suggested distant and unusual places.

One July morning brought Cassie and Darling to a sale spread out on a suburban lawn. Among his tables the seller had also put out appliances, including an old refrigerator. Acting on a hunch, Cassie opened the refrigerator’s door, releasing a cloud of musky, old smells, but also revealing a cardboard box on one of the shelves. The box held a half-dozen James Bond videocassettes, the photos on the boxes faded by time to light pastels. Cassie was only marginally aware that he was some sort of a spy, famous in her parent’s day, but something tugged at her when she looked at these tapes. She asked the man in the lawn chair what he wanted, and after a quick glance inside the box, he said he’d take a dollar for the lot of them. Following her mother’s training, Cassie countered with an offer of 50 cents, he dropped to 75 cents, and Cassie happily paid up.

That afternoon Cassie’s parents headed out to run errands, while their daughter built a nest of pillows on the living room floor. A bottle of cream soda, a bag of pretzels, and a blanket completed her perfect, comfy environment. Cassie lined up the tapes by the copyright date printed on each box, and selected the first one. She pushed Doctor No into the slot on the front of her parent’s ancient VCR. The machine grumbled, lights came on, and it sucked the tape deep into its insides. Cassie crawled into her pillowed world, pressed Play, and settled the remote on her tummy.

The tapes launched Cassie into a transcendental awareness. Mystics in far-off mountains sit in the lotus position for 15 days and nights without sleep or food hoping to feel what Cassie felt that day. Entranced ravers walk across burning coals, chanters bang tiny tambourines at airports, and hermits eat squirrels and live in smelly caves hoping to experience just the merest glimpse of what completely enveloped Cassie.

It began slowly, as Cassie watched Doctor No. She felt transported, taken in by the movie’s world, but she was still rooted in the world of soccer games and junior high school.

When she put on the second film, From Russia With Love, her epiphany arrived. It came when the aged, self-assured, low-key actor Desmond Llewelyn walked onto the screen.

This was Q, the Gadgetmaster, who created the most amazing things in the world. The magical prestidigitator, the creator of the unexpected, the man who dreamed a world of possibilities and had the engineering talent to make them realities. Sure, he acted all crotchety and stuffy, but that was just window dressing. Underneath, Q could do anything, could invent anything, and without him, James Bond would have been a decomposing corpse on the bottom of the ocean. James Bond had it all wrong — he was suave and handsome, sure, and he got laid a lot more than Q, no question — but this was all compensation for being second fiddle.

Cassiopeia realized instinctively that James Bond was nothing more than the delivery man for Q’s amazing devices. Even CIA wannabe Felix Leiter could have pulled off Bond’s stunts if he had Q’s gadgets: his rigged airplanes and sports cars, his exploding cigarettes and lethal shoes.

Cassiopeia saw Q and she saw herself. Even more than a mirror, she saw the shape of her life. She would invent, create, and take mundane, everyday objects and imbue them with amazing, unexpected powers and abilities. She would craft magic into a shirt button and hide electricity in a piece of dental floss. Cassiopeia would herself be the Philosopher’s Stone that turned everyday lead into the most wondrous gold. This was more than her calling, this was her.

Sitting on the floor, transfixed, she watched one film after another: Goldfinger, Thunderball, and You Only Live Twice. When the closing credits rolled on the last tape in the box, Diamonds Are Forever, Cassiopeia knew that she had changed. Like a checker that quadruple-jumps to the other side of the board in one move and becomes a king, she was the same person, but also a new person, in a new world. She knew how she fit. She knew who she was and where she was going.

And her name, of course, was Q.

Her parents humored her for a while, then reasoned with her, pleaded with her, and finally tried treating her like an adult. They showed her phone books, took her to the library and opened card catalogs, in every instance showing her that the letter Q was not a name, especially for an attractive, smart, athletic young woman. Their daughter listened to all they said, and she agreed that calling herself Q could appear foolish and affected to those who didn’t know her. “Don’t you want to get a driver’s license someday?” Pierce asked. “Do you think anyone’s going to give a license to someone named Q?” She agreed that would certainly be a problem. But those problems could be solved, and she’d solve them.

And so at home, when her parents called her Cassie, or Cassiopeia, she responded cheerfully enough. They were her parents, after all, and they could call her whatever they liked. But when she answered the phone, wrote her name on homework assignments, or filled out the form for the name to be stitched on her soccer uniform, she always wrote the letter Q and nothing more.

Pierce never really gave up, though. “Be serious about this, honey,” he said, over dinner one evening. “How about another letter, then? A is nice. It could be a cute way to introduce yourself to boys. They’d ask your name, and you could say, A? They’d think you didn’t hear, and repeat the question, and then you’d all laugh.”

Q smiled politely and ate her peas.

“Honey, your father has a point.” Q nodded. No surprise there: Darling always backed up Pierce. They acted as a team, with Pierce expressing the opinions and Darling supporting.

Q’s name made her the target of endless high-school teasing. The names and pranks hurt, of course. Q was no martyr, and she wished the taunts would stop. But she could no more change her true name than she could change her age.

In school she advanced to the front of all the science programs. Her sophomore year she solved differential equations, cooked up batches of nylon, and computed the strain on bridge cables. In her junior year she rode the bus to Minneapolis University on Tuesdays and Thursdays to take classes in graph theory, neuroanatomy, computational acoustics, and welding.

She devoured engineering books like comics, and performed repairs in her neighborhood for free just for the experience (though she did charge for parts, and occasionally for tools when she couldn’t borrow what she needed). If a blender broke, a faucet leaked, a computer misbehaved, or a TV set blinked, everyone called on Q. Her dogged, stick-to-it attitude made her a star. If she agreed to fix a piece of equipment, it might take her a while to learn what she needed to know, or borrow a piece of test gear, but she stayed with the problem until she solved it.

Her friends could always tell when she found something challenging and new, because she would become withdrawn and distant. She wasn’t rude, but she seemed to slightly disconnect from the world while she focused on the problem at hand. When she finally worked it out, she bounced right back to her old self.

Q wasn’t available to fix things on Saturdays in the spring and fall, because that was when she had soccer practice and games. Nobody on her school team minded what she called herself. With her speed and precise passing skills, Q could have painted herself like a giraffe and her teammates would have loved her just the same.

Natural ability is good to have, but a gift is only a tool, too easily taken for granted and never developed. Q’s great fortune was in having not only fine innate mental abilities, but the inner drive to make use of them. With her motivation and energy she had a goal and a purpose, and this gave her remarkable clarity and drive.

Until she fell in love, that is.

If Q’s name found her with the unerring accuracy of cosmic purpose, her first love stumbled into her life like a drunk and confused bus driver randomly rolling up and down city streets hoping to spot a familiar landmark. His name was Jackson Charles. Or Charles Jackson. Q was never sure, and Jackson (or Charles) never seemed quite certain himself, either. At a party one night she introduced him as Charles, but he looked at her and asked “Who, me?” Later that night she introduced him as Jackson, and he scanned the room to see who she was referring to. After that, she called him Guy.

She originally met Guy at a local dance club called The Wet Squeegee. “The Skweege” catered to teenagers every Wednesday night. They brought in a hot DJ from one of Minneapolis’ gay clubs, and limited the bar to non-alcoholic drinks.

One Wednesday night Q went to the Squeegee with a few girlfriends. As usual, they left their houses wearing t-shirts and jeans, but changed along the way into their party clothes. As they stood in line outside the club, Q offered each of her friends a pair of high-density foam earplugs, but they declined, as always. Pocketing the extra pairs, Q slipped one stubby beige plug into each ear. Getting closer to the door, she could feel the throbbing bass in her body, but at least it wasn’t forever stripping the delicate cilia off her inner ears.

Once inside, the three girls worked their way to the back, and stood amid the dense, hot, swaying crowd. Cheryl and Valerie spent about ten minutes screaming to one another about one boy or another walking by. Q pointed to her watch and the others nodded; their standard plan involved reconvening at the front door at 12:30 so Cheryl could drive them home by her 1 AM curfew. It was only 9:30 as Q waved to her friends and drifted into the club.

Q liked to dance, and she was good at it: she felt comfortable in her body, and not at all self-conscious about how she looked while dancing. As a result she danced with abandon, and thanks to her athleticism, gracefully as well. She enjoyed the club’s sensual overload, and had long since worked out how they created the gorgeous visuals with a combination of lasers, light projectors with rotating gobos, mirrors, and other gadgets hanging from the ceiling. Once she’d even gone there in the afternoon, and convinced one of the owners to give her a tour of the automation equipment. But now she just wanted to dance.

Q briefly looked around for a cute, unattached boy. Seeing nobody, she edged her way onto the dance floor, found a small patch of empty space, and quickly locked herself into the heavy beat. She knew some standard moves, but she preferred to just let her body lead the way.

After a half hour, Q felt great, sweating from the vigorous cardio workout. Heart pounding, oxygen infusing her system, she was suddenly bumped from behind. She pitched forward onto another girl, who staggered into her dance partner, and the entire jammed dance floor balanced on the knife-edge of a chain reaction, with dozens of dominoes poised to topple. The flow of staggering people looped around and came back to Q from the side, throwing her to the left. She lost her footing and fell onto a hammock.

No, not a hammock, just some big guy kneeling down to tie his shoe. She fell face-forward onto his back. He was solid as a rock; the impact didn’t shake him at all. The people behind her found their footing and returned to dancing, as she laid there on the back of the stranger, panting. Her instincts were to get up quickly, but a moment before she could act something even deeper kicked in: this felt good. There was a fit between their bodies, as though his body had been sculpted in just the right way for her to connect to him like this. In that split second of contact, that unexpected burst of intimacy, something felt incredibly right.

Q and the guy got up and they smiled at each other. She pointed toward the back door and the patio, and he nodded.

Late-September nights in Minneapolis can be chilly, particularly to people who are soaked in sweat and not wearing many clothes. The Squeegee lined their outdoor patio with heat lamps, and provided thick, comfortable blankets on every table and chair. Q and the boy stood near the brick wall in the back, wrapped in blankets. She shivered lightly as her heart came down out of the training zone.

“Sorry about that,” she said, and put out her hand. “I’m Q. It doesn’t stand for anything, just the letter Q.”

He shook her hand. “Just the letter? What’s that stand for?”

Her body had chosen, and her mind followed. Q decided that he wasn’t slow, he was charming. “It’s just my name.”

“Okay.” He shrugged and smiled. He was a good-looking guy in a solid but not freakishly handsome way. He looked like he could be a baseball player; not quite bulky enough to be a football player. She decided she could easily outrun and outmaneuver him on a soccer field. But he had a sweet smile. “I go to Miller High,” he said.

“Lincoln High,” she said. “I’m a junior.”

“Yeah. Me too.”

Q watched her breath make faint little cloud puffs in the chilly air. “You going to college?” she asked.

“Maybe.”

Q wasn’t sure how to reply to this. College was an unquestioned next step for herself, and everyone she knew. “I guess it depends on what you want,” she said.

He grinned at her and for the first time she felt uncomfortable. She looked away, and saw the chairs near the table. She sat down in one, and he dropped into another next to her.

“So?” he asked, “What do you want?”

Q felt uneasy. She felt herself softening like a pat of butter under the heat lamps, spreading out and becoming gooey inside. Ever since she fell on him on the dance floor her body started fantasizing, leaving her mind far behind. She wanted to run her hand over the chest of this nameless boy, kiss him, lick his neck, and slurp up all of that hot glistening sweat off his body. That need overshadowed everything else. The answer to his question was obvious. But it was… it was so un-Q. She couldn’t completely reveal herself to this stranger, but she so strongly wanted to. Time slipped away. Uncomfortably, she faked a laugh. “Good question. How about you? What do you want?”

He looked off into the distance. “I’m gonna make buildings. Me and some buddies. I’ll create them, design them, then we’ll build them.”

“Like houses?”

“I like big buildings. Skyscrapers.” He shrugged off his blanket and reached out in front of him. His arms moved as he talked, shaping something that seemed just a little way off. “Airports. People travel all over the world, they should be in beautiful places. They fly in, they fly out,” his hands illustrated by gliding through the air. “Airports should just… feel that way, like they’re flying too. They’re the unknown, you know? That’s what travel is. It’s what can happen. Things that can’t happen at home.”

Q’s throat felt dry. She wondered how he would react if she just kissed him. She wondered if she should try and then she felt herself leaning over and like a spectator watched her hands come up to his cheeks. She turned his head toward hers and their eyes met. She leaned forward, and her hands started to tremble as she felt him move forward, too. She tilted her head to the right, and when he matched her move she was lost, the battle finished, her heart pounding harder than on the dance floor, and their lips met.

It was her first real kiss of passion. Q had kissed boys before, at parties and dances, the kind of experimental, exploratory kissing that’s as much about mechanics as about the thrill of doing something forbidden. Those kisses were like sneaking a cigarette, or learning how to work a stick shift. They were fun and interesting, but mostly about discovery and daring.

This was different. Their lips moved against each other so perfectly, they melded into one pair, one soft wet pillow rubbing against itself. The moment she became aware of the dryness of her lips was the moment she felt his tongue, wet and warm, stroking their outer surfaces, rejuvenating them, soothing them, and she fell headfirst into the sensation, lips and tongues gentle and then insistent, soft and then firm, sometimes perfectly synchronized and sometimes in pitched give-and-take. The passion swept over her in waves, each one deeper than the last, and she felt herself gloriously drowning, in so deep that up no longer existed. There was only here, and now, and now, and yet again more now and it seemed impossible but it just kept being now over and over.

When Q didn’t show up at the front door on time, her friends went looking for her, and found her in the patio, sitting in the lap of a big guy, arms wrapped around him, kissing and slowly gyrating in his lap. They both wore clothes, but that didn’t seem to matter.

“Q?” Cheryl said gently, standing a few feet away. In slow motion, her friend separated from the boy’s face and looked at her. Q’s eyes weren’t focusing. “We have to go now,” Cheryl said.

Q fell limply back into the boy’s arms, and then she hugged him, harder and harder, until the muscles in her arms started to bulge. They heard her crying. This went on for a minute or two, and then Valerie spoke up. “We really have to go now. Cheryl’ll miss curfew.”

Q’s grip relaxed, and with obvious effort she let go and lifted herself up from the boy’s lap. Both girls looked and confirmed that his fly remained zipped, but the zipper was straining.

Cheryl asked, “Aren’t you going to introduce us?”

Q looked at her with a sleepy, drunk expression. “Cheryl, Valerie, this is…” She looked at him expectantly, but he just sat in the chair and smiled. The moment stretched on.

Cheryl said, “I didn’t catch your name.”

“Jackson,” he said. “Charles.”

“Which is it?” Valerie asked.

“I get that a lot,” he grinned.

Valerie looked at her disoriented friend. “Does he have your phone number?” Q shook her head no, grinning like a loon. “Should I give it to him?” Valerie asked. Q nodded yes, vigorously, still smiling. Valerie got a piece of paper out of her purse and wrote down Q’s name and number. She handed it Jackson. Or Charles. He said “Thank you” and put it in his shirt pocket.

“Good night,” Valerie said, “It was nice to meet you.”

Cheryl took Q’s elbow to lead her to the car. After a few steps Q turned around to look at the boy in the chair again. Their eyes met, they grinned, and she suddenly ran back to his lap, hands clutching his head, kissing him with a crazy intensity, licking his face, his neck, like a chipmunk in a forest of acorns madly scrambling to take a bite out of each one.

Cheryl walked back and took her friend’s elbow. “Q, we have to go.” She pulled, and Q slowly untangled herself. Together, Cheryl and Valerie walked her back to the car. They drove straight to Q’s house, helped her change back into her parentally-acceptable clothes, and guided her to her bedroom. Once their friend sat on her bed, cogent but apparently drunk on some kind of happy juice, they let themselves out and went home.

First love is like a campfire. Friends and society build the teepee of wood and tinder. Hormones spray lighter fluid over everything, drenching it, soaking it in flammable potential. And then comes a spark, triggered by only the slightest erotic friction. The wood, tinder, and lighter fluid explode like a man shot out of a cannon wearing a suit covered in erupting fireworks while “The Ride of the Valkyries” pounds out of hidden speakers as he flies through the air. First love is like nothing ever seen before. It is all-consuming, overwhelming, intense, and dramatic. It often burns up its fuel in one glorious burst, quickly dying down into a small light, and then embers.

So it was with Q and Guy. She felt lost in him, overwhelmed by him, and nothing else in life mattered. She became sloppy on the soccer field, imprecise in the chemistry lab, and her computer programs were buggy. She just couldn’t see beyond the radiant glow of what she felt, which overwhelmed her when she was alone, even more so when they were together.

It was inevitable that they would have sex, frequently and enthusiastically, as much as possible. It was sometimes tender and slow, sometimes exciting and fast, but always it felt to Q like something brand new.

For Q, the experience was disruptive and illuminating and disastrous and exciting.

For Jackson, or Charles, she was just another girl. She was fine, and the sex was fine, and time spent with her was fine. But his eyes were focused on the horizon, ten years off, when he would travel the world, designing and constructing buildings. A girlfriend was a nice amenity for the moment, but not particularly important.

After an intense month of bright burning, Q’s senses returned and she saw the deep asymmetry in their relationship: she was all in, he was passing through. She became furious, then embarrassed, she blamed him and then herself, she lashed out at her friends and then tearfully apologized. Finally she confessed her feelings to Guy, and it ended. A week later, she and Guy ate dinner together, trying to be friends, but at every moment she wanted to plead with him to love her. It was torture, and she knew it had to be over.

With the help of her friends, Q slowly returned to the girl she was, and found her balance once again.

Months later, while deciding whether to spend her summer working or studying, Q met another boy at a party thrown by one of her classmates. Friendly and cute, he had a great laugh, and he could talk to her about topics from anthropology to woodworking. He clearly wanted to know her better, and even asked her on a date.

He intrigued her, and she found him attractive, but she politely declined. Q had learned that romance was a distraction, an indulgence that came at a cost to everything else that mattered to her. Friends, sure. And, she supposed, if there was a way to have sexual friends that didn’t include romance, that would be particularly appealing. But she was done with love.

What had love ever done for anyone? Even her own parents. Darling devoted herself to Pierce, practically worshipped him, and what did she get out of it? Darling only saw herself to the extent that Pierce reflected her back.

Q concluded that love had two strikes against it. First, it made her work suffer, from soccer to school. Second, she saw from her parents that someone in love disappeared except when the other person made you visible. To Q, love seemed like a losing proposition.

She would focus instead on the real, tangible world, where things behaved predictably. She’d be in control, she could choose where her energies went. She wouldn’t find herself hijacked by emotions she couldn’t control. She would study science, play sports, and keep casual friends. She would be safe from the explosive thunderstorm of love.

She was wrong, of course.

(end of excerpt)