Reigniting my love affair with horror

A dark room for some dark reading.
A dark room for some dark reading.

I picked up keys and was heading out the front door shortly after my husband arrived home. Courtesy of one of the boys, dinner already was ready, even though it probably wouldn’t be eaten for another hour and a half.

“I’m going to the library,” I told him.


Was this a trick question? “To get books.”

I know there are plenty of other cool reasons to go to libraries. In fact, the one I was heading to, Sage Branch Library, is hosting a 3D printer demonstration in a few weeks and I am so there.

Still, when I head to a library, usually with my daughter, I tend to come home with a stack of books. In that regard, I was fairly restrained in only coming home with five books.

The librarian noted that I had found something I had liked, but then hesitated at A Book of Horrors. “Ooh, I couldn’t do that,” she said. “I’d hear things going bump all over the house.”

I shook my head and smiled. “I’ve loved horror since I was little,” I told her. “It’s easier now that I’m not afraid of the dark.”

It was true. I checked out Hitchcock anthologies from the elementary school library. When I was a little older, I pulled a book labeled “ghost stories,” I think, off my daddy’s shelf and read George Langelaan’s The Fly on the couch in his den, in full light.

I was terrified. It haunted me.

Years later, I fell in love with H.P. Lovecraft. It’s a guilty pleasure, especially the stories that end in italics. And exclamation points! So often, the idea is better than the execution. But some of his ideas are so intriguing. And The Thing On the Doorstep jarred me deeply, frightening me for weeks afterward whenever I thought about it.

I love horror movies. But frankly, scaring people with pictures is child’s play compared to scaring them with words. There’s a holiday weekend coming up and a collection of horror tales sounds like the perfect companion.

The books I came home with:
A Book of Horrors, edited by Stephen Jones
The Memory Painter, by Gwendolyn Womack
Disclaimer: A Novel, by Renee Knight
The Fold, by Peter Clines
Black House, by Stephen King and Peter Straub

Feel free to share your thoughts if you’ve read any of these books or authors, or have suggestions for other reading.

The premise

    Welcome to Kayla’s Journey, an experiment in interactive fiction that ran at, the online home of the Midland (MI) Daily News. It is republished here with permission.

    The idea was to start a story, then let readers determine the direction. They didn’t always choose my favorite direction, such as in the beginning when they sent it down the path of a romance, something I never intended to write.

    There are 19 chapters in all. If you’re looking at the whole topic at once, to avoid spoilers, scroll to chapter 1 at the bottom and work your way up. Better yet, click to the first chapter and then use the links at the top of each page.

    And why repost this at all? One, because it was an interesting project. And B, because I just might tackle one again.

Vote Me a Story: Kayla’s Journey, chapter 19

    Kayla picked up the box and studied it for a moment. Definitely a ring box. No markings.

    “There’s a jewelry store across the street?” she asked.

    Danny grinned. “Nope. There’s a small safe concealed in the Viper’s trunk.”

    Her jaw dropped. “You’ve had this the whole time?”

    He shrugged, still grinning. “You don’t even know what it is.”

    She set the box aside, reaching for a bottle of juice instead. “I can wait. I’ve waited this long.”

    A flash of panic crossed his face, but he quickly replaced it. “As the lady wishes,” he said, reaching for his own juice.

    “Cut that out!” she said. He looked to her for explanation, but Kayla refused to say anything more.

    “OK, OK,” he said. He shut the door, pulled the curtain on the hallway window and turned off all the lights. “Hold on,” he said, adjusting the curtains to the parking lot view.

    Kayla had to smile at the effort. She was tempted to ask about candles, but didn’t want to spoil anything.

    Satisfied, Danny walked back over and sat on the edge of the bed. Kayla took a swig of juice and he took the bottle out of her hand, then kept her hand in his own.

    The door swung open. “You need to leave this open,” a nurse scolded, then paused as she scanned the items on the table. “I need to do a quick check on you, but I’ll check my other patients first,” she told Kayla, who nodded thank you. The nurse left the door cracked as little as she could.

    “This is the nicest hospital,” Kayla said.

    Danny nodded, eyeing the door, then closing it again. He wedged a chair under the doorknob and Kayla laughed.

    “I’m pretty sure that’s against the rules,” she said.

    “Three minutes,” he said.

    “You have this timed?”

    “No. Hush.”

    He sat beside her again, picked up both her hands in his, and looked at them for what seemed a very long time. Kayla’s heart pounded in her chest. She studied Danny’s face as he stared down, and thought she would explode if he didn’t speak soon.

    “Once upon a time,” he said finally, still looking down, “we tried to be together. I know it didn’t work, and I think I’m glad, because I had a lot of growing up to do.”

    He raised his head to look directly into her eyes, and she was frozen on the spot. She hardly heard him as he continued, “But I never could get you out of my head. I think I always knew who we would grow up to be, and I saw those people together. I saw them supporting each other, I saw them laughing, I saw them getting very, very old.”

    Danny paused, his eyes filling a little. “I know you want more certainty than you have before you decide anything about your future, and that’s fine. But I can’t go another day without telling you I love you” — Kayla drew in a small breath and a tear fell down her cheek — “and that no matter how many days you have left, I want to fill as much of them as you’ll let me. If it’s 20, then so be it. If it’s 20 years, or 50, even better.”

    He watched her carefully, then picked up the small box in one hand and placed it in hers, kissing them.

    “I love you. I always will. Please marry me,” he said.

    Tears poured down Kayla’s face. She swallowed hard, but all she could do was nod.

    He smiled but stayed quiet. She laughed a little, wiped her face and nodded again. “Yes. Absolutely, yes,” she said. “And you’re too far away,” she added, reaching for his shirt and pulling him closer.

    He scooted forward, careful of her IVs. “You didn’t open the box,” he said.

    “I will,” she promised. “First things first.”


    This post originally appeared on, the online home of the Midland (MI) Daily News. Republished with permission.

Vote Me a Story: Kayla’s Journey, chapter 18

    The next few hours were a blur of activity. Kayla reported to her floor early, apology in hand, but the nurses set right to getting her ready. Danny was scooted away to a waiting area, with a promise he could come back once she was settled in.

    “I want him here,” Kayla insisted to anyone who would listen, suddenly feeling alone. She wished she had called her mother, then took it back, then fretted again. What if things didn’t go well? Who would call her?

    She shook the thought from her head. This treatment might not make her any better, but it wouldn’t kill her. The worst she could tell her mom is that she gave it one last shot and it didn’t work.

    Maybe she should have called Becky. She would have dug into the treatment, being such a medical drama geek. Hey, maybe she could be the “House” disease.

    The thought cheered her — marginally. Just as she was starting to push a button to call a nurse to beg for Danny again, he walked into the room.

    “Hey,” she said, a tear rolling down her cheek from stress and relief.

    “Hey,” he replied, wiping it away. “I brought a notebook.”

    “Cool,” she said, nodding. “I need a stenographer.”

    Just then her doctor walked in and she peppered him with questions, turning to Danny occasionally to make sure he was writing enough. Yes, all the other patients still were alive. Yes, Danny could stay with her after the treatment. No, she couldn’t leave the hospital or a few days.

    “Not at all?” she asked. “Not even for a walk?”

    “Maybe the courtyard,” he replied. “Let’s see how you feel. You might be more tired than you expect.”

    That wasn’t good news. She was tired of being tired. Still, it beat one of the alternatives.

    “Time to go,” her doctor said. “You can stay in the waiting room,” he told Danny. “She’ll be done in a few hours, and we’ll have one of the volunteers bring you to her room.”

    He nodded somberly, then smiled for Kayla. “See you in a few,” he said. “Maybe we can find a Major League Soccer match to watch.”

    She rolled her eyes as he knew she would. She hated soccer. “‘What Not to Wear,'” she countered, and he grimaced. “Coin flip,” he said, and she nodded OK. She was trying to smile, but it kept fading.

    “Promise to wait?” she asked.

    “I promise,” he said. “I’m going to go get you a present, but I’ll be right back, and I’ll give the nursing supervisor my cell number.”

    She frowned. “A present? I don’t need a present.”

    “Presents aren’t things you need,” he said. “I promise I’ll be around when you wake up. OK?”

    She nodded, losing another tear, and he collected it. The nurse looked to Kayla for approval, and she nodded, waving to Danny as she rolled away.

    Kayla felt like she had slept for days. As promised, Danny was by her side, and he grinned when he saw her looking over at him.

    “Hey there,” he said, stopping her hand gently when she went to move the oxygen mask aside. “Nuh-uh. That has to stay for a while. Your doctor said you hate them, and he said to tell you he said to leave it on. You can take it off at dinner.”

    She looked around the bed, searching, and he handed her pen and paper. She nodded thanks.

    “Nasal cannula,” she wrote, and Danny shook his head. “Sorry, no. Your immune system is going to be compromised, and they want you to have the oxygen. Argue with your doctor.”

    She noticed then that he was wearing scrubs and paper booties. “Nice shoes,” she wrote.

    “Why, thank you,” he said. “Be nice or you’ll have to eat off the hospital menu.”

    She raised an eyebrow at that. “No green Jell-O?” she wrote.

    He grinned. “No. Your doc said if you had to put up with this nonsense, the least he could do was let you eat decently. So I have croissants and capicolla and fresh Parmesan, whenever you’re up to it.”

    She pulled the mask off. She tried to speak but couldn’t, and reached for the water. Taking a few long drags, she said, “Now is good.”

    “You’re hungry now? It’s 2:30.”

    “I didn’t have lunch,” she reminded him. “You said I could take the mask off to eat, and I want the mask off, therefore I want to eat. Besides,” she added, looking apologetic, “they said this might make me really sick, and I’d rather have food in my system than have dry heaves.”

    Danny made a face. “I’d have gotten cheaper cheese if I’d known that,” he said. “Come on, kidding,” he added at her frown. “You want caviar to hurl, I’ll get it for you. Only the best.”

    Kayla laughed, and he smiled at the sound. “I hate caviar,” she confessed. “But I love capicolla.”

    “I know,” he said, pulling a bag from behind his chair and piling ingredients on the tray table. A selection of tiny mustards and two bottles of juice joined the array.

    “This is my present, then?” Kayla asked. “Excellent.”

    Danny shook his head. “Nope. This is,” he said, pulling a small box out of his pocket and placing it close to her hand.

    She looked startled, but not upset. “Open it,” he told her.

The final chapter is guided by these answers:

Does Danny ask Kayla to marry him?

68 votes went like this:

Yes: 69.12 percent (47 votes)

No: 30.88 percent (21 votes)

If he does ask her, what does she say?

65 votes went like this:

Yes: 52.31 percent (34 votes)

She doesn’t know right now: 43.08 percent (28 votes)

No: 4.62 percent (3 votes)

    This post originally appeared on, the online home of the Midland (MI) Daily News. Republished with permission.

Vote Me a Story: Kayla’s Journey, chapter 17

    Kayla’s mind raced. Of course she wondered why the road trip, why no contact for years at a stretch and then a proposal, not for marriage like in the pact, but to hit the highway together. It had been so easy, though, just to cruise along day by day without examining motive.

    Yes, she wanted to know. Did she want to know right now, when she had so much else to deal with? Of course! Did she want to admit she wanted to know so badly, though?

    She looked across the Viper at Danny. He was the last person in the world to play mind games with. She always had been able to count on him for honesty, and she wasn’t going to screw that up.

    She took a deep breath. “Yeah, I’ve wondered. I figured you’d tell me when you were ready,” she said.

    He nodded. Paused. Nodded again.

    She shook her head and walked around to where he was. “When did I become that hard to talk to?” she asked.

    “When I waited too long and started wondering how you were going to react,” he said. “I probably should have gotten hold of you five years ago. But I was working on my business, and tied up so much, and that wouldn’t have been fair. I kept putting it off, and then it came to almost my birthday, so I figured that was an easy way.”

    He tilted his head at her. “Did you really think I was going to ask you to marry me that day?”

    She smiled. “You say ‘that day’ like it was so long ago. And I truly couldn’t tell.”

    “And if I had?”

    She watched him closely. “I wouldn’t have been ready,” she said. It was the truth. Don’t ask about now, she thought, because I don’t know what I’d say.

    He paced away a moment, circled back. “I missed you,” he said simply. “We weren’t right for each other in high school. But I didn’t know if that meant we wouldn’t ever be right for each other, and I had to know. I figured close quarters would do the trick. And if it wasn’t supposed to be, then I could just go back to work and not think I had missed out on anything.”

    Kayla was afraid to speak. She so did not want to pressure him.

    No such luck. “Say something,” he begged.

    She nodded slowly, looking at the pavement. When she finally looked at him, there was such pleading in his eyes she felt guilty.

    “People change,” she said. “Maybe not at the core of who they are, but what they want can change.”

    He nodded, waiting, but she wasn’t ready to say much more.

    “I love being here with you,” she said, taking his hands, instantly wondering if “love” was a word she should have used. “But I can’t make any plans, any promises, until I know what’s going on with me.”

    “You can tell me what you want,” Danny countered.

    She held his gaze. “I want to be fair,” she replied. “That means knowing what’s going on, knowing what the real options are.”

    She hated the words. But she didn’t want the grand romantic gesture of him swooping her off to the hospital. She wanted information, so they could decide their lives in a real way, not a dreamy one.

    “I want to be with you,” she said, and his face lifted. “I just don’t want to promise something I can’t deliver. And I have dealt with so much uncertainty, even if everything goes well tomorrow, or starting tomorrow, it’s going to take a while for me to believe it.”

    He looked at her a while, his head tilted again, then he pulled her close. “OK,” he said, kissing her hair. “Informed consent. That’s fair.”

    He stepped back, too soon for her liking. “Still want to drive?”

    “Absolutely,” she said. “I-94 east all the way, right?”

    She stepped into the car, her heart pounding. They both were silent as they left Illinois, then Indiana behind.

    Around Battle Creek, Kayla felt claustrophobic. “Coffee stop,” she announced, pulling off at the next exit. She leaped out of the car and headed for the gas station cappuccino machine, Danny trailing behind.

    “Do you have to fast or anything?” he asked, and she took her finger off the button.

    “Rats,” she said. “You’re right. Nothing but water after midnight.”

    “I’ll take over that one, then,” he said, and she went prowling the cold cases. “Any Water Joe?” he called over, and she frowned. “Caffeinated water,” he explained, and she looked again, shaking her head. “I wish.”

    She settled for vitamin water, which she thought was a ripoff but at least it had flavor. She cracked the cap as she paced back and forth in the grass, looking up at the stars.

    “Want me to drive?”

    She shook her head. “It’s not that much farther. I just needed a break.”

    She slid back into the driver’s seat and revved the engine, hurrying him. “Come on, I’ve got doctors to harass,” she said, grinning.

    He looked startled. “You’re looking forward to this?”

    She kept the grin. “Let’s just say I’m going to get my money’s worth.”

The next chapter is guided by these answers:

What kind of patient is Kayla?

60 votes went like this:

Asks lots of questions: 73.33 percent (44 votes)

Demands lots of attention: 1.67 percent (1 vote)

Listens more than she talks: 25 percent (15 votes)

Does she stick to the hospital food choices?

61 votes went like this:

Yes: 26.23 percent (16 votes)

No: 73.77 percent (45 votes)

Does she call her friends yet?

61 votes went like this:

Yes: 13.11 percent (8 votes)

No: 86.89 percent (53 votes)

    This post originally appeared on, the online home of the Midland (MI) Daily News. Republished with permission.

Vote Me a Story: Kayla’s Journey, chapter 16

    They walked outside to eat in the Tennessee sunlight. Downtown Chattanooga was nice, Kayla decided. Worth coming back to.

    Danny’s voice startled her out of her daydreaming. “I guess we should hit it,” he said.

    She nodded, tossing her trash. Ann Arbor was a long way away.

    He started to toss her the keys, but she shook her head. “Do you mind? I’m kind of tired,” she said.

    He looked concerned, but didn’t say so. “OK. Let me know if you change your mind,” he said, and they headed up I-24. She made efforts to talk and keep him company, sticking to sports and current events, but she dozed off before Nashville.

    He nudged her awake and she saw a sign pointing the way to St. Elmo. “Where are we?” she asked.

    “Kentucky,” he replied. “Do you care?”

    She shook her head no. “Another day,” she said, pushing her jacket into a pillow and dropping back off.

    Next she knew they clearly were in a large city.

    “Ah, welcome, Aurora,” Danny said.

    She frowned, puzzled. “Aurora?”

    He rolled his eyes. “You don’t know your ‘Sleeping Beauty,’ do you?” he asked. “I don’t feel so bad about Nemo now.”

    He pulled the quarter out of his pocket and handed it to her. “Decide dinner.”

    “Where are we?”


    “Chicago?” she protested. “You let me sleep the day away!”

    He looked only slightly guilty. “You were out, like comatose. We’ve been going nearly full tilt the whole time, and you’ll be at the hospital tomorrow, and I know you won’t get any rest there.”

    She creased her brow. She didn’t want to think about that just yet.

    “Chicago, huh?” she said. “OK, tails, steak, heads, pizza.”

    She flipped and smacked the coin on her hand. “Pizza. But where?”

    After checking with some locals, they headed to the original Gino’s East, just off Michigan Avenue.

    “Thin crust pizza?” Kayla asked when she opened the menu. “Why would anyone come to Chicago and order thin crust pizza?”

    Danny shrugged. “So ignore that part. You want an appetizer? They have toasted ravioli.”

    “Which is?”

    He shrugged again. “I guess we have to order it to find out.”

    She shook her head. “I think we’ll be full enough with this pizza. Meaty legend?”

    “Of course,” he said, checking the description for confirmation. “Pepperoni, Italian sausage, Canadian bacon and bacon. How can you go wrong with two kinds of bacon?”

    Kayla made pig noises and they both laughed. This was the kind of easy night she needed, she thought, trying to hold off the knots her stomach would tie itself into when she couldn’t avoid thinking about morning anymore.

    After dinner, Danny headed for Navy Pier. When they got out, he pointed to the Ferris wheel, its spokes lit by thousands of sparkling lights. “Best view in the city,” he said.

    “Did I mention I’m afraid of Ferris wheels?” Kayla asked.

    He laughed. “Yeah, right. You, the roller coaster queen?”

    “Those have seat belts,” she said, not moving.

    He looked at her. “You’re serious.”

    She nodded, then looked up at the lights. “It is pretty, though. And I would like to see the view.”

    She took a deep breath. “OK. But if I hang on to the sides, don’t make fun of me.”

    The whole 150 feet up, she clung to the side with one hand, trying to let the other lie loosely, casually in her lap. But Danny noticed.

    “You don’t have to prove anything to me,” he said softly. “I already think you’re brave.”

    She was so startled she laughed. “Me, brave? Why?”

    He was sober. “Because you don’t complain, you don’t wring your hands, you just move ahead. I mean OK, the news is better than 10 days or so ago, but you still have a lot to go through, and here you are just hanging out.”

    She snorted. “I was trying not to think about it, but thanks,” she said.

    Danny looked distressed. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I wasn’t …” he trailed off, staring out at the skyline instead.

    Finally he said, “I just hope if I ever have to go through something like this, I handle it like you. That’s all I mean.”

    Kayla smiled. “Thanks. I’ll take that.”

    He looked a little happier. He started to say something, then shook his head and looked off in the distance again.

    She was getting curious. She stared at Lake Michigan, as if it held answers. When the gondola stopped, she unclenched one hand and waved freely with the other. “See? Only half terrified,” she joked.

    He smiled and took the brave hand, swinging it. She held her breath as they walked, trying not to think.

    “Can I drive?” she asked as they neared the parking lot. “It’s only fair.”

    What wasn’t fair was that she had to let go, she thought. They were in a fabulous city on a Friday night, and there was so much they could do. But she was anxious to get to Ann Arbor and get this treatment moving, even thought it meant getting to the hospital early and sitting around for a few hours. She didn’t want to be rushed for something this important.

    He handed her the keys and moved to the far side of the Viper, then stopped, looking over it at her. “Did you ever wonder why I asked, after all this time, to go on a road trip with you?”

The next chapter is guided by these votes:

Does Kayla want to know right now?

51 votes went like this:

Yes, very much so: 80.39 percent (41 votes)

No, talk about it later: 19.61 percent (10 votes)

Does she drive straight through?

51 votes went like this:

Yes: 29.41 percent (15 votes)

No, she trades off with Danny: 25.49 percent (13 votes)

No, they stop somewhere: 45.1 percent (23 votes)

Should he get her a present?

51 votes went like this:

Yes, from the hospital gift shop: 13.73 percent (7 votes)

Yes, from somewhere else: 68.63 percent (35 votes)

No: 17.65 percent (9 votes)

If she can leave the hospital for a while, where should they go?

51 votes went like this:

Out to eat: 0 percent (0 votes)

To a museum: 5.88 percent (3 votes)

To a concert: 5.88 percent (3 votes)

To a sporting event: 5.88 percent (3 votes)

Shopping: 1.96 percent (1 vote)

On a walk in a park: 80.39 percent (41 votes)

    This post originally appeared on, the online home of the Midland (MI) Daily News. Republished with permission.

Vote Me a Story: Kayla’s Journey, chapter 15

    Danny seemed startled, but held her gaze. Kayla held her breath, but didn’t dare look away.

    Finally, he nodded. “Maybe,” he said.

    She waited for more, but it didn’t come. Instead, he just said, “We should turn in. We have a long drive tomorrow.”

    She nodded in reply and turned away. “I’ll take the sofa,” she announced, not waiting for a reply. She heard him start to protest, but her feelings were too bruised to talk, and she quickly arranged the pillows and pulled the blanket up to her neck, her back to the rest of the suite.

    After a moment it was quiet, and she silently cursed herself. Why had she been so snippy? All he said was “Maybe,” just like her. She hated passive-aggressive people, and here she was being one, mad because she hinted at something and it didn’t get jumped on.

    Morning was a long time coming, but when it finally did, Kayla was determined not to be crabby. She slipped down to the continental breakfast and came back upstairs with juice and pastries. “Morning,” Danny greeted her. “Thanks.”

    She smiled back. “We can get on the road as soon as you want,” she offered.

    He shook his head. “And miss an aquarium I’ve never heard of?”

    She started to object, but he shook his head again. “It won’t hurt to take a short look around. We’ve got time.”

    Kayla forced herself to smile and say thanks. This was going to be a tough day, and she wasn’t entirely sure why.

    When they got to the aquarium, Danny asked, “Who’s Nemo?”

    She stared back. “You’ve never heard of Nemo?”

    “No,” he said. “They talked about Nemo in Atlanta, and this place even has Nemo locator cards. Is there some shark movie I missed?”

    She borrowed a locator card from a passing family and pointed to the clownfish, then the blue tang. “Nemo and Dory?” she asked. “Just keep swimming, just keep swimming?” she sang.

    He shook his head and she rolled her eyes, starting to hand the card back. “You should keep it,” the little boy said. “We have extras.”

    Kayla looked at the mom for approval, and she nodded back. “We’ve learned to make extras,” she said. “Just keep it.”

    “I’m Donny,” the boy said, and Danny couldn’t help grinning. “I’m Danny,” he replied, kneeling down. “So how do I find Nemo?”

    “He’s on level A,” Donny said. “It’s not the real Nemo from the movie, it’s his friends. The anemones protect them.”

    “Anemones, huh?” Danny said, looking impressed. “OK, thanks.”

    Donny waved at them as they moved off to level A, and they waved back. Kayla hadn’t seen Danny with small children since they volunteered at a carnival in high school, and she tried not think any further about the scene that had just played out. She was 45, in uncertain health, and hanging out with someone who was supposed to be just one of her best friends. She didn’t want to screw anything up.

    For his part, Danny played tour guide again. “Green sea turtle,” he announced at the Gulf of Mexico tank. “It’s called that not because of the color of its shell, but from the green fat found inside its body.”

    “Yuck,” Kayla said, unable to help herself. “How did they find that out? And that’s the best thing they could think of to name it after, the color of its fat? I feel bad for it.”

    “I don’t think it knows,” he said.

    “Still,” she said, searching for ways to keep the conversation light and pointing to a ray. “What’s that?”

    He checked the card. “Cownose ray,” he said. “Venomous barb at the end of its tail.”

    He kept reading as they walked around. Kayla wondered if he had the same urge to keep things easy. “Royal gramma,” he announced as they reached the Caribbean reef tank, indicating a fish that was purple on its front half, golden on the back. “They can swim upside down.”

    She pretended to be interested, but it was hard to keep her mind on his words. She kept listening instead to his voice, and the way it wrapped around the things coming out of his mouth. She studied his hands holding the card, and caught herself staring as he walked away to the next tank, then looked away quickly so he wouldn’t catch her.

    What was going on? This was Danny, the guy she had decided long ago just wasn’t right for her.

    Long ago, she answered in her head. People change.

    You’re being a romantic idiot, she scolded herself in reply. This whole thing has been a false situation, from meeting on the beach to going on the road trip to wandering around aquariums and eating fabulous dinners. In the real world, with her cat and her job, he wouldn’t be nearly so enticing.

    Then she started picturing him sprawled on her couch, stroking her cat and pointing the remote at the TV, asking if she wanted to watch “Law & Order” or “CSI:NY.”

    She shook her head clear and pulled him toward the food court. “Strombolis,” she said, pointing. “Let’s get some for the road.”

    He left her to stand in the line and returned a moment later with a soft swirl yogurt with a fresh-baked cookie stuck in it. “I couldn’t decide,” he said, holding it out to her.

    It was a sweet gesture, she thought, smiling thanks as she handed him his meal. Was she reading too much into it?

The next chapter is guided by these answers:

Is Danny falling for Kayla (again)?

58 votes went like this:

Yes: 87.93 percent (51 votes)

No: 12.07 percent (7 votes)

Choose dinner in Chicago.

58 votes went like this:

Classic steakhouse: 5.17 percent (3 votes)

Chicago-style pizza: 41.38 percent (24 votes)

Jazz club: 20.69 percent (12 votes)

Something romantic: 18.97 percent (11 votes)

Quick bite at Navy Pier: 13.79 percent (8 votes)

    This post originally appeared on, the online home of the Midland (MI) Daily News. Republished with permission.

Vote Me a Story: Kayla’s Journey, chapter 14

    Kayla looked at her watch. “It’s about 5:30,” she said. “How far to Tennessee?”

    Danny pointed at a sign. “Chattanooga’s about an hour and a half,” he said.

    She nodded. “Cool. What say we stop there for the night?”

    “As you wish, James.”

    She tapped away at the iPhone, looking for a hotel that wasn’t tied to a chain. “StoneFort Inn,” she offered. “Ooh! ‘The Tennessee Aquarium’s official bed and breakfast!'”

    She gave him a please-please-please look, which he ignored as long as he could.

    Finally he laughed. “Aren’t you aquariumed out after today?” She shook her head vigorously and tapped some more.

    “Behind the scenes tours aren’t until 3 p.m.,” she announced, pausing. “I don’t think we should wait around that long if I have to be in Ann Arbor Saturday morning. But could we take a quick walk through first thing in the morning?”

    He raised an eyebrow at her. “You spent 15 minutes just pacing between the jellies. I don’t think you’re capable of a quick aquarium visit.”

    She begged with her eyes again. “If we skip the tour and the IMAX movies, and just look at the exhibits, it’ll only take a couple of hours.”

    He sighed. “Does this inn have a restaurant where we can eat dinner, or is it breakfast only?”

    “Thank you!” she said, grinning. She put down her window and warm breezes mixed with the smells of I-75.

    The StoneFort Inn turned out to be in the heart of downtown. Kayla turned on the gas fireplace in the harvest yellow room then walked across the slanted floor to look out the window.

    “Hungry?” Danny asked.

    “Very,” she said, and they left for the Blue Plate Diner.

    They shared loaded blue chips in a round blue booth. “I’ve never seen so many pendant lights in one place outside a home store,” Danny said, looking around. “At least they’re not blue.”

    Kayla snickered. “Probably so they don’t discolor the food. But the ceiling is blue.”

    “Yeah, right, ” he said, refusing to look up.

    She shrugged. “Suit yourself. But it really is.”

    She dug into her turkey pot pie, pretending not to keep an eye on him. It was several minutes before he finally risked a glance away from his meatloaf sandwich upward, but she whooped when he did. “SO busted!” she crowed, laughing.

    He blushed. “People are staring at you,” he muttered, focusing on his plate again.

    She kept grinning. “Staring at me laughing? Having fun? So what? Guilty as charged!”

    She reached for the menu and he interrupted. “They don’t have dessert here.”

    “Lie,” she replied, still smiling. “No good Southern restaurant would fail to serve pie.”

    After her coconut cream pie with caramel sauce, they walked back to the inn. Back in the room, she drew another X on her chart as Danny watched.

    “Maybe you’ll get to throw that thing away,” he said quietly.

    Kayla looked up. He seemed a little sad.

    “Maybe,” she said softly. “Hopefully. Maybe I’ll keep making new ones, and put them in a notebook. Maybe I’ll fill that notebook, and have to start a new one.”

    He smiled at that and turned away, and she wondered whether she dared say more.

    “Maybe,” she started, and he turned back. “Maybe you’ll be there when I start the new notebook.”

The next chapter is guided by these answers:

Do they visit Tennessee Aquarium?

44 votes went like this:

Yes: 86.36 percent (38 votes)

No: 13.64 percent (6 votes)

They have to go through Kentucky; do they stop at all?

43 votes went like this:

Yes: 39.53 percent (17 votes)

No: 60.47 percent (26 votes)

Do they visit Shedd Aquarium in Chicago?

43 votes went like this:

Yes: 48.84 percent (21 votes)

No: 51.16 percent (22 votes)

Is Kayla starting to fall for Danny (again)?

45 votes went like this:

Yes: 95.56 percent (43 votes)

No: 4.44 percent (2 votes)

    This post originally appeared on, the online home of the Midland (MI) Daily News. Republished with permission.

Vote Me a Story: Kayla’s Journey, chapter 13

    “What do you mean, another option?” Danny asked her.

    Kayla gave a heavy sigh. “He says there’s a treatment in Houston that’s showing promise, and that if he were me, he’d try it.”

    “He’s not you.”

    She nodded. “I know, but he knows pretty well what I’m willing to go through. I don’t think he’d say that unless he thought it offered a pretty good chance.”

    “What kind of side effects does it have? Is it one of those things that makes you wicked sick?”

    She hadn’t thought of that. “I don’t know. We didn’t get into details yet. He said to call him back later, and that I should start soon but it doesn’t have to be today.”

    “So you’re doing it?”

    She paused. “I made it sound that way, didn’t I?”


    She shrugged. “Definite maybe. I won’t say for sure until I find out more. But since I don’t have to drop everything and run, we have an aquarium to visit,” and she gestured down the highway.

    When they got to the Georgia Aquarium, she pulled him to the left, toward the Georgia Explorer area. “Always the left,” she said. “Fewer people go that way. I learned that trick from a Disney World guide.”

    She was thrilled right away. “A petting pool!”

    Danny rolled his eyes and she caught him. “Get over it now,” she warned. “I’m going to be like this all day.”

    The touch pools had horseshoe crabs, sea stars, shrimp and stingrays, and Kayla had to touch all of them. The next gallery over sported piranha and electric fish, and Danny teased that her tour wouldn’t be truly complete unless she touched them, too.

    In the next gallery she squealed again. “Leafy sea dragons! I saw them in Dallas!”

    She edged up closer. “When I saw them there, it was the only aquarium in North America that had them. But that was before this one was open.”

    She insisted on thoroughly checking out every single exhibit, staying especially long for the giant Pacific octopus and the Beluga whales. She only agreed to a lunch break when Danny announced that he had been watching the African black-footed penguins long enough he could tell them all apart.

    She munched on her roasted portobello panini and gestured at Danny’s sandwich, a chicken Cordon Bleu. “I made chicken Cordon Bleu once,” she said. “Never again. I think I used every pot I had.”

    “So you should have ordered it then.”

    She shook her head, dunking her fries in barbecue sauce. “Not in sandwich form. I do order it for dinner from time to time, though.”

    She nudged a red velvet cupcake across the table to him and checked her watch. “We need to finish up so we can get to the 4D theater.”

    “There’s no such thing as a 4D theater,” Danny said. “Unless they have tesseracts in there somehow.”

    Kayla rolled her eyes. “It’s a 3D film, plus special effects,” she said. “They have stuff built into the theater, so you can feel like fish are swimming by you.”

    When it was done he had to admit it had been pretty cool, although he could have done without the singing sea turtles.

    “Curmudgeon,” she replied, tugging him over to where the behind-the-scenes tours gathered. “Come on, I want to see every corner of this place.”

    “You have a lot of energy today,” he noted.

    “Bad thing?”

    “Of course not. I’m just glad you’re not one of those screaming children from the movie.”

    “Shush, curmudgeon,” she told him. “This tour is for 10 and older.”

    When they were done they went through the rest of the aquarium. Danny played tour guide, reading as they went. “Twenty-three feet high and 61 feet wide,” he said at the huge viewing window. “Six million gallons of saltwater.”

    She just nodded as he talked, admiring the whale sharks and hammerhead sharks, strolling through the underwater tunnel, jumping when a garden eel popped up out of the sand and startled her. The three exhibits of jellies were her favorites, and she alternated between them for a good 15 minutes.

    Finally she turned to Danny and announced, “OK.”

    “OK? Like, OK done?”

    She nodded. “Soaked everything up. We can go.”

    He pulled out the car keys. “You sure?”

    “Oh, wait, gift shop,” she said, hurrying over. “I think they have DVDs of the aquarium.”

    When they got outside she gestured for the keys, then handed them back. “Sorry, forgot. Phone call.”

    She called the doctor’s office as he drove. Again she was put on with him right away, and she took notes as he outlined the treatment. When he was done, she asked him straight out, “I’m at D minus 22 already. What’s your new estimate?”

    He paused, then cleared his throat. “It’s a new treatment, so it’s not like we have much to go on. But the other patients feel a lot better and their results are a lot better. So anything from six months to whatever you would have had anyway, another 30 years or so, barring any hazardous activities like jumping out of planes.”

    “Spoilsport,” she said. “That’s what I wanted to do next.”

    He laughed. “Well, the training and jump take a good chunk of a day, and I’d like to see you as soon as possible.”

    “So it’s really worth doing?”

    “I think so,” he replied.

    Kayla turned to Danny. “New destination. Ann Arbor.”

    He looked at her closely, then asked, “Should we be flying?”

    She turned back to the phone. “How soon can we start?”

    “First thing Saturday morning.”

    She turned back to Danny. “I can’t start until Saturday anyway. Keep driving.”

    Kayla told her doctor to set things up and took a few notes on checking in. “Done,” she said as she hung up. “Guess I’m up for another round of poking and prodding after all.”

    Danny glanced at her, then steered the Viper toward Tennessee. “Happy to hear it,” he said. “You going to call your mom?”

    She shook her head. “Not until I’m settled into the hospital and start treatment. She’ll want to come down right away and I’d rather wait until it’s really happening.”

    “OK then,” he said. “Ann Arbor it is. Let me know when you want a turn driving.”

The next chapter is guided by these votes:

Does she tell anyone else right now?

73 votes went like this:

Yes: 1.37 percent (1 vote)

No: 98.63 percent (72 votes)

Do they stop in Tennessee?

73 votes went like this:

Yes: 61.64 percent (45 votes)

No: 38.36 percent (28 votes)

Do they go off course to go through Chicago?

73 votes went like this:

Yes: 52.05 percent (38 votes)

No: 47.95 percent (35 votes)

Does Danny stay at the hospital with her?

73 votes went like this:

Yes, the whole time: 63.01 percent (46 votes)

Yes, except when her mom is there: 30.14 percent (22 votes)

No: 6.85 percent (5 votes)

    This post originally appeared on, the online home of the Midland (MI) Daily News. Republished with permission.

Vote Me a Story: Kayla’s Journey, chapter 12

    Inside Hawg Heaven, they ordered rib platters.

    “I’m going to pack on 10 pounds on this trip,” Kayla said. “At least. I’ll need a plus-size coffin.”

    Danny turned his head quickly, and she called him on it.

    “Can we talk about this?” she asked. “Or can I talk, and you at least listen? Really listen? I know it’s hard, but this is kind of hard on me, too.”

    “Sorry,” he said, looking ashamed. “I’m being selfish. I just thought we could go on this really cool adventure like old times, and it’s great, but I didn’t think it’d be a last chance thing.”

    He took a long sip. “So be it. We’ll enjoy what we get. Such as, I’m grateful you feel good enough to do this,” he said, raising his glass.

    She clinked hers against his and smiled. “Me too. But let me tell you some of the other things I think about.”

    So she told him about marking another day off her chart each night, and how the first thing she thought of each morning was the new number — today, D minus 23, assuming her doctor’s 30-day prognosis was roughly correct. How she dutifully washed down her medications wondering if there was any point, and took them anyway because they seemed to make her less tired and achy. How she was still tired and achy anyway, and she hated it, and wished she could make a trade, like a week less but feeling amazing.

    Danny eyed her. “How are you feeling about God these days?”

    She shrugged. “We’re good. I know I had that whole ‘does God exist’ thing going in junior high, but I think part of that was the pressure of confirmation. I still don’t buy everything the Catholic church says, but if you stand outside and holler, no one listens.”

    “So you’re trying to change church doctrine? Or policy?” he said skeptically.

    Kayla laughed. “No. I don’t do much of anything, except go to Mass, and explain why I feel the way I do when other people wonder. It usually ends up being, ‘This is what the church says,’ and then why I do or don’t agree. I was so glad when all the uproar over the pedophile priests ended; I felt like I was being attacked every day.”

    He chewed, nodded, paused. “And heaven?”

    “Oh, that’s not a loaded question,” she replied.

    He shrugged. “You said you wanted to talk. So, let’s really cut to the chase: Do you believe you’re going to heaven?”

    She was sure of her answer. “Yes. Sooner than I’d like, but I think I’m good to people. I haven’t done anything horrible in my life. So yes.”

    He nodded. “And you’re sure you’re going soon?”

    Kayla couldn’t help rolling her eyes. “Don’t you think I’ve looked for all the loopholes myself already? Yes, I’m sure. See, what you don’t get is I’ve been dealing with this for about four months. I didn’t want to believe it, but they kept not finding answers, or finding weird ones. The news last Wednesday was a huge shock, but at least it was an answer. Not knowing was torture.”

    Danny didn’t look convinced. “So you’d rather be sure you’re going to die than not know for sure what you have?”

    She shook her head. “Not exactly. I’d still rather not die, but having a timeline kind of forces me to get my ducks in a row.”

    She paused, because hearing the words out loud made them a little more real, and she wanted to get this right. “If I have to die, I’m grateful for the time to prepare. I talked to my mom and my friends, said kind of goodbyes. We’re on this trip, which is a last blast of fun. And if it turns out I hang around longer, then great.”

    “Really?” he asked.

    She stared. “What do you mean, ‘Really?'”

    “Well, if you end up NOT dying, won’t it be sort of anticlimactic?”

    She raised an eyebrow at him. “So I should die to follow the script?”

    “No,” he said. “But if you make your peace and jump out of a plane and have all the things you really want taken care of done, and then you get more time, what do you do with it? Do you just go back to your life, but now it’s longer?”

    Lord, he was exasperating, she thought. “I am just getting used to this dying idea, and now you want do-over? And a grand plan for this second chance?”

    He picked at his fries. “I just thought in case your doctor has good news, are you ready?”

    She shook her head. “He won’t. And if he did, I wouldn’t be mad.”

    She was, though. Every time she thought she knew how she felt, something else came up. “Are you about ready to go?”

    He looked up, surprised. “Yeah. I’ll drive back.”

    She was silent on the way back to Lake Chatuge Lodge, silent marking her X on her chart, silent staring out at the mountains.

    Come morning, Danny was silent as well, trying to gauge her mood.

    “Atlanta,” she said, tossing him the keys. “I have a phone call to make.”


    “No. You go ahead.”

    Instead they just drove. She punched in the number and hung up three times.

    Finally she asked Danny, “What if it’s the same old news? I don’t know if I want to hear it again.”

    He shook his head. “I’ll pull over if you want. But we don’t know what we don’t know.” He was afraid to say any more.

    She punched the number one more time, reaching someone on the third ring. “Oh, Kayla, I’m so glad you called,” said the front desk clerk. “Let me put you right through to Doctor.”

    That’s odd, Kayla thought. She wondered again why all doctors seemed to get called Doctor, instead of Doctor So-and-So, and his voice came on the line.

    “How would you like to try something new?” he asked.

    While she usually appreciated his straightforward manner, it set her a little on edge today.

    “I think I’ve had enough new,” she said. “What do you think?”

    “Well, I know you’ve had more than your fair share of visits and tests,” he said. “But I was talking to some colleagues in Houston and I think a treatment they’re testing could help you. No promises. But if I were you, I’d go for it.”

    If I were you, she thought. He wasn’t. But he knew her well enough to know what she could bear, and he thought this was worth pursuing.

    “I’m in Georgia,” she said. “Would I have to start today?”

    “The sooner the better, of course,” he said. “But I don’t know that a day or two makes any difference. Think about it a little while and call me back.”

    Kayla hung up and cried. And cried. Danny pulled over without asking, pulling her close.

    “Good news?” he asked, guessing from what he had overheard.

    “A new option,” she said.

The next chapter is based on these votes:

Does Kayla want to try the treatment?

62 votes went like this:

Yes: 93.55 percent (58 votes)

No: 6.45 percent (4 votes)

Do they keep going to Atlanta (and the aquarium)?

62 votes went like this:

Yes: 59.68 percent (37 votes)

No: 40.32 percent (25 votes)

Does she call her mother and tell her what the doctor said?

62 votes went like this:

Yes: 45.16 percent (28 votes)

No: 54.84 percent (34 votes)

Do Kayla and Danny keep driving or start flying?

62 votes went like this:

Road trip all the way, baby: 69.35 percent (43 votes)

Time’s a-wastin’! Get on a plane!: 30.65 percent (19 votes)

    This post originally appeared on, the online home of the Midland (MI) Daily News. Republished with permission.