Job Interviews in the Digital Age

I’m back on the job hunt.

My main motivation? Gettin’ paid, of course! As all you artists out there know, having a day job is pretty important. Especially when a couple of tiny humans depend on you for security and sustenance.

I wrote here about how I landed a gig at an ad agency and freelance work in one feast-y month last year. The agency work dwindled to famine rather soon, but I still have a steady freelance gig: blogging about Tennessee culture and millenial and retiree concerns for a local realtor. (If you’re interested, go here to check it out.)

This time around, I’m not pursuing extra freelance gigs. Instead, I’m searching out a full-time, guaranteed-pay-check situation. We just can’t afford to muddle around with a “maybe I’ll get paid this week, maybe not” lifestyle.

So, all this discussion leads me to an interesting phenomenon: a method of preliminary interview that uses technology to both add an extra step to the job-hunt process, and eliminates the hassle of too much human contact between employers and the masses. If you, too, are job searching, you know what I’m talking about. The phone/video interview.

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My test run selfie. Anyone else think your face looks crooked when you see it anywhere other than the mirror?

On the one hand, this extra (or only, in many cases) interview step seems to set up another barrier, a hurdle to jump before you even get to set foot inside the fortress of employment. But, honestly, the more I’ve experienced these digital get-to-know-yas, the more I see their value. If they’re conducted the right way, it’s easier to discern whether the candidate is really right for the job, and whether the job is really right for them. It’s like a conversation before the date with the guy you met online.

I’m in that in-between generation, where I still know how to have a good conversation—with eye contact!—sharing the same airspace as another person. So, far from being freaked out at the thought of shaking new hands and making small talk, I enjoy the interactions for what they are. So I was a bit annoyed when I first realized I wouldn’t be having that experience much at all during this time around job hunting. I accept it though; an inevitable part of the world-wide communication that brings us all simultaneously closer together and pushes us further apart.

I do have a couple of tips, for you folks doing your own rounds of phone and video interviews. Read on, readers!

  1. Get dressed. Get your game face on. Most people recommend full professional dress, and I would, too, but if you’re a level up in this whole job hunt game, I’d say you can take the idea a step further: wear something that makes you feel confident and powerful. For me, that was a pair of shark’s tooth earrings my sister-in-law made. Fierce!

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    What? I got this. Just lounging on a stump, all tiger-y. Nothing fiercer.
  2. For video interviews, find somewhere in your home (yes, your home! No noisy restaurants where you might feel self-conscious or lose your answers amid calls for double-frothed-something-lattes!) that looks good behind you. For example, we’re renovating an old farmhouse, so I discovered the stained and cracked ceiling hovering above my head at my desk made me look seedy. So I set up a whole new phone interview command center in the living room. The light was better there, anyway.
  3. Test run. Ask yourself questions and answer them. Do you get stuck? Are your answers lame? Practice!
  4. For video interviews, test run how you look. Take selfies in your chosen location. What will the interviewer see when they come online? If you can, recruit a friend to help you practice the video conversation.

 

Just like for any interview, it’s good form to send a thank-you email within 24 to 48 hours after. Even if you’re talking to a modern, fashionable company, observe the old-fashioned niceties. Nobody ever got passed over for being polite!

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The Agony of Pronouns

I realized, today, that I take exception to a modern use of pronoun: the gender-neutral “they” and “them.”

I was reading Roses & Rot by Kat Howard, which is a pretty good read for those of us who dig fantasy. One of the complicating elements of the plot is the classic theme of not being able to discuss Faerie to the outside world. The characters fall into cleverly employing pronouns to get around the restriction. (Don’t worry; I haven’t given the story away.)

My issue with pronouns isn’t rooted in anything Kat Howard wrote; instead, I was shot back to my first encounter with a person using “them” instead of designating “her.” My nephew, a young teenager, was playing with my daughter, a very female three-year-old. In explaining part of their game to me, he said “they” wanted to put the dolls to sleep, so he helped “them” do so. I was disconcerted with his narrative at first, thinking, “Who the hell else was in the room? Or, is he speaking of himself and my daughter in third person, royalty-style?” On the heels of this, I realized he was employing the now politically correct “neutral pronoun” strategy, to not inadvertently insult myself or my three-year-old by assigning a gender “they” don’t choose.

As a writer, I’m turned off by this. “They” has a meaning, and it’s a good one: multiple people, or, yes, someone without a specified gender. But always, always, it’s important to be specific about my story, to tell you just who it’s about, because skimming along on the surface of a thing, telling you that a vague “they” is doing “something,” is the best way to make you feel like what you’re reading is the literary equivalent of tepid, gray, sugarless oatmeal.

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Who is “they,” anyway?

It’s a classic line. “They” are the invisible standard-holder, the legion that makes judgements and hold invisible, sinister strings of influence. “They” are who every hero worth his or her mettle wants to escape.

My daughter is a she. My son is he. I am she, my husband is he. Please, for the love of all that is human and identifiable and humanly connectable, don’t screw up our pronouns into unidentifiable gray mush. Mess with gender roles! God, yes! My female daughter shoots pretend guns at her brother, jumps tall obstacles, digs in dirt and then runs inside to put on her plastic crown and tattered mermaid costume! None of those things are inherently he or she activities. My son, the world’s most prolific builder of Lego vehicles, destroyer of all things delicate, gleeful enjoyer of tree climbing and general horsing around, puts plastic babies to sleep with his sister, and wears the occasional fluffy tutu.

Whatever you think about Caitlyn Jenner, however you may feel about how that person is a hero or an abomination, Bruce did not go through all that surgery, therapy and general effort to transform into “they.” He wanted to be she.

I don’t know why it’s a trend to despise categorization into gender roles. I think there are some people, especially young people, who are unsure of who they are, who don’t know whether it makes more sense for them to be he or she. And that’s difficult. But “they?” They is another way to render a human being less specific, more vague. Less human.

Subtlety: Powerful Magic

As I washed dishes, listening to Pandora Beatles Radio, a familiar song came streaming through the tinny speakers of my laptop. You probably know it: a classic rock ditty called Simple Man by Lynyrd Skynyrd.

I was unable to resist the slight head bounce (that of course belies the passionate cigarette lighter-waving, hair shaking “yeah man” that’s really going on inside) while I rinsed Dawn suds off my coffee cup. Aw yeah, be a simpuuuul, kind of ma-aaan! Be something you love and understaaaaand!

And that’s when the dime dropped.

As the music swelled, guitar strings vibrating deep in the soul, awakening dreams and longing and the whiff of the fog machine under blue and purple stage lights … none of that is simple! Lynyrd Skynyrd, rock gods that they were/are, had not a simple man amongst them! The entire song is basically saying, “Mama told me to chill out and stay home, and get a steady job, ya know? But I didn’t.” Each belting out of the word “simpuuuul!” and melodic confession that his mama told him to be satisfied proved that he was anything but! ‘Cause no rock star ever has been content, satisfied, simple or generally chilled out about their status in life. It just doesn’t work out that way.

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Possibly—maybe—Cat Stevens could have made that claim. Having converted to Islam, that music superstar put aside his guitar for decades. But he’s back in the spotlight, because that’s what rock stars do. They find the spotlight.

Anyway … you can say a lot without saying it at all. It’s about context, about presentation, about exactly what you’re not saying, sometimes. That’s subtlety.

Heavy, man.

XIII: Poor Valley Witch. It’s Over.

Well, avid readers, it was inevitable, I suppose. Here’s the end of Poor Valley Witch, a little joy-writing I started many months ago. It’s also inevitable that the last installment drops on number 13. I had thought the round number 10 would be the conclusive installment of the short story serial, but I was wrong. It was to be 13. Lucky XIII.

The third in the Mermaid Underground series is still marinating before being broiled in the first major rewrite. It’s not too late to become enchanted with the story! Parts one and two are available for your enjoyment on Amazon.

But, for now, it’s time to see what Landon, having been led to and then left in the dark by his bewilderingly (mostly) absent parents, is up to. If you’re new to the series, go here to start from the beginning. Thanks for reading!

***

Landon raised his hand to knock on the flimsy sheet of particle board that hung, dejectedly, from a couple of hinges that were clearly too small for the task. He dropped his hand and blinked, taking a step back. I’ve been here before. Wait. Did I ever leave? Had he dreamed driving away in terror, his courteous reception by vultures in his grandmother’s attic? His mother flying up from Florida? Of all that had happened, this last was possibly the thing to jolt him hardest out of his life-as-it-always-is perspective.

He looked down, and felt around in the deep front pocket of his jeans. There. The mint tin, rattling around in his pants, rounded, rusty edges now familiar to his fingers. That was the proof that the last days of his life had really happened. Landon took a deep breath and looked around.

The little building he’d gone in, where he’d heard his parents speak to him from the pitch black: it must have spit him out here, on the witch’s doorstep. He didn’t know if the place itself was enchanted to do it, or if his parents had worked it out. It didn’t matter. The outcome was the same. He started to wonder what his grandmother must be thinking about right now, but he shook his head angrily. It was time for the sacrifice.

Stop stalling. He raised his fist and banged on the makeshift door to the witch’s trailer house. It was more add-on than house; a whole, shifting structure made of lean-tos. Ancient aluminum trailer siding peeked out from cracks in scavenged, aging fence boards, old doors, entire walls that looked like they’d been cut away from abandoned sheds and clapped, whole, to the house. The ring glittered on Landon’s pinky finger.

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“Here you are!” The young woman he’d seen walking down the road as he’d been driving backward, trying to get out of this place, opened the sagging door and gestured him inside, gracefully. He went, and was swallowed up by the musty smell and gloom of the place.

***

“Well, let’s not waste any time about it,” said the witch, smiling sweetly. “I’m going to kill you.” She lunged toward him with a bowie knife, the kind that Davy Crockett had probably carried. Hell, maybe it’s old Davy’s actual knife, Landon thought, wildly. He didn’t have time for any other thoughts, for any other actions, because the witch was fast and her knife was true, and deadly sharp. He felt her impact him and he went down, twisting to the side in a belated bid to protect himself. His shoulder and arm crashed into an ancient t.v. tray, which broke into a twisted mess, gouging his skin with ragged edges, cutting him deeply. He shrieked and struggled to free himself from the broken tray, from the witch, who was fighting like a pissed-off cat, or so he imagined.

But she was already off him. When he finally stood, leaning against the paneling of the wall, the witch was several feet away from him, looking back and forth between her knife and his chest, and arm. His chest was—amazingly—unscratched, but his arm was covered in blood. Landon checked himself all over, more uneasy about her bizarre examination of him than he was about his own wound.

When he lifted his arm to see how bad the damage was, his ring was glowing, covered in blood, illuminating the whole room in sticky red light.

“No,” said the witch. She shook her head. Abruptly, bewilderingly, she turned and walked out of the living room, down a dark hall. Her cotton sundress disappeared, her bare feet flashed once in the light of the ring before bearing her into the velvety dark.

“No! Shit! No!” Landon heard banging, clattering noises, like someone checking through boxes and flinging them aside.

Now. It was the hint of a whisper, more feeling than word. He did not hesitate. He picked up a twisted chunk of broken t.v. tray and went down the hall. He didn’t have a plan, just a need. Had he wondered what the witch wanted with him? Had he entertained the notion that she wanted to transfer her romantic feelings for his dad to him? Had he thought he could get out of this, this muddled mess that he’d dropped into on the day of his birth, with nothing more than an awkward love imprint, like a baby duck who thinks the cat is his mother? He chuckled darkly to himself. His ring cast flickering, glowing light down the hall.

She was already coming back out of her bedroom (for that’s where all the clattering and cursing had come from) when he met her at the doorway. He raised his arm and tried to stab her, tried to do some damage, any damage at all to the evil witch who had ruined his family and tried to destroy him. It was just like a dream. Every move he made was through air made dense, like clear plastic. His twisted wedge of aluminum turned aside with each thrust, bumping harmlessly into the walls to either side of her. He couldn’t strike her. She cringed and snarled, trying (equally vainly) to bite him, to scratch his eyes out with her ragged nails.

He couldn’t impact her with his weapon, but one, tiny drop of blood landed on her forehead. Just above her left eye.

It burned a hole through her.

Landon saw it and understood at the same time her enraged shrieks rose to shake the house. She went down and he followed, flicking his blood onto her even as she fell, trying, trying to break through the invisible, nightmare barrier to touch her, to smear his arm all over her, to burn her into hell where she belonged.

Finally, she weakened, and the barrier did, too, though her shrieks were still deafening, still causing the whole place to shudder and tremble as though it were made of dry, autumn leaves. He touched her and crowed in triumph, a sound almost as ugly as her screams, and he painted her flesh with his blood. The ring, imbued with her ill intentions and the blood of a mother with a child in her womb glowed, screaming with light.

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The screams dwindled and she lay, a withered pile of flesh and sundress. The ring winked out. Landon stumbled down the hall and burst into the freedom of fresh air on the rickety front stoop.

His mother and father rushed to him, crushing him with their arms in a mad hug that reminded him of when he was a little boy, and he’d squeeze himself in between the two of them, calling “Family hug!” until they’d picked him up and showered him in kisses. He stepped back and looked at the two of them, sickened a little at the blood smeared on them from his arm. They looked like her, for a moment. Like the blood-killed witch.

“Quickly,” his mother said, “Quickly, now.” His father reached down to grab the plastic gasoline jug at his feet, and he tossed the fuel all over the house, circling it, wetting everything he could reach. Mom lit a match and tossed it on, and the three of them scurried off the porch and up the bank, stinking like gas and blood and triumph.

They watched the trailer house with its cancerous lean-tos burn. As they might have expected, it went up quickly, like nothing more substantial than a sheet of tissue.

“The nubbins,” said his dad. “Where are they?”

Landon dug into his jeans pocket, the blood caked on him starting to congeal. “It’s here.” She’d never even looked for the mint tin.

“Open it. Sprinkle them on the fire, over her if you can.”

Landon half-slid down the slope, shielding his face from the overpowering heat and light. He fumbled the tin opened and took out each nubbin, tossing it into the fire, one by one.

***

It would be days before he would wake up from his first nightmare, bathed in sweat, certain that the witch hadn’t really been killed, that she was coming for him, was already here. He’d lay in the dark and gaze at his ring, and know that he was safe.

The ring wasn’t glowing. They were all safe.

For now.

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Now, the Next Six Weeks.

I gotta tell ya, I’ve had a tough time getting the last installment of my Mermaid Underground series written. Between moving my family to a new house, parenting, working for financial gain and general life-living, I’ve had it rough getting my creative rhythm going. About a year ago, I set a goal for myself of writing, editing and publishing these three novellas just as fast as I could, because I wanted to “call my own bluff.” You see: so, so many people say they want to be a writer of novels, but rarely put in the real work it takes to be one. I didn’t want to be one of those who just say it. I didn’t want to have a perpetual masterpiece in the works. I wanted to put my work out there. I wanted to actually do the work.

Although it’s honestly gotten me into a few fair spots of trouble over the years, my secret personal philosophy has always been, “Don’t regret the things you didn’t do!” It’s a policy that’s led to me looking like a crazy person on more than one occasion (especially when I asked out one or two guys in college) but it also led to the most amazing experiences of my life. Because I pursued him, even when I was afraid of rejection, I am now married to the love of my life. Because I persisted, even when I was afraid of pain, I had a homebirth for my second child. Even though I was nervous about what lurked, unseen, beneath the murky surface of the river, I became a whitewater rafting guide at the tender age of 18.

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This post isn’t a classical hero’s psych-up: look at the monsters I slayed! The conquests I wooed! The floods and raining fire and fearsome earthquakes I bested!

On second thought, that’s exactly what this post is.

‘Cause I finished the first draft of a book. The final book, actually, in a fantasy series I started with the motivation of a peculiar dream and a personal test of mettle.

Now, I have to let it sit. For six weeks. The words have to lie together, to get used to each other, to congeal and link and form the solid bonds of a good story. Then, I will rewrite the whole damned thing. And then, I’ll probably do it again. Then, I’ll send it off to my freelance editor, who will tell me all the plot holes, stylistic sticks-in-the-mud and other troublesome flaws in this, my final Mermaid Underground novella.

Then, my comrades-in-words, I’ll publish it: Mermaid Underground: Revolution!

In the meantime, if you’re in the market for a story about mermaids, their families and their antiquated and oppressive feudal culture in the crystalline catacombs beneath the surface of Florida, then check out books one and two of the series.

Happy 4th, Y’All!

First things first: Happy Independence Day, all you Americans out there! It’s typically our day to celebrate independence from Britain by eating ground, grilled meat rounds and setting sparkly, loud fires in the sky.

Today might be a wash in my part of the world; I woke up to thunderstorms and the weatherman promises more thunderstorms this evening. The middle part of the day turned out to be bright and sunny: the perfect weather to turn all our puddles into an ambient atmosphere of invisible wet washcloths (it’s humid.)

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It’s exactly the kind of summer day that would drive me to heavy daydreaming as a kid, opening the conduit between the aether and my brain that usually prompted me to find a blank notebook and a pen and get working on whatever story inspired me in the moment. I’m proud to say, as I look around at the detritus of play in my house, I’m nurturing the same productive kind of boredom in my own kids’ summer days. Half-built/demolished Lincoln Log houses and plastic block underwater sea/space forts prove it: I’m a good mom.

Now let me wallow in that self-satisfaction until I lose it and start yelling “There’s just junk piled everywhere in the house!” and “You must not want these toys, because you never take care of them!”

Life is all about balance, I think, and that goes for moments of calm as well as the frenzy.

I’m proud to report that I’m making good progress on Book 3 of the Mermaid Underground series. It’s getting a little strange, but sometimes writing a book is like that. My mom often surprises herself with what comes out on the canvas when she’s painting.

“I didn’t know it was going to look like that,” she’ll say.

I know exactly what she means.

If you like quirky fantasy, and you think the existence of mermaids living in the underground, water-filled chambers below the surface of rural Florida would explain an awful lot, then check out Books 1 and 2, Devolution and Evolution, respectively.

Happy 4th of July!

XII: Poor Valley Witch. Landon’s Path.

Welcome to the twelfth installment of Poor Valley Witch! This is a serial short story I’m writing as I go along, with minimal editing. I have to admit, it’s gotten a little creepier than I had expected. If you’re just tuning in, click here to go back to the beginning. Feel free to leave your comments below!

Read on, reader!

***

Landon and his mother trudged down the faded, cracked, asphalt road to hell. They passed the house trailer where Landon had run over the corpse of a dog, and two boys (heathens. minions. lost boys.) had drug it out from under the car by its leg. The old woman stood near the canted cement steps to her front door, watching silently as they went past.

Out of some sense of ironic fatalism, Landon raised a hand in greeting. She shook her head and he thought that was all she’d do, but she hesitated and then waved in return before turning and walking around the back of the trailer house. The boys were nowhere to be seen.

“Friend of yours?” his mother asked.

“Yeah,” he answered. “We go way back. I ran over her dog.” She looked over at him, perplexed by his glibness.

“It was already dead,” he said, as though this explained the whole story. They walked along a few more steps, heading into the woods. The light dimmed immediately, as though they’d crossed a substantial border. It felt nice under the trees, though; the morning sun was starting to get hot back there, baking up at them from the old blacktop.

Landon was about to open his mouth to say so, when a resounding CRACK sounded in the air, causing his heart to jump into his throat. This time it was he who put the “Mom-belt” in front of his mother, pushing her back in time to miss being hit by a falling tree by mere inches. They both fell back on their asses, breathing hard, studying the slim oak over the road in front of them. Slim by tree standards, but still substantial enough to have knocked them out, or worse.

“She’s trying to kill us!” Landon’s words came out in a high-pitched wheeze.

“No,” said his mom, struggling to get up. Shaking with adrenaline, Landon pushed himself up off the road and extended a hand to help her out. “No, if she wanted us dead, we’d be dead. Trust me. It’s cat and mouse.”

“Nice,” he answered. They flinched as more trees fell over the road beyond, one after the other like dominoes, except out of sequence. Their road had become vastly more difficult. The woods echoed with crackling limbs and the ground shivered beneath their feet with each impact.

“Nice,” said his mother, wryly. They looked at each other, still breathing heavily, then broke out into matching grins.

“So,” said Landon. “Are we being blocked, or herded?” The last trip he’d taken down this way—what, two days ago?—he had lost memory of this part of things. He’d ended up just outside the witch’s house, about to open the makeshift plywood door. But he’d chickened out, and she’d made fun of him, and he’d been spit out by the valley back in town, at the old gas station. So what was she doing with them now? More cat and mouse, but he had a gut feeling that she didn’t want to drive them away, just freak them out on their way to her.

Landon took his mother’s hand and started back the way they’d come, back toward the trailer house, toward the sunny part of the road.

“What are you doing?” she asked. She didn’t resist him, though; she sensed he was working an angle. She was just genuinely curious about his motive.

“Not sure yet. Trying to flush it out.”

“Flush what out?”

“That.” Landon stopped and nodded his head toward the two boys he’d seen at the trailer house a couple days earlier. They were around, after all, and they were peering out at them from up in a couple trees, just up the bank from where Landon and his mother stood on the road. “Them. I think we just found our guides to the path we’re supposed to take.”

The two travelers scrambled to climb the bank even as the two boys jumped down from their perches in the trees. They were shirtless, and dirty in the way that boys who play in the woods always are. They didn’t say anything, just turned and started walking away from the asphalt, up a path that wouldn’t have been visible from any vehicle down below.

Landon and his mother followed.

They hadn’t gone far when Landon realized he was alone with the boys. He stopped short, looking around wildly for his mother. She was gone. Gone. Disappeared, with no word, no sigh, no rustle of undergrowth. He opened his mouth to call out for her when one of the boys was suddenly by his side, taking his hand. Landon looked down, bewildered, and the boy shook his head, bringing one finger to his lips. Landon looked around again, hoping that his mom had only stepped off the path to pee, or something, but the boy tugged his hand insistently. He scooped air with his free hand toward the path, in the universal sign that meant “Come on! Get going!”

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Landon followed, his spirits plummeting. They’d said he’d have to sacrifice himself. Mamaw had mentioned it, first, and then his mom had said it outright. She’d said he’d have to give himself to the witch. It was the only way, she’d said. He had hoped, up until this moment, that she had a plan, some master, secret way to defeat the witch in the valley. He kept waiting for her to reveal it to him, on their walk. But she’d turned tail and run. Left him. That was it, after all.

The boys led him around the bend in the path. It was totally silent in the woods. Not even a bird trilled, or frog croaked. Nothing made noise except him, walking along the path. There was a building of some kind up ahead. An old outhouse, maybe, or a hunting shack. The boys trooped up to it and stopped, turning around and crossing their arms, standing sentry at either side of the doorway. He was supposed to go in.

Sighing, feeling strangely like he was on a conveyor belt—he certainly wasn’t directing his own feet, anymore—Landon went to the shack and peered into the deep gloom. There, on the floor, was a gleaming, white mint tin. The very one that held the nubbins. Landon instinctively felt the ring on his finger, making sure it was still there, that it hadn’t disappeared like his mother had. He shuffled through the doorway and bent to pick up the tin, but before he could get a grip on it he fell—and kept falling.

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“Here, hold this,” his mother’s voice whispered in his ear. “No, don’t look around, you won’t see me. But hold this, it helps with the vertigo.” Landon groped around until he found a stick and gripped it, hard. True to his mother’s words, his sensation of falling eased and he felt the solid dirt beneath his back. He couldn’t see a thing, not one photon of light. His eyes kept trying, kept sending little phantom shapes to his brain. He’d read that that happens, when people go into deep caves where there is no light at all. Their brains kept trying to create things to see.

“This is a safe place,” his mother said. “We made it safe from the witch. She controls all the roads in the valley, but other creatures have laid claim to the old paths in the woods. And this place, this old shack, is a very special place indeed.”

“Who … who’s we?” Now that Landon no longer felt like he was falling, he felt a bit nauseated. Carsick.

“I’m here, too, son,” his father’s voice spoke in the blackness. “I had to wait on the sidelines. Your mother and I, we’ve found the way to beat the witch. At least, we think so. But it’s all you. We tried. We looked for every solution, read every book, spoke to any weirdo who might have a better answer, but this is the only way.”

The relief and pleasure Landon felt at the sound of his dad’s voice ran out of him. “I have to sacrifice myself.” His parents’ silence was answer enough.

“And you have to …” his father began, but Landon had the distinct feeling his mother had shushed him up. She put the mint tin firmly into the hand Landon wasn’t using to clutch the stick.

“Take the nubbins,” she said. “Go to the witch. You’re almost there. Tell her you’re ready to give yourself up. Landon—and this is very important—you must hide the nubbins. Put them down in your underpants, if you have to. And go in to the house. You have to go in. All the way in.”

“I love you, son,” said his father’s voice in the dark. And with that, Landon was alone.

***