“Inspiration Strikes in the Strangest of Places”

(The estimated reading time for this is 4 minutes)

What would you do?  Would you stay—or would you be too scared?

Forget cruises, fancy destinations, and anything involving an airplane.  Give me a good road trip any day!  My boyfriend and I have driven through quite a lot of the Lower 48 over the years, with a ton of pictures to prove it.  We love to hit the back roads, to find the unusual and the weird.  The weirder, the better.

In the summer of 2013, we were roaming through the middle of nowhere (Middle of Nowhere being one of our favorite spots), hunting for a camp site we’d seen on our map app—when we had cell reception, that is.  By this point, there was no signal to be had, so we were off the grid, incommunicado, and hoping for the best.

After heading down a lonely dirt road for a while with nothing at all on either side, we saw what looked like a site amongst some trees and turned toward it.  The remains of what appeared to be a cow skeleton lay scattered right at the turnoff.  We pulled in farther, and lo and behold, there was a weathered old picnic table.  And not another soul in sight.  Not a vehicle.  Not nothing.  We’d found our place to stay for the night.

We started unloading the camping gear and getting the feel of the place.  There were some menacing-looking biting flies around, but nothing too bad.  We had a table (albeit a little the worse for wear), a fire ring, a nearby stream, trees surrounding the site, and what appeared to be an ancient wooden outhouse a short distance away at the end of a narrow path.  And we had it all to ourselves.  Cool.

Then we noticed the bonus feature:  skulls.  Skulls of all kinds.  In all sorts of places.

There was one on the picnic table that appeared to be from a deer-like creature.  Just sitting there on the far end, facing us, as if it’d been expecting guests.  There was what appeared to be a horse skull and another sheep- or elk-like creature’s skull fastened to the birch next to the site.  A bovine-looking skull lay on the ground on the other side of the picnic table.  Hung on another tree were more elongated skulls, like wolf or fox.  All the skulls were well-cleaned and in excellent condition.

While we were standing there trying to make sense of what we were seeing, something made a loud bang.  I nearly jumped out of my skin before realizing it was just the outhouse door slamming.  I hoped it was just due to wind.

But there wasn’t any wind.

Never did figure out why it picked right then to bang like that.

We stood very still and listened as hard as we could for sounds of humans, animals, anything.  What if some survivalist type had taken over the site and we’d walked into what he considered home?  We didn’t see other sites nearby.  This certainly wasn’t an organized and patrolled campground by any stretch of the imagination.  But there was nothing more.  Nothing but the buzz of some big black flies and the sound of the nearby creek coursing over stones and logs.

When had these skulls been left there?  By whom?  And why?  We stalked around, looking for answers and finding none.  Eventually, we decided whoever’d left them wasn’t going to join us—or at least we hoped not.  So, after watching some bats flit around for a while, we settled in for the night.  Nothing bad happened, and we left everything as we found it when we left the next day.

Of course, now a seed was planted in my head.  How could I not use this as the germ for a new tale?  At the time, I was still in the midst of writing Blockbuster, so I had to set the idea aside for a while.  When I wrapped Blockbuster up in early 2014, I decided I wanted to do something shorter—a novella—and I just had to use the skulls in there somehow.  And so began the concept for Skinshift.

The skulls made an inspiring image, a great start, but they were only that:  a start.  How to build a story around them?  What characters would I create, and what role would the skulls play?  As I noodled it around in my head, a character came to mind.  Dominic Donato.  He’s not a good man.  In fact, he’s a rather evil man.  He begins the story alone, injured and abandoned in the Mojave Desert, seething with rage and hell-bent on revenge.

Dominic learns some powerful new skills, skills that enable him to survive his ordeal, to convert his rage into action, and the skulls figure into this.  And that’s as much of a spoiler as you’re going to get out of me.  I hope you enjoy Skinshift, and that it makes you think twice the next time you’re driving along a desolate desert road and you see a vulture circling high in the air.  You’d better watch out.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

As always, thank you for your support and thanks for reading!

Pleasant dreams—or not,
Lisa von Biela

© 2015 – 2016, DarkFuse & individual contributors. All rights reserved.

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Lisa von Biela worked in Information Technology for 25 years, and still claims there is no application she cannot break in testing. She left the field to attend the University of Minnesota Law School, graduating magna cum laude in 2009. She now practices law in Seattle, Washington. One of her legal articles, a research piece published in the Food and Drug Law Journal, was cited in an amicus brief before the U.S. Supreme Court. She currently serves on the editorial board of the American Bar Association’s quarterly publication, The SciTech Lawyer. After placing 37th in the Personal Essay category of the 1999 Writer’s Digest contest, Lisa began to write short, dark fiction. Her first novel, The Genesis Code was published by DarkFuse.

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