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Paradise Retouched


To mark the first day of vacation, Jeff Caldwell, extremely jet lagged after a day of travel and two nights of little sleep, took a surfing lesson and broke his big toe by jumping off the board straight onto a shallow reef. Rather than spend hours in a waiting room, he returned to their rental house, found an emergency medical kit, taped his big toe to the one next to it, and crammed his foot into a shoe as if it were a cast. He had hoped to be done with shoes for the week, but flip-flops were now out of the question despite the balmy weather. Even having forgone medical attention, he ended up convinced that his family resented him for ruining their first day on the island. His wife’s initial sympathy faded to open annoyance well before nightfall. The kids never pretended to feel anything but inconvenienced.

On the second morning, less jet lagged but now in greater pain, and with a foot predominantly purple, he told his family they’d be better off without him. They had planned a day of road trips, hiking, and snorkeling—all things that would drive him to the point of unrestrained whining. He didn’t want to be that sort of burden.

“It’s no sacrifice,” he said. “I’m not even feeling sorry for myself. I’ll lie out there on the chaise lounge and enjoy the incredible view! And if that gets boring, I brought some work with me.”

Jess and Jeremy were in the van before he finished making his case. Janet required a bit more convincing. “If we pass a drugstore, I’ll pick up a crutch,” she said at last. “You can’t lie around for the whole week.”

“Don’t waste time on that,” he said. “Just have fun. I can get around ok if I keep all the weight on my heel. It’s bound to be better tomorrow.”

As soon as they were gone, he got out his tablet and set up the small color printer/scanner that constituted his traveling office. A graphic designer, Jeff never went anywhere without the basics, and he always had some client work to keep him busy, even if it was not what he had planned for the day. Trying to ignore the throbbing of his foot, he settled down at the glass-topped dining table. The room was mostly windows, through which he could gaze at a wide crescent of coastline where waves foamed over a gnarled black reef so close he could have stood on it to fish . . . if only he could have stood at all. Beyond a deck with two chaise lounges, steps ran right down to a sandy lawn. A fringe of broad-leafed naupaka marked the property line, and beyond that was the beach. The February surf rattled the sliding doors. A steady breeze wafted through salt-crusted louvers too corroded to close. He closed his eyes, imagining his family in their rented van, driving with the windows down, following the trade winds to a fish taco truck. Then restlessness crashed over him, spoiling his flimsy pretense of contentment.

Irritated now, he tried to get the internet on his tablet but failed to find a connection. Hell. He levered himself from the chair and limped down the dim hall, away from the ocean view. Janet had left a bottle of Tylenol on the bathroom counter; he swallowed a few capsules, ducking to gulp from the tap. Coming out of the bathroom, he was momentarily mesmerized by the sea, which shone like a banner stretched across the hall. The sunlight settled in glimmering panes of glass. He cringed and laughed when he realized that in his exhaustion and pain, he had not noticed them earlier.

Really? Family photographs?

They made the hall into an informal portrait gallery, a generational study of people he had never met and never would. Faded family gatherings, grandparents and infants and everything in between, captured against backdrops so tropical they were practically clichés. Candid photographs of youngsters tumbling on the sand or wading in surf, near the very rocks he saw beyond the deck. He suspected that if he spent enough time and care, he would find entire life spans documented here—from a first baby-toe dipped in the tides to that same child as an adult, baptizing their own offspring in the waves.

Jeff found it all quite horrible.

Over the past decade, the Caldwells had stayed in a dozen vacation homes. Janet suffered from allergies, and it was absurd the variety of noxiously scented or dust-catching objects homeowners thought appropriate for decorating their rentals. Jeff was used to transferring dried flower arrangements into broom closets or sealing powdery potpourri sachets into Tupperware containers so that she didn’t have to handle or smell them.

But Jeff himself had something subtler than allergies. Family photographs, instead of making him sneeze or causing his eyes to itch, disturbed him on a primal level.

Such photos were an invasive presence, a disapproving spectre that pretended to smile and nod, urging you to relax and enjoy yourself, all the while reminding you that this was someone else’s home. The owners might walk back in at any moment. You were not really welcome, so you shouldn’t get too comfortable. As well as being inappropriately intimate, they also smacked of desperation. They hinted that the owners were in dire financial straits. Jeff imagined the original family camped in a cheap motel or hiding in the crawl-space, waiting for the trespassers to leave. He reacted badly to the passive-aggressive assault on his own family. The photos struck him as simultaneously pathetic and arrogant, like a cringing dominatrix. On previous occasions he had felt both offended and attacked, but with the whole afternoon stretching ahead of him, and no internet escape valve, he realized that today he had the time and the tools to fight back.

Leaning against the wall, he perused the selection and chose a faded color photograph in an eight-by-ten dime-store frame. He carried it back to the sunny dining room and set it on the table next to his scanner, then began to rummage through kitchen drawers. He quickly located the junk drawer, its contents not much different than theirs at home. He dug out a small flathead screwdriver, a pair of scissors, a roll of Scotch tape, then finally settled himself at the dining table with his feet in a reasonably comfortable position.

The picture frame was nothing fancy, its clips easily pried up, the cardboard backing plucked out. In less than a minute he had freed the photograph and was able to inspect it. The back had been taped twice to reinforce slight cracks before they tore apart. He laid the photo carefully on the scanner bed and copied the image to his tablet.

Jeff studied the nameless family. In this photo they were grouped on the sand, children squinting into the sun, adults in sunglasses and straw hats. A retriever of some pale shade sat at the side of the group, good dog, straining to get away from the kneeling boy who gripped its collar. A sullen teenage girl lay in front of the rest, her head on an outstretched arm, the other arm thrown across her body, that hand buried in the sand. From the faded hues and the bathing attire, he suspected the photo dated from the ’80s. There was plenty here to play with, so he got to work.

He started with the dog. With a light touch of the stylus, he dragged its jowls into soft tendrils, as if its flesh were drool. He narrowed the eyes into soft slits and added the slightest tint of red to the pupils. That was probably enough. At a glance, it all blended well, nothing screamed fake. He moved on to the girl in the foreground, the one with her hand jammed in the sand. Adding a suggestion of turbulence, as of a vortex forming around her wrist, he extended the sandy grain up along her arm so that it looked like crumbly, filamentous strands reaching from below, about to engulf her. He softened the arm that lay across her face until it appeared to follow the contours of her skull, boneless. Jeff returned to the boy who had hold of the dog and altered his expression slightly, making the smile a bit more rigid, drawing down one eyebrow and elevating the other to suggest a sinister smirk. Then he decided the smile was too subtle, so he smeared it out completely, blending the lower part of the face to make the boy mouthless. He touched briefly on a few more faces in the gathering, but left most of them unaltered. To get too extreme would betray his artifice. Thinking of all the other photos waiting in the hall, he made one test print and compared it to the original. He sharpened the digital grain and dulled the tone a bit to improve the match. The second print he judged good enough for purposes of a quick and dirty prank.

Jeff put the altered print in the picture frame and laid the original behind it, then set the cardboard backing in place and flattened out the metal strips that secured it.

Holding it up in the brilliant seaside light, he wondered if he might have been too restrained. You had to really study the photo to see the alterations. Still, it was a start. He could try a bit more exaggeration on the next one. He rehung the photo on its hook in the hall and took down the one next to it. At this rate, he judged he would be able to get through most of the gallery, but he had not reckoned with the throbbing of his toe. As soon as the process began to resemble work, an assigned task with a deadline, he found his mind slipping back to his injury. By the time he’d retouched the fifth image, elements of drudgery had crept into what he once envisioned as an infinitely amusing act of mischief. Now he just wanted to be done with it.

Having finished the morning coffee, he brewed a fresh pot of Kona and fixed himself some lunch, and eventually went back down the hall to select another photo. He was just scanning that one when a text arrived from Janet, saying they had found the water too murky for snorkeling, beaches cold, trails muddy. The kids wanted to come back and try the waves in front of the house.

He still had time to finish the sixth image, a portrait of a young woman leaning against a palm tree, sipping something from a coconut with a bright green plastic straw. Jeff had found he got the most mileage by adding menacing shapes to the sand itself. Shadows of skulls, suggestions of tentacles, mouths or eyes or grasping skeletal hands. In this image, he smoothed the texture of the palm tree until it resembled a column of bone. To give the girl a family resemblance to the boy he’d first altered, he closed up her mouth completely, so that the green straw now appeared to pierce a taut membrane of skin, as if she were drinking through a hypodermic needle. Whatever fluid filled the coconut, he retinted a red so faint and faded that it didn’t stand out or otherwise catch the eye.

He had just finished hanging the photo when he heard the van pull up outside, the doors slamming, the laughter and complaints of his kids. He limped to the door, barely avoided getting slammed as they threw it open and rushed past him down the hall. Janet paused long enough to give him a kiss and a pineapple. “Make us piña coladas,” she said, and followed the kids.

The next day started off with drizzle, which turned to a downpour, putting beach plans on hold. Jeff relented to Janet’s insistence and they watched the worst of the storm from the waiting room of an urgent care clinic. With his foot properly taped and now in a rigid brace, they eventually emerged into steamy sunshine. His ability to get around improved daily. There were no more lonely afternoons to tamper with the photographs. Jeff waited for one of the kids to notice the alterations so he could pretend innocence, but eventually he forgot about the prank altogether. No one ever stopped in the hall to study the strange family photos. The kids were too busy taking cellphone photos, or borrowing his tablet to play games, forming their own vacation memories.

On their last morning, holding the door while Jess and Jeremy carried luggage out to the van, Jeff gazed back into the hall and realized he had forgotten to undo his prank. There was no time now to retrieve the fake photos.

Oh well. He wondered if anyone would ever notice.


Island Paradise Reality and Property Management
4-400 Milolau Street
Honukai, HI

Mr. Warren Allister
99874 Camino Vista Drive
Rancho Cordoba, CA

Re: Nene Road Property

Dear Warren,

I am writing to follow up on our brief phone conversation, since it was hard to understand you, and I wasn’t sure if you could hear me either. Phone service on the North Shore has not improved much since you last lived here.

As I said on the phone, there have been no issues with the house until recently. Kailani Nakoa cleans quite a few of our properties and is very reliable. I spoke with her yesterday and she mentioned hearing rumors she never took seriously because of the source. I guess there was talk in the neighborhood beginning last year, and looking through my own notes, I found a few incidents that never got to where they seemed worth bothering you about.

Early last March, for example, I got a text from a family that had booked the house for two weeks. Five days into their stay, Ms. Alba asked if I had any other properties where they could move for the rest of their vacation. As I recall, her son was having nightmares and she wanted to know if the house was built on an iwi or any other sort of sacred ground. I reassured her that before it became a vacation rental it had been shared year-round by many generations of Allisters. When she used the Hawaiian word “iwi” instead of saying “graveyard,” I knew she must have been talking to a local.

Turns out the little Alba boy had talked to a woman they met on the road and told her he was scared of the beach because of “bad things in the sand,” skeletons and such. There were two drownings in February, which were in the news at the time, and I thought he might have heard enough to scare him. When Ms. Alba said she got the word “iwi” from the woman on the road, right away I figured she met Kate Rapoza.

I’m sure you remember “Kapu Kate.” The colorful character of your youth has had some hard years lately. She was always a gossip, and could never tell a story without making it sound like a warning, but she was never malicious and always kept real aloha, even to visitors. I don’t think she thought about how her remarks might affect a child.

Anyway, she told that poor little boy his nightmares were real. She said the house was built on the site of an iwi, and he must be picking up on the restlessness of all the ancestors buried there. Kate told our renter there was a vicious fight to save the property, locals versus developers, protests, all that. Ms. Alba thought they were living in some kind of Poltergeist house. That night the boy’s nightmares got so bad that she decided to ask about moving.

Of course I explained the rumors were not true! It would have been funny if the boy wasn’t so upset. First of all, I said Kate was mistaken about the property. You Allister guys were off island by then, but in 2007 there was an uproar about Chris Grenville’s plans to build his huge house on a clearly identified iwi. That parcel is two blocks east of yours and not even on Nene. I explained that your home was built in the ‘60s, and even when the remodel took place in 2005, there were no cultural issues. I said Hawaiian families had lived on this shore for over a thousand years and if anything your land was unusual because there were never any signs of burials, not when the plot was originally cleared or when the new septic was put in. Few homesteads in the area can say this!

But Ms. Alba elected to listen to Kate Rapoza over me. Kate speaks with great authority, especially to visitors. The nightmares got worse, to the point where the little boy would scream if they tried to set him on the sand. It was not much of a beach vacation. The Albas told me the next day that they would be leaving immediately. I don’t know if they found another rental or moved into a hotel. I refunded their cleaning deposit and that check was cashed. They never contacted me again.

That should have been the end of it. But Kapu Kate kept things going.

In mid-summer, I had another complaint—not about the house, so I didn’t bother you with it. A renter emailed to tell me that someone was spending a lot of time on the beach watching the place. Compared to lifeguarded beaches, such as Hollows to the west, the cove at Nene is usually quiet, but every now and then some local will set up a fish-camp and stay for a few days or a week. They said some lady came by several times a day. She would walk up to the planted property line and look at the house, trying to see under it. There’s nothing of value there except beach chairs and such, but they were worried she might be a burglar. From their description, I figured it was Kate and I told them she was friendly. I suggested they just talk to her—which was my mistake. Two days later, they called back. They weren’t worried about Kate anymore, just everything else. Kate was still talking about the iwi, but she had added details from the Alba boy’s nightmares. She told them “all the locals” knew the house was cursed. So the renters now felt like the neighbors hated them for violating some kapu. I reassured them that most of the houses around them were vacation rentals and there were hardly any locals in the area anymore . . . which is true enough. Most of the people they ran into were likely to be visitors just like them. I guess I calmed them because they finished out their week without further complaints, and even left a good review on the website.

After this, several months of no complaints. A dozen or so families stayed without issue. I suppose now that rumors were snowballing, but either the renters never heard them, or they never thought to involve me. I did find several reviews on an internet B&B site from this period. One from August says simply, “Creepy!” But that is also a four-star review so I don’t know what to think. A user going by the name of “Localady” marked that review as helpful, then added, “KAPU! STAY AWAY!!!” I suspect Localady was our friend Kate, but who knows? According to Kailani Nakoa, Kate’s family moved her to the mainland recently for “evaluation.” Even out of the picture, she still had an influence.

For the rest of it, I am piecing together information from what the police told me and what I knew personally about our final renter, Nathan Stuck. Mr. Stuck is a San Diego resident with family ties to the islands. When he first applied to rent the house, he said he had spent summers on the North Shore as a boy, right here in Honukai, and looked forward to reconnecting with old memories. He wanted to rent the house for two weeks, but the second week was already booked; he offered to extend his stay if the other booking fell through. I had no interaction with him other than my usual courtesy call on the morning after his arrival. He said everything was in order.

If the police had evidence that Stuck was responsible for what followed, they might have held him. But they did not arrest him, so the statement he made was informal and reported second-hand to me by Office Kanigae from his notes. Stuck had already returned to San Diego by the time I got to Nene Road, and I have been unable to reach him. Your insurance company may wish to question him. His website describes him as an archaeologist, anthropologist, author, and speaker on folklore, myth, and the occult—specializing in Pacific Rim and Polynesian studies. A quick search shows he has been in trouble for digging in sensitive sites in South America, Micronesia, and Maui. Even so, it is a stretch to see how he could be blamed for what happened.

On his website, Mr. Stuck calls himself a defender of threatened cultures. Officer Kanigae said Stuck had heard about the house online, on some private tourist message board devoted to ghost tours. In line with Kapu Kate’s story, he thought the community had rallied against violation of a sacred burial site and that construction had gone on in defiance of local leaders. He considered it his duty to purify the defiled iwi (he specifically mentioned “skulls in the sand” to Officer K) and bring peace to the ancestors through some sort of ritual. Obviously this would have been culturally inappropriate. It is common for bones to emerge from the sand in winter storms, and we know just to rebury them without any fuss in most cases. It sounds like Mr. Stuck was planning some sort of exorcism.

According to Office Kanigae, Mr. Stuck’s first day on the island, he bought a shovel, some rolls of black construction fabric, and a work light. Then he stapled the sheeting around the frame of the house so he could work underneath it without being observed from the beach or adjacent yards. The house to the east of yours, the Volokov place, is in escrow and has been uninhabited for about half a year; the Siggurdson house to the west was rented, but the vacationers had already vacated before I arrived.

On day two, in the privacy of the construction fabric, Mr. Stuck lit some incense, waved a bunch of ti leaves, and recited some chants. Then he started digging in the sandy area beneath the house. He told Officer K that the sand opened under him faster than he could shovel, which he took as a sign that he had found a chamber created by burials. Meanwhile, he was unaware of the worsening weather. Last week we had torrential rains, with frequent flooding all along the North Shore. Even though Nene Road is free of active streams, new watercourses appeared in places never seen before, thanks to heavy runoff from the mountains. A hydrologist will have to weigh in on this, but it seems possible a fresh course cut directly under your house and formed a sinkhole right where Mr. Stuck was digging. He told Officer Kanigae that the sand began to swirl like a whirlpool, pulling the shovel out of his grip. Archaeological excitement turned into a desire to save himself. The worklight went into the sinkhole, cord and all, making it too dark to see. Officer K tells me Mr. Stuck had less plausible things to add, such as something that grabbed his ankle and wouldn’t let go until he chanted at it. He was understandably overexcited. Fortunately, he managed to climb out of the sinkhole, but by the time he got out from under the house, he discovered the storm in full force and the yard partly under water. He did not feel safe going inside, as the whole structure was beginning to tilt. He ran down the road until he found someone at another unit I manage. From here, he called the police, though no emergency crews were able to get out until nearly nightfall, once the rain had stopped and the flooding had subsided enough to make the roads passable.

After notifying the police, Mr. Stuck called me to say that he would be leaving since the house was uninhabitable. As an indication of his state of mind, when I asked for details about the property, he did not even mention the flooding but only wanted to talk about restless spirits and things of that nature. My first thought was that Kapu Kate was back.

I did not realize the extent of actual damage until the next day, when I was finally allowed into the neighborhood to check on the various properties I manage. Officer Kanigae was on hand to make sure I didn’t injure myself. Needless to say, Mr. Stuck’s message had not prepared me for the devastation.

I hope you receive this letter before your flight, and I look forward to meeting with you as soon as you are back on island. Please let me know your schedule and if you would like to meet on Nene Road so we can discuss next steps. Photographs of the site, as well as Officer Kanigae’s contact information, are attached. I’m sorry the photos aren’t better, but I was nervous about getting much closer. Many properties received extensive damage from the storm, but none to such an extent as yours. It was a lovely home and brought joy to many families over the years, in addition to your own. You have my deepest sympathy.


Phyllis Kanahoa R(B), CRB, SFR
Owner, Island Paradise Realty and Property Management


“While you guys are settling in, I’m going to take a stroll,” Jeff Caldwell informed the rest of the family. “Maybe do some sketching, appreciate this beach I couldn’t actually walk on last year.”

“Have you signed up for your traditional Day One surfing lesson?” Janet asked.

“Very funny,” he said, and, carrying nothing but his tablet, started walking.

The clouds were scattered, moving fast, the breeze balmy, and the sun spread like warm honey over his shoulders. Everything felt much nicer, more welcoming, than last February. The house they’d rented this year was somewhat smaller than the last, but as long as the weather stayed fine, they wouldn’t be indoors much anyway. The new place was more of a glorified shack than an actual house, but it was the only thing available by the time they made their reservations. Not exactly on the sand, but with a spectacular view of the mountains and one foamy white waterfall; grapefruit and avocados ripe on the trees in the yard. The decor was determinedly neutral and inoffensive. Carved koa wood fruitbowls and canoe paddles mounted on the walls. Guide books listing local dining spots. Some old Hawaiian kitsch, posters of breaking waves and prop planes flying over Diamond Head. An untuned ukulele. No dried flowers.

And no family photographs.

He’d always felt a little bad about his prank at the last house, and occasionally wondered if anyone would notice, or if the property management company might call him to complain. He had planned to rent the house again this year, which would have given him a chance to retrieve his work, but the place was not available for booking. Janet, after looking but failing to find it in the North Shore property listings, confessed her relief: “I wasn’t crazy about that place anyway. I mean, the location was spectacular but the house itself . . . kind of creepy.”

“Creepy? How?” Jeff fishing for details, hoping she’d mention the photos so that he could confess his prank and they’d share a laugh.

“I don’t know. The kids didn’t like it either. Just a little weird. Like something bad had happened there, or was about to.”

So they had rented this other place, the big shack, and it was fine. The kids were happy being at most an extra ninety seconds from the beach.

Fifteen minutes into his walk, Jeff looked up from the shell-strewn sand and saw the low reef where last year the waves had crashed and foamed so dramatically. The surf was placid today, the rocks exposed, inviting him to walk out across them—except that he didn’t want to risk getting the tablet wet. He’d have to come back with his fishing pole. In the meantime, he contented himself by taking a photograph with the tablet’s camera, thinking that it might make the beginnings of a painting.

When he reached the end-point of the curving bay, he stopped and looked back, puzzled. How had he missed the house? The shrubby broad-leafed naupaka grew in pale green thickets here, encouraged for privacy, which might explain how he’d walked right past it. He back-tracked on the sand until his view of the rocks matched last year’s memories, then turned away from the ocean and looked up where he expected to see the house.

A couple other beachgoers stood on the sandy rise, gazing in the same direction. They appeared overdressed for such a beautiful day, but tourists were funny. Jeff himself was barefoot and wore nothing but board shorts and a subdued Hawaiian shirt, perfect for a balmy morning; but many people wrapped up against the sun. And locals often claimed they were freezing at this time of year, driven to sweaters and fur-lined boots, which he found hilarious. These folks were not quite as extreme, but they still made him feel pale and exposed as he walked up beside them and peered along the path through the shrubs.

Where was the house? He saw nothing but sparse grass and sand. Was it really the same property? He took a few steps forward, speaking sidelong to one of the others—a woman chilly enough to have a scarf wrapped nearly up to her nose.

“We stayed here last year,” he said, wondering if he ought to ask permission, just to stay on the good side of the locals. His unformed question died as he stepped into the yard.

“What the hell?”

Where the house had been was a broad, uneven patch of sand, fringed by bedraggled centipede grass. He picked out landmarks. There was the bald muddy spot where they’d parked the car; beyond it were the twin palms where the kids had hung a hammock. And right where he stood, just here, was exactly where the steps had come down from the deck to the sand.

He walked to the center of the roughly rectangular area. The sand looked disturbed, as if it had been dug up and turned and then smoothed with the back of a shovel. A field of grainy hummocks, slightly sunken in the middle. He traced a small spiral with a toe and tried to picture the former dimensions of the house. The hallway had opened into the living room right above this spot. Down here had been nothing but beach chairs, paddle boards, corroded lawn furniture. He remembered looking into the cool shade under the house and thinking it would make a nice retreat on a hot day, but no day had been hot enough last February.

So weird. And how disappointing to think that his photographs were gone now. He really should have taken them with him.

Then he laughed. The doctored images were still right here on his tablet. Maybe he’d show them to the rest of the family. They’d have a good laugh, a funny story to tell forever. He’d bring them here to look at the site.

The other two had taken a few steps across the property line, emboldened by his example. The man made a muffled quizzical sound through his wraps. Then the woman whistled. A yellow dog burst from the naupaka hedge and came trotting across the yard. It stopped by Jeff and sniffed his leg. He bent to pat it, but something made him straighten. The sand quaked gelatinously underfoot.

“I stayed here exactly a year ago,” he said, as the others came closer. “I wonder what happened to the house. Do you know?”

One of his legs had sunk to the ankle in the sand. He pulled it loose, but that just worked the other one in.

Glancing down, he found himself remembering the retouching he’d done on the photographs, how he’d played the grain of the photograph against the grains of sand, smearing them into coiled shapes like the ones that swirled around his feet.

Jeff grimaced at the memory and looked up at the couple. A breeze caught in the woman’s scarf and blew it aside, and he stumbled back because of what he didn’t see there. Both feet were freed now, he ought to get going. The man moved another step closer, uncovering his face. The family resemblance was plain.

“I’ll just leave by the road.”

Jeff backed away. They said nothing to stop him. They couldn’t. The woman whistled again, a high and piercing note through a very small hole. This time, the dog grasped him firmly by the ankle, its tendrils sharper than they looked, and irresistible.

Marc Laidlaw

Marc Laidlaw

Marc Laidlaw is the author of six novels, including the International Horror Guild Award winner, The 37th Mandala. His short stories have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies since the 1970s. In 1997, he joined Valve Software, and over the next nearly two decades, worked as lead writer on the popular Half-Life and Dota 2 franchises. In 2016, he retired to resume writing his own stories. Recent publications include a novella, White Spawn, available as a chapbook and ebook from PS Publishing. Updates and other things may be found at his website,