Keller Writers’ Association Anthology 2017
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales, is entirely coincidental. Shakespir Edition.
Each story or poem in this book is copyright 2017 by their respective authors. All rights reserved.
Formatted at PrestigeEditing.blogspot.com
Mary Lou Jaeger
Patrick Lee Marshall
Dedicated to all those who dream of writing and work hard to achieve it.
And to our member Berry Hawkins
who recorded good health until lung cancer pushed him kicking and screaming into the autumn of his life.
Mary Ellen Gorman
as fascinating as she was kind
Cover photo taken by Keller local Andrea S. Marshall
So, what’s this for, you say?
Maybe I just want to play.
What’s that? You don’t believe me?
Then perhaps it could be free
Verse, of course, my friend
Just watch for what I send.
They really wanted something new
Not the standard “violets are blue”
And even though couplets are not in
Writing them is not a sin.
But why, oh why, would I persist
In a style I frankly resist?
We, the word nerds, agreed to unite
Each shining our own unique light
Whether through poem, story or book
We’re giving you a place to look.
It’s not high tech psychology,
Just think Association Anthology!
Mary Lou Jaeger
February 22, 2016
IN TWO HOURS, my dog will be dead.
For years, Bumper and I battled her decline. Her hearing was the first to go. Her mind went next. Flowerbeds that she avoided for a decade she now trampled. She grew to hate her dog food and ignored favorite treats as if she lost her sense of smell. Sleeping during the day and pacing at night made me think she was nocturnal.
When she started urinating on the carpet, I confined her to a large cage in the dining room. We established a routine. When I was ready to exercise, so was she. When I took a break, she woke up and took one with me. That worked well for over a year.
But there were accidents. I’d let her outside to do her business and when she was ready to come inside, she did it on my carpet instead. If I lost track of time, I’d have to clean her cage, the kitchen floor, or the carpet.
Her mind was turning off, slowly.
She adopted a new habit about a month before she died: yelping. Ignoring her didn’t work. I began anticipating her midnight songs. I closed the bedroom door. I tried earplugs. I couldn’t block her crying. Sleeping became difficult. I bribed her with treats to quiet her, but nothing I tried worked for more than two days.
On nights when I lost my patience, I moved her into a smaller cage in the garage. That put another wall between her yelping and me, but I could still hear her. My lack of sleep was becoming a problem. My quality of life was deteriorating. Her behavior was exhausting my supply of patience. I contemplated dropping her off at a shelter to let them deal with her.
I thought the evenings were safe. One night, I went out and returned five hours later to the stench of uncontrolled diarrhea.
A week before she died, she threw up and had bowel problems. This happened once before, but all it took then was a shot to calm her digestive tract and an antibiotic.
I took her to the vet on Monday. I wasn’t worried. The vet wasn’t worried. Bumper’s mind told her, “It’s time to stop eating, and it’s time to stop drinking.” Plus, she had diarrhea. They kept her for the day and gave her fluids. Her blood work said her internal organs were fine, but a high protein diet had stressed her kidneys and liver.
No problem, I thought. Let her recover and then ease into a low protein dog food.
The vet prescribed an anti-diarrheal medication. That night, it didn’t work. Her cage was a mess. She was a mess, and my house smelled like a toilet. On Tuesday, the vet recommended increasing the dosage.
That night, I moved her crate outside because I needed quiet to sleep. Instead, guilt got me up twice to check on her and to wash off the excrement. In the morning, she was sleeping in her mess. Flies were circling. She was soaked and shivering.
I was horrified. What had I done?
Another visit to the vet hydrated her on Wednesday. Same building, different vet, more money. This vet offered to put her down. That was just two days after the last visit. One vet gave me hope, the other took it away. I needed more time, so I brought her home.
Bumper spent the last night of her life crying in short yelps, as if she knew death was coming, pleading with me to let it come or hold it off. I didn’t know which.
I held her. I talked to her. She quieted down, and I went back to my bedroom to sleep, but she started yelping again. I spent more time with her. My words and my comfort were not enough. She wouldn’t stop crying. That’s how we spent the night, my trying to sleep and my dog making sure I wouldn’t. I couldn’t take another night like this. Not one more. I decided then to have her put down. I couldn’t fight a mind that said it was time to die.
In the morning, her yelping woke me. She was crying, but not from pain. Never from pain. She was scared and alone and that’s why she cried. It was a side effect of her mental decline. Either she didn’t have anything left or the anti-diarrheal drug finally worked. Her cage was clean.
I took her for a walk. She loved our walks. “We’ll see the sunrise together,” I told her. So we strolled down the road, toward the sun, watching it rise over a field of grass and oaks as mist played tag with the sun’s rays. Her black hair contrasted with the birth of a new day.
We stopped for a moment to ponder the beauty of nature and watch the sun bring life to the world. The scent of summer’s blossoms and cut grass tickled my nose.
I hated turning back toward home. To do so was to approach death. That’s how I felt. But I had no choice. After nearly fifteen years of being together, the end of her life was an hour distant.
On the way back, she became exhausted. I carried her. Her weight was nothing compared to the heaviness in my heart. She stopped staring at me and turned to watch our progress. That gesture made me feel abandoned. She was looking forward to death.
At home, she lay napping in my lap for forty-five minutes, waiting for the vet appointment. I combed my fingers through her hair, offering comfort, my tears falling like showers on a cloudy day because I knew what was coming.
The vet took her into the back room, inserted a catheter, and then returned with Bumper. She injected the drug and chased it with a syringe of fluid. Thirty seconds later, it was over. Bumper died at 9:13 on July 10, 2014 of an overdose of pentobarbital.
The vet and assistant left the room, and I spent a few minutes alone with Bumper. Her eyes were open as if she could still see me. Her body, limp. I picked her up and held her like a baby over my shoulder. My tears spilled. Lots of tears. Tears that spoke of sadness and regret and guilt.
I just had my best friend killed.
HE DIDN’T SAY no to me. He knew better. I’d leave him in my dust. Mikey’s just a three-year old pest, but sometimes he’s useful. I’m Jason. I’m nine, and I know I was never as annoying as Mikey at any age.
He gets that from my family. Even I know that you don’t try to reason with a three-year old.
“Now, Mikey, you need to eat your sandwich. Just finish half.” My mother has even cut the crusts off.
See what I mean? I’m done eating and I’m ready to bang my head on the table.
“Please, Mikey.” My mother is almost on her knees.
“Not gonna happen.”
I have plans for the kid. I’m going to sacrifice him to the space aliens – one pesky brother in exchange for the lives of all on the planet. I’ll be a hero and no one will ever break my toys again.
My friend, Speedy Sparkles, knows there are aliens for sure. He says, “You see pictures of them, right? So, the artists must have met some aliens from outer space.”
Makes sense to me. Speedy is very smart.
“Mikey, if you eat your sandwich I’ll make you some chocolate milk.”
I’ve had enough and glare at him. “Mikey, I’m going outside now.”
“He shoves the half sandwich in his mouth and we run outside. Tessa follows us. She’s a German Shepherd and thinks she can boss us around. I figure I’ll give her to the space aliens too.
“Don’t go far,” warns my mother. She says the same thing every time. At least she didn’t say, “Don’t give your brother to the space aliens.” That would have ruined everything. Luckily, she just thinks like a boring mom.
I run to the baseball field. Speedy said the space aliens land in fields, and this one is the only field we’re allowed to go to. Mikey has fat little legs and I have to wait for him before we cross the street. “Come on.” I grab his hand and haul him across. His pants are so baggy that he falls several times and I haul him up, hoping none of my friends are around. Tessa follows in her bossy-I’m-guarding-them way.
The baseball field is empty, which is unusual. I frown. The space aliens must be here and zapped everyone. “Hey, space aliens. I need to talk to you. Don’t zap me.”
“Space awiens,” yells my brother. He can’t even talk right.
Suddenly, Tessa is on the alert glaring at something in the trees at the edge of the park, her hackles up and her growl low and deep. So, of course, I run in that direction. Tessa can’t decide if she should go with me, or stay with Mikey-short-legs, so she races back and forth.
I get to the trees and sure enough, there’s a little glowing space ship with two kid-sized bald people walking cautiously around. They must have changed to look like us to fit in. They both have baseball uniforms on.
The bigger one points his space gun at me. “No!” I yell and jump to the right as the gun goes off with a bright light that disintegrates a bush.
Tessa attacks and the gun falls out of the space alien’s hands. I pick it up, point it, and grab Tessa’s chain collar.
“I don’t want to hurt you. I just want to talk.” I look brave behind my snarling dog.
The space aliens seem to absorb the words and their faces look intense and calculating. Then the bigger one says in a flat monotone, “We can now communicate with you and your simple language. What do you want?”
I grab Mikey by the arm and say, “I’ll give you my brother if you spare our world.”
The taller human-like figure grabs the smaller one. “Only if you take my little brother.”
“What? No way! I don’t want that weird looking kid.”
“He’s much better than your stupid brother.”
“You can’t call my brother stupid!” I launch at him. Tessa whines and paces back and forth, trying to grab the space alien as we roll and wrestle in the dirt.
Mikey and the space-little-brother touch each other’s noses and laugh. Then do it again. They’re both weird.
Finally I yell, “Stop.” I struggle to catch my breath. “Truce.”
We jump apart eyeing each other as we get up. I wipe the blood from my nose. He wipes something green and oozy from his face. Looks like they were able to copy some human traits, but not our bloody guts.
“Ok. Let’s just agree that little brothers are a pest everywhere in the whole universe. Since we’re so much alike, then you shouldn’t destroy us.” I’m standing and gasping for breath as I try to think fast. Where did that space gun go? Oh, Tessa has it in her mouth.
The space-little brother touches Mikey. They laugh. We look at them and moan.
The older space alien seems to think for awhile. “Maybe our two worlds are so much alike that if I destroy this one, then I destroy mine also.”
Wow! He’s as smart as Speedy.
Suddenly, in a poof of white lightning the space aliens disappear and the little space ship silently zips out of sight.
Tessa gets all bossy and grabs my arm and drags me out of there. Mikey follows. We get to the field which suddenly is filled with people again.
“Let go of me, Tessa.” She opens her mouth and I jerk my arm out. “Yuck, slobber!” Tessa is sitting and tilting her head at me. “All right, you win. You saved us.” She stands and wags her tail. I rough her fur up like she likes.
“I want space awiens.” Mikey sniffs. I look down at his sad face. He’s not much, but he’s MY pesky brother. “Don’t worry, Mikey. We’ll see the space aliens again someday.”
Mikey smiles and wipes his snotty nose on his hand.
Yuck! I find a little part of his hand that’s not snotty and grab it to haul him across the street. Plan B to Get Rid of Pesky Brothers is already hatching in my head.
When All Hope is Gone
I pull my lifeless aloe plant
from the outside planter.
Ready to toss out the dead.
I pull it, and see
fresh green shoots on the roots –
so young and alive and full of hope.
just beneath the surface
where I can’t see.
I Can Write!
Do I write
for sheer delight?
for shouting to the world
what they need to know?
Lift the Blinds
I lift the window blinds
and there’s the day!
Blue Texas sky,
colorful flowers spilling from pots and garden.
God took care of it all while I slept.
Her world is
to be near her mother’s heart.
Thub lub. Thub lub.
You’re loved. You’re loved.
to be near her mother’s heart.
Thub lub. Thub lub.
You’re loved. You’re loved.
to be near her mother’s heart.
Thub lub. Thub lub.
You’re loved. You’re loved.
to be near her mother’s heart.
Thub lub. Thub lub.
You’re loved. You’re loved.
to be near her mother’s heart.
Thub lub. Thub lub.
You’re loved. You’re loved.
MY DADDY loved to fish, and he was good at it. We could fish all day, and I’d barely get a nudge on my hook, while my dad reeled in fish after fish. Trout was a familiar meal at our house.
Sometimes my dad would clean the fish at the river, but most of the time the cleaning took place at our home. My cousin, Annette, and I were playing in the front yard with some of my friends when dad drove in from his fishing adventure that day. We both went running toward the car.
“Did you catch any?” I asked, even though I already knew the answer. My dad always caught some.
“You’ll see,” he said, as he opened the cooler for us.
“Wow!” exclaimed Annette, as she viewed the cooler more than half full of fish. We were definitely having a fish fry tonight. Dad picked up the cooler and headed towards the house. Occasionally, Dad would clean them outside, or ask Mom to do this messy job. However, today he was doing the honors himself. Dad brought the bucket of fish right into our small trailer kitchen. One by one he took them off the line they had earlier been strung on and began piling them in our kitchen sink. For me, this was great fun, but of course, I wasn’t getting my hands dirty. My dad would take the fish, one at a time, and place them on a cutting board. He positioned the cutting board on the countertop right beside our kitchen sink. Dad would pull out his trusty pocketknife and off would go the head. Dad would just kind of flip it over in the sink, and there’s where he started his pile of fish remains.
Once the head was off, he took an object similar to a pot scraper and scaled the fish. Basically, he would take the scraper up and down the fish’s body, scraping off the scales into the sink. Next, he carefully opened up the fish insides, which was kind of like cutting rubber or something similar. Well, everything that fish had eaten in the last day or so came oozing out. This was a disgusting sight. Next, dad would use his same pocketknife and scoot all those guts and stuff into the sink with the fish head. Dad would put his finished fish on ice until suppertime and pick the next one up for the slaughter.
This particular day had been a good catch day for my dad. I can’t remember if there were twelve, fifteen or maybe even more in there, but there were a lot. One by one went their heads, then they were gutted, and the remains kept piling up in the kitchen sink. Finally, the last fish was done, and Mom would start the frying soon.
Getting rid of the insides and heads was next. Dad took an old empty bread bag and started picking up the guts and heads with his bare hands. He put them inside the plastic bread bag handful by handful. Taking out the full bag of fish guts was a common chore for me at age eight. I heard him call my name, and I ran to the door to get the bag. Dad handed the bread bag to me after he had tied it securely shut. I was supposed to take the bag and throw it over the side of the fence. Usually, the neighborhood cats would feast on the remains later.
I had the bag in my hand and was anxious to get rid of it so I could go back to playing with my cousin Annette. Annette had come over to our house to play for the day.
“What ya got?” she yelled, as I headed out the door.
“Fish guts,” I replied, “Want some?”
She screamed, and I proceeded on towards the fence to get rid of the smelly bag. Being a normal kid, I couldn ’t just give one giant swing and throw the bag over the fence. I decided to build up some momentum and speed. First, I did the swirl thing with the bag, making it go around and around. Then I would let it spin the other way, sort of like a yo-yo would. Next, I thought I would try the side- to- side swing, left, then right, left, then right. I probably would have continued this for a few more minutes, but my cousin Annette’s shout of “You’re it!” got my attention. Finally remembering that we were in the middle of a game of tag when my dad called motivated me to complete my mission. With all the strength I had, I began to swing the bag around and around in a Ferris wheel motion. What happened next left me stunned. Without any warning the bottom of the bag split wide open, and fish guts went flying.
Instead of the whole bag going over the fence in front of me, the bag busted open behind me. I quickly looked up to find Annette covered from head to toe with fish guts. There were even a couple of the heads lying motionless on top of her head. The rest of the fish guts were scattered all over her body. There were parts on her legs, down her arms, and even some lying on her shoulders. Her shirt was disgusting, but probably the worst part was her face. Some pieces had landed on her cheek, and there was a little strand hanging out one of her nostrils. Annette could barely keep one of her eyes open as something was oozing off one eyelid. She was standing there holding her arms out in a helpless position crying something that sounded like “Uh..Uh.Uh..Uh.” My friends and I wanted to help, but the sight of her caused everyone who had been playing nearby to burst out in laughter. We laughed and we looked and we realized she needed help, but what could we do without touching her? I’m not sure how long we stood there bewildered and laughing uncontrollably. Finally, Mom came outside, and the look on her face told us we were in trouble. I quickly explained that it was an accident.
“Accident or not,” my mom shouted, “Help your cousin Annette get that stuff off of her. The next few minutes were spent pulling the remains out of her hair and off her back and arms. We removed the pieces stuck to her eyelash and the one near her nostril. We hadn’t bargained for pieces to be inside the crevices of her ear, but they were there nonetheless. It was awful.
We finally picked all the yuk off of her, but the smell was still horrible. We took her clothes and threw them in the trash, and Mom informed the crowd of kids from the neighborhood that the party was over and to head home. My mom, Annette and I went inside and straight for the bathroom. I remember walking past my dad, and I’m sure I saw him grin. Two baths and four hair shampoos later, Annette began to look and smell like her old self again. By this time it was near bedtime, and we began preparing ourselves for bed. Up to this point, she still had not wanted to talk about it or have any of us so much as crack a smile about what had happened. This was hard because, although it was a horrible thing, it was also horribly funny. We readied ourselves for bed and sat down to have some popcorn that Mom had popped for us. I let Annette choose a T.V. show. She certainly deserved it after the day she had been through. She was still very quiet, only barely smiling when a joke was told on the show we were watching. The show was over, and we were off to brush our teeth. We went to my room, and Mom tucked us in.
The lights were finally out, and I was on the top bunk with Annette on the bottom. We talked a little, then the room got quiet for a few minutes. I was the first to break the silence, “Annette,” I whispered.
“Yes,” she whispered back.
In a not so quiet voice I said, “Uh Uh…Uh…Uh.” We both burst out laughing. The fish gut episode finally had a humorous ending, even for the victim.
A soon-to-be-released novella by Mary Lou Jaeger
Chapter 1: Thomas and Ann
THE TREES pulled them forward, down the trail, away from the city, away from pollution and noise into a distant Indian summer afternoon. Echoes of forgotten walks, somewhere lost.
Strides matched, they sought together apart. A long, single sigh finally let the tension from within her out. Intensity rode out on a breath, making room for fall freshness.
A third time, signaled by her sigh, he reached for her hand. She noticed the brilliant golden leaves at the peaks of the trees, quivering like sunrays against the late afternoon softness. Her car keys scraped steadily in her hand, just under the level of consciousness.
She slowly turned full circle, head leaning back, fixating her eyes on the perfect circle of treetop gold towering above. When her eyes finally inched down the almost leafless tree trunk, they met his hesitant gaze. She accepted his outstretched hand with her gloved hand. A squeeze. No questions.
“I have to have time for me today,” she finally said as her hand went back to the keys. The slow rhythmical scraping set the strolling pace. The trees pulled them farther toward the river. She was lost in thought, listening to the sounds of nature.
If I close my eyes for just a moment, I can almost see that evasive chattering squirrel as he scampers through the leaves. The magpie scolds. Maybe he’s mad at himself, or at me for intruding. Doesn’t matter.
Wish I couldn’t hear the city traffic noise still. Whishing. Screeching. Blaring horns. Must have been a wedding. The honking’s getting louder. Can’t stand any more noise. This wooded trail is supposed to be peaceful!
Sirens too? Fire? Police? Never could tell the difference in the sound. It’s so loud. So shrill. Shrill like my silent scream when the plain-clothed police officer arrested my husband. Every siren still sets off my internal alarm even though the shrill scream is dead now. But the siren resounds in my head, reminding me of what I want to forget.
Ah, sirens have passed; I can hear the birds singing again. So nice. Their song comes on a gust of wind through the trees between the beat of a distant drum.
Drums? What is a band doing here? I hear a marching band. Bass drum pounding in my ear. High trumpet squeak.
“We’re missing a parade, Thomas.”
“Can’t you hear the band? We’re missing a parade.”
“Do you want to go back and see it?”
Ann’s so quiet. She knows this is my favorite place to walk. She must know I used to come here with my wife. The last time my wife and I walked here she could barely shuffle her feet. I supported her weight and she struggled to walk with me. Her agony was awful, but determination strong. I couldn’t watch her pain, so I scooped her up. She hardly weighed anything by then. That’s the bench over there. My unforgiving father would have cringed to see me so slumped, sad and silent. A Duke’s son must keep up appearances at all times. But what could we say? We sat there in silence. There was nothing to say. Her life was almost over; we both knew it. We were silent. Silent, like you and me now.
I haven’t been back here with anyone since she died. I tried to walk here alone just once, but couldn’t quite. I do want to hold your hand. Sometimes I feel so alone. I love my wife. I know you must know that. I miss her still. Desperately. But I’m glad to be here with you now. You feel so distant and so close. Your eyes share my grief and fill me with new hope. I do hope.
“I can hear it now, Ann. You’re right. There must be a parade. The marching music is getting louder.”
“You just now heard it?”
“Surprised? I love it when you smile, even if it is at me.”
A sprinkling of leaves caught their smiles. Thomas extended his hand up high. A single golden-edged leaf landed in the hand that wanted to be held. His mind raced back to a time from that painful, not-so-long-ago autumn. He turned the leaf over and over, running his fingers back and forth along the backside spine of the leaf, unaware that the rhythm matched that of the keys.
He relived the vivid memory, triggered by this single leaf. His wife was holding the mate to this leaf. She wept in awe, at the beauty in her hand. She knew it was her last autumn walk, the last autumn leaf she would ever see. She slid her fingers back and forth along the backside spine of the leaf, while she wept in disbelief.
“It isn’t so. I’ll buy a new winter coat. I’ll need that winter coat. I wouldn’t need it if I were dying. I’m not dying. I’m going to need a new winter coat.”
But her autumn was almost over. There was no hope of a spring to follow the chill of a cruel winter.
Thomas felt the leaf crack into hard jagged pieces in his hand. The backbone had once been supple, amply strong. No more leaf, no backbone, no life, no hope, no coat, no wisp of that little bit of brown hair that was left, no wife at all.
Thomas grabbed a handful of leaves, pounding them with his fist into the palm of his other hand. Only one escaped. He handed it to Ann.
“Beautiful, isn’t it? Funny how people don’t realize just how lovely… My wife… She loved the last leaf of autumn.”
Ann’s compassionate eyes told Thomas she understood. Old feelings welled up inside her, matching his intensity of emotion, but in a different way.
“I’ve been there, Thomas. I understand the pain, the hurt, the disbelief, the denial. For me, it wasn’t a leaf. It was a slender, solitary blade of grass. He wasn’t dying, but he might as well have been. His body would stay alive but the rest of him was dying. We sat in the grass beside the little pear tree we had planted the year before, and he saw his whole future fade away in the one solitary blade of grass he kept clutching in his hand.”
Old memories involuntarily invaded the chilly autumn air, changing the season to summer in her mind. The time warp painfully showed on her face. She relived the hurt: Ann’s sad and sorry husband sat facing her, cross-legged like she was, on the lawn. Early summer heat, newly mown grass, late afternoon sun, stifling emotion, and heavy hearts. This broken man held tight to a single, slender blade of grass. He wept as he slid his fingers up and down the small piece of green. He had made bail, but prison cells don’t have lawns. He savored the taste of the green. He wept, whined, and stared.
“I must remember what it looks like, what it tastes like, what it feels like, imprint its beauty now to last the rest of my life. I won’t have another chance. And you, Ann, you. You’re beautiful. I love you so. Smile so I can take a picture with my heart to remember forever. No tears. Just smile for me once more. I can’t be losing you.”
“There’s nothing to smile about.”
In the long unsatisfying silence, they both gazed at the apple tree in the corner of the yard. The spring flowers had been spectacular this year, and this magnificent tree now had the beginning buds of hundreds of Macintosh apples. They knew there would be no more apple pies, or apple-anything, for that matter.
“Why did it take so long for you to look? The trees, the flowers, the garden, that blade of grass which is all of a sudden so precious to you, our home, our son, and me. You had it all, and it was beautiful. But you wouldn’t look. You didn’t care. None of it mattered to you when you had it. Well thanks. Being tossed away isn’t exactly fun. Gambling with your life isn’t exactly smart.”
“But I never expected…”
“I get it. You never expected to get caught. You tossed your job, your home, your family, your love to the wind. Certainly you’re not surprised that it all blew away. Now tell me, really, what did you expect?”
“I’m looking now, Ann.”
“Is there anything left to look at?”
Thomas startled Ann out of her unwanted long-ago thoughts as he slid his arm around her waist, pulling her abruptly back to the now. The blade of grass dropped from her mind like the leaf had dropped from Thomas’s hand. He saw the pain and the hurt etched on her face and held in her posture. The futility was fading. But slowly.
“You’ve had enough ‘you’ time, Ann. It’s together time now. Let’s savor now for now because we’re together. We both have scars, you and I. We can help each other; we can give each other hope. The autumn is lovely, and I love being with you.”
His crisp English accent matched the crisp autumn air, pulling her out of the heavy southern summer scene that haunted her. She focused her gaze on the concerned eyes of this tall, angular, ever-so-caring man. No words. No questions. Just a freshly wiped tear, a nod, and the hint of a smile.
The trees hastened them on to the edge of the river. Faster pace now. Instead of making a slow, pensive, scraping noise, the keys jingled their accompaniment.
The sunset was rushing to the city skyline. Hand in hand, two silent silhouettes were gliding to the viewing ledge above the river. They savored the soft, almost warm colors in the sky. They savored the freshness of the breeze. They savored the view of the city skyline. They savored the now, together, the feel of closeness with a long embrace. His perfectly trimmed beard gently brushed her cheek again and again.
“I want to be your lover, Ann.”
No words. No questions. No answers.
Ann stretched on her toes, reaching for a kiss. A kiss of hope, an unspoken promise.
Poems by Rebecca Glasser
Missing spokes on a wheel
weaken the rim
the wheel becomes “out of round”
it wobbles along, damaged
but able to function
until it breaks
Then, depending on fate or random truth
it gets discarded or repaired
This was my family.
Age isn’t punctual
like the three o’clock flight from Orlando.
It may dawdle, floating in the clouds
high enough to forget.
Or meander through circuitous paths
delayed by this fancy or that
searching for meaning
or a way to reverse itself.
Unanticipated, it falls into that feckless category
of hubris and denial.
Age doesn’t care.
Sooner or later
it unceremoniously arrives.
I WAS SLOUCHED against a wall of the extravagantly decorated gym, positioned between a sparkly blue balloon arch and the chocolate fountain, when I saw Her. The blasting pop music that had existed only a moment earlier became silent in my ears and the world stopped spinning for the briefest expanse of time, standing still like a candid photo in all of its accidental perfection.
She had dyed her hair an even darker shade of mahogany brown and it hung in loose curls around her flawless face. Her full lips displayed a coating of cherry red lipstick and her cat like, mysterious emerald eyes sparkled within a dark outline of eyeliner. In that frozen moment, her angelic features were arranged into a carefree laugh, eyes lit up with joy and lips formed into an easy smile. And then, as suddenly as it had stopped, the world started spinning again.
As I watched, a football player wolf whistled at her from across the room and she lowered her eyelashes shyly, a rosy blush forming upon her cheeks. I clenched my jaw, disgusted at the crude sound and made my way across the open dance floor that separated us.
“She doth teach the torches to burn bright. It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night.” I whispered into her ear, so close that I could smell her sweet, intoxicating perfume.
She turned her head, the crown of which barely met my shoulder, and lifted those captivating eyes, fiery with joy, to meet mine. And then, as the mirrors to our souls connected, the fire died and a sad smile slipped onto her perfect lips.
“That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. Alas, fair Romeo, you already have your Juliet.” She pulled her eyes away from mine to look towards Selina who was staring icily in our direction.
Like the mist crawling between the headstones in a cemetery, she swept across the ballroom, her features a mask of false calm. “Danny, darling.” She drawled in her Texas beauty queen’s dialect, “I’ve been looking everywhere for you!”
She plastered a warm smile upon her face and wrapped her arm around mine. Then, her expression grew cold as she curtly addressed the angel at my side. “Emma.”
With that same sad smile, Emma replied, “Selina. Always a pleasure.” She braved one last glance at me, ignoring Selina’s scowl, before turning to leave with the words, “Have a wonderful evening, the both of you.” Their brief exchange betrayed nothing of the sisterly friendship that had once bound them closer than blood until I had tore them apart with my selfish meddling with their hearts.
And then, in a moment, she was gone, with nothing but the scent of her tantalizing perfume lingering in the air.
“Danny, let’s dance.” Selina commanded, taking my hand in hers, not caring about my own wishes, as usual.
But, I passively complied, placing a hand upon her tiny waist and twirling her around the dance floor with practiced steps from lessons with my mother. But every moment I was with her, I longed to be with Emma.
I saw flashes of Emma throughout the night; laughing, happy, with a large group of friends; confidently crossing the floor to ask a social outcast to dance, and smiling beautifully as they glided around the room; holding the hand of a young girl as she cried out a recently broken heart; and finally, standing alone, perfectly at ease, to one side of the room and watching the scene around her contently. But again, as our eyes met momentarily, a deep sadness consumed her features and her eyes filled with anguish, though her brave smile remained.
Finally, Selina abandoned me, like a toddler disregarding a plaything after its purpose has been exhausted, to join a group of her friends, satisfied that we had achieved our “It-couple” publicity for the night. Like an elastic band that had been held taught for an eternity and was finally let go, I instantly headed towards Emma, drawn by her by some tangible magnetic pull.
“Hey.” I stopped, a short distance away, afraid of getting too close and being overpowered by that magnetism.
“ Hey.” She was getting better at hiding the sweet sadness that I knew she felt. It must’ve been all that practice. However, she couldn’t hide the pain in her eyes. I knew that behind her heart-melting smile that displayed perfect teeth, lurked agony. She remained composed- the shell, and the walls, that she was building between us almost complete.
I reached out, as if to tear them down, but then stopped, letting my hand fall to my side, useless. Her eyes met mine and I could have sworn that I saw a glimmer of hope within them, but then it was gone.
“Emma, I—e” I began, no longer able to contain what I was feeling.
“Danny!” Selina inserted herself between us and reached up to wrap her arms around my neck, pulling me in for an embarrassingly long and passionate kiss. Throughout it all, I didn’t feel a single spark and wished only for her to release her snake-like grasp on me. Having clearly stated her claim, Selina kissed me upon my cheek and raised an eyebrow at Emma before demanding, “Danny, there’s some people you have to meet.”
She took my hand and began dragging me away but the look upon Emma’s face caused me to do, finally, what I should’ve done years before. With the death of that spark within her eyes, I couldn’t stand to be silent a moment longer.
“No.” I wretched my hand free from Selina’s grasp and turned away from her, away from popularity, away from acceptance, and into the unknown. Never before had I longed so deeply for the unknown.
In two long strides, I closed the space that kept me from Emma completely, finally giving in to that inescapable pull and allowing the magnets of our hearts to reconnect finally, since I had torn them apart so long ago in my pursuit for the meaningless love of popularity. I wrapped my arms around her tiny frame, encompassing her completely as if to protect her from the horrors of the world, so many of which had come into existence by my doing, and pressed my lips to hers. The sparks sizzled between us even before our skin touched, igniting into flame as my lips brushed against hers. The dull ache in my heart that I hadn’t realized even existed until this moment ceased and every atom of my being buzzed with energy. Eventually, reluctantly and motivated only by the fact that her beautiful eyes were a greater pleasure than her kiss, I pulled away, though remained holding her tightly.
“I thought you’d never come back.” She whispered, her eyes blazing like fireworks and that sad smile replaced by the uplifting, lopsided smile that I had always loved.
“Trust me, my love. I never left.”
That night, I finally achieved what I had yearned, and destroyed for, for so long, as everyone around had their eyes upon me as Emma and I danced across the floor, everyone was wishing that they could be me. However, I didn’t care. The only thing that mattered was the beautiful girl within my arms, the girl I had pushed away and broken through my quest for happiness, never realizing until this night that she was the answer all along. And, as I looked into her stunning eyes, I swore that nothing would ever hurt her again. Throughout it all, she had loved me unfaithfully and unwaveringly, she had given me her heart completely, and I swore to protect it until my last breath.
(First Two Chapters)
“OIL CHANGE. Nine-ninety-nine.”
“Next fuel. Seventy-six miles.”
“Be a Pepper.”
Bea read off the billboards, one by one as they passed. The miles ahead stretched out through the desolate desert, taunting and teasing of the long trip ahead.
“Arizona border’s coming up,” muttered Bea.
“Ayup.” Casey, a man of fewer words than his wife, kept his hands on the wheel as the green Chevy shadowed the U-Haul of them.
Bea’s head swiveled, watching every sight. Her right foot pressed tightly on the floorboard, as if she could monitor the breaking action from where she sat. “It’s a mite different trip than the last time we drove this route.” The tiny, flocked dog sat on the dashboard, bobbing its head in silent agreement, as if it knew.
Casey kept his eyes on the road. “Doesn’t seem like it was thirty years ago.” He chuckled in amusement at his wife. “And you read off all the signs along the way on that trip too. Although, back then it was mostly Burma Shave signs.”
Bea didn’t hear him. Her mind had retreated to the spring of 1942, when they’d made this same drive, following the same Route 66. Although much had changed along the way, including the signs she loved to read, and their transportation, it was still a similar trip. Without being aware of it, she started rocking as if one-year-old Tom were sitting in her lap instead of driving the U-Haul up ahead of them.
“MAMA, BILL kicked me.” Mae sat nestled in the back seat between her little brother, Bill, and younger sister, Helen. The three children rode on top of a makeshift pallet layered over the top of the families few belongings. They filled the 1930 Chevy to the brim.
“William Houston Jones, you behave and stop pesterin’ yore sister.” At Bea’s bellow, Tom, the baby sleeping on her lap awoke and started wailing.
Bill responded by turning his face towards the window in a pout.
“You’re just a three year old cry baby.” Mae stuck her tongue out to reinforce her taunt. The confusion and the crying baby caused Helen, dozing and slumped against Mae’s shoulder, to wake up and she pitched in with her cries.
Casey stared straight ahead. His jaw clenched and the lines around his mouth tightened. Bea glanced at him and noticed the white knuckles gripping the steering wheel. “Now look at what ya’ done. Cuddle your sister and get her to stop crying.”
“But Mama, why do I have to cuddle her?” Mae protested.
“Because I can’t reach back there for starters. Because yore her big sister. I’m busy with the baby. Now go on…take care of Helen. She’s only two.”
Casey slowed the old Chevy down and drifted over to the shoulder. “It’s time for a stop. I can’t drive and concentrate with everyone a’ carryin’ on like this. I was hoping we’d make it to Barstow before we had to stop the first time.”
He turned the key in the ignition towards the off position. It sputtered and coughed several times before shuddering to a halt. Casey opened his door and stepped out, leaving Bea and the children in the car. He wandered off the pavement, heading to the open land that stretched out for miles.
Bea hollered out the open window. “Casey Jones, just where do you think you’re a headin’?”
“Now don’t get your knickers in a twist, Mother. I’m just attending to a little business back this way.” Casey replied back over his shoulder, but kept walking.
“If’n yore gonna go water a bush, then come take Bill with you.” Bea lowered her voice to a mutter. “Men…” She thought the sun rose and set on her man. But sometimes…
Father and son returned to the Chevy. Little Bill Toddled behind on his short three year old legs. Back at the car, Casey paced while the children ran, stretching their legs. Bea took the opportunity while stopped to tend to Tom, feeding him and changing his diaper. “Mae, keep an eye on Bill and Helen,” she reminded her eldest daughter.
“Why do I always have to watch them, Mama?” Mae stomped her foot in aggravation.
“Ona Mae, don’t be sassin’ me back. Want your mouth washed out with soap? You need to watch them because you’re the oldest. You’re five years old now.”
Bea turned around and called out to her husband, who had the hood up and was fiddling with the radiator. “Are you wanting some lunch while we’re stopped?”
“No, not yet. It’s too early. Maybe when we get to Barstow and fuel up. I need to refill the water jugs while we’re there. I already had to add water.”
“How long are we gonna’ travel today?”
Casey slammed the hood shut. “I’d like to make it to Needles. If I recollect, there’s a good spot outside Needles where we can stop for supper and sleep for a few hours.”
“That’s still in California. We’re not even gonna make it out of state today?”
“Not quite. We hit the state line a few miles after Needles. I want to be traveling through that area late night and get an early start in the morning to avoid the heat of the day.”
“At least it’s only April right now and it’s not later in the year. The desert shouldn’t be too hot yet.”
“That’s why I wanted to head out now, instead of when Mae got out of school. I didn’t want to drive through the desert during June, no siree. Why, we’re just now into April. It’s the first today.”
“Good thing Mae’s Easter break was this week. That made a good time to pull her out of kindergarten and travel.”
Mae tugged at her mother’s skirt. “But Mama…if Easter is in a few days, and we’re not at our house on Easter…how will the Easter Bunny find us?”
“Don’t you be worrin’ about that, sister. I’m sure the Easter Bunny has ways we don’t know about.”
Casey wiped his palms on his pants legs and headed towards the parked car. “Let’s get back on the road. I don’t want to be losin’ any more time. This trip just got started and we have a lot of miles to cover.”
Bea started shoeing the children towards in the car. They climbed up on the perch in the back seat. They’d piled all the belongings they could into the ageing vehicle. The trunk didn’t have an inch of space left. What didn’t fit there they’d filled in the back seat. Bea topped the belongings with all the blankets, creating a raised level area where the three oldest children rode.
“A’yep. Papa’s gonna be countin’ the days till we get there.” Bea shifted Tom on her lap, trying to get comfortable.
Mae got settled down in the back between Bill and Helen. “Where’s Papa’s house? I forget.”
“In Arkansas. It’s the same house I was born in. My brothers, too.”
“Are they going to be there too, Mama?”
“No, only Uncle Sam. The others growed up and moved out.”
After the brief stop, the ride was quiet for some time. By the time they got close to Barstow, all four children dozed and Bea’s head bobbed and dropped to her chest.
The town loomed ahead on the horizon. Casey enjoyed the last few miles in silence as everyone slept. Passing the city limits, he nudged Bea’s shoulder. “Wake up, Mother. We’re in Barstow.”
Bea opened her eyes and started watching the scenery change. Her head shifted back and forth. “The town’s grown just since we came through here last time.”
Casey pulled into a small service station on the main thoroughfare. “Twenty one cents?” His voice rose in surprise.
“Hush! You’ll wake the chillin’s. What’s twenty one cents?”
“Gasoline. Twenty one cents a gallon. Why, I declare, that’s highway robbery. It was only nineteen cents back home.”
“We’re on the road now. It always costs more on the road.”
“It hurts a man to pay that price. Why, it took me an hour and a half of work to make that much money. Just for a gallon of gas.”
“Shush. Here comes the attendant. Don’t hurt his feelings. He’s not the one setting the price.”
The young man approached the driver’s side of the car. He tucked the back of his uniform shirt into his pants as he got closer. “Fill ‘er up?”
“Yes, sir. Gotta make it to Needles and don’t want to be runnin’ outta fuel afore we get there.”
“No, sir. That stretch you want to make sure you’re full up. It’s not a friendly piece of road.” The attendant stuck the nozzle in the tank and lifted the hood.
Casey got out and stood off to the side while the youngster checked the water and oil levels. “Shore not. ‘Coarse, the trip is much easier now that Route 66 is paved the entire way. I recollect a few years back when a lot of the parts were still dirt roads. Asphalt the whole way sure is nice.”
Moving to the rear of the car, Casey lifted the water jugs out of the back. “Have a place I can fill these up?”
“Over that a way.” The attendant pointed towards the north side of the building.
When Casey got to the back side of the small adobe structure, he had to wait for two servicemen filling their canteens. “You men stationed out here?”
“Yes, sir.” The men replied in unison, with the same precise, regimented tone.
“Looks like the town’s built up since I came through this way. Bet your base has helped that.”
“Yes, sir. I do believe it has,” the man using the hose bib replied.
“Been here long, soldier?”
“I’ve been here since the Mojave Anti-Aircraft Range opened two years ago.”
The soldier standing beside him spoke up. “Two months, here, sir. They’ll be a lot more service boys soon. The Marine base is set to open by the end of the year.”
Casey leaned down and sat the jugs on the ground at his feet. “Good time for a new base to open, what with the war going so strong. It’s a pity ‘bout Pearl Harbor. That’s part of the reason we’re headed back home. Back to the hills. I don’t want to be that close to the coastline right now. Yep, takin’ my family to the Ozark hills. They won’t bomb us there.”
“You never know, sir. We hope it won’t come to that. But we’re all preparing for it anyway. Never can be too safe.”
“Been reading in the papers about them sending the Japanese Americans to internment camps.” Casey shifted his weight. He enjoyed his chat with the young men, while at the same time feeling a little bit of an old man. He didn’t have that many years on these two young boys, but here he was, father to four already. “Read that the Wartime Civilian Control is setting up an assembly center in the LA County Fairgrounds. That’s right near us, in Pomona. I hear tell that they’re expecting to hold over 5,000 people there before they ship them off to internment camps.”
Both service men nodded their heads in agreement.
Casey continued reporting what he’d heard, anxious to get confirmation from men if the reports were true. “I heard they’re taking a lot of families to the racetrack out near us too.”
“Is that Santa Anita?” the taller man asked. “I went to the track at Santa Anita a few times before I enlisted.
“Ayep, that’s the one. I don’t think the men I knew from working in the groves are connected in espionage in any manner. They’re hard working men, dedicated and trustworthy. Now, I couldn’t understand most of what they said. But they seemed to be loyal Americans, through and through. Didn’t matter though. All the ones around us are being sent to the relocation centers anyways.”
“Gotta keep our Country safe, sir. I can understand why they’re doing that.”
The shorter one spoke up. “Yes, sir, that’s a fact. We don’t know who has family connections in Japan and who may be a threat to our safety.”
Their canteens full, the men shook hands and wandered off. Casey bent over and began filling his water jugs.
Around the corner of the building came Bea. She carried Tom while the other three followed along behind like little ducks following their mother. “Whatever is taking so long? I about thought ya’ got lost.”
Casey nodded towards the backs of the two retreating men. “Just having a little friendly conversation with a few of our service men, Mother.”
“Well, your youngin’s here are not having friendly conversations. They’re hungry and whiny and ready for some lunch.”
“Pack ‘em back up in the car. We’ll head on down the road and find a good place to stop and eat.”
A few miles later, Casey spotted a good turnout area, shaded by three large tamarisk trees. He pulled in next to the largest one. The children flew from the car, excited to get out again to explore more unfamiliar desert terrain.
Mother hen Bea started in with her warnings. “Don’t go poking your hands into rock piles. There could be snakes in there. Mae, keep everyone out of the rocks while I get lunch ready.”
Flipping up the corner of the blankets, Bea pulled three items out from underneath; a large wicker basket, a small tin ice chest, and a round metal Thermos of coffee. She poured Casey’s cup of coffee first, then started working on the sandwich makings.
“Daddy, get me a knife out of the box over there.” Bea pointed to a small box she’d left sitting on the roof of the car.
“What do you need a knife for, Mother? The bread’s already sliced.”
“Gonna cut a sandwich in half for Helen and Bill. They’ don’t eat a whole one a piece.”
Bill heard his name and his ears perked up. “Me wanna whole sammich.”
His mother prevailed. “No. You get a half. We have to conserve our food and make sure it lasts the whole trip. You don’t want to go the last day with no food, do you?”
Casey tried to intervene on the children’s behalf. “We’ll just buy another loaf of bread if we need to.”
“We’ll do no such thing! Not at nine cents a loaf. Why, that’s half a gallon of gas. We’re going to need all the money we have for gasoline.”
“Prolly so,” Casey agreed. “Sure was nice of Annie and Johnnie to bring over two bags of food before we left.”
“Sure ‘nuff was. I’m gonna miss them. Your sis and her husband are truly good to us. Although…I could like it a whole lot better if you and Johnny weren’t on quite as good terms as you are with that ‘ole liquor bottle.”
Casey hung his head and looked chagrined. “Now, Mother…you know how it is…us men need a way to let off a little steam now and then.”
“Harrumph!” His argument didn’t convince Bea.
A shy grin started at the corner of his mouth and soon lit up his whole face. He knew how to sweet talk that wife of his when need be. “You gotta admit, when Johnnie said goodbye and slipped me ten dollars, it was a pleasant surprise. It’ll come in mighty handy on the road.”
Children clamoring at her legs distracted Bea’s attention away from the potential alcohol debate. A bit later, bellies were full, despite Bill’s arguments that he was still hungry. Bea wiped off dirty faces and the family piled back in the car and headed towards Needles. As the miles passed by, Bea handed out saltine crackers to pacify the children and keep them quiet.
As they drove, the sun dipped lower in the sky and daylight dimmed before they finally passed a sign that said “Needles, five miles.”
“Close enough.” Casey began searching for a spot to pull over that had room to park and lay down pallets.
Finding a place, he pulled in and started unloading the car while the children ran around in circles.
Bea called out her typical, frantic cautions.
“Watch for snakes.”
“Stay away from the rocks.”
“Mae, watch the little ones.”
“Don’t pick that up.”
“Stay away from the cactus.”
Her arms full of blankets, Bea backed up, ready to lay the blankets out. Casey interrupted her. “Mother, let’s keep the blankets in the car. I’m a thinkin’…what with the rattlesnakes and scorpions…we’d better sleep in the Chevy tonight.”
Keeping the night short wasn’t a problem. Two adults and four children trying to sleep in a packed car didn’t leave a lot of room to stretch or get comfortable. Being in a new environment, Tom was fussy and both parents were ready to head out as the sun crested over the eastern horizon.
The drive the second day seemed a lot longer. The Arizona landscape didn’t offer a great deal of variety. Some hills and inclines here and there broke the monotony. But, the hundreds of miles across the state had more sand than the eye could see and the mind could fathom.
Besides reading off all the Burma shave signs, Bea read just about every sign she saw.
Partway through Peach Springs she spotted another sign. “Hua…Whooa…H-u-a-i-p-a-I Indian Reservation. Lands sake, what is a Hualoo…whatever…Indian? Never heard of that one before.”
No one had an answer.
She didn’t need an answer. She just needed to read all the signs.
Not only did she read off all the city names, but Bea had a running commentary for every little burg they passed through.
“White Ridge Baptist Church. Why, that looks almost like the church that Annie and I took the children to in California.”
“Burt’s Groceries. Wonder if he’s related to Burt from the packing house?”
“Coleman Elementary School. Look how small. That’s not near as big as Mae’s elementary school.”
“John’s Cleaners. Why would people pay good money to have someone else clean their clothes?”
“Shell. I wonder why there are so many Shell service stations out this way.”
Casey just shook his head and tuned her out. It was going to be a long trip before they drove up the final dirt road at his father-in-law’s house.
For more Fat and Sassy, you can find the book here:
[+ Barnes and Noble+]
Mary Lou Jaeger
Available on Amazon in Kindle or Print editions
From the car travel with pets section:
If the only time your pet ever rides in the car with you is to go get shots from the vet, you’re in trouble. You must work at disassociating travel with pain and discomfort immediately. Start taking your sweet pet on little joy rides that are fun, or at least have no pain associated with them. Pets, like people, can learn new patterns of association! (It’s no different than helping a five year old who is afraid to go to school. You take them to the school playground and have fun. Or to visit a fun class. Or whatever it takes; as many times as it takes, to make it okay in their minds.) Start your fun runs today.
From the Unspeakables section:
Nobody wants to talk about it. Nobody wants to even think about it. It’s too embarrassing for words. You get so that you’re afraid to laugh. You notice where the bathrooms are located before you select your table in the restaurant. These solutions may surprise you.
From the Pain section:
I’ve been intuitively teaching people how to lessen or get rid of pain for over thirty years. Most people are grateful to learn, although I once came across a health practitioner who got furious because she had spent thousands of dollars learning some formal polarity therapy system, and here I was teaching a simple, intuitive version that actually worked! Let’s establish it here: health does not necessarily require huge expense or years of specialized degrees. At least be open to try the simple things first, then go on to the more elaborate ones if you need to.
From the Sleep section: CONDENSED SLEEP?
Now this is fun. So you want to do it all, but find that you just simply have to rest instead of going on the extra tour? You’ve been sightseeing all day, everyone’s exhausted, but you’d really like to try out that charming little restaurant for a late night snack. You know if you do, you won’t get near enough sleep, and you’re already dragging.
Don’t worry. Solutions are at hand. I developed the ability…
From the OH MY ACHING FEET section:
I love the tours. I love the shopping. I love strolling through the scenic parks. But not when my feet ache. Leaving your feet on the padded ottoman back at home is not an option.
Try these travel tips on and see if they fit your shoe size.
Healthy Travel Tips Book Description:
Traveling? Want to stay healthy? Find out what to put in your alternative, non-medical traveling first aid bag. Discover Natural Remedies and Unusual Tricks for common travel problems from sore feet to insomnia to insect bites. Travel healthy, travel happy, have more fun!
KAREN’S EYES narrowed to two slits of anger and deepened to the color of slate. In a controlled, even tone, she said, “I just bought that tablecloth, Sally. Put newspaper under your coloring book like I told you a thousand times.”
“You’re not my real mom.” Sally started drawing circles on the picture with a red crayon. “My bestest friend Missy says my real mom is a princess.” Each circle became wider. “I was adapted.”
“Maybe you didn’t hear me.” Karen slapped the newspaper against her palm and threw it onto the dining room table. “There’s the paper. Use it. Now.”
Sally switched to her left hand, fisted the crayon, and continued drawing. “I don’t have to listen to you.”
“I’m counting to three. One….”
The red crayon shot off the page. It skidded across the tablecloth. Sally gasped. “Oops.” She glanced at Mom, grabbed her coloring book, and skedaddled.
“Get back here, Sally Ann Reynolds….”
“You’re not my real mom. I hate you!” Sally pounded up the stairs.
She hid in the hallway closet, heart racing, palms clammy. “She’s gonna kill me.” She sat there quivering, chewing on her bottom lip, hugging herself. She waited in the darkness. Her nose twitched at the stench of worn shoes and mildew.
The stairs creaked. She held her breath. Mom was coming….
Sally peaked out. Mom’s perfume stunk. Sally sniffed the air. She didn’t get a whiff of Cold Shoulders, White Shoulders, or whatever it was called.
She crept out of the closet. She stomped both feet. Twice.
Then jumped. Twice.
Still nothing. She ran to her room and slammed the door.
She looked at her reflection in the mirror hanging on the back of her bedroom door. Mom likes my hair like this. I HATE it! She folded her arms across her chest, thrust out her bottom lip, and then blew upward. Loose strands fluttered but still covered her eyes. She blew again and then tucked the darn curls behind her ears, out of the way.
“No TV. Eat your vegetables. Go play outside.” She faced the bedroom door, put thumbs in her ears, and made finger antlers. She stuck out her tongue not at her reflection, but at what lay beyond.
On the shelf stood a framed photograph of the family taken during Thanksgiving. Both Mom and Dad had rounded faces but hers was skinny, like a fashion model who fed the dog her Cheerios. Mom and Dad had dark hair. She was blond. They were tall. She was short. “They don’t look like me. No way. I was adapted.”
She grabbed a crayon, a black one, and gave Mom a moustache then scribbled out her face. With a red crayon, she drew hearts above Dad’s image and colored them in.
Sitting on her bed, she flopped onto her back, hands clasped behind her head. “Go to your room! Get off the phone! I’m counting to three. One! Two!” She took a deep breath, exhaled, and tossed her curls. “I’m a princess. A rich princess.”
She imagined herself in a long frilly dress, sparkly blue to match her eyes. A tiara packed with stones shining white, red, and green topped hair the color of hay.
Cinderella doesn’t have no curls. She sat up and opened a cigar box. The bottom half of the box hid precious treasures, but the top held knickknacks. She loved that box, that treasure chest, a gift from her dad a year ago when she turned five.
She pulled out a pair of scissors and went to work on her curls. “Shoot!” Those blasted scissors hardly cut paper, and they weren’t no good on hair. She threw the scissors into the box and slammed it shut.
In two days, it’s Christmas. I got all day tomorrow to be good. She hopped up and down on the bed and then jumped off, crashing to the floor. Mom hates that. A smile reached her ears. She climbed up on her bed and jumped off again.
“Knock it off, Sally!” Mom yelled from downstairs.
“Wash your hands! Brush your teeth! Don’t pick your nose!” Sally pushed aside her anger and slipped her hands between the mattresses, sliding right then left. “Bingo!”
She pulled out a sheaf of papers from her secret hiding place and flipped to the good stuff, her pointy finger tracing words, back and forth, down the page. Her index finger tapped the spot. “Here it is.”
She reached up and yanked the big, fat dictionary off the shelf. It slipped through slender fingers, crashed onto the bed, and bounced open. “Darn it!”
She found her place on the papers again and then scanned the pages. “Bequeath… bequeath… bequeath. What does bequeath mean? It must be in here, somewhere.”
She thumbed through the pages, but soon gave up. “I don’t know how to use this blasted thing.” She slammed it shut and then hoisted it back onto the shelf, grunting with effort.
The papers caught her eyes again. She scanned down the page and found where Missy had drawn a green dot.
She mumbled, “Be quiet. Clean your room. You’re grounded!”
She heard the garage door closing. She raced out of her bedroom and down the stairs. “Dad! Dad!”
“Ho, ho, ho! Merry Christmas.”
She slammed into him, coiling her body around his leg. She felt the winter chill clinging to his pants.
He reached down and lifted her up so that their eyes leveled. He kissed her forehead and then set her back down. “How’s my little girl today? Were you good?”
She nodded then glanced at Mom.
Karen stood over the kitchen sink, a half-peeled potato in her hand, a smudge of dirt coloring her cheek. She reached up and tucked bouncy hair curls behind one ear.
Dad’s eyebrow shot up. His gaze returned to Sally. “Uh-oh. Santa doesn’t give presents to naughty girls, you know that.”
“I was sorta good,” Sally said in a quiet voice and then sucked in her cheeks, forming dimples. Dad loved her dimples.
He looked at his wife again.
Karen held up the tablecloth and used the potato peeler to point to the red crayon mark.
He felt a tug on his pants and looked down.
“What does bequeath mean?”
“I’m surprised you can pronounce it.”
“My bestest friend Missy taught me.”
“What’s for dinner, Hon?”
He felt a tug again.
“Dad? What’s it mean?”
“It’s hard to explain.”
“Missy says my real mom was a princess. Was I adapted?”
“Were you adapted?”
She nodded. “Missy says I was adapted. Is Mom my real mom?”
“You mean adopted, not adapted.” He plopped down on the stool beside her. “Let me tell you a story.” He lifted her onto his lap, facing him. “Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, lived a beautiful woman called Princess Tatiana. One day, Princess Tatiana met a handsome man and they fell madly in love. Years went by and they had a baby girl they named Sally.”
He nodded. “Then Princess Tatiana got sick, really sick. Her husband stayed with her day and night at the hospital, but that left poor Sally all alone. A giant stork…Do you know what a stork is?”
She rolled her eyes. “Duh!”
“A silver stork with wings bigger than this house grabbed Sally and whisked her away. Princess Tatiana’s cold got worse and worse and when she found out Sally was missing—well, that was too much for her heart to bear. She died.
“Her husband went looking for Sally and searched everywhere, from the highest mountain peak to the lowest valley floor, but he couldn’t find her. Until one day, word spread that Sally was found!”
Her eyes widened into two orbs of blue. “Where?”
“In your bed.” He leaned forward and kissed the top of her head. “Now go get ready for dinner.” He set her down.
She shuffled from the room, her slippers sounding like sandpaper rubbing across tile.
Karen waited until she heard Sally’s door close. “That tablecloth was brand new. I wish you’d do something about her. She’s intolerable.” Her eyes narrowed, teeming with skepticism. “Princess Tatiana? You told me your first wife was a bankrupt alcoholic who died during childbirth.”
Sally reached into her secret hiding place, pulled out the document, and flipped to her favorite page. With Missy’s help, Sally memorized her favorite line, the one with the green dot beside it. “I, Princess Tatiana, bequeath to my daughter, Sally, the sum of ten million dollars, payable when she turns eighteen.
“What does bequeath mean?”
Neptune’s Deadly Dragon Daughter
Neptune’s Deadly Dragon Daughter rises slowly from the sea, searching with her one great eye, draws a bead on me. Deadly as any woman aroused by pain or passion, she lets her feelings be known in devastating fashion. From her mouth roars thunder and fire, as she rises; wind and rain her attire. The only thing whispering is a sound in the air, trying to warn everyone, she’s left her lair. On this weathered porch looking across turbulent waters, the demon drives misery towards my place. I try to will the wind to bend; to prevent her fierce anger from blowing straight into my face. She is brewing destruction. She will arrive too soon, announced by birds screeching overhead as they flee inland, seen by the light of the moon, scattering like armies from vibrations you cannot see, alerting all to the fury of a fast-approaching and perilous enemy. I will sit here as she screams and cries through the town trying to destroy everything not nailed down. She will yell and tell tales of terror as she tears up trees and beats at beaches, signaling waves to wash across the shore, sucking sand back into the sea. This demon dragon has visited before and will return to claim more souls for that kingdom beneath the sky and under the deep blue water’s mirrored surface. I will still be here, waiting for her unwanted and untimely visits. “Oh, will he?” laughing sighs are heard as receding winds and waves ask Neptune’s Deadly Dragon Daughter, “Oh, Will he?”
~ Patrick Lee Marshall
First published in Encore: Prize Poems of NFSPS, 2012
Almost sunset, evening light anxious
as it approaches the horizon.
Against the shaded fence a single hibiscus
stretches her glorious burgundy face and petals,
hoping to catch the last dying rays of the sun—
one more spoonful of warmth.
As dusk settles she wraps her petals around her
like a blanket to embrace the memory of this day.
Perhaps she realizes—
morning will not bloom for her.
~ Patrick Lee Marshall
First published in Merging Visions: Collections V, 2015
A Tweet from a Twittering Sweetie
Without a feather anywhere near
I received a tweet sweet to my ear.
She sent love and lust thru time and space,
a scarlet hot flash engulfed my face.
No time spent waiting for a letter,
Tweets, hot and fresh, are so much better.
In an Instagram, thru time and space,
I sent her an anxious smiling face!
In moments my world went deadly quiet;
a prelude to a rising riot.
My wife was just a tad too tweety.
The twit had tweeted, the wrong sweetie.
~ Patrick Lee Marshall
First published, A Galaxy of Verse Fall/Winter, 2013
Slim bare tree
cold branches bent
burdened by black leaves
fly into the wind
return . . .
create eerie illusions
in morning mist.
Red and yellow on wings
dark as night’s center
flash reverberating beats
Winter! Winter! Winter!
~ Patrick Lee Marshall
First published, Texas Poetry Calendar 1017,
Dos Gatos Press, 2016
Gone from Me
Too soon you’re gone from me.
It’s not how I expected it to be.
There were many more things to do,
every one of them included you.
For short times we were apart.
Those times never hurt my heart.
This parting is a wrenching strain,
a void that’s long and filled with pain.
Friends and family came to bid adieu,
in laughter and tears we remember you.
In time, they say, this pain will leave
and I will gain some blessed reprieve.
The only thing I feel or see—
is all too soon you’re gone from me.
I know our love was strong.
It did not break or bend.
You were my rock, my love, my life
and my most trusted friend.
I will take comfort when your spirit
envelopes my heart like mist upon the sea
I know you knew, that I loved you,
and I know that you loved me.
The only thing I feel or see—
is all too soon you’re gone from me.
~ Patrick Lee Marshall
First published in Visions, 2013
DEEP IN thought, Adele took breakfast dishes from the table and put them in the sink.
Henry and I bought this beautiful ranch here in Kentucky a year after we were married fifty-two years ago. Hard to believe that much time has passed. We’ve had a good life together. I worry about him. The doctor told him he should slow down after his third heart attack last year and he hasn’t.
“Adele, I’ll be back at noon for lunch. Doc Lane will be here shortly to check that abscess on Easy Win’s leg.” Henry drank the last of his milk, wiped his mouth on his long-sleeved denim shirt and plunked the empty glass down on the kitchen table. “Adele, did you hear me?”
Adele looked over at Henry. “Uh, yes dear.”
“What were you thinking about?”
“Oh, daydreaming about you and me and our wonderful life here on this ranch.”
“Give Easy Win an extra pat for me, Henry.”
Henry leaned down and kissed Adele. “Go back to your daydreams.”
“Think I will.”
That dear man, she thought. He worries himself to death about those three horses we took in to live the rest of their lives here. Guess it’s fitting we all spend the sunset of our lives together. We’ve all been more or less put out to pasture. We don’t have the strength to take care of this ranch much longer, Henry with his heart problems and me just plain ole worn out. No matter what though, we made a promise to each other that when one of us dies the other will take care of our horse. We’re not about to give up on them like their former owners did because they got too old to continue to run in the Kentucky Derby.
Henry opened the screened door, took a deep breath, enjoying the scent of the dew-covered grass and walked toward the stables.
Garrett, the new hired hand who helped with the horse, walked toward him. “Morning, Henry.”
“Morning, Garrett, how’s our boy doing?”
“Uneasy, that abscess looks bad.”
“Well, the doc should be here soon.” They went inside the stables. Henry opened Easy Win’s stall door and they walked to him. Henry gave the chestnut-colored horse an affectionate pat. Easy Win nickered.
“Morning fella, we’re going to get you some help.”
“How are Big Bucks and Home Stretch doing today, Garrett?”
“They’re holding their own for their ages. I know they wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for you, Adele and the Doc.”
“Well, we love every one of them just like you do and had to take them when no one could or would. You know, every one of them was magnificent when they ran for the Roses years ago. They deserve a good life until the day they die.”
“Yes, sir, they do.”
“Don’t sell yourself short, Garrett. We couldn’t take care of them without your help.”
Garrett dipped his head in acknowledgement. “Thanks, do what I can.”
Henry offered Easy Win some bran from a bucket he took from a hook nearby, but Easy Win wouldn’t eat.
The doc drove up the gravel road to the stables and honked his horn. Henry and Garrett went outside to meet him.
“Morning, Henry. Heard Easy Win has an abscess on his leg.”
“That’s right, Doc.” They shook hands.
“Let’s take a look and get Easy Win on the road to recovery.”
They walked inside to Easy Win’s stall. The doc looked at the abscess.
“Ummm, that was probably caused by an insect bite. More than likely a mosquito. We’ve sure had an abundance of them this spring. I’ll give him a shot to clear up that infection quicker. Henry, you hold onto him.”
He cleaned an area on Easy Win’s haunch with Betadine, took a plastic-covered syringe from his brown leather bag, removed the plastic, stuck the syringe into a bottle of antibiotic, drew the medicine into the syringe and tapped it to get rid of any air bubbles. Easy Win snorted and jerked his head when the Doc stuck the two inch needle in. Henry gave him a pat. “Easy, boy. That wasn’t too bad, was it?”
The doc applied ointment to the abscess and wrapped the horse’s leg with gauze and tape. “I’ll leave the rest of the ointment and gauze with you, Garrett. Put the ointment on his leg for a week, changing the dressing every day.”
“Henry, let me know if his leg doesn’t look better by then.”
“I will, thanks.”
“You’re welcome.” They left the stables. “See you, Doc.”
Doc Lane got into his black Ranger Rover and drove away.
“Garrett, let’s check on Big Bucks and Home Stretch and I’ll tell you a little bit about them.”
They went inside the stables. “Big Bucks’s owners died several years ago and no one in the family wanted the responsibility of taking care of an old horse. He won the Kentucky Derby twice.”
“How long has he been blind?”
“A year now.”
“Yeah, I sure feel sorry for him.” When Home Stretch could no longer run in the Derby his owners had no use for him. “That prosthesis was fitted to replace his right front hoof that had to be removed because of a fungus that wasn’t treated before we got him. He does okay with it, as you’ve noticed.”
“He does. I’ve never known of horse with a hoof prosthesis before.”
Henry and Garrett fed Big Bucks and Home Stretch some strips of carrots and apples and walked them around a dirt track for their daily morning exercise.
Two weeks later Easy Win’s leg had healed much to everyone’s relief. One morning after Adele set the table and cooked breakfast, she went to check on Henry. He was never late for breakfast. She walked to the bedroom. He was in the bed. “Henry, breakfast is ready, sleepyhead.” She leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. He didn’t respond. “Oh, no, Henry.”
Sobbing, she grabbed the phone from the nightstand and called 911.
The ambulance came quickly.
A paramedic checked Henry’s vitals and said, “Adele, I’m so sorry, he’s gone.”
Adele cried out, “I love you, Henry.”
“Is there anyone we can call to be with you, Adele?”
“My niece, Joan Thomas. The number’s in the address book there on the table.”
Adele spent the night with her niece and her husband. Joan drove her home the next morning to get more clothes and check on the house and horses. When they walked into the kitchen Adele noticed Henry’s empty glass on the table. “He never had his breakfast, Joan.” Tears streamed down Adele’s face.
Joan hugged her. “I’m so sorry Aunt Adele.”
“I miss you, Henry. Don’t you worry, I’ll take god care of our special horses.”
Poems by Barbara Hollis
Layers of glistening glacial ice
Sprawl over craggy Canadian Rockies
Seep through crevices
Cascade down crevasses
Flow into the Athabasca River and the Artic Sea
Await summer to begin another journey.
Monsoon season in Africa.
Menacing clouds buffeted by trade winds above the Indian Ocean
to Mozambique, dump torrential lifegiving rain over the green
canopied forest of Mount Gorongosa.
Parched riverbeds soak up water, reborn.
Rivers and waterfalls replenished, flow into the amber
Savannas, grasslands and Lake Urema to grateful villagers and
(First Two Chapters)
“HE UP and left her at the altar.”
With the phone cradled between his shoulder and cheek, B. “Dance” McCagan’s fingers paused on the computer keyboard. What was he supposed to say to that? And where was Shannon? His sister should be working the reservation desk, not him. She would handle this so much better. “You want to cancel the Honeymoon Suite then?” was all he could think to ask.
“Yes, of course I want to…hold the line a minute.” The woman on the other end of the phone started talking to someone else barely out of his earshot. A few watery replies in the negative was all he made out. “No, you need it,” the caller overrode whoever she was speaking with and then she was back on the line with him. “We’ll keep the reservation and add another room, a double please. We’re all coming.”
“All?” He actually felt creases furrowing in his brow. What did all mean when a wedding was called off? Surely the groom wouldn’t still be—?
“All us bridesmaids and the bride.” Her tone indicated that should be obvious, because what else does a jilted bride do but go on her honeymoon with the wedding party? “We’ll be there this evening.”
Perplexed, Dance scheduled the extra room, only remembering after the call ended that he hadn’t gotten the new credit card information. Everything was still in the groom’s name, one Marcus Wentworth. He left a note in the computer for Rhonda to get that straightened out when the party arrived tonight. Fortunately he’d be watching the game with the guys over at Sooty’s Grill by the time the bedraggled bride and her bevy of bridesmaids arrived.
“What’s with the look?” Shannon stood at the end of the reservation counter, holding a large arrangement of fresh red roses. He hadn’t heard her walk in from the back through the dining area.
Coming out from behind the long wooden counter, Dance ignored her question and took the flowers from her. “What are all these?”
“They’re for the honeymooners coming in. I thought they’d add a romantic touch to the room.”
Dance winced. “About that.”
Shannon frowned. “They didn’t cancel, did they?” She’d put a lot of effort into advertising the romantic suite to bring in more honeymooner business.
“Well. One of them did.”
“One of them?” Her nose wrinkled like it had since she’d been two. “They’re not coming together?” Her shoulders sagged. “They called off their wedding last minute. That’s horrible. Which one’s still coming?”
“Bride. And bringing the support of all of her bridesmaids.”
“Oh gosh.” Shannon hurried around the counter to get at the computer. “You didn’t keep them in the Honeymoon Suite, did you? You did! Dance!”
He set the flowers down on the tall mahogany counter. “That’s what they booked.”
Shannon was shaking her head, fingers tapping the keyboard. “She cannot stay in there. Think about it. It will just remind her of him.” The last word came out harshly. “And what tonight was supposed to be. No, we’re putting them in the Sam Houston Presidential Suite and the adjoining Yellow Rose room, the one with the balcony that looks out over the lake. And we’re only charging them a regular room’s rate.”
Her scowl cut him off. “Some things are more important than money.”
He sighed. That’s not what he was going to say. Even while they were bouncing back from last year’s downturn on top of their mom’s mounting medical costs. They’d agreed to tighten the proverbial belt rather than have to let any of their staff go until they got the inn back to where she’d been in previous years. The jewel of the hill country.
“We’ll need to switch out the gift basket too, change the dinner menu from romantic to something upbeat…” Shannon’s brow puckered in determination.
Dance curled his hand over hers, stopping hers on the keyboard. “I can take care of this. You don’t have to.”
Her head snapped up, green eyes bright. “This isn’t about me.”
She huffed. “It’s not.” Her fingers were cold beneath his, chilled from the sudden rush of blood dropping to her toes.
“I said, I know.” Better than anyone. It’d been his shoulder she’d cried on when Richard walked out of their marriage six months ago. His fists still clenched every time he thought of the jerk, aching to smash his face in. Again. Once was clearly not enough. But Richard deserved it. Stepping out on Shannon. And worse, the deadbeat didn’t stick around to be a father to Brighton. What kind of man walked out on his three-year-old daughter? “Let me take care of this for you.”
“Look.” Shannon shifted to face him. “I know what you’re thinking, but believe me, I can handle this. I’m a big girl now. Every little reminder of a jerk isn’t going to send me howling like a loon off the pier. Besides, any way I can make this weekend better for this bride, it will be like sticking it to Richard. So get out of here and let me do my thing.”
Dance didn’t budge.
Shannon rolled her eyes so hard he was surprised the ligaments didn’t squeak. “Go.” Her attention turned back to the computer, fingers tapping. “Oh, just a thought.” Recognizing the sudden tilt of her head for what it was, he realized he shouldn’t have lingered. “Maybe you and Wyatt could hang around this weekend even while you’re off shift. Maybe have the guys over.”
“What for? I’m meeting them tonight—oh I get it. No way.”
“Oh come on.” Shannon stopped typing to access him over the top of the monitor. “Having attractive men around will take the sting out of being dumped. Show her there’s better fish in the pond. You don’t have to do anything, just hang around and look pretty.”
He coughed out a laugh at that. Only Shannon. Shaking his head, he threw their younger brother under the bus. “I’m sure Wyatt will be more than happy to take you up on that. In fact, I’ll go ask him.”
“You do that. And while you’re at it, order one of the cheese and rolls baskets Molly makes for their room to go with the complimentary wine.”
That he could do for her. “They’re going to love it. Forget honeymooners, the inn will become the new hot spot for jilted brides and grooms.”
“I hope not.” Shannon frowned. “I just want to make it nice for her, give her a chance to leave here in better spirits than when she arrives.”
“If anyone can pull that off, it’s you.” Leaning in, Dance kissed the top of Shannon’s head. “I’ll help any way I can.”
Shannon’s countenance lit.
He whipped a palm up. “Short of standing around and looking pretty.”
“Aw but you’d be so good at it.” She mock pouted.
He threw his hands up in surrender and backed out of the lobby. “Not happening.”
“Chicken,” she muttered with a grin.
As he walked, Dance dug out his cell phone and quickly called Molly and ordered not one, but two of her largest cheese and rolls baskets to be delivered tonight. He couldn’t help himself, not after seeing Shannon’s determination to make things better for the bride. No matter what she said, he knew she was still reeling over Richard and how quickly and easily he’d taken off after she’d thrown him out. Even after everything the guy had done, Dance knew his sister well enough to know she’d hoped for a happy ending, that when she kicked him out he’d come to his senses, and come back to her a changed man. Shannon was too much of a romantic not to believe in second chances. Too good of a mom to not want the father of her child in Brighton’s life. The jerk had thrown away the best two things in his life. And though Shannon hid her broken heart behind wry humor and quick grins, Dance saw through to all the tiny broken pieces barely holding his sister together. So yeah, he’d gone ahead and ordered two of the baskets. The second would come out of his own wallet. What of it?
He found Wyatt in the wide sunroom behind the kitchen with their mother and Brighton working on a jigsaw puzzle. Wyatt sat on the edge of a rocker, dark hair hanging low over his eyes as he stared at the brightly colored pieces scattered across the wicker coffee table. Since their mom’s stroke, they’d discovered that working on puzzles seemed to help. Sometimes. This one looked rather difficult, a bouquet of blossoms without much pattern to differentiate the pieces.
What a picture they made. Brighton’s riot of light brown curls overpowered her head. He’d never seen a child with so much hair and next to Wyatt’s darker hair it looked even brighter.
“That’s the wrong one. Blues go with blues.” Brighton jammed two blue pieces together that clearly didn’t interlock right and set them in the middle of the table and shot Wyatt a look daring him to tell her she was wrong.
His mom was frowning, her posture tense, fingers crabbing as she tried to work a piece into place. A little pang sheared off a piece of Dance’s worried heart. Elise McCagan used to be able to work puzzles in her sleep. Frustration wore heavy in her features, erasing the vibrancy she carried just six months ago.
“Let me help you, Mom.” Wyatt took the piece from her hand, studied it and handed it back to her. “You just need to turn it to fit.”
Rather than place the piece, she dropped it and leaned back in her chair, disinterested.
So it was one of those days. Her therapist, Shawnie, had warned them about the change in moods and temper, but sometimes their mom seemed like an entirely different person.
Dance walked around the large planter of peonies and gave her a peck on the cheek. “Hi, Mom.”
She blinked up at him, frowning, then looked away out the large screened windows.
Wyatt looked up at him, his face neutral, conveying in that silent way of brothers what Dance already surmised. Mom wasn’t having a good day. Dance crouched down by her chair. “Do you want to go for a walk outside today?”
“I do.” Brighton piped up, puzzle already forgotten.
Their mom didn’t so much as acknowledge the question.
“There’s a cool breeze coming off the lake.”
She shook her head. “I’m tired.”
At least they’d get her to walk back to her room. That was something. She’d already made such great progress, walking every day, getting her out of the wheelchair, but embarrassment of her dragging leg or the way her words mixed when speaking, kept her from venturing outdoors or in the heavily utilized areas of the inn. The past couple of weeks, she seemed to be going backwards in the progress she’d made.
“Let’s get you to your room then.”
“No walk?” Brighton’s bottom lip poked out irresistibly. She had all three of her uncles wrapped around her chubby little finger and knew it.
Wyatt swooped her up. “We’ll go for a walk, honey. You and me around the lake.”
She squealed happily, hugging Wyatt around the neck. Having him home was a Godsend. The moment Dance had called about their mom, Wyatt had arranged for his partner to handle his clients at the firm in Dallas and drove down to help out. He’d been making the commute ever since, working in Dallas three days a week and spending the rest of the time here.
Between Wyatt, him and Shannon, and Chloe making it out every other weekend from college, there was someone always available to be with their mother. And once Cash got back from the archeological dig in Peru, the entire family would be on hand. Poor kid had been frantic, ready to give up the spot he’d worked so hard to get to come home. Only Shannon’s reassurance that she was being taken care of and she wouldn’t want him to give up his internship kept Cash from racing home. He emailed every week, calling when he could get to a phone.
“Come on, Mom.” Dance helped her to her feet where she leaned on his arm for a moment to get her footing pointed in the right direction.
The walk to her room was slow. She’d moved into the inn a few years ago, claiming the house was too big and lonely without Dad, but they all knew she wanted to give the house to Shannon and Richard to help them make ends meet until Richard got back on his feet after being let go at the cannery. Now it was Shannon and Brighton’s home.
As he and his mom made their way down the hall, Dance tried to engage her in conversation but she had clammed up on him. Instead he filled in the silence with details about the inn, finding himself telling her about the jilted bride and her party who were coming in and how he worried about it affecting Shannon. He hoped to draw his mom out, but she was closing up on all of them. His throat tightened at the thought. What would they all do without the force of nature that was Elise McCagan?
He settled her into bed. It was her bed from home they’d brought over along with all her knick-knacks from places she and Dad had visited. They always came home claiming The McCagan was the finest inn across the country. Dance smiled faintly at the recollection. “Do you want me to rub your arms for you?”
She shook her head. “Just…” She stopped, frustration welling in her eyes as she struggled for the word that should be so simple yet was out of her grasp. She’d said it less than fifteen minutes ago. How could it be gone so quickly?
Tired. Dance wanted to say it for her, help her in any way that he could.
Lips pressed together, she turned her head away, closing in on herself.
He pulled the blanket up around her shoulders. “I’ll check in on you before I head out for the night. Shawnie will be here in a few hours for your therapy.”
She didn’t respond in any way nor did Dance expect her to.
Several hours later, Dance was running behind. After an influx of unscheduled arrivals for the weekend, he headed to his mom’s room to check on her. Shawnie had it all under control with the television tuned to his mom’s favorite evening drama as a distraction while she worked and massaged tight muscles to keep them from spasming.
Shawnie was a perfect fit for mom’s changing temperament. Working on her internship, she took a few evening jobs after her shift at the medical center.
He made it to the lobby just as the wedding party he’d hoped to avoid blew in through the large oaken doors. Four women in all, still dressed to the nines in pastel tulle, laughing and boisterous, who’d obviously been toasting to the groom’s early demise before they arrived.
All but one.
Obviously the bride as she wasn’t in a matching bridesmaid dress, but had changed into jeans and a soft blue T-shirt. The casual wear was in complete contrast to the artfully crafted up-do piled on her head.
Unlike the rest of her party, she was stone cold sober. If a bit dazed. She looked around the lobby, dark lashes blinking sluggishly. Her eyes caught on Dance momentarily and his breath faltered at the shine of sadness he glimpsed before her attention moved on.
Dance’s gaze remained fixed on her, anger coming at him from left field. It felt as though someone whacked a baseball bat smack in the center of his chest.
What kind of man left a woman like that at the altar?
“You must be Constance.” Shannon scurried out from the dining room, making a beeline straight to the would-be bride, gripping her by the arms. “You poor thing. What a day you’ve had.”
Dance rubbed his brow, wondering why his sister was still here instead of home with Brighton. She could deny it all she wanted, but this jilting business had gotten to her.
Shannon slung her arm around Constance’s shoulder—best buddies in five seconds flat. Had to be a record. “Would you like to go to your rooms first or straight to dinner? We have a lovely table set up for you.”
“Rooms please.” A couple of the bridesmaids called out simultaneously and then leaned on each other, laughing about it.
“I think I’d like a few minutes first,” Constance said. Tired little wisp looked ready to drop where she stood and Dance felt a sudden need to take care of her.
He tamped that down before it could take root. He didn’t even know her. Time to stop standing there and make his own beeline toward the exit.
“Oh, Dance. I thought you left already,” Shannon called out and five sets of feminine eyes latched onto him. Damn, he hadn’t been fast enough.
“I was just…” He pointed lamely toward the door.
“Would you be a darling and show the ladies up to the suite while I go over a few details with Constance?” Shannon used her sugary tone on him.
“Uh…sure,” he said. He knew what Shannon was doing. She wouldn’t bother a distraught woman with details she already had handled. She was offering the woman a few private moments away from her overly helpful girlfriends who most likely had been sympathizing her to insanity for several hours. It wouldn’t kill him to help her out in that small measure.
“Yeah, Dreamboat, be a darling and take us up to the suite.”
Or maybe it would kill him.
One of the bridesmaids with a purple stripe dyed in her platinum hair, latched onto his arm. He recognized her voice as the straightforward one who had called earlier this morning. Another glommed onto his other arm and Dance found himself surrounded front and back, side-to-side, by the giggling tipsy brood.
“This way, ladies.” He herded them toward the elevator, his legs hemmed in by a frothy sea of tulle.
Rules of the Heart Chapter Two
HIS MOOD had soured considerably by the time he made it to Sooty’s Grill. The game was in full swing, blasting from the flatscreen that took up most of the end wall at the side of the scuffed bar counter.
“Dance.” Wyatt waved him over to their standard table where most of their Friday night pals were already gathered and gaping with rapt interest at the game. Dance barely glanced at the score as he made his way through the crowd and yeasty smell of fresh beer. Peanut shells crunched beneath his boots.
Wyatt nudged a full glass his way when he sat. “Hear tell you didn’t make it past the gaggle of bridesmaids.” His brother’s grin was unrepentant.
“No, I did not.” Dance shuddered. They’d had him in the suite a full ten minutes before he managed to wrangle himself away. “How’d you escape from Shannon?”
“Offered to take Brighton home until Chloe got there to take over. You should have thought of it. Getting slow on the uptake, bro.”
“Chloe’s in town?” From his other side, Levi asked before taking a quick pull of his beer, eyes fixed on the television.
“Came in for the weekend again,” Wyatt answered, grabbing a handful of peanuts. Levi and Wyatt had been friends forever, both enlisting at the same time, though Wyatt had come back from Afghanistan more or less intact, Levi returned with part of his arm missing below the elbow and scars up and down his left side. Wyatt had been with him through rehab every painful step of the way. As close as they were, Wyatt seemed blinded by Levi’s interest in Dance and Wyatt’s baby sister. Either that or he just didn’t want to think about it. And since Chloe was just as dense to Levi’s attraction, Wyatt didn’t have to worry about it.
Not that Dance wanted to broach the obvious either. Levi would either decide to stake a claim or he wouldn’t. It was no-nevermind to him.
“Hey, did that shipment for the carriage house come in yet?” He asked Levi about an easier topic. They hired him to refurbish the old carriage house into guest rooms, not only because he’d outbid everyone else, but because he was a true craftsman with an eye for detail. He could be trusted to keep the carriage house true to her one hundred year old history. It was going to be beautiful.
“The shipment? Should be in by Monday so I can get back to work on it.”
“So were any of them worth looking at?” Wyatt raised his brows. John and Austin pulled their attention from the game.
“What? The shipment of cedar?”
“The wedding gals,” Austin supplied. His red hair was slicked down on the crown from wearing his hat all day while riding in his crop harvester.
“Oh, um…yeah. They are all very pretty.” Actually Dance hadn’t really noticed, had barely paid attention to any of them after seeing Constance. Her image filled the forefront of his mind, how she’d stood there so forlorn, blond ringlets pinned above a sad angel’s face. The truth was he hadn’t even looked at the other girls. But…if the guys were interested in hanging around the inn, it would free him from Shannon pushing him towards the bridesmaids as a distraction. “Leastways, they were all dolled up for a wedding.”
“That’s the best way to meet women.” Austin leaned back. “At weddings when they’re feeling all romantic and lonely. Except for the jilted bride. Too soon for her unless you’re into tears and hearing about how she’s been done wrong. Stay clear of that one. But the rest are fair game.”
“And ready to find husbands,” Wyatt chimed in. “Trust me. When one gets married, they all start thinking about it. No thank you, ma’am.”
“Maybe that’s what some of us want.” Austin grinned.
They all threw peanuts at him, groaning and shuddering at the unwanted sentiment.
“What?” Austin brushed a peanut off his shoulder. “This is great, guys, really, but I don’t intend to look at your ugly mugs every Friday the rest of my life.”
John snagged an elbow around Austin’s neck and pulled his head down for a hard knuckle rub. “You wouldn’t last two weeks before you’d be crawling back.”
“Touchdown!” The bar erupted and all talk of women and marriage was forgotten as their team continued to dominate the field.
But the excitement of the game was lost for Dance. He couldn’t get into it as his mind played out the scenario of Constance walking down the aisle in a cloud of satin, her heart-shaped face glowing with happiness, then melting into shock as a faceless jerk wasn’t present, had left her facing the preacher alone.
How could any man do that to a woman? Embarrass her like that? How could a guy have let it get to that point? He didn’t know anything about this Marcus Wentworth, except that he was too much of a coward to man up and call it off before the day of the wedding.
Constance hadn’t gotten a good look at the inn last night. She’d been too numb, shell-shocked from yesterday’s turn of events that was supposed to be the happiest day of her life.
Dru, Beth and Annette dragged her to the inn—quite heavy-handedly—because everything beyond Marcus’s note that he’d left for her in the church’s bridal room was a blur. He’d scrawled in an obviously hurried hand…I can’t do this. Sorry.
The inn had provided a wonderful dinner of braised walnut stuffed chicken and yams last night and her friends had imbibed in a little too much of the local wine. Constance’s first sip had flattened in her churning stomach.
In their attempt to lighten the heartache for her, her friends hadn’t realized she wasn’t drinking. She was already too numb for any buzz to do any good.
Now in the early light of day, she was clear-headed and restless. While her bridesmaids were all soundly drooling into their pillows, she slipped out for some much needed fresh air.
She gave a polite nod to the petite Hispanic woman behind the front desk as she wandered through the stylish entryway and pushed through one of the two wide front doors to go outside.
This early in the morning the Texas air was cool and peaceful. Several different kinds of birds were chirping back and forth in the feathery tufted leaves of the mimosa trees draping over each end of the inn’s polished white portico porch. The silky pink pom-pom blossoms spritzed the air with the fragrance that made her think of fruit punch.
Stepping down the wide steps, Constance inhaled the air and looked back at the two-story Antebellum inn. It really was like stepping back into another era.
Off the side of the circular driveway, she found a meandering pathway of cobblestones. She took that around the side of the inn through a flower garden of awakening peonies and bright yellow daffodils that instantly lightened her mood. She followed the path around a sunroom that spanned the entire side of the inn to the back where the wrap-around porch stepped down to a lovely expanse of lawn broken in half by a wide dirt pathway that led to a private lake. The strip of sandy tan beach and a gazebo built on posts that extended partway over the water invited a sense of serenity that Constance yearned for.
On the far side, before the rolling hills, weeping willows hugged the edge of the lake with delicate branches swaying in the slight breeze like a line of ballerinas moving their arms in graceful synchronization and Constance felt a thin layer of haze sweep away from her heart.
It felt like she’d taken her first real breath since yesterday. Dru had been right to bring her here. Not so much to party her woes away, but this place; it was peaceful. It spoke to her soul.
With no one else about yet, she imagined the lake was her own private paradise. Away from where all her wedding guests gawked at her in sympathy, and where her mother didn’t ask what she’d done to drive such a catch as Marcus away.
Constance closed her eyes and let the warm breeze and the chatter of the birds wash it all away.
Gosh, what a day yesterday had been.
But she’d survived it and today was fresh and new.
Letting her eyes slide open, she took another longing look at the lake and the rolling hills beyond. There was a private winery at the edge of the property. She could make out the neat rows of grapevines in the distance as she made a slow turn to take everything in. On the other side of the inn from the garden area she’d come through, was an old barn or what they called the carriage house according to the brochures she and Marcus had looked at.
The sun rising behind it showered the building in a golden glow. It wasn’t open to guests yet, but she just had to go over there, see if she could take a peek inside one of the windows. The pathway widened to a wide flat stone area in front of the rolling style barn doors. They were large enough for a carriage to drive through. The flagstones looked like they’d been recently placed. The soil between them matched the rich dirt in the flower beds along the side of the building, just waiting for seedlings to be planted. Whoever was doing the landscaping had an eye in keeping with the quiet natural beauty and settled feel of the place.
The windows were old and coated in the yellowing dinge of years. They’d probably have to be replaced or treated somehow. They weren’t much good for looking through either, though Constance gave it a good try in her attempt to wipe away decades of Texas baked-on clay. All she could see was a dim gritty smear.
Constance stepped back, eyeing the building in her determination to get a look inside. The large doors hung on casters that rolled open and closed…and oh, they weren’t flushed together. That small gap might give her that peek inside.
Excellent. Her aunts said she was too nosy for her own good, but right now having something else to occupy her mind over stupid Marcus was a saving grace to her sanity. And everyone thought she’d be the one to call off the wedding.
Her fingers paused on the door.
Why had everyone joked about that? What had they noticed about her and Marcus that she’d been oblivious to?
Constance pressed her nose at the gap between the huge doors, bracing her hands on them when one of them shifted. Oh gosh. It wasn’t locked.
She drew back, hesitant. She really shouldn’t go in. It was trespassing. And this was Texas. They actually shoot people out here for that, didn’t they?
She scraped her bottom lip between her teeth. Aw, screw it. She’d been left at the altar, humiliated in front of everyone she knew, her mom acted like it was somehow her fault. Getting caught in the carriage house couldn’t be any worse.
She slid the door open only enough to squeeze through, pleasantly surprised that the casters didn’t squeal and give her away.
The interior was massive, much larger than it had appeared from the outside. It looked large enough to house several carriages in its day, with enough stalls to hold half again as many horses.
The dewy sunlight filtered in through high pane-less windows near the rafters, slashing the muted dark with slanting streamers of light.
It created one heck of an atmosphere. Constance sighed, breathing in the peace that was here and slid the door open a little more to allow in more of the light.
Signs of ongoing construction were everywhere. Sawhorses, hammers, toolboxes, a cutting saw… It looked like one wall of the stalls had been taken apart, not with a sledgehammer, for the old partitions were still intact and stacked against the wall. She wondered if they were going to be re-used in the carriage house somehow. The attention to historic detail and use of local materials was something that had drawn her to honeymoon at the inn itself. She imagined the stall walls as a perfect door to a washroom, or headboard, or two of them paired for an interesting outdoor courtyard divider. Her interior designer’s heart was sparking with the possibilities.
Everything else was laid out in heaps. An industrial garbage can had been brought in for obvious waste to be hauled out, but there were also piles of scrap wood and metal, and another pile of items that appeared were set aside to be refurbished later like the stall partitions or to be gone through by the owners of the inn. There were old feeding buckets, horseshoes, and other equipment for taking care of horses. Lots of leather hasps and bridles and some things she had no idea of their use. A couple dusty trunks she’d love to open and see what was in them, and…wonder what was in that? She zeroed in on a small flat box about the length of a man’s hand. It stuck out a few inches from one of the feeding buckets that was tipped on its side as though someone had tossed the box in it without much thought, which made the bucket fall over.
She’d no sooner picked it up when a voice startled her from behind.
“This building is off-limits to guests.” A deep southern drawl echoed in the room.
Constance swung around, holding the box to her chest.
It was the dark-haired guy from last night who showed her bridesmaids to their rooms. He obviously worked at the inn, although he hadn’t been in the white shirt and dark slacks all the staff wore, but in jeans and a casual shirt. Same as now except the white shirt had been exchanged for a long-sleeved shirt left unbuttoned over a faded blue T-shirt. Everything else had been so dulled to her all she really remembered about him was that he was the first person all day who hadn’t looked at her with sympathy. He’d actually seemed a little angry. Not at her, she didn’t think. Why would he be? But it had been refreshing nonetheless to look up and see a different emotion than the pity that had been directed at her for hours.
He didn’t seem angry now, even though he’d caught her going through things that didn’t belong to her.
“Oh sorry.” She clutched the flat box tighter, unwilling to give it up until she saw what was inside. “I just…okay, the truth is, I couldn’t resist coming in here. It’s so beautiful.”
A dark eyebrow lifted. He glanced around the space.
“Construction chaos aside, it is. Just the structure alone, and the light. And all right, my family says I’m too curious for my own good, well the word they use is nosy, but I had a bad day yesterday, really bad—”
That brought her rambling up short. Great, even here everybody knew of her humiliation. Why would she think otherwise? The entire inn’s staff probably figured that out when she showed up minus one groom and three bridesmaids instead.
“Oh, um, well.” Now she felt really awkward. “I couldn’t stay in the suite any longer. I had to get out and it looked so peaceful in here. I just really needed a few moments…”
Her gaze snapped up to him. “It is?”
One side of his lip quirked up in the faintest of smiles. “It’s fine.”
“You’re sure? I don’t want to get you in trouble with your bosses.”
“My…?” Something close to amusement caught in his dark eyes. “My bosses won’t mind in the least.”
“Fairly certain, although I better remain with you just in case.”
“In case of what?”
“Accident. Liability. This is a construction zone.”
Oh. Right. She really would rather be alone, but she could see his point. “In case one of those rafters that have managed to stay intact more than a few centuries decides at this precise moment in time to fall on my head?”
She got a full-on grin out of him with that and had to admit it looked nice on him. He had the sort of face that looked like it wasn’t home to many smiles so she felt a little proud that she’d garnered one so quickly. It was her best attribute: getting others to lighten up. It was one of the things Marcus loved about her. He said she always managed to make him feel better in any situation. Wonder how he was feeling now?
“What is that?” The guy nodded toward the box she held.
“I don’t know. It was in this pile. Stuff to be gone through later, it seems.”
“That you thought you’d go through first?” His eyes were teasing.
She smiled. Actually she’d love to sort through all this stuff. She shrugged. “I was just…”
“Curious?” he said.
“It’s all right. You can say nosy. I own up to it.”
“Would it help you to know that I thought it?” He grinned.
Oh, she liked his wry barely there humor. She chuckled. “It does.” Having someone treat her like a normal person instead of an emotional basket case helped.
“Well then. Let’s be nosy together.” He walked over to her, his boots sounding on the floorboards, and held out his hand.
Reluctantly, she gave over the box.
But he surprised her by just holding it, clasp out, and nodded. “Go ahead.”
“Really?” She grinned up at him. Now that he was close, she noticed how tall he was, a good head taller than her. Even taller than Marcus. And really nice. The gesture of letting her open the box brightened what was sure to be another difficult day.
“Are you going to open it?”
“I am. I just want to savor it for a while longer because once it’s opened, the expectation of something amazing inside is gone.”
He chuckled. “Considering it’s been in an old carriage house for who knows how long—I’ve never even seen this before and I’ve…worked…here a long time—I wouldn’t hold your expectations high. It’s probably empty. Just an old box.”
“I know all that. Which is why I’m taking my time.”
“Then by all means, take as long as you need.”
She eyed him but found no mockery. He really was letting her savor the moment. Patient guy. Of course she was a guest at the inn. All the employees so far were the type who went overboard to accommodate their guests. Even heartbroken messes like herself. A little pang tapped her heart. Pathetic. She had to stop thinking about Marcus. He didn’t love her. Probably never really had.
She looked down at the box, trying to bring back the enthusiasm of discovery.
The guy’s thumbs absently tapped the top of the box. Okay not as patient as he was letting on, which made her smile and loosened the tightness in her chest a bit. She had to admit it was much more fun having a partner-in-crime. Besides, they were just snooping. They weren’t going to take anything.
She flicked the little antique latch open with her fingernail and lifted the lid.
“Oh my gosh!”
All thoughts of Marcus vanished at the discovery. She couldn’t believe it.
He leaned down for a closer look and she jerked up. Smack. The back of her head whacked into his.
“Gah.” He stumbled back, and then bent over, holding his nose.
Constance managed to hang onto the box. “Are you okay?” She bent to look into his face and winced. His nose was bleeding.
His sideways glance at her was incredulous.
“You wroke my nose.”
She stifled a grin at how ridiculous he sounded. She closed the box so the contents wouldn’t spill out. “I highly doubt that. We couldn’t have hit that hard. My head barely hurts.”
Again he gave her that dubious sidewise look. “How wondervul for you.”
A bubble of laughter hiccupped out. “I’m sorry.”
“I can tell.”
“No, really.” She covered her mouth to hold any more pips of laughter in and glanced around for something to staunch the blood.
“Wour concern warms me.” He straightened, scowling.
She bit her lip to hold back the laughter that wanted to come out. It really wasn’t funny, not in the least, but she couldn’t help it. It was funny. And it felt so gosh darn good to laugh, a needed release. She found some unopened painter towels, set the box on the sawhorse, and burrowed a hole in the plastic to pull a few of the towels out.
“Here, use this.” She handed him one of the towels to press to his nose. “Tip your head back. We should get you somewhere to clean this off, see how bad this is. If it really is broken…”
“Come with me and wring that.” He pointed toward the sawhorse.
“I don’t think we should take it out of here. Except maybe we better take it to the front desk. I wouldn’t want to just leave it out here now that we know what’s in it.”
His brows drew down over his hand holding the cloth to his nose.
“You didn’t see?” she asked.
“I was a wittle woccupied by the back of your head colliding into my face.”
“I said I’m sorry.”
He frowned, and then slowly nodded, letting it go. “So what’s in there?”
The rest of this book can be found at your favorite online retailers:
“SO, WHO actually did their homework last night?” Nick Jacobs stared mercilessly across the sea of students before him, “Anyone?”
A smattering of teenagers tentatively raised their hands.
“So, only ten percent of you care about your future?” As he strode around the room, Nick’s eyes zoned in on a girl slouched at her desk in the back row. “Stacy, did you complete your essay?”
Her chestnut eyes flashed angrily as she replied, “Yes, Sir.”
“Let’s see it then,” Nick held out his hand, a wicked smile upon his thin lips, “and as for the few of you who followed directions – pass your papers to the front.”
Stacy removed a pristine sheet of paper covered in black printed letters from her bag and silently placed it into her teacher’s hand.
“Today we’ll learn the correct, and incorrect, way to write an essay.” He crossed the room and stopped before a beautiful blonde cheerleader, “Penelope, may I use your essay as an example?”
The girl flushed with pride and handed him her crumpled paper, complete with a few lines of writing in elegant black ink.
“First, I shall demonstrate the perfect essay, as written by Penelope.”
Penelope sat up straight, oblivious to the snickers that rang out from the back of the classroom.
Nick cleared his throat and began to read. After a few long minutes, in which many of the students had slumped onto their desks and fallen asleep, Nick handed the paper back to Penelope. A few students clapped politely and the noise awoke their sleeping friends.
Suddenly, Nick’s expression turned icy, “and now for how not to write an essay.” Once again, he began to read.
However, during this speech not a single pupil slipped into unconsciousness. In fact, they were all transfixed until the second that it ended. The class burst into applause, though they were silenced by a furious look from Mr Jacobs.
He scoffed and flung the paper onto his desk, “Stacy, did you even take a moment to consider what you were writing rather than wasting my time with this trash?”
Stacy stood from her seat and swung her bag onto her shoulder, “Yes Sir. In fact, I spent more than the recommended amount of time to make my essay up to your standards, perhaps I’m performing too high. Don’t worry; I’ll try less next time.”
Nick opened and closed his mouth like a bloated puffer fish, startled at the sudden outburst from the usually silent girl. His cheeks turned a flaming red as he finally found his voice, “And where do you think you’re going? You can’t just walk out of my classroom!”
“I’m going home Sir,” She waved a blue excusal slip at him as she opened the door.
“For what reason? I have a right to know why my student is disrupting my lesson. Let me take a look at that slip, I bet you forged it yourself. Going off to get high are you?” He sneered cruelly.
“Actually, you have no right. And no Sir,” she spat the word, her eyes liquid fire, “I’m not “going off to get high” I’m leaving for something much more important. Oh, and I know you have experience with marijuana, but that doesn’t mean I do.” She turned her attention to the class, her eyes instantly cooling, “If anyone wants to look up the Ventura Times for August 7th 1992 – be my guest. Mr Jacobs is front page news.” She disappeared down the hallway, calling out “Later,” as she left.
The entire class erupted in cheering the moment the door swung shut.
That night, as he was walking home, Nick heard the quiet tapping of footsteps behind him. It was gone seven and therefore dim enough to impair his sight, though light enough that the street lights weren’t on. He slowly increased his pace as a feeling of unease formed in the pit of his stomach. Risking a look, Nick turned his head slightly. Two hooded men were loping along a few feet behind. Pushing his fear aside, he continued, almost jogging now. Suddenly, the men were upon him. One shoved him roughly to the ground as the other reached into his pockets, finding nothing.
“Where’s your money, huh?” The man who wasn’t pinning Nick to the ground spoke, his voice muffled by the thick mask he was wearing.
“I-I don’t have any with me.”
“Don’t lie. Where’s your money?” The masked man pulled a penknife from within his jacket and pointed it menacingly at Nick, “Last chance to tell me.”
“In my house – I’ll take you to it. Just please, don’t hurt me.” Nick’s voice wavered in terror.
“Do you think I’m stupid? Someone will call the cops – that’s too public. Now come on old man, no one walks around without a penny. Where is your money?!”
“I honestly don’t have any with me!”
The man laid his knife across Nick’s throat. “You go get us that money all right? Don’t even think about calling the cops. Or else.”
They released him and watched as he stumbled away down the street. Fearing for his life, even if he handed over the money, Nick burst into a sprint. Yells chased him down the street as he ran for his life with his pulse screaming in his ears. He wasn’t fast enough.
The men caught him within a block and a struggle ensued. Somehow, the knife was plunged into Nick’s back. He screamed in agony and fell to his feet onto the pavement as his attackers raced off into the night.
A woman dashed out of her house at the noise and stopped dead at the sight of Nick surrounded by a pool of blood. She quickly called 911 and waited with him in the street, fearful of moving him.
The ambulance arrived within minutes, though that time felt like forever for the dying man. Nick Jacobs contemplated his entire life within those few minutes – the great and the terrible. However, it was only when the paramedics arrived that he realised that he was not yet ready to die. Yes, he had lived a long life – but he couldn’t think of anything he cared to call an achievement. It was not the prospect of death itself that scared him, for he had nothing left to live for, but the fact that he would fade from existence without leaving even the tiniest of marks upon this world in which he had resided for so very long.
Stacy Mason strolled into English class with every intention of bailing at the first chance she got. However, she was stopped in her tracks at the sight of the Miss Jenkins at the front of the class shuffling papers.
“Hello Stacy dear! My, it’s been a long while since I’ve had to sub for your class hasn’t it?” Miss Jenkins squinted at Stacy through her owl-like glasses, hiding a disapproving glance as she took in the girl’s midnight black hair, and gothic attire.
“Yeah, it’s been a while Miss J.” For the first time in a long time, Stacy felt the corners of her mouth lift into an almost smile, “So to what do we owe the pleasure?”
Miss Jenkins laid a hand comfortingly on Stacy’s shoulder, “I come bearing some unfortunate news – poor Mr Jacobs was taken into hospital last night – he’d been stabbed – though I heard he made it.” She shook her head sadly and turned her attention to the class, “Students, please take your seats! Class is about to begin.”
Stacy tried to listen to the lesson, though her mind refused to concentrate. She thought that she would have been relieved when her tormentor finally got what was coming to him, though the news of his ill health only left her with a feeling of pity and maybe, even though she refused to admit it, sadness.
As 10 o’clock neared, Stacy withdrew her dismissal slip, her mind still running in endless circles. The time for her to leave came and flew by without her even noticing and she was only brought back into the present by the shrill ringing of the bell. Cursing under her breath, Stacy flung her belongings into her bag and raced through the halls. She arrived at the reception red-faced and completely out of breath. Barely waving her card at the attendance lady she leant into the heavy door and was almost out of the building when a high-pitched voice stopped her in her tracks.
“Stacy Mason – exactly where do you think you’re going?”
Stacy backtracked and handed the slip of paper to the woman, who regarded it for a moment and then passed it back, “Get to class. This pass says 10am. It’s 10:30.”
“No buts young lady! Now hurry along.”
Stacy bit her lip, the dark lipstick bitter against her tongue. “Sorry, gotta go!” She dashed out of the door, not stopping running until she reached her Volkswagen beetle. She climbed inside and headed towards the hospital.
“I’m afraid that it’s not looking good – your left kidney was punctured. We managed to do a rather “quick fix” procedure, though it won’t last for long. Our only option at this time is to give you a transplant – though the average waiting time on the donor’s list is around four months. Mr Jacobs…you don’t have that long. I’m sorry. Nurse Hetta will be in shortly to make you as comfortable as possible.”
The doctor gently patted Nick’s hand before disappearing into the hive of the hospital. Nick released a deep breath, but no tears fell as he confronted his imminent death. He pondered the worth of his life and decided that it was close to nothing. The only good thing he had ever done was to give his students a fighting chance at success – well at least the ones with promise. It did no good to waste precious time and resources on those who wouldn’t yield the fruits of the labor that was poured into them – those like Stacy Mason. He wasn’t sure when his hatred for her had formed; though he could guess that it was sometime between the moment she had entered his class and the second after that. He resented everything about her; her clothes, her attitude and especially her personality.
It all reminded him far too much of Lily; the resemblance was incredible. His heart ached as he reminisced upon the times that he had spent with her. Lily was the love of his life. He had given her everything, and she had left him for the (star quarterback) baker’s boy. Suddenly, all he wanted to do was to find her – to see her beautiful face one last time. It was a crazy thought – the past was best left well alone, though as he had no future to look forward to, he thought that he may as well look back.
Nick managed to detach himself from the IV hooked into his arm and clambered out of bed. He stumbled across the room and then froze. Stacy Mason crossed the hallway as gracefully as a dancer, though her shoulders were squared and her eyes were aimed at the floor. She glanced up when she passed Nick’s window and her mouth dropped open as the recognition hit her. The moment their eyes met, Nick’s screaming body relaxed. She really did look uncannily like Lily. His mind wandered back to the summer, so many years ago, when they had spent almost every afternoon in the shade of the big oak tree, making plans for their future together. Unaware of the flood of memories bombarding him, Stacy kept moving – focussing at the ground more firmly than ever, and slipped into the room next to his. Some primal instinct urged Nick to follow her – call it instinct or fate; he complied and caught the door.
The first thing he noticed upon entering the room was how the smell of death lingered in the air. The second was the bed, and the frail, yet stunning, woman laying in it.
“Lily.” The words were barely a whisper, though she heard him.
“Nick? Is that really you?” Her voice was exhausted and weak, though her eyes burned with a determined fire.
“Yes, oh Lily – what happened to you?”
“Lung cancer.” She went straight to the point as always, “you don’t look too good yourself.” Her chuckle rattled her bones and her breathing became shallower.
Stacy instantly went to her aid and shot a look of disgust mixed with confusion at Nick. He ignored her, went to his only love’s side and tenderly took her hand in his own.
“You’ll always look beautiful to me. I still love you Lily.”
And then the darkness closed in.
Somehow, the universe has a way of balancing itself. For every good deed, there is a bad and for every wrong there is a right. Therefore, with the darkness, must come light.
Nick Jacobs woke up back in his hospital bed. He was once again met with the sight of the Doctor, dressed in all white. He wondered if he had died.
“What happened?” Nick’s voice was dry and raspy.
“You gave us quite a scare – we had to perform an emergency transplant.”
“But I thought there were no donors available.”
“Well, that’s why you’re a very lucky man. It turns out that Stacy Mason, whose mother was the patient next door, is a perfect match. She donated one of her kidneys to you. If she hadn’t – you would have died.” The Doctor left with a bright smile on his lips.
To Nick’s absolute surprise, Stacy walked into the room. She shifted her feet uncomfortably and didn’t meet his eyes. “I just wanted to tell you, Mum – Lily, passed away last night.”
Nick would never tell a soul, but the light had taken them both, then given him back. He knew that he’d been given a second chance. “I know.” He tried in vain to find the words that he knew he should say to her, “Should you be about and walking – your surgery was pretty major.”
She shrugged, “I’ve had worse. I just wanted you to know.” She turned to leave.
“Why did you do it? You hate me.”
“No, you hate me. I understand now and I hope you can forgive her. I did it because no matter what I did, she was going to die. But you – you loved, and maybe still love, her. As long as she lives within the people that love her, then I saved her in a way.” The door didn’t make a noise as she pulled it open, “Plus, someone needs to allow the airheads of the school to pass class or else we wouldn’t have anyone serving our burgers at McDonalds.”
Nick Jacobs could’ve sworn that the girl who saved his life smiled as she walked out of it forever.
Fargo, Texas, 1935
Maude let go of her husband’s arm and turned in the direction of the familiar voice. Seeing a woman waving from across the street, she turned back to her husband. “You run on in. I’ll go chat with Katie for a spell. You didn’t need me for anything in there, did you?”
“Nope. Just depositing this check. I may chew the fat with Mr. Piper if business is slow…”
A black Chevy came sputtering down the road throwing out plumes of black exhaust and drowning out her husband’s voice. Maude waited until the automobile passed before crossing Main Street to join her friend. “I didn’t know you were coming into town today. What brings you to Vernon?”
Katie patted the tight curls adorning her head. “Can’t you tell? Just got freshly permed. By Mrs. Hardison herself, too.”
“Woohee. Looks mighty purty. You’re going to put all the other women in Fargo to shame.” Maude self-consciously tucked the straggly ends of her russet locks behind an ear. “The farm must be doing well for you, spending pretty pennies for a fine do like that. Why, I haven’t seen the inside of a beauty parlor for…goodness sakes…I don’t recollect. I doubt I’ve paid for any services since before Veryle was born. And that’s near on fifteen years now.”
“Mrs. Hardison’s running a special. Perms only two dollars and fifty cents. I think business is hurting right now.”
“Aren’t they all? Shelton just took his farm benefit check to the bank. If they get much smaller I don’t know how we’ll be able to hang onto the farm. We don’t have two spare nickels to rub together.”
“Ain’t that the truth? I’m thankful that Horton did so well with the hogs this year. Sold more hams at Christmas then we ever have before.” An icy wind blew up the street and Katie pulled her jacket tight around her body. She rubbed her hands briskly up and down her arms. A pensive look crossed her face. “I’ll be glad when winter is over. Although, I sure hope we don’t have another scorching summer like the last few years. I doubt this part of Texas will survive another year of drought. Soon won’t be much left of our town. I think Fargo’s just going to dry up and blow away like most of Oklahoma’s done.”
Maude rubbed her hands together vigorously in an attempt to ward off the chill of the February day. “Hopefully 1935 is a better year for all of us. Hope the dust storms are done with, too. Can’t say as I hope to ever see another one.” She looked up and glanced across the street. “There’s Shelton. Looks like he’s done banking. See you in church Sunday?”
“We’ll be there. The whole family.” Katie started to move towards her Oldsmobile, then stopped abruptly. “Oh…Maude…I’ve been meaning to ask you. Can you bring me your recipe for War Cake? I’ve misplaced mine.”
“Certainly. I’ll write it out tonight and tuck it in my Bible so I don’t forget it.”
Maude’s husband climbed behind the wheel of their pickup and tooted the horn.
A brief flash of irritation settled in the lines of Maude’s weary face. Mr. Shaw, sometimes you annoy me to no end. Instead of confronting her husband, she took a deep breath, calmed her face and scurried to the pickup.
Sunday morning Maude made it a point to set next to Katie in the women’s Sunday School meeting. She whispered as she pulled out a folded paper and passed it to Katie. “Looks like some of the older ones stayed home today.”
Katie nodded in agreement as she unfolded the note and read the ingredients, written in pencil with a tight cursive script.
2 cups sugar.
2 cups water.
1 teaspoon each – salt, cinnamon, vanilla.
4 tablespoons melted butter. 1 cup raisins.
Mix, put on stove and boil 5 minutes, after cools add 2 teaspoon soda dissolved in 1 tablespoon warm water and 3 cups flour. Cook slowly 1 ½ hours.
“Thanks. I’ve been wanting to make this again since it doesn’t use any eggs. Our hens have just about stopped laying with the cold.”
They hushed as Eula Stowe stood up, smoothed out her starched cotton skirt and cleared her throat. “Ladies, before we begin our devotions, I wanted to share a matter of concern from the Women’s Auxiliary. We met last week and the group decided to have a fundraiser.”
Mrs. White scrunched up her face with displeasure. “Any particular reason? Because some weeks putting a dime in the offering plate is about all I can spare.”
“We understand. Money is scarce for everyone in Fargo, not just those at Fargo Baptist Church. It’s for our roof that didn’t fare well through the winter. Several men volunteered to do the repairs if the church buys the supplies. Joe Petty at Shamburger Lumber offered us products at his cost. We need to raise two hundred dollars.”
A murmur spread through the small gathering of women in the Sunday School room.
Maude spoke up. “Don’t know if we can buy anything. But I’m willing to lend a hand with whatever help is needed.”
Heads around her nodded in agreement.
Katie tucked her friend’s recipe inside her Bible. “What kind of fundraiser? Has it been decided on yet?”
Eula pulled a folded envelope from her sweater pocket. “There were several ideas. A bake sale…”
Mrs. White interrupted with a raspy grumble. “Don’t know ‘bout that one. We all bake our own goods. Who’s gonna pay for something someone else made?”
“Now, dear, that was just one idea. Another was aprons and potholders. We’d all make some and donate them to sell.”
“Seems like a same horse of a different color. Why pay good money for something we all make?” Mrs. White, in her usual cantankerous manner, found objections to every suggestion.
Maude sat there and thought to herself, although she certainly didn’t voice her opinion out loud. Seems I need to be putting Mrs. White on my prayer list. I do believe God needs to soften her heart.
Fortunately Eula was a patient woman with a calm spirit. She continued on as if the grouchy elder hadn’t interrupted her again. “Another idea was a cookbook.”
Katie’s face brightened with excitement. She pulled her War Cake recipe from her Bible where she’d tucked it and waved it in the air above her. “A cookbook! We all like tasty recipes. I just got this one from Maude. If it were in a cookbook, then I wouldn’t keep losing my favorite ones. I think we’d all be able to come up with some spare change to buy something so useful.”
“I’ve got a lot of recipes I can share for a cookbook.” Eyes rolled as Hazel Woodward spoke up, her voice booming across the room.
Maude nudged Katie and spoke under her breath. “Figure’s Hazel would. Is there anything in town that a Woodward doesn’t have their finger in?”
Other furtive whispers circulated amongst the women.
Eula continued as if the room were silent. “Wonderful. Now, the next Auxiliary meeting is Friday afternoon…” She looked pointedly at all the women sitting in the chairs ringing the room. “We’d love to have you all in attendance. Then you can voice your thoughts on the fundraiser ideas.”
After this brief matter of business, Eula began the lesson she had planned for the morning’s class. Something about Jacob and his coat of many colors. Maude didn’t pay her much heed. She’d heard Jacob’s story so often she tuned it out and her mind wandered in the fundraiser direction. She knew she’d be at the next meeting and she hoped that the cookbook idea ended up being the favorite idea. She didn’t know how much time she could contribute to the project, what with the farm and four children between the ages of five and fifteen. It sounded like a lot more fun than the typical household tasks that filled her day from the rooster’s first crow until long after the hens had nested in for the night.
It wasn’t that she didn’t relish being a wife and a mother. But there was so little time for her to relax and partake of an activity where she found enjoyment. Except for her quilting, of course. Most evenings she was able to do a little handwork on a quilt, or to add some embellishment to the embroidered dish towels. Other than that, the chores of a farm wife took every spare moment, until she fell into bed exhausted.
The ladies stood, gathering Bibles to join the men in the sanctuary for the morning’s sermon, and the rustling jostled Maude into awareness. Goodness, she must have missed the end of the lesson and the prayer too, as lost in thought as she was. She glanced around, hoping that no one had noticed.
During the service, she barely paid attention to the pastor. Songs were sung by rote. After hearing the same hymns for so many years, Maude rarely opened her hymnal. Once the pianist started the first notes, her brain took over and she could sing along on almost all the tunes.
Except when the song leader decided to sing all four verses. On almost every song, the song leader called, “First, second and fourth verses.” The poor little third verse ended up neglected most the time. Maude didn’t know if all Baptist churches did the same, but the ones she’d attended in her thirty-nine years all did.
When they actually did sing all four stanzas, the words of the third verse weren’t engraved in her memory. She fumbled a bit on those. Humming along on the words she didn’t know, she didn’t think anyone noticed. Her mind had already wandered to Friday afternoon. She already had dinner planned for the noontime. She’d put a chicken in the oven on real low, so that supper would be almost ready by the time she got home from the women’s group. Shelton may not be pleased that she’d be out for a few hours. He’d have to live with it. Veryle was old enough to keep an eye on the younger ones.
The next few days Maude rose easily as soon as she felt Shelton stirring. Getting a head start on the day, she kept at her chores, trying to get ahead so she could have an afternoon with the womenfolk. The week had never seemed so long.
Thursday afternoon, Maude watched out the kitchen window as a gray storm started to move into north Texas. The low, heavy clouds didn’t bode well. “Blasted February storms,” she muttered to herself.
Sure enough, Friday morning she awoke to a world covered in frosty, shimmery ice. She stood at the sink, gazing out the window at the crusty layer covering every surface, feeling like she wanted to cry.
Shelton came in the back door, stomping his boots on the floor to dislodge particles. “Guess’n you’re not going anywhere today. Roads are slick as snot. Barely made it to the barn to feed Bessie and Gert. Slipped and slid the whole way.”
“Nope. Not this mornin’. Hens didn’t like the storm either.”
“Let me call Katie and see how they’re faring.” Maude moved to the rectangular box on the wall and lifted the round, black receiver, and spoke into the mouthpiece. “Hello? Sable?”
Dead silence answered her.
“Lines are down, too. I was so looking forward to this afternoon, too.”
“Just as well. Didn’t need to be gallivanting around the county for the day.”
“Shelton Shaw. It wasn’t the whole day. Just a few hours. And it’s for the church. Trying to raise money to repair the roof. So I don’t want to hear any more of your grumbling about it. You weren’t going to suffer any. You’d have your meals and the children would fend for themselves. Not be a bother to you.”
“Okay, okay. Don’t get your dander up.” He held his hands in the air in surrender. Maude didn’t speak up to him often, but when she did, he knew she was riled up like a wet rooster and he wouldn’t win that battle.
Fortunately the storm blew northeast and settled into Oklahoma the next day. Two days later the sun rose on ice covered Fargo and started spreading its warmth across the land. By the end of the day the worst of the frozen tundra had melted into slush. The next day linesmen repaired the telephone line that had fallen from the weight of the ice and the local women made good use of the restored phone service, catching up with each other. The Women’s Auxiliary meeting was rescheduled for the next Friday and a grown up version of post office followed, with one lady calling another, who called another.
Friday afternoon arrived, bright and sunny, if not warm. Maude was free of the house for a few hours and hummed to herself the entire drive to the meeting. She stepped into Lillian Goin’s parlor and saw familiar women sitting primly on the edges of their chairs, sipping hot cups of tea or coffee. She was glad she’d pulled out her best dress to wear to the meeting. Being a social event for the farm women of the small town, the others also had donned their fanciest attire. Several ladies even sported crisp white gloves for the event.
She remembered how proud of himself Shelton was the day he came home with three feed sacks in a matching blue calico print. The delicate blossoms scattered across the pale yellow background gave her a rush of pleasure. She’d claimed these sacks for her own, something uncharacteristic for her. Usually the best material went for dresses for one of the three girls. Now, she was pleased that she’d sewn a new dress for herself out of the grain bags. Her new dress gave her a rush of confidence as she looked about the room.
Maude stood in the doorway, hesitant, as every seat was full. She looked around the room, feeling a little out of place. Doilies filled the surfaces of the bookcase, the side tables, and the arms of all the stuffed chairs and divan. Even the radio sitting in the corner had a crocheted adornment covering the top of it. A pristine coat of white paint covered the bead board walls and the globes of all the lamps gleamed bright with sparkle. It’s obvious that Lillian doesn’t have any children to take up all her time. Then she chastised herself for her little grumble. I should be happy that someone has a house with nice things to fill it.
“Over here, Maude.” Eula sat in the middle of the divan between two women. She scooted closer to Hazel and patted a space between her and Grandma Parker. “We’ll fit. It’ll be a cozy spot.”
Fortunately Maude’s slim frame fit easily into the space the women made. Grandma Parker leaned over and hugged Maude. “Hi, dear. So nice to see you here today. You haven’t been to many meetings lately.”
“No…the farm…the children…don’t always have the gasoline…” Maude blushed and stammered. She didn’t know why she felt she needed to explain her absence. But out of habit, when an elder spoke or questioned, Maude answered, feeling much like a nine-year old girl instead of the grown woman she was. She searched her memory for the elderly woman’s given name, but didn’t recall it. Everyone had called her Grandma Parker for so long, that’s all most of them knew her as.
Mrs. Forester, the group’s president, moved to one side of the parlor and clapped her hands. “Ladies. Your attention please.” She waited until the chatter quieted before continuing. “I call the Women’s Auxiliary of the Fargo Baptist Church to order. Lillian? You’re taking the minutes today?”
The hostess held her sharpened pencil in the air. “Yes, ma’am. Ready, willing, and able.”
“Our first order of business is a vote on our fundraiser.”
“Cookbooks.” A voice called out.
Other voices chimed in, repeating the favored suggestion.
“Yes, let’s do a cookbook.”
A timid voice from one corner called out a different idea. “Aprons and potholders.”
Mrs. Forester cleared her throat. “Let’s put it to a vote. We have three suggestions from the last meeting. The first suggestion was a bake sale. By a raise of hands…who wants a bake sale?”
The group sat quietly, hands in their laps.
The president glanced around the room, looking for any raised hands. “No one?” She waited a moment and didn’t see any takers. “The next idea was Helen Smith’s suggestion. Selling aprons and pot holders that we’ve sewn and donated. Any votes for aprons and pot holders?”
One lone hand made its way into the air. Helen Smith, the mousy woman sitting in the corner. No one else joined her in the vote.
“That brings us to the third suggestion. Compiling a cookbook…”
Before she was finished, all the other ladies held their hands up high, demonstrating that this was the favored fundraiser.
“Ladies, we have our work cut out for us.” Mrs. Forester held up a paper and looked at her jotted notations. “We’d like this printed by May, so we can buy supplies and the men can complete the repairs before the summer storms descend upon us. That gives us about six to eight weeks to gather recipes and approach businesses to advertise in our publication.”
Hazel piped up. “Woodward Grocery and Service will gladly purchase an advertisement.”
“Thank you, Hazel. You’re a major business in Fargo. I think I speak for us all in thanking you for your support.”
Grandma Parker spoke up. “That’s about the only business in Fargo. That and the mill. That’s not much advertising money for the cause.”
Mrs. Forester nodded her head in agreement. “No, you’re quite correct. That’s why we need to approach the businesses in Vernon, also. As the county seat, they have a full town of businesses that might contribute. Most of us go into Vernon, sometimes once a week, if anyone has any contacts with businesses there, we’d appreciate it if you could reach out to them and promote our little venture.”
Katie raised her hand. “I got a nice perm at Mrs. Hardison’s Beauty Shop. I’ll ask her.”
One of the women said, “I go to Dora’s Beauty Shop. I’ll ask there.”
“I’ll check at the bank.”
“My neighbor manages the Majestic Theatre. I’ll ask them.”
“I know the owner of Sewell’s Corner Drug Store.”
“My son drives for Hill Baking Company.”
“My husband’s a foreman at The Johnson Grain Company.”
Women started throwing out ideas faster than Lillian could write them down. Mrs. Forester held her hand up. “Ladies…ladies…There are so many wonderful ideas here. I think what we need is a committee chairman that can coordinate the advertising. Keep track of who’s asking what businesses and which ones agreed to purchase advertisements. I’d love to…but with all I’ve taken on after Clyde was struck by lightning a few years ago…the Auxiliary is about all I can manage outside of the house. Any volunteers?”
The flurry of ideas halted. The women clammed up and kept their lips sealed, with nary a peep uttered. Katie finally lifted her hand. “I’ll organize the advertising part.”
“Wonderful! You’re a doll to do that for us. Now…who’d like to manage the recipe submissions?”
The response was another quiet room, with nary a peep uttered.
Maude looked across the room at her friend Katie. If she can do it, then so can I. Looking around to make sure that no one else was getting ready to volunteer, Maude finally raised her hand and squeaked out a reply. “I can. That is…if no one else wants to.”
Katie grinned and said, “Only if you include your war cake recipe.
The group soon wrapped up the business portion of the meeting and went into the favorite part of the get together. Eating dainty tea cakes the hostess, Lillian, had prepared.
Maude sat perched on the edge of the divan, balancing a fragile china plate on her knees. No depression glassware in this household it appeared. An unfamiliar green eyed beast tugged at Maude’s soul as she sat looking around the neat and tidy parlor. Being young and newly married, Lillian and her husband Cecil, didn’t have any children yet. Maude thought of her own home, where four sets of small feet ran through the house all day long. The delicate chinaware such as she held on her lap wouldn’t last a week in the Shaw’s household, between the children and her lumbering farmer husband, Shelton. For a brief moment, she wondered what life would be like, to be childless and to obviously have more money. Then the visions of Veryle, Mildred, Fred and Cara drifted into the forefront of her mind, and Maude knew she wouldn’t trade any of them for anything different, even if it was an easier life than what she had.
On the drive home, navigating the cumbersome pickup down the dusty roads, Maude wondered what she’d done, volunteering for such a task.
Coordinating all the recipes. As if I don’t have enough to do. Goodness, woman, what was I even thinking?
Once she arrived home, the children met her in the kitchen, clamoring for supper. “Lands sake. Let me at least get my jacket hung up. Mildred, you set the table. Veryle, you start peeling some potatoes. I’ll be back in a moment to start frying the chicken.”
She dashed upstairs, removing her wool coat as she went. Hanging it on a hook on the back of the bedroom door, she started to go back downstairs. Then she stopped and backtracked to her room. Rummaging in her nightstand drawer, she found a stubby pencil and pulled it out, along with one of the children’s Chief tablets.
At the top of the page she wrote ‘Recipes’. Underneath, she made a line and wrote her name, ‘Maude Shaw’ followed by ‘War Cake’.
Over the course of the next week, the list became longer. The next line listed ‘Katie Scherer’, followed by Feather Cake and Soft Gingerbread. Even Katie’s husband, Horton H. Scherer, contributed a recipe for ‘How to Cure Sugar Ham and Bacon’. And Katie’s twelve year old daughter, Wanda, turned in a recipe for Salad Dressing.
On Sundays, Maude was a popular lady, with women walking up and handing recipes to her. Lillian Goins slipped Maude her favorite recipe for Chicken Salad Sandwiches. Eula Stowe handed over her handwritten recipes for Doughnuts and Ice Cream. During church services, Mrs. Forester, sitting in the pew in front of Maude, turned and passed back two slips of paper that had the recipes for Divinity Icing and Pineapple Cream.
Later that week, Grandma Parker stopped by the house and turned in her recipe for Emergency Sour Milk Biscuits.
When Maude stopped into Woodward’s Grocery, Hazel ducked behind the counter and stood up waving her contributions: Red Devil’s Food, Egg Salad, and Butterscotch and Orange Icings.
Katie’s husband and his Sugar Ham recipe ended up with some competition. Mr. Piper, from Waggoner National Bank in Vernon, and Joe Petty, from Shamburger Lumber, both submitted their special recipes for ‘How to Cure Ham’.
Maude’s list kept growing, as women in town and around the county heard of the church’s fundraiser idea and turned in slews of recipes. But the work involved in coordinating all the submissions of delightful eats wasn’t anything compared to the work Katie had in keeping track of the advertisers.
Although Vernon was the town seat and was much larger than Fargo, it still seemed like a somewhat small Texan town. Until one saw the list of businesses that contributed. Running into town was such an ordinary occurrence, the Fargo residents never really knew just how many businesses existed in Vernon. Most businesses paid for a small advertisement, some a little larger, but two businesses dug deep into their budget for advertising.
Staley Electric forked over enough money to pay for ads on ten pages. Their ad proclaimed:
Staley Electric Co.
Coleman Irons & Stoves
Gas Engine Service
R.C.A. Victor Radios
1414 Main St.
The biggest advertiser was Kell Mill & Elevator Co. Being one of the most popular businesses in a large farming community, they had the resources to contribute a huge donation, garnering them an advertisement that ran across the bottom of all sixty-three pages of the cookbook.
Belle of Vernon
THE ALL PURPOSE FLOUR
KELL MILL & ELEVATOR CO.
The women of the church stayed busy with the project they’d undertaken. They met with one another. They coordinated with each other. The families and husbands grumbled a little as they felt neglected. But, most of the men felt a tug of pride fill their heart, as they watched their wives take on a daunting project for the good of the community and their church. The ladies turned in their final collections and they sent the final product off to the printer.
The weather warmed and the world of ice and snow was gone for another year. The women’s project was out of their hands and they returned to their normal household routines: feeding their family, putting out their spring garden, patching children’s clothing, mending tears in their husband’s overalls, and checking the number of empty Mason jars in the pantry.
Yet, as in the way of life, sometimes it’s easy to become complacent, until a force of nature invades lives and reminds people of their smallness in the overall grand scheme. Such a fate was in store for the people of this small north Texas town. After surviving three years of drought, record breaking high temperatures and dust storms as the nation had never seen, the worst was yet to come.
If it wasn’t enough that these families had held on after the economy’s crash in 1929, the drought that began in 1931 brought many farmers to the brink of destruction. Wheat prices collapsed. No rain came. Men lost their farms. Livestock starved. And massive quantities of dried-out topsoil sat on the land, ready to be blown about.
Maude’s husband sat at the kitchen table one evening, reading from one of his farm journals. “Federal agency reported fourteen black blizzards in 1932 and thirty-eight of ‘em in ‘33. Says last year was the single worst drought year in North America, with temperatures exceeding 100 degrees every day for weeks. Warns us that we’re in for a bad year with the dust storms again this year.”
A heaviness sank to the middle of Maude’s stomach. “Don’t know how much more we can take of this.”
Yet, when she arose the next day, April 14th, the Sunday sky that greeted her was brilliant and clear. Even the wind had died down and didn’t show itself.
The family joined their friends at church that morning, and shared greetings were cheerful. Optimism spread through the congregation. Even the pastor’s sermon had an unusually upbeat message.
The pastor beamed from behind the pulpit. “It’s a beautiful day that our Lord made. Did y’all see the wondrous sunrise this morning? No wind. A bright, clear day to rejoice in. All we need are a few good rainstorms and we’ll have a fertile land again. Let’s thank God as we return to our homes for a day of family time as we sup together. We’ll see y’all back here tonight for this evening’s service. Brother Shaw, will you lead us all in prayer before we depart?”
Back at home, Maude celebrated the beautiful day by opening the last jar of strawberry jam. With the sweet juicy fruit spread on the hot biscuits, they quickly disappeared, leaving an empty plate sitting in the middle of the table.
Shelton pushed his chair back and stood. “I’ll go milk Bess and Flora now, so I can rest a bit before we head for evening service.”
“Can I be excused, Mama?” Mildred asked.
“After the table’s cleared. Veryle, fill up the dish pan with hot, soapy water. Fred, you take the scraps out to the chickens. Cara, you can help dry today.”
The children grumbled underneath their breath. But, they didn’t argue with their mother. They knew from experience that they’d lose and end up being sent to their rooms in the process.
Maude stood at the counter and spooned the left over green beans back into the canning jar. The children moved about the kitchen, half-heartedly clearing plates and helping with the household tasks.
The door slammed open with a bang and Shelton stood in the open doorway with a frantic look on his face. “Think we’re in for another one.”
“Another what, daddy?” Cara, the youngest child, was puzzled.
“Another black blizzard on the way.”
Maude grabbed the corner of her apron and wiped the jar lid. “Can’t be. It’s a beautiful day.”
“Not anymore. Come look. Sky towards Oklahoma is purple and the temperature’s dropped by at least ten degrees.”
The family filed out to look and saw that he wasn’t exaggerating. The wind wiped up small eddies of dried clay, whirring them around the sides of the house. Birds flew south, flying as if their lives depended on how far their wings could take them. Although it was only early afternoon, the darkening in the northeastern sky had an ominous appearance.
“I’m headin’ back to the barn to get the animals tucked in. Just in case.”
Maude and her husband kept on eye on the menacing horizon. With each passing hour, they knew the threat was becoming a reality. The sky got darker, as if night was approaching. Maude soaked sheets in the wash tub to hang in doorways. She pulled out the jar of Vaseline and coated everyone’s nostrils.
The temperature continued dropping as the winds increased in severity. By the time the massive dust storm appeared, the temperature had dropped thirty degrees. The family watched the storm cloud rolling over the plains in their direction. The billowing black cloud of dust looked to be a thousand feet high. The homes in its path were miniscule buildings in the path of a raging enemy.
Shelton stayed busy trying to anchor down everything he could outdoors, Maude ran from room to room, tucking towels in window sills and tacking damp sheets over doorways. Daylight became obscured as the storm got closer.
“Children, in here. Now!” Maude called to her children, gathering them together in the small front room, hoping the precautions they’d taken would save them. They huddled together as the wind roared around the small homestead. The floor vibrated and shook in the midst of the fury. Pieces of gravel and rocks clattered against the windows and pounded on the home’s roof. The light dimmed until the room was in pitch blackness. The family clung together, unable to see their hands in front of their faces.
About fifteen minutes later, the brutal force abated, leaving the community in the swirling remnants of the largest dust storm ever. By the time it was over, nightfall was upon north Texas. Shelton took a lantern outside to walk the farm and assess the damage. The grim look on his face when he returned told the tale that no words could form.
Maude looked around and saw the layer of fine dust covering every conceivable surface, despite her best efforts to try and ward off the encroaching earth. From past experience, she knew it would be weeks before she would banish the filth and have a clean home again.
“We’re all alive and safe.” Shelton reminded the family of what they had to be thankful for.
The children didn’t understand the true severity of what the family had just gone through. Maude knew. She’d heard prior reports of the people that hadn’t lived through the storms, suffocating in the thick cloud of soil. She knew of the birds and rabbits that suffered the same fate, choking to death, unable to breath. A filthy home was a small price to pay for the safe harbor of her family. She embraced her four children and began to weep, from happiness and from relief.
The next day the last dregs of the dust storm blew out of Texas and into the Gulf of Mexico. Fargo residents began the task of repairing the damage where they could. They checked on friends and neighbors, relieved that the community was safe and alive, albeit distressed.
The news reports began calling the day ‘Black Sunday’. It was a day that everyone would remember for a long time. Stories would be shared with another. “What were you doing on Black Sunday?”
Yet, despite the horrendous natural event that devastated a vast portion of the Midwest, life continued. People kept working. They kept farming. They returned to church. They continued doing their best to feed and clothe their families.
A few weeks later, when the printed cookbooks were picked up from the printer, the women at Fargo Baptist Church rejoiced again. For both their life and the safety of their friends and loved ones, but also in delight at seeing their special project in hand. Members purchased cookbooks for themselves and for friends. Business owners were happy seeing themselves featured in the advertisements inside. And when the funds they raised repaired the church roof, a sense of accomplishment pervaded the entire group. A sense of self-satisfaction filled each woman with confidence and pride.
The cover proudly proclaimed: How We Cook Down on the Farm. Little did they know that this cookbook would live on longer than they would, and eighty years later this printed tome would still exist as a commemoration of their lives. The memories of Black Sunday would recede and disappear over time. But the memory of these women continued on with their names in a cookbook, a tribute to their lives…and their good cooking.
The Truth and the Fiction
Maude Shaw, Katie Scherer, Lillian Goins, Eula Stowe, and Grandma Parker – and all the other names mentioned in this story – were real people and families from Wilbarger County, Texas. The women submitted these recipes to the very real ‘How We Cook Down on the Farm’ cookbook, published by the Fargo Baptist Church in May 1935.
All of the businesses and advertisers in the story were actual businesses in Fargo and Vernon, which advertised in the church’s cookbook.
Fargo is a small, rural community located in Wilbarger County in northern Texas. It’s located on Farm Road 924, about ten miles north of the county seat of Vernon (established 1881) and sixty miles northwest of Wichita Falls (established 1872).
The town began around 1883, springing up near the stage line route that ran from Wichita Falls to Mobeetie. In 1889, a school was built, followed by a post office in 1894. The town slowly grew and by 1900, in addition to the school and post office, it had a store, a cotton gin, blacksmith and several churches. The Fargo Methodist Church was founded in 1887, the Fargo Church of Christ in 1889, and the Fargo Baptist Church – the compiler of the cookbook that brought this tale to life – was established in 1904.
While the town kept trying to survive, it couldn’t keep up with the growth in the county seat nearby. In 1915, the Fargo post office moved to Tolbert. In 1935 the Northside School replaced the Fargo district. The town’s population of 200 people was its zenith in the 1940’s through the 1960’s. After that, the population steadily declined until the tiny burg gradually disappeared from the United States Census and ceased to exist as an official town.
The tidbits about Black Sunday, the nation’s worst dust bowl that occurred on April 14, 1935, are true, gleaned from research from several different sources.
The rest of the story is pure fiction created in the mind of the author. My apologies to the people from the past if my imagination has constructed a life for you different than what it really was. My intent is to remember you and honor the life you lived so many years ago. Carol LaChapelle writes, “…people die twice: when they physically die, and when we stop telling stories about them.” In tribute to you, I offer my story to keep your memories alive a little longer.
This tale from Trisha Faye is from the second book in the Forgotten Stories Series, Iron on Tuesday. For more stories about people and items from the past, look for the first book in the series, Wash on Monday.
I WILL always remember my first grade teacher. Her name was Mrs. Ball. Mrs. Ball was of medium height and had brownish gray hair, which she wore in a perm style. She wore glasses, was very thin, and had freckles on her face and arms. There may have been freckles on her legs too, but she wore old, drab, homely dresses down to her ankles and brown, baggy hose, so no one really knew.
I suppose she was a good teacher because I learned the basics and made it to the second grade. However, she was not like my kind, sweet grandma who had babysat me since I was three months old. Mrs. Ball didn’t smile very much, and I’m not even sure she liked children. At any rate, she was my first grade teacher.
This particular day seemed routine. Mrs. Ball taught that morning, using the chalkboard for examples. We went to lunch at twelve thirty and afterwards returned to the classroom. Part of our after-lunch routine was to place our heads down on our desk and rest for thirty minutes to an hour. I suppose this was to digest our food or maybe to get us really sleepy so we wouldn’t cut up during the afternoon lessons. That day was no different, and after giving the word to place our heads down on our desks, Mrs. Ball turned out the lights.
Then Mrs. Ball did something she had never done before. She quietly announced to the class that she was stepping out for a minute and we were to keep our heads down and no one was to get up out of their seats for any reason. She had only been gone for a couple of minutes when Jimmy, one of the class clowns, got out of his seat and walked to the blackboard. He grabbed the only eraser our classroom had and tossed it across the room under Angela’s desk. Angela wasn’t about to get in trouble when Mrs. Ball came back in, so she subtly leaned over, picked up the eraser and tossed it across the room under another student’s desk. This quiet tossing of the chalkboard eraser continued for what seemed like hours, but was actually only a few short minutes. Well, you’ve probably already guessed by now that the eraser eventually landed under my desk.
I looked around trying to figure out who exactly threw it. After a glance or two around the room, I realized it didn’t really matter who threw it. I just needed to get rid of it. Should I throw it under someone else’s desk or should I take this as an opportunity to put the eraser back where it belonged? Time was running out, and I had to act quickly. You could have heard a pin drop in that classroom as I reached under my desk and scooped up the eraser. I must be quick, I thought to myself as I hurried to the chalkboard and placed the eraser back in its place. As I turned around, we all heard the sound and looked up in unison as the door opened and in walked Mrs. Ball. The look on my face must have shown shock or guilt because her question was directed totally to me.
“Jamie, why are you out of your seat?” she said sternly.
As I opened my mouth to answer, Mrs. Ball interrupted my words with,
“It really doesn’t matter. You heard the rules when I left the classroom.”
In her cold voice she said, “Come here!”
I slowly walked over to her desk. She took her large, brown, wooden chair, brought it around to the front of her desk, and firmly sat down.
“Bend over my lap here and receive your punishment,” she commanded.
A hundred thoughts went swirling through my head all at once. “I’m innocent!” I thought to myself, but this wasn’t changing my situation. Then, all at once, I looked down and realized I was wearing a dress and boots.
“Jamie Horton, did you not hear me?” Mrs. Ball exclaimed.
I nodded and proceeded to slowly walk toward her with pleading eyes. I made one last attempt to look to my classmates to see if anyone was going to speak up for me. We were all six years old and pretty terrified of Mrs. Ball, so counting on anyone coming forward on my behalf was hopeless. I swallowed hard and proceeded to bend over, placing my body downward across her lap.
Immediately, she began spanking me swat after swat using her firm, skinny hand. She really had a pretty good swing for an older, frail kind of lady. I don’t recall being in a lot of pain, but my face was beet-red from embarrassment.
Finally, she swung for the last time, and the punishment was over. With tear filled eyes I looked up into the faces of my fellow classmates. The ones who dared look me in the face had an expression of guilt. Slowly, I walked back to my desk and even more slowly eased into my seat. My backside was a little extra sore than it had been before. I’m sure for the remainder of the day I heard very little that my teacher said. I was mad at her. However, I did look back later on that day and smile.
The picture that brought a smile to my face was this. There I was in last year’s purple polyester dress that was a little too short on me. On my white little legs I wore black, almost knee-high rain boots. My six year-old skinny body was kicking my boots back and forth with every swat, hoping all the time my panties weren’t showing because my dress was too small.
I KNEW everything about kissing.
I looked at the pictures in my brother’s magazines. I watched the movies. I even practiced with my pillow. Nobody could teach me nothing about kissing. I was a world expert.
Then I met Gina.
At lunchtime, our teacher let us run around the playground. I loved the swings, so that’s where I went. I hopped on and swung and swung until I nearly looped the loop. You know what I mean. You swing so high that the swing folds back upon itself. I hate it when that happens.
Gina sashayed over and sat down on the next swing.
She was cute. Really cute. She was the best-looking girl in school.
“Hi,” she said in a sexy French accent.
Me? Is she talking to me? I gulped. My voice turned to dust. I stopped swinging.
She stood and moved in front of me. “You’re most cute.” She grabbed my shirt and pulled me up then eased closer, our lips almost touching…
Her tongue flicked out and wet my lips. I’m not kidding!
She plunged forward. Our teeth clanked and bounced off. My bad. We giggled.
She grabbed my face with both hands, one on each side, and held me. She nibbled my top lip. She nibbled my bottom one. Then she puckered and pressed forward.
I stood there, too surprised, too excited, and too frightened to move. The prettiest girl in school was kissing me. Oh, gosh.
Her mouth moved wider and narrower like my goldfish, but it felt good. Better than good. Sensational.
Then she did something the magazines and the movies never showed me, something no one talks about, a move so different she must have invented it.
Her tongue slid into my mouth! Can you believe that?
It darted in and out and played tongue tag with mine.
Her hand slipped down behind me and cupped my butt then pinched it. Her other hand joined the first and pulled me closer so our bodies merged. The fit was perfect, curve-to-curve. Wow.
Then it ended. Just like that. She stepped back, turned, and peered at me over her shoulder.
I didn’t just blush. I melted. A puddle at her feet.
“Most nice.” She winked and threw a quick wave. “You not forget me?”
Love. I didn’t know what the word meant until now. I watched her walk away, taking my heart with her.
I thought I knew everything about kissing. Then I met Gina.
Jacob closed the romance novel and looked at the spine. “Young adult? You’ve got to be kidding.” He rolled his eyes and put the book back on the shelf.
SPRING ROLLED around easily in the year of 1994. The smell of lavender lingers distinctly within my memories of those years, especially those of Hannah. I can’t help but smile whenever I remember her face. Those features are still, five years on, burned into my mind, and I know them completely- from the number of freckles sprinkled across her high cheekbones, to the exactly blue-green shade of her eyes. The truth is; I was dying. A brain tumour, I don’t care or wish to remember the exact name, was slowly draining the life from me. Hannah christened it “the Vampire”.
It was a Monday when I first saw her; I remember it perfectly. Just like any other day, I dragged myself from bed, showered, and stumbled out the front door. As I locked it behind me, I noticed the lily bush with its final flower blossoming into beauty and smiled, despite the depressed cloud that surrounded me. The drive to the hospital was dull and absolutely ordinary, the blur of traffic looking just as it had so many times before. I parked, signed in, and made my way to the Chemo suite, same as usual.
Then, everything changed. Standing by the door with her back to me was a slender, auburn-haired young woman dressed in the usual medical attire, though the white of her coat was especially bright and fresh; obviously a newly released Med Student. I’d had my fair share of experiences with these students, every one of them messy with the needles and lacking the sensitive edge needed for this particular wing of the hospital. I’d already marked her out to be exactly the same before she’d even looked me in the eye. I couldn’t have been any more wrong.
The first thing I noticed when she turned to face me was the genuine smile she wore, so out of place amongst the hopeless grimaces of the patients.
“Hi, I’m Hannah. And you must be…” She checked her clipboard, “Ah, Mr. Evans.”
It took me a moment to register her hand, held out towards me. I took it in my own and shook it gently.
“Call me Michael.”
Her smile widened, and at that moment, I realised that the usual patient-doctor relationship was a thing of the past.
“Well then Michael, what are you in here for today?”
“Just the regular shot of poison.”
“Okay then, let me just pick out your poison and I’ll be back in a jiffy.” She laid a hand comfortingly upon my arm, an absent-minded, almost instinctual gesture, then turned away and disappeared among the throng of patients.
Doris, the dear old lady who had long been a comrade of mine within this prison and had become a mother figure for me, shuffled her way across the room towards me, her emerald eyes bright.
“Isn’t she just a doll Michael? Such a pretty young thing…Here, haven’t I been telling you to find a lovely young girl to settle down with?” She nudged me with an elbow, her papery thin skin almost cold.
“Now, now Doris, no more of your mischief, Okay?” I laughed fondly and placed a tender kiss on her wrinkled forehead.
She winked craftily and slowly made her way back to her chair, dragging the IV drip along with her.
“Yes, I’ll have to keep an eye on that one.” Hannah reappeared, carrying my own personal poison, smiling affectionately in Doris’ direction. “Seems like a trouble maker. Though I know she’s a sweetheart really.”
She guided me to the nearest vacant station then deftly and painlessly hooked me up to the IV. Then, she paused for a moment, and distractedly watched the steady drip of fluid into my veins.
“If you need anything, just holler.”
I watched as she carefully tended to the every need of each patient, continuously circling the room, spotting those in discomfort and going to their aid within a moment. For the first time, my treatment was completed all too soon. I detached myself from the life-sustaining liquid, and then said my goodbyes to Doris.
“You take care now, you hear?”
I promised that I would, held her frail hands in my own, and then lifted one to my lips. I was planning to simply disappear, though Hannah intercepted me at the door.
“How’re you feeling?”
Weak, hopeless, unstable, pathetic, helpless, painful…
“Great. Just dandy.”
I could tell she didn’t believe me the moment the words left my mouth. But, she simply pursed her lips, then patted me on the arm and wished me well. By the time I had reached the end of the hall, she had already returned to attending to the dying.
Spring crept by silently, the change of the seasons counting down the remainder of my time. Though time had taken on a new meaning, it became minutes, hours and days – no longer a continuous stream of meaningless existence. The patients in the ward were continuously changing, some stories of success, others of failure. Nobody knew what theirs would end up being; apart from old Doris. She swore blind she would keep hanging on, would do everything in her power to make it to the next century.
“I’ve lived for such a long time now,” she would say, “that when I’m up there with the angels, I want my bragging rights to be that I lived in two centuries. Not many people can say that, can they?”
Personally, I believed she wanted to live long enough to see her only grandson walk and to hear him talk. Though, she never did.
August came around, Hannah having completely moulded herself into the inner workings of our little society, when we started to lose Doris. It began with the continuous decrease in her appetite, then her strength, but never her will. She was a fighter, was my Doris. It was an abnormally quiet day when she passed. Only Hannah, Doris and I were in the ward. Hannah, having beaten me for the fourth time at a game of chess, went to make a cup of tea. I sat by Doris, holding her icy hand; clinging to her with all my worth.
She didn’t respond, only continued to stare blankly out of the window, as she had been doing for the last few hours.
“Doris?” I gently squeezed her hand.
Doris turned to look at me, with a faint smile, her features slack. Her eyes however, burned with fire. “Yes Sweetie?” Her voice was frail and barely a whisper.
“How are you?”
“Oh, you know me Honey, I’m a fighter.”
However, I could see the pain in her eyes and hear it in her voice. Suddenly, she became urgent, locking my hands in her iron grasp.
“It hurts Michael, and I’m so very tired. But I won’t give up. I don’t want to leave yet. I’m not ready.” Her grip slackened, “Tell my baby boy I love him, and little Freddy. Oh, I’ll miss my little Freddy.”
Suddenly, the fire went out.
Some people say it’s pathetic to see a grown man cry. But when you lose one of the only things you have left in life, the rock you’ve been holding on to for so long, it’s too hard not to.
Hannah raced back into the room, her eyes widening as she took in the sight of Doris cold, grey, and pale, limp in my arms. Her delicate hand flew to her mouth, stifling a sob.
I looked up to see those eyes that I had grown to love fill with tears that glided down her cheeks. As silent and graceful as a ghost, she crossed the space between us and took me in her arms, carefully detaching me from Doris as she did so. We stayed like that, huddled together on the floor for some while before Hannah guided me to my feet and out into the hall, never looking back.
“Michael, I need you to stay out here for a few minutes, OK? I just need to go.” She inhaled deeply, clenching her teeth as she bit back her emotions, “take care of Doris. Don’t you fret; I’ll be back before you can miss me.”
“Don’t leave me.” My voice was weak and frail, almost like a child’s.
“I won’t, don’t worry.”
I forced myself not to turn around as I listened to the sounds of the doctor preparing the dead. Even when the faint sobs rang in my ears, slowly twisting a knife into my heart, I forced myself to remain immobile, realising that Hannah would hate it if I knew that she wasn’t truly strong enough for both of us.
The rest of that day was a blur and the next thing I remember is sitting in a diner with Hannah, sipping coffee in silence as the rain threw itself violently against the window.
“I’ll miss her, you know. She really was such a sweetheart.”
Somehow through all of this, Hannah still found something inside of herself to smile, as if in fond remembrance. I, however, had still not truly grasped that Doris had left me.
“Just the other day, it must’ve been after you were finished with the treatment, she was telling me all of these amazing stories. She lived such a full, exciting life; travelled the world, socialised with famous Hollywood stars, even nursed in the war! When I pass from this life, I want to be able to know that I really did something with my life. I want to know I had a purpose.”
“You saved us. Doris and I, you really made a difference.” My voice was empty and emotionless. No matter how desperately I wanted to prove to Hannah how much she meant to me, I couldn’t seem to form the thoughts. “In there, there’s no meaning…No real relationships as you don’t know who’s going to make it or not. But you, you’re the only thing that’s true and meaningful to us. If you died tomorrow, you would’ve changed the life of everyone in there today.”
Hannah reached across the table and took my hand in hers. Tears flowed freely down her face as she whispered the words that changed my life forever. “I love you too.”
When the sand in the hourglass of life is trickling out, one truly understands the value of time, and so we made every second count. My days were a blissful mix of various treatments, some worse than others, and Hannah. Every day we would do something exhilarating and different. The times when the treatment was going well, we even escaped for a weekend to exotic locations, like the Mediterranean islands, to scuba dive and experience the awe-inspiring cultures. When times were hard and it seemed like I would be overpowered by my illness, she would stay by my bedside and read to me; poetry, great literary classics, non-fiction, romance, horror -everything. Within a month I had driven out to her parent’s home in the country and was welcomed by them like a long lost friend. When four had past, I returned there and asked Hannah’s father for her hand in marriage. I can’t be completely sure, but I could’ve sworn I saw tears in his eyes.
Christmas was nearing and the first snowfall was fresh on the ground when we agreed to meet at our favourite restaurant to celebrate the holiday season. Hannah decided to drive herself as she had to stay late at work. I had everything planned out perfectly, from the table I had reserved and the dress I had bought her and laid gift-wrapped on her bed, to the diamond coated ring that was nestled in a black satin box in the inside pocket of my jacket. Seven o’clock came around, then seven-thirty, and then eight. However, I wasn’t concerned as I knew how disorganised life in the ward could get, and figured that she was just preoccupied. Nine o’clock arrived and, after her phone went to voicemail six times, I finally decided to drive up to the hospital to find her. And find her I did.
I was on my way up to the Chemo ward when one of the night nurses rushed towards me, crying and hiccupping hysterically.
“H-H-Hannah – c-car wreck – e-emergency room.”
I sprinted through the hospital, driven by fear. By some stroke of luck or divine intervention, I crossed paths with her in the hallway leading into the surgery room. She was covered with blood and screaming in agony, writhing on the stretcher. But, when she saw me, an eerie calm came over her. Pain still radiated from every inch of her body but she managed to force a few sentences through gritted teeth.
“Live for me. You can beat this. I love you.”
Then, she was wheeled away, and I never saw her alive again. They said a drunk driver hit her going at least eighty miles per hour. They said she should’ve died instantly. They said it was a miracle she made it that long. I said she was gone and nothing else mattered.
I’d lost her. I’d lost Doris. I almost lost the will to live.
Not many people think that losing someone is a gift. I didn’t either at the time. But Hannah gave me something so irreplaceable, so immeasurable and so very important. She gave me hope- the hope that I could beat my cancer and that I could survive and make something of my life. That hope gave me the will to fight.
It’s because of her that I sit here five years later, under the stars, with the countdown to the new millennium echoing from the TV inside of the house. I’m living because of, and for, her. I’m alive, and waiting for the start of a new age, for Doris. Because of them, I’m making a life worth living, I’m making a difference. This life, I’m living for them. For, if I continue to live, the memory of them will live with me. If I continue to live, they’ll never leave this world. Not truly.
WHEN MIKE MATTHEWS took the eggs out of the fridge, he had no idea he’d be dead in twenty-three minutes. Or that the biggest adventure of his life was beginning.
Where the hell? Sprawled across cold uneven gravel, he squinted up at orange streaks of tracer bullets, whizzing across a darkening sky. Pounding crumps of distant mortars rattled along his skull. He’d know those sounds anywhere. Flashback? PTSD episode? Hadn’t had one of those in decades.
The last thing he remembered was breaking his morning eggs into the sizzling pan—the same pan he’d been using the past thirty years that Sabrina said should be thrown out—and a terrible pain in his chest.
The pain had subsided, had actually shifted downward. Groggily, he sat up. What in all…?
He wore dark fatigues, steel-toed boots. His shirt was torn and dirty, shredded at the left pocket. Pulling aside the stiffly dried material, he frowned.
Two tiny punctures marked his highest ribs. He’d seen too many bullet holes at Guadalcanal to not know what they were. Dried blood stained his skin in light swirls where someone had attempted to mop it away. He’d been shot in the chest?
No, not his chest. His pulse banged in his ears, drowning out the stuttering of artillery. This was not his chest, not his body. He stared at his shaking hands, blunter, wider and darker than his own. And much younger. No wrinkles sagged vein-edged flesh that molded upon each knob of bone. Some sort of wiry bracelet shone around his wrist, hot. It steamed in the balmy night air. Just a dream then. This was all just some really vivid dream.
Hushed voices called to one another, stilling Mike’s heart. Footfalls scraped over stone and gravel as shapes of men moved toward him from the darkness.
This couldn’t be real, could not be happening. He must be flat on his kitchen floor, suffering from the blasted coronary Doc Burke had been warning him about, and having the mother of all hallucinations. And sure, why wouldn’t he dream up a war zone? Leave it to him to plop himself back to a place he had no unequivocal desire to relive. While he died like a putz in his kitchen.
And who was there to find him? Shawn wouldn’t get worried for days, wouldn’t think to check on old dad for a while. He supposed the eggs would burn and at least send smoke through the house. Funny, he was more worried about how he’d be found than the actual possibility that he was dying.
The shadowed men swarmed around him. Soldiers all, authentic from their dirty helmets, loaded ammo belts and rucksacks to the long rifles palmed in agile and filthy hands.
But that’s where his imagination must have taken a crack in the head.
Mike stared. Sickening dread curled around his gut as long golden eyes peered at him from a lean face streaked with dark grease. Certainly a hallucination. Who had eyes that color? And those thin slashes of skin at either side of his neck, like gills on a fish. He usually dreamed in bold and vivid strokes, but this took on an entirely new clarity. A new intensity.
The soldier spat out a tangle of incomprehensible words and slapped a helmet onto Mike’s head. That felt real enough.
Others crowded around him, patted his leg, inspected the bullet wounds. Each had those same skin flaps at their necks, and eyes of too vibrant shades, violet, silver, seafoam green, that shimmered like jewels beneath the war-lit sky.
In an unaware motion, Mike’s hand drifted to his own neck and found soft folds of skin there as well.
Two more soldiers crouched low over an oblong machine, turning keys and punching buttons as it radiated a low hum that vibrated across his skin. A tool and dye man by trade, Mike’s interest perked up considerably at the sight of the machine, even one dreamed up in his own hallucination.
Even so, he winced when one of the soldiers, frustrated and fuming in garbled tones, slapped the odd contraption. The soldier grinned as the machine blinked off. The man next to him nudged the soldier away and gently slid the thing down into his rucksack.
One of the men closest carefully removed the steaming bracelet from Mike’s wrist and handed it to the soldier in charge of the machine. “You got a name?”
“Uh Mike,” he answered numbly. “Mike Matthews.”
Strange words were barked out, obviously commands, and Mike was hauled to his feet and pointed in the direction they were to take.
So he ran with them, these unearthly soldiers, through concertina wire, and in and out of bomb craters, while the barrage-ravaged skies lightened to day.
While Mike admittedly enjoyed running again with the loose rhythm and almost casual ease of youth, each stride taken also increased a snaking fear that this was a little too real.
He must be in hell. Died on his sticky kitchen floor while his breakfast burned. That was all there was to it.
His mouth went dry as he tried to think his way through this.
“Sietz, sietz!” The soldier in the lead motioned everyone down. They all hunkered close to the ground under whatever cover was available while plumes of dust from what Mike guessed was a motorcade moved down a scraggle of road about one klick off.
Whatever was real, or better yet, whatever wasn’t, the tension streaming off the soldiers surrounding him was an undeniable fact. Heart and mind racing, Mike watched the distant vehicles roll off while he hid behind a hump of soil far too inadequate for cover.
“Hey, you okay?”
Mike nearly jumped out of his skin. Well, it wasn’t his skin at any rate. “Geez, kid, you scared the crap out of me. Wait. You speak English?”
The young soldier scooted next to him, grinned sideways and whispered, “Sure. Yeah, yeah. I’m borrowed from Earth, same as you.”
“Borrowed?” A ton of ore dropped in Mike’s stomach. “What—what’s going on? I don’t understand any of this. You’re saying this is all real?”
The soldier grinned. “Yeah, I know. I thought I’d lost my friggin mind when I ended up here. You died, pal. You’re not on Earth anymore, and the Machts…they snatched your bright sparkling soul right outside the pearly gates. Lucky for you we stole you right out from under them first.”
“Tuan ep” the obvious commander called out.
“Cap’n wants us to zip it and move out,” the kid said. “Hey, don’t worry ‘bout it, you’re in good hands. I’m Sal. I’ll be right behind you, but don’t call out. We’ve gotta move real close to where a Macht unit dug itself in during the night. We ventured far in behind our lines to retrieve you.”
“You crossed enemy lines to get me?”
“Well, sure.” Sal’s brilliant rose-pink eyes squinted. “That’s our squad’s sole purpose. We resuscitate the dead.”
This wasn’t a hallucination. This was a walking, breathing, living nightmare. Mike’s flesh puckered with chills that had nothing to do with the humid air. He was dead, flat on his cold kitchen floor. And his soul was here, on some other friggin planet, walking around in another man’s shot-to-pieces body, enlisted, apparently, to fight in some other world’s war.
Fine. He was dead. Fine! Good and well. Surprisingly that wasn’t the part that shook him up. But he’d be damned if he was going to happily go off and soldier for some planet or some cause he knew nothing about. He’d already fought his war, fought for family and country, and yeah, for America, he’d do it again. Definitely for Sabrina, God rest her soul, and the kids. But this wasn’t even his planet! .
Behind him, Sal stumbled over an exposed root. The soldier ahead turned back and gave them both a golden-eyed warning.
Mike nursed his growing fury. They and their little war could kiss his ass. He’d have no part. And what could they do about it? Kill him for mutiny?
He stumbled. Stopped.
The enormity of what had happened crashed over him. Pressure built in his head and chest so quickly, he wondered how it was possible that his ribs simply didn’t burst apart. He was dead. He was dead! He should be with Sabrina.
No wonder the realization of his death hadn’t bothered him. He hadn’t sought it, but he’d been waiting for it. He wasn’t so angry that he had ended up here either. Not really. He was angry because they had kept him from her.
They’d all stopped, we’re looking at him. Sal laid a hand on his shoulder. “This isn’t the best place to take a breather.”
Mike looked at him coolly. Coughs and shrills of distant battle hummed across the dark land. These people kept him from his wife. Eight years she’d been dead and eight years he’d missed her. No longer. These people, these aliens, had no right to keep him from her. No right whatsoever.
“Send me back.”
Sal’s features went pale as milk. His gaze shifted toward the others, troubled. “We can’t do that.”
“Yes, you can. Use that clever little soul snatching machine you have and send me back.”
“It’s a one way trip, pal.”
Mike took a step forward, stared down at him, waited a beat. “I’m not your pal, and the hell you can’t.”
The soldier with golden eyes shoved Mike back, spitting a brood of stilted sentences at him. Mike held his ground. Whatever he was saying, there was an emotional kick to it.
“Easy, easy. We gotta go.” Sal wedged his shoulder between them. The others clamored close.
The captain pulled back on the angry golden eyed soldier, hissed out a low command.
The soldier’s body snapped rigid, his fists imperceptibly clenched.
The captain’s dark violet eyes ran the length of Mike, measuring. “I feeeell…” the words vibrated in the air. He glanced at Sal.
“Understand, Cap’n. Tyst,” Sal supplied.
“Onnderr sssstand,” the captain said in a slow rolling tone like rocks being smoothed by waves. “I onderr ssstand isst harrd.” He turned to a tall, lanky youth who watched from the outer circle of men, leaning on his rifle, and fired off a slew of words in his own tongue.
The soldier pressed between the men, who were still watching curiously as the captain pulled another man back with him and drew out a sketchy rag of a map from his uniform pocket.
The soldier also looked Mike up and down, shook his head. “Cap’n wants me and Sal to do a little explaining so you’ll be willing to move out quiet like. See, here’s the thing, we got a ways to go to circumvent the known Macht hotspots. We had to come way in here for you. The least you could do is go along until the squad’s tucked in safe and sound. Cap’n says he’ll explain everything after that and if you still want, he’ll personally send you on your way.” He lifted the muzzle of his weird rifle to his own temple. “It wouldn’t be the first time.”
Golden eyes barked out what could only be a livid curse and stalked away.
Mike watched him go. He cocked his chin at the retreating back. “What’s his beef?”
Sal tipped up his helmet. “It’s not you. The body you’re in…it was Nial’s brother.”
Mike’s heart skipped, then beat heavily.
“Garren got himself shot last night.” Sal fingered the holes in the pocket of Mike’s uniform. “The meds couldn’t patch him up fast enough to save him, but he was in good enough shape still for you. BETI, what’d you call her?. Our little soul snatching machine…I like that.” Dimples appeared with Sal’s grin. He was just a kid. Or his body was. “When BETI gets a soul into a body, things kinda get fixed, cleaned out and cauterized or something. Better than before. I dunno. Techs are still working on figuring that one out.”
“The thing is,” the lanky soldier took up, “Garren wanted his body used. There just aren’t that many lying about, not so fresh or not shot full of holes or worse, ruined by bio-plague. He made Nial promise him, but the poor kid hasn’t got a handle on the entire situation yet. I don’t know what he’ll do if you decide to check out.”
Mike slanted a glance at Nial. The young alien paced furiously, tossing heated glares over his shoulder like cigarette sparks that floated down and disintegrated behind his steps.
“So, what do ya say? You’ll wait to hear us out?” Sal asked.
Eyes hard on Nial, Mike nodded.
“Good.” The other soldier patted his arm. “I’m O’Malley by the way. Guess you already figured I was from Earth too. Me, Sal, Rich here, Smitty and Preach over there with Cap’n, are all borrowed souls. The rest are native.” He grinned. “Let me lay it out simple. These Machts, they got a machine that can snatch newly deceased souls leaving earth. Screwy thing is, they built it for another purpose entirely. Only found out accidental-like that it could take souls, and they needed souls—almost lost the war due to low manpower.”
“Yeah.” Sal snorted. “Idiots almost wiped themselves out with their own bio-disease. Rotten luck for us that they didn’t.”
O’Malley patted Mike on the shoulder. “I’ll go tell Cap’n we’re ready.”
They moved into the awakening day, keeping to the shadows made from husks of burned-out farm buildings. The land was moist and fertile, dark beneath a delicate orange-cast sky. Sharp violet crops tilted together like racks of spears, coated in fuzz and velvet soft as they trailed through them. A stiff line of trees, similar to oaks and pines, brooded ahead at the edge of charred fields.
The soldiers grew quieter, more alert, as the barrage that was constant throughout the night thickened around them, closer. Teeth rattling concussions of air vibrated through Mike’s bones. Blue streamers whined and smoked overhead, spiraling to the other side of low hills Mike assumed were east of them and behind. Debris-packed clouds threw massive splinters in the air. It surprised Mike how easily he reverted back to the demeanor of a soldier. After all, it had been more than fifty years since he’d been in the military. He relied on skills he thought long discarded. It was exhilarating to walk without arthritis pain, and have the strength to carry heavy gear. Now he was alive, in another man’s body, an alien at that, smack in the middle of another world’s war. How was this not insane?
And he missed Sabrina. He’d been so close to getting to her, had waited so long. This was wrong. This was all terribly terribly wrong. He didn’t understand how that machine had worked, but he’d been robbed of his death. He didn’t want to be here, didn’t want to be a soldier again. He didn’t know what their war was about and he certainly didn’t care. He wanted out. His next step faltered.
Out. Getting out was easy. All he had to do was run out of the shadows and get himself shot or blown to pieces. He’d be dead all right. He’d be with Sabrina. Let them try to snatch his soul a second time. It obviously didn’t work for souls exiting this planet. Otherwise Garren would be in his body now.
They dropped into the stinking bottom of a crevice. A soft hum moaned above. Smoke drifted into the hole. Nail’s eyes burned into Mike’s profile. The inside of his mouth tasted of oil. Then the unmistakable clanking and whirring of what could only be a tank moved right over their heads. The soldiers flattened against rough earthen walls. Miniscule landslides of loose dirt spilled over the edges.
Mike had been close to tanks before, Shermans—big, massive monsters. He’d never gotten this close to a Panzer though. If he had, he probably would’ve been dead.
The thought brought a curve to his lips. This was his escape out of this little insane side trip. If he just got up, got out of this hole…
He felt Nial’s stare and looked over at the golden-eyed soldier. The man was poised, watching him carefully, ready to pounce. As the lumbering vehicle moved over them, they simply stared.
Just as the tank moved on and the other soldiers eased away from the dirt walls, Nial sprang onto Mike, knocking him to the ground. The alien shouted out what could only be garbled curses. The veins in his forehead bulged.
“Get him off him! Pull him off!”
Several voices, several arms and faces hovered above, trying to disengage them. Nial continued fighting as they pulled him off.
The captain rapped out orders and Nial finally gave up, shoving the other alien’s hands off him.
Sal and O’Malley crouched down around Mike. “You all right?”
They glanced at each other, though neither attempted to say anything more on it. Finally O’Malley gave it the old college try. “Look, I know this isn’t easy, but what you were thinking would have put all of us in danger.”
“Wasn’t thinking anything,” Mike defended.
O’Malley’s lips tightened. “We’ve got a stretch farther to go. Just stick with us long enough to get into friendly territory.”
“Right. Because it’s so easy to tell friend from foe around here,” Mike muttered.
“Hey, hold on—it’s not like that,” Sal said. “We don’t borrow souls, we save them. We saved you from being taken by the Machts.”
“From where I sit, I don’t see much difference. How do I know I wouldn’t have it better with them?”
“Oh, you’ll see all right” Sal spat.
“Drones,” Preach sauntered over. “That’s what we call them—souls borrowed by the Machts—nothing more than drones. When those souls are piped into the bodies they use, the ones died of bio-disease…” Preach shook his head.
“Come on,” Sal said. “Cap’n’s giving the signal to go. Don’t worry, gunner, you’ll get a chance to see for yourself.”
Sal slapped his shoulder. “Don’t worry. They’re not gunnin for us. That’s Raptor Division plastering the bejebas outta the Machts. We radioed in our position. A squad’s waiting for us just inside those trees.”
They ran along a crevice for several more miles, then, on a signal from the captain, scrambled out of the soggy ground to make a frenzied dash across an exposed field for the cover of a breaking line of forest
“Stay close to me, I’ll lead you straight in.” Sal smiled and a bullet slammed into his back. He fell like a bag of cement.
“Drones!” O’Malley shouted.
Bullets buzzed around them like flies. Mike couldn’t see anyone shooting, just the direction the shots came from. Their immediate left. Grabbing up Sal’s gun, he slung the young soldier over his shoulders and sprinted toward the trees.
“C’mon, c’mon.” Preach ran by his side, firing his weapon backward.
Mike could see them now, gray-clad soldiers moving fast to intercept them. They weren’t even ducking for cover.
The squad emptied their ammunition into them, striking them over and over, but none of them went down. What the hell were they?
Finally someone threw out some kind of a grenade. The air whooshed and erupted in red streaks of lightning and violet flame right on top of a man. His right side and half his head gone, he took a couple of steps before crumbling into the snapping strands of electricity. More lightning grenades were hurled, finding targets, but not near enough.
Mike strained for the treeline, ran into the forest.
“Hey, hey, this way! You’re going the wrong way!” O’Malley shouted over the roar.
Mike veered for him. “What are those things? They don’t die!”
“Drones!” O’Malley shouted. “They die. Just takes some doing. Here. Put Sal down. Raptors are coming.”
A squad was racing toward them from deeper in the trees, readying their weapons. O’Malley sprinted off to join them. Relieved, Mike glanced back out toward the charred field. Almost inside the treeline, the captain and his men were still laying down fire. Splinters of bark and leaves danced hypnotically in the air. Farther out, to the left, Mike caught a blur of movement as Rich went down. What was he doing caught off by himself? No one else had seen him.
Damn! This wasn’t his war! Taking Sal’s weapon, Mike ran out of the trees. Where was the damn trigger? It looked similar enough to a tommygun, but there was no trigger mechanism. Useless.
He reached Rich in moments. The sharp staccato of firing pulsed. A drone rose above Rich.
Acting on instinct, Mike pulled back on the sliding undercarriage with the palm of his hand, and the gun vibrated and barked satisfactorily. Blood flowered on gray uniforms like tiny red explosions. He hit them over and over at point blank, yet they came on.
He grabbed Rich, pulled him up under the arm, still shooting.
“Behind you,” Rich rasped.
Mike spun. A drone swung a busted rifle toward his head, gem-bright eyes terrifyingly flat and absent of life. With his own weapon awkward across his chest, Mike dove into him, dropping Rich, and toppled the drone onto his back. The drone grabbed the rifle, trying to wrest it away.
The hell he would! Ramming his arm forward, Mike smashed the butt into his temple, heard and felt bone crack.
Might as well have been a love tap for all the damage it did.
The drone shoved Mike off him, ripping the gun away. More of the drones rushed passed, firing at the soldiers. Mike flew through the air, landed in a stunned heap.
The drone pulled the gun into position. Mid-step his body jerked back and forth like a pinball stuck between counters. Blood splattered Mike’s face. A nickel-sized hole sprouted in the drone’s forehead and he toppled over.
“Gotta get ‘em in the head! In the head!” Preach shouted and he and Nial passed them, running back into the drones.
“Go! Go!” Preach shouted.
Mike pulled Rich across his shoulders. A sting flicked past his ear. He ran, his vision dimmed by the smoke. His ears rang from the heavy barrage. Bullets buzzed around them. He reached the trees and raced past the captain and his men before he realized half of those bullets were being fired by them. They had all come back to give him cover. Abruptly, O’Malley, the captain, and the others were with him, running back into the trees, slapping low-hanging branches, while gunfire plowed the forest around them.
Mike felt a shift in himself, recognized it because he’d felt it once before decades ago with different men. Men he’d cherished his entire life with those kinds of emotions that never diminish over time. Seeing those alien soldiers come back for him, firing at the drones, he knew their caliber. He didn’t know them, barely knew a few of their names, but it didn’t matter.
The Raptors streaked toward them, shouting for them to make it, and as soon as they were past, poured their thundering heavier artillery into the drones. The ground lit up with snaking layers of red lightning.
Mike staggered to his knees into a press of arms and legs and a dozen hands. Rich was lifted off and one by one the rescue squad stumbled and rolled down beside him.
Mike shook his head, rolling the back of it on the trampled grass while the sweet sound of the Raptors’s fire slowed to stilted coughs. “This is all real, isn’t it? Has to be. Those things were too hard to kill. I’ve never imagined anything so hard.”
O’Malley popped his head up. “Hell, you think that’s hard. Back on Earth, I was a woman.”
Mike stared at O’Malley speechless. And remained quiet as Sal explained everything about this new world, imploring at how much they were needed here.
But Sabrina. All Matt could think about was Sabrina. He stared at the alien weapon in his hand. Just one shot and he could be with her.
Apparently Nial noticed where his gaze landed and he stalked off.
Mike got to his feet. “Tell Nial…hell. Tell him I’m sorry, but I got a wife. She’s waiting…”
“Yeah, okay. But Mike?” Sal asked, hunched over with pain as O’Malley prodded the wound in his back.
“How do you know your wife’s there?”
A great weariness settled over Mike. “She was a good, decent woman. Of course she’s…” A chill prickled his flesh. Sal wasn’t talking about heaven or hell. “How long? How long have the Machts been using the soul-snatchers?”
Preach stood to join him. “Only five years, but the seasons are different here. Maybe nine, ten years back on earth. Matthews, you okay?”
Mike heard Preach as though from a vast distance. Nine or ten years? No. Nononono. Lowering his head, he let the weapon drop.
(First Three Chapters)
“WE ARE THE VOYAGERS, campers of goodwill. The vulture is our symbol, but we never eat roadkill. We always stick together, our loyalty is high. As long as we’re united, like vultures we will fly!” — Vulture Voyager Theme Song the group of boys laughed as they hollered the words around the afternoon campfire, but Ellis’ lips barely moved. He should have been happy. His troop had taken first place at the Vulture Voyager Survival Games. He’d passed all his wilderness exams. And he’d proudly received the Regurgitating Raptor Patch to sew on his Vulture Vest that proved he was no longer a fifth-grade Fledgling—he’d flown up to full Vulture rank. But instead of enjoying the campout’s closing ceremony, he stomped off toward his tent, kicking up gravel along the way.
This campout was even more important than when he had graduated from the humiliating Egg rank. He was now a Vulture. It was a big deal. A way big deal. And Dad should have been here to see it, like all the other dads.
But he wasn’t. He had to work. Again.
Ellis trudged up the sloping ground toward the blue tent he shared with his best friend, Colin. It was zipped tightly shut, but that didn’t muffle his dachshund’s lonely whimpers coming from inside.
Oh Philecia. He wouldn’t have to lock her up like this if she’d just act like a normal dog, instead of like some freakazoid.
“Hey! Wait up!” Ellis turned to see Colin trekking up the path. “Dad says it’s time to pack up.”
“Okay,” Ellis said. “But don’t let Philecia out. After she went crazy running from the fireflies last night and peeing all over the marshmallows, I don’t think anyone wants her getting loose.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Colin said. “She wasn’t that bad.”
Colin was being polite. He was always polite.
“Come on, Colin. She was horrible. Not only did she keep us from making s’mores, she peed on Duane Ratsman’s cell phone. It’s a wonder either one of us is still alive.”
Frantic yapping erupted from inside the tent. Ellis unzipped the door and stuck his head inside. His small brown dachshund cowered in the corner, her pupils constricted and drool flying as she barked furiously. “Philecia, it’s me, girl.”
“What’s wrong with her?” Colin asked.
“I don’t know.” Ellis crawled into the tent. “Come on, girl. It’s okay.”
Philecia pressed deeper into the corner. Her eyes darted to the ceiling, to the walls—everywhere but the ground.
Something small and dark scurried across the nylon floor and disappeared underneath Colin’s sleeping bag. Philecia’s barks escalated into a dog scream.
“Did you see that?” Ellis asked. He crawled to Colin’s bedding and lifted the sleeping bag. A lizard scampered out from underneath and through the open door.
“A lizard?” Colin said as he entered the tent. “Your dog freaked out that much because of a tiny lizard?”
Ellis felt his face grow hot. Philecia’s brown eyes bugged out and her body hunched as a yellow puddle formed on the floor. Ellis smacked his forehead. “Really? Again? It was just a lizard! A teeny tiny lizard. Did you really have to pee?”
Colin wrinkled his nose. “Gross!”
Colin quickly gathered up his bedding and crawled out of the tent. “I’m going to the car,” he called as he hastily made his exit.
Ellis glared at the brown dachshund. “You’re no fun to bring on campouts, you know that?”
Ellis looked around for something to soak up the urine and settled on using the t-shirt he’d worn the day before. He scrunched up his face as he mopped up the warm liquid. Philecia sat in the corner watching him, head hung low.
“Yeah, you should feel sorry,” Ellis continued. “Why can’t you be like a normal dog and chase stuff instead of peeing at every little thing that moves? It’s so embarrassing.”
Ellis wadded up the soiled t-shirt and backed out of the tent to find a plastic garbage bag. Instead, he found Duane Ratsman.
Duane stood as solid as one of the trees in the forest and seemed almost as tall. Ellis was by no means small for an eleven-year-old, but Duane Ratsman? He was a beast. Duane crossed his pink freckled arms and curled his lip in a sneer, displaying sharp jumbled teeth that would make any dentist see dollar signs.
“Where’s that weiner dog of yours? I’m gonna stomp its head for peeing on my phone.”
This was not good. Dropping the t-shirt, Ellis reached behind him and pulled the flaps of the tent shut.
“Philecia’s not here,” he said, meeting Duane’s pale eyes. “I already put her in Mr. Rooper’s car.”
Duane shot a thick wad of spit through his jagged teeth. His doughy face brightened. “Then I’ll get my revenge on you!”
Ellis tried to dodge Duane’s gorilla hands but wasn’t fast enough. In a flash he was trapped in a headlock, listening to Duane’s familiar cackle and gagging at the sour stench of his sweaty armpit. Ellis dug his feet into the ground, pushing hard against Duane’s body, but it was like pushing against a concrete wall.
“Come on, Ratsman! Let me go!” Ellis’ arms flailed, landing punches to Duane’s lower back, but he couldn’t get any power behind them from his awkward position. Duane grabbed a chunk of hair at the base of Ellis’ neck and yanked.
“Ow! Cut it out!” Ellis hollered, but then another sound cut through Duane’s wicked laughter. Philecia’s barks pierced the air.
“The weiner dog!” Duane shouted. “So it was here!”
Duane grabbed the band of Ellis’ underwear and yanked so hard his feet left the ground. “Wedgie ala Ratsman,” Duane grunted. “Stop it!” Ellis shouted. “Can’t lie to me and get away with it.” Duane shoved Ellis to the ground. He landed on his chest, panting, his face inches from the dirt. Duane planted his boot on Ellis’ back.
“Keep your weiner dog out of my face,” he growled. Then he lumbered off down the trail.
Ellis groaned and rolled onto his back. Philecia jumped out of the tent and lathered Ellis’ face with slobbery kisses.
“Philecia, stop!” Ellis pushed her away. He stood up and wiped the drool from his cheeks.
Colin ran up the path, out of breath.
“You okay? I saw Duane come down the trail with that stupid grin on his face. He didn’t mess with you, did he?”
Ellis shrugged and looked away. “Doesn’t matter. I’m fine.”
The two friends finished packing up the tent then loaded everything into Colin’s dad’s SUV.
Two hours later they reached the outskirts of town. They turned into Ellis’ neighborhood and drove down his street—a dead end road lined with houses backing up to an open field. Beyond the field lay an ugly gray forest.
The SUV came to a stop in front of Ellis’ house.
“Thanks again, Mr. Rooper,” Ellis said. “Sorry my dad had to cancel last minute.”
“It’s no problem.” Mr. Rooper smiled, but Ellis couldn’t help but wonder if he was secretly tired of dragging him along to everything. Ellis did so much with the Roopers these days, someone might mistake him as one of them—if not for his dark hair and tan complexion. All the Rooper kids were blonde and pale.
Ellis walked to the back to unload his gear.
“Wait! I’ve got something for you.” Mr. Rooper rummaged in the glovebox then walked over to Ellis and handed him a brochure. On the cover a boy in a Vulture Voyager uniform smiled back at him. “Are you a boy who loves adventure?” the brochure read. “Are you ready to make lifelong friends? Come and join the Vulture Voyagers!”
“It’s our new recruitment brochure,” Mr. Rooper explained. “We’re going to have a contest to see who can bring in the most new members, with a party at the end of the summer. You and your dad can be on a team …” His voice trailed off as Ellis looked at his feet. Mr. Rooper swallowed. “Or, you know, you can always be on our team.”
Ellis forced a smile. “Sure, Mr. Rooper.”
Ellis stuffed the brochure in his back pocket as he watched the SUV drive off. Then he whistled to Philecia and dragged his camping gear to the garage. He punched in the passcode to the garage door opener and the door creaked and squealed as it lifted off the ground. Before the door made it halfway through its journey Ellis’ shoulders slumped.
The garage was empty.
He dropped his gear on the concrete, silently cursing himself for getting his hopes up. Of course no one was home. What did he expect?
Ellis let himself into the house and saw a note on the kitchen table from his mother.
“Ellis – Grandma’s cats are throwing up again and she’s really upset. I’m going over there after I’m done helping Dad at the shop. There’s ice cream in the freezer if you’re hungry. Love, Mom.”
Ellis crumpled the note and threw it on the floor. He ignored the ice cream in the freezer and went back out to the garage.
Click-click-click. Philecia’s nails tapped the concrete as she followed him to the shelf full of power tools and Christmas decorations and boxes of clothes he’d outgrown. He found his basketball and dribbled out to the driveway to shoot some hoops. As the sun dipped lower in the sky he heard his dad’s beat-up Honda chugging down the street. Philecia scampered out of the way as the small car rolled into the garage.
Javier Garcia got out. He wore a navy polo with “Garcia’s Glacial Goodies” embroidered on the chest. A matching cap compressed his curly black hair.
“Hi Ellis.” He waved absently as he looked at his cell phone. “Sorry I’m late. Bruce called in sick so I had to teach Marcia how to close. Sure hope she doesn’t forget anything.”
Ellis scowled. Who cares?
Javier stuffed his phone into his pocket then reached into the car and withdrew an unlabeled ice cream carton. His smile was like a kid on the last day of school as he walked toward Ellis. “Guess what. I think I finally have it. Ninja Nosejuice—the ice cream flavor you’ve been begging me to create. I colored the caramel swirl green and I think it just might work.”
Ellis crossed his arms and grimaced.
Javier’s brow crinkled. “What’s wrong? I thought you’d be excited.” Javier paused and scratched his chin. Then his eyes brightened. “Oh yeah. How was the campout?”
“Come on, tell me about it.”
“Why should I?” Ellis snapped. “Don’t pretend like you’re all interested. You couldn’t care less about me being a Vulture, or getting beat up, or being humiliated in front of my whole troop because my stupid dog freaks out and pees all over the place. I did just fine. Didn’t need you anyway.”
Ellis dribbled the basketball down the driveway.
“Ellis, I …” Javier sighed and rubbed the back of his neck. “I wanted to be there. I did. It just didn’t work out. You know how it is. I’ve got to run the shop.”
Yes, the stupid shop. Garcia’s Glacial Goodies, home to forty-three flavors of ice cream and Dad’s American Dream. If Ellis ever complained about time spent at the shop Dad was quick to remind him of just how lucky they were to live in America and own their own business. Grandma and Grandpa had risked everything fleeing Cuba, all so their kids would have a chance at a better life. Javier did not take that lightly, and neither should Ellis.
“Look, I’m sorry,” Javier said. “Marcia’s not ready to run the shop alone during the weekend rush. I can’t risk customers coming and not having a good experience. This isn’t Cuba, it’s America. You work hard to beat your competition and if customers don’t like my shop, they’ll find ice cream somewhere else. And we can’t afford that. You want to be able to pay for stuff like your Buzzard Club, don’t you?”
Ellis shot a basket, throwing way too hard. The basketball ricocheted off the backboard and bounced toward the street. Ellis looked into Dad’s hazel eyes. They flashed golden green in the sunlight, so much like his own.
“It’s Vultures!” Ellis hollered. “Vulture Voyagers, not buzzards. All you care about is the stupid shop. You don’t care about me. You never do anything with me anymore. Well, I got news for you. I hate the shop. I hate ice cream. And I hate you!”
There, he’d said it. Screamed it. And it felt so good.
Yet the stunned look he saw on Dad’s face, the worried crease in his forehead … speechless, hurt …
Ellis turned and ran. Down the gravel path that led from his driveway, past his backyard, and into the field beyond. He ran and ran, not thinking of where he was going or how far he’d come. He ran until the lump filling his chest exploded and he had to stop as sobs erupted from his aching lungs.
Ellis bent over and choked out sob after sob. He coughed and sputtered, until finally he was able to take a deep breath. He took a few more before straightening up.
Something scratched the back of his leg. He looked down. Philecia’s brown eyes stared up, soft and loving. He hadn’t even realized she was following him.
At least she cared.
He scooped her into his arms, and when she lapped his cheeks with kisses, he didn’t push her away. Okay. Maybe he had been a little hard on her. Right now she was the coolest dog in the world.
Ellis looked toward home. He didn’t want to go back. Not yet. Let Dad wonder where he’d gone. A solid line of trees caught his eye from several yards away. Wow. The edge of the forest. He’d never come this close to it before.
Ellis wandered closer, examining the layers of peeling bark and crusty knotholes that scarred the massive gray trunks. He’d never seen trees so big. This forest was ancient. Quiet, too. Like everything inside was holding its breath.
“You can play in the field, but stay out of the forest,” Dad always said. “It’s not our property and besides, you never know what might be back there.”
What was Dad doing right now anyway? Sitting in the driveway, waiting for him to cool off and return? Or had he gone in the house? Was he relaxing and not even thinking about Ellis anymore?
Ellis swallowed hard.
“I’ll show him,” he thought. “I’ll go in the woods, and he can’t stop me. And if I don’t come back, he’ll know it’s his fault. His fault for being such a mean dad. He’ll know he made me run away and he’ll wish he’d spent more time with me instead of the stupid shop. He’ll be sorry for the rest of his life.”
Ellis hugged Philecia to his chest and stepped into the trees.
A draft of frigid air seized him and held on tight. Weird. He put Philecia on the ground and rubbed his arms, shivering. The cold air stung his nostrils and made his boogers freeze.
You never know what might be back there … The tiny voice whispered in his mind but Ellis ignored it. He pressed deeper into the shadows.
The gargantuan trees rose up like bark-covered skyscrapers. The farther he hiked, the thicker they became, their web of gnarled branches blocking out the sunlight. Ellis stopped and rubbed his tingling hands together. This adventure was turning out to be cold and dark and not much fun. Maybe he should just go home. He turned to go back and that’s when he noticed. Philecia was gone…
The Chronicles of Kibblestan Chapter Two
ELLIS LOOKED all around. No sign of her. His heart flipped like it was on a trampoline. This was silly. She couldn’t be far. He cupped his hands around his mouth and called. “Philecia! Come here, girl!”
Ellis stopped. His voice sounded weird. Not like the voice of someone yelling out in the open. His call sounded muffled, like someone locked in a small closet. Or buried in a coffin.
Ellis took a few steps, listening, watching.
He glanced toward the clearing and his heart slammed into his throat.
The trees had moved.
Ellis could still see the light of the clearing far away, but he could swear that the trees had scooted closer together. Their trunks had grown wider, too, narrowing the spaces between them.
Ellis shook his head. It’s your imagination. Trees don’t move. They can’t move.
Ellis felt something on his foot. A brown mouse scampered across his shoe. It circled in front of him, then zigzagged back and forth.
A rustling sound. The mouse jumped and scurried behind a tree. Ellis turned as Philecia charged out of the shadows.
“Philecia!” Ellis reached down and caught his dog mid-stride. Relief flooded into him, making is arms feel weak. He cuddled the dachshund against his thumping chest and let out a deep breath. “Whoa, girl. You can’t go running off like that. You scared me.”
Philecia squirmed in his arms. What did she want? He looked where the mouse was hiding. Had Philecia been chasing it? Actually chasing it? Philecia whined but Ellis clutched her tight. No way he’d let her back down. They were going home. Time to ditch this creepy forest. He turned toward the clearing and stopped short.
The clearing was no longer there.
Ellis turned in a circle, clenching his teeth to keep them from chattering. This was crazy. The clearing couldn’t have disappeared, could it? Philecia and the mouse had distracted his sense of direction. That was all.
Something darted across the ground. The mouse. It now ran in circles, pausing every few moments to look up at the trees, shake its head, then resume its circles again, faster than before.
Great. Even the mouse looked lost.
Ellis took his best guess of which way was home and started walking. To his surprise, the mouse followed. Each time he stole a glance over his shoulder the mouse would stop and sit back on its haunches, avoiding all eye contact as it absently played with its tail. As soon as he turned back around the pitter-patter behind him resumed.
Ellis had not walked far when he heard a distant rumbling.
Philecia let out a low whine.
“It’s okay, girl. It’s only thunder.” He paused, then added. “Nothing else.”
Up ahead a light flickered between two trees. Was it the clearing? He quickened his step and the scampering behind him did the same.
The rumbling grew louder.
Ellis slowed down as he approached two of the thickest trees he’d seen yet. This was weird. The light only shined between these two trees and no other. It flashed and dimmed, beckoning him to come closer. Ellis peered through the lit space and his heart plunged to his stomach. It wasn’t the clearing. Everything looked dark and fuzzy, and in the distance there was an ominous greenish-yellow glow. A sweet metallic smell hung in the air that was strangely familiar.
Ellis looked behind him. The trees had changed again. He wasn’t imagining things. They hardly looked like trees anymore. They looked like one big, shadowy mass eager to swallow him forever. He had to get to the light. Any light.
Ellis clutched Philecia tighter and squeezed between the two trees. A piercing shriek drilled his ears, rising above the rumbling thunder. At the same time, a frantic, squeaky voice spoke so quickly he could barely understand what was being said.
“I don’t want to die. No I don’t! No I don’t! No I don’t! I just want to go home. Yes I do. I do!”
Ellis blinked at his surroundings, trying to make sense of the confusing sounds. The sky was black with swirling clouds and the air was hot and still. In the distance a volcano erupted. Its greenish-yellow lava spewed upward in angry, fiery bursts, lighting up the sky before settling on the horizon.
Philecia vibrated in his arms, shaking uncontrollably. Ellis tightened his grip. “It’s okay,” he whispered, his voice as shaky as his dog.
The squeaking started again, coming from the direction of the ground. “Please take me with you. I don’t want to be alone. No I don’t! No I don’t! Let’s be friends. Please, please, please!”
Philecia whimpered, and Ellis stumbled back, nearly dropping her. He was hearing more words—but this time in his dog’s whining voice. “I don’t want to be friends with you. You have those beady eyes and teeth that could gnaw my tail in two. Besides, I have Ellis. He’s the only friend I need.”
Ellis placed Philecia on the ground before she slipped from his hands. He felt numb.
Philecia pointed her nose toward something brown and furry. The mouse. It hopped up and down, clenching its paws into tiny fists. “You think you’re so high and mighty, being canine. Mice need friends, too, yes they do. Besides, I wouldn’t be here if you hadn’t chased me around the forest. You got me all lost, yes you did. Why’d you do that, hmmm? Hmmm?”
Philecia kept up the whimpering sound. “I’m supposed to chase things like you. I’m a dachshund.”
The mouse stuck out its chin and crossed its arms. “But you don’t have to be such a meanie.”
Philecia’s floppy ears went limp. “Look … I’m not a meanie. It’s just … I’m sick of disappointing Ellis, okay? He’s my human, and he got a wedgie because of me and … Oh forget it. You’re just a mouse. You don’t understand dogs and their humans.”
Ellis plopped down on the grass. It felt soggy beneath his jeans but he didn’t care. He was listening to his dog have an argument with a mouse, in a land that didn’t look anything like home. Soggy jeans were the least of his worries.
“I know, I know, dogs care so much about their humans.” The mouse’s chatter was earsplitting. “But some humans aren’t that great, you know. Some poison mice, yes they do. Or set traps.” The mouse sat back on its haunches, paws on hips, and scowled up at Ellis. “What about you?” it demanded. “Do you do things like that? Do you? Do you?”
Ellis’ vocal chords were slow to cooperate. “Like— like what?”
“Poison me! Trap me? Would you? Would you?”
“N-no,” Ellis managed. He squeezed his eyes shut and massaged his temples. Maybe he was dreaming. Could this be the weirdest, most lifelike dream he’d ever experienced? He pressed his fingertips to his forearm, grabbed a bit of skin and pinched.
“Ow!” he yelped.
It wasn’t a dream.
The mouse squeaked on, barely pausing for a breath. “I have a bad feeling about this place, yes I do. We need to stick together, yes we should. Let’s be friends. Please, please, please!” The mouse grabbed its tail and stroked it, looking first at Ellis, then to Philecia, then back to Ellis.
Philecia looked wary. “I don’t know. I guess I’ll do whatever Ellis wants.” She looked at Ellis and cocked her head. “Can you understand me, too?”
Ellis nodded, speechless. He pulled Philecia to him and hugged her close, as his mind tried to grasp what was happening. This was real. It wasn’t a dream. He took a deep breath and cleared his throat. “I think the mouse is right. We need to stick together.”
The mouse broke into a huge grin. Its square teeth twinkled like two sugar cubes as it nodded and pranced about.
“We’re friends now. We’re friends! We’ll get out of here together, yes we will. Yes we will.”
The mouse tugged at Ellis’s pant leg. He knelt down, putting Philecia on the ground. The mouse grinned and did a flying leap, landing squarely on Philecia’s head. Philecia winced.
“Introductions, introductions. My name is Matilda, yes it is. Pleased to meet you. So very, very pleased!”
The mouse stuck out a tiny paw and before he knew what he was doing Ellis shook hands with the rodent.
Philecia stared up, cross-eyed. She shook her head and the mouse went flying.
“Philecia!” Ellis scolded. “Don’t do that.”
“But it was on my head,” Philecia protested. “What if it pooped?”
Matilda lay on her back, her hind legs sprawled above her head. “I’d never poop on anybody, no I wouldn’t.” She popped up and dusted herself off, fixing Philecia with an indignant scowl.
“Let’s just get back home,” Philecia said.
Home. Yes, they needed to get back home. But it was easier said than done. The tree trunks had widened so much there were no longer spaces between them. Ellis ran his hand along the trunks. They were smooth and solid, like a giant wall of petrified bark. Ellis fought the panic rising in his throat.
Philecia and Matilda stared up, wide-eyed. Why’d they look at him like that? He didn’t have answers. He was just a kid.
They walked to a field of tall grass a few feet away. In the dim light he could see patches where the grass had been trampled or smashed into a sort of path.
“I guess we can follow this trail,” Ellis said. Maybe it’ll lead to another way out.”
He entered the field, Philecia on his heels. Matilda ran in circles around both of them.
“Will you cut that out?” Philecia snapped. “We’re going to trip over you.”
Matilda stopped, looking hurt. “You don’t have to be so bossy.”
“I wasn’t being bossy. I was just … Ick! What’s on my paws?” Philecia stopped and lifted her feet, one by one. When Ellis knelt to examine, his jeans got wet.
“Hold still, girl,” Ellis whispered. He took Philecia’s front paw and tried to see it in the volcano’s greenishyellow light. Her paw glistened, covered with some kind of substance that looked like jelly. “Does it hurt?”
“No. It just feels weird. It’s sticking to the pads of my feet.”
Ellis felt the ground with his fingers. Between the clumps of trampled grass were layers of cool wet slime. He stood up and rubbed his fingers together. As the slime dried it became thicker, turning into a rubbery ball that clung to his skin. The strange metallic smell wafted through the air.
“I don’t know, Philecia,” Ellis said. “The ground seems to be covered with the muck, whatever it is.”
“Wait a minute.” Philecia’s eyes bulged. “You don’t think it’s poison, do you?”
“Hmph. Now you know how mice feel.” Matilda said.
Philecia ignored her. “What if I get sick? Or what if it never washes off? I can’t have sticky paws. I won’t be able to run fast. I might get stuck somewhere and something could eat me. I—”
Ellis lifted Philecia into his arms and she settled down. They continued walking. His shoes made a sloshing sound with every step. The slime got deeper. The metallic smell grew stronger.
Ellis stopped. He recognized the smell.
Once, he was flying down the sidewalk on his skateboard at school. He didn’t see the concrete stairs leading to the parking lot until it was too late. The skateboard hit the first step and kept going. He pitched forward and tumbled down the concrete stairs. He landed on his chin, his bottom teeth slicing clean through his lower lip.
The blood streamed from his face, filling his mouth while painting the sidewalk red. Ellis remembered the taste. He remembered the smell.
The blood tasted metallic.
It smelled metallic.
It smelled like this slime on the ground.
The Chronicles of Kibblestan Chapter Three
ELLIS FELT something tugging his pant leg. He looked down. Matilda clung to his jeans, hitching a ride to avoid the rising slime. They continued down the trail and when it came to an end Ellis paused, looking left and right. To his left was nothing but blackness. If only he had a flashlight, he could see what was there. Maybe somewhere in that blackness was a way home.
But then again, what if it didn’t lead back home? What if it led to something else? Like something that was super hairy, or scaly, with sharp claws and Tyrannosaurus teeth?
A tremendous screech ripped through the air. The sound was loud, so loud, and guttural. It resembled the caw of a prehistoric bird—a huge bird, whose throat was shredded and raw.
“What was that? What was that?” Matilda shinnied higher up Ellis’ leg.
Philecia pawed at her ears. “Ouch! That hurt. Why do dog ears have to be so sensitive?”
The screech faded, replaced by the steady rumble of thunder.
“I know! I know what it was,” Matilda cried. “It was an owl. A big, monstrous owl that wants mouse casserole for supper, yes it does. Hide me! Hide me!”
Ellis searched the sky and saw nothing but churning clouds. He plucked Matilda from his pant leg. “It’s okay,” he told her, hoping she didn’t notice the tremble in his voice. “I think whatever it was is gone.” He raised his hand to his shirt and Matilda gladly dove inside his front pocket.
Whatever it was is gone. Whatever it was is gone. The words repeated in his brain. If only he could believe them. He looked toward the volcano. At least this direction had some light. In fact …
Ellis squinted. Could he be seeing things? Something moved in the distance—a white oval shape that vaguely shined in the dim light. He plodded toward it and as he drew closer he noticed other white shapes as well. They stayed in one place, but shook back and forth. What were they?
Ellis trudged ahead. The ground slanted downward and the slime grew deep, turning into the most disgusting lake of all time. The mushy stuff crept up his thighs, then reached his waist. The deeper it got, the harder it was to move. The gunk was so thick, like walking through rubber cement. And the metallic, blood-smell had changed. It was even more pungent, and becoming overwhelming.
“Ugh! That smell makes me want to puke,” Ellis muttered.
Philecia stiffened in his arms. Her ears perked up and she scratched Ellis’ forearm.
“Go back,” she cried. “We’ve got to go back.” Philecia’s claws dug into Ellis’ skin as she frantically tried to scramble over his shoulder. “We’ve got to get out of here. Ellis, get me out of here!”
“Philecia, stop it! I’m going to drop you.”
From Ellis’ pocket Matilda’s voice floated up. “I’m all for going back. Too stinky out there, yes it is. Too stinky.”
“Guys, I know it smells bad but there’s something moving out there. We got to go see—”
“NO!” Philecia barked. “Get away, Ellis! As fast as we can. I know that smell.”
Philecia’s nails dug even deeper into his shoulder. That was enough. Ellis held the dachshund out in front of him, face to face. “That hurt, girl. Stop climbing on me. We’re going to go see what’s moving over there.”
“But the smell,” Philecia moaned.
“Yeah, I know it’s bad. It smells like blood, but—” Ellis stopped himself mid-sentence. Oh no. Why’d he let that slip? To the dog who freaked out at the buzz of a June bug and slunk away if a toad hopped across her path? Now she’d really go nuts.
But she didn’t.
Philecia didn’t pee or anything. She gazed at Ellis and looked so strange … almost wise, as if something was taking place in that mind of hers that was far beyond mere animal instinct.
“Ellis,” Philecia said slowly, deliberately. “It isn’t blood. I’m a dog and I know smells. It’s the smell that we fear most. It can make a hungry wolf come running, but tells a dog to get away as fast as possible.”
Philecia paused, eyes round. “Ellis, what I smell is death.”
Death? Like rotting bodies or something? Ellis quickly looked on either side of him, half-expecting to see a bloody corpse float by. He tried to steady his breathing, but it wasn’t easy. Death. Philecia smelled death.
Screeeeeech! The awful sound tore through the air and Ellis jumped, nearly dropping Philecia. He looked toward the sky. What in the world made that sound? Another shriek echoed through the landscape and the air fell silent. All was still for a moment, then the thunder resumed its steady beat.
Ellis hugged Philecia to his chest, like he used to hug his teddy bear when he’d lie awake at night and worry about creepy things living under his bed. If only someone else were here to hug, like Mom or Dad.
Philecia’s ears pricked up. “Ellis, did you hear that?”
“No, it wasn’t thunder. Between the thunder.”
Ellis closed his eyes and listened. The thunder rolled through the sky like an approaching locomotive. But then it passed and in that brief silence before the next thunderclap Ellis heard a soft mewling.
He opened his eyes only to find Philecia’s brown ones boring into him.
“You heard it?” she asked.
“Yes.” Ellis hesitated. Continuing forward meant walking toward death. The further they walked, the stronger the smell. Yet where there is death, there once was life. And the white shapes in the distance continued to move.
Ellis took a deep breath. “Let’s go.”
Ellis focused on the white shape closest to him. It looked like a huge egg, about the size of a football, but narrower. It kept wriggling back and forth before pausing, as if to rest.
The thunder clapped louder than usual, delivering a crushing smack to the sky. A new burst of lava shot high into the air, lighting up the world. For a second, Ellis could see clearly. He could see that the slime he walked through was bronze. He could see that palm trees stood in the distance. And he could see that the white shapes had faces.
Panicked, desperate faces.
“Look! Look!” Matilda hung out of Ellis’ pocket, pointing. “Look at the faces! Alien monsters!” The crying grew louder as Ellis pushed through the slime, which now reached his chest. He drew up beside the first white face.
The creature was unlike any he’d seen before. Its face was thinner than a human’s, the nose long and pointed. The skin was white—not white like paper—but white like the moon on a foggy night. The hair was a slimy mass of blonde curls and its eyes were large and almond-shaped, and filled with terror.
The thing struggled to keep its head above the slime, but was quickly losing its battle. It raised its arms above its head, exposing hands with three very long, pointed fingers and one thumb. It gasped one last breath then disappeared beneath the muck.
Ellis reached down with his free hand and grabbed an arm. He yanked, pulling the creature back to the surface.
“Quick! Grab onto me,” Ellis said.
The long, narrow fingers curled around Ellis’ free arm as he hefted whatever it was from the slime. The creature was the size of a toddler. It wrapped its arms and legs around Ellis’ torso and clung to him like a koala to a tree.
Ellis wobbled on his feet. “Don’t drop me!” Philecia cried. “The slime’s too deep.”
“I know,” Ellis said, breathing heavy. “We’ve got to find higher ground.”
Ellis’ arm ached from holding Philecia for so long, and now with this new alien-looking thing wrapped around him, he could hardly move. He took two more steps and sank deeper.
“We’ve got to go back,” Ellis panted, knees threatening to give way. But just then he heard more cries. Louder cries. Cries that were directed at him, he was sure of it.
Ahead three more white shapes jerked back and forth. But this time Ellis knew what they were—the desperate faces of drowning creatures. The face closest to him sank below the slime.
No! Ellis moved forward, ignoring his wobbly knees and the pain in his shoulder. He tried to find the spot where the creature disappeared. The slime pursued his armpits. He lifted Philecia higher as he searched underneath with his free hand. The creature clinging to him gasped and tightened its grip.
Ellis turned in a circle, searching the sea of goo.
Cramps seized his arm, threatening to make him drop Philecia. He had to go back. He worked his way backward, trying to block from his mind the fading cries of the other drowning creatures. The cries were for him and he was failing. Failing!
In the distance two faces remained. “I’ll come back for you! Hang on!” he yelled.
Ellis retraced his steps until the slime was only ankle deep. His elbow creaked as he straightened his arm and released Philecia to the ground. He tried to unclasp the creature’s hands from around his neck.
“Let go of me! I’ve got to go get your friends.” Ellis peered into its face, but its eyes remained squeezed shut. Ellis reached around his waist and unlocked the creature’s legs. It tumbled to the ground then curled into a ball, chin on its knees, silently rocking back and forth.
“Watch him,” Ellis told Philecia. He sloshed back through the slime. There had been two faces left. Ellis strained his eyes as he waded deeper, looking … searching…
Where were they? He hadn’t been gone that long. He’d hurried as fast as he could. He had!
But it hadn’t been fast enough. The creatures were no longer there.
Ellis waded back, his chest heavy.
“Did you find them?” Philecia asked.
Ellis shook his head, unable to meet her eyes. Unable to meet anyone’s eyes.
“I-is any-anybody else a-alive?” The creature’s voice was soft and high, the sound of a very young child. It looked at Ellis with hopeful eyes, its face mottled with tears and slime. Ellis cleared his throat. “No … just you.”
The light went out of the creature’s eyes and its whole body shook. “I want my mom,” it whispered. “I want Dreya. I never got to say good-bye. She took them. I never—never got to—to—” It broke into sobs.
Matilda poked her head out of Ellis’ pocket. Her nose twitched as her beady eyes took in the sight. She scampered down the front of Ellis’ shirt.
“Oh no, no, no. Don’t cry. Please don’t cry.” She stroked the creature’s leg with her paw. “It’ll be okay, yes it will. You will find them. You will. You will!” The creature looked down at the little brown mouse and Matilda offered up her best bucktoothed smile. The creature’s tears slowed.
“Who are you?” Ellis asked.
“I’m Jenkins. I want my mom. I want to go home!”
I know the feeling, Ellis thought ruefully.
“I’m Ellis. And this is Philecia and Matilda. Where do you think your mom is?” Ellis braced himself, praying it wasn’t one of those he couldn’t get to in time.
“I don’t know. She took them. She took my mom and my sister, Dreya, and left me all alone. She took them and left me. She left me.”
Jenkins burst into new sobs, his shoulders hunched and trembling.
A horrible scream ripped through the air, puncturing the endless rumble in the clouds. Matilda stuck her paws in her ears and scowled up at the sky. “There’s that screech again. I hate it! I hate it! It sounds like an angry owl. An owl looking for mouse casserole.”
Jenkins lifted his face, eyes wide. “It’s her!” He rose to his feet and searched the sky, his eyes taking on a new gleam in the volcano’s yellow-green light. “There! There she is!” Jenkins pointed to the horizon. A dark shadow broke from the clouds and swooped toward the ground. It hovered momentarily, then shot up into the swirling darkness.
“Who is that?” Ellis asked.
“Fandrella,” said Jenkins. “She’s our ruler. She’s saving us Petikins from the slewedge.” Jenkins sniffed and wiped his nose with his sleeve. “Hey! Did she send you to save Petikins, too?”
Ellis shook his head.
“We just got here. In fact, we’re lost. Do you know the way out of here?”
“Here? You mean my village? It got attacked by Snotlins. We had to leave in a hurry and that’s when— when everyone got washed away by the slewedge.” Jenkins lip quivered. “They all washed away. My home. My friends. Everything.” Jenkins sank to his knees and wept a fresh flood of tears.
Ellis looked down at the slimy muck covering his shoes. Slewedge. The stuff was called slewedge and these Petikins had washed away in its depths. No wonder it smelled like death.
Ellis sat down beside the little Petikin, his eyes avoiding Jenkins’ sad face. What could he do? How could he get him to quit crying? He awkwardly placed his arm around Jenkins’ shoulder, mimicking what his parents had done whenever he’d had a crisis. But the worst crisis he could remember was when he’d gotten the stomach flu on Christmas and spent all morning throwing up instead of opening presents. That was nothing compared to what this kid had experienced. A skinny arm placed around his shoulders couldn’t be much comfort.
But Jenkins didn’t pull away, and eventually he stopped crying.
“What about your dad?” Ellis asked. “Did he go with that flying thing—what’d you say it was called—Fansomething?”
Jenkins shook his head. “He’s not with Fandrella. My dad disappeared a long time ago. It’s just my mom and Dreya and me.”
Ellis sighed. “I wish I could help you. I don’t even know where I am. We came through that forest over there, but now we can’t get back.”
Jenkins looked up, curiosity on his grimy face. “That forest? The Grand Forest?”
“I don’t know what forest it is. It’s those trees on the other side of the field. That’s where I live, beyond that forest.”
“But no one can get through that forest. The trees are all closed up.”
“We somehow did. But you’re right. The trees closed up after we got through. Now they’re like a big wall of rock.”
“There’s just got to be another way out, yes there does,” Matilda said, crawling on Jenkins’ arm. “Can you think of a way? Can you? Can you?”
Jenkins slowly shook his head. “If there was a way out of Kibblestan, I’d be long gone by now. My whole family would.” He paused, sniffling. “The Snotlins keep attacking all over the place. Everyone’s drowning in slewedge. No one has a home anymore. Or family.” Jenkins’ voice caught at this last sentence.
“Kibblestan,” Matilda said. “What’s that? What’s that?”
“What do you mean, what’s that?” Jenkins said. “It’s here. This land. From the Grand Forest all the way to Latinab, where the volcano is.”
Kibblestan. Latinab. Ellis wracked his brain, trying to remember any geography lessons at school that mentioned either of these places. Maybe they were places that kids didn’t learn about until high school. Or maybe kids don’t learn about them at all, because they’re magical, and once you set foot in them you never return—
Ellis squashed the thought and rose to his feet.
“So the end of Kibblestan is that volcano over there?” he asked.
“Then maybe there’s a way out between Kibblestan and Latinab. Maybe we should go that direction and—”
The ground trembled, making Ellis wobble on his feet. He glanced at Jenkins, who looked terrified.
“You get earthquakes much?” Ellis asked uneasily.
Before Jenkins could answer, the ground shook again. This time it was even more intense. Philecia’s fur stood on end as her body quaked. Matilda scampered to the top of Jenkins’ shoulder and grabbed onto his golden curls to steady herself. But Jenkins took no notice. He remained frozen in horror, watching the shadows.
“Ellis,” Philecia’s voice was strangely high. “It’s coming closer. I can smell it all around us.”
The ground vibrated so hard that Ellis was knocked off his feet. Something tall and black and leathery stepped out of the darkness.
MARK PULLED his train set from under the bed, plugged in the transformer, and started connecting the tracks into an oval. As he pushed two pieces together, he grunted, clenched his teeth, and squinted. His arms vibrated with the effort. His hair was a blond railroad signal swinging down and obscuring his view.
He looked at the two tracks and thought for a moment, stood them up—end to end—and then pushed down, leaning his weight on them.
The bottom track skidded away. The top piece slammed down onto the oak floor, gouging a scratch two inches long.
He gasped. His eyes shot to the bedroom door, unblinking, breath frozen, ears pitched for sound, any sound, like the sound of approaching footsteps and another whipping—or worse.
He ignored the ticking of the wall clock, ignored his heartbeat pounding away, and listened beyond the hum of the train transformer. His hands were seismographs searching the floor for vibrations setup by parents coming to punish him.
He swallowed but his mouth was dry. He sat there hoping his dad wouldn’t come check on him, that Dad would let him live another day, another minute.
He hoped for a miracle.
One second went by.
He exhaled, slowly at first and then panted like a dog on a summer’s day. He fluffed his flannel shirt opened and closed, reached up with the back of his sleeve, and wiped the sweat from his brow. He gulped down the remaining half of his water bottle, knowing that it wouldn’t be long before he’d have to pee.
He stretched three feet across the floor and retrieved the train track. It caught on the transformer’s wires. He yanked.
A spark flashed like yellow lightening and sounded like thunder hushed by rain bands. He glanced at the door, but knew the sound wouldn’t be loud enough to hurt him. He sat up, wondering, unaware of the cut to his finger. Pain never bothered him much, but his high threshold infuriated Dad; despite severe beatings, Mark wouldn’t cry.
He slid across the floor, paddling, and stopped beside the transformer, feet crossed, eyes smiling. He rubbed the wires together, heard the moan of the transformer as it gave birth to power, and watched yellow fireworks.
The door to his room burst open, bounced off the stop, and then slammed back into his father. He slapped it open with one hand as if daring the door to challenge him again.
Mark froze, grasping one wire in each hand. He looked up at his dad. Their eyes didn’t just meet. They connected. Messages passed, messages of anger, messages that said Mark hadn’t yet learned his lesson.
Mark’s eyes widened into two frightened marbles of blue. His hands trembled, turning his body into quivering Jell-O. He dare not breathe. His blond hair swung down, coming to his defense, acting as camouflage.
He hoped that if he remained still this nightmare would end, that it was just a dream from which he would soon awaken. Instead, a wet spot appeared on his pants and grew wider. He felt warm urine dribble down.
The two wires he held touched each other and sparked with nervous energy, touched and sparked, the hushed thunder once miles away sounded closer now, a clapping detonation so crisp that it smashed off the walls of the tiny bedroom, joining his own mumbled squeaks of stress.
Dad’s eyes squeezed into two slits of jagged ice. His jaw clenched. His hands became fists, covering scars caused by his own father. His left eye twitched when he was not just angry, but furious. It twitched now.
He reached for his belt.
Mark jumped up.
The belt’s clasp wouldn’t release.
Mark shot past.
“Get back here!” Anger spiked. Dad grabbed the transformer’s power cord, yanked it from the wall, and gave chase.
Mark lay face down on the bed, shirt unbuttoned, eyes shut, the sun beaming through the window and warming him like an iron to clothes, wondering not if, but how his life would change in the coming minutes.
When Susan discovered his secret, would she laugh at him as Jennifer had? Would she find him too hideous to love as Mary had? Both women wounded him in a way that hurt far more than the memory of his childhood, and yet he sensed that Susan was different, that she would understand and accept. But the fear remained. Would she find a third way of rejecting him?
He wanted to be held, held by his father who beat him, held by his mother who allowed it to happen, and held by Susan—held and understood.
But how can I tell her? After months of struggling to find the right words, they took flight and escaped him now, leaving his soul alone, his heart torn, and his mind paralyzed. Yet her voice was a songbird serenading, asking him to come out and play. He turned to listen.
“Winter itch, huh?” Susan set the bottle of lotion on the nightstand. How can he have winter itch in the middle of summer? Her chestnut brown hair filtered the sun, but the rays made her face glow like an angel beneath a golden halo. She glanced over at him. “Take off your shirt.”
His muscles tensed, and he turned his head away from her, toward the wall, hiding not only his face but also his heart. His palms sweated and his fingers trembled. For months, he dreaded this moment.
Her eyebrows shot up. Is he ignoring me? Maybe he didn’t hear me. “It’ll be easier if you take off your shirt.”
His left hand crumpled the bedspread as if the pain had started already, but it was fear and fear alone. His mind started shutting down, vision tunneling, hearing muffled, his senses trying to protect him from the emotional time bomb ticking away.
Susan waited, her hand on the bottle, ready to squeeze out lotion, toe tapping the floor, ticking off the seconds. She was a patient woman, but sometimes he pushed her buttons, testing to see if she had the patience to endure for the long haul. “All right. So you want to play rough.” She grabbed his shirttail with both hands and yanked it toward his head, exposing his back and his fear.
She gasped. Her hands shot to her mouth.
She fell back a step and stumbled against the nightstand. The lotion bottle crashed to the floor and rested near a scratch two inches long. He always wears a shirt—even to bed. In the months since we met, not once have I seen him with his shirt off. This is his way of saying that which cannot be said.
She wanted to go to him and explore the ridges that scars made on his back, but couldn’t move. She wanted to hold him in her arms and let her words caress him, but couldn’t speak. Instead, her own nightmare began playing in her mind, a terror so dark that light couldn’t penetrate.
Her fingers began trembling and her hands began shaking as if fighting with someone for possession of her soul, and yet her struggle ran deeper than that. Her ulcer burned with stress caused by a secret untold for decades.
She closed her eyes and sought refuge in a fortress built as a child, a place where even her stepfather couldn’t go. But now the refuge held no warmth and gave no comfort.
She opened her eyes. Mark hadn’t moved. She let her gaze flow over his back, saw the scars, the ridges, and the colors stained there that time had not erased. What she saw gave her the courage to share that which cannot be said. He deserves to know. It’s time I told him the truth.
She reached for her foot. Removing her socks was something she did each day, and yet this hour, this minute, right now, it ignited memories of what her stepfather did.
A tear splashed against her ankle. She wiped it away. Then another hit and another. She removed the sock as if it were a curtain thrown aside, allowing sunlight into her life for the first time, exposing not her foot, but her heart.
She glanced up at Mark. He lay on his side, facing her, watching, wondering.
She wiped her eyes and gave a brief smile as if to say, “It’s not you. It’s me.” She sniffled and then looked down again. Her chestnut brown hair cascaded off her shoulders and hid her face, forming a protective cocoon into which she fled.
The shadows playing across her face reminded her of the nights spent with her stepfather.
Her fists clenched.
She exhaled a cleansing breath, shook out her fists, and removed the other sock.
She sat on the nightstand and tucked her knees underneath her chin, wrapped her arms around them in a fetal position, rocking slightly forward and backward, hair covering her face, hiding the tears that gathered.
She held her breath.
She slid her feet onto the bed.
She put them directly in front of him.
She felt his fingers tracing the scars that formed letters on the bottom of one foot and then the other, exploring like a feather carried on the wind to new destinations of caring and sharing.
She parted her hair, her puppy dog brown eyes peered into his, searching for understanding, searching for compassion, searching for a sign that he understood that which cannot be said.
Her lips quivered and she didn’t know if she could speak. She whispered, “My stepfather branded me with his initials.”
She held out her arms. Tears gushed. “Hold me.”
ENAPY, a Sioux Indian boy, cupped his hands and dipped them in the cold, bubbling river stream. He gulped and repeated the process several times to quench his thirst.
Late in the afternoon, Enapy left his tribal camp, hunted a brown and white speckled deer and got lost. The sun dipped lower in the sky and he shivered from the October chill. He pulled the buffalo skin tight around his shoulders and cried out, “Father, Mother,” over and over, but they didn’t answer. Enapy had never been away from his parents and knew he shouldn’t have left the camp.
His heart beat faster when he heard rustling of leaves. Suddenly a large pheasant flew out of the bushes and into the sky. Startled, he jumped back and blew out a relieved breath that it wasn’t a mountain lion.
With nightfall near, he took his hunting knife from a sheath decorated with pieces of dyed bird feather quills tied to his belt and cut dormant, tall wheat grass to hide under and keep warm.
After cutting some of the grass into smaller pieces, he cleared an area with his knife. He placed the grass in a pile, took two flintstones from a leather pouch hanging around his neck and struck them together many times over the grass.
A spark started a fire and he added small twigs. It began raining. First, a light rain. He crouched by the fire holding his buffalo skin over it and kept adding twigs, hoping the rain would stop, but it rained heavier. The fire went out.
Before it got dark, he gathered fallen tree branches and stacked them in a circle around him, then covered himself with the long grass. He thought, if an animal steps on the branches it will wake me up and I can protect myself.
Cold and hungry, he stayed awake most of the night. Tears rolled down his face and he prayed, “Great Spirit, Wakan Tanka, please help my father find me.”
He was awakened at daybreak by his father and other tribal members calling his name and he yelled, “Father, here I am.”
Kohana and the others ran to him. His father hugged him and put a blanket around his shoulders. “Enapy, you gave us quite a scare. Don’t you leave the camp again. You know better. If you do, I’ll take away your bow and arrows for many moons.”
“I won’t ever do that again, Father. Promise. I was scared.”
Several tribal members patted Enapy on the back.
“Why did you leave the camp, son?”
“I hunted a deer to kill for our food. I’ll be ten next week and wanted to practice for my first buffalo hunt with you and the others.”
“It is good to practice, but next time I will go with you. Why are those branches stacked in a circle, son?”
“I put them there so if an animal stepped on them it would wake me up. I slept inside the circle and covered myself with the dried wheat grass.”
“Who taught you to stack branches in a circle?”
“No one, I just thought of it, Father.”
“You’re smart and brave.”
He hugged his son again.
I brought the drag sled for you. Get on and wolf dog will pull you back to camp. Your mother will be so happy to see you. Today we are going to feast on buffalo tongue and chokecherries, your favorite foods.
Writing is a tricky trade
Ideas surge and ideas fade
What to write
can be an internal fight.
What is best
when put to the test?
A slow start verse
to make you curse?
A soft sad song that brings a tear?
A shocking tale that curdles fear?
Will humor help attention grow?
One can never really know.
What difference does it make?
Is it solely for the author’s sake?
Who will read it but the writer?
Will someone’s life be somewhat brighter?
So far there’s only me and you
How many others will read it through?
Today, tomorrow, right now.
There simply is no need to wow
This poem is something little
Designed to go in the middle
No need to compose a chiller or thriller,
It is, in fact, a simple filler.
By Mary Lou Jaeger
April 1, 2016
LIVING LESS than a mile from the town’s scariest cemetery certainly had its advantages and disadvantages. The neatest thing about this cemetery was the rolling hills. The kids in my trailer park and I loved to ride bikes. Cemetery hill was a bikers’ heaven with all those winding hills. An afternoon bike ride usually concluded with a ride through the cemetery. Once in a while, we would ride over by the cemetery when the sun was going down, but we were never there after dark.
This particular summer day started off like many others. My friends and I began our day playing around the trailer park and eventually decided to ride bikes. We rode around the winding road just beyond our mobile home. Next, we took turns doing stunts on a makeshift ramp we had found. As always, a day of bike riding wasn’t complete until we rode up and down cemetery hill.
Even in the daylight I would get a creepy feeling riding around near all those gravesites. The outside entrance resembled something from an old horror movie. Two gothic iron gates were at the opening, and at night they were closed and locked tight. My worst nightmare would be getting stuck on the wrong side of those iron gates after dark.
Anyway, my friends and I pedaled with all our might to make it up the first couple of hills. Once you made it up the first one, if you kept up your speed, then you could coast up and down the next. We had a great time just riding around. One of my friends named Charlie could glide down some of the hills without having his hands on the handlebars. I would try that on straight roads, but not on a hill. At last we topped over the last hill and eased right back out of the entrance gate.
Right in front of the entrance was a plush, grassy area, and we all decided to sit down for a breather. While sitting on the grass in the cool shade, we all started making up our own stories about things that were supposed to have happened at night in the cemetery. Everyone’s story seemed a little more unbelievable as they told it. My turn came, and I just said that I wasn’t afraid of anything in that old cemetery. I went on to say that everyone there was already dead anyway.
“Well, “Ronald said, “If you’re not afraid, Jamie, then I dare you to ride your bike through the cemetery tonight.”
Ronald had certainly called my bluff, and I don’t think he wanted to be outdone by a girl. Looking back now, I should have just made up and excuse or something, but my big mouth got the best of me.
“I’m not afraid, if that’s what you mean,” I answered right to his face.
“Well then?” Ronald replied.
“I’ll do it!” I blurted before I even knew I had opened my mouth.
All of my friends looked at me as if I had lost my mind. I believe I did for a few split seconds, but the dare was on. We all grabbed our bikes and headed home for supper, knowing it would be dark soon enough.
I could normally eat two plates of spaghetti, but not tonight. Half of my first plate was still there when I exited the table. Darkness came early that night, and when I looked outside the trailer window, there they were with their bikes waiting. My so-called friends were going to escort me to the entrance, and supposedly they were going to wait for me there.
I couldn’t put it off any longer. Out the front door I went, not saying a word to my awaiting audience. I picked up my bike, and we were off in a flash. My heart was racing wildly as we road our bikes toward the cemetery. We made it to the front entrance in record time, and I knew my moment had come. For once, I wished I had just kept my big mouth shut. Everyone stopped with me at the entrance, and I knew I needed to start pedaling or start confessing that I was afraid like everyone else. I chose that moment to start pedaling, and I didn’t dare look back.
Fortunately, I had a headlight on my bicycle, so I could see even though it was getting darker by the minute. I rode over the first hill, trying desperately not to look to my left or my right at the tombstones beside the graves. If I could just pretend I was somewhere else and keep pedaling, I was sure I could make it. As I pedaled faster, my heart raced faster and I decided to concentrate only on getting over the next hill. With my hands clenched tightly on the handlebars, I strolled up and down each hill. There was only one hill left in the distance, and then I could just circle the curve and be on my way back. However, as I topped over this last hill, a shadow by the gravesite straight ahead got my attention, and as I looked away I lost my balance. I was able, just before I crashed, to steer toward the grassy area. This move enabled me to land on grass and not crash on the pavement. My headlight started flickering from the crash, and as I got up off the grass I noticed to my right a tombstone. When I started to back away from the tombstone, I felt an unexpected dip behind me. Almost too afraid to look, I realized what the dip was. I was standing right in the center of a sunken grave. Naturally, I started imagining movement and noises and all kinds of strange things.
For an instant I was frozen and couldn’t move, but suddenly I remembered the front gate would be closed and locked soon. I quickly grabbed my bicycle and with all the energy I had left, started pedaling frantically. I knew I had to get out of there quickly. The faster I pedaled, the more I just knew someone was behind me. I never did look back. As I rounded the last curve and topped over the last hill, my headlight began to flicker and dimmed almost completely out. I could see the entrance in sight and just hoped my headlight would make it until I got out of there. The entrance was now in view, and I was almost there. My friends were waiting and I could see two of them in the shadows ahead. Just a few more seconds and I would be home free, but a voice suddenly startled me.
“Get out of here! You want to get locked up in here all night?” A voice yelled.
Out the front entrance I rode, just as the cemetery keeper closed the iron gates and locked them securely. The girls were cheering for me as I crossed the imaginary finish line.
Ronald and Charlie couldn’t believe I had done it. They weren’t about to congratulate me, so they just grabbed their bikes and explained, “We need to be getting home.”
The girls, however, began asking me all sorts of questions.
“Was it scary? Did you see anything strange? Were you afraid?”
Finally able to catch my breath and answer, I said, “Who me? Scared? Uh, not really!” I said as I grabbed my bike and we headed home.
THE EAGLE dove from the sky, slicing through the air fractions above Eilwen’s head. Her hair whooshed in front of her face. Bouncing off the high branch she balanced on, she leaped to another.
What was that?
The bird’s sleek body dipped sideways, wingtips skimming the forest canopy as he came back around. He was the most magnificent eagle she’d ever seen. Feathers so dark they shone violet. And he was charging straight at her!
Poor thing must be ill.
Eilwen decided she’d have to use all of her forest skill to calm the beauty. If whatever ailed him hadn’t completely taken over. The eagle came at her again, the dangerous beak gliding expertly past her arm. Colors, so soft, so translucent erupted around him. This was no ordinary bird. He must be one of the eagles bonded to an Eaglekin…but where was the Eaglekin?
That had to be it. She’d totally misunderstood the bird’s actions. The eagle wasn’t attacking. He was trying to herd her toward something and there was only one reason an eyrie-hatched bird would seek someone besides his True-bonded. The Eaglekin he was bonded to was in trouble. It would, Eilwen thought, have to be a great deal of trouble.
The bird came around once more. Hold. Eilwen threw her entire essence into the word. As a Fealinn she had a natural affinity to all creatures, yet as far as she knew none of her people dared approach one of the mighty eagles of Gaspar. The Eaglekins were far too protective of their birds and their bonds with them. The eagle slowed, landing lightly on a higher branch. Eilwen looked directly into the round golden eyes, pushing out a tendril of calming essence. Show me
Like an arrow loosed from a bow, the eagle shot into the sky. He was swift, but Eilwen was quick as well. She ran agilely from bough to bough, her lithe body bobbing with the swaying tree limbs as she descended and then dropped gently to the springy forest floor.
The eagle waited for her on a jagged stone that jutted out from the snarl of moss and leaf-litter. Anxiety spilled off him, coating the humid air, a harsh taste on Eilwen’s lips. This part of the forest was lush largely due to the volcanic silt that fertilized the soil. But it also made the forest floor dangerous, with ancient lava tubes lurking beneath every footstep, which is why traveling within the trees was much safer. By the looks of the broken foliage and furrows in the soil, it appeared that the eagle’s True-bonded had disappeared inside one such hole.
Pity that. He was gone, lost forever in the deep shaft. Eilwen would have liked to have gotten a closer look at an Eaglekin since she’d only been able to spy on one of their gatherings from a safe distance. But oh, the flashes of color that blossomed around them as they mind-spoke with their eagles. She wouldn’t have believed such an arrogant stern domineering people could release such dazzling hues.
Tossing her loose bag from her shoulder, Eilwen plopped down on her stomach and edged over to the rim. It was dark within, like staring into a night leopard’s throat.
“Hullooooo. Anyone alive down there?”
As she’d thought, only silence greeted her.
“Alive,” a masculine voice rasped. “—and sorely in need of a rope.”
Shocked, she gasped. “Unn, sorry. I didn’t think anyone would really be there. How did you not fall to your death? Is the hole not that deep?” Eilwen leaned over farther to try and see.
“It’s deep.” There was the sound of a heavy exhalation. “A rope please.”
Eilwen finally spotted the vague impression of a face only a staff-length or so below her. Shouldn’t be too difficult to get him out. She eased her weight back. “Hold on. I’ll get my—guh!” The ground gave out from under her and she toppled headlong into the darkness, slammed into something solid that let out a loud whoof of air, and continued falling in a tangle of arms and legs, scraping and glancing off sharp volcanic shale until she came to an abrupt stop that jarred her arm nearly out of her socket. She dangled in the air by that one arm. Strong crushing fingers circled her wrist as painfully as the sound of ragged breathing coming from just above. Yet it was the absolute darkness that terrified her most.
“Pull me up! Pull me up!”
More harsh breathing. “Give me a moment.”
Eilwen kicked out her legs, seeking something solid, a toehold and found nothing but air. “I’m falling! Pull me up! Use your other hand!”
“My other hand…is braced against the wall.”
They were going to fall! No, she was. All he had to do was let go and he’d have the use of both arms to climb up again.
She wouldn’t make it easy for him. Swinging to lift herself higher, Eilwen grabbed his wrist with her free hand. The muscles of his forearm were tense.
“Easy, now, quit squirming,” he said. “You’ll shake us both off.”
“Right. We’ll both go. Together. Not just me.”
“Not just…? Lass, I won’t let go, I promise you. I won’t let go.” His hand tightened upon her wrist. “Ready?”
“Yes. No. For what—ahhhh!”
In one swift motion, Eilwen was pulled upward and planted down on a…a thigh? She was. She sat on the Eaglekin’s thigh. She could feel the flexion in his muscles.
She immediately flung her arms around his waist, not caring he was a stranger, and held on. Brittle stone broke off the wall as her arm rubbed across it. “Thank you thank you thank you. Thank you for catching me and being strong enough to pull me up. Thank—How did you do that?” His tunic was warm, slightly damp from perspiration and soft beneath her cheek where she felt the rapid beat of his heart. “My arm scraped some stone off. I didn’t hear it hit the bottom yet. Did you hear it hit the bottom?”
“A lot of stone fell with us. There has been no sound.”
“Oh.” Not good.
He stroked the back of her neck, a gently reassurance in the bleak dark. “Don’t think about what isn’t below. Only on what is above.”
Eilwen nodded against the indentation of his highest rib. “Yes. Up there. Right. We’ll just climb up. You did it before and I’m an excellent climber. Shouldn’t be too hard.” Except she couldn’t get her hands to leave his waist. Couldn’t move away from the safely of his body. He was the only thing solid in the pressing black, the only thing keeping her from falling. “I can’t.”
He blew out a warm breath. “You can. You have to.”
“You’re incredibly strong. You pulled me up with one flick of your wrist. I think you should climb and I’ll just hang onto you.”
His low chuckle rumbled beneath her cheek. “You exaggerate my strength, though I would carry you if it were possible. I can’t move.”
“What? You have to.”
“Listen to me. My hand and my back are braced against the walls to hold us here. The only other hold I have is a small protrusion under my toes.”
“Of the leg I’m sitting on?” She pushed down on the knot tightening in her stomach.
She felt him nod above her head. “You must climb.”
“Then what about you?”
“Send the rope down.”
“How will you tie it around you with the use of only one hand?”
“I’ll manage. I know the darkness frightens you…”
She felt his chuckle again. “It frightens me. Our two cultures have that in common. Don’t be ashamed. Our natures thrive on wide open spaces, avoid cramped areas and holes…”
Eilwen swallowed. “I admit I’m a little afraid.”
“Which will give you strength to climb. Can you do this?”
“Yes.” She pulled back, let her hands slide off his waist, though she stayed in contact, let her palm move along his arm that was braced on the wall. Her heart was racing. She could feel him shaking as well. He couldn’t hold out much longer.
Gingerly, she stood on his thigh. His free hand grasped her side, his fingers curled into the waist of her breeches to steady her. With monumental effort, Eilwen let go of the stranger and brought her arms up to search the shaft.
“Nothing. It’s too smooth here. There isn’t anything to grab hold of.”
“Use my shoulders.”
“What? Are you witless? I could push you from your hold.”
“Be careful then.”
Sucking in a breath, Eilwen placed one foot on his shoulder, exhaled shakily and lifted her other foot. The Eaglekin’s hand moved to her bottom, pressing her inward so she wouldn’t fall back. The low tremors coming from him were unnerving. “There’s still nothing to hold—wait.” She found a small lip in the stone and grabbed onto it. The little protrusion crumbled off and she slipped. Trying to push against the close walls slowed her, but also sliced into her flesh. Once again, she stopped, dangling in midair, her upper body crushed against the Eaglekin, his arm tight across the small of her back. Shudders ran through his entire body.
“That. Didn’t. Work out. As planned,” he panted out.
“Ow, ow, ow, ow. Where’s your leg? I can’t find it.”
“I lost my hold there.”
The only thing keeping her from falling into this bottomless hole was his arm around her and the only thing keeping him from falling was his back and one hand braced on slick crumbling walls and judging by the tremors of his body, that wasn’t going to last.
Eilwen curled her fingers into his tunic, knuckles grazing firm sweat-soaked skin. “I’m so sorry. If I had thought to tie my rope on something before…”
He stiffened. “Exactly where is your rope?”
“In my bag up there.”
Warm lips pressed against Eilwen’s forehead and everything inside her went instantly quiet.
“That is for reminding me we are not alone. We might get out of this yet. I’ll get Cadeyrn,” he murmured. They were so close she could taste his spicy breath.
“What’s a Cadeyrn?”
“My eagle.” A bluish glow suddenly bloomed around them, emanating from within his flesh, the telltale evidence of an Eaglekin conversing with his True-bonded eagle. Eilwen sucked in a breath, seeing the man for the first time. He was younger than his strength and confidence led her to believe, just a year or so older than herself perhaps, and handsome. Thick lashes half-lowered over darkly golden eyes.
The glow died and they were thrust into darkness again. “He’ll bring the rope.”
“That’s perfect. I suppose Cadeyrn knows how to tie off to a tree as well?”
The Eaglekin laughed. “I saw through his eyes and directed him to bring it around that stone jutting from the ground, giving us both ends.”
“I hope it’s long enough.”
His forehead touched hers. It was damp from exertion. A shrill cry rang loudly within the shaft, echoing around them. Blue light immediately erupted as the Eaglekin guided Cadeyrn to them. The bird slowed at the last possible moment, dropping one end of the rope from his talons and lifted back up into the air. Wing beats washed over them. Grabbing the rope, Eilwen pulled it down to gain more slack. The glow faded.
“Tie that around yourself.” Weariness coated the Eaglekin’s voice.
“No.” Instead Eilwen slipped it around the man’s back as high under his arms as she could where his shoulders were braced. She heard the other end of the rope slap lightly against the wall as the eagle dropped it. She felt around for it, but couldn’t find it. “Can you speak with Cadeyrn again?”
There was no answer. He couldn’t’ have passed out. They would have fallen, yet the exertion was taking its due. She found the man’s face with her hands. “I can’t see the rope.” He nodded within her palm and his glow sparked, not anywhere near as brilliant as it had been, but enough to see where the rope was before the light winked out. It was just out of reach.
“I need to climb higher.” Again she felt his slow nod.
Carefully, Eilwen shifted up his body, finding his hip bone with her heel and stretched upward. The rope felt rough and wonderful in her palm. There wasn’t enough slack to tie it around herself so she made a smaller loop large enough for her hand or foot.
The Eaglekin shuddered beneath her. “I’ll drop…and let my weight…carry you up.”
“Not a good plan, Eaglekin. I’ll never be able to pull you up and I doubt you’re in any condition to attempt a climb even with the rope. I have another idea. Be ready.” She didn’t dare put all her weight on the rope yet or she’d be hauled up before she was ready. She pressed her lips together, hoping this worked. Keeping her weight balanced on the man’s hip, she lightly held the loop while she explored the wall with her other hand.
There. The place where she’d broken the little lip of stone before. She dug into the small depression she’d made, digging her fingers beneath the thin crack until she had a large jagged fissure she could break off. Her fingers felt raw and torn. She slipped her wrist inside the loop of the rope and held on. “Now!” Swinging off the Eaglekin, she ripped the slab off the wall.
The Eaglekin jerked up as they passed, their bodies bumping in the small space and then she was alone, falling through darkness. Her arm felt like it was going to tear from her body with the rock slab weighing her down and threatening to slip out of her other arm even though she braced it with her thigh. And then her descent ended abruptly, wrenching her arm. The piece of rock pulled free from her grasp. She listened for the sound of it smashing against the bottom, but it never came.
“Pull me up. Pull me up!” she screamed, panicking, not knowing if the Eaglekin heard. She waited for the rope to move, to be hauled up to safety and light. Nothing happened. She was alone in the dark. She couldn’t hold on like this indefinitely. It took the last of her strength, but she managed to lift her legs up and wiggle her foot into the loop she’d tied. From there she pulled out her hand and climbed up, letting her weight rest on her leg. She waited, counting her breaths, which seemed to come faster and faster.
What was going on up there? Why wasn’t she moving?
He left her. As soon as he was free of the hole, he had left her. Arrogant selfish Eaglekin. She no longer had the strength to climb up the rope. He’d left her to die down here, alone in the dark. Tears pressed against her eyes and her pulse banged so loudly she didn’t realize that she was moving upwards until a sphere of light showed overhead and all at once strong hands clasped hers and she was pulled up into forest dappled sunlight. The Eaglekin’s face was the most beautiful thing she’d ever seen.
“I thought you left me.”
He smiled, breathing heavily, and sagged back against the foliage, his eagle hovering protectively near. “Never.”
Hope you enjoyed my little tale. See where it all began in the full length novels:
Upon Eagle’s Light
Chase the Wind
“ARE YOU going to eat that?” Mary Duck asked and pointed to the muffin perched on my locker’s shelf. “It’s been sitting there since yesterday.”
I was surprised she noticed, but her interest made me feel warm inside. Before I could answer, Butch poked her. He was the school’s football star and permanent jock itch.
“What do you say, Duck?” His hand grasped Mary’s arm and tried to take possession of something he didn’t own. “Want to paddle down to the lake? Duck and paddle. Get it?”
Mary Duck rolled her eyes and then stared at his fingers. “Move them or lose them.”
His grip tightened.
Her mouth opened and bit down. Missed.
“Feisty! I like that in my women.”
“Leave me alone.”
“After Saturday’s game, we can grab some brews, head over to Lover’s Lane, and—”
“With you?” She slammed the locker door and spun around. “No way. Let me spell it out for you. N-E-V-E-R!” She yelped and brushed something off her sweater. “Can’t you keep your fleas to yourself?”
“I love cats. We have thirty of them.”
“Then wear a flea collar.” She shoved him back and then brushed off her blouse.
My locker was next to Mary’s, so I heard it all. I wondered about the fleas and stared at Butch.
“What are you looking at, Pinhead?”
Even though Dad was a military policemen trained to handle the worst of society, he taught me to avoid a fight. I hate confrontation anyway, but I still wanted to deck Butch. I turned and buried my head in my locker.
Mary whispered to me, “He’s not toilet trained.”
When her eyes met mine, my face felt the heat from a thousand suns. I smiled because she was blushing, too. My heart was beating so loudly that everyone must have heard it.
“That’s a delicious looking muffin.”
I grabbed the plastic-wrapped morsel. “This?” I bounced the muffin off my elbow and caught it in my hand. “It’s topped with chocolate icing and filled with dark chocolate surrounded by frosting.” I lifted it to my nose and inhaled. “Mmm. The sugar in this can power a dozen homes.”
“It looks big enough for two.” She fluttered her lashes and then winked.
I sighed. When the prettiest girl in school gives you her attention, you give her something back. “Catch.” I tossed it to her.
“Thanks!” She tunneled under the wrapper, broke off a crumb, and tasted it. “That’s delish!” She tossed her head to the side. “Is he still there?”
He was talking jock stuff with one of his friends, but keeping an eye on us.
“You’re seriously cute.” She leaned closer and whispered, “I’ll explain later, but I need to do this. Work with me.” She set the muffin aside, placed her hands on either side of my face, and moved in.
Her lips brushed mine and felt like silk.
Oh gosh. What do I do now? Do I moisten my lips or leave them dry? Flat or pucker?
She took charge. Her tongue flitted in and out of my mouth, erasing my worries.
My brain stopped beating; my heart stopped thinking. I was confused. And excited.
We played tongue tag until my teeth latched on and pulled.
She backed away, slowly, one hand covered her mouth in a gesture that said, I’ve never been kissed like that. Or maybe I bit her tongue too hard.
Mary backed into a teacher walking down the hall, but that didn’t break our connection. She waved at hip level, a little flick of the wrist, a gesture so intimate it told me all I needed to know about how she felt. My smile told the world I was too happy to survive.
Her gaze shifted to Butch. Mary spun around and patted her skirt in a kiss-my-butt gesture. She grabbed her things and stomped off.
Butch stood with clenched teeth and two bowling ball fists. One vein throbbing on his forehead looked primed to explode if his temper didn’t ignite first. He moved to stand beside me. “You’re dead.”
“What did I do?”
He pushed me into the locker and it reminded me of a Doberman marking territory. That’s how I felt: pissed on. I watched him chase after Mary.
He stuck out his foot.
She went down. Her books splattered the floor like a spit wad hitting a window, and her blouse licked tiles covered by a thousand footprints. The muffin rolled away.
“Still learning how to waddle, Duck?” His cackling echoed down the hall. He scooped up the muffin, tossed it into the air, and caught it behind his back.
No one stopped to help Mary.
I wondered why.
By the time I reached her, she had risen to her knees and brushed off the dirt. Her pleated skirt formed a circle around her like an oasis surrounded by students who avoided her.
“Are you all right?” I bent down to corral her books and looked at her. The front of her blouse wasn’t as white as it used to be. I looked at eyes so big and brown they skewered my heart with sadness.
“I tried everything to get him to stop bothering me.” Tears gathered, ready to overflow. One did. Others followed. She buried her face in her hands and her shoulders heaved up and down.
Nothing affects me more than a girl crying. If only I could say something clever to return a smile to those eyes.
I abandoned my shyness, pulled her up, and let her tears melt into my sweater. At that moment, I realized Mary Duck was more than a girl with a locker next to mine, and more than the bullied woman of my dreams.
She was my friend.
“I was trying to make him jealous,” she said. “I want you to know that.”
“Wouldn’t that just make him angry?”
“I tried everything else. Everything. I can’t get him to stop bothering me.” She looked at me with watery eyes, big brown orbs that fondled my heart. “He took the muffin.” Another tear slid down her cheek.
“I’ll bake you another. Promise.”
She licked her lips as if savoring the taste of chocolate. “You sure can kiss.”
“I eat right, get plenty of exercise, and every night I practice with my pillow. I’m training for the Olympics.”
Her smile returned. She hugged me and rested her head on my shoulder. In a quiet voice, she whispered, “Thank you.” Then she looked at me. “Butch is going to come after you.”
“I can take care of myself. I’m not worried.” I’m terrified!
“Good, because you belong to me.” Her eyes searched mine and then she said two words that sent a chill up my spine. “My protector.”
Those two words started a cascade of events that put me in the hospital and got me kicked out of the last school. How did it happen this time without me seeing it coming?
Now that Dad had trained me, would I be able to protect myself? I didn’t want to find out, but knew confrontation was coming. Soon. Over a girl. Same as last time.
Students flowed around us as if we were radioactive, some giving us a wide berth and others pretending that we didn’t exist. I couldn’t understand why until I saw one of Butch’s friends race up the hall. He spoke a few words to Butch, and then jerked his thumb over his shoulder.
Both of them turned.
They didn’t look at Mary.
They looked at me.
The next day, I gazed down the hall and my pace slowed. Hair stood on my arms. Nerves tingled. I wiped sweat from my brow with a hand that twitched.
Butch stood outside the lunchroom entrance, waiting for me.
My fists opened and closed. Muscles tensed. I couldn’t control my breathing. Felt dizzy. Butch was going to punch my lights out, and my body was going to let him.
Was I that afraid of Butch, or was it just confrontation that made me want to hide under the covers like a five year old during a thunderstorm? I mumbled some obscenity, but pressed on to test my courage. Then I thought of Mary. Sweet Mary. My dream girl. Was I willing to protect her and chance landing in the hospital again?
My life flashed before my eyes. I was about to die. Images of Mary flipped past, but in the review, doubts surfaced. Is she playing me?
I turned to go into the lunchroom.
Butch’s arm shot out.
Adrenaline surged. I jerked back and rammed into the kid behind me.
Butch’s fist missed my nose by inches.
He drew close enough that I smelled garlic breath. “Mary said she loves me. Stay away from her. Or else.”
I stood there, too stunned to move.
Then I got angry. At Mary. I felt betrayed.
The guy behind me nudged my shoulder. I was holding up the lunch line.
Today was Tuesday, soup day. Vegetable was an option, but I prefer tomato, so I grabbed a bowl and headed to my usual table out in no man’s land, the table that even nerds shunned, but where exiles new to the school sat. I staked out a corner and felt like a leper.
With a spoonful midway to my mouth, I saw Mary scanning the room, searching, holding her tray. She was dressed in one of those provocative miniskirt numbers, the ones that turn even women’s heads.
Her eyes met mine. She winked and her smile brightened the room.
The soup balancing on my spoon became a cliff diver and splashed back into the bowl, squirting red dots onto my white shirt. I felt like an idiot. The student body had every right to exile me to the newbie table.
As she sat down, she rubbed against me. Wow.
“Look.” She pointed. “We both like tomato.”
Instead of listening to her, my mind focused on what Butch said. Mary loved him. I thought about that, and then it all made sense. She wanted to make him jealous. She told me that, right to my face. Why? Because she loved him. She was just using me to make Butch drool.
“Are you mad at me?” Mary asked.
“You’re upset. Why?”
I concentrated on counting the crackers swimming in my soup.
“Tell me.” She squeezed my thigh.
My knee slammed into the underside of the table. “Ooouuuccchhh!”
She giggled, but continued waiting for an answer.
I blushed under the stare of her hypnotic brown eyes.
“Why are you mad at me? Tell me. Don’t make me hurt you again.”
Her dimples appeared, one on each cheek. Way cute. I melted. “Butch said that you said that you loved him.”
I cleared my throat and tried again. “Butch said you loved him.”
She laughed. She peered up at me through a waterfall of brown hair in a way that was too sexy for Playboy. “He tells everyone that.”
I didn’t buy it.
“Look at me,” she said.
I watched a cracker drown and thought it was lucky.
She reached over and stroked my chin. “Look at me.”
Our eyes met.
“I’ve watched you from day one. How long has it been? Two weeks, three, since you arrived?”
Three weeks, two days and forty-seven, no, forty-eight minutes since I first saw her.
“Every school girl falls in love with the new kid, but,” she reached over and cupped my hand, “this is different. Didn’t you feel it when we kissed?”
My lips were still numb from the electricity of that kiss.
“You still owe me a muffin. Are you going to eat your pudding?”
I rolled my eyes and passed her my tapioca.
“I have a weakness for sweet things. Like you.” Those dimples appeared. “You’re such a good egg.”
“And you’re my protector.”
“Besides, what girl could love a guy with fleas?”
“Oops!” boomed a voice behind us, a voice I recognized. Butch pushed my head down and spilled vegetable soup over me, making it look like he tripped. He left the cafeteria before any of the teachers knew there was a problem.
I looked at Mary, saw how I felt mirrored on her face, and then glanced down. A flea was surfing on my cracker. Yuck.
Silence filled the cafeteria.
Chairs moved for a better view.
One person giggled. Another. Soon, everyone was laughing and pointing.
I was furious. I wanted to hunt Butch down and teach him a lesson, but then I looked at Mary. Now I understood how Mary Duck felt hearing quacking sounds behind her, how she felt mopping tiles with her blouse. Each day was another opportunity for Butch to humiliate the prettiest girl in school. And threaten anyone who looked at her.
“Welcome to my world,” she said and grabbed my hand.
Mary towed me to the gym, to the boy’s locker room, and waited outside while I showered.
I loved her for that.
Then she talked to me, soothed my anger, combed fingers through my hair. And kissed me seven times.
A personal record.
She told me her story, how everyone hated her because she was smart and pretty. Then she averted her eyes. Quietly, she said, “Guys like Butch were worse.”
That’s when she clammed up. That’s when tears spilled. That’s when we hugged.
Then we shared everything.
She became more than my friend.
I told her what happened at the last school, about my broken bones, how the instigator walked away without punishment, and how they blamed me. Now, I dread confrontation.
After I got out of the hospital, my dad taught me how to fight. Yet I’m untested. I could fold under pressure. It worried me because Butch is hunting me. It’s only a matter of time before he acts.
Butch left me alone for a month, a full month of worrying. I used that time to practice my combat skills. And yet, I lay awake each night, concerned about ending in the hospital like last time. I don’t want to go through that pain again. No way. But what can I do?
I thought about a pre-emptive strike, take him out first. But I’d land in jail; I’m sure of it.
When I fall asleep, my dreams are wishful thinking, that I can damage Butch without suffering a scratch. It made me hopeful. It made me confident. Too confident. I forgot one thing about Butch the football star.
He had friends.
It all went down on Thursday.
Mary joined the yearbook staff as a photographer. She was responsible for the candid photos, not the professional ones that filled most pages.
“You’ll be fine,” I told her. “Butch will be too busy practicing with the team to notice you.”
“You think?” She snuggled closer. “You’ll be there to protect me, though, won’t you?” Her lashes fluttered and she looked up at me, nodding, imploring without saying a word.
Who could resist those brown puppy eyes?
I worried about her because she wouldn’t work from afar. I just knew she wouldn’t. She’d want close-ups, pictures where you could feel the sweat rolling down player’s backs. Pictures that showed muscles rippling, teeth clenched, and pure aggression. She’d want to capture the moment by lying on the grass, shooting up at the faces huddled above.
They held football practice in a huge cement amphitheater, shielding prying eyes on the outside from anything happening on the inside.
I watched her from behind a chain-link fence that separated the infield from the bleachers, a short fence high enough to tickle my bellybutton. Mary worked from the sidelines with a zoom lens, clicking away, following the action.
The team played against themselves, beating each other up, probably losing a few million brain cells in concussions. Go figure.
At the end of practice, the coaching staff congratulated the players on their workout and walked off the field. Most of the team remained, however, as if they knew something was going to happen.
Mary sat on the bench, her head bent over her camera bag, putting away lenses. She didn’t see the players form a semicircle around her.
Butch kicked her leg.
She gasped, looked up.
“Wanna play touch football, Duck?”
I knew her well enough by now to see the signs of anger: teeth clenched, eyes narrowed, lips pulled back. She pushed aside her hair to glare at him.
“Leave her alone, Butch,” said one of the teammates.
“Yeah,” said another. “Leave her alone.”
“This is between me and her,” Butch said. “The rest of you punks hit the showers. Now!”
They moved away as a group, leaving behind Mary, Butch, his two goons. And me.
Mary returned to putting away her camera.
That puzzled me. Why would she turn her back on Butch? Then I understood. She was baiting him. Wow. She had courage. From behind the fence, my adrenaline started pumping. Sweat beaded on my forehead. Heart pounded. There was going to be trouble. I started walking along the fence, moving closer.
Butch pinched Mary’s butt.
She whirled around. “Touch me again, and I’ll put you in the hospital.”
She spun back around.
Butch chortled. He didn’t look around to check for witnesses. He knew his two goons would support any story he concocted. He cupped Mary’s breasts.
My mouth dropped open. Anger surged. He was fondling my girl, the one I swore I would protect.
I vaulted the chain-link fence in a maneuver that would make any hurdler proud. And snagged my shorts on the top of it. Jeepers.
It flipped me around.
I smashed down onto sun-baked clay, flat on my back, wind knocked out of me. I saw stars and felt like an idiot. I was Mary’s protector, trained in martial arts, and all I could do was lay there and gasp for air. Worse, I couldn’t help Mary.
She was on her own to fight Butch and his two bullies.
Mary grabbed Butch’s thumb and twisted his hand outward until she heard his wrist snap.
He wasn’t going to be playing football this season.
She whirled around to face him.
A kick to the groin bent him over.
Her knee, brought up hard, broke his nose.
He fell backward, slamming his head on the turf.
One of his henchmen stepped forward.
“She’s mine,” Butch yelled. He was beyond mad. He jumped up, charged, but stumbled forward like a drunken sailor.
Mary leapt aside, pushed him onward as he passed.
His left knee slammed into the bench, bent sideways, and snapped.
He wasn’t going to be playing football again.
He crumpled into a heap.
Butch’s two goons looked at Mary. She threw them a come-hither smile, like a starving Pit Bull licking its chops at mealtime.
Then something remarkable happened.
The other players, the ones walking toward the lockers, reappeared. When Butch went down, they clapped.
I wrapped my arm around Mary and pulled her away. I didn’t want her to kill Butch. Okay, so maybe I did, but she’d get caught. And I’d get blamed.
“I’m hungry,” she said. “Want to grab a bite? Wait a minute.” She thumped my chest. “You still owe me a muffin.”
I Must Write!
Urgent surges fill my mind
Reminding me of a calling
Not to be neglected
Akin to an obligation
I must write!
Pushing, pushing, crowding my time
Fatigued or weary
I must write!
To nudge and cajole
Good-naturedly of course
Yet persistently bold
I must write!
The need is great
No yielding here
I must listen
I must write!
By Mary Lou Jaeger
May 30, 2016
About the Keller Writers’ Association and the Contributing Authors
Keller Writers’ Association consists of aspiring and published authors and poets. If you happen to be in the Keller Public Library the first Saturday of the month, you can look through the glass wall of their meeting room and see writers busily engaged in reading and critiquing each other’s works-in-progress.
Clover Autrey writes the kind of stories she loves to read, high fantasy and time travels with Scottish Highlanders or magical mermen and shapeshifters, with powerful elements of romance, where the hero and heroine must each make sacrifices to gain something even stronger. She is the author of the HIGHLAND SORCERY series and the ANOINTED series.
Connect with Clover Online:
Currently living in Keller, Texas, Denise Benavides has been lucky enough to travel and enjoy the world sites. Having loved writing since she was old enough to hold a pencil, the writing gift has enabled her to commit memories to paper, to meet lots of great people, and to feel the power that the written word has on readers. It never ceases to amaze her that her stories and articles can make people laugh, cry, or even travel to places because her articles inspired them.
Denise especially enjoys writing adult fiction and children’s stories. She’s won contests in both genres, and published a few articles for children’s and travel magazines.
She enjoys life in the great state of Texas with her husband and dog and agrees that everything is bigger in Texas. It’s a great place to gather experiences for writing.
Jamie Bryant was born in the small town of Richlands, Virginia. She and her husband Dennis have three grown children, and nine grandchildren. They currently reside in Texas.
Jamie worked as a Certified Childcare Provider for eighteen years, caring for over one hundred children. The last ten years she has been in the Senior Healthcare Industry as Marketing Director and Executive Director.
In 2002 she published a collection of short stories about her life growing up in Virginia, titled Fish Guts and Other Bedtime Stories. In 2016 she published Monkey in the Mailbox, Book One in the Denny’s Surprise Day Series and The Love Bug Book One in the Fruit of the Spirit Collection.
Jamie’s writing style brings to life her characters through a child’s eyes with humor and sensitivity. Subtle lessons can be learned from her books and short stories, offering parents an opportunity to discuss real-life questions and answers with their children.
Email: [email protected]
Thomas Bulkowski is an internationally known author of nine popular investment books and over 120 magazine articles. His debut novel, Head’s Law, will be available in early 2017. He grew up in Syracuse, New York, but escaped the snow and clouds to head south and defrost. He chases cars with his bicycle, watches the birds and other critters visit his backyard, and profits from trading stocks. His website is www.thepatternsite.com.
Trisha Faye writes from north Texas, where she battles with her rescue kittens for use of the keyboard. Her favorite topic to write about is honoring the lives of people from the past. You can find her at trishafaye.com or on Facebook as Trisha.Faye.5.
Gina Fullerton is our youngest KWA member. She is a college student from across the pond whose one goal in life is to finally discover the art of writing a bio.
Rebecca Glasser lives in Keller, Texas with her supportive husband and their three entertaining cats.
Barbara (Barb) Hollis is a member of the Keller Writers’ Association and has served as Secretary. She is also a member of the Northeast Texas Writers’ Organization and served as the Conference Coordinator for their 12th Annual Spring Writers’ Conference.
She began writing in 1979 after joining what is now known as the DFW Writers’ Workshop and enjoys writing in all genres. Her poetry was published in Texas Tracks and the World of Poetry. Her short story, A Place for Jesus, was published in The Plight Before Christmas Anthology. She has written three children’s books. She is a retiree of the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport Board and American Airlines, Inc.
Her husband passed away in 2012. They were married fifty-five years. She has three sons, a daughter, two granddaughters and two great-grandsons. Her other passions are traveling and painting with watercolors and acrylics.
Mary Lou Jaeger’s eclectic writing includes fiction, health related non-fiction, poetry, children’s books, travel and metaphysics. Poetry pops out frequently, and a whim may result in a short story. Mary Lou is currently working on a novella and is nearing completion of an emotion packed saga, designed to rock the eldercare industry. Several of Mary Lou’s works have been published; her latest book, is currently available on Amazon. Mary Lou is a retired college professor, and is well known for her positive application of alternative topics. http://www.mljaeger.com
Patrick Lee Marshall began learning poetry after joining the Denton Poets’ Assembly (DPA) in 2011. He currently serves as a Councilor for the Poetry Society of Texas, V.P. of DPA, and V.P. of the Keller Writers’ Association. His poetry and business articles have been published in over 35 books, anthologies, business journals and other media, including; Encore: Prize Poems of the NFSPS, A Galaxy of Verse, Blue Hole Magazine, Merging Visions, Inkwell Echoes, Hunger for Peace, Silver Birch Press, NCR Healthcare Hotline, Georgia Law Review, and Texas Poetry Calendar. He lives in Keller with his wife and three cats. Contact Patrick at
Andrea Rand started writing stories in the first grade and never stopped. After graduating from Oklahoma State University with a degree in business, she built a career in sales before leaving the workforce to raise a family. She currently resides in Texas with her husband, two children, two neurotic dogs and two cats. The Chronicles of Kibblestan: Revolution is her debut novel. Coming Soon: The Chronicles of Kibblestan: Canines.